Friday, September 30, 2005

Boyle and Calder on communities

The latest pamphlet in the Liberator series Passports to Liberty was on sale at the Lib Dem Blackpool Conference, if only on the last day. It contains the essays "Spin" by Adrian Sanders MP and "Cohesive Communities" by David Boyle and (hem, hem) Jonathan Calder.

"Cohesive Communities" was first written for the party's Federal Policy Committee and approved for publication as a policy development paper. But Cowley Street never showed any great enthusiasm for publishing it and it was eventually overtaken by preparations for the general election and the subsequent policy review.

But surely if FPC approves something it should be published at once?

What a sweet, innocent child you are! Run along and play.

Anyway, here are some extracts from the essay.

Recent research, particularly in the USA, has pinpointed cohesive communities as the key missing ingredient to a whole range of intractable policy issues that are undermining the ability of governments and their welfare systems to struggle on. The biggest and most expensive study in the history of criminology, carried out by the Harvard School of Public Health and which reported recently, found that by far the most important influence on local crime is the willingness of neighbours to act for each other’s benefit – and especially for the benefit of each other’s children.


Our Liberal Democrat embrace of liberty, equality and community echoes the Jacobin slogan Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Perhaps the idea of ‘fraternity’ is irredeemably sexist, but it does convey a warmth and spontaneity that are often absent from ‘community’ as it has been understood by governments of either Labour or Conservative. Certainly, they are absent from the idea of community held by New Labour communitarian theorists.


The increasing dependence on professionals at neighbourhood level has led both to the exhaustion of public services and the increasing powerlessness of their clients. The truth is that the successful operation of teachers, doctors, police and social services depends on working as equal partners both with clients and with their neighbours – all three have a critical part to play in any successful regeneration. This basic truth, and the resources that it represents, have been increasingly forgotten as politicians puzzle over why their spending on public services are so ineffective, and as even the community development sector finds itself expecting and achieving very little from the local population.

Simon Titley reviews this latest number in the Passports to Liberty series in Liberator 305. He makes Adrian Sanders' essay sound an enjoyable rant, and writes of "Cohesive Communities" as follows:

Besides outlining the problem - basically "giantism" as the enemy of local communities - the authors suggest a number of practical steps to achieve their vision. This is precisely the sort of thinking needed to put flesh on the bones of the Liberal Democrats' Meeting the Challenge policy review...

Given the fundamental importance of cohesive communities to major public concerns such as the delivery of public services and fighting crime, however, this thinking deserves to become a cornerstone of Liberal Democrat policy.

To order a copy of Passports to Liberty 6 send a cheque for £3.50 (payable to Liberator Publications) to: Kiron Reid, 48 Abbeygate Apartments, Wavertree Gardens, High Street, Liverpool L15 8HB.

You can find details of my earlier Passports essay "Defending Families" here.

We are not Old Labour in exile

There is a strange asymmetry in the average Liberal Democrat's attitude to the two other parties.

We positively glory in upsetting Conservatives. If someone got up during a debate at a Lib Dem Conference and said we should not support civil liberties in case the Daily Mail and the Tory Party attacked us, he would be howled down. And rightly so.

But our attitude to Labour is very different. Here is Paul Holmes, chair of the Lib Dem parliamentary party, writing in today's Liberal Democrat News:
Those who talk of "breaking up the NHS" need to explain in detail what they mean, although the damage is already done in terms of Labour leaflet writers. Decentralisation and local accountability would be in tune with Liberal Democrat core values. But the headline writers seized upon hints of cut-throat competition and USA style personal insurance (whatever other title it is dressed up in).
Liberal Democrats love to describe themselves as "radical", but for many there seems to be an unstated assumption that to be radical means to be like the pre-Blair Labour Party.

Why is this? In my Liberator review of the Orange Book I suggested that:
for most of the twentieth century liberalism was in decline and socialism was seen as the ideology of the future. It was not surprising that some liberals concluded that the way to prove that liberalism was still relevant was to show that it had anticipated socialism or was really a form of socialism too.
We need to be more confident in liberalism and to enjoy outraging socialists as much as we enjoy outraging the Tories. Our policies should emphasise individual liberty and local democracy to an extent that scandalises the Labour Party.

Perhaps the philosophical differences between liberalism and socialism are harder to appreciate if you do not remember Labour before Blair. And these days Liberal Democrat policy is closest to New Labour on precisely those issues which are central to New Labour's view of the world. I am thinking of childcare and antisocial behaviour.

But ultimately, what is the point of having a separate Liberal Democrat party if our policies do not annoy Labour politicians and journalists?

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Lord Bonkers' latest diary

Lord Bonkers latest diary has now been posted on his website:

I had dinner with Oaten the other evening and he insisted on drinking mineral water throughout the meal. The wine waiter came up to ask “Still or sparkling?” I gave Oaten an appraising look and replied: “Still, I am afraid.”

There is an honourable tradition of politicians funding candidates from opposing parties, if they are strapped for cash themselves, to ensure a fair, democratic contest. I myself had a lot of innocent fun in the 1920s by putting up the deposit for a number of Socialist candidates in rural seats and then encouraging the local urchinry to pelt them with rotten vegetables, dead rats and so forth. It will be a sad day indeed when such public-spiritedness is driven out of British politics.

Autumn has come to Rutland. Flocks of hamwees sit in the rowens and flocks of wheways sit in the horwoods (or it may be the other way round – I was never top in Nature Study), girding their feathery loins for the long flight south.

Lord Bonkers writes in every issue of Liberator magazine.

Labour delegates cling to Blunkett

Martin Bright, the New Statesman's political editor, has an article on that magazine's Labour Conference blog. He provides a useful link to the David Blunkett is an Arse site, and discusses delegates' reaction to his recent NS column on Blunkett's "idiosyncratic" attitude to the truth.

