Friday, March 31, 2006

That tortoise was just too fast for me

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

Bypassing Brown

Good news from the Budget debate: Gordon Brown does not have as much influence on British education as he likes to pretend.

The chancellor presents himself as the saviour of our schools: now providing billions to improve standards; now finding extra money for some desirable policy goal. Monday’s budget debate showed that the truth is rather different.

Take Brown’s headline figure of an extra £34bn for schools. As Sarah Teather pointed out, this was arrived at by adding up all the capital spending over the next five years, and much of this money has been announced already.

Or take the pledge to fund state school pupils at the same level as pupils in the private sector. This turns out to be merely an “aspiration”, and an aspiration to reach the current level of spending in the private sector at that. By Sarah’s calculation this will take 16 years, and by then private schools will be spending a lot more than they are now.

Incidentally, Tony Blair announced a similar aspiration during the 2001 election campaign. Then the gap between the state and private sectors was £2000 per pupil each year. Today it is £3000.

Achilles writes: I’m sorry, but that tortoise was just too fast for me.

If all that isn’t good news, the next bit is. Because it turns out that the micromanagement of schools Brown is so keen on is largely a myth.

He may announce £2000 for every school to buy books, as he did in the 1999 budget. Or he may promise £220 million next year for personalised learning, as he did this time. But there is no sign that the Treasury has any mechanism for ensuring that schools spend this money the way Brown wants them to.

Maybe he knows this, and his announcements are all spin. Or maybe he thinks every head in the country really is doing what he tells them, and none of his acolytes has the courage to tell him the truth. (In other words, Balls doesn’t have the balls.)

Whatever the explanation, this is welcome news. We Lib Dems believe in local control of schools, and it looks as though there is more of it about than we thought.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Garry Kasparov

I am watching Question Time from Moscow, and it is worth pointing out what a remarkable man Garry Kasparov is. He has a strong claim to be called the strongest chess player ever: certainly, he dominated the game for two decades from the mid 1980s.

Now he has given chess up to enter Russian politics on the side of the angels. This article gives his account of that decision:
Russia is in a moment of crisis and every decent person must stand up and resist the rise of the Putin dictatorship. Russia boasts too many generals and colonels in politics and too few thinkers. (Even Russia's chess players are in decline, a symptom of the larger malady.) I hope my vision and ability to think strategically can be of help to my native land. We must act now to unite and to create real democratic opposition to the Putin regime. I can now offer not only my name and my advice, but my active participation.

The New Art Gallery, Walsall

Yesterday I visited the New Art Gallery in Walsall. This is one of those white elephants, built with Lottery money, which dot provincial England. But the collection it houses is special and worth going to see.

It is easy to find as it stands in the centre of town beside the canal basin. It looms over the water like a dreadnought where the narrow boats used to load. There was a family of swans in the basin. The cygnets were very adolescent - their feathers, turning from grey to white, looked like drifted snow with highways department salt dumped on it - and gave the impression they would be a happier in hoodies.

Walsall, at least the short stretch of it you see between the railway station and the gallery, is not inspiring. But I have seen tree-lined streets on the outskirts which suggest that it has been prosperous in its time. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries its wealth came from coal mining - today the area to the south is badly affected by subsidence - and later it became famous as a centre of the leather trade. (The local schools used to do their bit for the town's economy by beating the children with leather straps rather than canes.)

With celebrity architects (Caruso St John) and a celebrity director (Peter Jenkinson), the gallery made a great splash when it opened. Jenkinson wrote about its early success in the New Statesman in 2000. But the Wikipedia article on it suggests that it has not had such a happy time since then and is now run by council officers.

This would explain the display that greets you upon entering. There are trade union banners (Lambeth NALGO Women's Group, NUT Bexley Association) and poems from schoolchildren about racism and bullying. No doubt they are meant to represent popular culture, but they are characteristic of the cheerlessness and sententiousness of municipal Labourism. Still, if you climb the stairs to the galleries the views along the canal lift the heart and make you want to walk the towpath.

The galleries are upstairs too, and the art displayed in them is what makes the trip to Walsall worthwhile. The heart of the gallery's collection is the Garman Ryan Collection which, the gallery's website explains, was:
donated to the Borough in 1972 by Lady Kathleen Epstein. It consists of three hundred and sixty-five works of art, over a third of them being three-dimensional works from many different cultures and periods around the world. It also contains a wide-ranging body of the work of Sir Jacob Epstein and many significant works by European artists such as Van Gogh, Monet, Turner, Corot, Renoir and Constable represented in prints, sketches and drawings as well as paintings and sculptures.
You can explore the collection online on this page of the gallery's website.

Jacob Epstein is an appealing figure. He was born in 1880 in New York, the son of Polish refugees, and settled in England in 1905. He was a friend of leading British artists like Augustus John and Eric Gill, and one of his daughters married the painter Lucian Freud. The collection at Walsall has works by all these friends and family connections.

