Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Rolling vegans down a hill

This morning's Guardian reports Monday's events at Cooper's Hill near Brockworth in Gloucestershire, where the locals traditionally hurl themselves down a 1 in 2 hill in pursuit of a Double Gloucester cheese.

Just the sort of eccentricity we English are known for, you might think. Though not in the class of Hallaton in Leicestershire, where Bottle Kicking and Hare Pie Scrambling take place every Easter Monday. (Yes, really. And you thought I made Lord Bonkers' Diary up.)

But not everyone is happy. The Grauniad quotes Yvonne Taylor, chair of the animal rights campaign group Peta, as saying: "It's just not fair that vegans cannot enjoy the fun of the cheese rolling contest."

Why can't vegans take part? They don't have to eat the cheese if they catch it. They can always release it into the wild.

Another solution would be to role the vegans down Cooper's Hill.

Rant of the Week

From Recess Monkey's column in the free newspaper The London Line:
Has Britain finally become a franchise of the USA? This week, Home Secretary Charles Clarke agreed to extradite to the States three City whizz-kids, who are implicated in the Enron accounts-fiddling affair. That is three British people accused of a crime carried out in Britain being sent to face a 35-year jail term in the US if convicted. Perhaps if Condoleezza Rice asks him nicely, Charles Clarke will roll over to have his tummy tickled, too.

Patsy Calton

Michael White's Guardian obituary of the Liberal Democrat MP for Cheadle, who died on Sunday, can be found here.

Monday, May 30, 2005

This is not the news either

Last month I wrote about news stories that you do not read any more. I was thinking of plane crashes, Formula One drivers dying and ever younger children swimming the English Channel. Thinking about it, I might have included strikes too.

For a while this week it looked as if another of them was making a come back: Japanese soldiers emerging from the jungle not knowing that the Second World War was over. On Friday the BBC reported:
Japanese officials are investigating claims that two men living in jungle in the Philippines are Japanese soldiers left behind after World War II.
However, this morning's Australian Daily Telegraph (a paper whose readers presumably believe the country is going to the dingoes) says:

Security forces on the insurgency-wracked Philippine island of Mindanao are increasingly sceptical of reports that two elderly Japanese men have been hiding in the jungle since World War II.

While Japanese diplomats tried for a fourth day to establish the veracity of the reports, suspicion grew today that kidnapping gangs on the island might have invented the rumours as a scam to lure foreigners into the region.

Oh well, maybe someone will sight the Loch Ness Monster this summer.

The Best of British

Tim Worstall's latest round up of the best in British blogs can be found here.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Less a constituency than an incantation

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News:

Feigned praise

Sammy Wilson, the new MP for East Antrim, gave the best guide to maiden speeches. His leader Ian Paisley had told him to say nice things about his constituency, pay tribute to his predecessor and not be controversial.

Wilson hymned the beauties of Ulster, but found it hard to be too kind about the previous member. He had spent years trying to get rid of him. Worse, they are neighbours: “In fact, he is only a stone’s throw away – I pick them out of the garden every morning.”

And controversy? He was doing fine till he got on to King Billy and the Boyne. But then he is a Democratic Unionist.

Let’s see how some of the Liberal Democrats’ maiden speeches measured up last week. Danny Alexander had an advantage: his is less a constituency than an incantation. Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey – there are coach tours with less ambitious itineraries. Dan Rogerson struck a nationalist note: North Cornwall “stretches from the border with England…”

Elsewhere it was local history time. Chris Huhne said Eastleigh was created when the London & South Western Railway’s works arrived there in 1891, and William Cobbett once lived down the road.

Julia Goldsworthy had to mention two previous MPs for Falmouth & Camborne. Not just Candy Atherton, but also David Mudd. He won it for the Tories back in 1970 and took it into his head to stand as an independent this time. David Howarth said Cambridge often changed hands in the nineteenth century, usually after the unseating of MPs for corruption, but did not name names.

That was tending to the controversial. Chris Huhne went all the way, questioning Labour’s mandate with the lowest vote share of any governing party since 1832. Dan Rogerson called for the law to ensure only pasties made in the Duchy can be sold as Cornish pasties. That is controversial to some, but if they stop claiming to make Melton Mowbray pork pies down there he may even win support from us in Leicestershire.

Sammy Wilson also said a maiden speech is like a first night out with a girl: “One wants to do enough to impress but not too much and get in trouble with her father.” I wonder what Dr Paisley thought of that?

Headline of the Day

Thank you to the Guardian:

Kitchen knife ban sought

Thursday, May 26, 2005

A marriage of convenience?

A couple of weeks ago I reported that a Lib Dem/Tory administration had ousted Labour and taken control of Leicester City Council.

Political passions continue to run high in the city, as this BBC report shows:
A Leicester man who gathered a 2,000 name petition calling for free toilets in the city is worried a new council administration could reintroduce fees.

