Saturday, April 30, 2005

Going underground

The London Review of Books site has a long review of the snappily titled The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground Was Built and How It Changed the City For Ever by Christian Wolmar.

Two points stand out. The first is that the man whose vision lead to the first underground line, Charles Pearson, was born in the eighteenth century.

The second is Lord Palmerston's reply when, at the age of 79, he was invited to attend the opening of the Metropolitan Railway. He said that at his age he would rather stay above ground for as long as he could.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Election Points: Brian Sedgemore

I am off to deliver more of those leaflets soon, but here is today Election Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Mention the war

This is no longer the Basil Fawlty election. In the last few days of the campaign everyone is mentioning the war. And none more effectively than our newest recruit, Brian Sedgemore.

As I have a lot of leaflets and letters to deliver here in marginal Harborough, I shall let Sedgemore write this column for me. He made his last speech in the Commons on 23 February in the debate on the government’s attempt to introduce house arrest into Britain. Here are some highlights of that speech:

"Our debate here tonight is a grim reminder of how the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are betraying some of Labour's most cherished beliefs. Not content with tossing aside the ideas and ideals that inspire and inform ideology, they seem to be giving up on values too. Liberty, without which democracy has no meaning, and the rule of law, without which state power cannot be contained, look to Parliament for their protection, but this Parliament, sad to say, is failing the nation badly.

"As we move towards a system of justice that found favour with the South African Government at the time of apartheid and which parallels Burmese justice today I am reminded that our fathers fought and died for liberty – my own father literally – believing that these things should not happen here, and we would never allow them to happen here.

"How on earth did a Labour Government get to the point of creating what was described in the House of Lords hearing as a “gulag” at Belmarsh? Despite savage criticisms by nine Law Lords in 250 paragraphs, I have heard not one word of apology from the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary.

"Many Members have gone nap on the matter. They voted: first, to abolish trial by jury in less serious cases; secondly, to abolish trial by jury in more serious cases; thirdly, to approve an unlawful war; fourthly, to create a gulag at Belmarsh; and fifthly, to lock up innocent people in their homes. It is truly terrifying to imagine what those Members of Parliament will vote for next."

Writing in the Guardian, Michael White described Sedgemore as “well read, music loving and grumpy”. I have the feeling that he will feel at home with us.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Tony Blair's grasp on truth

This seems a good time to point you towards this quotation from Francis Wheen on my other blog Serendib.

Headline of the Week

We go back to the Shropshire Star for:

Floods at knee height as torrents flow

Shepperton Babylon again

One of my favourite books of recent months in Matthew Sweet's Shepperton Babylon, which I reviewed here earlier. (I also quoted Gilbert Adair's review of it on my anthology blog Serendib.)

Now it has another admirer. Daniall Quinn has written a full and favourable review of it on his blog The Obscurer - with the added interest that he was a schoolfriend of Sweet's.

Cleobury Mortimer is revolting

In March we quoted some little-known lines of G. K. Chesterton:
But we are the people of Cleobury Mortimer, and we never have spoken yet.
Mock at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget.
Well they have spoken now. The Shropshire Star reports:

Banner-waving protesters have persuaded councillors to block plans to build 102 new homes in Cleobury Mortimer in a victory for people power.

Angry residents armed with banners stating "Enough is Enough" and "Locals Know Best" made their feelings of opposition clear at a meeting yesterday of South Shropshire District Council's development control committee.

And following the protest, the committee refused, by seven votes to three, to give Westbury Homes reserved matters permission for the new development at Catherton Road and at Lacon Childe School.

This could just be the start of the Revolution.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

H. L. Mencken foresees George W. Bush

Apologies for all the initials, but click here.

Iraq, Iraq, Iraq

As you have probably heard by now, the Guardian has published part of the Attorney General's advice to the Prime Minister over the legality of the war against Iraq. (I would have posted this news earlier, but Blogger was behaving strangely.)

Now the Guardian has published some analysis by Jonathan Freedland:
So what will be the political effect? It could make those angriest about the Iraq adventure angry all over again. That's bad news for Labour, which has spent much of this year trying to soothe the ire of its supporters, persuading them to "move on". Since the Iraqi elections in January, the government has been like a parent tiptoeing around a sleeping baby, hoping nothing will disturb his slumber. With this revelation, a plate has fallen off the sideboard and crashed noisily on to the floor.

Blair lying row: God steps in

The BBC reports:
Prime Minister Tony Blair's election campaign plane has been struck by lightning during a flight.

Ladybird: Peter and Jane

The other day, in the course of a posting on Tory education policy, I mentioned the Ladybird Keywords reading scheme. A search has turned up a New Statesman article on this series of books by Malcolm Clark.

Clark, thank goodness, gives short shrift to the argument that the books should be burnt because they are too middle class and dated (all those white faces and short trousers). When I was little I had a much loved copy of Little Black Sambo and I grew up to write half a dozen articles for the Guardian, so there is a limit to how much parents and teachers should worry about this sort of thing.

What Clark does do is use these books to highlight two recent and unfortunate changes in British society.

Those wide expanses of seashore and countryside on Planet Ladybird are seen as totally safe. There are no overprotective parents, no teachers dreading accidents or subsequent inquests, no lawyers waiting to sue when Peter stumbles during a jump over a stile. Nor are there any dirty white vans prowling along B-roads on the off chance.

Public space was not thought to be dangerous then, and this is not just nostalgic idealisation. I grew up in a small town in the early 1970s. The vast public park really did have attendants. It also happened to have well-tended flowerbeds and a boating pond. These days, you have to train your dog to tiptoe over the syringes. The war memorial is covered in graffiti and there isn't a police station for ten miles. If you sent Peter and Jane there to fly a kite, you'd kit them out in bulletproof vests first.

