Wednesday, April 30, 2008

10 Famous.... Ukrainians

As another of these occasional lists of the heroes of different countries, I move now to Ukraine.

Ihor Sikorsky - Inventor of the helicopter.
Milla Jovovic- Model and Actress
Serhei Bondarchuk- Film Director
Taras Shevchenko- First national poet in Ukrainian
Ivan Franko- Poet
Bohdan Khmelnytsky - National Hetman
Andriy Shevchenko- outstanding footballer
Stepan Bandera- defender of Ukrainian state murdered by the KGB
Serhei Bubka- Legendary Olympic pole vaulter
Serhei Korolyov- Rocket designer

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Tallinn: One year on

The anniversary of the Bronze Soldier Night in Tallinn is coming up.

Worth reminding oneself about what really happened.

The disgraceful way that the Kremlin directly interfered in the issue has ended up backfiring very badly on Russia. The cyber-attacks that were launched from Russia, indeed from the very servers of the Russian Government will be remembered as the first war fought in cyberspace- and one that is still continuing.

Tallinn is now to be the centre for the co-ordination of NATO defence against such attacks, and of course the way the attacks were launched, though they broke the Estonian systems for several days, also gave away a lot of information about the shape of the Russian network.

In the meantime, Estonia has faced a co-ordinated, but unofficial boycott by its large neighbour, and continuing pressure and attempted interference.

The unmistakable message that Putin sent out, however, seems to have only convinced world opinion that Russia is not merely a prickly and unpredictable interlocutor, but a dangerous one. The more that Putin has proclaimed his country to be a reliable supplier of oil and gas, the more pressure he puts on international investors in the country. Russian oil production is actually falling, because the technology that might help develop the Russian fields is not brought to the country because the patent holder fear- quite rightly- that their proprietary technology will be stolen from them. The absence of rule of law in the Russian Federation renders any agreements essentially worthless.

Russia has been regarded as unreliable for some time, but the evidence is growing that Russia is now becoming actively disliked- and not just in the country's that were forced to become Soviet torture chambers and charnel houses. The Police in France have cracked down on the prostitution and other vices that came in the wake of the influx of Russian visitors to the French Ski slopes- and several resorts across the Alps will no longer accept bookings from Russia.

Crude, loud and vulgar- the ostentatious displays of wealth that the oligarchs have made, far from making them popular have in fact created the impression overseas that the country is largely controlled by whores and hoodlums- not the reality, and a very unattractive image to have.

Estonia still nurses the scars of the events, as it seeks to heal the fractures that the riot unleashed, but the image of Russia as a boorish bully run by a vulgar and criminal elite is now well entrenched across the world. Goodwill towards Russia is now a very rare emotion indeed.

The oil and commodities boom that created this more assertive Russia may now be coming to an end, but the strong Rouble that was another by-product of the boom, has fatally weakened Russian manufacturing- where most people are actually employed. The brutal- indeed murderous power struggle amongst the siloviki- the new elite of Russia which owes its origins to the former security organs of state, the GRU, KGB etc- does not give confidence that stability in the country can be maintained.

It would, perhaps, be poetic justice if the biggest loser from the Bronze Soldier affair would be the aggressor- Russia itself. Certainly all is far from well on the banks of the Moskva, and the hardening of attitudes against Russia across the world is a direct consequence of the brutality that Russia showed last year.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

BAA Monopoly may not be a good thing. No... Really??

The Privatisation model adopted by the Conservatives was, well, conservative. Although they talked a lot about the value of the free market, in practice they tended to privatise monopolies intact. British Gas for example was privatised as a single business despite the very obvious conflicts of being a supplier, a distributor and a maintenance company in one. This was certainly noticed at the time- indeed the then Alliance spokesman on energy is mentioned by name in the enabling bill as advocating the break up of the business- which is, I think unique in the annals of British legislation.

In the end, what the government chose not to do, the market forced on the company, and eventually the sheer unwieldiness of the integrated gas business forced its break up into separate entities for each of the basic underlying businesses: transit, end-user supplier, maintenance etc.