Nonsensical Quote of the Week

It comes from Graham Eccles, the chairman and managing director of South West Trains. Speaking of the slam-door rolling stock his company is in the process of withdrawing, he says:
"Although they have passed their sell-by date, they don't owe anybody a living."
Can any reader make sense of it?

Ludwig Wittgenstein writes: It's sure as hell got me beat.

The Shropshire Star returns to form

It is hard to resist a story that begins:
Shropshire fish and chip shop magnate Balwinder Singh Chatha...

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Did you have help with this, Tompkins?

There is an article on the BBC website questioning the value of schools giving children homework. Your task is to guess which of these quotations comes from the head of a state primary school and which from the head of a private prep school.

Quotation 1
"Children should be allowed to experience the joy of childhood and have time for play and activity, to develop human qualities, and develop talents and interests that will last them a lifetime."
Quotation 2

"[Homework is] a basis for parents and pupils to work together and to understand the curriculum, reinforcing knowledge for both students and parents. It's a handy assessment tool for teachers in order for them to understand their pupils. In addition, it's a very good home-school link.
The answer is that Quotation 1 come from the prep school head.

I have always argued that professional left's enthusiasm for homework springs from a wish to discipline parents quite as much as a wish to discipline children. Even so, it is a surprise to see this confirmed so blatantly in Quotation 2.

Many Liberal Democrats believe as an article of faith that the state should be the monopoly provider of education, and that there should be no parental choice allowed within that system.

Perhaps it is time for them to think again?

ID card bill ignores recommended safeguards

Analysis from Privacy International shows that the reintroduced identity cards bill ignores all but 9 of the 105 recommendations for reform made by the home affairs select committee after the original proposals were published.

Read more here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Amani, T-Jay and Lita

I am not one to worry about the tabloid hate figure of the week, but it's hard to resist Julie Atkins. She is the mother whose three daughters gave birth aged 12, 14 and 16.

Her grandchildren's names are Amani, T-Jay and Lita, but it's a free country.

She was on the regional TV news here in the East Midlands last night, complaining that she has been unfairly treated and misquoted by the press.

I am quite prepared to believe it, but I could not help laughing when she said:

"I never said I blamed the school. It's the government's fault."

The Orange Book

This one is strictly for those with an interest in the internal policy debates of the Liberal Democrats. (If you are going to fall asleep in here, do please try not to snore.)

The Westminster Bookshop says it has got hold of new stocks of last year's The Orange Book, the oddly timed collection of essays from some of the brighter Lib Dem MPs.

Some regarded it as the work of the Devil, but see my more measured review here.

Monday, May 23, 2005

In praise of the BBC strike

It was wonderful not to listen to the Radio 4 Today programme this morning. Though the selection of repeats broadcast in its place was not inspiring, there was something very restful about not hearing politicians, John Humphrys or reports of the latest disaster.

It may sound naive to say that if there were fewer newspapers and broadcasting outlets to report it then less would happen. But so much news now consists of events staged for the media or commentary on other media reports that I suspect there is some truth in that argument.

Legend persists (and this website dates it to Good Friday 1930) that one evening the BBC announced: "There is no news [or it may have been "are no news" in those days] this evening, so instead here is some light orchestral music." After this morning's experience I see the sense of that approach.

The major reason I listen to Today is that I am used to timing my morning routine by it. (If it is the review of the papers then I should be brushing my teeth - that kind of thing.)

Yet they are not even very good at timekeeping any more. The sports desk used to be on at exactly 25 minutes past the hour, now it often starts five minutes after that. And they have stopped bothering to announce that Long Wave listeners are about to leave the programme for Yesterday in Parliament. They just fade it out.

The answer is to buy a clock for the bathroom so I can listen to Radio 3 in the mornings instead.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Best of British

Let me see. There's Javine and Bucks Fizz and the Brotherhood of Man.

Oh yes, and there's Tim Worstall's latest Britblog roundup.

The heart of Europe (boom bang-a boom)

Last night's Eurovision Song Contest was fascinating. I don't mean the songs - it is always a mistake to watch the songs - but the voting.

As Terry Wogan pointed out, the bottom four places were occupied by Spain, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, who just happen to be the four largest financial contributors to the European Broadcasting Union. As a picture of how Europe now operates, it could not be bettered.

Progressive Britons used to imagine that if they joined the original six members of the EEC then they would have arrived at the heart of Europe. It now seems that the heart has moved elsewhere.

It's not just that there are the power blocs of Balkan and Baltic states which vote for one another with ruthless discipline. As well as there being this geographic shift there has been a cultural one.

When the UK chose Javine's "Touch my Fire" we probably thought we were being rather daring choosing a song with such a Bollywood sound. As it happened there was nothing daring about it at all. Europe's heart has moved a long way to the east, and now everyone sounds something like that. If anything, her song was lost in the crowd.

