Monday, 26 December 2011

Boxing Day Colour

The weather on Boxing Day this year is pretty dreadful.  It is quite mild temperature wise, but it is rather dull and very, very windy.  So it really feels very cold.  Nothing to tempt one outside.  So to cheer myself up a bit I've put together some collages of photos from warmer climes.  The first is from a holiday we had in Palma de Mallorca way back in 2005.
Next up is this collage from a walking holiday we had in the Cinque Terre region of northern Italy.
Puglia is the next destination, which is where Alessio's paternal grandparents come from.  Another beautiful part of the world.
Just a few lovely memories to bring back a bit of warmth and sunshine in the middle of a dreich and dour Scottish winter.  As it is Boxing Day I could not resist ending with this collage of some of the boxes I use to store my stitching stuff.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Can Johann Lamont save Labour?

2011 has been a remarkable year in Scottish politics, with change the order of the day.  Only the SNP of the major parties still has the same leader.  And Alex Salmond has of course completely changed the game as regards the Scottish Parliament.  In May the SNP won an outright majority of MSPs.  Something that was not supposed to be possible with the Parliament’s partly PR voting system.  Yet the SNP did just that and the other parties have been in disarray ever since.  The LibDems and the Tories already have new leaders in Scotland.  Though as yet neither Willie Rennie nor Ruth Davidson has shown any signs that they can offer any kind of sustained challenge to the SNP.
The latest party to elect a new leader in Scotland was the Labour Party.  This time their new leader is not just the leader of the Parliamentary group in Holyrood, but is the leader of the whole party in Scotland, MPs included.  At least that’s the claim.  The new leader is Johann Lamont and as she was only elected last Saturday, there is no way of knowing just how she will perform as leader.  However the challenges facing her and her party are enormous.
Independence - it’s all about Independence
Now that the SNP has an overall majority in the Parliament, they will be able to hold their promised referendum on Independence.This is due to be held sometime in the latter half of the parliamentary term, ie sometime in 2014.  However the Unionist parties seem to have nothing else to talk about just now.  They go endlessly on about why not hold the referendum now or why not get the UK government to hold one instead.  All the Unionists seem to be running scared and have not as yet figured out how to challenge the SNP government.  The more they talk about independence and the referendum the more they help the SNP.  The real Independence campaign will probably not start in earnest until mid 2013 at the earliest.  
Yet this will be the key, defining moment for Scotland for a generation.  So the Unionists will need to get their act together if they are to save the Union.  However things are not looking good.  The Tories and the LibDems can be pretty much discounted as positive partners in any pro Union campaign.  The Tories have never recovered from the Thatcher years and the LibDems are paying the price of sustaining the Tories at Westminster.  Not to mention the rather important fact that these two parties are responsible for the largest and longest sustained attack on the living standards of ordinary folk.  You wouldn’t really want any of that lot on your side.  With friends like them, who needs enemies!
This leaves Labour as the only party that could mount a credible sustained campaign to keep Scotland in the UK.  However even Labour has  at least three major handicaps to overcome if it is to run a successful campaign.  The first is the lack of talent on offer at the top of Scottish Labour.  The few remaining well-known big hitters in the party are all at Westminster and none of them even considered standing for election.  As the new leader is not just the leader in Holyrood but the overall leader of the party in Scotland, why did the likes of Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy or Alastair Darling not even bother to stand?  I suspect that the main reason is that they recognize that the Scottish leader has to be at Holyrood.  This is where Scottish politicians have most visibility.  Not only that but most Scots like their own parliament in Edinburgh and indeed, by all accounts would like it to have more powers.  It would simply send the wrong message if Labour was to elect a Westminster MP as its leader in Scotland.  This however does nothing to hide the lack of talent among Labour’s MSPs.  The party has just suffered its worst ever defeat in Scotland and yet the new leadership comes from the very MSPs who led the party into this catastrophic reverse.  Not much hope for renewed leadership or inspiration.
The second problem that Labour has to overcome is that the party is still blamed by large numbers of voters as the party most responsible for getting the country into the economic mess we are in.  This is not just a problem for Labour in Scotland, but the inability of Labour UK to offer a credible alternative to the Tory/LibDem cuts is likely to damage Labour more in Scotland than elsewhere.  As in Scotland the deeper problem is that by and large the very MPs who were key figures in the previous Labour government - the one that got us into this mess - are still around in the top positions.  They may have shuffled the pack a bit, but the team and the message is essentially the same.  And having lost on this programme in 2010, there is not much reason to expect a different result in 2015.
This is particularly damaging for Labour in Scotland as the party benefitted enormously from an anti Tory vote in 2010.  Desperate to prevent the arrival of another hated Tory government at Westminster, Scots voted in large numbers for Labour.  Yet, despite this ringing endorsement in Scotland, Scotland still ended up with a Tory government, albeit in coalition with the LibDems.  Labour can never again go into an election claiming that only Labour can protect Scotland from the Tories.  Even if everybody in Scotland were to vote Labour in 2015, the likelihood is that we will still have a Tory led government to contend with.  
When it comes to standing up for Scotland, none of the Unionist parties can really make a convincing claim to do this.  They are all, after all is said and done, just branch parties of UK parties.  They are all committed to the UK.  This is their biggest problem.  They all put the UK first and Scotland second.  While the overwhelming majority of Scots put Scotland first.  This is true for most Unionist voters who want their parties to represent Scotland at Westminster and not to represent Westminster in Scotland.
This is most clearly seen in the debate, or rather lack of debate, about fiscal autonomy or devolution max, or whatever you want to call it.  Give the Scottish Parliament control over all or nearly all taxes is what most Scots want, according to opinion surveys.  Yet none of the Unionist parties is remotely interested in this option.  As the parties of government at Westminster the Tories and the LibDems could legislate for this now.  It is a policy which fits perfectly with both parties basic philosophy.  The Tories preach fiscal responsibility and want people to stand on their own feet etc.  While the LibDems are full of rhetoric about their commitment to Federalism.  Yet in power they do nothing of substance.  Why?  Presumably because it does not suit their leaders at Westminster.  The same is true of Labour, who have shown no interest in this option.  The only conclusion that I, and I suspect many others will draw is that the Unionist parties are more interested in the UK and Scotland comes a very poor second in their list of priorities.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Bologna and Ferrara - June 2011

