Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Innocents Abroad

Every time someone is up for extradition in the UK there's a big media campaign  highlighting how unfair it is - allegedly - to send poor 'so and so' off to face justice in a foreign land.

Doesn't really matter who it is - young or old, rich or poor - though interestingly most suspects turn out to be men.

But whoever's involved there's always a tear inducing argument at hand to explain how terrible things are  likely to be - for the alleged criminal.

The underlying logic being that they must be allowed to remain in the UK - at all costs - instead of being packed off abroad to face their accusers.

So to illustrate the point:

Julian Assange says he won't get a fair trial in Sweden - he didn't sexually assault anyone.

Shrien Dewani says he shouldn't be extradited to South Africa - he didn't arrange for his new bride to be murdered .

Christopher Tappin says American justice is not to be relied upon - he didn't know his weapons grade products were destined for Iran.

But put the boot on the other foot for a moment and consider the following case - where the argument is made in reverse by two Frenchmen - accused of murdering a British teenager in a Spanish holiday resort.

A young British teenager - Andrew Milroy (15) - was killed on the Costa Brava last year in a brawl involving some French youths.

Two young Frenchmen - Jeremy Puydeboix and Ludwig Galler - were charged with murder and  causing his death by the use of a knife - but argued that they would not get a fair trial in Spain because of 'virulent anti-French sentiment'.

In other words they should be allowed to stay in France - where of course they cannot be charged with a alleged crime not committed on French soil.

Which is clever legal speak for saying they should be allowed to walk away - Scot-free.

"I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to be involved in a homicide case,” Mr Puydeboix told Lyon Appeal Court. “It was just a fight.” Mr Gallier admitted to detectives that he stabbed the British teenager during a disturbance outside a disco in the resort of Lloret del Mar.

But Galler claimed he was unaware that Andrew Milroy died of his wounds.

The two French suspects told police they had been insulted and attacked by about 12 people - but their stories are contested by various witness statements collected by Spanish police.

Wisely the French courts decided that the two suspects should face their accusers in a Spanish court - which is the only place where the evidence can be properly tested of course.

And in the case the British family of the British victim wanted the extradition to proceed - in the interests of justice for their dead son.

I suppose it all just goes to show that while there are no guilty men in prison - there are no potentially guilty men facing extradition either.

Not in the UK anyway.

Death and Taxes

Governments seldom get any praise - so let me raise a small cheer on behalf of the Treasury's move to order Barclays Bank to pay £500 million in tax - which the bank's bosses tried to avoid.

The government also took the highly unusual step of of introducing retrospective legislation to prevent Barclays from getting away with its policy of 'aggressive tax avoidance'.

Now that has to be good news - whatever your politics.

And the fact is that if people actually paid their fair share of taxes - then tax rates could actually start coming down.

If I had a magic wand I'd bring back the old 10p tax rate - because that helped put money in the pockets of low paid workers - particularly women on part-time hours.

Abolishing the 10p tax rate was one of the craziest things Gordon Brown ever did - apart from bottling out of a decision to call a general election in October 2007.

But the former Labour leader did the wrong thing on both counts - and ended up paying a very heavy price because his premiership never really recovered from those two disastrous decisions.

The present coalition government is seeking to repair someof that damage by raising people's personal tax allowances to £10,000 - a welcome move that will also benefit the lower paid.

Quite when that will happen is another thing - but the sooner the better.

The other thing that I would do if I had a magic wand is to lower the 40p tax rate.

Because once you add on National Insurance contributions - anyone on a salary over £35,000  is keeping less than half of what they earn.

Handing over more than 50% of what you earn to the taxman - is no one's idea of an enterprise economy.

But to get to the point where tax rates can be lowered - the government needs to focus on a culture where so many people try to avoid paying taxes at all.

Or in some cases where they come up with fancy schemes - which allow them to pay artificially low rates of tax - by setting up bogus companies and things like Employee Benefits Trusts.

