18 July 2012

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

I've been planning this post for weeks, if not years, and I feel confident that some of it will (unusually for my posts) draw sympathy from all sides of the political spectrum who read this blog. As the title is based on an episode (the final episode in the Penultimate series) of the Original Doctor Who, let me take you back in time to when I was struggling in London, stuck in an impossible job and commuting upward of 3 hours every day from one benighted part of the Capital (Hanger Lane) to another. (Hackbridge)  The date, specifically is 7th July 2005, and the Metro Freesheet I pick up from the newsagent outside my house contains the nauseating spectacle of one of the most hated figures of the last 30 years, Ken Livingstone pictured alongside David Beckham celebrating Britain's victory in its bid for the 2012 Olympics. Screwing it up in disgust, I threw it on to my car's front seat and, set off on the drive, not to my normal workplace but to the far nearer Greenford site, for a session on my then employer's new appraisal system. About thirty minutes into the session, a New Zealander working at the office said that the Underground had been shut down due to 'unspecified power failures'. The rest of the day's events will for anyone in the UK at that time need no further redaction, my abiding memory is of trying about 20 times from the smoking shelter at the site to get through on my mobile phone to find news of one my relatives, and when finally making contact via a free landline learning that he had stayed home and the feeling of relief washing over me, mixed with a degree of guilt that the families of 56 other people hadn't been so lucky.

Home to the News and obviously the news that we had won the Olympics was relegated to at best, the front of the Sports Pages, together with various prominent politicians expressing their regrets and sorrow over the incident. It is indeed, unfortunate that these two incidents happened in such quick succession, as the horrific impact of the bombings had a tendency, completely understandably, for the 18 months following it to overshadow the ongoing Scandal of the Olympics themselves being awarded to London. To fast forward the story nearly two years: A close Friend's wedding in Mexico presaged from me, having read innumerable horror stories of Travellers' ordeals at the hands of the USA's Transport and Security Administration, on an almost frantic search (as Direct flights had run out) to find a way to get to Cancun, in Eastern Mexico without going through the United States. After an increasingly desperate trawl of almost every European capital (I even looked at Moscow!) like Newton being struck by an apple, it dawned on me what language the Mexicans speak... and I was easily able to find direct flights from the moronically not until that point checked Spanish capital of Madrid. This was one of two cities (the other being Paris) which had narrowly been beaten by London to host the games. Upon my arrival in Madrid in April 2007, it was clear that the government, even having lost, had carried out much of the work outlined in the bid. Getting round the city, even as a non-Hispanophile using a Collins mini-guide and bastardised French-pronounced Spanish seemed effortless. Coming (and at that time mercifully having got out of) from three years in London, it seemed incredible that the Spanish Capital could have been viewed as inferior, and it seemed well ahead of where London's preparation at that point was, even having lost out on the bid to host them!

Ever since the link between the Bombings and Olympics bid has been made more distant by the passage of the time, I have been a staunch opponent of them being awarded to London. It transpired within less than a year, that the Bid organisers, at best naively, and at worst fraudulently though that the Construction costs of the games weren't subject to VAT, leading to an increase in the cost of an estimated £2.5 billion. In fairness, in the wake of this, a variety of UKIP bloggers (this was before the near-universality of Facebook and Twitter) estimated the cost overruns would run into £20 or £30 billion. Mercifully for the organisers, these figures have turned out to be exaggerated, but independent research still has the cost at a staggering £9 billion, which makes them the most expensive Games ever.

So like the Timelord himself, let's come crashing into the present, and as the helpful Official Site points out, (and probably by the time this post is finished it'll be less) there are now 9 days until the Opening Ceremony, and the 'Greatest Show on Earth' begins. My abiding memory of the last Olympics, held in Beijing, was the by then London Mayor, Boris Johnson, shambling on to the stage behind a Retired Routemaster as China 'handed the Games over' to the UK, and thinking, it'll come around sooner than I think - and here we are, or aren't as later paragraphs will reveal.

Of course between that point in 2008 and 2012, there has been a hell of a lot of water under the bridge: A huge economic crisis, and a change of government (Indeed it's two Prime Ministers since we first got the games!), and also a sea change in media reaction and the inexorable rise of Social media. I might have just made it onto Facebook, I think when the Beijing Olympics were on, but I had certainly barely heard of Twitter, and of course thought it basically a tool for following the meanderings of Stephen Fry, rather than a genuine revolution in the way the news is now filtered.

