Friday, September 29, 2006

Peter and Jane again

Last year I mentioned the Ladybird Keywords reading scheme in a couple of postings (here and here, to be exact - I think it must have been an example of this blog's eclecticism.) As Statcounter tells me those postings are still read, I thought I would mention it again.

There is an article on a Ladybird collectors' site about the illustrations in the Peter and Jane books. As it points out, the books came out in 1964 and only six years later the publishers decided that the illustrations needed to be updated.

The writer asks:
I wonder if the original target audience were aware of the nostalgic, retrospective feel to them when they first came out? Perhaps there was an awareness even then that these idyllic domestic tableaux were unreal and presented a world that had never existed. (Yes, I was part of that early audience, but at the age of 5, I don't think my powers of analysis were up to the job). Or is it that those years, between the mid-sixties and early seventies saw exceptionally dramatic social change for families. Is this dramatic period of change encapsulated by the 2 versions of the books?

Because if you flip through the pages of a 1970s revised edition, it will still feel pretty modern today - which the first version absolutely does not - although produced nearly 35 years ago. No mobile phones, designer trainers or computer games - but the children have scruffy hair, wear jeans and T-shirt and don't tidy up after themselves.
I think there were huge social changes round about the mid-sixties and that the two versions of these books appeared either side of that watershed. Certainly, if you see photographs of university sports teams or railway excursions from the early sixties then everyone is dressed like the young Ming Campbell in sports jacket and tie. A few years later they all have anoraks, T-shirts and jeans.

It would be easy to paint this move from the early 1960s to the early 1970s as a straightforward liberation for children, but things were more complicated than that:

The first thing you notice is that Jane gets to wear jeans and is seen playing with roller-skates where once she played with dolls. The scenes portrayed look less ordered and serene. Play time is messier and the children appear to bicker more.

However, if, like me, you are happy to spend a few evenings browsing through the two different versions, you'll find that the biggest changes in the first few books are all to do with sweet consumption. Whereas the Peter and Jane of the 1960s would visit the sweet shop, the 1970s Peter and Jane go to buy apples instead.

This change was considered so important that even Murray's text (so carefully worded and so rarely tampered with) was adapted in the revised books. adapted to reflect the apple over the jelly-baby.

If I recall my own childhood correctly, this disapproval of sweets had nothing to do with obesity but arose from the high rate of tooth decay. Whatever the era, there is always something for parents to worry about.

CCTV nation

I bought the New Statesman on the way home from work this evening. It is rather a good issue, with not too much of it written by comedians.

In particular, I recommend the lead article by Brendan O'Neill. It looks at the spread of closed-circuit television and what that tells us about our society.

He writes:
Throughout the country are an estimated five million CCTV cameras; that's one for every 12 citizens. We have more than 20 per cent of the world's CCTV cameras, which, considering that Britain occupies a tiny 0.2 per cent of the world's inhab itable land mass, is quite an achievement. The average Londoner going about his or her business may be monitored by 300 CCTV cameras a day. Roughly 1,800 cameras watch over London's railway stations and another 6,000 permanently peer at commuters on the Underground and London buses. In other major city centres, including Manchester and Edinburgh, residents can expect to be sighted on between roughly 50 and 100 cameras a day.

Besides the official cameras - such as those operated by Westminster City Council from the Trocadero basement - ever-growing numbers of private companies, banks, building societies, schools, community halls, leisure centres and private residences are using CCTV.

And the cameras are getting cleverer all the time. As well as filming and recording our every move (Westminster, for example, stores all footage for 31 days), some cameras now come with automatic number-plate recognition, facial recognition and even suspicious behaviour recognition. In 2003, "smart" software called Intelligence Pedestrian Surveillance was introduced. This analyses clusters and movements of pixels in CCTV footage in search of "behavioural oddities".

British scientists, backed by the Ministry of Defence and a £500,000 government grant, are developing cameras with "gait recognition". These will recognise whether people are walking suspiciously or strangely, and alert a human operator. Think of it as the Ministry of Unfunny Walks
Under the tyrannical gaze of today's CCTV, none of us is really free. Instead, we live in a permanent state of parole, where we must walk, talk and act in a certain way, or risk having our collars felt by a cop or council official alerted by the spies behind the cameras. It is time we took some action against these peeping Toms of officialdom, and told them to switch off their spycams.

Ian Macwhirter on John Reid

The Herald and Sunday Herald journalist writes on Comment is Free:
If Labour installs him as its leader, the party will complete its transition to an authoritarian party of the populist right. It will mean riots at home; new wars abroad. There will be imprisonment without trial, a massive increase in police powers, curbs on immigration.

This must not happen. If Reid becomes leader, I will be voting for David Cameron.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Bremner, Bird and Fortune on the skids

Last night I took part in an improvised comedy workshop in Leicester. It was great fun and reminded me of the television show Whose Line is it Anyway? from the 1980s.

When it started it was exciting and new - the sort of show you stayed in to see. After a while you stopped doing that, but you certainly watched it if it was on. Then it drifted out of your consciousness until, if you happened to catch it, you were amazed that it was still on.

A lot of shows go through this sort of cycle. Have I Got News for You? is on the way down, though it was given new life after Angus Deayton was sacked. Now Bremner, Bird and Fortune is on the skids. I watched the last series out of duty, not because it was funny. I did not bother with the start of the new series last Saturday.

Brighton blogging article in place

I have now posted my article on bloggers at the Brighton Conference. The print version will appear in tomorrow's Liberal Democrat News.

It was originally going to be 600 words, but such was the cornucopia of exciting copy this week that I was cut down to 400. So apologies to all the people I did not have room to quote.

Lord Bonkers' new diary

His lordship's contribution to Liberator 313. Many readers will have collected their copy from our stall at Brighton. It will be with other subscribers shortly.

You can find an archive of earlier diaries on the old boy's website.

Finding myself staying overnight in the Principality, I go to Welshpool International Airport to catch the morning flight back to Rutland. My curiosity is aroused when I see the name "Air Lembit" on the side of the Government Surplus Sopwith Camel and, sure enough, I find a familiar figure at the controls when I board. As we weave in and out of the Stiperstones, narrowly avoid the Long Mynd and give Brown Clee a wide birth (despite my suggestion of a sharpener at the Boyne Arms), the MP for Montgomery describes his plans for his airline. The in-flight catering is limited – poor Öpik has trouble keeping a steady course whilst buttering the bread for the sandwiches – and neither is there a moving picture to enjoy. (My pilot offers to play his mouth organ, but I tell him that will not be necessary.) It happens that we pass over the Bonkers Hall Estate on the approach to Oakham, so I save him the trouble of landing by parachuting out. When I alight, Meadowcroft takes me for a German paratrooper and pursues me with his pitchfork; the misunderstanding is soon sorted out.

The recommendation of a friend ("You knew Trueman, didn’t you? There’s a film about him that you really should see") sends me to the cinema, but I am sorely disappointed. For some unaccountable reason the actor playing the great fast bowler – one "Philip Seymour Hoffman", if you please – has chosen to give him an absurd, high-pitched, lisping American accent. Now, I am the first to agree that Fred could be a bit of a joker (particularly at the Scarborough Festival), but I never knew him to speak like that. Not since Meryl Streep starred in Silverwood have I been so disappointed by the portrayal of a Yorkshire and England opening bowler.

People sometimes ask me whether, from my long experience of public life, campaigning ever changes the Government’s mind. Does the dreary round of petitions, letters to one’s MP and press releases actually achieve anything? I always reply that there can be no guarantee that it will, but one does meet the most interesting people in the process. A case in point is my attempt to help the inhabitants of Pluto over the summer. When first they heard that their world was no longer to be a planet within the meaning of the Act they were naturally concerned – not least because this would mean that they would cease to qualify for generous grants from the European Union. So the Plutonians (or Plutocrats or whatever the fellows call themselves) contacted me for advice, and I told them to write to all the newspapers and arranged a meeting with the minister: I still treasure the memory of them sitting in Central Lobby, waving their tentacles and laughing at the quaint dress of the Commons staff. As everyone now knows, their campaign failed, but at least I was able to introduce them to Lembit Öpik before they went home.

