Tuesday, January 31, 2012

No s**t, Sherlock

I do apologize for that title but I did not know how to phrase it otherwise. The great Daniel Hannan is in despair: the veto, the wonderful veto, he wails, has been dropped. Well, I am shocked, I tell you, shocked. Actually, I really am. I am truly shocked by Mr Hannan's disingenuousness. Apparently, he has only just discovered the following:
So now we know: no repatriation, no renegotiation, business as usual. December's 'veto' turns out to be nothing of the kind; at best, it is a partial opt-out. Britain had asked for concessions in return for allowing the other member states to use EU institutions and structures for their fiscal compact. No such concessions were forthcoming, but we have given our permission anyway.
Oh my! Who could have foreseen this? Who knew this was happening? Well, actually quite a few of us but, it is true, that no Conservative politicians, barely anyone in the main-stream media and a large proportion of the population bothered to find out.

Now they know. Or sort of know. Because everything Mr Hannan complains about was there from that first Council where the phantom veto on the non-existent treaty was supposed to have happened and, what is more, Mr Hannan knows that. In a previous article he admitted as much.

Now he is back with his People's Pledge leading  light hat (which, pace the Boss of EUREf, he always was) and advocating an IN/OUT referendum since all other options (well, one  option, relying on the Boy-King) are closed. This piece is presumably tied to the East European Furniture Polish Organization launching the next stage of their campaign, which happened yesterday. That old chestnut, the unofficial referendums, which have no significance whatsoever and are ignored by the overwhelming majority of the electorate, is back. Yippee!!!

We  have just witnessed how easy it is to bamboozle the electorate, the media and the political classes with the likes of Mr Hannan being either the ones who bamboozle or the ones who are bamboozled; just what will happen if we have a real IN/OUT referendum? I suppose, Mr Hannan will get lots of air time.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Apparently the veto is not exactly a veto

Well, well, who would have believed it? Who would have credited it? It seems that when the rejoicing nation was told that the Boy-King had vetoed the treaty he, well, ahem, hadn't actually vetoed anything very tangible. Did you ever? Certainly Iain Martin did not ever. He is rather worried that Mr Cameron, the man who by some freakish historical development has become the Prime Minister of this country, might be going back on that veto that seems not to have played much part in anybody else's consideration.

In December, we are told,
David Cameron sought assurances that he could protect the City of London from various measures that EU bodies overseeing the financial sector want to impose. No such undertaking being forthcoming, Cameron refused to sign up. The other 26 members of the EU indicated that they would press ahead despite Britain’s veto. But afterwards Cameron said he would block them from using the EU’s institutions – such as the Commission in Brussels and the European Court of Justice – to enforce any new arrangements. This infuriated the Europhile Nick Clegg.
Never mind, Nick Clegg. He is an irrelevance. Why exactly did David Cameron not insist that a change of that kind needed a completely new treaty to be decided on by an IGC, something the colleagues feared? Then he would have had a treaty to veto. At the moment he has nothing.

 Back in December he was basking in glory and even Mr Martin has to admit that the man did not know what to do with that glory.
The problem is that different groups interpreted the veto differently. For Eurosceptics, it was a joyous moment which they thought signalled that the Prime Minister wanted to negotiate a looser relationship with the EU. For Mr Cameron, it was a welcome popularity boost, but it was not clear if he saw it as anything beyond that. For the mandiranate in the Foreign Office, and its outpost in Brussels, it was a disaster, undermining their traditional approach of always getting a deal done that maintained good links with their counterparts in France and Germany. They got to work watering down the British line.
The real problem is that a veto would have meant not fiscal treaty. It would have been vetoed as this blog said a little while ago. The real problem is that not only Britain did not veto any treaty because it did not exist, but the Prime Minister actually gave up his right to veto any forthcoming treaty. He is, one assumes, looking for a way to make the truth palatable to his party and is, once again, using his preposterous Deputy as and excuse.

In the meantime, may I have an apology (and the Boss should have a few as well) from all those who attacked me (and the few others) because we did not join the mass hysteria about the phantom veto?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bulgaria lays down conditions

Or so they say. In fact, the Bulgarian Parliament has voted to join the Fiscal Pact. But, said the Foreign Minister, there are six conditions:
Foreign Affairs Minister, Nikolay Nladenov, informed the MPs that the country has set six conditions for the joining, such as no tax harmonization in the EU.
The Eurozone pact aims at establishing more rigid fiscal discipline and stronger coordination of economic policy.
On Wednesday, MPs from three Parliamentary Committees - on Foreign Policy, on European Affairs, and on Budget, at a joint meeting, passed the proposal with which the Parliament gives the cabinet green light to take part in negotiations for the Pact.
The decision states that in joining the Pact, Bulgaria should not assume fiscal responsibilities and will not coordinate its economic policy with the one of the countries in the Eurozone; will not harmonize taxes with the Eurozone, and will have a status of observer at meetings of Eurozone members.
Another condition is for the rules to be valid for the entire EU, without exceptions and parallel structures. The decision also states that Bulgaria will fully endorse the Treaty after joining the Eurozone.
Can't wait to see how they will negotiate all those conditions.

More problems with that pact

According to Der Spiegel there is more dislike of the propose fiscal pact than anyone will openly admit to. But the high expectations awakened by Merkel are unlikely to be fulfilled. Several elements in the agreement are of questionable legality. It can't be written as an EU treaty because Great Britain won't sign it, which means it will only be an "inter-governmental agreement" between the 17 euro-zone countries and a handful of other countries participating voluntarily.
It's turning out to be a big handicap. On the one hand, the European Commission's hands are tied, because it can only act on behalf of all 27 EU members. Despite Merkel's wish, the Commission cannot legally take those that violate budgetary rules to the European Court of Justice. According to the fiscal pact proposal, national governments can only do this among themselves. But no country has ever taken legal action against another in EU history. Such a case would be seen as a gross violation of diplomatic etiquette.
Even if it comes to that, the authority of the European Court of Justice's (ECJ) remains in question. The treaty proposal states that the Luxembourg judges can impose fines of up to 0.1 percent of a country's GDP if they don't properly anchor the debt brake in their national law.
But these sanctions aren't actually provided for by EU law. In fact, they deviate from Article 126 of the Lisbon Treaty. And, according to Matthias Ruffert, a European law expert at the University of Jena, it is likely that all 27 EU members will have to ratify the fiscal pact for any ECJ sanctions to be binding.
Other lawyers argue that the sanctions would not be as binding as other ECJ verdicts. Because the fiscal pact terms involve only an intergovernmental agreement, they aren't EU law, which means they don't automatically come before national law, says European law expert Ronan McCrea, from University College London. Thus, in the case of an emergency, it would be easier for a national government to disregard such a verdict.
It comes to something when the pet project of the German Chancellor is dismissed by the Prime Minister of Luxembourg as being "a waste of time and energy". That is, apparently, what M. Jean Asselborne said.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Random discussions and utter rudeness

There are times I despair even of the House of Lords and that, in my opinion, is the only remaining part of the British constitution (oh yes, we do have one) that is even remotely functional. But this kind of random rambling and unutterable rudeness on the part of the despicable Lord Kinnock who, naturally, does not declare his interest of a very handsome EU pension, does make one thrown one's hands up in horror.

Admittedly, the subject is one HMG would rather not discuss, as the signs of a possible EU break-up in the next few years have been noted, as Lord Pearson of Rannoch says, by both Chancellor Merkel and Commission President Van Rompuy, and we need to be prepared for it, which, one suspects Whitehall is not. But what possessed other noble peers to come up with those comments and questions. (I don't mean the Welsh windbag. The only time I might be surprised by his behaviour is if it stays within the bounds of decency.)

