30 December 2011

Music of the week

Baggy y-fronts and avocado:

Special pleading

Yeah well, at this time of year, the smug marrieds may irritate us singles.  The Independent offers a cri de coeur:

With the number of single-person households increasing rapidly over recent years and projected to continue rising, it is a mystery to me why politicians continue not only to ignore, but to bait this sizeable demographic. While singledom may be a deliberate option for some, for most it's just the card that life has dealt. According to the Office for National Statistics , 29 per cent of households contained just one person in 2010 – that's 7.5 million people living alone. The biggest increase in single person households over the decade 2001-10, was in the age group 45 to 64, a 31 per cent increase, coinciding with an increase in people in this age group who have never married, or are divorced. By 2031, it is expected that 18 per cent of the entire population will be living alone.
Maybe the pollsters can explain to me why all of the political parties think it is worth hacking off this large group to suck up to the smug marrieds (as Bridget Jones would put it). Worse, they imply that it is somehow morally superior to be part of this happy state and those of us who have failed to achieve it are less worthy beings.
Maybe we are less worthy beings, but I value my status as a célibataire.  But it would be nice not to hear any more about so-called "hard-working families".

24 December 2011

Music of the week

Merry Christmas to all my fans (shome mishtake surely - ed)

I'll take the fifth

Do I feel guilty about being a baby boomer?  Not so much guilt as complacency.  The Telegraph reports:

Baby boomers shouldn’t feel guilty about being better-off than younger generations, because people aged over 50 today saved harder and spent less when they were young than is the case today.
That’s the conclusion of analysis of more than 2,000 people by the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII). The study acknowledges that baby boomers – or those born within 20 years of the end of World War II – were fortunate to enjoy easy mortgage availability and decades of house price inflation plus final salary or defined benefit pensions denied to most young adults today.
As a result, about 80pc of the Britain's net personal wealth of £6.7trn or £6,700bn is owned by people aged over 50 while younger folk often have no savings, substantial debts and little hope of becoming homeowners any time soon. The average age of first-time buyers is now 37 or about 10 years later than two decades ago.
I confess that I do not recall making prodigious savings in my twenties or thirties.  As for spending, I spent what I had to spend; I can still recall my mother's sage advice about the pitfalls of borrowing.  So, by and large, we kept out of financial trouble.  But the expansion of university education in the 1960s was of enormous benefit to my generation.  And the rapid inflation of the 1970s meant that mortgage payments diminished equally rapidly (at least until you had to move house).

All of which is no damn consolation to today's youngsters seeking to secure a job and a place to live ...

23 December 2011

Cutting and running?

President Obama on the BBC website (here) on 14 December:
Mr Obama ... acknowledged it was not perfect, but said they were leaving behind "a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people".
 Today's Independent (here):
A wave of orchestrated bombings sent plumes of smoke into the air across Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 72 people and injuring more than 200 in the worst violence for months.
There is a growing sense of a sectarian crisis in Iraq as the Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tries to arrest his own Sunni Vice-President on charges of running death squads. The threat of escalating sectarian warfare is deepened by the fear among the Iraqi Shia elite that the Arab Awakening movement is turning into an anti-Shia crusade led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

19 December 2011

Quote of the day

I consider this (from The Independent here) to be alarmist nonsense:
Lady Neville-Jones was asked about a report that the Foreign Office was drawing up plans to evacuate thousands of expatriates, many retired, from Spain in the event of economic meltdown.
"It is very hard to see at the moment how the eurozone in its present form is going to survive. Spain is clearly a vulnerable area," she told Sky News.
"Now if that happens, one of the things that will happen in a crash of that kind is that the banks would close their doors. You would find that there are people there, including our own citizens... who couldn't get money out to live on. I think this is a real contingency that they need to plan against." The Foreign Office was reported to be examining plans to send planes, coaches and ships to Spain and Portugal if people cannot withdraw money, as well as ways of offering loans to stranded Britons.

