Monday, May 25, 2015

An election and a referendum

Events just keep happening. Poland went to the voting stations for the second round of the Presidential election and duly brought in the unexpected (at least before the first round) Andrzei Duda of the Law and Order Party. He got 53% of the vote to the outgoing President Komorowski's 47%. Official results will be announced tomorrow when we shall know the turn-out as well.
This is a remarkable and decisive victory for Mr Duda. It's remarkable because he is a relative unknown and Mr Komorowski has been a popular president. It suggests that many Poles have grown weary of President Komorowski's backers, the governing centre-right Civic Platform party.

In its eight years in office the party has maintained Poland's economic growth despite the financial crisis. But it has also reneged on some of its promises and increased the retirement age, an unpopular move.

Poland is gradually catching up to Western Europe's living standards but youth unemployment is high and Poles can still earn much more in the UK or Germany. Many Poles simply do not feel the benefit of 25 years of near uninterrupted growth and Mr Duda appeals to them.

He has promised to bring the retirement age back down, but he'd need his Law and Justice party to win this autumn's parliamentary elections to be able to do that. It's been 10 years since they won an election but many think that may now happen. If it does, judging by its last spell in office in 2005-2007, Poland will become more inward looking and much less at ease with its EU partners.
Why Poles, who just like all others in the developed world live longer and are healthier for longer should want to spend an ever larger proportion of their lives on the scrap heap, living on an inadequate pension is anybody's guess but one can understand why many of them are sceptical about the much-touted economic growth when they look at the huge exodus of the economically active population to the West.

Meanwhile, there was also a referendum in Ireland but this was about same-sex marriage, which was voted through, the first time such a measure has been passed via a plebiscite. What, one wonders, would those Irish writers who have made their names describing a gloomy priest-ridden Ireland have said or, indeed, will say, since many of them are still around.

The actual subject of the plebiscite is of no interest to this blog. But one thing struck me as worthy of comment and that is the huge campaign to bring people who had left to work in other countries (not unknown in Irish history) back to vote or as the hashtag had it: #Hometovote. Many, it seems, responded and took trains and planes and cars and, for all I know, bicycles to do just that, as this ex-pat relates.

It appears that 60.5% of the population, which must include the ex-pats, turned out and 62% of them voted yes to gay marriage. That is pretty decisive. And, undoubtedly, it is very touching that the Irish diaspora who have not the slightest intention of living in Ireland ever again, cared enough to come back to vote but it does raise some questions that we shall have to be dealing with when a very different referendum rolls around. At present anyone who has lived abroad more than a certain number of years has no right to vote here but that might change as the Conservatives have been hinting that they might look at the issue again. Nor is the ex-pat British vote, even at its largest, likely to be such a large percentage of the electorate as it is in the much smaller Ireland. All the same, what about that #Hometovote? How do we feel about it?

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Should museums charge for entry?

For goodness' sake, I hear you cry, why is she bothering with that. Why is she not writing the promised second analysis of the election and its aftermath? Well, I am, dear readers but that is taking a somewhat longer time than I had hoped. I am also aware that this subject is not on the agenda at the moment. John Whittingdale, the new Culture Commissar Secretary having got the BBC in his sights is unlikely to take on another lot of big beasts for the time being. It will, however, come up again before this Parliament is out for the same reason that the BBC licensing needs to be looked at: the present situation is untenable and the museums and art galleries that really are part of this country's cultural fabric are suffering.

There are, of course, many issues to be raised, not least the question of tax reform that would make it easier for people to donate large sums to the various cultural institutions. They do a great deal of it already but why not make it easier to do so? The answer is that the Treasury would not like it but, maybe, we should stop listening to the Treasury.

In the end I do not think that the big institutions in London and other cities can survive without some money from the taxpayer; they do not anywhere else, not even in the US. The question is how that money is to be administered and what other funding can be raised.