Inspired by my friends from Pluto, I spend the evening in my observatory. The telescope is not powerful enough for me to see their distant home but, as I believe I have remarked before, on a clear night tonight you can see Uranus. There are those who say that observing the heavens puts our Earthly troubles in perspective, but I beg to differ. One sees billions of stars, many of which will have their attendant planets; some of those planets will have life, and if that life has been around long enough it will have invented Liberalism and be engaged in democratic battles with its enemies. Thus, when I observe the night sky I see an infinite number of closely fought by-elections – it is enough to overwhelm even our own Lord Rennard.

I notice from the Manchester Guardian that when Fidel Castro fell ill his brother Raul stepped in as President of Cuba. Mention of these two reminds me of my own days in Hollywood when I attempted to promote the Castro Brothers as comedians, somewhat along the lines of the Marx Brothers. (We did achieve some success with their first picture – A Night in Havana – but generally it was Rather Hard Work.) Whilst there were similarities between Fidel Castro and Groucho Marx – the facial hair, the taste for fine cigars – there were also differences, which became all too apparent as Fidel’s career developed. In particular, whilst Groucho specialised in witty retorts, Fidel’s talents lay more in the direction of seven-hour denunciations of American imperialism and the iniquities of the capitalist system; these were a challenge to incorporate into a madcap comedy and as a result the Castro Brothers soon faded. Ironically, the biggest success amongst them was not really a Castro at all: "Harpo Castro" was in reality a doctor by the name of Guevara, yet the poster of him with his harp and ridiculous wig of blonde curls can be found on students’ bedroom walls to this day.

It is hard not to sympathise with the New Party’s MPs: Blair has clearly gone barking mad – his public protestations of love for a chimpanzee, all those foreign wars, his plans to send children to the Jack Straw Memorial Reform School, Dungeness, before they are born – but their constitution makes it impossible to get rid of him. We Liberal Democrats recently had leadership problems of our own, but Kennedy’s fondness for drink never put the country in peril. Yes, he might fall asleep in meetings, sing raucous Highland ballads or try to kiss Alan Beith, but life was still more restful than under his predecessor, Paddy Ashplant, and – dash it all – I am rather fond of old Beith myself. A word of advice to the New Party: if you do succeed in tipping Blair out of the window, don’t replace him with that dour Brown fellow. Try someone younger and fresher like Tony Benn’s charming daughter Hilary or one of the Millipede brothers.

A hectic weekend has seen one of my meadows quite turned upside down by the Time Team of moving television fame. It all went Terribly Well: they found a Roman villa, an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, the grave of a junior minister in Baldwin’s Government (that took some explaining, I can tell you) and, best of all, the keys to my Bentley which I dropped when walking my setters there last summer. Between ourselves, gentle reader, I was rather hoping they would turn up.

Lord Bonkers was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West 1906-10.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Simon Hughes re-elected

The Cowley Street press release says:
Simon Hughes MP has today been re-elected unopposed as President of the Liberal Democrats. Nominations closed at noon today and Simon Hughes was the only candidate nominated. He will therefore serve for a further two years until the end of 2008.
Suz Blog is delighted (if a little confused):

Been waiting on tenterhooks since the close of nominations to know if Simon Hughes has been re-elected as the party President.

Didn't want to jump the gun until I received the news through official sources but now it's confirmed. He's been elected unopposed for a further two year term.

Personally I very pleased - didn't believe the rumours about a possible challenger for one minute.

Liberal Legend is less impressed:
Yup, I've just had official word from Cowley Street. Simon has been re-elected unopposed. Ho hum..... Consigned to two years of impotent dissidence now.

Hitler paintings for sale

At least you can see what it's meant to be.

Lib-Labbery lives

Anne Perkins writes on the Guardian's Comment is free superblog:

Out in the wilds, beyond the impregnable conference fortress, in a meeting room in one of Manchester's interchangeable business hotels, a small sect gathered last night to discuss the prospects for a realignment of Liberal Democrats and Labour, a new progressive consensus.

It is a tribute to the determination of Neal Lawson, chair of the Compass, and Neil Sherlock, of the new thinktank CentreForum, that the effort to find common ground which began in the mid 1990s has continued through electoral landslides and official neglect into an era where the best prospect of Lib Dem gains in the next election will be to take seats from Labour in its old core territories in the cities and towns of the north.

This seems to me largely a waste of time. We know by now that if Labour has a majority they do not need us. If there is a hung parliament and they do need us, then they will come running.

No doubt it is a good thing that people from different parties talk to one another now and then. But there is more work to be done to give the Lib Dems some intellectual backbone. Shouldn't Centre for Um be concentrating on that?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Sarah Teather goes to school

It has been nearly 20 years since I sat in a comprehensive school as a student...

writes Sarah Teather on the Guardian's mortarboard blog today.

That is true. But as an earlier profile, also from the Guardian, makes clear, it is slightly less long since she sat in the independent Leicester Grammar School as a student.

As the product of a Leicestershire comprehensive myself, I take an interest in such things.

It strikes me that Sarah's background - experience of state schools, private schools and home schooling - is perfect for a shadow education secretary. I do hope she will not feel obliged to play it down.

Bloggers at Brighton

This article appears in tomorrow's Liberal Democrat News. The printed version does not include all the hyperlinks, of course...

Bloggers at Brighton

Brighton 2006 was the Conference of the bloggers. Increasing numbers of Liberal Democrats are writing blogs - or weblogs, to give them their full name. Some use these simple websites to keep in touch with constituents or fight local campaigns: others are frustrated newspaper columnists. But together they make up a movement that is changing British politics. No longer do you have to be a Westminster insider to hear the latest ideas and scandal or to have your say. Blogging is open to everyone.

The party recognised this by offering an award to the blogger who "has done the most to promote liberalism in the last year". It was given to Stephen Tall from Oxford at a reception held on the Sunday of Conference. Stephen became something of a media celebrity for the rest of the week, and many other bloggers were quoted or asked to give their views too.

There were so many bloggers at Brighton or watching proceedings on television that their writings gave a far fuller and more colourful picture of events than the mainstream press could provide. Take Ming Campbell's first speech as Lib Dem leader. Paul Walter was euphoric: "It was ... a barnstormer. It reminded me of the best of Paddy's speeches - brilliant!" Anders Hanson was more measured: "The word I would use is solid ... It could perhaps have been delivered more strongly, but then the majority of people will only hear clips on the news."

The reviews for Nick Clegg's speech were uniformly positive. Lynne Featherstone (one of several blogging MPs) thought it was "an excellent speech which really went for the shallowness of Labour's rhetoric on crime, their obsession with new legislation ... and their hideous illiberal approach to dealing with the new threats we face." Tristan, who blogs at Liberal (not so) Alone, said: "He's said some of the very things which led me to the Lib Dems ... Some good jokes. Something for everyone."

It was not all so serious. During the week Lib Dem blogs also offered an account of the bloggers' social at the excellent Evening Star pub near Brighton station, a guide to secondhand bookshops in East Sussex and all the gossip.

Conference gossip

You won't catch me passing tittle-tattle on.

Try Liberal Action instead.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Michael Brown gets two years

The BBC reports:

A millionaire businessman whose company gave the Lib Dems more than £2m has been jailed for two years after being branded "dishonest" by a judge.

Michael Brown, 40, had admitted committing perjury and making a false declaration to obtain a passport.

Let us remember Lord Bonkers' wise words (from Friday):
If anyone had it in mind to send him a cake with a file in it, I think that would be a nice gesture.

Theo Butt-Philip

It is time to welcome Theo to the exciting world of Lib Dem blogging. You can find him at “As I look out over this magnificent vista…”

And thanks to Theo for introducing us to the Revd Kingsley Laws.

Lord Bonkers sings

There was a new Liberator songbook on sale at Brighton, with a foreword from Lord Bonkers:
I can never visit Brighton without being reminded of Sir Richard Attenborough’s Pinkie.

Yes, this spacious Sussex resort is famous for its connections with the Arts. I well recall the days when Herbert Wilcox and Anna Neagle would take tea on the Brighton Belle, while even today one may expect to come across luminaries as Dame Dora Bryan whilst walking along the Front. So it is entirely appropriate that we Liberal Democrats should meet here to practise the art of song.

(I have been asked to point out, in case this edition of the songbook is on sale at subsequent events, that it is equally appropriate that we should meet in Bournemouth, Whitley Bay or Hunstanton.)