Any sensible expat will put away some euros and some sterling under the bed.  The banks may close briefly but the bucket shops offering currency exchange deals will remain open; and credit cards are not going to lose their purchasing power.  The peseta will return quite quickly and all will be cheaper (at least in terms of sterling) than before.  As  long as you don't keep all your savings in a Spanish bank account (where they may suddenly re-appear as pesetas at an unfavourable exchange rate), we'll be OK.


Useful seasonal advice from The Guardian's agony Auntie Hadley (here):

How many days in a row am I allowed to stay in my pyjamas in that period between Christmas and new year?

There is no time of year I love more than that week between Christmas and new year, and a large part of that is because it is entirely permissible, nay, necessary, even, to stay in in my pyjamas for huge swaths of it. Really, what else is there to do but sit about, eat leftovers and watch Scrooged one more time? And, really, with all of those leftovers one does require an elasticated waistband, and seeing as there is, probably, one already on your nightwear, to bother changing into daytime clothes would be to spit in the face of Santa. And why would you want to spit in the face of Santa, you heartless wench? Stay in your pyjamas. It's what Jesus would have wanted.

16 December 2011


Is it not amazing how, despite all of our economic problems, the government can suddenly magic up £450 million?  The Guardian reports:

David Cameron faced questions over whether he has found enough Whitehall cash to effectively help the 120,000 problem families said to cost nearly £8bn in state support.
Cameron announced £448m of funding and said he hoped a further £675m would be advanced by local councils over the next three years.
The cash from Whitehall is designed to fund caseworkers to help tackle deep-seated problems faced by "chaotic families", and co-ordinate the often overlapping work of local agencies.
...Cameron was urged to expand the Labour scheme by the Downing Street permanent secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood. The cash is being drawn from existing budgets held by the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), the Home Office, the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions.
 So what is it that is not being done?  I don't suppose that we'll ever know ....


14 December 2011

Music of the week

Yeah well, an unreconstructed hippy.  But hey, dig it man ...

Money worries

Is now the time to buy your euros for next year's holiday?  It has been many months since the £ rode so highly on the exchanges.  But maybe postpone the decision, if you think the euro will continue to weaken?  Can we hope for 1.25 euros to the £?  It's not impossible.  On the other hand, perhaps the £ will sink; it's not as if the UK economy is full of vigour. 

Awfie difficult ...

Things I would rather not have known, part 36

Is there no place left for romanticism?  Must we be always thirled to joyless pragmatism?  The Independent reports:

Scientists have discovered why buttercups glow yellow under people's chins – and it has nothing to do with liking butter.
Physicists and plant scientists at Cambridge University discovered that the buttercup's appearance is the result of the interplay between its different layers. The strong yellow reflection is mainly due to the epidermal layer of the petal that reflects yellow light.

It's only shopping ...

So that ended well (or maybe not).  Just because the Prime Minister is obsessed with TV personalities does not mean that he ever intends to do something.  The Independent reports:

Sir Humphrey wanders into the study at Number 10. "I have Mary Portas on the phone for you Prime Minister." The PM is wading through "her vision for the future of our high streets" and is suddenly feeling very depressed. "Tell her I'm out to lunch," he sighs. "On second thoughts, tell her she is.

The Portas report took seven months and is 50 pages long (I read it so you don't have to). Her proposals are these: shops should be better; people should be nicer to each other; we should have more car boot sales; and more bingo nights. (Eh?)
Veering into sociology, the "Queen of Shops" offers: "We no longer value human interaction, socialising or being part of something bigger than ourselves." That we might regain these things through shopping is a depressing thought. The bingo nights could help though.
 And thus another initiative dribbles away into the sand ...

Hurting but not working

What did the IMF expect?  The Guardian reports:
The International Monetary Fund's latest, and fifth, report on Greece reads as a warning that the country's rescue programme has arrived in the last-chance saloon. The numbers have deteriorated every time the IMF has added them up and the latest tally is no exception. Hope that 2011 would witness an "inflection point" in the economy have been abandoned. GDP this year will fall by 6% and 2012 is expected to bring a further contraction of 3%. Worse still, the government's target for cutting the budget deficit has been missed by a mile. The aim was 7.5% but the reality, estimates the IMF, will be 9% – better than last year's 10.5%, but not by much. The report comments dryly that the IMF and euro area support programme "has clearly entered a difficult phase".
Their solution?  Would you believe, more austerity?  Utter insanity ...