When we visit Emma in Zürich we usually manage to fit in an additional short break.  This time it was all the way to Italy, to the region of Emilia-Romagna which sweeps down from the southern banks of the river Po to the mountains of Tuscany and central Italy.  We stayed in Bologna and also visited Ferrara.  It was a wonderful break and we were blessed with warm, sunny weather.  In the middle of a dark and cold Scottish winter, this is a good time to remember the heat and sunshine of Italy.
Bologna is the capital of the region and is also the biggest city.  In the centre is a very large piazza, suitably named Piazza Maggiore.  You can see one view of it above.  It is usually very crowded and is surrounded by narrow side streets with lots of cafés, bars and restaurants.  The narrow side streets were a feature of Bologna and here are three of them in the collage below.
A rather strange feature of Bologna we found was that once you got away from the main square the surrounding streets became almost empty of people.  There were hardly any shops and very few bars or cafés.  Most strange.  Another rather disconcerting facet of Bologna was the very poor state of the buildings in the old town.  The façades of just about all the old buildings had been left unkept and were covered in peeling plaster and often ugly grafitti.  Here is an example.
Of course the city does have some wonderful examples of Renaissance and medieval architecture.  Here are two doorways to admire.
One of Bologna's famous nicknames is la dotta (the learned), which refers to its university, which is apparently the oldest in not just Italy, but the whole of Europe.  Many of its faculties are located just off the city centre in some lovely old buildings.  Here is Kathleen by a very old courtyard with an even older statue behind her.
Another nickname is la grassa (the fat one), and this harks back to Bologna's fame as a centre of cuisine.  We can certainly attest to this as we ate very well while there.  Just off the centre is a small area of very narrow streets which must have been the home to the old markets of the city.  Here you can still find a lovely and appetising array of little shops selling just about everything you need to make a delicious gourmet meal.  Here are a few of the shop fronts.
In addition to Bologna we took in a day trip to Ferrara.  This is another very old city, though a much smaller one.  It is the capital of the province of the same name and is clearly home to a lot of very rich people, past and present.  Like Bologna, Ferrara has a very large and grand central square.  This is not really a square, but a longuish rectangle and goes by the grand name of Piazza Trento e Trieste.  One side of the piazza is mostly taken up by the side façade of the cathedral.  As you can see from the photo below, the good burghers of Ferrara were quite happy to mix religion with commerce.  The street level is used for shops.  
Just round the corner you get to see the marvellous Romanesque front façade.  Another stunning part of the cathedral is the campanile, which dates from Renaissance times.  Inside, you are just overwhelmed by the richness of the place.  It is full of richly ornate sculptures, painting and decorations.  Clearly Ferrara was once a very wealthy place.  Probably still is.  Here is the front façade and the campanile.
Another similarity with Bologna was the narrow streets that led away from the main square.  Some were busy with shoppers, but most were pretty empty.  Here are some.
Like almost all Italian cities, Ferrara has some truly outstanding and beautiful buildings.  Here is one, which is not a particularly famous one, but is lovely in its harmony and the colour of its façade.
Not everything in Ferrara was old or formal.  On the corner of one of the main streets we came across this little bear blowing bubbles.  We all loved it, especially Alessio, who could have spent the whole day chasing the bubbles.
Just going over these photos has warmed me up a bit.  Roll on next summer.

Friday, 16 December 2011

EU- Fiscal Union Anyone?

The recent flurry of activity at the latest EU summit in Brussels is proving to be a bit of a damp squib.  The proposed new treaty has not exactly set the heather alight and the bond markets remain unconvinced.  One of the minor mysteries about the new treaty is why so many commentators describe it as a move to a Fiscal Union for the Eurozone.  A Fiscal Union may be a good idea, but what is proposed is no such thing.  A bit like French cheeses Fiscal Unions can come in a variety of shapes and disguises.  However there are a few necessary properties of any Fiscal Union.  1.  There has to be some kind of central or common government - let’s call it a Federal government.  2.  This government has the power to set and raise taxes throughout the Union.  3.  The government also has the power to spend the money raised in a way that is deemed to benefit the Union as a whole.  4.  The government will raise more money from the richer parts of the Union and in return, redistribute some of this money in the poorer parts of the Union.
Now the proposals from Brussels do none of the above.  It is a purely inter-governmental arrangement.  It is as Angela Merkel more accurately describes it, a Stability Union.  Unfortunately the only stability the Eurozone has at the moment is the stability of the dead and the dying.  Economically speaking at least!   The new measures will impose even greater austerity on a patient that has suffered from too much austerity already.  Greece and Ireland are already in deep recession and Ireland is supposed to be the Eurozone’s star pupil.
What is missing from all the EU’s endless round of summits is any sense of urgency and in particular any measures to promote growth in the Eurozone.  As with generals, EU leaders are more interested in fighting old wars than in facing up to the realities of the current situation.  To recap, inflation is not a major problem for the foreseeable future and government deficits and national debts did not cause this global crisis.  The current deficits and high levels of debt are primarily symptoms of the crisis and not its cause.  The deficits and debts will only rise, as is happening in the UK, until governments come up with some kind of credible strategy to generate growth in their economies.  Don’t hold your breath.  What we are likely to get is more re-arranging of the deckchairs while the good ship Euro sinks further and further into the mire.  It will probably take some really serious shock - an Irish default?, the collapse of a major French or German bank? to propel our leaders into genuine action.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Champions League 2011/12 - The Last 16

