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Sunday, 29 January 2012

Austerity means 1,400 troops plus Prince William in the Falkland Islands

The garrison is at Mount Pleasant which almost certainly isn't. You can read all about it in today's Sunday Telegraph.

I can just about understand why anyone would want to live in the Falkland Islands; I can't understand why "we" want to keep the Islands. The inhabitants don't contribute anything to the British Exchequer but "we" spend vast amounts on defending them from the Argie threat. The Falklands are a loss-making subsidiary and "we" have more than enough of those already (Northern Ireland, Wales).

When the Germans occupied the Channel Islands in World War Two, "we" didn't rush to kick them out: the Channel Islands are not part of the United Kingdom and "we" were rather more concerned to defend the UK from its enemies. That bears remembering: all that money spent on the Falklands could be spent undermining the appeal of terrorism to people living in the UK.

My suggestion is this: since the Argentinians are so keen to own the Falklands, why not let them buy the Freehold for a deficit-busting amount - and on condition that they grant a 99 (or 999 year) lease to the existing tenants.

After all, Imperial Russia did not die of shame when it sold Alaska to the Americans, even though Alaska is on Russia's doorstep rather than America's.

My suggestion would also work well for Gibraltar - though in the past I have supported the idea of offering Hastings to Spain in an exchange deal. It would really transform Hastings into a great place for a day out.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Honours and L S Lowry

I don't believe in Honours, whether they are awarded by Elizabeth II, Kim III or even an elected President. They are almost inevitably part of a corrupt system, even if some of them have to go to "deserving individuals" to disguise the fact. Every dedicated doctor is twinned with a dodgy dealer.

I have always made a mental exception for awards for bravery, though I realise that this is not as simple a category as it seems. In his recent book, Losing Small Wars, Frank Letwidge points out that British soldiers never get medals for "courageous restraint" - never get honoured for resisting provocation in order to uphold their role or reputation. Medals are given for going in guns blazing and killing some Natives.

Yesterday, the Cabinet Office was forced to release the names of those, now dead, who have refused honours from Queen Elizabeth II, something they really did not want to do in a year when our Ruling Family will be celebrating itself (again). Freedom of Information legislation had to be used to drag out the names.

Some good ones too. L S Lowry refused every honour he was offered - and they kept trying, increasing the temptation all the way up to Companion of Honour.

Also refusing that award, I found Philip Noel-Baker (the peace-maker), "L S Woolf" who I guess is Leonard Woolf (well done, Bloomsbury!), Robert Graves and "B Nicholson" who I guess is Benedict Nicholson.

The list of refuseniks isn't that long but it is Honourable. You can honour them by reading the list of names (published yesterday by The Daily Telegraph)

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

London Hotels: Getting Rid of "Catering Grade"

I am in Wiesbaden staying in a cheap enough Ibis hotel. Cutting my mixed grain bread this morning, I began thinking about Catering Grade ...

Stay in a ** hotel near any of London´s railway termini and you will encounter Catering Grade - a device by which your hundred pound a night B and B can avoid spending anything on your breakfast. Most visitors to the Olympics will discover Catering Grade and their rooms will cost one fifty a night.

Teabags which produce dishwasher grey tea, chalk white squares of bread, confitures which are coloured jellies, sausages which ... it`s too awful to contemplate.Given the chance, they will serve you UHT milk just like municipal cafes.

Time I say for the EU to act. Make Catering Grade illegal!

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Frank Ledwidge, Losing Small Wars. British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan

Read this book and you will likely want immediately to confine British forces to barracks and base. It's not safe to let them go anywhere or do anything.

Lieutenant Commander Ledwidge spent fifteen years as a Naval Reserve military intelligence officer and served in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is now retired. He begins rather uncertainly, as if unsure that he should be writing this kind of book at all, but as he gets into his stride, he delivers page after page of understated, but to an outsider like me, seemingly withering critique.

His book is not about the politicians who, out of weakness or ignorance or vainglory, despatched British forces to Iraq and Afghanistan. He is concerned with how the armed forces - and principally the army - handled the missions they were assigned or, in default of proper political direction, invented for themselves.

