30 November 2009

Bread and circuses

I do so very much hope that later today somebody will explain how a four option referendum will work.

Does the option that attracts the most votes win? Even though it may be less than 40% of those voting?

Or do we voters have to indicate a numerical preference for each option, with the votes cast for the least attractive options re-allocated to the more popular?

It all seems vaguely unsatisfactory ...

29 November 2009

The price of fame

If I had a nice house in Florida, an attractive trophy wife and a Cadillac sports utility vehicle, I doubt if anyone (with the possible exception of the police) would care if I took the car out at 2.30 am one morning and hit a fire hydrant then a tree.

But I'm no Tiger. So no-one would think to ask me where I thought I was going at that time in the morning, why I was driving so slowly that the airbags did not inflate and whether, in rescuing me by destroying one of the car windows with a golf club, my imaginary good lady used an iron or a driver.

24 November 2009

Carving up the jobs

More Brussels manoeuvring. The Times reports:
British diplomats are fighting a rearguard action to prevent France from taking the key financial job in Brussels after Baroness Ashton of Upholland’s appointment as foreign affairs chief.
With Paris and Berlin setting their sights on controlling the EU’s economic agenda, a former French Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier, is being tipped to take the plum commission portfolio overseeing the internal market and financial services.
Germany is seeking the industry or energy jobs in the European Commission line-up due to be announced this month, while also preparing its national bank chairman to take over at the European Central Bank.

It should not be too difficult to obstruct the French. The one thing guaranteed to upset the smaller Member States is the idea that France and Germany should dictate who gets what. In any case, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands are due some compensation for being passed over in the appointment of the president. But it remains to be seen if the FCO have the nous to take advantage.

23 November 2009

A little historical context

There is a generation of the vaguely left-leaning (and not so vaguely left-leaning) who retain a residual distrust of successive US administrations. In my case, this stemmed from US intervention in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s, an intervention maintained long after the demonstration of its utter uselessness. It is one of the reasons why, rightly or wrongly, we leap to analogies with South East Asia when seeking to understand what is going on today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The scale of US imperialist ambitions became further apparent in the 1980s (and subsequently) in Central America. The pernicious use of the Monroe Doctrine was said to justify US meddling in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Grenada. Meanwhile, the US has kept Cuba in a state of penury for decades.

I know, I know. Bad things happened during the Cold War, and the USSR's alleged involvement in events provided some form of justification for American actions. Nevertheless, to my paranoid mind, there are signs of a pattern here.

Now, it appears to be starting again. The Independent reported yesterday:
The United States is massively building up its potential for nuclear and non-nuclear strikes in Latin America and the Caribbean by acquiring unprecedented freedom of action in seven new military, naval and air bases in Colombia.
The new US push is part of an effort to counter the loss of influence it has suffered recently at the hands of a new generation of Latin American leaders no longer willing to accept Washington's political and economic tutelage. President Rafael Correa, for instance, has refused to prolong the US armed presence in Ecuador, and US forces have to quit their base at the port of Manta by the end of next month.
So Washington turned to Colombia, which has not gone down well in the region. The country has received military aid worth $4.6bn (£2.8bn) from the US since 2000, despite its poor human rights record.
Colombian forces regularly kill the country's indigenous people and other civilians, and last year raided the territory of its southern neighbour, Ecuador, causing at least 17 deaths.
Indications of US willingness to envisage the stationing of nuclear weapons in Colombia are seen as an additional threat to the spirit of nuclear disarmament. After the establishment of the Tlatelolco Treaty in 1967, four more nuclear-weapon-free zones were set up in Africa, the South Pacific, South-east Asia and Central Asia. Between them, the five treaties cover nearly two-thirds of the countries of the world and almost all the southern hemisphere.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the world's leading think-tank about disarmament issues, has now expressed its worries about the US-Colombian arrangements. With or
without nuclear weapons, the bilateral agreement on the seven Colombian bases, signed on 30 October in Bogota, risks a costly new arms race in a region. SIPRI, which is funded by the Swedish government, said it was concerned about rising arms expenditure in Latin America draining resources from social programmes that the poor of the region need.
Much of the new US strategy was clearly set out in May in an enthusiastic US Air Force (USAF) proposal for its military construction programme for the fiscal year 2010. One Colombian air base, Palanquero, was, the proposal said, unique "in a critical sub-region of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from... anti-US governments".
The proposal sets out a scheme to develop Palanquero which, the USAF says, offers an opportunity for conducting "full-spectrum operations throughout South America.... It also supports mobility missions by providing access to the entire continent, except the Cape Horn region, if fuel is available, and over half the continent if un-refuelled". ("Full-spectrum operations" is the Pentagon's jargon for its long-established goal of securing crushing military superiority with atomic and conventional weapons across the globe and in space.)

Nuclear weapons in South America? What for?



