Monday, January 31, 2005

Ozone hole grows

The ozone hole above the Arctic is growing, thanks to this year´s heavy winter, a European Union press release states today.
EUROPA - Rapid - Press Releases

If the Arctic stratosphere continues to cool, the hole will continue to grow, the scientists say.

It may sound like another piece of harmless EU-sponsored scaremongering. One thing is strange though: if temperatures are too low above the Arctic now, and this is a bad thing, then why is so much money being thrown at combatting global warming? Surely, if this new report is true, we should be gladly encouraging the spread of global warming?

Nazis will be Nazis 3

The current furore surrounding neo-Nazis in Germany is amplified by the reactions of the neo-Nazis´ opponents. The violence over the weekend in Kiel was provoked by 7,000 left-wing protesters who were trying to attack a group of some 300 neo-Nazi NPD marchers.

On the one hand, this opposition is to be welcomed. The NPD is a deeply unpleasant party and its attacks on foreigners (even when only verbal, as in the "Have a good trip!" poster featuring the backs of immigrants) are despicable. On the other hand, unsavoury antics such as those indulged in by the 7,000 left-wing rabble-rousers give the neo-Nazi NPD a disproportionate amount of public attention and, as a result, influence. In a similar vein are the fumblings of mainstream politicians, some of whom who wish to ban the NPD outright - a procedure fraught with dangers to rights of freedom of opinion, expression and association. Impotent political agonising about whether or not they should be outlawed attracts spotlights and glamour to the neo-Nazis.

The weekend´s violence is especially unwelcome in that it taints opposition to the neo-Nazis with criminality and anti-social vandalism: the left-wing protesters set rubber tyres and bins alight and smashed up street signs and shop displays. Such rentamob behaviour will alienate mainstream opinion and, perversely, increase support for the neo-Nazis.

Telegraph News Police use water cannon to quell violent protest at neo-Nazi rally

5 Million Unemployed Germans

Unemployment has hit 5 million people in Germany, the Bundesagentur fuer Arbeit will announce this Wednesday. This is the highest level of unemployment since the 1930s, and the 11th consecutive month with worsening figures.

In normal times this would sound the death-knell for Germany´s ineffectual SPD/Green coalition government. But, as in the UK, the opposition hasn´t cracked a way of getting through to the voters. In both Germany and the UK, the governments´ Teflon-coated leaders remain more popular than those who oppose them.

Even Chancellor Schroeder´s exciting plan to force unemployed women into prostitution doesn´t seem to be harming his re-election prospects. Maybe this is what Germans secretly want..

Queen Beatrix by Andy Warhol

A happy day at Huis ten Bosch, where the Queen of the Netherlands is quietly celebrating her 67th birthday.

Reigning Queens - Queen Beatrix by Andy Warhol

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Michael Moore and Iraqi Election

A remarkably subdued Michael Moore comments on today´s Iraqi election. The only criticism he can bring himself to make is that there is no timetable for the withdrawal of Allied troops.

But he´s completely missing the point - leaving aside what the White House wants (one presumes they´d want to get out as soon as possible) - the Allied troops will stay until stability can credibly be left to the Iraqi police and army - or until the democratically elected government asks them to leave.

Today´s election is a huge blow to the insurgents. It is also a huge blow to the knee-jerk, defeatist oppositionism of the likes of Michael Moore.

Welcome to MichaelMoore.com! : Words

Enforced prostitution in Germany

Given the country´s continued unemployment problems, it shouldn´t be too much of a surprise to see this report, claiming that German job centres will cut the benefits of women who refuse to work as prositutes:

Telegraph News 'If you don't take a job as a prostitute, we can stop your benefits'

Exciting as this initative is, I can´t see it as a vote-winner for Chancellor Schroeder´s government.

And the red-light milieu, for its part, will be in no hurry to replace hard-working ladies from former East-bloc countries with pampered, work-shy German Frauleins.

So on balance, and against this blog´s natural inclinations, we think this report should be filed under "hypothetical".

Update: It seems that the Telegraph's report was indeed hypothetical, in that nobody could be found to corroborate that it actually happened.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

EU tests 200,000 goats

A two year old goat from the Ardeche in France has been found infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease).

Markos Kyprianou, the EU Commissioner for Goats, says the EU food supply is perfectly safe. However, the EU Commission wants to test 200,000 goats across Europe, just to be sure. Mr Kyprianou sounds ominously short of sensible things to do.

If I were a goat, I´d be deeply, deeply worried.

EU rules out health risk after ?mad cow? disease found in goat

Grandstanding in Davos

The World Economic Forum in Davos attracts droves of politicians eager to polish up their public profiles, and pledge their taxpayers´ money, in pursuit of all manner of ill thought-through, but right-on sounding schemes.

