Thursday, May 30, 2013

Each to their own

The New York Times has a fascinating article about a man who, having bought an apartment in St Petersburg, decided to decorate as it would have been done by a high level party official in the early thirties, though judging by the picture, in a slightly better taste.

Of course, as Mr Sergei Bobovnikov appreciates, one aspect will be missing. He will not be lying awake at night, listening to the few cars driving at high speed through the city, knowing who was in them; waiting to hear whether the lift stopped at his floor; and hearing that sudden ringing or knocking at dawn. For that is what happened to many of his predecessors in that flat.
Various Stalin-era officials did, in fact, call this building home, if not for long. One was Sergei Kirov, the prominent Bolshevik leader whose 1934 assassination marked the beginning of Stalin’s Great Purge, in which more than a million people were imprisoned or executed. Many other residents died during another wave of mass arrests known as the Leningrad Case of 1949.
Mr Bobvnikov worked long and hard and spent a considerable amount of money to find the right fittings and decorations and to create the right atmosphere. People find it interesting, according to him, but would not like to live there. However, if his secondary aim of stimulating a discussion about the period in question, much good may come of the project.

Happy Tax Freedom Day

A day later than last year but it has arrived. Allister Heath in City AM analyzes what that means:
For an average UK resident, the entirety of January, February, March and April, and virtually all of May, went on part-financing the state – the first 150 days of the year. It is only money earned from today that is retained by families to spend as they see fit.

The budget deficit is primarily a form of deferred taxation – and if the government were running a balanced budget, tax freedom day would actually fall on 13 July. As the economist Gabriel Stein argues, the government will spend the equivalent of all of the income generated by the economy for the first 196 days of the year. So much for the supposedly savage cuts to public spending from the coalition – and tragically, even though expenditure remains so high, parts of the public sector, including the NHS, are nearing crisis again. The system is bust, and needs radical structural change.
It always seems to me rather odd that whenever a tax cut is contemplated by people who believe on the basis of historic evidence that lower taxes help the economy to grow, there are immediate discussions as to where the missing money will have to come from. Which other tax is to be raised? Is it not time to start wondering why exactly does the government need all this money? What is it doing with it and should we be assuming that the government is the right organization to be doing all that is now assumed to be its responsibility. Again, historic and present data would indicate that it is not.

Allister Heath's article ends with the words:
Taxes are too high, and yet Britain’s welfare state is in crisis. We need to face up to this lethal dichotomy, and start to think the unthinkable.

Friday, May 24, 2013

We have abandoned the real soft power

On Tuesday I attended a talk at CRCE (Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies) given by Masha Karp, formerly of the BBC Russian Service Features Department (do they even have such a department nowadays?) on what she termed "Unilateral Disarmament" that is the West's surrender in the information war with Russia.

Russia, one may add, has not followed suit but has been spending ever larger sums of money on media outlets to the West, which happily chirrup away their Kremlin propaganda and take in a surprisingly large number of people here. Inside the country there is practically no independent, that is non-Kremlin controlled, media outlets left and only a minority of the country has access to the internet, particularly broadband or reads blogs though it must be said that the growth of the Russian blogosphere has been one of the few hopeful developments there in recent years.

Masha, who is a good friend, spoke of the appalling evisceration of both the BBC Russian Service and of Radio Liberty, the latter taking place within the last year. I am glad to say that Radio Liberty appears to be recovering somewhat as the people who put in the changes that pleased the Russian authorities so much, have gone and a number of the hard-headed and knowledgeable journalists who had been fired last autumn have been reinstated. We shall watch developments keenly.

Meanwhile, here is the text (more or less) of the talk, first published by Human Rights in Russia. It is well worth reading.

It is extraordinary that our politicians, media and analysts are always rabbiting on about "soft power", influence and other suchlike matters, whether through the EU and the egregious Cathy Ashton, the incompetent and highly paid Lord High Panjandrum of European Foreign Affairs or through millions given in aid that is then wasted, misused and stolen yet the one thing that does give us influence and soft power: highly professional and informative broadcasting, both Britain and the United States are doing their best to destroy.

My solution is simple: shut down DFID and actually lay off all its civil servants both at home and in various comfortable hotels around the world. Stop all development aid and make humanitarian post-disaster aid strictly limited and well accounted for, distributed by the military or people who know what is going on in particular locality. The amount of money saved will be stupendous. One tenth of it will restore the BBC Russian, Ukrainian and Belarus Services as well as the various Central Asian ones to their former glory. And while we are at it, separate the World Service from the domestic BBC; the World Service is part of our international relations and a very successful one at that (or used to be). Otherwise the still far better World Service news will turn into the pathetic excuse for it that the domestic news broadcasts are.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

It's official

Iceland is not coming into the EU and not because the EU does not want them to but because they (for reasons that remain mysterious for many in Brussels and other capitals) have decided that the idea does not appeal to them.
Iceland’s bid to join the EU has come to an end, Iceland’s centre-right independence party leader Bjarni Benediktsson has said.

The eurosceptic politician made the statement in an interview with Icelandic news outlet on Tuesday (21 May).

