Monday, December 31, 2012

My last growl of the year

So many things to complain about when it comes to 2012 and so many I have complained about. No doubt, some will have to be revived next year. However, let me leave this year with an almighty growl about two institutions, one expected, one not so much.

First the UN. Can anyone seriously explain to me why we should still put up with that noxious and highly expensive organization? Some years ago I made similar comments to a shocked Indian acquaintance who immediately exclaimed that he knew for a fact the UN did many good things. Name one, I challenged him. He went very silent and promised to think of some really excellent examples. I am still waiting.

The excellent UN Briefing has come up with a list of the UN's ten worst decisions in 2012. That does not mean there were no other bad decisions; these are merely the worst and pretty terrible they are, too. Some have been covered by this blog, some not. Do read through them if you want to spoil your New Year's Eve.

The unexpected organization that I am growling about is Radio Liberty, until recently one that I admired and placed great hopes in as the BBC Russian Service has been gutted of much news content. Alas, no more. This is a subject I shall have to return to in the new year as the general collapse of the broadcasting of news and analysis to Russia as more and more of that country's media is gathered up by the Kremlin is one of the most disgraceful recent developments. In the meantime, here is an excellent article by John O'Sullivan (yes, yes, he is a great friend and has appeared on this blog a few times) who knows the story in great detail. Warning: it is truly shocking.

What else? Oh yes: let me wish all my readers a happy and prosperous (well, as prosperous as possible) 2013. See you in the new year.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

As the debate goes on

Back from the Christmas break and turning my attention to guns and violence, which is entirely appropriate. Christmas, as we know from police reports and more pertinently from detective stories is the time for crime and violence. Were I to indulge in more than just verbal violence I would vent my anger (as I do my verbal spleen so often) on ASLEF and TfL who managed to make Boxing Day in London a hideous nightmare.  But enough of my problems.

On Boxing Day the Wall Street Journal had an article (which is not behind any pay wall) by Joyce Lee Malcolm about the British and and Australian experience with strict gun control and its general uselessness. As it happens I recall the dishonest campaign that followed Dunblane and the failed attempts by well-organized shooting clubs as well as knowledgeable members of the House of Lords to stem the hysteria.

I have temporarily forgotten about the Cumbrian massacre of 2010 but, living in West London, I am all too well aware about armed gangs and the high level of armed crime, which gets little coverage in the national media as it is not as spectacular in news terms as a massacre particularly of children.

The Australian experience was unknown to me but seems to agree with ours in this country. As Professor Malcolm says:
What to conclude? Strict gun laws in Great Britain and Australia haven't made their people noticeably safer, nor have they prevented massacres. The two major countries held up as models for the U.S. don't provide much evidence that strict gun laws will solve our problems.
If our society is more violent in the twenty-first century than it was in the late nineteenth when guns were readily available and most home owners kept some kind of a "shooter" then the reasons must be something else, not the presence of guns.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas greetings

Traditionally this is the time when I remind everyone about the nauseating qualities of Tiny Tim and the ridiculousness of that book's plot. Just why doesn't Bob Cratchitt get another job or stop having children, preferably both? And as for that other staple of Christmas fare, It's a Wonderful Life, errm, is one allowed to mutter sub-prime mortgages.

Ah well, enough is enough. Let us forget all these annoying aspects of Christmas and think about the more cheerful ones: good food, good wine, with a bit of luck good company and pleasant thoughts.

Merry Christmas to all the blog's readers and see you all after the festivities.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Just for fun

Bravery recognized

On the whole I am not in favour of the gradual memorialization of just about everybody who took part in the Second World War. Time was the cenotaph or local war memorials sufficed for us all to remember those who fought in various wars. With the growth of what one might term the World War Two Heritage Industry, the memorials have multiplied with the latest and most hideous one going up in Green Park recently. The Bomber Command Memorial can best be described as Albert Speer's revenge.

One cannot even say that the feverish memorialization or the endless books published in the last few years have resulted in a better understanding of the war. Rather they have contributed to the entrenchment of mythology and all attempts to overcome it have been met with anger and hostility, as the Boss of EUReferendum found when he published The Many Not The Few.

However, this does not apply to the question of medals and other acknowledgement of people's bravery and achievement. Whatever one may feel about endless decorations personally, one cannot deny that the existing members of Bomber Command and of the Arctic Convoys (a messy and convoluted story) deserve honour and recognition.

So, it is good to know that the PM has accepted the recommendation that all protocol should be set aside and new medals be struck to commemorate what has been described as "the worst journey in the world", that is the Arctic Convoys who took much needed supplies to the Soviet Union (and were not exactly thanked by this country's ally at the time).

Surviving members of Bomber Command, who have not been treated equally with those of Fighter Command, will be awarded a "clasp".

And additional reason for rejoicing is that this takes the wind out of the campaign to allow members of the Arctic Convoys to be awarded (somewhat belatedly, despite the crocodile tears shed by Russian officials and their supporters here) the Ushakov Medal. Just imagine how President Putin would have milked that for publicity and bitter attacks on Britain.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What a great way of spending money

As the Sunday Times is behind a pay wall, I cannot link directly to an article by Bocan Pancevski's article this Sunday on the amount of money the EU is spending in a PR exercise in Croatia, hoping that the referendum on membership will go their way. Though why it should be their way seems mysterious: Croatia is poor and its economy is not terribly active while its political system is dysfunctional.