This is the point at which the question of paying for entry is raised, only to be dismissed through various spurious reasons. We already pay through our taxes, I have heard from one person. Yes we do but we also pay for various theatres and opera houses and companies, yet there is no suggestion that seats at the National Theatre or Covent Garden be free. Furthermore, a good many visitors do not pay those taxes, being visitors in this country but the solution to that, seriously proposed by people who ought to know better, that there should be a system of some people paying but not others on the basis of whether they are contributing anything in direct taxation, would require the setting up of such a complicated bureaucracy as to make one's head spin.

If people are made to pay for entry to museums and art galleries they will stop going is the favourite refrain, which somehow manages to ignore the fact that almost every other country charges for entry and, apparently, people still go. In fact, in almost every other city in Western Europe and North America one will find more local people as a proportion of visitors than in London, where the large museums and art galleries are overwhelmingly filled with tourists. The only other place that might be comparable in that respect is Paris.

A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in Budapest. While there I went to see a very fine exhibition of József Rippl-Rónay and Maillol at the Hungarian National Gallery, where visitors have to pay. As usual, the place was full and, though there were many tourists, the majority were Hungarians.

On Thursday I went to see the superb exhibition of John Singer Sargent portraits at the National Portrait Gallery; it was quite well attended and most of the visitors were local. This, I find, is quite normal: while the permanent collections, which are free at the point of entry, tend to be filled by tourists, the exhibitions that have to be paid for get a far higher proportion of local visitors.

Could it be that we should think counter-intuitively and accept that more people will visit museums and art galleries if (or when) they start charging for entry?

Monday, May 18, 2015

Ten days after the constitutional non-crisis - 1

Ten days ago a constitutional crisis did not happen. Actually it was never going to happen as neither a minority government nor a coalition negotiated over some days do constitutional crises make. Now that I think of it this country has not had a constitutional crisis since the Abdication but try telling that to the average political hack or the average left-winger. To the latter a Conservative government (and I am afraid that is what we are going to have for the foreseeable future) is a constitutional crisis all of its own.

These ten days have been a little difficult. Every morning I sat down at my computer with the firm decision of doing this posting at last, then found that various stories just continued to emerge, if not about UKIP (stop sniggering at the back) then about the Labour leadership election (well, at least they are having one). So today I have decided to write a general piece about the election and its immediate aftermath and hope that nothing very serious happens in the next couple of hours while I work on it.

Is political life back to normal? Well, some aspects of it: David Cameron is putting together his first fully Conservative government and various media outlets are coming up with irrelevant facts about new Ministers that makes them look evil and sinister whereas they are no more that than any other politician.

For instance, we have found out that the new Minister of State at the Department of Work and Pensions, Priti Patel, has once expressed herself in favour of capital punishment, and is now refusing to talk about it, apparently under the impression that this has nothing to do with her new job. Michael Gove, the new Justice Secretary, as a Times columnist wrote that he was in favour of capital punishment and - shock, horror - criticized the Lawrence Inquiry. Could somebody pass me the smelling salts, please? Thank you.

Then there is the Equalities Minister, Caroline Dinenage, who is against gay marriage. She may or may not have done a U-turn on that but, either way, it is of little importance. You could say, as someone did to me, that this constitutes a clash of interests but, in actual fact, her private opinion makes no difference.

For the record capital punishment is not about to be brought back and gay marriage is not about to be abolished. (And we should not have something so preposterous as an Equalities Minister.) Therefore, what individual Ministers think on either of those subjects is irrelevant and not in the same category as the new Culture Minister's well-known view that the BBC's licence should be reformed out of existence. That is a matter for discussion (and this blog supports him) as it is a matter of policy. Private opinions on non-issues are not.

It never ceases to amaze me that the same journalists (and ordinary people) who complain about politicians being boring, lacking in real opinion, producing only PR sound-bites also get into an uproar whenever there is the slightest indication of one of those politicians not ticking all the "right" boxes.

EU "renegotiation" is back on the agenda or sort of, with Andy Burnham, the leading candidate for the Labour leadership (and the man who carries some of the blame for the mid-Staffs hospital scandal) is already urging (and here) David Cameron to conduct those supposed re-negotiations as fast as possible and have a Brexit referendum as early as possible. Well, I have always said that the earlier we have a referendum the more likely we are to lose, which explains Burnham's attitude but makes one wonder why Nigel Farage, the UKIP Leader in Perpetuity should be so anxious to have one this year.

