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Saturday, 3 September 2011

It's September; it must be the Euro (again)

Back on 17th June, in the halcyon days of our glorious Summer, I wrote:
Our masters in Brussels would rather see the entire European economy stagnate and economic activity shrink to a dribble before they'll surrender, but the truth apparent to all is that no nation will be able to grow and flourish again whilst the cancer of debt repayment gnaws at its back. Default is the only realistic option for Greece, Ireland, Portugal, perhaps even Spain, perhaps even us. The banks will howl and whinge as they collapse, but we can come through it. C'mon. It's time to take the hit and get on with it.
I gave it until September. C@W has a superb post and informed comments on the 'End Time', and Richard North likewise over at EU Referendum.  

Short term, as the banks crash, the ATMs will be out of action, so we need to keep a wad of ready cash in the house. Plus a fortnight's worth of dried and tinned foods, at least 2 x 25l water containers and of course the Tilley lamps and wind-up radio. Plus the means to prevent someone taking it all. 

Some years ago on the leading boaty forum, a retired senior officer in a position to know confirmed that many of our most senior civil servants keep yachts fully stocked for an ocean passage and ready to go at several locations in the South-West. I joked at the time that they'd never get beyond the M4. Now I'm not so sure.  

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Germans and poo

There's a quite interesting piece in September's Vanity Fair that attempts to link the German obsession with poo and their behaviour during the financial crisis, and a paragraph that's pure Joseph Heller;
“There had never been any innovation in German banking,” says Enderlein. “You gave money to some company, and the company paid you back. They went [virtually overnight] from this to being American. And they weren’t any good at it.” What Germans did with money between 2003 and 2008 would never have been possible within Germany, as there was no one to take the other side of the many deals they did which made no sense. They lost massive sums, in everything they touched. Indeed, one view of the European debt crisis—the Greek street view—is that it is an elaborate attempt by the German government on behalf of its banks to get their money back without calling attention to what they are up to. The German government gives money to the European Union rescue fund so that it can give money to the Irish government so that the Irish government can give money to Irish banks so the Irish banks can repay their loans to the German banks. “They are playing billiards,” says Enderlein. “The easier way to do it would be to give German money to the German banks and let the Irish banks fail.”
Of course the Hun, being a terrific hoarder, has some 3,400 tonnes of Gold in the cellar of the national Bank, whereas the UK has, er 300 tonnes left after Gordon's manic depredations. 

Banks must split

There are few lobbies as loud as the claret-toned bray of the banks, and few ears as receptive to the molar drawl as Boy Dave's. The CBI have revealed their bias, and the Midlands SME owner must now wonder why he subscribes to a body that seems to be little more than a branch of the British Bankers Association. The split of the retail arms from the buccaneer operations of the banks is both inevitable and necessary - it is, after all, the investment side that holds some $10 trillion of worthless derivatives, and care must be taken this liability stays out of the retail side of the books. 

Vince Cable and George Osborne must stay their course on this and Dave will have to let his chums down this time.  

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Whitehall's campaign against democracy

The Mandarinate, Whitehall if you will, is very happy with the condition of Britain's political parties. Like Whitehall, they are central, exclusive, metropolitan bodies that look inwards and exist without any measure of either popular support or accountability. Fewer than 1% of the UK electorate are members of one of the big three parties, and this, too, suits Whitehall - the less the effect of grass-roots influence on the parties, the easier a cosy accommodation between the central State and the central parties may be reached. And the last thing Whitehall wants is political change, new parties gaining ground and the upsetting of this convenient State alliance.

Some of you may recall the utter contempt with which this blog greeted Hayden Phillips' meretricious recommendations on tax-funding of the parties, based on their electoral share in the previous election, thus enshrining and advantaging incumbency and acting as a permanent barrier to political change. I recall a howl of public outrage at the suggestion, and even an opinion poll that demonstrated overwhelming opposition to the proposal. This isn't, of course, the way Hayden Phillips remembers it;
"When I produced my report and negotiated with the parties, public funding wasn't a big bone of contention. I think there would be much more reluctance now even though I still believe it is the right solution. The political party system is essential to democracy. It is a perfectly reasonable thing to provide a stake in the way parties are is funded."
He tells the Guardian, proving that he's grown neither in wisdom nor honesty in the intervening years. In contrast the co-Chairman of the Conservative Party Lord Feldman is of the view that:
It is commonly argued that additional state funding for political parties is the solution to dealing with the loss of income resulting from a donations cap. However, it seems highly unlikely that the public would accept handing over significant sums of taxpayers’ money to political parties at a time when the Government is having to make tough decisions and cut public spending. In the aftermath of the expenses scandal, greater state funding of political parties simply risks further undermining the reputation of politics and politicians in the eyes of the voter.
But more importantly, there is a matter of principle here. Political parties should belong to the people, not to the state. General state funding would represent a significant constitutional shift and would risk turning our political parties into little more than public utilities. Furthermore, state funding based on past election results acts as a significant barrier to entry. New parties would find it all but impossible to spring up without access to donor or state funding. That would be significantly detrimental to the democratic process.
For Feldman to strike a position so diametrically opposed to Whitehall's strategy of establishing 'tamed' and institutionalised permanent State parties seems brave enough, but consider that the Conservatives alone are capable of surviving a donations cap without additional funding. 