Another monopoly that was privatised intact was the British Airports Authority: privatised as BAA PLC. Why anyone could have failed to notice that keeping Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted under common ownership was hardly likely to foster competition and better services is beyond me. The fact that BAA can not set prices for slots at the airports in an economic fashion has led to each airport becoming a giant shopping mall with a runway attached- but the airports increasingly lack the kind of infrastructure that other airports offer as standard- easy transit between terminals for example.

So this morning we have the news that a Commission has suggested that common ownership of both London and regional airports "may not be in the best interests of the consumer" - You don't say?

Next week- news that the Pope may be a Catholic and more revelations on the excretory habits of bears.

Monday, April 21, 2008

What is the point of Trevor Phillips ?

As so often before Trevor Phillips gets into the news with a scare story- this time that we may be on the brink of a "cold war between the races" .

Now far be it from me to suggest Mr. Phillips has a vested interest: but it is hard to avoid the fact that if there were no problems of inter-racial tension then his job as head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) would not be needed.

Frankly, if one raises the dead horse of Enoch Powell's "Rivers blood" speech forty years after the event, then it is hard to claim that one is bringing new thinking to the debate. In fact I find that most of Trevor Phillips ideas are very backward looking and defensive to the point of paranoia.

I suppose that it is not too surprising from a former head of the National Union of Students though- a rogue's gallery of new Labour lackeys that includes: Jack Straw, Phil Woollas, Stephen Twigg, Charles Clarke, David Aaronovitch, Lorna Fitzsimmons and Jim Murphy.

All are professional politicians to their fingertips- and this professional political elite remains as isolated and generally self-serving as ever.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

10 Famous.... Albanians

Continuing the occasional theme of finding well known people from different places, my current trip to Albania has inspired me. Although Albania surely has its fair share of villains, especially the evil dictator Enver Hoxha, nonetheless I think I can find some heroes too:

Mother Teresa- humanitarian
Ismail Kadare- Great European novelist
Fan Noli- Poet and founder of the Albanian autocephelous Orthodox church
George Kastriot-Skanderbeg- determined opponent of the Ottoman advance into Europe
King Zog- romantic rascal
Ali Pasha- friend and inspiration to Byron
Muhammed Ali- founder of modern Egypt and progenitor of the Royal family there
Ibrahim Rugova- advocate of non-violence in Kosova
Sinan Pasha- Five times Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire at its height
John Belushi - Comic genius (though born in the US, both parents were Albanian)


I recently came across the Geopolemics website- are really useful store of information about freedom in different countries... well worth a read.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The past is another country...

Albania is a country that tries, quite exuberantly, to live in the present. The youngest country in Europe in terms of demographics also has a special reason to ignore history. In Albania history is too unspeakable and too near to be discussed objectively.

Take this morning, I was taking some potentially significant Western investors to visit various companies, and as we broke up a meeting, we adjourned to the nearest coffee bar. That coffee bar was in a rather ugly 1960's house that, unusually for that part of Tirana, sits in its own grounds. When I first visited the country 16 years ago, it stood alone and heavily guarded. Now it stands surrounded by new office buildings. It was once the house of the dictator, Enver Hoxha.

It was with frankly rather mixed feelings that I sat nursing an espresso in Hoxha's parlour, for the dictator was one of the most evil humans to have walked the planet. That his crimes have been dwarfed by Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot or Kim Jong Il was only due to lack of opportunity. Certainly the Albanians were kept in a state of North Korean isolation. Religion was outlawed, so were cars, jeans and beards- and the punishment was often a cruel death in the slave camps. In a monstrous parody of the truth, Albanians were told that their primitive and impoverished society was in fact the most advanced and enlightened in the world.

The fear of the hated sigurimi, the secret police, has gone, to be replaced by a jaunty aversion to most rules. Though- in that most Balkan way- adherence to clan and friendship takes precedence over some pettifogging details as laws or even morality, nevertheless the Albanians are trying to impose the democratic traditions of democracy and rule of law as part of the modernisation of their country: this they term "Returning to Europe". Certainly the only figure in Albanian history that they give even scant respect to- George Kastrioti, Skenderbeg- they now argue, was a great defender of Europe. The bitter resistance that the Albanians gave to the invading Ottoman Turks may well have prevented the projected invasion of Italy, which the Turks had intended to make.