He is right to defend himself, complaining that:
Sometimes Labour activists seem to believe the job of a left-wing journalist is to bolster the Labour Party and protect it from itself.
But he overeggs it when he writes:
In truth, though, Labour politicians have to be able to bear a greater degree of scrutiny because we expect more of them.
This seems to me typical Socialist self-romanticising. No one is asking ministers in the present government to be better than anyone else: we are just asking them to behave morally.

New Labour's emphasis on "sleaze" in the last years of John Major was chiefly a means of disguising how few policy differences they had with the Tories. But having made individual politicians' personal morality a central concern of British politics, they had better learn to live up to the claims they made for themselves before 1997.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

More life in Blair's Britain

More news from Brighton:

Security at Labour's conference has been attacked as "mad and over the top" after an MP's camera was seized and pictures deleted.

Great Grimsby MP Austin Mitchell is furious at what he believes is the unnecessarily tough security at the Brighton conference centre.

He was approached by stewards as he took pictures of delegates queuing to pick up their passes.

Life in Blair's Britain

The BBC has smuggled this story out of Brighton:

The Labour Party has apologised after an 82-year-old member was thrown out of its annual conference for heckling.

Walter Wolfgang, from London, was ejected from the hall after shouting "nonsense" as Foreign Secretary Jack Straw defended Iraq policy.

Police later used powers under the Terrorism Act to prevent Mr Wolfgang's re-entry.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Blackpool rocked

Don't miss Simon Titley's masterly blend of invective and analysis.

Let's hope the Liberal Democrat Conference never visits Blackpool again. More cramped quarters in Harrogate, Southport or Scarborough would be infinitely preferable when we are looking for a Northern venue.

Kitchy kitchy coo? You're nicked

It's hard to resist the outcry about Calderdale Royal Hospital attempting to ban visitors from cooing at babies. The Daily Mail - the only place to go for stories like this - reports:

Staff in one of the wards have put up a display of a doll in a cot with a message saying: "What makes you think I want to be looked at?"

Channel 4 news adds:
Cards were handed out to visitors stating: "Respect my baby" and underneath, as if written by a baby, are the words: "My parents ask you to treat my personal space with consideration."
Why have they done this? The BBC quotes Debbie Lawson, neo-natal manager at the hospital's special care baby unit, as saying:

"We know people have good intentions and most people cannot resist cooing over new babies but we need to respect the child.

"Cooing should be a thing of the past because these are little people with the same rights as you or me."

A story somehow typical of 21st century Britain. Note three things.

First, it is true that other people poking and clucking over your baby can be annoying. (I take the reference to the possibility of infection as a later rationalisation of this policy, though there may be something in it.) Yet the assumption made by the hospital authorities is that mothers are incapable of making this clear to visitors or passers by themselves. Instead we must have standardised regulations imposed on all.

I am with Belinda Phipps, chief executive of the National Childbirth Trust, quoted by the BBC report:
"Calderdale Royal Hospital needs to treat mothers as grown ups. Mother should be able to say what she wants to happen with her baby."
Second, note the extraordinarily sententious tone of the signs used to advertise this policy: "What makes you think I want to be looked at?" (Incidentally, how could a baby sensibly be said to want or not want to be looked at?) "Treat my personal space with respect." It's halfway between North Korea and those signs people put in cars when they are carrying children. The thought that looking at babies can give people pleasure is nowhere allowed for.

Third, note how easy it is to talk nonsense when you introduce the notion of rights. Babies, we are told, "are little people with the same rights as you or me".

It is certainly not true in law that babies have the same rights as adults. They can't buy a drink in a pub or drive or own a shotgun. Indeed, it is hard to see that it makes sense to ascribe many rights to a baby at all.

You can say that they have a right to kind treatment, but it is hard to see what that adds to saying that it is wrong to be cruel to babies. Later on, you could, I suppose, give children the same right as adults to decide what time they go to bed, but that would hardly be in the children's interests or anyone else's.

When rights enter the conversation our culture seems unable to make sensible distinctions between adults and infants. You would hope that, of all people, a "neo-natal manager" would have a clear idea of what babies are like, but apparently this is not the case here.

The TV camera always lies

Nothing in television documentaries is quite what it seems. Not even in the best of them, such as 49 Up which I wrote about the other day.

Remember the little boy in the Yorkshire Dales in 7 Up, trudging off to school in his wellingtons like an extra from Whistle Down the Wind? His brother was recently interviewed in the Bradford Telegraph & Argus:

"I was only a year old when the first programme was made," said Andrew.

"But I was told later about some of the TV people's antics such as getting Nick to 'walk to school' (he actually went on a bus), a journey which went past a scenic local landmark for the purposes of the film, though it meant going in completely the wrong direction."

Monday, September 26, 2005

Lib Dem blogger interviewed

The egov monitor site has an interview with Lib Dem blogger and Kingston councillor Mary Reid. She gives her views on e-democracy:
One word of warning – it is all too easy to try to control citizen participation through top-down government-led activities. Whilst I believe it is very important for councils to offer a number of communication channels, in the end what really matters is whether they listen to people and respond. Governments cannot control grassroots activity, but they can provide fertile ground in which it can flourish.
Next week, a councillor from Yorkshire on ee-democracy.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Why spin doctors don't matter

It was the media what won it, argues Simon Isledon on The Liberal. He blames the party's press officers for the way stories about dissatisfaction with Charles Kennedy's leadership dominated coverage of the Liberal Democrat Conference.

I wonder. It is true that the party's press operation has often left a lot to be desired. One of the reasons that members of the Liberator editorial collective appear in the media so regularly during conference week is that there are lots of journalists wandering around conference, desperate for someone to explain what is going on to them. We are happy to oblige.

