Thursday, September 30, 2004

Save the panther

Some months ago, I was worrying about the webmaster of one of my favourite sites: Rutland and Leicestershire Panther Watch. It had not been updated for a while and I was afraid that he had been eaten.

Looking at the site more closely, I find the explanation:
To prevent poachers, 2004 sightings will not be added until the new year.
It's a sad thought that, if there are panthers living wild in the Leicestershire countryside, they are more at risk from us than we are from them.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Reforms and s(c)andals

I have just added a new posting to Serendib, my other blog.

An adaptation of its opening sentence would look good on a placard: “The reforms of one generation become the scandals of the next.”

I originally typed that as “The reforms of one generation become the sandals of the next.” Come to think of it, that contains a truth too. Reforms are soon taken for granted and those who continue to stress their importance are mocked as weirdos.

Bad news/Good news

The blog British Spin is no longer being updated, so I have removed my link to it.

The good news is that it is being reincarnated as a weekly e-mail. Write here to get on the mailing list.

More on poshness

Simon Titley, another member of the Liberator editorial collective, writes in response to my last posting...

Interested to read your posting about the use of the word "posh". I think we're witnessing a convergence of a number of factors.

First is traditional working class deference. Older relatives of mine in Lincolnshire still use the word "posh" regularly to denote anything of any quality, the implication being that "it's too good for the likes of us" or, alternatively, is a sign of pretension in someone else. A related word in this context is "special". Incidentally, a major characteristic of the culture of Lincolnshire (and other backwaters) is the firmly held belief that one's particular locality is a unique repository of common sense, and that anything from outside is fanciful nonsense that should be brought down to earth.

The second factor is inverted snobbery, the awful middle class posturing that became widespread in the 1980s, such as mockney accents, demotic language ("the kids") and pretensions to "street culture" (whatever that is). There is a vague groping for some bogus sense of authenticity, a belief that a pale imitation of American black urban culture is somehow more "real" than anything genuinely English. This in turn relates to the fact that many English people are uncomfortable in their own skins.

The third factor is the establishment of the culture of "cool" in the mainstream, once a statement of rebellion, now a banality. The key thing is to affect an air of ironic detachment. Terms such as "trainspotter", "sad"and "get a life" are used indiscriminately to stigmatise any form of erudition, hobby or intellectual pursuit. The main reason why boys underperform in the state school system is the huge peer group pressure not to be seen as a swot.

I'm not sure I agree with your analysis that "people who talk like this think they are being left wing". Inverted snobbery was an integral part of Old Labour culture, but only because it represented the authentic (pre-1979) prejudices of the British working class. Rather, I think it is part of a culture best summed up by the public persona of TV chef Jamie Oliver - how to enjoy the good things in life while remaining "one of us" and not feeling guilty. I suspect, lurking in the background somewhere, is our old friend Protestant/Puritan guilt.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Ooh, sounds a bit posh

One of the more depressing aspect of British life at the moment is the way that many people use the word "posh" to denigrate any activity that shows the slightest signs of education or a civilised attitude to life.

Perhaps people who talk like this think they are being left wing, but the idea that the good things in life should be confined to the wealthy is the most reactionary attitude there is.

And it has now reached its fullest development. The other day Ananova reported that a couple had decided to hold their wedding reception in a branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken because:
"We don't like all that poshness, so thought we'd have a KFC bucket. It was lovely."
So now it is posh to eat with a knife and fork.

As I frequently observe these days, the country is going to the dogs. (Or in this case, the chickens.)

Twenty years on

My first Liberal Assembly - that is what the old Liberal Party called its annual conferences - was here in Bournemouth 20 years ago.

In those days Cruise missiles (ask your parents) were the hot topic. Those of us who were against their being stationed in Britain under American control thought it important that the TV cameras should see people in suits voting our way when the vote was called. So I spent some time saving a place on the platform for a new MP from the Borders by the name of Archy Kirkwood.

Now he is Sir Archy, a good House of Commons man. And, as it turned out, he was rather short and because he was not in the front row the cameras did not see much of him.

Happy days.

Liberal Democrat Conference

Hello from Bournemouth.

I know that some people write lengthy entries about political conferences every day. I shall not be doing so. Mostly its laziness, but when you have been coming to these things for as long as I have you tend to spend most of the time meeting old friends and going for a drink or a meal. Therefore it is doubtful whether you experience of the week is of much relevance to anyone else.

The major talking point has been the rapid rise and fall of The Orange Book. As I said in a review in the current Liberator, it was a strangely timed publication. Surely things like that should come out shortly after a general election, not shortly before one?

The danger is that the row means that in future MPs will be scared to publish anything that breaks new ground. What the party really needs is lots more ideas, not even fewer.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Commons security

The House Points column below was written on Tuesday evening. The following day Otis Ferry & Co. staged their protest on the floor of the Commons. I stand by every word, though. What do people want to see? Batman gunned down as soon as he starts to climb the wall?

David Blunkett says:
I'm in charge of security for the nation as a whole and what's happened here undermines confidence in the security service and counter-terrorism branch who, like me, have absolutely no control over the decisions of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
What's that? A country where the security services have no control over the decisions that parliament makes? Outrageous!

I have now added Big Blunkett to my links. It seems a wise precaution.

House Points

Today sees the first House Points (my column in Liberal Democrat News) of the new season...

Holy platitudes, Batman!

In some American States they still send convicts out in chain-gangs so the public can see they are being punished. Sending MPs back to Westminster before the party conferences serves much the same purpose.

Never mind that most work absurdly long hours: it looks bad if the press says they have generous holidays.

If there is a case for a brief September session, it is that government should not be left to its own devices for too long. But the Commons is not good at holding it to account for the rest of the year. Why should it be any better now?

On Monday we saw how things really work. After a Batmobile had been driven through security at Buckingham Palace, David Blunkett came to the House to make a statement.

All the right questions were asked: all the right replies were given. Holy platitudes, Batman! And Tom Levitt said the demonstrators had only harmed their cause. Maybe MPs have to say that, but it is not clear it is true.

Jon Agnone, an American sociologist, has looked at the effect of protests on legislation. He finds a clear relation between demonstrations and the number of environmental bills passed. As he says: “Politicians are responsive, but this happens by going to the streets, not by schmoozing elected officials.”

While he was on the back-benches, David Davis was the Conservatives' great hope. As shadow home secretary, he is less impressive. It reminds you of the way Kieron Dyer became an indispensable part of England's last World Cup team by not being fit for any of the warm up games.

Davis is a member of the Territorial SAS. Which means, as Simon Hoggart never tires of telling us, he strangles people with his bare hands (but only at weekends). If he wants to erect concrete barriers around the palace against the Queen's wishes, he will find he has taken on the fight of his life.

Strangely, no one congratulated the police – normally MPs miss no opportunity. Yet the most admirable thing about Monday was the cool of the officers on duty. They quickly realised they were not dealing with terrorists.

Some found it scandalous that Robin was allowed to give a television interview before he was taken away. House Points found it reassuring.

Serendib awakes

More signs of life: a new posting to my other blog.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Fresh air is good for you

I have recently published a couple of articles in OpenMind, the magazine published by the mental health charity Mind.

One (to be found on Lord Bonkers' website) is on ADHD. This is the supposed mental disorder which leads to millions of children around the world being prescribed Ritalin, a drug with all sorts of dangerous side-effects. The other (which I shall put on the Web when my computer is quite well again) is on the idea that experience of the natural world is good for our mental well-being.

Here is a new piece of research I have just found, which neatly ties these two concerns together. It is tempting to say that it is obviously the exercise that is doing the children good, but there does seem to be more to it than that.

News from Shropshire

One of the features of this blog before the summer break was bizarre stories from the Shropshire Star. Here is the first of the new season.
Stephen Riley, 48, barricaded himself in his flat for 23 days with two wallabies and 14 tortoises when he was dismissed from his job as animal manager at Tropiquaria tourist attraction, Watchet, Somerset.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

New link

Yesterday's appeal has borne fruit already. Neil Fawcett has a new blog and I have added it to my Lib Dem links.

So far it seems to be mostly about Fairport Convention. If you ask me, they have never been half so good since Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson left.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


I have culled some links to blogs which appear to have expired over the summer. Disappointingly, they were mostly Lib Dem blogs. Is the species particularly prone to early demise?

If you have a political blog - Lib Dem or otherwise - and would like to swap links, please e-mail me.

Children in custody

It does make life easier when you agree with every word of an article. Read Libby Purves's piece in today's Times here. (You may need to register, but it's free.)

And there is more about the Howard League inquiry, to be chaired by Lord Carlile (the former Liberal MP for Montgomery), here.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Full of wind

On Friday evening I listened to Any Questions? on BBC Radio 4. There was a question about wind farms.

For what it is worth I think they can look rather wonderful, though if someone wanted to build one on hills I really love - say, the Stiperstones in Shropshire - I would be unhappy.

What struck me was that whenever Jonathon (sic.) Porritt referred to people who disagree with him he called them the "anti wind farm lobby".

This is a cheap rhetorical device which implies that all those who disagree with him are part of an organised conspiracy rather than individuals who, in good faith, have come to a different conclusion.

I must remember to use it myself one day.

Liberal Democrat News

Sometimes reading Liberal Democrat News depresses me. Even the bits I write.

Come to think of it, especially the bits I write.

Three examples from Friday's issue (10 September).

First, in his back page column Jim Wallace tells us that in our negotiations with the labour Party and during the passage of the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill at Hollyrood we were concerned to "strike a proper balance with the rights of the individual".

It happens (for various philosophical reasons that I ought to go into one day) I am not the greatest believer in the usefulness of talk about human rights. But surely, if you do believe in such rights, the essence of them is that they are not something you strike a balance with but absolute?

Second, in an article about The Orange Book Paul Holmes complains that some of the ideas it contains were looked at by Chris Huhne's commission on public services. "It is this careful, deliberative process that makes Liberal Democrat policy - not the private thoughts of any individual."

Yes, it the party has a formal process for making its policy, and I am assure that David Laws is just as aware of this as Paul is. Nowhere do the writers of The Orange Book claim that there ideas are party policy - though it is hard to see how their thoughts can be called "private" when they have just written a book about them.

But I do hope that Paul Holmes is not implying that people should not advance ideas unless they are in accord with existing party policy. If that were the case, we would still be banging on about Chinese Labour.

Finally, a letter from Gerald Vernon-Jackson, who is now the leader of Portsmouth City Council. He suggests that, rather than being the party of choice, we should be the party of high quality services.

It sounds appealing, but none of those who put forward views like this ever stop to wonder what incentive public authorities will have to provide high quality services if people have no choice but to use them?

Gerald also reports meeting a lady who was "one of the 37 per cent of Britons who want to emigrate":
"She told me that she wanted to go somewhere where things were simple. One gas company, one electricity company, one phone company. She just wanted not to have to think or worry about choice."
Now the Berlin Wall has come down she is a bit limited in where she can move to. Off the top of my head I can suggest Cuba or North Korea.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Mann's inhumanity

I once heard a Francis Wheen story that tells all you need know about Mark Thatcher. One day he rang Carol Thatcher for a quote, and she replied: "What dreadful thing are you writing about Mummy now?" When Wheen said it was not her mother but her brother he was researching, Carol said: "Good, it's time someone had a go at him."

It is not fitting to be too gleeful about the unravelling of the apparent Equatorial Guinea coup. One German defendant has already died in prison there after what Amnesty International suspects was torture. Nevertheless, this story, with its rumours of involvement by Jeffrey Archer, adds to the impression that the set surrounding Margaret Thatcher were not the most pleasant people.

Today a court in Zimbabwe has sentenced Simon Mann to seven years in prison for attempting to buy arms for use in Equatorial Guinea. This seems a good time to record that Mann is the son of the former England cricket captain F G Mann and a member of the brewing family. (Think Watney Mann.)

Back in the 1950s, John Arlott (twice a Liberal parliamentary candidate) was commentating on a match in which F G was being bamboozled by the South African leg spinner "Tufty" Mann.

Arlott remarked: "What we are watching here is a clear case of Mann's inhumanity to Mann."

Trivial fact

A question on the "young people's" quiz show Head Jam a couple of weeks ago suggested that the man who provided the voice for Dick Dastardly also invented the artificial heart. Incredibly, it appears to be true.

If Paul Winchell did not invent the artificial heart, he certainly patented an artificial heart.

Thursday, September 09, 2004


A good article on the Spiked website concludes:
"It is difficult to see what an advertiser hoping to stay on the right side of Ofcom can usefully learn from these rulings, other than that you now need a PhD in gender studies before you can make an acceptable ad."

Big Blunkett

This is the first recommended link of the new season. It shows promise.

The strange rebirth of Liberal England

A summer break for a political blog is probably a good idea, but this one has gone on too long. Never mind the gremlins, we are back.