This suggests that the old arguments about a shared Western European culture will no longer wash. The European Union is going to be a far more diverse and interesting place than we had once imagined, though for how much longer Western European voters will want to go on funding it remains to be seen.

So where does the UK go from here in Eurovision? That Moldovan grandmother with her drum put me in mind of the British group Lieutenant Pigeon from the early 1970s and their classic "Mouldy Old Dough". That had the leader's mother playing second piano.

Their oompah sound may be just what we need to gain some Central European votes next time. I wonder if they are still playing?

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Bolsover and D. H. Lawrence

Just as it was more or less obligatory for someone of my generation to study Lord of the Flies at O level, so D. H. Lawrence was hard to avoid if you took English Literature at A level.

Perhaps for that reason, I always think of Lawrence as a writer who appeals most to adolescents. No doubt this is unfair, but I have seldom been tempted to spend much time on Lawrence since leaving school.

One thing I disliked about him even as a teenager was his exaggerated rhetoric about industrialisation. Again and again, industrialism and the way of life it leads to are compared unfavourably with rural, "organic" alternative. It seemed reactionary, and at worst to point the way towards something like Nazism.

I could not have put it half so neatly, but Edward Mendelson expresses this distrust of Lawrence and the other early twentieth century Modernists perfectly.

One of the unexpected side-effects of my visit to Bolsover Castle yesterday is that I now understand Lawrence better.

Let me explain. Even to those of us who live elsewhere in the East Midlands, the area to the north of Nottingham and the east of Chesterfield is a non-descript one that we imagine to have always been industrialised. We think of it as all Dennis Skinner and slagheaps.

Yet a little study shows that this is a travesty. Mining came much later to the area than you might imagine. So much so that the first coal mine did not open at Bolsover until 1891.

For centuries this was an area of great landed estates - so much so that there is an area of Nottinghamshire still known "the Dukeries" because of the number of leading aristocrats who had houses there. We should imagine instead a rural landscape dotted with great houses, the whole devoted to sport or, in the case of Bolsover, more amorous pleasures.

In Eastwood, where Lawrence grew up, the mines opened a decade or two earlier. But it remains true that, in his own boyhood, Lawrence saw the rural, aristocratic landscape summoned up by Bolsover Castle transformed into one of exceptional industrial desolation

This should not lead you to a Tory love of aristocrats - it was, after all, they who sold the land or the mineral rights to allow this spoilation to take place - but it does explain Lawrence's extreme reaction to industrialisation. It was something he had lived through in his own lifetime.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Bolsover Castle

Look where I have been today. The castle remains date from the early part of the sixteenth century, and show a building dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure. Ironically, this mock castle went on to be garrisoned by the Royalists in the Civil War.

There is no truth in Lord Bonkers' suggestion that is the ancestral home of the Skinner family.

Slap a Norman innit?

Here is today's Election Points from Liberal Democrat News. Eagle-eyed readers may spot an amusing name that appeared on this blog earlier in the week.


They make me uneasy. In part it’s what they wear – on their heads in particular. In part it’s the strange words they use. It’s almost a different language.

Yes, there’s something about seeing the aristocracy out in force at the State Opening that makes my hackles rise. I remember the English civil war radical who asked who his betters were but the descendants of William the Conqueror’s generals. Slap a Norman innit?

The theme of the Queen’s Speech, of course, was respect. Ali G has not stopped New Labour using the word any more than the League of Gentlemen stopped Liberal Democrats demanding everything should be local.

For ministers have returned from the election campaign convinced the public is talking of nothing but antisocial behaviour. To an extent this is a sign of the sheltered lives they lead. People have always been convinced things were used to be better. And if you ask them what they mean by “antisocial behaviour”, it usually turns out to be criminality – often serious criminality.

As far as it is a new problem, the question is whether government will make things better or worse. I am not just thinking of the scaremongering by some politicians that encourages voters to see every timid 14-year-old in a hoodie as a potential mugger, though there is a lot of it about.

The Labour Party’s own website talks of “tackling the linked problems of crime, terrorism, illegal immigration, drugs and anti-social behaviour”. Whatever you think of groups of youths hanging around, it’s a bit much to link them to terrorism.

I also mean that encouraging people to call in the state to solve every problem could increase their feeling of powerlessness. Watching the parenting advice programmes that now dominate the airwaves – badly behaved children are the new gardening – you get the impression many adults feel they are not allowed to do anything off their own bats.

But there is hope. The Daily Express has been running a campaign in favour of bringing back National Service. Being the Express it is also against baseball caps and hoodies – and quite possibly against blue jeans too.

Tuesday’s paper carried a supportive article by the executive director of Community Service Volunteers. (It’s an odd interpretation of ‘volunteer’, but let that pass.)

