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Saturday, 28 July 2012

Alright, it was OK

Watching the opening (well, between 9.00 and 10.00 anyway - there's only so much excitement I can take) I must reluctantly abandon curmudgeonly tendencies. It was OK. The real amusement came from the sports commentators, whom the UK media thought clearly best qualified to comment on a historical pageant. They were baffled, confused and out of their depth - there wasn't a ball in sight, the pitch wasn't marked and the performers weren't wearing numbers, which rendered them almost incoherent. But wait! what was this, right at the end? A ball! The sports commentators suddenly came alive, with a depth of insight worthy of Alan Partridge;
Now all sort of tribal dancing and sun worship. But, here's the kicker: no sound. Until a solo contralto voice sings Abide With Me. Effect is strange and powerful. In the background, a heartbeat. Starting to race. Okay. We have now crossed the line into mime. A child gives a man an imaginary spherical object. They play with it! It's wild. I am not too certain what's going on with that just yet.
Man and child stop playing with their imaginary ball and hug. They are sad. Sorry, this is the one bit so far that I haven't quite got. not saying it wasn't good though. Did it represent something to do with the third world and maybe something about the environment? Or colonialism? Not too sure what that bit was about, sorry.
Well, it was an opening ceremony of two halves, anyway. Surprised they missed that. 

The glory is that Britain is probably the only nation in the world that even in highly condensed form takes an hour to expound who we are and why. If Brazil adopts the same approach in 2016, they'll be lucky to run to five minutes; Portuguese matelots, nuts, trans-sexuals and illegal mahogany. Sorry, Brazil. And as for the English-hating Africans who commented - the Mberi brothers, one thinks - "OpeningCeremony segment supposedly showing the people who built modern Britain. But I don't see many immigrants. OK Britain, we see you flaunting your history. Where's the bit in which you invade, loot, kill and plunder?" and "Worst Olympic opening ceremony ever! Trust the Brits!" Well, I doubt yours would run to sixty seconds; near-naked people scratching in the dirt with sticks, people shooting each-other with AK47s. Sorry, Africa. 

Now I can go back to avoiding the whole thing apart from the five-minute daily medal summary.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Harrogate - Local Authorities

Next up from the Harrogate Conference is the critical issue of local government. I can't disagree with a word of Richard North's analysis of the problem and suggested solutions. I'd add by way of illustration that in Switzerland the Communes, the lowest tier of government, account for 30% of autonomous expenditure, with the cantons accounting for a further 40% and the Swiss State commanding only 30% of government expenditure. In the UK only Council Tax is levied and applied locally - and its £25bn a year is just 5% of the UK tax take, the other 95% being levied directly by central government. Since Council tax is in practice set by the government, it's also true to say that 100% of UK taxes are determined centrally. This is the most appalling state of affairs.

For the scale of our democratic deficit at local level, and if you haven't done so already, please read Simon Jenkins' Big Bang Localism - and weep for Cameron's missed chances to make a difference. We have a mandarinate that set up emergency central power in the last war, and have refused to devolve it back ever since. They sabotaged Localism for this government, and I often have the feeling that until we strangle the last Permanent Secretary with the intestines of the last Local Government Minister we won't see change. 

The services that should be autonomously run at County or City level are manifold - health, education, highways - but so too are services that should be designed and delivered even more locally, at the level of the Parish. We need far fewer professional politicians and far more ordinary people in local government.

And yes, let's look at Newham and Tower Hamlets. Corrupt, nepotistic and as sleazy as any Pakistani village. Ha! Imagine giving them even more power - imagine allowing them to get their hands on taxes - imagine London Boroughs run by Sharia Law, say the critics of Localism. And this is a moot point. In fact I think that they are taking advantage of the present democratic deficit, and that devolving even more power to the Parishes in those boroughs will cure the ill. We would end up with a few utterly corrupt parishes, from which people and firms would vote with their feet and move. Property values in those parishes would collapse, taxes would dry up and the system would correct itself.

And there is one further point. Taxes determined and levied at County or City level, with central government functions supported by a subvention - to run defence, air traffic control and the like, services that cannot be devolved below the national level - should also include a levy for national economic structural adjustment. The disparities in living standards between the worst of Kentucky or Tennessee and the best of California are too great for our small island. A South Wales ex-coalmining town where life is so hopeless that self-murder appears a rational choice for too many young people needs aid, not abandonment. 

Thursday, 26 July 2012

"LOCOG apologise for that last apology ..."

"Today ahead of the Women’s football match at Hampden Park, the South Korean flag was shown on a big screen video package instead of the North Korean flag. Clearly that is a mistake, we will apologise to the team and the National Olympic Committee and steps will be taken to ensure this does not happen again.” 

"Earlier we issued an apology over an unfortunate flag mix up. We now wish to apologise for incorrectly naming the flags, which were of course the flag of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the flag of the Republic of Korea respectively and not North Korea and South Korea, which clearly do not exist"

"LOCOG wish to issue a further correction and apology in respect of the previous apology. We did not mean to imply that either North Korea or South Korea don't exist and in fact Korea is a single nation under either the flag of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea or the Republic of Korea."

