Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Essence of Guardian

Another in the occasional Guardian distilled category.
Twelve years ago, when we named our daughter Merrily, it didn't occur to us that she might grow up not liking what she was called.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

So *that's* why the Indy hired him...

Since I seem to spend so much time pointing out when he’s being an idiot, it would be extremely churlish not to point you all towards Johann Hari’s latest:
I weighed 14 stone and was 30 per cent body fat. If I were a sandwich, nobody would eat me except me.
Cracking stuff…

Friday, November 19, 2010

Infelicitous truths

The definition of a Kinsley gaffe is someone telling the truth by accident – inadvertently saying something in public that they believe in private.  Since most of us exert very little in the form of internal censorship, its’ surprising that these don’t happen more often – but then politicians aren’t normal in that way. Except Lord Young of Graffham, obviously.
“For the vast majority of people in the country today they have never had it so good ever since this recession — this so-called recession — started, because anybody, most people with a mortgage who were paying a lot of money each month, suddenly started paying very little each month. That could make three, four, five, six hundred pounds a month difference, free of tax.”
Lord Young also indicated that the Coalition had deliberately overstated the impact of spending cuts to “protect the pound”.
He said that there had been a danger of the value of the pound collapsing after the general election. “The fact that we seemed to be going through such big cuts really meant that the pound was saved, so far,” he said. “If you actually look at the cuts after four years we will be back with government spend[ing] the same as it was in ’07.”
He added: “I have a feeling and a hope that when this goes through, people will wonder what all the fuss was about.”
You have there, by my reckoning, three separate statements, all of which are true, and none of which should ever be said in public.  If you’re employed and a borrower (like, um, me for one) then this recession has been more good than bad.  OK, we’ve had a pay freeze, but mortgages are at rock bottom.  Discounting the fear of unemployment, for most of us it’s been great.  Of course, if you’re unemployed it’s been grim (as we all know, the definition of a recession is when your neighbour loses his job; when you lose your job it’s a depression).  It’s not been pretty either if you’re living on savings – and a lot of these will be pensioners not a demographic the Tories will be keen to annoy.
The next truth is that, for all the hyperbolic bluster from both sides of the biggest cuts in human history, the reality is far less dramatic.  But it suits the Tories for the moment to pretend that the fiscal tightening is even more stringent than it is, for the very reason that Young highlights: to persuade the markets that serious action is being taken.  And, more or less, it’s worked.  But having the sleight of hand pointed out is unhelpful, to say the least.  There’s more too:
He described the loss of about 100,000 public-sector jobs a year as being within “the margin of error” in the context of the 30 million-strong job market as a whole.
Which, of course, it is.  Half a million new jobs have been created so far this year alone.  It’s not stretching a point to suggest that the loss of 100,000 public sector jobs a year (many through retirement) will be less visible than the raw numbers suggest. Equally, it’s the far side of stupid to dismiss them out of hand.  People will be losing their jobs.  Real people, who matter.  It may be for the best, all things considered, but it’s politic at least to pretend that you care.
He has, of course, apologised (after David Cameron gave him a public dressing down) saying that the words he used “were both inaccurate and insensitive”.  But that’s only half right. They were accurate and insensitive.  The truth usually is, which is why we prefer our politicians to have such a flexible attitude towards it.  Iain Martin, as so often, has it right here – Lord Young is a lousy politician.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ashes countdown

The run-up to the Ashes (and we’re nearly there!) is usually dominated by England’s woes of fitness and form.  The last time England won the opening match of the tour was 1962, and recent years have been particularly grim.  In 2006/7, England were humiliated in the tour opener, and promptly lost their senior batsman.  In 2003/4 they conceded 582 against Queensland.  So, the results so far – a straightforward win against Western Australia and much the best of a draw against South Australia – are pretty encouraging.  The batsmen have got runs, the bowlers have taken wickets, and, touch wood, there have been no injury scares.
Unusually, it has been Australia that has been all over the place in the build-up.  As bids to steady the nerves go, the announcement of the squad for the first Test left a bit to be desired.  A squad of 17 would be on the large side for a full overseas tour; for a home Test it is just bizarre.  But it reflects the two big problems for Aussie cricket just now.  The first is the question of whether to stick or twist.  Australia’s batting is dominated by the over 30s.  Three (Ponting, Katich and Hussey) are over 35 – antediluvian in Test match terms.  When to move on to the next generation (batsmen like Callum Ferguson or Usman Khawaja) will be the question that hangs over the Ashes.  And yet, by naming both young and old together in this squad, Australia have acknowledged the problem without answering it.
It’s the second problem, however, that gives me most hope for the Ashes.  Australia have named three spinners in this mega-squad – Nathan Hauritz, Steven Smith and Xavier Doherty.  When we were here last, Australia only needed the one. Shane’s Test average was a parsimonious 25, and his economy a miserly 2.65 an over.  Nathan Hauritz averages 35 in Tests and is considered the senior spinner.  Smith and Doherty’s first class averages are atrocious: they both average 49.  Graeme Swann’s Test average is 26.  For the first time since 1986/7 England have the upper hand in the spin bowling department.
Australia are always a tough team to beat at home, but they have surely never been more beatable than this.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Short answers to stupid questions