But one of the characteristics of our age is that we overestimate the importance of people like press officers in politics. Take Alastair Campbell. In the years before New Labour won its first election he acquired the most colossal reputation - part bully, part magician.

Yet when he acted as press office for the British Lions rugby tour earlier this year no one praised his efforts. They were either ignored or slated. No one said: "The team lost all three tests horribly, but I thought the press operation was first rate."

Similarly, Campbell acquired his reputation in the years running up to 1997 because it was obvious from a long way out that Blair was going to win. Therefore political journalists had to establish good relations with him and his future cabinet ministers. Therefore Campbell had great power over them.

So stories about people having doubts about Charles Kennedy did not feature in the press because of failings by Cowley Street staff. They featured because a lot of people in the party do have doubts about the current leadership.

I am afraid press officers are just not that important.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Thoughts on the Blackpool Conference

My article from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Armchair Conference

Viewing this year's Liberal Democrat Conference from a distance has its compensations. You get to see the party as other see us. And better, you don't have to visit Blackpool.

Adrian Sanders described it as "a sad place that has lost its heart". It is not alone in that amongst seaside resorts, but things have always been on a larger scale in Blackpool.

Some see the widespread dislike of the town as snobbish. But the British seaside is struggling because the working class has grown more affluent and expects higher standards. Which is a thoroughly good thing.

Tom McNally, the town's most famous son, made a game attempt to defend Blackpool on the Today programme. It's an important piece of social history, he told us.

But then so is Dartmoor Prison, and you wouldn't want to spend a night there either.

* * * *

The more parties shape their conferences to suit television, the less interested television becomes. There is still coverage, but you rarely get to listen to the debates for any length of time. Instead there is endless speculation about what will happen next and a succession of interviews with MPs.

The question that has dominated the press this week is: "What do the Liberal Democrats stand for?" As every MP interviewed gives a list of policies rather than articulates a distinctive philosophy, no one is much wiser

Nor has it been clear what the conference as a whole stands for. We have come over as being more certain about what we are against.

Take the debate on the post office. Norman Lamb's proposals were referred back, despite his cautious attempt to revive the Liberal dream of workers owning their own businesses.

That's fine. But under the current arrangements sub post offices are closing daily, often taking the accompanying small shops with them. What is the Liberal Democrat answer to this? Nothing anyone read or watched this week will have told them.

Equally, there are all sorts of important questions about the future of the European Union. Should Turkey be allowed to join despite its human rights record? Where do the boundaries of Europe lie? Does the EU exist to further free trade or defend us from it?

Monday's debate generated a lot of heat - Ostrich! Xenophobe! Recount! - but nothing in the media gave the impression that it engaged with these issues. If anything, conference seemed to cling to the certainties of the past.

* * * *

The heroine of the week was Sarah Teather. She spoke up for local democratic control of public services and proposed scrapping the absurd Standards Board for England.

And Ed Davey got lots of attention by calling for a house system to be used to "break down large, soulless concrete comprehensives". This was chiefly because he presented it as the system used at Harry Potter's Hogwarts.

A clever piece of spin. But you don't have to be a wizard to see that the real question is why we create large, soulless schools in the first place.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The purpose of Sure Start

Last week I wrote about the Birkbeck College report on the government's Sure Start scheme. In particular, the way Polly Toynbee and a Guardian leader writer used it as evidence of the need for Sure Start to be expanded, even though it found few signs that the scheme was having a positive effect on the development of poor children.

On the Spiked website Jenny Bristow suggests that this is not really the point of Sure Start:
Sure Start's aim is not to transform the fortunes of poor children: how could it, when the one solution to child poverty - giving parents more money - is conspicuously absent in its approach? Its aim is gradually to transform the relationship between the family and the state. In this sense, it doesn't matter what the evaluators find out about child development; it is the evaluation itself that is important.

The Sugarloaf Pippin and the Tower of Glammis

The Shropshire Star has another of its popular "lost apple variety rediscovered" stories today.

This time there are two involved. No wonder the paper says the finds "have caused a stir among pomologists".

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The case against agricultural subsidies

KickAAS - Kill All Agricultural Subsidies - points us to an article on the Globalization Insitute's site advertising its new report:
Green and Pleasant Land says that the CAP - rather than being the saviour of the countryside - has been an environmental disaster, creating pollution with no economic benefit, and requiring more chemicals and energy use than had market forces been allowed to run. By encouraging the pre-emptive use of antibiotics, it threatens to create antibiotic-resistant diseases. It imposes costs on taxpayers, consumers, other industries and the environment - for benefits described as "trivial".
They are right, and this is another opportunity to add a plug for Graham Harvey's book The Killing of the Countryside.

This is not a cheap anti-EU point. The British government was paying out enormous farming subsidies for 30 years before we joined the Common Market.

But it does show the need for the Common Agricultural Policy to be reformed. Which is why I would have voted for Vince Cable and Nick Clegg's motion on Europe if I had been in Blackpool this week.

A history of Liberalism and music

Tonight sees the highlight of the Liberal Democrat Conference in Blackpool: the Glee Club. Party members will gather to sing political songs and enjoy the occasional turn from the great and the good.

To enjoy the Glee Club to the full you need a Liberator songbook. And this year's songbook has an introduction by my old friend Lord Bonkers. With his permission I reproduce it below.

I have long been a lover of music. I recall visiting the Aldeburgh festival during the East Coast floods of 1953 and enjoying a recital of British folk song. Just as Peter Pears was giving "The Bonny Earl o' Moray" both barrels, the sea overwhelmed the coastal defences and flooded the concert hall. In the resultant confusion I had the presence of mind to straddle a double bass that floated past and paddle myself to safety (accompanied by Benjamin Britten on the piano).

Nor am I alone amongst Liberal Democrats in my enthusiasm. One thinks of Susan J. Kramer and her Dakotas, of Andrew "Boy" George and of Lembit Öpik who, as a tribute to his patronage of the nascent Estonian rock scene, is known in every Baltic port as "Öpik of the Pops".

Other Liberals have been immortalised in song. Who does not know the jazz classic "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Ming"? Then there is that candid tribute to the member for Southwark North and Bermondsey by the 1910 Fruitgum Company: "Simple Simon Says". Above all, there is the delightful Miss Sandy Denny's performance of the traditional air "The Lowlands of Mulholland".

So at the Glee Club, when you buy your songbook from one of those amusing young people who produce Liberator magazine and treat yourself to a foaming pint of Smithson & Greaves Northern Bitter from the bar, remember that you form part of a living tradition of musical Liberalism.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Libby Purvis on Ritalin and ADHD

Make that Libby Purves.

BBC Radio 4's voice of astringent good sense has an article in today's Times on the subject:

it is reported that prescriptions of the drug Methylphenidate - commonly sold as Ritalin - have risen sharply in a decade. Last year in England there were 359,000, the vast majority to children under 16. This is a mind-altering drug, described by its most bitter opponents as "prescription crack"; in the United States 6 per cent of all children take it. Here it is less than 1 per cent, but rising fast: for this is the cure-all for the fairly newly defined condition of "ADHD" - attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
She is as concerned with this as I am, and takes a similar line to the one I took in an article in OpenMind a couple of years ago.

The only thing I would question is the implication behind her:

sometimes I wonder whether future generations may not look back at our habits and shudder in their turn.
I hope they will do just that. But if they don't, our habits are still wrong.

Beware of what Popper calls "moral futurism" - the belief that what comes later must necessarily be better. Whether it stems from a belief in Liberal Progress, in Divine Providence or in Marxist metaphysics, it is mistaken.

Cricket blog, lovely cricket blog

While cricket fever lasts and you can still see children playing informal games in the park, let me plug The Surfer.

It is a blog which offers a digest of the cricket articles from around the world, and is run by the excellent Cricinfo site.

Lib Dem blog scandal latest

Yesterday I wrote about Paul Leake's resignation from the Lib Dem group on Durham City over attempts by the party leadership to censor his blog.

Paul writes his blog as part of the ReadMyDay project, and Geoff Wigley is its "weblog coach". ("Come on, type faster! How much do you want it?")

Geoff writes about Paul's experience on the Civic Leadership Weblog Project site. He notes:
My state legislative client, Ray Cox, knows that some of his most avid readers are members of the opposing party, scouring his blog for words that can be used against him. So he's careful, but not to the point where it cramps his style. To my knowledge, the Minnesota Republican Party has never tried to interfere with his blogging.
"The Liberal Democrats: less open than the US Republicans." It's not an inspiring slogan, is it?

Monday, September 19, 2005

Sholto Byrnes on the Lib Dems

An e-mail arrives from The First Post, suggesting I read their article on the Liberal Democrat Conference. As the article is by Sholto Byrnes, who has occasionally reported the thoughts of Lord Bonkers in the Evening Standard and Independent diaries, I was happy to do so.

Sholto writes:
Far from being a time for the Liberal Democrats to congratulate themselves, this is a moment when the party must ask itself the question to which it has never given a satisfactory answer: what on earth does it stand for?
Fair comment. You can read the full article here.

Don't ReadMyDay in Durham

Last week, in my article on Lib Dem blogs, I mentioned the ReadMyDay project run by the office of the deputy prime minister. As its website says:
Increasingly, weblogs are being used in place of conventional websites by elected representatives and local government officials keen to communicate more effectively and efficiently with citizens, staff, media and other tiers of government.
In that article I referred to two blogs by Lib Dem councillors - Louise Alexander and Mary Reid - written as part of ReadMyDay.

Another Lib Dem councillor who wrote a ReadMyDay was Paul Leake from the City of Durham. I say "was". He still writes the blog, but he is no longer a Liberal Democrat.

Why? On his blog he tells it like this:
Behind the scenes there has ... apparently been some disquiet from some of my Liberal Democrat colleagues who feel all communication with the electorate should be politically vetted – this has come to a head today with a rather brusque email from the Leader of the City Council, Fraser Reynolds telling me to remove all mention of City Council decisions and any comments on them as soon as possible and refrain from commenting further, and that all comments that are placed in the public domain should be agreed by the press secretary.
He goes on:
I stood for election on a manifesto of openness, fairness and honesty, and have always tried to deliver on this. While the Liberal Democrats have run the Council much better than Labour did (particularly the finances), I have had growing concerns about the failure so far to deliver on parts of the manifesto people elected me under, but felt, on balance, I stood a better chance of achieving it working within the group of Liberal Democrat councillors. This is however is the final straw – I will not do a poorer job as a local councillor in order to do better for the party. I remain 100 per cent committed to the manifesto I was elected on – but I can best get
that manifesto delivered on as an Independent, able to speak my mind and hold the council leadership to account.
This suggests there is more to the case than a disagreement over a blog, but if the facts are as Paul presents them it is still extremely worrying. As Paul says, his ultimate loyalty must lie with the people who elected him, not his party group or the council bureaucracy. Even so, he is not aware that he has criticised anyone personally in his blog:
I have however sought to inform members of the public why I, as their local councillor, have done what I have done and voted how I have voted, as well as inform them about what their council is doing. (In fact, the councillor's Code of Conduct states that councillors should be accountable to the public for their actions, as open as possible about their actions and those of their authority, and should be prepared to give reasons for those actions.)
It is not enough for the Liberal Democrats to be in favour of openness in theory: we have to be in favour of it in practice too. And we should encourage our councillors to write blogs, not attempt to censor them. Is there no one in Durham who can see this?

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Housekeeping at Liberal England

One or two little things were going wrong with this blog, so I reloaded and recustomised the template. It seems to have worked.