In fact, the entire old Ladybird project had an indefinable public-spiritedness about it. This partly reflected a strain in British culture that went all the way back to Samuel Smiles's Self-Help and the Victorian reference libraries. The quest for knowledge was seen as an uncomplicated and enjoyable pursuit, one in which young citizens should be encouraged to share. So once you had learnt to read, you could move on to a panoply of different subjects, each featured in its own dedicated little tome, from the lives of biographical figures, such as Captain Scott or Robert the Bruce, to significant moments in history, such as the civil war. You could learn about "wind and flight", or even Australasian mammals.

It is easy for Liberals and the left to dismiss such views as nostalgia. But the past is too important to be abandoned to the Tories.

Michael Powell and British landscape

The latest online edition of the film magazine Screen has been posted on the British Film Institute website.

It includes an essay by Mark Duguid on the director Michael Powell and his "constant, almost spiritual fascination with British landscape". Powell was clearly a reader of the Shropshire Star:
Gone to Earth populated its raw Shropshire countryside with an almost fairytale cast of innocent young maidens, malevolent lusty squires and well-meaning but foolish vicars.
There are also articles about the rediscovered films of Mitchell & Kenyon, the late Sir John Mills and George Cole.

My Pope joke

The Pope is working in his office in Rome. A cardinal rushes in.

"Holy Father! Holy Father! Christ has come back to Earth and he is riding up to the Vatican on a donkey. Whatever shall we do?"

The Pope thinks for a moment and says: "Look busy."

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Walton Hall, Wakefield

I spent last night at Waterton Park Hotel near Wakefield. The hotel incorporates Walton Hall, the traditional home of the Waterton family, which sits on an island in an artificial lake.

I thus came across Charles Waterton, the 19th century naturalist and eccentric. He may well have been a friend of Lord Bonkers' grandfather.

There is a better photograph (if you ignore the helicopter) of the Hall here.

Those Tory health plans in full...

Click here for details.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Who now remembers the Armenians?

Armenians around the world have commemorated the 90th anniversary of the killings of hundreds of thousands of people by the Ottoman Empire
reports the BBC

For more background on the Armenian genocide read this article by Robert Fisk, which was published in the Independent on 28 January 2000:
"Who now remembers the Armenians?" Hitler asked, just before he embarked on the destruction of European Jewry. Precious few, it seems. As the memorial day for the Nazi genocide against the Jews was proclaimed by Mr Blair this week, there was not a single reference to the slaughter of one and a half million Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. The world's first holocaust - and Hitler's inspiration for the slaughter of the Jews - was ignored.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Best of British

Tim Worstall has posted his latest weekly round up of the best in British blogging here.

Now he even has a sponsor.

The Liberal Democrats' secret weapon


Lord Bonkers writes: In the last ten days of the campaign, highly trained sheep will be released across rural constituencies to sing "Jerusalem," "The Land" and other Liberal anthems, thus increasing the party's vote. Here Charles Kennedy is seen rehearsing two altos in "Lloyd George Knew My Father."

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Peter Wyngarde

For a splendid site dedicated to this 1960s icon (and considerable actor), click here.

Don't throw away your old election leaflets

Don't even recycle them (except the policies, of course).

Send them to these people:
We are aiming to create a digital archive of the leaflets, posters, postcards and newsletters produced by the candidates and political parties contesting the 2005 General Election. Please send your leaflet donations to: Leaflets 2005, PO Box 4312, Wolverhampton WV11 3WZ.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Vote Liberal: Get Liberal

Here is today's Election Points column from the estimable Liberal Democrat News.

Gone to the blogs

When Labour supporters run out of arguments why you should support their party, there is one they fall back on. Put crudely, it runs “Vote Lib Dem, get Tory”.

It has cropped up in recent columns by Johann Hari, Polly Toynbee and Nick Cohen. As a website I saw the other day said, it is the equivalent of Squealer in Animal Farm telling everyone that if they did not support Comrade Napoleon they would have Farmer Jones back.

Thanks to a posting on Nick Barlow’s blog What You Can Get Away With (www.nickbarlow.com/blog), we know that this argument is nonsense.

A ‘blog’, in case you are wondering, is a weblog. A website where individuals record their thoughts and experiences. Political blogs provide a rich source of debate and new arguments – just the sort of explosion in publishing it was hoped computers would bring about. A good starting point is the digest of blogs by Liberal Democrat supporters at www.libdemblogs.co.uk.

Anyway, what Nick shows is that no amount of Labour supporters switching to the Liberal Democrats will lead to a Conservative government. Assuming that the Tory vote stays the same, a 5 per cent swing from Labour to the Lib Dems would still see a comfortable majority for Blair. And a 10 per cent swing would bring about a majority Labour government too.

Not even a 15 per cent swing would see Michael Howard in Downing Street. Nick calculates that it would produce 280 Labour MPs, 230 Tories and 107 Lib Dems. And if we got an even bigger swing from Labour it would start winning us Tory seats too.

In short, no amount of Labour supporters switching to us will produce a Tory government. The truth is “Vote Lib Dem, get Lib Dem”.

******

We have a little time before the snooker, so here are a couple of thoughts for the second half of the campaign.

First, as a tribute to Donald James Kennedy, Anon.’s observation that “politicians are like nappies – they should be changed regularly and for the same reason”.

Second, Winston Churchill on Stanley Baldwin: “He occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened”.

You may just feel that has some contemporary resonance.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The politics of anti-social behaviour

There is a good essay on this subject by Dolan Cummings on the Spiked website:
Fifteen years ago, the term "antisocial behaviour" was barely in use. Through the 1990s the term grew in currency, as the perception increased that community was breaking down and that people's behaviour, in particular young people's behaviour, was deteriorating. Concerns about social problems increasingly became focused on individual behaviour rather than the economic or structural factors that had hitherto dominated politics.
And:
A political approach based on fear and distrust, which encourages the belief that every minor irritation is the tip of an iceberg, is never going to overcome public anxiety.

