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Friday, 16 December 2011

MPs lobby for a return to peculation, sleaze and corruption

After trying an utterly novel expenses system based on honesty, integrity and transparency for little over a year, MPs are fed up and eager to return to the old ways of peculation, sleaze and corruption. Many younger MPs in particular are complaining that they only entered the House to get rich at the public expense, and the new systems simply don't offer them the opportunity to do so. Labour MP Barry Sheerman in particuar has stirred them up; pointing at the older and longer serving members of the House who grew wealthy and bloated from the public purse, Sheerman asks "Where are your weekend cottages in the New Forest? Where are your 52" plasma televisions? Why, your families even have to buy their own food from your meagre sixty-five kay salary whilst they should all be dining at public expense."

In particular, MPs want to return to a system of almost unlimited expenses with no public accountability whatsoever. "It's outrageous that we should have to account to the hoi polloi for every new canteen of cutlery or new carpet; expenses are private and should go back to being secret" said one. "We are not like ordinary people" said another "and we deserve not only different standards but all the privileges that reflect how special we are". 

The next election is in 2015.  

Thursday, 15 December 2011

A sucker for Tallis

For some weird reason, London is warm and pleasant tonight. After our regularly stressful but organisationally healthy meeting in EC1 I declined the pub and elected for a relaxing walk through the City. A lit church porch and open door prompted the thought for a few minutes of quiet contemplation but my mistake was evident as I sidled quietly into a rear pew. They were rehearsing Tallis.

Tallis has about the same effect on me as Kryptonite to Superman. Ninety seconds of Spem in Alium reduces me to a wet mass of snot and tears, utterly humbled and filled with love for Christ and Man. There's no defence. My response to Tallis is hard-wired. So I thought Uh-oh, and as that first impossibly sweet note hit the baroque piers and spiraled up to the vault my inner heart opened like a blossom to the Sun  and I scrabbled in the Barbour for anything that could be used as a tissue. 

Now it feels like Christmas.


Political union between a wealthy and developed industrial North and a backward and blighted South is nothing new for Europe; the Risorgimento that united the states of the Italian peninsula into the State of Italy in the nineteenth century is an example that lives today. The conventional story has heroes - Cavour, Garibaldi, Victor-Emmanuel - and its villains - the Papacy, the Austrians, Francis II of Sicily - and a valiant struggle after which Italy emerged against the odds as a proud and confidant State. 

Not quite so, it seems. A carrelry of British scholars has for some years been challenging the conventional wisdom. The Mezzogiorno might actually be substantially worse off under an Italian State than it would have been ; the South was always a centre of rebellion against the State, and the fact that 100,000 men, half the Italian army, were needed to put down insurrections in the South in 1864 gives lie to a popular revolution that created the State, that after 1861 fiscal policies and customs duties were designed specifically to subjugate the economy of the south. Sicilian scholars are also contemptuous of the way in which Italian history has been purged, censored and bowdlerised in favour of the 'patriotic uprising' story. 

Any in the Mezzogiorno who were foolish enough to believe that the Lire and fiscal union with the powerful and wealthy north would make them better off were rapidly disillusioned. The lessons of history are before us. Simon Jenkins writes in today's Guardian:
Already governments in Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Italy that sought outside help and austerity in return have been toppled by their electorates. Under the new "treaty" such disciplines will be doubled and trebled, and blamed on one country, Germany. It must be likely that electorates will refuse to submit. Bond markets will seize up, public spending collapse, unemployment and emigration soar and streets descend into chaos. It has already happened in Greece. Pro-treaty Europeans may regard such alarmism as "swivel-eyed". But such passions in European history should never be taken lightly. 
Last week's summit saw a panic rush to political union, offering nothing beyond "more discipline" to alleviate the euro's existing straitjacket. This discipline seems certain to mean political crisis in many European capitals, where economic salvation can lie only in managed default and devaluation. Ever closer union has not brought stability to western Europe, any more than it brought stability to eastern Europe under the Soviets. It is quack constitutionalism.
He forbears to state the obvious - that both the Risorgimento and the Soviet Union achieved stability only with force of arms - are France and Germany prepared to do likewise?

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Perfect knowledge

There's a whole internet-savvy generation that uses the High Street as an opportunity to examine and test goods before returning home to find the best deal in the internet. The poor retailer maintaining expensive frontage and high staffing is increasingly doing so for the benefit of the manufacturers of the goods he stocks. This doesn't apply to time-limited or quality-critical goods such as cheese, fresh meat or flowers as much as for white goods and electronics, but nevertheless the 'imperfect knowledge' that previously gave the High Street a living is fast disappearing. If local retailers can't compete on price, what else can give them competitive advantage?

For the vendors of cheese, fresh meat and flowers the killer is not price but parking. Rapacious councils desperate to rake in every penny are killing their own High Streets with sky high parking charges and the rationing of parking opportunities. Again, what can such retailers do?

This is a hard one for economic libertarians who would generally rather the State didn't intervene to distort markets, but in the case of High Street parking charges one could argue they already were. Also in the case of a planning system that favours the giant corporations (whatever their complaints). 

I'm not sure that Mary Portas has the right answers, but it's the start of a useful debate.  

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A Very Stupid Plod

H/T the Magistrate

Inspector Fish is a Very Stupid Plod. He now joins Sergeant Smellie and PC Wilie (who arrested a student 'for making a snow phalus' [sic] ) in the Raedwald Hall of Shame. 

Monday, 12 December 2011

Slavonia, Slovenia, Slovakia

Just north of Krakow, as the single-track rail line turns East for the airport, I thought I caught a glimpse of a Vauban fort. Some later searching on Google earth revealed it in all it's pentagonal glory - lunette, caponiers, ravelin, glacis, bastion and sally ports - but Fort Kleparz was not by Vauban, or even 17th century, but built by the Hapsburgs in the 19th. Most of it is derelict and collapsing, but the enterprising Poles have turned the old barracks and magazines into a nightclub.

Central Europe is covered in such things, of course, and many more have fallen into ruin or been robbed of their 4m-thick brick structures to construct surrounding dwellings, only those with some continuing use such as a military stores surviving today. The reason for the position and orientation of the fort is clear from the map of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire below (clicky to make big); it was on the front line with Russia. 

All those ethnic groups that made governing the Empire such a headache for the Hapsburgs haven't gone, of course. Mostly they are now separate nations. Mostly they are either in the EU or want to be. The Hapsburg Empire was no fly-by-night affair; it lasted, more or less, from 1804 to 1917. Economically, the peoples within it did well, with GNP growth exceeding both Britain's and Germany's during the 19th century, free trade within the Empire, the economies of a common security and defence system and a prototype Equal Opportunities policy ahead of its time in reserving civil service posts for quotas of ethnic minorities. 

Norman Stone quotes Albert Sorel in saying that Austria-Hungary had not a government but a diplomatic service that also administered. Within that pithy observation lies the clue as to the Empire's fundamental weakness; that so much energy was spent keeping it together. It was the same for the Soviet Empire in its last few years. And ours. And so will it be for a Republic of Europe, if such a thing ever takes flight (imagine more Howard Hughes' 'Spruce Goose' than a Hercules). And so history circles all again, like a snake biting its tail.