Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Razzall skedaddles

Tim Razzall has resigned as chairman of the Liberal Democrats' Campaigns and Communications Committee. ePolitix reports:

A party spokesman said Lord Razzall, the man behind the Lib Dems' election strategy for the past two general elections, was standing down because he felt it was "time for a change".

The spokesman said the peer had decided to step down now in order to give his replacement time to settle into the role before a possible snap election.

He said Lord Razzall would continue to advise party leader Sir Menzies Campbell, and nominations for his replacement will close on June 22.

So did he jump or was he pushed?

Some sources are obviously better informed than others. Today's Guardian Backbencher e-mail, sent out at 17:06, confidently announced:

Rumours that Ming has mercilessly sacked Lord Razzall from his post as Lib Dem campaigns chief are, the Backbencher hears, completely untrue.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Nat Watch is back

The Labour-inspired Nat Watch site has been relaunched.

John Reid at Sidney Street

The BBC reports:

Home Secretary John Reid has been accused of possibly putting efforts to deport foreign prisoners at risk after joining a series of dawn raids.

He watched a team of immigration officers raiding homes in London.

They were trying to arrest some of the foreign prisoners released without being considered for deportation.

Immigration experts and the Tories have raised fears the raids make it difficult for Mr Reid if he has to make decisions about deportations later.

All very reminiscent of Balfour's comment on Churchill's conduct over the Siege of Sidney Street:
"I understand what the photographer was doing but why the Home Secretary?"

Matthew Taylor and Miss Marple

Earlier this year I went on about Miss Marple at some length, arguing that the BBC adaptations starring Joan Hickson were superior to the recent ITV versions.

Now Will Howells has revealed a pleasing connection with the Liberal Democrats. The script for the BBC's Sleeping Murder was written by Matthew Taylor's father. (Matthew is Lib Dem MP for Truro & St Austell.)

A study of Ken Taylor's IMDB page shows that he also wrote the screenplay for Alfred the Great - a very 1960s realisation of the Dark Ages. So much so that it starred both David Hemmings and Michael York.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Margaret Beckett's caravan

Why are people (examples here, here and here) so bitchy about the fact that Beckett enjoys taking caravan holidays?

Surely this is one of the few endearing things about her?

Survivng members of the 1945 Parliament

This posting on The Snow in the Summer or So-So was also found via The Virtual Stoa. It was written on the death of John Profumo and says of him:

He was the penultimate surviving member of the 37th (1935-45) Parliament, having entered at a by-election for Kettering in 1940. The remaining member is Wing-Commander Ernest Rogers Millington, the Commonwealth (later Labour) MP for Chelmsford from January 1945 until the 1950 election.

Of the 1945 intake, only Michael Foot (Lab, Plymouth Devonport), Maj. John Freeman (Lab, Watford, subsequently to host Face to Face), David Renton (Nat Lib, Huntingdonshire), and Col. Douglas Dodds-Parker (C, Banbury), are known to survive. Lt. Edward Carson (C, Isle of Thanet) and Francis Noel-Baker (Lab, Brentford and Chiswick) may also still be amongst us.

Tim Collins? Bring it on

Iain Dale has been pondering who should be the Conservative candidate in the Bromley & Chislehurst by-election:
I have looked through the names on the 'A' List on ConservativeHome and I keep coming back to two names. Tim Collins and Laura Sandys. In this kind of situation I think Tim could be a good bet. He will be able to deal with the media, is combative as well as being tenacious.
Tim Collins? We should be so lucky.

For Collins played an honourable part in the crippling of the Conservatives as a political force. John Major made his famous Back to Basics speech at the 1993 Tory Conference. The Virtual Stoa (scroll down to 5 March) quotes an Alan Watkins piece on what happened next:

I heard his Back to Basics speech at the party conference and read it several times afterwards. It did not contain a single reference to sexual intercourse, whether expressly or by implication. It was all about reading, writing and arithmetic.

The sex bit was inserted by Mr Tim Collins, then the prime minister's spin merchant, who was asked by journalists whether the speech meant that Mr Major expected the highest personal standards from his ministers. Mr Collins replied that that was indeed what it meant. The trouble started from there.

The country owes Mr Collins a debt of gratitude. The CBE he was later awarded was scant reward for the service he had rendered to the nation.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Congratulations to the England selectors

Not a headline you read every day, but I think the England cricket selectors deserve some praise for their approach this summer.

Ashley Giles is injured. Instead of going for a bits-and-pieces player (Alex Loudon? Ian Blackwell) to bat at number eight and bowl a few token overs of spin, they have chosen Monty Panesar, who is the best young spinner in the country.

Simon Jones and Steve Harmison are injured. Instead of playing safe and picking a good county seamer like Jon Lewis to do a job on the green, early-season pitches, they have chosen two promising young fast bowlers in Liam Plunkett and Sajid Mahmood.

Alistair Cook came into the side over the winter and it immediately became clear that he was going to score thousands of runs for England. Instead of making him wait, they have kept him in the side at the expense of more experienced batsmen like Ian Bell or Robert Key.

Until a few years ago, the selectors would undoubtedly have made the more conservative selection in each of these cases. As it is they have done the brave thing and we have gone one up in the series against Sri Lanka.

The only complaint that we can have is the continued selection of Geraint Jones. The irony is that, while his keeping does seem to be improving, he is no longer scoring enough runs. Chris Read or Matt Prior must get a turn soon.

David Cameron the NeoCon

Last week I wrote approvingly about an article by Matthew Parris. I quoted what he described as an extract from a speech by William Hague:

The parallels with the rise of Nazi-ism go further ... If only, some argue, we withdrew from Iraq, or Israel made massive concessions, then we would assuage jihadist anger. That argument ... is as limited as the belief in the Thirties that, by allowing Germany to remilitarise the Rhineland or take over the Sudetenland, we would satisfy Nazi ambitions ...

We’re all in this together ... standing with those brave democrats in Iraq who are trying to rebuild their nation ... Should representative government ... take root in Iraq, [jihadists] will not only have been defeated in one key battle, they will also find that an alternative path has been established in the Middle East which gives its people the hope, prosperity and freedom they deserve.

And then I quoted Parris's comment that "This stuff is pure Pentagon".

This week Parris begins his column as follows:

A mistake appeared in this column last Saturday. Quoting remarks from a hog-whimperingly neoconservative speech about jihadism made at the Foreign Policy Centre in London nine months ago — a speech that compared doubters over the Iraq war with the appeasers of Nazism — I speculated that, though David Cameron himself had said little on this, he too was probably a hawk on Iraq. Calling the speech “pure Pentagon”, I attributed it to William Hague, now Shadow Foreign Secretary.

I apologise to him. I should have checked. Indict me of incompetence, however, but not of sexing-up my argument. Inadvertently I had sexed it down. The speech was Mr Cameron’s.

To thee I do present the merry month of May

Before the month is over, there is time to catch this page on the Common Ground site.

It is devoted to seasonal fruit and vegetables, seasonal dishes and observations of customs and the natural world for May.

Reading for Sunday

My usual recommendations:

Labour's deputy leadership debate

And an impressive debate it is, with weighty contributions on both sides.

Here is Andy Burnham making a nuanced case for Prescott to continue in office:
"I feel very strongly that John Prescott has done an excellent job for this government and he has been an excellent deputy prime minister. He has my full support in the job."
Some, however, have put much thought into whom they should support in Prescott's place:
David Kidney, MP for Stafford, reported that he would back “whoever Gordon [Brown] wants”.

Friday, May 26, 2006

A E Housman and the Squeezy Lemon

The South Shropshire Journal has the story of the day:

Villagers were due to meet last night in a bid to halt a gay pop festival taking place in their parish.

Residents in Clungunford, Leintwardine and surrounding villages were expected to meet last night, Thursday, to discuss a licensing application submitted for the Squeezy Lemon Festival, which organisers want to hold on fields at Marlow Farm, outside Clungunford.

The vice-chairman of Clungunford Parish Council, Jonathan Roberts, says:
“Author A E Housman said Clungunford was ‘the quietest place under the sun,’ but if this is allowed to go ahead then it won’t be."
Agree with him or not, how can you fail to like a councillor who quotes Housman?

The verse Roberts has in mind is the 50th poem in A Shropshire Lad, which begins:
Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungunford and Clun,
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.
So Clungunford has to share the honour.

Incidentally, it is hard to resist the thought that Housman would rather have enjoyed the Squeezy Lemon Festival.

Nuclear power in Iran

Borrowed from Lenin's Tomb, who borrowed it from MRZine.

Ardent for a glimpse of James Chuter-Ede

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Face spotting

It’s one of the sights of London. The Commons division bell rings and hundreds of MPs stream out of their offices in Portcullis House, along the tunnel under Westminster Bridge Road and into the House to vote.

They make a sound like a coal train. And if you are going the other way at the time, they have much the same effect.

Famous faces whoosh past – Glenda Jackson, Boris Johnson, Stephen Byers. Faces you thought were long retired. Faces you recognise vaguely, if at all.

It must be like trainspotting in the good old days: a few crack mainline expresses amid a sea of shunters and tank engines. Perhaps small boys once waited here with notebooks, ardent for a glimpse of James Chuter-Ede or Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller.

But any trying it today would be shot as a terrorist, or shipped off to the Jack Straw Memorial Reform School, Dungeness, at the very least. So it’s a sight few people get to see.

When I met them on Monday the MPs were on their way to vote against John McDonnell’s amendment to the Armed Forces Bill. McDonnell was concerned the bill allows a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for desertion. He feared it might be used against soldiers with conscientious objections to serving in Iraq.

He did not convince many. The bill is less harsh than the present law, and the maximum sentence McDonnell would countenance was two years. Few saw this as adequate for an act of desertion that put lives at risk.

What really did for McDonnell’s amendment, though, was Harry Cohen’s support. Cohen sounds exactly like Lou in Little Britain. You can imagine him describing the Srebrenica massacre as “a bit of a kerfuffle in the Balkans”.

There were some MPs who did not have to join the charge from Portcullis House. They were the defence experts already in the chamber. Notable on the Tory benches was the former Army office Patrick Mercer. It is a rare treat for MPs to listen to someone who knows what he is talking about.

And on the Liberal Democrat benches it was good to see Nick Harvey as our defence spokesman. One of the most encouraging things about our new leadership has been his return to prominence.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

More from Lord Bonkers

If you enjoyed Lord Bonkers' Diary you may want to explore the archive of earlier diaries on his own website.

Lord Bonkers' Diary

After posting details of the new Liberator yesterday I have received numerous letters asking me to post the whole of Lord Bonkers' Diary here. Although the letters are all postmarked Rutland and all in the same handwriting, I have decided to do what they ask.

A few words of explanation or new readers: I have contributed this column to each issue of Liberator since (gulp) 1990. Lord Bonkers was Liberal MP for Rutland South West between 1906 and 1910, and remains a vigorous presence in Liberal Democrat politics.

He describes himself in Who's Who in the Liberal Democrats as:
Statesman, Soldier, Diplomat, Philosopher, Traveller, Industrialist, Author, Philanthropist and All Round Good Egg.
Don't worry if you don't understand all the references in the column: I don't get them all myself.

Anyway, here is Lord Bonkers' Diary from the June Liberator.

MondayA particularly full day. I enjoy a little rough shooting before breakfast: since hunting with hounds was banned, the Estate has been overrun with hippogriffs (as I predicted it would be in the House) and one has to keep the numbers down somehow. Then it is off to the cricket, for this afternoon sees the traditional season-opener between Lord Bonkers’ XI and the Elves of Rockingham Forest. It is as keenly contested as ever, and this year there is an unfortunate dispute over our opponents’ use of reverse swing (they attribute it to “high elven magic” and I to the surreptitious use of a bottle top). However, Malcolm Bruce and Lynsey De Paul see us home, and in any case it is prudent not to fall out with these fellows. After dinner the village bobby PC Heath (splendid fellow: no delinquent ear goes unclipped and one need only think of crossing the village high street to have the traffic stopped for one) drops by to tell me that he intends to stand for the deputy leadership of the Liberal Democrats.

TuesdayMatthew Taylor calls to see me and confesses that he is at something of a loose end these days. He holds no shadow portfolio and was defeated for the chairmanship of the parliamentary party by a schoolmaster from Chesterfield. I gently inform him that things often run this way with former child stars: Freddie Bartholomew’s career was never the same after he started shaving and Charlotte Church was booed when she came on against Ireland at Lansdowne Road. Just as I am remarking that Roddy McDowall enjoyed some renewed success when he took to going round in a gorilla costume, Taylor confesses his own plan to me: he is to stand for the deputy leadership of the Liberal Democrats.

I discuss our sudden embarras de richesses when it comes to candidates for the deputy leadership with Ming Campbell, who is still staying at the Hall and indeed shows no signs of leaving, and he reveals that he has a favoured candidate of his own. It is none other than my old friend Vince “Low Voltage” Cable. I ask the reason for his choice, and Ming explains that Low Voltage looks so like him that he will be able to take his place at many functions – up to and including Prime Minister’s Questions. “But what about the accent?” I ask. “This is the clever bit,” replies Ming, “Low Voltage spent years in Glasgow and he can do it almost as well as me.” I suppose Ming’s idea is that this will leave him free to stay at the Hall drinking my Auld Johnston and polishing his Jag (which is currently residing in my stables) whilst Elspeth imagines him hard at work in Westminster.

To Richmond Park to meet a delegation of Bushmen and discuss their plans for returning the area to the wild. I know this scheme has caused some controversy in the newspapers, with the men of Richmond defending their traditional way of life – senior management positions at the BBC, owning West End galleries, merchant banking – but what about the women of Richmond? I should imagine they find prospect of hunting wildebeest from Ham to Mortlake, clad only in loincloths made from recycled Focus leaflets, infinitely more exciting – certainly, a spot of fresh air is just what their pallid, muesli-fed children need. We call upon Jenny Tonge in Kew to solicit her support for our campaign but she is out – event though I could swear I hear the wireless playing. Instead, after treating the Bushmen to tea and crumpets at the Maids of Honour, I visit Kew Gardens and take a few cuttings for Meadowcroft.

Over breakfast Ming mentions that he has put Harvey in charge of our defence policy. “I expect that he is on manoeuvres right now,” the eminent man of Fife adds. I hardly have time to remonstrate with him before leaping into the Bentley and heading for the gunnery ranges on Salisbury Plain at top speed. I arrive not a moment too soon. Some fellow with a promising moustache is showing Harvey over the army’s new pride and joy. “You just set the computer coordinates here,” he says, “load the gun and – Bam! – you can blow up anywhere you like.” “What, say, just for instance, Battersea Dogs’ Home?” Harvey asks with that dangerous gleam in his eye. “Of course,” replies the promising moustache. “Let me see. Battersea. TFG755634/98. There you are. We are pointing at the place now.” Just as Harvey is pressing the red firing button I throw myself upon the console and give the computer dial a wrench. There is a loud explosion and the shell heads for the English Channel. I later learn that I winged some wretched little foreign fishing boat, but in all modesty I can claim to have saved the day.

It is time again for me to do my Focus round here in the Bonkers Hall Ward. I stand on the village green and have soon assembled a crowd of children – rather like that chap in Hamelin who did such sterling work with the rats. One by one the little mites collect their bundles of leaflets, giving me a sweet in return for the honour of being allowed to deliver them. When they have gone, I examine my trawl: an acid drop, three mint imperials, two jelly babies, four squares of chocolate (milk), a gobstopper, several boiled sweets of assorted flavours and – joy of joys! – a treacle toffee. Later I have yet another delightful dinner with Ming Campbell but decide that, even so, it is time I made a telephone call to a certain number in Morningside.

SundayTo St Asquith’s for Divine Service, where the Reverend Hughes is operating off his long run: “What sort of man should a leader be? Should he be an elderly Scotsman whose sole claim to fame is that, forty years ago, he used to run around the track in singlet and shorts while being chased by Jeffrey Archer? Or should he be some complete newcomer with a German name, a flash car and 27 houses? Or should he perhaps just possibly be a respected clergyman who has rendered faithful service both to this parish and to St Tatchell’s, Bermondsey for more years than most of you can remember?” Later, back at the Hall, I see the delightful Elspeth Campbell arriving at the front by taxi and Ming disappearing from the back through the kitchen garden.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Histories of abuse

Last year I contributed a chapter on "Histories of abuse" to the book Making and Breaking Children's Lives. This was edited by Craig Newnes and Nick Radcliffe and published by PCCS Books of Ross-on-Wye.

There is a review of the book by Paul Jefferis in the June issue of The Psychologist. He begins:
This book offers a challenging and stimulating perspectives on contemporary issues relevant to children's well-being and to child psychology. Calder's historical analysis of public awareness of child abuse, for example, identifies a form of collective amnesia on the subject and warns against complacency and inertia in child protection policy.

Liberator 310 is out

If you already subscribe to Liberator magazine, you should by now have received the latest issue.

Highlights include:
Liberator has been published regularly since 1970 and is widely recognised as the leading journal for thought and comment among British Liberals. It has been the only outlet for political thought that has stayed open for business throughout the lifetime of the Liberal Democrats since 1988. It is essential reading if you want to know what is really going on in the party.

If you are a member or supporter of the Liberal Democrats, you can't afford to miss Liberator, so subscribe now! Send a cheque for £20 (payable to Liberator Publications), together with your name and full postal address, to:

Liberator Publications
Flat 1
24 Alexandra Grove
London N4 2LF

If you live outside the UK, details of how to subscribe can be found on the home page of the Liberator website.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Opting back into the state system

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned, favourably but in passing, that the independent Belvedere School in Liverpool was planning to enter the maintained sector as an Academy.

Today's Guardian has an article about this. The Belvedere has already taken part in an "open access" scheme which is "designed to open up its teaching to all on the basis of academic merit rather than ability to pay".

The person behind this scheme and the move back into the state sector under Academy status is Sir Peter Lampl. The Guardian says:

Lampl set up the Sutton Trust in 1997. At that time, the proportion of state school students at his old university, Oxford, had fallen from two-thirds when he was there in the 60s, to under half, while his school, Reigate grammar, was now, like other former grammar and direct grant schools, fee-paying.

"It became clear to me that these examples were symptomatic of a wider and significant decline in the opportunities available to bright children from non-privileged backgrounds," he says. "That was my motivation to introduce open access to the Belvedere."

New Labour sleaze

I now have my author's copy of The Little Red Book of New Labour Sleaze. Reading it reminds you just how much New Labour sleaze there has been.

My entry covers Downing Street's attempts to muscle in on the arrangements for the Queen Mother's lying in state. I fully expect it to bring the government down any day now.

The book has its own website and should be available from Waterstone's and other good bookshops. It is a superior version of the sort of thing they keep by the till and you keep by the loo.

Mark Oaten on Newsnight tonight

Mark Oaten shows no signs of taking my advice and concentrating on being MP for Winchester for a few years. He is appearing in a Newsnight report tonight. The BBC says:

In the film to be broadcast on Tuesday, Mr Oaten interviewed a psychiatrist, a journalist and another MP caught up in a scandal, to find out why politicians like him "come off the rails".

He said former Education Secretary Estelle Morris was one of the few people who admitted she did not want to do the job any more and resigned.

"The rest of us, it seems, carry on until we almost do press some kind of self-destruct button and then the decision is forced on us, and that's almost easier than having to make the decision yourself."

The idea that such a visibly ambitious politician as Oaten really hated every minute of it, and that his extracurricular activities represented a subconscious attempt to destroy his career, carries little credibility. This report looks more like another battle in a misconceived campaign aimed at rehabilitating him in the public eye.

Meanwhile in Skegness, Freddie the Lion licks his lips.

Later. If you missed the report, which involves Oaten going round in a half-hearted beard listening to people telling him what he wants to hear, you can watch it on the Newsnight website.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Bloggers in power

Lib Dem blogger Mary Reid is the new mayor of Kingston upon Thames.

And when I looked in at the Commons today, guess who was on the government front bench as a new junior defence minister: Tom Watson.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Another weekly roundup

Everyone is doing it: Pickled Politics has one too.

Tim Worstall's BritBlog Roundup

The latest selection has been posted.

Lordi Lordi

A nice comment on last night's contest:

a sort of cross between Klingon warriors ... and The Wombles won.

And a note to whomever (hem, hem) wrote the British entry: It was not teachers who said "what did you learn at school today" but parents.

Still, I liked those St Trinian's girls.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

David Cameron's lurch to the right

Writing in The Times this morning, Matthew Parris says:
An impression has spread and needs to be questioned. It is that the new leadership of the Conservative Party has slid towards the centre in all things. I believe that in matters of foreign and defence policy the opposite is true. Here, and on Europe, I think the instincts of the party’s new leadership have shifted the Opposition to the right. Those of us inclined to see David Cameron and his friends as moderate and consensual in every sphere, domestic and foreign, may be in for a surprise.
In an important article, Parris backs this opinion with quotations from some of Cameron's lieutenants.

Here is George Osborne writing in the Spectator in the summer of 2004:
England is going back to sleep. And little wonder when we’re told every day by sages in our national media that the War on Terror is misconceived, that the terrorist threat is exaggerated, that what we’ve done in the last three years has only made matters worse, and that the Iraq war was a ghastly mistake that is best forgotten ... There are few voices to be heard putting the other view: that the terrorists pose a fundamental threat to our way of life, that fight them we must, that Iraq was part of that fight and that we are winning.
Here is a speech from William Hague made in August 2005:

The parallels with the rise of Nazi-ism go further ... If only, some argue, we withdrew from Iraq, or Israel made massive concessions, then we would assuage jihadist anger. That argument . . . is as limited as the belief in the Thirties that, by allowing Germany to remilitarise the Rhineland or take over the Sudetenland, we would satisfy Nazi ambitions ...

We’re all in this together ... standing with those brave democrats in Iraq who are trying to rebuild their nation ... Should representative government ... take root in Iraq, [jihadists] will not only have been defeated in one key battle, they will also find that an alternative path has been established in the Middle East which gives its people the hope, prosperity and freedom they deserve.

As Parris says, "This stuff is pure Pentagon".

And here is Liam Fox speaking on Iran in Washington this year:
It was wrong for the European Union’s foreign affairs spokesman, Javier Solana, to rule out the use of force. It is wrong for Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, to echo him.
These quotations suggest that the Conservatives could be vulnerable if foreign policy questions are prominent at the next general election, whether through an American attack on Iran or continuing British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both Tony Blair and David Cameron are at the mercy of decisions made in Washington, because neither wishes to be seen as anything but wholehearted in his support for American policy.

This leaves a large proportion of the electorate open to the appeal of the Liberal Democrats. That appeal does not rest to any great extent on Liberal enthusiasm for world government or European federalism. It rests more upon the old Tory belief that Britain should beware of foreign entanglements where there is no clear national interest involved - an insight that David Cameron's Conservatives appear to have lost.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Their widgets would bestride the globe

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

It's criminal

Governments increasingly resemble spoilt teenagers. Look at the state of this bedroom. New laws piled on top of each other. Some have not even been taken out of their boxes, but you will still demand the latest model next year.

That, at any rate, is Tony Blair’s approach. Since 1997 there have been more than 30 criminal justice bills. Before half the powers in one have been enacted, the next is on its way through the House.

Yet Blair’s reaction to the bad headlines of the past month has been to promise yet more new laws. The idea of enforcing the ones he already has does not occur to him.

Increasingly, Blair lives in a parallel universe. “We should not have to fight continual legal battles to deport people committing serious crimes,” he says. It may be like that on Planet Blair, but where the rest of us live the government does not even know where these people live.

Back on Earth, Monday saw the third reading of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. As we recently reported, this is better known as the Abolition of Parliament Bill. Since then the government has given ground. The consensus is that the bill is now less sinister but still gives the executive too much power to amend laws without involving parliament.

Why is it being brought in? The official reason is to free industry from red tape. British manufacturers have always been convinced that if it weren’t for the burden of legislation their widgets would bestride the globe.

The real reason has more to do with the volume of law these days. Bills churn through the parliamentary sausage machine at such a rate there is little chance for the Lords or committees to do their jobs properly, The result is bad laws that have to be revised.

In Blair’s early days no one would have worried about giving him these powers. He had only to open his arms, give a big, cheesy grin and say “Trust me” and his critics melted away.

Today only the ultra-loyalists are left to trust him. And when, after all those criminal justice bills, he still sees the need for a “profound rebalancing of the debate on civil liberties”, you can see why.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Little Red Book of New Labour Sleaze

Later. The Little Red Book now has its own website.

This elegant volume, written by Britain's bloggers (including the undersigned), is about to go on sale in all good bookshops. You can also order it from Politico's or Amazon.

I can write stuff with footnotes and references too, honest. See my chapter in Making and Breaking Children's Lives.

The beautiful game

There are some lovely parodies on as our leading political commentators look ahead to the World Cup. Examples include:
Polly Toynbee: Ignore the tabloids. They can drape themselves in the flag of Saint George and fantasise like adolescent boys about a resurgent England, but the fact is there is only one team from Group B who have any chance of winning: Sweden.
Sir William Rees-Mogg: I fully expect England to win the World Cup, with or without Wayne Rooney. All the indicators suggest that they will beat Argentina 3-1. Steven Gerrard will score a hotly-disputed penalty two minutes from the end of the first half, John Terry will get a near post header on the stroke of 60 minutes, with Theo Walcott coming on as a substitute on the seventy-first minute and scoring with his first touch. The Argentinians will get one back in injury time but by then it will all be too late.
Peter Hitchens: Along with most children of my age, I used to play football every afternoon after school. Every Saturday too, my father would take my brother and I along to White Hart Lane to watch Danny Blanchflower play. There were no obscene chanting then, let alone any hooligans, and we were safe to walk home, on our own, without a care in the world in our tweed suits and ties.
Thanks to Mr Eugenides.

Two times a lady

Another profile of the redoubtable Elspeth Campbell, this time from the Scottish edition of the Sunday Times:
Elspeth became Lady Elspeth for the second time in her life when Menzies was knighted in 2004.

It also repeats an anecdote I have read elsewhere:

Campbell’s former career as a sprinter is one of which his wife is conspicuously proud. She is fond of boasting that he was once “the fastest white man in the world”. To which her husband often adds: “For about three weeks in 1967.” At their wedding the best man had teased them about the swiftness of their union by joking that Britain’s fastest man had married Britain’s fastest woman.
There goes my second peerage.

The price of stamps

Royal Mail hails £3bn package

I know postal charges have gone up recently, but this is ridiculous.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Factchecking Pollyanna

Welcome to a new blog "trying to factcheck Polly Toynbee, because her editor clearly doesn't".

Thanks to Tim Worstall.

Jonathan Freedland is barking

In his column in today's Grauniad Jonathan Freedland describes a scheme in Kent which

found a group of women who walked their dogs after the school run. Kent spent public money providing the group with a trainer, so they would walk faster.

Freedland's piece is actually a largely sensible call for public services to be locally controlled and make more use of the voluntary sector. But the idea that the state should decide the speed at which people walk their dogs is ridiculous, whether you are talking about national or local government.

Sam Walton, Hero of the People

The BBC has identified the mole who told us that they pay Chris Moyles £630,000 a year. Sam Walton, a 23-year-old temporary agency worker, has been sacked.

But why shouldn't we know how much people like Moyles are paid? It is our money.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Chris Davies: I blame the list system

When Chris Davies resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrat MEPs the BBC seemed unsure what his offence was. Some radio news bulletins thought it was that he had drawn parallels between Israel today and Apartheid South Africa.

As the Israeli Supreme Court's decision to uphold the law barring West Bank Palestinians from living with their spouses and children in Israel shows, that is an entirely defensible view.

No, Chris's error was to tell one of his constituents to that he hoped she enjoyed "wallowing in her own filth". After that he had no alternative to resign.

How could an experienced politician make such a mistake? You can talk about the strength of his feelings about Palestine and the number of abusive e-mails he had received, but I think there is another explanation. It is the list system Britain uses to elect its Members of the European Parliament.

Let me explain. At a fringe meeting organised by Liberator at the Liberal Democrat Conference a few years ago, Davies talked about his support for legalising cannabis and argued that it was rather less courageous than it might seem.

He pointed to the low turnout in Euro elections (around 10 per cent in his seat, if I recall the figure he gave rightly) and his own position at the top of the Lib Dem list for his region. Put together, he said, this meant that by his calculation he could lose the support of 99 per cent of the voters in the North West and still keep his seat.

Well, he has learnt differently - or at least that there are limits to what you can say to your employers. But you can see how the list system led him astray. The idea that your chances of re-election have next to nothing to do with the views you express is an unhealthy one for any democratic politician. An electoral system which allows you to persist in that folly is a dangerous one for all concerned.

The list system is an abomination which removes power from the voters and gives it to the party machines. It was wished on us by Jack Straw when he was home secretary. Obliged to choose some form of proportional system for British Euro elections, he chose the worst one of all to make sure that we did not get a taste for exercising more power.

Trivial connections: The England squad

Lord Bonkers writes exclusively for Liberal England:

I see that my Literary Secretary has fallen for some cock-and-bull story about Theo Walcott being the great nephew of Sir Clyde Walcott. (Though I note from the comments to that post that Sir Clyde is now the Chairman of West Oxfordshire District Council. And a good thing too.)

I can reveal, however, that there are some interesting - and rather better founded - family relationships and other facts invovling the England World Cup squad. Namely:

  • Aaron Lennon is the cousin of the noted popular musician John Lennon;
  • Sol Campbell is the illegitimate son of the prime minister's "spin doctor" Alastair Campbell;
  • Paul Robinson is the younger brother of the former presenter of "Points of View" Robert Robinson;
  • John Terry formed part of the popular "Terry and June" comedy duo for many years (and June Whitfield, indeed, played left back for Chelsea for a number of seasons with some success);
  • Steve Gerrard served as an officer in the French Foreign Legion for a number of years;
  • Ashley Cole and Joe Cole were born joined at the hip and made several non-League appearances before being separated by surgeons;
  • Frank Lampard Jnr, despite widespread popular belief, is no relation of Frank Lampard Snr.

Let them go private?

The select group of people who have read my essay "Defending Families" in the Liberator Passports to Liberty series will have come across the following passage:

In February 1996 the educational psychologist Peter McParlin wrote an article for the newsletter of the British Psychological Society's Division of Education Psychology. He looked at the fortunes of children looked after by local authorities and found that only 3 per cent achieved five or more GCSE passes (the national figure for all children at the time was 42 per cent) and that on any one day up to 60 per cent of them would be absent from school.

He also reported that, of over 10,000 teenagers leaving care each year, 75 per cent had no qualifications, that 80 per cent would be unemployed 12 months later and 40 per cent homeless, and that 40 per cent of girls in the care system would have a child or be pregnant before they were 18. He also said that 38 per cent of prisoners aged between 18 and 24 had been in the care system, as had 66 per cent of male prostitutes.

Being familiar with those figures, I have considerable sympathy for Libby Purves's argument in the Times this morning:

The education of “looked-after children” is our prime national disgrace. Fewer than one in ten get five GCSE passes, and in 125 council areas the number is too low to be recorded. Half of all care leavers have one GCSE or none. They suffer from lack of continuity — some foster children report up to 33 moves — and of home support (one girl I know says that the first time she saw a parents evening was as a sixth-former, helping out.) Inmates of children’s homes report the difficulty of doing coursework with fights breaking out around them. Fewer than 1 per cent of care leavers go to university (though if they do, salute their gallant hearts, they are less likely than most to drop out).

So the department is dipping a toe in the water and asking boarding schools, even private ones, to present a case for taking on some of these children at around £12,000 a year. About 50 children nationwide are already supported in boarding schools, but many local authorities do not consider it. Some, I bet, talk the language of class-warfare bores, excoriating “toff schools” where their “kids” would be miserable. Others are more thoughtful. After all, good boarding provides not only educational stability but steady friends and mentors, routine and structure and quiet and probably more safety than some council homes. Read accounts of abuse in care and you hear how frightened, parentless children dared not complain. Compare that with the assertive readiness to complain of your modern middle-class child: in a boarding school children stick up for one another. Moreover, heads — fearing ruin — are neurotically vigilant.

She might have added that caring for children this way can also save money. A report in the Guardian three years ago suggested that:

the average annual cost of £16,500 for a private boarding school was better value than the £30,000 it costs to provide foster care - more for residential care.

That report also contains a rather clunking piece of fence sitting by the then Liberal Democrat spokesman on children. On the one hand: "It could provide a valuable new start for children who have been neglected and abused in the past." On the other: "Appropriate piloting must be conducted and fully assessed. Until that is done, the government must not implement this policy in one fell swoop."

No one is going to disagree with either half of that, but don't we have something more interesting to say on this important subject?

Quote of the Day: David Aaronovitch

In today's Times David Aaronovitch writes:
I was perhaps a latish convert to the struggle for democracy and freedom.
Let's see what his Wikipedia entry says:

He completed his education at the University of Manchester, graduating in 1978 with an upper second B.A. (Hons) in history. While at Manchester, he was a member of the 1975 University Challenge team that lost in the first round after answering every question with the name of a revolutionary ("Trotsky" or "Lenin" or "Che").

He was initially a Eurocommunist and active in the Young Communists ... He was also active in the National Union of Students (NUS) ... Aaronovitch himself was president of the NUS from 1980 to 1982.

You have to admire that "perhaps".

Monday, May 15, 2006

A lion has eaten our Oaten

Not so long ago I wrote:
I wish the Oatens well and hope that Mark continues as MP for Winchester.
Today's news make me wish Mr Oaten rather less well and to suggest that Winchester Liberal Democrats find themselves a new candidate.

The Guardian reports:

Sex scandal MP Mark Oaten is to return to the media spotlight after agreeing to take part in a daytime TV fitness programme.

The Liberal Democrat, who quit as his party's home affairs spokesman after allegations he had a six-month affair with a rent boy, is to star in a programme called The Body Politics for the BBC.

The six-week show starts on May 22 and Mr Oaten has been getting into shape with England and Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard's personal trainer at Stamford Bridge.

Maybe Oaten has formed the bizarre belief that this sort of exposure is the route to political rehabilitation. Maybe he has already given up on his political career and wants to reinvent himself as a celebrity - the Jade Goody of the Itchen Valley. Either way I cannot see his antics doing the Liberal Democrats much good.

And Mark Oaten should study the fate of the Harold Davidson, the Rector of Stiffkey, to see what can happen to people who seek to redeem themselves through increasingly bizarre stunts.

As I wrote last summer:
Like Mr Gladstone he did all he could to catch fallen women, but his motives were misunderstood and he was unfrocked. He became a showman and died after being savaged in Skegness by a lion called Freddie.

Pleasing trivial connection of the day

New England soccer hope Theo Walcott is the great nephew of West Indian cricket great Sir Clyde Walcott.

But see the comments below.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The positive side of academies

In his 1996 book on education, We Should Know Better, the former Conservative minister George Walden wrote:

In no other European country do the moneyed and professional classes - lawyers, surgeons, businessmen, accountants, diplomats, newspaper and TV editors, judges, directors, archbishops, air chief marshalls, senior academics, Tory ministers, artists, authors, top civil servants - in addition to the statistically insignificant but eye-catching cohort of aristocracy and royalty - reject the system of education used by the overwhelming majority pretty well out of hand, as an inferior product.

In no modern democracy except Britain is tribalism in education so entrenched that the two main political parties send their children to different schools.

I think he is right and that this divide between independent and state schools is the great unspoken problem of British education.

Therefore I was pleased to see Mike Baker writing this on the BBC website:
Two successful independent schools - Belvedere Girls and William Hulme's Grammar School - are planning to leave the fee-charging sector to become academies. Others could follow.
Those who are not so pleased should explain how they would go about making this divide less of a chasm than it is today.

All them cornfields and ballet in the evenings

Ian Buruma has a piece in the Sunday Times on British socialists' long and ignoble history of support for foreign dictators. He sees the current enthusiasm for Hugo Chavez as the latest chapter in this story.

I suspect he is right. And it is pleasing to learn that the ideology now in the ascendancy in Venezuela is called Chavism.

Leicester Tigers 40 London Irish 8

I was at the match this afternoon. Irish had plenty of possession, with Mike Catt showing the generalship that has brought him back into the England reckoning, but Leicester's defence was able to cope with everything that was thrown at it.

By contrast, every time Tigers got possession in the Irish half they looked like scoring a try. Harry Ellis scored from the kind of break he never seems able to make for England and there was a wonderful piece of skill by Geordan Murphy where he kicked an awkwardly bouncing ball up into his hands before going over for a try. Come to think of it, he never seems able to do that for Ireland.

Last year Leicester topped the table and then seemed surprised that they had to take part in play offs to claim the title. They lost heavily in the final. This year they have been cannier, cruising into second place to secure a home semi-final, and today they looked at their best. Sale will have a job to hold them at Twickenham.

There was also a real Bateman cartoon moment: The Man Who Thought It Was Acceptable To Shout Out While Someone Was Taking A Penalty Kick At Welford Road.

We don't do that sort of thing at Leicester. We don't have to. We are the best.

Sunday reading again

I refer the Honourable Gentleman to the recommendations I made last week:

Friday, May 12, 2006

The other end of the ice pick

Today's House Points from Liberal Democrat News, which somehow turned out less critical of Gorgeous George than it was intended to be.

The text message should certainly have read "PETE 2 WIN". And in a show of editorial caution the words "drink-sodden" were omitted before "former Trotskyist popinjay" in the published version.

I say: so sue me, Hitch.

Cat o'nine tales

George Galloway was back in the House on Monday. Not the house – you did not see ‘DENNIS IS FIT – PETE TO WIN’ scrolling across the screen – but the House. He had an adjournment debate on press regulation.

The Respect member for Bethnal Green and Bow has a long history of involvement with newspapers. He wrote a lucrative column for many years and he has netted around two million pounds in libel cases. (Which means I shan’t be repeating that story about him. Or that story. And certainly not that story.)

On Monday he was not calling for new controls so much as rehearsing his grievances against the press. And whatever you think of Galloway, he does have cause to feel aggrieved. It is probably no coincidence that such a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq found himself traduced on both sides of the Atlantic.

His most recent adventure is a run in with the News of the World. Galloway unmasked Mazher Mahmood the ‘fake sheik’ after what sounds like a crude attempt to set him up.

Perhaps the issues are more balanced than first appears – Mahmood has fingered many villains in his time and has reason to defend his anonymity – but it was still funny seeing the News of the Screws going to court to plead for people’s right privacy.

The only sane verdict on all this is Tom Stoppard’s: “I'm with you on the free press. It's the newspapers I can't stand.”

Where now for Galloway? His Respect party is not built to last. Its activists come from the Trots of the Socialist Workers Party, but Galloway himself is on the other end of the ice pick.

He once said “the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life,” and when he described Christopher Hitchens as a “drink-sodden former Trotskyist popinjay” he knew which word was meant to be most wounding.

Add to this a broad strand of Islamist identity politics – the party’s candidate for Mayor of Newham claimed Israel has been “formulating and directing UK and US foreign policy” – and you have a beast that makes a pantomime horse look graceful.

Made it. A whole column about Galloway without a single cheap crack about cats.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Identity cards: All your fears were justified

Harriet Harman has rightly angered a lot of people by suggesting that the National Identity Register could be used to draw up the electoral roll. Here is Phil Booth from quoted in the Guardian:
"To take an identity register which you've said is purely for a very specific set of purposes, and then to turn it into this general purpose register that you use for everything, is a complete and utter betrayal of everything they've said in parliament."
But her idea should not come as a surprise if you read this blog. On 22 June last year I described an exchange in the Commons chamber:

When Clive Betts suggested that one way to ensure the electoral register is accurate would be to link it with the national identity database there were groans from the other side. At which she brightly suggested: "That's the best argument in favour of a national identity card."

In case you have forgotten, Harman was legal officer for the National Council for Civil Liberties (the organisation now called Liberty) between 1978 and 1982.

I often wonder how people who change their beliefs so fundamentally justify it to themselves. What goes on inside their heads? Don't we all try to construct a narrative that makes are decisions principled and consistent?

Another government minister has been busy going back on past undertakings. The BBC reports:

Sharper CCTV images are needed so shots of suspected criminals can be matched to the proposed identity card database, a Home Office minister has said.

Baroness Scotland told the Lords poor quality CCTV currently runs the risk of innocent people being wrongly arrested.

"Digital pictures ... will enable us, particularly when ID cards come in, to identify those who are responsible for very serious crime," she added.

Fog on the Wrekin: England cut off

Blogging may be light here for a while: The Shropshire Star site has been down all day.

Brown will not turn to gold

Following Robert Harris, another commentator has taken aim at Gordon Brown. Here is Brendan O'Neill on the Guardian's Comment is Free blog:
there is one thing I will find more pleasurable than seeing the look on Tony Blair's face when he is finally booted out of Downing Street - and that is seeing the look on the Brownites' faces when they eventually twig that the man they've been bigging up these past few years is, if anything, even worse than Blair.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

David Cameron in the 1990s

One element of Cameron's career which has yet to be widely explored is his time as PR man for Carlton TV in the 1990s.

Stumbling and Mumbling points us to a piece on the Guardian website by Steve Busfield from the time of the Tory leadership election:
The Sun's business editor Ian King described the party leader in waiting David Cameron as a "poisonous, slippery individual" - highlighting the time Cameron was PR man for "the world's worst TV company" Carlton in the 1990s. "He was a smarmy bully who regularly threatened journalists who dared to write anything negative about Carlton - which was nearly all of us."

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

After the local elections

The most notable fact about the local elections, as far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned, is that nothing much happened.

Our most disappointing loss was Islington, but that seems to be down mostly to a misguided campaign strategy which saw us neglecting supposedly safe seats in an attempt to win even more from Labour. One of our most encouraging victories was at Richmond upon Thames, but having lived there 20 years ago and seen the quality of the people in the local party and its superb organisation I am baffled that we ever lost it in the first place.

There were other encouraging gains against Labour in London, and a few more good results outside the capital, such as South Lakeland. But some of these took place in constituencies we already hold at Westminster. Apart from that in most places we stayed the same or slipped marginally backwards.

Some will say that these results represent a wonderful bouncing back from our troubles at the turn of the year. But there was little sign at Dunfermline or in local by-elections that we were in trouble with the voters then. The idea that we were came from an overemphasis on a couple of opinion polls.

The Tories did well in the South East but in few other places. People have commented on the fact that they still have no councillors in Liverpool or Manchester or Newcastle, which is remarkable enough. But in many ways it is more remarkable that they now have no councillors in Oxford or Cambridge either.

From this I conclude that - unless things change - the next election is likely to be rather like the last one for the Liberal Democrats. We will struggle to avoid losing a few more seats to the Tories in the South and we shall probably gain a few from Labour (or even the Tories) elsewhere through local campaigning. The "university" seats we won from Labour last time - Bristol West, Leeds North West, Cardiff Central - may well be held more comfortably than some we took in 1997 from the Tories.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that we Liberal Democrats are close to exhausting the incremental strategy we have followed so far. Local campaigning will continue to win us the odd seat. But in order to make a further breakthrough we shall have to develop policies that appeal to voters outside our current areas of strength.

The questions then become whether we agree on enough as a party to be able to do that and whether we have the skills to put them across in the national media when we have done so.

On a brighter note the results - a modest Conservative revival in the South but nowhere else - make it quite likely that we shall hold the balance of power after the next election. Again we have to be clear what we want to achieve. Bringing in proportional representation does not represent a complete programme for a five-year parliament.

Has the Brown bubble burst?

I enjoyed the article by Robert Harris in this morning's Guardian. It offers a revisionist account of recent Labour history and a useful corrective to those who imagine that a Gordon Brown government will be more acceptable to Liberals than this one.

First the revisionist history. Writing of the agreement reached at that famous Granita dinner, Brown says:

Brown was granted unprecedented powers within any future Labour government and an assurance that he would be next in line of succession, in return for his grudging withdrawal from the leadership contest. This has always been presented by the chancellor's supporters as a brutal stab in the back by his ruthless young colleague. But a moment's reflection on the nature of Brown, and of politics at that level, tells one that this must be nonsense.

A poll of Labour party members on the weekend before the Granita agreement, showed Blair with 47%, John Prescott with 15%, and Brown trailing a poor third, with 11%. Brown could not command an absolute majority even in his main powerbase of Scottish MPs. He knew he was going to lose, and probably lose badly, and having bitterly resigned himself to the fact, then proceeded to play a poor hand with consummate skill, extracting the enormous concessions that have hobbled Blair's leadership ever since.

As Harris says, Blair's position would have been far stronger if he had fought and defeated Brown in the 1994 leadership election:
The true low level of Brown's support within the party at that time would have been revealed once and for all. He and his acolytes would never have been able to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Blair's position. And, most importantly, he would never have been able to portray himself as virtually the prime minister's co-equal: unsackable, with a permanent lien on the Treasury; a colleague for whom any hint of a transfer in a reshuffle, even to the Foreign Office, was regarded as an act of lese-majeste.
I have seen it suggested that Gordon Brown missed his best chance of the leadership by declining to stand in 1992 out of loyalty to John Smith.

But wouldn't a Brown government be preferable?

Harris reminds us that Brown is more of an instinctive Atlanticist than Blair, so there is little reason to expect him to be cooler towards the US administration. He has remained largely silent on Iraq, which many have interpreted as opposition to Blair's policy, but it may equally be calculation.

And the centralism and target-mania that have characterised New Labour owe most to Brown's influence at the Treasury than to Blair. On pensions, for instance, Brown has fought a long rearguard action in defence of the means test.

I first realised what New Labour was going to be like in government when I heard Gordon Brown speak at a City function in the winter before they came to power. He offered a new sense of national purpose through work - it sounded like something out of the old East Germany.

Those with more time for Brown than I have will probably enjoy today's article by John Harris on the new Old Labour group Compass.

Tomorrow I full expect articles by Anita Harris and Chopper Harris.

Monday, May 08, 2006

John Stuart Mill: Who should run schools?

A little food for thought from chapter 5 of On Liberty:

Were the duty of enforcing universal education once admitted, there would be an end to the difficulties about what the State should teach, and how it should teach, which now convert the subject into a mere battle-field for sects and parties, causing the time and labour which should have been spent in educating, to be wasted in quarrelling about education.

If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them.

The objections which are urged with reason against State education, do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State's taking upon itself to direct that education: which is a totally different thing. That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as any one in deprecating. All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education.

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.

An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.

Stop me and ban one

From The Times this morning:

For years the tinny jingle of Greensleeves that announced the arrival of the ice-cream van has been an indelible memory of childhood, but that sound may soon be removed from suburban streets. Health lobbyists have decided that ice-creams are too much of a danger to children's health.

MPs and health officials are planning a series of measures across the country that are already forcing Mr Whippy and his helpers into meltdown.

The sad thing is that Liberal Democrat MPs and councillors are probably queuing up to support these measures.

What Geoff Hoon is for

I heard Any Questions? on Friday and was rather disconcerted to find that Geoff Hoon is a humorous and likeable man. Which makes it harder to smile at his recent humiliation by Tony Blair.

I did forecast it a couple of years ago, though I assumed that he would be forced to resign rather than be demoted. Here is House Points from 6 February 2004:

We all know what a hoon is: a subordinate kept so he can resign if his boss runs into trouble. Leon Brittan was Mrs Thatcher’s hoon at the time of the Westland affair. Norman Lamont was John Major’s hoon after the ERM débâcle. Both winced at Elvis Presley’s words: “You ain’t nothing but a hoon dog.”

For the past few months Tony Blair’s hoon has been, well, Geoff Hoon. It was widely expected that he would have to resign when Lord Hutton’s report appeared. So much so that his colleagues rallied round to ensure he wasn’t forced to resign over British troops’ inadequate kit in Iraq. A hoon too soon is no hoon at all.

Now Hutton’s report is out, Hoon is off the hook. He has lived to resign another day.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Candidate of the week

The winner is one of the defeated Tories in Camden's Kings Cross ward:
Jamieson Corfield Crosby Hunkin
Thanks to Susanne Lamido for the link to the Camden results.

Sunday reading

You could try:

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Prescott and Winterton

Lord Bonkers writes exclusively for Liberal England:

In recent days, in the course of my exploration of the electric Internet, I have come across a number of more or less veiled references to a supposed dalliance between Mr John Prescott and my old friend Sir Nicholas Winterton.

Let me say with all the authority at my disposal that there is not a scintilla of truth in this scurrilous rumour.

I have urged Sir Nicholas to place the matter in the hands of his solicitor without delay.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Tarot reading and stand-up comedy

Today's House Points from Liberal Democrat News.

Higher benchmarks

While assorted ministers were clinging on to their careers last week, the work of the Commons went on. Thursday saw questions on education.

Vince Cable complained about the government's attitude to adult education. More and more resources are going to vocational training for 16 to 18-year-olds, even though employers are often happy to pay for it themselves.

At the same time, funding for broader non-vocational courses is being cut. These have traditionally been enjoyed by older people, but figures show a 25 per cent fall in the number signing up for courses since last year.

Replying, the junior minister Phil Hope scoffed at courses in tarot reading and stand-up comedy. If he loses his seat he could get a job writing editorials for the Daily Mail.

And there is an even more telling question. Why, after putting young people through more than 10 years of compulsory schooling, does the government have to divert more funds to make them employable?

Sarah Teather tried a different tack. A survey had shown 37 per cent of headteachers had no intention of taking part in the extended schools scheme. Was this because the government is not providing enough money?

Maybe it was. But it would be nice to think there are still a few heads who believe they are employed to educate children, not to act as glorified childminders.

It would also be nice to think the Liberal Democrats have something distinctive to say. Labour has a mania for corralling children into institutions - homework clubs, breakfast clubs, extra summer classes... anything will do. Do we merely stand for the same policies, with slightly more cash behind them?

Finally, back to Phil Hope. Strange things happen to people when they become education ministers. He was asked about Britain's bid to host the world skills championships. How would they boost young people's vocational skills here?

If these championships are anything like the London Olympics they will absorb all the funding and set skills back by a generation. But Hope was eloquent about last year's event in Finland: "It was genuinely inspiring as we saw young people "benchmarking themselves against the rest of the world."

Benchmarking themselves? When you find yourself talking like that, you have been an education minster too long. Time to ring the Mail.

Charles Clarke: Body found

Today the home page of the Shropshire Star has the following headline and photograph side by side:

Clarke axed after polls horror

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Chris Davies resigns

In case this gets lost in tonight's election coverage...

The BBC reports:

Lib Dem MEP Chris Davies has resigned as the party's leader in Europe over comments to a Jewish constituent.

North West England MEP Mr Davies told an e-mail correspondent he hoped she enjoyed "wallowing in her own filth".

By the sound of it, Ming has been merciless:

"I discussed this matter with him today, when we agreed that the proper course for him now is to resign as leader of the Liberal Democrat MEPs."

Later. Simon Mollan has all the details and offers some trenchant comment.

The deportation debate

Can I be a shameless toady and say how good I think Ming Campbell's soundbite was at prime minister's questions yesterday? The great man said:

"In the last nine years we've had dozens of pieces of law and order legislation, and hundreds of new offences have been created. Isn't what we need less legislation, better government and a new Home Secretary?"
That is exactly right.

Meanwhile, I am not sure that today's revelation that someone who is facing terrorist charges was imprisoned for robbery a few years ago and not deported is as damning as it is being made to sound. Is the argument that any youth convicted of robbery should be deported in case he becomes a terrorist one day?

I want to see Charles Clarke sacked - and the smart money says he will at least be moved in a cabinet reshuffle tomorrow - but I want it because of his appalling speech attacking individual journalists last Monday. It made him sound like the minister of the interior in a Soviet satellite circa 1962.

Metatarsal special

Duleep Allirajah puts it well on Spiked:
Four years ago the word "metatarsal" entered the popular lexicon after David Beckham broke his toe on the eve of the World Cup. Rooney's injury has once again provoked another national outbreak of foot fetishism. Once again the newspapers are full of metatarsal diagrams and fevered prognostic debates. It brings to mind Marx's famously dictum that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Only this time round the tragedy seems to have followed the farce.

Mark Oaten: Still on the wrong path

According to the Guardian Diary - and I admit there are more reliable sources - Mark Oaten has not taken my advice to concentrate on being MP for Winchester for while.


the Sunday Times is about to reveal to a breathlessly waiting world the full inside story on quite what Lib Dem MP Mark Oaten thought he was doing.

The Guardian comments:
Still, we're sure Mr Oaten's bank balance has made absolutely the right decision - and delighted the ST has made such a sound investment. As far as we can see, our man's full and reasoned explanation for the whole painful episode boils down to the fact that he'd just turned 40 and was losing his hair.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Academies: Where's the alternative?

Sarah Teather was on the front page of today's Guardian. The paper has discovered that:
Most of the sponsors who agreed to fund the prime minister's flagship academy programme have not paid the £2m they pledged ... Four academies that opened last September have received no cash at all, and 10 others have received some money but nowhere near the promised sum. Only four have received the full amount. In all, 23 of the 27 academies opened so far are still waiting to receive what was pledged.
And Sarah was quoted as saying:

"The government has led everybody to believe that the £2m would be handed over from the first day the doors open at each academy - after all this is when the sponsor can exercise control over the curriculum, staffing and admissions.

"At no point have ministers made it clear that sponsors needn't have handed over the full £2m by that point."

It was a good story for the Guardian - even if no other paper would be quite so surprised that the government is bad at collecting the money it is owed. And Sarah's comments will impress many of the paper's readers.

But what I would really like to hear is how the Liberal Democrats would help parents whose children are in poor schools and who cannot afford private education or to move into the catchment areas of good comprehensives. I think the voters would like to hear it too.

Ahn Sang-kyu and the bees

Back in October last year I noted how Ahn Sang-kyu had covered himself with bees to mark the arrival of an underground railway in Daegu, south of Seoul.

He has been at it again. This time it was to protest against Japan's sovereignty claims over the Tokto islands. And once again Pearl Swine has the photos.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The end of Friese-Greene

The BBC showed the third and final part of The Lost World of Friese-Greene tonight.

It covered his journey through Scotland and I was pleased to hear Hamish MacCunn's "Land of the Mountain and the Flood" on the soundtrack.

The Little Red Book of New Labour Sleaze

Iain Dale is aiming to put together this little volume in record time.

He tells me he is keen to have more Liberal Democrats contributing. So don't be bashful: volunteer your services.

Jus for the goose

Agnès Poirier writing in today's Guardian:

Let us be clear: there may be intellectuals in Britain, but there are no British intellectuals

To say, for instance, Paris hasn't bred any worthy intellectuals since Camus ... is at best terribly short-sighted, at worst profoundly ill-informed.
So it is fine to make absurd generalisations about the British, but "profoundly ill-informed" to do it about the French? A little consistency please, Madame.

Still, many Guardian readers will love it.

It's not fair, Tompkins

I have been know to complain about the adolescent attitudes of the teaching unions:
A skilled and confident teaching profession must be central to our education policy. But too often the teachers' voice, as heard through their unions, is the reverse. It is endlessly negative, opposing every government imitative - good, bad or lunatic. At its worst it is full of teenage nihilism. It's not fair. I hate you. You're not my dad.
Those attitudes now seem to be spreading to the National Association of Head Teachers, judging by reports of its recent conference.

That impression, it is true, may be down to the reporting by sympathetic journalists more than the event itself.

The BBC, for instance, has Mick Brookes - the Secretary General of the NAHT - warning that "healthy but boring school dinners could be encouraging children to buy their lunch from chip shops instead". The complaint that healthy food is boring sounds like something you would expect from the children not the head, but the word "boring" comes from the BBC reporter and not Brookes.

Or take the Notebook column in today's Education Guardian (which does not appear to be on the paper's website). There Rebecca Smithers writes:
Readers might recall this time last year ... when the little known education minister Derek Twigg was booed and jeered (Patricia Hewitt-style) at the same event in Telford after a particularly boring and ill thought out speech.
Again that childish word "boring".

If we expect anyone to defend the principle that visiting speakers should be politely received however tedious they, surely it is headteachers? Yet here we have a liberal/left journalist implicitly advancing the idea that one should not expect a gathering of them to be any more mature than a group of badly behaved children.

I fully expect to live to see the collapse of civilisation - possibly before the end of this week.

Polly Toynbee gives the game away

I hate to keep going on about Polly Toynbee, but today's column deserves a little attention:
Go right back to 1997 with the target to cut every infant class size to 30 children: billions were wasted on needlessly cutting class sizes in high-achieving Tory areas to hit a fixed number, not an outcome.
She is making an important point about the limitations of targets. Governments choose the factors which are easiest to measure - like class sizes - whether or not they are the most important. And that can have a distorting effect on the policies implemented.

You might add - though it threatens a few Labour sacred cows - that it is better to be taught by a good teacher in a large class than by a poor teacher in a small class.

So far so good. But look again at what Toynbee says: billions were wasted in "high-achieving Tory areas".

What does the politics of an area have to do with how much funding its schools need? You can argue that schools in affluent areas need less funding, though people there pay tax like anyone else and will want their share of spending.

But to mention that these areas are Tory sounds dangerously like arguing that people there should be punished for not voting Labour by having their schools less generously funded.

I suspect that in what we may loosely call Toynbee's mind, the country is carved up between deserving Labour areas and undeserving Tory areas. The real world is a more complicated place than that.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Education and social mobility

In my recent article on education for Guardian Unlimited I wrote:

In April 2005 a widely reported London School of Economics study argued that social mobility is declining in Britain. Comparing children born in 1958 and in 1970, it found that, among those from the poorest fifth of families, the proportion obtaining a degree had risen from 6% to 9%.

Among the richest fifth it had risen from 20% to 47%.

There is a page on the LSE website which links to a .pdf of the whole report and to lots of interesting press coverage.

Himmler: Tough on crime

Charlie Whitaker has noticed some worrying historical parallels with New Labour's approach to policing:
Crime was one of the main concerns of inter-war Germany, and the Nazis' "tough" anti-crime policies were a major source of their popularity. With respect to crime and policing, the major conceptual leap the Nazis made was from due process and punishment of the convicted to "preventive" policing, a major element of which was "protective custody". This change was popular and was taken up with apparent enthusiasm by the German police.
I saw this posting last week and then forgot where I had seen it. Fortunately it was included in Tim Worstall's latest BritBlog Roundup.

Prescott: "An overall impression of ghastlinesss"

Iain Dale is claiming an exclusive over the parts of Tracey Temple's diary that the Mail on Sunday didn't print:
I understand that the deleted pieces were "beyond unflattering", "very grim" and present an "overall impression of ghastliness".
I suspect beastly frightfulness was involved too.

The Sun says Clarke didn't offer to resign

There may be a few amongst my readers who do not buy the Sun every day. For their benefit I am pointing out this story in today's paper by George Pascoe-Watson:
Bungling Home Secretary Charles Clarke did NOT offer to quit last week over the freed foreign convicts scandal.

He told the BBC he had offered to go — which infuriated Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The PM stormed out of the Commons on Wednesday after being humiliated about his refusal to accept the “phantom” resignation.

Education quote of the day

It comes from Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, as reported by the BBC:
"When schools have been working hard to raise standards, it demoralises them when they are down at the bottom of the league tables."