13 December 2011

Keeping on keeping on

That didn't take long.  All that anguish last Thursday night, the spats, the name-calling, the bladder control.  For what?  Nothing very much, it appears.  City AM reports:

GLOBAL markets were shaken yesterday as fears returned that governments will not manage to save the Eurozone.
The honeymoon period that followed last week’s euro deal proved all too brief, making way yesterday afternoon for a show of bitter disappointment from traders.
Stocks fell sharply, peripheral Eurozone economies saw their bond yields soar towards the “danger zone” again, and the euro dropped as investors fled risky assets once more.
So we're back to square one.  And when S & P downgrades France's AAA rating, we'll be in full crisis mode once again.  Will it never end?

12 December 2011

Frighteningly pedantic

Oh yes, adverbs: pesky little fellows.  Avoid if at all possible.  The Telegraph reports (apparently):

Officials at the Department for Transport have produced a 1,500-word report which details ministers' pet grammatical hates in remarkable detail.
The guidance sent to civil servants and MPs lists the particular linguistic errors which infuriate Justine Greening, the Transport Secretary, and her fellow transport ministers.

The five-page document indicates that the member for Putney, Roehampton and Southfields, 42, does not approve of the use of adverbs or abbreviations in official documents. 

When I was a young nipper, I was taught that an adverb modifies the verb.  But that was just one of those things that teachers say.

Football commentators seem to avoid adverbs as if they had a bad smell.  So we get "Mr X played brilliant".

As for me, I can live with a few adverbs.  But then I don't have to write submissions to Ms Greening ...

11 December 2011

The explanation

Don't mock!  The Telegraph may not be far from the truth:

“So what was it?” demanded Sam. “What made you use the veto? Was is the fear of having to hold a referendum and splitting the fragile Coalition?”
Dave lowered his voice. “Do you remember what happened to Chamberlain when he went weak on Europe?”
“The Second World War?”
“Worse. His long-term rival from the Right of the party took over.”
“Oh, I see,” said Sam. “Boris was right: you have played a blinder.” 
 Or perhaps not ...

Quote of the day

Will Hutton in The Observer (here):

David Cameron is the best and worst of upper-middle class, home counties England – decent enough but saturated with prejudices he has never cared to challenge. He understands his own party and its instincts, but beyond that his touch is uncertain and his capacity to empathise with others close to non-existent. Doubtless, he thought his demand for Britain to be exempted from any measure on financial services to be reasonable, but he completely underestimated how it would be understood by a eurozone member in an existential fight to defend their currency. His circle is the hedge fund managers who payroll his party, rightwing media executives and the demi-monde of Tory dining clubs, Notting Hill salons and country house weekends, all of whom he knew could be relied to cheer him for his alleged bulldog spirit and Thatcher-like courage in saying No to European "plots".

For him, politics is not about statecraft in the pursuit of a national vision that embraces all the British. It is an enjoyable game to be played for a few years, in which the task is to get his set in and look after them and hand the baton on to the next chap who will do the same.

The Friday morning narrative of Cameron resisting European efforts to undermine the City is gradually being replaced by the perception that Cameron's actions had more to do with his political necessity of avoiding the need to secure parliamentary approval for a new treaty.


10 December 2011


They're beginning to piss me off.  The Independent reports:

Passengers planning to fly Ryanair next summer, beware: charges on Europe's biggest budget airline will soar in 2012. Checked-in bag fees paid in advance increase by two-thirds, while travellers checking in a bag at the airport without booking ahead face a fee of £100 – up 150 per cent.

The airline has divided 2012 into low and high seasons, with the latter stretching across the summer from June to September, as well as Christmas. In peak season, the cost of checking in a single 15kg bag rises from £15 to £25, totalling £200 for a family of four on a return trip. The price for a second bag will be even higher, at £45.
OK, I know that the overall cost of a return flight to Malaga remains a good deal, but Ryanair is stretching the patience of us travellers. 


09 December 2011

So who won?

Well nobody did.  And, in any case, it doesn't really work like that.

