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Showing posts from April, 2011

Royal wedding and rude awakening

Even here on the sunny streets of Tallinn in the spring, there is new attention being given to Britain as the Royal Wedding preparations proceed. Such occasions are not quite as unique as the Brits believe- after all there was similar interest in the marriage of the Swedish Crown Princess which took place only a few months ago- but nonetheless there is at least a degree of interest. In fact several of the bars usually patronized by ex-pats will be showing the great occasion and doubtless offering some festive drinks to accompany it. Yet what the Royal Wedding is doing around the world is being presented as a twin story of Royal Joy/Domestic failure and highlighting the current dire situation of the United Kingdom. The economic crisis- with the UK set to have the third highest deficit in the EU, and with serious fiscal tightening now urgently needed in order to avert a real emergency- attracts attention. Worse is the terrible sense of catastrophic decline. The fact that the UK no longer

Fighting the Battle for Freedom

There is fear in the air. The United States, once the undisputed leader of the Free World now faces a level of debt so severe that it risks losing its AAA credit rating. China- a cruel tyranny- is imprisoning artists, yet there is little protest from the West, because the US owes the Chinese at least $ 1 trillion. The political deadlock in Washington produces futile arguments about where the President was born, rather than how to address the decline. The Arab regimes, controlling the majority of the global oil supply, now face disruption as their population demand the rights that they have been denied- with Western connivance- for so long. Russia bribes leaders of the European democracies, and yet those leaders remain in office, or if they have left office, they retain their influence unchallenged. The economic crisis is being addressed with reforms that make the banking system even more concentrated, and even less safe than before 2008. A new crisis is certain, with results that wo

Labour wobbles?

A few weeks ago, the British Labour Party appeared to be advancing on all fronts. They appeared to be way ahead in Scotland, on the brink of deposing the minority Nationalist government at Holyrood. They were poised to take over 1300 council seats, they were likely to win the referendum on AV- a voting system that they originally proposed, in order to gain support from the Liberal Democrats, who support a fully proportional system. Now the situation looks somewhat less bright, the expectations of major council gains remains, but AV may well fail, and the SNP have moved ahead in the Scottish polls. The question now seems to be whether the wheels have fallen off the Labour campaign, and if so, why? Firstly, I must accept that the expectations for the Liberal Democrats remain grim. It seems highly likely that the party will be cleared out of several former local government strongholds, probably including Cornwall. Although there has been a modest recovery in poll support in Scotland, it s

True Finns, UKIP and the shape of British politics

Most political journalists in the UK are looking for a story of the break up of the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition. Any spat between the two parties is examined to see if it poses a terminal challenge to the government itself. Of course there are disputes, but the surprising thing is that the disputes between the two parties remain less numerous and less rancorous than the disputes between members of the single-party Labour government. Indeed, because the two parties do not expect to agree on everything, so a certain amount of live-and-let-live is inevitable. However, there is an emerging threat to this generally courteous and professional relationship. It is not that there are fundamental disagreements over such issues as the NHS- although there are. Neither is it because of David Cameron's determined leadership of the No-to-AV campaign. It is not even because the Conservatives are focusing on a numbers game in immigration, although that is in the view of many Liberal De

Surreal Brits on the streets of Tallinn

The economy of Estonia is recovering very quickly. Spring has brought with it a gigantic inflow of new visitors. The bars and restaurants in the Old Town are full. Things have returned to the heady days before the crash. Finns, Swedes, Germans, Spaniards all aiming to get to the bar first. However, one of the more... bizarre... signs of this recovery is the return of the British stag party. Now it is possible to fly directly to Tallinn from Edinburgh, Liverpool and East Midlands, as well as Stansted, Luton and Gatwick, we seem to have the return of the previously unmissed and unlamented Stags. Except this time, instead of pasty faced and flabby men in Borat-style, mankinis, a measure of wit seems to be emerging. In one bar last night, the stags wore matching t-shirts explaining that the prospective husband "likes gnomes", accordingly they all were wearing matching smurf hats. Later another group of about 14 individuals were all wearing different superhero outfits. Since the

When banking incompetence is criminal

It is a matter of public record that banking crises usually reveal criminality as well as incompetence. "when the tide goes out, you can usually see who lost their swimming costume" as the old joke has it. In the course of the credit crunch, it was not just Bernard Madoff - a name straight from Dickens central casting- who was the criminal. What the crisis revealed was systemic criminality. These latest allegations against Goldman Sachs are not receiving front page coverage, but they should, because what is alleged is that the "Vampire Squid" is not so much a legitimate business as a conspiracy to defraud its customers. Goldman, remember, is the pre-eminent investment bank in the world: these allegations could hardly be more serious. If Goldman willfully and knowingly cheats its customers, then the whole investment business is nothing more than a multi-trillion racket which not only serves not useful purpose, but is actively malign to society at large. It is not

Death and Taxes

"In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except Death and Taxes" was Ben Franklin's version of a proverb that had a much older currency, and they are words to live by. Reading the terrified wittering of the average British Newspaper, especially the Daily Mail or the Daily Express, one could be forgiven for thinking that the certainty of Death was immediate and very painful. Scare stories of a hundred different kinds are printed one after another in a litany of sickness and fear. Yes, Death is inevitable, but it is not inevitable NOW. More to the point, while the extinction of life in one individual might be hard luck on that person, Life in general really does "go on". What we can learn from nature, and even from ourselves is that life is very resilient- it adapts to seemingly impossible situations, and often does so with humour and grace. Thus the negative energy that seems to surround the British press, with fear and anger firmly to the fore, is not o