Epstein was at first a controversial artist, thanks to his predilection for nude figures on buildings such as the former BMA headquarters on The Strand in London and John Lewis's in Liverpool. But he lived to be knighted, to produce a bronze of Churchill just after the war and to contribute the sculpture of St Michael and the Devil to the new Coventry Cathedral. (The model for St Michael, incidentally, was the distinguished economist Wynne Godley.)

So that is the New Art Gallery at Walsall. The cafe is friendly but limited, and you may do better to eat next door at The Wharf, described as "Walsall's trendiest bar". How much competition there is, the writer does not say.

The Ming Dynasty

So we've had the elections for Liberal Democrat leader, deputy leader and chief whip.

If you are experiencing withdrawal symptoms from internal party elections, go to where they are already discussing who will succeed Ming:

Like Tony Blair and David Cameron the top four in the betting have a lot in common:

  • They are all male;
  • They are all white;
  • They all went to public school;
  • They all went to either Oxford or Cambridge.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Vince Cable elected Deputy Leader

Vince Cable has been elected as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, reports

Ballot Results

Round One
Matthew Taylor - 25
Dr Vince Cable - 21
David Heath - 17

Round Two
Dr Vince Cable - 31
Matthew Taylor - 29

So it's Ming Campbell and Vince Cable. Hmm. Not the most varied of tickets, is it?

Opera at Bonkers Hall

I have commented before on the strange absence of Bonkers Hall from Ordnance Survey maps, and remarked that Nevill Holt near Market Harborough is the best approximation to it that you are likely to find.

This summer Grange Park Opera is staging performances of The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville at Nevill Holt.

I doubt that Lord Bonkers would settle for anything less than a complete performance of Wagner's Ring Cycle with the first Lady Bonkers (or possibly Elspeth Campbell) as Brunhilde, but it is good to see Bonkers Hall becoming the Glyndebourne of the East Midlands.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Is this all your own work, Tompkins?

There is a good article by Frank Furedi in today's Guardian. He looks at the factors that have led to an increase in plagiarism and cheating in schools and universities:

From day one in primary school ... [parents] are told that the performance of their children is intimately linked to how much support they get at home. In a desperate attempt to improve standards of education, parents' concern for their children is manipulated to draw them in as unpaid teachers. The outsourcing of education by schools encourages a dynamic where many parents become far too directly involved in producing their children's homework.

Surveys suggest that parents spend on average six or seven hours a week on homework duties.

This article is also discussed by Scott Burgess. And see Furedi's own website for more of his articles.

Jodie Marsh slams Phil Willis

Recess Monkey reports an extraordinary attack on Phil Willis by Jodie Marsh.

Phil Willis is a topless model and former Page 3 girl; Jodie Marsh is Lib Dem MP for Harrogate. (Are you sure about this? Ed.)

Monday, March 27, 2006

Orange Book 2?

A throwaway line from an editorial in this morning's Guardian:
Some of this may come in a successor volume to the influential Orange Book, due out later this year.
Your read it here first. (Unless you read the Guardian, obviously.)

Localism and equality

Stephen spells out "new localism"

said the BBC website, reporting last weekend's Scottish Lib Dem Spring Conference. And the report began:

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Nicol Stephen has outlined plans to devolve control of health and education away from Scottish Executive ministers.

Addressing delegates at his party's spring conference in Aviemore, Mr Stephen said "new localism" would help the Lib Dems to overtake Labour.

Yet when you read on, you see that there are tensions between this support for localism and the egalitarianism which now dominates Lib Dem discourse on education. For, as reported by the BBC, the centrepiece of Stephen speech was this call:

"Let's get the best headteachers moving to new schools and new challenges every five or seven years - using their skills to prevent complacency in our best performing schools and to transform poorly-achieving schools," he said.

"And if it means we should pay more to get the best teachers in areas with the hardest challenges, where they need it most, I say we should."

This may be a good idea, but it has little to do with localism. It is about national government (in this case the Scottish Executive) using its powers and resources to override local preferences. After all, if a school has a good head the local community has a strong interest into holding on to him. For the best of motives, Stephen wants to make it more difficult for that community to do so.

The essence of localism is experiment: different communities will do things in different ways. Some of these ways will work, others will not. So localism is likely to lead to unequal provision.

The Liberal argument is that in the long run people will see which experiments work and which do not, and the more successful methods will be widely adopted. And this will raise standards everywhere.

As a good Liberal I believe this, though I suspect that many good services community, including schools, are down to exceptional individuals. So the extent to which the lessons drawn can be generalised is probably more limited than we sometimes argue.

But there is no doubt that in the short term localism will lead to inequality, and I wonder how many Liberal Democrats will react to this. For them, equality seems to have become the overriding consideration.

For instance, they hold the government's plans for city academies and foundation schools in contempt because they are not available to all children. The argument seems to be that unless a reform can be introduced everywhere, all at once, then it should not be introduced at all.

That view is a long way from localism, and I see a lot of, er, interesting debates ahead.

Nostalgia, Marxism and Miss Marple

I have found a short article by Alan McKee discussing the appeal of the BBC adaptations of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple books. These are the ones starring Joan Hickson, which I have discussed here before.