So here we are in July 2012, with the Olympics now days away, and as though outlining the Dramatis Personae of a play, let's introduce a la Romeo and Juliet, the two key 'factions' in this little drama - On one said, we have the sinister sounding LOCOG (London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) and on the other the oft mentioned here Coalition Government. Suffice it to say, the play, thus far looks like being a combination of comedy and tragedy.

1/ Revenge of the Trolls

Anyone writing on Twitter or indeed any Social networking site will be familiar with the existence of Trolls: Indeed entire websites are devoted to following the best of them. A troll is defined (quite loosely) as someone who writes deliberately inflammatory, provocative or offensive comments on a blog. I've even been described as one myself by several prominent Left of centre bloggers. Nevertheless, they are a fact of life out there in cyberspace, however much people dislike it. I even follow a number of them on Twitter. Into this dangerous minefield LOCOG stumbled like a drunkard enforcing the highly contentious Olympic Games Act 2006, one of Blair's last before he yielded to Brown. It gives LOCOG the power to potentially prosecute people:

'using prohibited terms. Under the OSPA (1995), these include but are not limited to...'the Olympics', 'Paralympics' and Olympic Rings... but also under the Olympic Games Act 2006 ... the terms 'LOCOG' , 'London 2012' , 'Team GB' or any images, logos or graphics relating to them.'

'As well as these terms prohibited from use by anyone other than official partners but also companies that produce unauthorised products bearing similar words – plurals, translations, deliberately misspelled etc. – are likely to be fined with directors of the firms liable to prosecution.'

Now, whatever my or your opinion of the Trolls, as the Kernel Mag article linked to above points out, they tend to be libertarian or anarchic in nature. As well as being often bigoted and profoundly offensive to many people of delicate sensibility,  they also don't take kindly to be pushed around by nameless, faceless bureaucrats. Their reaction was a fairly predictable one as seen here, here and here. Don't forget this is also based on my extremely limited exposure to about 300 users - god knows how many other Trolls have got similar Spoof avatars! So LOCOG have made the classic mistake of using a 'Sledgehammer to crack a nut' and have merely succeeded in at best looking antagonistic, and at worst, like total chumps.

2/ Give them a sporting chance, surely?

I think anyone who thinks the Olympics are any longer about the Sport can only be under 16 or possessed of a staggering naivete which would suggest they won't survive long in this world. On a trip back to the UK I was watching a Daytime TV programme wherein an 'Anti-Olympics' protester was being interviewed by former Relay Silver medallist Iwan Thomas, and was outlining the reasons behind this movement - Watching the 'face of the protestors' it seemed I was transported in my mind to a UK Uncut group destroying Fortnum and Mason - the same stale, Marxist claptrap, almost enough to make me sympathetic to the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and LOCOG. I was instinctively on the side of the Athletes, who it must be said are not entirely culpable for what has become a modern-day circus. however, in the cold light of day, the anti-Olympics people, including such luminaries as our Old friends Richard Murphy and Owen Jones, prove the old adage 'Even a blind squirrel stumbles across the odd acorn': As the quite disparate figures of James Delingpole in the Telegraph and Nic Cohen in the Spectator make clear, it is truly nauseating to see the following examples:

Olympic Gold medallist Sally Gunnell forced to switch Tracksuit colour and remove the Union Jack flag from the photoshoot of an advert promoting EasyJet's new London- Southend service

Hanley's Florist  in Stoke- on - Trent threatened with prosecution over putting a display of Flowers in the Shop Window in the shape of the Olympic logo - as the Florist himself rightly says 'Who in Stoke- on - Trent gives a stuff about the Olympics?'

Stopping a London bound bus for four hours on security grounds because someone had sparked up an electronic cigarette - An interesting choice of weapon for potential terrorists to be sure.

I'm sure other people could add Legions of examples - The truth is that the Olympics have now become so dominated by Large corporations that the sport is entirely a secondary, some might even say tertiary consideration.

