Monday, February 28, 2011

Don't buy a house! Just say no.

   Negative equity.  It's not something we have been hearing much about since 2008, when UK property prices started falling.  Prompt action by the Bank of England and the government halted the crash in real estate prices.  But the underlying problem is as serious now as before:  British house prices are just too high. First time buyers are having to save more than year's salary to buy a home, at a time when wages and salaries are falling in real terms and inflation is rising fast.  2011 is the year the roof falls in. 

Friday, February 25, 2011

Trident: Fox says four, no less no more. Someone tell the LibDems.


    One of the very few achievements of the Liberal Democrats in the UK coalition has been the decision to review the replacement of Trident.  Nick Clegg said during the election campaign that he was opposed to renewing the weapons system.  But someone seems to have forgotten to tell the defence secretary, Liam Fox. This week he announced, not only that he was ordering the steel to build the next generation of Trident, but that the country needs four Trident submarines, not three as the former prime minister, Gordon Brown,  believed back in 2009.  Presumably the extra one is to cover for vessels that get lost in the Minch and end up colliding with the Isle of Skye.

    Except that the decision on whether to renew Trident, whether with three or four boats, is not supposed to be taken until 2016. A commission of senior politicians and defence chiefs is reviewing the whole question of whether we need to renew our “independent” nuclear deterrent at all,  given that Trident is designed to obliterate Russian cities and Russia is no longer an enemy.  But you wouldn't have known, hearing Mr Fox interviewed for Sally Magnusson’s through-the-porthole look at life in a Trident nuclear submarine on BBC Scotland .  Gosh, they’re so fit.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tony Blair, Col Gaddafi and Osama bin Laden.

 Now we know.  That handshake in the desert wasn't just about oil and al Megrahi.  Tony Blair and Col Gaddafi, shoulder to shoulder in the war against Osama bin Laden.   Of course we gave him arms - he was one of the good guys.   How fitting that now, in his desperation to cling on to power, Muammar Gaddafi has resorted to the same bin Laden bogeyman that was used by President George W. Bush and Tony Blair to muster support for their repressive legislation and foreign wars.  

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Selling democracy in the desert - a Marshall Plan of the mind.

  If as seems increasingly likely,  the day of the dictator is drawing to a close in North Africa and the Middle EAst, what should we be doing to hasten the sunset?  No fly zone in Libya?  Perhaps, if Gadaffi continues to use aircraft to kill his own people.  Suspend exports of arms?  Absolutely: it is indeed shameful that we have been supplying ammunition for the guns that have mown down pro-democracy supporters in Libya.  A Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of North Africa - undoubtedly, in the longer term, if only because this would be in our economic interest to create new markets and trading partners.   But what else?  What should we do now?   Are pious lectures about introducing democracy enough?

   Actually, they might be. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

And so farewell Wendy Alexander, resignation queen of Holyrood.

Wendy Alexander has walked out again, resigning her Paisley seat and citing the oldest and lamest excuse in politics,  “to spend time with her family”.  She leaves the Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray, and fellow career women in the lurch.   Though somehow, I don't think this is the last we have heard of Wendy.   Labour’s former Scottish leader has made something of a career out of resignation.  She first walked out in 2002 as enterprise minister after a frantic 7.00 am encounter with the then First Minister Jack McConnell on his Wishaw doorstep. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Libya, Egypt, Bahrain - they just want to be like us.

  It is hard not to be inspired by the example of the young people of North Africa and the Middle East who have launched and sustained the most dignified, principled and peaceful democracy movement since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.    In Lybia, Bahrain, Morocco, Yemen, Algeira they have taken to the streets and the blogosphere to demand democracy, freedom and human rights.  But what does that mean?  

   There has been a deal of confusion in the west about how to make sense of these pro-democracy movements.  We don't quite know who is fighting for what.   It all looks so spontaneous and un-organised.  Where are the leaders?  What's the programme?  Will they end up like Iran after 1979 as dismal  theocracies run by religious obscurantists?  Will they degenerate into civil war like the Balkans and the countries in the horn of Africa.  Or will they become democracies like the former communist states in the 1990s or South Africa under Mandela?   Is the CIA involved - either suppressing them or encouraging them.  There are reports that a number of the student leaders in Egypt had been trained in the use of social media by US-backed NGOs.  

Thursday, February 17, 2011

SNP are back. Bad day for monkeys.

It was a bad day for monkeys. It has long been said that, in large parts of Scotland, you if you put a red rosette on a monkey it would still win in most Labour constituencies, especially when there is a Conservative government in Westminster. The old rule certainly appeared to be holding following the general election in May when Labour stacked up over a million votes in Scotland and knocked the stuffing out of Alex Salmond. But the day of the primate may be over. 
If the latest opinion poll from Ipsos Mori is right, and the SNP has clawed back the 10 point lead Labour had over them as recently as November, Labour may have to start looking for a better species of candidate.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hasta la vista Jeremy. The end of the car is nigh.

