31 December 2014

Dreaming on

Glasgow Rangers FC is in something of a mess.  The Scottish football authorities, as well as various interests in the Rangers boardroom, appear to be resisting the gradual (and possibly inevitable) takeover of the club by Mr Mike Ashley of Sporting Direct and of Newcastle United.

The Guardian is today reviewing Mr Ashley's record at Newcastle, and its conclusions should perhaps be borne in mind by those advocating an alternative future for Rangers:
This is a club [Newcastle Utd] who have existed in a state of gloriously thwarted ambition for the last 60 years but who are now in the grip of a business model designed not with glory or even particularly entertainment in mind. Ashley’s sights remain set on staying in the top 10, selling profitably and sitting on the club like a London property tycoon watching the TV rights market rise around him, all the while providing a global billboard for the world’s most bizarrely overexposed cut-price tracksuit shop.
It is always tempting to paint Ashley as a kind of corporate homunculus, draining the city’s historic passions to service his interests elsewhere but like the notion of Pardew as a grand managerial villain finally ousted, it is a construct that falls to pieces under any serious scrutiny. Ashley is a shrewd and timely operator who has bent Newcastle United to fit the restricted horizons of the new football world. Seven years ago the club was in hock at every level and making unsustainable losses. Ashley has invested (with loans) close to £300m and despite some disappointing commercial revenues transformed the club into a profitable concern.
It is a considerable achievement, albeit one in which successive managerial place-men have had relatively little input, and in which the desire of the fans to be transported, seduced with dreams of something larger, has been essentially ignored. 
So is the choice between, on the one hand, financial regularity and diminished footballing ambition and, on the other, dreams of glory while leaving the finances to sort themselves out?  Too simplistic, perhaps, but just the same, all very difficult ...

28 December 2014

How did that happen?

Something unexpected.  A good man appears to have risen to the top of the Catholic Church:
He has been called the “superman pope”, and it would be hard to deny that Pope Francis has had a good December. Cited by President Barack Obama as a key player in the thawing relations between the US and Cuba, the Argentinian pontiff followed that by lecturing his cardinals on the need to clean up Vatican politics. But can Francis achieve a feat that has so far eluded secular powers and inspire decisive action on climate change?
It looks as if he will give it a go. In 2015, the pope will issue a lengthy message on the subject to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, give an address to the UN general assembly and call a summit of the world’s main religions.
Following a visit in March to Tacloban, the Philippine city devastated in 2012 by typhoon Haiyan, the pope will publish a rare encyclical on climate change and human ecology. Urging all Catholics to take action on moral and scientific grounds, the document will be sent to the world’s 5,000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests, who will distribute it to parishioners.
According to Vatican insiders, Francis will meet other faith leaders and lobby politicians at the general assembly in New York in September, when countries will sign up to new anti-poverty and environmental goals.
In recent months, the pope has argued for a radical new financial and economic system to avoid human inequality and ecological devastation. In October he told a meeting of Latin American and Asian landless peasants and other social movements: “An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it.
“The system continues unchanged, since what dominates are the dynamics of an economy and a finance that are lacking in ethics. It is no longer man who commands, but money. Cash commands.
“The monopolising of lands, deforestation, the appropriation of water, inadequate agro-toxics are some of the evils that tear man from the land of his birth. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and deforestation are already showing their devastating effects in the great cataclysms we witness,” he said.
A miracle?