In other words, we are not telling

As we know (or ought to know) the final decision on legislation, particularly the more important kind, rests with the Council of Ministers and, occasionally, the European Council. That does not apply to treaties, which is a completely separate problem though the Boy-King and his acolytes seem unable to grasp this.

In the Council we are told, the elected and accountable (stop laughing at the back) UK Minister can prevent legislation that is harmful or might be harmful to this country from taking shape. Of course, there is the small matter of Qualified Majority Voting, which used to be easy to compute but has become so complicated that Fibonacci would give up, but whose purpose is to ensure that measures cannot be blocked.

Theoretically, though, some measures might be stopped but, as there are no reports of those meetings we really do not know what happens and whether our Ministers or the UK Permanent Representatives do actually fight hard for British interests as they always tell us they do. (Oddly enough, the one time I had a chance to find out what really happened, over the inspection of slaughter houses and the destruction of small and medium sized ones, I was told on very good authority that those who assured us they had fought doggedly had been somewhat economical with the truth.)

In the circumstances it is not unreasonable of Lord Stoddart of Swindon to ask
Her Majesty's Government on how many occasions the United Kingdom has been successful in achieving blocking majorities in the European Council or Council of Ministers; and what are the details of those occasions.
We would, actually like to know the answer. After all, we are told that we can do this: block legislation that does not suit us. Sadly, we are not going to find out. Lord Howell of Guildford resorted to the time-honoured formula:
The UK does not hold this information centrally.
If I had a fiver for every time that formula was used not to reveal information, I would actually be able to afford to travel on London transport. But I digress. Lord Howell, or whoever wrote the answer, then added: However, under the Lisbon treaty, some information on formal votes in the Council of Ministers on co-decision dossiers is available on the following European Union website.
This information constitutes separate documents, available for download, on each formal co-decision vote since 2006, listing the issue and the voting positions of member states.
The Government recommends that the noble Lord treats this information with caution. In general, proposals only progress to a formal vote after member states have gone through a substantial period of negotiation. During that period, the UK and other member states seek to block, amend or remove proposals which do not meet their objectives. The UK would normally aim to prevent proposals to which we cannot agree ever reaching a formal vote. It is also possible that some negotiation might go to a formal vote more than once, with different outcomes. For both these reasons, a simple collation of voting numbers would be misleading.
Moreover, the information can only show whether or not the UK participated in a blocking minority; not whether the UK was itself successful in achieving said blocking minority. All these points apply equally to blocking minorities.
Or, in other words, we are not going to tell you because we do not know and do not want to find out.

Troubles with that fiscal compact treaty

Poland is being troublesome again. (Not that it ever lasts too long but while they grumble people listen.)
Donald Tusk, Poland's prime minister, is threatening to keep his country out of the nearly-finalised treaty on greater economic discipline, in a dispute over the right to attend eurozone summits.
Poland is insisting that it should be allowed to attend eurozone summits even though it is not expected to adopt the euro for several years. Tusk told Polish radio on Tuesday (24 January): “If Poland does not win an appropriate status of participant in the eurozone meetings, which would give us a feeling that we take part in the decision-making process, ...we will find it difficult to sign the fiscal pact.”
While it is not unreasonable for the Polish Prime Minister to demand those rights but he is not going to get them. Poland is not in the eurozone and that is the way the colleagues will regard the matter. Mr Tusk should have foreseen this problem when he first agreed to the proposed "treaty", which, as we know is not a treaty because that was "vetoed" by the Boy-King.

He has been lecturing the colleagues on something or other at Davos but even now he will not do the right thing and that is demand a full IGC and a completely new treaty. As CNN reports
Hungary, Sweden and the Czech Republic also expressed reservations about treaty change -- but left the door open, pending parliamentary debate.
Whether anything comes of those reservations is a moot point but it is good to know that somebody will have parliamentary debates about the new proposals.

Orban does the totally expected thing

It may have been noted by readers of this blog that just as the media has decided that Hungary is still a far off country of which we know next to nothing but it also seems to be having events that might affect the rest of us, interest in those events dried up here. Well, not quite. A long posting on the subject is in the works.

In the meantime, it is sufficient to say that the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, seems to be bowing to the inevitable.
The Hungarian government is expected to propose changes to its central banking legislation in the coming weeks, in order to secure a credit line from the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The changes will be a response to the European Commission's legal challenge to Hungary's new legislation. The Commission claims that the law restricts the independence of the central bank, and must be revised before Hungary is allowed to start negotiations on a credit facility.
Of course, he may yet go back on that as well and the whole charade might start for the third (or is it the fourth time).

It is not unreasonable to call this a response to unconscionable bullying on the part of the EU on whom no less a person than Frank Furedi called to stop but there is also the fact that Hungary needs that credit line and it is, therefore, not unreasonable to expect her government to behave in a slightly less petulant and childish manner.

The real problem stems, I suspect, from those promises that were made to all former Communist countries when they were part bullied, part bribed into joining the European Union. Money was going to pour there and every problem would be sorted out. Sadly, yet again, those of us who warned that it will all end in tears, seem to have turned out to be right. Just call me Cassandra.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Just in case you were wondering

Any powers that might be transferred to EU institutions through the EU Education, Youth, Culture and Sport Council, General Affairs Council or Transport Council will not require "parliamentary approval under the European Union Act 2011 or any other Act". So says HMG in the person of Baroness Garden of Frognal.

Good question

Lord Stoddart of Swindon asked:
Her Majesty's Government whether, in the interests of fairness and equality, all the nations of the United Kingdom should be asked, through simultaneous referendums, whether they wish to secede from the Union.
And why not? Perhaps we should all be asked whether we want other parts to secede. After all, anything that affects the United Kingdom, affects us all, regardless of what the SNP or the EU wonks might say. The answer, as one would expect, was not very helpful though it did give the information eventually.
The Scottish National Party won an overall majority in the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year on a platform that promised a referendum on the future of Scotland's place in the United Kingdom. The Scottish Parliament does not have the legal power to deliver a referendum on independence. It is for this reason that the Government have published a consultation document that will allow a legal, fair and decisive referendum to take place in Scotland. The Government have no plans to hold referendums elsewhere.
Until the Government thinks of some other preposterous idea it wants to fiddle with instead of getting on with whatever it was elected to do. Oh hang on, this government was not elected.

The new head of SPIV

That stands for Special Purpose Investment Vehicle and its task will be to raise funds for the EU's new bail-out fund. The name is entirely apt, one would say and so is the name of the man who has been appointed to head it. Step forward Jacques Santer,
a former Luxembourg prime minister, Jacques Santer gained notoriety for presiding over a weak commission, which resigned en masse in 1999 amid allegations of corruption.
They could not have picked a better person.

Is there anything this man cannot do?

Not content with riding bare-chested, appearing at wrestling matches (though he is not going to do that again any time soon) and diving for carefully placed amphorae, the once and future President, now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has decided to display his credentials as the world's (well, Russia's) leading literary critic. In fact, he intends to be the leading literary critic.

RFE/RL reports that the Prime Minister is taking his presidential campaign seriously. He has published all sorts of policies about dealing with immigrants (presumably from other parts of the former Soviet Union) but he is also giving attention to what being "an insider" in Russia might consist of. Well, somebody has to and there are no other Russian writers, thinkers or philosophers out there. The man has to see to everything himself. Shocking.

His latest idea is to create "a cultural canon of 100 books to serve as required reading for all students in Russia's schools". Well, all right, he can't do everything himself so he has called on the elves in his grotto "leading cultural authorities" to create such a list, asserting on no evidence whatsoever that other countries not only have such lists but actually abide by them.

