Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Ronald Reagan in Casablanca?

As we all know, Ronald Reagan was originally cast to play Rick in the classic film Casablanca. Except that, like a lot of things we all know, it turns out not to be true.

A contributor to the Powell and Pressburger e-mail group points us towards this page, which gives chapter and verse.

Round up the usual suspects.

America abroad

Labour Watch claims "increasing evidence suggesting US troops used napalm in the battle of Fallujah" without giving any links to that evidence. The most authoritative account appears to be this one from Aljazeera and there was also one in the last Sunday Mirror.

Meanwhile the New York Times reports:
The International Committee of the Red Cross has charged in confidential reports to the United States government that the American military has intentionally used psychological and sometimes physical coercion "tantamount to torture" on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
You may need to register to read this, but it is free and well worth doing.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Fighting crime

This photograph on the Recess Monkey site suggests that some police crime-prevention tactics require a little fine tuning.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

The march of the nannies

In a recent post on a column by Polly Toynbee I suggested that a tendency to treat adults like children and children like adults is typical of modern life in general and New Labour in particular. Two more examples have come my way in recent days.

The first comes from Margaret Hodge's defence of the nanny state as reported in Saturday's Guardian. According to that article, Hodge said:
critics of the nanny state misunderstood the role of nannies. "Good nannies don't just tell you what you can't do ... [or] must do. They are about ensuring that you can make real and informed choices for yourself."
Again there is no sense here that children need nannies but adults do not. It is hard to escape the conclusion that, to New Labour, we are all children and all in need of nannies - albeit enlightened New Labour nannies who do not rely on the back of the hairbrush to get their way. In direct contradiction of what she says, Hodge's meaning is clearly that adults are not competent to make choices for themselves.

The second example comes from the Spiked website and an article discussing attempts to foster media literacy in children. Its author Sandy Starr describes a session run by James Park, director of Antidote, the campaign for emotional literacy, and Barry Richards, professor of public communication at Bournemouth University. In it, those taking part were shown:
a video recording of six-year-old pupils in east London discussing the question 'Is Africa a free country?' (itself a politically illiterate question since Africa is a continent, but that was apparently part of the point of the exercise). The children's emotionally literate teacher sat with them in a circle, inviting them to contrast and reflect on the differing accounts of Africa in a picture book they had just read, in items they had seen on the news, and that they had received from members of their family.
Starr comments that:
While this might be a useful exercise for getting children to think about the world, how it constituted an emotional education escaped me. But what was disturbing was Richards' assertion that the video demonstrated a valid model for fostering political understanding in general. Here we see the infantilisation of the public that lies at the heart of projects to promote new forms of literacy.
Starr's "infantilisation" is the right word to describe what is going on here and in the views expressed by Polly Toynbee and Margaret Hodge. In Starr's example, however, the reverse process is taking place - we are demanding that children as young as six have an opinion on African politics and develop a sophisticated ability to weigh evidence. An ability which, incidentally, relegates what they learn from their parents to being just one more source of information.

This tells us a great deal about what enlightened opinion expects children to be like, but it is hard to see that the children themselves are gaining much from it. And it reinforces my belief that our infantilisation of adults goes hand in hand with a demand that children become more like adults.

Expanding "anti-social behaviour"

Thanks to the useful Labour Watch site for bringing this to our attention. The Labour Party's own website announces that:
One of the public’s top priorities – tackling the linked problems of crime, terrorism, illegal immigration, drugs and anti-social behaviour - is central to the Labour Government’s aims.
Linked problems? The concept of "anti-social behaviour" has always been a remarkably elastic one. It seems to cover everything from serious criminality to low-level nuisance from children that in a sane society would be settled without any thought of involving public authorities. Now it seems in danger of expanding even further and embracing terrorism too.

Friday, November 26, 2004

House Points

Here is this week's column from Liberal Democrat News.

State opening

It’s the Queen I feel sorry for. She dresses in full fig: crown, white gloves and reading glasses. She rounds up her retinue: not just men in tights, but boys in tights and ladies in waiting too. She rides to Westminster.

And all she is given to recite are gobbets of Blairspeak like “a modern and comprehensive framework” and “more security and opportunity for all”.

She should have brought the Internet Trawler Pursuivant, in doublet, hose and buckled shoes, to slip her the script of the BBC’s The Power of Nightmares. It would have made far more informative reading.

Then she could have said that politicians:
have discovered a new role that restores their power and authority. Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us from nightmares. They say that they will rescue us from dreadful dangers that we cannot see and do not understand.
American neoconservatives, and the radical Islamists … created today’s nightmare vision of a secret, organized evil that threatens the world. A fantasy that politicians then found restored their power and authority in a disillusioned age. And those with the darkest fears became the most powerful.
The speech she was given to read confirmed this analysis. We are promised a happier approach from Gordon Brown next week. Though the chancellor’s career confirms P. G. Wodehouse’s observation that it is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.