David Cameron very accurately pointed out the shortcomings of Twitter.  I suspect that Gareth Compton and Paul Chambers might privately agree with the thrust of DC’s comment that too many tweets might make a twat, although in both cases they probably feel that it’s the law that’s being the twat here.  I can, however, make a reasonable stab (I hope that’s not going to get me arrested) at answering the ineffably awful Yasmin Alibhai-Brown here.
If I had said, "It would be a blessing if this man was stoned to death," what would happen to me as a Muslim woman in this country?
Nothing.  And I’m not sure what you think would happen to you ‘as a Muslim woman’ that wouldn’t happen otherwise. 
Some sort of perspective needs to be taken here.  I remember sending a text message during the Old Trafford test of 2005 saying ‘someone please shoot Ricky Ponting’.  Should I have been arrested for incitement to murder?  C’mon.  The history of prosecuting people for telling jokes is not a happy one.

Simpler = lower?

This is almost unambiguously good news.  Britain’s tax code has become almost impenetrably complex over the years, and a decade of Gordon Brown – who liked nothing better than to try and tweak incentives through allowances, exemptions, differing rates and other assorted fiddling – made the situation much worse.  So this news is pretty welcome:
George Osborne, the Chancellor, is expected to order the closing of dozens, or possibly even hundreds, of tax loopholes in an attempt to boost revenues for the exchequer.
The Treasury estimate is that £42bn is ‘lost’ each year by the application of these loopholes.  Now, obviously, many of these are there for a reason – R&D exemptions for example – and I’d be very surprised indeed if there were a blanket removal.  But a lot will either be archaic or else so complicated that they are really only used by accountants seeking to lower an overall corporate tax burden.
Of course, tax simplification is only half the deal.  Once these loopholes have been filled, the obvious corollary is that tax rates can be lowered.  Politically this actually poses a risk for the Chancellor.  Given the background of fiscal tightening and the undercurrent of unrest, how feasible is it for the Chancellor to start lowering business taxes?  We have already seen, with the 50% top rate, that in this Government when politics and economics collide, it is politics that wins.
Maybe the best solution here, given that corporation tax rates are already scheduled to fall, is to use the bulk of whatever tax revenues are gained by this simplification either to raise the income tax threshold still further, or to cut the basic rate.  In the medium term, and only on the basis of OBR analysis on what its actual revenue benefit is, the 50% rate should be abolished.  That’s a plan for 2014 though…

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fact-checking Johann Hari. Again.

Oh look, it’s Johann Hari again.  This turn reminding us that his propensity for being somewhat slapdash with facts is not limited to matters legal, but merrily embraces the historical.  Now, he’s certainly correct that Winston Churchill’s record is forever blemished by an attitude to racial politics that was outdated by 1920, and was archaic by post-war standards.  Churchill was as completely, utterly wrong about India and Africa as he was right about Germany.  But being (admittedly not exactly ground-breakingly) correct in the thrust of your argument does not excuse you from basic research.

George W Bush left a bust of Churchill near his desk in the White House, in an attempt to associate himself with the war leader's heroic stand against fascism. Barack Obama had it returned to Britain. It's not hard to guess why: his Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was imprisoned without trial for two years and was tortured on Churchill's watch, for resisting Churchill's empire…

Mau Mau was certainly a particularly painful episode in British imperial history – although Hari relies, again, entirely on Catherine Elkins’ book that provides, at best, one angle from which to view the conflict.  But comments are free and facts are sacred, as they say.  So let’s look at the facts shall we?

Was Hussein Onyango Obama connected with this [pre-Mau Mau] radical ginger group? It is impossible for us to know for sure, and it is doubtful that even his family would have been aware of the political machinations within the KAU at the time, but it does seem the most plausible reason for his arrest and trial in 1949.

Arrested in 1949, tried, convicted and sentenced to two years in prison (presumably for membership of a banned political group).  I’m sure that even Hari can work out that this is incompatible with “imprisoned without trial” but it might be necessary to spell out why it is also incompatible with “on Churchill’s watch, for Churchill’s empire.”  In 1949, as even a Cambridge graduate ought to be aware, Labour were in power.