I know from my correspondence that only one thing rankles with the purchasers of these songbooks: the discovery that one has left last year’s copy at home, with the resultant necessity to purchase a new one. I am pleased to announce that a solution to this dreary problem has now been found.

By special arrangement with Air Lembit – “Welshpool’s Most Go-ahead New Airline” – we can arrange for your last year’s songbook to be collected from home and flown to the Conference venue by fast War Surplus Sopwith Camel. Charges begin from a very reasonable five thousand guineas (exclusive of my own brokerage fee).

So I trust those amusing young people at Liberator magazine will hear no more complaints about the need to buy a new songbook. Begone dull care – let us sing!
You can find last year's foreword here.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

TV Film of the Week: A Matter of Life and Death

An honourable mention to This Boy's Life (BBC1, Tuesday 11.05pm), but it has to be the Powell and Pressburger fantasy A Matter of Life and Death (Channel 4, Thursday 1.35pm).

Released in 1946, this fantasy stars David Niven as an airman who bales out of his plane without a parachute but fails to die because of a bureaucratic mix up in heaven. He then has to argue for his life before a celestial court.

Like all the best Powell and Pressburger films it is witty and full of ideas. It is particularly pleasing that earth is in colour and heaven is in black and white.

The film also has their characteristic sexiness and hint of something slightly perverted - in this case the doctor, played by Roger Livesey, who observes the village through his camera obscura.

Two elements root A Matter of Life and Death firmly in the last years of World War II. The first is the examination of Anglo-American tensions. The second is David Niven's words: "Politics - Conservative by nature, Labour by experience."

You can find out far more about this film on the Powell and Pressburger site.

Finally, a reminder that American prudery did not begin with reaction to Janet Jackson's breast. When A Matter of Life and Death was released in America as Stairway to Heaven, the little naked goatherd who appears near the beginning was edited out.

Tim Worstall's Britblog Roundup

Click and point it, matey. Indeedy-ho.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

What is the President of the Lib Dems for?

Simon Hughes is quoted in the Scotsman as telling the BBC:

"I guess it was a seven or eight out of ten speech, in terms of speech, but it did the necessary for the party."
This seems a fair verdict to me. But should we be pleased by his candour or outraged at his disloyalty?

Does the President exist to tell the party's leadership uncomfortable truths on behalf of the wider membership? Or is he meant to be the public face of the party, telling everyone how well it is doing. And if it is the latter role, why do we need a President as well as a Leader?

I only ask because I want to know.

Friday, September 22, 2006

My new laptop

This is the first posting written on my new laptop. I went out and bought it today as my PC expired just before Conference.

So far it hasn't burst into flames once!

Calder at Conference

A rather self-indulgent column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Books galore

Books of Liberal Democrat essays are like buses: you wait for ages for one to come along and then three turn up at once. Actually, Brighton buses aren’t quite like that. In my experience three buses turn up as you approach the stop and leave before you can catch any of them. You then wait 20 minutes for another one to show.

Yet the buses have their compensations. Brighton may not have trams, which are one of the few good things about Blackpool – come to think of it, they are the only good thing about Blackpool – but at least its buses have names. This week I have ridden on Lord Cohen, C. B. Cochrane and William Friese Greene.

I suppose Lord Cohen is named after the founder of Tesco, and Cochrane was a theatrical impresario. The most interesting name is Friese Greene. A Brighton man, he was the father of the Claude Friese Greene whose films from the 1920s formed the basis of a BBC TV series earlier this year.

William himself was a pioneer of photography. In 1951, to mark the festival of Britain, a film called The Magic Box was produced. Its burden was that William Friese Greene had been the first man to photograph the moving image but been cruelly denied his place in history. The film starred just about every well-known British actor of the period – there is even a story that one of the Kray twins appeared as an extra.

In fact the idea behind the film was nonsense. William Friese Greene certainly did not invent cinematography, but at least he is remembered on a Brighton bus.

Reader’s voice: You were talking about books of Liberal Democrat essays.

Thank you. This year, after something of a lull, three such books have appeared. The Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors has produced an updated version of the 1980 classic The Theory and Practice of Community Politics. Several MPs have contributed to Britain After Blair – or This Isn’t the Orange Book 2, Dear me no, as it is more widely known. Finally Liberator magazine has brought out Liberalism: Something to Shout About.

I think this sudden proliferation of books is a thoroughly good thing. One of the striking thing about the fringe at recent Lib Dem Conferences has been that most of the fringe meetings promoting challenging new ideas have been organised by outside pressure groups. There has been far fewer such meetings originating from party groups. They seem to concentrate on training people how to fight elections or run councils. This is important work, but we need to be a thinking party too.

The other thing to report from the fringe is the arms race in catering. There are so many meetings now that you need free food and a popular speaker to have any chance of a decent turn out.

If you can’t provide Nick Clegg and a fish and chip supper, you may as well book a broom cupboard.

Stanley Unwin: A tribute

As usual the Glee Club was held on the last evening (Wednesday) of the Liberal Democrat Conference. It featured a mini-show from the Liberal Revue team. I made my debut with them, writing and performing the following piece.

Ralph Bancroft introduced me as "Professor Jonathan Calder" ...

Thank, you Ralph. And as Ralph said, this is something of an experiment. But I hope you will find this session useful.

Yesterday the party votey through of a new policy. Hands up and showit and all amendies defeated. Deep joy of a Ming Campbell.

Now I am asky to explain the polly to you, fellow Libby Demloppers, who will be out on the doorstep and sell it.

Historibold, which is of the oldest, we have the policy of the raisy taxers of the John Maynard Keynes, William Beverbold and all the apparaty of the post-war welfy state.

This is of a health service when you fallolop, schools for the childibold and a penshy for Grandma - a big thank you to Davit Lloydy George there. Oh yes, indeedy ho.

This was long a deep joy. And was a change of the Tory society, which was I'm all right matey and kick your neighbour up the bocus.

Time movey on, however. And we have the arise of two in the factormost. First we have the fear of the MPs. They have a thorcus. Putty up of the income tax and losey seats in the landyslide. Oh yes. This would be a deep folly.

At the same time (which is simultanebold) we have the fear of the global warmy. A few year and we all have the climey of the who's a silly isle-ode?

You may say this is a joy, with the rubby on of the suncream and the relaxy in the deckfalloloper. But this is of a folly because of the risey temps and resulting flood - all slosh and welly bootit - of the coastal airybolds. Notably of Brighton itself, where we are meety tonight.

Putty this together in a combinibold is Vince Cable, who is of a shadow chancellor. With the appointy of the tax commission - apply and join it matey! - and its reporty, we have the thorcus of a new policy.

No longer do we tax the rich pip and squeak it - all jewels and dangly as they are. In this new thorcus we do a cut of the pension relief, which is a missy of the headlines and hopey they don't notice.

Also new is a tax of the gas guzzler - four by four with childibold and golden labrafalloloper in the back and driveit. There is a deep fear, as I say, of a global warmit and melty ice caps.

As you know, in the debate Evan Harris - there's a falloloper! - had a different thorcus, which was of his own. Sticky up of the top rate and spend it, matey.

Well we all had a votey and Chris Huhne was of the speakimost. It was a sitty down, wavey cards and clearly lost, thank you conference. Oh yes.

You may also have seen several amendibolds of Canterbury. Movey of a Michael Steed, who is so veneralbold that he is mentioned in the original Geoffrey Chaucey. The Falloloper's Tale - a great joy to the literarymost amongst you.

Incidentallybold Phil Willis, who was once of a headmaster (all swish and bendit) had a great thorcus of a stretch of the tax envelope.

Well Vince Cable, who was top at Shell - with a drill and gushit - has the calculate of this. With the new charge of the Royal Mail - which was the Consigniamost and changey back pronto - the stretch of the envelope is a great cost and force a closey of all the schools and hospitals. Oh yes.

So now we are all passy of a new pollytito. Now you must be out and sellit on the doorstep. Communicate to the peopleload!

Not just for the Focus and stuffit. But for the knock and talkit, sorry madam I'll come back later and huffalo dowder down the garden path.

When they are asky of the new policy, just repeat the explainibold I have given you and they are all votey with a bigger majority. Indeedy ho!

No questions? Deep joy.

With thanks to this Unwin tribute site.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Matthew Parris watches Charles Kennedy

Today's Parris column features one of those little observations of human character that make him one of my favourite political writers:
From the public balcony where I watched Charles Kennedy’s speech here in Brighton, I am able to reveal what any TV camera could have shown. The report that to avoid an embarrassingly enthusiastic reception Mr Kennedy interrupted his standing ovation by walking off before the applause died, was inaccurate. He walked smartly backstage and paused there, just out of the audience’s sight, in case the applause should not die. He was ready (I would speculate) for a second curtain-call. He’s only human.

But the applause died fast. Mr Kennedy resumed his journey off the rostrum.

Ming the Movie

I am writing this in the internet cafe at the Brighton Centre. I can hear the soundtrack of Ming the Movie coming through the walls.

There is a sign above the door saying:
Please note there may be excessive flash and strobe lighting effects in use during this session.

Meanwhile in Shropshire

There is an interesting story in my favourite newspaper:

A radical new plan for Ludlow’s under-threat community hospital to increase services and opt out of NHS control will be unveiled on Thursday.

Independent consultants will tell civic leaders that their plan represents the best way forward for the under-fire site.

The hospital could soon lose two of its wards as part of a cost-cutting scheme by Shropshire’s Primary Care Trust.

One of the wards provides care for elderly and mentally infirm residents.

The hospital would be run by an independent community trust comprised of local residents, civic leaders and health bosses.

The new trust would then sell services back to the PCT, which would make sure the hospital was meeting standards set by the Government.
The instinctive reaction of any Liberal or socialist is to defend the National Health Service. But I should not be surprised if we see more plans like this in coming years. The pressure for more centralisation and more machines that go ping! seems unending.

We have a similar problem in Market Harborough. If I gave got my local history right, the town's cottage hospital was built by the people of the town as a memorial to the fallen of the First World War. It was taken over by the state when the National Health Service was formed.

When I was a district councillor in the 1980s (I was only 14 when I was elected) we fought and lost a campaign to keep a maternity ward at the cottage hospital. Now other wards are being closed as a temporary measure - we shall see how temporary that turns out to be.

In the long term the cottage hospital will be replaced by new provision on a site on the outskirts of the town.

In other words it will have been nationalised and closed. If the National Health Service cannot accommodate local initiative it will become increasingly bureaucratic and unpopular.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Good sense from Shirley Williams

The BBC reports a speech Shirley Williams made at a Social Market Foundation meeting in Brighton today. It seems she was expressing the same concerns that I have been writing about recently:
We get people terrified to volunteer to be leaders of Cub groups or Guide groups because they think everyone will point at them and say, 'ah, of course you know about John and Margaret, they like to get close to young people'."

She said it was a "tragedy" when a teacher is afraid to put their arm around a child who has grazed their knee in the playground for fear of being branded "a potential criminal".

"That's ludicrous. This particular meeting is called loving your neighbour. If you can't love your little neighbour, if you can't show any love to your little neighbour you are already beginning to destroy his or her sense of trust in other human beings.

"We have to address it. We have got to get this particular problem under control."

Secondhand bookshops in East Sussex

There is a useful guide here.

Not that any of us has the money left to buy books tomorrow.

The Brighton blogmeet

Thanks to Alex "Niles's Blog" Foster for organising last night's meeting. He has written a report of it on his own blog.

The Sun guide to "top Lib Dem political totty"

I don't endorse this sort of thing, you understand. I am just posting the link in case you missed it.

My Guardian piece on Charles Kennedy

As my Comment is Free piece on Charles Kennedy soon faded into obscurity, I am reproducing it here. I hope it was honest but not unkind.

Kennedy's sun finally sets

It wasn't the drink that did for Charles Kennedy: it was the drift.

When Kennedy stood for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats in 1999, the West Highland Free Press - a radical newspaper published in his own constituency - remarked that people in London were beginning to ask what it had been asking for 15 years: what exactly does Charles Kennedy stand for?

Though he won that contest and went on to lead the party for nearly seven years, we never really found out.

Observing Kennedy at close quarters did not help to solve the mystery. One job that falls to the leader under the Liberal Democrats' constitution is chairing the party's Federal Policy Committee, and veterans of the Paddy Ashdown years recall pre-meetings of loyalists to ensure that his views prevailed. There was nothing of that sort under Kennedy: he simply chaired its proceedings impartially.

In a way this was admirable: the more restful atmosphere was welcome, and the idea that a party's leader must originate all its policy is a modern heresy. A growing party like the Liberal Democrats is bound to harvest ideas from far beyond its leader or parliamentary party. But it was also symptomatic of the lack of direction to Liberal Democrat policy or strategy under his leadership.

And as far as there was any direction to party policy under Kennedy, it was away from that you would expect from his publicly expressed views. When asked about his political beliefs, Kennedy generally named European unity as the most important. Yet under his leadership the pressure of events meant that adoption of the euro slipped from the centre of Liberal Democrat economic policy - at one time it seemed to be the only Liberal Democrat economic policy - to a place on its distant fringes.

A month or two ago the appearance of Greg Hurst's biography of Kennedy, with its promised revelation of treachery at the highest level, threatened to overshadow the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Yet the newspaper serialisation failed to deliver anything very new or shocking. If anything, it confirmed a growing perception that Kennedy's MPs remained too loyal to him for too long

Hurst's book will still find plenty of buyers at Brighton, but not because of a hunger for more scandal about the former Liberal Democrat leader. If the start of the conference does resemble a class of 10-year-olds the day after the new Harry Potter comes out, it will be because the inner working of the party remains obscure to many Lib Dem members and they will seize upon any work that promises to cast light upon it.

Charles Kennedy remains immensely popular with those members and, properly used, could again be an electoral asset to the party. His affability and conversational style of speech-making were made for television, and he was regularly named as the politician voters would most like to go down the pub with - even if some of them always did sense that the problem would be getting him out of the pub afterwards.

It is less clear that an attempt by Kennedy to launch a subtle challenge to Menzies Campbell's leadership in Brighton would be well received. There are many Liberal Democrats who see his leadership as an era of lost opportunity, given the party's failure to exploit the Conservatives' bizarre choices of leader over the period - even if few of them are quite as clear on what should have been done instead.

Campbell's early wobbles have been overcome, and no leadership challenge is now on the cards. When Liberal Democrat thoughts do turn to a new leader after the next general election, Chris Huhne, who finished second to Campbell in this year's contest, or a representative of the younger generation like Nick Clegg will inherit his crown.

Though Charles Kennedy, as a well-known figure in a party that still has to fight for its share of media attention, will always be a story, it is hard to imagine him returning to lead the party.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Huhne the hero

Ros Taylor writes on the Guardian site:
Make no mistake: Ming Campbell didn't win today's crucial vote on tax; Chris Huhne did.

It was Huhne who anchored his leadership campaign around the need for green taxation; it was Huhne who ensured the environment was the keystone of the Liberal Democrats' new tax package, and it was Huhne who wound up the debate and secured the vote after some heartfelt defences of the 50p rate.

Today was Huhne's day, and he knows it.

Charles Kennedy's return

Iain Dale has a notably fair-minded posting on this afternoon's speech:
I waited in vain for the mea culpa moment when he would apologise to his Lib Dem colleagues for the traumas he'd put them through but the moment never came. At least he can't be accused of trying to eclipse Ming.

It's quite a tricky problem for Lib Dems to decide if and when Kennedy should return to the front bench team. It's quite apparent that his popularity extends way beyond Lib Dem supporters and there will be a great temptation to bring him back sooner than might be appropriate given the circumstances.

I think Charles Kennedy might be rather enjoying his period out of the limelight. There's a lot to be said for a break from responsibility, especially if you have a new baby. He will know himself that there is no cure for his drink problem and that the longer he is free from day to day responsibilty the easier it will be to cope with it. Call me an old softie but I genuinely hope he conquers it.

The taxation debate

As every other Lib Dem blogger has already reported, the amendments proposed to the taxation motion were all lost. In particular, Evan Harris's attempt to retain the 50p higher rate was defeated.

Given that the two sides agreed on so much, it is hard to see how this ever blew up into the great row that it was widely presented as being. Even so, there are a couple of lessons we should learn from the affair.

The first is that Ming's advisers should refrain from David Steel's old tactic of briefing the press that a particular vote is a test of the leader's authority and credibility, and then using the resulting threat of bad publicity as a way of bullying people into voting the way they want. If they are not confident of winning over a hall full of Liberal Democrat activists then it is hard to see what chance they have of convincing the voters.

The second is that those who dissent from the current direction of party policy need to do some serious thinking. It isn't enough to accept what is proposed and then add something like a 50p tax rate on top of it, like a cherry on a cake someone else has baked. They need to come up with something more substantial themselves.

Incidentally, Phil Willis seemed to think that the Liberal Democrats should stand for more and more public spending for ever and ever. Given that I am becoming increasingly sceptical of the extent to which much public spending helps the poor, I am less convinced of his case than I used to be.

It would be nice if the radicals were more, er, radical.

The Liberal Democrats encourage diversity

Yesterday Sir Menzies Campbell announced that the party is setting up a fund to encourage women candidates and ethnic minority candidates. Its initial funding of £200,000 has been provided by the Joseph Rowntree Trust.

Lord Bonkers writes exclusively for Liberal England:

I have always been a supporter of women's suffrage and was the first to applaud the action of Emily Davison in throwing herself under the King's horse at the 1913 Derby (even though I had backed the horse at distinctly favourable odds).

It is natural that we should now seek to consolidate the gains made by the jolly Pankhurst girls by getting more of our Liberal ladies into parliament. However, I know that childcare responsibilities can weigh heavily upon mothers and make it hard for them to find enough time to stand for Parliament.

Here at the Bonkers' Home for Well-Behaved Orphans we offer what may fairily be called "wrap-around" care - particularly since the new wall was erected. We have also taken on board today's concern about child obesity. as anyone who studies the diet we offer will see.

Any Liberal mother is welcome to leave their children in our care while she goes off canvassing, delivering leaflets, being photographed with Sir Menzies and so forth. I have suggested to the Rowntree people that they pay the £200,000 straight to me and cut out the middle man. We don't want to use up this fund in paying pen-pushers, do we?

Yet another list of top blogs

Spy Blog has got in on the act. He has listed British political blogs in order of the number of people who subscribe to their RSS feed via Bloglines.

On this basis the top 5 are:
  1. Guido Fawkes
  2. Harry's Place
  3. Nick Robinson
  4. Policeman's Blog
  5. Iain Dale
Since you ask, Liberal England comes in at no. 36.

Later. I have finally managed to add links to all five blogs without Blogger swallowing most of the text each time I try.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Great Repeal Act

Each year backbench MPs have a ballot and the winners get to propose a new piece of legislation.

This has always seemed a bad idea to me. It would be much better if the succesful MPs won the chance to repeal a piece of legislation.

Now everyone can have a go:
Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats are proposing a Great Repeal Act to sweep away unnecessary laws.

"We need a single act to roll back a generation of illiberal legislation and illiberal regulations; a single act to dismantle the apparatus of authoritarianism that has been forced on the nation," says Nick Clegg.

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have identified a list of the top ten laws we don't need, but you can also submit your suggestions, whether they are for a small piece of annoying detail, laws that have been overtaken by events or laws that were never a good idea.

Liberals and Social Democrats

To someone who was in the old Liberal Party during the Alliance years, there is an irony to tomorrow's debate on Lib Dem taxation policy.

Those who style themselves radical Liberals are now the people who defend the post-war Social Democratic settlement with the most passion.

My Pop Bitch posting

Which leading political journalist had a hissy fit and flounced out when a steward asked to search his bag at the entrance to the Brighton Centre this morning?

The Great Firewall of China fails

Someone from China has just visited my posting on Lib Dem Blogger of the Year. Surely that is just the sort of thing that the authorities there want to prevent people reading?

Quite what they will make of the Millennium Dome the Elephant in Peking is another matter.

The Archbishop of Canterbury follows my lead

Last night I spoke at a Liberator fringe meeting based on the recent book Liberalism: Something to Shout About, edited by Graham Watson MEP and Simon Titley.

I talked about our general sense that something has gone wrong with modern childhood, though no one can quite say what it is. It is a subject I have written about quite often, without coming to any firm conclusion.

Lately I have been coming round to the idea that the problem lies not with our children but with ourselves as adults. We have lost confidence in our ability to deal with children and New Labour's interventions - which are turning parenting from a normal expectation of adulthood into something that appears impossibly difficult and complex - are making things worse.

This morning I turned on the television to see Rowan Williams saying much the same thing. Add to this the hundred psychologists, headteachers and children's authors who wrote to the Daily Telegraph the other day and it seems that I am no longer the only person worrying about these questions.

Incidentally, the archbishop's eyebrows are magnificent - up there with Denis Healey's and late-period David Hemmings - but I often find myself looking at them and not listening to what he is saying.

Charles Kennedy is not our next leader

I have an article on the Guardian's Comment is Free site this morning.

It pours cold water - in what I hope is not an unkind manner - on the idea of Charles Kennedy returning to lead the Liberal Democrats in the foreseeable future.

Lib Dem Blogger of the Year

Congratulations to Stephen Tall who received the award at last night's reception. He is pictured here with Lynne Featherstone MP, who was one of the judges.

Editor's note: This posting was typed through gritted teeth.

Later. Mr Tall discusses the finer points of blogging with one of the other finalists...

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Another Lib Dem voice?

Guido Fawkes (who tends to be pretty accurate about this sort of thing) suggests that another would-be Lib Dem home on the net is about to be launched.

Could this be connected with the rather brusque, anonymous e-mail some of us received a while ago?

Good news from Shropshire

This comes, not from the Shropshire Star, but from Colin Ross's blog.

On Thursday the Liberal Democrats held the Ludlow St Peter's ward of South Shropshire District Council with a swing away from the Conservatives.

Colin gives the full result and writes:
I believe the swing would be enough for Matthew Green and the Liberal Democrats to regain the Parliamentary Seat at the next General Election if repeated across the seat.
He is talking about the Ludlow constituency, which we held between 2001 and 2005.

Harriet Smith remembered

The Liberal Democrat Conference has just opened with Duncan Brack paying tribute to Harriet Smith, who died recently. He quoted the closing passage of George Eliot's Middlemarch:
Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.

Leslie Hore-Belisha at last

On 18 August I claimed that my review of Ian Grimwood's biography of Leslie Hore-Belisha was in that day's issue of Liberal Democrat News. It wasn't.

I am assured that it was in the 15 September issue. You can also find it at the bottom of this page on Lord Bonkers' site.

A Hore-Belisha enthusiast writes: Hurrah!

Hugh Walters' science fiction stories

My mention of Lord Bonkers' belief that Raymond Baxter was the first Englishman in space has made me think of the book that inspired that idea: Blast Off at Woomera by Hugh Walters.

Walters produced a long series of science fiction novels. The first of them really did begin with an Englishman - or rather an English boy - becoming the first human in space:
Mysterious domes have been sighted in a crater on the Moon. Suspecting that they may be the work of Communists, the British Government must launch a man into space in order to photograph them from outside the atmosphere. Unfortunately their rocket was not designed to carry a man, and so someone unusually short is required. Enter Chris Godfrey, a four foot ten and a half sixth-former at Wolverton Grammar School. Will he survive the trip? The less than reliable rocket is to be launched from Australia - but there may be a Soviet traitor among the ground crew!
They don't write stories like that any more. Particularly ones in which, as I recall, the hero visits Battersea Fun Fair and has a run in with some teddy boys, and the British space mission is led by a Wing Commander Greatorex.

Another guide to political blogs

I have made it to the Brighton Centre and am coming to you live from the Liberal Democrat News broom cupboard deep in its bowels.

The people at Channel 4 have got in on the act and produced their own guide to "Twenty political blogs you should read". It begins here, and the Lib Dem ones can be found here.

They write of this blog:
Lib Dem activist and one time councillor Jonathan Calder has one keen eye on the blogosphere, another on the press, and a third on the plight of Shropshire's champion marrow growers. Like most political bloggers, it seems, he's keen on cricket too - perhaps they just like all forms of spin.

Liberal England is no. 30

Not only is this the 4th best Lib Dem blog: it is the 30th best political blog in the whole of the UK.

At least that is what Iain Dale thinks.

Bloggers at press conferences

The Liberal Democrats have invited the six people on the shortlist for the Lib Dem blog award to attend the press conferences at Brighton. They are to be congratulated on this as a first step towards involving bloggers more in the conference, though it happens that I already have a press pass from Liberal Democrat News, darling.

Getting the relationship right will be difficult. Will the bloggers feel under pressure to write helpful things about the party? Will the party get bitter and twisted if they write unhelpful things? But at least the authorities are making moves in the right direction.

Besides, conventional print journalists are always writing the most horrible things about us, and we ask them back year after year.

I have done my bit towards taking up this offer: I have just bought a notebook and biro.

Clare Short and "the third party"

The Birmingham Post has been speculating that Clare Short may be about to join the Liberal Democrats. I don't believe it. Not least because, as one Lib Dem blogger pointed out (I can't find the posting now), she could not bring herself even to mention the party in her piece in the Indpendent:
Cabinet government has gone, the House of Commons - with guillotines on all business - is weak and ineffective, and the rise of the third party means our electoral system is ever-more distorted.
No doubt the Liberal Democrats will continue to attract recruits from other parties, and in many cases we should welcome them. But I have never been one to accept Clare Short at her own estimation. To me she has never been the too-principled-for-her-own-good politician she likes to present herself as.

I think Matthew d'Ancona in today's Sunday Telegraph has it about right:
Clare Short, who is standing down as a Labour MP, may now be "profoundly ashamed" of the consequences of the "New Labour coup". But she wasn't so "ashamed" of the "coup" to turn down a Cabinet post in 1997, or to keep it for six years.

Now she drones on about "the extremism of US neoconservative foreign policy". I remember her holding forth with no less vigour about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and the need to destroy them in the prelude to Desert Fox, the air campaign against Iraq in 1998. For Ms Short, and many others like her, New Labour was always a badge of convenience, about which she eventually changed her mind. She is the true opportunist.

Liberal Democrat Conference 2006

I am writing this in Brighton. Well, in an internet cafe in Hove, actually.

In case my impressionistic jottings about the event do not build into an authoritative account of proceedings, let me point you to the Conference news page on the party's website.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Raymond Baxter in space

I was sorry to hear of the death of Raymond Baxter. His voice always reminded me of one of the television staples of my childhood: Tomorrow's World.

Come to think of it, it was rather a tedious programme - it seemed to be about motorway crash barriers most weeks - but we can't choose what makes us nostalgic.

Lord Bonkers often pointed out that Baxter was the first Briton in space, blasting off from Woomera in Coronation year.

Every child is at risk

It's all very well being a wacky libertarian like me, but aren't all these government databases justified if they help protect children at risk?

The trouble is, the definition of "at risk" has been stretched to such an extent that it could now include every child in the country.

ARCH - Action on Rights for Children - says:

'At risk' now means at risk of not receiving services that arguably might prevent a child from:

  • becoming a criminal;
  • failing at school;
  • becoming pregnant in her teens;
  • becoming 'socially excluded'.

The Government estimates that 3-4 million children (one-third of the child population) will need 'additional services' to avoid these outcomes.

I am surprised that it is only one child in three. Of course, the more children you draw into the net, the less likely you are to be able to find and help those who really are in danger of serious abuse.

Iain Dale's top 100 Lib Dem blogs

Iain Dale has posted a list of his top 100 Lib Dem blogs. I am impressed that are so many of the things.

Modesty forbids me to mention that this blog appears at no. 4 in the list.

Iain has also just pubished Iain Dale's Guide to Political Blogging in the UK.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Belinda Oaten on the perils of drink

We have been offered a new explanation for Mark Oaten's occasional recourse to rent boys. It wasn't turning 40. It wasn't going bald. It was the drink.

Not his drinking, you understand. Charles Kennedy's.

At least that is the ingenious explanation offered by Belinda Oaten in today' Daily Telegraph.

I am with the unnamed Lib Dem MP quoted as saying: "I have heard some rot in my time but that just takes the biscuit."

Could it just be that Mr Oaten went with rent boys because he rather enjoyed it?

Politicians in tears

On the Guardian website Michael White discusses Gordon Brown's perfomance on Sky TV and tearful politicians in general:
The final word goes to Harold Macmillan. When Ed Muskie, a Democratic runner for US president, wept on TV after his wife was accused of being a drunk, an MP asked the unflappable Tory PM how he would have felt had the charge been levelled against his own (unfaithful) wife. Macmillan's response ran thus: "I would have said 'You should have seen her mother.'"

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Liberal Democrat Voice

Welcome and congratulations to Liberal Democrat Voice, which already seems to be establishing itself as the place for Lib Dem discussion on the net. Natural selection operates pretty ruthlessly there, so it is obviously doing a lot right.

I recommend in particular Alex Wilcock's dissection of Trust in People: Make Britain Free, Fair and Green and the debate in the comments on Rob Fenwick's posting on the 50p top tax rate amendment.

So farewell then Sir Arthur Dodds-Parker

Back in May I discussed how many members of the 1945 Parliament are still with us. Today Iain Dale brings us the sad news that Sir Arthur Douglas Dodds-Parker has died.

If what I wrote then is true, and none of them has slipped off the perch since, then Wing-Commander Ernest Rogers Millington, (Commonwealth, later Lab, Chelmsford), Michael Foot (Lab, Plymouth Devonport), Maj. John Freeman (Lab, Watford) and David Renton (Nat Lib, Huntingdonshire) are the only people elected at the 1945 general election who are known still to be alive.

Millington won a by-election for the short-lived Commonwealth Party earlier that year, before the general election.

Later. I am told that he was always known as Sir Douglas.


I am not making any accusations. All I am saying is that it is a remarkable coincidence.

I get shortlisted for the Lib Dem Blog of the Year Award, and the next day my computer stops working.

Who could be behind it? I have no idea, but I wonder if that elephant is quite as fluffy as he likes to make out.

Still, I am not one to bear a grudge. I have added him to my blogroll.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Lib Dem blogger of the year: shortlist announced

There is now a page on the party website announcing the shortlist for this award. The six blogs nominated are:
May the best man (or elephant) win.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Frank Furedi and the the politics of behaviour

Frankie has a new essay on the Spiked website:

The loss of any sense of restraint when it comes to intervening in people’s private lives is one of the most significant developments in public policy over the past two decades. Governments that have become uncertain of their values and purpose have refocused their energies on the management of individual behaviour and the regulation of informal relationships.

The representation of state policy as an instrument of ‘empowerment’ institutionalises that relationship of dependence between patient and therapist in a disturbing new way. It is difficult to reconcile the view of an individual as someone whose emotional wellbeing is contingent on institutional support, with the democratic vision of a citizen who holds the powers-that-be to account.

Liberalism: Something to Shout About

If you are at the Brighton Conference, why not amble along to the Liberator stall to buy a copy of this book? It costs a mere £5.

Liberalism: Something to Shout About

Beyond incrementalism: Can the Liberal Democrats "meet the challenge"?

Edited by Graham Watson MEP and Simon Titley


Introduction: The Liberal Democrats and Liberal Values
Graham Watson

Stormy weather: The Liberal Democrats and climate change
Simon Bryceson

The problem with children today: The Liberal Democrats and children
Jonathan Calder

Age concern: The Liberal Democrats and generational equality
James Graham

Dusting off the town hall: The Liberal Democrats and local government
Ros Scott & Chris White

Roots and wings: The Liberal Democrats and Europe
Simon Titley

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Zombies: Odessey and Oracle

I keep discovering wonderful albums from the sixties that I knew nothing about.

A few years ago it was Ogden's Nut Gone Flake by the Small Faces - which features the wonderful Stanley Unwin. Deep joy.

Then it was The Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks.

And now it is Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies.

Incidentally, I discovered the latter two albums via a CD given away free with Uncut magazine in 2004: The Roots of Tommy.

Labour's virgin soldier

The Labour Party has announced the winner of its contest to find an official blogger for its Conference later this month:

Jonathan Roberts from Sowerby, Thirsk in North Yorkshire has won the competition to blog at this year's Labour Party conference. Jonathan's (sic) is a Labour Party conference virgin and will bring a fresh and insightful eye to the proceedings.