However, the author is a Senior Fellow in the Adriatic Institute for Public Policy and placed part of the article on its website.
The European Commission is planning to spend £16m on a public relations campaign to promote European enlargement ahead of the entry next year of Croatia, a country with such serious economic problems that it could be forced to seek a bailout.
Croatia’s credit rating was downgraded to junk status last week after a deterioration in its economy attributed to a lack of reforms.
This prompted fears that the Balkan country might require a bailout even before it joins the EU next July. Youth unemployment is about 40% and foreign investment is deterred by rampant corruption, organised crime and weak rule of law.
What better way there is of spending our money?

HMG's Balance of Competences Review

It seems that HMG in the guise of William Hague is taking the notion of producing a review of the balance of competences seriously enough. On October 23 Mr Hague produced a written statement in which he outlined the timetable and the ministries responsible for which section.
The review will complete its work during 2014 and will look at the scope of the EU’s competences (the power to act in particular areas conferred on it by the EU Treaties) as they affect the UK, how they are used, and what that means for Britain and our national interests.
The review will be divided into four semesters, each containing six to 10 reports. This will allow reports on related topics to be grouped together. The reports from each semester will be published at the end of that semester. If necessary, changes to this timetable will be made in order to take account of any events which could impact upon the timing of a report.
The first semester's review will be on the following: an overview on the single market; taxation; animal health and welfare and food safety; health; development; and foreign policy. The first reports are due in the summer of 2013.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Even more iffy

We hear from our friends in Iceland:
The majority of the Foreign Committee of the Icelandic parliament put forth a proposal this morning calling for Iceland's application to join the European Union to be set aside. The matter then should not be addressed again unless accepted in a referendum.
Hmm. Those odds on Iceland joining the EU are not looking good.

You mean one can trade with the EU?

Well, well. Who would have believed it. Apparently, it is not absolutely essential to be part of the EU in order to trade with it or its member states. Nor is it absolutely essential to take on every bit of legislation and regulation the EU issues (and there are many bits) in order to do that trading.

Oh surely not, I hear you cry. That is just a myth propagated by eurosceptics who live in cloud-cuckoo land or fantasy land or whatever the latest description of what it is eurosceptics inhabit is. Actually, no. It comes from the government.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon put down the following Written Question:
To ask Her Majesty's Government, further to the Written Statement by Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint on 6 December (WS 76-7) on the European Union Foreign Affairs Council, whether the outcome of the negotiations with Japan, Canada, Singapore and Morocco will require those countries to adopt all the legislation and regulations that apply to countries in the single market.
The Statement had enumerated all the countries the EU had signed or was about to sign or hoped to sign free trade agreements.

HMG in the shape of Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint (more here) replied:
It is not the case that as a result of these trade negotiations the countries concerned will have to adopt all the legislation and regulations that apply to EU member states.
The aim of these negotiations is to eliminate, as far as possible, duties applied to trade in goods and to address non-tariff barriers that affect trade in goods in services-ie rules, regulations and practices that affect market access. Non-tariff barriers can be overcome through a variety of methods. These include the adoption of international rules, mutual recognition of approaches to testing, standards, et cetera, and commitments to end discriminatory practices.
I wonder how jobs in those countries will be affected by greater trade with the EU.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Some serious thoughts

There is little I can say about the horrible and tragic news from Newtown, Connecticut yesterday except to express a hope, probably in vain, that American legislators do not behave the way British ones do and do not rush through ill-conceived laws in response to some terrible and not immediately understood event. In reality, all one can hope for is that Americans being different from the British and the system being different, legislators, no matter how thoughtless and hysterical they might be, can and will be stopped.

In addition, I should like to point to something that happened in  China and was not well reported. Twenty-two children and one adult were wounded in a knife attack in Chenpeng Village Primary School in Henan province. Some of the children are in critical condition and may not survive. Surely, this is as horrific as the gun attack in Newtown, Connecticut. Nor was this unique, as this shows.
A series of uncoordinated mass stabbings, hammer attacks, and cleaver attacks in the People's Republic of China began in March 2010. The spate of attacks left at least 21 dead and some 90 injured.
I suppose China is far away and, anyway, no guns seem to have been involved as, I suspect, these are tightly controlled in the PRC.

What struck me as instructive was the reaction to the Connecticut school massacre. It was immediately presented by a number of people as being an event of banal frequence, which it is not, and the result of uncontrolled gun ownership in America. Therefore, said gun ownership, which is written into the Second Amendment to the Constitution and based, on the English Bill of Rights of 1689, whose terms have long been forgotten in this country, should be controlled by stringent federal laws.

 Let us get the practical details out of the way. Connecticut gun laws are, in fact, fairly strict, by some accounts the fourth strictest among the fifty states. The young man, in question who is alleged to be somewhat autistic and a computer geek, appears to  have broken them all when he armed himself before entering the nursery school his mother had taught at (he seems to have killed her before going to the school). What likelihood is there that stricter laws would not be broken?

As it happens we know the answer to that. Dunblane massacre took place in a country (ours) with the strictest gun laws in the Western world and was the result of several serious infringements of those laws. But it happened. The laws have become even stricter to the point that hand gun clubs, which had their own stringent rules, have been banned. Our Olympic shooting team has to practise abroad. Has that abolished guns and gun crime? Not on your life (or death). We hear about most though not all of the fatal shootings but not of the wounds some severe enough to result in death after a while. Farily well armed gangs roam round parts of our cities. They are in possession of easily acquired guns and other death-dealing weapons. Legislation does not seem to have abolished this.