He suggests three reasons why this series was so appealing. I have no quarrel with the second and third of them, which are the quality of Joan Hickson's performance and the way the programmes offer a "pleasantly female-oriented version of detective mythology".

But the first worries me a little. McKee argues that it is because the Miss Marple adaptations are "prime examples of 'heritage' television":
The term "heritage television" sums up a certain attitude towards the past which developed in Britain during the 1980s, when a mixture of a new Victorianism in moral standards and an increasingly frenetic late-capitalistic commodification led to two tendencies. The first was an attraction to a particularly sanitised version of England's past. The second capitalized on the first with various moves towards rendering that past easily consumable - in television programs, films, bed sheets, jams and preserves, and so on.
I wonder. I always distrust this sort of Marxist analysis, if only because of the unexplained use of the term "late capitalism". Presumably we are now living through "even later capitalism", but there is still no sign of the Revolution.

It also assumes that an interest in the past is somehow excaptional and a sign that there is something wrong with present-day society. Presumably the idea is that in a socialist economy people would spend all their time working bare-chested in fields and factories and looking to the future, like the heroes of early Soviet propaganda films.

I suspect nostalgia is more central to the human condition than that. For it is not accurate to date the nostalgia boom to the Thatcherite 1980s.

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady -which gave rise to lots of associated merchandise - was no.1 in the Sunday Times bestseller list for 64 weeks in the more collectivist years of 1977 and 1978. And I am sure it would be possible to find examples going back much further than that.

Besides, is Miss Marple as nostalgic as all that? Yes, there is great pleasure to be had from the period cars, clothes and so on. But the Joan Hickson programmes were precisely set in the years around 1950, and we do see social change taking place. Where an institution - Bertram's Hotel - has resisted all change, it turns out to be sinister.

Perhaps significantly, the series looked both forward and back in its casting too. It looked forward in that it featured George Baker as a police inspector and Kevin Whatley as a sergeant before either Wexford or Lewis came to the screen.

And it looked back in its use of actors and actresses familiar from films made decades before.

The most remarkable example of this was the cameo appearance by Joyce Carey in A Murder is Announced, made in 1985. She had appeared as an elderly landlady (Alastair Sim, as a fake medium, schemes to marry her) in London Belongs to Me, as early as 1948.

Two Shropshire Star classics

A couple of characteristic headlines from my favourite newspaper:

Rain holds off during half-marathon

Abattoir set to move in £10m plan

Mind you, if you have been to Craven Arms you will know that moving the abattoir threatens to tear the heart out of the place.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The real Master

Will Howells writes about Anthony Ainley and the Ainley family's (rather tenuous) links with the Asquiths. He also says that Ainley played The Master in Doctor Who during the 1980s.

No doubt he did. But the real Master - the original one who flourished in the late 1960s* when I was just of an age to hide behind the sofa - was Roger Delgado.

* Actually in the early 1970s - see Will's comment below.

Government support for elite athletes

A couple of weeks ago I argued in Liberal Democrat News that there was something sinister about the government's rush to associate itself with British sporting success:
It's good to praise people when they have done well. But somewhere behind all these congratulations is the belief that all achievements by British people are really government achievements. And that is downright sinister.
Tony Blair was at it again in Melbourne today. Praising Scotland's success in the Commonwealth Games, he said:

"Scotland has done superbly well with 11 gold medals and sixth place in the medal table.

"I think people worked hard before the games as well and I know that Jack McConnell, (Sports Minister) Patricia Ferguson, the Scottish Institute of Sport - they've all been putting their shoulder to the wheel and it's paid off."

The people to be praised are the medalists themselves, their coaches and (I suspect most of all) the parents who gave up their spare time to ferry them from event to event when they were younger. But you will rarely hear a Labour politician admit that. It all has to be down to the Scottish Executive.

These days it is taken as a given that state investment in elite athletes is a good thing. Governments boast of it: opposition parties demand more. Which makes Michael Johnson's condemnation of the set up in British athletics all the more interesting:

"We as American athletes used to be a little envious of the support that British athletes got but that system in Britain, that support that the athletes get, can hurt you at times.

"These athletes have it all - the status, the support - before they have done anything.

"All of those young guys wanted to be a champion when they came into it and now they are satisfied with being a relay gold medallist."

So perhaps there is another side to this argument?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

From Beastly to Eastleigh

It's wonderful what a browse of the Internet Movie Database reveals.

You probably know that James Aubrey, who played Ralph in Peter Brook's famous 1963 film of Lord of the Flies, became an actor when he grew up. He has been appearing regularly in films and on TV ever since.

What you may not know is his most recent role. He played David Chidgey (former Lib Dem MP for Eastleigh) in The Government Inspector - last year's TV drama about Dr David Kelly.

Friday, March 24, 2006

From Brackley to the Lincolnshire coast

Today's House Points from Liberal Democrat News.

Home truths

Evenin’ all. We’ve had a nasty gang in Dock Green this week: Jumbo Clarke and his henchmen. That’s Mauler Mactaggart, Nasty McNulty, Andy “The Card” Burnham and Asbo Blears. (There’s also Paul Goggins, but he’s too boring to have a nickname.)