Which of course got Glasgow Rangers Football Club into so much trouble - and who are now facing £60 million plus tax bill.

No one likes paying taxes.

If they did, the Greek economy wouldn't be in such a catastrophic mess. 

UK taxes should be lower than they are now, but while the economy recovers going after the tax dodgers, scammers and benefit cheats - is a sure fire way to win public support.    

Tent City

So the occupy protesters have finally been moved away - from their tent city outside of St Paul's Cathedral in London.

I can't say the occupy movement did much to inspire me - I know only too well that I didn't cause a run on the UK banks.

So I suppose that makes me one of the mythical 99% - but so what?

What I certainly don't need is a motley crew of anarchists, students and alternative lifstyle types - pitching their tents just about anywhere they like - and then claiming that they're acting on my behalf.

No one asked me for my approval - or even my opinion - yet this self-selected group all claim to be acting in the name of democracy.

Much as I agree with the sentiment of 'tarring and feathering' a few of the culprits - politicians, bankers and greedy borrowers too - I can't bring myself to say that a self-appointed mob should be the ones to dispense justice.

Not in my name anyway.

So it's about time people were moved along - though the legal proceedings have been a bit of a circus.

No one's interfering with the right to protest - all that's happening is that a few people are being told you can't just pitch up anywhere you like and call other people's property - your home from home.

The folks I saw and met when I was at St Paul's last year were all perfectly nice - but what's that got to do with anything?

I'm sure it's been great fun while it lasted - though the same was not true in Glasgow's version of tent city in George Square - which packed up long ago.

Yet before it did so a woman was attacked and raped - which all just goes to show that these things are all great fun until someone loses an eye - or worse.

No Magic Johnson

I read a report yesterday which said that Gordon Brown - the sometime MP for Fife - is facing growing calls to sing up as part of a 'dream team' to oppose independence in the forthcoming Scottish referendum.

Now I missed the explanation about who exactly is clamouring for Gordon Brown to get on board - I'm certainly not.

In fact I think it would be a disastrous move for a whole number of reasons.

Firstly, Gordon is not much of a team player - turns out he spent the best part of 10 years trying to undermine his pal - Tony Blair - yet when he got his chance at the top job Godon fluffed it big time.

Secondly, Gordon is far too hostile towards the Scottish nationalists and would want to run a very negative campaign - instead of accepting that the SNP are widely accepted to have done a good job in the Scottish Parliament - which is why they won a handsome majority in 2011.

Thirdly, Gordon is pre-occupied with other things - such as spending 70 days a year  Abu Dhabi campus of the Univeristy of New York - and hardly has time to fulfil his commitments at the House of Commons - never mind leading a campaign against Scottish independence.

I might have a different view of the former Labour leader if he turned his back on Westminster - and decided to stand for election to a future Scottish Parliament.

Because that would be a bold risk and would signal a real commitment to Scotland - which I'm sad to say there's little sign of at the moment.

So I would go back to the drawing board.

History is littered with dream teams which were never formed - or just didn't cut the mustard when they finally did appear on the same side - just look at the Scotland football teams from the 1970s.

And whatever his supporters think - Gordon Brown ain't no Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan when it comes to politics. 

Modern Nursery Rhymes

The latest edition of Prviate Eye has a nice line in modern nursery rhymes - which might upset traditional church goers as well as confusing poor old Mr Spock.

New Secular
Nursery Rhymes

Here's the church

Here's the steeple

Look inside, there

Aren't any people

Here's the vicar climbing

The stairs

Here's the policeman arresting

Him for saying his prayers

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Noblesse Oblige

I listened to the ridiculous old booby Lord John Prescott give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry yesterday.

If LJP's not the most inarticulate man in Britain - I'll swear I'll hop on one leg all the way to Motherwell Civic Centre - and back.

As far as I can gather - and I listened very attentively - old Two Jags thinks he is the victim of a terrible conspiracy.

Because his name appears on a list drawn up in 2006 by a private investigator - Glenn Mulcaire - working for News International.

