Sunday 27 December 2009

Election 2010 - Shopping For Scotland

Forget the class war beloved of politicians and related matters. According to the polling agencies I know we are defined now by where we shop and what we buy. This might have a slight connection with older notions of social stratification but not much. I have thought of standing in the local shopping centre with a placard saying “I am a man not a market segment” but I would be lost in the whirl of leaflet pushers and large posters announcing more amazing offers.

The BBC rolling Info-Entertainment channel and similar programmes on terrestrial are paying a little attention to the world outside but the real message is for us to get out there shopping to save the economy and the government, boost our flagging levels of debt, and incur all those charges and penalties critical to the rescue of the government owned banks.

On Boxing Day they had lead commentators at the Buchanan Centre in Glasgow and the Retail Gallery in Gateshead urging us on. Both of these are owned in part by Land Securities, a major property and real estate firm (PRE) based on London with international scope and financing. They are managed by DTZ, which claims to be the Worlds Largest Real Estate Advisers, again based on London.

The other big firm involved in the Buchanan Centre is Henderson Global Investors. At last you might say a Scot for Scotland, but not so fast. Back in the mid 1800’s they were in Dumfries but went south to the City of London, where one became Chairman of the Great Central Railway, with the great vision of connecting the north of England and Scotland to London Paris and beyond by high speed rail. Henderson was thinking Global over 100 years ago. The line that was built was scrapped in the 1960’s by British Rail.

Land Securities also has the Livingston mall and others including the St. David’s Centre in Cardiff. No wonder The Telegraph, owned by the Barclay Brothers, also PRE and of Sark, claims that a strong London is good for Scotland. But some of us think that an over mighty London allowed to do what it wants has caused most of the grief of the last couple of years and on a global basis. Henderson is now just a name on a big PRE and global player.

Meanwhile, south of the Clyde elsewhere in Glasgow in Pollok, home to Pollok House and The Burrell Collection, with close by the newly created and more popular location is the Silverburn Centre, a large recently built shopping mall. Unluckily its original owner has had problems and it has been sold off to the major Canadian Pension Fund which needs to improve the income streams from its damaged asset base, and Hammerson a London based PRE with global interests. Hammerson also owns a large chunk of the Union Centre in Aberdeen.

Checking out these shopping malls for the retailers etc the majority are familiar names. Almost anywhere I go to in the UK in the malls and the High Streets there are identical frontages and the same goods on offer. Track back amongst these retailers and you soon come to a raft of PRE’s, Private Equity companies, and global financiers. How has this happened? Well it is partly due to the Scottish Cabal grip on the New Labour UK centre of government and of financial regulation. One piece of work was the institution of REIT’s with huge tax advantages to the PRE companies who became one.

They are Real Estate Investment Trusts with a special status. Mostly based on the City they have had access to large amounts of the funny money created in the last decade. It is one of the many ways Brown, his cronies and City of London fly boys with their pals in Edinburgh have stoked up the substantial inflation of property prices and debt levels (this does not mean values, to be technical) that mistakenly has been called a boom.

When you go to shop in any of these centres the price you pay will help the retailer pay its rents and charges to the owners and managers. Also they will go to pay the transport costs from the distant suppliers, and eventually the manufacturers of the goods, who are mostly elsewhere in the world.

A high proportion of the income stream realised will finish up being channelled through London by companies which already have tax advantages to offshore locations and financial entities which have even more advantages. It is not simply a UK or retailing phenomenon, Geely the Chinese car firm that recently bought Volvo of Sweden has a large number of Trust companies based in the Cayman Islands. Recently the Caymans introduced new Trust facilities which have proved very popular. There is an interesting propinquity between the Blair’s complex affairs and some of these developments.

Ironies abound, the cost to the Treasury of the tax advantages granted to the PRE’s on REIT was offset to some extent by the tax raids and stealth taxation on UK pension funds and others and it is a Canadian pension fund that will secure some benefit, but not alas a UK one. Around me post offices, pubs, and small local retailers have shut down in droves, wiped out by the financial advantages, power and subsidies given to the big boys.

One of Kaiser Wilhelm II favourite jokes about King Edward VII was that he liked to dine with his grocer, Sir Thomas Lipton, who founded a retail chain at the turn of the 20th Century (picture above in Glasgow). This was certainly big business, but at least he bought his yachts in Britain and paid his taxes to the Treasury, as well as being generous with home charities.

When I go to the remaining main town post office, now leased from a PRE, the rather higher charges I pay in part go somewhere offshore. It all adds to my rising living costs and I suspect yours as well. Additionally, it is the owners of all these PRE’s and the rest of their supporting finance elements that are amongst the real power brokers and puppet masters of politicians around the world.

If Scotland does vote for political disengagement from London and somehow or another more disposable income is left in the pockets of Scots, what will they do with it? Go shopping?

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Gordon Brown & A Christmas Carol

The name Ebenezer has attracted interest arising from the season of the year and the endless screenings of versions of “A Christmas Carol”, Charles Dickens take on Christmas published in 1843. Ebenezer Scrooge is the name of the miser who is persuaded by spirits to abandon capital accumulation in favour of consumption spending on behalf of those unable to take on the burden of economic stimulus.

There have been spoof blogs and articles favouring Ebenezer Scrooge’s original policy of conservative financing and leaving the Cratchits to their own devices, but point is given to the matter by the knowledge that Gordon Brown’s father was named John Ebenezer Brown.

Why Dickens happened on the name Ebenezer Scrooge (Scrogg/Scroggie?) is still a matter of debate. Given that he was something of a jackdaw in picking up the names and references that appear in his books it could have been anything from a tale he heard told to an incidental experience.

There were many Scots in London at the time of Dickens, himself once a clerk. They were recruited for their skills as clerks and accounting staff in the mid 19th Century arising from the more organised and extensive education of the young in Scotland at the time. Inevitably there was some resentment when many office jobs went to these migrants.

Dickens may have had to deal with a few and if he came up against one or two who were more stringent and particular in their duties than Dickens cared for and one was an Ebenezer the name was too good to miss.

Given the stern Biblical nature of its origins and the fact that many Scots, and perhaps Scottish offices in London, did not celebrate Christmas at the time because it was not in their faith to do so, it would have been an obvious reference. Some Christian denominations do not celebrate Christmas on Biblical grounds.

What of the name John Ebenezer Brown? With 171 Ebenezer Brown’s listed in Scotland at one time or another and no doubt others there is no shortage of choice. The one that really catches the eye is the marriage of an Ebenezer Brown to a Sophia Blair in the Middle or New Parish of Greenock, Renfrewshire in November 1875.

In Greenock at the time was a David Brown who had a son, Ebenezer in 1886, and earlier a John Brown, who also had a son Ebenezer, in 1863. There were a lot of them about. At this point I have to declare interest. One of my grandparents came down from Greenock and their family were resident in the same parish and the same period as those Brown’s. One had the Christian name of Ebenezer which had been in the family at least since the early 18th Century.

They had moved up to Greenock from Ayr and they and their family connections around the Shire had been there at the time of Robert Burns, whose maternal family were Brown’s. As we know, Gordon can be a wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie, and the Burn’s poem “To A Mouse” ends:

“The present only toucheth thee: But Och! I backward cast my e'e, On prospects drear! An' forward, tho' I canna see, I guess an' fear!”

As well as the alarming thought that Blair and Brown could be related is another twist in the tale. The parts of Ayrshire and adjacent districts were strongly Presbyterian, but of different persuasions.

One group in the late 17th Century whose firm beliefs made them Protestant Martyrs were The Cameronians, a devout fundamentalist Biblical group, the followers of Richard Cameron who challenged authority to worship in their Conventicles.

A hundred or two years later many people in that general area of Scotland and wider would have part of their ancestry derived from this relatively small group. There are a great many possibilities. One is that in ancestral terms Brown could be in part a Cameronian by faith and blood.

Happy Hogmanay to you all.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Afghanistan Reinforcements, 82nd Airborne Division

Checked out the Michael Yon web site this morning. If there is any doubt how many Americans and others regard the war in Afghanistan it is sobering to see what their current stance is relating to what should be done.

What has caused me to make sure I do not forget the UK, the US and others are engaged in this Christmas and into the coming year is the news, unmentioned in the UK media that the US is putting in the 82nd Airborne Division.