Cameron put the kibosh on another EU Treaty (or on an amendment of the existing Treaties), as advocated by Frau Merkel, and thus earned her undying enmity.  The City of London has apparently been saved from rule by Brussels, but it is only bankers who will care.  And in the longer term, the City cannot expect any favours from Europe.

The members of the eurozone (plus assorted hangers-on) will now establish their separate accord, cracking the whip over debts and deficits.  But they will have to do it without the overt assistance of EU institutions such as the Commission and the Court of Justice, while the European Central Bank will or will not fulfil a central role.  But as yet, the accord has only been agreed in principle; and there are lots of detail to be hammered out (such as who will conduct the assessment of national budgets).

Meanwhile, the chaos in the markets will no doubt continue ...

08 December 2011

Cameron's true colours

By their words shall ye know them.  What is Cameron's main priority going into the summit negotiations?  The Telegraph provides the answer, albeit in somewhat cynical tone:
David Cameron has been talking tough on Europe. Addressing the nation via a newspaper article yesterday morning, the Prime Minister made his position stirringly clear. If Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy do anything that threatens to hurt the City of London, he will defend our island, whatever the cost may be. He will exercise his veto on the beaches. He will exercise his veto on the landing grounds. He will exercise it in the fields and in the streets, he will exercise it in the hills. He will never surrender.
Unless, of course, the question is about the repatriation of social and employment powers, in which case he will surrender, and we shall go on doing on our beaches, landing grounds etc whatever Brussels orders us to do. 
Note the priority - to defend the City of London.  Nothing about manufacturing or other services, or regional policy, social policy or even defence of the constitutional prerogatives of parliament.  As long as the City survives to wield its immoral spell on the economy, nothing else really matters.

Well, I didn't vote for him ...

Update: also from The Telegraph (here) which seems to be a bit depressed:

The Prime Minister can engage in as much pre-fight trash talk as he likes. He can square up to the Berlin bruiser Anglea Merkel; look down on that pipsqueak Nicolas Sarkozy. It doesn’t matter.
David Cameron is going to sign that treaty. If it recommends renaming the UK the Greater German province of Albion. If it kicks the Queen out of Buckingham Palace and hands the place over to Herman Van Rompuy. If it requires ministers to attend the next meeting of the Cabinet in Lederhosen. David Cameron will sign.
He has no other option.

The good news

Never mind about the euro.  Let us concentrate on important matters, such as brussels sprouts.  The Telegraph reports:
It has been an exceptionally good year for the much-maligned vegetable, which has ripened three weeks earlier than usual.
Most weigh 25g instead of 20g and are particularly sweet and flavoursome, thanks to the unusually warm winter weather.

Last year Britain suffered a shortage of sprouts due to freezing conditions. But experts said there should not be a repeat this year following perfect growing conditions, including a dry spring, summer rains and the recent mild spell. 
 So all is well in this best of all possible worlds ...

06 December 2011

Music of the week

The choo-choos won't run

It's a shame.  Poor old Alex Neil, Scotland's Infrastructure Minister, sought to make a song and dance about it as the centrepiece of his programme (here):

A proposal to extend the high-speed rail network north of the border was part of a 20-year investment plan announced today by the Scottish Government.
The infrastructure “mega-plan” has ambitious aims to improve roads and rail as well as schools and hospitals across the country over the next two decades.
Infrastructure and Capital Investment Secretary Alex Neil announced the list of strategic projects in Edinburgh today.
 Alas, the cup was barely raised to his lips, when the bad news filtered north:

The government has announced it is postponing its decision on whether work should start on HS2, the high-speed rail project running from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
Justine Greening, the transport secretary, confirmed speculation that the decision on the scheme would be put off until the new year.
Greening, who took up office only two months ago, said that while she had been considering all the issues raised in the HS2 consultation, she needed more time.
 Meanwhile, this guy in The Independent argues convincingly that it may never happen at all:
The plan to build a high speed rail link in the UK moves even more slowly than a train from London to Cornwall. In what is a bizarrely contorted juxtaposition, all three main parties are theoretically committed to the link and yet it seems increasingly as if the project will not happen. The reasons will be depressingly familiar for those who know the history of ambitious infrastructure projects in Britain. Once more, superficial opportunism, incompetence, fear and ministerial weakness play their destructive roles.