This season the group stages of the Champions League has thrown up some surprises.  The biggest is undoubtedly the failure of both Manchester clubs to progress to the last 16.  This is the first time in a long time that only two English clubs have made it through to this stage.  This achievement or failure, has somewhat overshadowed the fact that only two Spanish teams have succeeded in reaching the last 16.  Again the first time this has happened for a long time.  Is this the start of a new trend or just a temporary blip?
Only time will tell of course, but I suspect this is more a temporary blip.  While Manchester United’s failure is really surprising, given that they have been in three of the last four finals, winning one and losing two, and were in a relatively easy group, Manchester City’s failure is less so.   Though they are now the richest club in Europe with a very big and impressive squad this was their first experience of the Champions League.  And they were in a very difficult group with Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villareal as their opponents.  I expect both clubs will be in the Champions League next season and that both will progress to the last 16.
The Spanish situation is slightly different.  There, the gap between the big two - Barcelona and Real Madrid - is growing wider and wider.  None of the other big Spanish clubs - Valencia, Sevilla, Atletico Madrid etc - seem able to develop a sustained financial base.  They will still be able to develop good teams, but it will become more difficult to progress to the last 16 on a regular basis.
However if you look at the bigger picture and take the last five seasons, including the current one, there is little to suggest a major shift in power in the Champions League.   The Big Five countries - England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France - continue to dominate.  This year 11 clubs from the Big Five progressed, while the average over the past five years works out at 12.6.  Hardly a crisis.  This dominance  can be shown in another way.  18 clubs from the Big Five have access to the Champions League out of around 70 clubs in total.  This represents around 25% of the total.  While their representation in the last 16 mounts to around 75% or more.
Within the Big Five there is a clear division between the top three - England, Spain and Italy - who tend to get three clubs through to the last 16.  In the case of England this is often all four clubs.  While France and Germany have never managed to get more than two clubs to this stage.  There may be some long term change within the Big Five.  I would expect England to continue to get three and sometimes four clubs to reach this stage.  On the other hand, as already mentioned, Spain may find it more difficult to get a third team through.
Outwith the Big Five there is no consistent pattern to participation in the last 16.  Only three countries have managed to get a club through to this stage more than once in the last five years.  Portugal stands out in this respect - one Portuguese club as progressed on four of the past five years and two in 2008/9.  Russia has managed this feat twice, and this year two Russian clubs have progressed.  Greece managed one team in the last 16 on three occasions, but none in the last two.
Otherwise there has been no pattern or consistency.  Six other clubs have managed to make it through to the last 16, and all six come from six different countries and each has only done it once.  On three occasions two such clubs have progressed, while in the other two years, none did.  The countries represented are Scotland, Denmark, Turkey, Ukraine, Switzerland and Cyprus.  The latter two made it this time around with FC Basel and APOEL.
However there is nothing in the above to suggest anything other than continuing domination of the competition by clubs from the Big Five.  What is perhaps even more surprising is just how few teams manage to reach this stage on a regular basis.  Only 37 clubs have managed to reach the last 16 over the past five seasons.  This is out of a potential total of 80 places.  Of this 20 have only appeared at this stage once, while a further six have managed two appearances at this stage.  This leaves just 11 clubs who have managed to reach the last 16 on three or more occasions.  Two, Roma and Porto have achieved this on three occasions, but have never in that time progressed further.  Porto have also missed out on the last 16 on the past two seasons.
This leaves us with just 9 teams who have recently dominated the competition, year in year out.  Bayern Munich, AC Milan and Manchester United have appeared in the last 16 in four of the past five seasons.  While Arsenal, Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Lyon have reached this stage every time.  It is also noticeable that the finalists in this period have all come from this group.  Indeed if you take the last 10 completed seasons - from 2001/2 to 2010/11 - 14 of the 20 finalists have come from these 9 clubs, and 8 of the 10 winners.
The interesting question for the coming five years or so is will the composition of this elite group of 9 clubs change.  The persistence of Lyon is quite remarkable, though they are the only one of this group to have never reached the final.  So perhaps there is really only 8 elite clubs in Europe.  Whatever, it will be even more remarkable if Lyon can continue to reach the last 16 year after year.  Inter Milan are struggling this season in Italy and may not make the Champions League next season at all.  Juventus though are doing well and may make a comeback into the Champions League.  The rise of Manchester City on the other hand may put the continuing presence of either Arsenal or Chelsea in this elite group at risk.  Particularly if Tottenham Hotspur maintain their league form.
Whoever makes it into this elite group in the years to come, one thing is for sure, no club from outwith the Big Five will make it there on a regular basis.  For that to happen we would need to change the whole structure of European football.  More likely to see a solution to the Euro crisis!