It seems Chrisopher Kelly's committee's long overdue report and recommendations on tax funding of the parties will not see the light of day before the party conference season. Once it is released, Nick Clegg will lead cross-party talks. This is a bit like putting Bob Diamond in charge of printing banknotes; the LibDems have seen a flood of members leave since the coalition, their finances are parlous and Clegg has said openly before now that without taxpayer support for his party, it's doomed. And you can bet that  'cross party talks' will include only those parties already represented in Westminster - excluding UKIP and the nascent parties. So whatever Kelly recommends, Clegg will seek to make party capital of it - precisely the outcome wanted by Whitehall. 

I can't overstress the importance of the principles at stake here. The issue of Whitehall's establishment of State parties is the battleground over which we must fight to regain democracy in Britain. If the Mandarins win this one, we're irrevocably lost.  

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

...and a telling whine from Toynbee

Despite all the evidence that throwing money at the poor is about an effective a strategy to encourage social mobility as giving knighthoods to burglars, Toynbee still can't quite shake out of her vacuous head that either a  redistribution of wealth or the total control by the State of everyone's life are the panacea to all ills. 

Forget the rest of the faux-reasoned gumph in this morning's column; the telling whine comes in the two sentences
"Usha Goswami, a Cambridge University neuroscientist, explains how much the first year of life shapes the brain, babies thriving according to the love, language, empathy and intellectual stimulation they receive. All parties now talk about the importance of early years, yet we invest least in the youngest."
And here is the disconnected rationale of the unrepentant left. I've got no problem at all with the first sentence; we all know that parents (preferably two) who read and talk to their infants, who play with them, stimulate them and hold them are more likely to produce future citizens who achieve academically, are healthier, wealthier, wiser and less likely to go to prison. No problem. But the State can have no role here at all unless it's to teach parenting and encourage biological fathers to stay with their offspring in the early years of life - how the hell does 'investing' in under-ones do anything at all to help? The woman's clearly off her rocker and has lost even the fundamental ability to rationally connect two discrete observations. Off to Tuscany with her.  

This time, Monbiot's got a point

George Monbiot outlines in the Guardian this morning the stranglehold of a tiny oligopoly of academic publishers over the output of the research sector in the UK - research more often than not funded from the public purse. They can get away with it because the pernicious pressure in academe to publish or die - pressure that's resulted in a tsunami of  ill-thought crap being foisted on the world from both mediocre and talentless academics, many of whom have failed even to master the fundamentals of the English language. Compare and contrast to the Oxford professor who led his field in my undergrad days, despite having been dead for thirty years and never having progressed beyond the degree of MA. He published only two books in his lifetime, both of which were on our reading list. Today, the need to know what others have been publishing gives Elsevier a 36% margin on a £2bn turnover.

Of course, a good chunk of this comes not from academic but medical publishing. One of my vacation student jobs was with Year Book Medical Publications, a US firm with an English branch off Holborn in Barnards Inn. Even then I was astonished  that the cost of a subscription exceeded the annual equivalent of my salary. YBM was taken over by Mosby, and then, er, by Elsevier. Even South Africa and Rhodesia, both under sanctions in those days, felt obliged to spend scarce foreign currency reserves to subscribe. Since the contributing medicos were paid a pittance, margins must have been massive, even allowing for the cost of printing the calfskin-bound encyclopedia-sized volumes.

And of more relevance to ordinary folk, though we pay for both the Ordnance Survey and the Hydrographic Office through taxes, and the information they hold is in public ownership, both still charge a whopping fee even to access digital copies of their maps and charts. The OS have grudgingly freed access to larger scale maps, but hold tight to the 1:2500 maps that are needed for simple planning applications and the cost of charts from the HO mean many boaters either do without or rely on old uncorrected versions. In the US, the output of similar public bodies is regarded unequivocally as being public domain.