The prize so far goes to President Chirac of France. His pontifications were delivered to the 2500 political and business leaders via videolink, as air travel from France was impossible this week - presumably due to the Arctic conditions caused by global warming. He called for taxes on aviation fuel and international financial transactions. Chirac was brought down to earth by that great economic expert Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, who questioned the plan´s practicability.

Chancellor Schroeder, meanwhile, seconded the plan, even though he knows full well it hasn´t a snowball´s chance of succeeding. This so-called Tobin Tax, which punishes the "wrong sort" of capital flow, was abandoned even by the eponymous James Tobin himself, once he´d come to see it as impossible to administer. But Schroeder has some key elections coming up: he needs to buff up his global caring image.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were looking unwontedly amicable (see "A Bad Case of the TB-GB´s" post of 16th January below) in the icy Swiss sunshine. Gordon pledged almost 1.8 billion dollars for the Third World. Tony called for more money to be spent on climate control.

Pictures of these buffoons posing with Bono are now appearing all over the press. Nice work if you can get it, especially when the bill for this self-satisfied grandstanding will be footed by the hapless taxpayer back home.

FT.com / World / US - Obligation to poor is key Davos theme

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Dadaist Death

Terry Eagleton, the modish Marxist professor, writes in the Guardian about the artistry of the suicide bomber.

Guardian Unlimited Guardian daily comment A different way of death

We have to thank God for the survival of creatures like Eagleton. It seems hard to believe, but when I was at university, he was a cult figure. Undergraduates sat at his feet and hung on his every word, all very Messiah-like. Now his charisma has dissolved into nihilism and precious verbosity. Maybe that´s all there was to him all along. But it´s good to know that he is still producing and getting paid for such priceless witterings as this:

"There is a smack of avant-garde theatre about this horrific act... the brutal slaughter of the innocent, like some Dadaist happening, warps the mind as well as the body. It is an assault on meaning..."

Indeed it is, Terry, indeed it is.

Smothered by Blandness - Margot Wallstrom´s Nice Blog

It´s been up for a while now, and it doesn´t show any sign of getting interesting yet, report hardy souls who have waded through Eurocommissioner Margot Wallstrom´s treacly blog.

Just so, yet isn´t it a little naive to expect a woman who has arrived, and intends to stay, in her exalted position to write anything other than inoffensive pieties?

And sometimes it´s nice to have a nice lady´s nice blog for us read nice things on.

Especially on a day like today, when we shudder at the horrible evils to which politicians are at least equally prone as niceness. Sometimes it´s nicer to be smothered by blandness.

The European Commission - Vice-President Margot Wallstr?m: my blog

Van Gogh Assassination

Theo van Gogh´s assassin, Mohammed B., went on trial yesterday in Amsterdam.

B. was arrested at the crime-scene - having emptied his gun into van Gogh and at the police - and had made no attempt to escape.

The Dutch authorities are keen for him to undergo psychiatric tests. They say that motives of terrorism, and B.´s belief that he was fighting a war, don´t preclude the possibility of insanity.

True, but a diagnosis of insanity would demolish B.´s stance as a holy killer of infidels. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the would-be martyr B. has said that he wants "to be held fully responsible for his actions." He turned his back on the psychiatrist sent to examine him, which, as the court was drily told yesterday, made the diagnosis problematic.

Mohammed B. was, for the first part of his life, a seemingly well-integrated, well-educated dual-nationality Dutch-Moroccan. But something tipped him into murderous hatred of Western society. He had in his pocket at the time of the murder a poem in Dutch about his martyrdom in which "the enemy" are warned that "the Knights of DEATH" are chasing them.

The insanity question goes to the heart of the matter. If Mohammed B. is not mad, then the society which produced him, and is now trying him, is.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Nazis will be stripped, says Berlin´s police chief

In a forthright warning to neo-Nazis who want to march through Berlin on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the capital´s chief of police has said that they will be stripped if they wear clothes prohibited under the Versammlungsgesetz (the laws governing public meetings in Germany). Clothes which fall into the forbidden category include "black, dark blue, or brown riding boots" and bomber jackets, all of which are favourites of the neo-Nazis. Michael Knape, the chief of police, says, "The boots will be confiscated, and the neo-Nazis can continue the march in their socks, or put on normal shoes, or go home."

Leave aside for a moment the oddness of there being items of clothing forbidden by law. That´s not the police´s doing. But in this case, whatever the rights or wrongs of the legislation, the repressive law allows the police to repress potential repressors, or, to be more realistic, to deflect potential embarrassment. In saying this, Herr Knape demonstrates sound practical sense. More than this, he points to a means of avoiding the huge potential PR disaster for Germany, should the neo-Nazis succeed in marching through what they still refer to as their Reichshauptstadt.