The same can be said about the situation over the Pond. While twenty children and six adults massacred in the space of a few minutes is a horrific idea, the high incidence of violent death of children and young people in cities like Chicago is also horrific as they add up to considerably more over the year than twenty. Yet Chicago has very tight gun control and law-abiding citizens do not own them.

What struck me immediately about the somewhat hysterical response, which people insisted on making public, was the refusal to deal with a very obvious problem. Actually, two obvious problems but they are interconnected and neither is popular in modern thinking.

One is the question of individual responsibility. Only the person who committed the crime is responsible for it though there may have been mitigating factors (can't imagine what they were in this case) or explanations of mental health break-down. That is something many of us do not wish to face. So we burble happily about guns killing people, the need to ensure that those who cannot cope do not acquire them and so on. Anything, rather than acknowledging that people might choose to do the wrong thing.

That brings me to the second and even more difficult problem: that of human evil. Whether the result of original sin or some dysfunction of the glands, it exists, and we need to face up to it instead of either denying or trivializing it. By trivializing I mean the ease with which people announce that MPs who have indulged in financial peculations are "evil". No. They are dishonest, possibly criminal, certainly despicable but are not in the same category as someone who picks up an automatic rifle and marches off to slaughter young children and the adults who look after them.

The trouble with evil is that it cannot be legislated against. It exists and will go on existing however many laws we enact though, I suppose, if it is the result of glandular malfunction, it can, possibly, be cured or kept under control.

Thus, we avoid the problem and talk about inanimate causes: guns. These can be legislated against, at least, in theory. Therefore, let us discard the idea of evil and concentrate on what we can legislate and regulate. Let us pass more laws, more regulations; let us control people's lives to an even greater extent; and let us hope that the bogeyman will disappeare. Until the next time.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Catching up on Russia

I am aware of not having covered the Magnitsky saga recently and shall do so very soon, particularly as it involves the unhappy fate of the Conservative Friends of Putin Russia.

For the moment, let me just direct readers of this blog to an article in the Wall Street Journal [if the link does not work properly go through Google].

The so-called Magnitsky Law, named after Sergey Magnitsky, imprisoned, tortured and murdered for his attempts to do his duty as a lawyer employed by a British firm, is part of a larger bill to normalize trade with Russia. This piece of legislation, whose aim is to prevent specific abusers of human rights in Russia from entering the USA was passed by the Senate last week by 92 votes against 4 but is still awaiting President Obama's signature. There has already been what might be termed an  organized response from Russia.
On its Twitter account, the foreign ministry in Moscow called the human rights statute "something out of the theater of the absurd." Another tweet said, "It is perplexing and preposterous to hear human rights complaints from the US, where torture and kidnapping are legal in the 21st century." And: "This biased approach is nothing but a vindictive desire to counter Russia in world affairs."
Same old, same old.
The Kremlin has for months made vague threats of retribution against the U.S. if the Magnitsky law passed. And on Thursday Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the law and recommended to the Duma some "adequate but not exorbitant" retaliation.
As the WSJ says:
Please fume away, Mr. Putin. Let the Russian people know that the U.S. continues to care about rights and democratic freedoms. They might have gotten the wrong impression in recent years.
They might still get the wrong impression:
Throughout the first term President Obama has pushed a "reset" in relations with Russia, muting criticism of Mr. Putin's slide to authoritarianism. The Administration tried to kill the Magnitsky Act, and in his statement on its passage Mr. Obama pointedly failed even to mention Magnitsky or the provision named after him in the new law. We can be grateful that at least Congress was willing to stand up for American values.
UPDATE: President Obama has signed legislation "granting normal trade relations to Russia, which angered Moscow by including sanctions targeting alleged Russian human rights abusers". The Magnitsky Act is now in place in the United States.

Meanwhile, in Russia
A former Russian policeman has been sentenced to 11 years in a prison camp for his role in the 2006 death of an anti-Kremlin journalist.
Friday's sentencing of Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov by the Moscow city court came at the end of a plea bargain process that qualified him for a reduced sentence in exchange for his co-operation in the case.
Pavlyuchenkov was accused of tracking Anna Politkovskaya so she could be assassinated and of giving the shooter the gun with which the journalist was killed.
Having confessed his guilt, the defendant was ordered to pay $98,000 to the victim's family.
Unsurprisingly, Politkovskaya's family is unhappy with this turn of events. They do not mind Pavlyuchenkov being sentenced (though one wonders how many of those 11 years he will serve) but they dislike the idea of the plea bargaining as that meant he did not have to testify. No testimony - no evidence about who actually was behind the killing. (Here are the previous postings on the Politkovskaya case.)