Anyone who has seen a screening of the film “The Longest Day” about the Normandy landings of June 1944 will recall the figure of an American parachutist who came down on the church in the village, was caught on hung from the spire whilst the action raged below him. I believe he was one of the 82nd who were dropped not long after midnight to attempt to secure the interior behind Omaha Beach.

By this stage of the war my family had moved from their city of my birth because of my father’s work. There were a few Air Force Americans at first straying in from air bases not too far away, but suddenly there were American troops in large numbers right on our doorsteps. At the turn of May and June 1944 most of them left leaving very few on their camps.

Youngsters soon forget, and they form just a vague memory of that time. It was only a handful of years ago, trawling web sites for some military history that I realised that the troops I had known all those years ago were the 82nd. The reason for their leaving was to go to Folkingham and North Witham in Lincolnshire to be flown to Normandy.

They seemed to be a great bunch of guys, open, polite, and bringing the film depictions of Americans to real life. A particular memory is of having to wait at the barbers for a hair cut, while a couple of Americans ahead of me were dealt with. When they were finished one took a long look at me and asked me if they had made me late for school.

I admitted it, but did suggest that on the whole I preferred reading comics in the barbers to doing arithmetic. But they handed over Hershey bars and gum in apology. On another occasion, the town Victory Parade, I was stuck at the back and could not see, so was allowed to stand on the Jeep bonnet to be given a clear view.

They were popular around town and were well thought of. In the music hall if a comic made jokes about Yanks that might have drawn laughs elsewhere they flopped badly with the local audience, many of whom would have known what the men they considered their friends had accomplished in France.

I wish the 82nd Airborne well and the best of fortunes in the same way as I wish those for our own. They have the duty of clearing up a politically bad business, amongst the most difficult of military tasks.

But I will not be chewing gum; the teeth now are not quite up to it.

Monday 21 December 2009

Jonah Brown - Making The Trains Run On Time

One of the “Private Eye” features is the “Jonah Brown” item by which anything supported by or encouraged by the Prime Minister inevitably has either a sticky end or encounters serious problems. Guido Fawkes claims this as his initiative, although I suspect that the idea has been around in one way or another for some time.

Having made the references here is one of my own taken from the South Eastern Railways web site, a mine of disinformation.

Gordon Brown prime minister officially launches high speed train service

London, 14 December 2009:

Today saw the official launch of the UK’s first domestic high speed service by Gordon Brown Prime Minister.

The new high speed service operates from St Pancras International to Kent and is part of a fully integrated timetable in the South East, marking the biggest change in 40 years.

Transport Secretary, Andrew Adonis said, "These fantastic new services, made possible by the Government's investment in this £5.8bn high speed new line, are changing the transport map of Kent. Journey times have shrunk dramatically, bringing regeneration and new opportunities for investment.

"This shows the potential of high speed rail and we now must consider what it can do for the rest of the country."

Line problem in the Ashford area – 21 December 2009.

Message Received: 06:12:17 21/12/2009

Train services on all routes via Ashford International are being disrupted due to poor weather conditions in the Ashford area.

Short notice alterations, cancellations and delays can be expected.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Washington DC In Crisis - Eight Inches Of Snow

The picture above is of Francis Scott Key Bridge over the Potomac in Washington DC, USA taken in the last few hours.

For comments on this please see my post of yesterday, Saturday 19th December, “England In Crisis – Four Inches Of Snow”, and make your own amendments to match.

In the USA they like to have things bigger and better.

Saturday 19 December 2009

England In Crisis - Four Inches Of Snow

The ancient gods of the north, lurking in their caves and caverns until the next cataclysmic event sees off enough humans, then to emerge and be reinstated in their proper place, decided to have a laugh this week. With many of the political leaders and their sidekicks in Copenhagen tackling the issue of Global Warming, they slapped a winter blocking high over northern Europe delivering cold a plenty, frost, snow, and an unlimited supply of icicles. Been there, done that, the picture is of Northern Germany in December 1955 when a long blocking high froze all the rivers for weeks.

The irony has not been lost on many of the cartoonists who have welcomed the gift of satire to speed their efforts. What all of us should remember is that the path of either climate change or relatively localised weather pattern readjustments does not go in a straight line. There are many zigzags, loops, and deviations on the way. What I am grateful for is that these days when the weather turns nasty, I can just opt to stay in and watch it all on screen.

What never fails to strike me in our super organised wonderful technology and high communication level modern world is just how vulnerable we are and how stupid humans can be when the predictable occurs. One moderate snowfall overnight reduced our local transport systems to chaos and the roads were not helped by large numbers of drivers attempting drive along roads that were going to be difficult.

There have been the usual complaints about the gritters, but they can only do so many at a time and have a scale of priorities. It is not difficult to work it out. In any case too many of the roads they were trying to grit were blocked by vehicles that should never have been out. In addition the urge to concentrate vehicle depots and set use according to theory adds to the problems. A road engineer once explained to be the intricacy of temperature and road conditions that could affect the issue and the more problems in getting it right if larger areas had to be covered.

As for the trains, if we are running services now on a basis of high intensity use of train sets and staff, it does not take many hiccups to have a chaotic situation. Add to that the lack of back-up for train breakdowns beyond one or two at a time, it is very likely that the service will go haywire. As the running is entirely dependent on “hubs” and concentrated management, there are few people on the ground along the way to deal with matters and make decisions.

South Eastern trains, as usual, let most of their ordinary services go hang, but this time concentrated their efforts on the new High Speed Train high fare service, ticking all the right Ministry of Transport boxes. It helped them when the Eurotunnel was blocked by trains on which too much condensation had occurred in changing from colder to warmer air as happens in tunnels. The HST had clear tracks.

As for the police, as one blogger from a force points out, their management procurement policy has given them for routine operations cars that are useless in bad weather and they now operate from “hubs” so the whole system depends on endless to and fro of men and cars which are not designed for severe weather conditions. So no cars, no police, and nobody to sort out situations on the roads.

The much bigger problem is our easy assumptions that everything will work all the time because we think it ought to because that is the way we have decided to live our lives. The other is the overburden of complex management with computers where for the sake of “efficiency” and meeting the financial and running figures which we would like to have provision and service is fine tuned, concentrated, and has to work to increasingly complicated structures and rules.

In the last three decades or so we have been persuaded that we can live in a way totally alien to that of previous human societies in the scale of movement and distances considered normal for large numbers. Moreover, we expect to function according to precise timetables and high intensity use of equipment and staff beyond anything thought possible ever before. When it goes wrong, almost always for reasons that are entirely feasible and predictable the hullaballoo is immense.

Worse, because we expect everything to work all the time we have systems and staffing to be kept at a minimum to keep the costs as low as possible. It all depends on very few things. Petrochemicals is one, co-operation, flexibility, and ability to make decisions are others and it is all delicately balanced. If the negotiations in Copenhagen are any guide we are already on the slide.

Perhaps the ancient gods know more than we do.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Election 2010 - The Great Gamble, Stealth Cuts and Secret Deals

In all the welter of announcements, initiatives, declarations, promises, allegations, and the rest that have been made to command the media before The Forbidden City disbands for the celebration of the Solstice, one thing is worrying about the great gamble the government is about to take with our future, our incomes, our savings, and all our prospects.

What exactly will the government let it be known during the vacation period, say late on 24th December, or 31st December, that it would prefer the opposition, the media and the absent bloggers to miss, or pick up on too late, or be issued in a form difficult to comprehend or analyse in the time available?

Moreover, what is not being said and why? There are a number of possibilities, for which I have little or no evidence and only instinct and a nose for bad business. A serious complication is that anything will be geared to the timing of the general election to come.

At present it is suggested that 25th March 2010 is possible. This is a fascinating choice, once better known at the old Lady Day, one of the key Quarter Days of the year for generations past, and used for all sorts of payments and contracts. It derived from the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Why such a date should occur to such a secular government is interesting. Perhaps it could be the subject of an Easter Mystery Play.

It is also the saint’s day of St. Dismas, the good thief of the Crucifixion. Given that the Prime Minister is a son of the manse, perhaps he is about to become an apostate in the same way as his predecessor. If so it is an interesting choice of name for the Confirmation into his new faith.