The 43-year old Benediktsson is in discussion to shape a new government with the centrist progressive party, following elections on 27 April. The progressives also oppose joining the EU.
So that's that with regards to that one. Of course, it is much easier to stay out than to get out once you are in.
Bloomberg reports: Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, who will take over as prime minister this week, has decided that a January decision to freeze EU membership talks will be extended indefinitely, his political adviser Johannes Thor Skulason said in a phone interview today.

“Later in the term there will be a referendum on whether Iceland should continue the talks, although no date has been decided,” Skulason said.
That is the time to have a referendum: when you are still negotiating on whether to continue with those negotiations. Should the Icelanders vote "yes", which is highly unlikely, there will be another referendum after negotiations had been completed on whether to join.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Back in the Commons

A lowering of tone, I know, but we really do need to have a look at the shenanigans proceedings in the House of Commons. As everyone knows there was an Amendment tabled during the debate on the Gracious Speech (as it used to be called in the days we had Members of Parliament and journalists who knew history) that "respectfully regret[ted] that an EU referendum bill was not included in the Gracious Speech". It was defeated [scroll down for voting list] but a respectable 114 Tory MPs voted for it, instantly earning the soubriquet rebels. Of course, one could argue that a rebellion that simply echoes what the Prime Minister and Leader of your party has announced is not a particularly significant one as the presence of such non-rebels as Ms Pritti Patel and Mr Simon Hart in the list shows. Never mind, a rebellion it was and a glorious time was had by one and all.

In my posting on the Draft Referendum Bill I wrote that, as the Bill is to be introduced as a Private Member's one,
Presumably, whoever wins the ballot (unless it is fixed) will be pressured into putting forward the Referendum Bill and government time will be found for it some time in the coming session.
What do you know? One of the "rebels", James Wharton, has won the ballot and is going to be introducing the Referendum Bill, over which the leadership of his party is nodding approvingly. How very convenient for all concerned. The Conservative Party, give or take Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine (yes, please, do take them) has been united on the "European issue".

Douglas Carswell MP, apparently tweeted that "God must be a Eurosceptic". That is one way of looking at the whole story.

Naturally, the Evening Standard thinks that the "Coalition is set for clash over Europe". Again.

Meanwhile in the House of Lords ...

The fuss about the Referendum Bill is continuing in the Commons and will, helpfully for the government, turn attention away from what matters and that is their doomed "renegotiations" with the EU, which, as I have pointed out many times is a logical nonsense. We are part of the EU and we cannot negotiate with it or have a relationship with it.

Meanwhile in the House of Lords a very different Bill has had its First Reading and been ordered to be printed: Lord Pearson of Rannoch has introduced a Bill "to make provision to repeal the European Communities Act 1972; and to make provision for the Secretary of State to repeal any enactment that has been a consequence of the European Communities Act 1972". That is not going to get anywhere very far either but some of the debates could be interesting.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Draft Referendum Bill to be published

In order to avoid a possible small rebellion in the Conservative ranks, we are told, David Cameron, acting as Leader of the Conservative Party is to publish a draft In/Out Referendum Bill. As before, the plan is to have a referendum in 2017, assuming the Conservatives are back in government by then. If they are not, there is not a great deal they can do.

It seems that "around 100" Tory MPs are so unhappy about the fact that the referendum was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech that
they will propose an amendment, expressing "regret" at the decision not to include an EU referendum bill in the government's plans for the next year.

There is little chance of this succeeding, as the Liberal Democrats, Labour and pro-European Tories oppose it, but a significant vote in favour would be an embarrassment for the prime minister.

Around 100 Conservative backbenchers and ministerial aides are expected to back the amendment or abstain, but the party leadership are hoping to reduce this number by publishing its own draft bill on Tuesday.

Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC that publishing the draft bill was a "demonstration of our commitment to a referendum".

The draft legislation is being published by the Conservatives with the idea that it could be brought to the Commons for debate by one of the party's backbench MPs in the form of a private member's bill, rather than one sponsored by the government.

The ballot to choose who can bring forward private members' bills will be held on Thursday and, although they have little chance of becoming law, there is non-government parliamentary time available for them to be debated.
Presumably, whoever wins the ballot (unless it is fixed) will be pressured into putting forward the Referendum Bill and government time will be found for it some time in the coming session.

As readers of this blog know, I am not in favour of a referendum and especially not in favour of an early referendum, partly because plebiscites are not political weapons I particularly support but, more importantly, because we are likely to lose one and the earlier it is held, the more likely we are to lose it.

ADDENDUM: Curiously enough I have received an e-mail from one David Cameron with his picture on the side, which tells me the following:
In January, I set out our party’s position on Europe. I made clear that the EU needed fundamental, far reaching change - and that Britain would lead the way in negotiating that reform.

I also promised an In-Out referendum once those negotiations were complete, and at any event by the end of 2017. That's the right time to have a vote - it is wrong to ask people whether to stay or go before we have had a chance to put the relationship right.