And the attendant public humiliation of the neo-Nazis shows nice psychological insight on the policeman´s part. In positive contrast to his political masters, Herr Knape knows that existing laws are more than adequate to bring the pathetic neo-Nazis to heel, and enforcing the law as it stands is more effective than cobbling together the new, showy, repressive measures for which hysterical politicians are now casting around.

Turkey carves up history books

The strange case of the missing genocide...
Turkish diplomats have succeeded in getting the Brandenburg Prime Minister and his Education Minister to expunge a reference to the Armenian genocide of 1915-1916 from the history books.
One can´t exactly fault Turkey´s diplomats for wanting to whitewash their country´s image - that is, after all, their job.
But they must have been taken aback at the ease with which their censorship succeeded. The actions of Herr Matthias Platzeck (Brandenburg´s social democrat PM), and Holger Rupprecht (the minister), are not merely pusillanimous, but profoundly scandalous. In succumbing to this impertinent pressure, they make a mockery of their duty to education. Censorship of their schools´ curriculum, out of purely political considerations, is indefensible.
They should at once reverse this decision and resign the posts for which they are clearly unfitted.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Iran Chancellor

Iran´s nuclear programme, and how best to defuse it, has been making headlines throughout the past few weeks. A softening-up of public opinion is going on, with Washington indicating that imminent action is on the cards, whilst European governments, including Britain´s, make the customary cautionary noises.

One aspect which has gone largely unremarked: the reactions of the Iranians themselves to Bush´s signals (see January 22nd post, Iran loves Bush). As the Student Committee for Democracy reports, the President´s Inauguration speech has been hugely impactful in Iran. It has given a new impetus to the movement for democracy.

Chancellor Schroeder now weighs in with a warning to the effect that war is never the answer. It all depends on the question, of course. Germany is Iran´s most important trading partner: exports since the year 2000 have doubled to 3 billion euros, according to the Deutsche Industrie- und Handelskammertag, and 2004 saw a further increase of 30%. Big industrial interests are at stake, and Berlin underwrites German exports to Iran with taxpayer-funded securities to the tune of 100 million euros.

War - or the threat of war, to be strictly accurate about Bush´s position - is indeed an inappropriate answer - if your question is how to maximise short-term trade with Iran. The drawback of the "soft-power" alternative championed by Germany, France and Britian, however, is that if it is to have any chance of success, it must be backed by trade sanctions - which will disproportionately harm German exports. As a result, Schroeder will be doing his utmost to ensure that sanctions against Iran are seen as being all Washington´s doing, and not the logical outcome of the German government´s strategy. A difficult one to get away with, but if anyone can do it, Chancellor Schroeder can.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Nazis will be Nazis 2

The 12 neo-Nazi NPD members of the Saxon parliament have caused outrage over the past days by, amongst other things, equating Allied bombing of Germany with the Nazi Holocaust, and by demonstratively walking out of the chamber during the remembrance of Nazi victims.

Now there are calls (from across the political spectrum) for the NPD to be disbanded and banned.

Repellent as the NPD outbursts are, banning the party may prove counterproductive. It would give the party extra publicity and allow it to claim that German freedom of speech was coming under threat. It would then simply re-form and return under another name.

In its understandable eagerness to nip potential Nazi movements in the bud, the German political class often overreacts in this way to neo-Nazi threats that are actually minimal. No-one, especially in Germany, wants to be seen to be defending repulsive cretins like the NPD, but the principle of freedom of speech is in danger of being trampled in the stampede to condemn them. A similar mechanism operates with reference to the continued banning of Hitler´s Mein Kampf in Germany. It seems crazy that this book is banned when the upcoming Al-Qaeda book will be freely available.

Then again, it´s easier to demonise a dead threat than to deal with a live one.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Euro pact is dead

As predicted here last week (see 17th January, The pact is dead, long live the pact) - a compromise has been found to accomodate Chancellor Schroeder´s wish to abandon the Stability Pact (designed to strengthen the euro and to protect it from political interference).

The new European Commissioner responsible, Joaquin Alumnia, has caved in without offering even token resistance to Schroeder´s requests. The reason isn´t far to seek - the new Commission is seeking a huge increase in its budget. To achieve this, they will be dependent on German money.