Thank you, PC Dixon. Home office questions made it clear why Charles Clarke keeps that crew round him. They are the only people in the Commons who make him look good by comparison.

Take Tony McNulty. When it comes to being rude, not even Clarke can compete. On Monday he accused Julian Brazier of confusing six different aspects of government policy. And he greeted Nick Clegg’s first question as Lib Dem shadow home secretary with: “As ever, the honourable gentleman … is wrong. He should read things other than the Guardian and get a life.”

That made Charles Clarke sound almost reasonable when he announced plans to merge police forces. Here in the East Midlands, for instance, he wants to combine five into one force covering everywhere from Brackley to the Lincolnshire coast.

Clarke took the first questions of this restructuring, but left the rest to Hazel Blears. It was she who deployed what the home office sees as its clinching argument. Forces must “be certain that they can cope with increased threats from serious and organised crime, and can counter terrorism”.

Never mind traditions of local accountability and mistrust of an overmighty state: whisper the word “terrorism” and we are supposed to throwaway everything we believe in. The problem with today’s world is not that terrorists believe in their cause so strongly: it’s that the democracies’ belief in theirs is so weak.

Just as McNulty makes Clarke look civilised, Blears and Andy Burnham makes him look like an intellectual. For, at the same time as defending her slaughter of county police forces, Blears was insisting on the importance of neighbourhood policing.

And when John Barrett asked Burnham how the government would accommodate the Scottish Executive’s wish not to use identity cards for access to devolved services, he rambled on about how popular the “biometrics roadshow” had proved with the public.

So that’s the home office view. If only we could abolish all these counties and national parliaments, the government would be able to make local accountability work.

At home with the Darbyshires

By common consent in the Lib Dem blogosphere, there's just one place to point you to tonight.

If you ain't never read the Darbyshires, you ain't never read nothing like this.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Big cats at Marston Trussell

There's only one place to be this weekend: the Sun Inn at Marston Trussell near Market Harborough. It is hosting the first national British Big Cats Conference.

As an article in this morning's Guardian said:

It is estimated that up to 7,000 people a year see panther-like (black) animals, or puma-like (brown) animals at large in the UK.
If you do visit the conference, be careful. As the Rutland and Leicestershire Panther Watch site shows, this part of the world is simply crawling with the beasts.

Mind you, Marston Trussell is just over the Northamptonshire border, so it may be less dangerous than other local villages.

Paul Burstow new Lib Dem chief whip

The BBC reports that Paul Burstow has won the contest to become our new chief whip.

English whisky

Look what I've just found.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Lib Dem Chief Whip race

Iain Dale lists the runners and riders:
  • Paul Burstow
  • Richard Younger-Ross
Liberal England says: Is Ricky too nice to crack the whip?

Synthetic phonics again

Tim Worstall writes on the government's decree that reading must be taught by synthetic phonics in every school in the country:

My objection is that it's made into the law of the land. Whether to use it or not as a method. If we are to still regard teachers as professionalss then we should actually employ them as such. Fine, you're a qualified professional person. We trust you. Get on with it. This sort of level of detailed instruction is simply insanely prescriptive, to insist, by law, on a specific method of tuition from the centre.
He might have added that the more things are prescribed from the centre, the less new recruits to the profession can even imagine making such decisions for themselves. The result is the demoralised and rather immature teaching profession we see today.

There: an opinion.

One of the odd effects of the virus I have had for the past couple of weeks has been that I have not been able to form an opinion about anything. I must be on the mend.

Cats: Swings and roundabouts

It's been a mixed week for black-and-white cats.

Monday saw the sad death of Humphrey. But on a happier note, Postman Pat's cat Jess is to get his own series.

Blair and Lloyd George

A piece of history from the Irish Student Law Review. You may care to consider the parallels between Blair and Lloyd George as leaders without parties:

The sale of honours became particularly blatant and reckless under Lloyd George. The reason was that while he had won the 1918 general election he had broken with the Liberal Party, the coalition government he headed having a Conservative majority. In order to fight the next election he needed to found his own political party, which would need an enormous campaign fund. To sell the necessary honours he set up a brokerage system with a go-between, J. Maundy Gregory, who would have a near monopoly on official patronage. Lloyd George was the first Prime Minister to set fees for the sale of honours, which were publicly revealed by the Duke of Northumberland in the House of Lords on July 17, 1922: £10-12,000 for a knighthood, £35-40,000 for a baronetcy.

King George V was, according to one of his biographers, seriously disturbed concerning four aspects of the distribution of honours in the period 1917-22: "They were the failure of the Prime Minister to consult him before promising titles to certain political and financial supporters; the number of honours recommended by the Prime Minister; the character of the recipients; and the use of go-betweens to sell the royal prerogative in the market-place."

Despite the misgivings felt from the King down, things did not come to a head until the Robinson scandal. The honours list published to mark the King's birthday on June 3, 1922 included the names of five new peers, of which four were met with derision. The most controversial was the South African mine-owner Sir Joseph Robinson, who had paid £30,000 for his peerage. He had chaired a company to which he had sold, at an inflated price, mining freeholds, which he had previously bought in his own name. The South African courts had ordered him to pay £500,000 compensation and his appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was lost in November 1921.