Friday, 9 December 2011

The Euro - Crisis? What Crisis?

So the big EU summit has come and gone.  The really, really big one we were assured.  Some informed politicians and commentators had even declared in worried tones that we had only 10 days in which to save the Euro, or the EU or both.  Well the 10 days have come and gone and what has happened?  Short answer - not a lot.  Long answer - not a lot.  One is tempted to ask if there really is a Euro crisis after all.
For example take the case of David Cameron, our very own Prime Minister of the UK.  After months lecturing the Eurozone countries on the need for them to get their act together and quickly, what was his big idea at the summit?  Some useful and practical ideas for resolving this crisis which, remember, is so damaging to the future growth prospects for the UK economy?  Hell no, Cameron’s sole contribution to this crisis summit was to insist on cast iron guarantees that the City of London would be forever exempt from any future EU regulation.  Yes, the very same City of London that is home to the banking and financial sector which due to its loose, lax and unregulated practices was the prime cause of the economic and financial woes which threaten all of us.  Clearly David Cameron doesn’t believe there is a Euro crisis.  Otherwise, surely, even he would not risk a collapse of the Euro just to protect rich bankers?
Next up, the rest of the leaders of the EU.  In the face of a threat to the survival of the Euro, what do they do?  Why, let’s negotiate yet another treaty!  One in which everyone solemnly promises that in the future they will behave like good little boys and girls and never, ever borrow lots of money again.  Neverland to the rescue!  And in the meantime?  If this is all it takes to stave off the bond markets then there was never much of a crisis in the first place.
This reading is probably correct in as much as the crisis is not fundamentally about the Euro as a common currency.  It is much more likely to be a banking crisis and a global one at that, in which the US may be more at risk than the EU.  Ann Pettifor has a good summary of this view here.
The summit’s focus on national budgets and deficits is a classic example of our leaders continuing determination to fight the wrong battle.  The most pressing danger facing not just the Eurozone, but the whole of the EU - just look at Germany’s latest export figures - is the real prospect of  deflation and recession.  The weakness of banks is a part of this very real crisis.  And yet the EU has not even begun to work out how to get us out of this mess.  Much easier to draft another treaty.  As usual Paul Krugman has summed up the summit perfectly, if rather pessimistically thus:  “This looks like a disastrous meeting. More austerity, more posing of the crisis, wrongly, as being all about fiscal deficits; no mechanism for ECB funding. Somehow southern Europe is supposed to deflate its way to prosperity, while everyone runs a trade surplus, presumably against that potentially habitable planet we’ve discovered 600 light-years away.
Maybe Draghi’s actions will be very different from his words — but actually, since this is to an important degree about expectations, Europe needs both actions and words.
Oh, and for desertdessert (Oh well — and it’s a floor wax too!) we have Cameron acting as a spoiler to protect the wheeler-dealers, poisoning EU politics.”
How long will we have to wait for an EU summit which tackles the real issues?  The real irony is that it is the failure to come up with positive solutions to avoid deflation and recession that is most likely to bring about the collapse of the Euro - new treaty or not.

Monday, 5 December 2011

November 2011 in Photos

The highlight of November, at least for us Scots, comes at the very end of the month.  November 30th is when we celebrate our very own saint - St. Andrew.  Well he's not really ours as Russians, Greeks, Romanians and some others also claim him.  However we are not a mean people and are delighted to share our saint with all these other lovely people around the world.


Alas in Scotland St Andrews Day is not yet a public holiday.  This year though it was a day of strikes in the public sector and most schools were closed as a result.  This meant we had the pleasure of Liam and Jamie as our companions for the day.  We started with a bit of window shopping in the Ferry to see all the weird and wonderful Christmas displays.  Here are some below.



In the afternoon we visited St Andrews itself.  As part of the celebrations all the museums were open to the public, free of charge.  We visited the castle, or rather the remaining ruins.  Here are the two boys on a window ledge.
What the boys like most about the castle is the underground tunnel that was built during the siege in the 16th century.  No photos of this alas.  Before we headed off home we came across another early sign of Christmas with this brightly decorated tree in the grounds of the Holy Trinity Church in the centre of the town.
The rest of the month was not without its unexpected pleasures.  Early in the month we attended a conference on Food hosted by Fife Diet, a campaigning group for a better diet and lowering our carbon footprint.  There we met some students from the USA who were all over at Edinburgh University on various one year programmes.  One of them, Liz from Boston has some ancestors from Dundee and was due to visit the city to find the graves of her great, great granny I think.  Anyway we met up with her and spent a most enjoyable day showing her around the city.  Here she is with Dundee's famous son, Desperate Dan.
Another unexpected pleasure was meeting a group of musicians from An-Najah University in Nablus, Dundee's twin town in Palestine.  They were over to celebrate an agreement between their university and Abertay university in Dundee.  As part of their visit they played some traditional Palestinian music at a concert.  Here they are on stage.
I am particularly fond of the oud and have a couple of CD's of traditional oud music.  Here is the beautifully decorated oud from the concert.

The end of November is pretty much the beginning of winter over here.  The weather has now changed and it is a lot colder.  Though thankfully no snow in our part of the country as yet.  Despite the colder weather there is still a little colour in and around the garden, as you can see in this photo of a single fuchsia flower with some geraniums.
November is also a time of long dark nights.  Though this can be compensated by some great views of the moon and I end this piece with one of my attempts to capture a full moon in a very dark sky.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Let’s Just Blame the Public Sector!