But this week the government is dealing in nightmares. Since it came to power there have been 27 criminal justice acts. We have more police officers and crime is falling. But Labour pretends to believe the times are darker than ever, so the Queen had to tell us all about terrorism, crime, anti-social behaviour and ID cards.

The inevitable ID cards. Every time you hear a minister calling for them it is for a different reason. Illegal working. Identity theft. Benefit fraud. International terrorism. Whatever the issue, cards are the answer. They sound more and more like a solution looking for a problem.

Matthew Taylor said on Tuesday: “The Government is focusing on fear, whereas the Liberal Democrats offer hope.” I’m not sure you can use “whereas” in a sound bite, but he is right.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Why left-wing Liberals hate Labour the most

I was reading a profile Alex Salmond in The House Magazine earlier today. It is the Westminster in-house magazine and has a very good website, except that the article I am reading seems to be the only one for the 15 November issue that is not on line.

These profiles are always written in the subject's own words, and this one quotes Salmond as saying:
I get on well with unionists and, indeed, you find nationalists from Northern Ireland get on with unionists. Actually, Irish members in Westminster and in Europe have tended to co-operate very well on social and economic matters. There are actually far more divisions between the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists because they are fighting for the same votes - making their relationship that much more fratricidal. They are chasing the same customers, rather like the SNP and Scottish Labour. So I don't have too many friends in the Scottish Labour Party - I have one or two but I better not say who they are for their own sakes. But I have got a lot of Labour friends among MPs south of the border.
Salmond is right. His observation explains why it is that West Country Liberal Democrats are at the Tories' throats yet strike the rest of their party as rather right-wing and why the Lib Dems who hate Labour the most are radicals from Northern cities.

When I read this I was also reminded of a fringe meeting on Lib-Lab relations held at the Liberal Democrat a few years ago. Among those on the panel were Menzies Campbell and Jackie Ballard. I was struck at the time how odd it was that it was the patrician Edinburgh lawyer who was keen on getting closer to the Labour Party and the former lecturer and social worker who was hostile to the idea.

Here the rivalry was not so much for votes as for ideas, but Salmond's theory still holds true. Ming, coming from the Whig side of the party, felt no pressure to present himself as a political radical and in particular was not concerned with competing for that title with Labour. He was therefore open to the idea of closer relations with them because he was not fighting with them to occupy the same ideological niche.

Jackie did feel an obligation to wrest the right to call herself radical away from Labour, and was therefore more hostile to that party. So she argued against deals and pacts with them even though, on any objective assessment, her political views were closer to Labour than Ming's were.

Libertarian England

The pro-market campaign group Reform has details of an encouraging opinion poll on its homepage:

Asked in general about “legislation on things like hunting, smoking and parents’ ability to smack their children”, 71 per cent of voters agreed that “Too many infringements on personal liberty are being proposed on matters that should be for individuals to decide for themselves”, while only 27 per cent agreed that “The Government should legislate on such things even if they mean restrictions on personal liberty.”
You can download a .pdf file giving the full figures from the same page.

Reform's regular e-mailing breaks down the figures by party. The libertarian view was supported by 82 per cent of Conservative voters, 66 per cent of Lib Dem voters and 62 per cent of Labour voters.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Impeach Blair

I wish to see Tony Blair impeached and required to answer in the Court of Parliament that he repeatedly and substantively misled the people into the Iraq War of 2003 while choosing to remain in office when he is in clear violation of the traditional convention of ministerial resignation.
If this is how you feel then this website allows you to sign a petition in support of the parliamentary moves to bring Blair up before the beak.

The Skakagrall reports that this website was taken down yesterday by its previous hosting company and the database of supporting signatures deleted.

Meanwhile, Charles Kennedy (may he live for ever) is introducing the following amendment to the Queen's Speech:
… but regrets that the Gracious Speech contains no commitment to introduce legislation to clarify the responsibility of the Prime Minister to Parliament, particularly in relation to the prerogative powers and the role of Parliament in matters of war and peace, and calls for a special Select Committee of the House to consider these matters.
The Liberal Democrat press release has Kennedy calling it:
a genuine opportunity to invite cross-party support for the amendment next week on the role of the Prime Minister in his relationship to the House of Commons arising from Iraq.

Charlie Whelan, John Peel

Two short extracts illustrating the malleable accents of these two distinguished figures have been posted to my anthology blog Serendib.