Her name? Dame Elisabeth Hoodless.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Politicians and crime

There is an interesting article by Craig O'Malley on the Spiked website:

The rise of crime and antisocial behaviour to the top of the political agenda is a relatively recent phenomenon. For much of the twentieth century crime had a minor place in political life.

Take the manifestos of the big three political parties - Conservative/ Unionist, Labour and Liberal - during the first half of the twentieth century. Of the 35 manifestos issued during the 11 elections between 1900 and 1935, there is only one brief reference to law and order. Despite acute political discord and, in the later interwar period, reports of rising crime rates, the topic failed to register as a party political issue. Similarly, after 1945 there was a rise in recorded crime, but the issue remained at the periphery of party political debate.

Asking why it is that crime has risen to such prominence, O'Malley argues:
For the political class, the issues of crime and antisocial behaviour seem to offer the prospect of bridging the chasm with a cynical and disengaged public.

The West in white hats

There was an odd article on Uzbekistan in today's Guardian. John Laughland wrote:
Take the source of Friday's atrocity reports from Andijan: one "opposition journalist" from the website ferghana.ru, which seems to be a shop window for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. IWPR, which has since provided the bulk of reports in the western press, is overwhelmingly funded by western governments and private foundations close to them: the US state department, USAid, the National Endowment for Democracy, the US Institute for Peace, George Soros's Open Society Foundation, the British Foreign Office, the European commission, the OSCE, Unesco, and other European governments, among others.
I am not sure what he is arguing here. Is he saying that any news reports from Western-financed sources are inherently unreliable, or that it is illegitimate for the West to support democratic movements at all?

Either way, it looks like a classic example of Western liberal self-hatred to me. Sometimes we are the good guys and we should not be embarrassed by it.

Democracy is better than tyranny, and the more money we spend on saying so the better.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Not a clean enough sheet

In the aftermath of the Liberal Democrats' disappointing election result, Charles Kennedy declared:

We must also, I believe, adopt a 'clean sheet' approach to policy, so that, at the start of every new parliament, we are forced to look afresh at all our policy to ensure that it is relevant.

Unfortunately the sheet still has a few stains, judging by Kennedy's response to the Queen's Speech yesterday:

We are all for diversity in the provision of quality public services. However, what most of us realised during the campaign is that real choice means people knowing that they can receive for themselves and their families at the point of need - and based on need, not ability to pay - quality local provision, whether it be at the school, the hospital or whatever. That is preferable to the false idea of having massive choice, which really involves travel, complexity and all the rest of it, and it is certainly the approach that we shall continue to advocate.
No, choice is one thing and quality is a different thing. You do not turn quality into choice by calling it "real choice".

The question is whether you will even get quality if you force people to accept whatever is provided locally, no matter how bad it is. I do not think you will, which is why I am a Liberal and not a Socialist. I also believe that people have very different beliefs, needs and wishes, and that public services have to recognise this if they are to remain politically and economically viable.

The anti-choice position is rooted in an outdated view of a passive, homogeneous populace which will accept whatever is put before it with a shrug and a "mustn't grumble". For better or worse - and readers of this blog will know that I am more susceptible to nostalgia than most - that world has gone.

Still, Michael Meacher would agree with Charles:

What people want locally is consistent high quality, not choice that leads some hospitals and schools to be oversubscribed while others sink for lack of demand.

If schools and hospitals lack demand, could it be that they are not very good? And if they are not very good, why should people be forced to use them? And if they are forced to use them, why should they vote for you?

Sympathy for the devil

It's not often someone makes me see Tony Blair's good points, but Michael Meacher in the Guardian today managed to do just that.

In his article Meacher spells out what he believes Blair must do to "reconnect with Labour core voters".

Yes, it's the same Michael Meacher who spent the 1980s as Tony Benn's representative on Earth, and thus did more than almost anyone to ensure that the Tories stayed in power for 18 years.

Benn may have greeted the party's 1983 defeat as "eight million votes for socialism", but most of his colleagues drew the lesson that connecting with Labour core voters is not enough.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Siôn Simon Syndrome

Back in March, discussing a Commons speech by Siôn Simon, the Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington, I suggested:
there is a law that people accuse others of the faults they most fear in themselves, much as those who make most fuss about homosexuality are supposed to be repressed homosexuals themselves.
I wrote this because Simon accused Conservative Members of being "childish and ridiculous" while himself speaking in the most bizarre sing-song voice. So let's call the affliction Siôn Simon Syndrome - or SSS for short.

I think I have found another sufferer.

Last year I complained about Simon Hoggart turning his fire on soft targets like trainspotters. Now I think I know why I did it. It's SSS.