Obsessives everywhere will wish to note that the Chilcot Inquiry begins this week. You may find the timetable for the first week here.

Apparently, the proceedings will be streamed live on the website, with archived sessions as well as transcripts also available.

21 November 2009

Housekeeping reminder

This blog is not a comments free-for-all. Where I consider a comment to be gratuitously offensive, it will be deleted. No appeals. If you don't like it, tough.

More showbiz

More than two years after the BBC dropped her – sparking accusations of ageism – veteran newsreader Moira Stuart is being lined up for a return to the airwaves on Chris Evans's BBC Radio 2 breakfast show. (here)

Good - but it would have been better to bring back Fran Godfrey, the sexiest voice on radio.

What is the point of ...

... the Royal Variety Performance? This year, the show stars Lady Gaga, Bette Midler, Michael Buble, Miley Cyrus, Whoopi Goldberg, Dance Troupe and Diversity; it will be hosted by Peter Kay.

Is it fair or reasonable to expect an old lady (Brenda is now in her eighties) to sit through two hours of this desperate assemblage of wannabees and has-beens? Surely this royal function should be passed on to her descendants. I am younger (slightly) than the Prince of Wales and I wouldn't thank you for a ticket to the event. And what's the point of grandsons if they won't fulfil the occasional engagement on your behalf?

Who is Lady Gaga anyway?

20 November 2009

Music of the week

As it's Friday afternoon, and I'm feeling nostalgic, let's go back in time. Sandy Denny and Fairport sing Dylan; 40 years old and still one of the best tracks ever:

The pronunciation problem

Last night, the BBC World Service was sticking with Van Rompoy (to rhyme with toy), whereas this morning BBC2 favoured Van Rompow (to rhyme with cow).

I rather think I would be inclined to Van Rompwee but it's awfully difficult to tell with Flemish names.

What do you mean, does it matter?

19 November 2009

Defend our square sausage!

Here is the latest episode in the international battle to maintain the purity and quality of one of our more esoteric food products. I bow to no-one in my admiration for the gourmet attractions of the Lorne sausage, although I confess to a preference for the more humdrum round sliced sausage. And if the Scottish Government in all its majesty sees fit to issue a series of press releases on the matter, well it keeps the boys and girls in what used to be known as the agriculture department in a job.

Nevertheless I do occasionally wonder exactly from whom we are protecting our sausage. As far as I am aware, there are no Bavarian or Andalucian butchers trying to pass off some of their inferior local products as Lorne sausage. Furthermore, even if we won the longed-for Protected Geographical Indication, I rather doubt that this would deliver thriving export markets in Paris or Milan.

But I look forward to a time 20 years hence when people will ask me what the SNP administration of 2007 to 2011 actually achieved. Ah well, I will answer, they saved the Lorne sausage ...

Van Rompuy-Pompuy still the favourite, ...

... not that it means very much at this stage.

As a committed europhile and as someone who, when working in the EU, did his fair share of eating and drinking for the greater European glory, even I would find the EU Council's idea of democracy - ie the leaders have a nice meal behind closed doors in order to select il presidente - laughable, were it not so utterly disgraceful.

Makes me proud to be a blogger

This heart-warming story reveals that there are stll gentlemen in this world:
When Belle de Jour, the famous call girl turned blogger and publishing sensation outed herself as a Bristol-based research scientist last weekend, one man was less surprised than the rest of us.
In an intriguing twist to a story which has already had more than its fair share of them, it emerged today that a British blogger solved the hotly debated mystery of Belle's identity soon after Dr Brooke Magnanti began writing her diary of an escort in 2003 – then resolved to help keep her secret.

Well done Darren!

18 November 2009

Gutter politics

All very well to produce a Queen's Speech of 13 measures, few of which can be expected to pass into law in the limited parliamentary time available before the general election. But would it be excessively cynical to suggest that, even in the unlikely event of Labour being returned to government, few of these measures would be resurrected? Instead, the public spending crisis will simply overwhelm care for the elderly, new moves on equality and so on.

Which makes the process simply another election gimmick.

14 November 2009

Messing about with boats

What would Lord Nelson have thought? The Royal Navy blots its copybook once again. The Guardian reports:
The crew of a Royal Navy vessel watched a British couple being kidnapped by Somali pirates, but were ordered not to open fire in case they endangered the couple's lives, it emerged last night.
A spokesman said: "Significant efforts were made by Royal Navy vessels and international maritime forces to locate the Lynn Rival. Everything possible was done without further endangering the lives of Paul and Rachel Chandler."

Which might have been a little more convincing if the Navy had not conspired to cover up the truth at the time:
An official account of the kidnap released last month said only that a Royal Navy vessel found the empty yacht, without disclosing that its crew saw the action unfolding. The full picture emerged when an anonymous crew member leaked the details to the press.

