Friday, 30 March 2012


A kaleidoscopic picture

I must confess that, on occasions, I have resorted to the largest picture library not on earth, Google images, to illustrate this blog. To make my offense worse, I have then sometimes attached rather facetious captions to them. In this way I may be contributing to the peculiar muddling of knowledge and history effected by the web.

When one searches Google images one sometimes finds some rather unexpected results. Not only is one provided with the expected western  Christian images of the heavenly father, along with Thor in his chariot, Osiris and others, but also portraits of Charles Darwin, George W Bush, Bob Dylan, Osama Bin Laden, Richard Dawkins and Barack Obama. It may be unlikely that anyone is lead into a false belief that the second coming has already taken place, although some of the above mentioned, including Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins do have an uncanny resemblance to our stereotypical views of the deity.

Richard Dawkins
Thor in his chariot
Osiris and friends

Yet, in more recondite areas, misattribution amongst the ignorant (such as myself) is highly likely and must certainly have taken on the false authority of publication.

Tower news

Goldman Sachs, which used to do God's work for him in sepulchral silence but has now been unwillingly brought into the public eye, is in need of a new European cathedral and is in talks with a number of architectural practices to see whether they might possibly consent to design a new head office building for them. It will be little surprise to learn that Goldman Sachs already own the site in London: only a few grade-two listed murals by Dorothy Annan on the exterior of what was once the largest telephone exchange in London stand in the way of redevelopment. Annan's murals are highly regarded but have mostly disappeared as the buildings on which they were located have been demolished to make way for ever greater architecture. Only three of her major public murals are believed to survive – the largest single example, the Expanding Universe at the Bank of England, was destroyed in 1997 a good decade before reality caught up with art, presumably in case the public, by looking at it, got wind of what the financial world was up to.

Amongst the architectural firms so honoured with Goldman Sachs's enquiries are Foster and Partners, who, unlike the other two, American behemoths, can be relied upon to raise anyone's cultural credentials. 

Top up now

Once upon a time, when pigs spoke rhyme
And monkeys chewed tobacco
And hens took snuff to make them tough
And ducks went quack, quack, quacko...

Following recent government advice to motorists to top up their tanks and jerry cans, thus handily, for some, bringing about the effects of a petrol tanker drivers' strike before there actually is one, the Secretary of State for Communities has issued further guidance on the mass pre-emption of possible industrial action.

All citizens are urgently advised to:
  1. immediately pay their Christmas visits to aged relatives in anticipation of railway workers striking against the public using formerly public transport on public holidays;
  2. compile for themselves a digest of future world events likely to occur over the next twelve months (a template is available on the government website) in anticipation of a jornalists' strike against the Leveson Inquiry;
  3. go out and commit a felony now in anticipation of a police strike against the reduction in police numbers;
  4. remove from bank accounts and spend now any money they may have in anticipation of a bankers' strike against victimisation of bankers;
  5. get ill and die now in anticipation of a health workers' strike against the privatisation of the health service.
The Secretary of State also made clear that none of these anticipated strikes could possibly be justified by the unions who were playing with the fate of the nation without proper democratic mandate; said that it was 'one hundred per cent certain' that many people would die during such strikes; and called upon the Leader of the Opposition to condemn in advance any form of industrial action anywhere.

Further advice will be issued as soon as it occurs to anyone. The current advice applies only to England; misleading the public is a devolved matter in Wales and Scotland.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Death on a pale horse

How big is too big? Bigger than ever.

In 1970, the top five banks controlled only 17 percent of the country's assets; by 2010, the top five banks controlled 52 percent of assets.  In Mr. Fisher's letter, he notes that the top 10 banks now control 61 percent of commercial banking assets, up from only 26 percent 20 years ago.  To put the size of these assets into perspective, the assets of the top 10 banks alone are equal to one half of the nation's GDP.  On top of the concentration of assets, the number of smaller institutions has dropped markedly from 12,500 in 1970 to 5,700 in 2010.  These smaller institutions which were generally well managed prior to and throughout the crisis, controlled 46 percent of banking assets in 1970; this fell to a meagre 16 percent in 2010.  Basically, this data is telling us that not only have banking assets been concentrated in the hands of fewer bigger banks but that the assets controlled by fewer smaller banks have decreased by a disproportionately large amount.