At the very top, Ledwidge rebukes the top brass for having failed to "speak truth to power": "generals, ill-trained and inadequately educated in the basic elements of strategy, failed in their role as speakers of truth to power" (p 262). In thrall to bluff and hearty notions - Can Do, Cracking On - they failed to demand a clear mission brief, failed to say that - as they understood the brief - it could not be delivered with the resources available, failed to raises issues about what might be legitimate in the circumstances, and so on.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the invading and occupying British forces actually did very little - except kill and antagonise local civilians.

In southern Iraq (Basra), they were initially welcomed but squandered goodwill by aligning themselves with militias and gangsters posing as the local administration. They simply lacked the on-the-ground intelligence to realise that this is what they were doing. In the end, they ended up largely confined to base. When they did venture out, in very small numbers, local civilians were quite often terrorised and occasionally tortured and killed.

Ledwidge makes some scathing remarks around this subject. We are frequently told that problems arise when we don't understand the local culture. Nonsense, says Ledwidge, culture is the same in Basra as in Basingstoke: in neither place do people want their doors kicked in at night by heavily armed soldiers speaking a foreign language and uncertain about their reasons for being in your living room.

In Afghanistan, it was insane for the top brass to agree to deployment in Helmand - a province where the British have been hated ever since they were last there.

It was insane to suppose that you could separate the "people" from the "insurgents" (Taliban) when you actually had less to offer the people by way of provision of security and available justice than did the insurgents and when your orders were to ally yourselves with prime sources of local unhappiness - a criminal police and judiciary.

As in Basra, the Brits ended up confined to base with occasional adventures into the occupied territory. Tragically, in Afghanistan, such adventures were often enough backed up with heavy weaponry and missile attacks. Many civilians dead, many more "hearts and minds" lost. What makes us think that it is even legitimate to be firing these missiles, as if Helmand is some kind of battlefield in which we face an enemy threatening our very existence?

Ledwidge goes after these failures with chilling anecdotes, sharp thumbnail analyses, detailed critique of the Army's military culture, and occasionally open exasperation. He rejects the notion that it was all the American's fault, or NATO's fault. These were British mistakes.This is how he sums up:

"The defeats - let us not mince words - in the civil wars - the "counter-insurgencies" - in Helmand and Basra need not have been so comprehensive; indeed, they need not have happened at all... in Basra, the British started with a "winning hand" and played it poorly. In Helmand, they managed to ignore several factors to which any Afghan could (and would) have drawn their attention (and to which several soldeirs did) - this was the single worst possible province into which the British could crash" (p 259)

Lt Cdr Ledwidge is too polite to add, the politicians and the top brass even thought that Helmand would be a good place to deploy one of our spare princelings, Prince Harry.

There is one topic which Ledwidge does not address but which complicates the picture. The wars he discusses have been fought for domestic political consumption. That is why there are so many VIPs on the ground (see Cowper-Coles' Cables from Kabul for examples). That is why there have to be Photo Ops involving bullets and missiles, when really - as Ledwidge several times observes in a discussion of "courageous restraint" - the real military challenge is to manage things so that you don't fire many bullets - and certainly don't fire any missiles.

I can't see the PR man installed as Prime Minister in Downing Street reading this book - which is one reason why I say: Read This Book!

Will Michael Gove go the Way of Dr Liam Fox?

On December 31 2010 I predicted that Dr Liam Fox would not last another year as Secretary of State for Defence and I was right.

So it's tempting to predict that Michael Gove will not last out 2012 as Secretary of State for Education. He was in the News yesterday because he wants to get the Queen a Yacht for her Jubilee and would be very happy for the taxpayer to pay for it.

Today he is in the newspapers because his plan to distribute a King James Bible to every school in the Land has run into difficulty. Who is going to pay for this bit of Gove-promotion? (He apparently plans to sign every copy - clearly there is not much work for a Secretary of State for Education these days).

I'm tempted to say, Three "I'm a Nutter" Stories and He's Out. Like Ruth Kelly, Gove is a bit of an embarassment. David Cameron's PR persons can't just go on slapping him down.So I'll make the prediction: He will provide us with another Story and he'll be out before the end of 2012.