Within 10 years, the euro has duly become what the Chancellor Kohl´s German government of 1996 most feared: the hapless plaything of European politicians, at the mercy of short-term and shifting circumstances . In the short-term, Schroeder has been let off the hook. In the long-term, as Kohl knew, this will do nobody any good. The Pact isn´t worth the paper it was written on, whilst the euro, whose strength it was to guarantee, stands revealed as a paper tiger.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Green attacks Bush

Reinhard Buetikofer, leader of Germany´s Green party, attacks Bush´s inauguration speech: "George Bush´s rhetoric is exceptionally double-edged", he says, "because it is capable of dragging the values of freedom into the mud." Iraq is a failure, says Buetikofer. Bush is "hijacking" the value of freedom but not delivering it.

Buetikofer´s own government is currently agitating for the lifting of the arms embargo on China. As such, it is well-positioned to lecture Bush on how to achieve global freedom and democracy. The trick, it would seem, is not to denounce dictatorships and their oppression, but to deal with them as equals, and encourage them to buy all the arms they need. Some folk may think this kind of stuff odd coming from the mouth of a Green politician. But as I noted below (see post of 13th January, "Peaceniks and Realpolitik"), the German Greens have compromised any values they haven´t ditched.


Iranians love Bush

Too good to be true?
http://www.daneshjoo.org/publishers/currentnews/article_603.shtml


Iranians cheer massively Mr. Bush's Inaugural speech

SMCCDI (Information Service)Jan 21, 2005

Reports from across Iran are stating about the massive welcoming of President George W. Bush's inaugural speech and his promise of helping to bring down the last outposts of tyranny.
Millions of Iranians have been reported as having stayed home, on Thursday night which is their usual W.end and outgoing night, in order to see or hear the Presidential speech and the comments made by the Los Angeles based Iranian satellite TV and radio networks, such as, NITV or KRSI.
The speech and its package of hope have been, since late yesterday night and this morning, the main topics of most Iranians' conversations during their familial and friendly gatherings, in the collective taxis and buses, as well as, among groups of young Iranians who gather outside the cities on the Fridays.
Many were seen showing the " V " sign or their raised fists. Talks were focused on steps that need to be taken in order to use the first time ever favorable International condition.


But if this reflects even a fraction of the Iranian reaction, that was one effective Inauguration speech! The spirit of freedom is alive and active in Iran and on the "Arab street". Not bad for a man routinely mocked for his inarticulacy.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Permatan Politician

Robert Kilroy-Silk, Britain´s permatanned anti-EU politician, has left the UKIP party. He claims that as soon as the UKIP´s MEP´s got to the the parliament they want to abolish, they effectively "went native" and settled down to enjoying the Brussels gravy-train. So now he´s starting his own party, "Veritas". He´s got a point, of course. If your starting point is disbandment of the EU parliament, it´s pretty much impossible to subvert it from within. A new strategy is called for.
http://politics.guardian.co.uk/otherparties/story/0,9061,1395438,00.html

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Is Bush a Social Democrat?

This article in Prospect - http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=6584&AuthKey=1f160fba4227a1115ea020940d5f509f&issue=496

points out that the current debate on globalisation isn´t yes or no, but what kind?

It argues for "social democratic globalisation" - social justice as well as liberty, and regulation of the markets to ensure poverty reduction and human rights.

There is quite a bit of common ground here with President Bush´s Inauguration speech. Not in everything (eg. the article praises the EU´s Maastricht social justice charter) but in salient points (such as the reform of global bodies such as the WTO, the UN etc.), Bush´s plan to spread liberty and democracy across the globe chimes in with what today´s social democrats are thinking.

W´s old-time fervour for liberty

Bush´s brilliant speech uplifts because we know he means what he says and will act on it - no soft-soapy bromide this. In contrast, Europolitical aversions to Bush seem increasingly petulant and remote from reality.

The brouhaha around the Airbus, Europe´s success of this week, is all very well, but a one-off success for state-subsidised aeronautics, for all the self-congratulation attending it, doesn´t offset the global impotence and irrelevance of our Europoliticians.

One wishes W´s old-time fervour for liberty and optimism were catching.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Unword of the Year

Whilst some in the Knesset are happy to accuse a blameless language of the most terrible crimes against humanity (see "Reich-Ranicki" post below), the Gesellschaft fuer Deutsche Sprache prefers a more clinically selective approach: it chooses a single word, every year, to act as a scapegoat for human failings.

This word is declared an "Unwort" ("Unword") and is publicly denounced and humiliated. Whilst the Gesellschaft doesn´t have the power to actually banish the guilty word, there´s little doubt that were the thing physically possible, it wouldn´t have the slightest scruple about sending it to semantic Siberia.

This year´s Unwort is "Humankapital". The German love of compound words means that the Unword is impossible to translate into a single English equivalent: "human capital" is the best we can do.

