Thursday, November 30, 2006

Sarah Teather goes one better

I have been known to poke gentle fun at the tendency of Liberal Democrat education spokesmen to complain about "a two-tier service". (Try Wednesday, Monday, Sunday or Tuesday.)

Tonight I can reveal a worrying development: Sarah Teather has sighted the first three-tier service.

Church conversion

We all know that Britain is becoming a more secular society. Churches are being converted into nightclubs.

But not in Shropshire:

Nightclub converted into church

For some reason this reminds me of Cows - a situation comedy written by Eddie Izzard. The cows in question lived in a barn conversion. It used to be a cottage and they converted it into a barn.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Bad Sex in Fiction Award 2006

The BBC reports:
Iain Hollingshead has won the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award 2006 with his first novel Twenty Something.
Fisking Central has an extract.

White House aide "ashamed" at treatment of Blair

Powerful stuff on the front page of tomorrow's Times:
In a devastating verdict on Tony Blair’s decision to back war in Iraq and his “totally one-sided” relationship with President Bush, a senior US State Department official has said that Britain’s role as a bridge between America and Europe is now “disappearing before our eyes”.

Kendall Myers, a State Department analyst, disclosed that for all Britain’s attempts to influence US policy in recent years, “we typically ignore them and take no notice — it’s a sad business”.

He added that he felt “a little ashamed” at Mr Bush’s treatment of the Prime Minister, who had invested so much of his political capital in standing shoulder to shoulder with America after 9/11.
The story quotes Ming Campbell:
“These remarks reflect a real sense of distaste among thinking Americans for Mr Blair’s apparent slavish support for President Bush . . . The special relationship needs to be rebalanced, rethought and renewed.”
Look too for Denis MacShane making a fool of himself.

Arthur Marshall and Monty Python

There is nothing new under the sun, not least in comedy. I once had a letter published in the London Review of Books pointing out that Christopher Isherwood had exploited the comic potential of the name "Darling" long before the writers of Blackadder.

I thought I had discovered a similar example the other day. In his Whimpering in the Rhododendrons - a lighthearted social history of the English prep school - Arthur Marshall recalled that:
Another headmaster had a rich voice with a trace of a Yorkshire accent and was unable to pronounce the letter "r", the boys naturally looking keenly forward to the Passiontide lesson in Chapel, "... and Bawabbas was a wobber".
I wondered if the Monty Python people had read Marshall's book before writing The Life of Brian. Probably not, given that the film came out in 1979 and the book was published in 1982. So it is just a coincidence.

Another headmaster Marshall mentions was in the habit of beginning prayers with: "Dear Lord, doubtless Thou knowest that in the Daily Telegraph this morning..."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Who's the tosser now?

The Sun puts it nicely:
In the same month the Tories launched a website to try and teach us about debt problems, figures revealed today show the party owed £35million in unpaid loans.

The Conservatives have the biggest debt burden of a major political party, according to statastics released by the Electoral Commission, which is monitoring how many loans are paid.
It just goes to show that inside all of us lives a conniving, dirty little parasite, the tosser within. He wants you to spend, spend and keep spending until you’re in terrible debt.

Graham Roope

Graham Roope, the former England batsman and notable slip fielder, has died at the age of 60.

When I was young, he was one those batsman (Peter Parfitt, John Hampshire, Frank Hayes) who would regularly be picked for a couple of tests and then be dropped, only to reappear again a couple of series later.

A few years after that, Matthew Engel suggested that there were three rules for new selectors:
  • Never interrupt the Chairman of Selectors;
  • Don't have more than two glasses of port after dinner;
  • If in doubt, drop Randall.
Roope suffered from a similar attitude on the part of the selectors.

Cricinfo, as ever, has the best obituary. It records that he was batting at the other end when Geoff Boycott completed his 100th century during the Headlingley test in 1977. What it doesn't say (and the story in confirmed by the Craven Herald) is that he was also batting with John Edrich when the Surrey opener reached the same landmark that season.

Uncanny, wasn't it?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Save Our Waterways

As well as the Liberal Democrats' Canal Cuts Are Nuts campaign, there is a Save Our Waterways site. Both exist to protest against the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs's cuts in funding for the inland waterways.

The real political issue behind this, as I have argued before, is the way that money for "rural affairs" goes overwhelmingly to subsidise the farming interest, even though the rural economy takes in much more than just agriculture.