More good news for some countries

The euro's popularity has sunk to an all-time low in Sweden. No, that country is not a member of it, having voted against nearly ten years ago but, apparently, surveys of attitude are conducted twice a year and was again last month.
But in Sweden, the euro is on the table twice a year via a survey by the Swedish statistical agency that asks people how they’d vote if a referendum were held “today” on joining the euro. The results of the survey conducted in November just came out. Sobering results: 82.3% would vote against joining the euro, only 9.6% would vote for it, and 8% were betwixt and between. The euro’s descent into utter unpopularity hell set a new record.
Meanwhile, in Iceland
The chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Icelandic parliament, Árni Þór Sigurðsson, told the Icelandic media yesterday that he thought that Iceland's accession to the European Union should be slowed down until after the general elections scheduled in April next year and even put aside.
Sigurðsson is an MP for the Left Green Movement and a senior member of the party which forms the current Icelandic government with the Social Democratic Alliance. The SDA is the only political party in Iceland that favours EU membership.
This is not all. The President of Iceland has told CNN  that letting the banks fail was the right decision and has helped the Icelandic economy enormously.
Now, according to [President] Grimsson, "Iceland is better placed to benefit by maintaining our present position, rather than to let the EU speak on our behalf."
Apparently, he is not too happy about the future of Icelandic fisheries, should that country join the EU. (And well he might be unhappy. As I keep telling my Icelandic friends, quite unnecessarily, just look at what happened to our fishing.)
The 69-year-old president pointed to Norway and Greenland -- two other Arctic economies and non-European Union members -- as role models.
He said he would not hesitate to veto a parliamentary decision to seek EU membership, a promise he told CNN he had based five successful presidential runs on.
What, I wonder, are the chances of Iceland joining the European project?

Some good news

The United States, Canada, Australia and, astonishingly enough, the UK have refused to sign the United Nations Telecommunications Treaty that would have opened the way to attempted censorship of the internet. Don't believe me? Just have a look at who the main supporters of this treaty are: Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and other suchlike freedom-loving states.

To be fair, some other countries have voiced reservations:
Negotiators from Denmark, Italy, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Greece, Portugal, Finland, Chile, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Kenya have said they would need to consult with their national governments about how to proceed and would also not be able to sign the treaty as planned on Friday.
We shall see how many of them refuse to sign.

Hot Air rejoices, as well it might but adds a rather depressing caveat:
The worst thing about this proposed treaty is that, if put to a vote, it probably would get a lot of support. The United Nations’ ostensible goals include advancing peace and freedom, except plenty of the United Nations member countries have sketchy-to-downright-opprobrious records with press freedom and human rights — making it all too clear that the UN isn’t about peace and freedom as much as it is protecting and advancing the interests of its members, no matter how many moral excuses they can come up with to self-justify.
Sadly, I find it hard to disagree with that and can only approve of the fact that there will be no referendum on the subject anywhere. Or, at least, not anywhere where it counts.

Never to be forgotten

Today is the anniversary of the death of one of the greatest fighters for freedom, Andrei Dmitriyevich Sakharov (1921 - 1989), finally destroyed by the system he fought.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

More on those EHOs and Westminster Council

Today's Evening Standard informs us on the basis of an e-mail from the council’s strategic director for city management, Leith Penny, that there has not been a single case of E.Coli in the borough that could be traced back to an undercooked or rare hamburger. That, of course, makes it even more important that these should be taken off the menu. Stands to reason as Richmal Crompton's great literary creation, William Brown, would have said.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The EHOs are back

Actually, they never went away but for some time little was heard about Environmental Health Officers in my neck of the woods. Now they are back in Westminster, whose Council seems absolutely determined to destroy the flourishing economy around retail, catering and entertainment. There are other things in the City of Westminster as well and why the Council has not tried to drive all the business out is incomprehensible. Perhaps, they will get round to it in 2013. (It is, incidentally, a Conservative led Council.)

Their latest wheeze is to ban the cooking and serving or rare hamburgers by restaurants and bars. No, I do not mean these are burgers that are hard to find or come from some rare kind of meat. It is the way they are cooked and the way many people, including me, like them. I also like steak tartare, which is probably next on the list of the Westminster EHOs, followed by rare or medium-rare steaks.

In today's Evening Standard the Council and its minions are defending themselves by saying that they have not banned rare hamburgers, merely made it clear that this was not something they approved of. Restaurant owners and managers know what that means: very soon the inspectors will be coming round and demanding that such things be taken off the menu. So, naturally and somewhat pusillanimously, a number of them have started taking those bloody (in the Shakespearian sense) burgers off the menu.

Inevitably, they are quoting a distinguished microbiologist, Professor Hugh Pennington:
James Armitage, Westminster city council’s food health and safety manager, said: “This is not about banning under-cooked burgers. This is about making sure customers are eating meat that is not a threat to their health. It is possible to produce burgers that can be eaten under-cooked but strict controls are necessary for this.
“We have enlisted the UK’s top expert on E.coli, Professor Hugh Pennington, to get this matter resolved and he has outlined that rare minced meat which is not correctly cooked and prepared can kill — we have to take that seriously and we believe the restaurant involved falls well below the standards required.”
I am not sure Professor Pennington likes the idea of being "enlisted" by some pipsqueak food health and safety manager but what he says is absolutely true: anything that is nor correctly cooked and prepared can kill. Come to think of it, things that are correctly prepared and cooked can kill. That is hardly the point. What is notable in this skirmish is that there is no reference of a single case of anybody becoming ill, let alone dying as a result of eating under-cooked hamburgers.

This is, in other words, our old friend, the precautionary principle, which says that all sorts of rules and regulations have to be imposed on businesses because it is within the bounds of possibility that something they do might harm somebody some time.

