Monday, April 30, 2012

Let us not forget ...

... that Chechnya's President, Ramzan Kadyrov is Russian-President-To-Be-Again Putin's protégé and a man who has been highly approved of by a number of commentators in the West for allegedly having brought peace and stability to the region (give or take the continuing and spreading disturbances). Here is a story about what is really going on under his rule and what his intentions are. Warning: it is not pleasant to read.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

But will this break EU rules?

In one of the funniest stories that has come out of the Netherlands recently, the government is planning to control the liberal marijuana laws of the country by restricting its open use in cafes to Dutch residents only, thus effectively turning the coffee shops in question into private clubs with a membership of around 2,000 each.

A judge in the Hague district court has ruled that the government's proposal is entirely legal though an appeal is being planned by the owners of the coffee shops.

Without going into the rights and wrongs of the case, I have a question or two: will the European Commission take the Dutch government to the ECJ for introducing legislation that legally discriminates against EU citizens of other member states (or, indeed, residents of other member states) and will the ECHR rule on the subject, with regards to the rights to family existence by people who are not resident in the Netherlands but whose relatives are and who want to smoke cannabis together?

News from Italy

Not only is 2012 a year of important elections (with some results, like the Russian presidential one, entirely predictable) but May will see a number of them. May 6 will be the date of the Greek election, which is likely to result, I am told by one friend and blog reader, in the old coalition cobbling together another government of not dissimilar kind; it will also be the day on which the French President will be chosen; and in Italy there will be local elections, also on May 6 and 7, in which around 11 million voters, or a quarter of the whole, will be expressing their opinions on what has been going on.

The Centre for Policy Studies has an interesting blog post up on the subject, the first of quarterly updates on Italian poliitics by the Centro Einaudi. Little of it is unexpected even to those who have followed events from a distance but it is always good to read analyses from insiders. Here is a brief account of Mario Monti's government, its initial popularity, which might come as a surprise to some rather hysterical eurosceptics, and the gradual loss of that popularity as some very necessary reforms were enacted.
The new government’s first decision was to enact a bill on pension reform, which was immediately passed by the Chambers. As a result, the Italian pension system, one of the biggest drains on public finance, was put under control, providing automatic adjustment not only to economic growth (and, by the same token, to fiscal revenues) but also to population ageing. However, with the pension reform came a swathe of new taxes on property and income, and a VAT rise.

In the weeks that followed, the tensions on the financial markets eased, while the opinion polls suggested that Mr. Monti enjoyed wide support. Buoyed by this, the Cabinet then started to implement the recommendations to the Italian government specified by the ECB in August 2011 and reinforced by the EU Commission President, Olli Rehn, in November 2011: these required not only the reform of the pension system but also a number of measures of privatisation and liberalisation, particularly of the labour market.

It was then that the honeymoon between the government and its multi-coloured majority ended: while the centre-right objected to measures directed at liberalizing professions (such as notaries, lawyers, chemists, taxi-drivers, etc.), the centre-left found it almost impossible to accept an easing of the hire-and-fire rules on the labour market, strongly opposed by the leftist CGIL union. The result was a much watered-down ‘liberalisation’ law and an impasse on the labour-reform bill.

In the meantime, Mr. Monti tried to soften the German stance on fiscal rigour and the introduction of Eurobonds: but these attempts, which for a few weeks at the turn of the year had looked almost successful, appeared at last to have failed. The tensions on the financial markets rose again, with the spread on the Italian public debt climbing up and the Italian stock exchange losing all the gains it had accumulated in the first weeks of the year.
It is particularly interesting to note that the centre-right objected to the liberalization of professions and the centre-left to the liberalization of the labour market - a neat summary of the difference between the two in Italy (and a number of other Continental countries) or, in other words, no difference at all.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Is it not extraordinary ...

... that with all the many things going on in this country (most of them bad) and around the world (not many good) the biggest news items seem to be the never ending Leveson inquiry (just how much is it costing us?) and   the question whether the Prime Minister should know the price of milk or, put another way, ought Tory MPs not have realized some time ago that there are many prices of milk as it is no longer set for the whole country by a special board.

The story of Nadine Dorries, the posh boys and the price of milk, a subject she presumably took from the film The Iron Lady, may well become the subject of another rant on this blog. I am issuing a fair warning.

There is another story, of course, and that is the ongoing drought. If you don't believe me, have a look at the huge billboards on the subject, carried by a number of London buses. How much is that costing us? The whole saga of the English drought has been entertaining (if that is the word I am looking for) people wherever they gather to dry out from the rain.