Narrow boat wars

Britain's canal users took to the water yesterday to protest about cuts in the funding of British Waterways. The navigation was blocked by boats in many places, including Foxton in Leicestershire and Market Drayton in Shropshire.

Chris Huhne and the Liberal Democrats have launched their own campaign on the subject: Canal Cuts Are Nuts.

Photograph borrowed from the Malcolm Saville Society site. (Well, I was on that walk.)

Nick Clegg: Why we need a Freedom Bill

The Liberal Democrat shadow home secretary has an article on the eGov monitor site:
The current Labour government is addicted to legislating; this has led to the curtailment of freedoms, confusion in business and crisis in our public services. In less than a decade in power the Blair government has clocked up over 50 Home Office Bills and created more than three thousand new criminal offences. They have added over a hundred thousand new pages of legislation to the statue book; the equivalent of more than two hundred copies of ‘War and Peace.’

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Who is helping Alan Johnson's campaign?

The Daily thinks it knows.

Labour disarray in Rochdale

Interesting news from a seat the Lib Dems won from Labour at the last election.

LabourHome reports:

Labour's parliamentary selection process in Rochdale is in disarray. The constituency party's general committee was due to draw up shortlist last Saturday (November 18). However, things came to a halt when the local party passed a motion of no confidence in the selection process.

Local members were unhappy about the number of people allowed on the shortlist. It had been understood this would consist of six names. However, regional Labour Party officials ruled that, as only two women had applied, there should be a shortlist of five: two women and three men.

Local members were concerned that the shortlist was deliberately being manipulated in order to exclude Afzal Khan, a Manchester councillor, who had received the highest number of nominations.

Friday, November 24, 2006

English footballers' nicknames

My theory is that the historic underachievement of the England football team is inextricably linked to the poor quality of our footballers’ nicknames.

So writes Duleep Allirajah on Spiked. Hear him out:

It’s just as well Ferenc Puskás defected to Spain rather than England, otherwise he’d have ended up being called Fezza.

David Cameron's great-great-great-great-great-granddad

As tells it:
William succeeded his brother, George IV, and was welcomed with open arms by the British public, who had grown weary of the excesses of the fourth George. William possessed an unassuming character, exemplary private life and disdain for pomp and ceremony. Court life became somewhat lackluster, adding to the generally low opinion that had formed concerning the monarchy. William did little to counteract such feelings, but never generated the embarrassment and scandal of his Hanoverian predecessors.

Information on Cameron's descent from the Sailor King here.

Tories are tossers says Vince Cable

Go, Vince, go:
"This new Conservatives web site is an insult to hard working people who through rising house prices, and pressure on family budgets have no alternative but to borrow.

"It is also an attack on almost all British students who are being forced into debt by top-up and tuition fees, as well as living costs.

"This is the kind of insensitive crass nonsense one might expect from a party led by rich young men, who have never had to balance a budget in their lives.

"To describe people in debt as tossers shows just how out of touch the Tory party still is.

"Given that the Conservatives themselves are in £26m of debt, and that the last Conservative Government were responsible for the highest level of repossessions on record, as well as plunging thousands of families into negative equity, maybe they should get their own house in order before criticising others.
Editor's note: David Cameron is the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of William IV (from the Scotsman via Recess Monkey).

Assembled with spare parts from other politicians

It's Friday, so it must be time for my House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Centrist compulsion

Somehow the different parts of Ruth Kelly do not fit together. The deep voice and the urchin haircut. Her humble background and the expensive private schools she attended - Millfield’s prep school and Westminster. Her rapid rise to cabinet rank while having four children. She is a minister assembled with spare parts from other politicians.

An Australian heckler once called out to the England spinner: “Lend us your brain, Tufnell, I’m building an idiot.” On Monday, opening that day’s debate on the Queen’s speech. Kelly had been given the brain of the most uncritical Labour loyalist. She unfolded a tale of how, in 1997, the government had inherited a country mired in misery. Today, we are all basking on the sunlit uplands of prosperity and peerless public services.

Kelly’s portfolio - ‘Communities and local government’ - is also made up of parings from other ministers’ responsibilities. Which is why the ensuing discussion ranged so widely. Joan Ruddock talked about Palestine: Charles Hendry talked about young offenders. Andrew Smith was concerned about unitary local government and climate change: Elliot Morley was concerned about reusable nappies.

