Thursday, May 31, 2007

That Dominic Grieve article in full

The article that is causing all the fuss this evening is Dominic Grieve's "View from the House" column for the Buckinghamshire Examiner, which was published last Saturday.

He writes:

Our local schools are very good and provide excellent education for the students. This is why I am pleased that although my own party is looking at ways of improving education nationally through reforming the existing comprehensive system, there is no question of our changing the selective education system in Buckinghamshire against the wishes of the local community.

We must also ensure that if further grammar or secondary schools are needed they can be supplied within the county.

The Conservatives real problem is not the choice between a selective and a comprehensive system. As I have written before, it is deciding between localism and central control.

Name of the Day

The clear winner is Topsy Ojo.

I have seen him play for London Irish at Welford Road, and he looks a handy player. But he has really been selected because he is the last English wing three-quarter left standing.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Fire at Oldbury power station

The reactor at Oldbury nuclear power station has been shut down until further notice following a fire at the plant, reports the BBC.

It sounds as though no serious damage has been done, but the incident has reminded me of my participation in one of the nuclear industry's more bizarre publicity stunts.

In 1977 the British Monopoly championships were held on top of the nuclear pile at Oldbury - the idea was that the location represented the Electricity Company on the playing board.

In reality the event was advertising for the nuclear industry and Waddington's. I must have qualified through some sort of trade competition - putting things in order and writing a slogan, as people did in the days before premium phone numbers.

But I didn't do too shabbily. I reached the last 12 and almost reached the final. I had serious property on Park Lane and Mayfair, my closest rival was heading round the board towards them... Then he drew a Chance card, went to gaol and I never got to charge him those huge rents.

The other thing I recall is that on the last day I was afraid of being left behind and didn't go through all the security procedures.

Even so, I don't think I suffered any ill effects. I count my toes regularly - it's easy when they glow in the dark - and there are still 10.

How Tony Blair made cynics of us all

The BBC tells us that, out in Sierra Leone, Tony Blair has been attacking critics of the Africa leg of his farewell tour:
"The one thing I have come to despise more than anything else in my 10 years is cynicism."
So Tony Blair has come to despise cynicism over the past 10 years? That cannot be right.

From its earliest days, New Labour treated cynicism as the worst of sins. It seemed that anything was forgivable except refusing to take Blair and his henchmen at their own high estimate.

In his first Labour Conference speech as prime minister Blair claimed that the general election had been a defeat not just for Toryism but for cynicism.

By 2000 Nick Cohen had become exasperated with this tactic. He wrote in the New Statesman:
When Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell rant against indifference, they do not attack the apathetic, but the cynical, and they do so with real vehemence.

Their use of cynic is a smear. But you should always take your enemies' insults as badges of honour and, before donning the decoration, it is worth asking: just who is a cynic?

Cynicism is now the antonym of apathy. While the apathetic don't care, the traduced cynics care greatly. When Blair goes for cynics, he means a democratic socialist or libertarian or anyone who clings on to a principle.
Not that this stopped Blair. The following year, in a speech to Christian Socialists, he said cynicism was not only a fact of political life but a "corrosive" danger to democracy itself.

From this we conclude that cynicism is not something that Blair has come to despise over the past 10 years. As far as he really despises it, he has always done so. But it looks far more like an underhand tactic to question the motivation of those who refuse to take Blair at his own, extraordinarily high, estimation.

Is it any wonder we are all cynical about him?

Cheggers plays Shakespeare

Seeing as I have blogged about the fact that Sid Owen once played Al Pacino's son in a film, I suppose I am bound to mention this too.

Keith Chegwin appeared in Roman Polanski's 1971 film of Macbeth.

A thespian writes: It is bad luck to mention that name. Leave the dressing room and turn round three times before you come back in.

Liberal England replies: Come, come. Cheggers isn't as bad as all that.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Tory tactics in Brent

A comment on Liberal Democrat Voice deserves wider notice:
I have in front of me the Dudden Hill Ward By-Election Special put out by the Conservative Party. The headline is CONSERVATIVES HEAD FOR STUNNING WIN!, and continues ‘Local voters in Dudden Hill are confirming the national trend: the Conservatives are now the party of first choice in Brent…’
And the result in Dudden Hill?

Liberal Democrats 1,262 (39.8%)
Labour 1,177 (37.2%)
Tory 412 (13.0%)
Respect 160 (5.1%)
Green 156 (4.9%)

Andrew Marr disappoints trivia fans

I am watching the second part of Andrew Marr's A History of Modern Britain. Within a few minutes he has shown Anthony Eden and his wife departing for a cruise aboard the RMS Rangitata after he had resigned as prime minister over Suez and a clip from the film of Shelagh Delaney's play A Taste of Honey.

All very interesting.

BUT...
  • He did not mention that the steward who looked after the Edens aboard the Rangitata was John Prescott;
  • The clip from A Taste of Honey did not feature the young Hazel Blears.
This has to go down as a terrible missed opportunity.

The BBC talks nonsense on education

From an article on Auntie's website:
Government figures in the Observer show some schools in England have a pupil majority from one ethnic group.
The only way the state could avoid that being the case would be by refusing to educate a large proportion of what Margaret Hodge calls the indigenous population.

Teapots fight cancer

Not only is it more civilised to make tea in a pot, but it is better for you too.

The BBC reports:

The traditional way of making tea in a pot is healthier than dunking a bag in a cup, according to scientists.

Previous research found antioxidants in tea could help protect against things like cancer and heart disease.

Now scientists in Aberdeen have shown that a cuppa only gets the maximum amount of these chemicals when the tea is given proper time to brew.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

BritBlog Roundup 119

Let's start with Random Acts of Reality and a case of a passer-by saving someone's life. I am afraid it is all downhill from there.

The political story of the week should have been the collapse of the Medical Training Application Service - see The Ferret Fancier for the gory details and the background.

Instead it has again been the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal. PooterGeek satirises the reaction of the British tabloid press. This is a difficult subject to tackle but he gets the tone just right and makes some important points.

Back in Britain there has been debate about the far-right British National Party. Is it rising and should we worry if it is? D-squrared Digest thinks it is not rising and backs this argument with facts and analysis. Dan Hardie disagrees and the Yorkshire Ranter and Blood & Treasure continue the debate.

Elsewhere in the political world, The Wardman Wire looks at things "through the lingerie lens" and Central News is outraged at the thought of prisons having smoking and non-smoking cells. Meanwhile The Daily (Maybe) calculates the odds on the Labour deputy leadership contest.

Another political story this week has been McDonald's attempt to rewrite the Oxford English Dictionary to improve its corporate image. Blood & Treasure (again) discovered something interesting about the MP who is helping the campaign.

The Shadow of the Olive Tree has found a survey on what people think of the "England/Britain/UK confusion". He thinks it would be good if it got more coverage amongst bloggers who are not rabid English nationalists. Now it has.

And so to country matters. Philobiblon has learned to look at hedges with new eyes, while Bean Sprouts wants everyone to keep chickens. And if you do want to, you will find three more articles on that site telling you how.

Turning to powerful women, Lady Bracknell proves she came up with the Skoda advert idea first. Mind the Gap! looks at Professor Jocelyn Mabel Peabody, who was one of Dan Dare's crew.

A tale of two cities next: Petite Anglaise looks at life in Paris, where she is still learning new French expressions, while Diamond Geezer looks at days out in London.

And whichever city you are in, you may want to consider getting magical Sat-Nav. Early Modern Whale explains.

Next week's roundup will be at Philobiblon. As ever nominations should be sent to britblog [at] gmail [dot] com.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Another diary from Lord Bonkers

The latest Liberator is with subscribers, so it is time to publish his lordship's latest effusions here.

Monday
Bowling along the lanes of Montgomeryshire in the Bentley I come upon a caravan that has toppled into the ditch. Some poor fellow is trying to haul it out while being shouted at by an unruly band of Romanians who have stayed aboard the van drinking beer - “Hey, Mr Lembit You push harder OK?”. I stop to lend a hand and discover that the unfortunate motorist is none other than our own Lembit Öpik. He stops to wipe his hands on an oily rag and to adjust the little dots over his name, which have been knocked askew. “Have you met Gabriela?” he asks. “And this is Monica, her sister. And this is their mother Margit. This is Margit’s cousin Florian. And this is Florian’s great uncle Dmitri and some of his sons. And their families. And I am not sure who those others are.” I put my shoulder to the wheel and we soon have the van out of the ditch. As it drives away I hear a voice calling “Hey, Mr Lembit, when you take me to meet Madonna? You get me more beer now.” I do hope the poor fellow has chosen his bride wisely.

Tuesday
I am resting at the Hall when a young lady from the local social services department (the workhouse de nos jours) is shown in. “I’ve come to fit you with your tag, Lord Bonkers,” she says. “What’s that?” I reply, turning my ear trumpet to 11. It turns out that the powers that be want to fit me with some new-fangled electric chip that will allow me to be tracked by satellites if I “wander off”. Well, I give her pretty short shrift, as you can imagine - though no gentleman ever fires so as to hit a lady. After she has left, I fall to thinking. Wandering off? It happens all the time at Westminster: there is an important division on the Fish Bill and half your fellows are nowhere to be seen. I telephone the Commons and have myself put through to our Chief Whip. “Burstow,” I say, “I may just have found the answer to your prayers.”

Wednesday
Bonkers House stands in Belgrave Square and I often stay there when on business in London. Thus I take a keen interest in the affairs of the capital and particularly in the Mayoral election. Who is to be the Liberal Democrat standard-bearer this time? Many names have been put forward (some of them have even been members of the party), yet we seem no nearer to finding a candidate. I suggest to the Revd Hughes that he has another go, but he replies that he has so much to do at St Asquith’s in the village that you will seldom find him at St Tatchell’s, Bermondsey, these days. My duty is clear: this morning I have myself measured for a pearly suit then settle down in my Library with Teach Yourself Cockney Rhyming Slang.

Thursday
Polling day in the Bonkers Hall Ward. I am gratified to be returned again, with the result that I have now served the same patch for well over a hundred years - I believe that this to be something of a record. The odd thing is that in all that time I have never been opposed. There was a young firebrand who announced his intention to put up once, but unfortunately he was devoured by a lion from my short-lived safari park before he was able to get his nomination papers in. One benefit of this lack of competition is that I am able to help the party in other seats, and I spend the day strafing Conservative positions in Hinckley and Bosworth.

Friday
Down at Westminster I bump into Lembit Ö pik again; he is rather distractedly fingering a sore place on his neck. I have a look at it for him and am seized with a strange dread. “Did you say Gabriela came from Transylvania?” I ask. “Don’t take this the wrong way, old man, but I didn’t like the look of great uncle Dmitri’s teeth. If I were you I would ask the Revd Hughes for a crucifix and keep a clove of garlic to hand while that old gentleman is about.

Saturday
The results for the local elections are in. Ming puts a brave face on things, describing them on the electric television as a “mixed bag”. In private I try to persuade him to embrace a more pessimistic analysis, mentioning Waverley, Babergh, Restormel, Wychavon - my sorrow in no way lessened by the fact that I do not have the foggiest ideas where any of these places are. (What happened to sensible names like Market Harborough Rural District Council?) Yet Ming is adamant: he fixes me with an eagle eye and says: “What you are forgetting, Bonkers, is that we won Eastbourne. Elspeth is very fond of Eastbourne.”

Sunday
If, in these parts, one remarks to a woman upon her beautiful “Rutland”, one means that she has a lovely daughter (Rutland Water, daughter); but if one is says her son is an Uppingham, one is being less complimentary (Uppingham School, fool). Equally, when I was in London the other day I enjoyed the blue pork (pork pie, sky) and, if I were not fortunate enough to own Bonkers House, might have stayed at the mature (mature Stilton, Hilton). You see how it works? Remarkably, it seems that they use a similar rhyming slang in London, or so my new book informs me. I am beginning to think that my being the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for Mayor of London would be a Terribly Good Idea.

Lord Bonkers was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West 1906-10.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Chariots of Ming

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Not very sporting

The Liberal Democrats should have come out against London bidding for the 2012 Olympics. It would have taken courage: in those days Tony Blair still had a little gloss left on him and we did not want to sound like killjoys. So at our Brighton Conference last year we trooped in to listen to Sebastian Coe and watched the Chariots of Ming video.

But it’s becoming clear that London 2012 is the Millennium Dome crossed with the NHS computer fiasco and the national identity card scheme with several more noughts after it and a cherry on top.

Back in 2003 consultants put the cost of the games at £1.796bn. By 2005 this had become a “prudent” £2.4bn. Now it is estimated that the cost is will be £9.35bn and everyone believes that the final figure will be a long way north of that.

All this is having a serious effect on public spending elsewhere, as two of our MPs pointed out at culture, media and sport questions on Monday.

Don Foster said the total cut in arts funding across the UK to pay for the Olympics will be well over £200 million. Paul Holmes said that Heritage Link, the Arts Council of England, the Voluntary Arts Network, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the Central Council of Physical Recreation were all concerned about the impact of the Olympics’ smash-and-grab raid. “How,” he asked, “can there be a cultural Olympics and a growth in grass-roots sport if the funding is taken away?”

What are the arguments in favour of the London Olympics? Some say it will regenerate a run-down quarter of East London. But the evidence from other cities is mixed, and there must be cheaper ways of doing it.

Will it inspire a generation to take up sport? That would be great, but if watching sport on television were the answer then our children today would be the fittest ever.

Here’s an idea: instead of backing the Games, the Lib Dems should have proposed giving away that original £1.796bn to organisations like local sports clubs. It would have done far more for grassroots sport than the Olympics will ever do, and made clear our rejection of Labour’s top-down style of politics.

Survivors of the 1945 Parliament

With the death of David Renton, it appears that there are now just four people who were elected as MPs in 1945 still alive: Michael Foot, John Freeman, Ernest Millington and Francis Noel-Baker.

Millington is the only one of them to have been in Parliament before the 1945 election, having won a wartime by-election for the Common Wealth Party.

Since I wrote about this subject last May, Sir Arthur Dodds Parker has died. In that posting I also suggested that Edward Carson (the son of the Ulster Unionist leader) might still be with us, but according to Wikipedia he died back in 1987.

BritBlog Roundup: A reminder

As I reported the other day, the next BritBlog Roundup will appear on this blog on Sunday afternoon.

If you would like to nominate a post to appear there, please send an e-mail to britblog [at] gmail [dot] com giving the link.

Any posting from a British-based blog or British-born blogger made this week can be be nominated. And, yes, you can nominate something from your own blog. Please send any nominations by Sunday lunchtime.

This week's Roundup can be found at Clairwil. And links to all the previous ones can be found on Tim's Worstall's site.

Something must be done

As a commenter pointed out, the syllogism
  • Something must be done.
  • This is something.
  • Therefore it must be done.
comes from Yes Minister.

You can find it and many other great lines from the show on Jonathan Lynn's own website.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Talking McBollocks

The silly story of the day has been Ronald McDonald's attempt to rewrite the dictionary. It seems the burger company does not like the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of the word "McJob":

"an unstimulating low-paid job with few prospects".
According to the BBC:

The current definition is extremely insulting to the 67,000 people who work for us within the UK," said McDonald's senior vice president David Fairhurst.

"It is also insulting for everyone else who works in the wider restaurant and tourism sectors.

"It is time for us now to make a stand and get the Oxford English Dictionary to change the definition."

This is, of course, a load of McBollocks. The role of a dictionary is to reflect the language as it actually exists, not as some interest group would like it to exist.

Besides, part of the richness of the English language is the way that it contains all sorts of outdates attitudes. Take all those derogatory terms like "Dutch courage," "Dutch uncle" and "Dutch auction". These date from a time in the late seventeenth century when Britain was at law with the Netherlands - there is more about these expressions on World Wide Words.

No doubt these expressions are a libel on the excellent people of Holland, but somehow they have managed to live with them. Equally, working at McDonald's may be as wonderful as the company says, with the nation's brightest youngsters opting for a McJob rather than going into engineering or the law. But that doesn't mean that the company should be allowed anywhere near the OED.

I suppose the wonderful democracy of language, in which we all play a part in its development, is too good to last in these insecure days. Perhaps we shall see a committee of experts - including David Fairhurst and the Clive Betts, the tame Labour MP he has recruited - appointed to modernise the language so that it no longer contains old-fashioned anti-business attitudes.

What's going on in Wales?

I'm not sure either, but a report from the BBC gives the latest news:

Liberal Democrat party members have revived plans to discuss joining a coalition Welsh assembly government with Plaid Cymru and the Tories.

A Lib Dem official said 20 requests to hold the special conference on Saturday in Llandrindod Wells had been received.

The party's ruling executive had failed to back a "rainbow coalition", and the conference had been cancelled.

But if you really want to be informed I suggest you read the comments on a posting by Peter Black AM.

Headline of the Day

It comes, naturally enough, from our old friend the Shropshire Star:
Council helpless over geese

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A political syllogism

In the course of a posting on Polly Toynbee and Housing Information Packs, James Graham nicely characterises a certain style of Labourite reasoning:
  • Something must be done.
  • This is something.
  • Therefore it must be done

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

More from Matthew Green

That prince amongst newspapers, the South Shropshire Journal, has more on Matthew Green's decision not to fight Ludlow again for the Lib Dems.

I remember meeting Matthew in the Strangers' Bar at Westminster one evening and swapping Shropshire village names. Here was a man who knew all about The Bog and White Grit.

England selectors imperil great cricket trivia question

Congratulations to Ryan Sidebottom on being named in the England squad for the next test. But if he plays it will ruin one of the great cricket trivia questions.

That question is which father and son each played just one test for England.

Up till now the answer has been the Sidebottoms. Ryan has played once, against Pakistan in 2001, when he failed to take a wicket. And his father Arnie (who was also on the books of Manchester United for a while) won one cap against Australia in 1985.

Oh well, you will still be able to ask people which cricketer played in England sides alongside both Colin and Chris Cowdrey.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Medical Training Application Service

Writing on Spiked, Dr Michael Fitzpatrick sets out the extraordinary details of this system:

In its modernising zeal, MTAS gives priority to doctors’ subjective ‘learning experiences’ and downplays objective indicators of performance. It allocates 75 per cent of its points to 150-word vignettes of clinical cases, in which doctors display fashionable concerns about ‘reflexive learning’, ‘team-working’ and ethical dilemmas.

According to critics this amounts to meaningless self-promotion as well as being open to plagiarism (which the system lacks the software to detect). Only 25 per cent of points are allocated to academic or research achievements. Extracurricular activities are marginalised, references sidelined and interviews rigidly standardised.

He also has fun with modern jargon

The new programme is ‘trainee-centred, competency-assessed, service-based, quality-assured, flexible, coached, structured and streamlined’; it is managed and structured, progressive, robust and seamless; it is ‘outcome-based’ and evaluates ‘observed behaviour, skills and attributes’.

No doubt some of this jargon conceals valuable educational and clinical activity, but it is difficult to believe that all the ticking of boxes reflects any improvement in the rigour of medical training. What remains unquantified in this system is the quality of doctors’ clinical knowledge and their experience of taking responsibility in treating and caring for patients.

And he sets all this lunacy in its historical context:

The 1858 Medical Act, which is established the General Medical Council, sought to establish a system of medical education that produced a doctor who, on qualification, was a ‘safe general practitioner’. This concept of an independent and competent general practitioner symbolised the confidence of the modern medical profession at the moment of its emergence in the nineteenth century.

By contrast, the ‘never quite competent’ doctor, one who requires continuous formal instruction and regulation, monitoring and mentoring, support and counselling, symbolises the abject state of the profession in the new millennium. While the junior hospital doctor of the past may have been used and abused, today’s doctors appear to have lost all initiative or autonomy in relation to their own professional development and in relation to their patients.

Constituencies the Lib Dems won on 3 May

Peter Pigeon has picked out some of the better Lib Dem constituency performances in the local elections held earlier this month:
Grimsby - won with 39.1% (2004 33.8%)
Hull E, N and W - won with 43.9% (up 1.6%),42.3% (up 4%), and 46.7% (up 19.6%!)
Blaydon - won with 47.8% (up 2.8%)
Newcastle North - won with 52.7% (up 6.8%)
St Helens S - won with 45.1% (up 0.3%)
Oldham E - won with 53.8% (up 17.4%)
Burnley - won with 33.9% (up 6.3%)
Milton Keynes N - won with 39.2% (up 4%)
Warrington S - won with 52.6% (up 4.2%).

Sunday, May 20, 2007

BritBlog Roundup is returning to Liberal England

The next BritBlog Roundup will appear on this blog on Sunday 27 May.

If you would like to nominate a post to appear there, please send an e-mail to britblog [at] gmail [dot] com giving me the link.

Any posting from a British-based blog or British-born blogger made this week can be be nominated. And, yes, you can nominate something from your own blog.

This week's Roundup can be found at Clairwil. And links to all the previous ones can be found on Tim's Worstall's site.

Carry On at Bonkers Hall

Having previously noted that Nevill Holt in Leicestershire may well be the inspiration for Bonkers Hall, the ancestral home of my alter ego, I suppose I am obliged to pass on the following story.

The Mail on Sunday reports the adventures of "Old Etonian eco-warrior Hector Christie, 43" and in particular his attendance at the 40th birthday party of Nevill Holt's owner David Ross:
The champagne-fuelled bash, which Ross hosted at Nevill Holt Hall, his 700-year-old 90-room mansion in Leicestershire, was themed around the Carry On films. Among the 400 guests were footballer Gary Lineker, whose sister-in-law Ali Cockayne once dated Ross.

"I stopped off at David's party on my journey back to Devon," says Hector, who runs his own stately pile, Tapeley Park as a hippie commune. "A lot of people were dressed as doctors and nurses, but I just went in my viking costume as I was already in fancy dress for the protests.

"I'm afraid I got rather drunk - cocktails were dispensed by syringes straight into your mouth, and I spent most of the time talking to four women sitting either side of the bar who were naked apart from a few strategically placed flowers."
How the other half lives, eh?

BritBlog Roundup 118

This week's selection of the best in British blogging can be found at Clairwil.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Good news for John Hemming

Sean Fear has written an analysis of how the Birmingham seats may be shared out at the next general election. He writes:
Neither Sutton Coldfield or Yardley are going to change hands at the next election. The Conservatives won 60% in Sutton Coldfield this year, and the Liberal Democrats won 57% in Yardley. Sutton Coldfield has always been rock solid, and Yardley certainly looks as though it now is. It is hard to imagine that the Conservatives held that seat up until 1992. This year, they won less than 10% in its ward.
The thought that we have a Lib Dem seat in Birmingham that is almost as safe for us as Sutton Coldfield is for the Tories is remarkable indeed.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Mr Speaker Weatherill

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

The best Speaker

Bernard Weatherill, who died earlier this month, was the greatest Commons Speaker of modern times. George Thomas was the darling of the media, but his manner was unctuous and he was unwilling to stand up to Mrs Thatcher. Betty Boothroyd was impossible to dislike, if only because she reminded you of Mollie Sugden. The present speaker is less endearing, though he has been unfairly treated by snobbish Tory journalists. But Bernard Weatherill was the best of them all.

Last Thursday MPs took time out to pay tribute to him and exchange anecdotes. By now everyone knows that Weatherill always carried a silver thimble to remind him of his origins in his father’s Saville Row tailoring business. And that when first elected he heard one Tory grandee complain to another: "I don't know what this place is coming to, Tom, they've got my tailor in here now."

But other stories were less familiar. Weatherill served in the Indian Army during World War II and become a vegetarian after seeing the 1942 famine in Bengal. He spoke fluent Urdu.

Bernard Weatherill served as Conservative deputy chief whip between 1974 and 1979, eventually helping to engineer the defeat of Jim Callaghan on a confidence motion. But Mrs Thatcher had noticed his support for proportional representation in Scottish elections, so there was no position for him in her first government.

When he became speaker in 1983 he soon established himself as the champion of back-benchers’ rights. It was made known to him that Mrs Thatcher did not appreciate this, but he faced her down and defeated the subsequent whispering campaign against him in the press that tried to make out that he was not up to the job.

His approach typified intelligent conservatism, maintaining the pageantry of the House - he was the last Speaker to wear a wig - while allowing in the television cameras. And everyone who spoke mentioned his charm, modesty and old-fashioned courtesy.

The best anecdote was that told by Peter Viggers. One evening the hot-tempered Eric Heffer was being barracked by an obnoxious young Tory MP as he spoke. Eventually he snapped, shouting “Shut up, you stupid git!”

From the Chair, Mr Speaker Weatherill said, “Order, order. I think I’m meant to say that.”

The Labour MPs who did not nominate Gordon Brown

The Croydonian has the full list.

Organisation of the Day

Congratulations to Shropshire's Wrekin View Naturist Club.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Tory shambles in North Devon?

An unconfirmed report reaches me that the the Tories turned up at the AGM of North Devon District Council four members light. The result is that a Lib Dem was elected Chairman, and an all-party executive was elected, which was the situation before the recent elections.

So despite a nominal Tory majority of one, the council remains NOC.

My informant says this is poetic justice as the Tories got more seats for fewer votes than the Lib Dems.

Does anyone have more on this?

Test Match Special at 50

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of ball-by-ball test commentary on the BBC. Cricinfo marks the occasion with an article on Test Match Special by Martin Williamson.

I think he gets it right when he says:
The hey-day of TMS was possibly the 1970s when John Arlott and Brian Johnston were at their best and transmissions continued even when there was no play. Indeed, many preferred those spells of inactivity as the team chatted and joked without interruption.
There was a period in the late 1980s when the programme was dominated by an axis of disgruntled Northerners - Fred Trueman, Don Mosey - who made it hard to listen to. Nothing was ever what it was in their day.

Though Brian Johnston died a national treasure and did seem in an exceptionally happy mood in his last few summers, he could be Blimpish and sometimes made the commentary box sound like the staff room of an undistinguished private school.

Today it is impossible to dislike Henry Blofeld, though one wishes that Christopher Martin-Jenkins could get a player's name right just occasionally. The programme still misses the astringency of Trevor Bailey and too many of the ex-players and sports reporters tend towards blandness: Vic Marks stands out as a character amongst them.

Cricinfo has also nominated its XI of the best commentators and rightly gives the incomparable John Arlott pride of place.

Why can't people forgive Ming for looking old?

Whatever you think of Ming Campbell's performance as Liberal Democrat leader, one of the reasons that he is struggling to make an impact reflects no credit on modern British society.

Too many people think it is funny simply to point out that Ming looks elderly. And indeed he does look old for his years, largely because of the illness he suffered a few years ago. It must be galling for a former Olympic sprinter to suffer this treatment, particularly as he could probably still give many of his tormentors in the press ten yards' start.

But if a comedian or journalist had made similar reference to the fact that a politician was a woman or was gay or was Black, it would have finished that comedian or journalist's career. Yet in our society it is perfectly acceptable to make fun of people for being old.

We use to value wisdom in politicians and assume that it came with age. Are we really so shallow that we now want our leaders to be like Tony Blair in his early years in Downing Street, leaving a guitar outside Downing Street where everyone can see it and pretending to be a football fans?

Matthew Green will not fight Ludlow again

Adam Teladia reports that Matthew Green, who was Lib Dem MP for Ludlow between 2001 and 2005, is not to fight the seat again after all. He had previously announced his determination to win it back.

We did it for Hereford and Harrogate, so we are certainly going to do it for Ludlow - a link to the local tourism site and a photograph of Clun Castle, which is in the constituency.

Phil Willis stands down in Harrogate

Liberal Democrat Voice reports that Phil Willis is to stand down at the next general election. At the last election Phil had a majority of 10,429, though there will be boundary changes next time.

As part of our service to aspiring Lib Dem parliamentarians, we offer a link to the Harrogate tourism people and a photograph of this attractive town.

Lord Bonkers adds: You will often find me in Betty's.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Being against grammar schools is not enough

Various Lib Dem bloggers are celebrating David Willett's announcement that the Conservatives no longer believe in grammar schools.

For instance, Norfolk Blogger writes:

David Cameron has highlighted that Grammar schools are full of middle class kids. This is a glaring admission that selection favour's (sic) the middle classes at the expense of the poor.

Unfortunately, that is true. But the trouble is that the best performing comprehensives are full of middle class kids too, as this news release from the Sutton Trust shows.

In the words of the charity's founder Sir Peter Lampl:

These findings starkly underline the extent of the social divide in our education system. The top fifth of schools - independents, grammars and leading comprehensives - are effectively closed to those from less privileged backgrounds. To access them, parents must pay for fees, pay for coaching or prep school for their children to pass the 11 plus, live in an affluent area or prove a religious commitment combined with strong parental support. For less privileged families these are not realistic options."
It was for this reason that a couple of years I wrote:
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.
So where are these exciting new Lib Dem ideas on education? For us as much as for the Tories, being against grammar schools is not enough.

Gordon Brown: No contest, no debate

So it's going to be a coronation:

Gordon Brown has secured the backing of enough MPs to ensure he will not face a contest to become the next Labour leader and prime minister.

Mr Brown has 308 nominations prompting his only rival, left-winger John McDonnell, to concede. He was 16 nominations short of the 45 required.

Mr McDonnell said he was disappointed on behalf of Labour Party members and it was a "blow to democracy".

I'm no fan of John McDonnell, but I think he is right. The lack of a contest or even a debate will reawaken every doubt that the wider public has ever had about him.

Later. At least Labour has more sense than the Liberal Democrats in one way: their MPs are not allowed to nominate more than one leadership candidate.

Pontesbury, vegetables and lead poisoning

In case you have been worrying since last September, the latest news is here.

It's not as bad as first feared.

John Ruskin and pubic hair

Today's Guardian carries the welcome news that Tate Britain is to mount an exhibition devoted to the work of John Everett Millais. It will open on 26 September 2007 and close on 13 January 2008.

The paper's report has the story about the model for his Ophelia catching pneumonia. It further says that her father insisted that Millais pay her medical bills. But it does not have the story about Millais's first application to the Royal Academy. He was a child prodigy and one of the examiners suggested that he should be sweeping chimneys instead.

Another story is included: how Millais ran off with Effie, the wife of the art critic John Ruskin. The papers says of Effie and Ruskin:
That marriage was never consummated, according to art legend, because Ruskin, brought up on smooth white marble classical statues, was aghast to find his wife had pubic hair. The marriage was eventually annulled, and Millais and Effie married and had eight children.
How we love to laugh at those prim Victorians! But this tale, like many we tell to make fun of them, is nonsense.

In his Inventing the Victorians, Matthew Sweet showed that the Victorians did not cover the legs of pianos because they thought them indecent. That was a joke they told at the expense of the strait-laced Americans. You can find chapter and verse in a column I once wrote.

When it comes to Ruskin, Sweet dates the first appearance of the story to a 1965 biography of him by Mary Lutyens. He comments on her theory:
Lutyens did not know, it seems, that Ruskin had written to his parents, with a frankness which now seems creepy, that he had seen plenty of pictures of "naked bawds" in his undergraduate days.
So it's nonsense. In fact, when it came to male nudity the Victorians were a lot more relaxed than we are. The Amateur Swimming Association did not make bathing costumes compulsory in competitive schoolboy races until 1890.

Inventing the Victorians is a very good book. (It also proves that Prince Albert didn't have a Prince Albert, incidentally.) I also recommend Sweet's Shepperton Babylon on the dark history of the British film industry.

Jonathan Meades: Abroad Again again

I have just watched the second - rather sombre - programme in the series Jonathan Meades: Abroad Again.

There is a good review of the first on Off the Telly:
Lord Reith was a Presbyterian Scot, a Wee Free wallah, among whose folks the most timid involvement in sensual pleasures had you hellbound. Strange, then, that perhaps the greatest living embodiment of Reith's dictum "inform, entertain, educate" should be a bohemian epicure from Salisbury who extols indulgence in food and architecture.

Jonathan Meades' new series from BBC Scotland (the irony!) looks very much like further confirming this stature, if the quite startlingly wonderful first-of-five, "Father to the Man", is anything to go by.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The mighty Flynn

Paul Flynn, one of the more entertaining Labour MPs, now has a blog.

Thanks to Iain Dale.

Accidents will happen

Over on Spiked, Frank Furedi writes about the decision to remove the word "accident" from the Highway Code:
Critics of the Highway Code’s cleansing of the A-word have rightly raised concerns about the encouragement of a ‘blame agenda’. Nigel Humphries of the Association of British Drivers says the change will ‘encourage a blame culture instead of a prevention culture’. It is no doubt true that the removal of the word accident will give rise to more litigiousness – but there are also profound cultural issues at stake here.
I also like his observation that:
In Stalinist Russia the phrase ‘it is no accident…’ was routinely used to imply that every negative event was really an act of collusion amongst hostile forces.

Fatalities in British earthquakes

As a supplement to two recent postings on British earthquakes, this page lists the 11 deaths they are known to have caused.

The earthquakes, that is, not the postings.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Target culture alienates the public from the police

There is an interesting story on the Daily Telegraph site this evening. On the eve of its conference the Police Federation has published a dossier of absurd cases where the removal of the power to use their discretion has forced officers to take action.

Those cases include:
    • A Cheshire man who was cautioned by police for being "found in possession of an egg with intent to throw"
    • A child in Kent who removed a slice of cucumber from a tuna mayonnaise sandwich and threw it at another youngster was arrested because the other child’s parents claimed it was an assault
    • A woman in the West Midlands arrested on her wedding day for criminal damage to a car park barrier when her foot slipped on her accelerator pedal
    • The child in Kent who was arrested for throwing buns at a bus
    • A 70-year-old Cheshire pensioner - who had never been in trouble with the law - who was arrested for criminal damage after cutting back a neighbour’s conifers too vigorously
    • Two Manchester children who were arrested under firearms laws for being in possession of a plastic toy pistol
Of course, it cannot all be the fault of government. In some of these cases a complaint must have been brought by a member of the public.

But it is interesting to see libertarians and the Police Federation making common cause. Do we see the hazy outline of what a popular, anti-Blairite politics might look like here?

Opening Line of the Day

The winner is Jeremy Hargreaves:
I spent half my childhood and early adulthood in cathedrals...

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Look what happens when you threaten to stand against Gordon Brown

One of the mysteries of recent weeks has been the sudden disappearance of John Reid. One moment he was being widely tipped as the Blairite Stop Gordon candidate. The next he had announced his resignation from the front bench.

Last week I pointed with approval to one explanation. But Reid's withdrawal may also have had a lot to the fact that stories like this were circulating around what we used to call Fleet Street.

Thanks to Iain Dale.

From our Adil Rashid correspondent

This blog has long followed the career of Adil Rashid, the young Yorkshire leg-spinner.

Andrew Longmore profiled him in The Times last week. He quoted the Hampshire batsman Michael Brown:
“Traditionally this pitch hasn’t got a lot of bounce, but he gets more bounce than Warney. Yet his control was so good and he worked the pitch out pretty quickly, bowling a little slower. Usually with a leggie you can wait for the bad ball. Here it was a question of limiting your mode of dismissal and trying to rotate the strike. Warney is always on about that and how irritating it is for a bowler. I tried to work him into the covers or behind square on the leg side, but there were no balls to release the pressure. For a kid of 19... ”

BritBlog Roundup 117

The latest selection comes to you live From The Dustbin of History.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Jonathan Meades: Abroad Again

I caught the first programme in this new series and thoroughly enjoyed it. As the website devoted to it says:

We make places. And places make us. We respond to what we have created. But how does this compact between mankind and its greatest artifices work?

In Jonathan Meades: Abroad Again this question is addressed in a multitude of ways: visually, comically, rhetorically, obliquely, argumentatively and whilst swimming fully clothed.

And also passionately. For these programmes are the expression of an obsessional preoccupation with places and with the properties they reflect: fantasy and necessity, escape and expectation, individual assertion and collective fear.
Maybe he is an acquired taste, but no one else makes programmes like Meades. I was once at the same party as him and was pleased to discover that he looks even more like Jonathan Meades in real life.

A Tuscan mountain village (rather than a blancmange)

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Making a dull boy

Everyone is talking about Tony Blair’s legacy. If you seek his monument, don’t go to Stormont or the Millennium Dome. Go to Peterborough. For something wholly characteristic is taking shape in its damp fields.

When it opens in September, the Thomas Deacon city academy will be the most expensive state school in Britain. Replacing three existing schools, it will have 2200 pupils and cost £46.4m. It is being designed by Norman Foster. In the shape of a blancmange.

Showing a typically New Labour blend of art and militarism, it will offer facilities for music, dance and theatre and a combined cadet force.

But there will be no playground and no breaks either. The school’s head told The Times: “We are not intending to have any play time. Pupils won’t need to let off steam because they will not be bored.”

Instead they will be treated like employees of a corporation and led on a 30-minute rolling lunch break in the cafeteria by teachers. And how will they get a drink if there are no breaks? Don’t worry, says the head. They “will be able to hydrate during the learning experience”.

Why has this sort of nonsense flourished under New Labour?

It flows from a wish to appear modern and from a starry-eyed view of the business world that was inherited unscathed from the Major years. People claim that academies teach creationism rather than proper science, but a better founded concern is that they give sponsors assets and influence out of proportion to the limited funds they contribute.

You could say in Blair’s defence that the city academy programme grew out of his recognition that many state schools offer poor education. Old Labour (and too many Liberal Democrats) were unwilling to say so in case it upset the teaching unions or called into question the shibboleth of comprehensive schooling.

But just because what exists is bad, it doesn’t follow that anything you put in its place will be better.

They learned this in Middlesbrough, where the Unity city academy was modelled on a Tuscan mountain village (rather than a blancmange). Two years ago Ofsted dubbed it a "failing" school, with the lack of a playground contributing to "the negative attitudes of the pupils". It now has a playground.

Cowley Street: Is there a grammarian in the house?

Lovers of the apostrophe will be saddened by the heading of a press release on the Lib Dem website:

Brown should take responsibility for Labours failure's - Campbell

I think the Education Secretary must take a share of the blame too.

I am going to stretch you, Tompkins

The government has announced a programme of university-run summer schools to "stretch the brightest pupils".

No doubt many youngsters will enjoy them, even if stretching sounds like the sort of thing that Flashman did to Tom Brown on a wet afternoon.

But the question we should be asking is why bright children are not properly catered for by the education they get during term time.

Tony is phoney to the end

The Daily Torygraph's Little and Large blog suggests that the audience for Tony Blair's speech in Trimdon Labour Club yesterday was not all that it seemed:
“She’s from Mitcham and Morden,” yelled one Minister at one face on the television coverage today, or so I’m told.

Another MP – admittedly an arch-Brownite – swears blind that a well-known Labour councillor from Newcastle-upon-Tyne was among the audience.

“They must have brought them in from all over,” added this ardent supporter of the Chancellor.
Later. Iain Dale has more on this.

Do we really need a general election?

Ming Campbell has responded to Tony Blair's announcement by calling for a general election.

Jonny Wright on Hug a Hoodie questions the wisdom of this.

I am with Jonny.

If you value it, don't give it to John Reid

The government used Tony Blair's announcement yesterday to bury the bad news about the cost of identity cards. We expect nothing better from them.

John Reid had an article in the Guardian in which he claimed:
Our own, unique, identity is inexorably becoming our most precious possession.
I am not sure if that is true. I am not even sure that it means anything.

But if it meaningful and true, what follows from it?

Our houses and cars are also valuable possessions. Do we make those over to the state to look after for us? Do we bunnies.

I would be particularly unwilling to put anything in the hands of John Reid, because I find him morally disgusting.

When the Soviet Union was the greatest tyranny on this planet, Reid was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain - which, it has since turned out, really was funded from Moscow.

Remember: this was after the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and after knowledge of the Gulag became widespread in the West.

Well, we all make mistakes in our youth. But far from apologising for this, Reid treats it as though it makes him endearing. He is on record as saying: "I used to be a communist. I used to believe in Santa Claus."

He also describes his time at Stirling University in these terms:
Reid himself is more dismissive of neat labels, arguing that, in the skewed politics of the time, apart from the chess club, the Communist party was the only non-Trotskyite group on campus.
Well, I played chess for York University at the end of the 1970s, and our captain was a Trot. But I was a Liberal even then.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

So farewell then Tony Blair

Today's media consensus is that the public has undergone a long process of disillusionment with Tony Blair.

My own experience has been the reverse. When he was first elected it seemed obvious to me that he was an actor more than a statesman - and a terribly bad actor at that. All those speeches with his voice thick with unshed tears - the best known is his reaction to the death of the Princess of Wales, but there were many more - were so palpably insincere that I was convinced that the public would see through him any day.

Well, it took years to happen, and by the time it did I started to find myself with a grudging respect for his longevity and skill as a political operator. Still, I cannot pretend to be anything other than delighted that he is going.

So let's try as objective a survey of his record as we can manage.

The economy has performed well, but that it down to Gordon Brown more than Tony Blair. And (though it hurts Labour and Liberal Democrats to admit it) it is down even more to the Blair government's lack of intervention in the economy. Certainly, New Labour partisans have greatly overestimated the impact of initiatives like the New Deal.

Blair's record on constitutional reform is mixed. Reform of the House of Lords did begin, but removing the bulk of the (predominantly Tory) hereditary peers seemed to be the summit of his ambitions. Initiatives like "People's Peers" turned out to be the worst sort of gimmickry and we now have a House which, at least in the public mind, is dominated by Tony's cronies just as it used to dominated by bovine Conservative landowners. What progress there has been seems to be down to Robin Cook and Jack Straw rather than Blair.

Liberal Democrats will welcome devolution to Scotland and Wales, but this was an agenda left over from the pre-Blair Labour Party and was aimed largely at dishing the Nationalists. Progress was also made in Northern Ireland, though that progress has its roots in the Major and Thatcher governments. Still, in both cases one has to admire Blair's political skills, if not his ideological novelty.

Labour supporters will point to extra spending on health and education, but it is not clear that it has produced the dividends that it ought to have produced. From recent family experience, I know that not all is well in the health service and that standards vary widely between different hospitals. And perhaps I am getting old, but the world I see around me - the papers I have to edit, the way television has changed - does not convince me that there has been the remarkable improvement in educational standards that Labour claims. If there had, shouldn't we see more people reading Dostoevsky on the bus?

Liberal Democrats welcomed the extra spending, but our analysis that the overcentralisation of control practised by Labour limited its effectiveness seems ever surer.

And then come foreign affairs. We should not forget that Paddy Ashdown spent the Major years demanding intervention in the former Yugoslavia. While I am becoming increasingly sceptical of what armed intervention can achieve, that is not the mainstream Liberal view.

What is damaging about the Iraq episode - damaging to the way Blair must be judged - is the way Tony Blair based the case for war on Saddam's supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction. Yet when he is questioned today he tells his critics that if they had had their way Saddam would still be in power.

This is disingenuous in so many ways. As Charles Kennedy has just reminded us on Newsnight, even at the last minute, Blair was prepared to see Saddam stay in power if only he would comply with United Nations resolutions. It also shows an odd view of history - numerous dictators have fallen without our intervention, just as Apartheid ended and the Berlin Wall was torn down without it too.

Listening to Blair now, you get the distinct feeling that in his mind he really did take on his opponents and argue the case for regime change. But in reality, he never had the courage.

Which is why his political epitaph will be: Iraq, Iraq, Iraq.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

When Conrad Russell almost became a Labour MP

I knew that the late great Conrad Russell had been a Labour Party member, but I had not realised that he once fought a Westminster seat for it.

He fought Paddington South in 1966. It was essentially a rock-solid Tory seat, but in Harold Wilson's best general election victory he came within 1443 votes of winning.

J. Arthur MacNumpty on the Scottish Lib Dems

The redoubtable blogger writes:
They could turn things around tomorrow by saying, "We've been part of a Coalition for eight years; for the Party's sake and for Scotland's sake, it's time for a new way of conducting relations with other parties. We feel that minority government would stimulate debate and make politics more interesting, it would also leave us free to support an Executive wholeheartedly when we agree with it, and oppose it when we do not." Or something like that. Something positive rather than "We won't even talk to X because of Y." By persisting in the negative approach, they're harming themselves.
It makes sense to me.

David Boyle has written a novel

Is there no end to the former Lib Dem News editor's talents?

Leaves the World to Darkness has just been published by The Real Press.

David's own website is here.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Did a building society murder Bob Woolmer?

The Daily Express seems to think so.

The Press Gazette's Axegrinder has the evidence.

New Labour Year Zero

One of the most characteristic things about New Labour from its inception was the denial of history. As far as it was concerned, nothing of importance happened before Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party.

Perhaps the odd favourable mention of Neil Kinnock as a sort of John the Baptist figure might be allowed, but John Smith was written out of the picture altogether.

So it is not a surprise to find Peter Hain claiming that "Tony Blair started off the Northern Ireland peace process with Mo Mowlam".

Thanks to Iain Dale for this. Iain is right when he says it is a disgrace that John Major has not been invited to take part in the events surrounding the resumption of power sharing.

Incidentally, would people have felt quite so euphoric about the process if they had known from the start that its success would involve the near destruction of the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP?

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Scottish negotiations

The Scotsman claims to have the inside track on what has been going on around Holyrood over the holiday weekend:
The Liberal Democrat group met again yesterday afternoon. The mood was still sceptical, with some MSPs wanting nothing to do with the SNP, preferring to retreat to the back-benches without even talking to the Nationalists. Eight years in government and a bad election result have led to introspection within the party and many MSPs feel it would do the Lib Dems good to regroup and reassess in opposition, regardless of what could be achieved in government with the SNP.

Why is John Reid resigning?

Paul Linford considers the theories and comes down in favour of my own view:
He is staging a canny tactical retreat to distance himself from what he sees as the impending disaster of the Brown premiership so that he can live to fight another day after the next election.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

After the Scottish elections

I hesitate to offer advice from a distance, but should the Lib Dems be so opposed to a referendum on Scottish independence?

My instinct is that the SNP would never be able to win such a referendum. But if there is a majority for independence in Scotland, is it moral or realistic to think it can be permanently stymied simply by refusing to allow people a vote?

People who believe in the Union have to make a positive case. In the past they told the Scots they could not possibly survive as an independent nation. These scare tactics have been discredited by the success of the Nordic and Baltic states in recent years. Refusing to have a debate at all is unlikely to be a more successful tactic.

I understand that Alex Salmond is not the uncomplicated cheerful chappy he appears on television, but there are reasons why I would welcome a breaking of the alliance between the Liberal Democrats and Labour in Scotland.

It is hard to argue that the Holyrood administration has been more liberal than Blair's government in London. It anything it has pursued the more nannyish aspects of the New Labour agenda with greater enthusiasm.

So much so, that the only policy Liberal Democrat policy I could name from last week's Scottish elections is the demand for more PE in schools.

A chance to think about what differentiates us from Labour would be no bad thing.

Later. Neal Ascherson, a sometime Lib Dem candidate, writes on Comment is Free:
Like it or not, the Lib-Dems (who more or less held their own in this election) still guard the gate to power. They are thinking hard about their options. For all their pro-Union distrust of the Nats, they recognise that this election confirmed a powerful new impatience for more (if not yet full) independence in Scotland. Their own programme is for a radical expansion of the Scottish parliament's powers. But the stonily Unionist rhetoric of Gordon Brown during this campaign shows what an uphill struggle this will be, a struggle in which the SNP is their only conceivable ally. The negotiations with a triumphant, cunning Alex Salmond will be hard. But if the Lib-Dems are to stay credible - and avoid public disgrace - they have to live dangerously and start talking.

Thursday's local election results

The party line is that the local election results were "a mixed bag". Looking at the results locally, this was certainly the case.

Where the Liberal Democrats were well organised and campaigned strongly, we did extremely well. We gained Northampton and Hinckley & Bosworth, and increased their grip on Oadby & Wigston.

But we lost badly in both Leicester - where the council group had split - and Harborough - where we are short of activists and the party infrastructure was sacrificed in pursuit of victory at the last general election.

This pattern was repeated nationally. As Norfolk Blogger shows, the we generally did well in constituencies with Lib Dem MPs or are Lib Dem targets for next time round. Elsewhere we tended to slip back, losing the odd seat to the Tories.

If this analysis is right, it suggests that nothing that happened on Thursday should make us too alarmed about the next general election. And we should not be too surprised that we slipped back in areas where we are weak on the ground. After all, it used to be expected that the main opposition party would do spectacularly well in mid-term local elections. The Tories even won Sheffield in the late 1960s.

There are, however, two things that should worry us about Thursday.

The first is the failure of the party's national campaigning to bear fruit over and above that won by local activism. This is seen most clearly in the results in Scotland and Wales. James Graham writes of the Welsh experience:
the Lib Dems have a sad history of failing to live up to our ever declining ambitions in Assembly elections, and once again we have failed to break our duck of 6 AMs. Back in 1999, I remember being confidently told by the then-Lib Dem Chief Exec that we would get 11-12 AMs. In 2003, at least one person predicted we’d get up to around 10. This year, people were talking of 7-9 AMs being a sure thing. The worst thing of it all is that, on paper, they should have been right. Because the system is only semi-proportional (2/3rds FPTP, 1/3rd list), each region has 4 top ups and we are the fourth party, we need to make fairly modest gains in each region to significantly increase our number of assembly members. In South Wales Central, we only needed an increase of 1% to double our Assembly Members. The fact that we have failed to do this twice now ought to be setting off alarm bells about how we fight the Welsh air war.
The other thing that should worry us is our limited ability to make gains from Labour in the North of England.

Look at the figures: Manchester (net increase of only 1 seat),Warrington (ditto and still NOC), Kirklees (-2), Leeds (-1), Liverpool (-4),Oldham (-1), Newcastle (-3), St Helens (no change). Of the Northern targets, only Rochdale was gained outright, and that from NOC with a net gain of only 2 seats. There was a net gain of 4 seats in Sheffield, which was not enough to regain control. (Thanks to Simon Titley.)

A year ago I wrote that "unless things change - the next election is likely to be rather like the last one for the Liberal Democrats". This again appears to be the moral from the local elections results. Shouldn't we be doing better than that?

Friday, May 04, 2007

A chip in every fish

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. See here for more on Bradshaw's fish-tracking ambitions.

Fishy news

Last week I wrote about fish and David Maclean's bill to exempt MPs from the Freedom of Information Act. In the event the bill was not debated on the Friday but held back until 18 May. This was a tactical move to give it a better chance of progressing, but Norman Baker and the rest of the awkward squad are pledged to see that it does not do so.

So maybe I should have written more about fish. Certainly, Ben Bradshaw - the Minister for Fish - is busy building his empire. According to the BBC, he is advocating a "Europe-wide system for tracking fish" which will allow them to be traced "from the moment they are caught to when they are served on a customer's plate".

When I mentioned this scheme in the Lib Dem News office I was asked if Bradshaw was going to put a chip in every fish. So if people aren't going to take this important subject seriously, I shall look at Monday's Home Office questions instead.

It was one of those days when what was on the order paper was not what was on people's minds. On Friday the Special Immigration Appeals Commission ruled that two Libyan terrorist suspects could not be deported because of the risk they would be tortured. On Monday, at the conclusion of another court case, it was revealed that MI5 had two of the 7 July bombers under surveillance a year before the attacks. But neither of these subjects was reflected on the order paper.

For once Mr Speaker did allow members some leeway, but the most important questions remained unanswered. In particular, why were we told after the July bombings that those responsible were "clean skins" with no previous record of terrorist associations?

Remembering the build up to the Iraq war, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that this was another example of a highly selective account of intelligence findings being fed to the public to gain the government political advantage.

Often, the Blair administration has given the impression that it is more interested in news management than in governing. Is this its peculiar failing or a depressing truth about modern politics in general? We shall soon find out.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Mike Brearley to be next MCC President

Congratulations to one of my cricketing heroes on his appointment, which begins on 1 October. Since his cricket career ended in 1981 he has been working as a psychotherapist.

When Brearley became England's captain in 1977 it was almost as though Jonathan Miller or Michael Frayn had been put in charge. Brearley was a representative of liberal North London in an age when cricket was still run by the Establishment. He was part of a more enlightened tendency within the game which embraced such figures as John Arlott and the Revd David Sheppard and had its finest hour when South Africa objected to the selection of Basil D'Olivera for England's 1968-9 tour.

Cricinfo describes Brearley's test career as follows:
His first spell leading England was between 1977 and 1979-80 when he won acclaim for his captaincy even though his batting was often criticised, and his Test average of 22.88 showed that he was not good enough to hold his own as a batsman. But after Ian Botham failed as his successor, he returned in 1981 with England trailing to Australia and guided his side to a remarkable 3-1 series win before retiring again.
This is a fair summary, but tells only half the story. Brearley was an outstanding young batsman and was selected to tour with England as early as 1964-5. He suffered a horrible loss of form and was not chosen for any of the tests in South Africa that winter.

After that he took up an academic career, lecturing in philosophy at Newcastle. He played for Middlesex only outside term time like an old-fashioned amateur.

I was studying philosophy at York during Brearley's first spell as England captain, and we were proud, if a little disappointed, to learn that he had once applied for a lectureship in our department and been turned down.

In the early 1970s Brearley devoted himself to cricket full time. He became Middlesex captain and forced his way into the England team as a batsman. Then Tony Greig's dalliance with Kerry Packer was revealed and he inherited the England captaincy.

I was at Trent Bridge for the second day of his debut test in 1976. We were playing the West Indies, but I was sitting next to two Australians. They asked me who the England fielder they did not recognise was.

"It's Mike Brearley," I said. It was a name no Australians would forget for years to come.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Target culture encourages electoral fraud

Today the constitutional affairs minister Bridget Prentice demonstrated the absurdity of this government's target culture.

She was responding to call by Richard Price QC, described by the BBC as an "election law expert" for the government to implement they system of individual registration used in Northern Ireland across the UK.

Prentice was quoted as rejecting this idea because:

"In Northern Ireland the register dropped very markedly after individual registration was brought in and it hasn't really gone back to the same figures again."
But why has voter registration fallen in Northern Ireland fallen since individual registration was introduced?

If it has fallen because people who are entitled to vote do not bother to register, that is a shame - though ultimately it is their fault. If it has fallen because fraudulent registrations have been removed then it is a thoroughly good thing. And remember that having your name on the electoral register can help in financial fraud as well as electoral fraud.

Prentice gives no sign that she knows which of these explanations is the correct one. She seems, in typical New Labour fashion, to be adopting a simplistic target: the more voters on the register the better and hang the consequences.

News Story of the Day

Congratulations to the BBC:
A man has been jailed for 20 months for kidnapping his wife from hospital to stop her having a breast enlargement.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Tory candidate predicts Lib Dem gains in Hull

The New Statesman is running a group blog on this year's local elections. One of the contributors is Martine Martin, described as "a well known Tory blogger" who is "active in Conservative Future and standing for Hull council".

She wrote of the Lib Dems today:
Yet everyone in a position to know seems to be in agreement; they could pledge to make Smurf hats a legal requirement in Hull and they would still be set for an excellent year. While Labour are concentrating on ways to soften the blow caused by national government ineptitude and the Conservatives are fighting to take control of East Riding instead, Hull is wide open for a "yellow revolution", as one enthusiastic Liberal Democrat I know put it.

Hail, bounteous May

The Common Ground page for May is in place.