Thursday, July 28, 2011

They hate it so much...

Strong work this.

18 November 2010
Labour rallies against permanent RPI-CPI switch
Labour Shadow pensions minister Rachel Reeves says the opposition party will oppose a permanent switch in pensions indexation from RPI to CPI.

28 July 2011
Labour’s pension fund swings from red to black
The shift from red to black has been largely inspired by the government’s change last summer from RPI to CPI inflation on pension increases for public sector staff. Labour, although obviously a private organisation, has followed suit.

A ready-made rebuttal to Labour’s opposition on pensions.

A lot of miles on the clock

A lot is being said right now both about how drastically undercooked India were for the first Test at Lords last week, and about how their record shows a remarkable ability to bounce back from bad results. In 2002, for example, they got thumped at Lords, held on at Trent Bridge and then won handsomely at Headingley. Well, the proof of that particular pudding will be in he eating of it over the next few weeks. What interested me, however, was looking at those games back in 2002.

Lets take the last Test at the Oval – which I remember chiefly for a dreamy 195 from Michael Vaughan. England’s batsman were Trescothick, Vaughan, Butcher, Crawley, Hussain and Stewart. Their bowlers were Cork, Tudor, Giles, Caddick and Hoggard. Apart from noting the far-off days of a five-man attack, it’s also worth pointing out that none of the above are still playing for England, and only three are even playing first class cricket. But then, it was 9 years ago.

Now lets look at India. Batting: Bangar, Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Laxman. Three of them played last week, and it would have been four if the selectors had their way. Even in the bowling attack Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan made the eleven a decade ago, and are still wearily ploughing a furrow up to the popping crease. This is an Indian team with a hell of a lot of miles on the clock.

There are three points to make about that. The first is that aging bodies injure easier – it was a biter blow for India when Zaheer hobbled off at Lords with a popped hamstring, but it wasn’t exactly the surprise of the century. The second is that a line-up of superstars can often get a bit too set in their ways. Duncan Fletcher really will have his work cut out persuading his batting galacticos to concentrate on ground fielding and basic fitness. And the third is that aging superstars have a nasty tendency to retire more or less at the same time – Australia in the early 80s, the West Indies in the early 90s, and Australia in the mid 2000s. When the triumvirate of Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman go – and they are all pushing 40 – it will leave one hell of a gap in the side. It could prove a pretty short stay at the top for India.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

No time to go wobbly

0.2% growth in Q2 is, while in line with predictions, really nothing terribly special. The chaps at FT Alphaville call it a ‘pass grade’ and I suspect that’s fair enough. The economy is, and will remain, the key political battleground of this Parliament. So far, indeed, the only really defining theme of the Coalition is its attempts to reduce the deficit. A word here on deficits. I have given up on being surprised at how few people really seem to understand the difference between debt and deficit. The always estimable Fleet Street Fox puts her finger perfectly on it here:

THE best analogy I've heard for our economy is that the national debt is like a bath filled with water, and the deficit is like leaving the taps on.

Quite. Debt is a stock, the deficit is a flow. But then, alas:

The spending cuts the Coalition has made - the warships scrapped, the coppers sacked, the day care centres closed - amount to trying to empty that bath with an egg cup.

Would that they did. We’re not even nearly at the point of emptying the bath. All the cuts (and in all truth, the cuts already implemented are very small potatoes indeed) are designed to try and shut off the faucets. We’re still running a substantial deficit – and are forecast to be doing so right the way through this Parliament.

What would kill this Government is if the cost of all this borrowing were to rise substantially – as it did in Greece and just has done in Italy. The Government’s fiscal policy can be interpreted more or less entirely as an attempt to demonstrate to the world that, although the UK finances are in a pretty ordinary state, there is at least a clear and credible plan to remedy matters, and the Government are strong enough and determined enough to see it through. In the medium term at least, nothing matters more than this. And how are they doing on this front?

The UK hasn’t been totally repriced over the past 15 months because the deficit has collapsed, it has been repriced because of the evident and absolute political commitment to get the deficit down which when compared with peers in the likes of US or France leaves the UK as a very obvious relative safe-haven. Is that political commitment diminishing? We think not.

Ed Balls is the equivalent of a Cornish wrecker holding a false light off Land’s End – reversing UK fiscal policy and increasing public spending would send catastrophic signals about the long-term viability of UK debt – signals that would act as a self-fulfilling prophecy as the cost of borrowing increased. This is no time to go wobbly George.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Motes & Beams

This is pretty meta.  Matthew Norman, in an article about chutzpah, and how Boris Johnson is its anthropomorphic representation, damns the tousled one in the following terms:

He was once, for example, a dodgy News International journo himself, being fired by The Times for manufacturing a quote.