For the Liberal Democrats, Andrew Stunell called for a revival of local democracy: “Public participation in elections is at its lowest level ever. The scope for independence for local councils to meet the needs of their communities has been more restricted by this government than by any previous government.” Andrew’s remedies for this were to return the national business rate to the control of local councils and also the “huge sums of money being spent by quangos in each local authority area”.

Ruth Kelly’s approach was very different. Talking about the need to isolate Mulsim extremists, she said: “It is … important that we build up the government office network and work with local authorities.” This look forward to a growth in quangos - a shadow local government run from Whitehall. At best, elected local councillors would be offered the change to work with this government apparatus.

This urge to centralise should not be a surprise coming from New Labour. Last week, Beverley Hughes, the children's minister, suggested parents would be taught nursery rhymes by the new ‘national parenting academy’.

Unlike Ruth Kelly, Labour policy fits together only too well.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Friends of Statewatch

The excellent Statewatch site wants you to be its friend:

Your support is crucial. By becoming a Friend of Statewatch and donating just £10 a month or more you can support future monitoring of the state and civil liberties. As a Friend of Statewatch you will receive all Statewatch publications (the quarterly bulletin, planned yearbook and research findings) as well as access to Statewatch's subscriber websites (SEMDOC and the Statewatch database).
"But what is Statewatch?" I hear you ask:
Statewatch is not a “lobby group”, it is an independent research and education trust operated by a registered charity. Statewatch is not aligned to any political party or political agenda, it is dedicated to the preservation of civil liberties and democratic standards in Europe.

Polly puts the Tories off

Not everyone in the Conservative Party wants to see its philosophy bought in from La Toynbee. British Politics has the quotes.

The sty's the limit

The BBC reports:
Norfolk MP Richard Bacon has called for pig farmers to get a bigger role in providing school meals.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Michael Moore biography

I have been sent a copy of Emily Schultz's biography of Michael Moore (the American film director not the Lib Dem MP).

If anyone is interested in reviewing it for Liberator, please drop me an e-mail.

Independent comment is free

In an unannounced move, the Independent seems to have made its comment articles freely available. In recent years you have had to pay to access most of them.

Thanks to Chicken Yoghurt.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

How Conrad Black ate the Conservative Party

A good article by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in today's Guardian. He looks at the malign influence that Conrad Black, Barbara Amiel and their followers had on the British Conservative Party through their control of the Telegraph titles and the Spectator.

They used this control to push American-style neoconservative policies, yet as Wheatcroft says:
What always struck me was how dissonant such views must have seemed to ordinary English Tories. They aren't like that at all; not ideological, not fanatical, not even very pro-American or keen on the Iraq war. So David Cameron has noticed, even if the new owners and editors of the Telegraphs haven't.
He suggests that the fact that Black and many of his group were Canadian led them to try to be more American than the Americans. And he has particular fun with Mark Steyn.

Steyn is a good film critic, able to write intelligently about unintelligent films. But the fact that for several years his was the predominant voice on foreign affairs in the British Conservative press was simply bizarre. Wheatcroft says:
For some reason, Steyn no longer writes for the Telegraphs and Spectator as he used to, pronouncing from New Hampshire with enviable self-confidence on the affairs of Iraq or anywhere else.

Apart from predicting that George Bush would win the 2000 presidential election in a landslide, Steyn said at regular intervals that Osama bin Laden "will remain dead". Weeks after the invasion of Iraq he assured his readers that there would be "no widespread resentment at or resistance of the western military presence"; in December 2003 he wrote that "another six weeks of insurgency sounds about right, after which it will peter out"; and the following March he insisted that: "I don't think it's possible for anyone who looks at Iraq honestly to see it as anything other than a success story."
I also recommend Wheatcroft's book The Strange Death of Tory England.

Sandy Walkington to fight St Albans again

The Hertfordshire Advertiser reports:
More than two decades after he twice fought the St Albans Parliamentary seat for the Liberal Democrats, Sandy Walkington ... is hoping to make it third-time lucky.

Sandy was overwhelmingly selected as his party's prospective parliamentary candidate for the next General Election at a standing-room-only hustings meeting at Sandringham School Hall on Saturday.

He was the Liberal/SDP Alliance candidate for St Albans in 1983 and 1987, standing against Tory Peter Lilley on both occasions and polling more than 20,000 votes each time.
Sandy said this week: "I have always regarded winning St Albans for the Liberal Democrats as unfinished business. We know that we won the St Albans part of the constituency in 1983 when it was twinned with Harpenden.

