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Sep 9, 2009
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The long and the short of it

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The Mexicans have an apt rhyme for it: “Para ser presidente, hay que paracer presidente” –  to be a president you have to look like a president.Maybe Nicolas Sarkozy’s advisors had something of the kind in mind when they hired a suspiciously short crowd to surround their man on a stage this week in order to make him look taller.Not a bad idea, really — better than the old stalwarts like perching on a box or having those around you standing in trenches.Sarkozy, at a mere 5 ft 5 ” is reportedly very touchy about his height, especially since he married Carla Bruni who notably wears flat shoes in the presence of her husband to disguise the four-inch gap.But French leaders have form in this n’est-ce pas? Napoleon Bonaparte himself was just 5ft 2″ by some accounts, clearly so short that the only way of compensating for it was to subjugate Europe through war and conquest.The connection between stature and success is mixed in other countries. Abraham Lincoln was the tallest American president at 6ft 4″ and James Madison the shortest at 5ft 4″ — he made up for it by largely writing the American constitution – while in Britain the great Victorian prime minister Lord Salisbury was also 6 ft 4.” Not much around on who was Britain’s shortest premier. Could it have been Lloyd George?Do you think there is any correlation between height and achievement? Are there any outstanding short role models in Britain today?

Sep 7, 2009
via UK News

Should Britain be driving on the right?

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Much to their annoyance, Samoans are having to get used to driving on the left from this week.The switch is the idea of Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who says it will be more economical for Samoans to buy new and used cars from Pacific neighbours Australia and New Zealand.It is the first time for some 40 years since a country has switched driving sides — Sweden made the change in the late 1960s.The (possibly untrue) story was told at the time of the transport minister of an African country that was also thinking of switching, who was asked how he planned to make the change from left to right. He answered: “gradually.”Britain looked at the idea of conforming with Europe after Sweden’s move but the logistics were so forbidding that nothing ever came of it. Apart from changing all the road signs, there were huge problems with motorway junctions, changing the side of bus doors, switching traffic lights and so on. It would have cost billions.But the idea of Britons being able to take their cars through the Channel tunnel and seamlessly join the continental road system without having to have the front-seat passenger as a white-knuckle advisor on potentially fatal overtaking decisions remains attractive to many.Do you think Britain missed the boat? Should we have made the switch to driving on the right? Could we still?

Aug 26, 2009
via UK News

Cutting off the music file-sharers

Repeat offenders who persist in illegally downloading music from file-sharing sites such as Limewire could be blocked from accessing the Web under government proposals.”Technology and consumer behavior is fast-changing and it’s important that Ofcom has the flexibility to respond quickly to deal with unlawful file-sharing,” says Minister for Digital Britain Stephen Timms.Opponents of the idea are more succinct. They say cutting people off is unnecessary and potentially illegal. Human rights have been invoked.Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, they say, has been successfully leaned on by lobbyists for the creative industries whose products are being hijacked.The music industry, which is losing millions through illegal downloads, is naturally  pleased. The industry body UK Music says: “UK Music is pleased that Government is proposing accelerated and proportionate action to meet their stated ambition of reducing illegal file-sharing by 70-80% within 2-3 years.”What do you think? Is there a case for such drastic measures?Related blog: Who benefits from a file-sharing crackdown?

Aug 17, 2009
via UK News

PLEASE let there be somebody out there

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These are hard times for sweating hacks. Not a cloud in the sky, not an MP in town and — worst of all — not a whiff of a silly summer story in sight.We can usually count on a few sharks off the Cornish coast but even they seem to have thought better of it this year. Japanese knotweed is pretty scary, and doing its best to get us all worried down in the West country but it’s no substitute for a dorsal fin or two off St Ives.And now we’re cruelly told yet again there are no little green men from space. The Ministry of Defence has released files on UFO sightings reported in the 1980s and 90s, available on the National Archives.Quite promising, some of it. Two men, for example, claim an alien with a lemon-shaped head tried to lure them into a glowing red spaceship as they returned from a night out in Staffordshire in 1995.That generated a 15-page dossier, while the famous December 1980 sighting at Rendlesham Forest US air force base in Suffolk led to a former chief of defence staff warning Margaret Thatcher’s government not to be too scathing in its dismissal because the incident remained unexplained.But as usual, however dramatic the sighting, we’re always told it was a weather balloon or something equally as disappointing. No master races, no alien abductions, no cigar-shaped craft or anything remotely exciting.One day perhaps they’ll give us something to go on — and we all know they’re out there, don’t we? But until then we’ll just have to rely on daft squirrels popping up in tourist photos and the antics of celebs and politicos in the South of France to keep us going in the silly season.Roll on the Autumn.

Jul 27, 2009
via UK News

Time to renationalise the railways?