I also took the opportunity to adopt Stephen Tall's description of Liberal England from his links page: An "amusingly eclectic mix of culture and politcs".

We don't need another role model

A few people have criticised Andrew Flintoff and the England cricket team for the way they chose to celebrate their Ashes victory. It is generally on the grounds that they are "role models" and should not be seen to drink to excess. This posting on a Brentford FC forum is one example.

It happens that a letter in the Guardian answered this very point. It was written at the time Lawrence Dallaglio lost the captaincy of the England XV over his boasts about drugs to an undercover tabloid journalist. The letter ran:

Why is the horrible phrase "role model" on everyone's lips? The idea that we are all passive observers easily influenced by the celebrities we see on television is deeply patronising and backed by no research. In particular, the idea that rugby union forwards should be moral exemplars is bizarre.

Traditionally, and no doubt unfairly, they have been known for two things: being extremely stupid and drinking far too much.

We do not want role models, we want sporting heroes; and we are quite capable of choosing them for ourselves. Chief among them have always been people like Denis Compton or Ian Botham, who could go out on the town and still perform wonders the next day.

It happens that I wrote that letter. You can still find it on the Guardian site.

And as far as one can tell, Flintoff is not one to go out on the town during a match. In fact his dedication to fitness has produced one of the most remarkable transformations in international sport.

When he first came into the England team in 1998 he was treated by the press as a new Colin Milburn. A big fat lad who hit the ball hard. Some journalists mentioned that he used to be a sharpish bowler as a youngster, but his back could not take the strain. Today, seven years on, he is just about the best fast bowler in world cricket.

If you want a role model, I can't think of a better one. But I still prefer heroes.

All this and the Ashes too

Tim Worstall has posted his latest weekly round up of the best of British blogging.

He has also edited a book along the same lines: 2005 Blogged: Dispatches from the Blogosphere.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

They thought it was all over

Some predictions from Australia's finest, made before the series began:

Jeff Thomson: If you put the players from Australia and England up against each other it is embarrassing. There is no contest between them on an individual or team basis.

Glenn McGrath: I think I was saying 3-0 or 4-0 about 12 months ago, thinking there might be a bit of rain around. But with the weather as it is at the moment, I have to say

Terry Alderman: I definitely believe if any of our batsmen get out to Giles in the tests they should go and hang themselves. But I'm confident that won't happen.

Many more amusing examples can be found in this posting on a Motley Fool discussion board - found via PooterGeek.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Latest Blunkett scandal

A column by Martin Bright in today's New Statesman is exciting the media (though not the BBC, which seems to be ignoring the story so far). I am not sure how long it will be freely available, so here is the most interesting part:

The furore over the nanny's visa reminded me of an earlier encounter with Blunkett. Around August 1998, when I was working as an education correspondent, I received a call from him to thank me for not running a story about his son, who had just taken exams crucial to his future.

The allegation was damaging. An exam board had been having problems with its computer, making it possible that some children were getting the wrong grades. It was a terrible situation; parents across the country were in a panic. A Whitehall source had told me that Blunkett was terrified that his own son was caught up in the chaos. A senior official was asked to make discreet inquiries about the matter with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. The allegation was that the secretary of state for education (as he then was) was using his influence through official channels where other parents would not have had that option.

Naturally I called Blunkett's people to check out the story and all hell broke loose. Within a matter of hours Blunkett's office had demanded that heads should roll. My source was identified and sacked. By the end of the day this individual called me to ask me not to run the story and I reluctantly agreed, since the source believed his/her future in education would be destroyed. It is not my proudest moment in journalism. If there are any principles in this profession, then getting the story out and protecting your sources are two of the most important, and I had failed on both counts.

I am not suggesting that Blunkett used his power as education secretary to fix his son's exam results; his actions may have been no more than those of a father worried about his son's future. But there were officials working for the QCA at the time who were deeply shocked that he thought it appropriate to seek intervention on behalf of his son. By thanking me a few days later Blunkett made me complicit, and I have always regretted not running the story.

Then there is an extraordinary article from The Times. It was written by Stephen Pollard, who was Blunkett's biographer, and it reproduced on his blog. It begins:
It's rather unsettling being called a liar by a Cabinet minister. Especially when you are his biographer. In Lord Stevens's memoirs, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner suggests that David Blunkett is a lying, backstabbing bully. Having read Lord Stevens's account of his relationship with the former Home Secretary, it is clear that, whatever else he may be, Mr Blunkett is indeed a liar.

Adrian Sanders on cricket and television

The website of Adrian Sanders, the Lib Dem MP for Torbay, reprints an article of his on the nation's current number one political issue.

He writes:
If a partnership deal cannot be brokered by the Sports Minister in the coming weeks, there will be no alternative but to restore Test cricket to the A-list of protected events just as the Australian government did last year in order to maintain their long-term strength as a cricketing nation.
After a performance like that, he may well be invited to play for Lord Bonkers' XI next summer.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Lib Dem blog article posted

My article on Liberal Democrat blogs appears in tomorrow's Liberal Democrat News. You can also find it here with all the hyperlinks in place.

Apologies to any bloggers I did not find room to mention. The article should be accompanied by a box advertising Ryan Cullen's libdem blogs aggregated, which lists every Lib Dem blog in creation.

And please feel free to advertise yourself in the comments here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

After the Ashes

My fellow Liberal Democrat Mike Holmans is a fount of good sense on cricket.

The first post in this thread gives his take on the Ashes series and England's future prospects. And the first in this thread asks "whither Australia?"

Sure Start, uncertain reasoning

I was amused by yesterday's Guardian. The front page lead was an account of leaked report saying that early evaluation of the government's Sure Start scheme had been disappointing. In fact the report showed:
Sure Start as a whole failed to boost youngsters' development, language and behaviour. It also showed children of teenage mothers did worse in Sure Start areas than elsewhere.
This story was discussed in a leader and by Polly Toynbee. To be fair (as footballers all say nowadays) their arguments that it is early in the day to be evaluating Sure Start and that there are problems with the study in question were persuasive.

But they went further than that.

The leader concluded:
What is already apparent is that the expansion is under-funded. Ministers are trying to finance a fivefold increase with only double the amount of spending. That inevitably generates poorly performing schemes. If you want Scandinavian levels of excellence they do not come cheap.
And Toynbee concluded:
What is needed now is more, not less, intensive and expensive professional support. Even if there is no proof yet of Sure Start's direct effect on young children, Labour must now accelerate spending on this best hope for the children with the least chance.
Somehow a study, however flawed, suggesting that Sure Start does not work has been turned into an argument for spending even more money on the scheme. I can't help thinking there must be a flaw in the logic somewhere.

Watch 49 Up tomorrow

ITV are showing the latest installment in Michael Apted's documentary series at 9 p.m., with a second episode on September 22.

Apted has followed a group of children since they were seven. The first documentaries were shown in 1964, and has gone back to them every seven years ever since. They are among the most important documentaries ever shown in Britain. I remember our class spending an entire double English lesson talking about 21 Up in 1977 or 1978 because it was all we (and the teacher) could talk about.

Jonathan Freedland writes about the series in today Guardian:

Granada's intention in 1964 was to make a polemic about class, to show that the course of Britons' lives was determined by their backgrounds. So it showed posh boys at prep school who, aged seven, could confidently name the Oxbridge college they planned to attend - and working-class girls discussing what they would do if they had a lot of money, "like two pounds".

But Britain was to surprise the film-makers. They had divided the nation into toffs and cockney sparrows - and all but forgotten the middle class in between. And yet central to the story of British life over the next four decades would be the huge expansion of the middle class.

Social shifts are visible too. When Simon was born, he recalled at age 21, an "illegitimate child was something whispered about". Now, among this group, there are countless children and grandchildren born outside marriage and no one seems to notice.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

And where will he keep his drugs?

Jonathan Wolff writes in The Guardian - sorry, theguardian - complaining about the increasing role of students' parents.

He is not the first academic to comment on this trend. On 29 July this year Frank Furedi wrote in the Times Higher Education Supplement:

In 1997, I completed my book The Culture of Fear. Most of the comments my copy editor made about the manuscript were routine questions about grammar, incoherent formulations and inconsistencies. But one of the comments stood out as an explicit challenge to the authenticity of the text. The contentious passage informed the reader of a relatively new development - the arrival of parents on campus. To illustrate the changing character of university life, I pointed to what was then a relatively novel phenomenon: students arriving on campus for their interviews, accompanied by their parents. "This cannot be true," exclaimed my editor.

At first, I was taken aback by her implicit challenge to my integrity. But after we had discussed this issue, I was able to understand where she was coming from. As someone who was an undergraduate in the 1970s, she could not reconcile her experience of a parent-free university with the subsequent changes.

He went on to say:
That was eight years ago. Since then, parental intervention in higher education has grown, and no one would now argue that it represents a marginal or transitional phenomenon. On the contrary, anyone who raises concerns about this infantilisation of campus life is likely to be accused of insensitivity towards the "conscientious parent".
What this phenomenon shows is that going to university is now a very different experience to what it was for my generation in the 1970s. It also suggests that the common view that children grow up much more quickly these days is in need of some qualification.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Today in pictures

Images lifted shamelessly from the Cricinfo site.

Mystic Aggers

Amid today's celebrations, it is worth sparing a minute to read this article by Jon Agnew. It was written on 21 August 2004:

England are a very good team. It is interesting that none of the players, or indeed the coach Duncan Fletcher, would speculate about how they would fare against Australia right now.

"It's a long way away", was all they said, wary I am sure of making big statements that could blow up in their faces next summer, but there is no harm in those of us in the media doing it for them.

If England can play as well as they did in this match against Australia next summer, they will have a real chance of winning the Ashes.

How they found me

Thanks to Statcounter, I can tell which words people entered into a search engine to find Liberal England. So it's a big hello to two of today's visitors.

First, there was someone in Kuwait who went to Yahoo! and typed in "what was the original function for market harborough".

I am glad that is what they are talking about in the Gulf. In case he or she drops by again, here is an extract from The Making of the English Landscape: Leicestershire by the great W. G. Hoskins - the man who invented local history as an academic discipline:

Market Harborough is a good example of a town created at a comparatively late date. Until the middle of the twelfth century it was merely an outlying part of the fields of the rural manor of Great Bowden. Harborough means "the hill where the oats grow well", now the hill immediately north of the town.

A few traders began to gather at the point where the important main road (from Northampton to Leicester) crossed the Welland, roughly a day's journey from each town, and in 1177 we have the first mention in the records of a new community. In the year 1203 they felt sufficiently confident to purchase from the Crown the right to hold a weekly market.

So now you know.

And then there was someone at NATO's Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe who went to went to Google (Belgian version) and entered: "'Paddy Ashdown' spy".

I could tell you more about that, but I would have to kill you.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

A Ruth Kelly in every home

Earlier this week I heard Ruth Kelly say that her department is "responsible for parenting". So did Martin Young:
Oddly though, I took my son out on a train-trip to Cheltennam yesterday and most of the parents we saw were busy being responsible themselves. Even in Ruth's absence.
Quite. But give New Labour a few more years...

Friday, September 09, 2005

An Englishman's birthright

Fellow Harborough Liberal Democrat Ian Ridley sends me a link to the campaigning website Keep Cricket Free!