As the article on RFE/RL points out, there already are such lists in existence but, apparently, the one Mr Putin has in mind is wider than just literary works (and, one assumes, he will not include And Quiet Flows the Don but one can never tell).
It remains to be seen, however, whether Putin will favor the inclusion of foreign authors, as many Western book lists do -- and as many Russian readers would seemingly prefer. An informal reader poll on the website 100bestbooks.ru ranks British writer Arthur Conan Doyle and France's Antoine de Saint-Exupery higher than native sons Pushkin or Tolstoy. To be fair, Mikhail Bulgakov and his beloved "Master and Margarita" still occupies the top spot.
I am not surprised about Conan Doyle and Saint-Exupery being so high on people's chosen book lists. I have written before about foreign literature being seen as something that is part of one's own in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe. In fact the list is a very fine mixture of Russian and foreign books but I am delighted to see that not only Crime and Punishment but the wonderful Soviet satire The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov have attained high position.

I have an odd suspicion that Ilf and Petrov's satire will not be passed by the eagle-eyed censor-in-chief, though it is undoubtedly a classic. Conan Doyle? Well, who knows? Perhaps he will feel nostalgic about his childhood. But will George Orwell make the mark, as one Moscow wit has asked.

One writer who will not be on that list though he is highly regarded by Russians and non-Russians is Boris Akunin, whose real name is Grigory Chkhartishvili. He wrote his first detective stories about the nineteenth century investigator Erast Fandorin under the pseudonym B. Akunin (get it?) but then expanded it to Boris Akunin. He has written a very large number of complicated and very literary novels, including one called F.M., which I have not yet managed to get through, though I was given a copy soon after it came out.

As far as Mr Putin is concerned, however, the most notable fact about Boris Akunin is not his stupendous literary output but that he joined those who protested against the Duma elections of last December. It could only be because he is of Georgian origin, opined the great literary critic. Akunin responded in an interview
I'm not taking this seriously. That is how he was trained in his special [KGB] school. It is his normal method of smearing an opponent. I don't feel smeared. OK, I'm Georgian, so what? There are people of many ethnicities in our country. Actually, he was hinting that since I'm an ethnic Georgian, it means I'm an enemy of Russia. That is what he meant....
Not taking the once and future President's opinions seriously? Dear me.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Here's a thought

If Scotland votes to leave the UK (not that it will but let us suppose) they will, presumably, have to apply for EU membership, which is what Alex Salmond longs for. However, the country they will leave behind will be very different from the one that became member of the then European Economic Community, which gradually transmogrified into just the European Community and, after the Maastricht Treaty, into the European Union. Will the remaining parts, England, Wales and Northern Ireland have to reapply? That could be interesting.

Monday, January 23, 2012

It's the Year of the Dragon

And it is supposed to be lucky, though I am not sure for whom.

The wrong question

Earlier today I was interviewed on the BBC Russian Service (it still exists but only just) about the curious story of the Palace of Westminster falling down sinking. Well, at least, the Clock Tower, which houses Big Ben, is falling down. Or something.

The story was amusing enough to crop up in a number of outlets so I shall link to the Londonist blog, which sums it all up. What with being built so near the river and having an underground car park as well as the Jubilee line extension constructed, the poor old(ish) building has cracks in it and the Tower is definitely leaning, though not as much as the one in Pisa. The Daily Wail seems to have excelled itself in idiocy by coming up with random figures as to how much it will cost to prop it all up, how much the site is worth and a quote from an unnamed insider that there is talk of selling it all to some Russian oligarch or Chinese party apparatchik who happens to be a billionaire. After that, presumably the journalists finished drinking and went home, having first filed the story.

Let's be rational, as I tried to explain to the Russians. The Palace of Westminster is a Royal Palace and, as such, cannot really be sold to anybody. The notion that MPs will simply up and depart to another building and get away with that is laughable. Nor is the news really news. Ever since the building has existed (which, in its latest manifestation is only about 170-odd years) there have been problems with it and these were, indeed, exacerbated by the two major constructions: the car park and the Jubilee line. The fact that the subject has now become important enough to discuss in a committee does not alter the fact that there is practically no time when some kind of refurbishment is not going on inside or outside the Palace. As soon as the two Houses rise, the builders and decorators move in; at any given time one can find scaffolding on some part of the outside. The chances are that the decision will be that there needs to be an investigation as to how the Tower and various other bits and pieces can be propped up at the lowest possible cost.

That, however, is the wrong question. The right question would be what exactly is the purpose of the building and all that goes on inside it.

There are several excellent libraries there, to be used largely by the members of the two Houses. Whether they are used is another matter. Finding information about legislation, both domestic and European, has become easier with the internet but there are certain advantages to being able to go to the Printed Paper Office in the Lords to ask about events, committees and reports. Furthermore, the main building (not the one that looks like a crematorium) is very fine, full of interesting rooms, corridors, statues, portraits and some of the worst paintings in the world.

The truths is, however, that Parliament no longer legislates in this country and holds the Executive to account only intermittently in the Lords and never in the Commons. The House of Lords is no longer the highest court in the land any more than Parliament is the ultimate legislator. So, do we actually need it? Or do we need it to be quite as big as it is now?

Why not reduce the numbers in proportion to the amount of work they have given away to the EU or various quangos, send the few remaining MPs to some purpose-built glass building and turn the whole place into a Museum to Democracy with actors performing some of the more stirring events of the last nine centuries? In no time at all the refurbishment would pay for itself.

Were this to be proposed seriously we might actually see Parliamentarians concentrating on what matters and that is an exit from the EU and a restoration of the British constitutional structure.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Not a resounding vote in favour

But it is, undoubtedly a vote in favour. Croatia has voted to join the EU. Whether the EU would want Croatia to join is a separate issue but not one that is likely to be asked, at least not of the various peoples. Another question is how on earth can we afford another poor country with a very fragile political system. That will not be asked either.
Croatia's state referendum commission said that with nearly 100 percent of the ballot calculated, about 68 percent of those who took part in the referendum answered ``yes'' to the question: ``Do you support the membership of the Republic of Croatia in the European Union?''
About 31 percent were against, while the rest of the ballots were invalid. About 42 percent of eligible voters were estimated to have taken part in the referendum, illustrating voters' apathy toward the EU.
``The people are obviously tired,'' Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said. ``It would have been better that the turnout was larger, but that's reality.''
It was among the lowest turnouts in any of the EU states that have held accession referendums before they joined. About 45 percent took part in the vote in Hungary, while more than 90 percent voted in Malta.
Hungary, as I recall, was supposed to have a turn-out of at least 50 per cent according to the constitutional rules of the day but that was conveniently ignored. The chickens in that country are coming home to roost.

As for those Croatians who did not bother to turn out to vote against joining the EU if they did not feel that they were in favour, they will, no doubt complain vociferously when things go wrong.

ADDENDUM: A "young right-wing Croatian intellectual" has sent me a link to his posting on the subject. (Actually, it may be her posting and if that is so, I apologize.)

YET MORE ADDENDUM: Both EUReferendum and Witterings from Witney write about the way the Croatian referendum was rigged though I wouldn't call it fixed. Undoubtedly, they are both right: this will happen here if we have an IN/OUT referendum. In a way, there will not be any need for it as the electorate will probably behave largely the way the Croatian did: many if not most will not bother to turn up and the others will hope that the politicians are not lying too much.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Enough already with the edginess

The only film in which I saw Ralph Fiennes was The Reader, which was not particularly good and after which I dismissed his thespian abilities as being mediocre to poor. Staring broodingly into the middle distance is no substitute for acting.

When I heard that he was going to direct and star in a film of Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare's most difficult plays, my heart sank. It sank even further when I saw the poster of Ralph Fiennes in army fatigues, covered in blood and .... staring broodingly into the middle distance.