Yet in some strange way, this vision of Albania is actually quite modern. All of the neighbouring countries: Montenegro, Kosova, Macedonia and even Greece, have Albanian populations: in some cases quite large ones -the population of Kosova is 90% Albanian, of Macedonia about 30%. Yet the Albanians have not fallen, as the Serbs have, into the nationalist trap of seeking a state to embrace these populations- "Greater Serbia" or Greater Albania" Instead, whether dealing with leaders of left or right, the message is the same: Any "Greater" state imposes higher border and creates more bitterness. Therefore Albania seeks a European identity, so that like the French speakers of France and Belgium, or the Catalans of Spain and France the border does not mean a separation. As a result, relations between Macedonia and Montenegro on the one hand and Albania on the other have in fact become exceptionally warm. Despite the implacable hostility of Serbia to the newly independent state of Kosova, the express determination of the Albanian state is to erode borders across the region- including those with Serbia.

The past is the elephant in Albanian living rooms. The corruption and clannishness, which are part of the Ottoman legacy in the Balkans, remains; yet the determination of this young state is to avoid the mistakes of the painful past. In the end it is this tentative goodwill that will end the Balkan civil wars that have wracked the region over the past century.

Though the chaos of this confusing and difficult society remains, it is- in optimistic moments- becoming possible to believe that this poor, but energetic; messy, but dynamic, country is finally moving away from the legacy of its poisonous and dreadful history. Soon, Albania may be known less by the vile reputation of its criminal gangs in Germany and the UK and more for the subtle and hypnotic work of its writer, Ismail Kadare, or the spectacular scenery of this rugged and dramatic country.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Dateline: Tirana

Back again in the Albanian capital, which inevitably limits the opportunities to blog, since Internet access can be rather sporadic.

Things continue to improve in this country, though as always the bad cars and bad roads leave your heart in your mouth when travelling more than a few miles from Tirana. Even in the few months since I was last here, there is visible progress, with new construction proceeding at a breakneck pace. There is, despite the general poverty, a certain optimism, after all where else would someone build a hotel underneath a large electricity pylon and simply call it "The Hotel Eiffel"?

Even two years ago local entrepreneurs struggled to find capital for even the most basic investments, now it is clear that a tipping point has been reached and there is certainly the beginnings of large scale investment in tourism. Albania may have a frankly scary reputation, but in general, the population is well educated and thinking, and this gives hope that they will follow their professed path: not to a Greater Albania on the Model of Greater Serbia and all the other failed Balkan "Greater" states, but rather the idea of European Albania- where borders are not the issue, but the right to live your life in your own way is what truly matters.

An ethnic Albanian friend of mine is from Macedonia, and over a drink he talked about Macedonia as being very much his country.

"You know", he said "I would probably fight to prevent the absorption of any part of Macedonia into Albania. We Albanians are all rather different, despite our strong common links of language and history".

Yet even as the Albanians lift themselves out of poverty and oppression, the murderous tyrant, Robert Mugabe, continues to defy the demands of his people for change in Zimbabwe. The atmosphere in Harare is said to be despairing. I just hope that those Zanu-PF thugs responsible for the latest violence end up being defeated, however the craven behaviour of Thabo Mbeki makes me fear not just for the future of Zimbabwe, but for South Africa itself.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Zimbabwe: Mbeki plays Hamlet- Harare burns

Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the 84 year old despot of Zimbabwe, has lead his country to ruin.

Yet despite his obvious and complete failure he is sustained in office by two things: the first is his own belief that he is not just the administrator of Zimbabwe, but is some real sense its owner.