"St Albans is now a three-way marginal at Parliamentary level but has a clear Liberal Democrat local government majority in terms of councillors elected and votes cast. My task is to convert that local government majority into a LibDem victory at the next general election."

Polly Toynbee in a nutshell

It's not surprising the government is outraged by some local campaigns.

For a critique of today's column see Factchecking Pollyanna.

Respect to Tim Worstall too.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The tallest MP ever

Last year I reported that, at 6' 7", Sir Louis Gluckstein was the tallest MP ever. He represented Nottingham East between 1931 and 1945.

It seems that the current Tory MP for Shrewsbury, Daniel Kawczynski, beats him by a short head.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Live blogging The Return of the King

I'm off to listen to The Westminster Hour, but it's not looking good. The orcs are winning a lot of line-out ball and the elves are making too many simple handling errors.

Now Frodo has been caught by a spider.

Next day. Damn! I wish I'd stayed up now.

Another guilty pleasure

Remember Q magazine's list of guilty pleasures? I posted my own list back in August and have just thought of another one:
  • Bright elusive butterfly of love - Val Doonican.

A village called Milton Keynes

Distinguished blogger Paul Linford believes that "until the 1970s Milton Keynes did not actually exist as a place".

Not so.

I refer the Hon. Gentleman to a posting on my anthology blog Serendib. In his Buckinghamshire Footpaths, published in 1949, J.H.B. Peel wrote:
In Broughton you turn rightward along a lane into Milton Keynes, as fine a small English village as you are likely to encounter in these parts, or, for that matter, in any other parts.

Milton Keynes is a homely place. Fields encroach upon the dusty by-lane, and brim over the scattered cottages. There is nothing here of the conventional beauty spot, for indeed no one seems to have heard of the place, save the handful of its inhabitants; and these think so well of it that they rarely leave it, and then only upon compulsion like Falstaff.

I have known and loved Milton Keynes since I was a boy, but at no time in my legion pilgrimages thither have I met a stranger.

Iain Dale is a brave man

You have to admire someone who dares meet Ron "Chopper" Harris and Anne Widdecombe in the same afternoon.

Brian Glanville adds: The presence of rugged defenders like Eddie McCreadie and Anne Widdecombe gave Chelsea players like Charlie Cooke and Alan Hudson the time and space to express themselves.

Liberator 314 published

Liberator 314 has been published and the magazine's website now carries some of the articles from it. These include Commentary and Radical Bulletin, as well as Lord Bonkers' Diary (which I posted here the other day).

This issue also includes an article by David Boyle, who reviews the three books of Liberal Democrat essays that appeared for the Brighton Conference: Community Politics Today, Liberalism - Something to Shout About and Britain After Blair.

I shall not quote all of it here, so let me quote one paragraph at random. Writing of Liberalism - Something to Shout About David says:
That said, it includes a chapter that, for me, beats all the others in any of the books: Jonathan Calder’s brilliant essay about policy towards children, in which he asks why it is that, the more children’s rights are asserted, the less rights children seem to have.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

"Read this or the corgi gets it"

My House Points column from yesterday's Liberal Democrat News. It's remarkable how far a corny pun can get you.

No kidding

It’s the goat I feel sorry for. One minute it is leaping from rock to rock (or whatever it is that goats do); the next is has been slaughtered, skinned and had some appallingly right-wing policies inscribed on its hide.

For the Queen’s own copy of the Queen’s speech is traditionally written on goatskin. Some historians believe that this practice is where the phrase "nanny state" comes from.

Certainly, last year’s goat died largely in vain. The Tories have published research showing that half of the 30 bills she was made to announce last year ("Read this or the corgi gets it") have failed to make it into law. They have been scrapped, delayed, watered down or amended because they have turned out to be unworkable.

Should we hope that this year’s beast will turn out to have made a more worthwhile sacrifice? There were useful measures on pension reform and climate change in the speech, but it is hard to feel enthusiastic about many of the other measures it contained.

The overwhelming feeling is that we have been here before. As this was a New Labour speech, it promised more criminal justice legislation. Yet the government has reached the point where it is bringing in new laws to overturn its own ‘reforms’ of a few years ago.

As Ming Campbell said: "After nearly ten years in office the government and the Prime Minister are still chasing the same elusive goals and the same elusive headlines."