But to get to the point, what are the items they cannot hide or delay but will not want to attract much attention to? On 9th December I referred to the absence from the scene of Lord Peter, is he really in a sulk, or has he been doing the rounds of the oligarchs or Europe or both to stop the UK going under in the next few weeks? If he has been doing deals, then that means concessions, big ones, perhaps very big ones, and wrapped up in a way that is not obvious, and not made much of at the time. I suspect something important may emerge when a big story is dominating the media, say a takeover of Manchester United by the Chinese, and Sir Alex Ferguson giving up his gum for chewing on noodles.

We have heard about Tiger Wood’s super-injunction in the UK, which may account for the relatively restrained coverage of his problems. Perhaps there might be an admission that some major debtors have been bailed out who might not be quite so popular as the likes of Sir Fred Goodwin and who have obtained such injunctions to prevent either publicity or investigation. The company whose head described the clients whose savings were being ripped off as dribbling geriatrics comes to mind, but who else? Has the man who owns a football club adjacent to Kensington been getting help in return for promises that Russia will not cut the gas off? Someone, somewhere, but who and why?

We have already had a guarded admission that some pension rises will be frozen. Given the scale and extent of the pension issues in overall government liabilities there has to be something else in the pipeline, something may emerge. This is unlikely to happen for the public sector without a parallel adverse action in the private. Both the Tories and Lib Dem’s may not want to say much as well.

There are issues with the Balance of Trade, once central to the economic strategy of governments. Because of the increasing size of the deficits something will have to be done and soon that will have significant reactions. Moreover, it is no good talking up consumer debt (BBC style) or trying to direct quantatitive easing into consumption without worsening the adverse Balance. Add to that the money leaking into The Parallel Economy that is funnelled overseas something has to happen.

With inflation on the way, which I have long believed, and measures are needed, then given the few options that will be available and their potential unpopularity and effects, then it is likely that only bits and pieces will be leaked over a period.

This is evident on the announcement about the Chinooks for the Army, intended to suggest improvements. On examination it appears that they are replacements for the current rate of loss. If that increases, then the total will diminish. Reductions elsewhere are characterised as minor adjustments. To me, as well as to those I think in arms, they seem to be the sort of damaging uncoordinated tinkering with service budgets which is the hall mark of this government.

There are all sorts of items that could prove difficult. Sorting out British Airways is one that is increasingly likely, and other commercial embarrassments. If the racket in Carbon Emissions Trading is about to hit other sectors of our economy hard as well as the steel industry the less attention this attracts the better before the election, and before anyone else can be blamed.

Doris Johnson (to borrow a Guardian error from the past) has suddenly demanded extra help for Crossrail from other local authorities. Does this mean it could be for the chop, as well as a raft of other rail services to cut the subsidies. South Eastern Railways have already whacked their customers on the ordinary trains. There are a number of issues with Crossrail; it is one of those projects doomed to go way over budget and then be in the wrong place. It is North to South that needs improving, no longer West to East.

The area to watch is welfare and benefits, these could be due for adjustments of all kinds in detail introduced quickly by regulation on the quiet and without publicity. In other words Stealth Cuts that will impact on the most in need. Care in the Community could be pushed to the point of collapse and a great many support services badly affected. This would materialise only months after the election.

My difficulty, and many other peoples, is speculating what items are pending and cannot be avoided, or at least fail to attract attention of some kind. One thing I am certain of is that there will be quite a few things, but what? It is my belief that despite what the rating agencies say, the UK effectively is already in default. An entity that depends on borrowing money it creates itself to meet its basic commitments is already in deep trouble and inflation is default. I have lived too long not to know that and to have experienced it. Does anyone remember Post War Credits?

It is not a question that all bets are off; it is that all bets are on.

Monday 14 December 2009

Saving The World - The Parallel Economy

In the media there have appeared reports of comments by Antonio Maria Costa the Head of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime to the effect that in late 2008 what saved the world from a complete financial crash was not the activity of governments and central banks.

Their quantatitive easing and issue of money seems mostly to have circulated round a narrow group of organisations. It may have boosted the figures but it didn’t do much else. What did the trick was the real and active substantial liquidity from the cash circulating from the proceeds of crime, notably dealing in banned drugs.

One idea I have been peddling to widespread disagreement and scorn is the notion of a The Parallel Economy. All our established experts, commentators, and media are concentrated on the long standing proposition that there is an official Gross National Product that can be measured, and which can be “improved” or “grow” to the benefit of us all.

To discuss this would be too long a job. It is enough to say that whilst it is a happy idea there are a lot of problems in devising these figures, which The Treasury and the Office of National Statistics know about but say very little. There are many more problems if politicians and others with a close personal interest are left in control of them and with a need to continually massage the figures upward, regardless of the realities of the economy.

The doubt in my mind relates to long ago during the 1940’s in particular when the State had taken control of the supply of food, consumer goods, and the operation of the known economy. During that time there was a huge expansion of barter, the exchange of goods acquired illegally, and the mutuality of services rendered within communities that were not cash based.

None of this was recorded. Nor was the amount of food and goods liberated from the American forces stores, or that went astray in the docks, or that came in from Ireland, often in the high old fashioned perambulators on the ferries with wailing babies perched on top, and the variety of items that came from home workshops and gardens. From engineering factories with lots of bits of metal all sorts of things could emerge, notably cigarette lighters in my experience.

In some urban areas there was increased organised criminal activity that had a significant impact, notably in hard liquor, desirable luxury goods, “personal services” and extra to ration supplies of scarce foods and fuels. In some cases this was self-regulated to all intents and purposes by crime bosses because of the workload on ordinary police forces and their manning problems. This was not helped by the scale of population movement and the disruption of communities.

A consequence was the “regulatory” capture of some forces by the wealthier and more powerful criminals buying protection from the police to help them continue in control of their patches or chosen activities. Is there something familiar in all this?

There are few economists studying The Parallel Economy, there is no career in it, and certainly no research grants from The Home Office or The Treasury. Some brave men have attempted to put a figure on it, but they are the first to admit that any figures are speculative. Given the scale of drug taking etc. alone in the UK it is likely to be a very large figure in any case, and the higher it is and the more extensive the activity, the greater the scope for inaccuracy. This could be almost as much as in the official figures for GNP.

As well as ordinary criminality, there is also the many ways and means of tax evasion and many are at it. The jobs done cash down, for example when I go to the cheap car hand wash behind a shed up the road, I can be sure that little or no tax is being paid. All the money shuffled about here and there, much of it through tax havens that is not registering anywhere. There is quite an irony in this.

After 1945 there were a few Polish refugees around near us many doing odd jobs for cash and a couple were found jobs in a factory where the Chess team were a real force, moving from the then Parallel Economy into the official one. They were very good and major trophies were won. Sixty years later I am round at the Polish car wash helping them to earn a bit. They are part of The Parallel Economy.

Little did I know that last year it was me and the Poles who saved the world, along with the hoodies in town behind the market selling banned drugs.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Police Sensation - Bogged Down In PFI Paperwork

There have been stories in the press and the blogs about the relationship of police officers to their bog (toilet - loo) rolls. An item in Kent Online by Jenni Horne tells its own tale.

“Officers at Medway Police station have been caught short after being banned from replacing a roll of toilet paper. Staff at Gillingham’s ‘super nick’ must call a contractor out to replace loo rolls and light bulbs rather than doing it themselves. Police are being bound up in red tape because the station in Purser Way, along with the new station in North Kent, was paid for by a private finance initiative (PFI).

Ian Pointon, chairman of the Kent Police Federation, said: “Because of the way they have been funded you have to go through the contractor to get anything done. “In the old days if a light bulb broke, you could just go the cupboard to get a new one and change it, but now you have to phone or email the contractor and they have to send someone to do it.

“If you run out of toilet roll, you can’t just go and get another one, or if you want to put a white board up you have to go through the contractor to decide where it is going to go. Police officers find it very frustrating.” Assistant Chief Constable Gary Beautridge said: “By using a contractor to undertake the routine service work we free up staff to concentrate on the matters that concern the public - continuing to reduce the level of crime across the county.””

There is a blissful bureaucratic barminess in Beautridge’s statement that has a beauty of its own. Personally, when I change the bog roll, it does not entail any extra duties as I am enthroned at the time and spares are kept to hand. If I change a light bulb, about five minutes is par, so long as some are close. Quite how long it would take me to boot up, log in, complete the order, and how long it would take the service contractor to notify the attendant, and how long it would take that person to do the job do not rate as “costs” or “lost time” in the never never land of public sector management, notably those whose buildings are funded by Private Finance Initiative schemes (PFI).