  A hundred pounds to fill a tank. At first I couldn’t believe it - staring at the pump in disbelief.  Ok,  my VW campervan has a slightly larger tank than most cars.  And yes, I was up north where fuel prices are higher.   But still - a ton just to fill up!  How did we get here?   This is just not sustainable - economically or environmentally.  

  I looked around at the motorists waiting patiently to be fleeced after me.  How do they manage in rural areas  where there’s no public transport and fuel stations charge whatever they want?   What do small businesses do?  Perhaps there is some sort of black market in bootleg diesel - otherwise the place would come to a standstill. 

  But it’s not just an issue for the highlands and islands - everyone seems to be talking about the cost of fuel right now.   Expressing a kind of impotent rage - at ourselves as much as the fuel profiteers.  We all know we shouldn’t still be depending on cars;  that they are environmentally damaging, cause congestion and encourage laddish individualism.  But we’re all still using them.  With children it’s just not an option not to.  

    On my own, I use a bicycle around town, because it’s far quicker and I can park it anywhere - but I’m not fooling myself that this makes me any holier than thou.  I can bike it because I can afford to near the centre of town.  Most people can’t and have no choice but to use their cars in the suburbs or the country.  Try commuting by bike in Argyle in winter and you’re liable to end up with hypothermia.  Car transport is a collective addiction which is very difficult to kick on your own.

   But I think now,   with the hundred pound fill up,  we may  just have reached a kind of transport tipping point. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Let's close Glasgow University. Who needs degrees anyway?

    It’s called the “bleeding stumps” strategy.  How managers of publicly-funded organisations resist cuts in their budgets.  They propose cuts in the most painful and visible services in the hope that the media firestorm forces the government to back down.  Aberdeen City Council did it by saying it was considering closing all the city’s parks and making 900 compulsory redundancies among council staff.  North Ayrshire proposed a four day week for schools, a patently ludicrous idea that became headline news for days.  Professor Anton Muscatelli, the vice chancellor of Glasgow University,  has been warning of his university going bankrupt in 2013, inviting images of unemployed academics in gowns and mortar boards shuffling along dole queues, while sheriff officers hold warrant sales of university furniture.  Come to think of it, that Glasgow university building would make a very decent hotel. 

Monday, February 07, 2011

Because of Iraq we have no role in Egyptian revolution.

  I have been bad tempered all day.  It's because I had the misfortune to listen to Tony Blair on Egypt - sticking very much to the line that Mubarak is our bastard, who has delivered "stability" to the Middle East and we should be wary of any attempts to remove him.  So much, so predictable.  What was infuriating though was not just that this man had launched an illegal war against Iraq in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that weren't there. If the beneficiaries of the Egypt revolution turn out to be the Muslim Brotherhood, then we only have ourselves, or Tony, to blame. What is happening in the Middle East is the Muslim equivalent of the revolutions that overthrew communism in Eastern Europe twenty years ago.   The movement is overwhelmingly peaceful, broadly based and determined to introduce democracy to countries that has lived under dictatorship for decades.  What right do we have as outsiders to try now to dictate the course of the revolution? 

   But the truly maddening thing is that the West could have been the passive agents of freedom in North Africa, just as in Europe in the 1990s, and could have played a significant constructive role in helping countries like Egypt move into the democratic age.  But because of Iraq, we have no credibility in the region whatsoever.  Hardly surprising.  If Bush and Blair had just let the Middle East alone, instead of using military force to impose US democracy, we would probably be seeing secular liberal democracy established in countries like Egypt through force of opposition by the people. 

  Thanks to the stupidity of the Iraq war, as brought to your screens by Tony Blair et al, we in the West have opted out of history.    We behaved so badly that we even made the dictators look reasonable by comparison.  And now, of course, we are bigging up Mubarak as if he were a noble statesman and democrat, which he isn't.  He is a tyrant and torturer. The people in Tahrir don't trust us, and who can blame them.  

Friday, February 04, 2011

You've been Tesco'd

 Forget the Egyptian revolution, all hail the heroes of Holyrood who have saved the nation  from the iniquitous SNP Tesco Tax.  Thousands of grateful Scots lined the boulevards of  the capital yesterday cheering Labour's Iain Gray as he rode to the Scottish parliament on a Morrisons shopping trolley.  Tearful checkout ladies strew club-cards in his way.   Grateful trades unionists doffed their flat caps as Lord Sainsbury drove past in his limousine.  

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Of course my phone is hacked.

  Is there anyone left in public life who has not been the target of Rupert Murdoch’s sleazy evesdroppers? We’ve had Prince William, Gordon Brown, Tessa Jowell, Leslie Ash, even the sexist sport commentator Andy Gray and the former MP George Galloway. Not having had your messages intercepted is practically an admission that you’re loser and no one is interested in you.  Ex Labour ministers like David Clarke say they ‘assume’ their messages are intercepted.  Michael Portillo, the broadcaster and former Tory defence secretary, says he hasn’t used voice-mail for ten years.