Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Sunday papers

The First Post publishes a useful digest of the day's newspapers each Sunday.

Today you can read:
  • Prescott was a "serial groper";
  • A woman who was dragged from the street and raped at knifepoint by a foreign criminal freed from jail has called on Charles Clarke to resign;
  • A biography of Lloyd George to be published next month claims that his long-term mistress, Frances Stephenson, cheated on him for four years with an associate;
  • Wayne Rooney's metatarsal;
  • The Tunbridge Wells suitcase murder;
  • A teaching assistant at a Catholic primary school is revealed as a £150 hooker who specialises in discipline;
and much else besides.

Tim Worstall has done it again

The latest BritBlog Roundup is in place.

J. K. Galbraith dies

The BBC reports that the economist J. K. Galbraith has died, aged 97. It also has an obituary for him.

Galbraith was hugely influential in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact he was just about the only economist that those on the left read.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Saturday night in Sodom and Gomorrah

This morning's House Points from Liberal Democrat News. It was rewritten in haste in my lunch hour on Wednesday. You so nearly got something tedious about agricultural subsidies.

The full quotation from John Prescott's speech can be found on Iain Dale's blog. I didn't have room for the whole thing, but do read it yourself.

Carnival relations

This is a “By the time you read this…” week. Except that if Charles Clarke gets his way, by the time you read this nothing will have happened.

Never mind that 1023 foreign prisoners have been released without being considered for deportation. Never mind that there are murderers, rapists and child abusers amongst them. Never mind that 288 of them were freed after Clarke learned of the problem. Never mind that on Tuesday he claimed that “very, very few” were released after that.

To Clarke’s mind none of this constitutes a reason for resigning. In that strange modern way he went to the prime minister and offered to offer his resignation. But you don’t do that unless you are sure of the answer first.

When Ruth Kelly was in trouble over sex offenders working in schools, the ludicrous story about Fathers 4 Justice plotting to kidnap little Leo Blair hit the headlines. And on Wednesday John Prescott’s affair was on the front of the Mirror.

John Prescott? What can his chat-up line have been? My money is on “Hello love, do you fancy carnival relations?”

What John Prescott does in the bedroom is something none of us wants to ponder too deeply. But it is ironic that his affair was used to bury the bad news about Clarke. For this is what Prescott told the 1996 Labour Conference:

"They are up to their necks in sleaze. The best slogan he could think up for their conference next week is Life's better under the Tories. Sounds to me like one of Steven Norris's chat-up lines …

The Tories have redefined unemployment, they have redefined poverty. Now they want to redefine morality. For too many Tories, morality means not getting caught. Morality is measured in more than just money. It's about right and wrong. We are a party of principle. We will earn the trust of the British people. We've had enough lies. Enough sleaze."

New Labour’s concentration on sleaze was always a way of disguising how little they differed from the Tories on the economy. But now Blair’s government resembles a cross between the last days of Imperial Rome and a Saturday night in Sodom and Gomorrah, it is coming back to haunt them. You have to laugh.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Patricia Hewitt and the nurses

In many ways Patricia Hewitt deserves everything that happened to her at the Royal College of Nursing conference yesterday and more.

This is a woman who served as director of the National Council for Civil Liberties (the old name for Liberty) and now sits in a cabinet that has brought in detention without trial and is planning to bring in compulsory identity cards.

This is the woman who excoriated Jim Callaghan at the 1979 Labour Conference - apparently he lost the election to Mrs Thatcher because the British people were disgusted at his failure to bring in true socialist policies - and condemned Labour MPs who did not vote for Tony Benn as deputy leader in 1981. Today she is at the heart of New Labour.

When someone has a record like that, the natural reaction is to sit back and laugh at any political misfortune that befalls them. But two things give me pause.

Firstly, over recent years government spending on health has increased enormously. As Polly Toynbee and David Walker write:
In 2000, an anxious Tony Blair made a promise to raise UK health spending as a proportion of GDP to the EU average. Soon after the 2001 election, Gordon Brown laid his plans by commissioning Derek Wanless, formerly of NatWest, to review the long-term needs of the NHS in time for Brown's three-year forward spending plan in 2002. 
So it was only in the second term that NHS spending, £67.4bn in 2004-2005, geared up. There was so little dissent that the Conservatives were soon obliged to promise that they would match the largesse. 
At the time of Blair's 2000 pledge, UK health was 6.8% of GDP and the EU average was 8%. Blair had said that the UK would get to the EU average by 2006. Scotland was there in 2004. The following year, UK health spending was to rise to more than £100bn a year, or some 9% of GDP.
If such levels of spending leave members of the Royal College apoplectic with rage, one has to ask just what levels they do want to see.

As a good Liberal Democrat I believe that the nurses' anger in the face of this largesse is a sign that the National Health Service is far too centralised. But it is silly to pretend that any government is going to spend much more on health than this one has.

Secondly, Hewitt was ridiculed for her statement that the NHS has just enjoyed its best year ever. Those who criticise her for saying it should say when they believe the NHS's best year was.

John Betjeman and fat funky baselines

There is an article by Roy Wilkinson in today's Guardian that is just too wonderful to be true:

When the centenary of John Betjeman's birth is celebrated this August, it will be a very English affair. Radio 4 will have a Betjeman Day, and Joanna Lumley, Ronnie Corbett and Judi Dench will gather to recite his work at a gala performance in the West End. There will be a Cornish Birthday Party, with donkey rides and cream teas by the sea at Polzeath. Also in Betjeman's beloved Cornwall, at Trebetherick, there will be the John Betjeman Centenary Golf Trophy.

