Monday, February 18, 2008

The "art" of opposition

In Britain it is the constitutional duty of the Opposition to oppose – and I must say that Dave and his boys are pretty good at it – especially he and Osborne! With debating skills honed at Eton and St Pauls and Oxford this privileged twosome and the Rara brigade alongside and behind them can usually get the better of dour old Gordon and dull old Alastair. But then Brown and Darling have quite important day jobs – whilst all that Dave and George have to do is to search for the next jibe or epithet or riposte. So it would no doubt be a ripping wheeze to table a motion of no confidence and occupy a bit of parliamentary time and unnecessarily divert the Prime Minister and his colleagues from the important task of actually running something (the country, as it happens). “Running something” is not something that Dave and the boys know much about – never had a proper job you see! But then there was always a ready stash of cash available (still is of course) so they could concentrate on what matters – words not deeds!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Northern Rock in public ownership

Let’s be clear about the key issue here – this is not a failure of Government it is about a failure of capitalism. Of course it does not mean that the Capitalist model is defective – it means that the capitalist model is vulnerable on the margins.

Northern Rock’s failure was a failure entirely attributable to greedy and incompetent management who had no feel for their “stakeholders” or for the world in which they operated. Greed? Well just look at the obscene salaries (etc.) that they saw fit to pay themselves. Incompetent? Of course, no vision, no alternative scenarios - no hope!

How has Government handled it? Well the thought that the ridiculous Branson could be anywhere involved just shows how much there was clutching at straws. Government had assumed that there were checks and balances in the financial systems that would preclude the possibility of a Northern Rock situation. There were not. When ignorance, greed and incompetence rules then even Government cannot cope.

There was no alternative to nationalisation. That was obvious ages ago (well said Vince Cable). But let’s lay the blame where it is right to do so. On a system that trusts entrepreneurs (why?) and on a culture that allows these parasites to reward themselves obscenely before retreating in the face of “events” to their comfy houses and their generous pensions.

Hewlett Packard's throwaway world

To someone of my generation (baby boomer) today’s “throwaway” world comes as a bit of a shock. In short if something goes wrong you don’t repair it you replace it. Indeed in some case it doesn’t even have to go wrong – just be out of fashion or lacking in the latest features. Here’s a personal and to me a particularly damning example. About fourteen months ago my two-year-old Philips ink jet printer suddenly stopped behaving properly. The chap that helps me with my computing recommended that I junk it and buy a good quality replacement and the man at PC World recommended a Hewlett Packard (HP) “All-in-one” machine. It was £250, much more expensive than similar printers but it did a lot and was from HP, one of the global leaders in computer printers, so I bought it.

A few weeks ago the HP printer started to go wrong – after just fourteen months of use. PC World didn’t want to know - I hadn’t bought extended warranty from them so they washed their hands of it and they wouldn’t even look at it – at any price. The told me to get in touch with HP. I phoned the HP “help line” who gave me three or four numbers of “authorised” repairers to call. After an hour of fruitless phoning none of HP’s recommended companies would, like PC World, even agree to look at the printer. “We don’t do that model” was the usual reply. This for a standard top-of-the range printer that was only 14 months old! So I phoned the HP “help” line again and told them what had happened. “Try the Yellow pages” said the helpful assistant! Now at this stage I suspect that less dogged customers would just have given up and thrown the bloody thing away. But I decided to persevere and eventually found an HP repair specialist who agreed to look at the machine – in return for a diagnostic service payment of £52! A day or so later they phone back to tell me that the printer head was faulty and that it couldn’t be repaired at all.

When I wrote to HP’s UK MD to tell him the story (baby boomers don’t drop things lightly and we can’t bring ourselves to throw things away - especially when they are little more than a year old) instead of a detailed written reply I got a phone call from a oxymoronically named “Customer Service” assistant who informed me that as the printer was out of warranty there was nothing that they could do (I paraphrase, but only a bit)! He could give me some phone numbers to try…! Of course these were the same numbers that I had fruitlessly called a week earlier – as the Afghan proverb has it “Life moves in circles”!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Vote for Ken !

I will be voting without a qualm for Ken Livingstone for the positive reason that he has an excellent record and the negative reason that I can’t think of any pseudo-politician that I would less like to see in the job than Boris.

Let’s start with the positives. Livingstone has devoted his life to London. Shamefully treated by Margaret Thatcher in the petty and vindictive fight that she chose to pick over the role of the GLC Ken has risen from this setback to be the man who more than anyone has made London the great city it is today. Livingstone is the type of man who makes me think that politics can still be a noble profession. Why? Because Ken does things that matter and that make a difference. Unlike those in the land of the bland who need focus groups and advisors to tell them what to do Ken does it because he believes in it. He isn’t always right, of course – that’s the risk that conviction politicians have to take. But he is more often right than wrong. There are plenty of examples but the Congestion Charge is the best. How all of Ken’s enemies were standing on the sidelines (their customary position) to jeer in expectation of failure. How many Telegraph pieces and saloon bar gossipers were saying that it wouldn’t work, that it couldn’t work and that, as a result, the Mayor’s days were numbered. But it did work without a blip. Since the London plan was introduced, in 2003, vehicle speeds in the city’s central business district have increased by thirty-seven per cent and carbon-dioxide emissions from cars and trucks have dropped by fifteen per cent. One of the world’s greatest cities has a traffic management system that is the envy of the others– and without Ken Livingstone it wouldn’t have happened!

Now the negatives about Boris Johnson. Anyone, like me, who was privately educated and grew up in the post war years on a diet of Bunter and Biggles, knows the type. We didn’t have too many at my public school, actually – maybe it was too minor. But Eton turns them out by the Daimler-load. For years the Conservative party was led by these patricians – a long almost unbroken line from Salisbury to Home had the Noblesse that only Eton or Harrow or Rugby can bring. Sometimes there was a bit of the “Oblige” with the Noblesse - generally when an election was in the offing. And now, in the depths of their distress at being out of office so long, the Tories have reverted to type. The Bullingdon boys, Cameron, Osborne and Johnson are on the march! I don’t doubt that they are clever – if you pay £25,000 a year for your education that’s the least that a parent has a right to expect. But will the sensible British public be seduced by the fluffy hair and the well-modulated voices? Will they be fooled into thinking that the ability to govern in modern Britain is somehow helped by a privileged upbringing? Or will they feel, as I do, that what we look for in our leaders today is more than an easy manner and a patrician smile.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Disappointing McCain

Why does McCain need to spout the intellectually shallow conservative rhetoric that he now seems ready to opine? He’s got the nomination all but sown up without the need to compromise his values or try and unwind his positions. True the Bushies and (worse) the NeoCon fraudsters can’t stand the man. But by moving even an inch or two in their direction he risks looking no more than an opportunist. If the new Republican Party is going to be McCain’s then why would he try and keep on board those symbols of failure – the Texas mafia and the Wolfowitz mobsters whose days are numbered? Does he really think that the conservative Right is going to desert him come November in favour of Hillary or Obama? Does he really believe that the repulsive religious Right will do the same (therefore that he needs the shallow and foolish Huckabee as a running mate?)

If McCain does go pragmatist on us and start to try and embrace the remnants of Bush’s failed, discredited and fallen regime then he risks not just damaging his own status and credibility but of alienating the moderates who he must corral if he is to have a chance in the General Election.