Thursday, February 28, 2008

Excellent book review

Christie Davies over at the Social Affairs Unit concludes his rather unimpressed review of a book by Mike Parker about how unpleasant the English are to the Welsh with the following humdinger of a dismissal.
For English readers it will be the pleasing mental equivalent of being pummelled about the knees by the fists of a teased four-year old of whom you are rather fond. The Welsh will laugh because they like laughing. Well-done, Mike.
The review is best if read in a strong Welsh accent.

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The peculiar case of the contraband cigar case

It was an unusually bright day late in February, and I was sitting at my ease in the rooms I shared with Mr Sherlock Holmes. Although I was, as I have said, in a state of perfect contentment with the world, my companion was unquestionably restless. The criminal world had, it seemed, been conspiring against him in the manner of their outrages against society - it scarcely appealed either to Holmes's intellect nor to his sense of decorum to trail after the routine bludgeonings and shootings that now infested the East End, while the ritualised killings among recent arrivals from the Empire that had at first alerted Holmes's sense of the bizarre had paled through sheer repetition into a litany of deaths that even the dullards at Scotland Yard could be relied upon to handle.
As a result, Holmes was irritable and bored. His mood (and mine if it comes to that) had not been improved by the ruling that, as he used our rooms at Baker Street as his primary place of work, and indeed retained an employee in the form of the estimable Mrs Hudson, the ounce and a half of shag that he was wont to smoke in contemplation of a particularly tricky case now had to be consumed in considerable discomfort, while standing among the mud and fogs of Baker Street.
As he sat in his armchair, however, a sudden smile lit up his thin features and with a laugh he tossed a small object across the room to me.
"There, Watson," he said, "tell me what you make of that."
'That' seemed to refer to a small cigar case, of tooled leather, with space for perhaps three cigars. I said as much to Holmes, adding that it did not seem to me that there was anything further to deduce from such unpromising material.
"Not a bit of it, my dear Watson," said Holmes, with a stern look. "Why even from a cursory examination you must at least be able to describe its provenance?"
I confessed that, beyond the observation that it appeared to be well-made and reasonably expensive I could make nothing of it.
"But surely you have noticed the unique nature of the stitching, which together with the distinctive smell of the leather itself indisputably place its manufacture within 20 miles of the Fertile Crescent? No? These features really cannot be mistaken - you should read my monograph on the manufacture and curing of leather in Mesopotamia and Persia since Babylonian times."
I made a mental note to avail myself of such an opportunity at some point and made to hand the case back, but Holmes stopped me.
"But really, that is only the beginning. It is evident, even at first glance, that the original owner of this case lost it at a time of great personal misfortune - that much is evident from the slight scorching at the back of the case, and of the slightest traces of rubble which can be seen in the stitching - and that its current owner is a man of more than average size or strength, with ill-fitting clothes and unruly hair, probably a journalist, or possibly a politician."
He passed out this information with an air of a man remarking on mere commonplaces of the weather.
"But Holmes," I cried, "I do not see how any such conclusion can be drawn!"
"My dear Watson, you know my methods, it is merely a matter of applying them. That the owner is large is evident from the recent fingermarks that have been imprinted on the leather, that he is untidy in his dress can be seen by the fact that this case has evidently been sitting in a pocket with twine, poorly-printed pamphlets - from which one can also deduce that he is either a writer for the yellow press or a benighted politician - and the various coins, keys and so on that have produced the scratches on the surface. That he has an untidy mop of fair hair is easily deduced from the strands that have attached themselves even to his cigar case. For a man to have shed hair onto his cigars suggests an extravagant style indeed."
As ever, when explained by Holmes, the most outlandish deductions seemed clear as day, even trivial. Noticing my change of expression Holmes laughed.
"It is true that I ought not to explain my methods, for once the daylight seeps in, the magic seeps out. But the ownership of this case is no trivial thing, for I have been informed by my friends at Scotland Yard that this case is the key to unmasking and defeating the most dangerous man in London."
"Moriarty?" I said almost in a whisper, for the deeds of that man had turned much of London to ruinous decline over the past year. His involvement in American land deals alone had transformed the City of London into a wreck; his hand was sensed in the sensational collapse of a major banking institution that had done much to destroy public confidence in the conventional financial sector.
"No," said Holmes, "one still more dangerous than he. His existence is known to many, but his true nature shielded from all. Yet for those cognoscenti that do exist, only his first name needs to be spoken for instant recognition and fear to be shown. He stands upon the brink of destroying the hallowed institutions of London Town, and the instructions for his final exposure have come, I may say, from the very top."
Twenty minutes later we were in a Hansom cab, bowling along the A40 towards Henley...
(continued on page 94)