The election campaign was extremely dull as most people agreed and the appearance of daily opinion polls with minuscule and statistically irrelevant movements hailed as great news stories did not help. Of course, there were a few stories that enlivened matters.

There was, in case anyone has forgotten it, Harriet Harman's pink minibus, specially for women voters - so unthreatening to the little housewife. There was the famous EdStone with the six meaningless promises made by the former Leader of the Labour Party, which then disappeared and has now been found in some industrial warehouse. I am not sure the fact that the man who carved it and then felt sorry for Miliband is actually a Tory voter, is much of an issue. it raises a smile but not much more than that. Well, somebody had to carve it once the Labour strategists decided on having such a stupid gimmick and to spend about £30,000 on it.

A less entertaining story was the attendance by a number of senior Labour politicians, including Jack Dromey, husband of Harriet Harman at a political rally organized by Labour political activists which decided on gender segregation. Ms Harman, who would have been eaten for breakfast by some of those tough Labour ladies of yore, justified it all by rejoicing in the fact that at least the women were allowed to be present. (Goodness, I actually agree with Nigel Farage's comment at the end of that article.)

So, on to the various leadership elections (for those who are having them). For a boring election campaign it produced some wonderful results, not least the sight of three party leaders resigning within hours of the result becoming obvious. Well, OK, two party leaders resigning and one offering to resign with the obvious proviso that he will stand for re-election, then unresigning. Why it took Jim Murphy, the Leader of the Scottish Labour party to resign, given the catastrophic result he delivered is a mystery but getting immediately involved in a spat with the boss of Unite, Len McCluskey is providing the Scottish Labour voters with much needed fun. Roughly speaking they each think that the destruction of the Scottish Labour representation in Westminster is the other's fault and, anyway, they should separate themselves from the Labour party in London. This could run and run.

Oddly enough, neither of them mentions the fact that for years the Scottish Labour party allied itself with the SNP in order to drive the Conservatives out of the Scottish politics, even making that famous joke about pandas in Scotland. All I can say is that be careful when you start riding a tiger and remember what happened to the lady from Riga:

The came back from the ride
With the lady inside
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

That is exactly what has happened to the Scottish Labour Party with the SNP playing the part of the tiger. For my readers' information there are two pandas in Edinburgh zoo so while it is fair to say that there are more of them than either Labour or Conservative MPs there are fewer than non-SNP ones. Some kind of an achievement.

So the Labour leadership contest: the media favourite Chukka Umunna, has dropped out of that election. He says that it is because he could not stand the strain of media attention, the media is speculating what it is he does not want anyone to find out.

The Mail is suggesting that it has something to do with his father's mysterious death in a car crash in 1992 when he stood for the governorship of a Nigerian state on anti-corruption platform. There are suspicions that it may have been a political assassination. While accepting all of that it seems an odd reason. Surely Mr Umunna couldn't have recalled all this three days after he threw his stylish hat into the ring.

Then there are stories of his girlfriend, who appeared with him when he announced his candidacy, as well as his grandmother were hounded by the media. I'll give him the grandmother but the girlfriend, a lawyer, as so many Labour politicians and their partners are, has shown herself to be part of the campaign.

The Express is less generous: their theory is that Mr Umunna was afraid that his drinking habits will be revealed. I can't resist quoting three paragraphs from the article:
The shadow business secretary, who dramatically pulled out of the contest to replace Ed Miliband, is a regular at the club, where steak costs £150 and a bottle of cognac is up to £4,000.

He was seen at the M Den, an eel skin-lined room in central London, during the General Election campaign and last week he blamed the pressure of media scrutiny for his decision to pull out of the leadership race.