England's DJs, however, are saluting a less familiar side of the former poet laureate. Recently, rare Betjeman vinyl LPs have been selling on auction site eBay - categorised as "funk/soul/R&B" and recommended for their "dope bass action", "exotic grooviness" and "fat, funky basslines". The time, it seems, has come to boogie with Betjeman.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A glimpse of the young Charles Clarke quotes Tony Benn's diary for 23 November 1978:

At 9.45 Charles Clarke, the son of my former Permanent Secretary, Otto Clarke, came to see me and we had a pleasant talk. He had just returned from Cuba, where he was British representative on the Preparatory Committee of the World Youth Congress.

He said Cuba was most impressive ... Fidel Castro was very much an authoritarian but a most impressive man ...

Clarke was critical of the British Labour Party, which he thought was inactive and without influence. When he applied to work in the International Department at Transport House, he hadn't even been shortlisted.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

John Stuart Mill and "On Liberty"

Also in Prospect this month is a good article on John Stuart Mill - and On Liberty in particular. This year marks the 200th anniversary of Mill's birth.

I don't know how long these Prospect articles will be freely available, but enjoy them while they last. For Richard Reeves is spot on when he writes of On Liberty:

It is most famous, however, for the "simple" harm principle cited earlier, which guides the limits of interference in a person's actions. But the harm principle is a poor summary of the essay taken as a whole, and a small ingredient in Mill's liberalism.

The principle is, to this day, a powerful counterpoint to paternalism. But for Mill, liberty consists of much more than being left alone. It requires choice-making by the individual.

"He who lets the world ... choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation," he writes. "He who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties."

For Mill, a good life must be a chosen life.

Charles Clarke: A joke

Yesterday Charles Clarke was rounding on press critics who accuse him of imperilling our civil liberties.

You can see his point. Today, says the BBC:
Home Secretary Charles Clarke says he will not resign after 1,023 foreign prisoners were freed without being considered for deportation.
He said he does not know where most of the offenders, who include three murderers and nine rapists, are.
If Clarke is looking to bring in a police state, it is a singularly inefficient one.

All of which reminds me of a joke reported in an article on Soviet humour by Ben Lewis. You can find it in the current issue of Prospect:
A man dies and goes to hell. There he discovers that he has a choice: he can go to capitalist hell or to communist hell. Naturally, he wants to compare the two, so he goes over to capitalist hell. There outside the door is the devil, who looks a bit like Ronald Reagan. "What's it like in there?" asks the visitor. "Well," the devil replies, "in capitalist hell, they flay you alive, then they boil you in oil and then they cut you up into small pieces with sharp knives."
"That's terrible!" he gasps. "I'm going to check out communist hell!" He goes over to communist hell, where he discovers a huge queue of people waiting to get in. He waits in line. Eventually he gets to the front and there at the door to communist hell is a little old man who looks a bit like Karl Marx. "I'm still in the free world, Karl," he says, "and before I come in, I want to know what it's like in there."
"In communist hell," says Marx impatiently, "they flay you alive, then they boil you in oil, and then they cut you up into small pieces with sharp knives."
"But… but that's the same as capitalist hell!" protests the visitor, "Why such a long queue?"
"Well," sighs Marx, "Sometimes we're out of oil, sometimes we don't have knives, sometimes no hot water…"

Monday, April 24, 2006

Mark Oaten and Hello! magazine

The Independent on Sunday reported yesterday that:

The wife of the disgraced Liberal Democrat MP Mark Oaten is to tell her story about the "rent boy" revelations that led to her husband's downfall.

In a concerted effort to rehabilitate the couple personally and politically, Belinda Oaten will write an article for Hello! magazine detailing the fall-out from her husband's affair with a male prostitute.

Both Iain Dale and James Graham are right when they say that the last thing Mark Oaten should do is become involved with Hello! The strategy most likely to redeem him in the eyes of the voters is to concentrate on being a good MP for Winchester for the next few years.

It is important to remember what the case against Mark Oaten is. It is certainly not anything he got up to with rent boys. Before history gets rewritten, it should be remembered that his leadership bid had fallen apart before the revelations in the News of the World.

It fell apart because he was able to win the unqualified backing of only one of his fellow Lib Dem MPs (step forward Lembit Öpik, for it is he). And his speech at the London event which saw the first leadership hustings was almost content free.

Nor was Oaten the dangerous right-winger that some painted him. Those who identify great ideological dividing lines within the Liberal Democrats are in danger of making the party sound more exciting than it really is. Certainly, Oaten's chapter in the Orange Book was a sensible but uninspired call for more education in prisons. Everyone believes in that these days.

True, Oaten was the leadership candidate favoured by some ambitious young PR types who were more pro-market than most Lib Dems. The mystery is why they hitched their cart to such an obviously inadequatee beast. Perhaps no one else would have them.

Oaten was not a success as shadow home secretary either. By his own admission he is not a good Commons performer, and when he accepted the government argument that there is a simple trade off between civil liberties and security he had lost the debate before it had begun. He had already been promoted beyond his obvious level of competence.

I wish the Oatens well and hope that Mark continues as MP for Winchester. But the idea that he represents a lost leader brought low by a tragic weakness is nonsense.

Leave those kids alone

Later. Most sources agree that the lyric should be "Leave them kids alone". The playground racism case has been resolved, but from the reports it is still hard to know exactly what to make of it.

