Sunday, July 31, 2005

What's gone wrong with comprehensives?

At the Liberal Democrat Conference in Bournemouth last year I went to a fringe meeting where one of the speakers was Steve Sinnott, the new general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. Introducing him, the chair said that he was the first product of a comprehensive school to hold this post. From around the room there came little gasps of surprise and joy.

Comprehensives have been the major form of secondary education in Britain for 30 years or more. It should by now be utterly unremarkable for someone who attended one to gain an important, but not earth-shattering, job like Sinnott's. But it still seems a striking achievement, and that should tell us that something is going wrong.

Another anecdote. A few months ago Andrew Neil's TV programme This Week had Fiona Millar - Guardian columnist and Labour insider - on as a guest to talk about education. Neil, Michael Portillo and Dianne Abbott all agreed that in their youth grammar schools provided a ladder of opportunity that bright working-class children could climb in order to get better jobs than their parents had.

Neil said that in the 1960s he and his fellow grammar school products felt they were about to take over the world. Nowadays every young thruster he interviews for a job seems to have been to public school.

Fiona Millar sat through all this wearing the expression that Labour people always wear when they are forced to list with views they don't agree with. It is a mixture of disdain and martyrdom. She looked like St Sebastian discovering that the milk has gone off.

Millar contributed little to the discussion, but then there was little she could say because Neil and Co. were right. The widespread introduction of comprehensive education has led to a reduction in the opportunities open to bright working class children.

To understand how this has come about, read today's Observer column by Nick Cohen. He argues that the current system suits the middle classes very well. While defending the current system under the cover of anti-elitism, they can use their wealth to buy houses in the catchment areas of their best schools or use their contacts to talk their way into church schools.

Meanwhile, poor children - however bright - go to poor schools.

As Cohen writes:
40 years of comprehensives have left Britain a sclerotic society where parents' money matters more than a child's talent ... anti-elitist harangues from the upper middle class are the perfect cover for a system which suits it to a tee.
Oddly enough, Cohen's analysis is close to that of George Walden, the former Conservative minister. In his We Should Know Better: Solving the Education Crisis Walden argues that Britain is bedevilled by the class divide in education; and in The New Elites: Making a Career in the Masses he argues that we are "governed by an elite of anti-elitists".

What is to be done? The problem we have is that many on the left are more interested in social equality than they are in educational excellence, and that support for comprehensive education is so deeply entrenched that questioning it is treated as something close to heresy. Many Liberal Democrats take much the same view.

The usual charge made against someone who commits this heresy is to accuse them of wanting to turn the clock back and return to the 1950s. That is silly - it is not possible to put the clock back even if you want to. And if comprehensive schools are not working as it was hoped they would, shouldn't we say so?

Walden's answer was to offer private schools - particularly the former direct grant schools - the opportunity to opt back into the state system in return for being allowed to choose which pupils they admitted. Cohen merely argues that:
this is a more class-ridden country than when the grammar schools were in place and ... Unless the brightest in the working class get an elite education the Today listeners will always win.
Elitism is the worst sin of all - and particularly feared because no one has ever defined exactly what it means - but there has always been an element of hypocrisy, not just about the overall comprehensive system, but within the schools themselves. In my day at least, the best comprehensives were usually rigorously streamed.

I suspect that the problem, as so often, lies in the socialist attempt to impose one system upon all children and all communities. Worse, almost every proposal to salvage the present system involves more centralisation and standardisation. People want to remove parental choice from the system or abolish church schools?

Why not let many different kinds of schools with different curriculums flourish? Those who complain that this will lead to a two-tier system should read this quotation from George Walden. We have a two tier system already.

With this in mind it was interesting to see Nicol Stephen, a Lib Dem MSP and minister for enterprise and life-long learning at Holyrood, calling for children to be allowed the option of going to college at the age of 14 to train for trades for which there is strong demand.

A second-class education for the proles? I don't think so. One of the problems with education is that those who run it, who enjoyed academic work themselves, assume that it is a pleasure for all and that anyone denied the opportunity to do it is being robbed.

The reality is different. As Stephen says:
"I have seen children who are bullied and unhappy in the school environment who have been transformed by college where they have become motivated and want to learn, maybe in plumbing or electrical work. There are few young people who do not want a worthwhile job, they just need the chance to develop."
There is a need for new thinking in education: a need to go beyond the unthinking defence of the comprehensive principle. And the Liberal Democrats should be leading it.

The week's best reading

Tim Worsall has posted his latest selection of the best in British blogging. Soon to be a book.

England unchanged for second test

The England selectors have named an unchanged squad for Edgbaston.

I think they are right: this is not the time for panic. That will come later in the summer.

When it does, they could do worse than heed the words of Dave Podmore in yesterday's Guardian:
So the first big question is, who's going to open the batting with David Steele? Chris Tavare and Kim Barnett are in the mix obviously, although some would go with Mark Lathwell to get us off to a flier.

New links added

Hello to The Apollo Project and perfect.co.uk.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Suicide bombing at Greenwich

In Greenwich on Thursday afternoon:

Two members of the Observatory staff were still in the building at 4.45 p.m. This they described as working "late" - all the other staff had left by that time. Mr Thackeray and Mr Hollis were both in the Lower Computing Room when they were startled by a "sharp and clear detonation, like a shell going through the air". They looked out to see the door porter running across the courtyard and rapidly followed him so as to be able to look down the hillside North of the Observatory into Greenwich Park. They saw a park-warden and some school-boys running towards a figure that appeared to be crouched on the zig-zag path below the Observatory.

Racing down, their first thought was that the man had shot himself, but the scene they encountered was unexpected and horrific. The park-warden was holding a man who, despite massive injuries, was still alive and able to speak. The man's left hand was completely missing and he had a gaping hole in his stomach. Soon a doctor and stretcher were fetched from the nearby Seaman's Hospital, to where he was carried. The man died about 30 minutes later, having said nothing about who he was or what had happened.

On the afternoon of Thursday 15 February 1894, that is.

Subsequent investigations - as this account shows - revealed that the bomber was a Frenchman by the name of Martial Bourdin. He was a member of the London-based Club Autonomie, which attracted foreign anarchists. After the Greenwich incident many of its members were deported, though none was charged with a criminal offence. (There is an account of Bourdin's funeral here.)

It is hard to discern any rational purpose behind the bombing, and later anarchist sympathisers have generally put it down to the influence of an agent provocateur. Certainly, Bourdin's brother-in-law was widely believed to be a police agent.

Today Greenwich would be a historical curiosity if it were not for the influence it had on Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent. This novel tells the story of a young man who is duped into taking a bomb to Greenwich and trips and falls, setting it off, before he can plant it. The instigator is his brother-in-law, ostensibly an anarchist but in reality the paid agent of a foreign agency.

I might have written "contains spoilers" here, but Conrad spells out all this, or allows you to guess it, early on. The book's real interest is in the fate of the characters left behind and in its satire of wider society.

Here there are certainly contemporary resonances. The Secret Agent was published in 1907 and nominally deals with events 20 years or so earlier, but it is not hard to detect the anxieties of the Edwardian age in it.

Then, just as today, foreign governments were complaining that the British authorities were lax and allowed radicals and terrorists too much freedom to operate here. The confidence of the Victorian period, when such protests would be ignored, was already ebbing, and in 1911 Churchill would superintend his extraordinary Siege of Sidney Street. (See also his defence of his conduct.)

A particularly memorable character in the novel is The Professor - a thwarted scientist and expert in explosives who makes himself a walking bomb, always holding the detonator in his hand. Only this can make him feel powerful, and Conrad generally sees terrorists and radicals as morally weak - though he is little kinder to any other sector of society.

In painting terrorism as the resort of damaged characters rather than the work of some fiendish criminal mastermind, Conrad shows affinity with the general line the Spiked website has taken on the London bombings.