His sense of entitlement is rooted in his own measure of the struggle that brought majority rule to the country in 1980. No matter that the portly Joshua Nkomo was a better known figure internationally; he was an Ndebele and Mugabe- who loathed Nkomo with a passion- always knew that the larger Shona, of which he was himself a part, would have the decisive influence in the new state. Just to make sure, of course Mugabe unleashed his death squads in Matebeleland- crushing any resistance from Nkomo's ZIPRA, the armed wing of his ZAPU party, which had been the partner of Mugabe's own ZANU in the Patriotic Front. Nkomo died in 1999 having been forced to merge his own party into ZANU to form ZANU-PF. Of all the other leaders of the struggle for majority rule in Zimababwe, the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole died in 2000 and Edgar Tekere was politically discredited by his indictment for the murder of a white farmer, Gerald Adams in 1980. Mugabe truly believes that Zimbabwe is his and belongs to no-one else- he has no rivals, and will brook no rivalry.

The second pillar of support that Mugabe has is the willingness of the neighbouring states, especially South Africa, to be complicit in their support for him. Amongst the activists of the ANC there remains a sense of gratitude for the support they gained from Harare in the years leading up to the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid. Many still see Mugabe as part of their own liberation struggle- especially Thabo Mbeki, whose own father, Govan Mbeki as a fellow Communist was a staunch admirer of Mugabe. Thus, the silence from the South African President- and by contrast the strong support that his bitter rival, Jacob Zuma, has given to the Zimbabwean Movement for Democratic change. This support, while significant, is as much a function of South African domestic politics as it is of any real drive for change in South Africa's northern neighbour.

On March 29th, the people of Zimbabwe, despite elections where everything possible was done to favour the ZANU-PF candidates, chose to support the Movement for Democratic Change. Despite unfair media coverage, fraudulent votes and all the rest of it, the anger of the Zimbabwean people against their incompetent and brutal leaders was such that ZANU-PF were defeated in local elections and in the National Assembly. It seems very clear that Robert Mugabe himself was defeated in the Presidential elections.

Over the past two weeks, the government has refused to accept defeat. Mugabe can literally not believe that the people would prefer anyone without the history of armed struggle to be their leader. The government now plans to delay things still further- first to recount the vote, then to try for a re-run of the first vote- with even more violence and intimidation- and only as a last resort to go to a run-off. Mugabe still believes that the Presidency is his by right and that no one else can take it away- least of all the MDC who might- heaven forbid- try to roll-back some of Mugabe's catastrophic economic policies.

Mugabe has increased violence- sending the twenty and thirty year olds he claims to be veterans of the war that ended in 1980 to evict the few remaining white farmers and ending the last slim chance of any kind of recovery; threatening the ZEC officials and attacking his political rivals. So dangerous is the current position that Morgan Tsvangirai has left the country, hoping as a side effect to personally convince the leaders of Zimabwe's neighbours face to face. Yet Thabo Mbeki refused to meet him, even if Jacob Zuma and Ian a Seretse Khama of Botswana were more supportive.

Mugabe's obsession for power is so deep rooted and- in his view- unchallengeable, that he would rather Zimbabwe was destroyed than that he should hand over power. Yet, perhaps as an old man he might reflect that violence can work both ways, and that if he will not go quietly, there may be those, even close to him who will- quite literally- wield the knife.

Yet at the end of the day the only figure who can deny Mugabe his Manichean obsession for destruction or death is the President of South Africa. He alone has both the influence and the power to liberate Zimbabwe from its tyrant. Unless he chooses to do so, the destruction of the once prosperous and beloved land will become more complete: and the scale could indeed rival Rwanda. Yet Mbeki's record is not good. his quixotic denial of medical evidence on HIV/AIDS, and his occasionally authoritarian statements have not inspired confidence in South African democracy. The monolithic ANC remains rooted- like Mugabe- in its Communist past.

The violence across Zimbabwe is tragic for those who believed in the idea of African freedom- it could be the death knell of specifically South African freedom too. Will President Mbeki speak? Or, will he pass by the other side and leave the abject people of his northern neighbour to rot- with significant consequences inside South Africa itself? The next few days will prove that the situation is not, as Mbeki contends "Manageable".