The film  is out and Michael Billington's review (oh how one misses Alexander Walker) tells us that it is full of relevance and "prescient lessons to us all". Does that mean that Shakespeare's plays are not full of relevance and prescient lessons unless somebody decides to update them to some modern war that, in this case, is rapidly becoming even less well known than many others? (To be fair to Mr Billington, he indicates some doubt about the need to update this Roman play and about the "slightly filleted and adapted text".)

In the same newspaper there is a comment about dramatized versions of Great Expectations (no, not the great David Lean film). I did not see the TV version with Douglas Booth, which, according to Londoner's Diary, "garnered much praise over the festive season" but the people I spoke to  were considerably less complimentary. There is also a film due in which Jeremy Irvine, he of  War Horse, will play Pip (and Ralph Fiennes will play Magwitch). His comment about the two productions was priceless in its self-satisfied fatuity.

"You can't compare the two [the film and the TV serial]. That was for a British audience, this is aiming for worldwide success. It's not a typical British period drama. It's edgy."

Oh goody. Another "edgy" adaptation of a literary classic. Can actors be that stupid? Can directors? The answers are yes and yes.

In the first place, if it is worldwide success you want then British period drama is your pigeon. It remains hugely successful as long as the period costumes are beautiful and the acting is good, which may be questionable if reviews of War Horse are to be believed.

Secondly, Dickens is enormously popular all over the world. His works have been translated in many languages and are devoured by people in many countries. He does not need "edgy" updating or tinkering with.

Thirdly, neither Dickens nor Shakespeare needs some pipsqueak of an actor or director to make them relevant, edgy or prescient. The reason, dear thespians, we keep reading their works, discussing them, analyzing them and, yes, dramatizing them is because they dealt with difficult subjects in a complicated and, often, ambiguous ways.

Let me make a prediction: Shakespeare's plays will be watched and Dickens's novels will be read and they will all be filmed again and again long after the edgy productions of today have been consigned to the dust heap of history. If only we could do that right now.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

If you think politicians have short memories ...

... what about the electorate? We hear a great deal about the need for politicians to listen to the people, about the importance of elections and elected officials just about everywhere and about the short-termism of politicians (that, actually, cancels out the other two as the short-termism consists of concentrating on the next election). But what of the short memories that the electors have?

The Evening Standard (not, one must admit, the most reliable of newspapers) had an article by Joe Murphy, their political editor, which said that, according to a recent poll, Ken Livingstone is leading in the mayoral race, of which, thankfully, only three months are left.

To be fair, the lead is so small as to be of no significance, once we remember the error margin and the fact that only about 30 - 35 per cent usually turns out to vote in the London elections. (And, to be even more fair, the comments on the article, by and large, sound horrified at this information.)

This, however, stunned me:
"It amounts to 100,000 Labour voters switching back from Boris to Ken. It looks as though Ken Livingstone's promise to cut fares on buses and the Tube has made an impact."
Mr Johnson remains far more popular than his party among voters and beats Mr Livingstone for charisma.
But the survey reveals a drop in the number of Labour voters who are willing to vote for the Conservative incumbent. Last June almost a quarter of Labour voters said they would choose him - but the "Labour for Boris" brigade has halved to 12 per cent.
Another change is that the number who see Mr Livingstone as "in touch with the concerns of ordinary people" has risen from 37 to 40 per cent; the number who think Mr Johnson is "in touch" has fallen from 20 per cent to 13.
Moreover, the three issues that Londoners regard as most important are those that Mr Livingstone has campaigned hardest on: tackling crime (picked by 42 per cent), improving transport (41 per cent) and easing the cost of living (33 per cent). Only four per cent think promoting London abroad, a regular Boris theme, is a priority.
As it happens, promoting London abroad was a boringly constant theme with Livingstone as well and, as I recall, he even opened a number of highly expensive London offices in various countries, one of which was Venezuela. Have people forgotten that?

Did crime go down, transport improve or cost of living go down under Livingstone? Did it, heck. The amount we paid in taxes for the GLA went up by leaps and bounds every year, apart from 2007. Strange, isn't it? Anything to do with the fact that the mayoral election was coming in 2008? Surely not.

As for the promise to cut fares on tubes and buses, we have been here before, as the Boris Backer site shows. There may be a bias in the site's attitudes but the facts are incontrovertible.
I cannot believe that so many people have forgotten already. (Well, actually, I can.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Are we prepared?

Who can tell? When Lord Barnett asked HMG on Tuesday
whether HM Treasury is developing contingency plans for use in the event of a Eurozone collapse.
the answer was not altogether reassuring.
My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made clear in the Autumn Statement, the Government, including of course the Treasury, are undertaking extensive contingency planning to deal with all potential outcomes of the euro crisis.
I can't help feeling that Lord Barnett was a mite ironic when he thanked Lord Sassoon for his "very informative reply". In fact, the exchange between the two peers about that answer makes me think that not only it was ironic but that the Minister realized it. Of the various questions and reassuring, not to say palliative answers, Lord Lawson's was the hardest hitting:
My Lords, there is only one thing as worrying as the collapse of the eurozone, and that is the continuation of the eurozone. It has been demonstrated to be fundamentally flawed and is the cause of all these problems. Is the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, not right that at the heart of the thing that we need to address is the risk of a banking meltdown? Will the Minister give an undertaking that should it prove necessary for the United Kingdom Government to rescue any British banks, they will do so on much tougher terms than the ludicrously soft terms on which the previous Administration went in to save banks?
Lord Sassoon's reply was not reassuring:
My Lords, we have a lot to learn about the softness with which the previous Administration went about a lot of things. One of the key lessons for this crisis is that we must stick to a deficit reduction programme that is firm and fair, and keep this country isolated from the worst of the problems that are all around us.
I ask again: are we prepared for an even bigger catastrophe than any we have faced so far?

About Baroness Cox's Bill

I have not written much about the Arbitration and Mediation Bill, introduced in the House of Lords by Baroness Cox, which had its First Reading on June 7, though I have referred to it here and here. Once the date of the Second Reading is announced I shall write more about the Bill itself and its purpose.

In the meantime, here are two links, one to an article in the Harrow Observer and one to a posting on Harry's Place, a left-leaning blog with which I often find myself in agreement. (Shum mishtake shurely.)

The article focuses on the work of a lady I admire greatly, Tehmina Kazi, who is Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. (Yes, indeed, I do know her.) She has, as the newspaper points out, been advising Baroness Cox and campaigning to make the Bill better understood in the Muslim community.
Ms Kazi claims the controversial bill, which has been opposed by some parts of the Muslim community, would give Muslim women greater clarification on their rights.
Ms Kazi, a law graduate of the London School of Economics, said: “There is a gap in the system for Muslim women due to the prevalence of Sharia councils.
“They don’t have any legal power and are completely informal so very hard to regulate and they rule on things such as divorce in Muslim communities. We want to educate women so they know what their rights are.”
The campaigner said she is concerned about the number of women who don’t have marriages registered under civil law as some Muslims have the religious ceremony of Nikah, which is not valid as a legal marriage under UK law, therefore don’t have the same legal rights if the couple decides to separate.
At the heart of the Bill is the need to make it legally clear that Arbitration Tribunals are not law courts, that there is only one legal system in this country and that an alternative system, which discriminates against women must not be allowed to exist, let alone flourish.

Harry's Place has an interesting and coldly angry discussion of what sort of people run Sharia courts in real life. No point in quoting because the whole of it is important and worth reading. It is not very long. At the end it, too, refers to the Bill and Tehmina Kazi's work. The author of the posting was very quick off the mark after the article in the Harrow Observer.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Readers will be shocked to know ...