Once finance borrowed by the government, local or health authorities etc. was regarded as public sector debt, and the whole was managed within existing structures as part of the job by far fewer people working locally to central government supervision of the total budget commitment and implications. Today PFI is “off balance sheet”, with Enron style accounting, and does not form part of the admitted government debt.

Begun by Major’s Conservatives as an occasional device for a few marginal projects that did not fit into any pattern, Brown and Blair turned it into a major source of finance for capital projects for all services at the urging of their advisers drawn from The City. This entailed substantial added management costs far beyond the old systems, all of which added to the debt, interest and liabilities. The City of London, the Big Four accountancy firms, and the armies of consultants have been on a bonanza of profits.

Profit is a vital element in engaging in business and its functions are critical. But only if it is the profit of doing the job well and arises from real work and real investment. PFI is not this; it is in the business of taking the profits of financial extraction, whereby the take or “rent” is maximized from a position of monopoly regardless of what happens to the sources of the income stream.

There have been many consequences of this as it has impacted on public services. We have had closures of maternity wards at a time of rising births, closure of urology services with an ageing population, and the closure of A&E units close to major motorway junctions. All these occur to pay off the cost of that new building or those new offices for management and accounting.

In the media we have the personal interest stories, the dead babies, the birthings in car parks and corridors, the bug infested wards, the blood spattered lavatories, the geriatrics and disabled dying of starvation or dehydration on hospital wards, the disasters and operations going badly wrong. In policing it means all those officers who are rarely available and less effective when they are. Very often financial problems arising from PFI contracts are behind the stories, but that is too complicated for the media to explain.

Much the same issues apply to schools and other services. It is interesting that the “ring fenced” services which will not face cuts (in theory) are the same ones in which vast debts have been built up on PFI contracts that have impacted radically on their work and function. All these services are supposed to be for the benefit of ordinary people and amongst the essential reasons why we pay all that tax. When Darling made his PBR speech about dealing with government debt he did not include the amount, levels, or impact of PFI.

But the “little people”, the ordinary taxpayers and those in the poorer groups are regarded as the “untermentschen” of The Labour Tyranny. The surrender of authority and control to unrepresentative and almost unregulated interests by the government has certainly profited them and their friends in the “rents” they have extracted and will continue to do so for decades to come as a result. These will mean a debacle for the ordinary people when the forthcoming cuts take place.

If anyone had thought that within just over a decade when you visited a public service building it would not be owned by the service or an authority whose rulers you could vote in or out. Also that many staff would be agency employed, and its running in the hands of a group of contractors and financiers, none of whom were publicly accountable, and controlling the finest detail to ensure profit, as well as creaming huge sums from the taxes you paid as fees, charges, and interest. You would have thought that the world had gone completely crazy.

Just like your local coppers think when they queue for the only functioning toilet hoping against hope that the bog roll does not run out and they will not have to use the forms they are given to complete the endless paperwork.

Saturday 12 December 2009

Football Crazy Football Mad

As the football industry staggers towards the next opening of its player trading period, the media and much else is swamped with speculation, forecasts and all the spin and hype that money can buy, and expensive money at that, the interest on debt will be at market rates. The English Premier League is one of the leftovers from the last boom. Were it not for the huge tranches of money paid in by Sky TV, ESPN, a couple of media sideliners and a few global gamblers the whole shebang would be worthless.

Once, Sky had a monopoly and set a price convenient for them and which did enrich a number of clubs, but the EU and others wanted competition. This according to market theory should reduce prices and make goods or services more accessible. But it was not competition; it was a contest between members of a cartel to grab what they could. Guess what? The poor old consumer is now paying a lot more, getting a worse service, the money that used to trickle down the leagues no longer does, and they have stoked up a money frenzy bigger and better than either the Emperors Nero and Caligula could manage.

At the dawn of 2010 what have we got? It is conceivable that by the end of the year in the English league there will be no Premiership clubs in East Anglia, or south of the Thames and Avon (the Midlands one) outside North London. At present none of the East Midlands clubs are there, and that may still be the case by 2011. At the moment the West Midlands is still in there, but without the big money.

In North London, Fulham is owned by a persona non gratis who funds it out of a fashionable retail store and whose money is off shored. Chelsea is owned by a Russian oligarch, whose money is off shored. West Ham United is quasi-nationalised in hock to a bust company in hock to a bust state owned bank (BSOB). Arsenal has mega-debt and whose ownership is now in dispute between the Russians and the Americans, will the gas be cut off before the dollar implodes? Tottenham Hotspur is owned by some interesting people that I have lost track of.

Oop North, down in the basement, of the original clubs in the League Accrington Stanley held on by a whisker from the pursuing tax man, and Notts County are a bargaining counter. In the Premiership Liverpool are in mega-debt to RBS (a BSOB) and blowing fuses in a way eerily reminiscent of the early 1950’s when they were suddenly relegated. Everton are struggling, faced with the familiar issues of too little money and too many ambitions, and like Liverpool with a stadium issue that is costing them time and money. In the 1950’s they too were relegated.

Man U have mega-debts in the USA that could go badly wrong, but Man City have found some god-fathers, but only so long as success is found. All the other clubs are financially on a wing and prayer; meanwhile large cities like Leeds, Sheffield, and Bradford have no Premiership team. The North East has only Sunderland, but Newcastle United may rejoin them, less by the quality of the squad, but more by the fact that they did keep a good many of them, enough to give them an edge over an increasingly weakening Championship League but they have little money to spare.

Around the clubs are a cloud of financiers, agents, dealers, public relations people and whole ungodly crew of the media. It might all just become difficult. Where are all the new fans going to come from to replace the old? A good many older ones are becoming fed up with being ripped off. Many games seem to have more seats vacant, and as for TV, which underpins everything, some of us are getting bored. Setanta miscalculated and paid the price.

What happens if the oligarchs and others realise that there are better ways of having fun and attracting media approbation than wasting money on a futile chase for football prizes. The world has other prizes to offer, and other places to seek and to hold them. What happens if the BOSB’s have to pull the plug on their worst and most toxic lending, and this includes football clubs and their bosses?

Back in the 1870’s to 1890’s members of my family were involved with both Everton and Liverpool, and cousins with Morton and others, including the Royal Engineers. Down the decades there has been continuous contact and interest until recent years with both personal and family involved with this team or that as well as interest and support. Now it is going and almost gone, the professional game is simply a major financial operation based on hype and the media, and has become increasingly removed from its old fan base. Moreover the finances simply do not make sense any more.

I was standing in a shop looking at a big HD screen showing a blu-ray disc of something very enjoyable and interesting. Doing this would be a whole lot cheaper in the long run than bothering about going to football matches, or even watching them on a Sky subscription. It was tempting, very tempting.

Friday 11 December 2009

Drinking & Driving - What Are The Figures?

This piece is asking for trouble. How much is it safe to drink? Booze, I mean, not fluoridated water, or tins of fizzy ooze with a caffeine belt. There is no shortage of advice, including from the State. The problem with the official advice is that we have learned recently that the levels they suggest were arrived at by a committee decision.

Also, we know now that the advice represented a compromise between the little that was known, what was theorised, and what was thought to be manageable in the public domain. Then the officials got to work trying to marry statistical exactness with how they thought people drank and reacted, and came up with a right mess of units and pictures that baffle even the most devoted toper.

My own view is that it makes more sense to use the figures that are often in front of you. On the bottles and the pump clips we are given the percentage of alcohol, and we know the volumes. You do not need a degree in mathematics. If a litre has a 1000 millilitres, then it has 100 centilitres.

If a beer is listed as 5% alcohol, then in a litre that means five centilitres (cl). Even I can work that one out. To make it really complex, if you rate a pint at about two thirds of a litre, then that will be just over 3 cl. For practical purposes you do not need absolute precision. If you are near and the estimate is a little rough, as long as you are close to the figure you will know if your intake is high, middling, or low.

Then it is not too difficult. If you are consistently taking in high levels, then this might not be a good idea. If you are mostly low, now and again dry, with occasional middling and rare highs, probably not much damage is being done. You just need to have the general idea of what is low and what is high.