In his memoirs Give Me Ten Seconds, John Sergeant writes of his time as a reporter in Northern Ireland. As he says, "Belfast proved to be the real training ground for some of the best journalists of our generation." Among them were Simon Winchester, Martin Bell, Max Hastings, Robert Fisk and Hoggart.

They dealt with the inevitable tension in different ways. And Hoggart's method was to "build model aircraft in his room at the Europa Hotel".

An obvious case of SSS. Hoggart is sensitive about his model aircraft - aren't they a bit nerdy? - so he seeks to extirpate these feelings by attacking trainspotters.

Don't get me wrong. I think building model aircraft is a splendid hobby, and the world would be a better place if more people - and more children in particular - had hobbies. Nowadays we are all too cool to be enthusiastic about anything. But the diagnosis is clear.

Talking of Give Me Ten Seconds, its chief interest is not Sergeant's career in journalism but his brief stint as an actor. He appeared in Alan Bennett's 1966 comedy series On the Margin. (It was widely expected that Bennett would cast Sergeant's Oxford contemporary Michael Palin, but he thought him "too showbiz".) The tapes of it have long been wiped, but it contains some of Bennett's most famous sketches - his NORWICH monologue, for instance.

So does Siôn Simon Syndrome have a wider political application? I shall look out for more examples, but I have already found one area where it occurs.

Self-styled "radical Liberals" in the Liberal Democrats who complain about the Social Democrats in the party often support Social Democrat policies themselves without realising it. I suppose that counts as subconscious SSS.

Did more postal voting lower the turnout?

Now that really would be funny.

The excellent blog politicalbetting.com looks at the evidence.

And finally Esther...

This morning's Daily Express has an article in support of its "Bring back National Service and get rid of the yobs" campaign by the Executive Director of Community Service Volunteers.

Her name?

Dame Elisabeth Hoodless.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Politics Online relaunches

Politics Online have revamped their website. They claim:
  • Integrated blog by ePolitics experts and practitioners;
  • RSS feed on the latest buzz;
  • Weekly poll on current news;
  • Enhanced website search function;
  • Preople (sic.) political candidate challenge;
  • Internet and politics book reviews;
  • And much more.

See for yourself here.

Fighting like Socialists

The Weekly Worker has an article on the tensions within Respect. It's hard to see how this lot can hang together for long, as the SWP and Galloway are essentially on opposite ends of the ice pick.

I found this via A Councillor Writes.

More on fox hunting

I was sitting on a train in the rush hour at Leicester station this evening when a fox came trotting down the length of platform 4.

The next thing you know they will be sitting on the train and giving you a dirty look when you ask them to take their brush off the seat next to them.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The dog that didn't bark

We were talking in the committee room in Harborough on polling day. Someone remarked how little of an issue fox hunting had been in the campaign. It was not mentioned at the hustings: it was hardly mentioned on the doorstep.

This was in Harborough, the constituency which, along with Rutland and Melton, can claim to be the spiritual home of the sport. (Melton Mowbray was the social centre for hunting in the nineteenth century, but it became too expensive and too scandal ridden. So in Edwardian days the best people came to Market Harborough instead.)

A lot of people writing before the election seemed convinced that hunting would be the most important issue in every rural seat. This was never going to happen, and if it did not happen in Harborough, I doubt it happened anywhere.

Adrian Flook, the sitting Tory MP who was defeated when we won back Taunton, rather gave the game away. He told the Guardian he:
believed the key reason he will hold the seat is the influx of 4,000 new voters from the suburbs of London and Birmingham.
So most rural voters don't worry much about hunting at all, and certainly not enough for it to affect the way they vote.

I did not support the hunting ban. It seemed to me a late skirmish in the class war and I was not convinced that foxes would be any better off as a result. But we should not get the question out of proportion.

Heretical thoughts on education

We have been promised a policy review. And Ming the Merciless says:
"What Charles Kennedy wants is a policy review which begins without any precondition or presupposition."
You can take that as a sign that the Liberal Democrat leadership was disappointed with the election result. If they had been pleased with it they would be boasting that our policies had been vindicated rather than seeking to bury them.

Anyway, let's have some new thinking on education. Our policy in the election, if I understood it right, was that by some modest reordering of government spending we could guarantee that every school would be of a high standard and that parents would be willing to give up any right to choose which school their children attended as a result.

My old friend Lord Bonkers satirised this policy as follows:

Tuesday. Still at Westminster, I attend a meeting of the parliamentary party and demonstrate the Bonkers Patent Abdominal Protector for Canvassers. It is based upon the box worn by batsmen, but has been adapted to include both a jute bag that will carry an entire Focus round and a flask that takes a couple of generous measures of Auld Johnston (that most prized of Highland malts). Asked why I am promoting it at this juncture, I reply that, if we seriously intend sending our chaps out on to the streets of such towns as Guildford, Richmond and Cheltenham to tell the voters we shall allow them no choice in which school their children attend, they will need all the protection they can get. The chairman hurries us on to next business, but I am gratified by the number of MPs who come up afterwards to place firm orders.