... that I agree with Ian Hislop. He told the Leveson Inquiry (yes, it is still going on and no, I don't know whether the Grauniad has explained where it got dubious information from) that there is no need for further regulation of the media because
Practices such as phone hacking, paying police officers and being in contempt of court contravene existing laws, Mr Hislop told the Leveson Inquiry.
He said the inquiry should examine why the laws were not rigorously enforced.
Meanwhile, News International chief executive Tom Mockridge told the inquiry its editors had been instructed not to use private investigators.
Well! You could have knocked me down with quill.

Not be left out of the fun ...

... Romanians have been rioting. Today, according to Reuters, was to be the fifth day of protests that had already erupted into serious violence on both sides this week-end. 
The country's worst unrest for more than a decade has seen riot police using tear gas against protesters throwing bricks, smashing windows and setting fire to newspaper stands and rubbish bins in central Bucharest since it began on Thursday. 
 Thousands of demonstrators gathered peacefully in central Bucharest and other cities on Monday afternoon, demanding Prime Minister Emil Boc and his close political ally President Traian Basescu resign. 
 The numbers were expected to rise in the evening and analysts predicted more protests but did not see them affecting the austerity measures passed by the ruling coalition's small but stable parliamentary majority.
These riots will not, apparently, affect Romania's standing with the markets, and you can take that as you will. I was somewhat amused by the following:
"Five years of European Union membership did not bring anything good, on the contrary, poverty, frozen pensions," Ioan Mendea, a 73-year old former jurist, who ekes out a living from a 900 lei ($260) monthly state pension, told Reuters.
"This government, prime minister, president must go."
For a jurist he seems very poorly informed about what the resignation of a government might achieve. I believe the word is nimicz but if any reader knows otherwise I shall stand corrected. The Economist has more, describing the beginnings of the protests, though they have now gone beyond the enforced resignation of one particular not very important minister.

And, inevitably, Prime Minister Emile Boc has called for a dialogue.

To be continued.

Monday, January 16, 2012

From Taki's Magazine

A slightly unusual topic for me but an important one.

Not sure how I feel about this: support for the views I express in the piece comes from a very unlikely source: Eurobarometer.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

James Taranto again

What should newspapers be about? Well, how many hours do we have for a discussion of that kind? Let me concentrate on just one issue and that is the distinction between reporting and opinion pieces. It has always been understood, if not always adhered to, that while editorials, columns and other opinion pieces are free to say what the author thinks, news reports, whether of a war in the Middle East or a planning decision that affects a few hundred people, should be more or less objective. At the very least, the various sides and opinions should be quoted or referred to without any epithets.

As we know that rule has, for some time now, more honoured in the breach than the observance. (I call my readers' attention to such interesting episodes as the Man with the Green Helmet or the second flare, all much covered on EUReferendum. And there are many more.)

As far as most readers are concerned, however, that distinction remains valid and its erosion has contributed to the downfall of newspapers. The BBC is an even bigger problem, as it is a tax-funded operation and has a Charter that specifically forbids it to display political bias. But that discussion, too, would involve many hours.

Not all people agree with this or understand this and on this issue I have found a serious divergence between people who are roughly speaking on the right of the political spectrum and those on the left. People who read the Daily Telegraph, by and large, know that its opinions are biased and often complain that they are not biased enough. They want to read a newspaper with whose opinions they agree though they would prefer the news coverage to be more or less accurate.

Readers of other right-wing newspapers, such as the Daily Mail or, most of the time, the Sun, take the same attitude, though when it comes to the Daily Wail, one wonders how their reporting can be taken seriously. When it comes to the readers of the Grauniad, for instance, or the Independent, not to mention those whose opinions are formed entirely by the BBC, the picture is very different.  It is not that they want a newspaper they agree with - nothing wrong with that - it is that they do not understand that what their newspaper says is an opinion, necessarily slanted by its political stance. That, they insist, is the objective truth, not just in the reporting but in the editorials. Indeed, any reporting that does not agree with the editorial stance, must be wrong, biased, unobjective, and downright dishonest.

Over on the other side of the Pond they have the same problem and this, at last, brings me to James Taranto's piece in the Wall Street Journal about yet another row in the New York Times. (Yes, of course, he is gleeful about it.) It seems that
Hilarity ensued yesterday after Arthur Brisbane, "public editor" of the New York Times, posted a blog entry titled "Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?" He was compelled to publish a follow-up post hours later to reply to his "large majority of respondents" who answered his question "with, yes, you moron, The Times should check facts and print the truth."
The rest of the piece details the extraordinary convolutions the Old Grey Lady and its "public editor" have been going through to try to explain that when they talk about being "truth vigilante" they do not mean checking facts or actually being objective and factual in their reports (nobody expects them to be objective in opinion pieces). Then again, what do they mean?

Nine countries?

Here is a conundrum: if everybody's credit ratings are cut then what do credit ratings signify? Well, we shall soon find out. France, as we know, has had her AAA credit rating cut, as has Austria. This is very bad news for President Sarkozy who has vowed to preserve that cherished AAA and is starting the presidential election campaign by losing it.
The downgrade of France in particularly is evidence of the divergence taking hold between those European countries that still enjoy rock-solid faith on international markets and those whose economic and financial path is more questionable.
As Reuters details:
S&P cut the ratings of Italy, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus by two notches and the standings of France, Austria, Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia by one notch each.
The move puts highly indebted Italy on the same BBB+ level as Kazakhstan and pushes Portugal into junk status. It put 14 euro zone states on negative outlook for a possible further downgrade, including France, Austria, and still triple-A rated Finland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
Germany was the only country to emerge totally unscathed with its triple-A rating and a stable outlook.
This may not be the disaster gleefully predicted by many(a disaster, incidentally, that will affect this country) but it is bad news. However, credit rating is really just that: information that needs to be taken into account when a country tries to borrow money. So one has to ask again: when this many countries are losing their rating, will markets go on paying attention or will they simply metaphorically shrug their shoulders?

Let us not forget that the USA lost its AAA rating last August and the world did not collapse.

Friday, January 13, 2012

And even more meanwhile

Daniel Hannan is fulminating that if the new text of the Fiscal Union treaty is agreed by the 26 member states, then the famous Cameron veto was for nothing. I am shocked, I tell you, shocked.

Meanwhile ..

... things are dragging on in Greece towards the inevitable but much-postponed catastrophe. According to the BBC
Talks between Greece and its private sector lenders over a possible 50% write-off of its debts have stalled. Reaching a deal is a pre-condition for Athens receiving the next chunk of bailout cash from the International Monetary Fund and European Union. Without that money, the Greek government could run out of cash and be forced to leave the euro.
Which is what they should do, of course.

Is this important?

According to Sky News
Standard & Poor's is about to downgrade France's credit rating, sources including the French news agency AFP are reporting.
They quote Reuters correspondent Peter Thal Larsen:
Reuters columnist Peter Thal Larsen told Sky News: "If we're talking about expectations then clearly France is what we would consider to be most vulnerable to a potential downgrade."
Mr Larsen went on to explain that a French downgrade would be significant due to the country's role as one of the AAA guarantors of the eurozone's rescue fund, the EFSF, which would in turn also need to be downgraded.
This would make it more difficult to raise funds to bail out weaker countries, like Italy and Spain, if the need arose.
Nobody quite knows what to do with the credit rating agencies. Their track record prior to the financial crisis is lamentable and their intervention, always very long-drawn out, tends to have negative effects on the market. At one point there was a proposal to silence them, which would not have the desired effect. The question is, will anybody go on listening to them as they downgrade one country after another?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The two great Russian questions

They are: Who is at fault and What is to be done.

