Thursday, July 31, 2008

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Felicity Kendal's bottom

Wednesday

The morning’s newspapers foresee choppy economic seas ahead; we shall all have to tighten our belts, batten down the hatches and so forth. It makes me glad that I had the wisdom to lay down a good cellar of Stilton many years ago and also that I went in for this self-sufficiency business at the same time – one can only save so much by watering the Orphans’ gruel.

I was inspired by watching The Good Life on the moving television – that amusing programme starring the delightful Felicity Kendal. Catching sight of it upon my set once, Meadowcroft described her bottom as resembling “two mommets a-canoodling”.

Be that as it may, she inspired me to live entirely on the produce of the Bonkers Hall Estate: bread made from flour ground from our own wheat; fish caught by my trawlers on Rutland Water; pineapples from my hothouses; and so on.

Rather proud of my achievement, I once invited that well-known environmentalist Malachy Dromgoogle to visit. I showed him all around the Estate and he then asked “But is it sustainable?” “Well, it certainly sustains me,” I replied.

Now read on...


Can the Lib Dems win Labour seats while promising to cut taxes?

Not for the first time, the comments on a Spectator Coffee House posting about the Lib Dems are far more sensible than the original posting.

The other day Peter Hoskin wrote:

Nick Clegg's declaration that the Lib Dems will now concentrate on snaring 50 paticularly vulnerable Labour seats at the next election ... is a puzzling one.

... the potential's there for Clegg's new tactic to further divide the party, and perhaps even weaken their election efforts. You see, this is the same Nick Clegg who sold the Lib Dems as "tax-cutting" party only a couple of weeks ago - one assumes in an effort to nab votes from the Tories. But now the priority is nabbing votes from Labour, and Clegg will surely have to take his party leftwards in order to achieve that.

Of course, the sizeable Lib Dem left will be delighted. But - as James Kirkup writes over at Three Line Whip - the right-leaning elements of the party will be less than amused. The general feeling, though, will be confusion: "Which direction is Clegg taking us in? Where will we be next week?"

The more I think about it, the more sure I am that there is no contradiction between promising to cut taxes and aiming to win Labour seats. As one of the commenters says, tax cuts are attractive to people on low incomes who are struggling to make ends meet.

And another commenter is right when he says:
I think the claims about confusion etc say more about the prejudices of the author of this piece than about the actual events they are reporting on.
Those prejudices seem to be rooted in an outdated class-war view of politics. The Tories favour low taxes and low spending, which is good for their class. Labour promises high taxes and high spending, which is good for its people.

Presumably Hoskin believes that David Cameron's leadership is a sort of con trick designed to persuade enough Labour voters to vote against their own interests to allow a Conservative government back into power. It is not a very edifying view of politics.

Thoughtful Conservatives and Liberal Democrats realise that statist solutions are hugely expensive and hopelessly inefficient, and that the burden of paying for them falls upon people who can ill afford it.

One difference between them is that Lib Dems want to ease that burden on the poor, while the Conservatives are far more interested in cutting tax for the wealthy.

Your top 10 conspiracy theories

Here is a perfect silly season story. A thousand British adults were interviewed to see which conspiracy theories they believe. Here are the results:
  1. Area 51 exists to investigate aliens (48%)
  2. 9/11 was orchestrated by the US government (38%)
  3. Apollo landing was a hoax (35%)
  4. Diana and Dodi were murdered (32%)
  5. The Illuminati secret society and masons are trying to take over the world (25%)
  6. Scientologists rule Hollywood (17% )
  7. Barcodes are really intended to control people (7%)
  8. Microsoft sends messages via Wingdings (6%)
  9. US let Pearl Harbour happen (5%)
  10. The world is run by dinosaur-like reptiles (3%)
Thanks to the Guardian for the full list. There is an article about it in the Scotsman.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Irina breaks it off

Tuesday

It is cook’s evening off, so I send out for haddock and chips. I am saddened to learn from the wrappings – our national dish tastes so much better eaten from the paper, don’t you think? – that poor Lembit has been given the bum’s rush by those spirited Cheeky Girls.

I always feared that their love was too urgent, too ardent, and might one day burn itself out. I am reminded of the Esquimaux couple I met while working as a fur trapper on Baffin Island: they made passionate love throughout the long Arctic night, but in the end she broke it off.

Now read on...

Monday: Antibes Focus

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Those 50 Labour-held target seats in full

Nick Clegg's summer message (video here; full text here) tells us he has:
instructed our campaigns chief Chris Rennard to step up our campaigns in the 50 seats where we’re best placed to beat Labour.
Jonathan Isaby has a list of the 50 Labour-held seats in the order in which they would fall to the Lib Dems, assuming a uniform anti-Labour swing. It is based on the projection of the new boundaries done by Profs Rallings and Thrasher of Plymouth University. As he admits, they may not be the precise 50 Nick Clegg and Chris Rennard have in mind. In particular, the Lib Dems are in third place in some of them.

Anway here is the top 10 - see Jonathan's Daily Telegraph blog for the full list - with the swing required to win:
1 - Rochdale (0.17 per cent)
2 - Oxford East (0.37 per cent)
3 - Edinburgh South (0.47 per cent)
4 - Hampstead & Kilburn (0.57 per cent)
5 - Islington South & Finsbury (0.78 per cent)
6 - Watford (1.17 per cent)
7 - Ealing Central & Acton (1.37 per cent)
8 - Aberdeen South (1.62 per cent)
9 - Edinburgh North & Leith (2.52 per cent)
10 - City of Durham (3.69 per cent)
Rochdale is in the list because it is (just) a notional Labour seat under the new boundaries.

Gordon Brown loyalists are bad-mouthing David Miliband

Michael White is an affable fellow, but no one could ever accuse him of lacking loyalty to the Labour leadership. So it is fair to assume that the following passage in his political briefing today comes straight from the Gordon Brown camp:
Jack Straw is mistrusted and did not risk a run for deputy leader last year. David Miliband, so it is claimed, finds the burden of the Foreign Office heavy enough to have contemplated resignation, not a coup.
If a prime minister's best hope of staying in office is putting it about that his foreign secretary is not up to the job, he really is in trouble. Words like "ferrets" and "sack" spring unbidden to mind.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Antibes Focus

The latest issue of Liberator has been mailed to subscribers, so it is time for another week of the old brute's adventures. This particular diary was written largely in the Three Tuns, Bishop's Castle.

Monday

As ever, high summer will find me residing at the Hotel Splendide, Antibes. Having spent more holidays at this fine establishment than I care to remember, I have naturally become a part of the life of the town. In particular, it is the only resort on the Riviera that has a regular Focus delivered to every door. I write it myself – whether dictating it over dinner at the Hotel or sending it by electric telegraph from Rutland. Because the temperamental French refuse to make the slightest effort to learn English, I am obliged to have the entire newsletter PRINTED IN BLOCK CAPITALS (like so, what?) so that they can understand it.

The Curse of Lembit is lifted

Lembit Opik's antics used to be an unfailing source of inspiration for Lib Dem bloggers. But in recent days his life has been touched by personal tragedy, so we have tended to leave him in peace.

But things may be looking up. Because someone has finally defeated the feared Curse of Lembit.

Back in April I reported that Ruth Reed had launched her campaign for the Presidency of the Royal Institute of British Architects by publicising her endorsement by Lembit. Given what normally happens to people who receive his support (Charles Kennedy, Mark Oaten), you had to admire her courage, if not her judgement.

The good news is reported by The Architects' Journal:
Ruth Reed has been elected as the next president of the RIBA – the first time a woman has ever been appointed to the role.
Reed was also endorsed by George Ferguson, a former RIBA President and Liberal parliamentary candidate for Bristol West.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Lady Allen of Hurtwood and the 1948 Children Act

An article in today's issue of The Times begins:

Sixty years ago this month an Act was passed that was to revolutionise the way that vulnerable children in Britain were protected by the State. The Children Act of 1948 has been described as “the most comprehensive and humane children's legislation in history”.

What is less well known is that the Act had its origins in a letter to The Times, published four years earlier — in July 1944, at the height of the Second World War. The reaction to its publication was so extraordinary — the paper estimated that no single subject throughout the war had led to so much correspondence that ministers were forced into action to strengthen the law.

Well, you will know it if you have read my chapter in the book Making and Breaking Children's Lives. (There is an earlier version of it on Lord Bonkers' website.)

Marjorie Allen's one of my heroines. The Times site also has the text of her letter and the website of the Trust founded in her memory has a short biography of her (PDF). I have heard an interview from the 1960s about her work with adventure playgrounds. "We give all the children hemmers and chisels," she says in an impeccable cut-glass accent.

As The Times says, the campaign that led to the 1948 Act was given great impetus by the death of Dennis O'Neill. I have written about this before.

Despite my enthusiasm for Shropshire, I have never been certain where the farm where his death took place is. Last week the people running the bed-and-breakfast place where I stayed some of the time lent me their large-scale OS maps. It was clearly marked.

Once I had made my mind up to walk back from the Stiperstones to Bromlow, it was clear that my route lay past it. It is in an idyllic spot surrounded by wild flower meadows, though the Devil's Chair does overlook it. The owner was charming and came down from a ladder to show me the correct path.

The next day, quite by coincidence, a member of the O'Neill family left a comment on this blog.

Tributes to Russell Johnston

Lib Dem Voice has a round up of tributes from his fellow Liberal Democrats and there is an obituary on the Daily Telegraph website:
The Lord Russell-Johnston, who has died on the eve of his 76th birthday, was a civilised, internationalist Highlander who made a sterling contribution to Scottish Liberalism and to Britain’s involvement with Europe; in 33 years as MP for Inverness, he brought steadiness to a febrile party and when the Liberals and the bulk of the SDP combined in 1988, was elected unopposed as deputy leader of the merged party.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

BritBlog Roundup 180

This week at Philobiblon.

Dungeness: Derek Jarman and Malcolm Saville


English Buildings has been to Dungeness and Derek Jarman's garden at Prospect Cottage.

Malcolm Saville went to Dungeness too. The following passage is from The Elusive Grasshopper, published in 1951:

Some days later Jon tried to describe Dungeness to his mother and found it very difficult, although it was little more than a desert of shingle which had been made even uglier by slovenly and haphazard building of bungalows, shacks and old railway coaches.

There were a few fishermen's sheds of tarred timber on the sea side of the road, besides the group of well-built cottages round the lighthouse and the square, white building which housed the great foghorn.

Many of the little bungalows had been badly damaged by bombs and the blank eyes of their broken windows gave them a look of unheeded death. There is, perhaps, nothing more depressing than an untenanted house, but one that is empty, damaged and neglected as well is a horrid sight and even on this sunny afternoon Jon felt that this outpost was both curious and uncanny.

Russell Johnston has died

Duncan Borrowman reports the sad news that Russell Johnston has died.

Russell Johnston was MP for Inverness and then Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber between 1964 and 1997. He then served as a Lib Dem life peer in the House of Lords.

Later. You can find links to tributes to Russell Johnston here.

The EasyBeats: Friday on my Mind



As I was born in 1960, there are any number of songs from that decade that I have known all my life. Often I could not tell you who sang them, though the answer often turns out to be The Hollies or Manfred Mann, which suggest those two bands are somewhere near the top of the 1960s second division of singles bands. (The first being The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Small Faces, The Spencer Davis Group and The Zombies. Discuss.)

This is one of those songs, and it turns out to be by an Australian band, The EasyBeats. Given that Australia's greatest contribution to 1960s pop was the well-scrubbed folk of The Seekers, it is remarkable how "Friday on my Mind" looks forward to punk and new wave.

One interesting trivial point: the EasyBeats' guitarist George Young is the older brother of Angus Young from AC/DC.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

House Points: Country thoughts from Shropshire

My House Points column from yesterday's Liberal Democrat News. A bit of a stream of consciousness, it was written in Shrewsbury Reference Library on Monday.

Country carping

With Parliament winding down for the summer, there is just time for a last visit to the minister for fish. Jonathan Shaw, you will be pleased to learn, is working to reduce the impact of American crayfish on our native British species. The American variety is bigger and more aggressive – quite possibly it has more money and wears loud check trousers too.

Similarly, mink – many of which were released into the wild by misguided and self-elected "animal rights activists" – are undermining all the work done on behalf of water voles. They are doing it through the highly effective tactic of eating them.

A fair-minded observer adds: Goodness, what lovely coats mink have!

A bitter water vole replies: Goodness had nothing to do with it.

Everyone loves water voles, perhaps because of Ratty from The Wind in the Willows. But another character from the book is less popular in some quarters: Mr Badger.

Rural MPs – Tory and Lib Dem – are loud in their demands for a cull of badgers to fight bovine TB. Yet the most authoritative study on the subject concluded that "badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain" and might even makes things worse.

I have limited sympathy for the "You town folks don’t understand our country ways" line of argument. And the farming interest often displays the adolescent sense of unreasonable entitlement you find among those who live on state subsidies for any length of time.

But, particularly as I am on holiday in the English countryside this week, I do understand why there is such disaffection among rural voters. Here in Shropshire the post offices are going and many village schools are threatened with closure too. Even the remaining telephone boxes have signs saying that they are about to be removed.

How far Roger Williams’s campaign for cheaper petrol in rural areas is in accord with advanced Lib Dem thinking on the nation’s carbon footprint, I do not know. But it has certainly struck a chord here.

You can find postcards advertising it in the petrol station in Bishop’s Castle. Not only is that not in Roger’s Brecon and Radnor constituency, it is not even in the same country.

Gordon Brown in Southwold: "Drowning by Numbers"


Our prime minister is certainly doing his bit for the Union by spending his summer holiday in Southwold. As the town's website says, "Southwold is a quintessentially English resort town".

It is also "charming", as that website claims. By contrast, Aldeburgh, just down the coast, is rather a bleak place and would not be such a tourist destination were it not for the Festival and the Britten connection in general.

But, in line with the view of Englishness held by this blog, Southwold has its sinister side too. This was brilliantly brought out by Peter Greenaway in his film Drowning by Numbers. As a website dedicated to his work says:
This is a picture that offers so much to the viewer. It is beautiful, but also, at times, grotesque. It is intriguing and complex, and covers a cornucopia of subjects. The film has an elegant Englishness about it. It is a film that always requires your attention and one that you will want to return to.

The story is about three women, all with the same name, Cissie Colpitts, each from different age groups, who have something in common, they each murder their husbands by drowning them. escape punishment from this by consenting to the needs of an amorous coroner, Madgett. Madgett's young son, Smut, tells us about different games, each of them rather odd. The film has a wonderful surreal feel to it.
Mr Brown should be careful in Southwold. As Smut says: "A great many things are dying very violently all the time."

David Cameron's bicycle and the demoralisation of society

At a Lib Dem Conference a few years ago, a Prominent Liberal Democrat told me with glee that Iain Duncan Smith had recently visited his constituency. While he was there, I was told, IDS had his car broken into and a briefcase was stolen.

What struck me was the gleeful attitude of the Prominent Liberal Democrat. He was not pleased that IDS had been the victim of a crime, but he was delighted that he had been caught not obeying police advice by leaving the briefcase in his car where it could be seen. Behind this was the implication that he had somehow been hypocritical: these Tories say they want to bring crime down, but look how they behave in practice.

I was too polite so say so at the time, but this seemed the wrong attitude to me. It ought to be possible to leave your briefcase in your car without it being stolen. To blame the victim of such a a crime seems perverse to me.

There has been a similar attitude displayed by some Lib Dems over the theft of David Cameron's bicycle. Both Dave Radcliffe and Paul Walter hold him responsible because he did not secure it properly. Neither thinks it worth condemning the thief.

The trouble with this approach of urging everyone to take maximum precautions against theft is that you end up with advice like this from today's Guardian:

  • Buy inexpensive model for everyday use. Make it look unappealing by painting it an ugly colour.
Who wants to own a bicycle at all under such circumstances?

The same points arise in the debate over knife crime.

Before I went on holiday Paul Walter (hello again) called for a ban on the sale of "long pointed kitchen knives". Then, while I was away, the Lib Dems complained that no one was jailed for selling a knife to a child in England and Wales in the five years up to 2006. A party press release quoted Chris Huhne as saying:
"Unscrupulous shopkeepers who sell knives to kids are profiting from the violence on our streets. It is unacceptable that so few of them are being punished and those that do are being given such pitiful fines. If we are to tackle knife crime, a strong message must be sent to those who ply this deadly trade. Fining them a few hundred quid is not going to do that."
The idea that it might be possible to raise a generation of young people who do not stab one another even when they have access to knives is wholly absent from this debate.

Yet, as my only semi-fictional alter ego wrote on the New Statesman website the other day:
These hills used to be alive with Boy Scouts and their knives, every ready to sharpen a tent peg or skin a rabbit. (They may have been skinning the pegs and sharpening the rabbits. My memory is hazy on this point.)
The world that the current anti-crime movement envisages is something like a cross between a secure psychiatric hospital and an airport departure lounge. There are no sharp edges, in case we hurt ourselves or someone else, and to own or display something attractive is an invitation to have it stolen.

To escape this fate we need to start talking about morality again. We cannot go on treating every crime as a sign that something else needs to be banned or that the state has failed and therefore needs to spend even more money.

As a first step, we could try saying that it is wrong to steal someone else's bicycle.

Friday, July 25, 2008

"I want you to abolish economists"

I am watching a BBC programme about its own situation comedy Yes, Minister.

Naturally they have featured the embarrassing sketch that Mrs Thatcher forced the cast to accompany her in at an awards ceremony. It featured the Iron Lady saying:
Yes. It's all very simple. I want you to abolish economists.
Well the old girl may be having her way after all. The BBC reports:
Only three economics teachers were trained on teacher training courses in the whole of England last year, shows a study of students entering teaching.

The report's author, Professor Alan Smithers, warns that economics risks "dying out" as a school subject.

There are now more pupils taking A-levels in media studies, expressive arts and PE than economics.
I have an A level in Economics myself. It seemed a wonderfully grown up subject, largely because in those days you could not study it until you were 16.

A-Z of scare stories

A couple of days ago I was sitting in the sun in Ludlow, drinking Robinsons cider and reading the Spectator.

I recommend Matthew Parris's A-Z of scare stories:
Bird Flu. It is not so long since the government’s chief medical officer said the arrival here of a pandemic was not a matter of whether but when. Since then, bird flu has dropped from the news.
And the cider.

Can the UK survive? And do we care?

Cicero's Songs discusses the aftermath of the Glasgow East by-election:

the [general] election that must take place before May 2010 is now a point of maximum danger. Any result where the SNP match at Westminster their previous result at Holyrood while the Conservatives gain a landslide in the rest of the UK has the potential for a constitutional crisis that could see the end of the United Kingdom.
I am sure this is right, but I am surprised (despite my mixed Scottish and English ancestry) at how little emotional attraction the Union has for me. I suspect I am not alone in this as a modern-day British liberal. Perhaps that is because the Union has traditionally been the great Tory cause.

My head says Cicero is right when he says of a separation between England and Scotland:

it is a potential disaster for the security of the peoples of the current Kingdom, leaving two smaller states far weaker than their collective strength. In the face of the challenges of Russia and China, the UK -despite the looming economic crisis- is a far more viable entity than the separate states. Economically our collective credit rating will fall, and the influence we have together will have gone. Scotland would have the economic influence of Denmark and England about that of Spain- as opposed to a collective footprint today that is nearly equal to Germany and which can certainly contend with India and China.
It's just that my heart is not in it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Vote for your top 10 British political blogs

Home to Market Harborough and it is time to catch up with things like this.

Iain Dale writes to me:
In early September TOTAL POLITICS, in association with APCO WORLDWIDE will publish the 2008-9 Guide to Political Blogging in the UK. It will contain articles on blogging by some of Britain's leading bloggers, together with a directory of UK political blogs, and a series of Top 20s and Top 10s. The book will be available at the Green Party, TUC, Labour, LibDem and Tory Conferences, where TOTAL POLITICS will have exhibition stands.

We're asking for your votes to decide the Top 100 UK Political Blogs. Simply email your Top Ten (ranked from 1 to 10) to toptenblogs@totalpolitics.com
You can find the full details of how to vote on Iain Dale's Diary.

I am aware that there has been some grumbling about Iain's self-elected position as the expert on British blogging. My own concern is that as most of his readers are Tories, so they are likely to vote for Tory blogs, thus making the resultant Top 100 unrepresentative. But Iain is certainly doing all he can to get as many people as possible to vote and thus limit this effect.

Besides, Paul Linford puts it well:
Iain is only the granddaddy of the blogosphere for two reasons - (1) Because Tim Worstall decided he didn't want to be any more, and (2) Because he is the only blogger who has the time and resources to compile the Guide. These aren't good enough reasons not to take part, in my view.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Radovan Karadzic's website and blog

Thanks to The Last Ditch (found via Tim Worstall) for finding this, Radovan Karadzic's website:

Dr. Dragan "David" Dabic was born some six decades ago in a small Serbian village of Kovaci, near Kraljevo. As a young boy he liked to explore nearby forests and mountains, spending a lot of time on Kopaonik mountain where he tended to pick the omnipresent, natural and potent medicinal herbs that grew at those green pastures. As a young man he moved to Belgrade, and then on to Moscow where he graduated with a Doctor of Medicine degree (spec. in Psychiatry) at the Moscow State University (Lomonosov). After Russia, Dr. Dabic travelled around India and Japan, after which he settled in China where he specialized in alternative medicine, with a special emphasis on the mind-body control, meditation, Yoga, spiritual cleansing, as well as Chinese herbs. In mid-1990s Dr. Dabic returned back to mother Serbia for good, and ever since then emerged as one of the most prominent experts in the field of alternative medicine, bioenergy, and macrobiotic diet in the whole of the Balkans, and is frequent contributor to the regional alternative health magazines, and guest expert with numerous TV appearances and on many public forums, seminars and symposiums (Belgrade, Novi Sad, Pancevo, Sombor, Smederevo, Kikinda...) dedicated to these issues and topics.

Dr. Dragan Dabic currently resides on Yury Gagarin street in New Belgrade, but for public forum invitations, television appearances or private consultations he can be reached directly at the following contact:

healingwounds @ dragandabic . com

Never trust a man who does not update his blog.

Thanks also to Church Stretton Tourist Information Centre, where I am writing this.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Calder's Comfort Farm: Reforming the Lords and knife culture

My latest column - written a lot nearer the Stiperstones than usual - is up on the New Statesman website.

House Points: Afghanistan - "Oh, balls" from a sedentary position

I have not seen it, but I trust this column was in last Friday's Liberal Democrat News.

Westminster wisdom

If you are looking for entertainment, I recommend a close reading of Hansard. Take this exchange from Westminster Hall:

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): … We visited the microfinance initiative in Kabul and saw women entrepreneurs. Women got the microfinance loans, because they could be trusted to repay them. The men were far too unreliable a business investment.

Mr. Soames: Nonsense.

Sir Robert Smith: The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) says from a sedentary position, “Oh, balls,” but that was the practical reality on the ground that was discovered.

Mr. Ellwood: I am not sure he said that.

Sir Robert Smith: Perhaps he did not; it was something to that effect.

Mr. Martyn Jones (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman must have misheard.

Sir Robert Smith: I must have misheard him, yes.

See what I mean? Westminster Hall – or rather a committee room off it – is used as a second Commons chamber. Because there is less flummery and party point-scoring than in the main chamber, its debates are often more informative. But they are not often as entertaining as this exchange from last Thursday’s debate on the international development committee’s report on reconstructing Afghanistan.

What is our presence there intended to achieve? Malcolm Bruce, who chairs the committee, said the country needs improved security, a crackdown on corruption and a strong human rights culture, especially in relation to women. Visiting Afghanistan, he had found people were concerned that we would not stay for long enough, not that they wanted us to leave.

But the doubts remain. The Soviet Union could not quell Afghanistan and several attempts at the height of British Imperial power failed too. Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, says: “Make no mistake, the Taliban influence is waning, and through British blood, determination and grit, a window of opportunity has been opened.” But you suspect people with similar names said similar things in Victoria’s day.

The minister replying to the debate, Shahid Malik, scorned the normally collegiate atmosphere of Westminster Hall and ploughed through his speech without allowing a single intervention. Which suggests the government is deeply concerned about the situation in Afghanistan – and quite possibly as puzzled as the rest of us.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

BritBlog Roundup 179: The Stiperstones Inn edition


When I wrote the other day that I was heading for the hills, I forgot that I was due to do the BritBlog Roundup this weekend. Thanks to the good offices of The Stiperstones Inn and its free broadband access, this is not a problem.

I am assured that Skittles is flourishing, but she has not put in an appearance yet.

Probably because of the summer holiday season, there are fewer nominations than usual this time, so no clever categories. But as this Roundup is being completed earlier in the day than is usual, I shall check in a day or two and add any nominations that have come in late.

Anyway, here we go...

K T Dodge tackles the issue of the week - knife crime.

Is there more to life than shoes? has two guest posts from someone who has served in Afghanistan (here and here), where I am sure there is more to life.

And Letter by a Feminist looks at motherhood and and work:
First off, let’s get rid of the idea that women ‘choose’ to work. Women, even mothers, have as much right to work as men. We do not sit around discussing how father’s ‘choose’ to work despite having children, or comment on how selfish or irresponsible they are for fertilising women and then not staying home with the baby. People need to work, women included.
Unity on Liberal Conspiracy calls Britain's libel laws "a national disgrace".

Now for some undiplomatic diplomats. Craig Murray is a hero of the blogosphere (and your editor this week). Charles Crawford, a fellow ambassador, begs to differ. He begins to state his case here and replies to Craig's reply here. An exchange to watch.

A Very British Dude thinks this Labour government is bankrupting the country, while Stumbling and Mumbling has some characteristically wise words:
the real divide isn’t between “left” and “right” but between those who believe in spontaneous, undirected order and those who believe in top-down management, be it in government or business.
The daily puzzle site Doodlemail asked for a plug - though I am not sure it is strictly a blog within the meaning of the Act.

And I may be prolonging my holiday for a while because this e-mail arrived during my week of editing the Roundup:

Congratulations your electronic email is among the two lucky winners that won $2,000,000.00 {Two Million United State Dollars}Each in the just concluded draw held to promote South African 2010 Football World Cup, sponsored by British American tobacco companies S.A and South Africa Expatriate companies . for prize claiming, Call Mr. Joseph Benjamin on this phone number.
Finally, obscene Welsh road signs:

This sign though is a perfect example of why translations should be done by people who can speak both languages, not by an English speaker with a dictionary. Because to any Welsh speaking reader, this sign does not say "Tow Away Zone".

It says...
But to know what it says you will have to read Amlwch to Magor.

Next week's Roundup will be at Philobiblon. Nominations to: britblog [at] gmail [dot] com please.

Later. No more nominations, but I did get to meet Skittles again.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Posting light to non-existent


I am off into the wilds, so no posting for a day or two.

Unless I end up at the Stiperstones Inn. Which is entirely possible.

Make It Happen (whatever it is)

Its inane title - make what happen? - and the way it arrived with so little discussion within the party reinforce my feeling that politics as it is practised in Britain today is no longer an occupation for grown ups.

But let's try to be fair about Make it Happen.

I think Nick is absolutely right to move the party away from arguing that putting a little more money into the existing structure of the public services will transform society. New Labour has tested that argument to destruction over the past decade.

He is also right to argue that taxation now bears to heavily upon the poor and average earners.

My worry is that he is wrong in announcing his headline figures before he knows what spending cuts he wants to make. He has got it, as our American cousins might put it, backasswards.

What he should have done was to emphasise the Lib Dem war on surveillance, centralisation and state control - in short, large chunks of the New Labour project. Then he could have said something like: "Look if we scrap ID cards and all these quangos and databases, we will save billions of pounds and be able to cut your taxes."

That, I think, would have proved popular. By announcing the tax cuts first and then saying we shall hunt for spending cuts to fund them, he makes it easier for our Labour opponents to paint us as a hard-faced party that wants to run down public services.

And does anyone ever believe talk of "efficiency savings"?

As I have spent so long moaning about centralisation and state control that I suppose I am obliged to welcome this document or something very like it. I just hope that the Lib Dem emphasis on localism will not be lost in our anxiety to cut overall spending.

Make it Happen seems to have gone down well in the Lib Dem blogosphere, judging by the reactions collated by Orange by Name...

How far we bloggers are representative of the party as a whole is an interesting question.

Blogging live from Enterprise House, Bishop's Castle

While looking for a picture of the town for you, I came across this...



That's me on the far left of the picture in the blue shirt.

Of course, this is all displacement activity. What I really came here to do is write my New Statesman column.

Bishop's Castle: Launching the bc ring


It is always nice to come across events on holiday. It doesn't quite rank with hearing Runrig play in Portree, but last night I was invited to the launch of a new long-distance footpath at Bishop's Castle town hall.

The bc ring is a 62-mile route that circles the town. The press release (PDF) on the launch describes the route:

The bc ring walk passes through some wonderful scenery starting with the well known Kerry Ridgeway and then along the world famous Offa’s Dyke and via the Shropshire Way to Clun with its majestic ruined castle.

The path continues via Hopton Castle to the top of Clunbury Hill passing through Aston on Clun with its Arbor Tree to the Long Mynd with its ancient Portway and one of Shropshire’s most rugged spots – the Stiperstones. It then drops down to the Bog where a refreshing cup of tea and cake may be enjoyed when the Bog Centre is open.

Passing by Shelve Pool the path crosses Stapeley Common with its two stone circles and much evidence of Bronze Age habitation. It continues past the hills (with an optional climb to the top) of Corndon and Roundton and across the Camlad Valley with the only river flowing into Wales from England.

The final section of the route returns walkers to the welcoming streets of Bishop’s Castle and journey’s end.

Bishop's Castle is now a Walkers are Welcome town too.

As was explained last night, the chief motivation behind Bishop's Castle seeking this status was that Church Stretton (a small town on the other side of the Long Mynd) had just been awarded it.

Never underestimate the power of local rivalry.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Can we have a proper debate on the party constitution, Mr Clegg?

Yesterday's Times had a report claiming:
Mr Clegg, who became leader in December, plans to turn the party's traditional structure on its head, centralising all decision-making under a new “chief officers group” and diluting the roles of its committees.
Interestingly, the report was predicated on the supposed fact that all the good things in the current Lib Dem constitution came from the SDP and all the bad things came from the Liberal party.

That gives a pretty big clue as to who has been briefing The Times.

In response to this report Nick Clegg had a short article on Liberal Democrat Voice yesterday evening. It was intended to counteract the Times's claim that there is a rift between Nick and Chris Rennard, the party's chief executive and chair of the general election campaign - not that this is the first time such a rift has been alleged.

Unfortunately, as Lib Dem Voice commenters are pointing out, there are two major problems with Nick's article.

The first is that it does not tell us what changes Nick proposes to make. He implies that they stem from the report of the Bones Commission, but that report has not been released to party members. All we get from Nick is:
I think it made sense to deal first of all with the issues of improving our ability as a Party to make decisions in a streamlined manner – clearer, faster and more transparent systems are needed if we are to continue to grow as a Party.
A lot of buzzwords there, but what do they mean in practice?

The second problem is that Nick's article begins with the words:
The next general election may be only a matter of months away. In the seven months since becoming Leader I’ve been concentrating on making sure that the Party is ready for the election whenever it is called.
You what?

Nick is leader precisely because it became clear last autumn that the next general election is a couple of years away. If we thought it was likely to be called in a few months then Ming Campbell would still be leader.

While a party has to make contingency plans, the idea that Gordon Brown is about to call a general election seems pretty silly with the polls the way they are. He is committed to a strategy of hanging on grimly and hoping something turns up.

This does make Nick's opening paragraph sound uncomfortably like a scare tactic designed to help the leadership bounce the members into supporting the new proposals - whatever they are.

Let's have those proposals published and a proper debate on them without phoney talk of impending general elections.

When in Shropshire be sure to visit The Bog

From Shropshire County Council's website:
The unusually named Bog Visitor Centre, is the old school house and one of last remaining buildings from The Bog Village, demolished in 1972. The centre is the only visitor facility for the Stiperstones upland region in the heart of the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and provides a wealth of information about its mining history, its people, and the current work to restore the surrounding landscape.

The centre is staffed by a team of volunteers, who have set themselves up as the Bog Visitor Centre Volunteer Group. Members of the group are from the local community and they give a warm welcome to visitors, providing tea and home made cakes as well as selling locally produced crafts.
Not to mention books by Malcolm Saville and on the Shropshire lead mining industry.

The centre has its own website too. Which is good, because I am always afraid that it is a mirage.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Being posh and being educated are two different things

Simon Hoggart reports an exchange between Boris Johnson and Martin Salter:
He [Boris] was at the home affairs committee, and was asked by Martin Salter, a Labour MP, whether the problem was that young persons carried knives these days because they had become fashion accessories. Boris agreed that we needed to de-glamorise knife crime. "It is moronic, wasteful, and you know, it's not the death of Mercutio."

Mr Salter looked startled. But not for long. "Who was that?" he inquired. "Your education cost more than mine."
This is ridiculous. Martin Salter is not some barefoot boy from the gutters of Reading West. He attended Hampton Grammar School in Middlesex, where you can be sure that Shakespeare had an honoured place in the curriculum.

True, there has always been something a bit mockney about Salter: his accent just a little too Ben Elton to be real. (I have a vague memory of reading somewhere that his father was a BBC announcer with a formidably grand accent, but I suspect that is just wishful thinking on my part.)

But why does anyone who was educated in the state sector now feel obliged to affect this sort of inferiority complex? For any intelligent person, the idea that someone from a public school is automatically better educated than you are should not survive your first week at university.

I have heard Diane Abbott say that, as a grammar school girl, she felt superior when she met public school boys for the first time. Their parents had to pay to get them into good schools.

That attitude sounds very foreign now. Why is this? I suspect the abolition of the grammar schools is a part of it. Forty or fifty years ago the best state schools gave a better academic education than any fee-paying school. It would he hard to claim that today, whatever gains comprehensive schools have brought in other directions.

Another culprit is the general anti-intellectualism we see today. Martin Salter displayed this well when he felt obliged to pretend not to know who Mercutio was.

I am with Boris. Hoggart writes:
Now Boris doesn't quote the classics just to show off. He genuinely believes that the great works of the past illuminate our understanding of the present.
If you don't believe that, what is the point of education?

Finally, whatever your view on this, please stop using "posh" as a synonym for "educated". We used to understand that they are two very different things.

BritBlog Roundup 178

I missed this earlier in the week, what with packing a rucksack and everything.

The latest selection of the best in blogging is put together by A Very British Dude.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sex and drugs and rock and roll

As I am on holiday (this posting comes to you from Enterprise House, Bishop's Castle) I shall let other bloggers write for me.

Sex

Stephen Tall complains that Lembit Opik's love life gets more publicity than a scandal he has uncovered in his role as Lib Dem shadow housing minister.

But Paul Walter points out that this is largely Lembit's own fault.

That is the frustrating thing about Lembit. Deep down - very deep down - you suspect there is a serious politician trying to get out.

Drugs

Last month some of us were rather disconcerted to see that a Lib Dem councillor (Jayne McCoy) and a Lib Dem MP (Tom Brake) had taken part in a demonstration outside a shop in Wallington that sells bongs and other drug-related paraphernalia. Bernard Salmon wrote about it at the time.

As I would have flagged up at the time if I had been less busy, Tom Brake has taken this campaign further. Last Wednesday he brought in a ten minute Commons bill to ban the sale of cannabis seeds. You can find text of his speech, and of the speech opposing it by Labour MP Paul Flynn, in Hansard.

Gareth Aubrey, at Long Despairing Young Something (perhaps is he is a long despairing young something?) has written on the conflict between this position and the party policy Tom is meant to be promoting as a shadow home office minister.

Rock and Roll

Seeing as I am on holiday, try the Spencer Davis Group with Somebody Help Me. It's a pretty ordinary song for a number one hit, but the young Steve Winwood makes it sound like a Motown classic when he comes in.

Monday, July 14, 2008

No to the Pennbury eco-town


I have an article on Comment is Free this morning under the title Let's hear it for Leicestershire:
it is hard to believe the Pennbury site in Leicestershire would have got anywhere near Caroline Flint's eco-towns shortlist if it were in the south east.
And:

In his Midland England – which is to those fighting Midlandsism what The Woman's Room was to early feminists – WG Hoskins described eastern Leicestershire as "a landscape of sharp hills, woodland, stone-built villages and many fine churches".

Let's hope that landscape remains intact and that more people are able to overcome their prejudices and enjoy it.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

REM: Nightswimming



Automatic for the People came out so long ago that my copy is on vinyl. Like many people, I bought successive REM CDs after that, hoping each time that they would be as good as the earlier album.

They never were. But I also investigated the band's back catalogue, which was more rewarding.

Anyway, here is a live performance of one of the songs from Automatic for the People.

North Korea and Betws-y-Coed

Blood & Treasure comments on a report that A North Korean soldier has shot and killed a South Korean tourist who wandered into a restricted zone:

This reminds me a bit of going to North Wales on holiday when I was a kid. Great scenery, but when the inhabitants are tight lipped fanatical nationalists, untoward things happen ...

The local Methodists in Betys-y-coed [sic] weren’t as heavily armed, but as in North Korea everything was shut all of the time.

Patrick Mercer calls Redruth curfew a success before it has even started

The idea of curfews on young people is back with a vengeance. It is rapidly getting caught up with the current concern about knife crime.

The Sunday Times this morning says:

A report from a House of Commons committee will say this week that a national curfew on young teenagers could curb anti-social and violent behaviour.
I suppose such a curfew would have that effect. And if you included older teenagers and adults it would have even more of an effect. But do we really want to live under a version of martial law?

It is not surprise to see Keith Vaz quoted:

“I have sympathy with the view that children should not be out after 9pm.”
I have sympathy with the view that Mr Vaz should mind his own business.

But the prize for idiocy goes to the Tory Patrick Mercer:
“We can’t have one rule in one part of the country and another rule in another part. It is clearly something that has worked in Redruth and something we should consider nationally.”
To say that the curfew has worked in Redruth is nonsense. It does not even come into operation until 25 July, as an earlier report in The Times makes clear.

If that is the quality of research that has gone into the committee's report, we can recycle the paper without wasting our time reading it.

And isn't the demand that we have identical rules in every area worthy of a bureaucratic Fabian with the soul of a filing cabinet?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Sunday Telegraph poll shows Labour ahead in Glasgow East

As we Lib Dems have often proved, momentum is all in by-elections. So there is still all to play for in Glasgow East.

Nevertheless, the findings of a poll taken in the constituency, published in tomorrow's Sunday Telegraph, may help to calm Labour nerves. It has the parties as follows:
  • Labour 47%
  • SNP 33%
  • Lib Dems 9%
  • Conservatives 7%
For proof that activists are born optimists look no further than the Daily Referendum blog:

William Hill are giving odds of 33/1 for the Conservatives to win the Glasgow East By-Election. I think those are very generous odds and William Hill may regret them. I think there a chance (though very slim) that the Tories could take Glasgow East.

However, I think that there is a very good chance of the Tories coming second to the SNP.

To be fair, as footballers say nowadays, he wrote this before the Telegraph poll came out. But it does not seem to have changed his mind.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Small by-election, not many hurt

To no one's great surprise David Davis regained his seat at Haltemprice & Howden.

Liberal Democrats will be relieved that, though the Greens came second, they obviously did not pick up our habitual voters by the handful. And it was reassuring to see Jill Saward, who supported the Labour/Daily Mail anti-liberty line, do badly. The 110 votes David Icke won suggest he finds it easier to win votes in cyberspace than he does in prosperous parts of rural Yorkshire.

When it was first announced that the Liberal Democrats would not stand against David Davis, people queued up to praise Nick Clegg's sagacity. Most notable was James Hook, who wrote:

I’m so proud of Nick Clegg for his decision that Liberal Democrats will not contest David Davis’ by-election.

Jon Neal, our superb candidate last time, came so close that I am sure we could win the by-election; even after the human and financial burdens of Crewe and Henley.

Detention without trial is a threat to our national life and it is right for Nick to support David Davis’ courageous stance.

Since then enthusiasm for Nick's decision has cooled. In particular, it has been noticed that the Lib Dems won no concessions from Davis in return for not fighting him and made no effort to turn his campaign into a joint one. So much so that James Graham has written on Comment is Free today that: "The main loser of this episode seems to have been Nick Clegg."

I think the main losers are David Davis and the prospects of keeping the Tories signed up for the civil liberties agenda. Before he resigned Davis was shadow home secretary and had every chance of being home secretary after the next election. Today he is a backbencher.

Meanwhile the big debate on civil liberties have taken place, not in Haltemprice & Howden, but at Westminster. As Martin Kettle argues in the Guardian today, that debate took place in the House of Lords and Eliza Manningham-Buller's speech was the most important.

Dominic Grieve, who has taken Davis's job in the Tory shadow cabinet, has an honourable record of fighting for liberty in the Commons. Yet you sense he is a good lawyer who has done the best he can with the brief he has been given. If the balance of power in that shadow cabinet changes or David Cameron changes his mind about where advantage lies, Grieve will argue against liberty just as effectively.

And, of course, Davis's absence from the shadow cabinet makes it more likely that the balance of power will change and that the likes of Liam Fox and Michael Gove, who would feel happier attacking the government for not being Neo Con enough, will be the decisive influences on Cameron.

And the Liberal Democrats?

We have failed to gain any advantage from the by-election but seem not to have suffered any permanent damage in one of our target seats. In the absence of any explanation from out leader, it is hard to resist the suspicion that our main reason for not fighting the Haltemprice & Howden by-election is that we were broke and knackered after Henley and decided to let David Davis get on with trashing his career without us.

House Points: Have environmentalists made us terrified of the natural world?


My House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

This week's issue is a special on the environment. I am not sure whether I was fitting in with that or acting as a devil's advocate, but this is an unusually heartfelt column.

I wrote at greater length about the beneficial effects of exposure to the natural world for Openmind a few years ago.

Fresh air

A survey for the National Trust has found half the children questioned cannot tell bees from wasps. A similar percentage cannot recognise a barn owl or oak leaf, and one in three cannot identify a magpie. But nine out of ten know the Daleks and Yoda from Star Wars.

Perhaps not so surprising it is. Yet I was struck by the comment from the Trust’s conservation adviser: "The more distanced we become from nature, the more difficult it will be for us to survive on this planet."

This concern with survival is typical of the environmental movement. All its talk of "saving the planet" is really about saving the human race. The planet would jog along without us quite happily.

But survival is a depressingly narrow aim for any political movement. And it is a dangerous one for Liberals, because it can be used to justify any amount of repression.

Years ago environmentalists decided their only hope was to scare us half to death. Peak oil and global warming are just the latest in a list of dooms. The result has been to make many people terrified of the natural world. The environment is all around us (you cannot argue with that) and it is out to get us.

This fear combines easily with parental concerns about traffic and strangers, so their children’s encounters with nature are increasingly limited. Yet the best of 20th-century education and children’s literature saw such experiences as central to a wholesome childhood.

Liberal Democrats should have a more generous view of the importance of the environment. There is abundant evidence that experiencing the natural world is good for everyone from behaviourally disturbed children to recovering surgery patients.

And the claim that a vengeful Nature is going to sweep away our economic system is a cop out. We are going to have to use our intelligence to reform it if we want more people to live happy lives

I leave the last word to the great Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies:

Let us get out of these indoor narrow modern days, whose twelve hours have somehow become shortened, into the sunlight and the pure wind. A something that the ancients called divine can be found and felt there still.

Now parents need police checks to be with their own children

The other day I quoted a posting from the Civitas blog about a new report Frank Furedi has written for that think tank:
The dramatic escalation of child protection measures has succeeded in poisoning the relationship between the generations and creating an atmosphere of suspicion that actually increases the risks to children, according to a new study released today by Civitas.
Overstated?

You don't know the half of it.

Today's papers have been full of reports that a mother has been denied permission to travel to school with her own son because she has not had a Criminal Records Bureau check. Try the BBC version.

Barking. Just barking.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Jarvis Cocker dines in Market Harborough

We get all the stars here.

The Harborough Mail says:

It seems an unlikely venue for a party attended by one of Britpop's most famous faces.

But Pulp lead singer Jarvis Cocker was spotted dining in a Harborough restaurant.

News of the celebrity sighting filtered to the Mail, with customers saying they saw the bespectacled Cocker in the upstairs terrace section of Italian eatery Prego in St Mary’s Road.

Cocker’s London record label confirmed yesterday (Wednesday) that it was indeed the Sheffield-born singer.

My New Statesman article on the Wenlock Olympian Games

Having an online column is very pleasant, but there remains something magic about seeing your name in print. So I am pleased that I have made it into this week's New Statesman with a short article on the Wenlock Olympian Games:
A thousand people have travelled to Shropshire to take part in the 14 different sports at the Wenlock Olympian Games, which take place from 11-14 July. The event may seem quaint, but the Olympic movement owes the pretty town of Much Wenlock a great debt.

The movement's founder, the French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, was inspired by the values of ancient Greece - or so we shall be told when television covers the opening ceremony from Beijing next month. But there is more to Olympic history than that, and Much Wenlock and its Victorian doctor played a central part in it.
I know it sounds just the sort of thing I make up, but I promise you it is true.

Given my memories of buying the Statesman when I was at school, I am deeply chuffed.

John Amis has a blog

The former My Music panelist John Amis, who is now aged 86, has a classical music blog called John Amis online.

Trivia: John Amis is a cousin of the novelist Kingsley Amis.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Has Nick Clegg explained anywhere his decision not to fight David Davis?

I only ask because I want to know.

Will the BBC please stop calling the "Top Gear" presenters "boys"?

Jeremy Clarkson, the little one and the other one are not boys. They are men.


Thank you. I feel better for that.

Julia Goldsworthy wrong to support Redruth curfew

When New Labour first came to power they were very keen on the idea of curfews for children and teenagers. A pilot scheme was run in Hamilton and I recall commissioning an article from Stuart Waiton on the subject for Liberator.

Things went rather quiet after that, but now the idea has re-emerged in Cornwall. The Times reports developments in Redruth:

Officers in the town ... hope to clear everyone under the age of 16 off the streets by 9pm. Those aged under 10 will be expected at home by 8pm.

Letters have been sent to 700 families living on large housing estates in the north of the town, asking for their cooperation in enforcing the voluntary curfew between July 25 and September 7. Parents who do not agree to the scheme, and whose children are found out after 9pm, could be subject to parenting or antisocial behaviour orders.

There are many things to note here.

It is dishonest to write seeking cooperation if you are backing that request with the threat of legal sanctions. This confusion is shown most clearly later in the report when a PC is quoted as saying: "This is a voluntary scheme but there is a hard edge in that if we find families who aren’t getting involved we can make orders."

This scheme is predicated on the ludicrous view that there is one correct time for every youngster to be indoors and that it is the role of the state to enforce it. You have to be a socialist to believe nonsense like that.

When we see antisocial by young people we often ask where their parents are. This scheme undermines parental authority. They are not allowed to say that they are happy for their 15-year-old to be out after nine. That decision has been taken away from them.

Demonising young people and keeping them off the streets will not lessen old people's fear of them. The way to overcome that fear is to encourage contact between the two groups. The less older people see young people the more afraid they will be when they do meet them.

Most importantly, the scheme is deeply unjust. It betray a lack of courage on the authorities - like the teacher who punishes a whole class because he is afraid to take on the few troublemakers. If young people are breaking the law they should be dealt with. If they are not, they should not be treated in this unjust way.

I was depressed by this development. But I was even more depressed when I found out the scheme is being backed by a Lib Dem MP.

A Lanson Boy draws out attention to this report from the Western Morning News:

"This is a very interesting experiment and I will be keeping a close eye on it.

"It should be trialled properly with a view to rolling it out to other trouble spots in the county if it gets results.

"While we must not demonise all young people, we have to acknowledge that youngsters don't have to commit crime or anti-social behaviour to be intimidating to residents. Simply hanging around on street corners can be enough of a threat.
Alex, who writes A Lanson Boy, says:
I was happy to believe that Julia might have been misquoted and so got in touch straight away. Regrettably, it seems as though she stands behind much of what she said.
So I am happy to support his conclusion:
there to deal with it. If not, then we shouldn't be punishing young people for wanting to be outside on summer evenings (even if the weather hasn't been up to much recently).

Julia has stressed to me that she doesn't think that demonising young people is the solution. I agree. But supporting a scheme which allows for the forced removal from a public place of a person simply for being young does not seem to me the best way forward. If those fearful residents see young people being carted off by the Police then they will tend to believe that the young people concerned are guilty. To me, that is demonisation.

So come on Julia, ditch this illiberal and inhuman scheme and start a real dialogue between the different groups of residents of Redruth to see if some long term solutions can be found.

SNP candidate in Glasgow East is anti English

John Mason is the SNP candidate in the Glasgow East by-election, and Mr Eugenides flags up a telling episode from his political career.

Two years ago England were playing in the football World Cup. Sadly, Scotland were not.

And the following report appeared on the 24dash.com site:
A Scottish school was condemned today for flying too many England flags in a World Cup display.

Hillhead High in Glasgow was "unwise" to use a large majority of England flags in a corridor decoration, according to senior Scottish National Party councillor John Mason.

The SNP's group leader on Glasgow City Council spoke out after receiving a complaint from a pupil at the school who was apparently upset at the "excessive" number of St George crosses.

Mr Mason took the step of writing to the headteacher, arguing he should balance up the display and also accusing him of making a political statement.

The councillor said: "I received a complaint from someone at the school who had objected to the number of England flags.

"From what I understand it was almost exclusively England, and I think it was ill advised to attach the World Cup to England in that way.
Mr Mason is free to support whom he wants, though it is hard to imagine an English politician being this petty about Scottish flags. But he should be careful, because the same report goes on to say:
Mr Mason's comments come after a series of incidents that have highlighted anti-English sentiment north of the border.

There have been several attacks in Scotland during the World Cup tournament on fans wearing England tops, including a seven-year-old boy who was punched in the head.
Incidentally, Ross Finnie, one of the candidates for the leadership of the Scottish Lib Dems, got into trouble a few years ago for describing Digby Jones, then the director general of the CBI, as an "English prat".

Surely "prat" would have done?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

George W. Bush: "Amateur ... hated by many"

He was talking about Silvio Berlusconi, but come to think of it...

My latest New Statesman column

My latest column has been posted on the New Statesman website:
Dr Barnardo was long a revered figure, but he had the unfortunate habit of kidnapping working-class kids off the street in order to reform them.
More than one parent went to court in an attempt to secure the return of children who had been sent overseas. Strangely, they always turned out to have been adopted by wealthy, eccentric figures who had made it a condition of the arrangement that their identities would not be revealed.
One mother, a Mrs Gossage, fought him all the way to the House of Lords and won. But she never saw her son Henry again.
But mostly it is about aliens in Shropshire.

Monday, July 07, 2008

My Howden days

The television news is reporting on the Church of England Synod, which is taking place at the University of York. The pictures are just as I remember the campus: all ducks, willow trees and a central hall that looks as though it has just landed from outer space.

It seems it is still called the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, despite its late patron's spot of bother over Guinness and Distillers.

Those pictures remind me that in the days (1978-81) when I was an undergraduate at York, the campus was in the Howden constituency. For reasons no one quite understood, the Liberals traditionally finished second there.

I recall handing out a leaflet during the 1979 general election. It showed a wrecking ball labelled Lib knocking down a rickety building labelled Con. The idea was to get Labour students to vote Liberal.

Trivia: Leading Lib Dem blogger Mary Reid and I both have Philosophy degrees from York.

The phantom airships of 1909


The other day I reported the sighting of a UFO over Market Harborough. A little research turns up another fascinating sighting - this one from the Edwardian era.

In 1909 Louis Bleriot made history by becoming the first pilot to cross the English Channel. As David Clarke writes:

The year 1909 saw the realisation that the British Navy's world-wide supremacy was directly under threat, and for the first time in its history the island was vulnerable to invasion from the air. Bleriot may well have been the first to cross the Channel, but just two months before his flight newspapers had suggested that the Channel had been crossed secretly, and at night, by a far more sinister aircraft - the German Zeppelin airship.

In the spring of 1909 Germany's prototype airships were incapable of night reconnaissance operations over the British Coast. And yet, during four months that spring, several hundred eyewitnesses claimed to have seen "phantom Zeppelins" moving across the night sky, performing manoeuvres which were impossible for any contemporary airship or aeroplane of the day.

In addition, a number of people claimed to have seen this mysterious airship at close range, hearing its whirring engines and observing its cigar-shaped gasbag and dazzling searchlight. A few even claimed to have seen and conversed with its crew.

Later he writes:

The growing cloud of rumour became so widespread early in May that a special correspondent from the Express was dispatched to track down the base from which it was assumed the airship must be flying. The reporter hired a car from a company in Northampton and toured the countryside between that city, Market Harborough and Peterborough watching for any strange light in the sky or whirring noise from above. Other motorists were taking night trips for the same reasons, and the reporter wired back to his paper:

"In every little Fen village along the endless hedgeless roads they are looking out for the night-flier. The fact that it manoeuvres with ease so close to the North Sea has aroused apprehension, and I met many villagers who eagerly asked me for news."

The reporter failed to find the airship's base, but he found a good supply of fresh witnesses who were prepared to say they had seen it in the air. One of these was a Mr C.W.Allen, described as "the pedestrian holder of the 2,000 miles road record" who claimed he distinctly saw the craft whilst driving with two friends near the Northamptonshire town of Market Harborough on 5 May 1909:

"we had been for a night run, and when we were passing through the village of Kelmarsh, we heard a loud report in the air like the backfire of a motorcar. Then we heard distinctly from above our heads the 'tock-tock-tock' of a swiftly-running motor-engine, and we looked up. I was sitting on the front seat, next to the driver, and had a clear view of a dark shape looming up out of the night. It was an oblong airship, with lights in front and behind, flying swiftly through the air. It seemed some five or six hundred feet up, and must have been at least a hundred feet long, although owing to its altitude it looked smaller. The lights were not very bright, but we could distinctly see the torpedo-shape and what appeared to be men on the platform below. We slowed up our motorcar and stopped to watch it. The steady buzz of the engines could be heard through the still air, and we watched it under it passed out of sight in a northeasterly direction towards Peterborough."

That report comes from the Daily Express of 12 May 1909, though I have to point out that Market Harborough is in Leicestershire not Northamptonshire. And Northampton is a town not a city. Clearly, the Express was no more accurate a century ago.

It is a long and fascinating article. There are clear parallels between modern Ufology and this episode, even down to the appearance of Edwardian men in black.

And, as Clarke points out, a few years later, the presence of Zeppelins over England was all too real. The experience seems to have been forgotten in the enormity of the Blitz of the Second World War, but one website that suggests over the country as a whole there were 52 Zeppelin raids during World War I, resulting in 1413 fatalities.

Should Steve Webb BOGOF?

Steve Webb, the Lib Dem shadow environment secretary, issued a press release on Gordon Brown’s call on families to throw away less food.

It reads:

"The problem of food waste has been made worse by the Government’s failure to get tough with supermarkets. Its cosy relationship with the big chains has stalled effective action.

"Supermarkets make it harder for householders to avoid food waste, while throwing away large quantities of edible food through poor stock management.

"They refuse to stock small portions, which are essential for the growing number of one-person households, and offer too many buy-one-get-one-free deals on perishable goods."

If supermarkets throw away lots of food that is to be deplored, but I would trust the profit motive (particularly in a market situation that is growing more difficult) to take care of that more than I would government regulation.

We should also look at the role government plays already. As the Tory blogger Dizzy Thinks has pointed out, a few years ago we moved from Best Before dates to Use By dates, which can only have encouraged people to throw food away:

Ironically it was a regulation brought in, as ever, to protect the public in the great paternal/nanny state. The consequence being that those who would no doubt vehemently oppose the repealing of 'Use By' on health and safety grounds, now find themselves moaning that we all follow the instructions and chuck the stuff away so we don't potentially get ill.

Frankly this is the best example of the Law of Unintended Consequence I've ever seen.

You can buy single portions of many things. It would be nice to see more, but don't we all have refrigerators and freezers now? There is nothing stopping us cooking half and keeping half for another day.

And BOGOF? As the first page of any economic textbook points out, if there is a good harvest and a glut of a product then the price will fall. And if it falls then people will buy more and, because the price has fallen, they will not worry so much about throwing some of it away.

BOGOF is only the modern manifestation of this basic economic fact. The alternative to it, presumably, is allowing the product to rot in the ground or on the tree.

And, by the way, you are not forced to take the second part of a "two for the price of one" offer. If you want only one bag of carrots then take only one. You are not losing anything.

The amount of food we throw away (and I do wonder where some of the figures quoted come from) is a manifestation of our current affluence and continued low inflation. To anyone who remembers the 1970s and the way that many people moaned about the price of food, it is immensely welcome.

No doubt there is a role for schools to play in teaching people lost arts like cooking with leftovers, but do not worry: if the economy takes a downturn then people will soon worry much more about the food they waste.

And, as John Hemming has just pointed out, it is unlikely that poor people are wasting much food even today.

Thanks to Mr Eugenides for the picture.

BritBlog Roundup 177

This week with added Amused Cynicism.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Petula Clark: Downtown



The first is that it is a great song and one of the first pop songs I can recall knowing. It reached no. 2 in 1964, so it is just possible that I can remember it being in the charts.

This version must come from the late sixties, when annoying dance troupes were obligatory when pop was played on TV. Does anyone remember the Young Generation? (Later. That video disappeared, so I have replaced it with a different on.)

The second reason for choosing it is that it gives me the chance to retail my anecdote about The Day That Petula Clark Phoned Me.

It must have been about 10 years ago, when I was acting as press officer for the Malcolm Saville Society. The Society was planning a visit to West End Farm at Wheathampstead, because that was where the film Trouble at Townsend, based on a book by Saville and starring a very young Petula Clark, was made in 1946. Thanks to the Society, incidentally, you can now buy a DVD of the film.

Anyway, before the visit I drafted a release about it for the local papers and decided it would look better with a quote from Petula Clark. So I found an e-mail address for her agent and dropped him a line.

A couple of weeks later my mobile went at work and a voice said "Hello, this is Petula Clark."

I can therefore boast that I have told Petula Clark what a great record I think "Downtown" is - surely one of the things everyone should do before they die? It may not have been the most tactful thing to say - her reply was "I have made other records, you know - but I am glad I did it.

Next week on "Among my Fragrant Souvenirs" I shall be remembering Herbert Wilcox and Dame Anna Neagle.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Sunday Times praises Lib Dem economic expertise

Here is an unexpected pleasure to savour over tomorrow's marmalade.

Martin Ivens writes:
The party that can draw on a first division of economic talent, is, surprisingly, the Liberal Democrats. Apart from the reassuring figure of Treasury spokesman Vince Cable, a former chief economist at Shell, other frontbench heavyweights – Chris Huhne, David Laws and Steve Webb – have a wealth of practical expertise in finance, economics, pensions and taxation law that the government and the official opposition struggle to match.

Ray Lewis shows the weakness of the Mayoral system

Tony Travers from the LSE was on the Today programme this morning saying that Boris Johnson's problems with his advisers and deputies is in part caused by the Mayoral system. He had to put together a new administration almost overnight, so it is not such a surprise that he has had problems.

Things would have been very different on a conventionally run council. The new group leader would have appointed his committee chairs from a pool of experienced councillors who had already won a couple of elections in their wards or boroughs. And in the days of the old GLC, some of them would already have been known to anyone with an interest in London politics.

A figure like Ray Lewis, who appears to have a talent for gilding his CV, would have had to have satisfied his local party that he was a suitable candidate. If he had done this and come to such prominence that he looked likely to a committee chair in the new administration, then the local press would certainly have taken an interest in him.

The system was not perfect, but there would certainly have been a better chance of his being weeded out before he attained a position of power. The gimmickry of the Mayoral system, which boasts of the way that it brings in figures from beyond established political parties, makes it far easier for someone like Lewis to prosper.

And is there not a racial element to this too? If a white man had boasted of his "tough love" methods with disaffected youth, I doubt that he would have received such an easy ride from the liberal press or that Boris Johnson would have received such envious glances from the other parties when he appointed him.

Later. My point is supported by a plaintive comment by Iain Dale on his own (notably silly) posting on the subject:
Could you explain just what kind of checks might have been done? Because I am buggered if I know.

I address the JP point. Yes, he was "under suspicion" by the C of E, but how would Boris have known that? And how could his people have found out?