But make no mistake - my commitment to a referendum is absolute. If I am Prime Minister after the next election, there will be an In-Out referendum. No ifs, no buts. And before the 2015 election, we will do everything we can to make it the law.

That’s why today the Conservative Party is publishing a draft bill that would legislate for a referendum by the end of 2017. We understand that we are in a Coalition government - but we are going to examine every opportunity to bring it before Parliament and try to get it on the statute book.

For too long the British people have had no say about their future in Europe. I am absolutely determined to put that right. Our action today is further proof we’re serious.
It then asks me to pledge my support for the Bill. I cannot quitte see what difference that would make to anything.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

On another subject

I seem to have missed John Paul Athanasourelis's book Raymond Chandler' Philip Marlowe: The Hard-Boiled Detective Transformed and probably just as well. The argument that Marlowe is really a Deweyan radical democrat with a social conscience and one who pays a great deal of attention to his social conscience is so bizarre as to make one wonder what the author might have been smoking.

This review of the book is sheer delight (except for Mr Athanasourelis, naturally enough) and is by Stefano Tani, author of an interesting sounding book, The Doomed Detective, which I shall read. How can one possibly not try to read an author who can start a devastating review with the following paragraph:
There are at least four detectable stages in that specific genre named criticism of a novelist. The first is the one of the forerunner, the critic who discovers the forgotten author; in the second stage the author reassessed is studied and written about by a substantial number of scholars and journalists (very good, good and less than good contributions); if steps one and two work, the writer is canonized (edition in the most prestigious series of the country). At this point, everything on him has been truly said and done at least for a while, and here comes the fourth stage, the one of surreal criticism: the author is no longer the one studied so far, he is a figment of the critic's imagination – a critic who, in order “to open new paths,” invents a writer that never existed.
I wish I had written that.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Europe Day? Pshaw!

This is what we need to celebrate: День Победы or Victory Day. I dare you!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Already past its sell-by date?

The big news of the last couple of days in Britain was that Lord Lawson, the man who as Chancellor of the Exchequer insisted on shadowing the DM thus taking Britain towards the disastrous ERM and the Conservative Party towards a number of disastrous decisions, has had a Damascene conversion. Not only is he now against the single currency, he now thinks Britain would be considerably better off outside the EU.

We then had a great deal of entertainment as we always do when the Deputy Prime Minister (how did that come about?) enters into the fray. Nick Clegg produced the usual canard about 3 million jobs depending on our membership of the EU. (It is true, that some jobs do depend on that, in particular the sort of jobs Mr Clegg had before his meteoric rise in the Lib-Dim party.)

Lord Lawson made short shrift of that. Nick Clegg, he said accurately enough, talks "poppycock". Robert Peston has been stirred into looking at both sides of the question from the point of view of business and admitting that
maybe Lord Lawson can be seen as kicking off an important debate, which is whether the UK will find it easier to start paying its way in the world on the inside - or the outside - of the EU.
As it happens, the debate has been going on for some time and very vociferously, too, but one cannot expect important hacks to notice that. If Lord Lawson's statement made the BBC notice the debate, that is all to the good.

However, nobody is asking the obvious question: has this development pushed Business for Britain with its plan to "renegotiate our terms of membership" past its sell-by date already?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Private Eye gives us those UKIP policies in full

UKIP is not a liberal/libertarian party and not a particularly authoritarian; it has stopped talking about the EU and has been talking about being the other lot, not the three main ones, representing ordinary people. All piffle. What they really want is a kind of rose-coloured version of the 1950s as it never existed.

The reality was rather grim with rationing in place for the first half of the decade and large numbers emigrating to Australia, New Zealand and Canada. I suppose narrowness of outlook can seem to be security and happiness as viewed from a distance.

There is also the problem that the fifties ended with an economy that stopped functioning, a growing national debt, an ever more powerful grip on the country by the unions and ... yes, the sixties. But this time, they will get it right and the new and more glorious 1950s will turn into a kind of Brigadoon.

Anyway, here are those policies in full, as published by Private Eye:

1.      Smoking to be allowed in pubs.

2.      Waxed jackets to be made mandatory.

3.      Chaps not obliged to help with the washing up.

4.      VAT on beards.

5.      Massive investment in golf club construction.

6.      Driving gloves to be worn in cars at all times.

7.      Bring back Robertson's Golly on marmalade jars.

8.      Police permitted to give young offenders a clip round the ear.

9.      Black and white TV to return.

10.     Johnny foreigner to get marching orders .... whoops.

You think this is not right? Then you have not been paying attention.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Deanna Durbin RIP

Important matters first, unimportant elections considerably further down the line. The news that Deanna Durbin, one of the best singers on film has died at the age of ninety-one filled many of us with sadness, though her career was over (by her choice, on the whole) some decades ago. I was in some perplexity as to which of her many videos to post but decided to go back to the film in which I saw her first, One Hundred Men and a Girl, a slightly sentimental but also very amusing tale of unemployed musicians during the Depression getting their chance to play with Leopold Stokowski through Deanna's efforts. Here she is, astounding Mr Stokowski with her singing and the audience with her acting: