Monday, January 31, 2005

Jo Grimond

There is a pleasant short tribute on the website of the Orcadian newspaper.

No one's votin' for Oaten

Peter Black AM has joined the outcry:
If any issue required a clear Liberal steer then this is it. This is an opportunity once more for the Liberal Democrats to stand at the head of those concerned about our drift into totalitarianism and to speak out on behalf of people's liberties. It is also our duty to point out the ineffectiveness of these measures as a weapon against terrorism. It is time for Mark Oaten and Charles Kennedy to assume that position publicly and loudly.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Simon Titley on Mark Oaten

Trenchant stuff over on Liberal Dissenter:
When a Law Lord and a Labour MP can demonstrate a better grasp of liberalism and express it in forthright terms, while our parliamentary spokesman ends up batting for the opposition, what hope is there?

Chris Morris

There is a profile of the great man in today's Observer.

Thanks to Nick Barlow for the tip - I didn't buy a Sunday paper.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

I shall write this only once

A few days ago we reported the sad state of the little Shropshire town on Cleobury Mortimer. It is "strife torn" and has been "plunged into chaos", according to the Shropshire Star.

But the inhabitants are not down-hearted. They are doing what English people always do when they want to cheer themselves up: dressing up as nuns, French waitresses and SS officers.

The Star says:
Today Mavis Cartwright, director of the Cleobury Players, said she hoped people would turn out in big numbers to see the local performance of Allo Allo. She said people in the town had put a great deal of work into rehearsing the production and it was expected to be a hit.

The Westminster Bookshop...

...opened at 8 Artillery Row, London SW1, in October last year. It's the same premises that Politicos occupied before it went virtual.

Now the Westminster Bookshop has a website where you can browse and order political books to your heart's content.

Better than any anti-ageing cream?

Spiked has a pleasing dissection of those annoying Teacher Training Agency advertisements, written by Dolan Cummings:
It's bad enough that TV should be dominated by a cult of youth and the celebration of banality. Is it too much to ask that schools should encourage pupils to aspire to something more?

Friday, January 28, 2005

Gambling and 24-hour drinking

Here is today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Ayes down

Casino Royale, the first James Bond book, begins: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”

The government has reached the 3 a.m. stage with its gambling bill.

At first ministers were excited by their plans to revive moribund resorts with casinos. No more sitting around in bus shelters waiting to be allowed back into your boarding house. Peter Hain believed they would “provide an opportunity for families to go out and eat, have some entertainment and … indulge in some leisure gambling in an adult fashion.”

But they have been shaken (not stirred) by the opposition they have run into, and the idea has turned sour. People realise the gambling industry is not planning the sort of establishments that sophisticates likes Hain or James Bond would enjoy, but sheds with row upon row of slot machines.

A similar thing has happened with the licensing laws. Town centres were going to be given new life by allowing more bars to open. But we have not seen the flourishing of a Continental caf├ę culture. We have seen the decline of traditional pubs and the opening of more and more superbars where there are no tables or chairs and young people are crammed in.

It’s called vertical drinking, but some customers don’t remain vertical for long. Now they have seen what it can mean, it’s no surprise that further liberalisation strikes many as a doubtful idea.

John Pugh’s Southport constituency is the sort of place the gambling bill is meant to help. But he described it as an industry-led proposal and said the town is regenerating itself without any. He felt the bill’s planning controls are too weak, with the local community receiving little in return for its concessions to the gambling industry.

One thing the government has done is to take powers to bar children from seaside arcades. Very New Labour.

It’s as though it had announced a free-for-all on hardcore pornography and then, when there was an outcry, reassured voters with the news that it was considering banning the Beano.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Patrick Hamilton

I have posted a new entry to my anthology blog Serendib: the opening lines of the novel The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton.

I tend to discuss newpaper articles on this blog and reserve Serendib for passages from books. I have not posted there much recently, so the moral must be that I have not read enough good books lately.

Anyway, Hamilton is one of those writers whom I have meant to investigate for years. You can read more about his career here.

Julian Le Grand

There is a feature in today's Guardian about Tony Blair's inner circle. One of the people profiled in depth is Julian Le Grand.

I met Le Grand a few years ago when he gave a talk to the John Stuart Mill Institute at the National Liberal Club. It was based on work that was later published as his book Motivation, Agency and Public Policy: Of Knights, Knaves, Pawns and Queens.

I found his ideas interesting, but the Guardian reports that:
Some, including the unions, claimed that it put him outside the social democrat family since it did not assume public sector workers are purely motivated by altruism.
Purely by altruism? I doubt there has been anyone born who is motivated purely by altruism.

One of the dangers of left and liberal politics is that they will become merely a reflection of the interests of those working in the public sector.

Yes, the public sector ethos is valuable. And, yes, public sector workers are bound to play a prominent part in any successful anti-Tory movement.

But it is nonsense to pretend that all those working in the public sector are finer souls than the rest of us, and to make that the basis of our politics.

Holocaust Memorial Day

Yesterday Charles Clarke announced plans to introduce house arrest to Britain. What did the Independent put on its front page? Auschwitz.

Remembering the Holocaust ought to give us a sharper nose for tyranny, but it seems to be having the opposite effect. Nick Cohen, in a thoughtful article published in 2000, quotes the historian Peter Novick as saying:
The principal lesson of the Holocaust, it is frequently said, [is that] it sensitises us to oppression and atrocity. In principle it might, and I don't doubt that sometimes it does. But making it the benchmark of oppression and atrocity works in precisely the opposite direction, trivialising crimes of lesser magnitude.
And Cohen gives an example of how it can work in this paradoxical way:
A few months ago, I shared a platform with Sion Simon, a new Labour cheerleader. I had a go at the government's assault on trial by jury, and his instant response was: "Nick Cohen thinks Blair's Hitler." I pointed out that I thought nothing of the sort, and asked if all criticism of new Labour's record would be illegitimate until the day the Cabinet dressed in black leather and invaded Poland.
For many years Nazi Germany gave the British a clear sense of what we were not like. I was not born until 1960, but central to my opposition to compulsory identity cards is a sense that they are simply not British coupled with a vague feeling that not having to carry a card was part of our reward for having won the Second World War.

Later, overlapping with this period, the Soviet Union served a similar purpose, aided by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, served a similar function. Both tyrannies provided us with models of what we did not British society to become, and there was a tendency to judge new government proposals by the extent to which they represented steps down the slippery slope towards them.

But the Berlin Wall has come down and Big Brother means something very different to a later generation, so our sense of what tyranny feels like is less vivid than it used to be. Meanwhile, we have lost our confidence in Britishness as something stable or even desirable.

The result is a void that our leaders have not been slow in filling. The memory of the Holocaust ought to increase our scepticism about politicians: instead we have to suffer Tony Blair on the evening news employing his hammiest just-choking-back-the-tears voice to point the moral lessons he wants us to learn.

By all means observe Holocaust Memorial Day if you wish, though personally I have always found Blair's eagerness to behave like a headmaster choosing the theme for morning assembly one of his less appealing characteristics. But do not let it blind you to the failings of our present day leaders, trivial though their crimes are in comparison.

Nor should you overlook the fact that the occasion itself is not without its shabby compromises. Cohen, in another article, asks:
If we had to have a Holocaust Day, why 27 January, when Auschwitz was liberated by a Red Army that went on to subjugate half of Europe? What was wrong with 15 April when the British Army reached 40,000 inmates in Belsen - a moment which, whenever it is recalled, can make even my unpatriotic eyes prick?
And, in the first article I quoted, he reminds us that in the first Holocaust Memorial Day:
BBC executives and the government ... banned references to the Turkish slaughter of 1,500,000 Armenians in 1915, the first 20th-century genocide, and one that has many impolitic resonances. Turkey does not like to be reminded of the parallels between its treatment of the Armenians 85 years ago and of the Kurds today; earlier this year, it threatened to deny the Americans use of air bases on her territory if Bill Clinton formally accepted the massacres were genocide.
We should certainly remember the Holocaust, but we should be wary of allowing our modern-day leaders to tell us the lessons we should learn from it.

Later. The only freely available version of one of the Cohen articles referred to here is to be found on David Irving's website. The link is not an endorsement of anything else to be found there.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

MPs' working hours

MPs have voted to restore late-night sittings on Tuesdays by a surprisingly large majority of 67. The Commons will now sit from 2.30 to 10.30 on both Mondays and Tuesdays.

Some will see this as a retrograde step, as MPs will not be home to read Jack and Chloe a bedtime story on Tuesdays. But think again.

There was an article in the Guardian this morning by Douglas Alexander and David Milliband in support of the status quo. But if the sharpest, most ambitious young ministers in a government want something, it is generally a good idea for backbenchers to vote against it.

I expect it was their contribution that swung the vote.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Michael Howard on immigration

The policies the Tories are putting forward on immigration prove two things. The first is that they do not expect to win the forthcoming general election. The second is that Conservatism, as a coherent political philosophy, is just about dead in Britain. Let me explain.

In order to put into place the annual limit on people granted asylum he proposes, Howard - by his own admission - would have to withdraw from the 1951 United Nations Convention on refugees. Equally, the BBC reports, a spokesman for European Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini has said that the plans would contravene EU asylum policy and the UK could not simply refuse to hear an asylum case.

No doubt it would break many other treaties too. This is not a sign that Britain is now ruled from Brussels or by the UN. It is a sign that. Unless it is North Korea or Hoxha's Albania, then any nation will have taken on numerous reciprocal obligations with other nations that it cannot wish away over night.

Michael Howard is aware of this, of course. Which suggests that his policy is not designed to be put into practice in a few months' time by a Conservative government after the next general election, but is intended to rally the core vote and limit the scale of his defeat.

He should be careful though. Benjamin Netanyahu, much to his surprise, was elected Prime Minister of Israel in 1996 on a just such a manifesto and his premiership was a failure as a result.

Then there is the death of Conservatism as a philosophy in Britain. If Conservatives really do believe in the family, the centrality religion and the preservation of established authority, then they should be enjoying an enthusiastic reception for their views from many immigrant communities and renewing themselves from the same source.

As it is, the Conservatives seem to have nothing to say to those communities. This confirms the impression that the Tory Party exists to enable the wealthy to stay wealthy and to pander to the less attractive prejudices of their dwindling membership.

And, as I never miss an opportunity to point out, it is all Mrs Thatcher's fault.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Listen with Gladstone

As today was meant to be the most depressing day of the year, I took it as holiday and went to London. I renewed my House of Commons Press Gallery pass, met a couple of friends and did some shopping.

One of the things I bought was a CD of historic recordings from the British Library's sound archive. It includes the voices of several liberals: Gladstone, Asquith, Lloyd George, Margaret Wintringham and Herbert Samuel. I have not listened to it yet, but it promises to be fascinating.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Daily Telegraph bemoans the Vicky Pollard generation

Here is a good harrumphing piece with more than a little truth to it:

The "don't-blame-me" mentality personified by Vicky Pollard - the Little Britain character who refuses to accept responsibility for anything - is becoming more prevalent, according to a new study.

Researchers say that young people increasingly believe that their fate is out of their hands and that parents, schools, government or bad luck are to blame for their misfortunes.

You may have to register with the Telegraph site first. (It's not my fault.)

Cleobury Mortimer: "Strife torn", "Plunged into chaos"

Forget Beirut or Baghdad. According to the Shropshire Star, it's Cleobury Mortimer we should be worrying about:

Two new rows have blown up in a strife-torn town near to the south Shropshire border, which was plunged into chaos when four parish councillors quit their local authority in protest.

The new rows blew up today in Cleobury Mortimer, which has been at the centre of a series of controversies during the past 18 months.

Those rows in full
Former parish councillor Jim Reynolds, who was sacked as editor of the town's Cleobury Bulletin newsheet (sic.), today refused to hand the publication over to the parish chairman.
The second row centred on parking after Councillor Griffiths was accused of blocking spaces along the High Street for a second time this week.
At least in Market Harborough we only have underground rivers to worry about.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Jerry Springer - The Opera

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News:

Banning the Beeb

There's nothing like imminent retirement to make a politician talk sense. Invited on Monday to condemn the BBC for showing Jerry Springer - The Opera, Estelle Morris robustly refused.

"I would rather have free speech than try to legislate against people being offended," she said. "What is broadcast or printed is not and never should be a matter for the government."

Quite right too. This is the sort of programme - taking something enjoyed by the metropolitan elite and making it available to everyone - that justifies public service broadcasting.

It's different from the early days of this administration. Then Stephen Byers was so ambitious he demanded a Teletubbies video to allow him to judge whether it was suitable viewing for children.

As ever, it was Tory MPs who were keen to attack the BBC. In part it was their native philistinism: it is always high art which annoys them. There were similar rows in over Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective and Tony Harrison's poem V.

But there was more to it than that. Some Tories, having seen George W. Bush win twice with the votes of the religious right, fancy they can appeal to its British equivalent. It is doubtful that such a thing exists, and their attack on the BBC raises the question of what it is the Tories want to conserve.

For most of us, Auntie is central to our idea of what it means to be British. Think Alvar Liddell. In Town Tonight. Muffin the Mule. Mrs Dale's Diary. Franklin Engelmann. The Clitheroe Kid. David Jacobs. Listen with Mother. Raymond Baxter. Gardeners' Question Time. Valerie Singleton. Dr Who. Richard Dimbleby and all his children.

Do they want to abolish all that? Do they believe the commercial sector has higher standards? Or do they want the state to censor the BBC's programmes? That is precisely the sort of society we used to congratulate ourselves on not having.

Elsewhere on Monday, two Tories had a more promising idea. They demanded to know what progress was being made with encouraging Britons living abroad to register to vote here.

This is an important intellectual breakthrough. They have grasped that the people most likely to vote for a Tory government are those who will not have to live under it.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

More Lib Dem blogs added

It's a big Liberal England hello to Dominic Tristram and No Geek is an Island, which have both joined the list on the right.

Under Market Harborough

From the Leicester Mercury:

A flood defence network may be delayed by the discovery of a suspected underground river, it was revealed today.

The cost of Anglian Water's £1.8 million scheme in Market Harborough town centre is expected to increase as a result.

Click for the full story.

Well, it's fascinating if you live here.

Reclaim the swastika

Proof that life in a multicultural society is more complicated than the average politician grasps comes in the form of this report from the Scotsman:

The Hindu Council UK today called on all MPs and MEPs to oppose a proposed EU move to ban the swastika symbol because of its Nazi associations.

The council is urging politicians to fight the move as the symbol has been used for thousands of years and for Hindus represents a highly-sacred sign of wisdom

I am reminded of an incident when I was a governor of a primary school here in Market Harborough. ("I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.") The children went on an outing to a Hindu temple in Leicester and were given coconuts carved with sacred symbols as presents. They had to go home with letters to their parents reassuring them that they had not been to a meeting of the BNP.

There must also have been a vogue for the swastika in Britain in the early 20th century. The standard edition of the works of Rudyard Kipling had it stamped on the spine. Indeed, Kipling seems to have adopted it as a sort of personal logo. (That's wasn't funny. See me afterwards, Eagleton.) See this article for further details.

And, ironically given Prince Harry's recent idiocy, if you go to Balmoral Castle and inspect the memorial to estate workers who died in the First World War (my kinsmen among them, almost certainly) that stands just outside the gates, you will find that it is heavily decorated with swastikas. There is a small picture of the whole memorial on this page and a clearer one of the decoration here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Des Wilson off his long run

Just before Christmas I posted a complaint about the English and Wales Cricket Board's decision to sell the rights to home test matches to BSkyB, with the result that they will no longer be shown on terrestrial television.

Now Des Wilson, once the darling of radical Liberals everywhere, has joined the debate:
"while there have been assurances that the deal will help the developmental and recreational aspects of the game, there are no plans, let alone guarantees. In the meantime the 18 first-class counties are rubbing their hands in expectation of more money to spend on employing too many expensive overseas players and on other short-term projects."

Smells and flashes and bangs

There is a good article by Josie Appleton on the Spiked website that links modern concerns for safety in schools with the decline of children's interest in science:

Jack Pridham, emeritus professor of biochemistry at Royal Holloway, University of London, says it was the "smells and flashes and bangs" that drew him to chemistry as a boy. "Now all the exciting stuff has gone out of the window."

Teachers say that they are increasingly cautious about old explosive favourites - burning hydrogen gas in air to create water, the thermite reaction (producing iron from a mix of iron oxide and aluminium), or the reaction between phosphorous and oxygen. The fractional distillation of crude oil (to show its different components) is avoided, because crude oil is considered carcinogenic (cancer-causing) - apparently some schools use ink and water instead.

Articles bemoaning the modern world tend at heart to be a complaint that young people are having too much fun these days. This, like many on Spiked, are based on the theory that they do have enough fun any more, which is why I am happy to plug it.

I win an award

In my day job I am communications officer for the British Psychological Society's Division of Clinical Psychology. I was looking through some press cuttings at work today when I came across a column from the Financial Times by one Michael Skapinker. (You can read it via this page, but you have to be a subscriber.)

In it, Skapinker announces his Barely Managing Awards for 2004. And the award for the Most Heroic Extrapolation of a Research Result goes to a press release which I wrote.

In my defence I can say that this is better than winning the award for the Best Piece of Research Proving the Bleeding Obvious (which the Society also received) and the release did lead to a lot of press coverage - there is an example here.

And I shall be adding the line "Winner of Financial Times journalism award 2004" to my c.v. in future.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The tallest MP ever

It is wonderful what you find when you are surfing the net looking for something else. If you scroll to the bottom of this page, you will come across the claim that the:
Tallest MP was Sir Louis Gluckstein who represented Nottingham East between 1931 and 1945 was over 6ft 7inches tall.
Lord Bonkers writes: He captained the parliamentary basketball for many years and was frequently employed by the Searjeant at Arms to reach things down from high shelves.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Alan Bennett

This weekend I looked through Alan Bennett's collection Writing Home again and posted a short diary extract about the auditions for his play Forty Years On to my other blog, the anthology Serendib ("Much loved, little visited.")

Now, via The Virtual Stoa and Charlotte Street, I find that someone else has been doing more of the same. Click here for further quotations from the great man.

Nick Cohen on the family court system

The best left-wing journalists writing in Britain at the moment is Nick Cohen - you can find an archive of his columns in the Observer here. He is consistently original and entertaining, and the best thing in any Sunday's papers, even when you disagree with the line he is taking.

When he supported the war in Iraq, you felt he did so because he really believed what he was saying. With other pro-war journalists (it would be invidious to mention David Aaronovitch or Johann Hari in this context), it was hard to dismiss the suspicion that they were merely following the Downing Street line.

Yesterday's column is a good example. A lesser journalist would have used Lord Falconer's appointment of an old friend with a background in commercial law as the new president of the family division as the occasion for a piece on new Labour cronyism. Cohen does those very well, but this time he gives us far more.

It is worth reading in full, but here are a few quotations to give whet you appetite:

If Charles Dickens were around today, he'd be writing The Family Division. You might think that as a British citizen you are innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt. And so you are when you are charged with a criminal offence.

But if you are ever unlucky enough to be faced with the prospect of having your child taken into care - a far worse punishment than a jail term for most parents - you will find that the state need only prove that you are guilty on the balance of probabilities.


You might think that it's a basic tradition of the English law that justice must not only be done but be seen to be done and that secret justice is no justice at all. Not so in the Family Division. Enter into its courts and you enter a British Guantanamo where basic traditions no longer apply...

It's not merely that the cases are held in secret. Nothing about them - court papers, expert reports, statements from witnesses - can be made public without the permission of the court.


Like all closed systems, family law is prone to attacks of collective mania. Delusions sweep the minds of otherwise sane men and women because there are no sceptical outsiders to bring them up short. In the 1980s and 1990s, the modern witch-crazes of satanic and ritual abuse swept through social service departments and the courts. They died down only to be replaced by Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, an impressively difficult name for a criminally-vague theory, which purported to explain otherwise inexplicable deaths and injuries by asserting that parents were seeking attention by harming their children.

The most notorious incident was during the Rochdale witch craze when children were dragged from their homes by social workers convinced they had uncovered a coven of Lancashire devil worshippers. Parents went to their councillors, who could do nothing because they had been warned that it was illegal to ask what was going on.

And finally:

If to make reform work Lord Falconer has to parachute in a crony, well three cheers for cronyism. Let's have more of it. If Dame Elizabeth doesn't like it, that's good. If Family Division judges are resentful, that's better. We should urge Lord Falconer to cram the bench with lawyers who haven't been contaminated by decades of secrecy. If he runs out of legal cronies, there's always his milkman, postman, lady who does and teenage children. Anything and anyone will be better than the status quo.

I seem to have ended up by quoting most of the article, but as always with Cohen, it is worth reading him for yourself.

Friday, January 14, 2005

More on Mardy Jones

If you want to know more about the unfortunate Thomas Isaac Mardy Jones, then click here for his photograph.

You will see that he died in 1970 at the age of 91. I hope the headline that day was not Rail Ticket Man Dies.

House Points: The wrong side of the blunkett

Here is my column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

The good old days?

Now that David Blunkett and his little lad have slipped from the headlines it is time to note two things. The first is that many authorities believe this affair gave rise to the expression “born the wrong side of the blunkett” to denote illegitimacy.

The second is a sad historical parallel with one of the less dramatic aspects of Nannygate. You will recall that Blunkett was found to have misused two first class rail tickets assigned to him for his work as an MP. We taxpayers are more forgiving than many employers: after he repaid the £179 they were worth, the matter was closed.

Things were not always so civilised. In 1922 Mardy Jones was elected Labour MP for Pontypridd. He had begun work in the mines at the age of 12, and like many working-class Members found life difficult financially.

Payment for MPs was one of the Chartists’ demands in the 1830s. It was not introduced until the Liberal government’s 1911 Parliament Act. In Jones’ day the salary was small, but MPs did receive a perk in the form of vouchers that could be exchanged for railway tickets between their constituencies and Westminster. As Matthew Parris reports in his Great Parliamentary Scandals, those tickets were strictly non-transferable.

Mardy Jones broke the rules. He sent two tickets to Wales to allow his wife and young daughter to make a rare trip to London. Unfortunately, one of them was six weeks out of date and the Great Western Railway pressed charges.

Despite an ingenious defence involving vital papers that had to be brought to him, Jones was found guilty and fined £2 plus costs. Worse, he was obliged to resign his seat before the case came to court.

David Blunkett, one newspaper suggested, attributes his fall attributes to “a millionaires’ plot to destroy a working class lad” and not his own disastrous judgement. But he doesn’t know the half of class prejudice.

When Jones was convicted the magistrate declared: “However disgusting this case is, and I think it is very disgusting, we have to remember that Mr Mardy Jones has risen to his present position from a coal mine.”

David Blunkett, more than most of us, should be thankful he does not live in the good old days.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

More Lib Dem Blogs

Two promising blogs by Lib Dem candidates have appeared recently. They are written by Simon Radford and John Hemming. I have added links to both to the list on the right.