Hussein Onyango Obama is unusual among Churchill's victims only in one respect

Presumably by actually being among Clement Atlee’s victims.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Omnia Vanitas

Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.  So Cameron appoints a photographer, a web-designer, a brand-management specialist and a diary-spad for Sam to the Civil Service: 26 appointments in all - and all this at a time of public sector cutbacks and Civil Service redundancies.  Tsk eh?  Why can’t the Government use Civil Servants already there?
Personally, I blame the West Wing.  That sentimental load of lefty wishful-thinking has so successfully infected the British political classes that they all see themselves as operating in a Washington-type system, and one of the things that characterises the American way of doing things is that the new administration brings in a new team.  People who ran elements of the campaign (like photography or website-management) get brought in to do the same job in Government.  And why not?  It’s a very strange rule that being successful in doing your job means that you should automatically lose it.
In part this is also a function of the (historically unusual) pattern of long periods of opposition.  Labour were out of power for 18 years, the Tories for 13 years.  You get used to appointing your own staff over that sort of time frame, and that is of course what Short Money is for.  On the actual merits of the appointments, I really don’t see it as particularly scandalous that the Government is finding ways for people to continue to do the same job in Government as they did in opposition.
Which means, ironically, that the biggest problem in appointing people to handle aspects of PR for the Government has been that it looks so bad.  Is this an indication that these people are desperately needed, or that they clearly aren’t as good at their job as they think they are?

Friday, November 05, 2010

Old and Sad

I doubt that there will be many tears shed for Phil Woolas.  He was an odious tick at the best of times, and the ruling that his deeply unpleasant campaign in Oldham East and Saddleworth breached the Representation of the People Act 1983, and that as a consequence the election will be void and Woolas will be barred from standing for any elected office for three years should probably be filed under ‘comeuppance’.
But the prospect of a by election won’t be one that exactly fills Coalition hearts with glee.  Old and Sad was a three-way marginal at the election.  Woolas won it by 106 votes over the Lib Dem candidate, with the Tories really not that far behind.  Ordinarily, one would say that it was an exciting prospect for all three parties to show where public opinion really is in the aftermath of the CSR.  But that’s rather the problem – the polls are pretty bleak for the Lib Dems (the Tories on the other hand can be a bit happier with the fact that they still lead most of them), and there must be a real chance that Old and Sad suffers a sort of Winchester effect.
But if the news isn’t great for the Coalition, it’s a sight worse for Labour.  Not only is it humiliating in and of itself for a former minister (and immigration minister at that) to have run a campaign run on such unpleasant, and borderline racist lines.  But to make matters far worse, Ed Miliband, in another stunning selection, appointed him as a shadow home office minister.  Given that this court case was ongoing at the time, you do have to wonder what on earth Miliband thought he was doing – it would have been easy, and much more sensible, to delay any such appointment until after the case was resolved.
Anyway, it has all rather blown up in Miliband’s face, and he needs to sort it out quickly.  I’ve not seen anything yet, but as Ben Brogan says, he needs to cut Woolas adrift pronto.  Ed Miliband was dangerously (although perfectly rationally) spineless over Ken Livingstone’s flagrant breaches of Labour rules over the Tower Hamlet election.  If he’s as supine this time round, something of a precedent will have been set.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Wanted: new slogan

The US mid-terms look like they’ve been every bit the thumping that was predicted, much to the despair of Curtis Sittenfeld in Slate in a piece entitled I Still Love Obama. Love. Love. Love.  Am I the last person in America who still adores President Obama?
Now, this might seem like the naïve enthusiasm of a political neophyte (or, just conceivably, a monumental parody), but he does actually touch on something important and relevant when wondering why support for Obama has plummeted since 2008.
Honestly, though, I'm surprised that so many people have turned against the president. Obviously, if you've lost your job, life is tough, but did voters really believe the country was going to quickly and dramatically reverse course once he was elected?
Well that’s the thing isn’t it?  I suspect a lot of people did, thanks to campaign rhetoric like this:
I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment - this was the time - when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals.
When you ramp up expectations to that level (and are, into the bargain, a bit creepy and weird) you are just setting yourself up for failure.  Obama-mania was always a bit of a ridiculous phenomenon.  Maybe now that he’s been given such a resounding slap, Obama will concentrate a bit less on lowering sea-levels and healing the sick, and a bit more on the basic fundamentals of good government.  Because although ‘Yes we can’ is a good campaign slogan, in Government you quickly discover that ‘Well, it depends’ is more accurate.