But you can see why the deputy Prime Minister of the day was of interest to the press - because he was  conducting a clandestine affair with a junior civil servant - his diary  secretary at the time, Tracey Temple.

So why wouldn't the media want to expose the old goat?

Because there was a good argument for sacking the deputy PM - for mixing together his professional and personal lives - though what the much younger woman saw in  the now 73-year-old Lord Prescott is anyone's guess.

In any event Lord Prescott has now received a £40,000 settlement from News International - without producing a shred of evidence to show that he suffered any actual harm or financial loss.

At one point in his evidence Lord Prescott said he did not use the voicemail on his mobile phone - because "it means you have got to reply to them if they leave a message".

Exactly, that's the whole point of having a mobile phone with a messaging service - so that government colleagues can contact you and get you to ring back if necessary - in the event of some urgent official business.

So it's pretty unebelievable that a person in high public office like the deputy Prime Minister - could be out of reach for long periods - unless it was inconvenient to be contactable in the first place of course.

Nowadays Prescott is treated a minor TV celebrity - he pops up absolutely everywhere - like a Labour version of the former Tory minister - Ann Widdecombe.

Someone told me LJP appeared in Hello Magazine a while back - which ran a big feature on LJP's big house in Hull - under the grand title 'Prescott's Castle' would you believe.

But I'm drawing a clear line in the sand.

If old Two Jags appears on the next series of Strictly Come Dancing, then that's it - I'm definitely asking for my licence fee back.

Expect the Unexpected

Here's a You Tube video of the famous Monty Python sketch on the Spanish Inquisition.

Just goes to show that there's a funny side to organised religion - albeit many  hundreds of years after the events in question.

Because I'm pretty sure that Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam would have had their knackers cut off with a rusty cheesewire - had they made this joke in less enlightened times.

In fact I seem to remember the church calling for the Life of Brian to be banned - when it was first released back in 1979 - the cinematic equivalent of book burning of course.

Barber Shop Joke

Here's a joke someone sent me recently - which hits the nail right on the head when it comes to Westminster MPs.

Now I know there are many honourable exceptions when it comes to MPs and their expenses - not all of them had their noses in the trough.

But while only a handful ended up in court - the truth is many more were happily exploiting 'rules' which were drawn up to protect public money.

Only for MPs to drive a coach and horses through the rules on a regular basis - making a complete mockery of the 'golden' rule - that expenses could only be claimed for things that helped MPs do their jobs effectively. 

Like dog food - or getting someone to launder your shirts and pants.   

And that's not all - because the House of Commons allows many bad practices to continue - by turning a blind eye to things that would be outlawed in any other walk of life.

Such as MPs moonlighting from their day jobs on a regular basis - to the public purse subsidising their eating and drinking habits to the tune of £5.8 million every year.


One day a florist went to a barber for a haircut. After the cut, he asked about his bill, and the barber replied, 'I cannot accept money from you; I'm doing community service this week.' The florist was pleased and left the shop. When the barber went to open his shop the next morning, there was a 'thank you' card and a dozen roses waiting for him at his door.

Later, a cop comes in for a haircut, and when he tries to pay his bill, the barber again replied, 'I cannot accept money from you; I'm doing community service this week.' The cop was happy and left the shop. The next morning when the barber went to open up, there was a 'thank you' card and a dozen doughnuts waiting for him at his door.

Then an MP came in for a haircut, and when he went to pay his bill, the barber again replied, 'I cannot accept money from you. I'm doing community service this week.' The MP was very happy and left the shop. The next morning, when the barber went to open up, there were a dozen MPs lined up waiting for a free haircut.

Which illustrates the fundamental difference between the citizens of the country - and the politicians who run the country on our behalf.

Many Hands Make Light Work

Alex Neil - the SNP MSP for Airdrie and Shotts - is the latest person to lend his support to the campaign to knock some sense into North Lanarkshire Council (NLC).