Although one has to admit that Humankapital isn´t exactly pretty, it´s hard to see what it is that especially arouses the Gesellschaft´s ire. It appears that it isn´t so much the sound or form of the word that offends it, more its meaning, which can be interpreted as reducing humans to mere financial entities.

As if to add point to the Gesellschaft´s celebrations, another German society, the Institut der Deutsche Wirtschaft, chimes in with a helpful calculation of Germany´s Humankapital: it´s 3,750 billion euros, apparently.

It´s always satisfying to put a number to this kind of debate. And 3,750 billion euros is a satsifyingly precise, round number. God knows what it might mean. In truth, it does seem shamingly low, doesn´t it? In light of which, I can quite see why the Gesellschaft should single out the concept of Humankapital to be its Unword of the Year.

Marcel Reich-Ranicki and the Knesset

The Israeli Knesset contains some who advocate boycotting the German President´s forthcoming address, should he attempt to deliver it in German.

They believe that blame for Nazi crimes somehow attaches to the language spoken by the perpetrators.

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the German literary critic, has attacked this foolishness. He describes the claim that German was discredited by its association with the Nazi´s as "beschaemend und unbegreiflich" (disgraceful and incomprehensible) and "blanker Unsinn" (sheer nonsense).

Reich-Ranicki´s remarks should help embarrass the Knesset´s critics into silence. He is one of the few people alive who can combine ordinary common sense with the personal moral authority to speak out effectively on this issue. Why? Reich-Ranicki, as well as being a lover of the German language, is himself a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto. That shouldn´t make a difference. But, even 60 years on, it still does.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Ayaan Hirsi Ali Returns to Dutch Parliament

After 75 days in hiding from Islamist extremist death threats, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Dutch Member of Parliament for the Liberals, returned to Parliament in The Hague this afternoon.

This brave and remarkable woman is an apt Dutch figurehead for anti-terrorism and resistance to Islamist Sharia law: she´s both its victim, and its most prominent opponent in Holland.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was born in Somalia but fled to Holland to escape an arranged marriage, went undercover after the brutal murder of film director Theo van Gogh. She had worked with him on the controversial film Submission, which highlights the mistreatment of women under Islam.

Last week, it emerged that the so-called "Hofstadgroep" of terrorists based in Holland, had planned to kill her, along with Amsterdam´s Mayor Job Cohen, on New Year´s Eve. Key members of the "Hofstadgroep" were picked up by Dutch anti-terrorist forces in the aftermath to Van Gogh´s murder last November.

At a press conference this afternoon, she defiantly vowed to continue the struggle against Islamism and Sharia law. Whatever happens, she is certain to play a high-profile part in the resistance of this most liberal of European societies to the threat of Islamist terror.

http://www.vvd.nl/index2.asp?ItemCode=VVD&HomePage=True

Big Ben is Safe

Omar Bakri Mohammed, an Islamic cleric based in Britian since 1986, claims he is desperate to leave the "dictatorship" of Britain but he hasn´t got the proper documents, so he´s stuck there.

But at least he´s putting his captivity to good use.

Bakri regularly broadcasts live on the internet to urge British Muslims to join al-Qaeda. He has also justified suicide bombing, September 11th and the Beslan school massacre in Russia:

"If an Iraqi Muslim carried out an attack like that in Britain, it would be justified because Britain has carried out acts of terrorism in Iraq."

He does, however, have some consolation for the British: he has said that Britain "is not worth" attacking:

"Britain is irrelevant. What would they hit? Big Ben? It´s not worth it."

That´s okay then.

Monday, January 17, 2005

The Pact is dead. Long live the Pact.

The row about the EU Stability Pact neatly shows up the folly of grafting a single currency onto a diverse market.

When it was first mooted, financially "responsible" countries like Germany insisted on the Pact as a means of maintaining discipline and control over "irresponsible" countries like Italy. If Germany was to give up its strong Deutschmark, it wanted guarantees that the euro would be equally strong. That wasn´t a given then; nor, despite its current strength against the dollar, is it a given for the future.

Germany´s turbid economy spoiled the plan. At the moment, Germany desperately needs to return to growth. The last thing its government needs is a strong euro coupled to inflexible restrictions on its ability to act and spend. No use telling Germans that they should have saved when the economy was healthier.

Schroeder´s proposal to water down the Pact is a game attempt to pretend that Europe can carry on along these lines, and the EU Commission has responded to him gratefully.

But they´re all fooling themselves. Europe is now split into two camps: large, debt-incurring, financially spendthrift nations like Germany and France on the one hand; and small, budget-balancing, financially careful countries on the other. Whatever face-saving compromise is cobbled together (and it will be) the Pact is dead. Let´s hope the euro doesn´t follow it anytime soon.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

A Bad Case of the TB-GB´s - Blair vs Brown in Britain

The British government is sick at heart, or from its head, and further gory details of its wasting disease leak out with every passing week.