Last week in the UK we have seen a further descent into nastiness by our unloved government.  First we had a massive strike by public sector workers and then the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.  Both were used by the government and their lackeys to blame or further punish workers in the public sector.
The strike which was about proposed changes to the pensions of public sector workers was pretty well supported and even brought out on strike for the first time in history, headteachers.  Yet another great triumph for our nasty Coalition.  The government’s proposals will mean that public sector workers will have to pay more, work longer and in return get less of a pension.  A triple whammy indeed!  The government’s line is that the country can no longer afford the supposedly “generous” pensions paid to public sector workers.  This is because the private sector, which apparently, creates all the wealth can no longer bear the taxes needed to pay for public sector pensions.  To rub salt into the wound as it were, the Chancellor then announced that public sector workers would see future pay increases limited to 1% per annum for the next two years.  This after two years of no pay increase at all.
All of this is based on premisses which are not just untrue but wicked in their implications.  Let’s take a brief look at the nonsense presented by the government.
  1.   The taxes of workers in the private sector pay for the pensions of public sector workers.  This is pure economic illiteracy as the government does not distinguish taxes by who pays them.  It just collects them and then spends the money.  Taxes paid by public sector workers are just as essential to the government as those paid by the private sector.  Otherwise I would like all the money I have paid in taxes back please.
  2.   It is only the private sector that creates wealth for the country.  Again this is pretty stupid stuff.  The wealth of a country is normally measured by GDP (Gross Domestic Product) or GNP (Gross National Product).  Though different both measure roughly the same thing, namely the value of all goods and services produced in a country in 1 year.  It makes no difference to the total whether the goods or services come from the private or public sector.
  3.   Part of the government’s argument is that the private sector produces or makes things.  In the popular image this is generally regarded as a good thing. However our private sector in the UK does not actually produce or make many things.  Most of the private sector is in services and one in particular - the banking and financial sector has not exactly covered itself in glory recently.  Not only has it not contributed much to the economic wellbeing of the country, it has in fact been the major source of our current economic and financial woes.  Another prominent industry in the private sector is Advertising and PR.  Again not clear how they really add to the country’s economic wellbeing.  But to the extent that they encouraged people to go out and take on extra borrowing to buy things, then they too have had a negative impact on our wellbeing.  
  4.   It is difficult to make a positive case for private good, public bad, when in many sectors the same or similar services are provided by both the private and public sectors.  For example are we to believe that the taxes of a retired policeman, who now works for a private sector security firm, are worth more than the taxes he previously paid while working in the public sector?  While education and health are, still, predominantly public services in the UK, there are many private sector companies which work in both education and health.  Again are we to believe that the taxes paid by a nurse in a private hospital are worth more than the taxes paid by a nurse working in the public sector? 
All this of course is deliberately repeated by the government, and rarely challenged by our supposedly independent media, in order to engineer a split in working people.  If you can get one group of workers - those in the private sector - to blame their fellow workers in the public sector, then the heat is off the people who are really guilty.  The elites in the banking and financial sector to start with.  Followed by those in government and the so-called regulatory sector who failed to foresee what was happening.  Not to mention the very rich and the top companies that continue to pay little or nothing in taxation.  If we were really “all in it together”, there would be no need for any of these changes to public sector pensions.  Instead we could be making sure that there was decent pension provision for everyone, irrespective of where they work.  As one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the money is there.  We just need a fairer taxation system to ensure that this wealth is fairly distributed.  However our politicians would much rather blame the public sector than face the wrath of their ultra wealthy friends in the City.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Crunch Time for the Euro?

