Friday, December 30, 2005

Kennedy petition is nonsense

The BBC reports that Ben Ramm of The Liberal magazine ("more distributed than read") is claiming that 3300 party members, including two MPs and 386 local councillors, have signed his petition calling on Charles Kennedy to resign as Lib Dem leader.

If you look at the petition website it quickly becomes apparent that he cannot know any of this.

People signing the petition are not asked for their party membership numbers. Even if they were, there is no way the magazine could check the numbers they gave against the party's database.

In fact they are not asked if they are Liberal Democrat members at all. They only information requested is name, location and e-mail address. So Ramm's 3300 figure is meaningless.

And how does he know about all those councillors and MPs? Again, this information is not asked for and, in the case of councillors, would take a lot of checking if it were. I have a horrible feeling that these are just people who have signed the petition claiming to be councillors or MPs - a very different matter. So again the figure is meaningless.

The truth is that anyone can sign this petition. I signed it myself as Mickey Mouse from Cheeseborough - indeed Cheeseborough University, to judge by the e-mail address I gave.

I have a horrible feeling that Mr Mouse is one of the 3300. The only consolation is that The Liberal magazine has not so far claimed the backing of a number of distinguished academics.

The conclusion is clear. If you want to know what it really going on in the Liberal Democrats, subscribe to Liberator.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Here we go again

"Good will to all men" does not extend to Charles Kennedy, at least as far as his colleagues and political journalists are concerned. The Guardian website quotes an anonymous (as ever) "Lib Dem frontbencher" as saying that:

Mr Kennedy's new year message showed he should go because it was directed more at attacking the government than the new Tory leader.

"One way or another, things have got to be resolved in the next 14 days," the MP said.

"We all have to decide where we are going in the next fortnight on that particular issues."

Later. There is a longer report by Patrick Wintour in Friday's paper.

Around the Lib Dem blogs

First of all, welcome to Iain Sharpe's new blog Eaten by Missionaries. It's a great title and he makes a promising start.

Elsewhere Susanne Lamido takes Tom Brake to task for what may well be the silliest press release in the history of Western democracy. That release begins:

Father Christmas should consider changing his mode of transport to make himself more environmentally friendly.

Liberal Democrat research has revealed that Santa Claus, by continuing to use a fleet of reindeer for his deliveries on Christmas Eve, is failing to take the most environmentally sustainable option.

and gets worse after that.

If you give someone called Brake the transport portfolio you have to think he is very good indeed. This isn't any good at all.

If you want to see how a seasonal press release should be done, have a look at the one by Paul Burstow on the thousands of old people who die alone with no friends or family.

Finally, Mary Reid offers a grim portrait of a motorway service station during the festive season.

Leicestershire food: Now the bad news

Just before Christmas I wrote about the victory of Melton Mowbray pork pie-makers in a court case. Now the other peak of Leicestershire cuisine is under threat. From the British government.

Today's Daily Telegraph reports that:
The centuries-old recipe that gives Stilton, the "king of English cheeses", its distinctive flavour is under threat from the Government's anti-salt campaigners.
It seems that the Food Standards Agency has proposed cutting the salt in blue cheese to under 1.9 per cent but Stilton typically needs around 2.5 per cent. Why is that? The Telegraph explains:
Nigel White, of the Stilton Cheese Makers' Association, said: "Salt plays a vital part in cheese making and has done for thousands of years.
"Although it may be feasible to reduce salt in some products, we are concerned that it could start affecting the taste and character of the cheese. With something like Stilton, which has a protected origin status, we don't think that's too clever." ...
[Stilton] is created from cow's milk from a restricted list of creameries in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, but gets its name from the Cambridgeshire town, 80 miles north of London on the A1 where it was traditionally sold to resting travellers.
Salt is added partly for taste, partly to drive out moisture and also to slow the development of bacteria.
Without salt, the curd "races away" and the resulting cheese is unpalatable and does not last well. ...
"Of all the blue cheeses, Stilton has consistently the lowest salt levels," said Mr White.
"The reason it is higher than cheddar is that if you don't get an even distribution of salt above a minimum level, you won't get the cheese to blue. And since blueing is the single most important characteristic of blue cheese, you risk shooting yourself in the foot."
You certainly don't want to shoot yourself in the foot with a blue cheese. But wouldn't it be easier for people who are worried about their salt intake to choose a different variety of cheese?

Tim Worstall and The Devil's Kitchen also have this story.

Incidentally, the place with the best claim to being the birthplace of Stilton is Quenby Hall in, of course, Leicestershire. And Stilton was in Huntingdonshire when it made the cheese famous.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

On the Buses

One of the low points of the Christmas TV schedules was the appearance of two of the On the Buses films. has some interesting observations on what the awfulness of these films reveals about the 1970s:
It was quite a shock watching the film. It was a reminder of how greatly Britain has changed since the early 70s. For starters, the constant leeriness towards women, the assumption that any vaguely attractive woman was nothing more than mattress-fodder, makes even yours truly - no fan of political correctness - feel uneasy. One of the main themes of the story is how the manager, in a drive to improve the efficiency of the layabout male staff, decides to hire a group of women drivers. The men regard this move as a disaster and a threat to "their" jobs (probably correctly). What is particularly striking is how the shop steward of the bus-drivers' union makes it clear that as far as his union is concerned, women have no place in a bus, except either as a customer or as someone he can molest.
Quite right, and it is worth pausing a moment to reflect that the first of these films was the top British box-office film in 1971, surpassing even the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Christmas in black and white

There is a pleasing selection of old photographs of snow scenes on The First Post.

Britblog Roundup never closes

Driven down from the hills in search of food by the cold weather, this week's Britblog Roundup can be found on Adloyada blog.

Sid Owen and Al Pacino

The other night the BBC aired one of their Before They Were Famous shows. It was a disappointment as I had seen most of the clips before.

But one glorious fact stood out: Sid Owen played Al Pacino's son in Revolution.

This was a dreadfully misconceived picture about the American War of Independence, released in 1985. A critical and financial disaster, it did much to ensure that the hoped for 80s boom in the British film industry never happened.

I had the feeling that there was a decent film in there somewhere, given ruthless editing, but this review reflects the consensus.

Holiday reading: The Uncle books

The Christmas issue of The Economist proves that the magazine has a heart after all. It carries an article on one of the neglected classics of British children's literature: the Uncle books by the Reverend J. P. Martin.

Who is Uncle? The article explains:

The hero is a millionaire who exercises one-elephant rule over a gigantic, moated castle called Homeward. His domain is so enormous that large parts of the castle—which is linked together by a fantastic array of lifts, railways and secret passages—are unknown even to its owner. Much of the books is taken up with accounts of expeditions to different parts of Homeward, which is populated by hundreds of animals, dwarves, ghosts and other eccentrics. Uncle, who strides around in a purple dressing gown, also has his own devoted (indeed sycophantic) entourage.

But across the moat from Homeward—and sadly within plain sight of Uncle—lies Badfort, an unpleasant shanty town of run-down huts, inhabited by Uncle's enemies, “the Badfort crowd”. While all is elegance and magnificence over at Homeward, the Badfort crowd, led by Beaver Hateman and his relatives Nailrod, Filljug and Sigismund, live a sordid existence. They wander around barefoot and unshaven, dressed in suits of sacking, and living off “skob fish” extracted from a dank stretch of nearby water called Gaby's Marsh, while quaffing an oily drink called Black Tom.

A straightforward battle between good and evil then? Not quite:
On the one hand, the elephant leader is undeniably a goodie and his rivals from the “Badfort crowd” are undeniably bad—gaining their living from a variety of petty swindles. On the other hand, Uncle is humourless and pompous, and many of the barbs slung at him by the Badfort crowd have an uncomfortable element of truth.
The Uncle books have rarely been in print since they came out in the 1960s. In part this is because too many publishers have failed to share Martin's sly sense of humour, and in part because, as the article says:
Quentin Blake, the book's illustrator, muses that “The books have always had terrific fans, but they have never attracted a mass following because they are so eccentric.” Charlie Sheppard at Random House agrees that “there just may not be enough truly eccentric children out there.”
Blake's illustrations help to explain why second-hand copies the books now fetch three-figure sums. Even the paperback reprint of the first two stories, which came out a few years ago, now seems hard to find. (I know. I gave mine away.)

But Uncle lives on amongst a select group of enthusiasts, and the Economist suggests that printing-on-demand technology may be his saviour. In the mean time you can find out more about Uncle and the Revd Martin here or join the Lion Tower discussion group.

Later. I have now found an Uncle bibliography.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas to all our readers

The Bitter Withy
As it fell out on a high holiday
Small rain from heaven did fall,
Sweet Jesus asked his mother dear
If he might play at ball.

"To play, to play," dear child she did say
"It's time that you were gone
And don't let me hear of any mischief
At night when you come home."

So it's up the hill and down the hill
Our sweet young savior ran,
And there he met three rich young lords,
Good morning to each one.

"Good morn," "Good morn," "Good morn," they said,
"Good morning," then said he,
And which of you three fine children
Will play at the ball with me?

Oh, we are lords and ladies sons
Born in a bower and hall
And you are nothing but a poor maid's child
Born in an oxen stall.

Well, if I'm nothing but a poor maid's child
Born in an oxen stall,
I'll make you believe in your latter end,
For I'm an angel above you all.

So he built a him a bridge of the beams of the sun
And over the water ran he,
Them three little lords followed after him
Drowned they were all three.

So it's up the hill and down the hill
Three rich young mothers ran,
Crying, "Mary mild, fetch home your child,
For ours he's drownded each one."

So Mary mild fetched home her child,
And laid him across her knee,
And with a handful of withy twigs
She gave him slashes three.

Oh bitter withy, oh bitter withy,
You've caused me to smart,
And the withy shall be the very first tree
To perish at the heart.

These words are taken from the Golden Hind Music site. For a discussion of the song's history (and a different version) see The Hymns and Carols of Christmas.

Friday, December 23, 2005

A fight in the House of Commons

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Picking a fight

On 27 July 1893 the debate on the committee stage of Gladstone’s second home rule bill ended. Joe Chamberlain compared Gladstone to Herod. T. P. O’Connor, the Irish Nationalist who sat for a Liverpool constituency, called Chamberlain “Judas”. The division bell rang, but arguments still smouldered in the chamber.

At this point one of my political heroes entered history. J. W. “Paddy” Logan was Liberal MP for Harborough. A major railway contractor, he began as a Conservative. But when he visited Ireland he was so shocked at the condition of the people that he returned a Radical.

Logan had won Harborough from the Tories at a by-election in 1891 and held it until he resigned in 1904, his health affected by a hunting accident. He returned at the second general election of 1910, only to resign again six years later.

Nationally, he was known as a sportsman. He won the House of Commons steeplechase and founded the most celebrated bloodstock line in pigeon racing. Locally, he gave Market Harborough its swimming baths and donated land for the town cricket ground.

He lived at the village of East Langton, where he gave another cricket ground and a village hall. He also maintained a cottage home for the children of men killed on his works.

On the night of 27 July, as he waited for the throng to clear, Logan crossed the chamber and sat down truculently beside Carson on the Conservative front bench. Hayes Fisher, a Tory MP, pushed him away. Logan elbowed back and was grabbed by more Tories, whereupon the Irish Nationalists waded in to support him.

For the next 20 minutes elderly, frock-coated MPs belaboured one another. Hats were flattened, coats torn and faces bruised. Onlookers in the galleries began to hiss and eventually the Serjeant-at-Arms restored order.

Today, Logan is remembered in street names in Market Harborough and by the dedication stone from his swimming baths, which can be found outside the new leisure centre. And, of course, Market Harborough Logan Ward returns two Liberal Democrat councillors.

If Logan were around today, witnessing the events of the past fortnight, I feel sure he would say: “Start a fight by all means, but make sure it is with someone in another party.”

Kettle comes to the boil

Martin Kettle in today's Guardian is rightly critical of the deputy prime minister's recent intervention in the education debate:
John Prescott should be nobody's hero for his extraordinary attack this week on the government's education plans. "If you set up a school and it becomes a good school, the great danger is that everyone wants to go there," he told the Sunday Telegraph. The great danger? What world is he living in? Certainly not the Hull of his constituents, whose schools consistently produce the worst GCSE results of any local authority in the whole of England. A few good schools there would be just what the city's next generation needs
Overall it is an even-handed piece and worth reading.

Just fancy that

Mark Oaten writes a diary of his week in the 19 December issue of the House Magazine:
On to lunch with Julian Glover from the Guardian in the Members' Dining Room...

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Lord Bonkers' Christmas message

Lord Bonkers' latest diary has been posted to his website.

It happens that I know a thing or two about mazes, having a fine example of my own at the Hall. Planted with the fast-growing Rutland leylandii – if one ponders too long which path to take, both may disappear – it has proved a firm favourite with visitors, particularly since I hit upon the idea of charging them to leave the thing rather than enter it.

As the scientists amongst us will know, these days “peer review” is all the rage; it works along these lines. If a chap believes he has come up with something juicy in the scientific line, he writes it down and posts it off to a member of the House of Lords. I have a skim through it and write something such as “Splendid,” “Terribly Clever” or “Sounds a bit far-fetched to me” on the bottom, before sending it on to the editor of one of our leading journals.

To St Asquith’s for Divine Service. The Revd Hughes preaches on the parable of The Man Who Refused to Carry an Identity Card – a new one on me, I must admit. It is all about a brave chap who refused to have one of those beastly cards and went to prison as a result. Everyone said what a splendid fellow he was, and when he came out they agreed that he had much more go than that dreadful Scotsman and was not a wet blanket like the member for Winchester.

Liberator 307 published

Liberal Dissenter (welcome back) has the details.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Joyful and triumphant

Tonight's carol service in Parliament Square, held to protest against new legal restrictions on peaceful demonstrations in a wide area of Westminster, passed off without any arrests.

Thanks to the BBC Traffic Jam Cam, you can see some pictures of it on Parliament Protest.

BBC to broadcast Greenmantle

The BBC dramatisation of John Buchan's Greenmantle is to be broadcast on Radio 4 over Christmas. This is the production that was quietly pulled from the schedules after the London bombings in July.

As I argued at the time, Greenmantle has much to teach us about relations with Islam.

Pork pies: More than you need to know

Good news for Leicestershire. As the BBC reports:
Pork pie-makers in the Melton Mowbray region have been told they can apply to Europe for the same sort of exclusivity enjoyed by Champagne.
A High Court judge has turned down a challenge by Leeds-based Northern Foods aiming to stop the move.
What is so special about a Melton Mowbray pork pie? Andrew Chancellor, writing in Waitrose Food Illustrated, explains:

Many of the offending companies who produce the imitations describe their pies as 'cured', which is precisely what the pork in a real Melton Mowbray pie is not. Ever since it first became popular in the early 19th century as a convenience food that Leicestershire huntsmen could carry in their saddlebags, it was made with fresh, not cured, pork.
This is one of the crucial distinctions between Melton Mowbray and other pork pies. There is nothing wrong with cured pork ... Many people, particularly in the south of England, prefer it, because cured pork looks pink whereas fresh pork looks grey. But finely chopped, fresh pork, seasoned only with pepper and salt, is the essence of the Melton Mowbray pie.
Another essential feature is the pastry that encases it. Originally, this was not eaten but simply used as packaging for the meat, as is still the case in France with the hard, inedible pastry that encases the goose liver in pâté de foie gras en croûte. But, as the Melton Mowbray pork pie developed over the years, the pastry became as important a part as the pork in the whole gastronomic experience.
The pastry in question must be 'hot-water pastry', made only with boiling water, boiling lard (another pork product), flour and salt. And it must be baked with the fresh meat already inside it, and without any external support, such as a tin or a hoop. The pastry case is no longer 'hand-risen', as it used to be, around wooden moulds - it is now machine-made - but the pie still has to stand free when it is placed in the oven.
The final ingredient is pork stock, which is poured in through a hole in the pastry lid after baking to form a jelly. This surrounds and penetrates the meat, which has shrunk a little in the oven.
One thing that Chancellor does not mention is that the pork pie industry grew up in Melton because pigs could be fed on the whey that was a waste product from the local dairies that made Stilton cheese.

A few years ago I was walking from Barrow upon Soar to Melton and stopped for lunch at Six Hills. Finding the pub boarded up, I had to buy lunch at the garage. I chose a "Melton Mowbray pork pie," only to discover that it had been made in Cornwall.

If you want to sample the real thing, visit Dickinson & Morris's shop in the town. And for a list of all the British regional foods that now enjoy protected status look at the European Commission site.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Nuts to road safety

A heart-warming story from the BBC, appropriate to the season:

An animal-loving youngster was so upset after a red squirrel was knocked down on a road outside his home he urged forestry chiefs to erect warning signs.

Luke Hodgson, six, wrote to the Forestry Commission after seeing the fate of the creature at Sidwood, near Greenhaugh, Northumberland.

They listened to his appeal and installed six warning signs.

My first reaction was to wonder if the squirrels would be able to read the signs. (I have written here about education often enough.) But it turns out:

The signs, which alert people to red squirrels crossing, were being unveiled on Tuesday.

So where does that leave the Tufty Club? As you probably won't recall, Tufty was the poster squirrel for road safety back in the 1960s.

I did wonder if he was a grey squirrel. These nineteenth-century American imports are rather larger than our native red, more aggressive, wear loud check trousers and are inclined to flash their money about.

A study of the club badge (reproduced on a rather irreverent site), however, shows that he was clearly a red. Frankly, I feel a little cheated.

But seriously folks, the red squirrel is a lovely creature. I saw one in Glenmuick a couple of years ago. Their tales are translucent and look pink as the light shines through them.

So if you see one crossing the road, please slow down. It turns out that they are not experts at crossing the road after all.

The men in sandals

This blog is on message. You won't find any disloyaly to Charles Kennedy here.

That said, I did enjoy the Daily Telegraph's suggestion that, when the time for the Lib Dem leader to stand down comes, it will be "the men in sandals" who go to see him.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Year of the ASBO

The Sunday Telegraph has an article by Ed West, author of The Little Book of ASBOs, looking at the oldest, youngest and most unusual recipients of these orders.

I was taken with the last example he quotes:
A 15-year-old who in August was collared for being drunk in breach of his ASBO escaped when the court heard how a misprint had stated that he must not be seen in public without alcohol. He was also bound by the order to act in a manner likely to cause harassment, alarm and distress to others.

Does Andrew Rawnsley read Lord Bonkers?

Andrew Rawnsley writes on the Lib Dems' current travails in today's Observer. His conclusion seems about right:

For the moment, the Lib Dems have got the worst of all worlds: they have damaged their leader by manoeuvring against him and he has wounded himself by demanding loyalty oaths from senior colleagues which they have conspicuously failed to deliver.

How will it all end? Badly, very likely. Politics so often does. The Lib Dems should be clear about one thing. It would be a delusion to think that finishing Charles Kennedy would be the end of all their problems. In many ways, it would be only the beginning.

What also struck me more, though, was his discussion of the various pretenders to Kennedy's crown. There he writes:
Simon Hughes is popular with party members - he ran Mr Kennedy quite close in the last leadership election - but the Reverend Hughes is much less loved by his parliamentary colleagues who also note that he was not a very successful candidate for mayor of London.

The Reverend Hughes? That is how my old friend Lord Bonkers had been referring to him for years. Could it be that Rawnsley is one of the old boy's loyal readers?

Friday, December 16, 2005

Free the Ming One

The latest theory is that Menzies Campbell is in the clear. He is as innocent as Spot.

Ming has not been briefing against Charles Kennedy. Other people have been doing it and promoting Ming as a caretaker leader while they get their campaigns together for next time. "Isn't Ming looking well these days?" you hear them ask.

Campbell was interviewed on the Today programme this morning and, rather than answer the charge in detail, he fell back on his dignity. That is a favourite trick of his.

A friend of mine asked him at a fringe meeting at a Lib Dem Conference a few years ago whether he regretted the time he and Paddy Ashdown has spent trying to do a deal with Blair after the 1997 general election. Didn't it represent a missed opportunity?

Campbell replied that he did not think he had damaged his integrity in any way, which rather missed the point.

Mind you, Campbell's integrity is a wonderful thing to fall back on. If you are ever trapped on the fourth floor of a burning building, just look for out for it below. You can be sure of a comfortable landing.

Meanwhile, see Steve Bell's take on the Kennedy-Campbell relationship.

Pa hauled him off to the woodshed

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Telling tales

Gather round children. Today’s story is about Tony Blair when he was a little boy no older than you. One day Tony’s father noticed his favourite tree had been cut down. “Tony,” asked his father, “do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?”

And Tony replied: “In respect of cherry trees, I do not know what the right honourable gentleman is referring to.”

That’s what the prime minister told Charles Kennedy last Wednesday. Charles had asked how many American flights carrying suspects to countries that use torture had stopped off at British airports. To use one of Blair’s own favourite words, it was pathetic.

Then Whitehall’s finest brains went to work. And on Monday Jack Straw had a better answer. We know the Americans do not have such flights. And we know it because they say so.

But some less trusting souls are still worrying at the question. Dick Marty, a Swiss senator, believes the CIA did hold prisoners in Europe until the story broke in November. And the parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition (leading lights Ming Campbell and the Tory Andrew Tyrie) says that in law the British government cannot accept American assurances and must investigate for itself.

Wednesday also saw defence questions, when the minister Adam Ingram sounded uncomfortable defending the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. As well he might. The bill means that someone convicted of, say, the Enniskillen bombing, in which 11 people died, would not spend a day in prison.

Historians may one day wonder why a terrorist attack on America had such a profound effect on British society when we took attacks on ourselves so lightly.

* * * *

Tony’s tree recalls another story. One day Junior was rocking the family privy. He got excited and pushed too hard. It toppled into the creek.

Later that day Pa asked who did it. Junior, who knew his American history, owned up at once. Pa hauled him off to the woodshed.

“But Pa, I don’t understand. When George Washington owned up about the cherry tree his father was so pleased he didn’t punish him.”

“Son, George Washington’s father wasn’t sitting in that cherry tree while he cut it down.”

"God rest ye merry..." You're nicked

Bloggerheads passes on an invitation:

You are cordially invited to a public carol service in Parliament Square at 6pm on Wednesday the 21st of December 2005.

This inclusive service will contain both Christian and secular verse, and is expected to last no more than an hour.

Candles and song sheets will be made available, with donations going to Medical Aid for Iraqi Children.

Please note that if you attend this carol service, it will classify as a spontaneous demonstration (of faith, hope, joy and/or religious tolerance) and there is a possibility that you will be cautioned or arrested under Section 132 of the Serious and Organised Crimes and Police Act 2005.

Click here for more information.

Incidentally, I am told that Lib Dem MPs were planning a similar stunt in Parliament Square last weekend. Charles Kennedy first backed this then called it off. This is one of the causes of the current, very public, discontent with his leadership.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Meanwhile in Shropshire

This story from the Shropshire Star has everything:
Death-row dog is saved from ruff justice

A stray dog confined to canine death row for a crime he did not commit has been spared after it was found he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Now Spot, the border collie cross who was falsely accused of sheep worrying, is looking for a new home in time for Christmas.

My only fear is that Spot may be given a home by a benevolent elderly bachelor, only to be stolen back by Bill Sykes and made to take part in a robbery.

Was it Ming?

Who has been briefing against Charles Kennedy?

Recess Monkey reckons it was Menzies Campbell, though the naughty simian produces no hard evidence to back this up.

Still, it does tie in with Iain Dale's claim the other day. He said Andrew Neil's announcement that Charles Kennedy would stand down at the Lib Dem Spring Conference next year came the day after Neil's birthday party. Where Ming was the only Lib Dem MP present.

I am not saying that Ming is guilty, but shouldn't he come forward and clear things up?

Well, he has. Sort of.

Later: there are other theories.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Patient choice in the health service

Today's Guardian has a piece on the latest British Social Attitudes survey was conducted last year and published this week. As the report says - or perhaps that should be "admits":
It shows that around two-thirds thought that patients should have "a great deal or quite a lot" of choice over which hospital they go to for inpatient treatment.
It goes on to say:

The survey also suggests critics' fears that choice will be colonised by the middle classes at the expense of the poor may be unfounded: the pro-hospital choice groups are women, people aged 55 to 64, and people with lower or no educational qualifications. Men, young people, better educated people and those without recent experience of inpatient care are significantly less enthusiastic.

Those who are more in favour of choice tend to be heavier service users.

So perhaps it is not just the pushy middle classes who are in favour of choice in public services.

I am reminded of something Norman Lamb wrote in the Guardian after this year's Lib Dem Conference:

As a constituency MP I am forever having to deal with situations where those without power or influence are struggling to be heard by an unresponsive state provider. One of the biggest failures of the state has been the scandal of education provision, which penalises children from the poorest backgrounds. The growing educational apartheid in this country ought to shame us all.

The same goes for the health service. Again the most disadvantaged are the biggest losers. Over the last eight years the Labour government has had an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate that its approach works, but the truth is that it has failed to make a difference for those most in need.

Who gets the CAP millions?

Richard Allan points us towards This useful site tells you which companies benefit from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy.

Fascinating reading.

And a child shall lead them

Back in January 2003 I quoted a passage from Melanie Phillips on my anthology blog Serendib. Discussing a guide for children whose parents are getting divorced she wrote:

It offered children advice such as: "Try to be honest if they ask you questions; it will help them make better decisions", or "Living with one parent almost always means there will be less money. Be prepared to give up some things."

What the book was actually doing was asking children to be sympathetic, understanding, respectful and polite to their confused, unhappy parents; the sacrifice was going to have to come from the children. They were expected to be more mature.

In the world of divorcing dinosaurs, the children rather than the grown-ups were to be pillars of patience, restraint and good sense.

Now this process has been taken one step further. Yesterday the papers were full of the story of Libby Rees. As the Times told it:

A girl who wrote tips to help children to cope when their parents divorce has won a publishing contract.

Libby Rees, who was nine when she wrote the book, was flown to Scotland with her mother to sign the deal after the company made an offer within 24 hours of receiving the manuscript.

Help, Hope and Happiness includes tips and hints as well as illustrations on the ways she used to cope with the separation of her parents 3½ years ago. Libby, now 10, said last night: "It's very exciting. I couldn't believe it when they said 'yes'. I hope it helps other children."

Her mother, Kathryn Loughnan, 41, who works with special needs children, but does not keep in touch with Libby's father, said the trip to Inverness to sign the book deal had been "surreal".

"Surreal" is the right word.

Some will see this as a wonderful affirmation of children's maturity and abilities. To me it looks like the ultimate abdication of adult authority.

We ask children to help one another because we no longer have any confidence that we adults can do anything for them.

Small earthquake in Irish Sea: Not many hurt

Breaking reports:

A minor earthquake measuring 2.6 on the Richter Scale has been detected just off the east coast of Ireland.

The tremor was felt by householders from Arklow to Bray at around 3.20am this morning.

It was centred around 30 miles from Bray Head and caused some minor structural damage, but no injuries have been reported.

Quaequam Blog! on the Lib Dem leadership row

Quite so:
This has gone on for far too long. It’s time to put up or shut up. Making Kennedy damaged goods is all very well, but if you aren’t prepared to stand up and be counted now, you are simply arseing about. The problem is, I suspect, is that no-one wants to be another Heseltine - caught holding the bloodied knife and thus rendering themselves unelectable as a future leader. But all this isn’t damaging Kennedy; it’s damaging the party.

Times: Lib Dem revolt puts Kennedy on brink

The lead story in this morning's Times reports:
A revolt by senior Liberal Democrat MPs has left Charles Kennedy fighting to save his leadership of the party.

An attempt by Mr Kennedy to pre-empt a growing rebellion within his ranks at Westminster was rebuffed yesterday at a private meeting of his Shadow Cabinet.

Facing an unprecedented crisis of confidence, the Lib Dem leader tried to stamp on peculation by urging his most senior colleagues to stop briefing against him and rally behind him.

But his plea was rejected when he faced 30 minutes of criticism of his leadership style, with senior figures insisting that the issue could not be shelved any longer.

There are also the usual nudge, nudge mentions of Kennedy's health.

Peter Riddell contributes a more considered piece:
A deliberate shift either to Right or Left (a choice denied by many Lib Dems) would risk losing votes and seats. In that respect, Mr Kennedy is right to try to carve a distinctive path, such as the emphasis on civil liberties. The real question is about effectiveness rather than intentions: about the absence of a sharp cutting edge and sense of direction.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

BBC changes Kennedy story

Earlier this evening I quoted from and linked to a BBC story which told how Charles Kennedy had used today's shadow cabinet meeting to reassert his authority.

Click on the link to that story now and it reads very differently:

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy has faced calls from senior MPs for him to improve his performance or stand down.

Mr Kennedy was confronted at a meeting of the what the party calls its "shadow cabinet" on Tuesday.

BBC News political editor Nick Robinson said a number of the most senior Lib Dem MPs had lined up at the meeting to confront their leader.

Mr Kennedy countered by telling them that he intended to stay on and if they were not happy they should resign.

Both his critics and his backers later agreed that Charles Kennedy had seen off an attempted mutiny, but that he was now "on probation".

But some believe it could mark the beginning of the end of his leadership.

I suspect this means that the Kennedy loyalists got to the press first. Which account of the meeting is more accurate is hard to judge from a distance.

Interestingly, on the BBC News this evening Nick Robinson was talking up Ming Campbell as an alternative candidate for the leadership. We live in interesting times.

Hemel Hempstead schools

All this talk of schools being closed in Hemel Hempstead because of the Buncefield oil depot fire takes me back. I lived in Hemel between the ages of 3 and 13.

I went back there a few years ago, only to find that both the primary schools I went to have been demolished. That's when you know you are getting old.

The first I attended was Fields End JMI. It was a large post-war building of glass and concrete, but it has been pulled down and replaced by a housing estate. It is so lost that I cannot find a photograph of it anywhere on the net.

The second was Boxmoor County Primary in St John's Road. It was a tiny Victorian school that was replaced by a modern building on a new site some time in the 1970s. I saw the old school in 1981 when it had closed but was still standing.

Thanks to Hemel Hempstead Today (from whom I have, er, borrowed the picture) I can show you what the school looked like.

This must have been taken after the school closed, as there were never cars parked in the playground while I was there.

I was very happy at Boxmoor, though in one way adversity there helped make me a Liberal. The dinners were cooked elsewhere and brought to the school, and they were indescribably awful. (My mother let me come home for dinner after a while.) And if you didn't want custard with your pudding, you had to have a letter from home.

I now regard this as an early introduction to the absurdities of socialism.

Briefings against Kennedy "must stop"

The other day I commented that some Lib Dem MPs are obviously briefing against Charles Kennedy. Today the BBC reports [but see this later posting]:

Tuesday's meeting of what the Lib Dems call their "shadow cabinet" was seen as an opportunity for Mr Kennedy to stamp his authority on warring factions within the party.

A spokesman said he was angry at the persistent gossip and rumours about his leadership.

The spokesman also reiterated the point that Mr Kennedy was re-elected unopposed as party leader at the start of the parliamentary term.

After the meeting, a spokesman said in a statement: "We don't usually comment on shadow cabinet meetings, but we had a useful discussion about the complaint against the BBC.

"Considerable irritation was expressed by the shadow cabinet about anonymous briefings appearing in the press, and members unanimously agreed that such briefings must stop."

We shall see. Mind you, I think that "What the Lib Dems call their 'shadow cabinet'" is a little unkind.

Meanwhile Iain Dale's Diary has an interesting story:
A few days ago Andrew Neil announced to the nation that he had it on very good authority that Charles Kennedy would resign in March next year. Strange that this happened the night after Menzies Campbell was reportedly the only Lib Dem present at Andrew Neil's Christmas Party.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Northampton bus station

Today's Guardian lists Britain's most hated buildings, as nominated in a poll for a forthcoming Channel 4 programme called Demolition.

Amongst them is Northampton bus station, which the paper describes as a "1974 behemoth that dominates an otherwise small-scale historic town". Maybe that is a little kind to Northampton, but the building is awful. Despite its size, it still manages to house the bus stops in a fume filled chasm somewhere in the basement.

Before it opened there was an older bus station squeezed into a narrow street in the town centre. To get the buses in and out required precision timing, and the operation was in the sole charge of a uniformed inspector with a moustache. He was meticulous in his work and clearly loved the power. His hand signals were a wonder to behold. Imagine him as a cross between Adolf Hitler and Blakey from On the Buses.

The the new station opened and he was no longer needed. I saw him there once, watching the buses come and go without any need for his assistance. He looked a sadly diminished figure.

Government reinstates Christmas

When I started writing for Liberal Democrat News I pointed out that all new columnists are obliged by law to sign an undertaking not to use the phrase "political correctness gone mad". The same duty applies to bloggers.

This can make some stories difficult to cover. One such is today's withdrawal of official advice on how to organise school Christmas parties. As the Daily Telegraph said this morning:
Children should be protected from "terrifying" Father Christmas, shielded from "alarming" pantomimes and encouraged not to send wasteful Christmas cards, a Government website has advised teachers.
Meanwhile, congratulations to Lib Dem shadow education secretary Ed Davey for rushing out a press release on the subject.

The advice may have been withdrawn, but thanks to the wonders of the Google cache you can still read it.

Looking at it dispassionately, it is by no means all ridiculous. But it does suggest that the safety first view, which takes such a pessimistic view of children and their capabilities, is deeply ingrained in the public sector.

I do not give much for our chances in the medals table at London 2012 if our children are too fragile to stand losing at Pass the Parcel.

Sporting quote of the day

Audley Harrison tells the Guardian:
Sometimes you have to take two steps back to take one forward.
How true. I think that tells you a lot about life - and certainly about Harrison's approach to boxing.

An honourable mention also goes to David Lacey, for this piece of blatant racism in his report on the Chelsea vs Wigan game:
Yet Mourinho does seem to like seeking mountains behind molehills. He said he had told William Gallas not to give the ball back to Wigan because he felt McCulloch was feigning injury. This from a native of Portugal, the country which has perfected football's version of the dying swan. Maybe Mourinho's acquaintance with English idiom has yet to embrace the pot and the kettle.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Basil D'Oliveira and Ealing Studios

While at Arkwright's Mill yesterday I bought a remaindered paperback copy of Peter Oborne's Basil D'Oliveira: Cricket and Conspiracy. This only came out in April this year: I will never understand the economics of the publishing trade.

Back in July I quoted at length from a review of this book on the Crooked Timber site. The reviewer listed some of the people who came out on the side of the angels over D'Oliveira's exclusion from the party to tour South Africa in 1968-9 - John Arlott, Ray Illingworth, Revd David Sheppard, Mike Brearley, Tom Graveney - and commented:
It is astonishing to find that so many of one's childhood heroes were, well, heroes (I started expecting Kenneth Horne or Jon Pertwee to turn up).
There is no sign of Horne or Pertwee, but I think I have found another of my own heroes on the side of the light.

Oborne writes:

When the revolt came it was a very English affair. It started with a classified advertisement in The Times, placed by Charles Barr, a 28-year-old lecturer and associate member of the MCC. It called on "fellow members, unhappy with the club's handling of tour selection and cricket relations with South Africa generally" to get in touch with him. He received some seventy calls.

I wondered if this could be the Charles Barr who wrote the definitive critical study of Ealing Studios. It looks as though it is, for Barr's own website announces that he is currently working on "a study of cricket on screen (taking in cinema and television)".

At times like this, when your enthusiasms fall into place together, you can still believe that life will one day make sense.

Another day out in Derbyshire

I spent yesterday in Derbyshire, going for a walk in the Derwent valley and introducing friends to the pleasures of Scarthin Books in Cromford.

There is more to see at Arkwright's Mill these days, and the Derwent valley mills as a whole have now been denoted a World Heritage Site. Whatever that means.

BritBlog Round Up goes to Edinburgh

This week's selection can be found in The Devil's Kitchen.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Like turning the light back on

This week's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. The Guardian article I mention can be found here.

Drugged up

This week we are all supposed to be against Punch and Judy politics. So let's look at one of the more constructive elements of Westminster life.

Short adjournment debates are held at the close of each day's business. They give MPs the chance to raise any topic. Most confine themselves to constituency interests - on Monday you could have thrilled to "Health Services (West Cumbria)" - but some set their sights higher. Tuesday evening saw Paul Burstow, the Lib Dem MP for Sutton and Cheam, raise the overprescription of drugs to older people.

In a world where the papers are constantly excited by the prospect of new wonder cures, it sounds odd to question giving older people medication. As Paul said, getting it right "can be like turning the light back on".

But sometimes the health service does not get it right. Since 2002, Paul said, there has been a 35% increase in non-fatal adverse drug reactions amongst people aged over 75. The figure for fatal reactions is even worse. They have gone up by 83% over the same period.

Paul has long been campaigning against the use of medication in care homes as a "chemical straitjacket". But problems can arise in many other settings as older people are often on several different kinds of drug.

The answer lies in medication reviews, yet these are often not held often enough or not held at all. Only 8% of primary care trusts meet the national service framework standard of annual reviews for patients over 75. And just 5% meet the target of a review every six months for those on four or more different drugs.

It is not only older people who can be drugged too much. An article in the Guardian on the day of Paul's speech reported that around 7 million schoolchildren in the US - nearly one in five - have been diagnosed with attention problems and put on Ritalin. This figure continues to soar, and the drug is routinely prescribed to children as young as two. In Britain, Ritalin prescriptions rose from 2,000 in 1991 to 359,000 in 2004.

Sorry to be serious this week, but it is a good cause. And remember: we Liberal Democrats are against Punch and Judy politics. Unlike the other two parties.

David Cameron: Don't panic

There is an irony to all this briefing against Charles Kennedy by Lib Dem MPs with leadership ambitions. At the first hint of a Tory revival they rush around like headless chickens, thus showing that they are not fit to lead the party.

A headless chicken writes: I object to that simile.

To cheer yourself up, take a look at this article in the Times by Anatole Kaletsky:
But isn't Mr Cameron adopting the Blairite political methods just when they are going out of style? Not only is Mr Blair now less popular than his party, but the traits which Mr Cameron is trying hardest to mimic - the slickness and ambivalence, the ingratiating, yet self-satisfied, manner - are exactly the aspects of the Blair persona that the public seems most to resent.

New blogs on the block

Chicken Yoghurt offers a listing of political blogs that have appeared over the past few months.

We didn't have things like that when I started blogging. I was up all night submitting to search engines with my bare hands. But if you tell young folks that, they won't believe you.

MPs briefing against Kennedy

Andrew Neil’s forecast that Charles Kennedy will resign in the spring makes more sense when you read this article in today’s Guardian.

It is clear that a group of Lib Dem MPs are briefing against him, and it was this that Neil picked up on.

Charles Kennedy to quit in the spring?

I am watching This Week on BBC1, and Andrew Neil has just told us he has it on good authority that Charles Kennedy will resign as leader at the Lib Dem Spring Conference next year.

I would not bet too much money on that rumour. But an article on the Guardian website last week said that if Kennedy does go soon the two front-runners will be Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes.

Come to think of it, I wrote that article.

If that were the choice we were presented with, there would be powerful lobbies wanting Ming Campbell to stand and wanting to skip a generation to Nick Clegg - not that he is a lot younger than Kennedy.

Would all this be such a disaster for the party? Maybe not, given the way in which the Tory contest caught the public imagination. But I am not holding my breath.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Gore Vidal

I have just found a website dedicated to the great man.

Dennis Skinner: Cheap and nasty

There are those who see Dennis Skinner as a lovable parliamentary character, but I have never bought it. His act has always seemed cheap and nasty to me, in line with the inherent thuggishness of much of the traditional Labour Party.

And nowadays, more than anything, it seems terribly undignified. Does Skinner really have nothing better to do at his age?

Besides, as Quaequam Blog! shows, his charges against George Osborne were pretty silly.

Perhaps it is worth adding that the allegations he referred to were not published in the News of the World, as he thought. As the Guardian reminds us, it was the Sunday Mirror.

Naked train drivers

There's a headline you don't see every day.

Midland Mainline has sacked a driver for taking a nude photograph of himself in his own cab. According to the Sun:

Maniac train drivers have been stripping off at 125mph in a crazy game of “dare”.

Furious bosses called in police after one idiot used his mobile to take a naked photo of himself as his express sped between Sheffield and London’s St Pancras.

He sent the snap to a stunned office girl at rail company Midland Mainline — where shocked staff alerted chiefs. The driver was sacked.

But last night five others were said to have been involved in the stunts — in which they would “flash” colleagues at the controls of oncoming trains.

It happens that I commute on Midland Mainline every day. I have to say that the company's performance has been much improved in recent months. Is that just a coincidence?

Could it be that drivers are now keen to get back to the depot and get dressed, with the result that the trains run on time? Or could it be that they feel more vulnerable when they are naked and are therefore less likely to go past a red signal?

According to the BBC report:
A spokeswoman for the train drivers' union Aslef said no one was available for comment.
I am not altogether surprised.

Meanwhile, if your little boy expresses the ambition to be a train driver, seek immediate professional help.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

So farewell then Christine Pullein-Thompson

It's awf'lly bad luck on Diana,
Her ponies have swallowed their bits;
She fished down their throats with a spanner
And frightened them all into fits.

John Betjeman, "Hunter Trials"
No, I was never a great lover of pony stories, but it was hard not to feel nostalgic coming across the Telegraph obituary of Christine Pullein-Thompson.

As regular readers of Liberal England will know, I grew up on the children's adventure stories of Malcolm Saville. In those days Armada paperbacks had striking two-tone covers - one day I would like to fill a shelf with them just for the effect - and advertisements for other books at the back. Many of these were for books by the Pullein-Thompson sisters, of whom there seemed to be about 20.

As the obituary shows, there were three: Christine, her twin Diana and their elder sister Josephine. Their mother was Joanna Cannan, a cousin of the writer Gilbert Cannan who had quite a vogue in his day and ran off with J.M. Barrie's wife.

I once come across an Armada paperback by one of the P-T sisters in a charity shop. It was from the later 50s or early 60s, and had a Jamaican boy living in Britain as its hero. So perhaps there was more to them than fetlocks and jodhpurs after all.

Once upon a time in Reading West

Later: I got my Reading constituencies the wrong way round. Reading East is the seat Jane Griffiths used to represent. Reading West still has Martin Salter as its MP.

But then "Once upon a time in Reading East" would not have been such a good headline.

Chris Black, who writes Moonlight Over Essex, points us towards a fascinating blog.

Janestheone is written by Jane Griffiths, who was Labour MP for Reading West between 1997 and 2005. She was deselected before the last general election, when the Tories regained the seat.

Her blog is likely to make entertaining reading, not least when it touches upon her feud with Martin Salter, who is still Labour MP for Reading East. One to bookmark and revisit.

Chris credits Iain Dale for the link.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Me old Rutland sausage

In September of last year my old friend Lord Bonkers wrote:

Do you know Oakham Pier? I would liken it to the West Pier at Brighton, though it has to be admitted that the relentless tides of Rutland Water have left it in a worse state of repair than its cousin on the South Coast. Yet I can remember the days when the music hall at its far end was simply the place to be seen. The management prided itself on importing the best acts from every corner of the British Empire. Who could forget Jan Christian Smuts and his hilarious song “When father papered the impala”? Why, I myself could sometimes be prevailed upon to give a performance of “So I gave her a taste of me old Rutland sausage” or “Please Mr Gladstone, save a fallen woman for me” if it was a particularly riotous house!
For some reason this diary is missing from his lordship's own website (I'll catch it) but can be found on the Liberator site.

Anyway, on Sunday I bought some Rutland sausages and was pleased to see that they were noticeably larger than the other varieties on sale.

Encouraging tourism in Mid Wales

It's been a while since we looked at the Shropshire Star, so here is a characteristic story:
A plea went out today for officials to reopen the only public toilet serving 70,000 square miles of countryside in Mid Wales, in a bid to boost tourism.

Monday, December 05, 2005

C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman and the perils of allegory

I am told that, during the Labour leadership election that followed the death of John Smith, people working at the BBC got into the habit of referring to John Prescott, Margaret Beckett and Tony Blair as the lion, the witch and the wardrobe.

While I enjoyed C.S. Lewis's Narnia books when I was young, I was never mad about them. Looking at them today, there is something twee about them, while the BBC dramatisations in the late 1980s were oddly charmless.

Polly Toynbee, in this morning's Guardian, has no time for Lewis or his books. But then she has no time for religion either:
Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can. We need no holy guide books, only a very human moral compass.
That's the real trouble with God: he may distract people from the New Labour project.

In a good book an underlying allegorical purpose adds richness if it does not get in the way of the story. In the first few books in the Narnia series Lewis largely achieve this. It would be quite possible for a child to enjoy The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe without any knowledge of Christ's life.

In America, where Lewis has an extraordinarily inflated reputation as a theologian and philosopher, many hope to use the new film of this book to bring people to the faith. As Toynbee argues, this is unlikely to happen in Britain where church-going has suffered a deep decline. If the film means more children have some familiarity with the rudiments of the Christian faith, that will not be such a bad thing.

The trouble comes when the underlying purpose of the book overwhelms the surface story. This happens later in the Narnia series, so much so that the last book - The Last Battle - is unreadable and morally very dubious if you do struggle through it. Characters are banished to eternal darkness for minor faults and, in Susan's case, simply for growing up.

But then this is always a danger with children's literature. T.H. White, who was an incomparably better writer than Lewis, decided towards the end of The Once and Future King that the message of the Arthurian story was the necessity of pacifism. He therefore returned to The Sword in the Stone (the first book in the sequence, which was certainly intended for children even if later ones are more adult) and rewrote sections of it, worsening it in the process.

Ironically, you can find the same fault in Lewis's greatest contemporary disparager - Philip Pullman. I enjoyed the first two books of His Dark Materials in part because of their ambiguity. Even at the end of the second book one was not clear which side was good and which was evil.

The third book had no such quality. There was far too much didactic writing to show us the wonders of evolution by natural selection, and when we get to the establishment of the Republic of Heaven the book feels like something out of the Soviet era.

I was reminded of the Marxist A.L. Morton's The English Utopia. This survey of the poor of England's vision of a better world through the centuries, published in 1952, ends with a paen of praise to Comrade Stalin and him dams, which are making the deserts bloom and building paradise on Earth.

So take your children to see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Even go to see it yourself. But if anyone manages to make a film of The Last Battle while keeping true to the original book. I'll be amazed.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The best in British blogging

Tim Worstall's latest selection has been posted on his blog.

There is also a substantial review of his book in today's Observer.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Each extra strong mint and ounce of pipe tobacco

The Guardian is all very well, but here is my column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Paying up for pensions

How much do the voters like public sector workers? Liberal Democrats like them very much. Labour loves them too. Neil Kinnock’s policy sometimes seemed to consist of little beyond a recitation of their job titles. “Doctors and nurses, nurses and doctors, lovely, lovely people,” as the Spitting Image parody went.

But this affection may soon be tested to destruction. As things stand, the government intends to allow public sector workers to continue to retire at 60 while the rest of us work until we are 67 to pay their pensions.

It’s hard to imagine this arrangement being practicable in a society so fixated on youth (there’s a sentence I wouldn’t have written 10 years ago). It is also hard to imagine a government putting it to the people being re-elected.

John Hutton has to defend it on Monday in his first question time as secretary for work and pensions. He fell back on the formula that the government has “no plans to revisit” public sector pensions. As everyone knows, this is a complicated way of saying absolutely nothing.

Pensions are not just interesting because none of us is getting any younger. They are a policy area where the outlines of a world after New Labour can be seen. There is a growing consensus that the present set up is too complicated and that we need a higher basic pension and fewer credits and special allowances.

Now that David Laws has replaced Steve Webb as Lib Dem pensions spokesman we seem to have joined this consensus. (That’s the trouble with the current system: you need to be nicknamed “five brains” like Steve or to have run a merchant bank when you were 14 like David to understand it.)

Unfortunately the consensus does not embrace Gordon Brown, as he made clear in his letter to Adair Turner. In part it is because the Treasury fears the cost of higher basic pensions.

But it is also because, deep down, Gordon Brown would like to have control over each extra strong mint and ounce of pipe tobacco sold in Britain. This is called socialism – my younger readers will not have come across it before – and it runs even deeper in the Labour Party than a love of public sector workers.

I write for the Guardian

I had an article posted on the Guardian website this morning. It looks at how the Liberal Democrats may respond to David Cameron becoming Tory leader. My conclusion, as far as I reach one, is that we shall probably jog along much as we are now.

Writing about the Liberal Democrats for a wider audience always leaves me torn. Should I dazzle the editor with my cruel wit and insight, or should I be loyal and talk up the party? I general end up somewhere in the middle as my native good humour breaks through.

I am not Charles Kennedy's greatest fan, but there seems to me no point in calling for his head. There is no obvious successor about whom I feel a much warmer, and it is not as though there is an agreed radical liberal programme that would sweep the country if only a Lib Dem would promise to implement it. Kennedy's muddling through reflects the party's thought processes only to well.

There are a couple of other points I wanted to make but had to lose to make the word limit.

The first is that intellectual consistency can be an overrated virtue in politics. Successful parties are marked by their ability to accommodate diverse or even blatantly contradictory interests.

The second is that in a society where to be "posh" is just about the worst sin going, David Cameron may yet find it a handicap to sound and look so obviously an Old Etonian.

Anyway, they pay me and have provided links to both Liberator and this blog. It has been a record day for visitors to Liberal England by a street.

I have written several articles for the Guardian website before, and a couple for the paper itself. If you have nothing better to do, you can find links to them all here.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Synthetic phonics

In view of today's announcement by Ruth Kelly, I refer the honourable gentleman to my posting of Friday 10 June.

Lib Dem Top 10

The Apollo Project has a Top 10 of Lib Dem postings from November.

There's some good stuff there and one of mine is in it too.

Free newspaper DVDs

Here is a useful site. It lets you know which DVDs are about to be given away free with British newspapers.

On Saturday the Independent is offering the noble but rather gruelling Pelle the Conqueror.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The state of the British blogosphere

Paul Berger, in an article for the Online Journalism Review, asks if British bloggers are lagging behind their American counterparts when in comes to number of readers and influence.

His broad conclusions are 1. yes and 2. no.

Why do British blogs have fewer readers? Well, there are fewer Britons than Americans, and our press is less opinionated. Berger quotes Neil McIntosh from Guardian Unlimited saying:
"In this country we have an enormously diverse media. You can be offended by Richard Littlejohn on the right and George Monbiot on the left. You can find [right wing] Max Hastings and [left wing] Polly Toynbee in the pages of the Guardian. So where is the ground into which blogs can successfully move?"
Ah, but we still have influence says Martin Stabe:

"What matters most is not reader numbers but who these readers are - the political analysts, the party activists, journalists looking for leads and story ideas. They are what marketing people call opinion leaders. So there is an argument that an elite readership is more important than a mass readership."

Education otherwise

The Guardian reports another of those sad cases where a mother is gaoled because her child is playing truant.

This is one is from Wolverhampton, and the most striking thing about the report are the comments by Christine Irvine, the city council's cabinet member for children and young people:
"It is a legal requirement for children to attend school."
This is, of course, nonsense.

As the government-supported ParentsCentre website says:
Parents are allowed to educate their children at home instead of school if they choose to do so. Under UK law it is education that is compulsory, not schooling, though the vast majority of parents do choose to send their children to school.
I am not suggesting that the mother in this case was engaged in an experiment in home education, but it is frightening that the council cabinet member for children and young people is ignorant of the law.

Those with an interest in home education should look at the Education Otherwise website.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Before the Child Support Agency

Tony Hatfield's Retired Ramblings remind us of how the Conservatives promoted the Child Support Agency. The white paper Children Come First (Cmnd. 1264), published in October 1990, noted in point 2 of its summary:
The present system of maintenance is unnecessarily fragmented, uncertain in its results, slow and ineffective. It is based largely on discretion. The system is operated through the High and County Courts, the Magistrates’ Courts and the offices of the Department of Social Security. The cumulative effect is uncertainty and inconsistent decisions about how much maintenance should be paid. In a great many instances, the maintenance awarded is not paid or the payments fall into arrears and take weeks to re-establish. Only 30% of lone mothers and 3% of lone fathers receive regular maintenance for their children. More than 750,000 lone parents depend on income support. Many lone mothers want to go to work but do not feel able to do so.
As Tony says, compared with the CSA the courts worked wonders.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Trivial relations

These relationships sound unlikely but appear to be true:
  • Lauren Bacall and the former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres are first cousins;
  • Daily Mirror agony aunt Miriam Stoppard is also the real aunt of former Labour MP Oona King.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Charles Dance, Dickensian villain

A few minutes ago Charles Dance was simultaneously playing Ralph Nickleby on ITV and Mr Tulkinghorn on BBC1. Is this a record?

Britblog roundup on the move

With Tim Worstall busy promoting his book, this week's Britblog roundup can be found on Philobiblon.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Happy birthday to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal is 200 years old today, reports the BBC.

It is one of the wonders of the British canal system, and well worth going to see if you are in the area. It is even more spectacular if you sail across it.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Sit back to enjoy the fun

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. "You'll get letters," said the editor.

Teasing Tony

A Tory leader has finally worked out how to discomfort Tony Blair at prime minister’s questions. You agree with him.

For eight long years the Conservatives tried to persuade us that, deep down, Blair is a dangerous Bolshevik. Remember those Demon Eyes posters? They did not work for a simple reason. He isn’t.

Michael Gove gave the correct Tory estimation of Tony Blair when he was just a Times commentator. He wrote: “I can't fight my feelings any more: I love Tony ... as a rightwing polemicist, all I can say looking at Mr Blair now is, ‘What's not to like?’”

Which is why last Wednesday Michael Howard told Blair not to waste his time abusing those across the chamber who agree with him on education. He should worry about his own backbenches. They don’t.

The Independent’s Simon Carr has been urging this strategy on the Tory front bench for years. Praise Blair for enacting good Conservative measures and then sit back to enjoy the fun.

If they stick with it, we shall enter a new world. It won’t quite be Israel, where the prime minister is forming his own party. But Tony Blair’s education measures will probably go through with Tory support and in the teeth of much Labour opposition.

Which will leave the Liberal Democrats with some thinking to do. We shall walk through the No lobbies alongside the Labour rebels. Why not? We are not New Labour.

But we are not Old Labour either. And we should not sound like them.

A skilled and confident teaching profession must be central to our education policy. But too often the teachers’ voice, as heard through their unions, is the reverse. It is endlessly negative, opposing every government imitative – good, bad or lunatic. At its worst it is full of teenage nihilism. It’s not fair. I hate you. You’re not my dad.

This negativity has infected Old Labour with fatalism. There are good schools and bad schools, good students and bad students, and you can’t do much about it. Hence their interest in allocating school places by ballot.

We should be different. We need to talk about quality, innovation and choice, whatever the structures we favour to deliver them. In short, we need to sound more Liberal.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Anyone but the English

A letter from today's Guardian:
So the Archbishop of York thinks the English are embarrassed about their identity (Report, November 22). If I was English, I'd want to keep quiet about it.
Chris Henton
I wonder if this letter would have been published if it had referred in these terms to any other nationality but the English?

2005 Blogged again

Yesterday I wrote about Tim Worstall's book and said how useful the index of blogs will be.

It turns out you can find that index on the web. But don't let that stop you buying the book.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

2005 Blogged

My complimentary copy of this book, which is edited by Tim Worstall, arrived in the post this morning.

In the Guardian Jane Perrone describes it as "an accessible introduction to the breadth and quality of writing on offer from some British blogs". She goes on to say:

For me, what lets the book down is its typography. I'd thought gimmicky use of a typeface that looks like it was ripped straight off a dot matrix printer circa 1982 had been deemed unfashionable long ago. And it seems a bit pointless to employ a fake html to indicate when the editor is writing for a book targeted at people not acquainted with the lingua franca of blogs.

If you can get beyond these stylistic quibbles, this is a book that provides proof positive that the British blogosphere is full of great writers.

All this is fair comment. Chicken Yoghurt adds:

The variety of bloggers represented is pretty impressive. The temptation for Tim could have been to go with what he knows. As a narrative of the past year it works as well. Structuring the book chronologically means that people will be inclined to read it from beginning to end rather than if the book had been arranged by, say, subject area.
I was impatient too see which of my postings Tim had included. To my surprise it was a short comment on the government's plans to extend the legislation on incitement to religious hatred to protect Satanists. I'm not convinced that is the best thing I have written this year, and I now see that the first sentence does not even make sense.

But there is a lot of good stuff in 2005 Blogged and I recommend it.

There is also a useful index of the blogs quoted, complete with their addresses on the web. I shall work through it and freshen up my blogroll.

Bombing television stations

This morning's Guardian led on the story that:

The attorney general last night threatened newspapers with the Official Secrets Act if they revealed the contents of a document allegedly relating to a dispute between Tony Blair and George Bush over the conduct of military operations in Iraq ...

The attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, last night referred editors to newspaper reports yesterday that described the contents of a memo purporting to be at the centre of charges against two men under the secrets act.

Under the front-page headline "Bush plot to bomb his ally", the Daily Mirror reported that the US president last year planned to attack the Arabic television station al-Jazeera, which has its headquarters in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where US and British bombers were based.

Writing more about this clearly risks a knock from Inspector Knacker at 3 a.m. But it would not be surprising if Bush were planning to bomb al-Jazeera. In April 1999 NATO forces bombed the Serbian state television station in Belgrade, killing several civilian workers.

As the Guardian reported at the time,
Tony Blair, in Washington for Nato's 50th anniversary summit, insisted that bombing television stations was "entirely justified" since they were part of the "apparatus of dictatorship and power of Milosevic".
And guess which minister told "a heated press briefing at the Ministry of Defence":
"This is a war, this is a serious conflict, untold horrors are being done. The propaganda machine is prolonging the war and it's a legitimate target."
That great pacifist Clare Short, that's who.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Lord Drayson: An injection of funds

Last night the BBC's Money Programme offered an investigation of the career of Lord Drayson - millionaire, major Labour donor and, by a remarkable coincidence, government minister.

Tonight the BBC website reports:

Defence Minister Lord Drayson is being investigated by Commons officials over claims he broke an embargo on a watchdog's report on defence projects.

The Tories say a Ministry of Defence briefing to journalists on Tuesday was a "naked attempt" to pre-empt the National Audit Office report.

Commons Speaker Michael Martin said he would be "very angry" if reporters were given information before Parliament.

Sportsblog roundup

The Militant Moderate hosts a selection of the best in British blogging on the subject of sport. It promises to be the second in a fortnightly series. This one includes two of my posts.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Respect members rebel over gay rights

Respect, the bizarre Trot, Tankie 'n' Taliban coalition put together by George Galloway, is already displaying its inherent contradictions. Harry's Place reports:

Grassroots members of George Galloway’s left-wing Respect party have condemned as “unacceptable” the decision of the party leadership to exclude lesbian and gay rights from their manifesto for the general election earlier this year.

Respect MP George Galloway is now being asked to explain why his party dumped gay rights from its manifesto. Allegations abound that Respect’s right-wing Islamist backers demanded the exclusion of gay rights as a condition of their electoral support for the party.

At Respect’s annual conference on Sunday (20 November), delegates rebelled against party leaders who vetoed the inclusion of gay equality in the party’s manifesto for the 2005 general election.

Sporting quote of the day

The jury's decision is in. Today's winner is an anonymous Daily Telegraph journalist for this comment on the ref's decision not to give a penalty for a foul on Lee Bowyer by John Terry:
Kicking Bowyer is still an offence technically, if not morally.

Friday, November 18, 2005

If your horse got a stone in its hoof

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Knives are out

A late entrant in the Conservative leadership stakes emerged at defence questions. He was quoted by Sir Peter Tapsell as saying “it is easy to get into Kabul, but much more difficult to get out”.

He makes more sense than David Cameron, who would say: “entering and leaving Kabul are both hugely important to many of the people whose support we need to return to government, but it would be unwise to make any specific commitments at this stage”.

And David Davis would say: “The seats we need to win lie outside our southern comfort zone. I know how to win them. And you can't get much further outside the comfort zone than Kabul.”

But I prefer the wisdom of the man quoted by Sir Peter. He was, of course, the Duke of Wellington. The Tory grassroots would really like to Bring Back Maggie. But if they can’t have her, I commend the Iron Duke to them as the next best thing.

* * *

Monday also saw the third reading of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill. While schools drew up plans to confiscate pencil sharpeners, Humfrey Malins, the Tory MP for Woking, was woking himself up about knives.

He calculated that 60,000 children carry knives in school. He claimed the Government should be deeply ashamed that the numbers have risen dramatically over the past few years. And he said “carrying a knife in school is a serious matter that should result in prosecution of the child”.

I sense you nodding in agreement, but hold on. I had a penknife on my key ring throughout my school career. You don’t have to go back very far to arrive at a time when every schoolboy expected to carry a penknife. And every Boy Scout had a more serious knife than that.

In fact the young Humfrey Malins was probably just the sort of chap you were pleased to meet if your horse got a stone in its hoof.

If something has gone wrong with society and is manifesting itself in a spate of violent attacks in schools, it has nothing to do with the availability of knives. And it won’t be put right by turning our schools into a cross between a secure hospital and an airport after 9/11.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

18 Stone of Dickens

I have just watched Johnny Vegas spontaneously combust on Bleak House. As far as I am concerned, it was an accident waiting to happen.

The erosion of liberty

Those are the four words that sum up the years since 9/11, according to Timothy Garton Ash in this morning's Guardian. He writes:
If he's still alive, Osama bin Laden must be laughing into his beard. For this is exactly what al-Qaida-type terrorists want: that democracies should overreact, reveal their "true" oppressive face, and therefore win more recruits to the suicide bombers' cause. We should not play his game. In the always difficult trade-off between liberty and security, we are erring too much on the side of security. Worse still: we are becoming less safe as a result.
He goes on to describe the British government's reaction to the terrorist threat at home:
At home, we have seen successive tightenings of the anti-terrorism legislation - or, to put it another way, successive erosions of the Human Rights Act, and of other, older individual freedoms secured by common law, such as habeas corpus. This culminated in the proposal that terrorist suspects should be held for 90 days without charge. Legislation to outlaw the "glorification" of terrorism and a misguided attempt to protect Muslims by criminalising an ill-defined "incitement to religious hatred" both threaten free speech. And so we find ourselves in the surreal position of depending on unelected lords, and the Conservatives, for the defence of our liberties.
All this is good stuff, but he seem too surprised that our attachment to liberty has proved so weak. After all, Conservatism was traditionally wary of liberty, putting a higher value on the established social order. They took up the cause of individual liberty as a response to Socialism and because the left abandoned that cause too easily.

For themselves, Socialists - once Marx's influence kicked in - were suspicious of liberty and more interested in economic equality. Latterly New Labour has seen its role as reducing the liberties of the citizens in order to save them from themselves.

The Liberal Democrats have been staunch defenders of the civil liberties of the sort Garton Ash mentions, but in many ways we no longer speak up for liberty either. As Iain Sharpe says about the party's new policy consultation exercise, in a comment on Quaequam blog:

There is lots in this about political freedoms (civil liberties). What I think is missing is our attitude to ordinary bog-standard run-of-the mill freedom.

As I think you (and others) have pointed out we have ended up on the illiberal side of the licensing debate. We are also the most gung-ho of the parties for a smoking ban. These are not isolated incidents, but fairly typical of the Lib Dem stance. If there is a public campaign to ban something for health or safety reasons, the Lib Dems are likely to be at the forefront of the campaign.

Does it matter - these are marginal issues after all? I think it does. The political centre-left often comes across as worthy, earnest and a little bit controlling. The Lib Dems are at least as guilty of this as New Labour.

I think the party should position itself as a party of the libertarian left - committed to improving public services and supporting the poor and marginalised over the wealthy and privileged, but not trying to impose the lifestyle choices of the average Guardian-reader on the whole of society.

Amen to that. As Garton Ash writes:
It wasn't any of the CIA's covert assassinations or dirty tricks that won the cold war. It was the magnetic example of free, prosperous and law-abiding societies. That was worth a thousand nuclear bombs or stealth bombers. No weapon known to man is more powerful than liberty in law.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The next President of the United States?

Mike Smithson at is talking up Mark Warner's chances of winning the Democratic nomination in 2008. He recommends backing the outgoing Governor of Virginia at 8/1 for the Democrat nomination and 40/1 to be President.

For more on Warner see the profile in last Sunday's Observer.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Heidi low

The school-bans-conkers stories may have failed to appear this autumn, but here is an early sighting of a Santa-warned-over-abuse-fears one. The Daily Telegraph reports that:
Swiss Santa Clauses have been banned from sitting children on their laps because of the risk that they might be accused of paedophilia.
At least the story introduces us to the world's most unlikely trade union, The Society of St Nicholases, which "has 100 professional members".

Choice and privatisation in Wales

Peter Black has some fun with Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for Rhondda, who is calling on the Welsh Assembly to embrace the choice agenda being advanced by the government in England.

Peter's blog is one of the most valuable in the Lib Dem blogosphere, but two things worry me about this posting.

First, he slides too easily from talking about choice to talking about privatisation. Chris Bryant must speak for himself, but Liberals, with our long interest in mutualist and cooperative organisations, no there is more to it than that. And, where the state is running things badly, is it really so terrible to suggest that other people might have a try?

Second, Peter says:
Given that the privatising agenda that Chris Bryant wants the Welsh Assembly to adopt is only being championed here by the Welsh Conservative Group, then the solution seems obvious. At the next Assembly elections he should vote with his conscience and put his cross next to the name of his local Tory candidate.
All very amusing, but if I were a Tory strategist I would be delighted to see my opponents toying with a slogan like: "If you want choice in public services, vote Conservative." We should not make things that easy for them.