In an attempt to remedy it, Tony Blair offered his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, the chance to take over his job as Prime Minister. Brown turned Blair down. He saw that acceptance of the deal would have put his reputation, and his potential political capital, at mortal risk.

So Blair remains in residence at Number 10. Brown lurks in the shadows, politically potent - yet tied inseparably to his old nemesis, the more voter-friendly Blair. And so the sickness at the heart of the British government lingers on - at least until after the upcoming British elections.

A book to be published tomorrow, Brown´s Britain, by Robert Peston, paints a lurid picture of the troubled pairing whose periodic spats Whitehall refers to as "the TB-GB´s", this symbiotic relationship between Blair and Brown, the uneasy heart of New Labour´s Government.

To summarise the backstory:

- Before Blair became leader (during the late John Smith´s leadership), Brown was the heir apparent: better known, better respected both within and without the Labour party. Blair was a key player too, of course, but he took a back seat to Brown.

- Insiders say the two men - who were close allies then - had an agreement that Blair wouldn´t oppose Brown´s eventual accession to the leadership. Blair even told Brown´s brother that he hadn´t had any personal ambitions for the Labour leadership - Blair saw himself as a potential cabinet minister, maybe a European Commissioner, but no more.

- When Smith unexpectedly died, the situation was transformed. Blair had already caught up and even overtaken Brown in recognition and popularity. Blair now declared his desire to lead the party, something Brown saw as a personal betrayal - the first of many...

- The so-called "Granita deal" between them, sealed in a restaurant of that name in 1994, was an attempt to put their relationship on a workable footing. Brown agreed to let Blair take over the leadership unopposed - if, in return, Blair would let Brown assume the Chancellorship and run the government´s economic policy with a free hand. The payoff for Brown was that Blair would stand down during his second term, and give Brown the keys to Downing Street. That Blair has reneged on this salient part of the deal (for by rights it should have happened last autumn at the latest) is the betrayal that has most frustrated Brown.

- The Granita deal - or the conflicting versions of it Blair and Brown remember - has been fundamental to the working of the British government since Labour came to power, and remains the source of its manifold discontents and dysfunctions.

The latest development centres around Europe and the euro.

Blair has always been keen to scrap the pound and to take Britain into the euro on the back of a referendum. And he sees this as a question in which political override economic criteria. He believes in the European Union and all its works, and taking Britain into the heart of Europe is part and parcel of the Blairite project.

Brown - no anti-European, but knowing his reputation is tied to Britain´s economic performance - has resisted any attempts by Blair to promote the single currency issue within the UK, and, by means of his "five tests" of economic compatibility, has dextrously sabotaged Blair´s hopes of a referendum on the question.

In trying to cut through the impasse created by Brown´s avowedly apolitical, purely economic "five tests", Blair thought he would dangle before Brown the one thing he lusts after above all else - the Prime Ministership.

The deal Blair offered was simple: if Brown would fudge a report the (supposedly independent) Treaury was preparing on Britain´s readiness for the euro, then Blair would stand aside and leave the way open for Brown to succeed him. All Brown had to do in return was to give the Treasury´s findings a spin to suit the case for entry, so that a winnable referendum could be held prior to this year´s elections.

Brown, as we have seen, rejected this deal. This rejection of the thing he most wants shows Brown´s steadfastness of principle, although one should stress that, if he had played ball, he would have risked more than his reputation for principled probity - his reputation for financial competence would have been on the line too. And without that he would have been a lame duck, vulnerable to all sorts of fatal sniping .

Blair, not an unprincipled man, nevertheless emerges from these revelations as one who is perfectly happy to twist the presentation of facts to fit his case. More damningly, he seems to regard such presentational flexibility as par for the political course. The case of the Iraq intelligence dossier had already alerted observers to this trait. It is now well to the fore again.

For both Blair and Brown, visionary ends justify Macchiavellian means. In this instance, circumstances conspired to oblige Brown to stand aside, for the moment.

As a result, Blair is still Prime Minister today.

But Brown comes out of it all with a much enhanced reputation. And it´s one he has been busily burnishing in Tanzania this week, profiling himself as a global leader of the future, with his "Marshall Plan for Africa". If, after the election, he doesn´t stay on as Chancellor, it may be he will take over at the Foreign Office. Alternatively, he will remove to the back benches and plot his takeover of the Prime Ministership itself.