One chain of wine bars is fighting back.
It comes after council inspectors ordered Davy’s wine bar in St James’s to stop serving its £13.95 burgers underdone. The wine bar has challenged the authority’s decision at Westminster magistrates court in what is being seen as a test case when it resumes.
Looks like we shall have to support Davy's in their fight against the EHOs.

Yes, all right, I know what date it is


None of us are ever going to see that again. At least, I don't think so. 

What has been happening?

One or two things seem to have happened while I was off-line. Firstly, of course, there is the story of the appointed Prime Minister of Italy, Mario Monti, deciding to go earlier and pave the way to Italian politics as usual. It would appear that Silvio Berlusconi, whose understanding of economics does not extend beyond the lining of his own pockets, has already started ranting about the "Germano-centric" Monti and his austerity measures. Having been found guilty of various malfeasance, obviously, does not prevent a man from standing in elections or, possibly, even winning and becoming Prime Minister again, though I do rather like the idea of Berlusconi losing votes to the professional comedian Beppe Grillo. Let us not forget that whoever wins this election becomes a member of the UK's real government.

Moving on to the UN, the fount of all tranzi thinking and organization we find a press release from UN Watch, an admirable organization that persists in the righteous fight. Yesterday, let me remind people, was International Human Rights Day as it was the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (stop laughing at the back), adopted on December 10, 1948.

The UN has its own way of celebrating such matters. This year they did so by electing Mauritania, "a country that allows 800,000 of its citizens to live as slaves", to be Vice-President of the Human Rights Council. Poland was elected as President with Maldives, Switzerland and Ecuador (a country of shabby human rights record) also becoming Vice Presidents. It could have been worse, I suppose. They could have elected Syria to be President. As it was pointed out to me just a few hours ago, you cannot spell unethical without UN.

To end this rambling posting, I can report another argument I had with a well-meaning journalist who cannot quite get his head round the idea that some people do really think that the world would be a better place without the EU. When he reported that in Slovakia "extremists", undoubtedly rather a nasty bunch, are getting more sophisticated, I made a sarcastic comment about EU membership working so well. Was this not the main argument used against those of us who said it would not be a good idea for the East Europeans to join the EU and we should stop pressurizing them but sign free trade agreements, that within the EU their nasty old habits would die? It would seem that the extremists are utilizing people's frustration with the system and political activities. A success, undoubtedly. My journalist friend professed  himself to be baffled. Did I mean that I did not think that the 10 East European countries should have joined?

Slovakia is not alone to prove those predictions wrong. Right wing extremism (yes, I know that Nazism was not right-wing but that is how Der Spiegel, inevitably, refers to it and its successor ideologies) is becoming more widespread in Germany, especially and unsurprisingly, in the East, where they had not had years of denazification.

All a huge success.

Friday, December 7, 2012

This is not taxation but payment of protection money

Of course any serious discussion of taxation should start with the obvious question: what is the tax money for? What should the state be doing that no other entity can do as well or, at least, as usefully? For the time being, let us leave that to one side and concentrate on how taxes are decided on and raised.

One does not have to be an adherent of the flat tax in order to agree that taxes should be proportional, fair, consistent and comprehensible. In other words, politicians should not, out of the blue, demand a new tax from one or more firms contrary to the rules they themselves laid down. That is not taxation but payment of protection money and that is exactly what is happening in this country.

After a great many attacks on large international companies who dared to do exactly what the tax legislation encouraged them to do and arrange their fiscal affairs in order to pay corporation tax in countries where the regime was more favourable, thus paying out more money to the shareholders, two things happened.

One was that our benighted Chancellor of the Exchequer or his minions realized that the best way of bringing those companies back into this tax jurisdiction is by changing it into a more favourable one. So, in April 2014 the rate of corporation tax will go down to 21 per cent, which is too little and too late but, at least a sign of some understanding somewhere in the Treasury.

More immediately, however, pressure has been put on the big companies to cough up or else. Dutifully, Starbucks has offered to do so. Ignoring their fiduciary duty to their shareholders they have looked around for a way of keeping the Treasury and the politicians, whose own idea of fiscal honesty is not exactly beyond reproach, and came up with an offer of £20 million over the next two years, which should keep a couple of those new Police Commissioners and their ever growing staff of highly paid buddies in business.
Starbucks said it will no longer claim tax deductions for the royalties it pays, the coffee it purchases, for interest paid on intercompany loans, or for capital allowances and losses carried forwards.
When those costs – which it is legally entitled to claim as deductions – are removed, it believes it would owe £10m per year. And if it is still not profitable in 2015 and beyond, it may make this donation again.
Quite so. They are making a donation. This is not a tax, this is protection money: go away, please go away, we'll give you some money.
But lawyers warned the deal, however nobly intended, does not represent a reasonable way to pay taxes. “Starbucks is operating within the law, and has not done anything wrong. There is no legal or scientific logic to this move,” said Richard Jordan from law firm Thomas Eggar. “It is a PR response, giving the people what they want to hear.”
Meanwhile, the European Commission is looking at ways
to reduce tax avoidance, seeking a common policy on the treatment of tax havens and coordination on “tackling aggressive tax planning”.
Well, I hope that will apply to all those pensions paid out to former Commissioners and their employees. (I do see pigs flying, I really do.) In the meantime, we'll send the bully boys round and businesses will pay up or they will be harassed by politicians and the media. Just the sort of country one wants to live in.