Metric, Imperial and playing the mythical past against the real future

These days, when I visit Britain it is impossible to miss the fact that the country seems to be retreating into some backward looking myth of its own past. For example, I still find it astonishing that the country has still not fully adopted the metric system. As I try to wrestle with the conversion of Miles to Kilometres and Fahrenheit to Celsius I recall with a certain sense of frustration that the Imperial system is no longer taught in schools, but we are still stuck with the fact that we drive in approximately 1.6 kilometre increments and drink in 548 millilitre increments. As for temperature, I really can not get my head around Fahrenheit. Apparently only the US and Belize still use it, yet still we hear the British weathermen converting the Celsius measurements in each forecast. When can we move on and not bother with the cumbersome nonsense of dual measurement? It is not as if we have to give up the traditional measure of beer- they even sell Pint cans of beer in Estonia- but to

More Euro-twaddle from the Antis

The latest bout of problems for the Euro zone has been greeted by the latest bout of self congratulatory nonsense from the usual suspects: those people who think about the Euro with their guts, not their brains. The rescue of Portugal, and before that of Ireland, and before that of Greece has not come about because these countries use the Euro. The crisis for those countries, as for the UK itself, which does not use the Euro, is rooted in the fact that their governments (and many of their populations) spend more than they earn. They have structural deficits which are rapidly increasing their national debts. It is true that low interest rates helped encourage both government and indeed personal borrowing, and it is possible that the higher rates that would have been needed to prevent a currency crisis should those countries have maintained independent currencies might have slowed the rise in debt. That would only have mitigated the problem and would not not have prevented it, however.

Journalism in Britain: Spanish practices and hypocrisy

As I was coming through Heathrow yesterday, it was hard to avoid the blizzard of ink yet again being focussed on Nick Clegg. This time, apparently, he was being put in the stocks because he has spoken out against the idea that so many middle class kids get ahead because their parents can sponsor them through an unpaid internship in one of the professions. What's so shocking? Well, apparently- get this- Nick Clegg too benefited from taking an unpaid internship. Cue a football crowd level of abuse for Clegg's so-called hypocrisy. Of course you would never find nepotism, favouritism and indeed unpaid internships in the media. Well, apart from the large number of people in television with rather familiar names, from Dimbleby to Cellan Jones; apart from so many journalists being called Lawson or Coren; apart from so many people in the media having been to the same schools. The fact is that the most arcane Spanish practices are found in media and journalism- a group of people so narr

Too big to fail means too big

The CEO of Barclays, Bob Diamond, taking the presentational spin given to him by Peter Mandelson, has famously declared that the time for Bankers to show remorse is now over. Banks- taking advantage of the free ride given to them by emergency ultra low interest rates and large injections into the system through quantitative easing- may not yet have returned to profit, but they have certainly felt confident enough to return to the days of large bonuses for their staff. Economic growth is slowly returning, even in the UK, which remains hobbled by a huge deficit and rapidly rising inflation. It seems that the pressure on the global financial system is easing, even if it is only happening in fits and starts. Indeed, the British banks are letting it be known that they are now popular: they are being actively wooed by other governments. HSBC has denied that it is seeking to move to Hong Kong or even Paris, while Barclays has move quickly to scotch rumours that it may move its headquarters t

Why I don't support AV, but will be voting for it anyway

In a blaze of apathy, one of the rarest of British constitutional processes- a referendum- is getting under way. Most voters probably consider the referendum as to whether to adopt the Alternative Vote system- AV- either abstruse and arcane or simply just plain dull. Yet in fact, this referendum is one that will be significant for a generation to come. The current British electoral system- first past the post (FPTP)- gives a Parliament that is only approximately what the voters choose. Several times in the past, the party with the largest number of MPs, and which therefore becomes the government, has received a lot fewer votes than the supposedly second party. Sometimes MPs can be a elected when three quarters of those who voted chose someone else. In other words, FPTP does not accurately reflect how people actually vote- and it therefore fails a major test of democracy. The Liberal Democrats- and many others in all parties- believe that the electoral system should give a result that

True Finns set to shake Europe

A day trip across the Gulf of Finland leads me to Helsinki for the first time in many years. Well, not strictly speaking true, because I am a constant transit passenger at Helsinki-Vantaa airport, but it is about ten years since I last visited the centre of the Finnish capital. Helsinki in the cold sunshine of early spring is quite a contrast to Tallinn, As the ferry nosed out of the Bay of Tallinn, it was breaking trough the blocks and slush of sea ice and moving slowly through an early fog. yet by mid crossing, the fog (and the ice) had gone and the view of Helsinki's smoking chimney stacks showed the Finnish economy, at least, is growing its production. Once ashore, the straight boulevards of the 19th century Tsarist city leave an impression that is far more Russian than the delicate Gothic filigree of Tallinn's old city. Here and there the massive granite rustication of the 19th century Finnish nationalist architects makes some buildings look more like the home of the mythi