If there was a theme to the speech it was not the ‘security’ – lumping together international terrorists and unruly teenagers as though they are part of the same problem – we were promised beforehand. Instead its theme was ‘mistrust’ – mistrust of the British people.

We were promised a rush towards identity cards, an end to jury trials in some fraud cases and powers to detain mentally ill people who have committed no crime. Elsewhere there were hints that, if he becomes prime minister, Gordon Brown will again seek to bring in powers to detain terrorism suspects for up to 90 days.

Ming talked of "a rush from judgement towards legislation. The government suffers from a statutory addiction."

He was right. Hey Tony, leave them goats alone.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Paul Keetch to leave the Commons

Liberal Democrat Voice tells us that Paul Keetch is to stand down as MP for Hereford at the next election. As the site adds:
Keetch’s seat will be a prime target for ambitious PPCs - with a majority of just 962, Hereford is winnable next time, but needs a lot of attention. Paul Keetch has pledged to work closely with his successor.
As a service to those ambitious PPCs, here is a link to the Hereford tourism site and a picture of the catherdral.

Why did Charles Kennedy miss the Queen's speech?

The Scotsman has the (wholly creditable) answer.

A short history of John Reid

Blood & Treasure reminds us of some of the less glorious incidents in Reid's political career.

There's nothing that has not appeared on this blog before, but we can't be reminded too often.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"Blair's policy is not new and is similar to President Bush's policy"

The Guardian sends out a weekly e-mail on politics called The Backbencher. You can subscribe via the paper's website.

The latest issue has a good story on the White House's comment on Tony Blair's recent comments on Iraq and the Middle East:

You thought Tony had suggested that engaging with Iran, Syria and the Middle East peace process might be the key to sorting out Iraq? How wrong you were.

The Backbencher always enjoys the White House's Setting the Record Straight feature, and this week it tackles the misreporting of the PM's speech on Monday. DC-based reporters claimed Tony had shifted his position. London-based ones said he wasn't proposing anything new and, if he was, certainly tried not to give that impression.

If you think those reports don't necessarily contradict each other, then you are wrong. Got that? Wrong. The line to take is this, and it's underlined for emphasis: "Prime Minister Blair's Policy Is Not New And Is Similar To President Bush's Policy."

More on the White House site.

The man who fought Edwina Currie and lived

Anders Hanson has more on his scoop from yesterday.

Disgruntled Radical

Welcome to another Liberally minded new blog: David Grace's Disgruntled Radical.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Beverley Hughes: Worse than the cure

On Sunday the Observer reported:

Many parents have lost confidence in how to bring up their children properly and feel inadequate, isolated and unsupported in coping with the pressures of modern family life, the government has warned.

Mothers and fathers often feel 'disempowered' as parents, and find it particularly difficult to enforce rules so their child does not misbehave, according to Beverley Hughes, the Minister for Children and Families.

In an interview with The Observer, Hughes voiced alarm that parents have much less faith than previous generations in their abilities to raise and guide their children, and wanted help to deal with their conduct.

I think there is a lot in what she says. The trouble is that the cure she proposes is quite likely to make things worse.

For the Observer report continues:

Hughes will announce plans tomorrow for a new National Academy for Parenting Practitioners to provide useful, reliable advice to parents and children's experts on what has been proven to work, which will start work in autumn 2007.
If you are told that an an activity needs a "national academy" is that likely to make you more or less confident of your own powers as someone without formal qualifications?

And there is something odd about the idea that the new academy will advise children's experts. Shouldn't it be the experts who are advising the state?

You don't have to be mad to write for The Times...

...but it certainly helps.

Matthew Turner points us to an article by Tim Hames from last month:
if the Americans opted to liberate Pluto tomorrow I would think to myself (i) that is a little odd, (ii) is it worth the effort when the place is not formally a planet anymore? and (iii) how can we ensure that there are seats in their spaceships for the Parachute Regiment?

Granny-bashing Labour councillor "fought with Edwina Currie"

As Anders Hanson demonstrates, Liberal Democrat blogs have all the best stories.

Monday, November 13, 2006

See you later, aggregator

Political Opinions brings together postings from British political blogs of all persuasions.

A bride too far

Yesterday's Sunday Times had an article on Elspeth (wife of Ming) Campbell's memories of her father Major-General Roy Urquhart.