27 December 2014

Bad news for Labour

The Guardian reports:
Labour is on course for a bloodbath in Scotland in 2015, according to a special Guardian/ICM online poll.
The Scottish National party, which took only 20% of the vote in the 2010 general election, has subsequently more than doubled its vote to reach a commanding 43% of the prospective poll next May. Scottish Labour, which secured a very strong 42% in Gordon Brown’s homeland last time around, has since tumbled by 16 points to just 26%.
The Conservatives sink from 2010’s 17% to 13%, while the great bulk of the 19% share that the Liberal Democrats scored last time around is wiped out as they fall by 13 points to 6%.
On a uniform swing, these results – which are reinforced by a recent Survation poll for the Daily Record – would entirely redraw the political map. Labour’s band of 41 Scottish MPs would be reduced to a parliamentary rump of just 10 members, underlining that the Scottish party’s newly elected leader, Jim Murphy, has a mountain to climb.
The SNP, meanwhile, would storm ahead from the mere six MPs it returned in 2010 to take a crushing majority of 45 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies. The Lib Dems, who currently hold 11 seats, would lose all but three, and the Tories would continue to languish with the single seat they currently hold.
Scarcely believable, but the bad news gets worse:
... a unique analysis, conducted for the Guardian by Prof John Curtice, of Strathclyde University, suggests that the crude assumption of a uniform swing could actually be understating the catastrophe facing the party.
By breaking ICM’s data into four different categories of seat, Curtice reveals Labour’s decline is sharpest in those supposedly heartland seats where it previously trounced the SNP by more than 25 points.
Whereas Labour’s Scotland-wide vote drops by 16 points, it falls by 22 points in these constituencies while the SNP surges by 26. That combination is sufficient to wipe out majorities that were always assumed to be impregnable, and Scottish Labour’s Westminster caucus is left shrivelling to just three MPs.
“We are prospectively looking at the collapse of citadels that have always been Labour since the 1920s,” said Curtice. “That will seem incredible to some in England, but to those of us who paid close attention to Alex Salmond’s 2011 landslide at Holyrood, it would merely be the next chapter in the political transformation of a nation.”
He added: “It is becoming clear that the independence referendum has reset all the dials. Previously rock-solid Labour seats in Glasgow voted yes in the referendum, and this now appears to be giving rise to a particular surge of nationalist sentiment in those parts of Scotland where it was once assumed that the SNP couldn’t reach.”
With the nationalists also advancing by 20-plus points in the more competitive Liberal Democrat and Labour-held seats, they are on course to capture all the more obvious targets, securing a total of 53 seats under this more refined projection. The Lib Dems are again reduced to three and the Conservatives are wiped out entirely.
So, 53 seats for the SNP and three each for Labour and the LibDems.  Professor Curtice is not usually considered to be alarmist, but this is off the wall.  Even if the SNP were to secure 40 Scottish MPs next May, it would have all sorts of implications for Scotland's place in the UK.  And the prospects of either the Tories or Labour securing an overall majority at Westminster look ever more dim ...


18 December 2014

Queen to abdicate?

Have the bookies got it wrong?  CityAM  has the skinny:
Bookmakers Coral has suspended betting on whether the Queen will announce her abdication in her Christmas Day broadcast after a number of “unusual” bets were placed today.  A spokesman told City A.M a handful of different bets had been made within half an hour of each other – prompting the team to question whether there had been a leak from Buckingham Palace. 
Intriguing ...

17 December 2014

OAPs laughing all the way to the bank

There goes inflation:
INFLATION in the UK has dropped to its lowest figure for over a decade and economists believe it will decline further still.
Inflation fell to one per cent in November as measured by annual growth in the consumer price index, according to figures released yesterday by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). It marks a drop from 1.3 per cent inflation in October.
The annual rate of inflation was last one per cent in September 2002.
That makes pensioner bonds, due to launch in January, even more attractive.  A 2.8% return on a one year investment is not to be sneezed at.  The 4% return on three year bonds is less attractive, as the interest payment is only made after the full three years have elapsed (at least according to the BBC's money box).

Update:  More here.  

It's all too difficult

EVEL dissolves in Scotch mist:
Mr Hague’s proposals are in practice a set of options, none of which binds the government. His approach has been spurned by the Liberal Democrats, who have their own federalist agenda, and snubbed by Labour, who want to see such matters referred to a constitutional convention – whatever that exactly means.
As a result, Tuesday’s plans are dead in the water until after the general election. They are important only as a piece of political positioning by the Conservatives, who are determined not to allow Ukip to cast themselves as the English party.
And, after the election, will there be any impetus for divisive debate on further constitutional upheaval?  Apart - of course - from delivering on devolution plus for Scotland?


Christmas shopping

Where will you go to buy your turkey this Christmas?  The Guardian suggests a further shift in allegiance:
The German discount chains are set to “win Christmas” for the second year running, with a quarter of British grocery shoppers saying they are more likely to head to Aldi or Lidl than they were last year.
The survey results are a blow to the hopes of the struggling big four – Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco – which have banked on price cuts and a blizzard of discount vouchers to win back shoppers.
One in 10 of those surveyed by Marketing Sciences for the Guardian said they planned to do their main Christmas food shop at either Aldi or Lidl.
Traditionally, shoppers have shied away from cut-price stores as they prepare to treat their families at Christmas, instead heading to the big four or to upmarket grocers such as Marks & Spencer and Waitrose.