As blood flows more copiously in Zimbabwe, will the Hamlet of Union Buildings in Pretoria not feel not feel the smallest hint of a bad conscience- because he should.

For those of us watching across the world, will we not feel a slight frisson of fear for the future of South Africa- because, if that country fails this test because of some misplaced camaraderie with Mugabe- we should.

Fixed, non optional costs

I don't fly Ryanair anymore.

I flew to Stockholm once with them and the flight landed- six hours late- at Vesteras, which is about as far from Stockholm as Bristol is from London. I did not actually arrive in the centre of the Swedish capital until 3 AM.

But apart from terrible service, uncomfortable planes and the sense that the ONLY thing that matters is the price, it has always been hard to avoid the idea that Ryanair is a massive rip-off.

Although advertised as a flight for a Pound, or Ten Pounds or whatever, the fact is that this is never the amount that you pay. Taxes, Landing fees, etc always add several Pounds, and these are of course fixed and non-optional costs. So it strikes me that Ryanair are misleading the public; or to use the preferred idiom of the company, they are liars. Therefore I am not surprised to see the ASA are investigating the company, yet again. As usual, the company shrilly attacks its detractors in the most robust language.

But let us go through this again. The passenger pays a price for the ticket, but must also pay the fixed, non optional taxes and fees. Quite often, they may also pay to check-in bags, and pay if not using the Internet check-in. Then sit for a few hours in an uncomfortable seat, packed in, with no service to arrive at a destination nowhere close to where they intend to get to, and pay more for onward land transport.

Actually, if it is all the same to you, I will stick to full service airlines- they can often even be cheaper than Ryanair and they don't treat their customers as an inconvenience.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

10 Famous Belgians

The other day I was thinking about the old chestnut about how difficult it is to name 10 famous Belgians. I came up- eventually- with 10 at least significant Belgians:

Magritte - Painter
Georges Simenon -Writer
Herge -Creator of Tintin
Rubens - Painter
Adolphe Saxe -Inventor of the Saxephone
Breughel - Painter
Mercator- Geographer
Jacques Brel -Singer/Songwriter
Godfrey of Bouillon -Inspirer of the Crusades
Jean-Claude van Damme - Actor

Then I thought, that this is a game that any country could play, How about 1o Finnish heroes:

Sibelius - Composer
CGE Mannerheim - General
Tove Jannson - Creator of the Moomins
Miika Hakkinen - Racing Driver
Alvar Aalto - Designer
Paavo Nurmi - Olympian Runner
Aki Kaurismaki - Film maker
Akseli Kallela - Artist
Linus Thorvalds - Developer of Linux
Elias Lonnrot - Poet & Author of Kalevala

10 Portuguese heroes, anyone?

Henry the Navigator - initiator of the age of discovery
Vasco da Gama - First captain to Round the cape of Good Hope
Christiano Ronaldo - Footballer
Marques de Pombal - Statesman
Paula Rego - Artist
Jose Mourinho - Egotist
Mariza- Singer
Ferdinand Magellan - First circumnavigator
Luis Camoes - Poet & Author of the Lusiades
Pedro Nunes - Scientist & Navigator

The Dutch were a bit easier:

Erasmus - Philosopher
Van Gogh - Painter
Rembrandt - Painter
Spinoza -Philosopher
Johan Crujff - Footballer
Michiel de Ruyter - Admiral who burned the Medway towns
Grotius - First philosopher of Diplomacy
Piet Mondriaan - Square Painter
MC Escher- Mind stretching artist
Thomas a Kempis -Mystic

Then, I thought what about ten Romanian heroes?