I do not think the mention of Guildford was prophetic, as the policy was hardly mentioned in the campaign. But it is clear that the Liberal Democrats badly need to so some new thinking on education.

As a starting point, let me suggest this piece by Madsen Pirie on the Adam Smith Institute's blog:

Quality state schools, including grammar and selective schools, are heavily over-subscribed. Determined middle class parents move into their catchment areas, and some lie about their child's address. Many private schools are over-subscribed, too, with their high price indicating an excess of demand over supply. The only places over-supplied are in low quality comprehensive schools with dismal educational records.

We need more good quality schools. Successful policy should allow and encourage new schools to start up, minimizing the regulatory obstacles and ending local authority obstruction. Groups of parents, teachers and businessmen should be able to start new schools rapidly, concentrating on good teaching and correct attitudes. Instead of attending in minute detail to the inputs, there should be a presumption in favour of new schools, with emphasis on their output.

It took a civil servant to think up the 'surplus places' rule. It prevented new schools in areas where there were unfilled places in existing schools, which is roughly equivalent to banning a new restaurant when there are empty tables at worthless ones in the same area.

This sort of thinking is miles from where the party is at the moment. But these are the sort of ideas we need to explore if we are to offer something more than a variety of state socialism or be more than the political mouthpiece for the adolescent nihilism of the teachers' unions.

Patricia Hewitt and principle

Patricia Hewitt on Jonathan Dimbleby's programme today:
"We were elected on a manifesto. It includes identity cards and yes we will go ahead with that."
Fact: Patricia Hewitt was General Secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties between 1974 and 1983.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Leicestershire consolation

We may have lost Leicester South and failed to take Harborough, but at least the Liberal Democrats are in charge of Leicester City Council again.

We have ousted the minority Labour administration and are having another go at running things with the Tories. More details here.

Friday, May 13, 2005

The last Election Points

Next week my Liberal Democrat News column will spontaneously regenerate to become House Points again.

Lessons to learn

It’s post mortem time. To begin with Labour, a lot of people have got overexcited. A majority of 67 is more than comfortable by historic standards and Tony Blair is not going anywhere in a hurry. He will be around to thwart Gordon Brown a few times yet. And if Brown ever does become prime minister, many will find the experience less enjoyable than they expected.

Across the Commons, the Tories cannot agree on a strategy. Should they skip a generation? They tried that and got William Hague. Should they ask their members? They tried that and got Iain Duncan Smith. Should they go for a safe pair of hands? They tried that and got Michael Howard.

It seems to be coming down to a contest between David Davis and Liam Fox, with the sensible people left in the party searching desperately for a candidate who might have wider appeal. And the bookies report a surge of support for William Hague. Watch this space.

The Tory crisis is as much about strategy as leadership, and the Liberal Democrats have a lot of strategic thinking to do too. We are promised a review of policy, but it is important that we first understand what is wrong with the current system.

The problem is not that Conference asserts itself and passes policies the leadership does not want. It is that Conference will support almost anything that is put in front of it. We do sometimes seem to take our policies as a job lot from pressure groups. That is why we find ourselves supporting bans on fairground goldfish or wanting to criminalise a single parental smack. But this does not happen at Conference. It happens long before on the working parties that Federal Policy Committee appoints.

And when we get good policy, we don’t use it. The report on public services by Chris Huhne’s group was the best work the party has done for years. Yet its emphasis on local decision making hardly featured in the campaign.

We need to think about what it is that Liberal Democrats believe and who we speak for. The months after a general election are the one time a party gets to do this. When we have done it will be easier to make good policy.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Power of Nightmares

Still on the Guardian's website, however, is today's article about Adam Curtis showing his documentary series at Cannes:
"What happens on US TV now is that you have a theatre of confrontation so that people avoid having to seriously analyse what the modern world is like - perhaps because of the emotional shock of September 11," says Curtis. "People take so-called left or right positions and shout at each other. It's almost like the court of Louis XIV - people taking elaborate positions and not thinking very much."

The case of the disappearing ricin

It seems that the Guardian has pulled Duncan Campbell's article on the ricin plot that never was. I discussed it in this post.

The Register has the details and will also point you to sites where you can still read it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Double carpet (whatever that means)

The site poiticalbetting.com reports that the market has already opened on the next general election:
The opening spreads from Spreadfair are LAB 325-335: CON 226-232: LD 54-60 . The best prices on the conventional markets are LAB 4/7: CON 7/4: LD 80/1.

Job of the Week

It's time for some more gentle fun at the expense of the recruitment advertisments in the Guardian's Society supplement.

Nottingham City Council is seeking a "Head of Anti-social Behaviour" (£40,440 - £42,945).