 Кто виноват? is a novel by Alexander Herzen. Based on various personal experiences, it is his only foray into the writing of fiction (one has to assume that his various autobiographical volumes are more or less accurate) and not his best work. However, it is considerably better than Что делать? by Nikolay Chernyshevsky, a most appallingly boring novel with no fewer than four dreams by the heroine Vera Pavlovna and one that Dostyevsky mocked and attacked mercilessly. Astonishingly enough, given that it was written and read at a period when Russian literature produced one genius after another, this long and hectoring work was taken up and eagerly adopted as a secular bible by the Russian radical intelligentsia, particularly its younger members. This perverseness may well account for why things went so badly wrong in Russia. 

The title was subsequently adopted by V. I. Lenin (the anniversary of whose death is coming soon) and the best one can say for his tract of the need for a revolutionary party to lead the populace to where they do not want to go is that it is shorter than Chernyshevsky's novel.

Both these questions were asked yesterday after a talk given by Luke Harding, the Guardian journalist who has  had the distinction of being the first hack to be expelled from post-Soviet Russia for writing things that the authorities were not happy about, in London's Pushkin House. As it happens, he had no answer. Why Russia has gone the way it has in the last twenty years is a question that needs many hours of cogitation and discussion. Many people are at fault and by now it has become quite difficult to work out what can be done to start remedying the situation. 

Mr Harding's talk was interesting and centred on his personal experience from which he drew a number of obvious conclusions about Russia and its governing elite. He also mentioned his predecessors as Guardian correspondents in the Soviet Union, Arthur Ransome and Malcolm Muggeridge. He did not go into details but, had he done so, he might have noted that while the first one of those swallowed the Bolshevik line completely, to the point of becoming an agent of the Cheka while the second one (and he did refer to this) famously went as a convinced supporter, became disillusioned and was one of the first writers to tell the truth about Stalin's monstrous regime. 

Mr Harding, however, did not mention any journalists who had, like him, been expelled from Russia or the Soviet Union. It is, therefore, worth pointing out that the first of those was D. D. Braham of the Times, who was expelled in 1903 for writing unfavourably about the pogroms and the subversion of the Finnish constitution. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Somebody is scared of this man

Alexei Navalny, briefly mentioned on this blog before but written about at some length even by our media (and yours truly on Taki's Magazine) is not an anti-Putin candidate. He is a blogger and a political activist who has become the face and voice of the opposition to the corruption and political authoritarianism of the Putin-Medvedev regime. (Remember the old joke of Medvedev being Putin's мишка, that is, teddy bear? Non-Russian speakers need to know that medved or медведь means bear.)

It seems that Mr Navalny is beginning to bother the Putin brigade. They have decided to smear him with the obvious accusation that he has been associating with Snowball, errm, I mean the ex-patriate oligarch Berezovsky, who is wanted on all sorts of charges in Russia but whom the British courts refuse to hand over on the reasonable assumption that he is unlikely to receive a fair trial (or, possibly, a trial at all). Berezovsky and the unspecified oligarchs have been blamed for everything that has been going wrong in Russia, particularly for all opposition to the Putin regime in the time-honoured Soviet way. Shall we see people being tried for left-wing Berezovskyite deviationism?

Anyway, the picture of Navalny and Berezovsky appeared in a hand-out newspaper (not a fake as some of the Putinites have been shouting), called Argumenti if Fakti of the Urals ["Аргументы и Факты. Урал"]. According to this blog, 80,000 copies were handed out in Ekaterinburg (definitely in the Urals) by pro-Putin youngsters. In it [scroll down] was the infamous photo of Navalny and Snowball Berezovsky with a headline that says: "Alexei Navalny has never bothered to conceal that he was given money for his struggle with Putin by  the oligarch Boris Berezovsky". Cute, eh?

Sadly, the picture is a photoshopped one. How this takes one back to the Soviet shenanigans with photographs, so fascinatingly documented by David King. Sometimes people were added as in the infamous picture of Stalin allegedly sitting next to Lenin in the latter's last years in Gori; sometimes they were taken away when they became unpersons.

Enough of this reminiscing. Let us turn to the present. Navalny has managed to produce the original of the photograph in which he is with another oligarch but not one so well known, Mikhail Prokhorov. He then decided to help the other side out. Why not make a few suggestions of various other people he could be getting finance from, such as Stalin, Lord Voldemort, Napoleon or Putin himself. If your follow the link above and scroll down you will see the pictures and the Russian text is minimal.

The story has gone world-wide and was picked up by the BBC, the Telegraph,  the Guardian and many others with the appropriate semi-literate pro-Putin trolls making their appearance here and there.

Someone asked me whether these people really thought anyone would believe them. Probably not (and, strictly speaking, we still don't know who took that idiotic decision) but they worked on the principle of "mud sticks" and when it comes to Russia and opponents of Putin, too many people, especially in the West are ready to believe the worst, particularly if they see the dreaded word "oligarchs". Those are the people who do not seem to realize that oligarchs are alive and well in Russia but these days they are all Friends of Vladimir. All the same, one can't help wondering why the Putinites should be so scared of a man who is, after all, merely an anti-corruption blogger.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Who could ask for anything more?

Eric Cantona has announced that he will be running for the French Presidency. He has a way to go as he needs "the backing of 500 elected officials by the end of February to run". His intention is to highlight the housing crisis in France, which, presumably means that he is hoping to take votes from the Socialists. On the other hand, he is something of a celebrity and can compete with Mme Sarkozy though he has not given birth recently to anything.

UPDATE: Doubt is being cast on the story by a sports news website:
But the newspaper's [Liberation] deputy editor Paul Quinio told a French TV channel that it was all a move to publicise the French housing crisis, which affects 10 million people in the country. "He isn't looking for signatures to be a candidate for the presidency, but to pass on the message of the Abbé Pierre foundation in support of better housing policy, and to make housing, which is a priority for French people, a priority for the presidential candidates," said Quinio.
Oh I do hope not. The idea of Cantona as a presidential hopeful in France is too delightful to abandon.

Stick, end, wrong - Cameron

The Boy-King is all set to take on crony capitalism. Well, sort of. Because to take it on properly he would need to get rid of a great deal of legislation and regulation that he neither can nor will change. As the Wall Street Journal says in its trenchant article on the subject: A Phony War on Crony Capitalism:
Increased regulation of the market for corporate control, especially of these takeovers, has helped entrench mediocre managers who have been able to increase their own pay without suffering the consequences. For now, the main obstacles to throwing the corporate bums out are rules governing tender offers, limits on the quantity of shares that activist investors can accumulate before announcing a formal bid, and drawn-out regulatory approvals for consummating a takeover.
As we know, most of the regulation comes from the EU and is implemented here as a legal requirement. Does Mr Cameron know that? Hard to tell. What he does know is that knocking high salaries and strutting around as the supposed defender of the little man is good PR. The rest is of little consequence to him.

City AM, unusually, backs Cameron. Here is Allister Heath in yesterday's column noting approvingly that Cameron is right to back shareholders. Today, he is providing useful data about boards, cross-over, pay and cronyism. That approval of Cameron did not last long or not fully. Power to the shareholders is still seen as a very good idea.

More trouble for the Baroness

Or is it more trouble from the Baroness? No sooner do we hear about extended criticisms of her abilities and achievements and of her inadequate responses than we find out that the lady is going back on her cast iron guarantee promise of a "budget-neutral" European diplomatic service.
Lady Ashton, the best paid female politician in the Western world, angered national governments with a poor performance as Europe's foreign minister.
Her demands for an extra £22 million in funding for this year fuels criticism as it breaches her promise to set up a "budget neutral" European diplomatic service.
In a new move that has infuriated Britain, which has made deep cuts to the foreign office, a report published yesterday, by Lady Ashton, has now completely ditched the pledge of funding her European External Action Service (EEAS) from existing EU budgets without making new spending demands.
Mind you, I am not sure what Mr Waterfield means by that ridiculous phrase "infuriated Britain". Which part of Britain? The FCO? I hardly think so, given their attitude to the project. The rest of the country? Don't suppose they even know about it. The Conservative Party? They are still bleating like blessed baa-lambs about their hero vetoing that treaty.