Here in Spain, the supermmarkets go less crazy about the festive season; the supermercados are not so loaded up with dirty great turkeys and brussels sprouts.  The only exception is to be found in the ubiquitous British-owned bars which make a fetish of offering Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, albeit at a very reasonable price.

But the atmosphere of enforced jollity is not for me.  I will have a quiet day, much like any other:  a couple of pints with the lads at lunchtime, then home, probably with a nice bit of silverside from the Irish butcher and some roast potatoes, and a dvd to watch in the evening.  Just a perfect day.

Quote of the day

Does the presence of methane indicate that there is life on Mars?  Get your head around this assessment:
“That we detect methane in the atmosphere on Mars is not an argument that we have found evidence of life on Mars, but it’s one of the few hypotheses that we can propose that we must consider,” John Grotzinger, a scientist on the Curiosity team, told the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. “Large organic molecules present in ancient rocks on Mars is also not an argument that there was once life on ancient Mars, but it is the kind of material you’d look for if life had ever originated on Mars.”
This man should be a politician.


15 December 2014

Soap opera

Confused?  Bewildered?  Having difficulty keeping up?

The latest development:
A Ukip candidate has resigned for describing gay people as “fucking disgusting old poofters” and referring to a woman with a Chinese name as a “chinky”, just hours after Ukip defended him saying he had been on sedatives at the time.
Kerry Smith, who was recently reinstated as Ukip’s candidate for South Basildon and East Thurrock in Essex, initially apologised unreservedly for his remarks, before later deciding to resign.
The previous story:
In October, Smith was deselected as the candidate for the Essex seat without explanation and a new contest was ordered, which was due to include Neil Hamilton, the former Tory minister, and Natasha Bolter, a former Labour supporter.
The contest descended into chaos as questions were raised by Ukip about Hamilton’s expenses and Bolter became involved in a controversy about whether the party’s general secretary, Roger Bird, had made inappropriate sexual advances towards her. She accused Bird of harassment but, after the party suspended him, he hit back with text messages suggesting they had been in a consensual romantic relationship.
After Hamilton and Bolter withdrew, Smith won back his position as candidate.
What a happy band of brothers ...



14 December 2014

Red faces all round

According to The Observer, the Tories have been balancing the electoral scales in their favour:
David Cameron has been accused of an unjustifiable bid to “buy the general election” as it emerged that ministers have quietly slipped through an unprecedented hike in the amount that parties can spend during the campaign.
The change to the law on candidates’ election spending, passed without parliamentary debate, was made despite a direct warning by the commission against such “excessive spending to prevent the perception of undue influence over the outcome of the election”.
The Observer has learned that ministers changed the law through a statutory instrument, the terms of which were not debated in the Commons, and which is more usually a vehicle for consensual changes in the law. A Labour source said that the move had not been spotted by them at the time and so they missed the chance to force a vote in the Commons.
Leaving aside the iniquitous behaviour of the government, why did Labour not spot it at the time?

The statutory instyrument would have been subject to negative resolution procedure, which means that, after being laid before the House (and published on the order paper), it automatically becomes law after a certain period, unless it is prayed against (i.e.an MP formally objects), in which case the instrument has to be debated.  So, was no-one in the Labour Party (or in other opposition parties) designated to keep an eye on the flow of statutory instruments coming before the House?  If not, why not?


13 December 2014

What happened to the Santa Rally?

The Guardian reports:
Global stock markets continued to tumble on Friday, pushing the FTSE 100 to its worst weekly fall in more than three years. Since Monday,£112bn has been wiped off the value of Britain’s leading companies.
Investors headed for the exits amid growing fears about the Chinese economy, the tumbling price of oil, and the prospect of another eurozone crisis prompted by political uncertainty in Greece.
The FTSE 100 finished at 6300.63 on Friday, its lowest level since 20 October. The index was down 161 points on the day and 442 points, or 6.6%, on the week.
It was the biggest weekly decline in percentage terms since August 2011, when recession fears and worries about America’s debts stalked the markets.
Fingers well and truly burned.  But I suppose that it's a buying opportunity ...