For the effects of the bickering aren´t restricted to the egos of the two men themselves, nor to their families, nor their colleagues, nor even their political party, it´s something that´ll affect the whole of Britain, soon enough.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Toff Scoffs

The Marquess of Bath, the Duke of Marlborough, and the Earl of Sandwich are not the sort of names you´d normally associate with supermarket shelf-stacking. Yet that´s precisely what they´ll be doing if a new venture, headed by celebrity chef Marco Pierre White, takes off. White has been working on his latest brainwave - to sell nobbily-branded ready-made foods to the masses - since last summer, and his plans are now coming to a financial head.

In olden days the likes of him would have been given short shrift by the likes of them. After all, the original Earl of Sandwich merely ordered his servant to wrap his steak in two slices of bread, so that he could eat it and play cards at the same time - he didn´t get involved in the actual cooking process himself, let alone try to exploit his happy idea for lucre. But these days, sprigs of the most venerable families can be as keen as mustard to cash in on their family names. And so Bath will be providing "Bath Water" from his Longleat estate, Sandwich will be making fish-paste fillings, whilst Marlborough will supply not ciggies but "Blenheim Bangers," named for the family´s Woodstock palace.

All in frightfully good taste, of course. Still, White´s new company has a valuation of 11.1 million pounds. That seems a bit steep, given the group has assets of only 90,000 pounds, and no employees, no actual products, no contracts with suppliers nor listings in the superstores. Even on the back of the snazzy collection of names, 11 million pounds is stretching goodwill a long way.

For names of themselves don´t add value to a venture - the reverse is true, no matter how stellar the names may be. And one has to wonder just how pressing the demand is for ready-made food with socially-exclusive branding. The Prince of Wales showed the way, flogging his Duchy Originals with great success, but he´s been at it while, and the quality of his offering is associated with public perceptions of him as a genuinely organic, whole-wheat kind of guy. White´s chums, on the other hand, cannot quite shake off the whiff of opportunism.

Still, I yield to none in my abject worship of the British aristocracy. I hope they shift pallet-loads of the stuff, and may their sales sheets be as impeccable as their family trees!


Friday, January 14, 2005

Nazis will be Nazis? 1

With the 60th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz two weeks away, Nazis continue to make headlines across Europe. Princes and politicians, in their different ways, are queuing up to associate themselves with Europe´s darkest legacy. Reactions to these people´s antics reveal a lot about ourselves.

Take our old friend Jean-Marie le Pen and young Prince Harry of England. Strange bedfellows, to be sure. But both have been draping themselves in the colours of the Nazis this week. And both have caused explosions of outrage, casting a debris of legal steps and public penance in their wake.

Le Pen said: "If the Germans (ie. during the Occupation of France in WWII) had conducted mass-executions, as is commonly believed, they wouldn´t have needed concentration camps for political prisoners." His interview (in Rivarol) contains much more along the same lines, basically boiling down to the sentiment that the German Occupation wasn´t perfect, but it wasn´t as bad as they say. His statements are a calculated, fart-like emission of contempt aimed at embarrassing the political mainstream and getting his fading party back into the papers. And predictably enough, it worked: Justice Minister Dominique Perben at once announced there would be legal consequences. A welcome PR pay-off, therefore, for an old man´s cunning.

Prince Harry, for his part, wore a hand-made swastika to a fancy-dress party. Provocative, maybe, but not exactly a political statement. Still, it made the front page of the (anti-monarchist) Sun in the UK. A PR disaster for the Royals, the price of a young man´s naivety.

An old man´s cunning, a young man´s naivety. They´re polar opposites, and yet connected. For in this way the living mock the dead.

Basque Fall-Out

Here´s a fresh twist in the tale of this beautiful, tragically vexed country:

The Prime Minister of the Basque Autonomous Community, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, nurtures radical plans to wrest further autonomy for his region. (Basque Plans)

The Spanish PM, Zapatero, calls his plans - which are supported by a small majority in the Basque parliament - unconstitutional.

The very future of Spain is at stake. Both men know full well that the natural tendency of federations is to disintegrate. And that the more federal a country becomes, the stronger will be this inbuilt urge to disperse.

Now there´s no way will Spain become less federal - the momentum powering regional autonomies, not just in the Basque region, is too strong. And no way, come to that, will Zapatero allow Spain to become more federal - as his deputy said today, as long as Zapatero is in office, the plans will "never be approved and therefore will never be applied."

Basque voters are equally split: according to the latest polls, a third support more autonomy, another third reject it, with the final third undecided either way.

For the moment, therefore , it looks like deadlock. Ibarretxe and his Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), is holding out for a regional referendum on the matter, a referendum which Zapatero, in his turn, will reject. The ETA separatist movement may resume terrorist activity.

