Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie

Let’s stop fooling ourselves. The poor victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre are not martyrs to the Western belief in freedom of speech and open democracy.
They are, certainly, victims of hate and the fascist intolerance – not to mention brutal stupidity – of militant Islamists.
But for all Charlie Hebdo’s satirical stance against that religion and, as far as one can tell, against all others as well, they can’t be described as dying for the cause of Liberty.
That’s because Liberty and freedom of speech do not exist.
We pay tribute to these empty ideas and pretend they represent the cornerstone of Western democracy.
But we are wrong to place faith in such a tarnished concept.
It’s simply not true to say we enjoy freedom of speech, whether you are looking at France, Britain, the United States or anywhere else in the so-called free world.
Our freedoms are hemmed in on all sides. We are not free to say or write whatever we want.
In France, for instance, it was for decades unacceptable to reveal details of the private lives of public figures.
That’s why President Mitterrand could have a child by his mistress and nobody noticed. It’s why Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a potential President, could enjoy the kind of sex life Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi thrived on and get away with it until he tried it on with an American chambermaid.
Most British journalists know stories about the great and good which have never seen the light of day.
Some of these stories would – quite rightly – destroy careers if they ever saw the light of day. But the laws of defamation make it very difficult to ‘tell the truth’ about people in powerful positions unless you have absolute proof of their alleged wrongdoing.
Fair enough, you might say. But sometimes that much evidence isn't readily available. It explains why Jimmy Savile and other paedophiles got away with it for years – publishing rumour and gossip is dangerous. You can't get away with it. You’d be sued and bankrupted –even if you’re telling the truth.
As for attacking Islam, well, since Salman Rushdie became subject to a fatwa for his really rather dull novel ’The Satanic Verses’, our great liberal elite has shied away from conflict with Muslims.
It’s still perfectly acceptable to attack Christianity – after all, Christians are likely to turn the other cheek rather than resort to the Kalashnikov. But other faiths – not just Islam – are much less likely to come in for scrutiny let alone satire.
Self-censorship ensures we tiptoe around the Jewish faith, for instance. It is acceptable to attack Israel for its political machinations but it would be beyond the pale to comment adversely on the faith itself or some its own fundamentalist fringe.
We cannot say what we might think on a variety of subjects. Never forget, we now have ‘hate crimes’ which mean that if, for whatever reason, we genuinely and truly loathe a particular faith, race or lifestyle, it is actually illegal to say so.
It may be morally wrong even to harbour such thoughts but the law is now so sensitive to the possibility that someone might be offended that it cracks down on anyone foolish enough to step out of line by saying something controversial.
For example, until the 1960s homosexuality was illegal. Many people still remember when same-sex relationships were simply unacceptable to the vast majority of the population.
Today we have no choice but to accept and, as it were, embrace homosexuality. Personally I couldn't care less but many people still find the whole idea of gay relationships wrong.
Even though not so long ago that would have been a mainstream view, they now have to be very careful what they say. The world has changed and sometimes people are reluctant to change with it.
So what was once mainstream opinion is not simply marginalised, it becomes illegal to express. This is bizarre in a society which prides itself on its freedom.
Meanwhile the Government wants to impose State control on the media following the Leveson inquiry. If politicians had their way, nobody would be able to express any opinion without a licence from the State.
This is mainly to protect actors and comedians from revelations about their sex-and-drugs lifestyles and politicians from disclosures about their financial affairs.
Yet we pride ourselves on our freedom.
Militant Islam is certainly a monstrous enemy. We must root it out and protect ourselves from madmen. We must cherish the freedom we’ve still got and protect it as much as possible from the ultimate silencer.
That includes resisting security service attempts to limit our freedoms even further.
But terrorists have already scored some crushing victories. Few people will risk their lives for the sake of a satirical cartoon. Censorship by Kalashnikov is even more successful than censorship by law.
But the truth is that freedom of speech is dying anyway. ‘Je suis Charlie’?
Non, nous ne sommes pas Charlie.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Sex, drugs and Cameron's £1.7 billion headache