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Republicans should not despair just yet

A couple of interesting posts today highlight for me a story that people seem to have been missing when talking about the US Presidential elections. The first, which I have touched on before, is the inherently empty nature of the Democratic primaries. Despite the bitter fighting over who said what when, and whether Obama looks good in a turban and all that sort of thing, the policy differences have been muted to the point of irrelevance. What is instead being celebrated is the personality of the two contenders. This is, of course, why Clinton's inevitability parade has been so comprehensively rained on. Put bluntly, Hillary Clinton is not going to win a Miss Congeniality contest. Barack Obama, on the other hand, is.
But charm, and an undoubted command of oratory, are not by themselves enough. Mario Cuomo famously said that you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose, but Obama hasn't even been poetically describing his plans for the future - instead he's been focusing purely on the lyricism of words, rather than any substance behind them. Dominic Lawson points to this, and the intensely religious nature of his language here. One example is:
My job is be so persuasive that if there's anybody left out there who is still not sure whether they will vote, or is still not clear who they will vote for, that a light will shine through that window, a beam of light will come down on you, you will experience an epiphany ... and you will suddenly realise that you must go to the polls and vote for Obama.
I'm aware that US politicians use far more religious language than British politicians would ever dream of doing, but I was also under the impression that the Democrats frowned on that sort of thing. Evidently, religious presidents are only a problem when they're Republican.
The other received wisdom that looks less than certain is that the Democrats unarguably higher turnout in the primaries is a necessarily ominous sign for the Republicans. 16.2 million people have voted in the Democrat primaries so far, against only 7.9 million for the Republicans. But, as the graph on this page demonstrates, in only tow primaries since 1972 have the Republicans outvoted the Democrats. In 1984, when Mondale failed to win more than a single state, the Democrats outvoted the Republicans by a factor of three. In 1980, when a sitting Democrat president faced reelection, the Democrats outvoted the Republicans by six million votes.
It looks like gearing up to be an election between a fresh-faced idealist against a gnarled old insider - or as the Republicans would say, a naive ultra-liberal against an experienced conservative centrist. Try not to allow yourself to be dazzled by Obama's glitz just yet.

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An opening problem

England were desperately unconvincing in the one-day series against New Zealand - primarily because their top and middle order failed as a unit far too often. Successful teams contrive it so that when someone fails, someone else steps up. Too often for England has been the total collapse. However, the first warm-up game was very encouraging: the batsmen scored runs and the quick bowlers took wickets. There remains one major question, however, regarding the Test match side, and that is the nature of the opening partnership.
Successful opening partnerships are an alliance of different styles. Gooch and Atherton, Atherton and Stewart, Strauss and Trescothick, Hayden and Langer. All of these contained, essentially, a free-scoring natural player and a more gritty accumulator. The problem England are currently facing is that the 'obvious' combination - that of Strauss and Cook - is a combination of two similar styles. Both look to accumulate, both look to score square of the wicket and both are less adept at scoring straight down the ground. This both allows the bowlers to settle into a rhythm and slows down the scoring rate. The reason that Strauss has struggled over the past couple of years is that this slowing has affected him mentally, making him try and force the pace in a way that isn't his natural game.
So, drop Strauss altogether and play Vaughan as an opener? Vaughan is better as an opener, and plays the sort of free, stylish game that would benefit Cook. But Strauss is an undoubtedly classy performer, solid against pace, improved against spin and with an admirable temperament. He is also the natural successor to Vaughan as skipper - a job he performed admirably at home in 2006. But Cook is also incredibly talented, and a star of the future. It's a tricky one for the selectors, and it might be worth asking if Strauss is prepared to attempt to turn into a Graham Thorpe type of middle order player. If not, he needs to find another gear in his batting in the early stages, or he risks losing the selectors' confidence permanently.


Monday, February 25, 2008

Martin should go - but how?