The Lords, some of whom had sat in judgment on him, were furious at this new addition to their number, Lord Harris laying before them all the details concerning Robinson on June 22, 1922. The King was also furious and the storm was such that Lloyd George forced Robinson to decline the honour. This brought the scandal of the sale of honours to the surface and was a factor in Lloyd George's fall from power.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Shropshire Hills latest

Reader's voice: why don't you have stories from Shropshire any more?

The Shropshire Star reports:

A Shropshire man today said he was lucky to be alive after his sports car skidded off an icy road and came within six inches of plummeting off a 1,400-foot cliff on the Long Mynd.

Charlie Daker was forced to spend a terrifying 20 minutes teetering on the edge of the sheer drop after his Nissan 350Z lost its grip on the slippery road.

On a happier note, The Wrekin has won £50,000 on the Lottery.

Humphrey the Downing Street Cat

So farewell then to Humphrey.

It is a pity he did not live long enough to see the Blairs leave Downing Street. But it is starting to look as though they may not survive him for long. And I was always one of the school that believed that Blair would stay in power as long as possible and do down Gordon Brown once more if he possibly could.

The best memorial to him is by Oliver King on the Guardian site. It includes the famous snap of Cherie Blair holding Humphrey in the photo opportunity arranged by Alistair Campbell. This was arranged to keep cat lovers in New Labour's "big tent" after the Downing Street mouser was pensioned off because Cherie did not like him.

Except that I am convinced that you would find subtle differences in colouring if you compared that picture of "Humphrey" with earlier ones of him. I have not had time to do this myself, but I am convinced this "Humphrey" was a hastily found replacement after the real one was done away with.

As my old friend Whittington said: "The word in the alley is that he is buried somewhere under the Millennium Dome."

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Films for free

Lord Bonkers once wrote that he could never visit Brighton without being reminded of Sir Richard Attenborough's Pinkie.

Now you can share the experience. Today the Daily Telegraph is giving away a free DVD of the 1947 film Brighton Rock. And tomorrow the Sunday Telegraph is giving away The Go-Between. Both films are well worth owning.

Looking at next week's TV schedules there is certainly one film to tape. At 1.45 p.m. on Wednesday, Channel 4 is showing Went the Day Well?

This Ealing drama was a wartime (1942) propaganda film, warning its viewers to be on the alert for German invaders. Yet it transcends these origins and is something quite remarkable. Indeed the cosy village setting makes the later violence all the more shocking. The final result looks like Dad's Army reshot by Sam Peckinpah.

Watch out in particular for the late Dame Thora Hird blazing away with a rifle.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Lib Dem Deputy Leadership vote

According to a posting on the uk.politics.electoral group, nominations have closed and the three candidates are:
  • Vince Cable
  • David Heath
  • Matthew Taylor
Liberal England says: Vote Heath.

Later. See here for the result.

You have increasingly looked like an elephant

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. I am not sure I understand it either, but I wasn't well when I wrote it.

Castro Clarke

Highgate School, 1967.

“Ah, Clarke. Thank you for coming. I have it in mind to make you Head Boy next year, but there are a couple of things that are worrying me.”

“I see, sir.”

“The first is that since you have come here you have increasingly looked like an elephant, but we can’t do a lot about that and Matron tells me that no one has been trampled this half. The second is that I have had word that you are a bit of a leftie.”

“It’s true, sir, that I have an admiration for dictators like Fidel Castro…”

“Splendid! That just what the Governors look for in a Head Boy. Have a bun, Clarke.”

* * *

It was always going to be a public-school socialist who brought in identity cards. It’s the noxious blend of contempt for democratic traditions and unshakeable self-confidence. And Clarke doesn’t have the lovely manners such an education is supposed to give you.

Charles Clarke was at the dispatch box at 10 p.m. on Monday night when news came that the Lords had again refused to pass his bill.

These days we are all supposed to be in favour of family-friendly hours. The Commons should shut up shop in the early evening so MPs can rush home to supervise Jack and ChloĆ«’s homework. But you have to admit that there is something about a late-night row.

Clarke’s case was that the Lords were holding up a bill that had been promised in the last Labour Manifesto. “We will introduce ID cards, including biometric data like fingerprints, backed up by a national register and rolling out initially on a voluntary basis as people renew their passports.”

But it is not on a voluntary basis at all, people argued. If you renew your passport you have to get a card and go on the national identity database whether you want to or not. Clarke’s answer to this point? “No one is forced to renew a passport if they choose not to do so.”

The best argument against this came from Simon Hughes. So let’s play out with him:

The Home Secretary has come here tonight to say to the elderly relative who is told that his or her child is ill in another country, "This is a matter of free choice, but you must have an identity card if you want to visit a relative who is very ill." … That is not freedom of choice in the conventional sense of the term, and the Home Secretary can never persuade us that it is.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Kenneth Clarke "We must turn to the Liberals"

Tomorrow's Spectator has an interview with Ken Clarke by Fraser Nelson. There Clarke floats the idea of a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition after the next election.