Strawberry Fields NOT Forever

The Strawberry Fields children's home immortalised by The Beatles is to close, reports the BBC.

Heil Harry

Harry's choice of costume does not such a surprise when you consider the career or his great uncle - the husband of one of Prince Philip's sisters:

Philip's sister had married a cousin, Prince Christoph of Hesse. Prince Christoph had joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and by 1935 was a standartenf├╝hrer (colonel) of the SS on the personal staff of Heinrich Himmler and chief of the forschungsamt (directorate of scientific research) - in reality a special intelligence operation using new electronic intelligence gathering methods.

Their son was named Karl Adolf after Hitler.

Peter Berresford Ellis's article from the Irish Democrat has much more scurrilous gossip about the royal family.

The alarm bells about Harry began to ring three years ago following after reports that he had been drinking and taking drugs at a pub near Highgrove. Far more serious for supporters of the monarchy, though, was the allegation that he had been thrown out after insulting the staff.

One can understand any young person experimenting with cannabis or alcohol, but for a prince to be rude to the lower orders is unforgivable.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Tony Blair: "Palpably absurd"

When the inspectors left in 1998, they left unaccounted for:

  • ten thousand litres of anthrax;
  • a far reaching VX nerve agent programme;
  • up to 6,500 chemical munitions;
  • at least 80 tonnes of mustard gas, possibly more than ten times that amount
  • unquantifiable amounts of sarin, botulinum toxin and a host of other biological poisons;
  • an entire Scud missile programme.

We are now seriously asked to accept that in the last few years, contrary to all history, contrary to all intelligence, he decided unilaterally to destroy the weapons. Such a claim is palpably absurd.

Tony Blair, 18 March 2003

With little fanfare, U.S. President George Bush's highly publicized search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq ended before Christmas.

Officials with the Iraq Survey Group told the Washington Post the man in charge of the search, Charles Duelfer, is back in Washington writing his final report that pretty much reiterates his report from September that said there was nothing found.

UPI, 12 Janaury 2005

Even grimmer up North

The Yorkshire Post has more on the feuding amongst Conservatives in Calder Valley (a constituency in which I naturally take an interest).

Bear in mind that this is not a hopeless seat for the Tories but one they must gain to make any sort of dent in Blair's majority at the next election. The result last time can be found here.

Mobile phones, children and safety

A few months ago I wrote about children and mobile phones:
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.
It is interesting, then, that there is a transcript of a phone-in contribution on the BBC website in which a father gives his reasons for being in favour of his son to have a mobile phone:

I decided to give my son a mobile phone last year.

All his friends had a mobile phone and he was asking for one. When I upgraded my phone, I gave him my old one.

The reason we gave it was because of safety.

He's going to a secondary school and he has to go to school on his own, so if there was a need for him to call us at any time, then the phone would be there available for him.

It is not just that we talk about safety a lot when it comes to children these days. We hardly talk about anything else.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Grim up north for the Tories

Thanks to Tory Trouble for alerting us to this amusing story from the Halifax Today site:
Tory candidate Sue Catling today faced the ignominy of being locked out of the constituency party office which she has been using as a base for her General Election campaign.
Catling has taken it badly:
"This is another despicable trick to try to scupper me."
And we particularly liked the comment from her association treasurer:
"There are only two registered key holders and if we wanted a third it would be someone who lives a lot closer than Cheshire."

Jerry Springer - The Opera: What the BBC is for

It is always high culture that rouses the forces of reaction to fury. The last time there was a row comparable to that over Jerry Springer - The Opera was in 1987 when Channel 4 broadcast a film of Tony Harrison's poem V.

This encyclopaedia entry reminds us what happened then

His best-known poem is the fairly long V.(1985), written during the UK miners' strike of 1984-5, and describing a trip to see his parents' grave in a Leeds cemetery "now littered with beer cans and vandalised by obscene graffiti". The title has several possible interpretations: victory, versus, verse etc.

Proposals to screen a filmed version of V. by Channel 4 in October 1987 drew howls of outrage from the tabloid press, some broadsheet journalists, and MPs, apparently concerned about the effects its "torrents of obscene language" and "streams of four-letter filth" would have on the nation's youth.

Indeed, an Early day Motion entitled "Television Obscenity" was proposed on 27 October 1987 by a group of Conservative MPs, who condemned Channel 4 and the Independent Broadcasting Authority. The motion was opposed by a single MP, Mr Norman Buchan, who suggested that MPs had either failed to read or failed to understand V.

The broadcast went ahead, and the brouhaha settled quickly after enough column inches had been written about the broadcast and reaction to the broadcast.

Jerry Springer - The Opera is the sort of programme that justifies the existence of public service broadcasting. The BBC took a production that had been seen largely by the metropolitan elite and made it available to a much wider audience.

It is the acres of lifestyle programming and reality shows that make me begrudge paying the licence fee. Broadcasts like this one reconcile me to it.

Round Winter Nonsuch

Another rare apple has turned up in a south Shropshire orchard, reports the Shropshire Star. Give it up, please, for the Round Winter Nonsuch.

When we noted the rediscovery of the Gipsy King variety a few months ago we gave a plug for the excellent organisation Common Ground, which cares about things like this. Here is another plug for it.

Cricket: Good news and bad

The good news: Bangladesh have won their first test match, beating Zimbabwe by 226 runs at Chittagong. Some have questioned whether they should have been granted test status in the first place, arguing that they are simply not good enough. But we should remember that it took New Zealand around 50 years (from the 1920s to the 1970s) to cease being a pushover at test level. So well done, Bangladesh.

The bad news is that the lime tree on the outfield at the St Lawrence ground in Canterbury has blown down. Some may ask why a cricket ground should have a tree on it, but they merely show that they understand nothing about cricket. (If a shot hit any part of the tree, four runs were awarded.)

Friday, January 07, 2005

The Curious Incident of the WMD in Iraq

I have added my review of this book by Rohan Candappa to the collection on Lord Bonkers' website. It can be found at the bottom of that page and first appeared in the 17 December 2004 issue of Liberal Democrat News.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Alternative comedy is the new establishment

On New Year's Day Channel 4 broadcast The Comedians' Comedian - a countdown of the top 50 comedians as voted for by more than 300 comedy performers, writers, producers and directors. Like all these "best of" programmes it was introduced by Jimmy Carr, but it was a class above most of them. Paul Ross was nowhere to be seen and there were no D list celebs intoning: "We always watched Magpie. Blue Peter was for posh kids."

The winner was Peter Cook, which seems fair enough. You could argue for days about whether he was the funniest, but it is a matter of fact that he has been the most influential comedian of modern times.

More interesting, though, was the treatment of some of the performers who came further down the list. Anyone who did not fit the required mould for a modern comedian - left-wing, swears a lot, at Cambridge with Stephen Fry and so on - was treated with contempt. So though such minor figures as Reeves & Mortimer and French & Saunders were revered, when Charlie Chaplin and Bob Monkhouse were being discussed there were as many clips of people disparaging them as there were of praise.

I always had a guilty liking for Monkhouse because of his professionalism and lines like: "Fifty years ago, when I said I was going to be a comedian, people laughed. They're not laughing now." Chaplin is a more interesting case. In terms of fame and the way he provides a link between Dickensian London and Hollywood he has a claim to be one of the great men of the twentieth century.

Is Chaplin funny? The odd thing is that, watching him today, you can see that he is a brilliant performer but you don't laugh. Normally, when comedy ceases to be funny it becomes merely embarrassing, but this has not happened to Chaplin. Whatever you think of him, he deserves better than to be patronised by the likes of Ben Elton and Richard Curtis in Blackadder.

And now that Elton is the compere of the Royal Variety Performance we can see clearly that the Alternative generation has become the new establishment. More than that, it is every bit as blinkered and self-satisfied as the Jimmy Tarbucks and Bruce Forsyths they replaced.

The meaning of disasters

There is a characteristically interesting article from Frank Furedi on the Spiked website looking at the different meanings humanity has ascribed to disasters down the years.

His own website has a link to a .pdf of a longer article on the same subject - "Coping with catastrophe" - published in the BBC History magazine last September.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Sing levy dew

In recent days several people have found Liberal England thanks to the New Year carol I posted the other day. I know it from a setting by Benjamin Britten in his collection of children's songs Friday Afternoons. (Come to that, my Christmas verse by Robert Southwell comes from Britten's A Ceremony of Carols.)

What does the New Year carol mean? The website School of the Seasons gives some background:

Trefor Owen describes the context for this song in Wales. Very early on New Year's Day about three or four o'clock in the morning, groups of boys came round to the houses in the neighbourhood, carrying a vessel of cold spring water, freshly drawn, and twigs of box, holly, myrtle, rosemary or other evergreens. They sprinkled the hands and face of anyone they met for a copper or two. In every house, each room was sprinkled with New Year's water and the inmates, who were often still in bed, wished a Happy New Year. For this service and wish they were also gifted with coins. The doors of those houses which were closed to them were sprinkled with the water. The verse was sung during the sprinkling.

In certain parts of Wales this custom is called dwr newy (literally, new water). The exact meaning of the phrase, “levy dew” is unknown, although there have been attempts to trace it to llef I Dduw (Welsh for “cry of God”). This seems to be an imposition of a Christian interpretation on a much older custom. Although the fair maid is now equated with the Virgin, Owen thinks it likely that this custom derives from “an early well-cult made acceptable to medieval Christianity by its association with the Virgin and perpetuated both by the desire to wish one’s neighbour well at the beginning of a new year and by the small monetary payment involved.”

All very interesting, and enough, I hope, to refute the suggestion of Simon Titley (who writes the blog Liberal Dissenter) that it sounds like the work of Rambling Sid Rumpo from Round the Horne.

The Independent: It's not, I am

When the Independent went tabloid I wished it well and often bought it instead of the Guardian. But I have become increasingly irritated by the way its front page tells me what to think every day.

Today, for instance, the front page acted as a cheerleader for the three minutes' silence for the victims of the Indian Ocean tidal wave. Little sign of independence there: for a sceptical view you have to go somewhere like the Spiked website and this article by Josie Appleton.

Yesterday's front page was much worse. "Could the tsunami disaster be a turning point for the world?" it asked 15 celebrities, including Sue MacGregor, Bill Bailey and Dinos Chapman. Next week: Des O'Connor on whether Britain should adopt the Euro.

The Independent no longer gives the impression that it thinks for itself in the way it did in its early days. Remember how it refused to report trivial stories about the Royal Family? While I agree with the stand in took against the invasion of Iraq, for the most part the views it puts over with such stridency these days are not particularly interesting.

So its intellectual ambitions have shrunk with its physical size. This raises again the question of whether a quality tabloid is a contradiction in terms.

Certainly, if a newspaper cannot report the news properly on its front page, there is something wrong with its format.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Top story of the holiday

In case you missed it, here is a BBC report from New Year's Eve:
There is "no hard evidence" government files have been shredded ahead of new openness laws, a watchdog has said.
Well there wouldn't be, would there?

Not as funny as it used to be

Watching Remember the Secret Policeman's Ball? over Christmas I came to two conclusions.

The first was that, on the whole, the older the performers were, the funnier they were. The Beyond the Fringe sketches had lasted better than Monty Python, and Python was infinitely better than the French and Saunderses and Lenny Henrys who came after. Even Alexei Sayle, of whose comedy and writing I am a great admirer, came over as simply ranting.

Of course, this is a reflection of my own tastes and experience, though the comedy that most formed my sense of humour came immediately after Monty Python - Fawlty Towers and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. For what it is worth, I have not watched Reggie Perrin for years, but every time I see Fawlty Towers it is a little more dated (it is firmly rooted in the 1970s, which has its positive aspects) and John Cleese's performance seems a little more over the top.

My second conclusion is that there has been a radical change in left-wing politics. Broadly speaking, comedy of the 1960s and 70s was bitterly critical of the judges and looked to a new generation of classless politicians for salvation. Now we have those classless politicians, and we look to the judges to save us through human rights legislation.

Monday, January 03, 2005

House Points, 24 December 2004

Here is my most recent column from Liberal Democrat News.

Glorious gaffes

Christmas is a time for returning to favourite books. One of mine is Read My Lips, a collection of politicians’ sayings put together a few years ago by Matthew Parris and Phil Mason.

At its best it captures personalities in a single quotation. So John Major reveals his grasp of geopolitics while paying tribute to the late President Mitterand: “He made a great contribution to public life, especially in France.” And Lady Olga Maitland shows why her Women and Families for Defence was such a success: “Of course we are not patronising women. We are just going to explain to them in words of one syllable what it is all about.”

Not every example is so clear, but you get a hint as to why Sir Ivan Lawrence failed to hold Burton on Trent for the Conservatives in 1997 from this paragraph in his election address: “Sir Ivan has appeared in many famous trials, including the Christine Keeler and Fanny Hill cases. He also acted for the defence of the Kray twins, serial killer Dennis Neilson, the Brighton Babes in the Woods murders and the Brinks Matt gold bullion robbery.”

Some quotations are sad. There is Louis XVI’s assurance that “The French people are incapable of regicide.” And the despairing insight of the Russian anarchist Alexander Shubin: “We must organise now.”

Others are chilling. Nothing conveys Labour’s mind-set better than Hugh Scanlon’s “Liberty is conforming to the majority.” Though we should give an honourable mention to the party’s manifesto for the 1976 Forest of Dean district elections: “Rates: this was once a problem for the rich. Because Socialism has improved our way of life, it is now a problem for everybody.”

How do Liberals come out of Read My Lips? We find David Steel summing up the Alliance years: “The fact that we can be in two places at once is a good advantage.” And a young Charles Kennedy describes his predecessor’s first year as leader: “Paddy Ashdown was dealt a difficult pack of cards – but he kept his eye on the ball all the way through.”

But if any quotation sums up what the Liberal Democrats stand for, it is this one from Ashdown himself. Asked on a radio phone-in which word best sums up his character, he replied: “Er… perhaps ‘decisive’?”