Sometimes europhiliacs are incomprehensible

Mostly one can understand why europhiliacs like Lord Taverne ask questions but there are times when their thought processes are incomprehensible. Why did he put down this Written Question:
To ask Her Majesty's Government what are the current trade agreements between the European Union and non-European Union countries.
What was going on in his mind? What did he hope to achieve? The answer is that there are quite a few trade agreements between the European Union and non-European countries.
At present, the European Union (EU) has bilateral and regional trade agreements with the following countries:
free trade agreements (FTA) with Chile, South Africa, Mexico, and South Korea;as part of the wider European Economic Area, FTAs with Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland; andnegotiations with Central America (El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama), Andean Nations (comprising Peru and Columbia), and Ukraine have been concluded, and will be ratified in due course. Negotiations are ongoing with other countries or groups of countries, namely: Canada; India; Mercosur (Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay and Paraguay); Singapore; Malaysia; Vietnam; Moldova; Georgia; Armenia; and the Gulf Co-operation Council.
Furthermore, the Government are supportive of negotiations starting in 2013 with Japan, the USA, Morocco and Thailand.
And that is not all:
In addition, as a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), a multilateral trading system for the 157 member countries, the EU is party to both the general agreement on tariffs and trade (GATTS) and general agreement on trade in services (GATS). The EU also has various other trade agreements with other countries or groups of countries: association agreements (AAs), economic partnership agreements (EPAs), stabilisation and association agreements (SAAs), partnership & co-operation agreements (PCAs) and memberships of the Customs Union.
It would appear that trade with the European Union and its member states does not depend on being members of the European Union. Is that what Lord Taverne wanted to know?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A moral duty?

So, according to much (though not all) of the media and a supposedly Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer we all have a moral duty to pay "our fair share" of the tax. Oh really? And who exactly decides what a fair share is? Whose fault is it that the level of taxation is so high that people and companies who earn a lot by contributing a great deal to the economy are fleeing the country? Whose fault is it that the whole system is complicated to the point of complete incomprhension with endless additions here and there that allow, nay, encourage tax avoidance?

As for the media and the many vox pop comments on the subject, one begins to despair. No, not begins - one despairs completely and utterly.

It appears that there is no clear distinction in people's minds between tax avoidance (completely legal and one anyone who has an ISA or a complex pension arrangement is taking part in) and tax evasion (illegal but one many people indulge in whenever they pay in cash to avoid VAT). It, furthermore, appears that people have no ability to grasp the similarity between international companies choosing the country with the best tax system in which to pay tax and them choosing the best ISA or pension fund. The words "international" and "company" act as a red rag and all ability to think disappears. Finally, it would appear that having read about arrangements to pay low or no corporation tax, journalists, politicians and others who express opinion, assume that it means no tax at all being paid. No National Insurance, income tax, VAT, business rate. Nothing.

It is such a relief to be able to read a sensible analysis of the issue on the Adam Smith Institution blog. I recommend it to anyone whose blood pressure is going through the ceiling. Happily, I am genetically predisposed towards low blood pressure. Otherwise, I would have had to abandon politics a long time ago.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A little cheer

I heard this song on Radio 2 on Sunday evening and now found it on YouTube. Doris Day singing about a geiger counter and comparing it to her heart.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more

Henry V had it easy - he didn't have UKIP to deal with and, anyway, he would have known what to do with them. We, however, need to discuss them and their performance in politics, such as it is.

I am delighted to say that the Boss on EU Referendum has commented at length and very knowledgeably (here and here) on my previous posting. I shall, in due course, respond to some of the points made and to comments on this blog.

In the meantime, I should like to pick out just one aspect of the discussion because it has shown up on the EURef blog as well and has become a mantra among UKIPers and their supporters (of whom the Boss is definitely not one).

Whenever I pointed out that UKIP has now been in existence for twenty years, that it gets a great deal of media attention and that the political situation in this country and over the water ought to be immensely helpful I was reminded by people who are too lazy to check their facts that new parties need time. How long did it take the Labour Party to achieve anything?

Here is the answer to that question and I have produced it on other threads for the benefit of UKIP.

The Labour Party was formed in February 1900 and was first called the Labour Representation Committee. As such it sponsored fifteen candidates and won two seats in the election of October 1900. In 1903 there was a secret electoral pact between the LRC, represented by its Secretary, Ramsay Macdonald and the Liberal Party, represented by its Chief Whip, Herbert Gladstone. (The idea of an electoral pact has been discarded by the UKIP leadership but is, in any case, unlikely to be proposed by either of the big parties seriously.)

One outcome of the Lib-Lab Pact was that the LRC won 29 seats in the 1906 election, that is six years after it had been founded. The new MPs then formally adopted the name of the Labour Party. Despite the odd set-back the Labour Party managed to win 42 seats in the 1910 election, ten years after it had been founded.

The First World War produced a split in the party as it had produced one in most socialist parties across Europe between those who supported the war and those who opposed it. There were further splits and splinterings after the war and the revolutions in Russia. However, the Liberal Party emerged from the war rather battered as well, so the Labour Party managed to win 142 seats in 1922 and 191 in 1923, forming the first Labour government in 1924 with, admittedly, support from the Liberals. There is a more detailed history here.

Curiously enough, as soon as I produced some of these facts I was told by the same people who had been challenging me on the subject that it was irrelevant because the situation is completely different. Of course, it is different. It always is. For one thing, there is no major war being fought. Nevertheless, some similarities do exist.