As Brendan O'Neill says in his essay "Creating the enemy":

The real problem of terrorism, in terms of both its origins and its impact on contemporary society, begins at home, in the struggle for moral consensus and moral authority. Instead of launching wars in far-off lands, surely what our societies need are debates about what we stand for and why; about the values we hold dear and wish to pass on to future generations; about our vision of the Good Society and how we might achieve it. Such debates might help to move us away from the deep moral uncertainties that can give rise to nihilistic violence, and make us more resilient against those who execute such violence.

Conrad was too sceptical about politicians to think things are that easy, but he would surely share O'Neill's rejection of the platitudes of the "War on Terror".

New laws are not the answer

In Yesterday's House Points I wrote about government's desperation to seen to be doing something after a tragedy. Hence all the talk of new laws against terrorism.

The same condition afflicts other bodies too. A few days ago there was a report in the Guardian saying that:
A rise of more than 70% in cases of animal neglect have been encountered by the RSPCA, which said today that the "truly shocking" figures showed a new animal welfare bill was urgently needed.
Such shock rises generally have more to do with the way statistics are collected or the enthusiasm with which they are sought than with any objective increase in what is being measured.

But even if there has been a rise, why would it show the need for new animal welfare laws? Why wouldn't it show a need for the existing laws to be enforced?

If you pass new laws and do nothing else, then the number of offences is bound to go up not down. Which, of course, will prove the need for further legislation.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Apostrophe catastrophe

The Apostrophic Church has pronounced its first fatwa.

I have found, via a posting on Castrovalva, an article on the BBC website which reports the views of Kate Burridge. She is a linguist who questions the need to use possessive apostrophes at all. Apparently she has written a book called Weeds in the Garden of Words. No doubt we shall have to burn it (and quite possibly the author too).

Arguments like this, along with calls for "spelling reform" or the promotion of Esperanto, miss the point. What we should be asking is why, when the rules for using apostrophes are simple enough, so many people are mystified by them and even a little scared.

Let us now seek the answer in prayer, brothers and sisters.

Simon Hughes needs a holiday

Here is today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. It is the last of the current season, but anyone suffering withdrawal symptoms over the summer can find an archive of my earlier columns here.

Holiday time

When the England cricket team loses an overseas test, the management organises extra net sessions for the next day. Not because the players need more practice, but because the authorities want it to look as though something is being done.

Some people want MPs to cut short their summer recess for much the same reason. They are not sure what it would achieve, but at least it would look good.

We can agree it was odd for Charles Clarke to choose this week to pack his trunk and that Tony Blair should rely on cosmetics for his tan a little longer. But it is hard to see the point of recalling MPs to Westminster before October.

There is talk of new laws, but what can there be about plotting, preparing and carrying out a terrorist attack that is not already illegal?

This anger at MPs’ long break is a cousin to that “they never do anything, they’re in it for themselves” whine you sometimes get on the doorstep.

The real problem is just the reverse. These days MPs are expected to be a cross between a social worker, a local councillor and a fairy godmother. They must vote for all the petty laws that get passed in the hope they will make their constituents leave them in peace. It doesn’t work. They come back with even more trivial problems.

One person who could certainly do with a holiday is our own President, Simon Hughes. He was quoted in the Guardian on Tuesday as blaming a few people at Conference for the wacky ideas that sometimes end up as party policy. But we all know those wacky ideas usually originate in Federal Policy Committee working parties.

And he suggested the party should advertise in the press for PPCs to get away from the idea that “only people who have been activists for 15 years and have delivered a million leaflets can be candidates”.

If he means a party needs philosophers, economists and novelists as well as activists, he is right. But our opponents would hang a crass idea like advertising for candidates round our necks for years afterwards.

Simon should take his shrimping net off to Herne Bay for a week or two and return refreshed for the fight.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

News management in the internet age

Martin Stabe gives us more evidence that - for better or worse - the overseas media are being freer with details of the recent terrorist attacks in London than their British counterparts.

For more examples see this posting of mine from a couple of weeks ago.

Broken angels and weed-choked cherubs

The BBC reports:

Work has started on a three-quarters of a million pound restoration of a 150-year-old Leicester cemetery.

The Welford Road Cemetery scheme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, will include repairs to driveways and the replacement of fencing.

Welford Road is already well cared for, and so short of the broken angels and weed-choked cherubs you look for in a cemetery, but it is a good place for a walk. You can see it beside the railway a little way south of Leicester station.

There are some nice views of the cemetery here and a guide to its occupants here. Many are long-forgotten Liberal worthies whose activities led to the city being known as "radical Leicester" in the nineteenth century. Look too for Thomas Cook, the pioneer travel agent.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Falling Standards Board for England

This blog used to complain regularly about the Standards Board for England, as in this House Points column from February.

The Tories took up the cause before the general election, but things seemed to go quiet after that.

Now a Labour backbencher, the unlovable but effective Andrew Dismore, has come out for the forces of light. He was interviewed on the Today programme this morning and his comments are reported on the Guardian website:

The body that investigates allegations of sleaze and misconduct in local government is an out-of-control "Frankenstein's monster", a Labour MP protested today.

Andrew Dismore, a member of the parliamentary standards and privileges committee, said the Standards Board for England was not choosy enough about its investigations.

He believes that many take too long and, at an average cost of £5,000, are too expensive.

An interview with John Gray

My old professor was fond of saying that there are two kinds of statements in philosophy: those that are true but not interesting, and those that are interesting but not true.

I am not sure if everything John Gray says is true, but he is never less than interesting. Jonathan Derbyshire has just reproduced a magazine interview he conducted with Gray a couple of years ago. It deals largely with the nature of Islam and the Western liberal response to it.

Well worth a look.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

New kid on the blogroll

It's hello to Rob Knight's A Blog from Under the Floorboards.

Funny place to keep it.

Don't blame me, I voted for Lembit

Simon Titley is sound on Simon Hughes' outburst in the Guardian today:

Anyone who thought the Liberal Democrats' president Simon Hughes was slightly barmy would have had their prejudices confirmed...

You can find the original report here.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Watching the Nationalists

Worth a visit is Nat Watch, which bills itself as "Exposing the failure, mendacity and xenophobia of nationalists in Scotland and Wales".

It is more interested in Wales than Scotland, and Peter Black warns us that its vendetta against Plaid's Leanne Wood is part of a Labour campaign against Regional AMs in general and, by implication, proportional representation.

You may recall that Wood was once ordered out of the chamber at Cardiff for referring to the Queen as "Mrs Windsor". Thanks to an intervention by Radical Liberal turned New Labour suit Leighton Andrews, that is.

Charlie the Elephant unpacks his trunk

Charles Clarke has postponed his holiday plans following pressure from Cabinet colleagues, reports politics.co.uk.

According to press reports last week, the home secretary had been planning to go on holiday with his family despite the terror crisis in London. Now he will join them later.

A rather flimsy story.

Yes, but I wanted to use that headline.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The sharp elbows of the aristocracy

When in November 2000 Judith Keppel became the first person to win the top prize on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? there were those who grumbled that she was too posh. And being posh is just about the worst sin imaginable in New Britain

But in this case "posh" was not being used to mean educated as, shockingly, it so often is. Because Keppel really is posh. She is granddaughter of the ninth Earl of Albermarle and great-granddaughter of Alice Keppel, the mistress of the Prince of Wales (who became Edward VII).

She is even a distant cousin of Camilla Parker Bowles, or the Duchess of Cornwall as we must now call her.

Yes, it is nicer when someone who obviously needs the money wins a big prize, as this rather prissy Guardian editorial pointed out at the time. But it is hard to begrudge Keppel her winnings. I am afraid that until socialism has been established educated people will continue to enjoy an unfair advantage in quizzes.