Poor old Alex.  He thought he was going to be the Fat Controller, but now it seems that the levers are further away than ever ...


Pseuds' Corner

From The Guardian (here), with regard to the Turner Prize:

Boyce has a more developed sense of the place and engagement of the spectator. His is the more generative and generous art. From the drifts of waxy, geometric paper leaves on the floor, to the dappled lighting; from the wonky litter bin, to the library table as the room's centrepiece; Boyce's room is both impressive and affecting. The beauty lies in its orchestration.
He deserves the prize. I'm haunted by his room, with the way a hanging mobile entwines itself with the library table, like a dangling thought, the room sweeping away into a kind of indoor autumn. His art is a sort of elegy to modernist purity. It feels like a human space and a mental territory. I'd love him to make a permanent room somewhere.


All sweetness and light?

Very pleased for them both, I'm sure.  Long life and happiness, and may all their troubles be little ones.  The Independent reports:

President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel will ask other EU leaders later this week to approve sweeping ideas for a new, or amended, EU treaty to punish countries that allowed deficits to spin out of control.
Although falling short of the federalist "fiscal union" that Germany had demanded, the plans would impose near-automatic penalties on countries that broke agreed budget and debt limits.

Admittedly, I'm not entirely clear about the status of "near-automatic" penalties; either they are automatic or they are not.  (It's a bit like pregnancy.)  Then there is the question of how Greece and Italy (et al) bring their deficits down to acceptable levels; assertion does not automatically (that word again) lead to execution.

Furthermore, if these arrangements need to be embodied in a treaty of the 27 or the 17, how long is it going to take for the proposed treaty to be ratified by the member states and what happens meantime?

Finally, I can't see any solution in the proposals that would address the fundamental issue of the comparative competitiveness of different member states.  But, hey, I'm a bit of a pessimist; things are sure to turn out fine.  Won't they?

04 December 2011

Will they ever learn?

"Probably not" seems to be the answer.  The Independent reports:

Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) is set to press ahead with an estimated bonus pool of around £500m, despite claims by the group’s finance director that the industry has wasted money on remuneration.

The group, which is 84 per cent owned by the taxpayer, was one of the targets that Sir Mervyn King had in mind when he said last week that banks need to trim bonuses and dividends. The Bank of England governor warned that the “exceptionally threatening environment” caused by the eurozone crisis meant that banks needed to concentrate on hoarding cash.

We may be the majority shareholder in the bank, but it seems no-one - either in Government or in the plethora of regulatory agencies - can bring it to heel.

Note:  the value of RBS shares has dwindled to 21.63 pence, compared to about 50 pence when the taxpayer invested all that money in the ailing bank.

02 December 2011

Entschuldigen Sie mir bitte

It's all the fault of the Germans, isn't it?  Well maybe, and maybe not.  But don't take my word for it, cos I'm biased.  When I worked for the European Commission, building the new Europe (or something), my closest office chum was a delightful young lady from Berlin who worked in the office next door.  Sonja was an Ostie, and she and I would regularly adjourn to the smoking room to commiserate with each other over the bureaucratic idiocies of the bosses.  She still has at least half my Harry Potter books.  But she was a pal and provides one of the many great memories of working with European colleagues.

But Merkel is screwing up the system, isn't she?  Well we all have our histories and here is something upon which to ruminate.  The New Statesman records:

If you wanted to buy a US dollar in 1913, it cost you four German marks; by the end of 1921, it cost you around 200; a year later, 7,000.Governments could no longer afford to pay reparations, since they had to be rendered in gold. Things got really bad in 1923, when France invaded Germany's most prosperous industrial area, the Ruhr, to extract the reparations that the Germans had failed to deliver. Strikes ensued, the German economy ground to a halt and inflation spiralled out of control.
By July 1923, a dollar cost 353,000 marks; by August, nearly five million; by September, nearly a hundred million; by December, 4.2 trillion - or four followed by a two and eleven zeros. People were collecting their wages in wheelbarrows filled with million-mark notes and rushing to the shops before the price spiralled upwards again and goods were out of their reach. You might sit down in a café for a cup of coffee and find that its price had doubled by the time you got up.
The political system began to disintegrate. Hitler staged his beer-hall putsch. There was a communist uprising in Hamburg and the threat of one in the east. Separatists emerged in the Rhineland. The chaos was only ended when the Americans were persuaded to lend money for a currency reform.
The hyperinflation did not destroy the Wei­mar Republic. What did for it was the ensuing depression, when the Wall Street crash led the US banks to withdraw the loans that had underpinned the modest recovery of the middle Weimar years. Mass unemployment had the jobless rushing to vote for the communists, terrifying the middle classes, already disoriented by inflation, into supporting the Nazis.
So have a little sympathy.


S & M economics

Much (probably wayward) talk of  "discipline".  What is it that Merkel and Sarkozy want?  And is it the same thing?  The Guardian eurozone blog exposes the difference - at least I think it's a difference.
There are different interpretations. Merkel wants the European commission to have a veto over countries' tax and budget plans, whereas the French want national parliaments to be involved, as the budget minister Valérie Pécresse spelled out yesterday.
Pécresse declared after a cabinet meeting that France wanted "more budgetary discipline, but a budgetary discipline exercised by the states, with a real participation by national parliaments" .
So plenty of hurdles to overcome. Including in Germany - as Merkel pointed out in her speech, "the German constitution does not permit devolving budget control to a European institution".
She said her vision was that the European commission and the European courts must have a bigger role "without the German parliament losing budget control". The big question, though, is how is fiscal union credible if parliaments can veto the demands of the central authorities?

Difficult to fudge this.  Merkel and Sarkozy appear to want more central control, but not at the expense of national parliaments or, at least, of their national parliaments.  Which means, I suppose, a very severe limit on the control of central authorities.  Which kinda invalidates the whole shooting match (unless of course it is only the less respectable national parliaments - yes our Mediterranean chums again - that are expected to submit to the will of Brussels and Frankfurt) ...


Inconvenient targets

What does the Cameron administration do when it fails to meet targets?  Does it try harder in an effort to succeed?  No, it changes the targets.  Two examples in this morning's Guardian; here and here:

The government is planning to review official targets for reducing poverty, arguing that simply comparing relative incomes leads to perverse incentives and does little to promote better life chances.
The move was signalled by the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, and David Cameron in the week that the government was forced to admit that its autumn statement will mean another 100,000 children brought into child poverty under the measure enshrined in law by the Labour government.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change commissioned an independent review of fuel poverty after last autumn's comprehensive spending review. Its interim findings, published earlier this month, proposed changing the definition of fuel poverty. If adopted, the proposals would halve the numbers of households defined as being in fuel poverty.
Coming soon: a review of the definition of unemployment (as far too many people are classified as unemployed) and a review of the definition of literacy (as far too many kids are unable to write when they leave school).  As for measuring inflation, they've been messing about with the basket of commodities for years ...

01 December 2011

It's the same the whole world over ...

It wasn't all brickbats, you know.  Slasher Osborne found room to confer the occasional goodie, such as this one, reported in The Guardian:
"We're all in this together" sounds more hollow the more you tap it. Back in March, the chancellor George Osborne announced that passengers on private jets would have to pay the same air passenger duty (APD) the rest of us do. "The wealthiest should not escape the tax the ordinary holidaymaker has to pay," trumpeted Osborne through a rolled-up copy of the Socialist Worker. Except that now Osborne has announced this week that the so-called "Learjet tax", expected to start next year, won't kick in until 2013.

Why the delay? A Treasury spokesperson says: "We had a consultation and one of the things that came out of it was there wasn't enough time for the industry to make the transition." According to the Treasury, the predicted revenue from the estimated 80,000 private flights is just £5m a year, and as Adam Twidell, CEO of PrivateFly, a booking network for private planes, points out, it will be difficult to collect APD from thousands of small jet companies and individuals.
The excuse may seem a bit thin, but isn't it comforting to know that the Chancellor keeeps close to his heart the interests of those who can afford to hire a private plane?