Good grief, he is back

Declan Ganley. Now there's a name I did not think I'd hear again. Libertas? Anyone remember that? I mentioned it briefly here and wrote a lot more at the time on my erstwhile home, EUReferendum. (here and here) At the time I made it clear that Mr Ganley was not a eurosceptic of any stripe but a man who wanted to improve the European project, "restore" its democratic credibility and generally make everybody's voices heard through being elected into the European Parliament as part of the only pan-European party. This is what I wrote after the launch of Libertas in the UK:
I asked Mr Matthews whether his aim was to campaign to restore power to national parliaments or to reform the EU, whose structure would not change even if the Lisbon Treaty failed, and if the latter, how was he intending to go about it. His reply did not fill me with confidence.
The first thing, he said, was to take stock and to ensure that there is a vote on Lisbon (preferably, one assumes a No); whether people are prepared to sanction this enormous transfer of power to the European elite. Then we can move on and, in due course, Libertas will publish its policies. I suspect this means that they have not thought beyond the first step.
Back when I cut my eurosceptic teeth, the days of Maastricht and the battle for that referendum, it made a certain amount of sense to say that we should concentrate on this treaty that had qualitatively changed the process of integration.
The European issue was new to most people as the project had been apparently (though not in reality) quiescent for many years; it was necessary to introduce all the many aspects of it into public discourse and to suggest withdrawal appeared to be politically suicidal. Luckily Jacques Delors on the one hand and the people of Denmark on the other helped us to make "Europe" familiar to many.
We have moved a long way from there, though not as long as we would have done had some people concentrated more on what really matters - politics and policies. To return to the same point and argue that we must not frighten the horses and let's discuss the Lisbon Treaty, which is so horrific that it makes one faint with horror, before we, possibly, move on to other issues is pointless at a time when people are seriously discussing the possibilities of British withdrawal or even the complete collapse of the EU.
But then, that is precisely what Mr Ganley is afraid of: that those wicked eurosceptics will have their way and the great European project, which, in his opinion, would be absolutely wonderful if only it acquired popular support, will collapse. That is why we say that Libertas is not fighting on our side - they want to strengthen the EU, we want to destroy it in order to start creating genuinely democratic structures in European countries and alliances between them and outwith Europe.
Given that, I am not exactly clear as to why people find it surprising that he now wants to start a group in Ireland that will fight for the United States of Europe. It's what he always wanted. He just thought and, no doubt, thinks that somehow by some magical wand-waving he will be able to create a United States of Europe that is somehow democratic and accountable to .... well to whom?

Friday, January 6, 2012

A great piece from James Taranto

As Taranto's column has one link for several stories, I have to reproduce the whole of A Pogo Progressives here:
"We used to be able to blame the Bush administration for Guantánamo," writes The Nation's David Cole in the hard-left magazine. No kidding! In case you've forgotten--we hear a lot less about the place these days--Guantanamo is a U.S. naval base in Cuba where the Pentagon set up a detention facility for terrorists not long after the 9/11 attacks. As Cole notes, the anti-antiterror left loved to vilify George W. Bush for his detention policies.
But Bush left office just under three years ago, and the Guantanamo detention facility was to have been shuttered a year later. Somehow that didn't happen. So whom are we to blame now?
The obvious answer would be whoever replaced Bush as president. But to hear Cole tell it, that office is now vacant: "Although the executive, legislative and judicial branches are all deeply implicated in the ongoing injustice, we can't really lay the blame on the government. Guantánamo is our problem as citizens." David Cole is a Pogo progressive: He has met the enemy, and it is us.
Meanwhile, The Washington Monthly, another left-leaning magazine, has an exciting special issue surveying the Republican presidential field and "imagining the consequences of a GOP victory." An introduction carrying the byline "the Editors" explains that "we asked a distinguished group of reporters and scholars to think through the hitherto unthinkable: What if one of these people actually wins?"
If an electoral victory by one of the country's major political parties was "unthinkable" until just now, that must mean America has recently undergone a transition to democracy, like Eastern European countries did after 1989 or North African lands are attempting in the wake of the Arab Spring. Who knows, maybe the power vacuum left by George W. Bush's departure will end up producing a change for the better.
There is something utterly insane about the left.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Not her fault

Baroness Ashton was put into the position of the High Panjandrum for the Common Foreign Policy because she was seen to be incompetent enough not to cause any trouble to anybody. She has fulfilled that role admirably while presiding over a huge increase in the personnel of the European External Action Service (EEAS), which has existed for some time but became a separate official body under the Lisbon Treaty and has since grown enormously with 140 EU delegations in various countries.

It seems that the lady can't win. She has been criticized "in a confidential discussion paper signed by the 12 foreign ministers and sent to Ashton last month", to which she has replied in a report on the first year of her ever increasing empire:
Ashton acknowledges problems in the division of roles between the EEAS, launched one year ago this week, and the European Commission. She concedes that there have been serious transitional and structural problems with the EU's 140 delegations abroad. She notes the need to improve policy formulation and delivery, but provides no details as to how she will do so.
Whether her self-defence will satisfy her critics remains to be seen. My suspicion is no and they will have to make a decision on whether they will just put up with expensive incompetence or get somebody who will spend as much money if not more (not that the colleagues care about that) and become rather a nuisance to the various foreign ministers. This is quite interesting, however:
The foreign ministers – including Alain Juppé of France, Guido Westerwelle of Germany, Radoslaw Sikorski of Poland and Carl Bildt of Sweden – said they had “a major interest in a strong and efficient EEAS” and wanted “to help it develop its full potential”. William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, did not endorse the paper and its implicit criticism of Ashton.
It seems that Radoslaw Sikorski is not quite as eurosceptic as he sometimes tries to make out. Also one would like to know why our own Foreign Secretary refrained from signing the paper. Was it that he did not want to criticize la Ashton; was it that he did not agree with the sentiments expressed in it; or was it that he simply was not aware that this criticism was being put together?

But I thought Cameron vetoed it

In this case I am talking about the Financial Transaction Tax, unpopularly known as the Robin Hood Tax (though taking money from wealth creators to enrich a bureaucracy is not quite what the men of Sherwood Forest were about). Once again, we have news from European Voice and the Daily Telegraph that the tax is on the agenda and that Merkel and Sarkozy (particularly the latter) are determined to push it through despite opposition from Britain and Sweden as well as possible others. The one thing neither article bothers to explain is how precisely it will be brought in. At present I am assuming that it will come in under Single Market rules and that means Qualified Majority Voting. But they might think of some other way. In the past it was established that a new tax needs primary legislation by Parliament. We shall see how many of those eurosceptics will dare to put their heads against the parapet. Of course, numerous questions in the House of Lords in the past established that if a tax is imposed by the EU and Parliament votes against it, the UK will be taken to the ECJ. That will give the Boy-King something to veto, surely.