Apparently, there will be a hosepipe ban in London and the South-East till Christmas, which makes little difference as everything is, and is likely to be for a long time, soaking wet. But even if we had not had rain every day this month, I would have and, indeed, did object to the use of the word "drought". These people have no shame. Drought, a terrible state of affairs, is when you have had no rain for three years, the ground is cracked dry, the harvest is non-existent and, in some countries, famine stares you in the face. That is drought. Not really a lot of rain for three months after quite a bit of snow and a wet summer and autumn is not. I know the difference is too subtle for most officials and media hacks but I am sure they can understand it if they put their little minds to it. (By officials I mean employees of the Met Office as well.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Errm, no, we are not telling you

A Written Question from Lord Willoughby de Broke on minimum pricing of alcohol elicited an unhelpful answer. The Question was:
what assessment they have made of whether their proposal for minimum pricing on alcohol is compliant with European Union law.
The answer was:
The legal advice which the Government have received on this issue is subject to legal privilege. We do not, therefore, believe it appropriate to disclose this advice (or any summary of it).
The Government are currently in discussion with the EU Commission on this issue.
Or, in other words, it will be the Commission that will make the decision but we are going to say as little as possible about that. People might find out that we do not legislate in this country.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands

The crisis goes on and the government has either resigned or about to resign. The Guardian's constant update is quite useful but, by definition, cannot give clear answers as it has to provide minutiae. For example stating as a certainty what one opinion poll has predicted at a time of see-sawing opinion, is asking for trouble.

The Financial Times is certain that Mark Ruttke will be resigning as the austerity talks have come to nothing and Geert Wilders continues in his refusal to support the government. Much laughter and schadenfreue in Brussels, according to the Wall Street Journal with Neelie Kroes also attacking Wilders.

Well, I said this yesterday

The votes that will matter in the second round of the French presidential election will be those that Marine Le Pen gathered.
Leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon told a post-vote rally that they must unite together on May 6 to beat the incumbent president, without mentioning Hollande by name. Socialist contender Hollande has already received the endorsement of Green candidate Eva Joly.
That could have been predicted and, indeed, was by all. Similarly, Bayrou's supporters will now move over to Sarkozy.

Given M. Hollande's promises to wreck the French economy it is not surprising that, according to Reuters, has worried investors. Undoubtedly, they are hoping that what, according to a reader of this blog who has been watching developments carefully, was an 8 per cent swing to left-wing parties in general, will, in a fortnight's time, turn into a victory for Sarko. Not that the economy under his guidance has been doing all that well and not that he had brought in any of the necessary reforms but, perhaps, if he does snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, he will have had a nasty fright.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Meanwhile in the Netherlands ...

... the government is in trouble.
The liberal and conservative Dutch government cabinet holds an emergency meeting on Monday after talks on a £7 billion cuts package, demanded by the EU under eurozone budget deficit rules, broke down at the weekend. Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, a Liberal, will try to find support for austerity measures with the opposition Labour Party this week but will have to offer early elections in September in return.
Apparently, the crisis was caused by Geert Wilders withdrawing his support from the government, arguing "against Europe, against the euro". If he has seen the light, I am going to take some credit for that, as I was instructed by Lord Pearson during Mr Wilders's visit to enlighten the man about the EU. I did my best but did not think I had succeeded. Who knows? I may have been more successful than I had realized.

French elections - 3

Exit polls confirm what was said before: M. Hollande, open socialist, is on 27.5 per cent of the vote, while M. Sarkozy, closet socialist, is on 26.6 per cent. Mlle Le Pen, nationalist socialist, is projected to have taken 19.9 per cent of the vote, a considerably better achievement than  her father's in 2002 when he came second to L'Escroc Chirac. The ultra-left Marxist socialist, M. Mélenchon is predicted to get somewhere between 10.5 and 13 per cent, according to a cautious Telegraph piece. Yet again we can see that national socialism is more attractive to voters than the Marxist kind. The centrist only non-socialist, M. Bayrou is estimated to have got between 8.7 and 10 per cent. Turn-out is said to be around 80 per cent, lower than in 2007 but considerably higher than in 2002.

Results will be announced later today, at 10 o'clock London time. Whichever way you look at it, François Hollande is leading but not by much. So the fight will be on for the votes garnered by the other candidates, that is not the two leading ones. M. Mélenchon's supporters will, presumably move over to M. Hollande and M. Bayrou's to M. Sarkozy. The other, smaller parties will scatter according to their left-right division. 

What will happen to the substantial number that voted for Mlle Le Pen? Were they all motivated by anti-immigrant rhetoric or were some and, if so, how many, taken by the idea of pulling out of the eurozone that she posited rather coyly from time to time? If the latter, where will those votes go now?

French elections - 2

Before the results of the first round come in (though it looks like the predictions were correct and Hollande leads by a small margin) let me make it clear whom I would have preferred. I suspect some people have guessed it already: Frédéric Bastiat, of course. As his election site points out: He could not do any worse than the living candidates and, without doubt, he would do better.

 Il ne pourra pas faire pire que les vivants, et il fera sans doute mieux

French elections - 1

Today is the first round of the French presidential elections and, if one is to go by the opinion polls, François Hollande, the man whose name and appearance nobody could recall a few months ago, is likely to come top, beating Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent. The unknown are the three candidates who are following behind them; unknown in the sense of nobody knowing precisely how many votes they will take and which way those might go in the second round.

To recapitulate, they are: Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie's daughter, President of Front Nationale and, therefore, the national socialist candidate whose support is around 15 per cent, according to the last polls; Jean-Luc Mélenchon, also at 15 per cent or so, who can be said to be the Marxist socialist candidate; and François Bayrou, who has some vaguely liberal ideas but is also a firm supporter of the European Union and France's deeper involvement in it and who is polling at about 13 per cent. Other parties are likely to get some votes as well and, as they are mostly far left, we have to assume that in the second round their candidates will support M. Hollande.