Its objectives are:

  • The Sports Minister to initiate urgent talks between ECB and the broadcasters to ensure some test cricket is available free-to-air in 2006.
  • The Culture Secretary to take urgent action to restore the main home test series to the A list of protected broadcasting events and in the meantime to apply the Smith-Maclaurin understanding.
  • The DCMS Select Committee to launch an urgent enquiry into cricket broadcasting rights.
  • Ofcom to publish the results of their review of the ECB/Sky deal and to be challenged to confirm that the deal complies with existing rules - i.e. highlights available to all viewers.

For some of the arguments, see this posting of mine from last year.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

It's filmed in Shropshire, you plonker

Tomorrow BBC1 shows the first episode of The Green Green Grass, a situation comedy spun-off from Only Fools and Horses.

Give or take the occasional Frasier, these spin-off shows don't have a great track record. Nor was I a great fan of Only Fools, though I did like Grandad's comment on Sidney Poitier:
That Sydney Potter's a good actor, ain't he Rodney? ... always plays the black fella.
The reason I am mentioning the new show is that it was filmed in south Shropshire. So even if it is not funny, the scenery will be beautiful

Look out in particular for the Horseshoes Inn at Bridges between the Stiperstones and the Long Mynd. And for more Shropshire pubs, explore this wonderful map.

Christmas present problems solved

Hot Ginger and Dynamite has a button taking you to the Liberal and Lib Dem Treat Store at Cafepress.

Here you can find such treasures as a Paddy Ashdown indie fit T-Shirt, a David Lloyd George drinking stein and a Violet Bonham-Carter tote bag.

Lord Bonkers writes: Surely they mean Violent Bonham-Carter, the notorious East End gangster?

Browse and enjoy.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

My book chapter published

I have written a chapter ("Histories of child abuse") of the book Making and Breaking Children's Lives, which was published on Monday by PCCS Books. Here are some details:

Making and Breaking Children's Lives
Edited by Craig Newnes and Nick Radcliffe
ISBN 1 898059 70 5
Foreword by Oliver James

Making and Breaking Children’s Lives examines how children are hurt in modern society. We hear much about the effects of early abandonment, abuse and lack of attachment, but find that children’s experiences are sanitised through medical diagnoses and frequently the "help" offered is prescription drugs. Nowhere is this more evident than in the current trend to label children with ADHD.

In this challenging book a plurality of voices returns to one consistent theme – the importance of psychosocial context, which has become increasingly dismissed as being irrelevant in the rush to label and prescribe. However there is hope – the final section describes inspiring examples of how services and communities can be developed to give children and their families a chance to prosper – evidence that there is nothing inevitable about the breaking of children's lives.

More details here.

The Rt Hon Charles Clarke MP

The right to be protected from torture and ill-treatment must be considered side by side with the right to be protected from the death and destruction caused by indiscriminate terrorism.
Speech by Charles Clarke, UK Home Secretary, to the European Parliament - 7 September 2005

The human body is the best picture of the human soul.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Article on Lib Dem blogs

This article is published in tomorrow's edition of Liberal Democrat News. See here for an explanation.

Blogs: Fizzing Up Politics

"I wanted to win an election," Lynne Featherstone told Forbes Magazine just after she gained Hornsey and Wood Green for the Liberal Democrats, "and was going to use every tool in the box to help me do it."

The campaigning tool that interested the American interviewer was Lynne's weblog or "blog". For she is one of an increasing number of politicians using these personal websites, designed to be regularly and easily updated, to communicate with the public.

Lynne's Parliament and Haringey Diary carries almost daily reports of her work as an MP and local councillor. She is on holiday at the moment, but she has recently written about a visit to a local mosque, the way a surgery brought home the severity of Haringey's housing problems and many other topics.

Richard Allan was the Lib Dem pioneer in the field. He set up his Political Times in June 2003, becoming only the second MP to have a blog. Its content reflected his interest in the potential and politics of information technology. It is still running under the title Post Political Times to reflect his decision to leave the Commons at the last election.

A couple of years on, it has become commonplace for MPs to write blogs. Many are uninspired or rarely updated, but some members put a lot of work and individuality into them. Notable is John Hemming's Web Log, which leavens discussion of voting fraud and the travails of the Birmingham Strategic Partnership with pictures of John's cats.

Beyond Westminster, Peter Black AM writes an entertaining blog. He offers a guide to the debates and personalities of the Welsh Assembly alongside sharp comment on politics more generally.

Blogs are springing up among Lib Dem councillors too, with Louise Alexander in Tower Hamlets and Mary Reid in Kingston upon Thames writing two of the more interesting. Both are both involved with the office of the deputy prime minister's ReadMyDay project. This aims to replace the dry, formal content of conventional government websites with something friendlier and more suitable to local government.

Very New Labour that - a central initiative to encourage informality and spontaneity - but the results are well worth reading.

But you don't have to be an elected representative to have a blog; many activists write them too, sharing their opinions on current affairs. Among the best is Nick Barlow's What You Can Get Away With, which is probably the most widely read Lib Dem blog. Will Howells' No Geek is an Island reflects his status as a Dr Who nut and soduku grandmaster as well as a sound Liberal. And Simon Titley's The Liberal Dissenter offers trenchant views on Liberal Democrat policy and internal politics.

Blogs have their limitations. As with anything on the web, it seems easier to contact Californian teenagers than your neighbours. Tony Hancock's famous line from the radio ham episode - "Friends all over the world. None in this country, but all over the world." - was strangely prescient.

But writing a blog is more constructive than shouting at the radio, which is what many of us would be doing otherwise. It encourages debate among Liberals, as readers can leave their comments on most blogs. And the more Lib Dem blogs there are, the more chance there is that some will attract readers from outside the party and draw them in.