Which is good news - because it puts other MSPs on the spot to say where they stand.

So anyone living in the Airdrie and Shotts constituency might care to drop Alex a note - as a local MSP he is in an ideal position to take up people's concerns with North Lanarkshire Council.

The facts of the matter are clear - after the collapse of the Edinburgh 'Wilkinson' case there is no valid reason for NLC refusing to settle these outstanding cases.

The legal arguments in North Lanarkshire are exactly the same - yet while Edinburgh has settled North Lanarkshire continues to drag its feet.

First of all it the council was 'defending the indenfensible' - now it's a case of 'delaying the inevitable' - but for no good reason.
Alex Neil's e-mail address is:

Strange Prices

The strangest thing about the Strangers Bar in the House of Commons - is the price it charges for drinks.

Like much else in the Palace of Westminster the all-day Strangers Bar is heavily subsidised - and you can buy a glass of wine for only £2.50 - much less than the going rate in any nearby public house or restaurant.

For reasons which MPs don't like to discuss the Commons catering service is subsidised to the tune of £5.8 million a year.

Or to put that another way - six times the amount of money (£963,000) offered to the boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland  - Stephen Hester - as a performanc bonus.

Which Stephen Hester declined - of course.

After a huge public outcry from many - including Westminster MPs who said this was a terrible waste of public money. 

Yet they subsidise their own eating and drinking habits to the tune of millions of pounds a year - and no one bats an eyelid.

In the year to March 2011 some £1.33 million was spent in the nine bars which are dotted around the House of Commons - saving MPs a pretty penny or two.

I can't see one good reason why the practice should continue - someone should do us all a favour and call last orders on the £5.8 million public subsidy.

Because MPs and their guests can well afford to pay the going rate - for their meals and drinks.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Snouts in Troughs

The Labour party seems inclined to get rid of one of its MPs - Eric Joyce, the member for Falkirk.

The reason for this move seems to be the recent altercation in the Strangers Bar of the House of Commons - which has led to Eric Joyce facing three charges of common assault.

Now what puzzles me is that the MP's behaviour is most likely to be explained - by some underlying alcohol dependence and/or mental health problem.

Which may well mean that he's unfit to carry on as a member of parliament - but if so, you would think that the situation would be dealt with sensitively - with a degree of humanity.

Personally speaking I would have got shot of Eric Joyce years ago - but for a political reason not a personal one.

My reason would be that Eric Joyce is one of those MPs - who has benefited hugely out of the MPs' expenses scandal.

Like many others he bought second home to live in while down in Westminster - and the public purse paid many of thousands of pounds to pay his mortgage and maintain the property.

Yet the 'rules' of the House of Commons allowed Eric Joyce to hold on to the property as if it were his personal asset - and despite the fact that its purchase didn't cost him a single penny.

To me that is a morally bankrupt position for any MP to hold - because it's a double standard.

And all the while Eric Joyce has been in the House of Commons - his only real claim to fame was in coming first in the league table - year after year - for his MP's expenses.

So I won't join the angry mob now baying for Joyce's blood over an unseemly incident in the Strangers Bar - in which alcohol seems to have played a big part.

The man probably needs help on that score - and he has court case to face which doesn't augur too well.

But if I had my way he would have been run out of town years ago - because he and other MPs like him - have had their noses in the public trough for far too long. 

Heating Up

Things in North Lanarkshire are really heating up.

Hardly a day goes by without someone contacting me - to say that they've been in touch with their local councillor and/or MSP.

And surprise, surprise - the word coming back is that the Labour council's 'our hands are tied' position - is falling apart at the seams.

All I can say is that it couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of people - and they've brought this all on themselves.

Treating folk like idiots is never a good idea - and it's just plain dangerous when there's a big election round the corner.

So this is a great opportunity to make your voice heard - and the more people who join in - the sooner we'll get a result.

More Moonlighting MPs

The newspapers reported at the weekend that David Miliband - the Labour MP and brother of Labour leader - Ed Miliband - is to be paid £70,000 for three days work.