"The National Olympic Committee deplore the movement of tanks across the border at the 38th Parallel and urge the governments of Korea in both Pyongyang and Seoul to exhibit restraint at this time of international tension"

"Look, we're not taking bloody sides. That long-range missile strike on Jacques Rogge's villa was bang out of order, and automatic assault rifles are NOT officially sanctioned IOC team equipment. Any more of this and we'll cancel the entire thing ...."

Euro crisis bubbling away

Whilst we are distracted by the omnishambles of Cameron's government, a Chancellor incapable of managing the economy, Barclay's £9m payout to a man who may yet find himself serving 20 years in a US Federal Penitentiary and the irritation of the Olympics, the July Euro Crisis is bubbling away across the Channel. Germany's unwillingness to take a rating agency downgrading hit for the Olive Oil belt, France's uncertainty whether she belongs to the prudent Northerners or the reckless Southerners, Spain's regions contemplating life outside the Euro and Italy, with 10 year bond yields at 6.45% facing Spain's 7.38%, wondering if she will be next also underlines a growing 'spread' of opinion between Brussels and the Euro nations. Barroso's current visit to Greece is far more than a routine sign-off of the next tranche of aid. And as Der Spiegel reports, German Economics Minister Philipp Rosler's comment that "for me, a Greek exit has long since lost its horrors" has earned him a sound rebuke from Brussels but not from within Germany.  

Although Brussels-watching has assumed all the obscurity of Kremlin-watching at the height of the cold war, one senses cracks and splits appearing in Eurozone solidarity with Brussels struggling to hold it all together. The Summer will certainly be make-or-break time.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Government has little moral authority

Moral pronouncements by ministers of the crown carry little or no credibility these days, particularly so when the minister in question, David Gauke, is married to a tax-avoidance lawyer and has claimed back £11k in stamp duty on his second home (HT Guido) while also clocking up £120k a year in expenses including travel to his constituency from Westminster. I'll also make a fair guess that Gauke's tax return is a model of maxing-out every single allowable expense, for which he needs large wads of VAT receipts. No wonder he's so in favour of them. Why be restricted, like the little man, to getting back 20% by paying in cash when you can claim 100% with a bit of nous?

Government ministers have destroyed their own moral authority. You can't shove gay weddings and bloody pointless windmills down the public's retching throat and then lecture them about morality; you can't waste their wealth and that of their children and grandchildren on saving your chums in the banks and then lecture them on fiscal responsibility, you can't give the BBC a monopoly of £4bn a year in TV Tax and then condone their arrangements for their richest fat-cats to not pay tax but condemn the poor widow for the tenner paid to her window cleaner, and you can't sell the nation's sovereignty to a faceless supernational power for a mess of pottage and expect people to heed your words. While Blair, Hoon, Irvine and Straw are allowed to walk free in England, while Brown and Balls continue to profit by their malfeasance and while the entire political class is more remote, more separated from the people than ever before you have no firm ground on which to stand and deliver moral pronouncements. Ministers are mired in the ordure of corruption, peculation, patronage and placement, besmirched by deception and mendacity and fouled with the filth of their mutual self-protection at our expense. They have all the moral authority of sewer-rats.

Monday, 23 July 2012

The Cult of Me

If there is one thing that increasingly provokes my ire, it is self-centredness. Amongst the very early lessons learned from my father was that obligation always to see to the welfare of your animals and your men before your own; woe betide any idiot subaltern who dared to whine "What about my right to warm food and a kipsack?" - it just wasn't done, just didn't happen. Everyone understood. Our scorn for the Italian army was total, the three scales of rations for officers, NCOs and ORs, with seniority of rank being used to secure the best for oneself and hang everyone else, more than their ineptitude in battle was responsible for morale that collapsed at the first challenge and soldiers eager to desert or surrender. Just as you can't build a cohesive military unit on the basis of selfishness, neither can you create a cohesive community or society.  

And yet everywhere, and particularly amongst Gen X and Gen Y, is the Cult of Me. "It's my right to play my music at full volume", "It's my right to be happy", "It's my right to get the best for myself that I can" are the mantras of the modern age, increasingly bolstered by the judgements of courts not immune to the supremacy of individuality, and expenses-scandal MPs who sought to justify their theft, fraud and peculation by claiming that enriching themselves at our expense was their 'entitlement' and that 'the rules allowed it' - with never a word about responsibility, example and obligation, and in particular that obligation of good stewardship of the public purse that should be foremost in the mind of every public servant. 

What is presented these days as 'fame' is not fame at all in most cases but notoriety. Lord Nelson is famous, Victoria Beckham is notorious. The jejune media 'talent' competitions, social networking facilities such as facebook and the like, and the focus of the red-tops and checkout glossies all promote personal notoriety as a social goal; no wonder so many are deluded into believing so. 

Adam Smith's butcher certainly traded because it was in his own interest to do so, but there is a world of moral difference between the mechanisms of free markets and the Cult of Me. For the butcher to succeed, he must needfully be mindful of the wants of his customers, respond to demand and careful for his reputation; he seeks to be famous as a good butcher and not notorious an an indifferent one. It's his fault, not the fault of his customers, if he fails. He has no right to be wealthy, or successful. Acting in self-interest and acting selfishly are different. A mutual building society makes decisions based on self-interest in a very different way to a megapolitan bank acting selfishly.