A new Liberal blog

I have added a new link to the "Lib Dem blogs" on the right: Taken Liberally.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Premiership top three

When Chelsea play Manchester United the result is a niggly game with an undercurrent of violence.

When Arsenal play Manchester United the result is a niggly game with an undercurrent of violence.

When Chelsea play Arsenal the result is a sporting game with a good atmosphere between the teams.

Can anyone spot the common factor in the niggly games with an undercurrent of violence?

Opportunities in Newham's parks

If you want a picture of what is wrong with British politics, you could do worse than look at the job advertisements in the Guardian Society section each Wednesday.

Today's outstanding ad - it takes up the best part of a page - comes from the London Borough of Newham. It has the slightly worrying heading "Opportunities in Parks".

And what opportunities they are:

  • Head of Parks: £46,300 - £49,000
  • Parks Development Manager (Engagement): £30,600 - £33,100
  • Parks Development Officer (Engagement): £27,000 - £29,000
  • Parks Development Officer (Planning & Delivery): £27,000 - £29,000
  • Assistant Parks Development Officer (Planning & Delivery): £24,100 - £25,600
That's five posts with an annual salary bill somewhere between £155,000 and £165,700. You are left wondering how much money will be left to pay for staff or amenities in the parks themselves.

Worse than the cost, though, is the attitude that the advertisement reveals. Take the job description for the Parks Development Officer (Engagement):

The post provides an exciting opportunity for an experienced and skilled communicator, with a focus on building and enabling the active involvement of local people.
The essence of radical politics is the belief that the poor are as good as their masters. The early Labour leaders wanted the workers to run their own industries.

That belief in the abilities of the masses has been abandoned by many on the public-sector left. They now see their role as a quasi-therapeutic one, delivering services to a population whose members lack the ability to run their own lives.

Nothing could be more patronising than the belief that the people of Newham need professional staff "enabling" them before they can use their local parks. The sad thing is that the people behind this advertisement flatter themselves that they are dangerously left wing.

John Prescott does it again

The BBC gives a transcript of an exchange between the Deputy Prime Minister and a journalist from the South Wales Argus. It includes the immortal words:
Why are you asking me about this, I don't care, it's a Welsh situation, I'm a national politician.
Only one thing worries me. Prescott sounds so coherent that you wonder whether it can be an accurate transcript.

Tony Blair defends his deputy: That's John. Working-class people swear and punch each other. They told us about them once at Fettes.

Moral relativism and the Pope

There is a good article in today's Guardian by the philosopher Julian Baggini. In it he takes issue with the moral teaching of the new Pope:
this crude dichotomy between the absolute moral truths of the church and the so-called laissez-faire relativism of the modern secular world is crassly simplistic.
You can read it for yourself, and Simon Titley has quoted it extensively in this posting on Liberal Dissenter, so I will not quote any more from it here.

Instead, here is a relevant thought from Joseph Schumpeter which is discussed favourably by two of my favourite modern philosophers: Isaiah Berlin in Four Essays on Liberty, and Richard Rorty in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. It runs:
To realise the relative validity of one's convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Who should I vote for?

Good news from the Scotsman:

The Liberal Democrats have emerged as the surprise choice of the "internet generation", according to the UK’s most- visited political website.

The results of a questionnaire on the Whoshouldyouvotefor.com site also suggest that Labour and the Conservatives have a long way to go if they are to win the elusive "young vote".

Whoshouldyouvotefor.com only launched last Tuesday, but already more than 200,000 people have taken the test that asks their opinions on policy areas. The results, released last night, found that 43 per cent of respondents expressed views most closely aligned with the Liberal Democrats.

A lot of people are posting their questionnaire results, so here are mine. I am pleased to say they are more or less what I expected.


Who Should You Vote For?

Who should I vote for?

Your expected outcome:

Liberal Democrat


Your actual outcome:



Labour -60
Conservative -27
Liberal Democrat 54
UK Independence Party 4
Green 48


You should vote: Liberal Democrat

The LibDems take a strong stand against tax cuts and a strong one in favour of public services: they would make long-term residential care for the elderly free across the UK, and scrap university tuition fees. They are in favour of a ban on smoking in public places, but would relax laws on cannabis. They propose to change vehicle taxation to be based on usage rather than ownership.

Take the test at Who Should You Vote For

The Tory campaign: A view from Down Under

There is an interesting report in The Australian. It supports my recent argument that the Tories' much vaunted "dog whistle" strategy is no more than a rerun of William Hague's 2001 core votes campaign.

Better than that, it suggests that the strategy is gaining us more votes than the Tories:

One senior Tory said: "This is a core vote campaign, along the lines of 2001. It is much more professionally organised, thanks to Lynton Crosby (the Australian strategist running the campaign).

But in Australia, Mr Crosby does not have to worry about the threat from a third party.

"What seems to be happening here is that when we make a hit on Labour, the Liberal Democrats get two-thirds of the benefit."

Monday, April 18, 2005

Enjoying the natural world

Stephen Moss, writing in the Guardian today, pays tribute to the Collins New Naturalist series. The hundredth volume, The New Naturalists by Peter Marren, is about to be published.

Moss sets out the series' origins:

In 1945, just after the Allied victory in the second world war, a series of books was launched that would revolutionise the way we experience nature. Published by Collins, the New Naturalists were an instant success. They combined fine writing, scientific rigour, and, most important of all, colour illustrations - a welcome antidote to the monochrome austerity of wartime. For a postwar generation eager to use their new-found freedom to travel and explore the countryside, these books were a gateway to a brave new world of wildlife-watching.
He contrasts this with children's experience of the countryside today:
My own children - and millions of others who have grown up since the 1970s - have, through no fault of their own, missed out on these essential childhood experiences. We have cosseted and protected them: encouraging them to stay at home, away from the dangers of traffic (real) and the fear of paedophiles (exaggerated). Where once every classroom had a nature table laden with bits and pieces collected from the wild, in today's schools these have been quietly removed because of a misguided obsession with health and safety.
As you will know by now, all this appeals to this blog's prejudices. But there are a couple of other notable points in Moss's article.