What no one mentioned at the time was that there is a precedent for someone with aristocratic connections winning a big TV quiz prize.

In 1957 Lady Cynthia Asquith, the wife of Herbert Asquith (second son of the Liberal prime minister H. H. Asquith), won the pioneering ITV quiz The $64,000 Question. It is hard to find out much about the show in general (there is a little information here), but thanks to the miracle of the internet it is possible to discover four of the questions Lady Cynthia answered to win her prize.

Colin Clifford's book The Asquiths tells us that Cynthia Asquith was born Cynthia Charteris, the daughter of the Earl of Wemyss. She became well known as a novelist and writer of ghost stories and was a friend of both D. H. Lawrence and, says Wikipedia, L. P. Hartley. (Herbert, incidentally, was known as Beb and once dined with Lord Bonkers - see Monday.)

Cynthia also worked as secretary to J. M. Barrie, revealing a talent for winning money long before she became a TV star. She persuaded Barrie to alter his will in her favour on his deathbed. The result was that the considerable earnings from his estate went to her rather than to the three surviving Llewelyn Davies boys whom he had adopted.

The story of these boys and their role in the genesis of Peter Pan is well known. It was told in the recent film Finding Neverland and also in Andrew Birkin's trilogy of plays The Lost Boys from 1978, with their superlative performance by Ian Holm as Barrie, and his later book J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys.

If you want to know the depth of Cynthia Asquith's infamy, you should visit the wonderful website Birkin maintains. Click on Davies Family on the lefthand side, then Nico on the right and then Nico's letters to Andrew Birkin 1975-1978 in the middle.

If you scroll down to the letter dated 1975-12-05 and you will read:

When Uncle Jim got really ill, and was not expected to last the night, Peter made the Greatest Mistake of his Life and telephoned her down in Devon or Cornwall. She hired a car and motored through the night. Meanwhile Peter, I and General Freyberg went on watch - 8 to 12, 12 to 4, 4 to 8 am - each of us expecting to see JMB die. Cynthia arrived towards the end of Bernard Freyberg's watch ... still alive ... got hold of surgeon Horder and solicitor Poole with the will ... Horder gave an injection, and sufficient energy was pumped into Uncle Jim so that he could put his name to the will that Poole laid before him ...

Believe it or not, much as I would have relished the money, the two things that broke my heart were firstly that I had no say in the reproduction of his plays - how I would have loved to be consulted in the casting and management of this play and that, all of which I knew so well and had watched so closely as JMB told the various actors what was in his mind etc etc: secondly that the relatively small amounts that were going to my daughter and others of her generation were removed. All very sad.

But then aristocratic families do not gain their wealth by behaving honourably. Except on TV quizzes, of course.

I have issues around the appropriateness of your tickling, Jock

I have been known to grumble that, despite the presence of Lib Dem cabinet members, the Scottish Executive often seems even keener on the more nannyish aspects of New Labour than its counterpart in London does.

Alex C. at Land of the Nearly Free, by setting out the professional backgrounds of the Labour ministers at Holyrood, gives us a clue as to why this is the case. He finds a preponderance of former teachers and social workers.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Floon! The whole thing collapsed

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Not as planned

Ted Heath was awkward to the last. This week I had intended to write about the tunnel collapse at Gerrards Cross, reporting a debate called by the local MP.

You may know the story. Struggling to find a site there, Tesco hit upon the idea of roofing over a railway cutting and building their new store on top of it. The council opposed the plan, but the office of the deputy prime minister waved it through.

A Tesco spokeswoman said brightly: “We can see no reason why the store should not be open by the summer.” Then a couple of weeks ago: Floon! The whole thing collapsed. The Almighty has more respect for local planning authorities than John Prescott does.

But when Ted Heath died this debate was shelved so that everyone could say nice things about him instead.

My clearest memory of Heath is his swansong. As father of the house he presided over the painful process that saw Michael Martin elected as the new speaker. Many people suggested saner methods, but he would not hear of them and so the day ground on.

You suspected that somewhere beneath that bovine stubbornness he was slyly enjoying himself. There were echoes of Charles Ryder’s father in Brideshead Revisited or of Evelyn Waugh himself.

Ted Heath’s heyday is now a foreign country. Union militancy, striking miners – working miners, come to that – and the three-day week. Commentators asked whether Britain was governable and retired colonels drilled private armies in case the balloon went up.

Heath’s claim to immortality as the man who took Britain into the Common Market must be seen in this light. He had distinguished himself in a European war and the argument that it must never happen again had real authority when he expressed it.

But for lesser figures it was the West German economic miracle that was the attraction. They hoped a little of its stardust would brush off on us and offer a way out of the mess of the early 1970s.

Now that miracle is tarnished and it is Britain that sees itself as the model to be followed. Yet you wonder how attractive an economy dominated by a few giant supermarkets appears to others. Which brings us back to Gerrards Cross.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

First Church of Christ the Pedant

Through my door comes a leaflet from the Kettering Christadelphians. It says:
God and his son Jesus Christ hold the answer to ALL lifes (sic) problems.
I am going to found an Apostrophic Church to put a stop to things like this. I am not sure what it will look like yet, but here is a picture of the decrepit former Apostolic Chapel at Pontesbury Hill in Shropshire

The best Cornish/Dutch wicketkeeper ever

A good cricket trivia question is to ask who the England wicketkeeper was last time we won the Ashes. Remember, it was on Mike Gatting's tour of Australia in 1986-7.

The answer is Jack Richards, the Cornishman who played for Surrey. Not a lot of people know that or even remember Richards' name.

He left the game early and today lives in Antwerp while working in Rotterdam. I have just heard him interviewed on BBC Radio Five Live, and he now has a unique Cornish/Dutch accent.

Blair: Going nowhere fast

politicalbetting.com reports that Ladbrokes have begun taking bets on whether Tony Blair fight and win the next General Election and stay at Number 10. The odds offered are 16/1, and even though such a bet necessarily involves leaving your money with the bookies for anything up to five years, it may well be worth a punt.

There is a lot of wishful thinking about Blair's detractors' belief that he is bound to quietly make way for Gordon Brown in a year or two. The prospect of being prime minister when the Olympics come to London must be an enticing one for Blair. He has a love of playing the world statesman and a weakness for prestige projects. Remember "The Millennium Dome will be the first line of the next Labour manifesto"?

At the same time, terrorism and the international situation are likley to offer him every pretext he could want for announcing that it would be unwise for him to step down.

But surely Mr Blair has given his solemn word that he will not lead Labour into another election?

You're new to this politics lark, aren't you?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Basil D’Oliveira: Cricket and Conspiracy

There is a marvellous review of Peter Oborne's book on the Crooked Timber website. It's so good that you hardly feel a need to read the book.

Here is a heart-warming chunk of it:

The book has villains: not just those mentioned, but others in the cricket establishment. But it has heroes too.

The committee at Middleton Cricket Club, where D’Oliveira started, and the people of Middleton themselves, seem to have treated him and his wife with grace and kindness.

John Arlott championed his cause, gave kindly advice, lent money, and was the all-round good chap that was John Arlott. Illingworth extracted a fase promise that he could take Dolly on tour, and then snookered the selectors into honouring the promise. Tom Graveney was brilliant.

The late lamented David Sheppard led the crusade within the MCC against the selectors; perhaps more courageously Mike Brearley, still only in his 20’s, insisted on seconding Sheppard’s motion condemning the selectors for bowing to political pressure despite the risk to his career (this goes some way to explaining why, despite playing for Middlesex, he was overlooked by the selectors for so long).

It is astonishing to find that so many of one’s childhood heroes were, well, heroes (I started expecting Kenneth Horne or Jon Pertwee to turn up).

Oh, and, there’s also D’Oliveira, who comes across as human, flawed, but, when it really mattered, unflinchingly principled.