And where is this article written? The Independent, which when it comes to quote manufacturing is the Chinese super-factory to Boris’s cottage industry. Now that’s chutzpah…

Monday, July 18, 2011

Preferring to forget

I can understand it, I suppose, but there’s something missing in this summary of the First Test between India and England at Lords in 1990.

In the first Test of the 1990 series, we lost badly at Lord's after failing with the bat in the second innings.

Well, two things really. The first thing that it misses is the fact that Graham Gooch scored more runs in that Test match than anyone else ever has in the history of the game.  333 in the first innings, and 123 in the second. And the second is that, just 30 odd runs into his first innings marathon, the Indian keeper, Kiran More, dropped an absolute sitter behind the stumps. An odd omission. Who’s the writer?

Kiran More, a wicketkeeper, played 49 Tests for India from 1986 to 1993


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Is David Cameron still a lucky general?

Ed Miliband watches one of the PM's responses (Photo: AP)

It hasn't been the greatest of weeks for David Cameron. He must be bitterly regretting the decision to hire Andy Coulson as his head of communications - if he hadn't, then the political angle to this week's story would have been Labour's historically close ties to Rupert Murdoch (or, conceivably, the story would never have got off the ground in the first place).

But is it terminal? Was this the week that Ed Miliband began his unstoppable climb to power? Apparently, nauseatingly enough, Labour staffers are now going around quoting the West Wing at each other. "Let Ed be Ed" they say. And Ed Miliband has finally started to look as though he enjoys opposition. Kicking Murdoch is something that true Labour believers have wanted their party to do ever since the move to Wapping. They still fume at the treatment that Neil Kinnock received. So the fact that Labour has declared open war on Murdoch is pure catnip to them.

It's the hell of a risk though. Murdoch is unquestionably damaged by this week's revelations, but he's not dead yet. When you go tiger shooting, you'd better be sure of your shot. Labour haven't got so many friends that they can afford to be quite so blase about making enemies. It's also a risk to assail your opponent with an attack based entirely on his judgement in hiring people when your own cupboards may just be rattling a touch.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Hacks, Hackery and Hacking

We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its fits of morality
Thomas Macaulay

There are more than a few hardy perennials in the borders of English public life. Most of them appear as journalistic staples: celebrity divorces, sensational murders, crooked politicians - all have been enlivening our newspapers for decades. But the press is itself a pretty shady conduit for all this public outrage. Recent press barons have included thieves, pornographers, tax dodgers, convicted felons and out-and-out weirdos. All the President's Men this isn't.

So what to think of the hacking scandal? The implications of this story fall roughly into two halves: direct and indirect fallout. Direct first, I think.

It's vanishingly hard to find anyone willing to put the Screws' side of the story, though Fleet Street Fox has a go here, and Toby Young is reassuringly contrarian here. Their defences both boil down to the same point: investigative journalism requires journalists to go to more or less any lengths for a story. You can explain that either by looking at the intense pressures of a newsroom, or by looking to the higher purpose that an intrusive press serves.

I suspect that they're both right that this sort of thing was standard practice on Red Top papers. Listening into mobile voicemails is morally identical to a whole raft of practises that most people would consider beyond the pale - opening mail, rifling through dustbins, doorstopping family members, stealing photographs, embellishing quotes, establishing 'working relationships' with coppers, firemen, paramedics etc. Are we supposed to be shocked that this was going on? It's been common knowledge for decades.

Equally, if the voicemails of celebrities and politicians were being listened to then it's hardly a cataclysmic shock that the other great staples of tabloid journalism - grisly murders and Our Boys - were too. So why the outrage?

Two reasons, I suspect. The first is that people didn't 'know' that these things were going on. All right, the information was public, and a raft of memoirs testify to what tabloid reporters get up to but it hadn't been made crystal clear that this was happening. And there's a definite squick factor to the idea of grubby PIs and hacks listening into the private voicemail of dead children. Justify that one if you can.

The second is that Rupert Murdoch is involved. Murdoch is catnip for some on the left, in the same way that 'the biased BBC' is catnip for some on the right. Plus, they've had over a decade where the purity of their hatred has been masked by the fact that Murdoch was, nominally at least, on their side. The current case is virtually the perfect storm - an unambiguously popular rallying point, a Labour leadership that is not only unsupported by the Murdoch press but also extremely unlikely to recover that support in the medium term, and last but not least the direct personal interest of the rest of the media.

Murdoch has deep pockets, and is prepared to cross-subsidise his loss-making newspapers with his profitable TV networks. The proposed BSkyB takeover (while it will make little practical difference to plurality, given that he already controls the company) might enable all his products to get bundled together in a way that spells real trouble for the tottering giants of Fleet Street. By an astonishing co-incidence, the Guardian has pulled out these stories just as approval for that deal is pending.