Successful parties fizz with debate and new ideas: think of the Tories in the early years of Mrs Thatcher's leadership or the birth of New Labour. If blogs can sharpen Lib Dem thinking in the same way, they will have made us look more like a party of government.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Coping with natural disasters

Charlie Whitaker on contrasts the American authorities' slow reaction to the New Orleans hurricane with the way they coped with earlier disasters 100 years ago.

He looks at the response to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and to the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. Then he goes on to wonder what this obvious decline in the efficiency of government tells us about modern American society and politics.

Incidentally, the BBC Suffolk pages have eyewitness accounts of Britain's worst natural disaster of the last century, the East Coast floods of 1953.

After the Greenwich bombing

At the end of July I posted an account of a nineteenth-century suicide bombing at Greenwich, and went on to discuss the novel it inspired: Conrad's The Secret Agent.

I have now found a description of the funeral of the perpetrator, Martial Bourdin:

On February 29 on the removal of Bourdin's remains from an undertaker's shop in Chapel Street near Lisson Grove, for interment at St Pancras Cemetery at Finchley, Londoners gave free vent to their anti-Anarchist sentiments.

Just before the little funeral procession, composed of a hearse and a mourning coach, started on its journey a body of Anarchists, carrying red flags edged with black, endeavoured to join it. But the police, who were present in force, ordered them to withdraw, and as they demurred to obeying they were forced to disperse leaving behind them their banners which were speedily torn up by the crowd.

So antagonistic was the latter's demeanour that the police had considerable difficulty in protecting the hearse and the occupants of the mourning coach - a brother of the deceased and some friends - from violence.

At the cemetery an agitator of that time, named Quinn, who styled himself a "Christian Anarchist" ... endeavoured to deliver a speech by the graveside, but he had only been able to utter the words: "Friends, Anarchists, comrades," when he was seized by the police, who kept him in custody until the departure of the mourning coach, in which he gladly took refuge from the ever-threatening crowd.

British government bans smiling

A UK Passport Service press release sets out some of the new regulations on passport photos:
  • Applicants must submit two identical photos, which have been taken in the last month.
  • The photos should be printed on normal photographic paper and should be 45 mm x 35 mm in size.
  • The photo should show a close up of the applicant's head and shoulders so that their face covers 65-75% of the photo.
  • It should be taken against an off-white, cream or light grey plain background so that the applicant's features are clearly distinguishable against the background.
  • The photo must be of the applicant on their own, with no other people visible. It must show their full face, looking straight at the camera, with a neutral expression, with their mouth closed.
The minister quoted in the release is Andy Burnham. He may have some difficulty producing an acceptable passport photo. He still goes around with a permanent grin at the thought that he is lucky enough to live in a country which has Tony Blair as its prime minister.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Kilroy-spotting fever sweeps the East Midlands

UKIPwatch reports that East Midlands Tory MEP Chris Heaton-Harris is offering a bottle of champagne to the first person to spot Robert Kilroy-Silk in the region.

Yesterday's Telegraph reported Heaton-Harris as saying:
"How exactly is he representing his constituents in the East Midlands? He rarely visits the European Parliament and I'm not aware of him doing anything in the East Midlands since the general election. I think he's letting down both his constituents and the country."
Kilroy-spotting fever is reported from Cropwell Bishop to Eyam, and from Newtown Unthank to Ingoldmells. If you think you have seen the man with the tan, claim your prize.

Follow the Fleet

London Geezer offers a generously illustrated account of the course of the River Fleet through the city, taking in the landscape I wrote about in North of St Pancras.

Highly recommended.

News from Shropshire

I am pleased to report that the Shropshire Star is keeping up its high standard of reporting. Try:
North Shropshire firefighters were called in to help "moo-ve" a cow that became stuck after deciding to give milking a miss.
Gnipper is top dog in grrreat town.
Meanwhile, the South Shropshire Journal reports:
If administrators fail in their battle to save embattled trouser manufacturers Walters, south Shropshire could be facing an estimated £2 million loss to its economy.
I always insist on embattled trousers myself. They are so much harder wearing.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Lord Bonkers' latest diary

It seems that Lord Bonkers produced another diary while I was sampling the fleshpots of Norfolk and Suffolk. It is hard for me to keep up with the old boy these days.

Anyway, you can find his latest diary here:

These property taxes can be a terrible burden, as I have more cause than most to know, and we householders can be forgiven for making every effort to reduce their weight. When the council valuers comes to the Hall I generally have the West Wing hung with camouflage nets and have the fast-growing Rutland leylandii planted in front of many of the monuments which dot the park; I think in particular of the triumphal arch I had erected to celebrate Wallace Lawler’s victory in the Birmingham Ladywood by-election in 1969 and the statue of David Austick receiving the tribute of the captured Conservatives at Ripon.

Have you seen this programme Grumpy Old Men? I cannot imagine what the chaps at Alexandra Palace are thinking of. It consists entirely in a group of old men moaning about the way the world is going. Who wants to watch that? I simply can’t stand the thing. It’s typical of today’s society that we have to put up with such nonsense.

I remember with fondness those great ships of an earlier age: the Graf Zeppelin, the R101 and, here in Rutland, the First Lady Bonkers. The problem that saw the downfall of these graceful galleons of the sky was an uncertainty over what should be used to fill them. Some favoured hydrogen, but it had the unfortunate habit of going off pop at the most inconvenient moments. The choice therefore fell upon helium, but this gas had the effect of making everyone on board speak in a high-pitched, squeaky voice.

Paddy the spy

Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown has been named as an MI6 agent.

This will come as no great surprise to anyone who was active in the old Liberal Party. It was widely rumoured when Ashdown was first elected as an MP in 1983.

And you don't need much imagination to work out that a former special forces officer who joins the diplomatic service may be involved in intelligence.

Come to think of it, this background was one of Ashdown's most appealing features. He certainly had more go than the Liberal leader of those days, David Steel.