The noise of breaking glass - a sound familiar to generations of families as children play with balls in the street - alerted the neighbour to the fate that had just befallen his greenhouse.

Understandably furious, he sought out the miscreant who had smashed the glass. It turned out to be his neighbour's son. The boy apologised after confessing to his parents, who told him his pocket money would be docked until he had made good the damage. Satisfied that justice had been done, the neighbour was happy to accept the apology and the money to replace the glass.

Yet what happened next vividly underscores the crisis in policing, justice and the way we deal with unruly children. Alerted to the offence before the neighbours had sorted out the dispute, the police arrived. Under existing law, they were obliged to arrest the child and take him to court. He faced a fine or the prospect of an anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) banning him for playing with a ball in his garden. In short, the boy was guaranteed a criminal record.

This comes from an article in yesterday's Independent on Sunday. I quote at this length partly because it will soon disappear behind the paper's firewall.

There is a danger of romanticising this sort of delinquency if your are not the victim - I am probably more prone to it than most. And it is not clear where this account comes from. Is it a real case or has it been made up by the journalist or one of the groups quoted later in the article? How old is the boy who broke the window?

Even so, the article does demonstrate some of the problems with the current approach to antisocial behaviour by children and young people.

The first is that it tends to undermine people's ability to sort out problems for themselves. The more that the police and other government agencies involve themselves in such minor problems, the less people will feel able or confident to settle them for themselves. Already this talk of docking pocket money and apologising is in danger of sounding rather quaint.

The second problem is that, no matter how many police officers are employed, the force cannot possibly involve itself in every such case. Therefore government intervention is bound to be experienced as unfair and erratic. Not only that. Later in the article Professor Rod Morgan, the youth justice "tsar", is quoted as saying:

"If we are dragging into the system kids who can be dealt with outside then we are overloading it and that means it's likely we will not do as good a job as the public expects with higher-risk cases."

Finally, it shows something that something rather odd has happened to our view of children. Historically, the progressive cause involved convincing institutions - employers, hospitals, the legal system - that children should be treated differently from adults.

Today that cause tends to insist that children should be treated the same as adults. Take the debate on smacking, for instance, where the argument that hitting an adults is wrong, and that therefore hitting a child must be wrong too, is treated by many as absolutely clinching. The idea that a child should be treated differently from an adult is seen as self-evidently absurd.

Yet it is by no means clear that treating a child the same as an adult is always in the child's interests. To see this we need only consider a case that hit the headlines three weeks ago:

Legal proceedings against a 10-year-old boy over alleged racist name-calling have been labelled political correctness gone mad, by a judge.

When I started writing for Liberal Democrat News (in those days it was monthly) I suggested that all columnists were required by law to sign an undertaking never to use the phrase "political correctness gone mad". All judges should be made to sign it too.

But if the judge was really saying "Why are you wasting the court's time by bringing a case like this?" he was entirely justified. Such cases should be sorted out by the schools and parents. Indeed this case seems to have been sorted out by the boys themselves:

The court was told that the boys are now friends and play football with each other.

The danger that such a solution will also soon come to sound quaint.

Sir Carol Reed

Today I have come across a couple of items related to one of the great British film directors.

First, the Guardian obituary of Alida Valli, who was one of the stars of The Third Man.

Second, this article looking at another Reed masterpiece: The Fallen Idol.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

More nannying from Polly Toynbee

Things are worse than we thought.

Earlier this week Polly Toynbee wrote an article for the Guardian, saying what a good thing it would be if the details of everyone's salary were publicly available.

Some people then decided that, in line with this idea, it would be interesting to know how much Toynbee earns herself. Among them was the Mandrake column from the Sunday Telegraph:

Ms Toynbee has a basic salary at The Guardian that undoubtedly runs well into six figures (and it is happily supplemented with her freelance journalism, broadcasting and books such as Hard Work: Life in Low Pay Britain), but she was reluctant to throw open her own books when I telephoned the home that she shares with fellow Guardian journalist David Walker.

He tells me that she is too busy putting "her children to bed". This seems odd. It was only 6.30pm and Ms Toynbee's youngest child is 21.

Tim Worstall's Britblog Roundup

Number 62 in this weekly series has been posted. Read and enjoy.

Friday, April 21, 2006

A distant cousin of the Duchess of Cornwall

This week's House Points from Lib Dem News. Regular readers of this blog may notice a lot of familiar material - from here, here and here, to be precise. Well, it was Easter and I had an article to write for the Guardian.

Headline to come

Last week, I hope you will recall, House Points looked at the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. This is the sinister plan to give government powers to amend legislation without going back to the Commons.

Just after I sent that column off, the minister in charge of the bill, Jim Murphy, conceded many of its critics' points. While I am always pleased to see the government coming to its senses, it would make life easier if they could arrange to do it on Mondays.

Something similar had happened the week before. That column was about the depredations of badgers in Southend West. I treated the subject lightly, perhaps because the local MP was involved. If David Amess announced the Apocalypse was imminent, you would have to stifle your giggles.

But the situation is more serious than I thought. After that column was written, reports emerged of a car being broken into in Westcliff. It belonged to the Labour constituency secretary and several completed nomination papers were stolen. The result is that five Southend wards have no Labour candidate.

I think we know who was to blame. We can live with badgers digging up people's gardens. When they start threatening the democratic process, it is time to act.

* * * *

Finally, a little Liberal history. In November 2000 Judith Keppel became the first person to win a million on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? She was already granddaughter of the ninth Earl of Albermarle; great-granddaughter of Alice Keppel, the mistress of the Prince of Wales (who became Edward VII); and a distant cousin of the Duchess of Cornwall.

But she was not the first aristocrat to win a big cash prize on British television. For the hit quiz of the 1950s was The $64,000 Question (that's inflation for you). And in 1957 Lady Cynthia Asquith won the top prize.

Lady Cynthia was the wife of Herbert "Beb" Asquith, the son of the Liberal prime minister H. H. Asquith. She answered questions on Jane Austen, the first being "Where did Fanny Price's cousin Edmund Bertram find her crying?"

Perhaps I am making too much of this, but with the single exception of the Torrington by-election, that quiz is the only thing the Liberals won in the 1950s.

Michael Brown arrested

The Liberal Democrats have moved to distance themselves from their biggest donor following his arrest on fraud charges in Spain
says the BBC. You bet they have.

Meanwhile Iain Dale is trying to make Lib Dem flesh creep:

The LibDems were faced tonight with the prospect of having to pay back the £2.4 donation received from Michael Brown (left), who was arrested in Spain today on 53 charges allege forgery, perjury, dishonesty, perverting the course of justice and obtaining a passport by deception. The Crown Prosecution Service applied for a European arrest warrant for Mr Brown on behalf of the HSBC, which is conducting private criminal proceedings itself under the Prosecution of Offences Act. The Serious Organised Crime Agency confirmed that Brown’s arrest was not linked to any investigation by British police.

I can exclusively reveal that the charges relate to the sum of a massive £26 million which has 'gone missing'. This will be very worrying for the LibDem Treasurer Lord Razall, who was Charles Kennedy's link man on the £2.4 million donation. If HSBC can prove that the £2.4 million donation was part of the missing £26 million they may well try to force the LibDem to repay the money. This would bankrupt the Party.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The headline writer's art

Michael Frayn famously discussed headline language in his novel The Tin Men. You can find a summary of his conclusions here.

The art, I am pleased to report, is alive and well in Shropshire:
Teenager in well plunge

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Neil Kinnock on education

"I am very evidently opposed to the multiplication of types of schools for the very simple reason if you get a multiplication of types you get a variation of preferences."
Don't let anyone tell you that Labour lost in 1992 just because of the Tories "Tax Bombshell" poster campaign. Another important reason was that millions of people could not face the prospect of listening to that sort of verbiage for another five years.

What Kinnock seems to be telling the BBC is another version of John Prescott's argument that "if you set up a school and it becomes a good school, the great danger is that everyone wants to go there".

To many Labour politicians the most important thing in education is equality. It is more important than meeting individual needs. It is more important than improving the quality of schools.

Which brings us back to my article on the Guardian website.

More on Friese-Greene

I saw the first part of The Lost World of Friese-Greene last night, and it was every bit as good as I had hoped. They even used George Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad as backing music. If you have broadband you can download the programmes from the BBC website.

There are a couple of points to add to what I wrote about the Friese-Greene family earlier this week.

First, the Goon Show joke about "deep Friese-Greene" which Tim Worstall remembered comes from "Tales of Old Dartmoor". That episode begins like this:
Greenslade: This is the BBC light programme. And here is a photograph of me saying it.
Seagoon: Thank you, Friese-Greene. Or as he came out of an icebox, deep-freeze Greene.
Greenslade: I don't wish to know that.
Seagoon: Stop those carefully rehearsed and written ad-libs and proceed with your task of announcing radio's answer to TV.
Sellers: (older voice) Namely the original lantern-slide type wireless Goon Show.
Second, there is a rock musician and producer called Tim Friese-Green. He used to play with Talk Talk. I don't know if he is related to William and Claude. Maybe he thought the final e was just not rock 'n' roll enough.


At least I think that is the word I want.

The Harborough Mail reports:
Restaurant chain Ask and fashion store Jaeger want to move into what used to be the front of the Trades and Labour Club in High Street
When I were a lad Market Harborough did not even merit a branch of W. H. Smith's.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Meanwhile in Shropshire

A story from today's Shropshire Star:
Shrewsbury councillors have signed a motion demanding the sinking Dara Thai restaurant is removed before the summer to avoid jeopardising the town’s chances in this year’s Shrewsbury In Bloom contest.
They mean the Britain in Bloom contest, by the way, and the restaurant is a derelict boat moored on the River Severn.

I write for the Guardian website today

I have an article on Guardian Unlimited calling for the Liberal Democrats to be more, er, liberal on education.

Great Central Railway

On Monday I went up to Loughborough to have a look at the steam trains. A 15-minute walk from the Midland Mainline station takes you to Loughborough Central, the headquarters of the Great Central Railway. I hope they will not mind that I have borrowed this excellent photograph from their website.

From Loughborough Central you can ride behind a steam locomotive for eight miles south, reaching the northern outskirts of Leicester. If you want to know what has happened to the route of the Great Central beyond that, visit the Great Central Through Leicester site.

Tim Worstall's Britblog Roundup

Tim posted his latest selection on Easter Sunday. I have two (count 'em) postings included.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Lost World of Friese-Greene

The BBC is trailing its new series The Lost World of Friese-Greene heavily. It is based around a colour documentary about a journey through Britain which was filmed by Claude Friese-Greene in the 1920s. And it does look ravishing, even if a little Dan Cruickshank can go a long way sometimes.

You can see the first part of the series on Tuesday on BBC at 9 p.m. In the mean time, Simon Garfield has written about it in today's Observer, and you will soon be able to buy the DVD from the BBC.

The name Friese-Greene is well known to British cineastes through Claude's father William, who was a pioneer of motion photography. In particular, he was the subject of the 1951 film The Magic Box. This was produced to coincide with the Festival of Britain and featured just about every well-known British actor of the period, up to and including Sid James. The full cast list is worth a look.

Unfortunately, the film was based on the premise that William Friese-Greene had invented motion photography but been denied the credit by posterity. The consensus amongst film historians seems to be that this is nonsense, and if anything William has fallen into even obscurity as a reaction to the film.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, William Friese-Greene's brief return to fame in the 1950s probably explains the reference to him in the Goon Show which Tim Worstall remembers.

When they say everyone was in The Magic Box, they really mean it. In his Lights Out for the Territory, Iain Sinclair claims that Ronnie Kray can be briefly be seen as an extra:
In a still taken from the television version, he is dark, sallow, serious. In his flat cap, he looks unnervingly like a ghetto child marching away to a darker destiny.
I am not sure what Sinclair means by "the television version", but we have come a long way from Claude Friese-Greene.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The first car bomb

Last year, just after the July bombings in London, I pointed out that suicide bombing is not the new phenomenon that many imagine. An Anarchist blew himself up at Greenwich Observatory in February 1894.

An article by Mike Davis shows that the same is true of the car bomb - or at least the horse-and-cart bomb:

On a warm September day in 1920, a few months after the arrest of his comrades Sacco and Vanzetti, a vengeful Italian anarchist named Mario Buda parked his horse-drawn wagon near the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, directly across from J. P. Morgan Company. He nonchalantly climbed down and disappeared, unnoticed, into the lunchtime crowd. A few blocks away, a startled postal worker found strange leaflets warning: "Free the Political Prisoners or it will be Sure Death for All of You!" They were signed: "American Anarchist Fighters." The bells of nearby Trinity Church began to toll at noon. When they stopped, the wagon - packed with dynamite and iron slugs - exploded in a fireball of shrapnel.

"The horse and wagon were blown to bits," writes Paul Avrich, the celebrated historian of American anarchism who uncovered the true story. "Glass showered down from office windows, and awnings twelve stories above the street burst into flames. People fled in terror as a great cloud of dust enveloped the area. In Morgan's offices, Thomas Joyce of the securities department fell dead on his desk amid a rubble of plaster and walls. Outside scores of bodies littered the streets."

Buda was undoubtedly disappointed when he learned that J.P. Morgan himself was not among the 40 dead and more than 200 wounded - the great robber baron was away in Scotland at his hunting lodge. Nonetheless, a poor immigrant with some stolen dynamite, a pile of scrap metal, and an old horse had managed to bring unprecedented terror to the inner sanctum of American capitalism. ...

Buda's wagon was, in essence, the prototype car bomb: the first use of an inconspicuous vehicle, anonymous in almost any urban setting, to transport large quantities of high explosive into precise range of a high-value target. It was not replicated, as far as I have been able to determine, until January 12, 1947 when the Stern Gang drove a truckload of explosives into a British police station in Haifa, Palestine, killing 4 and injuring 140.

Tom Watson has no sense of humour

I am not sure how it does it, but the BlogCode box on this blog does seem able to identify other blogs which Liberal England's readers are likely to enjoy. At present the top four places are held by Quaequam Blog!, Chicken Yoghurt, Tim Worstall and Cicero's Songs. All of these appear in the links for this blog, and I read them regularly myself.

The fifth place blog is a different matter. I can't imagine Tom Watson's blog appealing to anyone who is not a committed Labour activist. As a teenager he must have had posters of Roy Hattersley on his bedroom wall.

A recent posting sees Watson reporting that he has mastered Google Calendar. He then worries that this may mean that everyone can search his meeting schedule.

Yesterday I posted a comment posting out that, according to New Labour philosophy, he should not object to this. If he is doing nothing wrong he has nothing to hide.

That comment has not appeared, but one posted this morning has. So I take it I am being censored.

Cheers, Tom.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Abolition of Parliament Bill

Last week it was delinquent badgers.

After I had written a lighthearted column about the depredations of badgers in Southend West it became clear that they were interering with the democratic process by breaking into cars and stealing council candidates' nomination papers. I tried to withdraw my House Points column from Liberal Democrat News, but it had already gone to press.

This week the government was at it.

Just after I had written this week's column about the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill reports began to appear saying that ministers were going to revise it to meet some of their critics' objections.

While I am always pleased to see Labour coming to its senses, it would make my life a great deal easier if they could arrange to do it on Mondays.

So here is House Points - not that I have seen Liberal Democrat News yet. There does not seem to be a delivery of post on Good Friday.

Hedgehog ministers

With MPs away for Easter, there's time to look at one of the bills going through the Commons. The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill (LRRB) sounds like something that would excite only Sir Humphrey. But give it the alternative name it has earned - the Abolition of Parliament Bill - and it sounds more sinister.

For the LRRB gives ministers power to alter almost any law without involving Parliament. The only limitations are that they cannot impose new taxes; create offences carrying a sentence of more than two years; or authorise forced entry, search or seizure, or compel the giving of evidence.

Apart from that they have carte blanche. The LRRB says the minister who is revising a law must be satisfied of various things - for instance that the policy objective cannot be achieved another way. But ministers are always satisfied they are right. It's the nature of the breed. Ministers are satisfied just as hedgehogs are prickly or Dalmatians have spots.

Besides, as David Howarth said in the Times in February, the Bill applies to itself. So ministers can create any offence they like. They just apply the LRRB to the LRRB, abolishes the limitation on his powers and go ahead.

Jim Murphy, the (very junior) minister in charge of the Bill has given an undertaking that the powers will not be used to implement "highly controversial" reforms. But Murphy will soon be sacked or promoted or moved on. Like a lot of unwritten agreements, his words aren't worth the paper they are written on.

Some would try to make Labour see reason by asking them to imagine what an authoritarian right-wing government would do with the LRRB. But in many ways this is an authoritarian right-wing government. It has reached the stage where it cannot imagine anyone else ever being in power. This is the state of mind Mrs Thatcher had got into in the late 1980s when she went batty and brought in the poll tax.

Not surprisingly, the LRRB has stirred up vigorous opposition. If you want to join it, a good place to start is

For when it comes to the LRRB, we should remember the words of Tony Hancock: "Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?"

Remembering Jack Bodell

A glimpse of the glory days of British heavyweight boxing from Harry Pearson in today's Guardian:
The Swadlincote southpaw was British heavyweight champion in the 70s. The US fighter Jerry Quarry once knocked Bodell out in 64 seconds. Asked if the Englishman had been an awkward opponent, Quarry famously responded: "Well, he sure fell awkwardly."

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Not one Bourne every minute

The Rutland & Stamford Mercury reports a rare outbreak of common sense from Lincolnshire:
Plans to build a third primary school in Bourne have been scrapped because there are no children to fill it.

Cricket in Afghanistan

Forget the Loya Jirga and eradicating the poppy crop, this is the way to bring peace to Afganistan:
Allah Dad Noori, the founder of the Afghanistan Cricket Federation, was playing one day in Kabul when a young man walked by carrying an AK47, watched for a while before being invited to join in. Afterwards, he asked if he could play next time. When he returned he was without the rifle. “Where’s your AK47?” asked Noori. “Oh, I don’t need that,” the youth replied. “I’m playing cricket!”

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Johnny Vaughan: "I say, you chaps"

So there I was, checking the Wikipedia entry for Uppingham School (Lord Bonkers' Alma Mater), looking at the list of famous Old Boys. And most of the expected names were there:

Jon Agnew

Stephen Fry

Boris Karloff

Johnny Vaughan

Is this widely known? That Johnny Vaughan went to public school?

I am constantly amazed at the way that people feel obliged to pretend they are something they are not. Show business has more former public school boys covering up their background than even a New Labour cabinet.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Sucking up to tyrants in China

Oliver Kamm reminds us that Newts Livingstone is not the only British politician to make a fool of himself by refusing to admit the nature of the regime ruling China.

Here is Edward Heath writing in his memoirs:
Of course it was right to deplore and condemn the brutal suppression which occurred in June 1989 [at Tiananmen Square] but, in general, we in the West must learn to be rather more cautious about judging the political arrangements in other parts of the world by our own subjective standards.
And here is Tony Benn in his diary:
Had a long talk to the Chinese First Secretary at the embassy - a very charming man called Liao Dong - and said how much I admired Mao Tse tung or Zedong, the greatest man of the twentieth century.

The political influence of blogs

Matthew Turner points us towards a New York Review of Books article on the power of the blog in politics.

You always have to ask how relevant the lessons are for the British scene, but there is food for thought there.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Given a good dorking

You will be pleased to know that the unrest in the little Shropshire town of Cleobury Mortimer, which I reported last year, has come to an end.

The Ludlow Journal (it's like the Shropshire Star with the hard news left out) says:
After the furore caused by the development at Catherton Road, the council knew Cleobury Mortimer did not just want more housing.
Council Leader Heather Kidd told the Journal: "We believe a mix of housing, toilets and a car park is right for the town."
If only all protestors could be satisfied so easily solved.

Less happy was the experience of the town's rugby team. Having fought their way all the way to the final of the Powergen Junior Vase - the final was played at Twickenham on Sunday - they lost 46-3 to Dorking.

As the Daily Telegraph says:
Cleobury's 1,200 fans - around a quarter of the Shropshire town's population - had only a penalty from Allan Shields to applaud.

The girlhood of a Guardian columnist

Our text is taken from chapter 3 of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley:

From a neighbouring shrubbery emerged a nurse, leading by the hand a small boy, who howled as he went. An anxious-looking little girl trotted at her heels.

"What's the matter?" asked the Director.

The nurse shrugged her shoulders. "Nothing much," she answered. "It's just that this little boy seems rather reluctant to join in the ordinary erotic play. I'd noticed it once or twice before. And now again to-day. He started yelling just now …"

"Honestly," put in the anxious-looking little girl, "I didn't mean to hurt him or anything. Honestly."

"Of course you didn't, dear," said the nurse reassuringly. "And so," she went on, turning back to the Director, "I'm taking him in to see the Assistant Superintendent of Psychology. Just to see if anything's at all abnormal."

"Quite right," said the Director. "Take him in. You stay here, little girl," he added, as the nurse moved away with her still howling charge. "What's your name?"

"Polly Trotsky."

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Ward of the Week

The winner is Boston Borough's Old Leake & Wrangle, which had a by-election on Thursday.

But it's not in the same class as Winchester's Oliver's Battery and Badger Farm Ward, where one of the Lib Dem councillors writes a blog.

The best in blogging this week

Tim Worstall has offered his latest selection.

And Ken Owen at the Militant Moderate is again offering a fortnightly round up of the best blogging about sport.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Wikipedia meme

Will Howells has injected an interesting meme into the Lib Dem blogosphere:
Go to Wikipedia. Type in your birth date (but not year). List three events that happened on your birthday. List two important birthdays and one interesting death. Post this in your journal.
Here is my effort for 25 March.

Three events
1807 - The Slave Trade Act becomes law, abolishing slavery in the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
1811 - Percy Bysshe Shelley is expelled from the University of Oxford for his publication of the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism.
1969 - During their honeymoon, John Lennon and Yoko Ono hold their first Bed-In for Peace in the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel (until March 31).

Two birthdays
1881 - Mary Gladys Webb, English writer (d. 1927)*
1908 - David Lean, English film director (d. 1991)

One death
2002 - Kenneth Wolstenholme, British football commentator (b. 1920) **

* A novelist from the Shropshire hills, Mary Webb may fairly be described as "almost readable".
** "They think it's all over. It is."

Lord Bonkers' latest diary

The old monster's latest diary is now on his website:

I then spend the day browsing in the Library. One of the things I turn up is the notorious “Schoolkids” issue of Liberator; this caused quite a stir in its day, and reading it now I can quite see why. It is pretty radical stuff: a ban on Gregory Powder; long trousers at 12; a Royal Commission on bedtimes.

Dinner with the Campbells – Ming and the redoubtable Elspeth, who was so memorably played by Sean Connery in A Bridge Too Far.

I also hunt down something that I have had in mind ever since I began to read those stories about the Middle East being in flames over the publication of some cartoons in a Danish newspaper. Eventually I find it: the controversial Fred Bassett strip that caused riots across the South of England in 1962.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Fallen in with the wrong sett

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

When I wrote it earlier this week I treated the subject with some levity. Since then things have become more serious. Chris Black on Moonlight Over Essex reports the following crime:

The Labour Party has been left without election candidates in five Southend Council wards after a freak theft.

Nomination papers for next month's elections were stolen from the back seat of a car minutes before they were to be submitted...

The papers were stolen from the back seat of a car belonging to Southend West constituency secretary Ron Kennedy, who had stopped in Tintern Avenue, Westcliff, to get signatures from two party members before handing the forms in at the Civic Centre

Westcliff? Stealing from a car? I think we know who is to blame. You can live with petty vandalism, but when badgers start threatening the democratic process it is time to act.

Anyway, here's the column...

Animal insurgents

Life is grim in Southend, as David Amess tells it. The pier has burnt down three times and the cliffs are falling into the sea.

Amess hopes the pier will be back in time for the opening of the 2012 Olympics. I hope so too. But London won by portraying itself as a place apart from the rest of Britain – a ‘world city’ with 200 nationalities. (Ken Livingstone aims to have insulted all of them by the time the torch arrives.) That funky, multiracial London is certainly a place apart from Southend. Believe me, David, when the Olympics open there won’t be a whelk in sight.

But, Amess told the Commons in the adjournment debate before the Easter holidays, Southend faces a worse problem than unstable cliffs or incinerated piers. Badgers.

In Leigh-on-Sea and Westcliff gardens have been taken over by urban badgers. Garages are collapsing and house are being undermined. Fences have been smashed, pets attacked and property destroyed.

Amess didn’t mention them, but there are reports that young badgers have been seen on the pier playing with matches. (Most of them are good lads at heart; they’ve just fallen in with the wrong sett.)

It was around this point in the debate that David Heath said: “The House is treating the honourable gentleman’s comments with some levity, but the issue is serious. I used to be woken up every Sunday morning by people complaining about the badgers in Castle Cary.”

What else is there to do on a Sunday morning in Castle Cary? I suppose you could go to church: they might sing “Brock of Ages”.

Amess did not have a remedy for the badger menace beyond a meeting between the relevant minister and the residents. He raised the proposed cull of badgers to prevent the spread of bovine TB, but it was hard to tell where he stood.

If there is a serious point here, it is that changing farming practices and housing development are doing strange things to the natural world. Foxes have already worked out that urban life has a lot going for it (the dustbins, the coffee bars, the theatres) and now the badgers have caught on too.

You just wonder why they have chosen Southend if it’s as grim as Amess makes out.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Vote 2006

Colin Ross points us towards Vote 2006. This is a discussion forum covering May's local elections - a great source of rumour and unfounded speculation.

Lembit: "Hell's Bunny"

It's like I say: everyone should read the Shropshire Star. It's not just for the latest on Craven Arms abattoir. It's because you get important news about Lib Dem MPs.

Montgomery MP Lembit Opik will be donning his crash helmet and hopping astride a powerful bike on Sunday when he joins 200 other bikers taking to the roads of Mid Wales for a charity event.

The MP turned "Hell's Bunny", who is taking part in the annual Easter Egg Run from Newtown to Bronglais Hospital in Aberystwyth, will be joined on his pillion by fellow Lib Dem MP Mark Williams, from Ceredigion

If nothing else, you have to admire Mark Williams' courage.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

My great nephew is a fruitcake

David Campbell-Bannerman has been in the news today as UKIP has responded to David Cameron's attack. He was interviewed on the Today programme this morning - see the end of this article on the BBC site.

If the name sounds familiar, it is because he is the great nephew of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the Liberal prime minister. If you do know much about Sir Henry, read Martin Kettle's tribute.

While no one would have called the great man a fruitcake, he might well have eaten one.