The New York Sun is a little more optimistic though it does not think terribly highly of M. Sarkozy. Quoting my friend Michel Gurfinkiel, the editorial says:
All the more reason to note a cable just in from our erstwhile Paris correspondent, Michel Gurfinkiel, who is not so certain that M. Sarkozy is doomed. “In Right-Left terms,” he writes, the outlook is “that all non-Left parties combined garner about 53%, and all Left parties combined 47%.” So, he says, “the question is how many Le Pen and Bayrou voters will rally Sarkozy on the second ballot. My guess is that 2/3 of them at least will. Which, on the face of it, would bring Sarkozy to 46 % only or so.” On top of that, though, “there is another dimension to the picture: so far, some 30 % of the voters say they will not vote, or they are still undecided. I am sure that at least half of them will vote on the second ballot. And most of them are conservative voters who got utterly disappointed by Sarkozy during his first term, but still hate the Left even more.”
Taking all the variables into account, Sarkozy might yet win in the second round though only by the narrowest of margins. The New York Sun has another axe to grind as well:
All the more reason to wonder whether an American president who had a better grasp of the European drama, a clearer commitment to the idea of American exceptionalism, a more emotional connection to the possibilities of France than President Obama has on any of those points, whether such a president could have played a more constructive role in incenting the French away from the disaster that socialism would, if it comes, be for them. We comprehend that it’s a long shot, but one way to think of a France bereft of inspiring leaders is as an opportunity for a strong and articulate American president to inspire the French in our direction.
My own view, for what it's worth, is that it would have made little difference though it would have been helpful to all of us to have an American President who was aware of the rest of the world and, if not knowledgeable himself, would listen to those who were instead of surrounding himself with his equally narrow-minded cronies. Sadly, no matter who wins, France will be saddled with a socialist President.

Remembering a great singer

Kathleen Ferrier was born 100 years ago today and died, far too young, on October 8, 1953. There are so many songs and arias to choose from. Here she is singing Where'er You Walk from Handel's Semele:

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Germany and France are not happy with Schengen

Dear me, what is it I see? A certain lack of faith in the effectiveness of the Schengen agreement. It seems that Germany and France are discussing the possibility of reintroducing national border controls to deal with illegal immigration. But was Schengen and the general common border policy supposed to be the best weapon against illegal immigration? Was Denmark not castigated by ... ahem ... the Germans, when they did precisely that some months ago?

It was less that one year ago that Denmark decided to reintroduce controls on its borders with Germany and Sweden, a move, Copenhagen said, that was necessary to put a stop to illegal immigration and organized crime. The reactions from Berlin and other European capitals were immediate and unequivocal. The step taken by Copenhagen marked a "bad day for Europe," said German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger. Europe's border-free travel regime, said the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, "cannot be infringed upon."
Now, just nine months later, it is Germany itself that is looking to weaken the Schengen Agreement, the treaty signed in 1985 to remove inner-European border controls. According to a report in the Friday edition of daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany and France are seeking to change the treaty to allow for the temporary reintroduction of border controls.
The paper reports that German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich and his French counterpart Claude Guéant have formulated a letter to the European Union demanding the change. The reintroduction of controls, they wrote according toSüddeutsche, should be possible as "an ultima ratio" -- that is, measure of last resort -- "and for a limited period of time" should border controls in southern and eastern Europe prove unable to prevent illegal immigration. Later in the letter, the two write that controls could be re-established for periods of 30 days.
 The proposals will be discussed at next week's meeting of various Interior Ministers but, as is the way of these things, no decision can be expected till June, which means that the proposal cannot be simply a way of assisting Nicolas Sarkozy in his apparently hopeless bid for re-election as the more cynical German commentators have suggested. (I say "apparently" because one can never quite predict what might happen in the French presidential elections, the first of which is due this Sunday.)

Carsten Volkery, who writes for Der Spiegel from London, is not amused.
But the proposal is far from harmless and would throw Europe back decades. Since 1995, the citizens of Schengen-zone countries have gotten used to freely traveling within Continental Europe. Next to the euro common currency, free movement is probably the strongest symbol of European unity. Indeed, for many people, it's what makes this abstract idea tangible in the first place.
To throw this achievement into doubt now is a vote of no confidence in Europe. The fact that this proposal is coming in the middle of the French election campaign makes it even more suspicious. With his back to the wall, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is pretending to take a tough-guy stance toward immigrants. And the fact that Germany's interior minister is allowing himself to get caught up in this charade is regrettable. Still, if you take a look at his party affiliations -- as a member of the center-right Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- it's hardly surprising.
Worse even than that:
But this symbolic act could have drastic consequences. It is a relapse into the type of nationalist thinking that many viewed as part of the past. And it brings to mind a country that continental Europeans like to make fun of for its obsession with its own borders: Great Britain.
Well, of course, Herr Volkery is welcome to peddle this idea that Britain is the EU's most dissident member. We on this blog know better: nothing dissident about this government as far as the colleagues in Brussels are concerned. The Boy-King and his little mates wouldn't dare. But France and Germany? That's quite a different kettle of poisson.