The EU is watching developments intently. It already conducts trade and fishing negotiations with key Spanish regions on a separate basis, sidelining the national government. Similar anomalies exist in Cataluna, Galicia and the Canary Islands. A weak and tottering Spanish state offers the EU the opportunity to strengthen its strategic rule over the Spanish regions.

Divide and rule may pay dividends in abstract theory, but this Spanish powder-keg may go off with a destructive force that profits nobody.


Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Prince and the Widow

In the terrible ending to 2004, many may have missed December´s bright spot: the announcement of Ferfried von Hohenzollern´s engagement to Tatjana Gsell. But it is a genuine cause for celebration, a modern fairy story of true love overcoming impossible obstacles.

Tatjana Gsell (33) is the widow of cosmetic surgeon Franz Gsell, in whose tragic death she was implicated. Last year, Tatjana was found guilty and given a suspended sentence of 16 months for her part in a bungled insurance fraud scheme. She helped stage the "theft" of a car by a male friend of hers, and during the execution of this wheeze, Franz Gsell was fatally injured. He lingered on but died several months later, leaving his heir and widow disconsolately awaiting trial.

Prince Ferfried von Hohenzollern (61) is a confirmed lover of youth and beauty.

"Foffi" and "Sweety" as they are known, are true models for all current and would-be celebrities. In providing such rich material for lesser mortals to learn from, they are fulfilling celebrity´s true task - something today´s pallid insta-celebrities would do well to mark, and inwardly digest.

Congratulations to the happy couple!

Peaceniks and Realpolitik - Germany´s Greens 25th Birthday

It´s the German Greens´ 25th birhday today, and everywhere they are being garlanded with praise. The adroit transformation of this activist, idealistic "anti-party" to key power-broker in the current govenment impresses, but it´s come at the cost of its identity.

Founding principles have been ditched as easily as sandals have been swapped for suits. Joschka Fischer, the policeman-beating peacenik of yore, now peddles arms as Foreign Minister. The government on whose behalf he strides through the world´s chancellories seeks to lift the Chinese arms embargo: Germany´s weapons exports need a boost.

Other founding impulses survive. The Greens´ visceral objection to nuclear power has cost German industry billions in ecological taxes on "dirty" fuels. These taxes are pumped into uneconomic windfarms and solar panels - gesture politics at their most magnificently futile.

As personalities, the Greens do provide good value for money. Fischer himself is a charming, chubby, cynical fellow with endearing addictions to women and gormandise, his eye fishily fixed on the main chance. In his colleagues, such as Renate Kuenast (Minister for Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture) and Juergen Trittin (Minister for Environment, Nature, Conservation and Nuclear Safety), the Greens supply some of the most comically inept, self-satisfied, glibly leftist members of Schroeder´s sclerotic, business-hating government.

Are the Greens still as dangerous as they were in their days of unilateral disarmament and withdrawal from NATO? Not in as obvious a way, perhaps. But as a proof of how easily pressure-group inanities can become mainstream pieties, they are a portent of more of the same to come. Their soulmates in the EU Parliament have picked up helpful tips from the Greens´ performance, and will be putting those to good effect as they assume roles of even greater power, on the even bigger stage that is Europe.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Revenge of the Huns

The Huns of Hungary are looking to achieve official minority-status recognition after centuries of blackened reputations and scapegoat status.

A new group, the Nation of Huns Heritage Foundation, led by Imre Josua Novak, is spearheading the political assault.

Not only did the Huns build the Pyramids, we learn, but they also pioneered modern-day techniques of wind-surfing and positive-action anti-discrimination methods.

It remains to be seen what stance these modern-day Huns will take in relation to the federalist efforts of the EU.

Check out: http://www.pestiside.hu/

EU Constitution vote today

Barring some catastrophe or Act of God, the EU Parliament will today approve the new constitution. Following this, there will be plebiscites in those 9 countries where voters´ wishes on the matter are considered worthwhile. This is going to be a tricky ride.

One of the problems with any discussion on the constitution is that, on the one hand, constitutional questions are a by-word for boredom, whilst on the other, vital interests are at stake. As a result, the whole debate on the constitution has been characterised by deep, sticky fudge:
  • The anti´s say a new centrist superstate will arise, accountable to none, putty in the hands of the non- or anti-democratic Commission;
  • The pro´s say either that the constitution is a "tidying-up" exercise (ie. it just formalises already extant arrangements) or that it is an essential part of the reform the EU´s institutions need.

All of these mutually contradictory positions are true. That is the constitution´s strength and its weakness.

For this draft constitution is a classic bureaucratic masterstroke, to be savoured by connoisseurs - revolutionary changes, potentially inflammatory in their effect, ushered in under the calm, soporific guise of the civil servant.