Monday, July 18, 2005

So farewell then Ted Heath

How distant Ted Heath's years as prime minister now seem.

I was rather young at the time, but I remember it as an era of crisis. There were terrorist outrages by the IRA - both in Ireland and on the mainland - and also explosions caused by Britain's forgotten, amateur answer to the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Angry Brigade.

On the economic side there was union militancy, the miners' strike, power cuts and the three-day week. My strongest memory of the period is of doing homework by candlelight, though that may be a later invention as, thinking about it, I was never a great one for doing homework.

It is against this background that Heath's claim to political greatness - his taking of Britain into the Common Market, as it was then called - must be understood.

Heath came from the generation that fought in the Second World War. So in his mouth the argument that the nations of Europe must be brought together so that they can never again countenance going to war amongst themselves had real authority. When we hear it today from younger politicians it sounds insincere - a last throw at making the European cause still sound noble and visionary.

In any case, what really brought Britain into Europe was the turmoil outlined above. Though people wrote articles in the early 1970s asking if Britain was still governable, the political classes retained a deep confidence in their right and their ability to rule.

The economy was a different matter, and there were deep fears about Britain's economic decline. At the same time, Britain had seen the economic miracle that had taken place in West Germany since the War. Though many Liberals and Social Democrats looked with envy on Germany's more rational democratic and industrial institutions, Britain's chief hope in joining the Common Market was that a little of this economic stardust would brush off on us.

Equally, it is the decline of German economy that has taken the shine off the European project and robbed its supporters of their best arguments. Until a few years ago, for instance, supporters of the single currency assured us that disaster awaited Britain if we failed to become members. Indeed, this was practically the only thing Matthew Taylor said during his tenure of the Lib Dem economic portfolio.

Today, without these arguments we can see that European politics is just as low and mean as any other kind. Co-operation on foreign policy remains immensely desirable, but there can be no assurance that we have uncomplicated common interests just because we are all European. (We are all British, but that is little help in deciding how the country should be run.) Indeed these days we cannot even agree where the boundaries of Europe are.

So farewell then Ted Heath, and farewell to a certain kind of pro-Europeanism. It always owed more to despair at 1970s Britain than it did to love for the European ideal.

Harry Potter and the Telephone Canvassing

Despite my misgivings about the Rowling oeuvre, it would be churlish not to note this Evening Standard report.

One of the Liberal Democrat councillors for the Middle Park and Sutcliffe ward of Greenwich Borough Council is called Harry Potter.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

It makes you proud to be British

I'm talking about Tim Worstall's latest Britblog Roundup, of course.

Hain: Fear the Lib Dems

Peter Hain offers his analysis of the result of May's general election in Progress magazine:

Worryingly, the trends underlying the 2005 results indicate that the Lib Dems could now pose a direct threat to a significant number of Labour MPs. And unless we take that threat seriously, our chances of a fourth successive majority could be significantly diminished.

In the past, the Conservatives were seen as more vulnerable to a Lib Dem challenge because Tories held a higher proportion of the seats in which the Lib Dems took second place. But that assumption no longer holds water. Since 2001, the number of Labour seats in which the Lib Dems are second has more than doubled from 50 to 106. And of the 98 marginal seats that the Lib Dems could take on a 10 per cent swing, there is now virtually an even split - 49 Tory, 46 Labour. Furthermore, in seats marginal to the Lib Dems, the Tories grabbed a swing of one per cent back from them. In contrast, Labour suffered a hefty swing of nine per cent in the Lib Dems' favour.

Thanks to Labour Watch for the tip.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Stealing our souls

Child-safety fears bar pupils from public buses says The Scotsman. But if you read the story beneath it is the public who are being banned from buses that some children use to get to school in Aberdeenshire.

The local authority feels it has been forced into the move:
"A number of parents indicated that they would not allow their children to travel on services which are open to the general public, despite there being no evidence of any problems on the services which have operated successfully in this way for 20 years."
There has been one sane reaction to this nonsense. Judith Gilliespie, the policy director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council says:

"People have got this whole protection of kids thing out of proportion. The legislation only applies when people are in child-care situations - it doesn't apply to all contact between adults and children.

"Kids have got to be part of our lives, but the more you separate children, the more difficult it is for them to cope when they are old enough to interact with adults. It's almost as if these parents are regarding members of their own communities as undesirables, but we can't live our lives like that."

But I'm afraid we do live our lives like that now.

There was a report in the UK Press Gazette a few weeks ago:

A freelance photographer has found himself in hot water - for taking unauthorised photographs on Cleethorpes beach.

John Byford - who sells to newspapers, magazines, agencies and consumer businesses - went to the north-east Lincolnshire resort to take stock pictures of a two-day seafront kite festival.

But he was forbidden from doing so by event organisers in case children were inadvertently included in any of his shots.

No parents wants someone in a dirty mac taking photographs of their children, but here even the inadvertent appearance of a child in the background of a shot is seen as a problem. As North East Lincolnshire Council inevitably said: "We regret any inconvenience caused to bona fide photographers, but the safety and welfare of visitors has to be our first priority."

John Byford was quoted as saying:

"To treat every photographer as a potential paedophile struck me as a sad reflection on modern society.

"At this rate, there will be no photographic record of British beach life in the first half of the 21st century."

It is a sad reflection, but it goes further than he fears. This policy does not only treat every photographer as a potential paedophile. It treats every subsequent viewer of the photograph as a potential paedophile.

And this in a society which is in love with CCTV and has been described as the most watched in the world. This caste of mind, which requires us to trust the government without question while being endlessly suspicious of our neighbours, is precisely what typifies a totalitarian state.

The ban also goes beyond a threat to the documentary record of beach life. It poses a threat to the way photography has been seen as a democratic art. In contrast to portraiture in oils, which required time and a leisured subject, photography could take place in a moment and in the street - a view typified by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Indeed it is fair to say that there has been a connection between photographing children and political radicalism, even if there could be something condescending about the way working-class children were presented. Think of the urchins who regularly turned up in Picture Post and of the way the child - even the child's body - was used as a symbol of improved health and education in the new welfare state.

Only today I bought a copy of Jonathan Coe's biography of the experimental left-wing novelist B. S. Johnson, which has the wonderful title Like a Fiery Elephant. I found that Johnson collaborated with the photographer Julia Trevelyan Oman on a book called Street Children, which was published in 1964. And a few years later the saintly anarchist Colin Ward wrote the heavily illustrated The Child in the City.

Of course, photographing children has always been controversial. The great pioneer of the art, Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, took a famous picture of a group of boys bathing naked in Whitby harbour. He exhibited at the exhibition of the Royal Photographical Society of Great Britain in 1887 under the title "The Water Rats".

Reactions were mixed. The Prince of Wales - the future Edward VII - ordered a huge enlargement to be made to hang in Marlborough House. Whereas the local clergy condemned Sutcliffe "for showing this print to the corruption of the other sex".

At one time we would have sided with the prince in the name of art. But in 2005 it is the clergy's side of the dispute that is winning.

Shropshire animals: There's more

First it was a rabbit bent on GBH and a goat and snails interfering with Her Majesty's mail.

Now it's worse:

Fire crews from Wellington and Shrewsbury were called to an address in Walton, near High Ercall, yesterday just after 4 p.m., following reports that a fire had broken out in a kitchen ...

A spokesperson from Shropshire Fire and Rescue said today the blaze had been started after a dog had jumped up and turned on the cooker.

"The dog basically jumped up and switched on the ignition," he said.

The leader of the pack

Well done Lembit Öpik for defending an unpopular minority:

Biking MP Lembit Opik has accused the police of ‘a heavy-handed approach that simply alienates communities’ by shutting down a Worfield pub.

The leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats has sent a hard-hitting letter to Home Office minister Hazel Blears.

Magistrates allowed the Wheel Inn to re-open last week, under strict conditions, after the police temporarily closed it down after about 2,000 motorcyclists descended on it.

Mr Opik, who rides a Suzuki GS 1000 and has vowed to visit the Wheel for a Wednesday night bikers’ gathering, said he had questioned the police approach with the Home Office, in deploying cars, bikes, a helicopter and surveillance van, before serving landlady Gloria Goodson with an order closing the pub for 24 hours.

It just shows you should read the Bridgnorth Journal more often.

London casualties: We were the last to know

Spiked has an article by Dominic Standish which shows how slow the British media were to report that the London bombings had caused fatal casualties.

He writes:

At 12.38 Italian time (11.38 UK time), Italy's leading news agency, ANSA, ran a story on its website reporting comments by the Italian interior minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, that at least 50 people had died in the London blasts. At the same time, I was watching TV news reports, mainly BBC World and Sky News, which reported possible deaths, especially following the explosion on the bus.

Although BBC television news did briefly mention Pisanu's comments, up until 3 p.m. that day the leading reports on the explosions only referred to possible deaths. Indeed, the British police refused to confirm that two people had died during a news conference broadcast on BBC World at lunchtime. By 14.20 Italian time, there was a debate on Italian state radio (RAI) about Pisanu's comments, and why the 50 deaths were not being confirmed or denied in Britain.

Standish discusses how far the performance of the British media was affected by government news management. Most interestingly, he refers to a report from the Guardian which quotes the ITV News editor-in-chief, David Mannion, as saying that he had been called by a Home Office PR demanding that a newsflash saying that at least 20 people had died be taken down.

Such pressure may also explain why the BBC News website clung to the "power surge" theory for so long. On Thursday morning I was getting impatient with it and turning to other sites for the news. And this despite the fact that, because my own journey to work in Leicester on Midland Mainline had been delayed by "power supply problems in the Kentish Town area", I was more inclined than most to believe this explanation at first. The BBC's performance had the flavour of prearranged euphemism.

As Standish concludes:
In an address to the nation on the evening of 7 July, UK prime minister Tony Blair praised the "stoicism and resilience" of Londoners. But it could be that his government didn't trust Londoners with information about the scale of the tragedy on 7 July. Did the government fear that Londoners would panic, as might be indicated by the lunchtime police news conference on 7 July that stressed the need to stay calm while refusing to confirm deaths? Or was it because the authorities feared that there would be a reaction against London's Muslims?
Meanwhile, those with a taste for conspiracy theories should read The Antagonist.

Friday, July 15, 2005

The latest from Shropshire

It's a rabbit that bites people. The good news is that it doesn't appear to eat letters.

What's that? A rabbit that doesn't eat lettuce?

No, letters.

Oh, sorry.

The week after the week before

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Pause for Thought

It has been the week after the week before. On Monday the Commons heard prime ministerial statements on the G8 summit and the London bombings. Then his opponents were unusually complimentary.

Michael Howard paid tribute to the “calm, resolute and statesmanlike” way the government had responded to the bombings. Charles Kennedy said Tony Blair was “to be congratulated on what was, for the best and happiest of reasons as well as for the most dreadful, an extraordinary week”.

Blair was certainly doing his best to sound statesmanlike. He did not use his choking-back-the-tears voice that leaves you wishing there were a grown up in charge. Instead it was his slow delivery. with. very. long. pauses.

I once heard a tape of a Blair speech in this style with all the pauses edited out. It still made sense. If anything it sounded better. But his approach seemed fitting on Monday even if it was odd to hear the prime minister talking about “our way of life”.

If anything has defined the New Labour project over the years it has been an impatience with the British way of life. Tradition is suspect and everyone and everything has to be modernised.

This attempt at modernisation went on after Blair’s statements with the third reading of the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. Or the Muslim Voters (Reclaiming for Labour) Bill as it should be called.

This is one of those proposed laws that gets less impressive the more it is examined. In countries where such legislation has been enacted, it is chiefly used by warring religious groups to take each other to court.

To avoid this the government now says the attorney general will have to approve every prosecution. “Pass this law and we promise not to use it very often” is an argument no legislature should fall for. Ours has.

Monday also saw questions on culture, media and sport. And it was clear what the next seven years are going to be like. Already getting the 2012 Olympics has become a government achievement. And the games will be used as an argument in support of every backbench obsession, no matter how loopy.

We are going to pay a heavy price for the fun of upsetting M. Chirac.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Harry Potter and the Stupid Rector

I am not a great admirer of the Harry Potter books. Whenever I open one a cliche flies out at me, and I have been known to give adults reading them on trains a hard stare.

Nor do I admire J. K. Rowling, or at least her advisers, for seeking and winning an extraordinarily restrictive injunction against the few Canadians who innocently bought Harry Potter and the Load of Old Bollocks, or whatever it is called, ahead of the official publication day.

But all this is insignificant when set against this:

A primary school cancelled a Harry Potter day over complaints it could lead children into "areas of evil".

Pupils from The Holt Primary School in Skellingthorpe, Lincs, were planning to dress up as witches and wizards.

But the event - to mark the launch of the new JK Rowling book - was scrapped after parents and a local rector expressed concerns about witchcraft.

Headteacher Paul Martin said the rector claimed he was seeking "to lead our children into areas of evil".

Martin goes on to say that he made his decision after he received a letter from the rector that suggested he was "seeking to lead our children into areas of evil".

Remarkably, The Holt does not appear to be a Church school but an ordinary county primary. What a shame Mr Martin did not, respectfully and politely, tell the rector what to do with his letter.

London bombings latest

First a press release reported on Harry's Place:

The Stop the War Coalition would like to make it absolutely clear that the Jamaican born Lindsey Germaine identified in a New York Times report today as the possible fifth suspect in the London bombings is entirely unconnected with Lindsey German, the London born convenor, of the Stop the War Coalition.

Any suggestion of any connection between these two individuals is both false and libellous.

On a more serious note, the Canadian Globe & Mail is reporting:

The transformation of four young British men into terrorists appears to have taken place at a government-funded storefront youth centre in Leeds that, according to youth workers, was a hub of radical Islamist activity.

The centre was sealed off and searched by police yesterday after three of its workers said in an interview on the street outside that at least two of the suicide bombers had been "very regular" visitors at all hours to the Hamara Youth Access Point, and a third had been seen there occasionally.

"It had become so radical and so hateful that I asked if I could stop working there," said one of the workers, who along with two others described the storefront drop-in centre as a hub of radical Muslim politics and a hotbed of Islamic organizing, routinely hosting mysterious figures to speak about extremist politics.

I found this link via a comment to the posting on Harry's Place. The Guardian has the story too.

Stephen Byers: This is news?

Byers admits untruth on Railtrack

On other pages:

Pope: My Catholic shame

Shit in woods case: Biffo's shock confession

Shropshire: Is no letter safe?

On Tuesday it was a goat. Now it is snails.

The Shropshire Star has the details:

Hungry snails have been munching on people's letters after finding their way into the village post box at Wrentnall, between Pontesbury and Ratlinghope.

Villagers say they can only post their letters immediately before a collection, so the creatures do not have time to chew their important correspondence to shreds.

I do not think I have ever been to Wrentnall, but there is a nice picture of its former Baptist and Primitive Methodist chapel here - with not a snail in sight.

No comments

I have been having problems with Blogger this evening and the result is a few changes to the template. In particular, I have lost my Haloscan comments and do not seem able to reinstall them. Haloscan does have an automatic install facility for Blogger, but it crashes every time I try to use it.

Apologies to those whose comments have been lost. I think I will stick with Blogger's own comments system from now on.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Stand down the counsellors

There was a letter in The Times this morning demanding that all everyone caught in the bombings in London last week, "including those involved indirectly and even people who experienced 'near misses'," should be offered counselling.

A few years ago there was a widespread belief that this sort of psychological first aid could prevent the development of serious post-traumatic symptoms. The trouble is that as the evidence base grew it became clear that this mass therapising was useless and could even be counter-productive.

Certainly, many people found the process intrusive. I knew a woman whose husband worked for a building society and was caught in an armed hold-up of one of its branches. She said that the general view among the staff was that the counselling was more upsetting than the original incident.

An article on the Spiked website gives a more informed view of what should be done for the psychological welfare of people who were caught in last Thursday's events. It is written by Simon Wessely, who is professor of psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, and director of the King's Centre for Military Health Research.

He says:

what people need in these first few days is the support of their family and friends, as well as practical assistance with information, finance, travel and, sadly for many, the business of organising funerals. The best immediate mental health interventions are practical, not emotional.

Many of those who are now in distress and despair will heal with time. But we know that some will not, and that some will develop serious psychological illnesses such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. The only way to prevent those disorders from developing was by not getting on the doomed trains - but such disorders can be treated. The Camden and Islington Mental Health Trust has been designated to organise help for individuals, and to ensure that those who do need proper psychological treatment in the coming months will receive it. But now is not the time, and counselling is not the answer.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Shropshire on the screen

BBC Radio Leicester has moved to new studios in the city - a huge improvement on the two floors of a run-down office block that they used to occupy.

One of the facilities at the new building, besides a cafe and free internet access, is a shop selling BBC archive recordings. I went there on Saturday and bought a DVD of the 1985 dramatisation of Tom Sharpe's novel Blott on the Landscape.

It was filmed in Ludlow, partly around the, er, striking Victorian Market Hall (which was demolished shortly afterwards with the general approval of the people of the town) and at nearby Stanage Hall.

The original novel was also set around Ludlow. The landscape Sharpe had in mind was the Downton Gorge, which would make Downton Castle the model for the book's Handyman Hall.

Sharpe discovered the area when his school, Lancing College, was evacuated to Downton Castle during the Second World War. Among his fellow pupils were the actor George Baker and Robin Saville, the son of the children's writer Malcolm Saville, who told me how Sharpe came across the area.

Incidentally, Malcolm Saville also used Downton Castle as the setting for one of his books. In his case it was The Secret of the Gorge from 1958, where the Castle appeared as Bringewood Manor.

The two outstanding performances in Blott on the Landscape are by David Suchet and Geraldine James, but two other cast members will attract the interest of the Shropshire-loving film buff.

For George Cole and Esmond Knight both also appeared in the Powell and Pressburger film Gone to Earth, which was made in 1950. This was based on the novel by the Shropshire novelist Mary Webb, who enjoyed a huge vogue shortly after her death in the 1930s but reads like the ripest melodrama today. She is best remembered as one of the writers whom Stella Gibbons was parodying in Cold Comfort Farm.

The film is equally melodramatic, but it still looks ravishing: it is hard to imagine anything more beautiful than the Shropshire hills shot in Technicolor. There is a wonderful collection of stills and photographs connected with the film here.

Gone to Earth was George Cole's first adult role, just as Blott on the Landscape was one of Esmond Knight's last appearances. There is a site dedicated to Esmond Knight's remarkable career here, but I can't find a George Cole site.

Still, with a good search engine the world wide web is your lobster.

Life in Blair's Britain

In Burton upon Trent an unborn child has been threatened with an ASBO.

Meanwhile at Woodhouse Eaves in Leicestershire's Charnwood Forest, a 104-year-old woman has been served with a noise abatement order.

Photo caption of the week

From, of course, the Shropshire Star:

A letter is on the menu for the hungry goat.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Lord Bonkers speaks to the nation

Lord Bonkers latest diary has just been posted to his website:

High summer in Rutland: hamwee calls to hamwee, and wheway to wheway, across the broad valley of the Welland; Meadowcroft quite disappears amidst his foxgloves and hollyhocks, and I fancy I can hear the faint music of the elves of Rockingham Forest on the honeysuckle-scented breeze.

Strolling down to the Bonkers’ Arms, I am accosted by the occupants of an expensive motor that draws up beside me. “We’re looking for a ghastly little place called York. Do you know it?” drawls one voice. “Is one nearly there yet?” and “He must be the village idiot. How sweet!” add others.

Did you know that each European cow is subsidised to the tune of $3 a day? As a Liberal I insist that this money is paid directly to the beasts themselves, and that has made a great difference to the rural economy in these parts with many cows now owning their owns sheds, running small businesses and enjoying holidays abroad.

For more on the July 2005 issue of Liberator see Simon Titley's Liberal Dissenter.

The Power of Nightmares revisited

One of this blog's favourite television programmes was Adam Curtis's The Power of Nightmares. We wrote about it here, here, here and, indeed, here.

And one of our favourite journalists is Nick Cohen who, last Sunday, attacked the series by implication:

In my world of liberal London, social success at the dinner table belonged to the man who could simultaneously maintain that we've got it coming but that nothing was going to come; that indiscriminate murder would be Tony Blair's fault but there wouldn't be indiscriminate murder because 'the threat' was a phantom menace invented by Blair to scare the cowed electorate into supporting him.

I'd say the "power of nightmares" side of that oxymoronic argument is too bloodied to be worth discussing this weekend...

The argument that "we've got it coming" is silly, though it is legitimate to ask whether our intervention in Iraq has made terrorism in Britain more likely. And also to ask, if it has made it more likely, whether that is a price worth paying. If I understand Cohen's position correctly, he answers yes to both questions.

What interests me is his apparent dismissal of Curtis's thesis in The Power of Nightmares as a claim that the terrorist threat was invented by Blair. This is surely unfair. Curtis is well aware of the threat of terrorism: his programmes were made after 9/11, so how could be not be?

What I take Curtis to be saying is that the myth lies in the belief that al-Qaeda is a structured organisation run by Bin Laden. One American clip Curtis showed imagined holed up in a luxury HQ - complete with hydroelectric power - in the caves of Tora Bora like a Bond villain.

The best summing up of the position we are now in came in an article in Saturday's Guardian by John Gray - another of this blog's heroes, even if we did once accuse him of being off with the fairies.

Gray wrote:

No longer the semi-centralised organisation it was before the destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has mutated into a brand name that covers an amorphous network of groups that are linked together mainly by their adherence to an apocalyptic version of Islamist ideology...

It is a network that seems to be replicating itself in Europe and other advanced industrial regions, and if it turns out that the London bombings were al-Qaeda-related, the group that committed them could prove to be largely homegrown.

He was also surely right when he added:
In terms of its apocalyptic mindset, al-Qaeda is not unique, nor is it peculiarly Islamic. It is the most recent expression of a tradition of terrorism which has deep roots in Western religious beliefs and in modern revolutionary politics. The idea that violence can be used to remake the world has a powerful appeal, and if al-Qaeda is distinctive, it is in the ruthlessness with which it implements this belief.
In many ways the loose organisation of al-Qaeda makes it harder to deal with, whether you seek a military victory or to negotiate with it. But it is better to understand the enemy we face than to caricature those who do not share your view of it.

Where the Lions went wrong

I can't help thinking that Sir Clive Woodward missed a trick by not playing Alastair Campbell in the last test.

He would have brought some much needed aggression to the pack, and his selection would have meant that at least one Scottish player got a cap.

Late news: Campbell sent off after All Black winger makes unkind comment about Robert Maxwell.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Bring it out here, Tompkins

There were many stories in the papers last week that have been forgotten after Thursday's events. One of the sillier ones was The Times' claim that "One schoolboy in 10 has carried some kind of gun in the last year".

The story itself has disappeared behind the Times' firewall ("The undiscover'd country from whose bourn/No traveller returns"), but there is a neat dissection of it on The Law West of Ealing Broadway:
The headline suggested that up to a million kids have gone about tooled up, and the reality is that a few hundred, or even a couple of thousand teenage boys have claimed to be dead hard - probably even more claimed to have shagged Billie Piper.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Great Harborough Cheesecake Scandal

Here is today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. You can find more details of that estimable organ here.

Making a cake of it

This week all right-thinking people are up in arms about the Market Harborough cheesecake. But first we have to deal with something less important: the Conservative Party.

On Monday they initiated two debates, and used the first to attack us over local income tax. As Phil Woolas suggested, the title of the debate should have been “The Cheadle by-election’ as that was what the Tories really had in mind.

But they must have been disappointed with the outcome. Their main speakers – Caroline Spelman and Sir John Butterfill – were poor, and not just because Butterfill™ sounds like a synthetic cake mix. If the 2005 Tory intake is as impressive as they claim, the sooner they get some of them on the front bench the better.

Worse for them, the Tories have lost all credibility on local taxation. They fought the last election on a blend of inertia and cowardice: committed to keeping the council tax but promising to cancel the revaluation of properties. As far as you can tell, this is still their policy. And it leaves them sounding less like a potential government than ever.

The Tories’ second debate was on regulation. Norman Lamb quoted a select committee report as saying the challenges UK industry faces also include “skills and training, R&D and technology transfer, the supply of capital for investment, and narrowing the productivity gap with our competitors”

Yet this time we supported the Tories, which showed the right instinct. For a party which stands for freedom, we Lib Dems can be terribly keen on new controls. I don’t have a copy of our last manifesto to hand, but I seem to recall we came out in favour of microchipping goldfish.

Had Norman known about The Great Harborough Cheesecake Scandal he might have made an even more telling point.

Here in the lush Welland valley we have been enjoying this delicacy – a pastry case filled with curds and sultanas – since the 19th century. But no longer.

Leicestershire trading standards has told a local baker that, under the the Food Labelling Regulations of 1996, it can no longer be called a cheesecake. A fine of £5000 was mentioned.

So as we tuck into our newly christened Harborough curdcakes, we remember who was in power in 1996.

London bombings: Why everyone is right

This is not one of those "If I had caught my usual train..." posts, but I was in Tavistock Square on Monday. I remember pointing out the blue plaque for Charles Dickens on the front of BMA House. Tonight I saw it again on the television news.

I lived in London for a couple of years in the 1980s, working for some of the time in the big department stores at the height of an IRA bombing campaign. When there was a bomb warning - and they were almost daily events - we each searched our own little part of the building and then carried on with business as usual.

This gave me some modest understanding of what London must have been like in the Second World War, and I am sure it is the spirit that the city will show after the terrorist outrages yesterday.

Whether the bombs will change British politics is hard to say. The striking thing about the reaction so far is that everyone sees them as a vindication of his own position. Those who support President Bush's War on Terrorism and those who opposed the invasion of Iraq are both more sure than ever that they are right.

But then events often have that effect on people. So we should not be too surprised when a right-wing American site suggests that "one of the operatives involved in this morning's bombings in London was recently released from the prison at Guantanamo". Even though this is surely a case of wishful thinking on its part.

And so, I suspect, is the claim by the Australian High Commissioner in London that the bombs are the work of a "group of anti-globalisation protesters or anarchists" and designed to disrupt the G8 summit. Perhaps they don't teach the geography of the motherland in Australian schools any more?

Meanwhile two contributors to Fox News sounded positively gleeful that all this nonsense about Africa and global warming has been put in its place:
I think that works to our advantage, in the Western world's advantage, for people to experience something like this together, just 500 miles from where the attacks have happened.
Read the full exchange on the Antagonist's blog.

Thanks also to A Logical Voice and Sideline SquawkBox for leads.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Simon Jenkins is mad as hell

Over the past three weeks Simon Jenkins has been presenting a series of talks on BBC Radio 4 under the title "Mad as Hell". You can find audio files and transcripts of them here.

He argues that government in Britain is too pervasive and, in particular, too centralised. More than that, he argues, that much of the blame for this lies with Mrs Thatcher. Far from rolling back the frontiers of the State, she pushed them forward.

As he said in the first of his three talks:
To rid Britain of socialism Thatcher claimed to need more power. It was the same claim socialism had made for its creation. Thatcher came to need more Treasury control, more quangos, more regulators, less insubordination, less lower tier democracy. She might claim that she only needed the power so as later to return it to the people (those in power always say that). But she took it, and we let her.
Jenkins is also very good on the way political debate is conducted in Britain today.

If the state refuses to wither away, their must be a cause.

One reason is vividly illustrated each morning by the BBC's Today programme, unofficial tribune of the political scrutiny. It is often accused of left-wing bias. I have never agreed with that. But then its bias is far more powerful, towards interventionism as opposed to devolution. It may anti-the government but it is fiercely pro-government. And in this it is no different from most of the media, indeed most of Britain's political community. Day after day its interviewers intone the same mantra. What are you doing, secretary of state, about the crime rate, hospital waiting list, traffic jams, trains, schools, litter, hooligans? Something must be done. Come on minister, what are you doing? Why aren't you spending more?

In response I have never heard a minister dare to say that anything is none of his business.

And:

The major premise of political debate is that more must always be spent and be done. When a dog bites a child, the Home Office must look into dog licences. When salmonella is found in an egg, all eggs are suspect. If a man falls into a pond, all ponds must be fenced.

Worse, nothing must be different anywhere. Told that cancer cures are higher in Shropshire than in Surrey the media erupts. Told that speeding fines are lower in Dorset than in Durham we need to know why. Why is literacy lower in Liverpool than Ludlow or rivers cleaner in Cornwall than Cumbria? Why is the minister doing nothing about it? The target culture duly elides into the post-code lottery. We can't bear anything to be variable. It is unfair.

This analysis has much in common with the approach taken by Chris Huhne and the group which produced the Liberal Democrat report Quality, Innovation, Choice in 2002. It displayed the Lib Dem obsession with regional government, when voters' loyalty is to cities and counties, but otherwise its heart was entirely in the right place.

Unfortunately, the policies in this report have been largely set aside in favour of conventional calls for more spending and more public sector staff. Such policies may well be needed, but without the sort of reform Jenkins and Huhne call for, it is hard to see them having the desired effect.

Chris Huhne's report has fallen so far out of favour that there seems no longer to be a copy on the Liberal Democrats' website. But you can find a Word version on Huhne's own site here. It is well worth reading.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Why London must gain the Olympics

It's not because they will make us money. I fully expect the games to be a financial disaster and to cost us zillions.

It's not because they will improve transport in London. If things are wrong they need to be put right now because people are suffering, not because they may inconvenience the Polish women's water volleyball team one day.

It's not because they will galvanise the nation's youth. If watching sport on television made you active our youngsters would be the fittest in the world, rather than out of their skulls on Sunny D and Turkey Twizzlers.

No, the reason we must win the games is that we have to put one over on the French in general and Jacques Chirac in particular.

Is Bono the new Kathy Kirby?

Simon Hoggart's Commons sketch in the Guardian today is good on the absurdities of today's celebrity politics. Writing about the heyday of anti-nuclear protest in the early 1960s, he asks:
Can you imagine the CND folk saying: "I think we can get Billy Fury and Kathy Kirby for the Trafalgar Square gig! And maybe we can bring Vince Eager back from panto in Ipswich!"
A pedant writes: Shouldn't there be a question mark in there somewhere?

Monday, July 04, 2005

The wrong kind of supermarket

In January the Guardian carried an article by Martin Wainwright about Tesco's controversial new store in Gerrards Cross. The plans, opposed by the parish council, the district council and the county council, but accepted by John Prescott, involve roofing over a railway cutting to provide extra space.

Wainwright quoted a Tesco spokeswoman, Katherine Edwards, as saying:
"We can see no reason why the further expansion should not go through and the store should be open by the summer."
Er, how about this?

More from Liam Fox

Liam Fox's call for a reconsideration of single-sex schools got a lot of media attention over the weekend - and has caused some debate in the comments on this blog.

However, his article in the Observer on Sunday was more interesting. In particular, this quotation:
The 1980s forces which generated economic revival also significantly increased social and geographical mobility. This markedly reduced the role of the extended family and the security it represented.
Britain has lost some of the building blocks of a strong and stable society. The decline in secure family life, of good order in our schools and of good behaviour on our streets is creating an environment in which many people live in a state of anxiety and too many young people are excluded from normal life.
Here, at last, is a leading Conservative showing some sign of realising that there is a contradiction inherent in his party's philosophy. Modern Tories support the free market, yet that market tends to subvert the traditional values they cherish.

I feel another outing for one of my favourite quotations coming on. As John Gray has written:
The self-destruction of British conservatism by New Right ideology and policies is best interpreted as an exemplification of a central neo-liberal theme - the importance of unintended consequences in social, economic and political life.
Now read on.

The best of the blogs

Tim Worstall has posted another of his selections of the best in British blogging.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Post of the Day

This prestigious award goes to the blog Freedom and Whisky for this (even though it displays rather oddly in my browser):
Walking back from photographing yesterday's march in Edinburgh I was approached by an elderly gentleman wearing a Scottish Socialist Party badge. He asked if I would like to purchase a postcard of Che. I asked him why on earth would I want to buy a photo of a mass murderer who shot small boys. I enjoyed this confrontation so much that I had to go and celebrate with a beer.

David Dimbleby: All is forgiven

Well, not all, but last week's edition of A Picture of Britain did include an early film of the composer George Butterworth dancing a jig. It was worryingly reminiscent of Monty Python's fish slapping dance, but still a little piece of history I had not seen before.

Not that Old Iron Bladder got everything right. He misquoted A. E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad, which is a heinous sin as far as this blog is concerned.

Is that a Taser in your pocket?

The politics.co.uk site reports:

The controversial Taser stun gun is a "dangerous weapon" which should not yet be issued to all frontline police officers, Home Office minister Hazel Blears has said.

Her comments follow a recent survey by the Police Federation, which claims that 80 per cent of its members are in favour of rolling out the use of the stun guns.

Somehow I find that "yet" less than reassuring.

And you will play Ophelia, Tompkins

Liam Fox has called for a reconsideration of the case for single-sex schools. Already two Lib Dems - Chris Ward and Peter Black - have made fun of the idea. But I wonder if they have blogged too soon.

The evidence suggests that, paradoxically, coeducational schooling tends to reinforce gender stereotypes rather than break them down.

As this campaigning American site says:
Girls in all-girls schools are more likely to study subjects such as advanced math, computer science, and physics. Boys in all-boys schools are more than twice as likely to study subjects such as foreign languages, art, music, and drama. Those boys might not get better grades in those subjects than comparable boys get in more gender-typical subjects. Studies which focus only on grades and test scores won't detect any difference in outcome.
So while you may not agree with Fox's idea, it is hard to see why it should be treated with such contempt. We Lib Dems should be welcoming diversity and experiment in education. Too often we act as a conduit for the voice of the professional establishment.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

The leaves of Southwell

Today I have been to Southwell in Nottinghamshire to visit the Minster, which is one of England's finest cathedrals and certainly the least well known. It stands in a spacious little town that has connections with Lord Byron.

Lord Bonkers writes: In those days many people had connections with Lord Byron.

One of the great things about the East Midlands is how little the region is known. If Southwell were in the Cotswolds it would be crawling with tourists. Here the town caters for visitors but is not swamped by them. The result is that Southwell is a dignified place without being self-important.

The stone carvings in the Chapter House are the glory of the Minster. As its website says:
The carvings known as "The Leaves of Southwell" are world renowned. There are images of animals - goats, hares, birds and fabulous creatures - and human heads in portrait and caricature, combining superstition and fable with religious beliefs. There are also many different types of leaf, all of which would have been found in Sherwood Forest.
There are also carvings of ten "Green Men" who have branches of leaves growing from their mouths or who have heads formed of leaves. The origins of the Green Men are obscure. They are found in mythology long before Christianity came to Britain and are linked to rites of fertility, Spring and new birth. If the Green Men represented new birth and new life then they could, perhaps, also represent the resurrection in the Christian context.
In 1945 Nikolaus Pevsner wrote a short book entitled The Leaves of Southwell. It was published as a King Penguin, with photographs by F. L. Attenborough, the principal of University College, Leicester, and father of Sir Dickie and Sir David.

He makes great claims for the leaves' importance, concluding:
Could these leaves of the English countryside, with all their freshness, move us so deeply if they were not carved in that spirit which filled the saints and poets and thinkers of the thirteenth century, the spirit of religious respect for the loveliness of created nature? The inexhaustible delight in live form that can be touched with worshipping fingers and felt with all senses is ennobled ... by the conviction that so much beauty can exist only because God is an every man and beast, in every herb and stone. The Renaissance in the South two hundred years later was perhaps once again capable of such worship of beauty, but no firm faith was left to strengthen it.
Seen in this light, the leaves of Southwell assume a significance as one of the purest symbols surviving in Britain of Western thought, our thought, in its loftiest mood.
I have come to the conclusion that, much as I love church music and church architecture, they do not mean that Christianity is true. But I am nearer to believing at Southwell than anywhere else.

Friday, July 01, 2005

The long road rightwards

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. While I was writing it Hoey became one of the 20 Labour MPs to vote against the government's identity card bill. So I need not be embarrassed by my liking for her.

A load of Hoey

Kate Hoey used to be that rare thing, a Trotskyite PE teacher. (“Touch all four walls and expound the principles of Permanent Revolution. Go!”)

Then, like many ultra-leftists, she realised things would go more smoothly if she recanted her early beliefs. So much so that in 1989 Labour HQ imposed her on Vauxhall as a moderate candidate.

Hoey later enjoyed a short spell as sports minister, and today is installed as a maverick backbencher. Calling someone a “maverick” at Westminster is often a polite way of saying they are self-indulgent and unreliable – it would be invidious to mention Clare Short in this context – but it is hard not to admire the sheer unfashionability of Hoey’s enthusiasms.

On Ireland she is a passionate Unionist. She supported Lembit Öpik’s Middle Way on hunting. And, valuably, she defended shooting as a sport in the face of the ban on handguns.

Another of her concerns is Zimbabwe, which she has twice visited incognito. On Monday she raised it in a question after Charles Clarke’s statement and later on in an adjournment debate she initiated.

Clarke repeated Tony Blair’s incredible line from his morning press conference. There have been “no substantiated reports of mistreatment” of anyone returned to Zimbabwe. Reading between the lines, the government message seemed to be that we should not worry too much about these people. The important thing is that Britain does not appear a soft touch to migrants.

It was in the adjournment debate that Hoey had her say. She reported Morgan Tsvangirai description of Mugabe’s policies as “Pol Pot in slow motion”.

She said people are “dying in order to get the message out of Zimbabwe, and to try to raise any international outrage”. And perhaps it easier for someone who is still, just about, of the left to accuse Western leaders as “choking on … a misplaced post-colonial guilt”.

Not every young socialist who takes the long road rightwards arrives in the same place as Hoey. Chris Mullin, once the sea-green incorruptible of the Bennites, found himself reduced to helping Clarke by suggesting “many Zimbabweans who came here as economic refugees turned into political refugees retrospectively”.

No young backbencher desperate for his first job as a bag-carrier could have been more crass or anxious to please.

Bring your llama to the drama

If you live in Shropshire, own a llama and would like it to follow a career in show business then this story from the Shropshire Star is for you.

If you don't, then it may be of less interest.