He reports that:
In 2003 an English Nature report, Nature and psychological well-being, concluded that those of us who have regular encounters with wildlife have a markedly lower incidence of mental disorder, and better emotional and mental health, than those who do not.
This is the same point that I made in an article for OpenMind magazine last year.

And Moss, writing of modern children's lack of contact with nature, argues:
Ironically, one of the milestones in the protection of our natural heritage may be partly to blame.

The 1954 Protection of Birds Act was the first step to virtually eradicating the odious practice of organised egg-collecting, in which a handful of misguided kleptomaniacs wrought havoc amongst populations of rare birds, such as the red kite and osprey. But by criminalising the taking of any bird's egg, our legislators inadvertently cut off one route in which many of today's older naturalists learned their trade, the schoolboy pastime of "egging".

Writing in BBC Wildlife magazine, television presenter Bill Oddie was well aware of this paradox: "The honest truth is if I hadn't been an egg collector, I very much doubt if I would have become a birdwatcher. It was my egg-collecting experiences that taught me all sorts of skills and techniques. This isn't a justification, but it is a fact."

Hardly politically correct, but I am sure there is something in it. Moss's observation reminds me of the great Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies. In his The Amateur Poacher he records that his early interest in the natural world had a strong sporting component, but that he came to see things differently.

With his finger on the trigger he "hesitated, dropped the barrel and watched the beautiful bird" and:
watching so often stayed the shot that at last it grew to be a habit ... Time after time I have flushed partridges without firing, and have let the hare bound over the furrow free.
However you come to it, the natural world is something to be enjoyed. Too often, modern environmental thinking fails to reflect this important truth.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

The dog whistle strategy

Here is Friday's Election Points from Liberal Democrat News. Sorry for the delay in posting - I have been in Shropshire. I even saw the offices of the Shropshire Star!

Whistling in the wind

The Conservatives are fighting this election on what insiders call “dog whistle” issues. In other words, their campaign concentrates on subjects that tickle the Tories’ core voters but leave the rest of us cold. This approach is the brainchild of Lynton Crosby, the Australian strategist hired by Michael Howard. (He’s one economic migrant the Tories do approve of.)

So when you read a speech by Howard you have to work out what diehard Tories will hear him saying. It can be very different. Let’s try a few sentences from the launch of the Tory manifesto on Monday.

Of course, we have moved on.
Don’t worry, we haven’t moved on.

People are realistic about tax.
I want tax cuts and more public spending. And I want you to repay the national debt too.

People long for more police on the streets, to enforce respect, discipline and the law.
We fight for liberty and then people go and do exactly as they please.

People long for their children to be taught in disciplined schools.
When I was a boy we got six of the best every day. Made me what I am.

Cleaner hospitals.
Matron. Hattie Jacques. Bed baths. Nurse, the screens!

Surely it's not that hard for an island nation to control its borders?
The doctor’s as black as your hat and my Women’s Weekly smells of curry.

Will the dog whistle strategy work? Of course not. The idea that the Conservatives lost in 2001 because William Hague did not appeal strongly enough to traditional Tory voters is ludicrous. It’s like saying that Michael Foot lost in 1983 because he wasn’t enough of a socialist.

After a brief attempt to win back the middle ground (involving a baseball cap and the Notting Hill Carnival) Hague did nothing but appeal to traditional voters. He flattered their every prejudice, even telling them that, under Labour, Britain would become “a foreign country”.

The only wonder is that Michael Howard has found ways of being even more right wing than Hague. What the Tories should do, of course, is tell their core voters a few home truths and try to appeal to voters beyond this increasingly narrow enclave.

As long as they follow their present strategy we Liberal Democrats have little to fear.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Matts on the carpet again

The Dorset Echo reports:
Tory hopeful Ed Matts was embroiled in a new fuss over election photos today after using a picture of Olympic gold medallists in his campaign leaflets.

Will Camilla save the royal family?

The reign of our present Queen falls neatly into two. Until 1979 or so, the royal family was idolised by many and ignored by the rest. With the exception of state occasions like the Coronation, it did not impinge greatly upon people’s everyday lives if they did not want it to.

All that changed after 1979. Whether it is all Mrs Thatcher’s fault I don’t know, but there is no doubt that this change took place around about the time she came to power, and it may well be that the economic policies she pursued played a part in it. For the royal family became part of celebrity culture. In part this move was forced upon them: in part it was eagerly embraced.

Whatever its causes, this development was a disaster for the royal family. The essence of monarchy is that it is – or more accurately appears – to be immutable. It must feel like a still point in a rapidly changing world.

By contrast, celebrity culture demands constant movement. Celebrities must be in the news every day and be constantly rising or falling in public esteem or they cease to exist. Equally, the media machine is voracious and knows no boundaries. Few can survive long in this world and maintain any trace of dignity.

The Princess of Wales was not killed by paparazzi photographers, but her death was the natural outcome of the celebrity process because it made the best possible story. One fears for Prince William’s future in this world and particularly for the woman he eventually marries.

What is the answer to this problem? There are two possible solutions: the first is to conclude that monarchy is impossible in the modern world and abolish it. The second is to attempt to change the nature of monarchy in order to make it less vulnerable to the excesses of the media.

The strongest case for a republic is that monarchy is an inherently ridiculous system. If one were designing a constitution on logical principles one would never come up with an hereditary head of state. But I am aware that many of the things I most value – test cricket, British Liberalism, rural Shropshire – are not just the result of planning from first principles. To a large extent they have just happened. So I am not sure how much force this argument has.