We have an electorate, large parts of which feels disenfranchised and disenchanted; we have serious crises in this country and across the Channel, which affect this country; we have a new(ish) party that is supposedly producing new ideas and new directions and that is getting more publicity than the early Labour Party did. Yet, not only does this party not perform as well as the other one did, it does not come anywhere close to performing well.

Or as the Boss puts it:
Looking to our history here does not help at all. Going back to the 1920s, and the emergence of the Labour Party as a force in politics, which eventually displaced the Liberals, cementing in its prominence in the 1945 election, we had a situation where a disaffected electorate switched loyalties.
Now, we are seeing the same disaffection but, instead of switching loyalties, the electorate is progressively opting out of the political process altogether.
This could and probably is the sign of a greater malaise in the system. Let us not forget that democracy in its present form, which is, according to some people a holy of all holies, is, in fact, a very recent experiment in political systems and may have already proved itself to be a failure. There is nothing sacred or, for that matter, necessarily intelligent in crowd sourcing (to use a very modern expression) policy and we may well  have to face up to the fact that the constitutional liberals who opposed it were right.

Or, alternatively, it is a good enough system and could be fixed but, at present, we do not have a clear idea how to do it. One thing is certain: as long as UKIP and its supporters refuse to acknowledge that the fault is in themselves and not in the stars (to paraphrase the Bard) they and we are going to get nowhere.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Politicians and the electorate

The  last couple of days seem to have been taken  up with ever more ridiculous arguments, mostly with members and supporters of UKIP, the party that after twenty years and in a particularly  helpful political climate do not seem to be able to bring out voters on their side. I am beginning to suspect that many of them do not want votes or seats in Westminster as that might catapult them  into biggish time politics where a frequent appearance by the Leader on the media is not a sign  of real achievement.

Those debates did, however, set me off musing on the whole problem of politicians and the electorate, something that many people have opinions. It seems to me that most of those opinions are wrong in that there is no evidential support for them.

One thing we can all agree on and that is the lacklustre performance of all parties in Britain, something that has been going on for a few years. Turn-outs in general elections tend to be not much higher than sixty-five per cent when it used to be in the high seventies and low eighties while in by-elections this has sunk to ridiculously low levels. This is largely a matter of choice on the part of the electorate but what is not clear, given the plethora of smaller parties, why that choice is being made in preference to voting for one of them.

One of the most easily disproved assertions is that people are tired of negative campaigning. Really? When did positive campaigning win anything? I am talking about both sides of the Pond; President Obama has recently won a second term after a campaign that seemed to consist of nothing but personal attacks on his opponent.

More seriously, there is a rather fuzzy opinion around that politicians would be more popular if they were more in touch with the people, were more like the man on the street, were more trustworthy and had had experience of being successful at something else than politics such as business or warfare. These are mutually incompatible, of course. A successful businessman or military commander is nothing  like the man in the street and being "in touch with the people", even if it were possible, would mean adopting some of the most obscurantist, illiberal and economically illiterate opinions. Too many of our politicians do that anyway. We do not want any more of that.

I strongly suspect that if the Leveson proposals were put to a referendum, there would be an overwhelming majority for state control of the media as people who buy those newspapers with the illegally acquired gossip rush to show their shock and horror at the practice. Thankfully, some politicians are not in touch with the popular mood on that.

In the past I covered some aspects of this subject, writing about the lack of evidence that people who have been successful in other fields will necessarily make good politicians or be able to have rational policies on those very fields; also about parties that set themselves up to field "real people" as candidates such as the Jury Team in 2009 and the Trust Party in 2010.

About the Jury Team I wrote:
We hear a great deal about the arrogance of politicians and all those who live in the Westminster/Brussels bubble. Indeed, I have written and spoken about it myself. But what of the arrogance of people who think that they should be in that bubble, make decisions that affect us all and generally throw their weight around without wanting either to slog through the party structure (fair enough if you do not believe in it) or to make the slightest effort to find out what is actually going on around them?
What on earth makes these people think that the world (or Britain or their region) is waiting breathlessly to hear their ignorant ideas on what needs to be done? At the very least, they could find out that the European Parliament does not function in the same way as the Westminster one does. Or about the treaties. Or about the European Communities Act. Or, or, or ….
That sort of arrogance of ignorance continues to appal me and, I hasten to add, the electorate as none of these parties get votes worth bothering about.

As for the Trust Party, the brainchild of Mr Stuart Wheeler, now Treasurer of UKIP:
Mr Wheeler and many others keep telling us that they want to restore faith in politics and politicians. Those are two different issues and one often precludes the other.
Certainly, it is time the people of this country grasped that politics is not a spectator sport. If you don't get involved it will come and grab you. This notion that somehow politics has nothing to do with us is a relatively recent one in Britain and has grown in tandem with faith in politicians. Leave it all to them and they will sort it out. Unfortunately, instead of sorting it out the politicians have brought this country to a point of destruction and the expenses scandal was, in a way, a wake-up call for many people not to trust those b******s any longer. In my opinion, that is an entirely healthy attitude. The last thing we want is a return to the somnolent attitude of the people trusting politicians.
The question of whether the electorate wants trustworthy politicians who are just like themselves brings us rather neatly back to UKIP. Certainly, many of their candidates would be described as "ordinary people" though whether they are in touch with the man or the woman in the street is a moot point. Yet their electoral achievements remain meagre. Even on the local level, the only way they get new councillors is by existing ones abandoning their own parties and going over to UKIP. When it comes to general and by-elections the results after twenty years are lamentable but we need not rehearse all that again.