Take that Ms Toynbee

One of the best things that happened to the Telegraph is that it acquired Tim Worstall as columnist. I am rather astonished that the editor had the good sense to offer Tim a slot. He and I do not necessarily agree every time but we do dislike the same people, Polly Toynbee being high on the list, though I do realize that it does not place us into a particularly select group.

Yesterday's column had an interesting title: Let's give Polly Toynbee the Britain she wants. I have always assumed that Polly Toynbee envisages a kind of Soviet society where she and her friends and relations would be exempt from the poverty and misery that she would like to inflict on everyone else and have always enjoyed the thought that in the Soviet Union even the bosses had a constrained life that was much poorer than average existence in the West.

However, Mr Worstall has gone one better: he has taken Ms Toynbee at her word. Apparently the silly cow Grauniad columnist has expressed the wish of seeing the same social and economic balance that one can find in the Nordic countries.

She clearly knows nothing about Nordic countries. Presumably she did not read Graeme Leach's paper on economic lessons from Scandinavia that might have surprised her about the level of taxation and regulation in those countries.

Perhaps she will read Mr Worstall's collection of facts as opposed to myths so beloved by the Guardinistas.

Let's change policy to achieve that laudable aim. We should copy the Finnish education system, for example – it is, after all, the number one such system in the world. There they divide into academic and vocational at 16 and there's none of this nonsense that all must go to university – that's reserved for the small fraction that are indeed academic. Or the Swedish system of education vouchers. Parents decide on the school they want children to go to and the local council stumps up the fees – whether it's a public or private school.
From Denmark we'll take a couple of policies. Privatise the ambulance and fire services certainly. They've been working well there for nigh on 90 years. We'd want their taxation system as well: the national income taxis 3.76% and the top national rate is 15%. True, total income taxes are high but the rest is levied by the commune, a political unit as small as 10,000 people. At that scale, taxation is subject to the Bjorn's Beer Effect. If you know that it's Bjorn who levies your taxes, Bjorn who spends your taxes and also know where Bjorn has his Friday night beer, then he's going to spend your money wisely. Otherwise he can't go out for a beer on Friday, can he?
From all of them we'll take the abolition of the national minimum wage, fornone of the EU Nordics has one.
Sweden has also abolished inheritance tax, gift tax and the wealth tax. Those sound like three excellent ideas to copy.
We'll have to raise VAT as well, of course: for this is something that people don't seem to realise about Nordic tax systems. In many ways they are more regressive (yes, regressive, not progressive) than our own. This is because those countries follow the basic economics of taxation. You need low corporate and capital taxation, moderate income taxation and high taxes on consumption.
I suspect Ms Toynbee will have fit if she reads that. I also suspect that she will go on peddling her nonsense without bothering to find out any facts.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

I am not altogether surprised

On the other hand I am not altogether sure what difference it will make to the government and its policies. News comes from the Daily Torygraph and the Spectator that David Cameron is about to hand the plum job of policy adviser to Matthew Elliot, the Head of the Taxpayers' Alliance and formerly of the No to AV Campaign.

Matthew, who is a friend and whom I have been teasing mercilessly for some years, probably thinks that he has been chosen for his political views but Donata Huggins of the Torygraph appears to think that it is his for his presentational skills, something this government badly needs after the mess they have made of the Budget and one or two other policies.

Then again, what difference will it make if the Boy-King will spend his time on chairing ridiculous UN Commissions?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What is going on in China?

This blog has kept out of the rather vague discussions about what might or might not be going on in China over the Bo Xilai affair, mainly because there is too much stuff being spoken and written about that country without any real knowledge, which I do not possess either.

However, even on the basis of the very slender understanding that is common or should be common to all who follow the news, talk to people who have worked in China or with Chinese companies and understands a little about Communism this blog has never accepted the idea that all is rosy there. China with its oppressive political system and an unspeakably corrupt crony capitalism that has not extended beyond the top layer has always seemed to be inherently too unstable to be the leading world economy for some time to come.

The scandal that is unfolding now demonstrates that instability and fills all of us with dread as to which way it might go. Bret Stephens attempts to pull together all that we know at the moment and tries to place it into the perspective of what the Chinese "capitalism" is all about.
But patterns of authoritarian behavior—particularly nepotism, corruption and rent-seeking—are hard to put down in the absence of the accountability mechanisms China so notably lacks: a vigorous free media, periodic elections, economic competition, a bias toward transparency, the rule of law. Instead, the only mechanism the regime has is the purge. It may work in the short-term for eliminating enemies or satisfying bloodlusts. It won't work in the long-term for shoring up the regime's waning legitimacy.
Meantime, China's economy is slowing as income inequality grows—historically an explosive combination. Foreigners in China report that trying to do business is often futile when it isn't outright dangerous. Wealthy Chinese are leaving the country in growing numbers, a de facto vote of no-confidence in an economy whose prospects are supposedly limitless.
Not a country on its way to economic dominance; instead it can cause a great deal of trouble.

We have some way to go

The Adam Smith Institute reminds us that today is Tax Freedom Day in America. Of course, in some states (the more successful ones) that day came a little earlier in the year and I am not convinced it has yet hit New York or California. The ASI says:
Today, average Americans, who have been working every day for the sole benefit of the tax authorities, can finally have a beer and rejoice that, for the rest of the year they are working for themselves. It means Americans have to work 107 days of the year to earn enough money to pay this year's federal, state and local taxes.
Well, lucky Americans. For we have a way to go before we can start working for ourselves.
Tax Freedom Day in the Britain, calculated annually by the Adam Smith Institute, does not come round for another six weeks – not until the 29th of May, to be precise. That means the average person in the UK will spend 149 days this year working for Chancellor George Osborne's tax gatherers. Including the extra Leap Year day, that is two whole days more slave labour than last year, when Tax Freedom Day fell on the 28th of May. (According to the Treasury's adjusted figures.)
We also have a government that believes that the money we earn rightly belongs to them and anything we keep is a sign of their generosity. So, I suppose, we should be grateful that we have a Tax Freedom Day at all.

I take it we no longer need a Prime Minister

Somehow I managed to miss this tremendous piece of news. David Cameron who, I believe, is still the Prime Minister in this country (a source of constant surprise to me) has been asked to chair a UN committee to oversee development goals. I was under the impression that a Prime Minister's first task is to be ... well, a Prime Minister of the country he has been elected to lead. It is not as if there were no problems to deal with here. What exactly does he think he is doing chairing ridiculous UN committees? Even Tony Blair, lover of multilateralism and transnationalism par excellence did not do anything so stupid.
The invitation, accepted by the prime minister, represents a political coup for Cameron, who has stuck to the government's commitment to increase overseas aid to 0.7% of UK GDP, despite the recession.
Cameron's agreement makes certain that he will resist any rightwing efforts to cut UK aid, but it may also mean a significant reshaping of the millennium development goals.
The goals decide the international targets of global aid channelled bilaterally and multilaterally through organisations such as the World Bank and the IMF.
The current eight goals range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/Aids and providing universal primary education, all by the target date of 2015. Many will be missed.
I wonder if coup is quite the word to be used here.

Of course, the goals will not be met. How can they be? The whole idea that aid is the way out of poverty has been disproved over and over again and with developed countries need to tighten belts as well as concentrate on their own economic growth, something this excuse for a government is singularly incapable of doing, the hand-outs will slow down. That may not be such a bad thing if it will turn the developing countries' attention to developing their economies through reforming tax systems, creating free trade agreements and making their countries attractive for investment. After all, aid does little beyond keeping bloodthirsty kleptocrats in power and prevent economic development in recipient countries.

Meanwhile, the new World Bank President has been announced and he is, to nobody's particular surprise, President Obama's nominee, Jim Yong Kim, President of Dartmouth College. I have little sympathy for people who moan about the fact that the World Bank presidency always goes to an American (or, in this case, a Korean American). The US puts in the largest slice of money, followed by the European countries. As long as we have a World Bank (and there are very good arguments for its abolition or, at least, scaling down) it will be run by those who pay for it and so it should be.

We have been told endlessly about the way certain rapidly developing countries, of whom Nigeria, the home of the other candidate, is supposed to be one overtaking the West. Fine. Let them do so. Let them stop taking aid from us and pay a larger share of those tranzi organizations they are so in favour of. Then we can talk about the next World Bank President not being American.

Of course, not everyone in the developing world is enamoured of the World Bank, its condescending attempts to run the world economy (as if that were possible) and endless new ideas of how to solve poverty, which can be solved only economic growth and investment.

Franklin Cudjoe, the Founding Director and President of IMANI, the Ghanaian Center of Policy and Education, wrote this:
Part of Dr. Jim Yong Kim's acceptance speech as the new World Bank President read "My discussions with the Board and member countries point to a global consensus around the importance of inclusive growth. We are closer than ever to achieving the mission inscribed at the entrance of the World Bank – Our Dream is a World Free of Poverty" NO! We ordinary citizens of the developing world want you and the World Bank to map out an exit plan to get out of the way for poverty to be solved by entrepreneurs without governmental borders!
Why do I have the feeling that neither Dr Kim nor the Boy-King will listen to those sane words?

In the meantime, do we just assume that we no longer need a Prime Minister?

Monday, April 16, 2012

I think I have to apologize ...

... for a silence that has been rather longer than I had realized. Time to get back to work, which I shall do as soon as I recover from my mingled fury and amusement about the Boy-King's latest wheeze.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Really, it is not hard to work out

Once upon a time we had general elections and we had local elections and people knew more or less how they worked and who was responsible for which part of our lives. Either way, one could be absolutely certain that the government in whatever form took on far too many responsibilities, which it could not carry out but which involved appointing lots of people in unnecessary jobs, raising taxes, regulating whatever they could and making it clear that we could not make proper decisions for ourselves. But, at least, the system was more or less comprehensible.

How times have changed. Governments, in whatever form, still claim too many responsibilities and we are trusted ever less with the making of decisions but there are several more layers around and many more elections, run on very different lines. In fact, the situation resembles that in certain Balkan countries where there seem to be some kind of elections every few months and nobody quite knows who is being elected to what and according to which method.

London is particularly difficult because we now have a Mayor, who has very few powers though a great deal of money at his disposal and, therefore, a great deal of patronage. There is also an Assembly that has no powers at all, not even to control the Mayor in any real sense; it is, in fact, a very expensive talking shop whose procedures are less well known than those of the European Parliament (another layer that needs to be elected in a completely different way from any other layer).

The GLA elections, which are coming in about three weeks see the largest number of spoilt ballot papers even though the turn-out is never more than about 35 per cent, because of the sheer incomprehensibility of the process. Thus, the Mayor is elected by a single transferable vote with every voter getting two votes to share out between the various candidates. That's quite difficult enough for an electorate that is used to first past the post but there is the extra complication of the Assembly that is voted in partly by FPTP and partly by a top-up system. So, one votes (if one bothers, which one may not as it is such a pointless organization) for an individual in the particular constituency (not to be confused with the boroughs) and also for a party.

After all that and with all the hype that is going on around the KenandBoris show, one must repeat that the Mayor of London has very few powers and those that he does have come from legislation that was passed by Parliament in 1998 and amended in 2007. In other words, those powers are strictly defined and limited by Parliament and cannot be changed neither by the Mayor nor by the Assembly nor by the people of London, should they be asked. (They were asked in the first place whether they wanted a Mayor and an Assembly and the usual thing happened: more than 60 per cent did not bother to turn out and those who did voted overwhelmingly in favour.)

This needs to be remembered and, despite the various difficulties I enumerated above, it is not hard to do so. Why, then, do we get hacks producing articles such as the one in today's Torygraph by the hackette Sue Cameron, entitled The Cities Are Taking Over?

According to this rather ignorant analysis, Labour MPs are set to abandon their seats in droves because they will want to be elected to be Mayors or new Police Commissioners. The Labour High Command is unhappy because that would mean unwelcome by-elections that they might lose.

Why do these people allegedly want to abandon their cosy little nests in Westminster? Because, if you please, power is about to seep to those elected Mayors and Police Commissioners and we shall end up with a quasi-American situation (or the French situation) where local authorities, elected mayors and police commissioners and other suchlike individuals will have far more power than Whitehall.

Really? Let's think about it a little. The powers of all these elected officials, as I said above but it is worth repeating, are very strictly defined and limited by Westminster with the legislation written by Whitehall. Elected mayors or police commissioners will not be in charge of the budget as a good deal of the money will still be decided on by the government and will not be raised locally. Most of the little that will be in their remit, as we can see in London, they have no real control over as there are numerous statutory obligations laid on them by Westminster, Whitehall and Brussels, in whatever order and which they have to fulfil. In what way is power seeping away to the cities? If any of the referendums produce directly elected mayor, the only thing that will achieve is another layer of highly expensive and largely impotent government plus some more elections.

Not that the candidates know the facts any better. I have already written about the independent candidate, Siobhan Benita, whose policies were concerned entirely with matters that were outside the Mayor's remit. Out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the eurosceptic cause I have kept quiet about the UKIP manifesto, which also consists of policies that had nothing to do with the Mayor's remit. But this has now been noted by the Metro newspaper, which has stated quite frankly that UKIP cannot deliver on any of its policies because none of them are matters over which the Mayor has any say. The candidate has agreed with that judgement. It might be a good idea for hacks on supposedly grander newspapers to learn a few of those facts. Surely, it cannot be that hard.

Not sure what to make of this

My attention has been drawn to a curious item of news. Apparently, the first ever (well, it would be, wouldn't it) European Jewish Parliament was inaugurated in Brussels in February.
The inaugural meeting of the 120 elected members of the first ever European Jewish Parliament (EJP), described as a new and innovative forum to voice the thoughts, beliefs and ideas as well as concerns of European Jews, took place on Thursday at the European Parliament building in Brussels.
The Parliament members, who represent 47 countries, have been elected by more than 400,000 people from East, Central and Western Europe who voted online and showed an unprecedented interest and demand across the continent for a new, fresh, up-to-date, transparent and democratically elected organization in Europe, says the European Jewish Union (EJU), the organization which initiated the creation of this parliament.
Among the elected MEJPs are several well-known leading figures of European Jewry such as Pierre Besnainou from France, Cefi Jozef Camhi from Turkey, Nathan Gelbart from Germany, Oliver Mischon from the UK, Joel Rubinfeld from Belgium, as well as an important number of young emerging personalities and leaders.
"New, fresh, up-to-date, transparent and democratically elected" - what on earth has that to do with the European Union? Or hasn't it anything to do with it? On the whole, I do not care how many different European Parliaments there are though, naturally, I can quite see the argument that if there is a Jewish one, then why not a Catholic one or a Muslim one.

If this were in a real country with real democratic and constitutional structures that were accountable or were, at least, supposed to be accountable to the people of that country, I would be very much against it. But as this is a pan-European organization, vaguely connected with the European Union, then I can see the benefit. The more parallel institutions there are, the less the whole project is likely to coalesce.

Election in Greece

Reuters reports that there will be a snap election in Greece on May 6. What makes it a "snap election" I wonder.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Charges dropped against doctor in Magnitsky case

This blog has mentioned the infamous Magnitsky case (here and here) and will do so again. In particular I tend to get worked up by the supine attitude of our own despicable Foreign and Commonwealth Office that refuses to put the people who were involved in the fraud that Magnitsky had uncovered, in his illegal arrest, torture and murder on a banned list. They and their families should not be allowed into this country.

In the meantime, the Russian authorities have "dropped negligence charges against a doctor implicated in the prison death of anticorruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky".
The decision, made quietly last week, is the latest twist in a case that has become an international symbol of Russia’s troubling human rights and rule of law record.
State prosecutors said they have ended their investigation of Larisa Litvinova, the chief physician at Moscow’s infamous Butyrka prison, citing a recently approved two-year statute of limitations in such probes.
How very convenient. Presumably, all other outstanding charges (and there are not all that many) will also be dragged out until the statute of limitation expires.

Non-systemic opposition

This is a new political term and I am not sure Wikipedia translated it entirely accurately though it made a good effort. Here is the Russian text and here it is in English. I came across the expression in a rather nasty little article on [in Russian but can be translated], which was really a distasteful personal attack on various people, including the TV personality, Ksenia Sobchak, who has had the temerity to oppose Putin and his supporters. Presumably, in her case, this is seen as treachery as her father, the first democratically elected Mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak was instrumental in helping Putin to his present eminence and the relationship between the President-Re-elect and the Sobchak family has always been very close.

She has made videos "on YouTube parodying the spate of faux -- and often forced -- demonstrations of fealty toward the once-and-future Russian president". The name Ksyusha that is used by Putin supporters and is even in the headline of the Pravda article, is a particularly vulgar nickname with all sorts of implications for which no evidence is given. (This is a family-friendly blog, let me remind you.) The accusation in the comments to the RFE/RL video that she is merely a socialite, no more important and serious than Paris Hilton, is true enough but does not explain why there should be so much official venom directed at her.

Anatoly Sobchak was accused of various fiscal crimes though, as the Wiki piece [to be treated with some caution] points out the sums involved were insignificant in the Russia of the 1990s and less so when one looks at the wholesale theft that is going on at the moment. Nevertheless, the man fled to Paris but returned when his protegé Putin started his dizzying rise to power, campaigned for him and died suddenly in somewhat mysterious circumstances in Svetlogorsk early in 2000. (Here is an interesting account of his career without any comments about his death in the Economist.) His daughter is unlikely to gather much popular sympathy.

All that is by way of a background to the political term I read in the article: внесистемная оппозиция or non-systemic opposition. The Russian Wiki, which is then duly translated (see links above) explains that in the West there are these two kinds of opposition, the non-systemic being those extreme left- and right-wing groups that fall outside the accepted norms of political behaviour. Of course, the point is that in a reasonably free society only those groups that use violence especially terrorism are defined as being outside the system. Even if they only support violence in theory they remain within the system. Otherwise we would be rid of most of our left-wing political groups and quite a number of politicians. But speech is one thing, action another.

According to and this has been clear in more official pronouncements as well, however, in Russia non-systemic or, perhaps, outwith the system, opposition does not have to be violent. The white ribbon brigade, белоленточные, who may be talking of a "revolution" though mostly of a peaceful one but have not shown the slightest intention so far of being violent are seen as being an opposition outside the system, as are, presumably, those politicians like Grigory Yavlinsky, who were prevented from standing in the recent presidential election. That is rather a different definition of "non-systemic". One wonders whether anybody else will be tempted into adopting this phraseology and definition.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Happy Easter

And if this does not make you smile, nothing will. Those knowledgeable viewers who want to avoid the unsatisfactory story line around Peter Lawford's character, can start viewing from around 4:50 minutes (no jokes about trains from Paddington, please).

Friday, April 6, 2012

For dog and cat lovers everywhere


OK, let's get this out of the way since the great event in Thurrock has got us absolutely nowhere but has ensured that the East European Furniture Polish Organization will continued to exist and draw money and resources away from any work that might be done to win the real fight.

Tim Montgomerie on ConHome is delighted with the result. Where he would be. After all, this is jam for the so-called Conservative eurosceptics. Of the 48,000 ballot papers that were distributed, 14,590 were returned "by post, text or e-mail", the text part being a little mysterious. That, the organizers and Mr Montgomerie say, is  a turn-out of 30.39%. Well, actually it is not a turn-out of anything since in a real election or referendum we would not (I sincerely hope) have e-mail or text and people would actually have to turn out, though there are those insidious postal votes that have set this country's electoral system back by about 150 years.

Of those, 89.9% (13, 111) voted yes to the question whether they would like to have an IN/OUT referendum. That still tells us nothing about their possible voting intentions if such a referendum did occur or about other people's voting intentions or what will happen when the other side starts producing its propaganda in real earnest while we still witter on about the need for a referendum.

Ian McKenzie, the new Director of the campaign, is delighted. Well, of course, he is. The campaign is apparently functioning and that is all the potential donors want to hear for the time being. As we know, he is not actually in favour of withdrawal. In fact, he would like a referendum to overcome the feeling that somehow our membership does not have popular support. If there is an IN/OUT referendum, on whose side will he or his minions be campaigning?