When I issued the warning that drugs and prostitution would add to Britain’s EU contributions, it never occurred to me Brussels would try to back-date the bill.
But it seems the Commission is demanding £1.7 billion on the grounds that our GDP has been under-stated since 1995 thanks to the black economy.
We should not have agreed to measure this in the first place when it was patently obvious the net result would be to cost the taxpayer more money. And we certainly shouldn’t accept any back-dated demands from the EU.
This ludicrous farce is all our own fault for allowing illegal activities to become part of the official GDP calculations in the first place. David Cameron must reject it but he can’t possibly claim any credit if he does refuse to pay up because he allowed this situation to develop in the first place.
Why can’t we be more like the French and simply refuse to take illegal activities into account in the first place? And as for expecting penurious Greece or Italy to cough up more because of the Mafia, it’s a joke.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sex and drugs and the EU bankroll

When the Government announces its next GDP figures, for the third quarter of 2014, they will for the first time include calculations for the economic activity of prostitutes and drug-dealers.
These activities supposedly add up to £10 billion a year (though the statisticians admit this is more or less guesswork). Nevertheless, adjustments for drugs and prostitution together with some other changes will add something like £30 billion to Britain’s GDP.
The inclusion of illegal activities in the way we calculate GDP was insisted on by the European Union’s statisticians on the grounds that some countries add them in and others don’t so we should compare like with like.
But there is another good reason why the EU wants to boost the GDP figures of its member states and it’s not simply to make the Eurozone wasteland look a little healthier than it really is.
It’s because if a country’s GDP rises, so does its financial contribution to Brussels, because every nation’s contribution is partly based on its economic output.
Earlier this year, it was announced that reasonable economic growth in the UK would add £800 million to the £8.1 billion we already hand over to the EU.
Now, thanks to prostitution and drug-dealing, we face having to hand over yet more (even though the State does not tax, and therefore does not derive any financial benefit from, these transactions and does, in theory at least, try to limit them given that they are against the law).
Our statisticians have decided the illegal drugs industry is worth £4.4 billion a year. In addition, even though they more or less admit they haven’t got a clue, they say the country has 60,879 prostitutes raking in £5.3 billion with 25 clients a week paying an average of £67.16.
By their calculations it means the average lady of the night is on £87,000 a year which sounds a little difficult to believe.
Anyway, Britain contributes 0.74 per cent of GDP to the EU.
As a result of including prostitution and drug-dealing in the GDP figures, we will have to find another £74 million to give Brussels. Taking into account the other changes as well, our total bill rises by an extra £222 million.
Surely there is a scandal here which has not yet been fully appreciated. The EU will be living off immoral earnings to the tune of £74 million a year of taxpayers’ money.
Interestingly, France is refusing to do as it’s told and has said it will not revise its statistical analysis of economic activity to take into account these activities.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Scotland's figures just don't add up

Dodgy statistics dog the Scottish independence debate. How will an independent nation survive without North Sea oil revenue if the wells run dry? Can it survive financially even with the oil money?

I’ve had a look at some of the figures and all I can say is it’s no wonder the politicians on either side of the great divide can’t agree on anything.
For instance, HMRC has tried to split up its revenue by country.

On the basis of HMRC’s sums, Scotland delivered tax receipts of £42 billion in 2012-13, nine per cent of all UK tax revenues, if you include North Sea oil revenue (£37.8 billion, or 8.2 per cent, if you don’t).

But the BBC says Scottish revenue was £53 billion in the same year.

Curiously or not, this is the sum the Scottish Government also says the country raised in the same financial year.

There is, therefore, a huge gap between the supposed income from taxes in Scotland claimed by its Government and the sum claimed by HMRC.

SNP leader Alex Salmond says Scotland generated tax revenues, in 2012-13, £800 higher per head than the UK as a whole.

‘For every one of the last 33 years, tax receipts have been higher in Scotland than the UK,’ he said.

That’s questionable. What is less debatable is that Scotland’s public sector spends more than the rest of the UK per head. Again the figures vary wildly but one version puts the figures at £10,125 per head in Scotland compared with £8,788 in England.