This time it looks like it is serious.  The recent sharp rise in borrowing costs for all Eurozone countries, even Germany, has finally exposed just how bad the situation has become.  Rising borrowing costs and austerity induced recession is pushing the Euro to breaking point.  There is simply no way that Italy and Spain in particular can survive with these high interest rates.  Sooner, rather than later, both of these countries will need to apply for life support from the EU and the IMF or face immediate default.  
Alas for both Spain and Italy there is no more money in the kitty.  Neither the EU nor the IMF has the kind of money needed to support either Spain or Italy, never mind both at the same time.   At this time of crisis, urgent measures are needed, and fast.  Unfortunately the EU is pretty much institutionally incapable of acting urgently.  The solutions not just for Italy and Spain, but for the whole Eurozone, are by now very clear.  They just need our leaders to recognize the inevitable and act accordingly.  This however will be very difficult as both Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have been so outspoken in opposition to almost all the necessary changes.  They will have to be prepared to eat rather large doses of humble pie very quickly if the Eurozone is to have any chance of survival.  
The outline of the solution comprises three inter-related parts, which need to be put in place pretty much simultaneously.  The first and most urgent of all is to give some relief to Spain and Italy.  This can only be done in the short term by the European Central Bank (ECB).  All the ECB has to do is to act like all other central banks and be the lender of last resort for Eurozone governments in difficulties.  The ECB simply announces that it will buy all Spanish and Italian government bonds at a lowish interest rate, say 3.5%  To do so it will print as many Euros as it takes.  This would immediately end the pressure on all Eurozone countries.  If this was to continue for ever then this policy would lead to higher inflation.  But in the current situation with low underlying inflation and recessions on the horizon, rising inflation is the least of our worries.  This action can be taken very quickly and really only needs the agreement of Angela Merkel, who to date has adamantly refused to countenance such action by the ECB.  Perhaps the threat of the collapse of the Euro will concentrate her mind wonderfully.
The second part of the equation relates to the need for some Eurozone countries, read Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece, to get their respective houses in order, so that they do not face such severe difficulties in the future.  For not unreasonably, Germans and others are a bit reluctant to support countries in trouble unless they can be assured that they will take the necessary measures to get their public finances in order and to make their economies more competitive.  What this crisis has brutally exposed is that though the Eurozone has a common currency it does not have a common state.  It is most unlikely that the Eurozone countries will suddenly agree to set up a joint Federal state à la USA.  However all the talk is of the need to create a Fiscal Union.  This is where things begin to get a bit hazy.  In the first place such a development will take a great deal of time.  It will require a new treaty, which may or may not involve all 27 member states in the EU.  In the case of Ireland any new treaty would probably have to be supported by the electorate in a referendum.  
There is also the tricky matter of just would a Fiscal Union involve?  At the moment it seems to mean that each country in the Eurozone will have to send its budget to Brussels to be scrutinized and approved or rejected by some new supranational Eurozone body.  If rejected the member state would have to revise its budget in line with the changes proposed by this new body.  It the member state refused it would be fined.  Nice in theory, but can anyone see this really working?  If Italy, say, refused to change its budget proposals on the grounds that it would cause too much suffering for poorer Italians, and also refused to pay any fine, would the rest of the Eurozone really force Italy out of the Euro?  In which case it could probably do so now.  
For a Fiscal Union to be credible - to the markets that is - then it almost certainly needs some kind of common Treasury, which would be responsible for most taxation and most government spending in all the Eurozone.  Not a very realistic outcome at the moment, if ever.  Something needs to be done though, if only to make it politically feasible for Angela Merkel to agree to the first proposal - allowing the ECB to buy up government bonds.   She needs to be able to convince her fellow Germans that there will be no backsliding by other Eurozone countries.  The paradox here is that while Germany has been historically quite open to this kind of increased federalism, it is France which has opposed such a loss of sovereignty.  A bit of humble pie for M. Sarkozy to eat.
The final piece of the jigsaw is to get some renewed growth in the Eurozone, in particular in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Ireland.  Quite how this can be done while the powers that be are still in thraw to the mantra that austerity and ever more austerity is the answer, is not at all clear.  However if Germany does not agree to the above changes to the remit of the ECB, then all the rest becomes academic and very quickly too.  Wolfgang Munchau has a very good piece in the FT in which he reckons the Eurozone has at most 10 days to avoid a rather messy and expensive collapse.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Satyagraha from the Met

This was the latest in the live opera relays to be shown at the DCA in Dundee.  And a most unusual opera it was.  The outline of the opera was not very encouraging, rather intimidating in fact.  How about this - an opera with no dialogue, just adaptations from the Bhagavad Gita, the hindu religious poem.  All sung in Sanskrit and without subtitles!
Yet this was a most enjoyable evening.  The opera is an early work by American composer Philip Glass and covers the experiences of Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa.  It traces his transition from a European style lawyer to the dhoti dressed leader of a non-violent protest movement.  It does this through seven tableaux, each representing an important part of Gandhi’s development. 
Much of the attraction of the opera comes from Glass’s music, which is a powerful mix of vibrant, repetitive rhythms and some tender sequences.  Glass’s repetitive minimalist music is perfect for this opera which features lots of hindu chants.  The main singers were all terrific, with Richard Croft as Gandhi.  At times the music and singing just soared in a pulsating crescendo, with the sopranos dominating.
What makes this production - a joint one with ENO - really impressive is the staging.  The main raw materials for the set were corrugated iron and newsprint.  Well probably not corrugated iron, but something which looks like the stuff.  This was used to form the backdrop and changed to represent different urban scenes.  The newsprint was everywhere - on the floor, held up by actors, hanging down from buildings and even crumpled up into balls.  To augment the singers and chorus we had a puppetry group - the Skills Ensemble - to provide background action which helped to make sense of the different tableaux.  This included giant puppets and a couple of acrobats on stilts.  Everything was very bright and colourful.  
Though there were no subtitles, every so often some text illuminating the situation would appear, sometimes flashed onto newspaper sheets, and other times on the background walls.  So we were not completely in the dark.  However the music, the singing, the set and the puppetry all combined to ensure that the audience was spellbound from first to last.  Not an opera I would normally have gone to, but as part of the season ticket, I went and am very glad I did.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Does the Left have a Future?