Beyond the dreams

Risky Rich banker

The US recovery had been far stronger than Europe's, Geithner said, and the US was ahead of Europe on "nearly every measure". In part this was because "Europe's financial system became much larger, much more leveraged and much riskier, even than the US financial sector," he said.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Friday, 16 March 2012

New Olympics

No sweep could be grander

"Through the grand sweep of history, through all its twists and turns, there is one constant: the rock-solid alliance behind the US and the UK. The reason is simple. We stand together and we work together and we bleed together and we fall together in good times and bad, because when we feel our nations are secure, our people are more prosperous, the world is a safer and better and more just place."

Barack Obama, in the presence of David Cameron, 2012

"Good evening, I have recently been traveling round the world, on your behalf, and at your expense, visiting some of the chaps with whom I hope to be shaping your future.  I went first to Germany, and there I spoke with the German Foreign Minister, Herr. . .  Herr and there, and we exchanged many frank words in our respective languages, so precious little came of that in the way of understanding.  I would, however, emphasise, that the little that did come of it was indeed truly precious.  I then went on to America, and there I had talks with the young, vigorous President of that great country, and danced with his very lovely lady wife.  We talked of many things, including Great Britain’s position in the world as some kind of honest broker.  I agreed with him when he said that no nation could be more honest, and he agreed with me when I chaffed him and said that no nation could be broker. This type of genial, statesmanlike banter often went on late into the night...

"When I was abroad, I was very moved to receive letters from people in acute distress from all over the country. And one in particular from an old age pensioner in Fife is indelibly printed on my memory. Let me read it to you. It reads, ‘Dear Prime Minister, I am an old age pensioner in Fife, living on a fixed income of some two pounds, seven shillings a week. This is not enough. What do you and the Conservative Party propose to do about it.’ (tears up letter) Well, let me say straightaway, Mrs McFarlane, as one Scottish old age pensioner to another, be of good cheer. There are many people in this country today who are far worse off than yourself. And it is the policy of the Conservative Party to see that this position is maintained."

Harold Macmillan, as envisaged by Peter Cook, 1962

One feels that Cook-as-Macmillan might be writing the scripts of government spokespersons today.

The newspaper USA Today, in reporting on the Camerons' visit to Washington, apparently described Mrs Cameron as a 'fetching British aristocrat'. At least Peter Cook's Harold Macmillan was more accurate in his description of the then First Lady.

Macmillan took no offence at Peter Cook's sketch and himself attended one of the Beyond the Fringe performances in London. Cook, in his way, returned the compliment, claiming to hold Macmillan in affectionate regard: 'I was a great Macmillan Fan.' Richard Ingrams described Cook's political views as 'Conservative anarchist'.

The young, vigorous Peter Cook

Intellect in government

The chancellor has, sources say, been intellectually persuaded of the case for a cut in the top rate, a move that will endear him to the Tory right.

A government source said: "The budget has to strike a balance. It has to show we are all in this together, but it also has to show that as a country we are open for business."

Risky business

In response to your editorial (Risk registers: Managing the unthinkable, 14 March), I recall that when I was a non-executive director of a NHS primary care trust we were advised that the trust's strategic risk register had to be considered by the board at regular intervals to ensure that the trust was addressing remedies for these. Such board meetings were always held in public, so the register was publicly available. I doubt that the situation is any different now.

Why should MPs, who are framing new legislation that clearly will lead to significant risks for the NHS, as well as for all users of the NHS (us as patients), be denied access to the government's own risk register about its proposed NHS reforms? If the risks are clearly stated, our lawmakers can satisfy themselves that it will be both feasible and practical to put appropriate measures in place, once the legislation initiates the risks. Nothing could be worse, or more stupid, than finding out about the risks after the event and then discovering that it's not feasible to mitigate effectively against them.

Peter Hartley

Former non-executive director, Mid-Sussex Primary Care Trust (since disbanded)

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Go back, go back!

from The man whose mother was a pirate by Margaret Mahy with pictures by Brian Froud, Puffin Books 1972 - not the later reissue.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Friday, 9 March 2012

The law's delay - or the proud man's contumely, or the insolence of office?

Beach bench

Who owns Barclays?