3/ The idiots themselves

And so on to our next Primary player in the drama - This Coalition government, which is against stiff, (and I must confess, I thought insuperable) competiton from its predecessor rapidly leading the field when it comes to fiascos and incompetence. The week began with Theresa May breaking the news of a Security scandal involving PFI beneficiaries GPS. Apparently the firm had no idea how many guards it could provide for security, pointing to a lack of trained personnel. The upshot of this is that the already overstretched army and Police force have had to supplement the security. Then on Monday, following the news that the M4, previously closed for two weeks following revelations that the main elevated sections had serious defects , the hated M4 Bus lane, the brainchild of John Prescott , was reopened as a ZIL lane for the Olympic duration. This caused the expected 28 miles queues going into London. Combined with the revelation that the Olympic Park isn't even ready, the impression is, however hyped up by the Press, of a government, and by extension a country, in total disarray.

Thus my initial anger, that Madrid, which I know would have been both more than capable of holding a superb games, and was fraudulently denied by either incompetence or wilful deception on the part of the Original bid team, has now turned to slight depression that the Eventual denouement of the Olympics themselves will confirm Britain's collapse to Third World status, and that the abiding memory of the Olympics will be that like their predecessors in 1948, they were characterised by austerity and 'muddling through'. The difference being in 1948 we were holding them in the wake of the worst conflict the world has ever seen. What is the contemporary excuse? it's a truism that no-one likes a smartarse and I hate to say I told you so, but the truth is 3 years of living in London (2003 to 2006) when the population was half a million people lower than it is now convinced me in no short order that London was an entirely unsuitable place to hold the games. It's sad that that conclusion is being borne out in the unforgiving glare of the new Social Media world...

17 July 2012

Army of One

I have to echo the sentiments of my co-blogger, and (to use an American aphorism) come to the realisation that there have been more debates between the candidates for the Republican nomination for the 2012 presidential election than certainly posts I have managed to come up with, and most likely than the number of posts combined this year. I can't even muster the excuse that I have been busy trying to survive in the face of the ongoing austerity programme of the Comedy coalition government. Nevertheless, there is obviously a need to try and at least emulate last year's meagre total so for the third or fourth time this year, I need to make a concerted effort to reverse the trend.

Where to begin - Well in terms of material I'm like a rabbit hunter in the fields of Northern Maine, but with the bulk of the readership of the blog (a dwindling band) at least partially in the camp of Hal Berstram politically,  perhaps time to reconnect with a sporting post. The ongoing fiasco that is Olympics 2012 merits a post all of its own, though it will require more than the time my domestic duties allow me today. Perhaps more entertaining, and the reason behind the post title, is the comic situation relating to Scottish football.

Army of One was the final episode of Season 3 of The Sopranos, and recent events over the better part of this year have exposed Scottish Football as being effectively now a one team monopoly, built on a House of Cards - an elegant summary of the potential state of the English game if certain trends that Scotland has magnified are not quickly dealt with by the authorities. As any Football Fans will no doubt be aware, Scottish football has, even for its more devoted supporters, been for decades the relative equivalent of watching paint dry, with the so-called 'Big firm' of the twin Glasgow clubs of Celtic and Rangers dominating to the extent that not since nearly my first season as a fan (1984/85) has another team won the League title there. Despite the clubs clamouring for a greater share of the Television Money following their English counterparts and setting up a 'Breakaway' Scottish Premier League in 1998, the two club dominance of the Glasgow two has continued, with Old Firm games being by far the most watched (and incidentally the most split along Sectarian lines in the British Isles)  and most physically attended.

Sadly, the game in European terms is now so dominated by the spectre of the 'Champions' League' , that the Two Glasgow clubs have looked on enviously as whilst they were devouring the relative toddlers of their fellow Scottish clubs, their European ambitions have come to look decidely forlorn, especially when, as in the current season, Teams from 'Smaller Leagues'  such as Sweden, Slovenia and even for the delusional, Portugal proved a bridge too far in both the revamped European competitions. After the hubris, at least for one has now come what the Greeks termed 'Nemeis' and as a result one of these 'titans' now lies, almost in ruins.

The donwfall of Glasgow Rangers could probably provide enough material to keep a filmaker busy in the cutting suite for the thick end of two years, but at the end of the day, the reasons are, I think clear enough. Desperate to cling on to past Glories, the Board spent money it didn't have chasing the elusive chalice of the 'Champions League' (and not even the most ardent fan would presume that a Scottish club could have or indeed would have been allowed to win it) and salaries skyrocketed to levels that mere domestic competition couldn't begin to pay for.