Postscript: I was wrong. It took David Cameron until 15 July 2014 to realise that this man was a liability and sack him

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Michael Gove: God, the Queen and School Uniform

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, is in the newspapers today. He wants to give The Queen a new yacht for her Jubilee - or, rather, he wants to take £60 million from taxation for that purpose.He's also the man who is printing King James's Bibles for distribution to every school in the Land, whether they like it or not.

I always think of Gove as a man living in a fantasy world dated 1953, a year in which I got a Mug for the Queens' Coronation from North End County Primary School - a school where children fainted in assembly (they were hungry), where children smelt (they were neglected), where their faces were painted with gentian violet (that's how impetigo was treated).

We did God in those assemblies where children fainted flat on the polished wood floors, we were supposed to do School Uniform of the kind Gove fantasises - blazers, ties, grey flannel shorts, grey wool socks turned over at the top - we did the Queen.

Michael Gove is a Tory nutter just as Ruth Kelly was a New Labour nutter. In the world of British politics, such people end up running Education because The Daily Mail also thinks that Education is about God,The Queen and School Uniform

Why Not Invade The Channel Islands, Mr Miliband?

If we can invade Afghanistan and Iraq, why can't we invade the Channel Islands? The Germans did so, and it was a cakewalk.

There is a very good casus belli: the Islands leech billions of pounds of revenue away from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. It's really all they do - growing potatoes and issuing postage stamps of the Queen Mother is just PR window dressing.

There is one small problem. The Channel Islands (and the Isle of Man) are Crown Dependencies. We gave them their Devo Max status and we gave it to them precisely in order that they could provide a haven to those for whom paying taxes has always been a voluntary matter. Take a look at Nicholas Shaxson's book, Treasure Islands. Parliament wouldn't be Parliament if it didn't provide the wealthy with legitimate opportunities for tax avoidance.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Time for Italy to Repudiate the Lateran Treaty

Through 2011, scandal continued to afflict the Roman Catholic Church. In Ireland, the Netherlands and other countries, government commissions and court proceedings continued to demonstrate the inability of the Roman Catholic Church to adopt any approach to child abuse scandals other than that of covering up the crimes of its employees.

The heart of the problem is the Holy See, the head office of the Roman Catholic Church, currently housed in the Vatican City State and, as a result, enjoying immunity from anyone's civil and criminal laws.

The Vatican City State is a recent creation, dating only from 1929, the result of a dodgy deal between Mussolini and the Church. The Lateran Treaty of 1929 gave the Church a sovereign territory which removed its high officials from anyone else's jurisdiction. The corrupt use of this immunity has continued ever since. The Holy See is a corrupt organisation, up there with Mafias and News International, concerned only to protect its own wealth and power and unwilling to accept any accountability for the actions of its officials and employees.

The obvious way forward is for Italy to repudiate the Lateran Treaty, to reclaim the Vatican's territory, and to make clear that the Pope and his henchmen are subject to Italian criminal and civil law. There should be nowhere for them to hide. That means that Italy also needs to reclaim jurisdiction over the score of Church properties on Italian soil which have been granted extra-territorial status (rather like foreign embassies) and which can thus be used to hide fugitives from justice. For details on the bizarre arrangements in place, go to

The Holy See has used Vatican City's sovereignty to secure privileges in international organisations, such as observer status at the UN. No other religious organisation enjoys such extensive secular privileges as the Roman Catholic church and there is no reason why they should be allowed to continue. A church is not a state and it is for states to regulate the activities of religious organisations operating on their territory. It is the duty of states to protect religious liberty and, at the same time, protect their citizens from harm, whether the harm is perpetrated by everyday con-men or by priests.

I am sure Enda Kenny would agree with most of that.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Anthony Summers & Robbyn Swan, The Eleventh Day

After reading this book, you may well wonder why President Bush was never impeached.

Under President Clinton, Al Qaeda was regarded as the Number One threat to US security, at home and abroad, and efforts were made to neutralise it. Clinton even travelled to Pakistan (regarded as off limits for his personal safety) in order to try to get Pakistan's co-operation.