Described on the M restaurant’s website as a place where guests can “get up to mischief”, the club is so exclusive even celebrity status doesn’t guarantee access.
Why should this matter, you might ask? Well, one of the issues the Labour party is agonizing at the moment is the perception that they are now a party of rather well off middle class toffs who have little if any interest in or ideas for what might be called the ordinary people of this country. A membership of such a club (I imagine it must be true or there would have been threats of libel action by now) would not go down too well, particularly as Mr Umunna has been described before as having as somewhat haughty attitude to the plebs.

So he is out and Labour is not about to have a black Leader. Given past history, I assume that whenever we have a non-white Prime Minister, he or she will be a Conservative. Which reminds me of a small piece of news: we now have the first British Chinese MP, Alan Mak from Havant. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, he is a Conservative. Did you expect anything else? His family background, education and professional career is well worth reading.

Meanwhile, the Labour leadership hopefuls, described by the Guardian as "spadocracy", all but one of the ones we know, being former special advisers or spads. Mary Creagh, the one non-spad, also has a different hair style from the others. Otherwise, diversity seems to be strangely absent in any way from these hopefuls as Guido points out. Scions of privilege he describes them, and that is what they are. None of them grew up in a flat above a small shop as did Mr Mak, the new Havant MP.

[To be continued ... and this time it will happen]

Never let a crisis go to waste

The BBC reports that "European Union ministers approve plans to establish naval force to combat people-smugglers operating from Libya". Never let a crisis go to waste though approving a naval force and creating one, let alone making it operational are very different things.

Furthermore, as I recall, Libya rejected the proffered assistance by the EU, calling the intention "unclear and very worrying".

Friday, May 15, 2015

A misleading headline

EUObserver, usually quite reliable, has come up with something problematic: Extremists pose challenge to Danish democracy screams the title but the story unfolds in a somewhat misleading fashion.

The "extremists" of the title are right-wing politicians from the Golden Dawn, a deeply unpleasant, authoritarian and racist Greek party to Geert Wilders, whose mostly main stream opinions are seen as beyond the pale because of his insistence on the need for immigrants to adapt to European values and for immigration to be controlled.
Far-right European politicians, Golden Dawn from Greece and Geert Wilders from the Netherlands, are attending a festival (Folkemodet) on the Danish island of Bornholm on 11-14 June.

The open-air political festival features prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt as a main speaker as well as most of the government, opposition party leaders, business representatives, trade unions, media and cultural celebrities.

Folkemodet is a Danish counterpart to the famous Swedish Almedalveckan, which each year draws up to thousands of visitors to the Swedish island of Gotland.
So far, so unthreatening to democracy.
As many as 100,000 participants are expected to attend the Baltic sea island Bornholm event but this year's first-ever attendence by far-right politicians will prove a challenge to Denmark's tradition of openness and freedom of speech.

The presence of Wilders – who has received scores of death threats over the years for his anti-Islamic views – will also mean a large security upgrade at the popular festival.

The press freedom organisation, Trykkefrihedsselskabet, invited Wilders to speak.

Georgios Epitideios, a former general and Golden Dawn member of the European Parliament, has also confirmed his participation. Golden Dawn, from Greece, is considered to be a neo-Nazi party.

Epitideios was invited by ’The Danes’ party’, a small ultra-right party, which has no elected representatives at the national or local level.

"We have chosen to debate, among other things, what we want in Europe. And it is natural to invite a party that is really big," head of the party, Daniel Carlsen, told Berlingske Tidende.

The news has already caused several politicians to cancel their participation.

"There will be so many police on the island that it will spoil the whole mood, and it will ruin my experience," Liberal member of the Zealand Regional Council, Claus Bakke said.
So, let me get this straight. Certain politicians have been threatened by other people and will, therefore, need increased security; certain other politicians have, therefore, pulled out of the event either because as they blandly explain the atmosphere will be different or, as is much more likely, because they are scared; and it is the politicians who are being directly threatened that "pose challenge to Danish democracy" not those who issue the threats and are, as we know, prepared to carry them out or those who are virtually blackmailing the organizers by refusing the attend. Logical, it ain't.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Some good news and a modest proposal

As we all watch with great fascination the ever more violent civil war in UKIP (pity the poor blogger who has to keep on top of things) it is good to be able to report that there is some good news around.