The coup de grace was signed in February this year, when an unpaid Customs and Excise bill of over £9 million pounds put the club into administration, and the ongoing investigation revealed overall debts of £134 million, making the club insolvent and last month, Customs issued a winding up order and effectively the Original version of the most successful Football club (using Domestic success as the barometer) in the World ceased to exist as a going concern.

Events subsequent to that point have reached levels of farce that would have gladdened the heart of the late Tommy Cooper. A ludicrous sounding entity, Sevco 5088, effectively a shell company appears to have taken over the 'name' of Rangers. Despite petitioning for entry to the Top tier of the League, their bid has been rejected, and those numerous clubs outside the top tier (Anyone who recalls listening to the football results either on the Radio or on the now departed Grandstand, or indeed who ever played the football pools will be familiar with the names for the most part!) when presented with the options voted for the new 'Sevco' team to be put into the Third tier. The resultant shakeup means that the bookmakers have now installed cross town rivals Celtic at a staggering 33/1 ON to win the title. (Bookmakers no longer appear to offer 50/1 or 66/1 on strangely) I'd advise anyone with a substantial sum of Disposable capital over,say, £60,000 to make their way to the Bookmakers to invest it as soon as possible. though the old adage, 'There's no such thing as a sure thing' is one bearing in mind, I cannot see barring an Act of good any of the meaning teams even being within 25 points by the season's end, and with a ZIRP still being followed by the calamitous coalition administration, you're likely to get a better return than keeping it in the bank.

Naturally reactions to the fiasco (and I have some sympathy with the players who are otherwise, relatively speaking,  innocent victims) have varied. Several Rangers fans have publicly stated they will have nothing to do with the new entity if it is in the fourth tier, whilst a minority (a not insubstantial one) has said that they will stage a boycott if the team is NOT put into the Third division! More interesting is the reaction of the parties both in the Third Division itself, together with the reaction of the Scottish FA and the remaining Premier League Division clubs.

The latter teams have warned that if the Rangers team is not placed immediately into the First Division (One below the Premier) the decision could lead to a Domino effect, as the following story outlines, with five of the remaining 12 clubs looking at administration inside a year, and most believing that they wouldn't survive the year in their current form. The reason for this is that Sky TV, which has provided much of the funding for the Scottish Premier, has said it will pull the plug on its Scottish Television coverage if Rangers are plunged into the fourth tier. My response is: If you're that dependent on TV money, then you're not a viable business and you need to cut your cloth accordingly.

What is the long-term future for Scottish football? Well, the national team having been a fairly permanent fixture in my youth in both World Cups (1982, 1986, 1990, 1998) and even the Euros (1992 & 1996) has not qualified for an international tournament in over 13 years, and as already mentioned their European performance in the bastardised Club competitions has continued to slide still further. This despite living on a diet of Sky Money, expensive imports and aping all the razzmatazz of their English equivalents. I'd say the death of Rangers, and possible mass bankruptcy of smaller Premier League rivals could see genuine community clubs emerge as possible viable business models. If 6 or 7 teams fell out of the Premier League a la Sevco, then teams that have had for years to exist as part-time small clubs might have a taste of potential glory, rekindling local interest and encouraging a much wider talent base than merely the 'Big Two'. The ramifications for Scottish football (and it's by far the biggest sport up there) could be profound. English football fans, amongst whom I count many readers of this blog and its co-authors, need to look with interest at the fate of the Scottish League because given the inherent unviability of our Top tier domestic football and the far greater wage inflation rampant in the Premier League, it's no mean stretch to argue that the Premiership could quite easily also become an Army of One, unless steps are taken to remedy excessive dependency on Sky Money......

10 July 2012

House of Lords reform: nice idea with little chance of happening (this time)

It's hardly the most important issue around at the moment (and that may be part of the problem) but for what it's worth, here are my thoughts on reform of the House of Lords - both what I think should happen, and what will actually happen.