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Britain’s railway franchises have been branded “a mess” by a group of MPs, who call for major reforms including the nationalisation of the troubled East Coast mainline.The Transport Select Committee has called for the East Coast, set to be taken off the hands of current operator National Express later this year after the company complained of heavy losses, to be kept under state ownership and used to compare against the performances of private companies.But why stop there?The present system of privatised railways, with its split operation between infrastructure and train operating companies, has always been criticised by passengers’ groups as un unwieldy beast with a distinct preference for profit over performance.The Transport Committee says the system actively encourages train operators to take their passengers for granted.Would it be such a drastic step to take the whole system back under public control? After all, the government already effectively owns Network Rail, pouring billions of pounds a year into the tracks-and-stations company.Is the time right to go back to the days of British Rail? Or would that just lumber the public purse with another colossally expensive enterprise which may turn out to be no more efficient than the present system?

Jul 24, 2009
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Was Norwich North just a local protest vote?

At 27, the Conservative candidate in the Norwich North by-election Chloe Smith becomes the youngest MP in the Commons.She turned Labour’s 5,000-plus majority in the seat into a 7,348-vote winning margin and keeps the Conservative bandwagon rolling. The election had been forced by the resignation of Labour MP Ian Gibson, who claimed almost 80,000 pounds in second home expenses on a London flat which he later sold at a knock-down price to his daughter.What do you make of the result? Was this a clear message to Labour about its policies and its leader Gordon Brown or a protest against the ruling party in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal?

Jul 2, 2009
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Is Ronnie Biggs being treated harshly?

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To the surprise of many, not least the newspapers and TV channels that were telling us right up until Wednesday afternoon that his release was imminent, Ronnie Biggs has been refused parole.Reason — a bad attitude. The 79-year-old Great Train Robber may be physically frail but is clearly unwilling to show the required amount of remorse that would get him out of jail and could now spend the rest of his days behind bars.All the other 11 members of the gang that held up the Glasgow to London night mail, coshed the driver and made off with 2.6 million pounds served just a third of their sentences. Biggs wasn’t even on the train on that notorious night in 1963. He was down on the embankment.His son Michael says Justice Secretary Jack Straw’s decision is devastating, his lawyer calls the decision to keep Biggs in jail “cruel and unusual punishment.”Yet the original crime was audacious and huge. Biggs’ cheeky hop over the walls of Wandsworth prison and his subsequent two-fingers to justice from the safety of Brazil clearly rankled with the British establishment. If he had been released, he would probably have become a magnet for old lags all over the country, as far as his physical condition allowed.Do you think he should have been allowed parole?

Jun 24, 2009
via UK News

Should the burkha be banned in Britain?

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In the wake of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s support for the burkha to be banned in France, several commentators have called for the all-enveloping gown to be outlawed in Britain too.”In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity,” Sarkozy said. “The burkha is not a religious sign, it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic.”The issue arose in Britain three years ago when Jack Straw asked Muslim women wearing veils to remove them when they visited his Blackburn constituency surgery. He called the veils a “visible statement of separation and difference.”The Daily Express weighs in this week with a call for the burkha to be banned in Britain, a demand echoed in the Daily Mail by Saira Khan, runner-up in the first series of ”The Apprentice.”The Muslim Council of Britain has criticised Sarkozy. Individuals, it says, must have the freedom to choose their attire on the basis of deeply-held religious beliefs.It adds: “The MCB echoes US President Barack Obama’s caution that ‘it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practising religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.’What do you think — should the burkha disappear from Britain’s streets?

Jun 18, 2009
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Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension climbdown

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Former Royal Bank of Scotland chief Sir Fred Goodwin has agreed to more than halve his widely criticised 703,000-pound pension award.He will now only receive an annual payout of 342,000 pounds.Chairman Philip Hampton said: “I am pleased that common sense has now prevailed and I hope that most reasonable people will welcome that.”Do you?

Jun 16, 2009
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Should Iraq stay behind closed doors?

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The government’s planned Iraq inquiry has come under withering fire on several fronts, notably the lack of consultation with other political parties, its apparent careful timing to avoid any possible political embarrassment just before the next election and for what several commentators feel is a hand-picked establishment team in charge of proceedings that is unlikely to rock the boat.******But the main criticism has been the fact that it will be held in private.******That way, the government says, witnesses will be more likely to be candid, the whole process will be quicker and, above all, it will obviate the need to have legions of expensive lawyers accompanying every witness.******Doubtless Gordon Brown had in mind the example of the Saville Inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings in Northern Ireland which had been going on for 10 years and which has so far run up costs of almost 100 million pounds in lawyers’ fees.******The overall cost of that inquiry had reached 182 million pounds by the end of last year. It is not expected to report now until 2010.******Do you believe the government has a point in that respect or should it have given in to the repeated demands to hold an inquiry in public?