It's obvious that Michael Martin should resign as Speaker of the House. He's incompetent and partisan - and his control of the House has disintegrated since the allegations of various financial irregularities have surfaced. A decent man would quietly step down as soon as possible.
Given that he probably won't do this, what should be done? The Tories are in something of a bind over this. Michael Martin was elected as Speaker when it was the Tories' 'turn'. Parliamentary conventions were ignored then, and the Tories can only hope that they are not ignored again when it comes to Martin's replacement. For that not to happen, they have to tread quite carefully with regard to MArtin now. If they kick up a big fuss about his expenses - and throw in his bias/incompetence for good measure, you can bet your bottom dollar that backbench Labour MPs will take their revenge by selecting another Labour MP as his replacement. Simply doing nothing, on the other hand, looks weak.
My guess is we'll be seeing a lot of very carefully worded statements over the next few weeks, but that unless something extemely significant emerges that allows the Conservatives openly to call for Martin's resignation, we won't be seeing overt Tory action on it.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

When to stop reading an article

John McDonnell, who attempted to run for the Labour leadership, and thus the Prime Ministership, writing about the SIV structures in Northern Rock really fills you with confidence from line one.
I think that I was the first MP to call for the nationalisation of Northern Rock, although that is hardly surprising because I have been calling for the nationalisation of the financial sector for 30 years or more.
Terrific. During that 30 years or more, McDonnell has obviously not been keeping up with his reading - as he believes that Granite, a Structured Investment Vehicle (SIV), is both under Northern Rock's control, and has taken on the most solid mortgages as a tax dodge. I'm no banker, though I have worked on financial products, but it's pretty obvious to the meanest intellect that Granite bought the mortgages from Northern Rock in return for cash, which it raised by issuing bonds. The income stream from the mortgages then goes to paying the bondholders. It's a method of transferring constant income into a capital sum - realising the asset value of the mortgages.
I'm sure I've fudged the details - but then I'm not an MP calling for the legalised theft of an entire industry, so I don't really have to check my facts too carefully before publishing.

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Lazy thinking

So, who would Al-Qaeda vote for in the US Presidential elections? Well, apart from democracy being an abomination in the eyes of Allah and all that. Bin Laden made his preference quite clear last time - canvassing furiously, albeit counter-productively, on behalf of John Kerry - but BBC correspondent Justin Webb appears to have spotted a change of heart on the part of crazed Islamic terrorists.
Islamic terrorists want war. They want suffering - among others and their own people alike. They would surely surmise that McCain will give them what they want. Bin Laden himself intervened with what many thought was the effect of keeping President Bush in power in 2004 with that weird tape just before the poll. I think al-Qaeda would back McCain - that is not an argument for or against America backing him, but it seems to me that the vague assumption that the terrorists would back a lefty is lazy thinking...
I have to say that this itself looks rather like lazy thinking to me. What Al-Qaeda want is not war per se but victory - or at least the possibility of claiming victory. A President whose policy is to withdraw American troops from Iraq in the short term would present a much better chance of proclaiming victory than one who wants to go the distance. And while it certainly was the case that Bin Laden's endorsement of John Kerry ended up helping George W Bush, I'm not sure how sophisticated psephologist Bin Laden is, or whether he's got a big swing-o-meter in his cave.
In any event it's a stupid, or as Sir Humphrey would say courageous, thing to say if you're a BBC journalist - it's simply far too easy to misinterpret. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see this ripped out of context over a lot of blogs over the next few days.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Rather like one of his speeches, you rationally knew it would come to an end at some point, but had trouble really believing that it. The sickening thing is, of course, that we will now be bombarded by endless hagiographic encomia from the BBC and Channel 4 about the great liberator. Frankly, Castro's retirement is at least forty years too late, not that you would know about the mess he has made of Cuba by reading the BBC's reaction:
In power since he led a communist revolution which ousted the regime of President Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Mr Castro has been a dominant force in Latin American politics and a thorn in the side of the United States. Under his leadership, Cuba underwent an economic and social transformation. Most foreign and local businesses were nationalised, land reform was introduced, and education and health care for the poor improved.
I suppose transformation is one word for what he has done to the economy. Destruction might be another. But then this is the BBC, whose perspicacity on this subject is obvious:
The BBC's Michael Voss in Havana says nobody knows whether Mr Castro's decision not to seek another five-year term has been prompted by a decline in his health.
Hmm, what do you think?