Given the undemocratic nature of the House of Commons due to its idiotic "First Past the Post" voting system (which allowed Tony Blair's Labour Party to form a majority government on only 35% of the vote in 2005), it's very important to have a second chamber with some capacity to delay - and possibly block - legislation which it considers to be not up to scratch. I'd argue that the current House of Lords does not perform this function effectively. Partly that is because there are a lot more party apparatchiks (including a high quota of tedious reactionaries from all three parties) in there than the defenders of the current set-up give it credit for. But more importantly, the blocking function has been whittled down to almost an irrelevance under this government. The Commons can use a mechanism known as "financial privilege" to stop the Lords introducing amendments to legislation. Previously this was only used for Budget-related legislation (e.g. the Finance Act) but the ConDems have extended it to (potentially) any legislation which might impact on the public finances (which is just about any legislation at all, of course). See, for example, what happened earlier this year on the appalling "Welfare Reform Bill" (aka the abolition of social security for working age adults bill.)

So the House of Lords is now emasculated to the point where we have a de facto unicameral legislature. This would be somewhat concerning even if the House of Commons had a democratic and accountable electoral system. With First Past the Post it's a recipe for disaster. What we need, really, is a second chamber with substantially more revising powers than it currently has - and also, perhaps, with the power to initiate legislation in certain policy areas.

My ideal system would be for PR voting for the House of Commons - perhaps through a system similar to the one used for the Euro-elections at the moment (7-member constituencies operating on party lists) with a different system used to elect the Lords (perhaps First Past the Post in very small constituencies - maybe 1,000 or so of them). That way, the Commons would be truly representative of the public vote, but the Lords would have local "micro-mandates" and would be able to raise local issues effectively. It might also be good to set a higher threshold for the Commons to be able to overcome defeats or amendments to legislation sent back from the Lords - for example it could require 60% of MPs to vote to overturn a Lords amendment rather than the usual 50%.

Given that we are unlikely to get PR for the Commons any time soon, PR for the Lords makes sense - although this then results in the odd situation of the second chamber being more representative than the primary chamber, which seems kind of topsy-turvy. I'd push hard for a PR Lords to acquire as much procedural clout as possible, given that it would have more of a democratic mandate than a FPTP Commons.

Turning to the prospects for Nick Clegg's Lords Reform Bill, it looks pretty dead in the water to me. Labour will be voting against the programme motion setting a limit to the amount of time allowed for debate, and it looks like there are enough rebel Tories who are going to vote with Labour to ensure that the Bill drags on and on, gets filibustered and finally talked out. Charles Kennedy has accused Labour of "playing political games" but this isn't a very effective criticism, frankly, because given the sheer destructiveness of the ConDem political agenda, it's no surprise that Ed Miliband is jumping at the chance to f*** up the timetable for the rest of their appalling legislative programme. It's the only honourable thing to do. Charles Kennedy, by contrast, needs to spend some time thinking about just how it is that a once progressive political party - the Liberal Democrats - has been produced to annihilating itself providing lobby fodder for the Tories.

I think we will see Lords reform soon; but it will be under Ed Miliband's first administration sometime between 2015 and 2020. But if the tendency to use financial privilege to override any amendments which the Lords make to legislation persists into future parliaments, it isn't going to matter much WHAT system - if any - is used to elect the second chamber. It'll still be a completely toothless talking shop.

05 July 2012

An example to us all...

...I'm very pleased to alert readers of this blog (if there are any left after a 3-week layoff, and less posts this year than dodgy banker scandals) that my friend Chris Brooke is back as an active blogger at the Virtual Stoa. Chris is always a quality effort and serves as an example to us all: it's time to dust off the PC, stop eating Pringles and get yer ass in gear to write some serious blog. Good luck to ya, Chris.

I will be doing a few posts on minor topics like the forthcoming collapse of the banking system, the € and Dave Cameron's quiff over the next few weeks. My output has been abysmal this year, partly because I was working my ass off until May, then took a long holiday, and then I was easing back into it. So easy, in fact, that I did f*** all electronically speaking.

There is so much to say and I'll certainly fulfill a quota of posts in July/August... but my medium term ambition is to set up a new blog, probably under my real name, as I think I've taken giroscope about as far as it can go. Van Patten will of course be free to carry on here as long as he so wishes, and we may introduce other writers as well.

But anyway, do check Chris's blog out... it's excellent.