Another has it at £12,300 for Scotland, £11,000 for the UK as a whole.

The UK Treasury says Scotland gets 14-16 per cent of Government spending; the Scottish Government puts it at 10-12 per cent.

What is less in dispute is that Scotland spent £65.2 billion in 2012-13. That’s a deficit of £12.1 billion (or considerably more depending on where you start from).

Still, the UK is overspending too, so what does it matter?

Well, Scotland’s deficit, even if you give the Scots all the oil money, represents 9.3 per cent of the UK national debt. Yet its population is only 8.3 per cent of the population.

That means the country is earning less and spending more than the nation as a whole. The UK overspent in 2012-13 by £2,031 per head; Scotland overspent by £2,285 per head.

It’s not a yawning chasm but it means Scotland is about 12 per cent more profligate than the UK as a whole even if you hand the country all the oil revenue.
If the oil dries up, it will have to borrow more money to balance the books – or it will have to impose the sort of spending cuts Mr Salmond rules out at every opportunity.

The Treasury’s Office for Budgetary Responsibility reckons North Sea oil revenue will fall from £5.581 billion in 2012-13 to between £3.6 billion and £3.2 billion over the next few years to 2019.

Luckily the Scottish Government has the answer.

The Scottish Government has decided its oil revenues won’t decline at all, or only by a small amount. Its statistics claim oil money will come in at between £4.8 billion (a fall of £900 million) and £8 billion (an increase of £2.5 billion).

Of course if we could predict future oil prices we’d all be millionaires. But as the Scots seem interested only in short-term pain or gain, it’s a pity, if not an impending national tragedy, that the numbers vary so wildly.

It is no wonder the two sides of the independence argument can’t agree on anything.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The quantitative mercy is definitely strained

I’m still exercised by the £375 billion the Bank of England conjured out of thin air, called quantitative easing, and used allegedly to prop up our ailing economy after the crash of 2007-8.

This money was supposed to go to British businesses to encourage investment in new ventures. It hasn’t done that. So what has happened to it?
Some went to prop up the balance sheets of our appalling banks, whose bosses should not enjoy multi-million pound bonuses and pay-offs but should instead be in jail.

That may explain away the whole lot. But here’s another answer. A lot of it has gone to blow up a housing bubble which is still inflating.

This is Chancellor George Osborne’s master-plan for winning the next General Election. All home-buyers (mostly Tory voters, after all) like rising house prices.
We can sell at a profit, we can borrow against our rising equity, we love all this unearned wealth sloshing around us, especially if we live in London.

What’s not to like? Well, apart from the fact that every bubble bursts eventually. And rising prices mean young people are condemned to rent for years to come unless they have rich mummies and daddies. And it creates a totally artificial impression of the true state of the economy.

While we are certainly better off than our Eurozone neighbours, manufacturing is now in decline again and exports are stalled – mainly because of the recession in said Eurozone. They will be dumping goods here while we can’t sell anything across the English Channel because no-one apart from the Germans has any money.

QE has been squandered on house price rises because, as houses are classed as assets, they do not count towards the rate of inflation. That means they can inflate away at 25 per cent a year and officially, according to the august experts at the Bank of England, the rate of inflation remains unchanged (apart from some small adjustments).

This is why we had rampant house price inflation, ridiculous lending decisions and low interest rates before the crash. And why they have come back to haunt us, fuelled by the Bank’s artificial, made-up, fictional £375 billion of printed paper.

I have reached this conclusion by looking at the figures for lending put out by the Council of Mortgage Lenders. These show that in the 12 months between July last year and this June, home loans totalled £198,149,000,000 (call it £198 billion).

In the depths of the recession, mortgage lending slumped. In 2007, just before we all fell off the bank-made cliff, loans totalled £362 billion. They were as much as £253 billion the following year.

By 2009 they had slumped to £143 billion and fallen to £135 billion in 2010, when the Coalition Government was first elected.

Since then lending has risen every year: £141 billion in 2011, £145 billion in 2012, £176 billion in 2013.