But I feel it is my public duty to point out that this figure is understated and - therefore - incorrect.

Because while David Miliband may well be getting more than £20,000 a day for advising a venture capital company in California - VantagePoint - he will also be drawing a salary for his day job as a Labour MP.

Now I don't know whether this makes him a 'producer' or 'predator' - in terms of the language  used by brother Ed - to describe the two faces of modern day capitalism.

For my money David has to be a predator because he is thumbing his nose at the people who elected him - along with many other MPs in the House of Commons - including the former prime Minister and Labour leader, Gordon Brown.

What I don't get is that these people see themselves as good socialists who - at times - rail against the curse of unemployment and the 'something for nothing' society.

Yet they seem to see no contradiction in operating effectively as part-time MPs - free to swan around the world as it suits them - while continuing to be paid £65,738 from the public purse - plus generous expenses of course.

So while David Miliband jets over to California for 5 days (including his travelling time) - he will actually be getting paid his week's salary as an MP - which amounts to £1,264.19p or about two and times the average weekly wage.

The obvious thing for David Miliband and Gordon Brown to do is to go off in pursuit of their new careers outside Westminster - yet for some reason they cling on to their  parliamentary seats.

Like some kind of safety blanket - as if they lack the confidence to stand on their own two feet.

The amazing thing is that the Labour party puts up with what's going - while having lots to say about greedy bankers - and the need to spend public money wisely.

Vile Propaganda

Poster depicting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a Nazi uniform with a swastika surrounded by the EU stars
The problems facing Greece are enormous and largely of their own making - but this doesn't stop some of its citizens from blaming its economic woes on others - notably the Germans.

In recent weeks the anti-German message has been getting out of hand - with an Athens radio station being fined 25,000 Euros for calling Angela Merkel - the German Chancellor - a 'dirty Berlin slut'.

Cartoons have appeared portraying Germans as concentration camp guards - with the Greeks as holocaust victims.

The one above shows Angela Merkel in full Nazi regalia - which suggests that some people have completely taken leave of their senses.

The point is that no one is actually forcing the Greek people to swallow their nasty austerity medicine - if they don't like it, they can always drop out of the Euro.

Which would have big consequences - but would also be a darned sight more honest than this vile, anti-German propaganda campaign.

Thing of Beauty

Lionel Messi scored the best goal I have ever seen on a football pitch - in last night's game between Athletico Madrid and Barcelona.

Not only was a thing of great beauty - Messi's goal was simply audacious.

Because for a left-footed player spin on the ball was turning it away from the goal - yet the little Argentinian still managed to slot it into the top right hand corner of the net.

If Messi does not win goal of the season for last night's effort - I'll eat my hat.

Judge for yourself.

Spanish Inquistion

A chap called Matt Ridley - whom I had never heard of before now - wrote a thoughtful article in The Times the other day - on the reasons why religion has a special place in many societies.

For example, Spain is a religious country - but one that has been bought down the centuries for a very high price - unless anyone wants to argue that the Spanish Inquisition and the practice of torturing and murdering was justified somehow.

I don't have a problem with religion by and large - people can choose to believe in anything they like as far as I'm concerned.

But religion does have a tendency to turn into a fundamentalist movement - intolerant of heretics and non-believers - willing to believe that various holy books contain the literal word of God - such as the Bible, Koran or Book of Mormon.

Matt Ridley points out society has tamed religion in many parts of the world - which is true - but that has come about over the years - because people like Richard Dawkins have stood up and spoken out.

Now if Richard Dawkins spoke his mind in certain parts of the world - he would be torn limb from limb by an angry mob - whose religious leaders would say he had it coming and that his brutal death was God's will.

To my mind it's just as well that the Dawkins bashers in this country are reduced to hurling rude words - at the mild mannered professor.

Because given half the chance some of them would be picking up sticks and stones - to break his bones.