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Darling surely has to go

It was always said during the Blair years that the worst job in politics would be Chancellor under Gordon Brown. After ten years in total control of the Treasury, there would be no way that Brown would tolerate a mighty Chancellor - let alone one of near equal status. Darling, when he began, was touted as being essentially a safe, dull pair of hands. Having risen without a trace through cabinet, Darling would be unexciting but competent. His talent for keeping his departments out of the news was just what Brown wanted.
It hasn't quite worked out that way. A combination of roosting pigeons, contemporary incompetence, and downright bad luck has culminated in a crushing humiliation. Anatole Kaletsky is almost certainly right when he describes the nationalisation of Northern Rock, after six months of diffident, dithering indecision as meaning that the fiasco has only just started, with the Government now officially in charge. To make matters worse, Darling has been revealed as a painfully poor communicator. To listen to him this morning on Today was pitiful - his long wrangling over whether he agreed with Jim Cousins that nationalisation would lead to a long lingering death for Northern Rock's employees, even to the point of making John Humphries read it out from Hansard, was dreadful.
Cameron and Osborne are certainly right to call for his resignation - but Brown will surely try his hardest to deny it to them. The precedents for Prime Ministers that lose their Chancellors are not at all encouraging.

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Damned inconvenient

It leaves you not knowing quite what to think really. I've always basically regarded UKIP as essentially a bit to the barking side of the Hammersmith & City. Even when I've agreed with various of their policies, I've been reassured by the various weirdies and obsessives that they're not really the place for me. This was rather challenged when DK got so heavily involved in UKIPping, as, whatever might be suggested by the tone of his writing, he's too bright to be a part of UKIP as I knew it.
But I was still well able to dismiss the whole thing as a bit, well, silly. But this as well! The blogfather himself joining them! I shall keep an eye out for sudden attacks of seriousness from UKIP...


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Britain's greatest mistake

Catching up, a little belatedly, on the question first posed to Chris Dillow, and later picked up on by Danny Finkelstein, as to what the greatest mistake that Britain has ever made was. Some of the answers have been quite amusing, others are trying to be serious, but quite a lot look at events that happened and use them as illustrations of mistakes. Roy Hattersley, for instance, believes that Briain's failure to have a revolution in 1848 was its greatest mistake - but is that really a 'mistake'? In order, I think, for an event (or in that case a lack of an event) to be described as a mistake, there needs to be an alternative, and an identifiable policy path that led to it.
A lot of people, including Paul Linford, have pointed to World War One as being potentially Britain's greatest ever mistake. Paul points out, very reasonably, that in 1914 Britain's entry into the war was probably the best option available. The consequence of Britain not having entered the war would probably have been the swift eclipse if France and the domination of continental Europe by Wilhelmine Germany - the treaty of Brest Litovsk rather goes against suggestions that there would have been no serious territorial concessions demanded. Britain's involvement in the war was enough to fight Germany to her knees, eventually, and prevent German dominance - though it also, of course, led to Hitlerite resurgence and a subsequent world war.
But if Britain's entry into the war was not a great mistake, the circumstances building up to that entry were, unarguably in my opinion, the biggest foreign policy blunder ever perpetrated by Britain 9and that does include the war on IRaq - this is of a different order of magnitude). The Liberal Government, hailed by many as one of the great reforming governments of British history, were culpably negligent in their preparation for World War One. At a time when the increasing naval tension with Germany, coupled with Germanic envy of the British Empire had led to the most popular German military toast being to Der Tag - the day of reckoning with Britain - the Liberal Government followed a policy of a closer relationship with France, and a network of continental alliances. Nothing particularly wrong with that per se, but it meant that Britain became entangled in a series of continental military commitments.
This was, of course, contrary to established British foreign policy. As the possessor of the world's largest and best-equipped navy, and an army that was fit only for colonial policing, though that at a high standard, Britain had two choices available to it: it could have maintained its naval policy and disentangled itself from continental commitments, or it could have altered its overall strategy and built-up a much larger army, whether solely through volunteers or by conscription so that it was capable of matching the 2-3 million men that France and Germany could mobilise in 1914.
Instead, of course, it did neither. It maintained the patchwork of alliances that made British involvement in a land war all but inevitable, without reforming and rebuilding a strong enough army. This meant that all British involvement could do in the short term would be to delay the German army and prevent it from defeating the French. This it duly did, at Mons and the long retreat therefrom, condemning the Western Front to 4 long years of stalemate and slaughter.
Had Britain followed the logic of its foreign policy position Britain might have been in a position to send a force of 1-2 million men with the BEF, rather than the tens of thousands that were sent. That might have seen the end of the war in the first few months, as Germany would have been unable to advance so far into France. By commiting the BEF as it stood, Britain ensured that neither side could defeat the other and that victory would only come after a long slogging match - surely the worst of all possible outcomes.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Why not to count chickens