Latest news from the Ukraine

Harry's Place points us towards the English-language website of PORA, the Ukranian pro-democracy movement.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Otis Ferry

I normally rely upon the Shropshire Star for light relief. Today it carries an intriguing story that has not made the radio news bulletins:
Shropshire hunt protester Otis Ferry has had guns and other property seized by police after a raid on his home, it emerged today. Officers took away the legally-held guns, a computer and other items after an extensive search of the 21-year-old's house on the outskirts of Shrewsbury.
it is believed police carried out the search because of concerns over Mr Ferry's behaviour during hunt protests. He has said he will continue a campaign of peaceful protest against the hunting ban.
Imagine the fuss in some quarters if Ferry had been planning to take up a more fashionable cause.

Families and the state

What's this? An article that shares my analysis of government family policy? And in the Guardian too:
After 20 years of the state in retreat, abdicating power and responsibility over the circumstances of people's lives in places such as Sunderland, now it's on the advance again. The state is carving out new territory where it will exert its authority and attempt to reshape society - penetrating deep into one of the hitherto most private aspects of people's lives: how to parent.

They were there

Tonight I am busy writing Friday's House Points on the State Opening of Parliament - "Liberal England: Topical comment three days after the event."

In the mean time, here are eyewitness accounts from Richard Allan and Sandra Gidley.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Understanding Tony Benn

I have posted a short piece to Serendib which reveals that Tony Benn was a cousin of the British film actress Margaret Rutherford.

As Rutherford was best known for her portrayal of eccentric characters, this helps us see Benn in a new light.

Reclaiming public spaces

Writing in the Guardian today, Martin Wainwright reports that moves to bring back park keepers are gathering pace.

Further exploration reveals this press release from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. It quotes one of the organisation's bigwigs as saying:
"There is a temptation to believe that CCTV and tough security is the only way to tackle these problems. However, many of the park managers here today would tell you that it is possible to tackle problems like vandalism and graffiti and achieve long-term cost savings by investing above all in staffing, maintenance and good design."
Amen to that. The rise of CCTV cameras has gone hand-in-hand with the depopulation of the public world. All the semi-official figures who used to people it, such as bus conductors and park keepers, have been removed. (The left thought they were crypto-fascists, the right thought they cost too much.)

The result has been to leave people feeling less secure. When politicians call for "more bobbies on the beat" they would do better to support schemes like this one and employ more park keepers.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Margaret Hodge

The best comment on the Fathers 4 Justice activist who handcuffed himself to Margaret Hodge comes from a radio phone-in, as reported on the blog This England Project:
I hope that the man is unhurt but what I really don't understand is why it took the police so long to release him.

Friday, November 19, 2004

The Power of Nightmares

The Amsterdam-based blog Silt has transcripts and Bitttorrent files (whatever they are) of the whole of this important recent BBC series.

There is also a BBC page for it here.

House Points

Here is my column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

A cunning plan

As I write, the Lords and the Commons are fighting over the hunting bill like two greyhounds with a hare. It looks as though their lordships are going to force the prime minister to ban hunting at once so the resulting row takes place in the run up to the general election.

Forget all the guff about the upper house being the repository of the nation’s wisdom: this is a brilliant piece of low politics. And, whatever your views on hunting, Blair deserves it for his dithering and duplicity.

For Tony Blair never wanted to ban fox hunting. He wanted to be always in the process of banning it. That way, whenever his backbenches threatened to rebel over some nasty right-wing policy, he could buy them off with a little more progress on blood sports.

Not that most Labour MPs who vote to ban hunting are particularly concerned about animal welfare. You don’t find them putting down questions about factory farming. What they really want to do is have a go at the toffs. They would be just as happy banning polo or the Henley Regatta.

But when politicians insist on fighting the class war the outcome is seldom happy. We saw this during the miners strike and also when the Tories brought in the poll tax. In the long run, outbreaks of public disorder rarely do governments much good.

What will become of the foxes in all this? If hunting is banned, they will still be killed and the methods used may well be no more humane than hunting.

Worse than that, they will learn that under New Labour nothing comes without strings. Expect to see the introduction of compulsory lectures for foxes on the rights of chickens – or “members of the egg-laying community”, as they will probably be called. Look too for a network of Cubs Clubs run by Margaret Hodge and a Brush Your Brush campaign headed by John Reid.

All this may accelerate the trend that has seen foxes abandon the countryside to become urban scavengers and, as many householders know, significant pests. It will be a sad day when the only foxes you see are sitting round shopping malls wearing Burberry baseball caps and giving their children Sunny D.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

The latest canvassing accessory

Tired of wearing out your shoes during elections? Want to get around more quickly?

This could be just what you are looking for.

Ideas above his station?