So the Navy watches a kidnap without doing anything and then fails to tell the whole truth. Heads will roll? I doubt it.

12 November 2009

Keeping everyone in suspense

I appreciate that it's a difficult decision but endless discussion will not make it any easier. The Independent reports:

Mr Brown told MPs yesterday that he expected an announcement from President Barack Obama in the next few days about the number of extra US troops being deployed to Afghanistan. But his forecast was played down by a White House spokesman, who said the decision on the the request for 40,000 more troops from General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, was still "weeks and not days" away.
Mr Obama yesterday met members of his war council to discuss the forward strategy in Afghanistan, the eighth such session with the national security team in recent weeks.

Unless he wants to be identified as a dithering procrastinator, now is surely the time to do the business or get off the pot.

It's all pants really

And you thought we were in the midst of a recession. The Guardian reports:
...a new survey from Debenhams ... claims (though not always convincingly) to shed some light on men's underwear-buying habits. While the average 23-year-old allegedly buys up to 31 pairs a year "of all styles, tightness and colours", and even 40-year-olds manage a dozen pairs in as many months, once you reach 44 (I'm 46) Debenhams reckons you give up the habit for life. Not because by then you have bought 284 pairs (based on the survey's figures) and never need to fork out for Y-fronts or tangas ever again, but because a woman is doing it for you.

Wow, 31 pairs a year! Who has the drawer space?*

* No pun intended

06 November 2009

They prefer doom and gloom

Is it my imagination or do I detect a note of disappointment on the part of the press with regard to the suspension of the Royal Mail strikes? Here is The Guardian for example:
The postal workers union has called off a third round of strikes due to start tomorrow after reaching an "interim" peace deal with Royal Mail management.
Leaders of the Communication Workers Union agreed unanimously to postpone further action until the new year at least while talks take place, overseen by the arbitration service Acas and the Trades Union Congress.
The Christmas post is now secure, much to the relief of Royal Mail, which doubled annual profits to £321m last year but has been haemorrhaging customers.

Not exactly welcoming, is it?

05 November 2009

Open letter

Dear Monsieur Lellouche

It may surprise you to know that many of us Brits, perhaps most of us, know very well that the Tories' stance on Europe is pathetic, that they are doing untold damage to Britain's reputation in the EU and that the decision of their MEPs to abandon their natural allies and throw in their lot with assorted East European nasties will seriously reduce their influence in the European Parliament.

We also know that Cameron's pledge for referendums on future treaties is unlikely to be realised in the foreseeable future (unless he really wants to deprive Iceland and Croatia of the opportunity for EU membership). As for his fantasy of re-patriating the social chapter, even if the other Member States were to agree (which seems improbable), the prospect of working longer hours with fewer holidays is unlikely to appeal to the average British worker.

But M Lellouche, we rather dislike the idea of French politicians telling us so. Cameron may be an idiot but he's our idiot. You have enough idiots of your own without pointing the finger at ours. So, as our American cousins say, butt out!

Be assured of my distinguished sentiments.


03 November 2009

It wiznae my fault, honest ...

Lord Martin (the former Commons Speaker) is obviously unfamiliar with the concept that the boss is responsible for the failures of his underlings. The BBC reports:
Lord Martin told the committee on policing and Parliament he had been "let down" by Serjeant at Arms Jill Pay who failed to require a warrant for the search.
But he said when he asked her to explain her conduct, her boss Malcolm Jack, the Commons Clerk and chief executive, had stepped in and suggested she had been influenced by the police.

Equally unattractive is his propensity to spread blame among his subordinates. As for defending those officials who worked for him, forget it.

Motto - the buck doesn't stop anywhere near my desk.

02 November 2009

Quote of the day

Simon Tisdall in The Guardian (here):
In Afghanistan's disreputable 2009 presidential election, everyone's a loser. Hamid Karzai's "victory", achieved by fraud and now by default, has left him a tarnished, diminished figure. The US administration that orchestrated the whole process still lacks the credible partner in Kabul it says is essential for success.
The UN's reputation for probity lies critically wounded in the gutter, a victim of inaction and bitter infighting among officials. Nato's mission looks even more rudderless and ill-defined than before. The cause of the Afghan people, bemused and terrorised by turns, is no further forward and may in truth have been set back.

A right snafu. Where to go from here? Who knows? Obviously not the Americans, nor the UN, nor NATO ...

01 November 2009

Does Labour dare?

The point about this new poll, showing Labour in the lead over the SNP in the battle for Holyrood, is that Labour need no longer fear the sudden onset of a Holyrood election. It should not be difficult to bring down a minority government, especially as the Tories, LibDems and Greens all seem to be doing reasonably well.

And the SNP will need to be even more careful with the budget (and with the referendum bill); parliamentary defeats will provide an excuse for the other parties to bring about a general election.

Interesting times ahead!