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Inventing the Victorians - and the 1950s

I have just posted part of Matthew Sweet's conclusion to his Inventing the Victorians to my anthology blog Serendib.

Sweet argues that we have invested a great deal in defining ourselves as not being like the Victorians, and that we therefore have a vested interest in maintaining a false picture of them. The more "cruel, hypocritical, repressive, intolerant, prudish and cheerless" they appear, the more modern and creditable we seem by contrast. (It also shows just how well Sweet can write.)

The other evening I wrote that the past - in particular the 1940s and 1950s - took place in colour. An obvious point, though one that was lost on the makers of the film Pleasantville, who were convinced that the fifties happened in black and white.

Another reason we are so down on the fifties is our reverence for the sixties. Just as we define ourselves by not being like the Victorians, so we think the important thing about the sixties is that they were not the fifties. Yet as both decades recede into the past, the similarities between them become more apparent.

Central to the iconography of the sixties were symbols of authority like traditional bobbies, London buses and red pillar boxes. The grown ups were in charge and the flower children free to play as a result. It all looks rather innocent now, and evokes the Planet Ladybird that was mentioned in a quotation in another recent post.

See how all this stuff hangs together?

Monday, May 09, 2005

Forgotten Yorkshire disasters

From Channel Four yesterday evening I learned of a dam failure that flooded Sheffield and the loss of an airship over the Humber.

It's amazing what you learn watching the right programmes.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

The past took place in colour

I am writing this (thanks to the extra power points I had installed on election day) while watching Victory in Europe in Colour on ITV.

It is worth asking how much our view of the 1940s and 1950s as dull, colourless decades owes to the fact that we generally see them only in black and white.

Least said Souness mended

A couple of weeks ago the Newcastle United players Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer were sent off for fighting one another. At the press conference after the game their manager Graeme Souness broke off from discussing the affair to complain about the referee's performance.

On yesterday's Match of the Day Souness went one better. He blamed the referee for the fact that his players had been fighting.

I blame David Mellor.

President Bush is right

There's a sentence you don't write every day. But it would be churlish not to praise his speech in Lativa. The BBC reports:

President Bush has branded the former Soviet domination of eastern Europe one of "the greatest wrongs of history"...

Speaking in Riga, Latvia's capital, Mr Bush praised the Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania - now members of the EU and Nato - for keeping "a long vigil of suffering and hope" during almost 50 years of Soviet occupation.

While the end of World War II brought peace to these countries, it also brought "occupation and communist oppression", Mr Bush said after talks with the presidents of the three countries.

Are you a Party member, comrade?

A letter in yesterday's Guardian shows that the spirit of Brezhnev's Soviet Union is alive and well in the British Labour Party:
I cannot help but feel a little bit peeved with my left-leaning friends and acquaintances who voted tactically, or not all, to give Tony Blair the bloody nose he probably deserved. They will benefit from all of the future education, health and social benefits that those of us who worked so hard for the Labour government's return, and voted the same way, will enjoy. Is there not any way in which the benefits could be distributed according to electoral merit?

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Lib Dem targets for 2009 or 2010

Nick Barlow has done us all a service by analysing the general election results and drawing up lists of our new target seats. Below I list our top 12 targets against both Labour and the Tories.

There are some hardy perennials here and it is hard to escape the impression that we are still desperately short of winnable seats, but here are the lists. The percentage given is the size of the Labour or Tory majority over the Liberal Democrats.

Labour held seats
1. Edinburgh South - 0.95%
2. Islington South and Finsbury - 1.56%
3. Aberdeen South - 2.24%
4. Oxford East - 2.30%
5. Watford - 2.33%
6. Edinburgh North - 5.05%
7. Durham City - 7.38%
8. Oldham East and Saddleworth - 8.28%
9. Norwich South - 8.66%
10. Leicester South - 8.77%
11. Bradford North - 10.21%
12. Newcastle Central - 11.08%

Conservative held seats
1. Guildford - 0.67%
2. Eastbourne - 2.32%
3. Totnes - 3.85%
4. Weston-Super-Mare - 4.24%
5. Dorset North - 4.25%
6. Ludlow - 4.36%
7. Dorset West - 4.63%
8. Worcestershire West - 5.36%
9. Devon West and Torridge - 5.53%
10. Wells - 5.74%
11. Newbury - 6.33%
12. Harborough - 8.12%

Friday, May 06, 2005

The long march

We did not win Harborough, but we did reduce the Tory majority from 5252 last time to 3892 this time. The full result is here.

Meanwhile, here is a quotation from the American journalist I. F. Stone:

The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you're going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins.

In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got be willing - for the sheer fun and joy of it - to go right ahead and fight, knowing you're going to lose. You mustn't feel like a martyr. You've got to enjoy it.

I hope it won't take us a hundred years to take Harborough, but you get the point.

The general election on the Net

On Wednesday Robert MacMillan of the Washington Post published an article looking at the parties' online campaigning in the British general election:
Great Britain's three main political parties made a big effort to revamp their Internet operations in time for the 2005 campaign ... not that it will make a single bit of difference in how the elections turn out.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Steve Brookstein of politics

Nick Barlow reminds us of how fleeting fame can be by asking if anyone remembers Rodney Hylton-Potts, the winner of ITV's Vote For Me.

Monday, May 02, 2005

I am going to make an example of you, Tompkins

While I was out delivering, it seems the heads were at it again. The BBC reports:

A head teachers' leader has warned of the danger of giving "irresponsible parents" power in schools.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, was referring to the government's strategy of reinforcing parents' roles.

That could send the wrong message to irresponsible parents, he said.

"Giving more power to those parents who lack responsibility is like putting an alcoholic in charge of a bar," he told his annual conference.

Let's leave aside the point that anyone using the argument that something might "send the wrong message" reveals how weak their case is. Let's not even point out that these parents pay the taxes which go to pay the salaries of Mr Hart's members.

No, what worries me is the depth of the contempt that the professional left has for the public at large.

Such an attitude is ultimately incompatible with democracy. If you do not think people are capable of taking an intelligent interest in their own children's education, why should you consult them over the management of the economy or foreign policy?

It doesn't impress me and it won't impress the examiners

On Friday the conference of the National Association of Head Teachers heard calls for compulsory parenting classes for all. As the Scotsman reported:

Delegates also condemned Kelly’s promises to give parents more “power” over their children’s education, demanding that the focus should be on parental responsibility instead.

David Gray, head teacher at Babbacombe Primary School in Torbay, Devon, called for compulsory parenting classes for new mothers.

He said local authorities should set up “weekly sessions which mothers and babies from all social levels would be expected to attend”.

“The parents could be taught the importance of a regular routine for their baby, the importance of teaching the child the difference between ’yes’ and ’no’ and the necessity of playing with and talking to one’s baby.”

Then yesterday, says the Guardian:
An education minister was booed and jeered by headteachers yesterday after insisting that no new money would be offered to help fund a government plan to give teachers guaranteed time out of the classroom for marking and preparation.
Baroness Margaret Sharp, of the Liberal Democrats, was also booed after she urged headteachers to "think creatively" to help stretch their budgets.
Teachers are at the sharp end of our society's difficulties with authority, but can these heads not see how ludicrous this sort of behaviour makes them look?

For years the conferences of the teachers' unions have kept us entertained at Easter. Then we can listen to figures who have been in cryogenic suspension since the 1970s. Beyond persuading a few more parents that it is worth the sacrifices to educate their children privately, they probably do little harm.

The teachers' problem is that, while other professions choose experienced and impressive figures to speak on their behalf, they insist upon choosing the callow and irresponsible. The result is that they sound like permanent adolescents.

They demand authority over parents, while sounding outraged if anyone tries to exert authority over them. Many would support a state monopoly of education, yet they hate it when the state tries to reform the system.

It is tempting to see teachers' current disaffection as the fault of the Blair government. Certainly, the Liberal Democrats have been courting them assiduously. But the truth is that teachers have always been like that.

They were permanently disaffected under the Thatcher and Major, before that the saintly Shirley Williams was widely hated by teachers, and back in the 1960s I regularly got days off primary school as the young men with beards who taught us went on strike.

Now heads seem to be going the same way. If their behaviour does not cause bad behaviour in their pupils, then it is at least a symptom of the same disease.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

More on Brian Sedgemore

Adrian Slade (the man who auditioned Peter Cook for the Cambridge Footlights) has a letter in Friday's Liberal Democrat News:

Not many people know it, and as a Labour MP he was reluctant to admit it, but Brian Sedgemore was a signed up member of the Liberal Party for two years between 1965 and 1967.

So welcome back, Brian! I wonder if he remembers how he helped me when I was candidate for Putney in the 1966 general election. We both felt much the same about the conservatism of Harold Wilson's Labour Party in those days and we campaigned strongly together against the environmentally disastrous motorway box that Labour was attempting to impose on London.

Goldfish sent polling card

At every general election there is a spate of stories along the lines of "CHILD OF 2 IS SENT POLLING CARD". These are reported in a lighthearted way, with an undercurrent that they are a sign of how inefficient the local council is at running the electoral process.


The only possible reason for a child of 2 being sent a polling card is that his parents have filled in the registration form wrongly. And the only reason for the news reaching the national media is that the parents have tipped off their local newspaper or radio station and the story has been picked up from there.

But then "PARENTS SO STUPID THEY DON'T REALISE HOW STUPID THEY HAVE BEEN" does not make such a good headline.

Thank you, I feel better for getting that off my chest.