Unravelling the complexities of the official stuff (I will not try to explain), low seems to me to be about 20 cl or less per week. Their recommended top limit seems to come in at around 35-40 cl a week. So call 30 to 50 a week middling, and anything more than 50 cl of alcohol a week is going into the high levels. Again, this is a crude estimate, a very rough guide.

What does that mean at the low end? Beer at say 4.5% cl, is 3+ cl a pint, and you need to adjust this for the stronger beers. So 20 cl is close to a pint of beer a day. If whisky or other spirits at 40% cl, then half a litre, it will be a bit over half a bottle a week. If wine, average 12%, then a couple of bottles a week.

If you are going into the middle ranges of drinking, say 30 to 50 cl a week, then just double those quantities for easy calculation, at the lower levels this would be around two pints a day, alternatively about a bottle of whisky or a bit more a week, alternatively around four bottles of wine a week. Adjust for more in that category.

If your intake is consistently much over 50 cl a week, or well above those levels the official view is that you are taking risks. These risks will be compounded if the diet is bad, or there are other issues, notably medication and other pills and potions, notoriously cough mixtures and mouth washes.

With beer only it is easier to keep track and with wine only not too difficult. With spirits there is a problem in correctly assessing the total centilitres on a glass by glass basis, you do have to use common sense, or keep your eye on the bottle, and be prepared to use a conservative figure.

What the breathalyser figure might be has too many variables given food intake and nature, especially if alcohol is in any recipe, a real risk when eating out, metabolism, age, and other things. The safest figure is zero, and 3 to 5 cl could be risky given other factors to take into account.

If you are driving there are complications these days. There are flavourings and flavour enhancers in many products, about which little is known relating to the impact on alcohol. If they are there to boost the taste of the food, they might be boosting other things, apart from the sperm count, which will be in free fall.

There is a big nasty out there for the unwary, and that is the modern synthetic chemical loading of the person, clothing, and atmosphere, and the inevitable particulate contamination in the atmosphere. One substance much used is ethanol, especially in sprays and fragrance impellers, and this is alcohol and psychoactive, that is it hits the brain good and hard.

How other chemicals in all these products affect any alcohol that has been taken is not known. As some of them are impact enhancers, and designed to have a brain impact, the risk is that they could exaggerate the effect of any alcohol you do have in the blood stream and respiratory system and maybe when you are invited by a friendly copper to blow into the little box of tricks.

In the last two or three years the producers have overcome recommended limits by high level chemical engineering and the application of nanotechnology to massively increase impact and persistence. So go easy on the spray deodorants and keep clear of the air fresheners, you might just get a positive reading on the blower without having drunk a drop.

And stay clear of the floozy or the gigolo who is coming on strong with cocktails and a scent that is even stronger.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

PBR - Prize Bungling Review

In any respectable Scottish (or Danish) tragedy involving witches brews of forecasts, declarations, and intentions, ‘orrible deaths and the rest there always has to be a ghost. I saw a man who wasn’t there etc. For those raised in the rectory, vicarage, or manse, the equivalent would be writing on the wall, mene mene tekel upharsin, the days are numbered, another feast, another bust ruler, in that case Belshazzar.

So who and what has been missing this week? Lord Peter has been away, I assume on mystery trips delivering Milk Tray. Harriet Harman has been waiting for the light to dim before emerging to propose the deflowering of the virgins. Johnson has been off helping with the Christmas post, and Straw has been the needle in the haystack.

Amongst the other missing matters has been a deathly hush about currencies. The Euro issue is out there somewhere, nobody knows where, but will come rushing in with the power of Grendel. Beowulf, sadly, is subject to health and safety, and will not be available. In any case the Anglo-Saxon model is going out of fashion. What might happen with further decline of the dollar and the possible unshackling of the pricing of oil from this base is another matter under “Any Other Business”. There are other potential variables in currency markets which are being ignored.

According to “Private Eye” Blair has been in Azerbaijan opening a new factory for formaldehyde production. Just what we all need, embalming on the cheap. But they paid in hard cash, and don’t we all need it. In relation to Blair, there are some huge items on the Defence budget that need attention, no reference to these in the light of recent casualties, and he will not be paying much tax to help us. The NHS computer business was mentioned, but not the huge increase in future demands that are now well over the horizon, or the fact that the scale of the losses has cost us major losses of service.

We are told that there will be a lot of freezing this and that, but some of us recall the last time a raft of measures of this kind occurred, the winter of discontent of 1978-1979. This may not happen because too many people are too vulnerable. What could happen is increasing chaos as the mismatch between management and service worsens. Energy policy is still in the witch’s cauldron. The other thing not mentioned is what happens to all these freezes if a bout of even moderate inflation occurs. As it might if interest rates move up, a prospect some of think could easily happen.

Look for other ghosts, there are plenty around, but this government, true to form, has no idea where the bodies are buried.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Cadbury - Never Give A Sucker An Even Break

Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party’s resident fruit and nut case has emerged from his lair behind the bike sheds at the Mayoral Palace to rejoice at the possibility of a takeover of Cadbury’s by the likes of the Krafts Foods Inc, Nestle, or the Hershey Food Corporation of the USA. Boris is given to waving the white flag of surrender to the global financial elite. He has already done the Kowtow demanded of HSBC and other banks. Perhaps as a teenage oik of Oxford University he head butted too many police officers.

These are all companies which now have expanded far beyond their original home bases and contend for market share across the globe. It should not be sentiment that applies here, it is self interest. They have all been active in takeovers and in doing so have become properties of the major financial players, who in turn are in bitter competition with each other.

Cadbury is the only one of the four that is UK based, and in which the UK people might have much say in how it goes about the business of providing work, food production of one sort or another, and of course paying taxes. One of the major problems facing the government at present is that revenues are no longer up to paying for all our obligations and a reason for that it that it has presided over the atrophy of the tax base for the benefit of a small controlling group of financial entities.

We are coming to the point at which whilst the public sector employment and finance is more or less under government control, a great deal of the private sector, especially the firms that are in the hands of the mega-corporations, is foreign owned and funded. This means that despite all the claims of job saving and the rest, in the last analysis the UK government has to accept the junior role. So if Cadbury is asset stripped, the brands exported, and production moved abroad they are powerless.

Should the need to fund the government deficit and bail outs require major debt liabilities to other foreign financial interests, then even the public sector is not safe. As Europe will now have a superior financial authority over all its members, then even the City will not be able to continue in the same way.

To complain again about food supplies if Europe now effectively controls the nature and production of UK agriculture, and most of our food manufacturing is in the hands of a small group of non-European mega-corporations this ought to be a real concern. Asda is already American owned, Tesco is off-shoring on the basis of global finance, Morrisons is uncertain, which leaves only Sainsbury and Waitrose as essentially UK food retailers. So primary production, secondary production, and distribution of the bulk of our food supply will be all beyond any effective UK government control.

Boris may enjoy dining on cheap buns, rubber chicken, and even more rubbery cheese slices, but some of us don’t. More to the point we do not like a large part of our spending providing only jobs elsewhere, whilst our taxes rise to essentially subsidise and support our new masters in their shiny headquarters far far away.

Sunday 6 December 2009

All Things Bright And Beautiful

The Royal Albert Hall was once a major boxing arena, with some wrestling, as well as being a major venue for Temperance and Political rallies, and other great occasions. In recent decades it has become more of a venue for vulgar entertainments, so inevitably the BBC has become attracted to it.

According to a plaintive letter in the latest Saga magazine sent to me free looking for a subscription (that will teach me not to ask them for insurance quotes) a reader tells of an experience in September. Invited to attend a BBC “Big Sing” for “Songs of Praises” in September at the Royal Albert Hall, he found it decked out with holly and Christmas trees. Just to remind them the warm-up man bellowed out “It’s Christmas!” when in reality it was the Autumn Equinox.

After an hour singing away at Christmas Carols led by Aled Jones, the BBC’s resident Holy Man, they had an interval. Whilst the carollers went out to get some fresh air and to view the lines of the impoverished of Kensington waiting to cash their food stamps in the shops of Partridges, Waitrose and M&S, or seeking out cheap Chinese clothing on Kensington High Street, the Hall was having a makeover, as the BBC calls it.