It seems that the Greek government has very sensibly decided not to pay Mrs Clooney's exorbitant fees follow her advice about going to the International Court of Human Rights to claim the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum.
Mrs Clooney reportedly submitted a 150-page report to the Greek government this week urging it to formally request the repatriation of the marbles and take Britain to the International Court of Justice if it refused.

But Greece's culture minister Nikos Xydakis told the country's Mega TV: "One cannot go to court over whatever issue. Besides, in international courts the outcome is uncertain".

He said he believed attitudes to the future of the Marbles were slowly changing and would favour Greece in a diplomatic approach.
That, I suspect, is a polite way of saying "we are not going to get those Marbles and may as well accept defeat with dignity and not spend huge sums on the case when we are trying to show ourselves to be really poor and in need of help".

Meanwhile, here is my modest proposal: the Greek government is really rather short of money; a good many people think that the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles should be reunited though, as it happens, about a third of the original are missing, having been destroyed over the centuries. Why do we not have a public subscription to buy the Marbles that are still in Greece and are not nearly so well looked after as the ones here and bring them over to the British Museum. I appreciate that a new gallery would have to be built but the Museum has been expanding in any case and something could be arranged.

One source of cash might be those disillusioned UKIP donors who may well be looking for some better cause to support.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Meanwhile in Poland

Britain has once again helped the world by exporting one of its finest traditions: laughing at and lying to pollsters. It is a tradition I rather admire and was a little disappointed in 2010 when, apparently, it was abandoned and the polls, especially the exit polls turned out to be absolutely accurate.

No more. This time round the polls got it completely wrong and even the exit polls were far off the mark as my short blog on the night showed. Excellent. We are back to the wonderful tradition of making clear that we consider pollsters to be a silly joke (though not as silly or as much of a joke as UKIP).

Imagine how please I was to find out that this fine tradition is now being exported from no less a person than Edward Lucas of the Economist (he made it clear on another forum that this is his work).
FIRST Israel, then Britain, and now Poland: lately it seems pollsters cannot get anything right. The Polish presidential elections were once expected to result in a smooth first-round victory for Bronisław Komorowski, the incumbent, who is backed by the ruling centre-right Civic Platform party (PO). Over the course of the campaign his ratings slipped, suggesting that although he was still leading the pack, he would face a second-round runoff against his main rival, Andrzej Duda (pictured) of the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS). Yet as exit polls began filtering in on the evening of May 10th, it became clear that the surveys had all been wrong: Mr Duda had come in first.
Very good. Let us hope some more countries take up this wonderful and rewarding pastime.

However, the upset (perhaps temporary as the system is a complicated and long-drawn out one) in the Polish presidential election is interesting.

Not only it marks the return of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) that was seen to be on its last legs not so long ago but it also shows that Poles do not like to be taken for granted. Not for the first time they seem to be turning against the "acceptable" party and candidate, in this case Bronislaw Komorowski of the Civic Platform (PO).
No champagne corks popped at the president’s election-night event at Warsaw’s national stadium. Within 15 minutes of the final exit-poll announcement, Mr Komorowski had left the room. His supporters shuffled around the coffee machines, wondering what had gone wrong. As of mid-afternoon the next day, with 27 of 51 districts reporting their official results, Mr Duda had 36.7% of the votes, with Mr Komorowski at 31.9%.
There seem to be some other unexpected results for independent candidates as well.

Mr Duda is said to oppose Poland's entry into the euro. an eminently sensible point of view, even if you are in favour of the European Union; he is also supposedly in favour of lowering the retirement age. Now that is not very sensible in the modern world where people live longer and keep their faculties longer. Not only countries cannot afford it (and Poland's economy is not quite as good as one would like it to be as witnessed by the number of people who cannot find jobs there and go abroad to do so) but it seems insane to throw people on the rubbish heap for the last twenty-five, thirty years of their lives.

Of course, this could be a clever ploy to make sure that some of the older workers, on retiring early, also go abroad to get jobs.

Second round on May 24. Then we shall see.