Spanish economy in free-fall

This does not come as a surprise to anyone but here are some interesting graphs about the Spanish economy, published by The Atlantic.
To sum up: The overall unemployment rate is in the mid-20s, industrial production and services activity have both cratered, construction indicators like cement consumption have been devastated after doubling between 1998 and 2007, retail is in a free fall, and exports (most of which go to Europe) are falling. [Word of warning: None of these graphs have the same Y-axis range, so beware direct comparisons.]
In the next year, Spain is meant to cut spending to show the bond market that Madrid can stabilize its all-important ratio of debt to GDP. But what Spain really needs today is what it had 10 years ago: Lots of money flowing into the country! Spanish leaders know the intricacies of Spanish economics far better than I ... but I do know something about ratios, and if your GDP isn't growing, it's rather impossible to increase your GDP faster than your debt.
Spain has avoided an even worse recession, if you can believe it, by growing exports in every year since the housing crash. But even here, trouble lurks. As you can see (bottom-right graph in the collection above), export growth is slowing down as the nation's largest trade partners -- in order: France, Germany, Portugal, Italy, and the UK, which account for more than half of Spanish exports -- all face austerity regimes of their own, which is likely to make businesses and consumers cut back on Spanish goods. In a word: Yikes.
I have noticed that there are more Spanish youngsters working in various low-skill jobs in London than there had been for years. They are competing with the Poles and, personally, I think the Poles are more efficient, friendlier and better at learning English. However, that is, undoubtedly, a sign of the times.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

They are all eurosceptics now

Everybody seems to be a eurosceptic these days. Or so they say. The latest one to come out with that odd self-identification was Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. According to the Wall Street Journal,:
“I’m not a euro-enthusiast of the sort that has eyes only on the yellow stars on the blue background, forgetting the white-and-red flag,” he said Saturday, referring to flags of the EU and Poland. “I’m a common-sense euroskeptic, without any unhealthy fascinations.”
It's a little hard to tell what he means by that. After all, we have enough trouble trying to disentangle what our own Tory eurosceptics mean in reality. But, as far as I can tell, he means that as things are not very good in the eurozone at the moment, he does not think Poland should join any time soon but, of course, there is no need to suppose that the eurozone will fall apart and some time in the future, if the conditions are right and there is a good deal of money coming to Poland we shall try again.

Just as in Britain, however, the mention of the word seems to send everyon scurrying for journalistic phrases. A completely uninteresting and meaningless little statement is being described as a "significant about-face". What would happen, I ask myself, if a politician did decide, on the basis of facts to change his or her mind and come out seriously against the whole project.

If UKIP wanted my advice ...

But there, it is not  interested in my advice though I do have something useful to suggest. As I said before, it is preposterous that they should not be able to beat the ridiculous Lib-Dims even though the EU, the euro and all the attendant problems have been front page news for months. At the time of the Feltham by-election I blamed UKIP's reluctance to challenge the Boy-King over his phantom veto. Other people talked of their lack of strategic thinking that manifested itself, not for the first time, in an inadequate candidate. If UKIP wants to do better now and in the next general election, it will have to start thinking a little more strategically. Hint: making pubs full of smoke again is not a very popular policy.

Let me start with real politics that we are seeing on the other side of the Pond, where the presidential election has kicked off in real earnest with the Republica caucus in Iowa yesterday. (Yes, I know President Obama has been campaigning for months but the real fight starts now.) As we know, the outcome was odd: Mitt Romney, as expected, came first by only eight votes, ahead of Rick Santorum. Despite hysterical screaming from  his supporters, Ron Paul came third. Oddly enough, having been told that this caucus is of supreme importance (something I never really believed) we are now being told by the same people that it is of no significance whatsoever.

Be that as it may, I was interested to read this analysis of how the votes went and who voted for whom. Without going into all the details, of interest only to some voters in the US, I can confirm that the Paul supporters (or Paulbots, if that is the way you are inclined) tended to insist that what the blogger calls paleolibertarianism was of no importance and we should pay no attention to those pesky newsletters, Paul's weird foreign policy stance or his links to some unsavoury groups in the United States. While his views on matters fiscal and the US Constitution are very attractive, it is, in my opinion, very dangerous to assume that a politician speaks the truth only when he voices opinions you happen to agree with,

An interesting point about the way voters behaved that comes out of this posting and from other sources is that close to a third of them did not make up their minds until the last day. While some comments I have seen suggest that this might say something about Americans or, at least, Iowans, I suspect that this is more common than politicians and campaigners would like to admit. Indeed, there must be quite a number of people who do not make up their minds until they are in their respective voting booths. Only then do they decide that they rather like the way X does her hair or they prefer Y's opinions on some issue or other to Z's.

It seems to me that this should finally be accepted and factored into the strategy and UKIP, as the party that has most to gain from some strategic rethinking, should turn their attention to it. At the next election, be it local, London mayoral or a by-election, they should consider doing some different exit polls from the usual ones. Instead of asking people as they leave the voting station for whom they had voted, ask them why they voted for X (no need to name that person), when did they make their decision to vote for X and what was the reason for that decision. I suspect that some very useful and interesting data would emerge. But then, UKIP is unlikely to listen to me.

So where do we stand on the British Council?

The website of this august and somewhat expensive quango tells us that their most popular pages are to do with learning English, teaching English and various other things to do with education and English. That is right and proper. On the other hand, it is not easy to discover exactly what the purpose of the organization is. There are a lot of trendy words and concepts but what is it for (apart from providing various members of the Kinnock family with jobs from time to time)?

Wikipedia in a surprisingly sober language tells us
The British Council is a United Kingdom-based organisation specialising in international educational and cultural opportunities. It is registered as a charity both in England and Wales, and in Scotland. Founded in 1934 as the British Committee for Relations with Other Countries, and granted a royal charter by King George VI in 1940, the British Council was inspired by Sir Reginald (Rex) Leeper's recognition of the importance of "cultural propaganda" in promoting British interests. Its "sponsoring department" within the United Kingdom Government is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, although it has day-to-day operational independence. Martin Davidson is its chief executive, appointed in April 2007.
So, it is there to promote British interests. Right. Got that. Let us, however, go on the Brussels office's page. What do we find? Well, one thing we do not find and that is the word "British". There is a meaningless introductory paragraph:
We are the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations with other countries. Our approach to cultural relations is a broad one. It covers governance and human rights as well as the arts, science, education and inter-cultural dialogue - and we set out deliberately to break down the boundaries between them.
The rest of the text is no better. Sir Rex Leeper would have been horrified by the waffle. Still, one or two things can be learnt. For instance:
The Brussels Office serves as the British Council hub for Europe. Brussels is the capital city of one of the UK's closest neighbours, the location of many of Europe's key institutions, and the centre of intense discussions - and decisions - about issues that affect every European citizen. Our main purpose in being here is to engage in those discussions, to contribute fresh thinking and ideas, and to enable those whose voices may not otherwise be heard to take part. By working with partners from Belgium, the rest of Europe and beyond, we hope that creative and innovative thinkers from the UK will influence, and at the same time be influenced by, creative and innovative thinkers in the rest of Europe.
Well, well. Is that promoting British interest, the British culture and the English language, which, to be fair, does not need all that much promoting these days. Apparently, that is not important enough to talk about. This, however, is:
We play an important role in keeping our colleagues throughout the British Council's global network informed about EU developments: in science, education, the arts, development and governance. This alerting our colleagues to opportunities for EU-funded projects and helping them to win EU support for projects in their countries.
I am willing to bet that they all get very handsome salaries and expenses in the British Council's Brussels office for the work of promoting EU propaganda.

ADDENDUM: A reader kindly sent me this  link to the relevant accounts but my laptop refuses to open it and keeps telling me that the file is damaged and cannot be repaired. I shall look into it when I am back on my larger computer. In the meantime, here is the quote the same reader found:
Restricted Activity includes £49 million (2010: £53 million) of income and expenditure relating to projects carried out on behalf of the European Commission.
Time for a few more questions, methinks.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Another one we can close down

The Daily Wail Mail reports that Gisela Stuart, one of the few sensible MPs around apart from her incomprehensible desire for an IN/OUT referendum, has protested about the British Counmcil promoting "more Europe" using the money they receive for the promotion of Britain, British culture and the English language. Admittedly, £20,000 out of £200 million is not much but it might be worth somebody's while to have a good look at what the British Council's Brussels office is doing anyway. And then we can close the whole organization down.