When they resumed the “Big Sing” after the interval it was Easter, apparently, with hymns and the rest to match, and suitable d├ęcor. Perhaps it was as well that the BBC did not try to cram in a session for Midsummer Day, the mind boggles at what they may have come up with.

We have all seen those TV documentaries where the presenter is atop a far hill with fields of yellow rape seed oil in the distance in the May, waving to a village at the bottom. Then when the presenter reaches the village it is clearly Autumn. Also the costume dramas where the handsome hero arrives at the lady’s house in the Autumn, and apparently leaves in the Spring. In the book he took only tea, and did not winter there.

I have been struggling to find some “wrong” dates for some events or music, or others, but cannot come up with a really good one. Others may have wilder imaginations. As for religion, the BBC seems to regard all feasts as moveable according to its outdoor broadcast recording schedules and sporting events.

But as every comedian knows, it is all a matter of timing.

Friday 4 December 2009

Savings Down The Plughole

When quite young my pocket money was six pence in old money or two and one half pence in new money. This may not seem much, but after my parents had paid their rent, food, coal and fuel costs, it did amount to ten per cent of what was left. So it was as much as I could hope for.

Since then there has been persistent inflation. We fought a war we could not afford, then needed inflation to effectively default on our national debt, with more to come in the course of trying to stay in the game as a world power. It took a long while to get it under control. But according to some observers now it is coming back.

For some of the population, it has already arrived, notably those in the lowest income ranges whose patterns of expenditure are not in keeping with those reconstructed price indexes largely based on a prosperous consuming debt driven culture. One characteristic of inflation is that it wipes out and deters savings. For those who rely on income from savings necessarily this will reduce their power to consume.

So whose expenditure is left to stoke up consumption and make up for the loss of saving, and what is happening? Some commentators are very worried. The diagram above was taken from “Britain’s Inflationary Debt Spiral As Bank Of England Keeps Expanding Quantitative Easing” by Nadeem Walayat in The Market Oracle dot co dot uk of 3 December.

By my calculation in a handful of years or less I will be lucky to have two and a half pence to spare to spend.

Thursday 3 December 2009

Copenhagen - Wonderful Queen Of The Sea

It was thirty years in November since I visited Copenhagen on an official thing. It was cold, wet, with snow showers and I needed the extra clothes. It made me believe the contemporary scientific theory of a period of Global Cooling. I had a good few days meeting and talking with interesting people. One best bit was a lunch at the Folketing, their Parliament, with a fine schnapps with cold beers when the politicians had to go off to urgent business and left it all for us to finish.

Expenses in those days were different. There was a fixed figure to cover the economy class air fare from London to Copenhagen and the modern equivalent would be around £3000. The other expenses were down to the individual. I managed to contain the travel, hotel, and sundry other costs within the figure by a surface travel package, Harwich to Ebsjerg and rail to Copenhagen. This took a lot longer, but was more scenic. It was less than fun coming back when the ship hit a Force 10 gale in the North Sea. I wobbled for days afterwards.

Many of the leaders of the world are in Copenhagen to talk about Global Warming and what can be done, if anything. Some will be trying to emulate Lord Nelson, who at the Battle of Copenhagen, is said to have put a telescope to his blind eye to claim that he was unable to see the signal telling him to withdraw, and went on to win. Others will be doing deals, at the behest of their favoured lobbyists. Others will sign up to measures and then go away and do either the reverse or nothing.

The meetings of world leaders are becoming a travelling circus where the turns are all too predictable and which give little value for money. Quite what the total carbon emissions are is impossible to calculate but they will not help much. One aspect is that all or nearly all will travel by air. If anything is contributing to climate warming it might be air travel, because there is so much more of it, and a reason for that is the huge reduction in the real cost of fares since 1979.

There are other things impossible to control if human activity is at the root of the problem. In that thirty years the world population has increased substantially, it is now more urbanised, and more societies and peoples are dependent on distant supplies largely trucked, air or sea freighted, all of which burn fuels. Quite what major reductions can be made here will not be discussed. Inevitably, the more people, the more scope for intercontinental movement; as happens when long term droughts occur.

People have votes and politicians want more of them. We have learned recently that the Blair government was importing migrants as future Labour voters at the same time as cutting back on UK agriculture, claiming there was never going to be a problem with food security, reducing the number of hospital beds and maternity services, and making major economies in the care for the aged.

One source I have seen suggests that to have some sort of effective climate control means that the world should have been opening a new nuclear power station each day for a little time now, and for some time into the future. Apart from the obvious problems there is the question of the supply of uranium, which may not be up to it.

This will not happen, nor anything like it. While the USA is marching through Afghanistan much of its power infrastructure is deteriorating, many of its people depend on food stamps, it is seriously in debt, and now drought is being forecast in the West. The start of withdrawal is timed for shortly before the caucuses begin to meet at the outset of the next US Presidential election campaigns.

There is a great deal of discussion and information suggesting that a warming might be taking place, whether or not humans have much to do with it. When I am still walking around outside perspiring in my shirt sleeves in December, it seems to be possible. It is difficult to believe that the current scale of human activity does not have some sort of effect, if only to make a large part of the Pacific Ocean a rubbish dump. But Earth has its own ways, and it is uncertainty that we have to be prepared for.

The picture above is one of the ship museum at Roskilde in 1979, new then to show the Viking trading ships recovered from the fiord there. They dated back to the early part of the Medieval Warm Period, and the timbers are now known to be from the vicinity of Dublin in Ireland. In the 1970’s they were assumed to be Scandinavian. The ships are the same but the science and its interpretation has changed.

So the politicians and leaders can talk as much as they want to, do whatever deals come their way, and issue all the statements they need to keep the media busy. The chances are what they do will be the wrong things, and what they don’t do would have been right. Just like in managing economies.

All I would ask if I were there again is that they find a reason for urgent discussion and leave the schnapps and beer for me and my companions.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

John Prescott Sings "Cwm Rhondda" For His Supper

If there is one politician who could turn family history into farce surely it must be John “Prestatyn” Prescott. He manages to give most things he touches a bad name without adding to the list. For John who built his career on the image of an ultra obstreperous Yorkshire hard man to decide in his dotage to be emotionally Welsh must rate as one of the about turns of the decade.

The difficulty is he is a has been politician with a routine of the pantomime peasant wants to become a real celebrity and needs other features to offer. We have had the public exposure of his personal marriage problems, the perils of Pauline that in the end was just another comic turn. John’s latest is a maudlin account of the “discovery” by a TV genealogy programme, that Gt. Gt. Gt. Grandfather of the Parish of Chirk, Denbigh, Wales, Thomas Parrish, when widowed is alleged to have had four children by a daughter, Athaliah.

For Biblical scholars this is an intriguing choice of name. It could be a reference to the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. Such a Biblical reference in a Wales riven by schismatic dissenting sects might have been enough to conjure up the wildest fantasies. If the name, as was very common, was handed down through several generations it could just mean that a grandmother or earlier relative had it.

John declares with only the passion he can command, through the tears summoned up for the filming, I quote “the evidence is clear, though we can’t prove it 100 per cent”. This sounds dangerously close to his famed Transport Policy, and assertions that Regional Government for England was inevitable. There is one way to attempt some added evidence that might assist John, it is to get busy with a pick and shovel in the cemeteries of Chirk, or wherever the bodies are buried, and check out the DNA of the various remains.

At present, I have to rely on my critical faculty, and the first reaction is one of deep suspicion. The evidence will need to be very good to be convincing in a case like this. Family History is a field suspect enough in the eyes of many historians and demographers without adding to its other difficulties. As to the suggestion, it is a case of “Up to a point Lord Copper”. There are too many other possibilities, including married men in the vicinity, and convenient arrangements.

If in history you are looking for anything suspect and leads to that twitch that there is something not quite right, an issue is often found in the probate and property implications in the context of the period and the locality. Also, it is easy to jump to conclusions. Added to that, many of the documentary records are far from accurate in detail, and need as much checking and corroboration as possible. There is a great deal of potential for mistakes, and misinterpretation.

There has been a fashion for family history qua genealogy programmes in TV in recent years. They have tended to go for celebrities, and “interesting” cases, as well as having a recent migrant line to follow. As time has passed, as with the soap operas, there has been a sharp increase in the more highly coloured cases, and to give a top dressing of sensationalism and often questionable interpretations. Some findings are increasing dodgy and they have become highly selective.