As everyone knows by now, Urquhart was the character played by Sean Connery in the film A Bridge Too Far:
During the course of filming Urquhart got to know Connery and “because they both loved whisky and golf, they got on quite well”.
With apologies for the headline.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

For Remembrance Day

At a Calvary Near The Ancre

One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,
But His disciples hide apart;
And now the Soldiers bear with Him.

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ's denied.

The scribes on all the people shove
And bawl allegiance to the state,
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.

Wilfred Owen

Thanks to Stephen Tall and Benjamin Britten for inspiration.

BritBlog Roundup

Tim Worstall's latest selection is in place.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

"Small minds in some grey zone of human experience"

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

Risky business
In 1774 Edmund Burke (who was an Irish Whig and not the English Tory that most English Tories imagine) told his Bristol constituents that “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” In other words, MPs and councillors should do what they think is right, not what they think will be popular.

I was reminded of Burke’s words by the artwork Another Place -- the sculptor Antony Gormley's collection of 100 cast iron statues on Crosby beach. There a local Conservative councillor and prospective parliamentary candidate was quoted as saying she thought the work “brilliant”, and then persuaded the council to have it uprooted.

If you think something is brilliant, shouldn’t you be campaigning for it rather than against it?
A more complicated example was to be found on Monday when Henry Bellingham opened a debate on firework nuisance. The Tory MP for North West Norfolk (he lost the seat to Labour in 1997 and won it back in 2001) began with extravagant praise for a constituent who had collected a petition calling for an outright ban on the sale of fireworks. She was “indefatigable, resolute, determined and passionate”.

Yet it turned out that, despite helping deliver the petition to Number 10, Bellingham did not agree with her. He spoke engagingly of the pleasure he had derived from a recent family firework display. His tenuous argument was that unless the House agreed to further restrictions on fireworks a total ban was inevitable.

That counts as trying to slip your judgment through unobserved in a conspicuous display of industry.

Still, it was not the silliest argument we have heard on fireworks lately. Barry Sheerman described bonfire night as a “cataclysmic disaster” for the environment. Not just a disaster, you note, but a cataclysmic one - the very worst sort.

Never mind that the press could find no expert opinion to support him: Sheerman’s views are perfectly in tune with our times. As Anthony Gormley said of the removal of his sculptures: “There is no logic to this other than small minds in some grey zone of human experience wanting to deny the unusual … This is another example of risk-resistant Britain.”

Take me to your leader

The Shropshire Star tells us:
Britain is “wide open” to alien visitors and a department meant to look into UFO sightings has virtually “closed down”, a former Government expert warned today.
On the positive side, the report does mention Lembit Öpik once.

Friday, November 10, 2006

On the Brighton buses

During the last Liberal Democrat Conference I commented on Brighton and Hove's delightful practice of naming its buses after prominent local residents.

I have now found a page that lists all the people who have been honoured in this way and provides links to short biographies of them.

Hours of fun.

Simon Hoggart was once known as "Helene Middleweek"

At least that is what he said yesterday:
They made a wonderful row. Lord McNally, leader of the Lib Dems, then the lord speaker with whom, under the name of Helene Middleweek, I was at university, which makes me feel very old.

Apologies for lack of posting

I am sorry for the lack of posting this week. My stepfather died on Wednesday afternoon aged 89 and I have been busy supporting my mother and doing grown-up things like informing relatives and registering his death.

I have a little time between appointments now, so let's see if I can post some of the flippant material for which this blog is noted.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Hunting on election day

Paul Walter is aghast that Dick Cheney has spent polling day hunting. "You couldn't make it up," he writes.

That is nothing.

Julian Critchley wrote in his memoirs A Bag of Boiled Sweets:

David James, who retired from Parliament as Member for Dorset North in 1979, was dotty. His reputation for eccentricity dated from 1964 when as Tory MP for Brighton, Kemptown, he lost his seat to Labour by seven votes. When, a few days after Alec Douglas-Home's defeat (and my own at Rochester), I went to Conservative Central Office to interview the then chairman of the party John Hare, I murmured some words of sympathy. We had, after all, just lost a general election after thirteen years in office.

"It's all that silly bugger David James's fault," cried Hare. "The fool spent most of the three-week campaign in Scotland looking for the Loch Ness Monster." Indeed, he had, and the tabloid press had been full of it. The papers claimed that every so often a cable would arrive from some godforsaken Scottish village addressed to the Kemptown Tory agent "Have almost found the Monster. Hope all goes well with the campaign."