The Church wins the award for intolerance

Matt Ridley 

Of course religion is central to our culture. It spent a thousand years stamping out rivals.

For people who profess to be kind and tolerant, the defenders of Christianity can be remarkably unpleasant and intolerant. For all his frank and sometimes brusque bluster, I cannot think of anything that Richard Dawkins has said that is nearly as personally offensive as the insults that have been deluged upon his head in the past few days.

“Puffed-up, self-regarding, vain, prickly and militant,” snaps one commentator. Running a “Foundation for Enlightening People Stupider than Professor Richard Dawkins,” scoffs another. Descended from slave owners, smears a third, visiting the sins of a great-great-great-great-great- great-grandfather upon the son (who has made and given away far more money than he inherited).

In all the coverage of last week’s War of Dawkins Ear, there has been a consistent pattern of playing the man, not the ball: refusing to engage with his ideas but thinking only of how to find new ways to insult him. If this is Christian, frankly, you can keep it.

By contrast, where is the condemnation of Baroness Warsi’s extraordinary article last week claiming that “militant secularisation is ... deeply intolerant ... and demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes”, as if Dawkins had sent people to gas chambers? The closest things to a totalitarian society today (neo-religious North Korea apart) are theocracies such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, places where it is not much fun to be gay or atheist or have two X chromosomes. For the religious to lecture the secular on tolerance is rich.

Lady Warsi went on: “When we look at the deep distrust between some communities today, there is no doubt that faith has a key role to play in bridging these divides.” Excuse me, there is a great deal of doubt about that. Tell a persecuted Christian in Iran, a divided community in Ulster or a victim of Osama bin Laden that there is no doubt that faith plays a key role in bridging divides.

Sure, there have been atheist dictators such as Stalin, just as there have been vegetarian ones such as Hitler, and Catholic ones such as Franco (enthusiastically supported by the Church). But our own free and tolerant society became so only as it managed to throw off religious dogmatism. Tudor and Cromwellian England were the very archetype of a totalitarian society. My ancestral relation Nicholas Ridley was burned slowly to death, screaming in pain, as a spectator sport merely because he believed that the body of Christ was figuratively, but not literally, present at the communion.

That’s all in the distant past, insist the Dawkins bashers, and today the Church is all about forgiveness and community. Largely true and wholly welcome. No doubt good Anglican vicars are too embarrassed to read from the chapters of the Bible where God advocates gang rape, genocide and murder, preferring the nice bits. But if some of the Bible can be ignored, what is so special about the rest?

Above all, why is it necessary to insist on the truth of an arbitrary fairytale from a particular pastoral society in order to teach morality? Might it not actually hinder the spread of virtue to insist that the only reason you should be kind is because somebody says a supernatural entity told you to, two millennia ago? The Church and its rituals are central to all the things that are good about modern communities, say the religious. But that is because society tamed the Church, at least much as vice versa.

To say that religion is part of our culture, therefore we should cherish it, is a circular argument. The Church spent a thousand years intolerantly stamping out rival strands of culture, insisting that every ritual from birth to death be celebrated in its halls. So yes, it is part of my culture.

Last year I stood in wonder before the extraordinary 15th-century carved wooden altarpiece of St Mary’s Basilica in Cracow, fascinated by the story that each of the apostles is actually a portrait of a Cracow merchant. Such art, you will sometimes hear, would never have been created without religion. Bunk. The only way that Veit Stoss could do his brilliant portraiture was by dressing it up as yet another portrayal of 12 boring old Palestinians. Think how much more variety we eventually got from artists once they were not confined to doing saints.

Some years ago, a colleague snapped: “I don’t force my views on Dawkins, why should he force his on me?” I held my tongue, but what ran through my mind was a memory of being forced, yes forced, to attend church every day at my school, preached at from the pulpit without right of reply, and my delight when the school allowed daily attendance at a secular alternative instead.

Occasionally, after that, I still went to chapel rather than the secular version, because it was no longer compulsory.

Matt Ridley is the author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves