Thursday, June 29, 2006

Quote of the Day

It comes, appropriately enough, from the Bridgnorth Journal:
Because of the huge interest in the issue, the council has advised the public that space in the council chamber will be limited.
Well, I think I know what they mean.

In a lane near Abdon Burf

A couple of days ago I was walking along a narrow lane near Abdon when I met a Shropshire Star van coming the other way. I stepped on to the verge, the driver slowed and waved, and all was well.

But it did strike me that, if we had both been thinking of other things, this could have been a bitterly ironic way for me to die.

A. E. Housman adds:
Wenlock Edge was umbered,
And bright was Abdon Burf,
And warm between them slumbered
The smooth green miles of turf;

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

God's own county

I am in Bridgnorth library. Not only do they have free internet access: they have the Shropshire Star as one on the Favourites in the drop-down menu. What more could you ask?

And when in Bridgnorth, be sure to visit the Severn Valley Railway.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Children: Over Surveilled, Under Protected

Later. The conference has now taken place, and there is a full record of the proceedings on its website.

The Daily Telegraph's lead story today is one long plug for tomorrow's "Children: Over Surveilled, Under Protected" conference at the London School of Economics:

Dr Eileen Munro, of the LSE, said that if a child caused concern by failing to make progress towards state targets, detailed information would be gathered. That would include subjective judgments such as "Is the parent providing a positive role model?", as well as sensitive information such as a parent's mental health.

"They include consuming five portions of fruit and veg a day, which I am baffled how they will measure," she said. "The country is moving from 'parents are free to bring children up as they think best as long as they are not abusive or neglectful' to a more coercive 'parents must bring children up to conform to the state's views of what is best'."

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Holiday time

I am off for a week's holiday where you can buy the Shropshire Star every day.

Unless I find an unattended computer, posting will be light for a while.

"Dykes, on the other hand, are evil"

I hope the Mayor of Kingston will forgive me.

When I saw the pictures in this posting on Mary Reid's blog, I couldn't help being reminded of The League of Gentlemen and their Legz Akimbo Theatre Company.

Take your hands off our Ming

Worrying news in the Daily Telegraph: the Liberal Democrats have called in outside experts to relaunch Sir Menzies Campbell. Among them is Gavin Grant, the European public affairs manager at the leading PR firm Burson-Marsteller.

The paper reports:
A Liberal Democrat MP said: "During our conference, Gavin [Grant] went up to see the leader in his hotel room, where he was preparing for a speech, and found him with a plate of fish and chips on his lap watching Strictly Come Dancing. That is the side people never see.
The trouble with this is that it cannot be true, though it is hard to tell whether the inaccuracy originates with the journalist, the unnamed MP or Gavin Grant.

For Iain Dale has gone to the lengths of examining the TV schedules during the Lib Dem Spring Conference this year and finds that Strictly Come Dancing was not being shown - and nor was Strictly Dance Fever. Nor can imagine Elspeth taking kindly to fish and chips in their hotel room although, with a PhD in Coronation Street, she clearly has a taste for demotic television.

Gavin Grant is also a name that will make some hackles rise: he was one of the loudest cheerleaders for the Alliance project back in the 1980s. It never seemed likely to me that standing down in the half the seats in the country was the way for the Liberal Party to march to power, but that is all ancient history now. Even so, I may dig some forgotten gems out of my Liberator archive one day.

I have also heard it suggested that Grant is not unconnected with the rather painful campaign to rehabilitate Mark Oaten through the media. The latest instalment is in today's Daily Mail - thanks to Paul Walter for the link.

There is a need to present Ming Campbell as a rounded character. He has plenty of hinterland - to use Denis Healey's word - and the public should know about it. The trouble is that fish and chips and Come Dancing is such a limited idea of ordinary life - something with which, in any case, people who hold important jobs in public relations generally have little connection.

It also plays to the prejudice that has cheapened public life in Britain: the idea that being educated or having a taste for the finer things in life makes you "posh" and is therefore a guilty secret that should be hidden away.

The campaign envisaged by the Telegraph is such a blatant piece of spin that I cannot see it working. The danger is that the Lib Dem are becoming image conscious just at the point that the public has learnt to see through all that and craves a little reality. At least David Cameron has been more subtle in the way he presents himself.

As I have said before - and shall no doubt say again - we should let Ming be Ming. Iain Dale puts it rather well:
The truth of the matter is that you can't make a silk purse out a sow's ear. They should play to Ming's strengths and not try to turn him into something he clearly isn't. It won't work and people will see through it.
Except that as some of the comments on his blog say, we are trying to make a sow's ear out of a silk purse.

Friday, June 23, 2006

The blue-rinse maiden aunt

Today's House Points from Liberal Democrat News. You can find a fuller extract from Roger Scruton's memoirs on my anthology blog Serendib.

Bad News

Child pornography. Binge drinking. Under-age drinking. Paedophiles. Rape. Knives. Sexual assault. That was the bill of fare on Monday.

If you believed everything you heard in the Commons, you would be sure Britain is going to hell in a handcart – or to the dogs at very least. Fortunately, life is never as black as it’s painted at home office questions.

It’s not just that the British Crime Survey shows the number of offences is falling: it’s that ministers insist on putting the worst slant on anything to do with the subject.

Take the fact Joan Ryan unwrapped: “The majority of 10 to 17-year-olds who have drunk alcohol in the past 12 months reported that they had obtained that alcohol from their parents.”

She was obviously proud of this. We were supposed to find it striking – even shocking. Yet a little thought reveals it is good news.

As the Tory Andrew Turner pointed out – and another minister Tom McNulty agreed – the best place for children to learn to drink is in the home. Would Ryan rather they learnt it from their friends?

But leaving parents to raise children as they think best is the one thing New Labour cannot do. Hence Ryan’s confusion at the dispatch box.

* * *

With all this talk of the Conservatives’ ‘A List’, let’s look at how they used to conduct things. In his Gentle Regrets, the Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton recalls his attempts to become a candidate.

He found himself confronted with: “A veteran Member of Parliament, Dame Something Something, who conformed exactly to the image of the blue-rinse maiden aunt.”

She looked him up and down “with angry sniffs” as he answered her questions. What had he done for the Party. Had he joined the Young Conservatives? Spoken in Union debates? Attended Party Conferences?”

Scruton had done none of this. Instead, he told her, he had founded the Conservative Philosophy Group, reviewed for the Spectator and written a book on aesthetics.

“Her stare became suddenly vacant. She closed the file containing my application and turned to her colleague, a young MP who had remained silent throughout, occasionally sending out a pitying glance in my direction.

“‘I suppose he could apply for this new European Parliament thing, could he?’”

Thursday, June 22, 2006

No paediatricians on this estate

Whenever someone proposes introducing Megan's Law to Britain, the case of the mob that attacked a paediatrician is sure to be mentioned by those who oppose the move.

An article by Brendan O'Neill on the BBC website suggests that this story has grown a great deal in the telling.

I am opposed to Megan's Law because it will not make children any safer but will certainly make parents even more nervous and restrictive. But this whole debate does raise difficult questions for Liberals. Aren't we supposed to be on the side of transparency and the freedom of information?

Charles Kennedy on Question Time

I was going to add "tomorrow", but I have just noticed that it is now today.

Charles Kennedy will be on the panel for Question Time this evening (Thursday). The programme starts at 2245. Also on the panel are Alan Johnson, Oliver Letwin and Germaine Greer. The programme comes from King's Lynn.

Thanks to Iain Dale.

Criminalising the young

In our essay Cohesive Communities David Boyle and I wrote:
much of the impetus for the introduction of curfews arises from a lack of contact between the generations. Groups of teenagers hanging around can seem threatening to older people, but if communitarian policies and blanket restrictions lead to less contact between the generations, then such groups will come to seem even more threatening and there will be calls for curfews to be made even more restrictive.
As I recall, this paragraph was mine and I borrowed the argument from Stuart Waiton's Scared of the Kids?

With this in mind I was interested in this story on the BBC Leicestershire pages:

People are lying to the police about anti-social behaviour to get groups of children dispersed, police have said.

A senior policeman admitted there was an increasing trend of residents calling to complain about innocent behaviour, like playing football.

Inspector Andy Ramsey, from Leicestershire Police, said incidents were exaggerated or even invented to ensure officers intervened.

The danger is that official measures to combat antisocial behaviour will not strengthen communities nor even replace what a healthy community does for itself. The danger is that they will destroy community.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Another Rutland peer

Will Howells reports the welcome news that the Lib Dem peer Lord Avebury (who as Eric Lubbock won the historic Orpington by-election for the Liberals in 1962) has started writing a blog.

Intriguingly, Lord Avebury reveals that Eleanor Paston his 13 times great grandmother married Thomas Manners, the first Earl of Rutland.

The Manners family are now the Dukes of Rutland, which reminds me of the following entry in Lord Bonkers' Diary:
I was sad to read of the death of my old friend Thor Heyerdahl. No one gives him much thought now, but in his day he was Quite The Thing. If he thought a set of chaps in one place had come from another place then he jolly well set out to prove it. He was not afraid to sail a papyrus raft from Easter Island to Egypt (or perhaps it was the other way round?) if that would aid him in his pursuit of the truth. It happened that some years ago I had a dispute with the Duke of Rutland over the boundary of our estates. I shall not bore you with the details here: suffice to say I was clearly in the right. Nevertheless, to prove my point at Law I had to demonstrate that my ancestors has settled the northern shores of Rutland Water. With Heyerdahl's help I was able to construct a vessel from Stilton rinds and recreate their voyage. There was a spring tide running and Ruttie was in playful mood, but we made landfall and the Duke settled out of court.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

They ge' a lo' o' money

I missed Tony Blair's appearance on BBC Radio Five Live's 6-0-6 phone-in last night. Having read Martin Kelner's account in the Guardian, I am rather glad I did:
When Mike in Leamington Spa asked him about footballers' wages, the reply came in a flurry of dropped t's. "They ge' a lo' o' money, bu' I'm no' sure we can do much abow i'."
But then the idea of Tony Blair as a football fan has never been convincing.

World Cup advertising

Ten years ago, during Euro '96, Coca Cola ran an advertising campaign with the slogan: "Eat football, sleep football, drink Coca-Cola". Every time I saw it I wondered a little more grouchily what an American company knew about football.

Budweiser have learnt from this. Their campaign with the two newsreaders, like their earlier "You do the football, we'll do the beer", trades on precisely this prejudice. It won't make me drink their product, which is like gnat's piss (a gnat writes: Isn't that rather unfair?), but I do feel warmer towards them.

By contrast, if I hear someone say "Where do they get their energy from?" once more, I shall do something violent to someone high up at eDF Energy.

Monday, June 19, 2006

David Boyle on modernism

David Boyle has an article in the May issue of Town & Country Planning and has reproduced it on his website.

He considers the legacy of modernism in the light of two exhibitoins: Modernism: Designing a New World at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 23 July, and Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World which was on at the Tate Modern until recently.

David writes:
We need our cultural institutions to start re-examining the accepted truths of modernism. Does an international style, shorn of its human, cultural and historical roots, really benefit our cities – or does it impoverish them? Was there ever anything to the idea of ‘progress’, the modernist incantation that could justify any abomination in the 1960s and 1970s? Did it mean anything except "change"?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Brock around the clock

Richard Huzzey has just returned from the Green Liberal Democrats Conference and has posted about the case against a cull of badgers to control bovine TB.

He points us to the side of the Badger Trust, and their powerful campaign on the subject. It also tells us that yesterday was National Badger Day, which explains all those parties in the woods - though I expect there were none in Southend.

Read all about it

Tim Worstall is busy this weekend, so you can find the latest Britblog Roundup in the Devil's Kitchen.

The First Post has put together its usual roundup of the Sunday papers. The most striking story is this one from the Telegraph:
British students could struggle to win places at university because of competition from European applicants who have "better English", the head of a leading college has claimed.

Kennedy: I was right to force contest

The BBC's Devon pages report an interview with Charles Kennedy by Chris Rogers, their South West Political Editor. Kennedy met him when he was in Newton Abbot to open new Lib Dem offices.

The most interesting part runs as follow:
"I haven't written any memoirs, but looking back there was an assumption that maybe we should have a change of leader without having a leadership election," he said. 
"In an area like the South West, with such a big membership and with one member, one vote, I think that would have been very demoralising. 
"The penultimate decision I took as leader was to trigger a leadership election. I was very pleased when that happened because it gives legitimacy to the new leader and the election re-invigorated the party.
Who was assuming that a new leader should be crowned without an election? I have not spoken to any party members who thought that would have been a good idea.

But perhaps there is a clue. At the time of the leadership crisis I was contacted by the Evening Standard. They were publishing an article by Sir David Steel and, having seen this blog, wanted to know if I would like to write a letter in reply. (It does make you terribly cynical when you find out how the media work.) I did so, though not living in London I do not know if it ever appeared.

They sent me a copy of what Steel had to say. Besides some ungracious remarks about the Lib Dem membership being enough to drive anyone to drink, it contained a clear call for Sir Menzies Campbell to become leader without a contest.

From this and Charles Kennedy's comments I deduce that there was a strong feeling against a contest at the top of the party. Put it down to a combination of presumption and panic. So all credit to those who stood against Ming to force a contest.

Charles Kennedy obviously believes he should have stood in the contest himself. That still seems to me a misjudgement as he had clearly lost the confidence of the larger part of his parliamentary party.

Looking back, it is clear that Kennedy should have stood down immediately after the last general election. He would then have been remembered with respect and affection across the political spectrum. And if he had later sorted out his personal problems and returned to the fray, he could have enjoyed the second political career that now looks rather unlikely. (Though never say never.)

Another intriguing question is whether Ming Campbell would have been a candidate if there had been a contest in May 2005.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Suddenly next Friday

Looking through the films on television next week, one stands out. Suddenly is a moody thriller from 1954 starring Frank Sinatra as the leader of a gang plotting to assassinate the President.

The film is on BBC at 0035, so really it is on Saturday morning.

The story goes that Lee Harvey Oswald watched this film a few days before he shot President Kennedy. When Sinatra learned of this, he had the film withdrawn to protect his reputation.

Reader's voice: But Oswald didn't shoot Kennedy.

House Points replies: Go away and take your silly conspiracy theories with you.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Does Sure Start harm poor families?

Sure Start "harms children who need it most"

says the Guardian website. But the words in the quotation appear nowhere in the report below. And if Sure Start does harm some children, then it is the last thing they need. So it was an odd headline to use.

My feeling has always been that playgroups, nurseries and the like are excellent institutions and should be encouraged by the state, though there is no reason why it should run them all. But I have been wary of the New Labour attempt to give them an explicit therapeutic purpose.

I have read too many social and healthcare papers in my time to give much credence to one study, but could it be I have been right all along? More research is needed, as people paid to do research always say.

Amongst small businesses and local good causes

Today's House Points from Liberal Democrat News, none of which will come as much of a surprise to anyone who has been reading Liberal England this week.

Do dare

The man on the bus was wearing a “Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future” T-shirt. It did not seem a good idea to tell him I was working for the Emperor Ming.

It’s like that at the Bromley and Chislehurst by-election. When I arrived at our headquarters, I was given a delivery round and told which bus to catch to reach it.

From what I saw from the 162, the constituency covers a swathe of pleasant suburbia. Parts are almost rural, with cricket rounds and golf courses. But as so often in the South East, just as you are thinking how pleasant it is, they have built more houses.

Yet the Tory majority may be more vulnerable than it looks. For Orpington is the seat that has traditionally been most keenly contested by all parties in this part of the world. It has held the same importance for generations of Liberals that Glastonbury holds for hippies. But this time we have a strong local candidate in Bromley and Chislehurst, and with a big effort it may turn out to be promising territory too.

You can find the Lib Dem HQ next to Bromley South station. If you are puzzled when you arrive: yes, we are in that swish new office block. You can find us on the first floor amongst small businesses and local good causes.

It makes a change from the derelict shops we usually inhabit. Is this the new professionalism the Emperor promised us?

* * *

Meanwhile at Westminster, everyone is furious about John Reid’s slogan “Don’t moan – take action. It's your street too.” The left saw it as a call for vigilante action. For the Tories David Davis said: “It is brazen beyond belief for the Government to try to shift responsibility on to the shoulders of the public.”

But is it so absurd? Our problem is that so many people hesitate to do anything about others who cause a nuisance. The more we insist they involve the authorities, the less confident they will feel.

It is silly to call any attempt to be a good citizen vigilantism. And it is equally silly to pretend the state can solve every dispute between neighbours. So don’t moan – take action. It’s your street too.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Mark Oaten on Question Time

I did not watch Question Time last night, but I am told this poem by Richard Lovelace is still appropriate:
O thou that swing'st upon the waving hair
Of some well-fill├Ęd oaten beard,
Drunk every night with a delicious tear
Dropt thee from heaven, where thou wert rear'd!
I should point out that Barry's Beef posted this verse before me, but I came across it independently a while ago.

Social mobility in decline

The Independent is a strange newspaper. Its front pages are strident and opinionated: its leaders are bland and rather timid.

Today's front page is more informative than usual. It deals with declining social mobility in Britain and a is worth quoting at some length:

The research, published by the Sutton Trust education charity, shows that of the leading 100 media opinion-formers, 54 per cent came from private schools, compared with 49 per cent 20 years ago. Thirty-three per cent of the remainder came from selective grammar schools and only 14 per cent were from comprehensive schools, which cater for 90 per cent of all pupils.

The report on the legal profession shows that almost 70 per cent of barristers from leading chambers were educated at private schools. And in the House of Commons, 42 per cent of those holding government office or shadowing ministers are former pupils of private schools. Just 7 per cent of all pupils are educated in the private sector.

I shall offer some comment on these figures another day, but I thought it was worth posting them before they disappeared behind the Indy's firewall.

Amicus and the World Cup

The trade union Amicus has been criticised for advising members on how to take time off on the sick to watch the World Cup.

To me this is typical of the patronising, top-down attitudes of the Labour movement. British workers are perfectly capable of skiving off without this sort of advice, thank you very much.

Shout (shurely shome mishtake)

Following Bono's editing of the Independent, the indefatigable Kirk Elder from Peebles has been holding a poll on which pop singer should fill the vacant editor's chair at the Scotsman.

The top three in the voting were:
  • Lulu - 28%
  • Sheena Easton - 26%
  • Alex Kapranos - 24%

More on vigilantes and citizens

Jenni Russell takes the debate further in the Guardian today:

Tony Blair's official spokesman gave a rather prim soundbite, saying: "We have never encouraged people to be vigilantes, and never would do so." It seems the debate was shut down even before it had begun. We are back to the status quo, where public safety is assumed to be the responsibility of the agencies of the state, and any individual who gets involved can be described as a vigilante.

The idea that complex, liberal societies like ours can actually function on this basis is simply absurd. We can't have policemen on every street corner, park, bus or train. Yet in their absence we are expected to remain passive when we are witnesses to anything from bullying to mugging, harassment to assault. As more of us follow this advice, the practical consequences are appalling.

I said something similar here the other day - and will say something similar in Liberal Democrat News tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Et in Salopia ego

I have always suspected that I imagined Bishop's Castle. A small town with two pubs that brew their own beer (The Three Tuns and The Six Bells) and the best secondhand classical record shop I know is just too good to be true.

But this story from the Shropshire Star proves that it exists in the same world as the rest of us:

Youngsters at a Shropshire primary school are being banned from wearing open-toed sandals during the heatwave because they could stub their toes in the playground.

Bishop’s Castle Primary School has introduced the ban for health and safety reasons, parents were told.

The fourth R

Today's Guardian has a mildly sceptical piece on the Lib Dems' 4Rs Commission:

Ironically, it seems the Lib Dems might have expressed themselves more clearly on this point.

It quotes Anne Karpf, the author of a recent book on The Human Voice. Her views are a more charitable version of my own:

"I'm all for people being helped to express themselves better ... but the idea that you teach it rather than encourage it I find slightly worrying. Soon we're going to have exams in it, which you'll be able to fail."

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The New Statesman: You have to laugh

Last week the New Statesman had a relaunch. The magazine is bigger and glossier, but the content seemed much the same as usual.

In particular, I was struck by the prominence the magazine now gives to comedians. There were columns by Rory Bremner and Stephen Fry, with the promise of one next week by Julian Clary.

My great era of reading the Statesman was the late 1970s, and I have been trying to think what the magazine would have been like if it had taken the same approach then. Something like this, I imagine:
  • Freddie "Parrot-Face" Davies on the future of the Common Market;
  • Dickie Henderson on the Palestine Question.
And next week:
  • Mike and Bernie Winters debate the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy.

Experts talk out of their 4Rs

I find it hard to be enthusiastic about the announcement of the Liberal Democrats' 4Rs Commission.

The party website says: "We've asked some independent thinkers, not previously associated with the Lib Dems, to do some big thinking for us on primary education."

And who are those thinkers? The website says:

Dr Bethan Marshall (chair): literacy expert from Kings College

Dr Mike Askew: numeracy expert from Kings College

Floella Benjamin: TV presenter and long time worker for children and education charities

Dr John Howson: visiting professor at Oxford Brookes and expert in teacher recruitment

Cllr James Kempton: Leader of Islington Council and LGA spokesperson on Young People

A primary school teacher TBC

First a small point. If you are going to appoint people from King's College to serve on an education commission, it is a good idea to include the apostrophe in that institution's name (it is the University of London King's) when you list them. Otherwise you risk looking rather silly.

More seriously, we are told that these people are "not previously associated with the Lib Dems" - James Kempton apart, I assume it means. Does this mean they are not party members? Does it mean they are not Lib Dem sympathisers? Does it mean they are not Liberals at all? If they are not, why are we inviting them to write our policy for us? Why do we think we shall like what they have to say?

What I suspect lies behind this move is a feeling that politics and ideology are bad things and that we should lead such matters to the experts.

The problems with that view are many.

One important one is that if we talk to the experts and other parties talk to similar experts, then we shall all end up saying much the same thing. Already this statement has quite a New Labour feel to it.

Another problem is that the education establishment in Britain is uniformly Labourist - in favour of centralisation, uniformity and all the things Liberals are meant to be against. If we consult that establishment we shall merely hear Labour views coming back at us, and unless we are strong-minded, those are the views we shall adopt as a result. Ever since Phil Willis became Lib Dem education spokesman, we have largely subcontracted out education policy to the teaching unions and the results have not been inspiring.

Finally, this worship of expert views ignores that many political questions are not technical ones but moral ones - questions what we see as the good life and about the sort of society we want to live in. No expert can give you the answers to these questions. The answers we choose should rest upon the values we hold in common as Liberal Democrats.

Already the commission is being pointed towards some very odd policies for a Liberal party. The fourth R, apparently, is "aRticulation" (geddit?!) and the website says:

Too many children aren't arriving at school with the vocabulary and the ability to speak in sentences that allows them to pick up where the government's literacy strategy begins - we're missing a step. Giving young children the language skills they need to express themselves helps them learn, improves behaviour and imbues them with confidence.
So we need intervention in the home before children start school to make sure they are able to benefit from the government's literacy strategy? It sounds as though the Lib Dems are seeking to appeal to people who think that New Labour are a bunch of libertarians.

Such views will make us very popular with the education establishment, but I am not convinced that the wider electorate will think so much of it. Imagine writing a Focus telling people they don't know how to teach their children to speak.

That's the great thing about politics: it's far too important to be left to the experts.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Good citizens are not vigilantes

On Saturday I posted in praise of an essay on the Spiked website which argues that the government's emphasis on combating antisocial behaviour is making ours a more lonely and fragmented society.

This has been a live issue ever since then, with the leak of government plans for a "Don't moan - take action. It's your street too" campaign.

Most commentary on this idea has been outraged. David Davis, for instance, is quoted in the Daily Mail as saying: "It is brazen beyond belief for the Government to try to shift responsibility on to the shoulders of the public."

The government's response in the face of this has been confused and defensive. Again in the Mail, a Home Office spokesman is quoted as saying:
The idea that we are asking neighbourhoods or local people to act on their own is complete nonsense but we want them to work in partnership with local police and their community.
They want neighbourhoods to work in partnership with communities? It is hard to make any sense of this.

In reality, if the government were saying that local people should take more responsibility, it would be a thoroughly good thing. In a healthy community, people are prepared to take responsibility.

As a new article on Spiked by Josie Appleton says today:
Why is the idea of local people "acting on their own" so terrible? Individuals and communities taking matters into their own hands is seen as a dangerous business, with the whiff of lynch mobs and vigilantism. "We have never encouraged people to be vigilantes and never would do so", said Louise Casey, the prime minister's Respect chief. Under New Labour, it seems that "vigilante" has come to mean anybody who acts without the sanction of officialdom. Such is the government's distrust of people that any kind of independent action can be tarnished with the bogey word of vigilantism.
What the government seems to have in mind is to encourage citizens to complain about minor nuisances more readily. But as Appleton says:
We are now always encouraged to run to a third party, be it the courts or the local council, to resolve differences with noisy neighbours, local naughty kids or other forms of irritating behaviour. Yet running to an outside body only takes power away from the individuals concerned, because it hands responsibility over to some apparently benign outsider. And introducing a third party tends to exacerbate community tensions rather than resolve them; it legalises spats and ups the ante between people who can't see eye to eye.
So "Don't moan - take action. It's your street too" would be a good slogan. Unfortunately, it is not what the government really has in mind.

Leeds: The Dark Arches

I was in Leeds for work today and on the way home explored the Dark Arches. These are the brick caverns through which the River Aire runs underneath the railway station.

The city's website has a page giving directions, though the photographs do not really do the spectacle justice.

After exploring the area you emerge at Granary Wharf - an area of trendy little shops and bars housed in railway arches.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

England booed off at World Cup

Don't let England's performance against Paraguay get you down. We won the game and lead the group. The last 16 beckons.

It could have been a lot worse.

In 1966, as James Mossop remembers in Time Out's feature on the tournament, England drew their first game against Uruguay 0-0 and were booed off.

And we know how that World Cup ended.

Des Wilson on poker

Today's Observer has a review of Des Wilson's new book Swimming with the Devil Fish. It is a study on Britain's current obsession with poker.

Young reader's voice: But who is Des Wilson?

The reviewer, Anthony Holden, helpfully provides a summary of his career:
Des Wilson is what is used to be called, appropriately, a card. After arriving in Britain from New Zealand in the Sixties, he founded Shelter before running Friends of the Earth and the campaigns for freedom of information and lead-free petrol. The election manager for Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats, he also became a bigwig at the English Cricket Board, while knocking off a couple of novels. After finally making himself some money at the BAA (post-privatisation), he is now 65 and retired.
Thanks for the tip, Catherine.

Shhhssh vs Sssssss

Sunday reading recommendations:
I particularly like the story from the People in the latter's Red-Top World section:
When a pet snake invaded a library in Brixham, Devon, staff looked it up in a book to see whether it was poisonous.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The antisocial society

Ming Campbell tells us that "crime is a Liberal issue". Certainly, it is an issue Liberals must confront, even if Ming's recent speech on the subject did feel a little like another example of his saying what he feels he ought to say rather than being himself.

The question is whether the government's concentration on the recent concept of "antisocial behaviour" is making us feel more secure or less secure.

Stuart Waiton thinks it is the latter. He has an interesting essay on the Spiked! website arguing that it is making society more lonely and fragmented.

He writes:

Until recently, antisocial behaviour was understood as a problem to be resolved by people themselves. When children swore and dropped litter or neighbours were noisy, people were expected to take a socially responsible approach and act themselves to discuss and resolve such behaviour.

Today we are less inclined to act; indeed we are discouraged from doing so. The various antisocial behaviour laws and programmes being introduced tell us the authorities will do it for us. Now there is a whole range of community wardens, police initiatives and helplines that we can contact to ask for help in dealing with any problems we have with other people’s behaviour.

When we fail to take responsibility for these problems - which we know, in our hearts, that we should be doing something about - then we diminish our sense of ourselves. By not acting we both sense and reinforce our own diminished subjectivity.

Friday, June 09, 2006

"My wife comes from Shropshire"

This is today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. Bob Russell's complaint about my Essex MP jokes can be found here. The jokes themselves were in the House Points column for 9 April 2004.

The Shropshire joke was inadvertently invented by Lord Bonkers in his diary for July 2002. There you will find another example:

"My wife comes from Shropshire."

"Long Mynd?"

"That's rather personal, isn't it?"

Oral traditions

Bob Russell once objected to my invention of the Essex MP joke. (‘Why do Essex MPs support VAT? Because they can spell it.’ You know the kind of thing.) Ever since then I have hesitated to write about him.

But his call for more support for English folk dance and song deserves to be celebrated. Madeleine Moon went further, suggesting these art forms could help the environment by encouraging more of us to take our holidays in Britain.

There are those who would say there is nothing like the prospect of folk dancing to make them head for the airport, but I am not one of them.

How much it would help the department of culture, media and sport’s attempt to make us all fitter is less clear. Years ago, when I won a district council by-election, my Labour opponent was a member of the Rutland Morris Men. We became friendly after the contest and I once spent a Saturday afternoon going around village fetes with them all. I have never drunk so much beer in my life.

Not that supporting folk dance would be the department’s only counterproductive action. On Monday we heard the new licensing laws had landed three-quarters of amateur sports clubs with higher costs. And it is clearer than ever that the 2012 Olympics are going to eat deep into the funding for every other activity. Meanwhile, the Northern Echo is no longer allowed to call its fundraising appeal for youth sport the ‘Olympic Dream’ campaign.

Some optimistic provincial MPs still urge the claims of their constituencies as Olympic venues. This time they were batting for Chorley and Much Wenlock.

Wenlock has a better claim than most towns, as the home of the nineteenth century games that inspired Baron de Coubertin to found the modern Olympic movement. But security considerations, and the way London has sold itself as being a place apart from the rest of Britain, mean that it will not see an event either.

But perhaps the town can inspire a new variety of joke that won’t upset Bob Russell. The Shropshire joke.

“I say, I say, I say. My wife comes from Shropshire.”

“Much Wenlock?”

“I get my share."

Bromley and Chislehurst in the sun

I went to Bromley to help in the by-election today. It was hot, but nothing like as hot as polling day in Littleborough and Saddleworth for those of you who remember the by-election there.

You can find the Lib Dem HQ next to Bromley South railway station - map here. All help will be gratefully received and well used.

Yes, we are in that rather swish modern office block, in case you are puzzled when you arrive.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Scientists breed allergy-free kitten

That's the headline on a story in the Gulf Times.

And I am pleased to read it. Some cats suffer quite terribly with hay fever.

Let Ming be Ming

Something else I wanted to say yesterday was that Sir Menzies Campbell has looked uncomfortable so far as Liberal Democrat leader because he has not been allowed to be himself.