Monbiot has a point. It's time we looked at the cost of access to our own information.   

Monday, 29 August 2011

Parva que sue

It's the fado-rooted song that's inspiring a generation of  young, unemployed graduates in Portugal; R4 ran a short 15 minute feature this afternoon that's worth a listen, and the sentiment's been spreading virally across Europe. They want secure jobs, homes, marriages and kids and who can argue against those aspirations? I don't know where this movement is going, but it's got real weight and we'd all better wake up to it. My free translation of the lyrics below;

For my generation it's work without pay
and that doesn't really bother me
What a fool I am!
The hard times will go on
I'm lucky to be an intern
What a fool I am!
And I'm left to think
how foolish a world
Where I must study to be a slave

For my generation it's mum and dad's house
Where I shouldn't want for anything more
What a fool I am!
but a husband and children are farther away
and I still have to pay for the car
What a fool I am!
And I'm left to think
how foolish a world
Where I must study to be a slave

For my generation really shouldn't complain
Someone's always worse off on TV
What a fool I am!

And my generation can't take it no more
as nothing is getting better
And I'm no fool any more!
And I'm left to think
how foolish a world
Where I must study to be a slave
how foolish a world
Where I must study to be a slave

"Don't tell him, Pike"

Recreational Sea Anglers are being urged to present a unified face of non-cooperation with DEFRA's implementation of an EU requirement (under Article 47, now Article 55) for anglers to disclose detailed data about their activities. Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon may pretend this is not only in anglers' interests but a home grown initiative when he says "I want sea angling to have a bright future, but to achieve this we must understand what sea anglers are catching, what is being returned alive, and the economic and social benefits the sport provides" but the truth is his arm is being twisted behind his back by the EU Fisheries nomenklatura and he has no choice; as WSF says;
European fisheries managers want to bring sea anglers into line with commercial fishermen under the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy. That could mean restrictions such as bag limits, quotas, and even bans on targeting species that are subject to recovery plans, such as Cod. It could also mean levels of regulation never seen before in the UK, such as licences, log books and registration schemes. Defra and Cefas have been tasked with collecting the data that the EU requires.
The message that RSA-UK wants to get out to the sea angling population is, Defend your Sport, Tell them Nothing. RSA-UK founding member, Bob Shotter, says, “We want people to know that they are under no obligation to cooperate with, or contribute to, Defra’s Sea Angling 2012 scheme. In fact, we would like to see anglers directly oppose the scheme as we believe the data gathered will be used to the detriment of our sport”. The organisation wants to see all sea anglers unite against what it sees as an erosion of the right to enjoy their sport unhindered by layers of pointless restrictions, regulations and EU driven bureaucracy.
Co-founder of RSA-UK, Barry Luxton, says, “The Common Fisheries Policy has been a disaster for fish stocks and the fishermen who rely on healthy stocks to make a living. Why any sea angler would want to become embroiled in the same level of incompetence and micro management, is beyond me. By providing the data that the EU requires, sea anglers could, unknowingly, be contributing to the end of sea angling as we know it”.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Sky wins battle for Tripoli

Rebels from Sky News, moving fluidly around the battlefront in small, mobile teams carried in fast Japanese pickups called 'Technicals' amongst broadcasters scored a series of victories in recent days as Tripoli fell. They had live footage of the looting of Gadaffi's compound when the thirty-strong BBC crew were still painstakingly completing their risk-assessment forms in the hills twenty kilometers away. This didn't, of course, stop the BBC from reporting it - we got far-away footage of a plume of smoke from the Beeb, filmed through a high-power telephoto lens, that they claimed was Gadaffi's compound, but it could have been anything. 

The BBC gave us footage of tracer rounds in the night sky filmed from their hotel balcony. Sky gave us footage of the guys firing the tracer. The BBC gave us footage of emptied arms depots that the rebels had long moved on from; Sky gave us footage of the rebels breaking into the depots. The BBC gave us footage of bullet and rocket pockmarked walls; Sky gave us footage of its reporters crouched under walls as the rounds impacted above their heads.   

It's really time we asked whether the TV Tax is going to the right people; perhaps we should confine the BBC to reporting Royal weddings and party conferences and pay proper news-gathering teams to tackle the hard stuff?