Let me turn my blogging attention to the Leader of UKIP, one Nigel Farage. Again, we need not rehearse all the many problems there are with his leadership - many people have done so, not least the Boss of EU Referendum. On top of the cult or personality, the lack of strategic thinking, the propensity to make stupid off the cuff remarks in public and the refusal to do any homework there is the undoubted but rarely discussed fact that Nigel Farage is not a vote winner. He did stupendously badly in Buckingham, coming third in a two-horse race, as a disenchanted supporter put it, and even that plane crash did not bring in the sympathy vote. There is no evidence that his presence adds to UKIP's vote total and some that it actually detracts from it.

My American friends find this rather hard to understand as they see Mr Farage on TV and he seems personable, articulate and a good bloke who will tell it like it is. Surely that is just what the voters want. Apparently not.

The curious thing is that those American friends are right in a way. Farage is excellent on the media and his jack-the-lad persona is absolutely genuine, reflecting similar personae up and down the country. He really was a trader on the Metal Exchange, he really does like to drink and smoke cigarettes, he really does prefer to have his meetings in pubs, he really is a sort of a regular bloke with that regular bloke's propensity to bend the truth and forget about loyalties. He has many interests beyond the obvious ones, being, among other things, a knowledgeable amateur historian of the Western front in the First World War. (I know this from conversations with him.) In other words, he is not a bland, manufactured political puppet; what you see is what you get. And yet the electorate does not seem to want this.

Let us now look at their temporary Leader during the last general election: Lord Pearson of Rannoch. He, too, is not a bland, manufactured politician. In fact, he is not a politician at all but a man who believes certain things very strongly and insists on saying them. You would think that would go down well with an electorate that is allegedly tired of politicians sitting on the fence or trimming their sails to the prevailing political wind. Not a bit of it.

Lord Pearson is a toff but one who is not ashamed of it and that seems to work for Boris Johnson who hasn't an honest bone in his body. Pearson is a businessman who built up his own reinsurance business. He has worked hard for various charities and in the House of Lords for causes he believes in. He likes country sports, particularly fishing and shooting and owns a large estate in Scotland that is run as a business. I wrote about him in greater detail when he became Leader of UKIP.

The Conservative media's attack on him at the time had
nothing to do with him being upper-crust, which he is not or being involved in some country sports, which is not an upper-crust pastime in the country, especially not in Scotland. It has nothing to do with him being an old Etonian or with being on friendly terms with many political, business and social animals.
What it has to do with is the understanding that with all his various faults Lord Pearson is a man of principle. He is also a man of experience, having built up his own very successful business, running his estate as another business, setting up various charities and organizations that help charities and think-tanks financially.
He has helped Soviet and East European dissidents and victims of Islamist persecution; he was involved in the fight to save country sports and country businesses, particularly those that produce food; he has taken part in campaigns and set up organizations that help disabled children, their families and carers; he has defied all to bring Geert Wilders over to this country and to proclaim the importance of free speech; above all, he has fought the Euro-Monster for many years in the House of Lords, through his contacts in the business world and via determined correspondence with the BBC that is beginning to pay off.
Things did not work out too well, as we know, not least because the media that is always allegedly looking for "different" and "honourable" politicians gave him a peculiarly hard time. (To be fair, some of his own statements did not help.) Just as with Mr Farage so with Lord Pearson of Rannoch: what you see is what you get. Neither is a bland, manufactured politician but the kind of person the electorate is allegedly hungering for. Well, not so that you'd notice it is not. We surely get the politicians we deserve.

At this point I can hear readers muttering and shuffling their feet. All right, all right, they all say (I am not playing the numbers game) but what is it the electorate wants? What do you (I) suggest? That is just the point. I do not know either. What I do know is that there is no point in repeating the old shibboleths about what is wrong with modern politics because they are all wrong and have been proved to be wrong. Most definitely it is time to think anew and, as ever, it ought to be UKIP who does it as they have most to gain and to lose.

Let us not forget ever

The Economist reminds us that a few days ago Ukrainians spent time remembering the terrible man-created famine, the Holodomor, that was used to destroy the Ukrainian peasantry and enforce collectivization. I have written about that horror before, here and here, and about the people who lied about it like Walter J. Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize winner New York Times journalist and those who dared to tell the truth, like Malcolm Muggeridge and, especially, Gareth Jones, the young journalist who was banned from the Soviet Union and who died under mysterious circumstances in Mongolia not long after.

To say that the Holodomor devastated Ukraine is to use an understatement. However, we must not forget what the same policy of collectivization did to other parts of the Soviet Union: Russia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Central Asian Republics and the Caucasus. In fact, no part of that country escaped and agriculture never fully recovered.

Not just the Soviet Union either: the same  process killed more than 30 million  in China and many in North Korea, North Vietnam, Cambodia and Ethiopia. In other words, everywhere that was touched by the great experiment of creating a Communist paradise.

When people tell  you, as they do with monotonous regularity that unlike the Fascists and the Nazis the Communists meant well and wanted to build a fair and  just society though everything kept going wrong, remind them of the men, women and children deliberately starved to death in the name of that ideology. Millions of them, murdered pitilessly. We must never forget.