Barclays bank boss Bob Diamond received £17m in pay, shares and perks last year – at a time when the bank's profits fell 3% and amid continuing criticism of bankers' pay.

The bank also paid £5.7m to cover Diamond's tax bill and he was awarded another £2.25m in shares which will pay out, according to performance, in three years' time.

Data provided by Barclays shows that £100 invested in Barclays shares in 2006 was worth £29 at the end of 2011 compared with £108 if it had been invested in the broader FTSE 100 index.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Government and wit

Norman St John-Stevas, Lord St John of Fawsley, who has died aged 82, was as vivid a personality as politics can bear. Mannered, self-applauding, with an aura of camp and given to tiffs and squabbles, he had outstanding intellectual gifts, vitiated, despite an underlay of real scholarship, by eternal public performance.

No-one of course would think of Tony Blair or David Cameron as being 'vitiated ... by eternal public performance'. Yet we no longer have a government of the wits: not since Macmillan has a leading politician dared aspire to wit, as distinct from the obligatory jokes at Prime Minister's Questions. Jokes and wit are not the same thing. You can have other people write your jokes for you, as Mrs Thatcher famously did with 'The lady's not for turning', but wit is a state of mind.

I suppose that is what made Norman St John-Stevens seem so unreliable to his political colleagues. In a political culture that regards revealing one's reasoning, as distinct from one's set conclusion, as a sign of weakness and a threat to smooth and effective process, politics gravitates naturally to the semi-corrupt cultivation of the popular press and the centres of wealth and to the erection of a system of boxes and references as a substitute for thought. (See, for example, any planning officer's report to committee and consider the government's complete helplessness, or surrender, when it seeks to 'do away with red tape'.)

Norman St John-Stevas's offence was that 'He commonly split his time between earnestness and frivolity', but amongst his various achievements he left a solid and lasting contribution to good governance and democracy in his work on the strengthening of select committees in the House of Commons, which deserves to be remembered alongside his frivilous quips and ernest scholarship:

Once, he was asked by David Frost about the colour of his shirt: "What's that – purple?" "No," replied Stevas, "crushed cardinal." Meanwhile, his work on Bagehot grew, with volumes appearing in 1966, 1968 and 1974.

Coming in from the cold

Nothing can be more deleterious to the possibility of sound judgement than the availability of information and the requirement to submit one's reasoning to external scrutiny. Fortunately, in this country, we have a better system of government with politicians and civil servants ready to defend it and the magisterial results it produces.

The publication of documents outlining the risks relating to the government's health changes could lead to a "distorted and wildly speculative interpretation of risk", according to the permanent secretary of the Department of Health.

Una O'Brien also warned that publishing the documents would have a "chilling effect" on the way civil servants tasked with outlining the potential pitfalls of a policy commit their views to paper, as the government fights to keep secret the contents of its risk assessments of the government's shakeup of the NHS.

Nothing to be done

His extradition has highlighted problems with the treaty between the UK and the United States that are not "readily curable", the attorney general Dominic Grieve said on Tuesday.

Grieve said Britons were left uneasy when faced with the seemingly harsh and disproportionate sentences in the US justice system. "I think there's a lack of public confidence in the US justice system, which is a rather wider issue and more complicated than the minutiae of the treaty agreement," he said.

"There are perceptions in this country that the US criminal justice system can be harsh, its penal policy can be harsh, and its sentencing policy can appear disproportionate by European and British standards. There are aspects of it therefore which tend to make people uncertain and uneasy, and I'm not sure that that's readily curable."

Grieve admitted the UK's extradition laws were not ideal, but said: "In a world where we wish to see crime successfully combated, having a system by which to facilitate transfer to countries which meet the necessary criteria of fairness so as to curb crime is absolutely indispensable." He added: "Perhaps we are where we are today because we rushed things in 2003."

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The electric message

Across the wires the electric message came:
He is no better, he is much the same.

The lines are usually attributed to Alfred Austin (1835-1913; Poet Laureate, 1896-1913). Yet D B Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee, in The Stuffed Owl - An Anthology of Bad Verse, attribute them to 'an unknown university poet, on the recovery of the Prince of Wales', but they replace the word 'electric' by 'gloomy'. That may be what the unknown poet wrote, with 'electric' being a later, inspired, but unattributed emendation.