John Prescott and his family have amassed a great deal of wealth, interesting in that for many years he needed free accommodation provided by his trade union. Some of this is alleged to be a result of the extensive urban renewal projects in some cities. It is a pity that no investigating TV programme has taken a good look at the scandals of the municipal leasehold reversion houses affair in Liverpool.

Chirk is famous for its castle, built by Roger Mortimer, one of the leading land grabbing Marcher Lords in the reign of King Edward I, the Norman Plantagenet married to a Princess of Castile. My sympathies are entirely with the people of Wales. Their history is chequered enough with tens of generations of land and property grabbing magnates. They could do without John acting like the Biblical prodigal son doing public penitence for the sins of his Welsh ancestors.

Of course, John is getting older, and has had an exciting life. Possibly, he is looking to take advantage of the superior health facilities in Wales. If so, I recommend that the first thing the Welsh should do is to bang him up in the dungeons of Chirk on the first charge they can think of.

Sunday 29 November 2009

Lord Mandelson - A Shooting Party

A sighting of Lord Mandelson has been reported from Waddesdon Manor in Bucks. A National Trust House, it still has the Rothchilds’ family around to keep an eye on all the treasures, and with access to the estate. The occasion of the visit was not a coach party on a Saga Holiday, but a traditional Shooting Party hosted by the resident Rothschild.

My Lord was not one of the guns, nor indeed even a beater; Cabinet Ministers going round using weaponry on our native fluffy things is bad media these days. As Business Minister, he might have been there to price our treasures for the coming national fire sale, however there was another guest. This one shoots the birdies for pleasure and is very good.

It was Gadaafi Junior, son of the Colonel of Libya, no eyebrows were raised, they may have been shot at. Junior had publicity recently when he accompanied Mr. Al Megrahi, the alleged bomber of Lockerbie, home from Scotland and gaol, to wild approval of the thousands herded up from around Tripoli to be there or else. The transfer was an arrangement caused a great deal of trouble, so much so that the puzzle of why it happened began to centre on business deals in Libya that had suddenly become of key importance to the government.

So what gives this time round? Were they just keeping up to date? Was it a private pre pre agenda meeting about discussions to be had at some date involving major deals? We shall never really know because the respective parties did not care to say anything, it was just a fun weekend for the boys.

The problem is that My Lord has a lot of these fun weekends with one magnate or oligarch or another, and that means that either big trouble or something substantial to our disadvantage financially is on the cards. Being Libya, almost certainly this means oil and gas.

Quite what might be guessed at in terms of the future is very uncertain. There is too much going on, too much confusion in the debate and too little reliability in any of the estimates even in the short term. One possibility is that My Lord is very anxious to secure a deal in a hurry, to commit the UK before the coming election to a course that is profitable and useful to the favoured few of the Labour Tyranny. If this is the case this is bad news for the UK taxpayer, that diminishing band of serfs who still can be forced to pay.

The 1985 film “The Shooting Party”, concerned the declining Edwardian Landed Elite trying to come to terms with a changing world in which their power was lost, and control handed over to populist politicians contending with the financial elite of the period. It ends with one of the beaters, a true honest man of the people, being gunned down in a fiasco, whose last words are something like “God save the British Empire”. He was killed by an over ambitious shooter going for a quick sighting.

I believe that it was Meyer Amchel Rothschild, 1743-1812 who said “Let me issue and control a nation’s money and I care not who writes its laws.” Perhaps My Lord should swot up on the family, with particular reference to the period post 1815 when they tried to corner the gold market.

Friday 27 November 2009

Dubai - Tales Of The Unexpected

When Mick, a school mate who lived a few streets away, drew the RAF for his National Service, he was very happy. His mum thought it was higher class than the other services, and as he was hoping to qualify as an accountant by part time study, the chances were that he would spend his time moving figures on paper. A lot of people in the RAF did that. Also a Tory believer in Empire, he would be doing his bit.

It was three years later when I saw him again in a pub in town. He looked a lot older and slimmer. I asked him how he was getting on, he was close to qualifying. Then I asked him where he had been. It was Habbaniyah Air Base, near Baghdad, Iraq. That must have been interesting, I burbled, and inferred it had been a “cushy number”. It hadn’t, the RAF had enough paper merchants, he had spent his time in a very hot hangar wielding spanners and spraying oil. So what did you think of Iraq, I asked hoping for a happier response. He told me that they should give it back to the something camels. It was then I knew The Empire was lost.

In the meantime, I had worked with an officer who was coming to the end of a staff post and destined for a period with his Regiment, then based in one of the bleaker parts of Northern England. Instead he volunteered for secondment to the Trucial States, now called the Gulf States, where the UK maintained a small military presence and provided officers for their internal forces. I knew little or nothing about them until a few years later when I had dealings with a number of Sheikhs, charming and courteous chaps who knew how to spend money.

So when Dubai began to be newsworthy and TV programmes waxed lyrical about its delights and wonderful opportunities for investment, and all the very clever and talented people who were pouring money into property there, my instinct was that it was possible, certainly, but could it be as good as that? It was all that shifting earth about and building high and handsome. My first thought was that if you are extracting liquids from below, oil and groundwater, and piling up stuff on top this could be a problem in the long term. Another was that the work was done mostly by passing expatriates using huge numbers of migrant labour, earning little, and housed in grim hot barracks. This might not have happy consequences if things went awry.

Then there was the geology and climate of the area. It is in a fault zone, and close to a major one that regularly delivers hefty shocks in southern Iran. Movement occurs to the south of the Gulf as well. One major earth shift up or down and everything goes. Another is the climate, which means that to try to survive in ultra hot conditions, sometimes with either vicious weather storms or dust storms; the energy demands are very high. Living in concrete boxes at 40 plus needs air conditioning and the locals in past ages have taken to their tents wherever shade can be found.

So my money has been on either a bad earth shock or a prolonged period of adverse weather conditions causing severe problems. It has happened in the past. I did not reckon that with the oil wealth that they would manage to have such a spectacular financial bust. I should have remembered that they are good at spending money. Amongst other places where the loot has gone is the English Racing Industry, which has become critically dependent on money from The Gulf. A sharp contraction here could cause very severe problems.

Would this mean that the Epsom Derby might become a classic camel race? I will have to find Mick on the web and see if he has a good tip or two.

Thursday 26 November 2009

Votes - Equal or Unequal?

When my bleary eyes lit upon the combination of words “Hung” and “Parliament”, for a brief moment I was cheered by the thought that there had been a coup and whoever had grabbed power intended to hang the lot. Alas, it was all about the dry stuff of what happens after a general election when in the House of Commons no one party has a working majority and some kind of alliance has to be made to allow the work to be done, and critically Supply to be maintained, that is budgeting, taxing, and spending.

There has been some heavy trawling of the past to find examples to guide us. Fat chance; even the 1970’s are too long ago, and too remote for much real comparison. What the play might be in a modern parliament is anybody’s guess, and barely any will guess correctly. At least the rooms will not be smoke filled, and that is as far as I will go. The People’s Charter of 1838, which formed the basis of the proto-revolutionary movement of the 1840’s and after, had six basic principles.

A vote for every man over 21, now we would include women; a ballot, that is a secret vote, we did have this but the fiddling with the system of postal votes etc. has changed all that; no property qualification for MP’s, in recent years many have used their expenses to restore that in effect; payment of members, again our recent MP’s and Lords have fouled up that one; equal constituencies, that is to prevent small ones overcoming bigger ones, a form of gerrymandering in the wrong hands; and annual parliaments to check bribery and intimidation, a fine ideal, but a general election every year would be too much for most people, and likely to hand power to the civil service, and other cohorts.

To pick out the principle of “equal constituencies”, this is the potential blight over the result of the next election. Experts suggest that the Conservatives will need to win by a very substantial proportion of the votes cast in order to overcome the Labour bias in the way the present constituencies are based. We are supposed to have a Boundary Commission to sort this out and to ensure a reasonable comparative basis between them. Why has this not happened? Why is there such a disparity between so many constituencies? Just what has this Commission been doing?

What is even stranger is that organisations that might pride themselves on being the heirs of the revolutionaries of the past are almost frantic and shrill in their protests of change. The GMB trade union for example, nowadays best known for caring for its sex worker members, but with an original membership based on Municipal Workers, and Boilermakers, the latter with a history going back to The People’s Charter. It has swept up a number of other groups in recent years. Its recent newsletter to members is essentially an election campaign document in which it attacks the Conservative Party.