In 2000, everything changed. The incoming Bush administration was briefed about the Al Qaeda threat. They did not want to know, in some cases ostentatiously so. Both the general analysis and specific warnings were ignored - by Bush, by Rice, by Rumsfeld, by Ashcroft. The Republican administration was interested in other things - tax cuts, the projected Europe-based Missile Shield, in the background, Iraq. In many ways, it wasn't interested in very much at all - Bush went on holiday for all of August 2011.

Though the CIA briefed at top level, lower down it functioned poorly. So did the FBI. So did the Federal Aviation Authority, responsible for keeping the skies safe. And the turf war between them meant that crucial information was never exchanged. Even with poor exchange of information, quite a few people (including people in foreign intelligence services) had good reason to suspect an imminent terrorist attack from within the United States - and some of them could even give you the date, within a day or two, 9/11 - and the method, planes. But they were ignored.

To all intents and purposes, America's leaders and America's security organisations allowed 9/11 to happen.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers, Bush showed no qualities of leadership. The authors of this book carefully build up the case for saying that it was Cheney, not Bush, who was responsible for the Shoot Down order in respect of planes continuing to fly despite the FAA order grounding all aircraft. Rumsfeld is documented behaving idiotically. But Cheney had no authority to issue the order; Bush and Rumsfeld did.

Very quickly - within hours even - the Bush administration sought to turn 9 / 11 to the advantage of one of their pet projects, the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Richard Clarke (Bush's counter-terrorism co-ordinator) has documented this in his book Against All Enemies (2004).

At the same time, Buash & Co did not want to know about Saudi involvement in financing and supporting not only Al Qaeda in general but the 19 hijackers of 9/11 in particular. Summers and Swan go into detail to demonstrate this involvement, up to and including members of the Saudi Royal Family and government administration. The "Don't Want to Know" approach of the Bush administration began within hours of the attacks: Saudi royals and members of the Bin Laden family were allowed to leave the USA on special flights, with little or no questioning.

Much of the evidence for Saudi involvement has been redacted from material the US government has published, including the 9 / 11 Commission report. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on 9 /11 were Saudi; half of the American public - of whom the world should be more terrified than it is - ended up believing that some or most of the hijackers were Iraqi. None were.

Bob Graham, joint Chair of the Congressional Inquiry into 9 / 11, concluded "It was as if the President's loyalty lay more with Saudi Arabia than with America's safety" - and as a result, Graham concluded he should have been impeached (page 420)

Summers and Swan are caustically dismissive of the conspiracy theories around 9 / 11: the Bush administration did not set the hijackers to work, it did not bring down the Twin Toweres by controlled demolition, a plane did hit the Pentagon ... But the tale they have to tell is at least as scary as any of those conspiracy theories.

And this year, America may once again be stupid enough to elect another dumb Republican President.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Scottish Independence? The Best Thing for England

English politicians are terrified of Scottish independence. They would be facing the unknown. Would the Scottish economy boom, as did that of Slovakia once it separated from its richer Czech neighbour? Would Scotland join the euro? Would they refuse to have English nuclear weapons (Trident) on their territory? Would they turn into a tax haven, like the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands (and they only have "devo max")? Would Scotland simply do better?

The Labour & Unionist Party would have to totally re-think and re-organise. It would no longer have a role at Westminster as the representative of the Scottish Interest. It has no standing in Northern Ireland, not enough in Wales - and not enough in England.

The Conservative & Unionist Party would have different problems. To present itself as an English party would run it into trouble with its own Unionist elements and our ruling Royal Family.

England would be stuck with a broken-backed Union with Northern Ireland and Wales, neither of which enthuses English voters who choose Dublin and Edinburgh for their weekend breaks, not Belfast or Cardiff.

Reform would be forced upon the House of Lords.

Shake-up and uncertainty is absolutely the best thing which could happen to England, upsetting the complacent and corrupt routines of Westminster politics

Friday, 6 January 2012

Ageing: Decline Begins at 45

This is autobiographical.

I was cheered up by a story in today's newspapers: a large scale psychological study led by Archana Singh Manoux has shown that cognitive abilities (reasoning, memory - I forget the third one) start to decline from around the age of 45 not 60 (as previously thought).

