Wednesday, April 28, 2004

The party of Gladstone and Morley

Home from a work meeting in Edinburgh, and what do I find? My 9 April House Points column in Liberal Democrat News has upset Bob Russell MP.

"I trust there will be no more offensive and insulting references about Essex and those of us who hail from the county," he writes in the letters page for last Friday (23 April). Click here for the full letter.

Trivial fact: my mother's mother's family all came from Tollesbury and owned the Hope Inn at one time.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Tony Martin and spring guns

Edis Bevan's blog MKNE Political Information makes a telling comparison between the supporters of Tony Martin and those who defended the use of spring guns by landowners in the nineteenth century.

A couple of explanatory notes: Tony Martin was a British farmer gaoled for murder after shooting a burglar; spring guns were automatic guns intended to hit poachers and anyone else wandering on their owners' land.

Edis refers to one of my favourite books Roads to Ruin by E S Turner. It is a study of the people who opposed various social reforms like banning the use of little boys to sweep chimneys. I am rather alarmed to learn that it is one of Tony Benn's favourite books too.

E S Turner, by the way, is still alive, in his nineties and writing regularly for the London Review of Books.

One of the best parts of Roads to Ruin is the introduction, where Turner says that he had originally intended to include the people who campaigned against the abolition of the requirement for motor cars to be preceded by someone carrying a red flag. However, on studying the matter, he found that their chief argument was that if the flagmen went then many people would be killed by cars.

As he says, history has proved them right.

House Points

I have just added my latest (23 April) House Points column from Liberal Democrat News to Lord Bonkers' website. But I am feeling generous, so I am going to post the whole thing here too. My copy of Lib Dem News did not arrive this morning, so the headline may differ from that published...

The writing’s on the wall

Charles Kennedy was missing on Monday. Not from the Commons – he was there to hear Tony Blair describe how well things are going in Iraq – but from Blaby Road Park, South Wigston.

He had been due to visit the Harborough constituency until events at Westminster got interesting and forced him to cancel. But we still had a television crew, Bill Newton Dunn and several local councillors.

They were there to mark the success of the district council (Liberal Democrat-run Oadby and Wigston) in reclaiming the park from underage drinkers. It is a thoroughly modern initiative involving anti-social behaviour policies, alcohol bans and community support officers.

In essence, councils are reinventing park-keepers. They were got rid of 20 years ago because the right wanted to cut taxes and the left believed they were crypto-fascists.

The South Wigston project also involved the building of a skateboard park. What a photo opportunity that would have been for Charles!

Skateboard parks mean bare concrete. And bare concrete means graffiti, which poses a dilemma for officialdom. These days it is too self-doubting to say graffiti is a bad thing but not relaxed enough to let events take their course.

The solution? Official graffiti. The council employed professionals to write on the concrete before anyone else got at it. You need a Masters in Graffiti Studies before you are allowed near a spray can these days. (“Who painted you this then? Bloody cowboys.”)

I had expected to have naughty libertarian doubts about the Blaby Road scheme. But it seemed a sensible idea and I liked the municipal flowerbeds.

After leaving the park I walked into Leicester down streets of council housing. You could tell they were council houses because of the tall metal columns topped with CCTV cameras. The scene was a cross between the old East Germany and a work of science fiction.

And at Westminster there is now a screen across the public gallery, supposedly to protect MPs from gas attack. You could call them cowards, but they seem to have had little to do with it. It was an initiative from the security services. Conspiracy theorists will believe they put it up to keep MPs in a state of fear.

If you listen carefully, you can hear Bin Laden laughing.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Bad moves

Studying philosophy is supposed to make you more rational. But I lean to the view of the likes of J L Austin, Michael Oakeshott and the later Wittgenstein. They held that studying the subject makes you more likely to talk nonsense.

That said, I like these columns by Julian Baggini which point out some common logical fallacies which crop up in political discussion.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Tracking parents

"In the Children Bill itself, for instance, the word 'parent' appears only once."

There is a good article by Eileen Munro, reader in social policy at the London School of Economics, on the Spiked website. She discusses the assumptions behind the Children Bill and the planned database recording all 11 million children in the country.

This seems a suitable point to plug my own essay Defending Families.

Political trivia

Norris McWhirter's obituary in the Daily Telegraph tells us that he was the unsuccessful Conservative candidate for Orpington at the two general elections following Eric Lubbock's by-election victory in 1962.

You have to register to access the Telegraph site, but if you like obituaries it is the only paper to read.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Sad News

Geraint Howells - Lord Geraint of Ponterwyd - has died, aged 79.

He was MP for Cardigan from 1974 to 1983 and for Ceredigion and Pembroke North from 1983 to 1992, and was known to Lord Bonkers as the Big Friendly Geraint.

Thanks to Peter Black's excellent blog for the story.

Home Again

I have been in London at a psychology conference for the past few days, helping to get stories into the papers. Here is my favourite example.

My latest House Points column has been posted, and I have also added a passage from A Tale of Two Cities to Serendib.

If you look at the psychology story, you will see why I was reading the novel. I got quite excited when I read the passage I quote on Serendib, thinking it was an anticipation of the themes of Bleak House. Then I discovered that Bleak House was published in 1852-3 and A Tale of Two Cities in 1859.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

More railways

I have just added a nice piece of descriptive writing - "Rails in High Leicestershire" - to Serendib.

Sacrilege at St Pancras

From the BBC website:

"Eurostar is also considering the idea of changing the station's name to increase understanding of its location among continental travellers.

Names like 'London Central', 'London International', 'London Grand Central' and 'Union Station' have been suggested."

Disgusted of Market Harborough writes: Harrumph!

Meanwhile, here is a tour of the old station hotel and here is more on the unfortunate Pancras himself.

Lord Bonkers writes: Some historians believe him to have been the first Well-Behaved Orphan.

Monday, April 12, 2004

House Points

The latest column has just been uploaded.

"But Essex Man is keener on some laws than others, and Amess complained about the speed cameras in his constituency. What Essex Man really likes are laws that control other people."

An e-mail from ARCH

I received this mailing today from ARCH - Action on Rights for Children.

Children Bill - Urgent

A new Children Bill is currently before Parliament and the Government anticipates that it will be passed by the end of July.

The Bill will allow the Government to establish one or more databases containing information about all children and their parents, including low-level 'concerns' from every agency involved with each family. Agencies - including GPs - will share the information. From birth, every child in England and Wales will have a file on the system.

An example of the kind of 'concerns' that will be flagged on a child's file include children's and parents' physical and mental health issues, 'frequently moving house', 'non-constructive spare time/easily bored', 'criminal area of residence', 'negative home influence on education', 'poor general parenting skills' - and many others besides.

As the Bill will overturn the Common Law duty of confidentiality, information will be shared without the knowledge or consent of children and their parents.

More information is available on the following websites:

Friday, April 09, 2004

More on multiculturalism

There was an article in the Guardian yesterday by Andrew Anthony which made some of the points that I did, though I am not clear what his conclusion is. I also have some sympathy for Jennie Bristow's view that "multiculturalism is one of those phrases that is more meaningless the more ubiquitous it becomes".

The real difference here is between liberals, who are happy for many different ways of life to flourish, and socialists, who want to impose their values on everyone.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Three favourite bookshops

London, Cromford and Bishop's Castle.

Bent Soup: Welcome back

One of my favourites among the satirical site I link to from Lord Bonkers' website used to be Bent Soup.

It disappeared a while ago, but now it is back and I am about to restore the link.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Multiculturalism, Trevor Phillips and Polly Toynbee

In February David Goodhart published an interesting essay suggesting that there may be a tension between diversity and solidarity. It appeared in Prospect magazine and the Guardian.

The essence of his argument was conveyed in a quotation from the Conservative shadow minister David Willetts.

"The basis on which you can extract large sums of money in tax and pay it out in benefits is that most people think the recipients are people like themselves, facing difficulties that they themselves could face.

If values become more diverse, if lifestyles become more differentiated, then it becomes more difficult to sustain the legitimacy of a universal risk-pooling welfare state. People ask: 'Why should I pay for them when they are doing things that I wouldn't do?'

This is America versus Sweden. You can have a Swedish welfare state provided that you are a homogeneous society with intensely shared values. In the United States you have a very diverse, individualistic society where people feel fewer obligations to fellow citizens.

Progressives want diversity, but they thereby undermine part of the moral consensus on which a large welfare state rests."

I hope this is overly pessimistic, but it is surely worth thinking seriously about the implications of multiculturalism.

Not it you believed Trevor Phillips back in February.

The Guardian printed a lot of reactions to Goodhart's article, and Phillips' was extraordinarily mean-spirited.

"Is this the wit and wisdom of Enoch Powell? Jottings from the BNP leader's weblog? Actually they are extracts from an article in the Observer, penned by the liberal intellectual David Goodhart, who I have always suspected is too brainy for his own good."

It is customary for anyone from outside the left-wing establishment who seeks to discuss race to be branded a racist. (If you believe in conspiracy theories, this serves to keep most well-meaning people in a state of permanent nervousness about the whole topic and so creates plenty of job opportunities for those who claim expertise in the area.) Even so, Phillips' charge that Goodhart is "too brainy for his own good" adds a thuggish note all his own.

But a few weeks is a long time in politics, and the Observer for 4 April reported:

In a newspaper interview the head of the Commission for Racial Equality said that "multiculturalism suggests separateness" and added that the UK should strive towards a more homogeneous culture with "common values ... the common currency of the English language, honouring the culture of these islands, like Shakespeare and Dickens".

I am all in favour of Shakespeare and Dickens - shouldn't Phillips be concerned that they will appeal to the "brainy"? - but this is an extraordinary about face.

I suspect the explanation lies in the fact that Phillips is a creature of the New Labour leadership, and that leadership is panicking about immigration and is afraid that multiculturalism plays badly with swing voters.

Polly Toynbee is very keen on the new Phillips in today's Guardian. In a nasty piece she appears to view immigrant communities which retain their own values as intrinsically threatening. "Phillips says it was an error to let alien communities stay in their silos." Alien? Silos?

Toynbee loves the most toe-curlingly embarrassing of Phillips ideas: "Phillips proposes a universal coming-of-age ceremony to give meaning to adult citizenship, along with the right to vote and eventually receipt of the matured baby bond."

So people will set aside the religion of their ancestors in order to have their adults lives given meaning by the cheesiest aspects of New Labour?

Even for Polly Toynbee, that is a pretty silly thing to believe.

Fishy story

There is nothing funny about this at all.

More on moving the goalposts

The news story I mentioned yesterday is worth reading more closely.

Take the comment by the parent who supports the idea of cancelling the score at half time if one side is winning easily:

"It gives them the opportunity to participate on a level playing field, so I think it is a fairly good idea."

Note firstly that this awful political cliche is invading real life.

Note secondly that it is a silly metaphor to use when you are talking about football.

Note thirdly that the man means the exact opposite of what he says. He wants to handicap teams that are too good, when the metaphor conveys the idea of a fair contest in conditions that are the same for both sides.

In fact if you did want to handicap the better team one way of doing it would be to have a sloping pitch like Yeovil Town used to have and make them play uphill for the whole game.

The defenders of competitive sport are no better. Here is the one quoted:

"We have to foster a competitive spirit, the will to win and the desire for success. If you are taking that away you are actually disempowering children with the necessary life skills to overcome adversity."

The competitive spirit is no doubt a good thing to acquire, but can't children play football because they enjoy it? Does it have to be defended with words like "disempowering" and "life skills"?

And this seems a very Labour conception. Liberal recognise that people are all individuals and are happy for them to let their very different talents flower.

Labour, however, feels uneasy with this. It wants everyone to play sport because it is good for them, and no doubt sports other than football are "posh" or "elitist".

But not everyone is good at football, and the professional left sees people as endlessly vulnerable. So the game has to be made ridiculous to accommodate everyone without traumatising them.


On tonight of all nights, here is a good cause to support.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Thoughts from York Minster

At the end of last Friday's House Points I mentioned going to Evensong in York Minster. I have never felt holy enough to do something like that before; I now realise that the point is that you feel holy afterwards.

It reminded me in a way of cricket's county championship. Here were people who devote their lives to the activity and a few enthusiasts to watch them. Meanwhile the rest of the city went on with its business, quite indifferent.

The experience did not seem quintessentially English, as I expected. Instead it was exotic, even Eastern. Incense, resonant language, beautiful music, incomparable architecture, grave children in long robes.

The Church of England is obsessed with relevance to the modern world. Only today there is a story on the BBC about plans to rename Southwell diocese and move the bishop from its incomparable Minster.

Maybe the Church is right, but we live in a world with an enormous hunger for spirituality. And ten minutes of Evensong in York Minster is worth a lifetime of crystals, feng shui and Carol Caplin.

And if you remove all the emotive elements from Christianity and attempt to make a wholly rational case for it, you have to admit it sounds pretty unlikely.

It was Gregory Bateson who pointed out in the 1960s that the Catholic Church abandoned holding services in Latin just at the point that young people took up chanting in Sanskrit.

House Points

The latest column has just been uploaded.

"I was in York the other day. I have been back before, but this time I was struck by how much it has changed. It’s not so surprising, as Jim Callaghan was prime minister when I first went there. (Or it may have been Mr Gladstone: at my age you forget.)"

Splendid rant on the rails

Nick Cohen is in mid-season form in today's Observer:

"The trance-inducing quality of the privatised rail system comes from the randomness of the enterprise. It is so capricious it appears beyond the control of human agency and all but beyond the comprehension of the human mind. All you can do is look on with mouth agape. Dadaists, surrealists and others in the twentieth-century avant-garde tried to achieve the same effect, but nothing they did matched what the Major administration created and the Blair administration perpetuated."

Saturday, April 03, 2004

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Beverley Hughes and Tony Blair: Those letters in full

Dear Tony

I have done nothing wrong, so I am resigning.


Dear Beverley

I agree that you have done nothing wrong, so I am accepting your resignation.


Edmund Burke

I have added a quotation from my new hero Edmund Burke to Serendib.

I make the same point against Rousseau in Defending Families. Such ad hominem arguments often sound cheap - Paul Johnson filled a book with them in his Intellectuals - but Burke's identification of Rousseau's hypocrisy as a form of vanity lifts him above all that.

Besides I love the phrases "the tribute which opulence owes to genius" and "Thousands admire the sentimental writer; the affectionate father is hardly known in his parish."

The Conservatives claim Burke as their spiritual father, but I doubt if many of them read him. For most of his career he was the intellectual leader of the Whigs, only breaking from them over his opposition to the French Revolution.

Burke was right in that he foresaw the Terror that was to follow it, much as anarchists thinkers identified the totalitarianism inherent in Marx. He wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France, not as a reaction to the Terror, but in 1790 when the consequences of the Revolution still seemed benign to many British observers.

It is time that we reclaimed Burke. After all, the most important 20th century Liberals are also anti-revolutionaries; think of Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin. Only those with ideology envy - those who really wish they were socialists - will feel uneasy at welcoming Burke home.