The recent election in Spain has only served to confirm a trend that has been apparent for a number of years now.  The collapse in votes for the the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the left in general mirrors that in other countries.  Something similar happened in the UK at last year’s general election.  According to one of the Spanish newspapers 24 of the 27 countries in the EU now have right of centre governments.   This might appear to be a ringing endorsement of the right, but this is not necessarily so.
In most cases it is more a case of throwing out the incumbents and giving the other lot a chance.  Without it must also be said any great enthusiasm on the part of the electorate.  Certainly in Spain the victorious People’s Party (PP) offered no new thinking about how to combat the crisis.  Indeed by all accounts they offered no ideas at all.  The Socialists were rightly blamed for failing to do anything about the crisis and were kicked out.  But few Spaniards are much enamoured with the PP.
With all these right wing governments in power you would think that there should be some kind of consensus about how to deal with the crisis.   But this is manifestly not the case.  There is little agreement among the various governments and even the much vaunted Franco-German duopoly seems to be further apart than ever on ways forward.
It must also be pointed out that in the elections to come over the next two years or so, in France, Italy and Germany there is every possibility that the left in some form will be returned to power.  However if this does happen it will be more a result of the unpopularity of the incumbents than anything positive the left has to offer.
For this is the key question for all those on the left of the political spectrum.  What does the Left have to offer?  Does the Left have any kind of coherent story to tell about what caused the crisis and how to get out of it?  It appears not.  Certainly in the UK, Labour is still pretty much stuck in the by now widely discredited neo-liberal strait-jacket.  All it offers is a bit less in the size and pace of the cuts.  It remains to be seen whether François Hollande and his team can come up with something more convincing.
A further question is what is the Left now anyway?  Apart from the traditional big parties, who all contributed in one way or another to the crisis, who else is around on the Left?   There are plenty of parties out there, but few ever manage to win representation in Parliament.  In Spain the United Left (IU), a reincarnation of the once powerful Communist Party manage to win just 7% of the votes.  While other left parties, particularly in Catalunya, Galicia and the Basque country also won votes, the overall total cannot have much more than 10% if that.
This it has to be said is pretty pathetic.  Why has the mainstream Left been so willing to side up to bankers and big business in general instead of standing up for working people?  And why have the small, more radical Left parties completely failed to win the trust of more than a handful of voters?  It cannot all be down to the media.  Something very bad has happened to the Left.  The current situation should be a godsend to parties on the Left.  Falling incomes in real terms for most workers, rising unemployment and severe cuts to public services and welfare benefits should be ideal territory for the Left to work out a coherent programme to get us out of this mess.  The trouble with economic crisis is that too often in the past they have been used to further the nasty authoritarian right.  If the Left fails to rise to this challenge this could get ever nastier.
Just why the Left has failed to come up with a coherent story is most perplexing.  The evidence of what has happened over the last five decades is overwhelming and out there in the public domain.  The following example all refer to the USA, but the big picture is unlikely to be that different in the EU.  To get an idea of just how rich the super, super rich really are, Singapore based Wealth-X has usefully identified just who they are and how much wealth they own.  For the world as a whole, some 186,000 individuals hold $25 trillion in combined wealth.  In the USA, around 59,000 individuals hold a combined net worth of $7.6 trillion.  To which the only response is WOW!  Surely the Left can come up with some modest proposals to tax some of this wealth?  One such modest proposal can be found here.
Not only have the super rich become more and more wealthy, they have done so at the expense of the rest of us.  Hence the contrast between the 1% at the top and the 99% of us somewhere around the bottom.  An excellent article in Business Insider charts just how this inequality gap has developed over the previous decades.  The writer sums it all up rather nicely:  “The problem in a nutshell is this: Inequality in this country has hit a level that has been seen only once in the nation's history, and unemployment has reached a level that has been seen only once since the Great Depression. And, at the same time, corporate profits are at a record high.  In other words, in the never-ending tug-of-war between "labor" and "capital," there has rarely—if ever—been a time when "capital" was so clearly winning.”
If that is not a rallying cry for a Left alternative then the game is trully over.    There is a fairly simple story out there, but we need, desperately need a new generation of leaders to articulate this in a way that will win the trust and votes of the majority of the population.  Ed Milliband anyone?

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Recent Reads - November 2011

I have been quite busy reading wise recently and have managed to include some new authors this time around.  I am currently reading El Enigma de París by Pablo de Santis.  This is my second book in the Ficciones Argentina Reading Challenge.  El Enigma is a crime novel, but rather unusual in that it features 12 Detectives.  They form an elite group of detectives from all over the world and meet up in Paris 1898 for the Great Exhibition.  Their founder, from Buenos Aires, cannot attend and sends his young assistant instead.  It is this assistant who narrates the events.  It is beginning to get very interesting as one of the detectives has been found dead at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower.  Who dunnit?
As usual my list includes a good number of crime novels.  One was by a new author for me - Johan Theorin who wrote Echoes from the Dead.  Theorin is from Sweden and this is his first novel which is set in the island of Öland off the east coast of the country.  It is a very sad and dark tale about the re-opening of the case of a young boy who went missing twenty years earlier.
A Death in Calabria by Michele Giuttari is the third crime novel I have now read by this Italian writer.  The first was A Florentine Death, followed by The Death of a Mafia Don.  All in fact heavily feature the mafia, though in A Death in Calabria it is the local variety - the ‘Ndrangheta.  Very matter-of-factly and sparsely written they are all terrific reads.  A common thread is provided by Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara who leads the investigations in all three books
Death of a Red Heroine is the second book I have read by Qiu Xiaolong, a Chinese writer who now lives in the USA.  This is in fact the first in the series which features Inspector Chan of the Shanghai police.  Here he has to find out who murdered a beautiful national model worker.  This brings him into conflict with the higher echelons of the party.  Set in 1990 this is not just a good crime mystery but a good insight into the recent history of China.  
I have also managed to sneak in a couple of audio versions of crime novels.  The first was About Face by Donna Leon, another in the Comisario Brunetti series.  Though set in Venice, this tale spreads far and wide and has some similarities with A Death in Calabria.  Once again the mafia are involved as is the illegal trafficking of toxic waste.  The other audio novel was Dark Water by Caro Ramsay.  Another very dark tale of murders most foul.  Not to mention a bit of police infighting.  Gripping and atmospheric and very well read by James MacPherson, who does a mean Liverpool accent.
Though crime as usual dominates, I did manage to read a couple of other novels.  All were by new authors to me.  The Coffee Trader by David Luss is set in Amsterdam in the mid 1600s and though the newly developing coffee trade is the background for the tale it is about a lot more.  The greed, gambling and corruption at the heart of the stock exchange reads like a pretty good description of what happens today.  The novel also touches on the complex relationships both within the Jewish community in Amsterdam and elsewhere and their relationships with non Jews.  The heart of the story though is about trust and betrayal.  
Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi.  This was published in Italy in 1994, though the story is set in Lisbon in 1938.  Portugal is now a dictatorship run by Salazar, while Spain is in the throes of its civil war.  Pereira is an elderly apolitical journalist who edits a literary supplement for a low circulation newspaper.  Not wanting to get involved in anything his life is changed by a chance meeting with a young man and the man’s girl friend.  Gradually Pereira grows in awareness of the ugly and murderous reality of the regime in Portugal.  The novel slowly builds up to an unexpected climax.  Great atmospheric descriptions of Lisbon and life in a dictatorship.
I listened to the audio version of The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang.  Like Qiu Xiaolong, Liang is a Chinese writer who now lives in the USA.  This novel is set mainly in Beijing in the year before the uprising at  Tiananmen Square.  The main character is Mei a private detective.  Though she does work on a case, this is not really a crime novel.  Though there are plenty of crimes.  However the crimes have more to do with recent Chinese history and the cultural revolution than anything else.  The novel is mainly about Mei’s attempts to find out what really happened to her father, who was sent to a labour camp, where he died.  Who sent him there and why?  The book also deals with Mei’s difficult relationship with her mother and younger sister.  Ultimately a rather sad and poignant tale, with no happy ending.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Italy and Greece - Democracy in Danger?

