Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Vive l'Angleterre!

Jacques Sarkozy is coming over to London to make an election speech in order to persuade the 100,000 French emigres to return to their homeland with the offer of longer working hours and lower taxes. Bonne chance!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Local autocracy

I heard Caroline Spelman, Shadow Secretary for Communities and Local Government, speak at lunchtime today. As usual, she was excellent. She said the White Paper on local government contains a clause which has the power to direct councils to merge into Unitary Authorities. She thinks this will undermine local government and believes these decisions should be made by local referenda. She cited the example of Shropshire which bid for unitary status to the disgust of one of its districts, Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury held a referendum and 70% of the voters wanted to keep Shrewsbury Council. She also mentioned that a new rating system has been introduced in Northern Ireland which is causing considerable anguish: people will pay rates at 0.69% of the value of their property. In some cases, people's rates bills will go up 400%.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The British Infantry

The cathedral hosted the final concert performance of the Band and Bugles of The Light Division on Saturday which was tremendous although the strategy of getting seats near the front was not so good as our eardrums caught the full blast of the bugles. The Light Division originally incorporated The Light Infantry and The Royal Green Jackets but more recently amalgamated The Devonshire and Dorset Regiment and The Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment. As if these changes weren't enough, the whole Light Division will cease to exist at midnight on 31 January and will be replaced by The Rifles Regiment. The Rifles, with 14,000 men, will be the largest Regiment in the Infantry and will identify itself with each city, county and town in the UK. Its motto will be "Swift and bold". I suppose this is another step towards "Britishness".

Friday, January 26, 2007


Salivating over the "easy" profits to be made in the frothy Chinese equity markets, Macquarie's is launching a new fund which will liquidate hot new stocks within months of their purchase and reinvest the proceeds in yet more IPOs by Chinese companies in Hong Kong, Singapore, the US and anywhere else. I'm sceptical about the success of this. In my old life as an Asian stockbroker, we were always told by the corporate finance guys that "flippers" ie people who buy on the first day of a new issue and sell soon afterwards, would be last on an allocation list. The reason for this was that the company issuing the stock would always generate more profit to the investment bank than commission from a client so the bank wanted long-term investors, a stable share price and the opportunity to issue more shares or bonds in the future. Therefore, in very hot issues, Macquarie's should be towards the bottom of the allocation list, whereas they'll be given all the shares they want in unpopular IPOs.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


There is an article in today's FT by Professor Sir Bernard Crick criticising Gordon Brown's views of Britishness. GB says Britishness is necessary to hold together the Union rather than simply a rational calculation of mutual advantage. Crick argues that GB is confusing "nationalism-as-tradition-and-national consciousness" with "national-separatism". GB says that Britishness must express "shared goals" and Crick is rightly sceptical about GB wanting this to be taught in the "new citizenship curriculum" which applies only to schools in England.
I do not believe in having a separate English Parliament but do believe that in Westminster only English MPs should be able to vote on education and NHS legislation relating to England. I also think it would be a bad idea to separate from Scotland, not least because, were Scotland to become independent it would almost certainly join the Euro and, in my humble view, that would undermine sterling and our economic sovereignty.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Andrew Mitchell, Shadow International Development Secretary, gave a talk last night about his work. To his mind, there are three parts to his portfolio: international trade, aid and conflict resolution.
He believes tariffs and subsidies should be abolished and that there should be a free market in trade. This has done much to alleviate poverty in India and he thinks it would do wonders in Africa. There are more poor people in India than in the whole continent of Africa but India is now deemed to be "a middle income" country. He also thinks that microfinance is beneficial: it has helped 7m families in Bangladesh and is being put to good use in Afghanistan.
Aid has been useful for eliminating disease. He thinks that an Aid Evaluation Agency could be set up to assess its impact, particularly if a UK economic slowdown causes people to question the International Development budget in the future.
Conflict resolution is to his mind the most important element because if a country is embroiled in a war, trade and aid will make little difference to the quality of life.
He talked about a "moral case" for conflict resolution and debt forgiveness but I was wondering if there was in fact a moral case for the UK Government spending taxpayers' money overseas. Why not simply give tax incentives for individuals to support the charities they choose, and companies incentives to invest in developing countries? A Government has a 5 year time horizon but a charity or company can take a longer-term view regarding projects.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