A better argument for a republic is that monarchy has failed in just the area where its advocates claim it is strongest. It has become supremely undignified. It is hard to imagine a senior politician – say Roy Hattersley or Geoffrey Howe or Shirley Williams – becoming involved in the sort of scandals that have dogged the royal family for the past 25 years.

However, those who favour a republic have a duty to come up with the means by which a British president would be elected or appointed. A popular idea on the left is to make the Commons speaker head of state. But that would put his or her fate in the hands of the majority party in the House, which would be extremely dangerous for the future of democracy. So there is more work to be done here by republicans.

The other approach is to change the nature of monarchy. The fashionable call used to be for a “bicycling” monarchy in line with the Dutch or Scandinavian model. In many ways, though, we used to have a more modest monarch than we do today – if not a bicycling one then at least a horse riding one.

George VI was at heart a dull country gentleman forced to become King by his glamorous brother’s abdication. Elizabeth II’s style – all those corgis and headscarves – has been equally uninspiring. It is only when the monarchy tried to become modern that it became controversial and unpopular.

So perhaps Camilla’s scruffy hair, green wellies and dislike of publicity represent the royal family’s best hope. The less the monarchy interests us, the more likely it is to survive.

Tory confusion over education

Michael Howard, reports the BBC, has pledged to put phonics at the heart of teaching in schools:
Mr Howard said repeated studies had shown that the system of phonics, where children are taught words through the sounds that form them, was the best method for teaching language
It would be interesting to know how he squares this promise with the speech that he made on 24 March 2005 setting out his vision of "The Britain I believe in":

Just as parents know best what is right for their children, so professionals have the clearest vision of what is right for our schools and hospitals.

Government should trust and support teachers in their mission to pass on the best of what has been thought and written to the next generation.

It seems that the Tories will only "trust and support" teachers who do what they are told.

How to benefit from research findings while allowing room for individual judgement is a problem for all parties. The Tory approach is to say whatever a particular audience wishes to hear and pretend there is no problem at all.

Speaking for myself, I doubt that phonics are the be all and end all of reading. My mother taught me to read from the Ladybird keywords books (with the original illustrations,* mark you), which used a strictly look-and-say method. It never did me any harm.

* "When Peter and Jane first appeared in the early sixties, Jane was dressed in pretty dresses with hair ribbons, and Peter had short trousers. Peter did boys things, and Jane did girlish things.

Now ten years later, Ladybird were getting attacked by people who were saying that they were too middle class, that boys no longer wore shorts, they wore jeans. Girls no longer had hair ribbons, they wore jeans, and we had to spend a fortune on altering all the illustrations to bring Peter and Jane up to date. The alterations to Ladybird represented a social document showing exactly what had happened."

(From an interview with former Ladybird employee George Towers.)

Ricin plot: More doubts

Two articles cast further doubt over the story the mainstream media have been reporting.

Bill DurodiƩ, on the Spiked website, points out that there was no ricin and sign of a conspiracy either:

Notably, all of the supposed co-conspirators in this case have been cleared of the charges, so there was no evidence of an organised al-Qaeda 'cell' either. The jurors should be commended for reaching this verdict in the context of the constant bombardment about sinister individuals and organisations to which we have all been subjected since 9/11.
And in the Guardian Duncan Campbell writes about some of the ironies of the case:

All the information roads led west, not to Kabul but to California and the US midwest. The recipes for ricin now seen on the internet were invented 20 years ago by survivalist Kurt Saxon. He advertises videos and books on the internet. Before the ricin ring trial started, I phoned him in Arizona. For $110, he sent me a fistful of CDs and videos on how to make bombs, missiles, booby traps - and ricin.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Was there a ricin plot?

Spy blog has a useful posting casting doubt on the media's treatment of this story. It looks in particular at the BBC's coverage.

Postal voting scandal

As the evidence of a serious problem accumulates, two useful sources of information and comment are the blog Postal Voting and the one belonging to John Hemming.

Valerie Singleton

The property pages of The Times give an unexpected insight into the life and career of this icon of wholesome 1960s childhood.

Now read about Valerie Singleton's plans to publish her memoirs.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

I mean, how difficult is it to keep a hospital clean?

Honourable Fiend has the answer:

About 12 years back, Fiend spent some time working at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge. During that particular Tory-era NHS experience one particular ward had a recurring problem with MRSA infections.

So they emptied the affected ward, and the one on each side. All three were denuded of everything. The beds were disposed of. The laundry, incinerated. Every last piece of furniture removed and destroyed. Affected and potentially-affected patients internally quarantined for pre-emptive treatment with antibiotics.

The three bare-shell rooms remaining were steam-washed, hosed down with disinfectants from corner to corner and re-floored and repainted from scratch. Beds and other equipment were replaced with brand new stock.

And after all this? The next case of MRSA took four days to materialise.

Misleading headline of the week

The BBC News website reports: Oily fish 'hope' for Alzheimer's.

I bet they don't.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Charles Kennedy as he happens

One new project Richard Allan has already become involved with is setting up a campaign blog for Charles Kennedy.

Goodbye to Westminster

Helen Rumbelow, writing for The Times' election log (as they call it), describes the scenes as MPs leave Westminster, some of them for the last time. Not all of them will know tonight that it is for the last time, of course.

Rumbelow writes:
for the ones standing down, today is a day full of sentiment. It felt historic to meet Gillian Shephard, almost in tears as she took her final goodbyes to the place, and Virginia Bottomley in most nostalgic mood. Before I get carried away, Tony Banks, that retiring firebrand Labour MP, was rushing to his car with no regrets. "I don't want to fade away like an old fart," he told me.
Meanwhile, one voluntarily retiring MP seems very happy about his decision. Richard Allan, the Lib Dem MP for Sheffield Hallam, has renamed his blog Political Times as Post Political Times and reports his plans for the future there.