It began during the leadership campaign, when he was ambushed into a commitment to give up his jag. As I said at the time:

The last thing Ming should do if he wins the leadership is sell his Jag.

I see it as central to what could be a very popular image. He would be the new Inspector Morse or the sort of dependable Scottish lawyer who was always played by Iain Cutherbertson.

This process continued through his performances at prime minister's questions. Obviously feeling he ought to, Ming concentrated on domestic matters and bombed each Wednesday. This week he changed tack, asked questions on foreign affairs and received much better notices.

One of the keys to being a successful political leader is to be comfortable in your skin. Whether we should have chosen a leader with Ming's particular combination of qualities is a good question. But the party did so and we must now make the most of that choice.

Let Ming be Ming, drive his jag and play to his strengths by concentrating on foreign policy.

Sven and Rooney show Blair up

The people at Blogger may be having a fun time snowboarding and eating jelly beans, but their site has not been working well for several days now. Last night I could not post at all, and I somehow doubt this will work either. [I take that back.] Raise your game, chaps.

Anyway, this is something I wrote last night but could not post...

Tony Blair's 101 per cent support for the police is starting to look pretty inadequate.This morning Sven Eriksson said of Wayne Rooney:
"I'm confident he will take part in the World Cup and he is 300 per cent confident that he will play."
Tonight it is reported that Rooney has been passed fit to play in the World Cup. Blair should learn from this. These days 101 per cent just isn't enough.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Sun, sea and socialism

There is an unfortunate article on Cuba by the often admirable Labour MP Ian Gibson in today's Guardian.

Granted, America's obsession with its small neighbour is rather silly. Granted, it deals happily with many regimes that are worse than Castro's or equally bad. But what should we think of a passage like this?
Amnesty International claims that 72 prisoners of conscience are detained in Cuban jails, an allegation rejected by the Cuban government, which argues that all were tried and found guilty of being in the pay of an enemy power - the US.
So who is right? Do we trust Amnesty or an unelected dictatorship? Gibson does not even begin to address the question. His silence here gives the distinct impression that his sympathies are with the dictator.

Instead he goes on to write:
The International Red Cross has meanwhile reported that up to 40,000 people are detained by coalition forces in Iraq without charge.
That is shameful, and the allied intervention in Iraq looks increasingly like a ghastly mistake. But how can it remotely justify Castro's dictatorship in Cuba?

Once again we see the socialist need for a paradise somewhere far away and the snatching at any argument to defend it in the teeth of the evidence.

David Lammy goes to school

There is a piece in the Guardian's Education supplement today on the Into University project. This is a scheme to encourage children from disadvantaged backgrounds to think of going to university and sounds wholly admirable.

Rachel Carr, one of the organisers says of it: "The idea was always to provide the sort of support structures that middle-class families take for granted."

She adds:
"When children are living in cramped accommodation with a lot of noise going on, it's hard for them to concentrate properly on their homework - especially if they are not getting a great deal of help or encouragement from their parents."
Which is a valid point and makes you wonder why the sort of people who write on education for the Guardian spent decades demanding that continuous assessment should play a greater role in deciding examination grades.

What really interests me, however, is the way the article presents the black government minister David Lammy. It describes the way two pupils from Into University interview and makes him out to be the star of the show:
Lammy is almost everything you hope he will be. He's charming, attentive and unpatronising. Most important, from the students' point of view, he's not white, middle-class and middle-aged like every other politician they've ever seen or heard. He may not talk street - though he says he can - but he's still recognisably one of them.
Reading this you might think that Lammy went to a London comprehensive himself, but his educational background is rather different.

Yes, he was born in a working-class area of North London, and brought up by his mother after his father left the family. But he won an Inner London Educational Authority choral scholarship to The King's School, Peterborough, and was a chorister in the cathedral choir there.

This is not quite as grand as it sounds, in that The King's School is not a private school but a Church of England comprehensive. (Peterborough and Southwell are the only cathedral choirs not attached to a private school.) But it is a long way from Tottenham in more ways than one. If Lammy can still "talk street", he must have a good memory.

You might think this interesting educational background would have been worth a mention in the article, but there is not a hint of it. Perhaps it would point a moral that Guardian readers would not appreciate?

Blair backs the police 101 per cent

Or so the BBC tells us.

But is 101 per cent enough? Wouldn't 110 per cent or even 120 per cent be better?

Monday, June 05, 2006

Lordi help us

When I repeated the observation that the Eurovision Song Contest had been won by "a sort of cross between Klingon warriors ... and The Wombles", I was not far off the mark.

An interview with Mr Lordi - Tomi Putaansuu - on the BBC website reports that he:
described himself as "a huge monster freak", naming Freddie Kruger, the Incredible Hulk and Monster from the Muppet Show as his favourites.

The England selectors get it wrong

Only a week ago I wrote to congratulate the England selectors for consistently making the braver choice this summer when faced with a dilemma. This time they did not do that and we lost the test.

You can hardly blame Jon Lewis for that defeat. His performance was at the upper end of what we could have expected from him. He took wickets against inexperienced batsmen in helpful conditions in Sri Lanka's first innings. In their second he was tidy without being threatening.

But if Sajid Mahmood is the bowler we hope he is - able to reverse swing the ball at speed on dry pitches - then he would have been invaluable in the second innings. We still don't really know if he is that bowler, but how are we going to find out if we do not play him?

Before this test the question we were faced with was whether we should pick Mahmood or Plunkett as the fourth seamer if Simon Jones is not fit for the first test against Pakistan (or even the Ashes tour this winter). We are little nearer to knowing the answer tonight.

If tests this early in the season are hear to stay, I suppose there is an argument for picking specialist seamers to exploit the conditions. Martin Bicknell and James Kirtley were too canny for the younger South African batsmen three summers ago.

Yet Jon Lewis will surely not be picked to go to Australia this winter and is not a youngster who might one day replace Matthew Hoggard. Therefore, even if we had won this last test and he had bowled brilliantly, it is hard to see what his selection would have proved.

Government databases of children

ARCH - Action on Rights for Children - has a valuable blog detailing all the systems that exist and are planned to keep track of children for different reasons.

ARCH is planning a conference on the subject on 27 June and also maintains a news blog.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Lib Dem tax policy

Today's Observer reports:

Radical proposals promising a 2p cut in the basic rate of income tax, funded by a green levy on air flights, and tougher tax rules for the wealthy will be unveiled by the Liberal Democrats this week.

Assuming that this represents the verdict of the party's tax commission rather than an attempt to pre-empt it, my initial reaction is favourable.

My worry about environmental taxes is always that they may work too well. If people change their behaviour because of the new taxes, won't that reduce the amount they bring in? How would we fund our spending commitments then?

I expect a Conference row over the end of the 50 per cent rate on higher incomes, but the important thing is the overall effect of any package. It is wrong to make a fetish of any individual tax rate.

Another weekly roundup

Pickled Politics has one too.

Mind you, I am still not convinced that "roundup" is a word.

News story of the day

It comes from Shropshire, of course. But it's not from the Shropshire Star. It's from the BBC's Shropshire pages.

Bogus pie seller causes concern

More Sunday reading

Tim Worstall's BritBlog Roundup and The First Post's review of the Sunday papers are both in place.

You may also want to look at my anthology blog Serendib. This is a collection of amusing or thought-provoking passages I have come across in the course of my own reading.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Tim Razzall's cricket career

The recently departed chairman of the Liberal Democrats' Campaigns and Communications Committee played eight first-class games for Oxford University during the 1964 season, but was not selected for the game against Cambridge.

Cricinfo, as ever, has the details.

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Little Red Book of New Labour Sleaze

This review of the Little Red Book appears in today's Liberal Democrat News.

The Little Red Book of New Labour Sleaze
Edited by Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes
Politico's Media, 2006, £7.99

Tony Blair came to power in 1997 pledged to be whiter than white. "You are not here to enjoy the trappings of power," he told his MPs, "but to do a job and to uphold the highest standards in public life."

How have they measured up? Not very well, this chunky little paperback suggests. Peter Mandleson's mortgage, Bernie Ecclestone's donation, the dodgy dossier... are all here.

The Little Red Book was written in a unique way. The editors had the idea on Blair's Black Wednesday - the day Charles Clarke admitted foreign criminals had been released without being considered for deportation, John Prescott admitted to an affair and the nurses booed Patricia Hewitt.

They compiled a list of 101 scandals and invited Britain's bloggers - people who write political weblogs on the Internet - to write them up. They did so over a weekend (my entry covers Downing Street's attempts to muscle in on the Queen Mother's funeral arrangements) and the book appeared a fortnight later.

Inevitably the results are uneven, but they are great fun too. This is a superior version of those little volumes bookshops keep by the till and readers keep by the loo. If there is too much sniggering over sex - Ron Davies' badger watching is the least of our worries - there is also plenty of serious stuff. And if it has a Tory feel, more Lib Dems should have got involved.

Are there lessons to be drawn? Any government in power this long would be frayed at the edges, and I have long argued that Labour's emphasis on sleaze before 1997 was a way of disguising how little they differed from the Tories.

But there is something new about the way this government uses the media to attack anyone who crosses it. When Iain Duncan Smith revealed a lady called Rose Addis had been neglected in hospital, rumours were spread that she was a racist who had refused to be treated by black nurses. The Women's Institute and Paddington rail crash survivors suffered similar experiences.

So there is good reason to buy The Little Red Book - wherever you decide to keep it.

Jonathan Calder

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The headline of the year?

Alex Wilcock kindly suggests that I have written "the blogging headline of the year" in A lion has eaten our Oaten.

Funnily enough, I have been increasingly dissatisfied with that headline. Looking at the original "The Lion and Albert" monologue, it is clear that I should have written Yon lion's eaten our Oaten.

"The Lion and Albert" was written by Marriott Edgar, who turns out to have been something of a political philosopher. In his "The Magna Charter" he wrote the immortal final stanza:
And it's through that there Magna Charter,
As were made by the Barons of old,
That in England today we can do what we like,
So long as we do what we're told.

Is Cameron the new Kinnock?

Donald Malcolm thinks so.

See his article in The First Post.

A song for England

Sheep, frog, and disgraced MP sing for England

says the headline on a story about would-be England World Cup songs.

Read the story and you find:
  1. they are all singing on different records;
  2. the "disgraced MP" is former MP Neil Hamilton (and not Mark Oaten as you may have feared).

In June I change my tune

The other day I pointed you to Common Ground's page on English customs and traditions for May.

Their page for June is now in place.