If we take £135 billion as the base line, it means lending over that figure has risen by £6 billion + £10 billion + £41 billion + (by the end of this year an estimated minimum of) £45 billion. That comes to £102 billion.

At a time when financial institutions are supposedly strapped for cash, where have all these billions come from? The answer has to be QE.

Of course some additional lending would have taken place anyway and it is not running at the kind of level we saw a decade ago. So you could argue this is just the natural pattern for an economic recovery.

That doesn’t seem terribly likely, however. For banks and buyers, house-price rises are still seen as the safe haven and sure bet they were for such a long time before it all went horribly wrong. And it’s true things never went as horribly wrong in Britain as they did in Ireland or the United States, for instance.

But rampant house-price inflation is not an acceptable way to create the illusion of economic recovery. It cannot last unless the Bank of England prints more money for mortgage-lenders to burn.

If the economy were really recovering, the Bank would have increased interest rates by now. That they haven’t done so has little or nothing to do with the official rate of inflation (which itself has no relationship with reality). It’s all about creating an illusion of well-being ahead of the next General Election.

If the bubble doesn’t burst and interest rates don’t rise (or even if they do by a quarter of a per cent or so), George Osborne will get the credit for rescuing the economy and the Tories might actually win the election.

The truth is, as usual, that they are just deferring the evil day when the QE money runs out and house prices have to return to some sort of normality. At which point, no doubt, the Bank will invent a few more tens of billions to keep the whole tottering edifice from crashing down.

• For more on how QE might affect the country, why not check out my novel ‘Murder on the Brussels Express’ where this distinctly unsexy subject plays a significant role in the plot?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The EU or The Killers?

Stunning revelation of the day – the EU’s health and safety rules almost cost me my brand new MP3 player. I lost one and bought a tiny ScanDisk replacement but it was so quiet it couldn’t be heard on a train or in the car. So, greatly disappointed, I decided to junk it and see about buying something more expensive (this one cost about £35 and I decided it was my own fault for trying to get one on the cheap). In passing I read some reviews of it on Amazon and one of them announced that because of EU health and safety regulations, it was set to play so quietly as to be almost inaudible. The advice was to re-set it to North America rather than Europe. I did that and, voila, it works pretty well. Pleased though I am to have found a simple solution to the problem, I am still gobsmacked that EU rules mean the thing was set in such a way that it couldn’t actually perform the task it was designed for. There are plenty of better reasons for despising Brussels and all its works, no doubt, but as I write this listening to The Killers at a reasonable volume, I can’t think of one.

Friday, May 23, 2014

UKIP - sticking two fingers up to Big Brother

The problem for the political establishment is that whenever it rubbishes UKIP or one of its candidates, Nigel Farage’s party remains more or less unaffected. It may even benefit from the attack.
While the BBC and its chums queue up to accuse UKIP of racism, sexism, homophobia or whatever, the voters actually react not against the party but against its critics.
The ‘thoughcrime’ accusations are calculated to encourage people to say ‘to hell with it, these UKIP people are only saying what plenty of us think privately but are forced to suppress’.
A vote for UKIT has therefore been turned into a vote against politically-correct thoughcrime. Voters are fed up of being told what they may and may not think and say. So a vote for UKIP becomes a vote for freedom of speech.
Of course, that freedom will be portrayed by the serried ranks of the political establishment as the freedom to be racist, homophobic or sexist and therefore described as unacceptable.
But most people don’t like being told what to do. We still, mistakenly in many ways, think of this as a free country. We may modify our views over a period of time but we don’t take kindly to being ordered to think and speak in certain ways.
So we rather like the idea that a political party can champion a politically-incorrect outlook – even when we don’t agree with what an individual may have said.
Discussion and debate are fine; people shouldn’t be shouted down and silenced simply for expressing an opinion which may be regarded these days as outlandish but which was received wisdom only a generation ago.
None of this has much to do with the European Union or with UKIP’s policies. It’s a revolt against the dictatorship of the establishment. It’s sticking up two fingers up at Big Brother. And it serves him right.