21st century Socialism

The most colourful politician in South America, Hugo Chavez of Venezuala, who famously described Venezuala, Cuba and Bolivia as "the axis of good", is in financial difficulty. His state budget had been drafted on the assumption of a $65 oil price versus today's price of $48. Earlier this month he seized $8.7bn from the central bank for a social spending fund, then he decided to cut petrol subsidies (the price of petrol was a mere $0.17 a gallon) and yesterday he ordered his telecommunications minister to nationalise the largest private telecom company CANTV. He still has more foreign reserves than foreign debt so need not default but diverting reserves into spending increases money supply and inflation, already running at 20%, so any collapse would be hyperinflationary.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Prison life

According to James Sproule, erstwhile Tory candidate for Streatham, inmates of Brixton Prison, who are largely remand prisoners, have TVs in their cells and are in the habit of watching porn most of the day. He was surprised by this and I must say that it seems a bizarre use of taxpayers' money.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What's your poison?

Alberto Guevara, Nicaragua's new finance minister, gives his first interview to the FT today. Reducing poverty is his main goal as 80% of the population survives on under $2 per day. He says he'll welcome financial and economic co-operation from any and all sources, including the IMF. While attending Daniel Ortega's swearing-in ceremony last week, Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuala, said that assistance from the IMF was "like drinking a glass of poisoned water."

Sunday, January 14, 2007


My gloom was temporarily lifted yesterday at the wedding of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Helena de Chair at Canterbury Cathedral. Jacob, a staunch Roman Catholic, had insisted that the Abbot of Downside should conduct a Communion Mass in Latin for the bride and bridegroom, after the Dean of Canterbury had officiated during the first part of the service. In the Mass he remembered the martyrs: John, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicitas, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia and Anastasia. I remarked to the Abbot at the reception that I (an ignorant Anglican) had not heard of many of these martyrs and asked him if he'd also prayed for Thomas a Becket in the cathedral. He replied yes, indeed he had.

Friday, January 12, 2007


T.S.Eliot's Four Quartets is one of my favourite poems. Here's an extract:

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Funeral arrangements

I am in the middle of a most unfortunate task: arranging my mother's funeral. My father assured me that there would be very few guests but he hadn't reckoned on my mother's side of the family who only see each other en masse every decade or so at a funeral and who are arriving in droves from all over the country. He had also underestimated the enthusiasm of his former colleagues, octogenarian/nonagenarian ex-fighter pilots, Oxbridge, faithful Government servants, whose wives are all to unwell to attend, who are really looking forward to an old boys' reunion. The only widower amongst them has asked if he can bring his new girlfriend. We didn't ask her age...

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Islamic youth bulge

In yesterday's FT, Christopher Caldwell discusses a book by Gunnar Heinsohn called Sohne und Weltmacht:Terror im Aufstag und Fall der Nationen, published in 2003 but not available in English. Heinsohn is a social scientist and genocide researcher at the University of Bremen. He believes that when 15-29 year olds make up more than 30% of a country's population, violence tends to happen. In the decade leading up to 1993 when the Taliban took over, the population of Afghanistan had grown from 14m to 22m. Iraq's population has grown from 5m in 1950 to 25m now, despite the killings there. Since 1967, the population of the West Bank and Gaza has grown from 450,000 to 3.3m and 47% of it is under 15. The problem with a youth bulge society, he says, is that there are not enough positions to provide all the young men with position and standing so envy is unleashed and military "heroism" is used to wrest positions of "respectability". Societies with a glut of young men are temperamentally different from "singleton societies" such as Europe where the prospect of sending an only child to war is almost unthinkable. Of the 27 biggest youth bulge nations, 13 are Muslim and Heinsohn thinks that religion can be a convenient rationalisation for violent people who do not want to think of themselves as common criminals.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Saddam's last words

Apparently when Saddam heard that Blair had gone to stay with Robin Gibb, his last words were in fact sung:
When the feelings gone and you cant go on
It's tragedy
When the morning cries and you dont know why
It's hard to bear
With no-one to love you youre
Goin nowhere"

And Blair (with the help of R.Gibb) then sang:

"But I will stand for one dream if I can
Symbol of my faith in who I am
And I must follow on the road that lies ahead
I wont let my heart control my head
And we dont say goodbye
We dont say goodbye
I make my journey through eternity
I keep the memory of you and me

Ring in the New!

New Year's Eve at Winchester is terrific: climbing the cathedral tower and hearing the bellringers ring out the old year and ring in the New. My 88 year old father was keen to join in but could only make it up to the first level where the walls are so thick that he heard absolutely nothing!