Correction of the Day

From the Guardian:
The review of Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables, which appeared in late editions yesterday, wrongly stated it was performed at the Royal Albert Hall, London, when in fact it was at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester (Tables turned on 50s ethos, page 32).
Still, I won't hear a word against the paper. My posting on SOCA was included in this morning's Today on the Web feature.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

How to get children to deliver your leaflets

You go into the middle of a council estate with your leaflets and you shout at all the local kids you can see and hear - "any of you lot want to help deliver all these leaflets?" Then proceed Pied Piper like round the estate doling out badges and toffees and leaflets, the last at least to be pushed through doors by the shouting, squealing and quarrelsome horde.

More in the Guardian.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Six reasons why New Labour loves SOCA

  1. It makes them look tough.
  2. It gives the state more power.
  3. It bypasses the local accountability that local police forces enjoy (and aren't those forces being merged so that they can tackle serious and organised crime?)
  4. It is sounds American - you know, a bit like the FBI.
  5. It sounds as though it has something to do with football (and if you are New Labour you love football or at least have to pretend you do).
  6. Even better, it sounds like what the Americans call football.

Press Release of the Day

Contain your excitement, please, for Edward Garnier:
Harborough MP Spends 2 Consecutive Fridays at Market Harborough Golf Club – but not to play golf

The lessons of Scottish devolution

Scotland seems a nice place to live, says Tony Ferguson on his blog Ballots, Balls and Bikes.

Indeed it does, but I am interested in some of the examples Tony gives:

Tuition fees were abolished in Scotland.

Free personal care was introduced for the elderly...

Now they are intoducing (sic.) free eye tests and have a plan to introduce free dental checks next year.

And even more interested in his explanation of why Scotland enjoys those benefits:
Yes I know the answer about devolved power and the Lib Dems being part of the administration and the sort of policies we have been pushing but I guess I just wish we could get some common sense into English politics and start delivering some improvements in the quality of life for people down south.
I wonder how much any of these benefits has to do with devolution, common sense or even Lib Dem influence. I suspect they owe more to the fact that the British government treats Scottish voters far more generously than it treats English voters.

A report in The Scotsman last December revealed the extent of the generosity:

In its annual survey of the Scottish economy, the Executive said the government spent £45.3 billion in 2003-4, putting Scotland in a rare club of countries where state spending is more than half of the entire economy.

But only £34 billion was generated in tax. This leaves an £11.3 billion gap, which has to be filled by tax collected in England, as Wales and Northern Ireland are also heavily subsidised.

So that is why Scotland enjoys all those benefits. It is not down to devolution, common sense or the Lib Dems. It is down to hard cash.

Labour brought in devolution because it feared the rise of the SNP, not because of any romantic attachment to Scottish nationalism. (Socialists are instinctively on the sides of the big battalions and small nations are generally in the way of history.)

The tactic seems to have worked, but we should not forget that the Scottish assembly was designed as a way of maintaining the Union. And Scotland relies heavily upon the Union for its prosperity, as the figures from The Scotsman remind us. It is a tribute to generations of Scottish politicians that their country has enjoyed such generous treatment for so long, but you have to ask whether this settlement will be sustainable for much longer.

What all this means is that there is no simple way of transferring the Scottish experience to the English regions. The money would not be there to fund Scottish levels of spending. Local control is a good idea for all sorts of reasons, but it cannot produce new funds out of thin air.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have done wonderfully well. They have become part of the Executive at Holyrood, yet they are also the major beneficiaries of dissatisfaction at Labour's record there. I wonder if they entirely know how they have done it themselves.

If there something to worry about in all this, it is that the Scottish experience has encouraged the Liberal Democrats to see themselves as the party of public services. We are the party that offers more services than Labour - even if we are rather vague about how they are to be paid for.

At the same time, we have gone rather quiet about our support for liberty. You might expect that a government with Liberal Democrat participation at Holyrood would be cooler about the more Nannyish elements of the New Labour project that the Westminster government it. Yet, if anything, Holyrood is keener on them.

The best of British

Tim Worstall has posted another of his weekly round ups.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Adult education and New Labour

In an article on the Spiked website, Neil Davenport looks at the depressing philosophy behind the government's insistence that the further education sector should concentrate on the needs of industry:
There is more going on here than crude bean counting - the UK economy can easily afford to provide evening classes for art and Spanish and beyond. What New Labour seems to find uncomfortable is autonomous individuals learning for learning's sake, rather than as a means to an end. The notion of autonomous individuals seeking self-improvement doesn't fit with today's levelling-down mentality. New Labour might use workerist language to justify its reforms, but historically it was Workers' Educational Associations and Trades Unions that pioneered adult learning centres. They were designed, not for skills retraining, but to provide an opportunity to learn something away from the narrow confines of work.

The pensions debate in a nutshell

Stephen Pollard claims to have heard the following on a radio phone in:
I work in the public sector and my pension costs me 12 per cent of my wages per month. Not per year like the private sector, but per month.
Found via Tim Worstall.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Neal Ascherson in the LRB

There is a tremendous piece by Neal Ascherson in the current London Review of Books.

It is a review of The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany by David Blackbourn. But it is far more than that too. It takes in a discussion of what "conservation" can mean in a world where the landscape has been shaped and reshaped by human activity. And it also looks at the nature of Nazism, with its strange combination of forward-looking and backward-looking elements.

I have posted a short extract from this article on my anthology blog Serendib, but the whole thing is highly recommended.