Sunday, October 31, 2004

John Peel and Simon Dee

In today's Observer Richard Ingrams records that he was at public school "with two boys who later changed their names and who both went on to become very successful disc jockeys".

I expect by now everyone knows that John Peel was born John Robert Parker Ravenscroft - Ingrams knew him before he was a Liverpudlian.

But did you know that Simon Dee was christened Carl Henty-Dodd?

I have already posted a fuller quotation from Ingrams' article to Serendib. And in view of how young everyone is these days, I am also providing a link for those who have never heard of Simon Dee.

Inside Mrs Wolfowitz

Melanie Phillips' diary in the Spectator this week provides a valuable insight into her thinking.

She describes meeting someone in the green room after appearing on the BBC 's Question Time programme. He addressed her as "Mrs Wolfowitz". Phillips observes that:

He has the world-view of the Guardian, Independent and the BBC, which is morally, intellectually and politically unchallengeable. Anyone who doesn't agree with it is by definition beyond the pale.
Yes, liberals and socialists can be remarkably smug and closed-minded - and Nick Cohen has offered a convincing explanation of why this phenomenon affects the BBC in particular:
When conservatives complain about the undoubted liberal bias of the BBC, they assume some kind of socialist plot when it is geography not ideology driving attitudes. A young middle-class BBC type in London is unlikely to meet anyone socially who is, say, against abortion or pro-war. Because they don't confront opposing ideas, they can't put themselves into the minds of people outside their consensus and ask questions from another point of view.
So how does Melanie Phillips react to people who do not share her views? Here she is, in the same diary, talking about the intriguing and important BBC series The Power of Nightmares:
Such a paranoid fantasy would once have been dismissed as the ravings of the kind of person who writes in green ink and capital letters.
If this is an example of the tolerance Phillips extends to ideas which do not accord with her own, "Mrs Wolfowitz" is one of the kinder things she deserves to be called.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Meanwhile in Shropshire

Is Bishop's Castle falling into the hands of Satan? The Shropshire Star suggests it may be:
The Craven Arms Independent Evangelical Church and Welshpool Independent Baptist Church, which both campaigned against a pagan festival earlier this summer, are worried Bishop's Castle could become a worshipping town for the devil.
With two pubs that brew their own beer, the best second-hand record shop I know and much else to enjoy, it would be a sad loss.

Civilian casualties in Iraq

The BBC reports that a paper in the Lancet claims that poor planning, air strikes by coalition forces and a climate of violence have led to more than 100,000 extra deaths in Iraq.

Speaking on the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning, Jack Straw sought to cast doubt on this figure and mentioned that the website Iraq Body Count offers a much lower estimate.

At present that site suggests there have been between 14,181 and 16,312 civilian deaths since the military intervention began.

So that's all right then.

Frank Furedi

One of this blog's heroes now has his own website.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Democracy and the blogosphere

The Adam Smith Institute is holding an event under this title on the evening of Tuesday 16 November.

Full details here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Local democracy?

A glossy leaflet was put through my door the other day. "Harborough District Community Strategy," it says, "Your Summary Guide 2004."

It lists eight themes, together with their long-term aims, and I do not take exception to any of them.

But what am I supposed to do if I do disagree with this strategy?

The leaflet tells me that it has been developed by something called the Local Strategic Partnership (LSP). This includes "organisations such as Harborough District Council, Health Trusts, Police, Voluntary Groups and Business".

So the elected local authority is just one group among a number of official bodies, voluntary bodies and interest groups, and there is no sign in the leaflet that it has precedence amongst them.

Nor does it sound as though the council will be encouraged to rock the boat:
For too long, many of the organisations that belong to the LSP worked on their own and not with each other. This has often caused problems but now the LSP is helping these organisations work together.

Previous convictions

Trenchant words from Neil Fawcett on his blog A Liberal Dose:
This is yet another 'quick fix' attempt to be seen to be doing something about crime, without actually helping the situation one bit.
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Lord Bonkers' links

I have begun the process of updating Lord Bonkers' website, begining with the links page. If you do go there, please let me know of any broken links.

Michael Howard and purple sheets

Continuing David Hemmings week, this report from the Daily Telegraph of his death last year reveals that Michael Howard is a great admirer of Blow-Up and sleeps in purple sheets.

An unexpected supporter of Proportional Representation

Further reading of David Hemmings' memoirs reveals the following passage:
Before the 1974 election I found myself caught up in politics, whipped into activity by Honor Blackman and canvassing in London and Devon for Jeremy Thorpe and the Liberals. This was, of course, a few years before Norman Scott's infamous pillow-biting revelations and the inauguration of Auberon Waugh's dog-lovers' party. At that stage, the Liberal Party's main attraction for me was its championing of proportional representation, which has always seemed to me to be a better expression of parliamentary democracy that "first past the post".

Six-year-old offenders will be sent to boot camps

Or so an Independent headline read this morning. I checked the date - it wasn't 1 April - so I tried the first paragraph:
Shoplifters, joy-riders and tearaways as young as six are to be sent to military training camps under a government attempt to instil discipline in disruptive children, with those succeeding winning a place with a military cadet force.
The full story is here, though after a week it will disappear into the darkness of the paper's Portfolio scheme, which means you will have to pay to read it.

The BBC's account is free, and more measured:

Organisers say the format is expected to be similar to Outward Bound courses rather than harsh American boot camps.
Such courses might well do some young offenders good, but why does it have anything to do with the Army? Perhaps part of the answer is that not enough people volunteer to work with children any more, and another part is that the existing agencies are not terribly good at their jobs.

Or you may see something sinister when the Independent reports that:

Those who successfully complete the military programmes will not only win a certificate but automatic referral to a cadet force. The Army has a recruitment drive aimed at young people from all backgrounds.

An interventionist foreign policy is going to need more recruits, and it may be a help to the Army to have them pointed its way by the courts. How much say the young offenders will have in the matter is not discussed in either report.

The BBC says that the Youth Justice Board's outreach workers will identify young offenders aged between 10 and 17 who would benefit from the courses. But what is most objectionable about this scheme emerges when it goes on to say:
The same staff, during multi-agency discussions, will also identify children aged eight to 13 who have not committed a crime but are at risk of offending.
Any one like to guess what "children at risk of offending" will look like? Certainly poor, probably male and possibly black. When you are born into such circumstances, it seems that the authorities do not care if you break the law or not. The best thing is for you to treated like a young offender.

The reforms of the 1960s were supposed to make society see criminal children as merely troubled. Their long-term effects has been to make us regard all troubled children as criminal.

The last people to be this keen on camps and discipline were the Scouting movement. But at least they had a strong ethos of encouraging children to mix across the classes and races.

New Labour, by contrast, wants to separate those children it sees as dangerous from the rest of society.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Kennedy attacks "climate of fear"

The BBC's report of Charles Kennedy's speech reminds we why I am a member of the Liberal Democrats:
A "climate of fear" has been used to undermine civil liberties in the wake of the 11 September attacks, Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy has said.
The full speech is here.

Such devoted sisters

Thanks to Labour Watch for pointing me to this intriguing story in the Derbyshire Evening Telegraph.
A Derby MP and Cabinet minister has been "stitched up" by political opponents within and outside the Labour Party following accusations of wrong-doing over a £50,000 expenses claim.

Sources close to Margaret Beckett, the Labour MP for Derby South, today dismissed the accusations - referring to statistics discovered in the list of MPs' expenses last week - as "galling"...

The story is likely to be a "stitch-up" by political opponents both within, and outside, the Labour Party, the source said."Most of the women in the Cabinet have got it in for her," the source added.

Randy's ladybird

Sometimes Statcounter tells me that people have come here from another blog, but when I look at it there are no links to Liberal England. I suspect, therefore, that they are arriving thanks to the NEXT BLOG button in the top right-hand corner.

So thanks to that button for this picture, which I would not otherwise have seen.

Lincolnshire chain gangs

One of the things the Statcounter gizmo on this blog does is to tell me which keywords people have used to find me.

The other day someone came here thanks to Lincolnshire "chain gangs". I find this slightly unnerving. Is the Home Office planning to try out a new prison regime somewhere in the Wolds?

Even more unnerving is the fact that, when I try that search myself, my sites come up first and fifth on the list.

For some more encouraging news about Lincolnshire, see this story on Liberal Dissenter.

Presidential election jokes

Get your titters out here.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Was Bush wired?

MSN's web-based Slate magazine offers a summary of the evidence in the Case of the Box on Bush's Back.

According to taste, you may treat it as the anatomy of a scandal or an interesting study of how rumours spread over the Net.


I maintain another blog at Serendib. It is an anthology of quotations I come across in my reading. In effect it is part of my writer's notebook, and it may as well be on the Net as anywhere else.

I have just added the first quotation for a month. It is from David Hemmings' memoirs (published posthumously the other day) and shows that, though he was its star, he was no nearer to understanding the ultimate sixties film Blow-Up than the rest of us.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Today's Tesco

Writing in today's Spectator Rod Liddle points his readers towards an article on the power of the supermarkets on The Ecologist magazine's website.

By tracking what you buy through your Clubcard, Tesco creates for you a favourite products list (similar to a list of favourite websites). When you connect to there is the list of products you normally buy. A helpful short cut, or too much information about you? One woman contacted Tesco when she saw condoms on her favourites list: she was puzzled because she and her husband didn’t use them when they were having sex. Tesco knew her husband was having an affair before she did.
There is more good stuff on the same subject from the New Economics Foundation here.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Old left, old tricks reprints the New Statesman's account of the travails of the European Social Forum 2004:
What went wrong? The answer can be summed up in three words: Socialist Workers Party.
The New Statesman's site is here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Lest we forget

Iraq Body Count now estimates the number of civilian casualties as lying between 13,278 and 15,357.

Unwillingly to school

It is hard for those outside the professional world to make much of the job advertisements in the Guardian's Wednesday Society section. The job titles are obscure and the description of duties are obscurer, even if the salaries are sometimes all too clear.

My favourite advertisement in today's edition is for a "Schools Travel Adviser":
We are looking for someone to develop School Travel Plans within schools in Bolton.You will be responsible for planning, compiling, implementing, managing programmes of work, and evaluating the Plans.
It happens that I once published an article on the Spiked website bemoaning the fact that:
what used to be a mundane task - deciding how our children get to school - has become the focus of concern for a whole range of professionals. So at Horndean Community School* in Hampshire there is a 'safe routes to school' committee, chaired by a representative from the sustainable transport charity Sustrans and including pupils, teachers, governors, parents and the parish, district and county councils.
Now this process seems to be accelerating through the employment of dedicated local authority staff.

How long will it be before we hear a council say: "We would like our children to walk to school, but it is just too expensive"?

* I found this example from a trawl of the net, but it happens that I was born in Horndean.

Ukip if you want to...

A mark of the essential nastiness of Ukip is there attitude towards people with mental illness, as reported in today's Guardian.

Far more dirt on the party can be found in this excellent posting by Anthony Wells.

We Liberal Democrats enjoy gloating over the decline of the Conservative Party (it's all Mrs Thatcher's fault, by the way). We also hope that Ukip will take votes off the Tories in the seats we hope to gain from them next time. But if that decline goes much further it is possible that a new, more extreme right-wing party - Ukip or something very like it - will arise to fill the void.

A tribute to Conrad Russell

There is a good column by Nick Clegg (former Lib Dem MEP for the East Midlands and PPC for Sheffield Hallam) in the Guardian today:
He was a striking, slightly beguiling figure. He walked with an intellectual's stoop, invariably with a cigarette in hand. A shock of white hair was permanently standing to attention above an angular, slightly hawkish face.

Booze cruise news

The BBC reports that the European Commission is taking legal action against the British government over its treatment of cross-Channel shoppers.

As the Commission says:

The UK's practices jeopardise the right of all EU consumers to buy goods in other member states, excise duty paid, and bring these products home for their "own use" without any formalities and without having to pay taxes a second time.

In particular, the commission considers the UK's policy of seizing goods and sometimes cars even for minor offences is disproportionate.

The government's actions in such cases are a prime example of the arbitrary exercise of state power. There is an account of what can happen here.

Of course, there are plenty of good cause in Britain which are none of the Commission's business. But if the European project is not about the free movement of goods within the Community then it is about nothing.

And, if anything can reconcile Tory voters to Europe it must be the project of more cheap drink and fags.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Conrad Russell: Another obituary

This one comes from the King's College website and gives more details of his academic career than the newspaper obituaries.

Boris Johnson and Liverpool

Sentimentality in Liverpool is compounded by both Heysel and Hillsborough, you know. Liverpool people are so sentimental anyway and even more so with this - oh, we're the greatest people and you'll never walk alone... and all this shite.
Is this the article Boris Johnson is being forced to go to Merseyside to apologise for?

No, the remarks come from the greatest living Liverpudlian, Alexei Sayle. Modern life being what it is, he had to apologise too.

Meanwhile, there is a good article on Boris's troubles by Peter Preston in today's Guardian.

Campaign for Adventure

After our strictures on the war against conkers - you don't have to read the Daily Mail to care about things like that - we are pleased to note the existence of the Campaign for Adventure.

We are even more pleased to note that a Lib Dem MP - Patsy Calton from Cheadle - is one of its parliamentary sponsors and chaired a meeting of the Campaign last December.

One of the speakers there was this blog's hero Frank Furedi. The report of his speech is worth quoting in full:

Frank Furedi explained that he feels very angry about the sanitisation of his child's experience in an urban adventure centre where there are a cluster of adults making sure the children are "safe". He noted that society's developing attitudes to risk have been imported from the US and regretted that observation of the state of affairs in the US suggests we may still be at the beginning of the process.

He made three key points: "Children's relationship with risk should not be a passive one - a risk should not be felt to be 'hanging over' them. Instead, children should learn to interact with risk and manage it."

There is a trend towards a new definition of safety in society - increasingly the concept of an accident is resisted. He illustrated the absurdity of this by proposing a way of eliminating bicycle accidents - simply ban bikes. "Clearly we must not deprive young people of experience - we must still leave them scope to work things out for themselves." Whenever a serious accident happens, there is a tendency to press the button of regulation. Society should resist this.

We need to encourage young people's childlike sense of adventure - finding novelty in everything they do. We must respect and applaud this sense. It's about cultivating an ethos of risk taking with responsibility - we must trust children and believe in their capacity to handle life.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Gourmet ice cubes

Only in the Shropshire Star...

Earl Russell

Conrad Russell died last week, an irreplaceable loss to the Liberal Democrats and to Liberalism in general. There were worthy obituaries in the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian.

I remember his saying once, rather overgenerously, that I did for the party what Matthew Parris does for the country. I also remember his asking me, as his wife had always wondered, why Lord Bonkers talked about Earl Russell and his Big Band. I explained that as there were band leaders called Count Basie and Duke Ellington... When I was studying philosophy as an undergraduate, I never dreamed that I would have this conversation with Bertrand Russell's son.

But my favourite memory of Conrad Russell is of his travelling back by train from a Liberal Democrat Conference in Bournemouth. He went straight to the buffet car so he could smoke, and I followed him for the pleasure of his company.

There were many young people there already, including three lads drinking lager. "Haven't I seen you on telly?" one of the lads asked, and I was afraid they were going to make fun of him. But Conrad was more than equal to the occasion and soon gathered an attentive group around him. He discussed the single European currency with them while I handed out copies of Liberator and Liberal Democrat News.

After a while I noticed that the lager lads were talking about the single currency amongst themselves too.

Deep joy

I have a fully functioning home computer again. There is quite a bit of catching up to do on Lord Bonkers' website, and postings here and on Serendib should be less sporadic in future.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Lord Gnome on standards

The Rotten Boroughs column in this week's Private Eye contains more examples of the work of the Standards Board for England (SBE).
In July Independent councillor Nadene Burton was suspended for five months by the adjudication panel for England, the sentencing arm of the SBE. Her crime was to have been "disrespectful" to officers by claiming in an election newsletter that Hull's housing department could do better in tackling anti-social behaviour on its estates.
The Eye mentions two other cases in Hull where councillors have been threatened with action over remarks they made during council meetings.

It is clear that Labour, as the party that represents the interests of public sector workers, has turned the proper relationship between elected councillors and the staff they employ on its head.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Unholy alliance

There is an interesting aside in Andrew Marr's BBC website piece summing up this year's party conference season. Looking at the Liberal Democrats, he remarks:
There is a potential political divide in the party, between the market-orientated, anti-statist Lib Dems clustered around a volume of essays called The Orange Book, and those you might call conventional social democrats.
When I first joined the Liberal Party my radical friends were convinced that the SDP was the work of the devil. Twenty years later they are making common cause with social democrats to oppose the Orange Book tendency.

I wrote a rather hurried review of the book in the last Liberator, which I will post with my other articles on Lord Bonkers' website if I ever get my computer working properly again. My feeling was not so much that the Orange Book people are right as that those who call themselves radical Liberals are in trouble if they think their role is to be the last defenders of the 1945 settlement.

We can now see that the SDP was less an attempt to break the mould of post-war British politics than a late try at keeping it together. If today radical Liberals find themselves on the same side as the SDP, they should think more deeply.

Good news from Scotland

The Scotsman reports that Liberal Democrat backbenchers at Holyrood have defeated an attempt by the leadership to impose stricter discipline on them:
It is understood the party leadership was unhappy about Aberdeenshire MSP Mike Rumbles’ opposition to the Executive’s antisocial behaviour legislation, when he argued strongly against new powers of dispersal for the police.
The question is why the leadership was supporting this legislation in the first place. Yes, sharing power always involves compromise. But, viewed from a distance, it is hard to see that the Liberal Democrats have acted as a brake on Labour's more repressive policies at Holyrood. If anything, the Scottish Executive seems to have pursued this agenda even more enthusiastically than its counterpart at Westminster.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Paul Foot

Most of the obituaries of Paul Foot emphasised his near saintliness. Even Auberon Waugh saw him in that light.

So I am grateful for the drop of acid in this article by Oliver Kamm, which appeared in The Times on Saturday. And not only because his views mirror some Lord Bonkers once expressed (see the entry for Thursday here).

Kamm writes:
Foot's Marxism was strikingly uncritical. In Why You Should be a Socialist (1977) he declared: "Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, is usually painted as a tyrant. In fact he was the opposite." In The Case for Socialism (1990), this preposterous judgement became: "The thousands of intellectuals then and since who abused Lenin as a 'tyrant' and a 'dictator' cannot have read The State and Revolution, which again and again repeats that socialism and democracy are indivisible. " 
This is like citing the 1936 Soviet constitution as proof of Stalin's libertarianism. The State and Revolution depicts a democratic post-revolutionary order, all right, but that was not what Lenin created. It never could have been, because Lenin envisaged a social unity in which "all take part in the administration of the state". He had no concept of opposition; when popular opposition did arise, he annihilated it.
No Liberal should believe for a moment that the Soviet Union was doing fine until Lenin died. It was a tyranny from the start.

But I am less convinced by:
In 1999, Foot claimed in Private Eye that DNA evidence in the Hanratty case was unreliable owing to possible contamination. Yet he later conceded in a BBC interview: "I'm a complete illiterate in relation to the science of DNA, physics and so on. I know nothing about it at all. My doubts stem solely from " a very, very clear belief that this man did not commit this murder, so if the science is saying he did commit the murder I say, well, that clashes with my belief that he didn't commit the murder and there must be something wrong with the science." 
This is the credo of the biblical creationist confronted with geological evidence of the age of the Earth. Whatever it was initially, Foot's campaign became an idée fixe, impervious to reason and indifferent to the sensibilities of Hanratty's surviving victim.
Of course, there comes a point after which it is irrational to deny the findings of science. But it is common for new technologies to be oversold, and it is only over time that we discover the true picture of their strengths and weaknesses. And the most reliable technologies can yield false results through human error. So we cannot do without gut feelings altogether.

No doubt Foot would have claimed victory if tests had shown no traces of Hanratty's DNA on the evidence. But the idea that he should have abandoned his campaign because of "the sensibilities of Hanratty's surviving victim" is to commit much the same sin that Kamm accuses Foot of: putting sentiment above the search for truth.

All friends round the Wrekin

You may have noticed the little Statcounter box further down this site. It tells me how many people have visited it, where they come from, which link they have clicked to get here and all sorts of other useful things. This service is free and I strongly recommend it.

Thanks to it, I came across a link to one of my posts on Shropshire from All Friends Round the Wrekin.

The Wrekin is a hill in Shropshire and also a symbol of the county. The site aims:
  • To raise funds and demonstrate wide public support for the Shropshire Wildlife Trust-led bid to bring The Wrekin into public ownership;
  • To give everyone who cares a voice in the future of The Wrekin and a way of representing their views to its owners and managers;
  • To keep as many people as possible as informed about the present value and future management of The Wrekin;
  • To provide a way for people to become actively involved in the preservation of The Wrekin.

Peter Black AM

Peter Black AM (I think that means he is a member of the Welsh Assembly, not that he is at his best first thing) has moved his entertaining blog to a new address. I have updated my link.

The dangers of safety

I have written enough of conkers already. So I just report the good news - the world championships took place near Oundle yesterday - and the bad - as I suspected, children are too cool play with them these days.

But the problems caused by our obsession with safety affect far more serious matters than conkers. As the Guardian reported last Thursday:
Police were castigated yesterday for delaying more than an hour before attending an incident where a man shot dead his estranged wife and her sister and seriously injured their mother. All three lay wounded while frantic neighbours tried to give them first aid...

But despite numerous 999 calls from neighbours, one of whom demanding police and ambulance response more than 50 times while giving a 70-minute running commentary on the horrific scene, armed officers did not arrive for 64 minutes after the first 999 call. It was 87 minutes before paramedics, awaiting police assurance it was safe, attended the wounded.
There was a good analysis of this case by Mick Hume in The Times on Saturday:
There seems no reason to suppose that officers are personally any more cowardly today. But they are now working within what looks like a culture of moral cowardice.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Conkers, goggles and safety

Perhaps goggles are not the answer to the menace of conkers after all.

In today's Times Simon Jenkins writes:
Hertfordshire County Council tried goggles as a way of helping nervous children get used to swimming. Its health and safety advisers were appalled. They pointed out that goggles, when being removed, can “spring back and hit children in the face” — and banned them altogether.
When a story is this good, it is churlish to ask whether it is true. But it appears that this one is.

Revolting Customs

Well done to Hoverspeed for taking Customs and Excise to court over its heavy-handed treatment of passengers.

Liberal Democrats - notably Nick Clegg, Ed Davey and David Laws - have been prominent in the campaign against the harassment of cross-Channel shoppers. Click here for some examples.

Do the Tories have a death wish?

Michael Howard has told the Liverpool Daily Post that:
I would love to win seats in Liverpool and other big cities in the north, but we
can win the General Election without doing that.
Any sensible strategy for Conservative recovery must involve an attempt to expand the party's appeal beyond the older residents of the Home Counties. Yet here Howard seems to be envisaging, not just gaining seats, but winning the next election without making significant advances in the North.

The obvious explanation is that the Tories have lost their collective marbles. But there are two other possibilities.

One is that they are gambling on an even lower next time and reason that in such circumstances mobilising their core vote will be enough to bring them victory. While it might win back some seats for them in the South-East, it is hard to see this strategy gaining them enough seats to overturn Labour's huge majority.

The second possibility is that this concentration on the core vote is a defensive strategy aimed at stemming the further advance of the Liberal Democrats.

The question then is whether the Lib Dem analysis is right. We believe that society is becoming more liberal and that the Tories' core vote is shrinking. And if that core vote is shrinking then there are fewer and fewer seats where a reliance upon it will be enough.

The irony is that, if only the Conservatives could find it in them to reach out to, say, ethnic minority communities, they would find many people whose values are instinctively conservative.

Yet the more the leadership flatters the core vote and its dislike of foreigners, the less they are likely to attract new supporters.

Welcome to another Lib Dem blog

I have added a new blog to the list on the right.

The Liberal Dissenter is written by Simon Titley, whose observations on my posting about poshness I published the other day.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Conkers and safety

It seems that conkers are more dangerous than we thought. It is not enough for children wear safety goggles before they play with them: they have to be banned altogether.

All this concern about conkers may just be nostalgia. Do children today want to play with them? Certainly, I am convinced you see more lying ungathered on the ground than you did a few years ago.

But our mania for safety does deserve further study. First another plug for Frank Furedi's book Culture of Fear; then some ideas of my own.

Although this analysis does not apply to the conker examples, it seems that when people talk about safety they are often using it as a cover for other concerns.

Take another of today's news stories: "A head teacher has banned flared trousers from his school, claiming they are a safety hazard."

Maybe they are, but I suspect that the real reason for this decision is a sense that the latest fashions are not suitable schoolwear. The trouble is that it is hard to articulate that view in a world where progressive opinion holds that children should be accorded the same rights as adults.

Take the smacking debate. Those who want to ban it point out that it would be illegal to hit an adult, so it should be illegal to hit a child too. They produce this argument as though it is utterly clinching. The idea that we might accord a different moral status to adults and to children, they believe, is self-evidently absurd.

So it is not surprising that people prefer to talk about safety than to argue that schoolchildren should not be allowed to wear what they like.

The same process is at work in the debate on children and mobile phones. (If you are interested in the science, The official view is here and a more sceptical one, inevitably from Spiked, is here.)

However, the reason that we worry about children having mobile phones is not safety at all. It is because we feel that it is somehow not fitting that they should have them. They are too young. But to say so sounds so hopelessly old-fashioned that we treat it as a question of safety instead.

Incidentally, there is another line you can take on children and mobiles. At the Liberal Democrat Conference in Bournemouth David Butler, the chief executive of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, argued that the radiation from phones is good for them:

From a perspective of pupil performance it can enhance things, because that heating effect actually improves the neuron transfers between neural pathways, and therefore your thinking ability goes up.
It sounds unlikely, but it is probably no more absurd than the idea that way to improve the behaviour of millions of schoolchildren is to prescribe them amphetamines.

National Poetry Day

Today, it seems, is National Poetry Day, so here is my contribution.

No, I didn't write it. It is one of my favourites.

September Song

born 19.6.32 - deported 24.9.42

Undesirable you may have been, untouchable
you were not. Not forgotten
or passed over at the proper time.

As estimated, you died. Things marched,
sufficient, to that end.
Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented
terror, so many routine cries.

(I have made
an elegy for myself it
is true)

September fattens on vines. Roses
flake from the wall. The smoke
of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.

This is plenty. This is more than enough.

Geoffrey Hill

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Tory freedom

An editorial in the Guardian this morning complains that:
In the video shown to delegates before Mr Howard's entrance, freedom was a central theme (to the stirring accompaniment of Elgar's Nimrod); in his speech, he had almost nothing to say about it.
David Davis has now fleshed out Tory proposals to increase our freedom. They include:
  • "20,000 extra prison places."
  • "We will support, encourage and accelerate the implementation of random drug-testing of pupils."
The sort of people who attend Conservative Party conferences certainly want freedom for themselves. But even more, they want the state do nasty things to people of whom they disapprove.
Unless leading Tories stop indulging this absurd view of the world - a mirror image of the class war tendency in the Labour Party - they will have no chance of forming a government again.

More on standards

I am not alone in my concerns. Someone has kindly told me about the website Double Standards!

It even quotes my first post on the subject.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Standards in Shropshire

The birthday boy reports that:
A councillor has been found guilty of bringing Telford & Wrekin Council into
disrepute after accusing its leader Phil Davis of "double standards" over the
way in which Labour and Conservative members were disciplined for wrongdoing.
As I argued the other day, this dispute sounds like the normal rough and tumble of local politics. If every spat is going to be treated as a disciplinary matter then councils will soon be very grey places. Besides, the people who should discipline councillors are the voters, through the ballot box

The Shropshire Star also says that the decision was taken at" a marathon 13-hour session" of Telford & Wrekin's standards committee. You can't help thinking that the council has many better things to do.

Disgusted of Wrockwardine writes: What about my drains?


As every newspaper has reported, a Carlisle primary school has bought six pairs of industrial safety goggles so that its pupils can go on playing conkers.

The saddest thing about the BBC's report is the approving quotes from two of the children:
"It doesn't stop you from having fun because you still play the game. It's
just protecting your eyes at the same time."
"I think it's a very sensible idea and it doesn't change the experience. It
doesn't hurt to be safe."
Clearly, they have learned that expressing such trite sentiments is the way to win adult approval. You don't have to read the Daily Mail to worry what this means for the future.

For a convincing explanation of our current obsession with safety, see Frank Furedi's book Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation.

Happy birthday

First things first. Today is the 40th birthday of the Shropshire Star and we send our best wishes. Full details here.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Snuggery in the Stiperstones

Thank again to the Shropshire Star for a story which brings together two of the larger bees in my bonnet.
  • Earlier this year, in one of my House Points columns in Liberal Democrat News, I coined the term "snuggery" to describe the exaggerated concern for safety that afflicts us these days.
  • I love Shropshire and often go there to walk in the hills and enjoy the food and drink - hence my regular reading of the county's leading newspaper.

To expand the latter point, one reason for my Shropshire fixation are the books of Malcolm Saville, which I read when I was young. In them nicely behaved, bare-limbed children rounded up German spies and foiled criminals in the English countryside. And the setting to which Saville returned most often was the Shropshire hills. (Quite why so many villains chose to base their operations in rural south Shropshire was never explained, but for more on the social background to such stories see an early posting of mine on Serendib.)

The most striking of the Shropshire hills is the range known as the Stiperstones. Saville writes in his preface to The Neglected Mountain (1953):

The scene of this story is in the wild and lonely border country between Wales and Shropshire, hard by a mountain known as the Stiperstones. It is said that the curious outcrop of black quartzite rocks on the summit, known as the Devil's Chair, is one of the oldest parts of England - older even than the ice age - and it is little wonder that this desolate, neglected country is rich in folklore and legend.

So to the Shropshire Star story. The paper reports that:

A Shropshire school was forced to cancel a sponsored walk it had planned after the education authority raised fears over the safety of pupils and staff.

About 500 youngsters from the Mary Webb School in Pontesbury had planned to take part in the 13-mile walk yesterday, which it was hoped would raise more than £5,000 towards the school's minibus fund.

But education officials warned that because the route would take in the Stiperstones hills, described as a "high risk environment", they would need a minimum of 10 people with the basic expedition leader's qualification supervising the walkers.

Granted, the Stiperstones are serious hills. But the children and teachers taking part, as someone quoted in the article says, are familiar with them. These hills are their backyard. Yet they are being told they should not venture on to them unless accompanied by someone with the relevant qualification. And, as the article says, the school has been staging an annual walk for the last 17 years.

If these hills are so dangerous, the answer is clear. They must be levelled and the spoil carted away. I know it will be expensive, but [sniff] if it saves one child's life [sniff] it will be worth it [breaks down in tears].

Vote in Florida

Here it is: your chance to vote in the key state in this year's American Presdential election.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Tribunes of the people?

My old friend the Shropshire Star provides something a little more serious today.

For some time I have been worried about the rise of "standards" in local government. I take the view that if someone is elected by the people then, short of outright corruption or criminality, he is responsible to them for his behaviour in office and to no one else.

Yet here is a case from a Shropshire authority where a Conservative councillor is charged with "failing to treat others with respect" and "bringing his office or authority into disrepute".

The Star reports the facts as follows:
The situation dates back to 2001 when a Labour councillor was found to have been making fraudulent expense claims worth about £1,000. He was not reported to police after it was agreed the matter could be dealt with internally. He later resigned.

A Conservative councillor was then found, after voting on the annual rate, to have unwittingly been £37 in arrears with his council tax. Police were called in to investigate but the Crown Prosecution Service said there was no case.

Councillor Allen then wrote a letter, published in the Shropshire Star, saying the cases showed the council had "double standards".
If the facts of the case are as reported, then it seems to me that the councillor's view is a reasonable one to express. He may be wrong; we may not agree with him. But it seems bizarre that he should be haled in front of a panel for expressing it.

What is happening stems partly from an exaggerated concerns for others' feelings. Politics, local politics included, thrive on conflict and strong argument, but both are thoroughly our of fashion at the moment.

And partly it arises from a desire to reduce local politics to a form of community management. If councillors are seen as part of a "team" involving council officials, rather than as the representatives of the people charged with holding those officials to account, then it is not surprising if they come to be judged by the same standards as those officials.

I do not know anything about the councillor in question, but I shall be alarmed if any action is taken against him.