Something close to a whimper

Thanks to a stroke of editorial genius, House Points has been rechristened Election Points for the duration of the campaign. Here is Friday's column from Liberal Democrat News.

Inspiring hope

The 2001 general election campaign began with something close to a whimper. The saturation coverage of the Pope’s death and funeral, together with the lull before we all show an unprecedented lack of interest in the royal wedding, quietened everybody down.

The most significant event of the week has been the verdict of the election court in Birmingham. What matters is not that Labour was guilty of fraud. All parties have broken the law in their time, although the industrial scale offending alleged in this case is something new. What matters is that they were completely unconcerned about the possibility of fraud.

This carelessness had its source in two of New Labour’s greatest faults. The first is its obsession with reaching targets, no matter what distortions they cause. In this case the target was an increased turnout. The second was its embarrassing desire to get “down with the kids”. Even a normally sensible figure like Robin Cook told us that young people weren’t familiar with pencils, so traditional polling booths had to go. We should learn from the numbers voting in Big Brother and Pop Idol, we were told, as though little girls phoning in ten votes for Gareth Gates offered a model for parliamentary elections.

Where people are motivated to vote they will queue all night and even cope with pencils. The problem is that in Britain they are not motivated. The two main parties are too close and everything is too centralised for your vote to make much difference.

It is worse than that. As Nick Cohen argued in the Observer last Sunday, the Conservative campaign is built on fear. It is designed to motivate their core voters by stoking fears of gypsies, murderers and paedophiles, and confirm everyone else’s view that politicians are all as bad as each other and it is not worth voting.

Nor is Labour ignoring this tactic. In Hartlepool their leaflets say: “The Liberal Democrats’ crime plans would mean the killers of James Bulger could not have been brought to trial and would let young troublemakers run riot in Hartlepool knowing the courts could not touch them.”

Launching our campaign in Newcastle, Charles Kennedy said: “We're going to address people's hopes, not play on their fears.” That is the answer to low turnouts.

I'm worried about my pussy

Over at Whittingon's Diary, Susan Kramer's cat is doing his best to write a satirical diary of what is, so far, a very dull election campaign. Please drop by and cheer him up.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Shiraz and Chardonnay for all

Peter Hain has been talking more nonsense than usual. The Observer reports him as follows:
'There's now a kind of dinner party critics [sic.] who quaff shiraz or chardonnay and just sneeringly say, "You are no different from the Tories",' he said.
There is something ludicrous about the way the educated, metropolitan elite which runs this government pretends to be simple and men and women of the people. It is the spirit which saw Tony Blair telling his local paper in Sedgefield that his favourite meal was fish and chips, while admitting in an Islington cookery book that it was fresh fettucine garnished with an exotic sauce of olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes and capers.

Hain is particularly prone to this sort of thing. I remember a column he wrote for the New Statesman just after he had been selected to fight Neath. It contained every cliche of Welsh life, up to and including miners marching out of the pit with daffodils in their buttonholes singing "Myfanwy".

So let's have no more nonsense. New Labour grandees are richer and more effete than the great majority of their critics. They drink at least their share of Shiraz and Chardonnay, and probably much choicer wines too.

Left-wing politics should have at their heart the wish to see the finer things of life made available to all. The idea that wine is something funny or wicked drunk only by the rich is just the sort of attitude that Hain should be trying to change.

Unfortunately, although he began as a Young Liberal, he fell amongst Trots at Sussex University. He kept these prolier than thou attitudes when he made Blair his god rather than Marx.

Liberal Democrat Battle Bus

Choosing the right staff is very important in an election campaign.

Asbo Concern: The website

Those nice people at Asbo Concern have now sent me a link to their new website. You can find it here.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Sir Paul Marsden: A tribute

Matthew Turner points out the great man's place in history.

Non sequitur corner

The doctorvee blog has picked up my posting from earlier today about the apparent threat to use an Asbo to curb free speech.

Someone has posted this comment there:
As I said, these things are open to abuse - but until you’ve had your house broken into 8 times within a year (and I have!) by the same smackheads - it’s easy to take a flippant approach.
Can I respectfully point out that breaking and entering has always been a crime and ask how banning free speech in a Wiltshire village will deter smackheads?

Asbos: It gets worse

Today's Guardian reveals that Antisocial Behaviour Orders, or the threat of them, are now being used to threaten free speech:
A man who published jokes about the Pope's death on a spoof village website was yesterday threatened with an antisocial behaviour order.
Read the full story here.

Friday, April 08, 2005

This is not the news

There are two news stories that used to appear regularly 20 or more years ago but do not today.

One involves air crashes. In the 1970s the loss of an airliner, sometimes with hundreds of casualties, seemed to be reported on a monthly basis. While fashions in news change, if this were still going on it would certainly be reported, so we can take it that air travel is a lot safer than it used to be.

The second news story involves people swimming the English Channel. Shivering figures larded with goose grease used to appear on our screens regularly, but we don't see them any more. What is going on?

Thinking about it, the most popular story in this category was that a particular child had become the youngest person to swim the Channel. A little research reveals why we don't get these any more.

Dover Museum's website records that the youngest person to have made the crossing is Thomas Gregory, who did it in 1988 at the age of 11. The same site records that since 1994 the rules have forbidden solo attempts by swimmers under the age of 14. Another example of modern safety culture, or were there a series of unfortunate drownings that the authorities hushed up?

Thinking about it, the sort of news stories we don't get nowadays tells us a lot about our society and the way it has changed. There are no more great industrial strikes any more and we don't hear of several Formula 1 drivers dying each season as we used to. The picture is of a safer but less colourful world.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Ann Keen in hot water

The Evening Standard reports:

A Labour MP has been accused for the second time in a week of using schoolchildren to distribute "party" propaganda.

Ann Keen, MP for Brentford and Isleworth, sent a letter to secondary schools highlighting Government moves to encourage students to stay on after 16.

