Eurozone crisis – Alistair Darling needs to get off the campaign trail

If you’re in any doubt of the seriousness of the Greek sovereign debt crisis, read Mohamed El-Erian in the FT. A banking crisis has fuelled a sovereign debt crisis, which could in turn spark another banking crisis (with the whole caboodle, as I have argued, part of a sustained episode of financial instability that stretches back to the 1990s):

A number of things have to happen very fast over the next few days to have some chance of salvaging the situation. At the very minimum, the government in Greece must come up with a credible multi-year adjustment plan that, critically, has the support of Greek society; EU members must come up with sizeable funds that can be quickly released and which are underpinned by the relevant approval of national parliaments; and the IMF must secure sufficient assurances from Greece (in the form of clear policy actions) and the EU (in the form of unambiguous financing assurances) to lead and co-ordinate the process.

This is a daunting challenge. The numbers involved are large and getting larger; the socio-political stakes are high and getting higher; and the official sector has yet to prove itself effective at crisis management.

Meanwhile, the disorderly market moves of recent days will place even greater pressure on the balance sheets of Greek banks and their counterparties in Europe and elsewhere. The already material risks of disorderly bank deposit outflows and capital flights are increasing. The bottom line is simple yet consequential: the Greek debt crisis has morphed into something that is potentially more sinister for Europe and the global economy. What started out as a public finance issue is quickly turning into a banking problem too; and, what started out as a Greek issue has become a full-blown crisis for Europe.

Election or no election, the UK simply cannot afford to sit on the sidelines while this crisis runs out of the control. Alistair Darling needs to stop giving speeches to activists in Scotland and get back to work at the Treasury.

Lord Adonis stopped campaigning as soon as Eyjafjallajökull erupted. Darling must do the same as the UK faces contagion from Eurozone turmoil.

Rape as an initiation rite in Afghanistan? (updated)

Blimey:

Stewart Jackson, Conservative shadow communities and local government minister and the party’s regeneration spokesman, was reported by audience members and rival parliamentary candidates to have told a public meeting organised by Peterborough Senior Citizens Forum last month that, in Afghanistan, “fifteen year old Muslim boys’ initiation rites are to rape a woman and shoot a foreigner”.

Jackson, who is the sitting MP in Peterborough, confirmed to this magazine that he had made the comments. But he said that the comments were made in reference to the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. He said they were “100 per cent” not his personal opinion but rather a view expressed in a briefing he had received on Afghanistan from the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

He said: “During a public discussion I referred to claims made at an MoD briefing on the situation in Afghanistan, this was part of a serious debate about complex issues and I hope no one is using it to try and score political points.”

But a MoD spokeswoman said that such a description of the situation in Afghanistan would be a complete departure from normal MoD practice. She said: “I can’t say that nobody from the MoD has ever said that but that is not the sort of thing we would ever say in an average MoD briefing”.

Update: This plays into an obsession on the fringes of the right with Muslim ‘rape gangs’. Our old friend, Mark Steyn, is a key promoter of this idea…

Update II: Stewart Jackson appears to have related concerns about the UK’s ‘broken society’:

The heart of Middle England is destined for asylum meltdown… News that the results of New Labour’s failed immigration policy are rising levels of violence and lawlessness on the streets of Peterborough come as no surprise to me – or anyone else who lives in the city…

Anyone walking through the city centre can see increasing numbers of young unemployed Kurdish men hanging around and residents are increasingly fearful as their area is used as a dumping ground for such ethnically mismatched groups like Afghans, Kurds and Pakistanis who riot and fight…

Tensions are growing not just between different ethnic minority groups – but also across the whole city – Pensioners, young families, professionals, Pakistanis. People are angry and feel impotent. When I knock on doors, people tell me that they’re fed up with seeing young men on street corners – mainly asylum seekers – intimidating old people and young women.

They’re fed up with homes being bought up in their neighbourhood by unscrupulous landlords milking the Housing Benefits system to let out to illegal immigrants used as cheap labour. And they’re angry that police resources are being diverted to keep warring factions in the city centre apart, whilst their streets suffer increased burglaries, robbery and car crime.

Update III: The UN has called rape a ‘profound’ crisis in Afghanistan.

Our field research also found that rape is under-reported and concealed and is a huge problem in Afghanistan. It affects all parts of the country, all communities, and all social groups. It is a human rights problem of profound proportion.

Women and girls are at risk of rape in their homes, in their villages, and in detention facilities. Rape is not unique to Afghanistan, but the socio-political context does have particular characteristics that exacerbate the problem. Shame is attached to rape victims rather than to the perpetrator. Victims often find themselves being prosecuted for the offence of zina, otherwise known as adultery.

For the vast majority of victims, there is very little possibility of finding justice. There is no explicit provision in the 1976 Afghan Penal Code that criminalizes rape. Thus, the UN recommended that the legislation on the Elimination of Violence Against Women make explicit reference to rape, contain a clear definition of rape in line with international law, and hold the government responsible for tackling this ugly crime.

The question remains, though, whether there is any evidence of it being used as an ‘initiation rite’. I think Stewart Jackson is going to have to give more details about who from the MOD briefed him and exactly what they said.

Daniel Hannan watches the Wire

Daniel Hannan – Euro MP and the most influential politician on the Internet – has been finding the election campaign pretty stressful. Fortunately, he’s an early adopter of what I am told is the latest new television sensation from across the Atlantic:

In the evenings, Mrs H and I unwind by watching The Wire which is, for my money, quite the best cop show around. Spreading itself comfortably over five series, it uses the space to develop its characters. There are no straightforward goodies or baddies here, any more than in Shakespeare’s plays. And the dialect is addictive. Several times, on the campaign trail, I have had to force myself to say “yes” rather than “true dat” or “mos def”.

This is much more than just downtime though.

Jimmy McNulty – in real life an Eton boy like David Cameron (“I didn’t know him then but I do now. I know his wife a bit because my best friend used to be crazy for her. When she wound up marrying Cameron, we were like, ‘Why do you want to be with that fucking Tory boy?'”) – has endorsed the Conservatives, sending Toby Young weak at the knees (“Dominic West is a genuinely cool famous person – a fantastically gifted actor and a movie star in the making. It was almost as if Jack Nicholson had come out for George W Bush.”)

Not only that, Hannan reckons that The Wire provides a model for policing Britain’s lawless streets:

The programme doesn’t immediately look like an endorsement of the Tory policy of elected police commissioners. On the contrary, it often shows honest rozzers being made to do the wrong thing by vote-grabbing politicians.

Then again, perfection is not of this world. An elected sheriff might make the wrong call, just as an unelected chief constable might. The difference is that we can’t get rid of the unelected chief constable… The last word ought surely to go to local people.

And you know what? Unless The Wire is lying, those Baltimore coppers are out patrolling every day. They have to, you see: their bosses answer to local voters. Messy as it can sometimes be, democracy is a pretty good idea.

As the man says, true dat. Mos def.

Labour, Tories – mixed messages on money

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It’s no wonder the markets are raising questions about UK public finances – neither of the main parties has anything approaching a clear message on fiscal tightening.

From Labour, you get blithe assurances on taxes. Liam Byrne didn’t quite ask us to read his lips yesterday when promising no new tax increases, but he might as well have done. Carl Emmerson from the Institute for Fiscal Studies was unimpressed:

I cannot see how the Government can promise to not affect front line services when you look at the scale of the cuts they have got to plan for.

Liam Byrne is talking just about the first four years and after that there will undoubtedly have to be more pain and that is likely to be tax rises or even greater public sector cuts.

But the Tories are not in the clear either. I was baffled by William Hague’s recent speech at the Conservative Party Spring Forum. Half way through his speech, he lays out the Tory pitch to the undecided voter:

And to those who say they do not know what the Conservatives will do, let us tell them. We will cut the spending that cannot go on and the borrowing that leads to ruin.

So what follows? Here are all the commitments Hague makes that will cost money:

(i) Cutting taxes on business to give the UK the ‘most competitive’ tax environment in the G20

(ii) reversal of Labour’s planned national insurance increase

(iii) abolition or reduction of inheritance tax

(iv) two year freeze on Council tax (despite promises of the ‘biggest ever’ transfer of power to Councils)

(v) stamp duty abolished for first time buyers (despite unsustainable prices in the housing market)

(vi) more university places and apprenticeships

(vii) nursing care in their homes for the elderly.

And here are all the commitments is the only commitment that will clearly save money (though not much):

(i) Scrap ‘a large slice’ of expensive quangos.

And voters are supposed to be convinced this adds up to “vision of a Britain restored.”

Both parties need to convince the electorate they can get Britain back on its feet (the slogan I’d advise either to run their campaign under). But as Martin Wolf argues in today’s FT, at the moment it’s shaping up to be an election that both sides deserve to lose.