So, an eventful week then. McCain is all but settled as the Republican candidate, much to the disgust of the right of the party, who have been thoroughly disillusioned by the entire nomination process. I think they're probably msising a trick there. So damaged has the Republican brand been by the unpopularity of the Bush administration that the only realistic chance a Republican has of winning the next Presidential election is by running as an 'anti-Republican'. Romney, by running as, effectively, an establishment figure torpedoed what chances he had; Huckabee was running for those who thought that the main problem with George Bush was that he was insufficiently religious and far too strong on economics. Giuliani never got out of first gear and the rest were only ever the fringe.
McCain has won, therefore, because he looked more 'authentic' than the alternatives and because it's possible to see him as President. It's not a great endorsement, and he hasn't caused much excitement - he's too old an enemy for the party faithful for that to happen. He now has to prove that he can win over the independents and the moderate Republicans who have deserted the party while hoping that the social conservatives and old guard end up holding their noses rather than allowing a Democrat in. For that to happen, of course, a lot depends on who that Democrat is.
For Hillary Clinton this campaign has been a perfect illustration of the dangers of being a front-runner. Having looked round the field and determined that there were no realistic contenders for the nomination (a rookie senator from Illinois? Please...) Clinton decided to run a Presidential campaign from before the primaries. Careful positioning, a desperate desire not to frighten the horses and a determination not to say anything that the Republicans could use against her in November, Clinton's campaign was timid from the first - lacking the fire and passion that party activists wanted. So, when they turned to Obama, who, whatever his faults may be is a damn good speaker, Clinton hasn't been able to reverse the tide. Using Bill has back-fired horribly, reminding a lot of people why they don't want him anywhere near the White House again and the once-famed Clinton machine has begun to sound very spluttery.
It's beginning to look as though Obama's momentum will carry him through all the way to the nomination, and it will then be a question of whether, in the words of PJ O'Rourke, Age and Guile can beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Picking your moment...

So, as the Primaries hot up, albeit rather inconclusively, and Brown backtracks on phone tapping and things generally start to look rather spicy, I have decided to bugger off to the Alps for the week. This rather explains the paucity of posting so I'm sorry if my readers (either of you) have missed the usual generic nonsense...
Back next week, and very sporadic posting until then.


Friday, February 01, 2008

An odd view of history

I can almost see the point of this study, that children should not be taught to be patriotic. Nuances in history should be taught. There were times in British history, and in English history, where we were unquestionably on the wrong side. A history of imperialism would be incomplete without a look at Amritsar. The history of the birth of democracy would be meaningless without a discussion of how very limited that democracy started out as being.
But the problem is, it seems to me, is that almost the opposite is happening. Children are taught about British history almost solely in terms of the least savoury aspects of it. Imperialism is now reduced to the slave trade and pretty much nothing else except a sense that it was 'bad'. What's more, there's an increasingly restricted view of what history is.
Alan Johnson, the former Education Secretary, announced last year that pupils aged 11 to 16 would have compulsory lessons in British history. Ethnicity, religion, race and national identity will be taught, through studying immigration, the Commonwealth, the Empire and devolution, extending the popular vote and women’s rights.
This is a very partial view of history. The role of immigration and the Commonwealth in British history is a matter of the past 50 years - in a story that goes back to 52BC. Religion was important in the context of Protestant and Catholic - not the context I suspect it will be taught. National identity? That's a rather nebulous term, and I rather suspect that the first true architects of an English national identity (Alfred and his immediate successors) will be mentioned not at all. In a surprising move, however, I do completely agree with Tristram Hunt, who I usually view as a bit suspect.
The historian Tristram Hunt said of the institute’s report: “I think it’s a very immature approach to the topic. The point is not whether history was right or wrong from a 21st Century liberal-left perspective. It’s about teaching students to understand the mindset and context of our forebears. “The real problem isn’t that our children are being indoctrinated with patriotism, but that they don’t know enough British history."
That look exactly right. It's impossible to draw lessons from history if you don't know about it. Get that right, and we can start worrying about patriotism later.

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The art of man-management

Is there anything so crushingly de-motivating as being made to re-write your self-appraisal because you were insufficiently negative in your first effort? It's rather reminiscent of the self-criticism meetings that the Chinese were so fond of in the Cultural Revolution.
"For the record, I would like you all, comrades, to know that I am a saboteur in the Great People's Firm, wilfully ignoring typographical errors; maliciously leaving the office without checking with all the occupants that they have no more work for me to do, regardless of the hour; all this I did laughing at the knowledge of the damage I was doing to the Great Helmsman."
There are times over the last few months that I have thought I might be a slightly round peg in a very round hole. It's becoming clear that the hole is not just merely a different shape, but on a different planet. Gissa job anyone?