As had been the case throughout his nursery education, Charles continued to find it difficult to concentrate on one subject for very long. He continued to struggle with mathematics, the principals (sic.) of which had eluded him from a young age, and excelled only at art and reading.
A full biography of Prince Charles here, if you really want it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Polly Toynbee and the nanny state

Let's analyse the opening paragraph of Polly Toynbee's column in the Guardian today:
The nanny state is the good state. A nanny is what every well-off family hires if it can afford it. So why do the nanny-employing Tories use the word as an insult? In the Commons and in their press, they bray like a bunch of prep-school bullies calling anyone a cissy if they do what nanny says.
There is a simple fact that Toynbee seems to have overlooked. Well-off families hire nannies if they have young children: parents do not hire nannies because they want to be looked after themselves. (Apart from Wendy Craig in the Hammer film The Nanny, that is, and it is not a happy precedent.)

It is because she ignores this that Toynbee finds herself putting forward the nonsensical argument that Tory MPs are behaving like children ("prep-school bullies") because they want to be treated like adults.

It would be easy to say that someone who cannot grasp the difference between an adult and a child should not be writing for a national newspaper. But increasingly society as a whole is having trouble holding that distinction in mind.

We should not be so surprised if a society that increasingly treats children as adults begins to show signs of treating adults as children.

Everybody resigns shock

A good day for those who complain that no one ever resigns these days. Doug Smith has resigned as head of the Child Support Agency and Jonathan Ford has resigned as head of the National Assessment Agency.

Both agencies were created by central government to take on responsibility for matters that have traditionally been the concern of autonomous institutions - the courts and schools respectively - and both have failed.

Whatever the faults of the individuals involved, it is hard to believe that this is entirely a coincidence. The socialist belief that progress consists in more and more aspects of society being taken over by the state has influenced many Liberals, but it is time that it was challenged more consistently.

The question is not just whether it is desirable for the state to run so many things: it is whether it is possible for it do so with any reasonable degree of efficiency.

Headline of the day

Today's winner comes from the Guardian:

Prince Charles's household 'elitist'.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Histories of abuse

I have just added a very long article to Lord Bonkers' website. It is based on a paper I gave at the Tavistock Clinic (hem, hem) in June.

It argues that, contrary to the view often presented, child abuse (including sexual abuse) is not a recent discovery but something that has always been known about and written about.

It's got references and footnotes and everything.

Is choice off the agenda?

During the Liberal Democrat Conference in Bournemouth this year Phil Willis, our "jolly education spokesman", told the BBC:
When you look at schools and the whole area of choice, it's amazing how quickly choice moved off the agenda. It was exposed as hypocritical.
Today's Manchester Evening News reports that:
A top Catholic college is to change its admissions policy after hundreds of parents camped through the night in the hope of putting their children's names down for places.
Perhaps a little more thought is needed on this one?

Monday, November 15, 2004

Blunkett, individualism and individuality

A splendid rant from Simon Goldie. Here are a couple of extracts:
On Remembrance Sunday ... as Britain commemorated its war dead and in particular those who died fighting Nazi tyranny, the Home Secretary David Blunkett moved Britain closer to the dictatorship of the majority.

In the interview he put everything that is bad down to individualism and claimed human rights as "community" rights.

Everyone knows what individual or human rights mean. They are rights for individual and humans. Individuals make up the community or society. But what are "community" rights? In fact, what is the community?

It can be whatever the politicians or a vocal majority want it to be. The community can be created out of myth and have emotional resonance that bears little connection with reason. Establish "community" rights and then whoever questions the "community" or challenges it can be said to be denying those rights. They can then be dealt with by government.

I won't say a word against Simon, but I am increasingly aware that what I value is not so much individualism as individuality - the flourishing of different sorts of people and different ways of life. (I believe I came across this distinction in Michael Ignatieff's biography of Isaiah Berlin. It is a useful one.)

It is a concept that has something to do with the old schoolmaster's ideal of "character" and I suspect that the development of individuality requires strong institutions, such as schools that are not under central control. Teenage culture does suggest that individualism does not always produce individuality; and it is undeniable that one of the clearest ways we choose to express our individuality is through he groups we decide to join.

Simon suggests that Blunkett is in danger of shifting Britain towards Nazism, but the problem with our home secretary is that he is a socialist. He cut his teeth in South Yorkshire Labour politics in an era when many in those circles looked to Eastern Europe for at least some of their inspiration.

As a socialist Blunkett does not believe in individualism, and he does not believe in individuality either. For him there is one right way to live, and that way must be imposed on society.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Watching Boriswatch

Further inspection of the Boriswatch site reveals that his full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

It also reveals the following extraordinary claim:
Boris's bell has tolled in the political world, but he'll be back, doing so effortlessly what he has done in the past - transcending the class barriers and talking to the public in a language we all understand.
Nonsense. The basis of Boris Johnson's appeal is that he transcends the class barriers by talking to the public in a language no one can understand.

I am reminded of a story about Richard Crossman, the fiercely intellectual Labour minister from the 1960s who sat for a very working class seat. Someone once asked "Whatever do they make of Dick Crossman on the council estates in Coventry?"