Austin is sometimes called the worst Poet Laureate of all time, but Colley Cibber and Henry James Pye may be equal challengers for the title. The list of

Poets Laureate contains many names that resonate little now. It is said that the poetical works of Laurence Eusden, who gained the post at the young age of thirty, on the death of Nicholas Rowe, and on the strength of a recommendation from Joseph Addison and the effects of a flattering poem on

the subject of the Lord Chamberlain's marriage - that office holder being always responsible formally for the appointment - are now 'difficult to find. Addison's assessment was not shared by Alexander Pope, who wrote of Eusden in The Dunciad: "Know, Eusden thirsts no more for sack or praise; He sleeps among the dull of ancient days." Pope's comments have tended to form that Laureate's reputation.

In later times the appointment effectively came to be in the gift of the Prime Minister and it is said that Austin owed his Laureateship to his friendship with Lord Salisbury and his proven willingness to use his versifying in support of Salisbury's government.

Austin's predecessor was Alfred Lord Tennyson, a typical crusty Victorian Grand Old Man, to whose moody unreasonableness on occasions his friend Edward Lear attested, but he was generally agreed to have been such a success as Poet Laureate that after his death an inter-regnum of a few years was left, especially as there were thought to be no sufficiently distinguished

poets to deserve the laureateship except Algernon Charles Swinburne and William Morris who were each ruled unsuitable on non-poetic grounds. After four years, and after Morris had in fact been quietly offered it (despite his socialist views) and declined it, the honour went to Austin.

Austin died in 1913 (of unknown causes, somehow a suitable fate for a poet, even one who began adult life as a barrister), and since then perhaps the laureates have been, if still a little off-centre, rather better chosen on poetic grounds. (Although, who, apart from Mary Warnock, reads Robert Bridges

nowadays? And Masefield's prose is generally thopught better than his verse.) Or maybe we are still too close to recognise the failings of the choices (not

that it took Alexander Pope long to do that). John Betjeman perhaps represented an observable leaning to the middle-brow, although perhaps there has just

been a general tendency of modern English poetry to deliberate subtly in the middle ground, and things were stiffened by the not altogether expected appointment (or performance) of the rather angular Ted Hughes - the Tennyson of our time perhaps?

The first laureate is said to have been appointed by Henry VII: in the Tudor period: poetry, like music and painting was clearly an adornment to the court. As the popular will began to force its way into the manner and choice of government, poetry was seen to have sufficient social force to make it a useful accoutrement of power. In our own times it has become mostly a heritage relic and until recently it glistened a little brighter as such because the payment had traditionally included a butt of sack (see Pope's Dunciad).

The Labour government, however, in its rational way, chose to award Andrew Motion £5000 a year (index-linked of course - can poetry be index-linked?), but, when it saw how much work he was doing in schools, the Department of Education stumped up a further £15,000 to cover his costs. So poetry had become, not a court adornment, not a political weapon, but (in the eyes of the government if not of the poet) a utilitarian means of social improvement. Motion was also the first laureate to be appointed for a fixed term (ten years) rather than life: poetic reputations, or social aims may change. Yet apparently Andrew Motion was quite relieved to be able to step down.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Saving the banks, or saving the state?

It has long been pointed out that the prime beneficiaries of the various 'bailouts', including the 'rescue packages' for countries such as Ireland and Greece, have been the teetering banks.

Yesterday the European Central Bank announced the completion of the second phase of its emergency lending programme for 'European' banks. About four months after it provided 489 billion euros of cheap loans it has stumped up a further 529 billion at 1 per cent interest that has been eagerly 'hoovered up' (in the BBC's editor's phrase) by about 800 European banks. (Did you know there were that number of needy banks? I suppose, in Margaret Thatcher's phrase, quoting someone or other, 'the poor are always with us'.) The large number suggests that this time, unlike last, the facilitiy has been made available to smaller banks. Does that mean that that the ECB is now sufficiently confident of it all turning out well that it can extend its largesse pretty well universally, or that the perilious interconnectness of the banking system is now such as to force a redefinition of 'too big to fail'?

Where is the money going? A considerable part of it is being spent on buying European government debt, which of course yields considerably more than 1 per cent.