Constantin Brancusi- Sculptor
Ilie Nastase - Tennis Player
Eugen Ionescu - Absurdist playwright
Ion Tiriac - another Tennis Player
Nadia Comeneci - perfect 10 gymnast
Vlad Tepes - Model for Dracula
Ion Bratianeau - wily statesman
Queen Marie - "friend" to Versailles statesmen
Stefan cel Mare - founder of Medieval kingdom
Mihai Emenescu - Romantic poet

Harder were 10 Bulgarians:

Sts Cyril & Methodius - alphabet inventors and Slavic evangelists
Hristo Stoichkov - Footballer
Ivan Vazov - author of "Under the Yoke"
Zahari Zograf - Icon Painter
Boris III - self sacrificial King
Ivan Rilski - Hermit and Mystic
Stefan Stambulov - Statesman and founder of much of modern Bulgaria
Hristo Botev - Romantic poet and Revolutionary
Georgi Dimitrov - Communist who defied Hitler

Then what about 10 Germans? Here the problem was who to exclude:

Beethoven - supreme Composer
Martin Luther - Founder of the idea of Protest
JS Bach - Composer
Goethe - Poet
Albert Einstein - Genius
Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenburg -would-be assassin of Hitler
Max Planck- physicist
Bismarck - statesman
Karl Marx- Philosopher
Dietrich Bonhoeffer -moralist and martyr

The same problem came with 10 French heroes:

Louis Pasteur: scientist
Jules Verne - Novelist of the future
Charlemagne - Reviver of the Western Empire
Thierry Henry - Footballer
Charles de Gaulle - sustainer of France
Moliere - Playwright
Rene Descartes- Philosopher
Louis Lumiere - inventor of Cinema
Napoleon- flawed political and military leader
Simone Veil - Moral European

Spain too has an impressive list:

Cervantes - writer
Picasso - painter
Dali - personality
Gaudi - unconventional Architect
Goya - painter
Valazquez - Humane portraitist
Ignatius Loyola - Founder of the Jesuits
Ferdinand & Isabella- The Catholic Monarchs- founders of Spain
Christopher Columbus - Reputed discoverer of America
Filipe II - Armada aside, a powerful King

Now I leave a challenge: apart from Calvin, what about 10 great Swiss?

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Dunkirk Spirit

I don't know whether it is the weather; I don't know if it is the government or the economy; I do know that I can hardly remember a time when the atmosphere in Britain has been so defeatist.

The terminal five fiasco perhaps brings home the fact that the UK tends to see its mistakes in apocalyptic terms: not "this was a pretty unacceptable failure of planning", but instead "we can't get anything right".

This self laceration that is often the hallmark of the whingeing poms seems to be growing worse- there seems a general sense of frustration and even of failure.

It would be politically convenient to blame this atmosphere on the government, and to be honest the malaise is at least partly the sense that the Labour government can not be held to account-that important things- like the Iraq war- have taken place despite the strongly expressed opposition of the majority of the British people. However I would also say that simply changing Brown for Blue and getting David Cameron as Prime Minister would lead to exactly same disillusion. The fact is that unless the political system imposes far greater direct accountability on our leaders- irrespective of party- and undertakes a radical reform, then the political disenchantment of most Brits will only grow.

However the sense of defeatism is also rooted in a great sense of economic insecurity. Fear is stalking the British economy: the fear that all of the prosperity that has been so slowly and painfully built up over the past decade or two rests upon the shallow foundations of a property bubble. So much of the wealth of the country is bound up in the housing market, that the prospect of an American style collapse sends chills down British spines. yet there is a fundamental difference between the US and the UK housing market: Americans can simply abandon their mortgage by returning the keys of their house. The British are liable for the debt, until it is repaid, irrespective of whether they have sold the house at a lower price or not.

As a result of this fundamental difference, the British lenders, paradoxically, have not created the sub prime asset class in their own market. The housing market is hugely leveraged, with average house prices now seven times average earnings, rather than the historic average of three times. However this increase is as much the result of the consideration of joint incomes when approving mortgage applications as anything else. Furthermore, anyone who has bought before the beginning of 2006 is sitting on a fairly substantial cushion of equity, even if prices actually fall, which, so far, they have not.