12 December 2014

Music of the week

More weasel words

Miliband - aspirationally vague:
Miliband mentioned the words sensible, fair, tough and credible several times but stopped short of saying what cuts he would make or when he would achieve them. It would be wrong to make promises on spending before he had his hands on the keys to No 10, he declared, staring down anyone thinking of contradicting him.
“The right thing to do is to set a clear objective with a realistic destination – balancing the books and the debt falling as soon as possible in the next parliament – and this is what we have done,” he said.
Unlikely to set the heather on fire ...

Weasel words

Were the UK security services complicit in the CIA's alleged torture activities?  No 10 comes out with a load of absolute flannel:
References to Britain’s intelligence agencies were deleted at their request from the damning US report on the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11, it has emerged.
... on Thursday, the prime minister’s deputy official spokesman said: “My understanding is that no redactions were sought to remove any suggestion that there was UK involvement in any alleged torture or rendition. But I think there was a conversation with the agencies and their US counterparts on the executive summary. Any redactions sought there would have been on national security grounds in the way we might have done with any other report.”
"National security grounds"?  National embarrassment grounds, more like.


11 December 2014

Every picture tells a story

Ronaldo and Messi (and partners):

Wot, no cummerbunds?


Deeper into the mire

Is Jean-Claude's jacket on a shoogly peg?  The revelations continue:
Pressure is mounting on Jean-Claude Juncker, the European commission president, after fresh allegations emerged outlining the tactics he used when he was prime minister of Luxembourg to promote the country as the destination for multinational corporations.
Bob Comfort, the former head of tax for Amazon, claimed Juncker had fiercely courted the online giant, behaving as a “business partner” and “helping solve problems”. Months after arriving in Luxembourg in 2003, Amazon secured a confidential deal from the local tax office. Two months ago that deal became the subject of a formal investigation by the European commission.
On the other hand:
For the moment at least, Juncker looks tarnished by the disclosures, but not really in fear for his job. Although he is free to resign, he cannot be removed as an individual. The entire European commission would have to go, felled by a vote of no confidence in the European parliament. This is a remote prospect at the moment. And for this to happen, national leaders, chief among them Merkel, would have to signal that Juncker’s time is up and then press their allies in the parliament into organising the commission’s collapse. No one in Brussels at present is talking in such terms.
Which explains why so many become so frustrated with the Brussels machine.  Meanwhile, the European Commission will limp along with a president widely regarded as damaged - which probably suits the European Parliament as well as the Member States of the European Council. 


06 December 2014

Yankee displeasure

Buck House wants to impose a dress code on the American press corps.  From a New York website (here):
It's the year 2014, yet Buckingham Palace has issued a proclamation to its colonies in the New World, which is awaiting a visit from Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Kate Middleton.
"Journalists wishing to cover Royal engagements, whether in the United Kingdom or abroad, should comply with the dress code on formal occasions out of respect for the guests of The Queen, or any other member of the Royal Family," said an order aimed at reporters planning to write about Will and Kate's December trip. "Smart attire for men includes the wearing of a jacket and tie, and for women a trouser or skirt suit. Those wearing jeans or trainers will not be admitted and casually dressed members of the media will be turned away. This also applies to technicians."
First of all, what are "trainers" or, for that matter, "technicians"? And second, why should the United States' press corps — who barely bother to brush the muffin crumbs off their polo shirts before lobbing questions at the president of the United States — schlep extra pieces of clothing to work just so they can make small talk with a (perfectly nice-seeming) British air ambulance pilot-in-training and a former chain-store accessories buyer?
God forbid that the future king of England should have to answer questions from a reporter dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.  Respect, bro, I think?


05 December 2014

The appliance of science

It is many many years since I played rugby.  Playing for the Fifths Extra B XV was a relatively straightforward affair.  Nowadays, rugby is more complicated:
Until fairly recently the lineout was divided into two groups – the jumping trio, and the hooker and the rest. Now it’s divided into groups of two, three and three and each of those three groups has different jobs at the first, second and third breakdowns after the lineout is completed.
At the first, the first to the breakdown will be seven and eight; at the second it will be the two non-jumping forwards and the hooker; finally at the third it’ll be the jumper and the two lifters. Simple so far? Well, that is the formula if the throw is to the back of the line out, and it further changes as the game moves on beyond the three areas nominated by the attacking side for where they want the breakdowns to be. And, of course, it changes again for defensive lineouts.
Simply, anyone playing in the back row has to understand those protocols and how they change on the hoof, something which is difficult enough for guys who have been around the block a few times. But it’s when the game becomes more fluid, the ball manipulating defence, that things get complicated and when instinct has to take over.
As group after group deal with the series of breakdowns, so the others go “round the corner” keeping the move going before a good back-row senses it’s time to reap the reward for all the hard work. They have to present themselves as an attacking option. Done instinctively – watch Kieran Read or Richie McCaw – and there is a chance; delay and you’re buried because the opposition is mirroring your actions and will be only a sniff away.
Wow ...