No doubt the old rhinoceros is making trouble, but it is hard not to sympathise with him when he says of Ming Campbell:
"I don't know his views on domestic policy; I'm not at all convinced that he's got that many."

Harold Wilson's pipe

Holyrood Chronicles remembers the former prime minister. It seems that famous pipe was just for show:
Mr Wilson was wont to smoke cigars when out of the public eye. In the 1970s, and this is nowadays hard to believe, one was allowed to smoke in the corridors of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister's Commons office was near the corridor at the back of the Speaker's Chair and, for those of us who had to spend time there waiting for whatever Parliamentary business we were interested in, Mr Wilson could be frequently espied trailing clouds of cigar smoke as he made his way to wherever he was going.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Buy your own peerage

No, it's not the Labour Party selling them. It's the Elect the Lords campaign.

Their press releases reads:

The Elect the Lords campaign has launched a range of "Virtual Peerages" for sale on its website, following the continuing "cash for peerages" row.

As an introductory offer, the Virtual Peerages are being offered at a 25% discount for one week only, meaning that a Virtual Baronetcy can be bought for as little as £7.50.

Purchasers of these Virtual Peerages will receive a "certificate of inauthenticity" and be listed on the campaign's website. Purchasers of a Virtual Marquessetcy and Duchy will have their own Coat of Arms designed.

In the real world, the money raised in this way will be spent on campaigning for an end to political patronage and a democratic second chamber.

Commenting on the new scheme, National Coordinator of the Elect the Lords campaign Peter Facey said:

"17 out of the 22 individuals who have donated more than £100,000 to the Labour Party in the past few years have received an honour; all but one of the individuals who have donated more than £1m have received a peerage. This is unacceptable in a modern democracy.

"With prices starting from just £7.50, our Virtual Peerages are truly 'for the many not the few.' What's more, the money used from them will be spent on campaigning to abolish political patronage - they represent the perfect gift for a spouse or loved one.

"In nine years, Tony Blair has appointed more than 300 life peers - 50% more than any other Prime Minister in history. We are hoping to create more than 300 Virtual Peerages in just one month."

Virtual Peerages can be purchased online from the Elect the Lords website

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Liberal Democrat deputy leadership

Iain Dale has a guide to the runners and riders. In the comments, Susan Kramer and David Heath are emerging as the hot tips.

Lost racecourses

Here is a list of the dozens of British courses which used to host horse racing meetings but no longer do so. The last to close was Stockton in 1981.

The course in Derby is now the county cricket ground.

Later. That list has disappeared, but here is a review of a book on lost racecourses.

Much later. The list is back.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Peers and loans

In debt? Need a loan? Refused credit?

Why not ask your friendly local peer to help?

We offer helpful advice, a quick decision and competitive rates.

Apply to: The Bonkers Hall Estate Office, Rutland.

Your home and children may be at risk if you fail to keep up payments. Terms and conditions apply.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Shepperton Babylon

One of my favourite books of last year was Matthew Sweet's Shepperton Babylon. I wrote a long review of it here.

Last time I was in Waterstone's I noticed it was included in their three-for-two promotion. I still recommend it highly.

Incidentally, no one who has seen the still of Dirk Bogarde from The Singer not the Song on the front cover will believe that Brokeback Mountain was the first gay Western.

The last 1906 Liberal

Thanks to those who answered my query.

The consensus is that the last Liberal elected in 1906 to die was the sixth Earl of Rosebery - the son of the Liberal prime minister. He lasted until May 1974.

Judging by his sporting biography, he must have been a good friend of Lord Bonkers.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Profumo's claim to fame

So farewell then Jack Profumo.

The obituaries will concentrate on the scandal of 1963 and his later redemption through charity work. But in many ways Profumo's finest hour came before all that. As Wikipedia explains:
In 1939 he joined the British Army (Northamptonshire Yeomanry), rising to the rank of brigadier. In March 1940, while still serving, he was elected to the House of Commons as a Conservative at a by-election in Kettering, Northamptonshire. Shortly afterwards he voted against the Chamberlain government in the debate following the British defeat at Narvik in Norway. He was the youngest MP at that time, and by the time of his death he was last surviving member of the 1940 House of Commons.
Unless, of course, you know different.

Lord Bonkers is immortal (thanks to his regular bathes in the sacred spring at Hebden Bridge), but it would be interesting to know who was the last Liberal member of the 1906 Commons to die. One obvious candidate is Winston Churchill, who lasted until 1965.

The occasional horse’s head in the marital bed

This week's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

The observation about commandeering a De Havilland was orginally made of the first Lady Bonkers. And the story about John Prescott and the Edens can be found somewhere on my (very occasional) anthology blog Serendib.

Fun and Games

I don’t care if Tessa Jowell resigns or not. What I want, as I have said here many times, is for her whole department – Culture, Media and Sport – to go.

You wonder why? Monday’s question time gave a clue. The first question came from our own Paul Rowen and was about Rugby League. That didn’t stop Richard Caborn congratulating Alastair Cook on his century in India and Shelley Rudman on her silver medal in the Winter Olympics.

With her job under threat, Tessa Jowell had to act decisively. Faced with a question on the switchover to digital television, she countered by congratulating Rachel Weisz. Nick Park and Steve Box; and Martin McDonagh for their success at the Oscars.

It’s good to praise people when they have done well. But somewhere behind all these congratulations is the belief that all achievements by British people are really government achievements. And that is downright sinister.

Which brings us to Jowell’s home life. What can it have been like? How David Mills explain all those mortgage agreements to sign at breakfast? Or the occasional horse’s head in the marital bed?

Now they have separated, and those who suspect there is something convenient about this are accused of the most appalling cynicism. Yet we remember the widely reported story that Robin Cook took a phone call from Alastair Campbell at Heathrow, telling him that the headlines meant he had to choose between his wife and his mistress. He did so, telling his wife their marriage was over in the VIP departure lounge.

Yet what this story really shows is a decline in the quality of political wives. If Harold Macmillan had treated Lady Dorothy like that. She would have commandeered a De Havilland and gone after him.


Talking of political wives reminds me of an interesting historical sidelight. An exhausted Anthony Eden resigned as prime minister on 9 January 1957. A few days later he and his wife set sail on a cruise from Tilbury to New Zealand aboard RMS Rangitata.

They were looked after by their cabin steward, who also fought on-deck boxing matches to entertain passengers. When he won, the former prime minister or his wife would sometimes present him with his prize of beer or wine.

His name? John Prescott.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Disused railway station of the day

Give it up please for Heckmondwike Spen.

(I told you I was ill.)

Spare a thought for former MPs

The Leeds Evening Post does:

It must be the most humiliating way to be sacked.

One minute you're the bees knees with voters who have backed you to become an MP and help run the country.

The next, you're unemployed and standing on a stage next to the person who has just been handed your job before the eyes of a nation.

Now, a study being undertaken by Leeds University is to examine how deposed MPs cope with the trauma of being rejected by their constituents in a General Election.

Found via Iain Dale's Diary.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Yellow Peril

After yesterday's Ming's Dynasty, here is another website I urge all my readers not to visit.

That new Lib Dem team in full

Sorry for the slow blogging this week. I have the mother of all colds. I couldn't have accepted a portfolio if Ming had offered me one.

Anyway, the BBC has the full list of the new Lib Dem front-bench team.

Note in particular Alistair Carmichael's promotion to transport spokesman and the unexpected re-emergence of Nick Harvey as our expert on defence.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Ming's Dynasty

You won't catch me giving any encouragement to a disgusting display like this.

Monday, March 06, 2006

I saw a blue tit over there where I’m pointing

If you listened to the Today programme this morning, you may enjoy this posting on Drinking From Home.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Ming at the Olympics

Thanks to the wonders of Wikipedia, Liberal England can bring you details of our new leader Sir Menzies Campbell's efforts at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

In the 200m he won his heat in the first round but was eliminated in the second. He was also part of the British 4 x 100m relay team which made it all the way to the final.

The only good thing about Blackpool

And now it is under threat. says:
After government rejection of new tram systems in Leeds, Liverpool and Southampton, it is now reported that Blackpool’s 100-year-old tram system is under threat.

Campaigners claim it will have to close if the Department of Transport fails to support an £88m funding application from local councils on Lancashire’s Fylde coast.
There is also a report in the Independent on Sunday. Read it while it is still free.

Watching Ming from a distance

I have not been in Harrogate this weekend, so I have only seen snatches of the Lib Dem Spring Conference on the television news.

Even so, I have formed the clear impression that being party leader will be far more to Sir Menzies Campbell's taste than campaigning to be leader was.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Fourth Anglo-Afghan War

Yesterday's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Incidentally, there was no House Points column last week. The Commons on its half-term holiday and I was still obliged to be neutral in the leadership contest. So we decided the editorial gods were against the idea.

Gut feelings

Britain has a long and unhappy history of intervention in Afghanistan. There was the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1838–42, where the massacre of the British garrison in Kabul was followed by brutal reprisals.

Then came the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–79), when much the same happened. By the time of the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919 we were using aerial bombardment.

Now British troops are off to Afghanistan again. At Monday’s defence questions John Reid confirmed there are currently around 1600 there, and this will increase to around 5700.

Why are they going? Reid described their task as establishing democracy, ending terrorism, achieving security in the south of Afghanistan, helping the Afghan economy and dealing with poppy destruction. He did not say what they are doing after lunch.

There were hard questions from both sides of the House. Michael Moore asked how individuals detained by UK forces would be handed over to the Afghan authorities and what judicial procedures would follow.

In reply to all this, Reid said what defence secretaries always say in a tight corner: “we all ought to be careful not to cross the threshold into despondency and defeatism before we even arrive, because that does no one any good, particularly our very brave troops.”

Liberal Democrats have questions to answer here too. We are best known for our opposition to George’s Bush invasion of Iraq, yet in principle we are in favour of intervention in Afghanistan and many other places.