Yet in the face of the strain in the UK property market, we are seeing some extraordinary responses. Instead of a more prudent- yes, I know, a word devalued by misuse in politicians' mouths, but prudent is the right word- approach to personal finances, we are seeing a massive splurge on credit card spending. We are told that this simply shows how overextended the personal credit market is. I am a little sceptical about this. Much of the new debt is actually luxury expenditure- as though people are indulging in retail therapy, solely because they think that they are going to lose their credit cards. With that kind of fecklessness that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fear of the crisis making things far worse than they actually are.

There is a crisis in the United Kingdom. It is a crisis of poor education and astonishing irresponsibility. The skills shortage caused by the failure of education to establish basic literacy and numeracy was filled by immigration, but the return of or Polish plumbers will increase costs, but the fact is that the major problem we face seems to be - to use an old fashioned idea- a failure of our moral character. In the good times we seem to have had our personal responsibility eroded or eliminated, with actions seemingly having few consequences. It seems that some of use are no longer able to act responsibly at all.

We need to recapture the Dunkirk spirit- and take control of our own lives. Acting defeated is two thirds the way to being defeated. Our country faces serious problems, but these can be tackled, if we understand what we need to do. Leadership is not imposing ones will upon others, as Gordon brown or David Cameron would wish, but persuading others of the relevance and rightness of ones own point of view.

The sense of defeat is a failure of leadership. The consequences of this failure will end Mr. Brown's political career- eventually.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Do-or-die in Zimbabwe

"In Zimbabwe, people really do believe this is a general election - because the generals decide who gets elected." -Comrade Fatso, Harare

Zim is facing an end game of sorts- whatever the 84 year old dictator Robert Gabriel Mugabe may try to do to avoid it. It has been clear for at least a decade that the population of the once prosperous land between the Zambezi and the Limpopo were tiring of their incompetent, corrupt and brutal ruler.

The massacre of the Ndebele in the mid-1980's which may have killed 10,000 people and which certainly ended the idea of Zimbabwe as a pluralist democracy was simply the first step in the dreadful decline of the country. Perhaps, symbolically the leader of the group most involved in the death squads of the time, North Korean trained Fifth Brigade- Col. Perence Shiri- is rumoured to have attempted suicide as it became clear that Zanu-PF might lose power.

Now the rampant corruption has brought the country to its knees and the regime now faces a critical choice. Either they attempt to compromise with the forces of reform or they return to violence but this time on a scale that would be truly barbaric.

The people of Zimbabwe are hopeful, but the track record of Zanu-PF is violent and savage.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

New Money

New coins for the UK.

As is traditional on these sorts of occasions there is a load of whinging hot air- in this case complaints that the Coat of Arms has no place for Wales- yes, true, so? Or that the coat of arms is the version used in England- also true, so?

I was thinking the other day how stodgy much of our national iconography now looks: comparing the British passport:

with the Swedish

I just think the cleaner Swedish design looks better.

So despite the whinging and demands that the (to my mind rather paltry) fee of 35,000 is some kind of national disgrace and should not by paid. I find I rather like these clean, cool and elegant designs.

I hope the whinging stops soon...

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Moving on from Comrade Bob

Well, we still don't know the results of the elections in Zimbabwe.

Admittedly there are rather a lot of them on the same day: Presidential, Parliamentary and Local. However the incredibly slow release of the figures can only reinforce the fear that -as so often in the past- Comrade Bob and his stooges in Zanu-PF are busy stealing the election.

However, there is also the growing possibility that the scale of the victory of the MDC is so crushing that despite all of the efforts of the ruling party it is going to be impossible to hide.

The fact that so many of the more egregiously nasty members of Zanu-PF seem to be trying to talk to the Movement for Democratic Change suggests that the game could well be up for the increasingly deranged Mugabe.

The general disgust at the ruin of the nation must be obvious even to those who have played the strongest part in it.

In the next few hours we will know whether the decrepit Mugabe and his equally decrepit and incompetent government are to be pensioned off or whether they will seek to go out on a wave of violence and thus earn both international and domestic contempt.

Of course even a victory of the forces of democratic change can not change the catastrophic economic situation, but the end of Mugabe may at least mark the beginning of a slow and painful recovery in what is still considered one of Africa's treasure houses.