When I took early retirement from my University teaching post at the age of 50 (though continuing to teach part-time for another three years)I had this feeling that I was past my best and that it was a good idea to quit while it didn't show. After all, I thought, footballers don't go on forever so why should academics? I had other reasons for quitting, but this line of thinking was at the back of my mind.

I was aware that my memory was nothing like as good as that I possessed in my teens and twenties.I no longer had the kind of visual memory which allowed me to call up diagrams in the Economics textbooks I studied at "A" level and University. Nor could I any longer be sure that a quotation I was looking for was on the right or left hand page of a book.

For years, I had got away with very sloppy note taking because I could always remember enough of a book to go back and simply look again. And supervising students, there was a time when I would dictate reading lists rather than print them off in advance, complete with publisher and date of publication.

Of course, I had a huge back catalogue of knowledge and intellectual strategies, but I found learning new things increasingly hard. When I started a Russian course at the age of 53, I soon gave up. I wasn't quick enough for my own liking.

True, I did manage to switch from being a reasonably successful academic (go to to being a reasonably successful specialist stamp dealer (go to But in truth, I can no longer remember stamp catalogue values in the way I could remember them as a boy (when I could also tell you the results of football matches played by Dartford FC and such like). This is a definite handicap when it comes to making quick decisions on whether to buy.

One of the things I like about my Blog is that it does not require me to hold in my head a mass of information over a long period. When I worked on my doctorate, I held it in my head over a period of at least seven years, more if you count the time then spent converting part of it to a book (Language in Mind and Language in Society, Oxford University Press 1987). I don't think I could do that again and I am not at all sure that I would want to: it was exhausting first time round.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Stephen Gundle, Death and the Dolce Vita

If you wondered how Berlusconi survived for so long, this well-written book will provide many clues.

Stephen Gundle is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick. In the 1950s, Rome was a major film production centre for both Italian and American films. Producers like Fellini, Rossellini and da Sica had international reputations. Italian actors and American actors who worked in Rome were front page material for movie magazines and popular newspapers. Think of Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroiani just for the Italian side.

But rather than write a straightforward history of Italian cinema in the 1950s, Gundle has come at the story from another angle. He structures his book around the never-explained death of a young woman, Wilma Montesi, in April 1953 and provides a crime-detective narrative which, as it unfolds, provides a social history of post-war Rome.

Wilma Montesi was a lower middle-class girl from Rome whose family home was just a short walk from the bright lights of the city. Looking for a life less dull than that favoured by her family and her wooden fiancé, she got mixed up with the wrong crowd and within months died in mysterious circumstances.

The wrong crowd included a career criminal, Ugo Montagna, a man who did not file tax-returns and who had navigated his way to a success which grew through successive regimes - Fascist, American Occupation, Christian Democracy - and the wayward son, Piero Piccioni, of a top Christian Democrat politician. They had a taste for drugs and for sex. Wilma Montesi probably worked as a local drugs courier within Rome and she may have been groomed for sex. One night, something went wrong and she ended up dead on a beach near Rome.

Together Montagna and Piccioni could call in favours and call on connections. Montagna was buddy with the national commissioner for police and the elderly police commissioner for Rome was not going to argue with his boss. The investigation into Wilma Montesi's death was very rapidly closed after a perfunctory autopsy. It was an accident, a verdict her family were happy to embrace since it left their daughter's public reputation - and their own - intact.

The case was only re-opened because Italy's newly-free press would not let go of it. It had all ingredients of a circulation-boosting story: the mysterious death of a pretty young woman, the debauched lives of the rich and powerful (or sons of the powerful) and - not least - cover-up and corruption in high places continuing as if democracy had not yet come to Italy. Silvano Muto, on the journalistic right, led the way and the left followed.

The Vatican also had its own interests. Anything that served to weaken the strength of the Communists in post-war Italy was Good, anything which weakened the strength of the Christian Democrats was Bad. Here the Vatican and the USA, still heavily involved in Italian affairs, shared identical positions.

