Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Reds under the bed

Over at No Geek is an Island, Lib Dem blogger Will Howells has revealed that he is a distant cousin of Tony Benn and Margaret Rutherford.

This seems a good opportunity to repeat one of my favourite trivial facts: Margaret Rutherford's father murdered his own father (who was Benn's great-grandfather) by banging him repeatedly on the head with a chamber-pot. More details here.

Wood of the Week

By a unanimous decision, the award goes to the delightfully named Lurkenhope Wood near Knighton.

Dissing Respect

Respect Watch keeps an eye on the strange Trot 'n' Taliban coalition that George Galloway has put together.

Remember the wise words of Nick Cohen: "Like a minor public school, the SWP is a home for dim, middle-class children."

New blog on postal voting

In the author's own words:

Postal Voting is a blog about postal voting in the UK. It aims to increase awareness of the risks and security problems associated with such voting, especially with the upcoming 2005 General Election ...

At the moment I prefer to remain anonymous. I am not a member of, nor connected to any UK political party, nor am I connected to the Electoral Commission or any other authority. I'm just an ordinary and concerned voter. If it really matters to you, my own political leanings are left-liberal, but this blog is intended to be as non-partisan as possible.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Kick All Agricultural Subsidies

I have added a link to the KickAAS blog, which campaigns for the abolition of agricultural subsidies.

KickAAS emphasises the concerns of the developing world, but I have been convinced that this policy is in Britain's interests too ever since I read Graham Harvey's The Killing of the Countryside.

Politicians and hitmen

Jeffrey Archer says he is to appeal against his conviction for perjury and we must, of course, believe him.

The BBC reports that the basis of his appeal is that allegations made against him before his trial were not disclosed to the defence. Chief among them was the claim that he had ordered a prosecution witness, his ex-employee Angela Peppiatt, to be killed and the television presenter Jill Dando was murdered by mistake. She lived close to Ms Peppiatt and drove a similar car.

No doubt this claim is nonsense, but misunderstandings can occur with hitmen. The last case in which there were allegations of a British politician hiring one was that involving Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott.

Then it was alleged in court that Andrew Newton (who shot Scott's dog Rinka) had been told he could find Scott in Barnstaple but had misheard and originally gone to Dunstable instead.

Lawyer's note: Mr Thorpe was acquitted without a stain on his character.

The Scottish Job

While in Scotland I visited Banff. The town has many fine buildings, some of which bear plaques recording their restoration by the Banff Preservation Society.

One of our party made the happy discovery that it is possible to sing "This is the Banff Preservation Society" to the tune of the song "This is the Self-Preservation Society" from The Italian Job.

Perhaps you had to be there.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Environment questions

I have been away in Aberdeenshire over Easter - hence the lack of posts over the holiday. Here is Good Friday's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Do crows vote Labour?

Last Thursday Margaret Beckett was holed up in Breadsall Priory near Derby with the other G8 environment ministers. She was surrounded by a thousand police officers from 23 different forces, an eight-foot double fence and an exclusion zone for the public and protestors. All this at a cost of £2m.

Meanwhile at Westminster, Ben Bradshaw had taken her place. This former BBC radio reporter and hyperloyal Blairite has been making a splash as the minister for fish. Today, as a reward, he was in charge of the fowls of the air, the beasts of the earth and everything that crawls upon its belly too. He is such a toady they had put him in charge of the toads.

Our own Alistair Carmichael was one of his first questioners, referring to a headline about “Monks Scandal”. Dark doings in a Shetland monastery? Sadly, it turned out to come from Fishing News and refer to the depredations of Spanish trawlers.

According to Bradshaw, it was all the Tories’ fault and the thinking monkfish should vote Labour. But then for Bradshaw it will always be 1997. He still lives in that sunny world where everyone adores Tony Blair and is grateful for the removal of the Conservatives. Next on his list of people of who should love New Labour were the nephrops fishermen of the West of Scotland.

Then came Henry Bellingham who, a true Tory, was interested in killing animals. He asked about recent government guidelines on controlling pigeons and corvids. (Nephrops? Corvids? You learn a lot of new words at environment, food and rural affairs questions.)

These guidelines said that no one should shoot crows without first giving them 14 days’ written notice and the offer of counselling. (I paraphrase.) They were quickly withdrawn when everyone said they were unworkable. An embarrassment for Bradshaw? Not at all. It was merely a case of unfortunate wording and every crow should vote Labour too.

Even the import of bush meat turned out to be a reason for the animal kingdom to stay on message. There are now nine more sniffer dogs employed at airports than there were under the Tories. Soon there will be ten.

And Margaret Beckett? Despite all those precautions she eventually got out.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Biting at the BBC

The story of the morning is the claim that Mark Thompson, the BBC's director general, once bit a colleague when working as editor of the Nine O'Clock News.

Lord Bonkers writes: I knew Lord Reith well and never saw him bite anybody, but there were persistent reports in the 1960s that Hugh Carleton Greene had eaten a junior researcher.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Our unhealthy obsession with sickness

Frank Furedi has a new essay on the Spiked website. He argues that:
The distinguishing feature of the twenty-first century is that health has become a dominant issue, both in our personal lives and in public life.
He suggests four reasons for this dominance:
  • medicalisation - problems we encounter in everyday life are reinterpreted as medical ones;
  • being ill is seen as a normal state, possibly even more normal than being healthy;
  • moral uncertainty - the more ambiguous we feel about what is right and wrong, then the more comfortable we feel using the language of health to make sense of our lives;
  • politicisation (and the collapse of ideology) - politicians who have little by way of beliefs or passions, and don't know what to say to the public, are guaranteed a response if they say something health-related.
Furedi concludes:
Western societies are not going to overcome the crisis of healthcare; it is beyond the realms of possibility. No matter what policies government pursue, or how much money they throw at the problem, even if they increase health expenditure fourfold, the problem will not go away. As long as the normalisation of illness remains culturally affirmed, more and more of us are likely to identify ourselves as sick, and will identify ourselves as sick for a growing period of time. The solution to this problem lies not in the area of policymaking, or even medicine, but in the cultural sphere.
Well worth reading, as ever with Furedi.

Norman Baker gets it right

The BBC reports:

Environmental campaigners have come under fire from the Liberal Democrats for failing to make enough protests in the run up to the general election.

"Green groups have become too muted and the government has got away with more than it should have got away with," Lib Dem spokesman Norman Baker said.

There aren't many politicians who can attack and flatter pressure groups at the same time. I think this will play well with the Green movement, and the more we can do to wean single-issue activists away from an unthinking allegiance to Labour, the better.

Polly Toynbee, New Labour and eugenics

Yesterday I suggested that there were some parallels between the eugenics movement in the early part of the last century and New Labour's enthusiasm for state intervention in the family. This morning Polly Toynbee provided more evidence for this view.

Her article is another call for the state to take over the socialisation of children. In effect, she wants them all nationalised. If this sounds extreme, here are a few quotations:
A neighbourhood children's centre for all, means families' childcare crisis will soon be over. Everything children need will be there - health visitors, speech therapy, child psychology, parenting classes, cookery, mother and toddler groups and skills training.
For over-5s, the promise is for every school to stretch from breakfast to tea, so every child gets food, care, entertainment and homework help all day long.
Youth clubs are no use if they are not state-of-the art with highly trained mentors.
There is something almost Soviet in her enthusiasm for public provision. When she speaks of "a young people's palace offering music, drama, arts, sport, computers and emotional and practical support," she sounds exactly like a Brezhnev era apparachik extolling the Pioneers movement.

Toynbee is convinced that promising to implement these policies is the surest way for Labour to win the forthcoming election. I doubt this.

Most voters do not share her lack of concern for family relationships or contempt for parents or voluntary effort. And they will certainly wonder why these establishments should be "palaces" when our schools, our hospitals and - God knows - our children's homes are nothing of the sort.

But what interests me most is the point that Toynbee uses to clinch her argument:
The one true target on all this children's policy should be a rise in the birth rate, as in Nordic countries
I rest my case.

The Right to be Offensive

The Institute of Ideas and the Soho Theatre are holding a "round table rumble" on "The Right To Be Offensive: Does anything go in the arts?" at the theatre on 30 March. The panel includes the wonderful Nick Cohen and the considerably less wonderful Johann Hari.

Full details here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

New Labour's divorce from liberal England

Martin Kettle writes movingly in today's Guardian about the memorial service for Anthony Sampson:
This was unmistakably a gathering of English men and women of a particular kind. They seemed to me to be the stubbornly principled, occasionally self-righteous bearers of the English imagination of which Peter Ackroyd writes so movingly - people haunted by the landscape and above all by the language, people permanently aware of the past, but people adaptive and comfortable in diversity, practical and pragmatic carriers of a mixed culture. Call them the recusant establishment of literate and liberal England.
I find this a good description of the kinds of liberalism and Englishness that I find particularly congenial. I had these ideas somewhere in mind when I chose the title of this blog, which probably explains why it has been consistently been more interested in rural Shropshire than, say, the reform of social services.

Kettle continues:
On the steps of the church afterwards, I looked for the politicians and saw only a few of any stripe. Shirley Williams and David Owen were there; Margaret Jay and Helena Kennedy too. But none of the thinking ministers you might expect to want to mark the passing of the anatomist of Britain. No Peter Hain, no Tessa Jowell, no David Blunkett - and no Gordon Brown or Tony Blair.
In fact, he notes, "there was not a single Labour minister or MP there".

Kettle sees this absence as evidence of a recent divorce between the New Labour project and liberal England, contrasting it with the efforts senior ministers made to pay tribute to Paul Dacre on the tenth anniversary of his becoming editor of the Daily Mail. David Blunkett, for instance, turned up to propose a toast to a man who "reflects the best of journalism". For there was a time, says Kettle, when Blair felt comfortable with liberalism, and cites his 1995 Fabian lecture on the 50th anniversary of the Attlee government as an example.

I wonder. I sensed the fundamentally illiberal nature of New Labour early. In the winter of 1996-7, a few months before Blair became prime minister, I attended a lecture given by Gordon Brown in the heart of the City of London. His theme was the rediscovery of a sense of shared national purpose through work.

This sounded at once cheerless - stemming from what Andrew Roth has called Brown's "mixture of Presbyterian doom and self-satisfied righteousness" - and sinister. Can a free nation have one purpose? Surely free citizens have many different purposes and a good society enables them to pursue these in some degree of harmony?

It happens that I spent some time this weekend researching the eugenics movement in Britain for an article I am writing. I knew that this movement had enjoyed a wide following, particularly in the Edwardian era, but what struck me most was how familiar the views of its advocates sounded.

Like New Labour, they believed that we are faced by a vast underclass that is frequently criminal and is such a drag on the national economy that it threatens our future survival in an increasingly competitive world

In 1905 the answer was to sterilise the unfit and to encourage the right sort of people to have more children. In 2005 it is to have childcare professionals train parents and to make the socialisation of children the business of the state. What these two approaches share is a fundamental fear and contempt of the poor.

So while Kettle is right to say that New Labour is fundamentally divorced from Liberal England, I suspect that this divorce was inherent from its inception and is not a recent development.

Whittington's Diary

Thanks to Wayback Machine, the web's equivalent of the Tardis, I can give a shameless plug for the column I wrote for Susan Kramer's website during the first London Mayoral campaign.

Click here for the thoughts of her cat Whittington on Maurice Norris, Dobbo and the Übernewt.

A two-tier service

One day last week teams from the two universities in Leicester met in many different sports. I am told that at the basketball game the supporters of Leicester University could be heard chanting "You'll always be a poly" at their rivals from De Montfort University.

There is absolutely nothing amusing about this. Such attitudes have no place in modern Britain.
Jonathan Calder
BA (York) MA (Leicester)

Monday, March 21, 2005

I'm a pinko lily-livered liberal

Thank you to Peter Cuthbertson at Conservative Commentary for adding me to his blogroll under the heading "The Enemy Within". And an even bigger thank you to him for calling me "a pinko lily-livered liberal".

It's a great relief. In July of last year a Mr Broadbent from Sutton in Surrey wrote to Liberal Democrat News saying of me:
Surely he is not a Lib Dem - he seems to be a fairly extreme libertarian more at home in the Conservative Party or perhaps New Labour.
I'm not sure political philosophy is Mr Broadbent's strong suit. Even so, it's nice to have my pinko credentials confirmed.

School dinners

Ruth Kelly may be assuring everyone that she though of it first, but Jamie Oliver's campaign on school meals has been a remarkable success. His Feed Me Better website is worth a visit.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Chris Pond and antisocial behaviour

The funniest story of the weekend has to be the police cautioning of Chris Pond, the Work and Pensions Minister, over an incident of criminal damage. The BBC has the full details here.

Mr Pond told the Mail on Sunday: "I decided to bring the nightmare to an end by accepting a police caution." I am sure we all feel his pain.

In the past he has taken a different line on the subject (note to Labour Party press officers: it is a good idea to put a date on your media releases):

Anti Social behavior causes untold misery, corrodes communal life, undermines public services and forces people to live in fear in their own homes.

As Minister in the Department of Work and Pensions, I am looking at the possibility of using housing benefit sanctions against those who commit anti social behavior (sic).

The best comment on the whole affair comes from Peter Black:
The question is that when Ministers like Chris Pond supported all those measures to deal with anti-social behaviour did they envisage them applying to people living in refurbished Grade 2 listed 18th-century houses, thought to be worth £750,000?

Best of British blogs

Tim Worstall has posted his latest BritBlog round up here.

Friday, March 18, 2005

South Shropshire Journal

The Journal turns out to maintain a dignified silence on Ludlow's alleged connection with the Great New Zealand Cricket Sex Scandal, but it does have the headline of the week:

Dutch go baa-rmy over Clun sheep

Late news from Wittenberg

It's Friday, so here is today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Offending offence

Forget the Budget. After their heroics resisting the government's over house arrest, the Lords is the place to be this week.

Besides, the Commons, at least on the Labour benches, is full of sheep. They don't look like sheep (except Kali Mountford), but they behave like them. Ambition, inertia and the power of the whips mean they rarely give legislation proper scrutiny, however outrageously the government behaves.

Which is embarrassing for a committed democrat. These days the Lords is filled with government appointees rather than descendants of royal courtesans and catamites, but it has somehow retained its independence.

On Monday it showed that independence in the debate on proposals to make inciting religious hatred a criminal offence. The government has tacked them on to its serious and organised crime bill. The convention is that the Lords give government bills a second reading without a vote, but the debate made it clear where the balance of opinion lies.

The best speech came from our own Anthony Lester. (Radicals should always refer to peers by their first names, though I've no idea what Lord Bonkers' is.) If the government wanted to extend a hand of friendship to embattled Muslim communities, he said, they would do better to look at poverty, education attainment and the effects of anti-terrorism measures.

Instead, he said, it is introducing legislation that will strengthen the voices of religious intolerance and choke off women's right to dissent in male-dominated religious groups.

And he is right. Religions look monolithic from a distance, but closer up they are a collection of debates. It is sad to see the government aiding the conservative side in those debates.

Worse, this new law appears at a time when free speech is under threat. The play Behzti was taken off in Birmingham after violent demonstrations. And, with less publicity, the management of the Derby Assembly Rooms was spooked into cancelling a production of Jerry Springer - The Opera. This new law can only make artists more wary of tackling religious subjects.

Late news from Wittenberg: A young theologian has been arrested for nailing 95 theses to the church door. "We can't allow this sort of thing," says Inspector von Knacker, "it might offend somebody."

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Mind the Gap by Ferdinand Mount

The other day I mentioned this book and posted a link to a review of it. (I might have added a link to a favourable article by Polly Toynbee.) Anyway, here are my own thoughts.

Mount argues that the received wisdom that the class divide in Britain is becoming steadily less pronounced is plain wrong. He argues that the Uppers and the Downers (as he terms them) are growing apart in every way. Though he never defines his terms - at one moment the Downers seem be what others call the underclass, at another they seem to comprise the majority of the population - his argument is always interesting and often compelling.

The book contains many good and unexpected things, such as a convincing discussion of the different and contradictory uses Marx makes of the concept of class. There is also a fascinating comparison of clothing styles today and in the 1920s. Mount shows that, if anything, there are more markers of social class in use today and that 80 years ago one's age was at least as important a determinant of what one would choose to wear.

One of the themes that appears to be emerging on this blog is my impatience with a simplistic view of progress. I am still enough of a Liberal to believe in reform, but every change has its negative as well as its positive aspects and we should not be afraid to recognise this.

Mind the Gap is at its strongest when it looks at the decline of working-class institutions, such as schools and churches, which has accompanied the development of the welfare state. Where once the working class was seen as exemplifying hard work, thrift, cleanliness and all the other virtues, today its members are widely reviled.

Mount's support for localism and co-operative enterprise reminds me of Jo Grimond's last book A Personal Manifesto, and modern Liberal Democrats would do well to absorb some of this spirit. If you don't believe me, listen to Mr Gladstone, whom Mount quotes, Here he is writing in 1836:
It appears to me clear that the day you sanction compulsory rating for the purpose of education you sign the death-warrant for voluntary exertions ... If this be the true tendency of the system which my noble friend seeks to introduce, are we preparing to undergo the risk of extinguishing that vast amount of voluntary effort which now exists throughout the country? Aid it you may; strengthen, and invigorate, and enlarge it you may; you have done so to an extraordinary degree; you have every encouragement to persevere in the same course; but always recollect that you depend upon influences of which you get the benefit, but which are not at your command - influences that you may, perchance, in an unhappy day, extinguish, but which you can never create.

Latent Andrews in Liberator

At the end of last year the Lib Dem blogosphere showed some interest in the earlier career of Leighton Andrews AM. My own contribution can be found here.

Now that interest has reached the chamber of the Welsh Assembly. Peter Black quotes the following exchange.

Michael German: I am grateful. Will the Leighton Andrews who wrote an article in the magazine that I have here tell us about the Government of Wales Act 1998? In the article, you say that Parliament is, at best, the eunuch of capitalism. Is that what you believe? Please tell us, because we would like to know.

Leighton Andrews: I take responsibility for what I have said, even if it was 29 years ago.

The magazine he was waving is the excellent Liberator.

Stormin' Norman Baker

The Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes is on the warpath again, reports the Guardian. Norman Baker:

has written to the cabinet secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, asking for Mr Birt's unpaid job as a "blue skies thinker" at Downing Street to be investigated.

Mr Baker is concerned Lord Birt is using his close relationship with Tony Blair at McKinsey, where he is a paid adviser on "global media and entertainment practices", and is asking what access Mr Birt has to confidential government papers.

Remember, it was a question from Baker that caused Peter Mandelson's resignation from the cabinet.

His second resignation, that is.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Tories: Cynical or incompetent?

Back in February I devoted a Liberal Democrat News column to Patrick Mercer's bill to give householders the right to use greater force against burglars. The Tory benches were packed that day and they clearly thought they were on to a winner.

The BBC reports what has become of that bill:

The Conservatives have been accused of cynicism after Tory MPs did not turn up to debate the party's own plans to improve laws on force against burglars.

Labour says the "debacle" shows Tories do not really care about the issue.

A committee is examining the Tory plan but its latest meeting was called off when only five MPs arrived in time - one short of the number needed.

Cynicism? Let's be charitable and say they are just very incompetent.

Floreat St Custard's

The other day I included a link to one of Ronald Searle's cartoons from Down With Skool! Here is a the way to the front page of the St Custard's site.

Penguin have recently republished the four Molesworth books as one of their Modern Classics. The introduction by Philip Hensher is very good; certainly, it is much better than the one Tim Rice contributed to the last collected edition.

There is a review of the Penguin volume on the London Review of Books site by Thomas Jones, though he is somewhat out of sympathy with the books. He has a point when he says:
there is something genuinely unsettling about the idea of boarding prep schools - the youngest of these children are only seven - and the great disingenuousness of the Molesworth books is that they appear to exaggerate the institutional horror when their actual effect is to condone the institution.
As they retreat into the past, the mores and institutions of the Empire are becoming increasingly strange to us. Far from the 1950s seeming cosy, they are beginning to look distinctly exotic.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

It was 43 years ago today

The BBC website has a feature on Eric Lubbock's victory in the Orpington by-election, which took place on 15 March 1962.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Jonathan Sayeed is unwell

The Sayeed saga, which we followed here, appears to have come to an end with the news that Jonathan Sayeed is to stand down as MP for Mid Bedfordshire on health grounds.

Stop sniggering at the back.

So there is time for one last extract from the website of The English Manner, the company that Sayeed was involved with. Here are the details of its course The Final Touch:
Today we will learn how to walk, how to sit and stand, and how to get in and out of a car. Lectures throughout give vital information on basic rules and the emphasis remains not on pampering but on teaching techniques which improve presentational skills and impart a greater social confidence. We will cover body language, posture, stress management, and we will have a session on ‘beat walking’ and ‘supermodel’ tips. Sandwiches will be provided for lunch.

New Zealand cricket sex scandal

There's a headline you don't see every day. In the unlikely event that you want them, the juicy details are here. I think this would be a good place to add the word "allegedly".

Meanwhile, the Shropshire Star reports that:
A Shropshire father today hit out at allegations that his teenage son filmed New Zealand cricket star Daryl Tuffey having sex with a woman.
We'll see what the South Shropshire Journal has to say at the end of the week.

Terrorism does not threaten our way of life

If you do visit the Vote 2005 site, you will find the following contribution on page 7 of the Hereford discussion:

Thank you to the people in Hereford who are part of the effort against the terrorists.

If we LOSE against the terrorists, do you suppose a rural area such as Herefordshire would be immune? Look at Chernobyl. Just by an accident, an area larger than the UK was poisened (sic.) Don't you suppose it would be hugely more serious if they did it on purpose?

Terrorist designs on Ross-on-Wye and Abbey Dore? It sounds rather extreme. But is it any sillier than this contribution by Charles Clarke to the debate on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill on 28 February:
The Government take the view that we must take all reasonable and practical steps to protect people in this country from those determined to destroy our way of life, and the Prevention of Terrorism Bill does precisely that.
"Destroy our way of life?" Think about it. Can you imagine Tony Blair going on the BBC and saying something like "The terrorist outrages of recent days leave me no alternative but to declare Britain a fundamentalist Muslim state"? Of course not.

Terrorists kill people, which is why they must be stopped. They do not threaten our way of life. The slaughter of 9/11 did not begin to undermine Americans' confidence in the rightness of their system of government. In fact it seems to have had just the opposite effect.

Perhaps we are more insecure in Britain. Certainly, there is something telling about the way that a terrorist attack on America has had such an effect on New Labour when we in Western Europe have been living with terrorism for decades.

There is a tendency to deny this history. People argue that present-day terrorism is something new because it attempts to kill as many people as possible. This has the perverse effect of playing down the crimes of the Provisional IRA and turning them into a cuddly 1970s' answer to the Kray Twins. "They was real gents. People was safe when they were planting bombs round here. They never touched kids. Well, technically they did...."

What can threaten our way of life, of course, is hasty legislation like the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Safe Liberal Democrat seats

Simon Titley on Liberal Dissenter has posted a useful guide to websites devoted to the forthcoming general election.

One of the ones he lists is Vote 2005, which I mentioned here a while ago. It takes the form of a bulletin board, with a separate discussion devoted to each constituency. Some of these discussion are already on their fifth or sixth page; goodness knows how many there will be by the end of the campaign.

These discussions are divided into regions. Whenever a new posting is made, the discussion containing it goes to the top of that region's list. The result is that the constituencies there is a lot of debate about congregate at the top of the list, and the ones which are less exciting - in other words the safe seats - sink towards the bottom.

The striking thing is that there are many Liberal Democrat held constituencies amongst the boring safe seats at the bottom of each region. Another encouraging sign that a major Lib Dem presence in the Commons is here to stay.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Story of the Week

Once again the Shropshire Star come through for me:
A concerned Shropshire father was trying today to contact his 18-year-old son who is at the centre of allegations that he filmed a New Zealand cricket star having sex with a woman.
More here.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Dave Allen

One of the signs of my increasing age is that I often turn first to the obituaries when I open a newspaper. (And, as the old joke goes, if I am not in them I get up.)

There is a good obituary of Dave Allen in today's Guardian, which reveals that his father (who died when Allen was 12) was a friend and drinking partner of Brian O'Nolan - better known as Flann O'Brien or Myles na Copaleen.

There was a patronising comment on the radio news that said, in effect, that while Allen's comedy seems rather tame now we should appreciate that it was daring in its day. Nonsense. As Michael Gove said on Newsnight Review last night, our fear of offending people's religious sensibilities means that Allen would probably not get on the screen at all today.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Our best and only hope

Here is today's House Points from Liberal Democrat News. You can find an archive of these columns here.

Maintaining liberty

I could not make it to Harrogate, but I was there (as vicars say) in a very real sense. I followed the conference in detail thanks to the volume of press coverage.

This is something new. Ten years ago there was hardly a journalist in the building. The level of media interest today owes much to the coming election, but is also a mark of how far the Liberal Democrats have come.

Meanwhile in Westminster attention is still on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill. Those opposing it are painted as soft on terrorism. Who cares about civil liberties, critics ask, when people’s lives are at stake?

“Give me liberty or give me death” was the cry of the American Revolution, but it has little resonance in modern Britain. We are obsessed with safety and when things go wrong we blame the state and its agents. If a child is battered, we vilify the social workers involved not the person who did it. So it’s not surprising that the government is frantic to protect itself from the blame that would follow a terrorist outrage.

We need a way out of this mess, which brings us back to Harrogate. In his speech there Chris Rennard quoted President Kennedy:

“Liberalism is our best and only hope in the world today. For the liberal society is a free society, and it is at the same time and for that reason a strong society. Its strength is drawn from the will of free people committed to great ends and peacefully striving to meet them.”

This is the case we need to make. There is no simple trade off between our liberties and security. If there were, the people of North Korea would be the safest in the world.

I had my closest brush with terrorism working in London department stores when the IRA was still blowing them up. Then all staff took part in searching their working area after a bomb threat. We did not duck our responsibility and expect someone else to protect us.

As another American, Benjamin Franklin, said: “He who gives up essential liberty for a little temporary security deserves neither liberty nor security.” I just wish I could have argued the point over a pot of Darjeeling at Betty’s.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Messages and clear signals

One fatuous argument widely used in politics nowadays is that we should support a piece of legislation because "it will send a message" or "send a clear signal". There were two examples of it in the Commons yesterday.

First, at prime minister's questions, Tony Blair said:
I do not agree with the sunset clause, for this simple reason: it is important that we send a clear signal now that this legislation is on the statute book and will remain on the statute book.
Then, summing up the debate on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill itself, Hazel Blears said:
A sunset clause is inappropriate for another reason: it could send the message to terrorists, who will be watching our debate closely, that we are uncertain about what we want to do to ensure that we have a proper legal framework to tackle terrorism in our country. We have tried to establish a legal framework that balances national security with individual liberty, but it is vital that we convey the message that we want to make this country the most hostile environment in which terrorists could consider operating.
As an extreme measure like the introduction of house arrest reminds us, legal action can deprive people of their liberty and if it doesn't do that it can still land them with legal bills, months or years and worry, destroy marriages and people's health, and even shorten lives. Read Bleak House.

But to a thoroughly modern political party like New Labour none of this matters when set against the importance of image. House arrest must come in - and come in without a sunset clause - because it will make the government look tough. The audience Hazel Blears had in mind was not terrorists but voters.

I have commented elsewhere (see the column for 12 April) that Tony Blair sounds like a progressive public school master from the 1960s. Lately, with his fear of appearing weak, he has sounded more like one of Nigel Molesworth's masters at St Custard's:
You may think I'm soft but I'm hard, damned hard.

Cleobury Mortimer: Is this the end?

In case you were worrying, the Shropshire Star reports that:
Voters were out in force today to elect a new parish council for a town plunged into chaos when four civic leaders resigned. Residents from Cleobury Mortimer and surrounding villages were voting throughout the day.
Will it work? One of the "civic leaders", Adrian Pearce is quoted as saying:
"The new council will have two years to show the people that it is doing what the public expects. If it fails, residents will have the chance to elect a different council in two years time."
G. K. Chesterton writes:
But we are the people of Cleobury Mortimer, and we never have spoken yet.
Mock at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget.

Guess who's working at Cowley Street

Today's Liberal Democrat eNews lands in my inbox. And who does it say it's from?

Margaret Thatcher.

Sabotage? An attempt at humour? A desperate attempt to win over disillusioned Conservative voters?

I think we should be told.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

"Being sexy is the difficult thing"

There is an article in the Guardian today by Natasha Walter that chimes with what I was saying about the Channel 4 programme X-Rated: The TV They Tried to Ban the other day:
When everything has been said and everything has been shown, being explicit is simply too easy; being sexy is the difficult thing.
The ubiquity of sex (though not in Market Harborough) has other effects too. In schools, for instance, the insistence upon children knowing more and more at younger and younger ages makes sex education seem less like a liberation than another imposition of the National Curriculum. It risks becoming for this generation of children what long division was for earlier ones.
Sex, he thought angrily, sex, sex, sex. It's all we do in class these days. Why can't we do something interesting like geography?
For more from Morris Gleitzman's Bumface, click here.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Getting the hump

The Tories' issue of the day is road humps. They have put down an amendment to the Road Safety Bill calling for them all to be removed within two years, although in his media interviews Tim Yeo has been taking a softer line. The Guardian reports:

"Our policy is not to construct new speed humps," he told the BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"As far as the removal of existing speed humps is concerned, we want to examine the arguments, the costs and so on, to see whether it is an effective way of using resources to improve safety.

For a laugh see the press release on the Conservative Party's own website:
Mr Yeo said: "We have taken a rational, evidence-based approach to the Road Safety Bill and have asked the Government to make available evidence on the effectiveness of road humps, and to have an open discussion.
In other words they have decided on their policy and then asked to see the evidence afterwards. That's a funny sort of "evidence-based approach".

No doubt the Tories think they are on to a winner, but I hope the other parties will stand firm.

When the Market Harborough bypass was opened we had all sorts of traffic calming installed in the town. There was a big fuss in the local paper and a vocal campaign was set up to have the humps removed. Their mascot was a camel called Humphrey - because they wanted a hump-free Harborough. Geddit?!!?

Yet when I went canvassing in the local elections the only people who mentioned traffic calming as an issue wanted it installed in their road too. I suspect there are fewer votes in this Jeremy Clarkson politics than the Tories expect.

The way urban streets are monopolised by the motor car is one of the chief causes of the impoverishment of social life in our towns and cities. It is time we fought back.

Nathan Barley

I have not seen much comment on Chris Morris's new series, but there is a good one on Little Red Blogger.

See also, of course.

Those Bonham Carters in full

As I often argue, the obituaries in the Daily Telegraph are the finest thing in the newspaper. It is worth registering for its website just to read them.

I have just come across the paper's obituary of Raymond Bonham Carter from January. He was the grandson of the Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith, the son of "Bongie" Bonham Carter (who must have been a friend of Lord Bonkers) and the father of Helena.

All of which points to the pleasing fact that Helena Bonham Carter is Asquith's great granddaughter.

Monday, March 07, 2005

X-Rated: How liberal are we today?

Last night Channel 4 showed X-Rated: The TV They Tried to Ban, a survey of controversial programmes, to launch its Banned season. Though it seemed to believe that history began with the Sex Pistols and Paul Ross made an appearance, it was instructive and frequently hilarious.

One consistent theme was the stupidity of the protestors. They did not see the brilliance of Chris Morris's series Brass Eye. They did not see that Derren Brown was demonstrating that spiritualism was fraud. Most importantly, they could not that Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective was the strongest imaginable statement of the view that casual adultery can destroy people.

Yet there was something lazy about the programme. Watching it, you would believe that the only people who ever complain about television are lower middle class racists who don't get any sex. While this flattered its audience, it is an inadequate account of what has been going on in recent years.

We were told, for instance, that modern sensitivities about race mean that dross like Mind Your Language or The Black and White Minstrel Show would never be shown today. That is true, but it is equally possible that the early episodes of Till Death Us Do Part could not be shown either. Is that so admirable?

The truth may be less that we are all far too sophisticated these days to want censorship, and more that we have merely found a new set of words and images to be outraged by. This is a thesis that the makers of X-Rated had no intention of exploring.

The other point that has to be made is simply that most of the programmes which shocked viewers in their day were not very good. I oppose censorship because it may prevent great art being produced or important truths being expressed, but their was precious little sign of them here.

No Liberal will entertain the counter argument that censorship can act as a stimulus, forcing artists to find ingenious ways of getting their meaning across, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there may be something in it.

Buy the T-shirt

Anthony Evans has e-mailed me a link to his site The Orange Filter, which is intended to spark a revival of classical liberalism.

Take a look: it even sells liberal T-shirts.

BritBlog Round Up

Tim Worstall has started publishing a weekly digest of the best in British blogging.

His BritBlog Round Up 3 has now been posted. You can find it here.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Lord Bonkers' latest diary

I have now posted his lordship's latest thoughts to his website:
I attend a meeting of the parliamentary party and demonstrate the Bonkers Patent Abdominal Protector for Canvassers. It is based upon the box worn by batsmen, but has been adapted to include both a jute bag that will carry an entire Focus round and a flask that takes a couple of generous measures of Auld Johnston (that most prized of Highland malts).
Lord Bonkers' has published diary in each issue of Liberator magazine since 1990, giving his unique observations on the Liberal Democrats and British politics in general.

Lord Bonkers was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West 1906-10.

Friday, March 04, 2005

The teacher, the sheep and the elephant

Here is today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. The first sentence was dropped in the printed version for reasons of space.

Losing our liberties

This is how we lose our liberties in Britain.

At half past three on Monday the Commons settled down to debate the timetable motion on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill – the measure that will bring in house arrest. The motion allowed six hours of debate for the bill and the more than 160 amendments that had been put down.

A rushed programme? No, insisted the junior home office minister Hazel Blears, with the gratingly enthusiastic tone of a primary school teacher, merely a swift one.

It was worse than that. Earlier in the day the Charles Clarke had written to David Davis, his Conservative opposite number, saying the government would introduce amendments when the bill reached the Lords. In other words, the Commons was being asked to spend that six hours discussing clauses the government had already decide to drop.

It was even worse than that. Clarke’s letter had become vital to the day’s proceedings, but few MPs had copies. They asked for a suspension so they could get them. They asked how it could be within the rules to debate something that was not on the order paper. But the farce went on.

At first Hazel Blears was almost alone on the government front bench. Next to her sat David Lammy. This cannot have reassured her. Lammy was involved in December’s shambles over the Mental Capacity Bill, which also involved a letter being given more weight than what was printed on the order paper.

Behind her sat Kali Mountford, one of the home office bag-carriers. Perhaps it is appropriate that the MP for Colne Valley should resemble a sheep so closely. For centuries the wealth of the West Riding rested on the sort of fleece she wears around her head.

From the sheep to the elephant. Charles Clarke and his magnificent ears arrived, and together they spent an hour and a half at the dispatch box. He took dozens of interventions, maintaining throughout a wholly spurious distinction between deprivation of liberty and restriction of liberty.

Sometimes he even got in a sly whack with his trunk: “I’ve had decades of my life being patronised by lawyers and I don’t appreciate it.”

So between them a primary teacher, a sheep and an elephant took us a day nearer to house arrest in Britain.

Safety mania makes us less safe

I have found a new source of Shropshire stories: the South Shropshire Journal. It promises to outdo the dear old Shropshire Star in offering la Shropshire profonde.

I have a personal interest in the first story from this new source in that I sometimes go walking in the Shropshire hills.

If all is as it is reported here - a rider you have to add even with Shropshire newspapers - then this is a good example of how an exaggerated concern for safety can end us making us less safe. The best is the enemy of the good, and all that.

Anyway, here is the story:

Hill rescue team forced to disband

A South Shropshire hill rescue team, whose local volunteer members risked their own safety to save stranded walkers, has been forced to disband after eight years because of red tape.

The Shropshire Hills Rescue Team was based in Church Stretton.

A statement from the team said it had been forced to close because of the threat of litigation, new health and safety legislation, escalating insurance costs and the demand for lengthy training requirements.

Ken Spurling, former treasurer, said: "It was all about us trying to be helpful. It would be a shame for someone to be lying up there are we were all sat in the warm."

Read the rest for yourself here.

Andrew Neil dumbs down

Thursday night and I settle down to watch This Week on BBC1. It's the best political programme on television, I often tell people. Andrew Neil and the Michael Portillo/Denise Abbot double act. Unbeatable.

Not tonight.

They had a feature on house arrest, taking the angle that the general public don't see what all the fuss is about. A legitimate approach. But who did they choose to put the view of the man in the street.

Paul Ross.

Paul Ross???

It is hard to think of anyone who is less in touch with ordinary people. Ross speaks in stage school cockney and his whole life is lived on television or trying to get on television. Turn the set off and he no longer exists.

He is or has been the compere of All Over the Shop, A Slice of the Action, Endurance UK, It's Anybody's Guess, Jeopardy!, Life's a Punt, Mind the Gap, Tellystack, Upshot and You Don't Say.

His appearance on any programme is a guarantee that it will be crap. You settle down to watch Jimmy Carr's 100 Greatest Top 100 Shows on Channel 4 and up he pops. "Blue Peter was for posh kids. We watched Magpie."

Only someone working in television could think that Paul Ross is qualified to speak for the general public. In reality, anyone else living in Britain today would have been a better, more representative choice. And that includes Basil Brush.

I don't blame Ross for appearing - as one of the BBC's own sites says He "has been known to say 'I'll do absolutely anything in TV for the money'."

I do blame Neil for inviting him.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

School uniform and human rights

For a liberal I have a surprising number of doubts about the concept of human rights. Yesterday's case involving Shabina Begum has helped to crystallise them.

I am not so much interested in the details of the case, though it is worth pointing out that this is not a case of a young Muslim woman being forced to wear traditional dress by community elders (as Western liberals tend to assume happens) but rather of her demanding it with great energy and resourcefulness.

What interests and worries me is the idea that an appeal to human rights can be used to settle a case like this.

There are good arguments for school uniform in terms of corporate spirit and the avoidance of bullying over fashionable labels. There are good arguments against in terms of individualism. When I was a primary school governor in the 1980s the school did not have a uniform and I was happy to defend this because I had been to such a primary school myself. Today I might well take the opposite view.

For this is just the sort of question which does not have a single right answer as it involves reconciling two desirable but conflicting ideals. Different people of good will, different families and different communities will strike the balance in a different place. It seems odd to believe that any position can be shown to be irrational or morally wrong.

Part of the problem may be the left's distrust of choice and diversity in education. If you want a monolithic State-run system of schooling then I suppose you do have to have a universal policy on uniform. But it seems far better to have a diverse system and let parents and pupils choose the sort of school that they feel most comfortable with.

I also worry about the status of these rights that are appealed to. Although they are given a quasi-religious aura, when you look into it you find they were drawn up by a committee of the great and good. So the appeal to rights, which at first sounds liberal and radical, can easily become instead the assertion that important people have looked at this question in the past and we have no business questioning their conclusions. It is hard to imagine any argument less radical than that.