You can argue that we have been consistent by insisting that military operations must be sanctioned by international authority. But politics is about gut feelings as well as logic, and ours can sometimes be in conflict.

If the current expedition into Afghanistan turns into the Fourth Anglo-Afghan War, what will we say then?


By the time you read this, the party will have elected a new leader. It’s been a good campaign, but as it unfolded it became clear that Chris/Ming/Simon was the outstanding candidate. I congratulate him on his victory and am proud to say that I supported him all along.

(Deirdre, please can you have a look at the first couple of boxes to be opened and delete the two names that don’t apply? Thanks.)

(Oops, sorry - forgot to delete this before we went to press - Ed.)

Friday, March 03, 2006

Why Chris Huhne lost

Iain Sharpe suggests it was all down to that endorsement from Polly Toynbee.

Makes sense to me.

Elspeth Campbell

I think a new star may have been born.

Yesterday I pointed to a profile of Lady Ming on the BBC website. There was also one by Michael White in this morning's Guardian.

Better still, try this profile in the Scottish Field. You have to subscribe to read the whole thing, but the free sample is wonderful as it is:
After two years the family moved to peaceful occupied Austria and her photo albums show a large sugar pink house beside Lake Woethersee, where the children skied, swam, played tennis and rode. Her father had an official train and there were trips to Vienna to watch the changing of the guard at Shoenbrunn Palace, between the French, Russians, Americans and British.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The power behind the throne?

Lord Bonkers recently wrote:
for years his beloved Elspeth has worn the trews in their household. She tells him “Menzies, we are not leaving Morningside” or “Menzies, you are to be leader,” as the mood takes her.
How fair was the old brute? Judge for yourself: the BBC website has a profile of the redoubtable Lady Campbell.

Letters from the candidates

One of the nice things about the leadership election was all the important people who wrote to me. Today I heard from Ming Campbell and Chris Huhne.

First, here is Ming after his victory was announced:

The Liberal Democrats are a party that embraces new ideas, that cherishes our principles, and that refuses to sacrifice our values for convenience.

Tony Blair has squeezed values out of politics. Under New Labour, politics has become managerial and not inspirational.

David Cameron has taken the same course, shunning conviction and desperate only to copy the value-free managerialism of Mr Blair's Number 10.

Britain does not need a third managerial party. It needs a distinctive liberal democratic party. I believe that a modern Liberal Democrat party is better placed than any other to understand and address the most pressing challenges of our time:

the overbearing centralisation of public life in Britain, which has led to a pervasive feeling of individual powerlessness, and to public services which still fail too many of the people they are supposed to serve;

the absence of social justice, with persistent levels of poverty and social immobility, and a tax system still biased against the poor; and

the disturbing effects of globalisation and the urgent need to rebuild confidence in the international rule of law; the threat of catastrophic environmental degradation.

These are the urgent challenges of our times.

If you agree with me on these key issues facing our country, you can donate now to help our campaigns at
And here is Chris Huhne:

Without your help, I could not have done anything like as well. It was disappointing not finally to pull it off, but we certainly came from a long way back against all the odds.

We will now go forward as a united party led by Ming, reinforced by the experience of all the common ground forged during the leadership campaign on what is undoubtedly going to be a more radical environmental platform.

Thanks again for all your help and support.

And Simon Hughes? He doesn't write. He doesn't visit...

It's Ming the Merciless

Congratulations to Sir Menzies Campbell on a clear victory in the leadership election.

The figures were as follows:

Sir Menzies Campbell - 23,264
Chris Huhne - 16,691
Simon Hughes - 12,081

Sir Menzies Campbell - 29,697
Chris Huhne - 21,628

We must all wish Ming well. The odd thing is that, despite his venerability, we have no clear idea of where he stands on many domestic issues. No doubt we shall soon find out.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Leadership odds on the eve of declaration

There have been interesting developments in the betting. In the last week of the campaign Ming Campbell has re-emerged as the bookies' favourite.

You can also find odds on who will finish first and second.

Reclaiming the balaclava helmet

Kirk Elder, Senior Citizen from Peebles, on the Tonbridge robbery:

Now, it seems, the robbers are bunglers, who have left a stream of clues behind them. Not the least of these clues are the abandoned balaclava helmets, which are thought likely to be festering with criminal DNA. According to some reports, the identities of the criminals may be betrayed by their dandruff.

If so, let it be soon. In the meantime, I hope this experience will do something to discourage the wearing of balaclavas in criminal endeavours. For too long, the jaggy woollen helmet of childhood has been appropriated by terrorists, rapists, skiers and thugs of every variety, leaving the heads of youngsters exposed to the elements or - worse - clad in the checked crown of the ned, the Burberry baseball cap.

Reports that the Tonbridge gang had their mittens attached by elastic to the sleeves of their duffel coats have yet to be substantiated.

The King is dead

So farewell then Peter Osgood, the King of Stamford Bridge. Charlie Cooke was my real hero in the Chelsea team that won the FA Cup in 1970, but Osgood was a close second.

The remarkable thing is that such a talented player won only four England caps.