Gundle develops all this in a carefully-crafted, readable book. He avoids heavy-handed theoretical analysis, but there is an underlying structure: the opposition of high and low life and their proximity to each other in capital cities; the role of mass circulation magazines and newspapers in both sustaining a public sphere of debate but also in structuring the aspirations of young women; the hostility of the Vatican to anything which threatened sexual repression or the subordination of women; the spill-over of film culture into everyday life and the reverse.

If you want to understand the context out of which came Fellini's La Dolce Vita , then read this book. If you want to understand the long-term context in which a regime as corrupt and bacchanalian as Berlusconi's was possible, then this book also provides a remarkable amount of insight.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Public Time Management - Do We Have to Have Second Best?

Time management isn't just an individual matter because personal time management is constrained by how public time is managed.

Public time is time organised, structured by government and public institutions.

Government sets clock time (when the clocks go forward and back) and it sets times when shops and offices must close (Sunday Opening hours and such like) and specifies public holiday dates (which are advisory, not compulsory, in the UK)

Office and shop opening hours, school times and terms, court sessions - these are the stuff of public time.

In the UK, we don't do it well.

Public services are heavily disrupted by public holidays - most shops stay open now (except Christmas Day and New Year's Day), but public services take every opportunity to shut up shop. If the clinic you attend is held on a Monday, you are really stuffed because that's when most Public Holidays are scheduled.

Public Holidays also reduce the scope employees have to negotiate their days off with their employer. You just get locked out whether you want it or not, and usually on a wet day (Google "Bank Holiday Washout" for a very large number of results).

Ideally, there should be no public holidays. Staff would agree the time off they wanted on an individual basis. Most employees would want Christmas Day and New Year's Day and a sensible employer would shut down on those days, but the driving force would be employee wishes not government advice.

With no public holidays, the economy would work more efficiently and public services much more efficiently. That would justify an increase in statutory holiday entitlement.

The starting point should be agreement on the number of days to be worked in the year. Let's say 230 (that's 46 five day working weeks). The rest is holiday, but with days to be agreed. There should be no automatic assumption that public services close on Saturdays and Sundays. If a kebab shop with a staff of five can open Saturdays and Sundays so can a GPs surgery.


Added 24 July 2018: This Blog post is expanded into the chapter on Time Management in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers.

Rebecca Harris, It's Not Brussels You Have to Worry About, it's Belfast

I read in today's press that the Government has done a U-turn and will not oppose Rebecaa Harris MP's Private Member's Bill to align UK clocks with those in continental Europe, so one hour ahead of GMT.

I blogged about this previously. There are two main arguments in favour of the move: it will cut road deaths since accidents are related to the winter darkness of evening rush hours; and it will be welcomed by most people who will have more daylight after work in which do shop, do things with their children and so on.

The government should really be leading this one; instead, they are taking the limp line of not opposing PROVIDED ...

PROVIDED the governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland agree. Wales will, Scotland might, and Northern Ireland won't.

It will be another case of the tail wagging the dog. But why should Northern Ireland decide anything for anyone except itself? Why should fifty million people in England spend six months of every year in unnecessary gloom because the county council in Belfast objects?

Over to you, Rebecca Harris MP

Monday, 2 January 2012

Hell is Error Realised Too Late

I believe the title is a quote from Thomas Hobbes but I can't get a Google result for it.

And even when we realise our error, we sometimes procrastinate - staying in the wrong job or the wrong marriage for too long (often, far too long).

New Years' Resolutions are usually no more than a list of worthy and socially acceptable aspirations - exercise more, eat less, stop smoking. They can be better than that, coming out of reflection on the way we are living - checking for errors before it is too late.

But when is too late? "I would if I was younger" someone says, speaking of a change they could make - should make - but which they won't make because they think they are too old.

Is the right reply, "It's never too late"? It's a neat response and I would like to think it is true. If you realise at the age of 80 that you are married to the wrong person, then you should go ahead and divorce them.

But I'm not sure it's that neat. So you go ahead and divorce them. Then what? You get our life back, people will tell you, but they should add, But living a life is not always easy. And when you are 80, maybe it's most unlikely to be easy.