Appealing to rights in this way can also undermine our faith in our own moral judgement. I suppose you could say "Fancy that, school uniform has been immoral all along." But it seems to me more compelling to say that if the set of rights we have drawn up rule out a well-accepted practice like requiring pupils to wear a uniform then there is something wrong with that set of rights.

After all, good liberals have read Karl Popper and believe that in politics and science to be rational is to be prepared to amend your theories in the light of experience. Why should ethics be any different? As these rights are human artefacts, we must accept that they may be less than perfect. And what can show they are less than perfect other than their leading to conclusions we find questionable?

Perhaps the last word should go to my old philosophy professor, Ronald Atkinson, at York. After my tutorial partner had read out an essay struggling with the idea of human rights he said something like:
It is tempting to support the idea of human rights if it makes people behave better to one another, but if, as philosophers, we think they are nonsense, it will probably be better in the long run if we say so.
I think he was right, but I am in a tiny minority among my liberal friends.

What is Mark Oaten's problem?

Simon Titley complains of "another piss-poor performance" from Mark Oaten on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill. I was there on Monday, and it is hard to disagree. Judge for yourself here.

Oaten is not an orator. Nor, by his own admission, is he not much of an ideologue. But then many people have successful and useful political careers without one or even both of these qualities.

I would not, like some, accuse him of being a right-winger - if only because that tends to imply the existence of a coherent and shared philosophy on the radical wing of the Liberal Democrats which he rejects. I am afraid the party's beliefs are more muddled than that.

What does worry me about Oaten is that he suffers from what is known in the literature as David Steel Syndrome. That is, he is fascinated by the mechanics of politics (pacts, deals, negotiations) but has less interest in its content - in beliefs and policies.

On the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, for instance, he seems to have made up his mind to reach a deal with the government. Or, if he has Steel Syndrome really badly, to be seen to make a deal with the government and so prove himself a serious politician. What the contents of this deal are will be almost incidental.

I hope that events will prove this analysis wrong or unfair, but we shall see.

Ferdinand Mount: "Mind the Gap"

I am currently reading this book. I may write about in one day, but in the mean time there is a good review on the London Review of Books site.

I have also posted a short extract to my anthology blog Serendib.

Charles Clarke's concessions

There is a good analysis of Charles Clarke's concessions on judicial oversight of house arrest, and why they don't amount to much, on The Register site.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Headline of the week

It comes (of course) from the Shropshire Star:

Runaway Bullock charges at vicar

I particularly like the capitalisation here.

Be warned: it has a sad ending (though you may be reconciled if you have a particular liking for china dolphins).

Delia Smith encourages the crowd

The BBC reports:

Delia Smith has described her half-time outburst at a Norwich City home game on Monday as "an act of desperation".

The former TV chef and Norwich City director got on the pitch and urged supporters to show more support, sparking criticism on the club website.

Lord Bonkers writes:

In the early 1960s Fanny Craddock, famous for her cookery upon the moving television, purchased a controlling interest in Featherstone Rovers Rugby League Club and attended every home game.

If she felt the team's supporters were not showing sufficient enthusiasm she would wade into their midst and set about her with a ladle, knocking many a cloth cap to the ground in the process.

Strange the things that one remembers.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The best speech in the house arrest debate

Undoubtedly it was the one made by Kenneth Clarke. To read the old bruiser's contribution in Hansard, click here.

My favourite passage was:

There is a danger in our system of politics, which I have seen, that senior politicians and senior officials who have access to an exciting and hidden world of security will get carried away with their excitement. They can sometimes become vulnerable to advice to do things that, with hindsight, are not altogether wise. However, if I am not careful, that will get me back into discussions that we had last year about a war with the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) - the former Foreign Secretary - who is sitting next to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), and others. However, the idea that the public often have - that if the security services and the police demand something, it is unpatriotic for the House of Commons to refuse it - would be dangerous for us to accept.

We had better leave the effort from Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat shadow home secretary, to another evening.

Siôn Simon MP

This evening I have been writing a column about yesterday's Commons debate on the Prevention of Terrorism Act for Liberal Democrat News. It will appear here on Friday. (Please, form a queue.)

One aspect that I have not had room to discuss is the figure of Siôn Simon, the Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington. It is not just that he looked odd, with his long hair, his rather too colourful tie and the way he obsessively stroked the underside of his long chin. It was his intervention on the timetable that was really strange.

Opposition MPs were complaining about the short time that was being allowed for such a serious measure - someone calculated that there were two minutes for each amendment that had been put down. Simon intervened once on Dominic Grieve to ask how long he wanted if two minutes were not enough and was brushed off.

He tried again:
I am not being silly about the numbers of minutes. According to the analysis of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), eight minutes is fine, but two minutes is wrong. Conservative Members are being childish and ridiculous.
The odd thing was that Simon said this in a whining, sing-song voice that had to be heard to be believed. (For the written record click here, but you really had to be there.)

Silly? Childish? Ridiculous? I suspect there is a law that people accuse others of the faults they most fear in themselves, much as those who make most fuss about homosexuality are supposed to be repressed homosexuals themselves.

So it was that silly, childish and ridiculous precisely described Simon's performance on Monday.

Researching him further, I came across this tribute to him on the Wales Watch site. Its interest dates from the days when, styling himself "Siôn Llewellyn Simon" he was after a safe seat in the valleys.

Wales Watch commemorates in particular his time as a restaurant critic:

Boudin of guinea fowl was served perfectly warm, with a slice of foie gras on top, and a cep vinaigrette so beguilingly sophisticated that one was tempted to dab it behind one's ears.

Clearly Mr Simon is a figure to watch.

More on Fathers 4 Justice

There is an interview with Matt O'Connor, the "founder and mastermind of Fathers 4 Justice", on the Spiked website. It looks at the organisation's tactics and influence, taking it more seriously than most commentators do.

It is well worth reading.