The saying that a week is a long time in politics has never been better illustrated than by the recent momentous events in Greece and Italy.  In both countries we now have new governments in record time.  Or at least new Prime Ministers.  It is too early to comment on whether the new teams will make any difference to the travails of their respective countries.  We will need to wait bit longer than the proverbial one week for this.
However even before the new Prime Ministers were nominated, there has been a chorus of criticism from both the left and the right, condemning the changes as undemocratic.  The argument is that the new Prime Ministers are unelected and that Greece and Italy have been more or less told what to do by the EU.  Germany and France are singled out for particular blame in this respect.  Indeed some of the comments from the right have used this as an opportunity to express their hatred of almost anything to do with Germany.  It seems that the Fourth Reich is upon us.
I find all this most unconvincing.  In the first place it is not the EU which has caused the political crisis in Greece and Italy.  The crisis in Greece started over a year ago when the global financial markets lost trust in Greek government bonds.  In Italy the situation only reached crisis proportions recently.  But again it was the global financial markets which made the judgement that Italy’s debt was unsustainable.  The changes in government in both countries is all about trying to regain trust from these all powerful markets.  It is not the EU that has forced the changes.
The second point to make is that in both countries the formation of the new governments has followed the traditional constitutional norms.  The key point here is that both Papandreou in Greece and Berlusconi in Italy had lost their majority in Parliament.  Thus they had no alternative but to offer their resignations to their President.  In normal circumstances this would probably lead to elections.  But these are hardly normal circumstances.  So it is perfectly proper for the President to open discussions with the leaders of the political parties in Parliament to see if there is the prospect of forming a new government with majority support.
This is the third point I would like to make.  In both countries the new government will only survive if it wins support in Parliament.  There is no subverting the constitution.  It is also worth pointing out that this kind of thing is not that rare.  Especially in Italy where in the 60‘s and 70‘s governments often changed two or three times within the lifetime of a Parliamentary term.
I am most bemused by the claim that the new Prime Ministers are unelected.  This bemusement is partly due to the confusion about what the exact complaint is.  Since neither of the new Prime Ministers is an elected MP then one can say that at one level they are unelected.  However in the context of becoming Prime Minister this seems a very narrow objection.  Firstly because getting elected as a MP is only ever a matter for a very small part of the whole electorate.  It may be as small as a single constituency with only 80 000 electors.  In a PR system the electorate will be larger, but still only a small part of the whole country.  And in most PR systems it is your placement on the list that most determines whether you get elected or not.  Whatever the case it is hard to put forward much of a positive case that election by a tiny percentage of the whole national electorate is somehow a necessary precondition for becoming a Prime Minister.
I suspect that the main criticism is that there has not been a general election.  However this betrays a misunderstanding of how a Parliamentary system works.  Whatever the electoral system in use, an elector can only vote for either one candidate or one party.  In no way whatsoever can the electorate as a whole vote directly for who will be Prime Minister.  Only MPs can vote for who will be Prime Minister.  
This is most clearly seen in the UK.  At the last election no party won a majority of seats and none came remotely close to winning an overall majority of the votes.  So who precisely voted for David Cameron as Prime Minister?  Certainly not the electorate.  The only people who could vote for David Cameron were those who were registered in his constituency.  Not much of a popular mandate there.  Yet no-one, or virtually no-one questions his legitimacy or his democratic credentials.  In the previous Parliament we also had the case where Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as Prime Minister without a general election.  As the Labour party had a substantial overall majority in Parliament it could do this.  Parliament is supreme and sovereign.
It thus seems to me that there is no serious objection to the new Prime Ministers of Greece and Italy on grounds of a democratic deficit.  We await with a great deal of interest the actions of the new governments.  For the success or failure of Italy in particular will have repercussions for all of us, not just Italians.