The reply was: Oh, they don't understand a word he says, but they think he is wonderful."


This blog advertises itself as "Tracking Boris Johnson every step of the way". That should make for entertaining reading.

LDYS and smoking

Liberal Democrat Youth & Students (LDYS) has come out against a total ban on smoking in public places.

I don't know how people who work for tobacco companies sleep at night, and I increasingly look for restaurants which don't allow smoking. Nevertheless, I think LDYS is right.

And I am absolutely certain that it is an immensely encouraging sign to see the party's youth wing coming up with a policy that is uncompromisingly Liberal and which may annoy Guardian leader writers. More power to them.

The lad's a bit rubbish

Peter Black reminds us that the new Wales manager John Toshack once had something of a career as a poet. He gave us such deathless lines as:
Wales come out in brand new kit
But I don't play cos' I'm not fit.
The players will be apprehensive,
But Liverpool! We won't play defensive.
Still, as Professor Tony Curtis from the University of Glamorgan says:
You have got to applaud him - in a very macho lifestyle, he has taken the time to write something.

Friday, November 12, 2004

House Points

Today's column from Liberal Democrat News.

Chagos chaos

The Chagos archipelago lies in the Indian Ocean, 1000 miles south of Cape Comorin. Horley is a town in Surrey, now rather dominated by Gatwick Airport.

They were brought together twice last week. On Wednesday in Westminster Hall and again the following day in a Commons adjournment debate. To understand why, you need to know a bit of history.

Until 1965 the Chagos Islands belonged to Mauritius. They had been inhabited since the eighteenth century by the descendants of African slaves and Indian plantation workers. People lived a self-sufficient life as fishermen and farmers in a landscape of rich vegetation and soaring palms.

But the Americans wanted a military base in the Indian Ocean and chose Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos Islands. So the group was hived off when Mauritius won independence and Diego Garcia leased to the US.

The Americans also wanted the islands cleared. Obligingly, Harold Wilson’s government invented the fiction that the islanders were merely itinerant workers and expelled them all. Their animals were slaughtered and they were shipped off to be dumped at the quayside in Mauritius.

In 2000 the High Court in London ruled that the government had acted unlawfully and that the Chagos islanders should be allowed to return. "It is clear from some of the disclosed documents that … the official zeal in implementing those removal policies went beyond any proper limits."

But this year the British government issued two Orders in Council overturning that judgement.

I didn’t know they could do that either. Isn’t the British constitution wonderful?

Then the islanders began to arrive at Gatwick. They have the right to settle here, but few resources, and councils have no duty to house them. For a while those islanders camped at the airport, but eventually some authorities took pity and found them temporary accommodation. Which is where Horley comes into the story.

Local Tory MPs have taken up the case – perhaps because refugees who want to go home are the kind they like best. But it is legitimate to ask why local councils should foot the bill for government duplicity.

And the whole sad story reminds us that there are no depths to which a Labour prime minister will not descend in his eagerness to suck up to the Americans.

Shameless toadying

Congratulations to Charles Kennedy on being named politician of the year in the Spectator's Parliamentarian of the Year awards.

The other award winners this year are Sir Peter Tapsell, Alan Johnson, Vera Baird, Barry Sheerman and John Redwood.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Still a long face?

If you can't bring yourself to believe that Dubya's win was above board, this article will provide some evidence to support your prejudice.

Gipsy King found in Church Stretton

A good news story from the Shropshire Star:
A Shropshire apple expert who discovered an "extinct" apple at a Shropshire food fair today said he hoped more juicy finds could be made in the county.
The campaign group Common Ground had done much to raise awareness of the loss of traditional apple varieties. Its website reprints a good article on the subject from the Financial Times by Philippa Davenport:
I rejoice above all in the re-emergence of respect for locality, by which I mean local apples grown and consumed in their home territory. It is not just the ethics of food miles and supporting local economy that concerns me. Growing local varieties keeps biodiversity live, and eating local varieties means enjoying them at their best.

Save our children from politicians

See what I mean?

Tony Blair said today (click here for the full speech):
I want an end to latch key kids as we move from the traditional welfare state to an opportunity society that helps families with the daily problems they face. I can announce today that over the next Parliament, every parent with children in primary school will be offered the guarantee of affordable school based childcare from 8 to 6, from breakfast clubs in the morning to after school clubs in the evening - and not just during term time but all the year round.
Leaving aside the meaningless, prefabricated phrases ("an-opportunity-society-that-helps-families-with-the-daily-problems-they-face"), the interesting thing here is that Mr Blair's offer sounds like of one those you can't refuse. He talks about offering a guarantee of out-of-hours care in school, but his ambition of "an end to latch key kids" will come about only if every parent takes up that offer. It is hard to see that happening without some element of compulsion.