George is not a rhetorician

Hyperbole: exaggeration for effect, not to be taken literally.

The BBC reports:
Asked about spending cuts to come in the next parliament, Mr Osborne told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I would have thought the BBC had learnt from the last four years that its totally hyperbolic coverage of spending cuts has not been matched by what's actually happened in our country."
The BBC's concern about the seriousness of the forthcoming cuts is far from hyperbolic, as is shown by the subsequent comments of the IFS:
The Institute for Fiscal Studies' Paul Johnson said the cuts would be "on a colossal scale", would mean a "fundamental reimagining of the role of the state" 


04 December 2014

Making policy on the back of a fag packet

Oh yes, the google tax.  What the Chancellor actually said:
Today, I am introducing a 25% tax on profits generated by multinationals from economic activity here in the UK which they then artificially shift out of the country; that is not fair to other British firms and it is not fair to the British people either—today, we are putting a stop to it. My message is consistent and clear: low taxes; but low taxes that will be paid. Britain has led the world on this agenda and we do so again today. This new diverted profits tax will raise more than £1 billion over the next five years.
 More than a bit sketchy.  How will HMRC assess the amount of profits that are diverted, ie artificially shifted out of the UK?  The Guardian illustrates the point:
Google paid just £20m tax in the UK last year. But its actual British revenues were £5.6bn. The group as a whole has a profit margin of 20%, suggesting the company’s real profits in the UK could have been as high as £1.2bn. Taxed at the proposed 25% rate, this would deliver £280m a year in revenues for the Treasury from just one company. But the government expects to collect no more than £360m a year from the diverted profits tax.
Essentially, profits are what is left after deducting cost from revenues; traditionally these costs would include those of production and administration; more controversially, they might include the cost of intra-company loans and rights payments, some of which may be legitimate and some of which less so.  Where does Osborne draw the line?  And how will it impact on international double taxation agreements between governments?

Have Osborne and the Treasury thought it through?


03 December 2014

Silly me

I didn't know that the lovely Samantha was imaginary ...


George is not a bogyman?

Really?  Rather counter-intuitively, The Guardian looks for the better side of the Chancellor:
It is said, for example, that when the government is in difficulty and MPs are called in for pep talks, Osborne impresses them with knowledge of their constituency issues and policy hobby horses. He asks what he can do for them; the prime minister reminds them of what they are expected to do for him. George procures loyalty, Dave demands it. (Theseasoning of marginal seats with new roads ahead of the autumn statement is proof that it pays to have the chancellor’s ear.)
But there is more to Osborne’s attentiveness than vote-buying. He has an intellectual curiosity and a strategic interest in the future of conservatism that is often camouflaged by a predilection for tactical gimmickry. He understands that the Tory “modernisation” project he and Cameron started in opposition failed because it came to be associated with niche liberal preoccupations: the environment, gay rights, overseas aid. That allowed traditionalists to cast the leadership as champions of snooty metropolitan elitism – a charge that fertilised the growth of Ukip.
The chancellor is indeed an urban liberal. He is a native Londoner and a believer in globalised capitalism as a wellspring of freedom and opportunity, not a scourge from which people need protection. He is also a pragmatic pro-European, arguing behind closed doors for a model of British membership of the EU as the lead player of an outer tier of countries spared the federalising momentum of the single currency.
Moderate Tories see Osborne as a bulwark against the drift towards full-bore anti-Brussels mania. “George is capable of showing some leg to the sceptics, but he doesn’t really have any truck with the anti-immigration rhetoric,” says one Osbornite MP.
I remain to be convinced.  But perhaps I am blinded by Osborne's obsession with tactical ploys and his indulgence towards hard right economics.