Spanish banks' holdings of government debt rose by 23bn euros in January. They rose a similar amount in December.

That means they have bought an extra 46bn euros worth of government bonds in the two months since the new ECB loan programme started. That's nearly five times more than they bought in the first 11 months of 2011.

As Julian Callow, of Barclays Capital, has pointed out, that 46bn euros is also the equivalent of more than half of the money the Spanish government needs to borrow this year to cover its budget deficit and maturing debt. So with today's loans, Spain's banks could cover the lot. If they decide to do so.

Spain is just one example. As the man said, we're all in this together. The question inevitably arises, who are 'we'? There is no sign that the newly created funds have benefited what the Americans call 'main street'.

There are other worries too. The ECB calls its operation LTRO, Long-Term Refinancing Operation. Three years may be a long time in banking, or in a senior banker's career, but some are worried whether banks will be strong enough when they have to refinance these loans. Peter Sands, chief executive of Standard Chartered bank, which has made clear it has not used the ECB facility, has warned that we may be 'laying the seeds for the next crisis':

"Banks are still going to have to refinance their loans in three years time. It's not clear what the exit strategy is, nor is it possible to predict what the long-term consequences will be."

There is also quantitative easing. Governments currently are playing down expectations of more but massive programmes have been undertaken by western governments: $2.3 trillion in the US, £325 billion in the UK. For thoughts about the nature of this operation see

The New Colossus

The home secretary, Theresa May, will tell MPs on Wednesday that she is breaking the link between migration and settlement for the first time, by taking away the right to remain in Britain for more than five years from any migrant worker earning less than £35,000 a year.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Emma Lazarus 1883

Well, of course there was plenty of room in north America in the late nineteenth century, or at least the newcomers thought there was. And the author's name was Lazarus. Yet £35,000 is an adequate income in most parts of the UK even today, though some may think it risible. Indeed it has to be, since in 2011 average individual earnings in the UK were £26,000 and average household income £33,000.

Ministers hope changing settlement rights for skilled workers will put plans back on track to cut net migration from its current 250,000 a year to "tens of thousands" by the next general election. They believe the £35,000-a-year earnings threshold will ensure only the "brightest and the best" migrants settle in the UK. But critics say it will simply mean only the wealthy and the comfortable are able to come and live and work in Britain permanently.

It would seem we no longer have jobs that the native born British disdain to take - or else government ministers are happy to pay high rates to their foreign builders.

Sun story

"Now they are complaining about R Brooks saving an old horse from the glue factory!" R Murdoch on Twitter

Keep in step

We have been too busy protecting ourselves from terrorist attack to investigate corruption within our society.

[Robert Jay QC, counsel to the Leveson inquiry] said [detective chief superintendent Philip] Williams could have gone to a magistrates' court and told the judge of a "a pathetic response to our letter" to News International solicitors Burton Copeland and won a production order forcing the publisher to hand over key evidence.

Williams told the inquiry repeatedly that this would have involved a "step change" in the scale of the investigation and that in August 2006 the team, whose main business was anti-terrorism, was under enormous pressure because of the threat of a terrorist attack on several planes around the UK.

Superintendent Williams apparently believed it would be a 'step change' if he employed legal means to compel the disclosure of documents he had already requested from News International solicitors. One wonders what he would have done if they had actually met his request. No wonder he needed to repeat himself.

Things change, stuff happens

Some things have changed in our new millenium:
Barclays Bank liabilities
Yet at least innocence, like suffering, is spread widely:

"More generally, the current extended period of rock-bottom interest rates has impacted heavily on those holding most of their savings in deposit or short-term savings accounts, who have seen negative real returns. Savers have every right to feel aggrieved at losing out; after all, they did nothing to cause the financial crisis. But neither did most of those in work, who have also seen a substantial squeeze in their real incomes. And unemployment, particularly among the young, has risen as output has fallen. This is all a reflection of the hit to output from the financial crisis. Output is still some 4% below its previous peak and more than 10% below where it would have been if the economy had simply continued growing at its pre-crisis historical trend. There have been few winners over the past few years.
Charlie Bean, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England

although not universally:

Meanwhile, it is refreshing to have this insight into the quality of mind and expression that characterises one of the leading private global 'intelligence' companies on whose insights our governments and international corporations rely.