Some headteachers refused to send the letter on to parents on the grounds that it would be inappropriate while at those schools that did get involved, parents complained about their children arriving home with the letter.

A few days ago she was accused of using a primary school and nursery in Chiswick to distribute a letter hailing the recent Budget's new cash for education.

The question, of course, is why the schools' heads allowed anything of the sort to take place.

A song for the Lib Dems

Over at Liberal Dissenter Simon Titley has been seeking his readers help in choosing a campaign tune for the 2005 general election.

By a happy chance his final choice is the song that was my very favourite when I was four years old or so. Read his choice and the reasoning behind it here.

Blair's traditional values

Tony Blair made an immediate bid for the Daily Mail vote yesterday by having himself photographed in front of the last boys in Britain still to wear sailor suits.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

A few more days of liberty in England

The government will not attempt to force its ID card bill through before the general election, reports the BBC.

Asbo Concern

There is an article by Matt Foot in today's Guardian advertising the launch of the group ASBO Concern:

The reason for the diverse nature of Asbos is the ridiculous breadth of what constitutes criminal anti-social behaviour under the Crime and Disorder Act 1988. You can be served with an order if you have behaved in a way "likely to cause alarm".

If the argument of Straw, Blunkett and Clarke is right and people are "terrorising" housing estates, why haven't the police arrested the "terrorists"? Surely they would be liable for arrest under, say, affray, harassment or perhaps even terrorism laws.

ASBO Concern, which does not seem to have its own website yet, will be launched on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Friends Meeting House, London.

Not as fast as we used to be

One of the beliefs we have grown up with is that sporting performance improves year by year. But it seems that things are more complicated than that.

Alan Buckingham writes on Spiked about the crisis in British long-distance running:

Despite an estimated £2.2 billion of government and lottery spending on sport each year, both at elite level and club level distance running is getting slower. In 2003 not only was the fastest British male marathon runner eight minutes slower than in 1985 - a chasm in competitive running terms - he was also slower than Paula Radcliffe.

The picture is mirrored at the club level. During the 1980s the qualifying time to obtain guaranteed entry to the London Marathon for a senior male was 2 hours 40 minutes; today it is 3 hours. Put another way, if the old qualifying time still remained, this year a mere 186 British male runners would have made the standard.

His article reminds me of a piece in the Guardian last year by Peter Radford. He showed that there is plentiful evidence that the times recorded by professional athletes in the eighteenth century were much faster than the records set by Victorian amateurs. So much so that the first four-minute mile may well have been recorded 150 years before Roger Bannister achieved his feat.

Red kites over the Chilterns

Amid all the postings about the general election, it is pleasing to find this one by James Oates, the Lib Dem candidate in Wycombe:
As we walked we caught sight of the most dramatic of all of the creatures of the hills - a Red Kite. These magnificent birds, extinct for so long in England, were of course reintroduced to our area a few years ago. Since that time, they have thrived. Indeed, as we walked we saw more and more of the birds as they soared over the woodlands behind Skirmett. We lost count after 27 individual birds.
People who like this sort of thing will also be interested in the Ospreys at Rutland Water.

Lord Bonkers writes: And quite delicious they are too.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Chelsea players and my vocabulary

Richard Ingrams' magazine The Oldie used to have (and may still have) a feature called "Still With Us". It contained articles about people you thought were dead but turned out not to be.

Someone who falls into this category is Brian Mears, the chairman of Chelsea FC before Ken Bates. He is interviewed by Bryan Cooney in this piece from the Sunday Herald. I am posting it partly because I am a Chelsea fan and partly because Cooney is the first football writer in 29 years to teach me a new word.

In 1976 Brian Glanville described the young Ray Wilkins (still sometimes known as Butch Wilkins in those days) as a "gamin" figure on his England debut. Here Cooney calls Peter Osgood "pavonine", which my dictionary tells me means "of or resembling a peacock".

To be fair, the journalist done great.

Iain Right, Right, Right (Lab, Hartlepool)

Harry's Place has a good posting on the right-wing populist campaign that the by-election victor Iain Wright appears to be running. One of his press releases runs:
The Liberal Democrats’ crime plans would mean the killers of James Bulger could not have been brought to trial and would let young troublemakers run riot in Hartlepool knowing the courts could not touch them.
And so on and on.

My Name is Legion by A N Wilson

Unwilling to let Whittington take up all my blogging time, I have made a new posting to my anthology blog Serendib.

It is an extract from My Name is Legion by A N Wilson. This is a gutsy novel about modern Britain and the tabloid press; the extract I have posted looks at the self-contradictory belief system of his Daily Legion, which owes more than a little to that of the Daily Mail.

Having read it a couple of weeks ago, I now remember My Name as Legion as no more than a superior airport novel. But I may be biased by the fact that I bought my copy at Aberdeen airport.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

The best of British

Tim Worstall has posted his latest round up of the best of British blogging here.

Gore Vidal

Vidal is always good value, and this interview is no exception:
I'd say the downward skid certainly began with Reagan. I came across a comment recently, someone asking why we had gone into both Grenada and Panama, two absolutely nothing little countries who were no danger to us, minding their own business, and we go in and conquer them. Somebody said, well, we did it because we could. That's the attitude of our current rulers.
Thanks to Charlotte Street for the tip.

Whittington is back

By popular demand, if only in the cat world, Susan Kramer's cat Whittington is writing a diary of the forthcoming general election campaign. You can find it here.

Susan Kramer will be the Liberal Democrat candidate in the Richmond Park constituency, which is currently held by another Lib Dem woman, Jenny Tonge. I helped Whittington write what has a claim to be the first British political blog when Susan stood in the first London Mayoral campaign.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Reading Lord of the Flies today

I went to school in an era when it is was pretty much obligatory to study William Golding's Lord of the Flies for O level English Literature. In those days the novel was presented to us as an allegory about original sin, although my English teacher contested this conventional view and asked how civilisation ever arose if evil is inherent in man in the way that Golding appears to argue.