One policy it fastens on is that of change in the House of Commons, notably the Conservative suggestion of a reduction in the number of members and the restoring of balance. The GMB strongly objects to any change on the grounds that it could affect the number of Labour MP’s adversely. The conclusion must be on the basis of the nature of the present Labour Party that the GMB has now abandoned any of the Principles of the Charter.

Down with democracy and the equal value of each vote. The state is a client state, and the property laden leadership and membership of the Parliamentary Labour Party must retain the reins of power. The GMB is a powerful lobby for Labour’s clients. Perhaps we should have more frequent Parliaments to curb the bribery with taxpayer’s money, to really have equal electoral districts, and maybe go the whole hog and change the voting system to more accurately reflect the vote, and accept that coalitions could be the norm.

On the other hand, I hanker for the return of Tyburn for errant MP’s, it would be a lot more fun for ordinary taxpayers.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

National Service? Squad Will Not Advance

An independent TV company, Avalon, is looking for servicemen with strong views and the ability to express them for a programme to debate the question of whether National Service should be reintroduced, an issue that has been given public attention by a suggestion made by Sir Michael Caine, born Maurice Micklewhite into a family of working Londoners. He did his National Service between 1952 and 1954 under that name in the Royal Fusiliers, firstly in Germany and then in Korea during the war there.

It follows the release of his new film “Harry Brown” in which an ex-service Old Age Pensioner falls back on his experience in the Royal Marines to act as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner to clean up his home patch where gangs have targeted the aged. In many ways he is returning to his roots and the film, although a highly dramatised account, has a germ of truth and an uncomfortable one.

So his ideas are worth attention in view of concerns over the detachment of so many young from society and into criminal gang cultures. In the country at large, policing has withdrawn from the streets, leaving all the vulnerable open to exploitation and attack, persistent, merciless, and with a degree of viciousness beyond normal understanding. The concept may seem good to have a scheme for the young to deal with the urban social problems but there are too many problems and it evades the real issue and needs of the future.

The world has changed. If we want to sort out our present young then it needs more radical thinking over a number of issues. Firstly, the problems begin at a much earlier age than the 18 of National Service. By then if they are in gangs they join and become active even at the ages of nine or ten. Also, they are not just males, there are many females involved.

Beyond the gangs problems of anti-social behaviour, addiction, truancy, and rejection of any authority exist amongst many pre-teen elements. For those who are older, if they don’t want education then how do you persuade them to work? First you need the work and then you recruit them to it. They have to believe they have a future. That is the problem, so many of our young do not see a future at all beyond the life style cultures offered by a predatory mass media and commercial interests.

For a scheme, what will it be for, where will it be, just what disciplines could be applied in an age of human rights, health and safety, and the rest, personal lifestyles, and computer access? Who will it be for? Will a number of minorities be excluded? Just how does one deal with a horde of fat, unfit, self regarding, people raised in the belief that individualism is paramount, and authority is alien? If the intention is to have those involved based at home and working in their immediate neighbourhood, I think you can forget it, because the control and monitoring will not function.

If they are to be shipped off somewhere else in the UK, much in the way that the old 18th and early 19th Century Militias were, the cost, housing, and other implications are huge. The conscription, legally enforced military service, remembered today is that imposed from 1939, named National Service in 1948, and continued until 31 December 1960. World War II had left a legacy of extensive military facilities into which later National Service was easily fitted. There is neither the infrastructure, nor the large scale old institutional management available. It would have to be created, and to a standard beyond the wildest dreams of the old National Servicemen.

The scale and nature of the bureaucracy necessary is another challenge. One thing that is certain is our existing government has botched almost every such task it has attempted in the last 10-15 years. That of the National Service of the past was poor enough; the potential mess of a modern one would beggar belief.

Also, just how good was the old one? It is now close to half a century since National Service ended. Those who served were brought up, lived and worked, and experienced as young people a life very different to that of today. In the period 1948-1960 alone, millions were called up, to add to the millions of those who had served after 1939. They served in the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and all over the world. Their experiences, individually, will have been radically different from one another.

A few served out time in “cushy numbers” in home postings with frequent leaves and weekends off, others saw action in the most dangerous wars of the period. Their service was good, bad, useful or not according to the luck of the posting and who finished up where doing what. It is impossible to generalise and reduce these complexities to simple propositions.

In any case it related to the educational and employment background of those conscripted. The great majority had already worked for two to three years beforehand. Many had not had secondary education and attended only the old all age Elementary Schools leaving as soon as possible after their 15th birthday, and often disappearing before. It was as late as the 1958 White Paper that a determined attempt was made to complete the provision of secondary schools across the UK.

A small minority had been educated until the age of 18, although a few others had night school classes as part of their work. The educated types were regarded as more of a nuisance than an asset and could be a source of trouble. One with a Cambridge First in physical sciences, working as a corporal clerk, typing and filing, was ejected from the Army early after a bitter argument with an Artillery Brigadier over the implications of the use of battle field and other nuclear weapons. The Brigadier did not grasp the implications of fall out. The records now show that the Corporal was right and the Army badly wrong as we have learned more about what happened at Christmas Island and elsewhere.

Much of it was chaotic in function, designed to shore up a collapsing Imperial system, and to create a temporary obstacle to Soviet aggression. The servicemen were paid in shillings which were often lost as stoppages for clothing and kit replacement, housed and provided for at minimum levels. They could be used to break strikes, and as forced labour. They were allowed cheap cigarettes and booze in lieu of pay, creating a population of smokers to the benefit of The Treasury.

Also they did not have National Insurance credits, as an economy measure, and could lose three years if the dates were bad, and those who were longer in education lost much more. Today as old age pensioners some have less than they should because of this.

They learned how to avoid the bosses and how to skive, that is avoid unwanted activity. It created a working class distrustful of management and supervision, highly unionised, resistant to change, and who had the wrong kind of disciplines for a rapidly changing economy under stress. It helped to create a 1960’s management culture that too often aped the less desirable organisational features and expectations of the military.

As so many manual jobs in that period had higher records of fatalities and serious injury than are acceptable today, it is difficult to say whether the number of non-combat casualties was higher in the services than in civilian life. There were a good many, having teenagers and young men partial to a drink or two in charge of weaponry, heavy armaments and vehicles inevitably led to deaths and damage.

The Conqueror Tank when first deployed had a turret which in full traverse could decapitate unwary gunner loaders. The first Champ signals vehicles often turned over. New types of rifle and mortars killed a number, as did various forms of well worn old ones. Many of the vehicles were over age and prone to go off road. Quite a number, notably in the tropics contracted medical problems of one sort or another for which the facilities were very basic.

In those days there were no inquests and families did not question the “accident” or “user error” on the death certificates. As for Porton Down trialling new types of crowd control gas on unsuspecting troops in chambers, never mind the experiments with poisons on volunteers who thought they were talking about the common cold, the less said the better. One senior general held the view that Porton Down, then as now, was essentially an asylum for lunatic scientists.

It is assumed that discipline was maintained. That is not correct, as things could get out of hand quite easily, but rarely made the media of the time. Conflict between units on a quasi-tribal basis was endemic and personal violence routine. It was common for unconscious drunks to be laid out on the Guard Room terrace on a Saturday night and riots could occur. One spectacular was in a garrison cinema when the troops realised that all the steamy parts in the film “The Outlaw” had been cut out by the operators for private use. A garrison town on a Saturday night was a place to avoid at the best of times.

During the Suez Crisis many mutinous situations arose, especially where reservists were called back from their civilian lives. It may well have been the breakdowns in discipline in this period that began to convince the military that if politicians could be persuaded could rein in their willingness to commit troops, the Armed Services would be better off without the conscripts and the demands of training and control.

In those last days of Empire the conscripts were sent to police and control places where the UK government were insisting on UK type political institutions and norms in the constitutions being written up at the LSE, imposing western ideals and notions on cultures and communities that might not want them. As we have learned, it was not entirely successful in many places.

Today the notion of a UK government sending troops across the world to a hostile area to impose parliamentary government, human rights, equality of sex, religion, and ethnic origin and the rest would be regarded as utterly insane.