Jonathan blogs for this (sic) local Labour Party and his blog can be read at
Fellow Labourite Kerron Cross is not impressed. Nor is Iain Dale:
As you know I have been ranking all the different party-affiliated blogs for a pamphlet I am compiling for the Party Conferences. I don't think I am giving away too many secrets if I tell you that Jonathan's blog was ranked 105 in my list, so didn't even make the top 100.
As ever, we Liberal Democrats order these things better. You can find details of arrangements for bloggers at our conference on the party website.

Later. Guido Fawkes points out that Jonathan Roberts' blog does not allow comments. Nice to see he is in step with the finest traditions of Labourism.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

All about Boris

When I asked Boris Johnson if I could write his biography, he laughed for a long time before saying: “Such is my colossal vanity that I have no intention of trying to forbid you.”
Judging by Andrew Gimson's article in the Sunday Times today, he would have done well to curb that vanity.

When Tom met Gordon

The Sunday Times thinks it has caught Gordon Brown with his hand in the cookie jar:

Gordon Brown met one of the key Labour rebels demanding Tony Blair’s resignation just a day before the plotters’ letter was delivered to Downing Street.

The chancellor was visited at his home in Scotland on Monday by Tom Watson, the junior defence minister who resigned last week over the failed coup to unseat Blair.
Ah, but there is an innoncent explanation:

Watson said yesterday: “I dropped a present for the new baby. I saw Gordon, but it was a purely social visit and just stayed for a cup of coffee. I did not discuss any letter and it would have been inappropriate to do so.”

A spokesman for Brown said: “He dropped in to see Fraser. There were no discussions on what was happening in London. They spent the entire time sitting in the living room with Sarah just playing with the baby.”

Yeah. Right.

Craig Murray: "Murder in Samarkand"

A second person has had a copy of Craig Murray's book Murder in Samarkand confiscated by airport authorities.

There was an account of the incident in yesterday's Guardian, which quoted Murray as saying:
"The lawyers said that the first time it might have been just a mistake, not policy," he replied this week, to an email from the Guardian asking how far this course of action had gone, "but twice at two different airports looks like a policy. We are strongly minded to go to the High Court for an injunction under the Human Rights Act."
I was so incensed when I read this that I bought a copy of the book myself. You can read more at Craig Murray's website.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Great Shropshire Web Disaster

Click on the Shropshire Star website and you get a page saying: has recently expired!
What am I going to find to write about now?

If they do manage to buy the domain back, they should call their webmaster Captain Webb.

Later. It's back. Phew!

"Blair's goons nicked my laptops"

An interesting report from the Scotsman to keep our paranoia levels topped up:
A Tory councillor claims that his home was raided by the secret service when his teenage daughter started dating Nicky Blair, the Prime Minister's son.

John Whelan said he suspected that agents burgled his family home in Dulwich, south London, and stole two laptop computers, but ignored cash and jewellery, in an attempt to delve into his private life.

The former deputy leader of Lambeth Council said his daughter, Bridget, dated Nicky Blair, now 20, in 2003 and 2004, but only yesterday revealed his fears about the mystery burglary.

Friday, September 08, 2006

I'm not allowed to speak to you, Mrs Tompkins

Schools are to be forbidden to interview parents when deciding which children to admit. It seems our favourite sources of news expect liberals to think this is good news. The BBC reports it under the headline: "Backdoor school selection curbed ." The Guardian reports it under the headline: "Admissions code aims to make selection fairer."

But if schools are banned from interviewing parents, doesn't that mean parents are banned from interviewing schools too? How, in those circumstances, can they possibly decide whether a particular school will suit their child or not?

This government move implies that children are an amorphous mass who can be sent to one school or another without any concern for their individual character or abilities. Yet, as I said in the Guardian (hem, hem) in April:

If liberalism is to amount to something more than socialism without the identity cards, respect for individual difference must be central to it.
And the official Lib Dem response today? Sarah Teather's press release says:
A system where applications were kept anonymous would be much more sound. It would guarantee that schools could not pick, or exclude, children because of knowledge of their family name or address.
Oh dear.

Tony Blair at Quintin Kynaston School

An anonymous commenter suggests I was wrong to accept Lenin's account of Tony Blair's visit to the school yesterday.

But Vladimir Ilyich gets limited support from Simon Hoggart in this morning's Guardian:
A deputy head wandered about, trying to persuade the children to go home. He had a walkie-talkie and a badge. In my day deputy heads had pipes and leather patches on their elbows. This guy looked like a bouncer.
Later. Iain Dale has an interesting post on the subject.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Steve Irwin

I was not a great fan of the late Steve Irwin. But I do admire this tribute from Chase Me Ladies, I'm in the Cavalry:
His death is especially tragic when you consider how many people there are on TV who deserve to be attacked by stingrays. To kill Steve Irwin and spare the entire cast of Friends shows very poor judgement on the stingray’s part, in my opinion.

He was highly talented, in his way. Almost any other job on TV I could do myself, but I couldn't do his. I could read the news- so could any idiot. I could commentate on a tennis match. But could I sneak up on a deadly snake and twat it with a stick? Could I wrestle an infuriated crocodile into a pit, using only my bare hands? Probably not, is the answer.

The Tom Watson Code

Dizzy Thinks thinks he has identified the common factor uniting the junior minister and bag-carriers who resigned yesterday.

Found via Iain Dale.

Tony Blair loses his touch

Our prime minister has always been given to making important announcements during school visits. He launched his 2001 election campaign at St Saviour's & St Olave's church school in Southwark. And it seemed to go down well with the press, even if it was the occasion for one of Matthew Parris's most memorable sketches:
It was nauseating. It was breathtakingly, toe-curlingly, hog-whimperingly tasteless. It was unbelievably ill-judged.

Just when one is teased by the thought that Blair might not be all bad, he does something which nobody with a grain of sense or sensibility could even contemplate.

If the PM sanctioned the arrangement for this dire event, and if there is a Hell, he will go there.
Today he tried the same trick at the Quintin Kynaston School in St John's Wood. The wheels fell off.

There is a full report of today's events on the Lenin's Tomb blog, including photos and video footage:
the school headteachers had decided that since it was Blair's big day they would send most of the pupils home and keep only the exceptionally well-behaved ones behind. So, as we were setting up for our protest, the children were filing out in huge numbers.
Guess what? Blair is extremely unpopular in this neck of the woods, and some of them wanted to take part in the protest. To be more precise, there was already a School Students Against the War movement in the school and I expect they had been ready for Blair's visit. This is not unusual - tonnes of young kids have been to the huge antiwar demonstrations in London. Some of the kids' parents were there too. 
Many of these children were Muslim. One kid explained that he was Lebanese; a lot of others simply hated Blair, as you'll discover from the footage.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Government backs segregated schools

Good news from Northern Ireland. Two new integrated schools - Rowallane Integrated College and Clogher Valley Primary School - have opened.

I am not someone who gets angry about faith schools. In particular, the idea that the average Church of England primary school is engaged in a sinister programme of religious indoctrination seems ridiculous to me. But it hard to disagree with the argument that Northern Ireland could do with less segregation in its schools.

So a victory for state education then? Not a bit of it, reports the BBC:
The schools are opening despite the Department of Education's decision to refuse them funding earlier this year. 
Two other integrated schools were also refused funding by the education minister at the time, Angela Smith. 
Ms Smith said the new schools were turned down because they were proposed for areas which already had surplus capacity.
There are several lessons for Liberal Democrats to learn here.

First, if you give the state a monopoly over innovation in education, you are likely to end up with a sclerotic system. Fortunately, in this case the Integrated Education Fund stepped in to provide funding: £500,000 for Rowallane and £250,000 for Clogher Valley.

Second, we tend to distrust independent initiatives in education. But here is a clear case where what is proposed is more Liberal and more enlightened than the state-backed alternative.

Third, the policy of not allowing new school in areas where there is surplus capacity is ludicrous. Surplus capacity will tend to exist in areas where the schools are bad, because parents there are more likely to pay to send their children to independent schools or to make more effort to work the state system to get them into schools further away.

As things stand, the government will allow new schools only in areas where parents are perfectly happy with the existing provision.

Take your hands off our marrows

Residents of Pontesbury have hit back following last night's report that they have been warned not to home-grown vegetables because of contamination from old mine workings:
Geoff Manley, pictured, chairman of the Pontesbury and District Gardening Association, said many residents in the Ashford Estate area had been there for decades and shown no sign of lead poisoning.

“Our old treasurer of the gardening association, Jack Simpson, grew veg and lived in Ashford Drive, and he died at 88,” Mr Manley said.

“Jim Pugh is still up there and he is knocking on 90 and still looking well. John Taylor lives there and he is 101 and still drives his own car.
Looking at the size of Mr Manley's marrow, who's to say they are wrong?

Picture borrowed from the Shropshire Star. I am sure they will not mind after all I have done for them.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Craig Murray tour latest

The other day I blogged about Craig Murray's imminent speaking tour of Britain.

His site now has an updated itinerary with many more dates.

Life amongst the lead mines

News from my favourite part of Shropshire:
Villagers near Shrewsbury were today warned not to eat their home-grown vegetables - because they could be poisonous. Gardens in part of Pontesbury have been poisoned. They have been contaminated from an old mine works.
This is not the first time there have been such stories. Last time I was in the area someone told me that the problem is "incomers": local people have built up resistance to lead poisoning.

A scientist writes: I am not sure about this.

Taxi for Blair's authority

Tom Watson - government minister, Labour MP and blogger - has called on Tony Blair to resign.

So far Watson has not resigned, as Iain Dale suggests he should. Nor has he been sacked.

It is easy to get too excited by speculation. But if Watson is not sacked, it will be a sure sign that the prime minister really is finished.

Race and the Guardian

There were two strange articles in the Guardian on Monday - or rather one silly one and one sad one.

The silly one was by the playwright Mark Ravenhill. Here he is writing about the BBC drama series Life on Mars:
Isn't a great deal of the action created because the central character, a 1970s cop thrown into the modern world, needs to be educated out of his sexist, homophobic ways? The show is about the reform of the white, working-class male - still the most dangerous breed in the mind of the liberal urbanite. He probably loved Maggie. Could vote BNP. Almost certainly has a pitbull...
Enough already.

It is clear that Ravenhill has not watched much of the series, but was there no one at the Guardian to spot this mistake? Apparently not, which was a pity. Because the germ of Ravenhill's article is right: we should talk about racism rather than pretend it does not exist.

Not that this insight saves Ravenhill from a silly conclusion:
It is only through vibrant drama and comedy like this - and more of it, particularly in soapland - that we can prevent racism slipping into the cultural unconscious. If it does, it will destroy us.
I am afraid that we have been consciously racist for centuries and it has not destroyed us yet. It is hard to see why something more subtle should do so. This is the sort of conclusion that feels impressive when you write it but falls apart if anyone starts to analyse it.

The sad article was the paper's inadequate obituary of Charlie Williams. Here was a black man who was a professional footballer and a popular entertainer in an era when such achievements were almost unheard of. His life must be a fascinating story.

But almost half the piece was devoted to a criticising Williams and his times for not sharing our current views of what a black comedian should sound like. This was anachronistic and unfair.

Besides, judging by some of Williams' jokes which I have seen quoted elsewhere he was quite able to send up his white audience's views on race: "Shut up or I'll move in nextdoor to you;" "It was so sunny this morning I thought I'd been deported."

There is nothing like the subject of race to make a white liberals confused and embarrassed, but Monday's Guardian showed two ways not to approach it.

Monday, September 04, 2006

A guide to secondhand bookshops

I have just discovered The Bookshop Guide, which claims to be "the UK's secondhand and antiquarian bookshops". As far as I can see it is comprehensive, and readers can add and review shops themselves.

There is a lot of other good stuff on the site, notably a tribute to Drif, who produced printed guides to bookshops back in the 1980s. It quotes some of the acronyms he used in his entries:

ETGOW - Easy to get on with;
FARTS - Follows you around recommending the stock;
NETGOW - Not easy to get on with;
WAD - Worth a detour;
WAP - Worth a pilgrimage.

I also recall AWYW (Asks what you want), but it is not included in the list on the site.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Milliband & Son

David Osler has a good joke:

Ralph Miliband devoted his life to making the theoretical case for the proposition that Labour has nothing to offer the working class. David Miliband has devoted his life to proving it.
He also touches upon the younger Milliband's bizarre fear that people may mistake him for Pete Doherty.

Thanks to The Virtual Stoa.

Dropping Labour in Scotland

Another sign that the political tide is now running against Labour? The Sunday Herald claims as an exclusive its report that:

The Scottish Liberal Democrats are preparing to ditch Jack McConnell as First Minister by declining to enter a coalition with Labour after next year’s Holyrood election.

LibDem leader Nicol Stephen wants to loosen ties with Labour by changing the party’s policy of automatically negotiating with the largest group in the Scottish parliament.

Senior strategists say Nicol does not want to share office with a party “on the way down” and would prefer to keep his options open on a three-way coalition with the SNP and Greens.

The report later says:
One senior LibDem source said: “The current strategy tied us to a coalition with Labour because it was obvious they’d be the largest party by a comfortable margin after the 1999 and 2003 elections.

“But what we don’t want is to enter talks next year with a party clearly on the way down and which is held in contempt by the voters. We want to keep all options open, such as coalitions with other parties.”
It also seems that Jim Wallace is to publish his memoirs. They will:

focus on the struggle to secure a devolved parliament and will deal with his six years as Deputy First Minister. It will also contain insights into UK figures such as Menzies Campbell, as well as former party leaders Charles Kennedy and Paddy Ashdown.
Thanks to agentmancuso.

Tim BritBlog's Worstall Roundup

Come on in. It's not cold.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

More on "satanic abuse"

I am pleased to see that a lot of people seem to have found my posting on the Orkney "satanic abuse" affair. There is another on the subject by The Ex-Communicator, who makes two important points.

The first, which I should have emphasised more in my own post (or did the original programme make it less clear than it should have?), is that:
The articulate middle class Quaker family got their kids back after a couple of months (thank god) the illiterate single mother whose abusive husband was in jail didn't get her kids back for five years. That's how it works.
His second point is that:
What was interesting to me was that the attitude to child abuse had supposedly changed in the eighties, but actually it was still the same - children were ignored and bullied by adults to say what the adults wanted to hear. It was just that what adults wanted to hear had changed. Child abuse was still a supposed 'taint' on the child - the children were treated like criminals, one was locked in an young offenders institution (why?) and their emotions were trampled on. It seems to change, but it stays the same.
You can see both these points borne out in this extended Times report on the Rochdale case, which predated that in Orkney:
Daniel has only hazy memories of the day that his childhood effectively ended. He vaguely recalls, at the age of 6, being taken to the head teacher’s office at school, of strangers arriving and taking him away in a car. He remembers sitting in a small room filled with toys as a social worker asked him endless questions, of pleading for his mother but instead being taken that night to a Catholic children’s home where they put him in a bath and scrubbed him with nailbrushes. He didn’t know it then, but he would not return home for another ten years.
I found this report via Richard Webster's site. It has not been updated for some months now, but there is a lot of interesting material there.

More Yorkshire leg-spin

Earlier in the summer I was writing about Adil Rashid. But he is not Yorkshire's only young, England-qualified leg-spinner.

This morning's Guardian reports on Yorkshire vs Middlesex at Scarborough:

Weather permitting - and judging by the dire forecasts, it may not - Yorkshire should complete a desperately needed victory today, after their two young leg-spinners Mark Lawson and Adil Rashid took all of their opponents' second- innings wickets in less than 50 overs.

If Lawson's return of six for 88, a career best, was the outstanding effort of the day, it was only one of a number of fine performances.

Worth a mention too is the Middlesex opening pair of Hutton and Compton. That's Ben and Nick, the grandsons of Len and Denis respectively.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Eugenics and intervention in the family

Among the many articles I haven't got round to writing yet is one looking at parallels between the eugenics movement at the start of the 20th century and the calls for more intervention in the family today.

The arguments used to promote both concepts are remarkably similar. In each case we are or were told that leaving the poor to go their own way imposes financial burdens on the rest of us and even that it threatens the survival of our society.

An enthusiasm for eugenics, incidentally, was by no means confined to the Nazi right. Many on the left saw it as the ultimate victory of science and socialism.

Today Charles Anglin has a post entitled "The return of eugenics", which suggests he has made the connection too. He does not develop this insight further, but it is still a splendid rant.