Just a couple of links

It is some time since I have written about American politics, which is a great mistake as things are so much more interesting there. For the time being, here are a couple of links people might like to read.

Reuters summarizes the White House damage limitation after a week of self-created pitfalls by President Obama, particularly his extraordinary challenge to the Supreme Court, which in itself demonstrates that he could not have taught constitutional law. An American constitutional lawyer, first and foremost, knows the Constitution and the various components of it. He does not make crass comments about the Supreme Court never challenging a law passed by Congress (though, only barely, and without any Republican support). He does not drivel about people who are elected being more important than those who are not. The Legislative, Executive and Judiciary have their roles and positions and these must be fulfilled. President Obama is already regretting his outburst.

His other outburst was against the GOP budget, which, as is the case with most of these budgets, is not really all that tough but is not to President Obama's taste. So, he accused the authors of it of being "social darwinists", as nasty a slur as ever there was one. Did the media faint with horror? Did it heck. Never mind. Here is a nice piece on Cato blog by David Boaz.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

No, really?

The Boss got on to this story ahead of me (as ever). It would appear that there is a new Director at the East European Furniture Polish Society (a.k.a. The People's Pledge, whose site still lists Mark Seddon as Director as well as the usual three co-founders). He is Ian McKenzie,  the previous Communications Director (in this case the verb to communicate would have been used in its intransitive aspect as there was nothing to communicate), formerly an employee of John Prescott's, a confirmed Blairite and europhiliac.

How do we know? Well, there is this peculiarly stupid article by John Rentoul, himself a Blairite and rabid europhiliac with the usual amount of ignorance of what it is he is in favour of,  in the Independent. Not only does Mr Rentoul inform us of this momentous news, he regales the few readers who still bother reading the Indy with an account of his discussion with Mr McKenzie in which the latter explains that the referendum, which he does not want to call now in the middle of the euro-crisis, will undoubtedly go with those who want to stay in and will strengthen their case. As things stand the "anti-Europeans" (he means the pro-Europeans who dislike the European Union) have become far too voluble citing the general popular discontent with the situation. A referendum that gives a resounding (or even a marginal) IN result should silence them.

Mr Rentoul also announces the beginnings of a discussion that, as at least one commenter points out, has been going on for a while without the Independent and its hacks paying any attention to it. Still, it is good to know what the new Director of the East European Furniture Polish Society really thinks. By the way, since we are talking about People's Democracies, whatever happened to the previous Director?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

No, it is not cool

Apparently, the City of Galway is planning to erect a statue to a mass murderer, torturer, rapist and homophobe. His name? As if you didn't know. Che Guevara, of course, the all purpose pin-up of the ignorant left.
Yale Professor Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, which won the National Book Award in 2003, wrote this letter and submitted it to the Irish Times in response to plans by the city of Galway to erect a statue honoring Che Guevara. The Times demurred, but it was published in the Galway Advertiser, and Professor Eire has given National Review permission to reprint it.
It is very succinct. Shame on the Irish Times.

Mind you, I think he is a little unfair on Oliver Cromwell.

ADDENDUM: Thanks to a reader for this excellent article on the subject by Kevin Myers who analyzes Che's ludicrous appeal to the left and naive youngsters. He also asserts very firmly that "most of the industrial-scale mass murderers of the 20th century were socialists. Pol Pot, Mao, et cetera, obviously, but also Hitler and his National Socialist Party". This has to be said over and over again.

Green Nazis? Surely not

Der Spiegel is all of a dither. Apparently, Greenism and Environmentalism, those all-purpose left-wing ideologies are "being hijacked" by the Neo-Nazis, commonly referred to by the media as extreme right-wing. Well, I never. Anyone would think that this is unprecedented; that there was not extreme green environmentalism coupled with a romantic worship of the soil and an equally romantic opposition to industrialization and machinery among the Nazis of yore. In fact, it was the Communists who, in their worship of industrialization and hatred of the peasantry, despised pointless adoration of nature. What goes around, comes around.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

But one in four do know about him

There are advantages and disadvantages to staying away from the internet for a few days. The advantages are, as HMG tells us about EU membership, are too obvious to need enumeration. The disadvantage is that on return one finds that the same depressing state of affairs remains. It is probably better to go on blogging without pausing to consider the ultimate purpose.

So, to depress oneself even more, let us turn to Russia, though, actually, this is less depressing than the usual news. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty tells us that, according to a new survey by the remarkably open and honest Levada Opinion Center, three in four Russians have never heard of Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption blogger and opposition pin-up boy as the RFE/RL article puts it.

Ho-hum!. The article goes into great deliberations as to why that might be and what it means to the opposition. It all depends on how you phrase it. After all, without any MSM coverage (of overwhelming importance in most of Russia where people do not read blogs all that much) one in four Russian does know who the man  is and has an opinion on whether his stories are more or less accurate, why the authorities keep summoning him and whether he would make a good president (overwhelmingly, the answer is no, incidentally).

I shall not bother to ponder over how many people had heard of a certain Vladimir Ulyanov before 1917 or even during that momentous year until the very end of it. Let us merely think about how widely our own politicians, who have all the access to the media they could desire, are known.