What happened to the idea that parents are the best judges of whether their children are old enough to be left alone for a time or the idea that children might enjoy and benefit from exercising a degree of independence? We live in a society where the parent-child relationship is increasingly seen as problematic while the state-child relationship - mediated through professionals - is seen as uncomplicated and benign.

Meanwhile for the Liberal Democrats:
Education spokesman Phil Willis said the government's plans for "dawn 'til dusk childcare" was an "empty promise" until key details like how the plans would impact on teachers' pay were set out.
Yes, these details will have to be sorted out. But is teachers' pay really the thing we should be talking about on the day that childcare come to the top of the political agenda? The Lib Dems do sometimes give the impression that they are more concerned with the interests of teachers than those of children and parents.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Chirac in Africa

There is an interesting article by Chris Bickerton on the Spiked website. He argues:

Ever since France threatened to veto a US-led resolution authorising an attack on Iraq almost two years ago, president Jacques Chirac has used any available opportunity to plug his anti-war credentials ...

With the recent events in the Ivory Coast, however, Chirac's luck in foreign policy may be about to run out. The worsening situation in the former French colony exposes France's hypocrisy: while opposing the US intervention in Iraq, it has few qualms about throwing its own weight around in West Africa ...

For the moment Chirac can still enjoy the best of both worlds: standing up to the USA, and throwing his weight around in Francophone Africa. But if French forces find themselves in direct conflict with the Ivorian army, French militarism in West Africa will stand exposed.

As a good Liberal Democrat I hope to see the European Union develop more of a foreign policy, particularly in view of the current American administration's habit of thinking locally and acting globally.

However, there is a tendency among pro-Europeans to assume that an appeal to our common European identity solves any problem. Bickerton's article is a reminder that fellow Europeans can take very different views of foreign policy questions. Britain, for instance, has not reserved the right to intervene militarily in its former colonies to anything like the same extent. It may be that Britain and France will be able to reconcile their contrasting approaches and endorses a common European policy, but there is no guarantee of this. It is not valid to argue that, deep down, we must want the same thing because we are both Europeans.

Ironically, this naive Europeanism resembles nothing so much as old-fashioned nationalism. It reminds you of the way the SNP constantly appeals to a collectivist Scottish political culture to legitimise its policies. (If you point out that there are plenty of Scots who do not share these values, you are likely to be told that they send their children to English schools and are not proper Scots at all.)

It is not that Jacques Chirac is any less European than I am, it's just that I do not like his policies in Africa.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

A good kicking

On Saturday 30 October Matthew Fort published an article in the Guardian suggesting some alternative packed lunches for children to take to school.

The following Saturday someone wrote in response. I can't find the letter on the paper's website, and my copy is being recycled by Harborough District Council even as you read this. But, if I recall correctly, it said: "Anyone who brought mushroom risotto to my kids' school would be given a good kicking."

Today the Guardian carries an account of a new report from Barnardo's:
Peer pressure and the threat of bullying are prompting school children to choose highly processed snacks and fast foods over healthy options, a survey of pupils from nursery to secondary school has found.
It goes on to say:
Researchers also discovered that children presented with a picture of a healthy lunch of sandwich, raw carrot, tomato, milk and apple found it impossible to imagine anyone their age choosing to eat the meal. Youngsters suggested it might be eaten by a "posh, sporty girl" who was a "goody-goody teacher's pet" and lived in a big house in London.
All very depressing.

There is nothing new in children being cruel to one another or having immature attitudes. What is new, I think, is the willingness of many adults to indulge these failings or even to exhibit them themselves.

If you think about it for a moment, the letter the Guardian published was appalling. It condones the violent bullying of children for being different from the crowd. It is bad enough that an adult should think of writing it: it is far worse that there was no one at the paper who thought better of publishing it. But its attitude is typical of increasing numbers of middle-class parents who exhibit a sort of embarrassed glee at the awful behaviour of their own children.

As I may well have said on this blog before, I suspect that our current enthusiasm for children's rights arises more from a lack of confidence in ourselves as adults than from any real concern for children.

I have certainly discussed "poshness" before - here and here. But I remain puzzled that young people living in what we are told is an increasingly classless society now seem obsessed with the concept and to regard it as just about the worst sin going.

Off the rails

A particularly tasteless front page story in the Daily Mirror today, even by the standards of British tabloids:


It's as though, because there has not been a sexual murder of a child in the headlines recently, the Mirror has decided to dress up the Ufton Nervet derailment to look like one.

Besides, the media appears to be rowing back a little on the suicide theory today.

Monday, November 08, 2004

George W. Bush: A joke

This comes from Madeleine Kane's site:

Q. What's the difference between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War?
A. George W. Bush had a plan to get out of the Vietnam War.

(Madeleine credits it to the blog "Life or Something Like it", but I can't find it there.)