This deal will still probably go through - not least because there is really no legal reason why it shouldn't, and this is a legal decision. But the implications for the newspapers are potentially more serious. This is a big can of worms - no newspaper would like the details of its newsgathering operations laid open for all to see, tabloids least of all. An awful lot of skeletons are rattling around in closets at the moment, and their exhumation will not make attractive viewing.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Mad about Hari

A remarkable number of people are standing shoulder to shoulder behind Johann Hari in the wake of the recent (and pretty well-evidenced) allegations of plagiarism. Their defences fall into two basic categories: i) it's not a great crime in the grand scheme of things; and ii) his heart's in the right place so that's all right then. To get to this point, these charitable souls also have to take the least damning view of what he's supposed to have done: all he's done, they say is "interpolated passages from interviewees' books in passages presented as conversation."

Well, he's certainly done that. But what's more damning is that he has also lifted quotations from other journalists' interviews and passed them off as responses to his own. That is, as Norm says, cut and dried plagiarism. Now, Hari hasn't admitted this, as he has for the cut-and-pasting from books, but the evidence is pretty irrefutable. And it undermines his right to be believed. Look at this article from a few years back, where he took a hatchet to the National Review cruise. Hari was hardly a neutral observer - he had a piece to write about how the American right are barking after all - and some of the quotes he pulls were, well, a bit of a stretch. I mean, these people are nuts!

"Is he your only child?" I ask. "Yes," she says. "Do you have a child back in England?" she asks. No, I say. Her face darkens. "You'd better start," she says. "The Muslims are breeding. Soon, they'll have the whole of Europe."

...I wake up. Who do we need to execute? She runs her fingers through the sand lazily. "A few of these prominent liberals who are trying to demoralise the country," she says. "Just take a couple of these anti-war people off to the gas chamber for treason to show, if you try to bring down America at a time of war, that's what you'll get." She squints at the sun and smiles. " Then things'll change"...

A Filipino waiter offers him a top-up of his wine, and he mock-whispers to me, "They all look the same! Can you tell them apart?"

All un-named sources, all saying the sort of things that Hari needs them to say for his article to work. It's a bit convenient really. But when I read the piece, four years ago, I didn't doubt that they'd really been said. Now? Not so much.

Cameron and Bercow

It is patently obvious that David Cameron has very little time for John Bercow, as was clearly shown in last week's PMQs. There was a piece in the Observer that tried to get to the bottom of quite why this is, under the headline:
Trouble in the House: is a bitter class divide fuelling David Cameron's dislike of Commons Speaker John Bercow?
The implication being, basically, that it is the fact that John Bercow is a jumped-up little oik that has earned him Cameron's enmity. But there are two very good reasons why Cameron should dislike Bercow. The first is the party loyalty one: Bercow was an exceptionally uncollegiate Tory. Even before he began his campaign to become Speaker, he had been assiduously cultivating Labour ministers while simultaneously being remarkably rude to fellow Tory MPs in and out of the House. He was definitionally unsound. As Paul Goodman saw it from the backbenches:
Afternoon after afternoon, there was Bercow, shaking his head doubtfully while Conservative spokesman asked, nodding approvingly when Labour Ministers answered, rising time after time to blast, belittle or belabour his Party's official position - perched strategically all the while in a camera-friendly place a couple of rows or behind the Opposition Despatch Box.  It was hostile; worse still, from the Whips' point of view, it was uncollegiate - unprecedentedly so.
That in itself would be enough to explain a degree of froideur from Tory High Command. Couple it to Labour's mischievous installation of Bercow as Speaker (with, perhaps, 2 Tory supporters) and you have a perfectly good explanation of tensions between the Speaker (who is, after all, meant to be impartial) and No. 10. But there's a personal side to this as well. In 2005 Bercow, as a prominent Ken Clarke supporter said the following
"In the modern world, the combination of Eton, hunting, shooting and lunch at [the exclusive club] White's is not helpful when you are trying to appeal to millions of ordinary people."
Even in the context of a leadership election, this sort of thing is pretty below the belt.
Personal animosity aside, what's going to happen? A Prime Minister and a Speaker at loggerheads is not a common event - is it tenable in the long term? There's a good discussion here about the betting implications of the problem. Mike Smithson contemplates the Tories running a candidate against Bercow in Buckingham at the next election. I think that's pretty far-fetched. Much more likely (though still not certain) is that the role of Speaker is reformed such that the Speaker faces re-election, by secret ballot, at the start of each Parliament. Either way, it's not a great state of affairs, for there to be such mutual antipathy between Speaker and Government.