The conventional view, however, is still offered by this website for modern-day high school students in America:
We see the innate evil within the boys which is a reflection of the evil within the entire mankind.
I wonder if we do still see this. One of the characteristics of forgeries is that they are much easier to detect 50 years on. When one looks at Han van Meegeren's fake Vermeers today, some of the faces have a distinctly 1930s look. Presumably people at the time could not see this: they were to close to the era in which the forgeries were made.

Reading Lord of the Flies today it seems to me to have a strong scent of 1950s England that critics at the times were unable to detect, again because they were too close to that decade. As I wrote the other day, the 1950s - and in particular their educational practices - now seem very strange to us. This was brought home to me by a couple of books I read recently: Simon Gray's The Smoking Diaries and Tim Jeal's Swimming With My Father.

Gray's book is fun though ultimately insubstantial, but Jeal's memoir of parents is a book that stays with you. I quote here two passages from it which convey well the mentality which a certain sort of 1950s education gave rise to:
Schools like Boarzell seemed to be preparing boys for a harsh life on the frontiers of an Empire, which, by 1953, was doomed. Soon I took on, as my own opinion, the regulation view that boys who complained about physical hardships, such as cold showers in February, and playing rugby on frozen pitches, were contemptible. Even before I came to this conclusion. My letters home needed no vetting. Only recent new boys tried to express what they felt, rather than what they soon knew they ought to feel. It was strange how we added rules of our own to an already rules-bound existence. Our prohibition on "sneaking" to a master about bullying, or thieving from tuck boxes, might have enables us to hold out in a German prison camp without betraying the location of an escape tunnel, but in the 1950s it merely meant that our daily lives were much nastier than they need have been.
And:
I never mentioned to my parents the mauve and purple bruises that dappled my buttocks in term time and which earned me admiring comments in the showers. My fear of being guilty of unmanly whingeing only partly explains my reticence. I may have feared that my parents' sympathy would pierce the defensive hide I was trying to grow. Worse still, if I told them how I really felt, and they failed to remove me, how would I be able to think that they still loved me?
Jeal is describing private education of 50 years ago, not today, though his bruised bottom should get me a few hits from the dirty mac brigade. And a little reticence would be welcome in our emotionally incontinent age.

Nevertheless, having read Swimming With My Father I am less inclined to see Lord of the Flies as a timeless allegory. Its violence and the tribalism seem exactly what one would expect from a group of boys who had been subjected to British prep schools for boys in the 1950s.

Derek Wyatt

Anyone following the link to the 1976 Five Nations in the previous post may be interested to know that the D M Wyatt who came on as a replacement for England at Murrayfield is now Labour MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey.

English rugby: The bad old days

The death the other day of Charles Kent at the early age of 51 brings back memories of an era when one did not so much support the English rugby team as suffer with it. (We heard faint echoes of them in the international season that has just ended.) Every selection seemed to contain half a dozen new caps, and the coaches were obsessed with elaborate tapped-penalty moves which never, ever came off.

Kent's selection - he won five caps at centre in 1977 and 1978 - was based upon the insight that if England tried to string more than two passes together they invariably dropped the ball. His approach upon receiving the ball was to run headlong at the opposition's midfield with an almost insane courage, whereupon the English pack (a strength even in those dark days) would wade in to support him. His was not the only selection of those days based upon despair of winning by more conventional means: England fielded a remarkably chunky scrum half - Mike Lampkowski - throughout the 1976 Five Nations.

England were not helped by the ramshackle nature of their club rugby. The best players were scattered amongst dozens of clubs which seldom played one another. Nevertheless, the talent was there: the bulk of Bill Beaumont's 1980 grand slam XV, playing as North & Midlands, had beaten the touring All Blacks several years previously.

As the Irish hooker Ken Kennedy said at the time: "England have the players; what they have to do is find the selectors who will pick them."

Friday, April 01, 2005

Heading for the Swiss border

Here is today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Last farewells

The adjournment debate before the Commons rose for Easter saw several MPs make their farewell speeches. With everyone expecting the election to be called early next week, last Thursday offered the final chance for most backbenchers to be heard in this parliament.

Sir Teddy Taylor, standing down in Southend East, has been an elder statesman for as long as anyone can recall. You have to be venerable to remember Tory MPs in Glasgow. He is so venerable he used to be one.

Such speeches are often sad, but Taylor’s felt sadder than most. He spoke of his opposition to devolution and all things European. You sensed a career spent swimming against the tide, and that the tide had won.

Another cause of this melancholy was his concern that young people are no longer interested in politics. He described meeting a group of 17-year-olds. A few hated the government, but had no enthusiasm for the Tories either: “There was no capitalist pig stuff or anything like that. They just thought that they were totally irrelevant and they had no views on them at all.” Only one intended to vote Liberal Democrat. But that was one more than intended to vote Labour or Conservative.

Taylor contrasted this with his own student days when “everyone was involved in a party or movement of some sort”.

Perhaps the idea that young people ought to be madly political relies on a rosy view of the 1960s (or, in Taylor’s case, the 1950s). Maybe you need to have lived a bit to become politicised – to have lost a job or seen the legal system at work.

And maybe the increasingly long apprenticeship we impose upon teenagers – mentored and counselled to within an inch of their lives – saps their confidence. Meanwhile the health professions are inventing a new category of “young adults”, convinced no one can cope with mainstream services until past 25.

A happier note was struck by our Richard Allan, who is leaving voluntarily for a career outside. “I have the fake passport printed and the tunnel dug,” he told the House.

In such cases it is usual to disguise yourself as a Flemish factory worker and head for the Swiss border. I hope he sends us a postcard when he gets there.