And no birds sing

Here is a depressing story from today's Guardian:
Nearly half of the species of birds that nest in or routinely visit Europe are in peril, with some so threatened that they may disappear altogether, according to two studies published today. Altogether, 226 species - 43 per cent of Europe's birds - face an uncertain future.
The reason for this threatened disaster? Hidden further down the story than it would be in most other papers, it is the European Common Agricultural Policy.

The paper quotes Mark Avery from the RSPB:

He blamed the declines in Britain on "highly intensive" agricultural practices that cleared the landscape of the hedgerows, coppices and spinneys that offered cover for nesting and feeding birds; that poisoned the thistles, teasels and brambles that provided seeds and berries for winter survival; and that cleared insect pests on which birds would normally feed.

"The great danger is that we will now export intensive agriculture to eastern Europe, destroying their wildlife too," he said.

If you have not grasped the full impact of farming subsidies on the British countryside, read Graham Harvey's book The Killing of the Countryside.

And here is a plug for the blog Kick All Agricultural Subsidies - or kickAAS.

Islington, church and the 21st century

A few days ago there was a story in the papers about Islington Council objecting to the Church of England using the word "saint" in the name of a new school it is partly sponsoring. The fullest account was in the Daily Telegraph.

I was interested in the argument used by James Kempton, the Liberal Democrat council's spokesman on children and young people. The Telegraph quotes him as saying:

We need to ensure this is a school which is appropriate for Islington in the 21st century. Church-going is now a much less significant part of people's lives.
It may well be a less significant part of the average Islington Liberal Democrat's life, but that is not true of everyone. When I walk around Leicester I am struck by the number of mosques and temples, many of them recently built. It is clear that religion plays a central part in the lives of many of the minority ethnic communities that characterise the city in the 21st century, and I doubt that Islington is any different.

For all my love of church music and architecture, if you force me to declare my religious position then I am an atheist. But we Western liberal atheists have to accept that, globally, we are in the minority - something which 21st century Britain must surely make clear to us. Nor can we take if for granted that our belief system is the one at which other groups will arrive when they have become more rational or better educated.

Philosophically, my belief is that expressed by John Gray at the start of his book Two Faces of Liberalism:

The liberal state originated in a search for modus vivendi. Contemporary liberal regimes are late flowerings of a project of toleration that began in Europe in the sixteenth century. The task we inherit is refashioning liberal toleration so that it can guide the pursuit of modus vivendi in a more plural world.

For a full, if ultimately critical, account of Gray's book see Glen Newey's review in the London Review of Books.

Gray, in more recent works such as Straw Dogs, has rather gone off with the fairies, but his books from the 1990s provide some of the most enlightening explorations of what it means to be a liberal in the modern world.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Spinning a Bush/Blair rift

Writing in yesterday's Spectator, Peter Oborne reports a Labour strategist as telling him:

"Watch out for a carefully choreographed rift between Downing Street and the White House. A suitable subject will be chosen, most likely the Kyoto accord."
Oborne goes on to say:
carefully briefed articles by sympathetic columnists will soon start to appear disclosing "frosty relations" between Tony Blair and George Bush.
And what do we find Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt reporting in today's Guardian?
Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary and a strong supporter of Tony Blair, will come close to breaching the cabinet's neutrality on the US election this weekend by voicing Labour's "real disappointment" that John Kerry was defeated.
It makes you think.

Friday, November 05, 2004

House Points is back

People standing for election to party committees cannot appear in the party newspaper while voting is taking place, so today's issue of Liberal Democrat News is the first I have been able to write in for a while. Here is my first House Points column of the new season.

Stranger but true

Last week BBC2 began to repeat the BBC4 series "Britain's Best Buildings", and the first programme looked at the Palace of Westminster. It was introduced by Dan Cruickshank, who has just the combination of enthusiasm, mild eccentricity and lightly worn learning that makes great television presenters.

He taught us a lot. Notably, that the Commons has a two-sided chamber because MPs originally met in a chapel at Westminster and occupied the choir stalls. They bow to the Speaker's chair because it occupies the place of the altar. When you consider its present incumbent, that makes them a primitive tribe indeed.

But there is a virulent disease that afflicts people who talk about the old pile by the Thames. And Professor Cruickshank had it bad.

You could hear it in his language from the start. He called Westminster "a symbol of a free people, of democratic government and of political continuity". There is something about the place that leads people to make questionable claims in overwrought language. Somewhere at the back of the minds is a desire to sound like Winston Churchill. If Cruickshank's introduction had gone on longer he would undoubtedly have slipped in the phrase "this island race".

And you could see it in the way he walked. If it is possible to caper and fawn at the same time, then Cruickshank did it. As he explored the grander rooms - the Speaker's House, the Queen's Robing Room, the Royal Gallery - he pranced with glee, practically rubbing himself against the plusher fittings, while all the time looking for someone he could bow to.

Cruickshank ended by calling Westminster "a building that is in a very special way a people's palace". It is nothing of the sort. It was built as a royal palace and, though it was substantially rebuilt in the nineteenth century and after the Second World War, that is what in essence it remains.

The latest news is that members of the public will no longer be referred to as "strangers". At the same time the Commons authorities are planning to build a glass screen to cut the Public Gallery off from the chamber.

Very New Labour that. You can get away with the most outrageous actions as long as you have learned to couch them in the right, officially approved language.

Wasted Rainforests

A couple of months ago I reviewed Jeremy Hargreaves' pamphlet Wasted Rainforests: An essay on the policy-making process of the Liberal Democrats for Liberal Democrat News.

I have now added that review to Lord Bonkers' website - it's at the bottom of this page.

Jeremy has his own website here.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Why the long face?

Cheer up. Anatole Kaletsky argues in The Times (you may need to register) that this may have been a good election for the Democrats to lose:
Will the Democrats one day thank John Kerry for losing, just as Labour is grateful to Mr Kinnock? This seems distinctly possible, given the challenges now facing America, especially in geopolitics and macroeconomics. Iraq is a mess which Mr Bush created and it is surely fitting that he should be the one forced to clean it up. The same is true of ballooning government deficits, escalating oil prices and the small but growing, threat of a crisis in the US balance of payments leading to an international run on the dollar.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Out into the sunlight and the pure wind

I have just added an article I published under this title in the July/August 2004 issue of Openmind magazine to Lord Bonkers' website.

It looks at the idea that contact with nature is good for us, and is chiefly an excuse for quoting from two of my favourite nature writers: Richard Jefferies and Graham Harvey.

And for the Liberal Democrats among my readers, there is even a reference to Donnachadh McCarthy's recent book.

The influence of the pharmaceutical industry

The Commons health select committee is currently holding an inquiry on this subject. There is a fascinating transcript of evidence from dissident voices here:
Dr Spence: We certainly feel that the industry has a major influence over health care policy and that the influence of the industry is across the board, so it is not just a question of impacting upon doctors and nurses but it is the involvement with patient organisations and with government agencies. The industry is active in all these spheres and has a very clear agenda. Our perspective is that the agenda of the industry, which is predominantly that of profit - and they are responsible to their shareholders - is in some ways in direct conflict with the responsibilities of the NHS.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Liberal Democrats and dispersal orders

I may moan about the Guardian, but it is amazing what you learn from reading it. For instance, here is something from today:

The Liberal Democrats are to counter Labour jibes that they are "soft on crime" by performing a U-turn over anti-social behaviour measures.

The party accepts that it scored an own goal, and provided opponents with ammunition, when it voted against last year's anti-social behaviour bill on the grounds of its opposition to dispersal orders.

I am not aware that the party has been asked its view. What has happened it that Mark Oaten has changed his mind and announced it to the press.

He says of dispersal orders: "Having gone round the country, I can't, hand on my heart, say these aren't a useful thing."

A politician who is willing to change his mind in the face of the evidence is a rare and precious thing. But the idea that we Liberal Democrats opposed these orders because they were not "useful" is odd. We opposed them, as I understand it, because they gave the authorities too much power over individual citizens.

As Matthew Green told Young People Now magazine recently: "Young people have got as much right to stand in groups on a pavement as anyone else has."

Oaten's surprise that dispersal orders are useful reflects a mistaken view that is common among liberals. It holds that we face no hard choices because the most liberal measures will always be the most effective ones too. An example of this is the liberal faith - backed by very little evidence - that more sex education is the way to reduce teenage pregnancies.

I believe that liberal measures often are effective - that's why I am a liberal. But it is nonsense to pretend that we are never faced with dilemmas. If you want some philosophical backing for this idea, look at Isaiah Berlin's work on the incommensurability of values. As this encyclopedia entry says, Berlin argues that:

Liberty can conflict with equality or with public order; mercy with justice; love with impartiality and fairness; social and moral commitment with the disinterested pursuit of truth or beauty (the latter two values, contra Keats, may themselves be incompatible); knowledge with happiness; spontaneity and free-spiritedness with dependability and responsibility. Conflicts of values are "an intrinsic, irremovable part of human life"; the idea of total human fulfillment is a chimera. "These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are"; a world in which such conflicts are resolved is not the world we know or understand.

In any case, the controversy over dispersal orders masks a deeper and more troubling question: why do adults no longer feel able to tell groups of unruly youths to clear off but seek police intervention instead?

Monday, November 01, 2004

Watching UKIP

Those who want a ringside seat as UKIP falls apart should visit UKIPwatch.

One note of caution: UKIP pretty much fell apart after the 1999 Euro elections, but come the 2004 poll no one seemed to have noticed and they did even better.