Graham Poll and Chelsea

The people at Stamford Bridge are convinced that Graham Poll is biased against them.

Of course he is. He only booked John Terry twice on Sunday yet he sent him off.

A Shropshire Star classic

Joy over compost accolade

Civic leaders in Newport are wriggling with delight after their cemetery worm farm won an international accolade.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Lord Liverpool: Goodness gracious me

Moonlight Over Essex has discovered that Lord Liverpool, the long-serving but little remembered 19th century Tory prime minister, had a grandmother who was part Indian.

The belief that Winston Churchill had American Indian ancestry, by contrast, does not appear well founded.

Britain's largest cave rediscovered

The BBC records another triumph for the East Midlands:

A cave believed to be the biggest in Britain has been unearthed in the Peak District in Derbyshire.

Titan is thought to be almost 460ft (140m) deep, as high as the London Eye, sculpted out of limestone by rain water over millions of years.

Local potholer and underground explorer Dave Nixon led the team that discovered it, near Castleton.

He began searching for it after reading an account by an obscure 18th century academic in a university library.

Startling new research on reading

From the BBC:
Struggling young readers make dramatic improvements when they are given tailored one-to-one coaching by expert teachers, research suggests.
Who would have thought it?

Lord Bonkers' latest diary

Liberator 314 is out, so it is time to reproduce the latest Lord Bonkers Diary.

The morning’s newspapers are full of reports that the authorities once feared that militant Suffragettes were plotting to assassinate Asquith. The first Lady Bonkers, I am proud to say, was a great supporter of ‘Votes for Women’ and never slow to take action to further her cause – an observer once remarked that had she thrown herself under the King’s horse, the beast would have been stopped in its tracks, if not shunted back several yards. She was also, it has to be admitted, a crack shot, able to bring down a passing widgeon with a single barrel, who would often borrow my gentleman’s collapsible travelling rifle range if she was staying in Town. Yet I have no hesitation in maintaining that she was never involved in any scheme to bump off the Prime Minister: the unfortunate injuries suffered by the Master of Elibank here at the Hall one winter’s morning were agreed by all impartial observers to be entirely his own fault.

To York to conduct some delicate negotiations with the Joseph Rowntree Trust. You may recall that during the recent Liberal Democrat Conference in Brighton Sir Menzies Campbell (as his friends call him) announced the establishment of a fund to help women and other minority candidates, the first £200,000 of which was to be provided by the aforementioned charity. Ever anxious to do my bit on behalf of the fairer sex, I asked some of our lady candidates what the greatest problem they face is; the general view was that having to look after children is a fearful bind when there is a constituency newspaper to distribute to one's deliverers or an interview to be given to one‘s local radio station. I have therefore reserved a number of places at the Bonkers' Home for Well-Behaved Orphans for the sole use of the children of female Liberal Democrat candidates in target seats. I wish to emphasise what an attractive offer this is: Here at the Home we offer what may fairly 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. The purpose of today's negotiations in York was to ensure that the £200,000 was paid directly to me: the last thing we wish to see is this fund wasted in paying for red tape and pen-pushers.

Should one worry at reports that North Korea has tested its first atomic bomb? I think not. It happens that I visited Pyongyang recently and am therefore able to reveal that the people in that unfortunate land are poor as church mice. From my observations it is simply unthinkable that they could afford all the uranium – or whatever the boffins at the Ministry put in the wretched things – needed to make an A bomb. Nevertheless, one should not underestimate the ingenuity that smaller nations can display when planning their own defence: here in Rutland we were making good progress with a weapon employing extra mature Stilton (though it was eventually ruled illegal under Article IV of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention). Some will ask what explains the seismograph activity detected in Korea at the time of the supposed explosion: has it not occurred to them that one million peasants dressed in identical boiler suits and all shouting “Bang!” at the same time will have a tolerably large effect?

My own breakfast television station has enjoyed a chequered history – and one time it had to be rescued by a glove puppet named Rutland Rat – but these days it is on a firm footing. Watching the news I am shocked by the scenes it portrays: people without shelter, without food or drink, without hope. Yes, the people queuing to get into the Conservative Conference - simple-minded folk who ask no more than a chance to call for the return of the birch or applaud Ian Smith's regime in Rhodesia - are in terrible straits. My duty is clear: I have the Bentley loaded with luncheon baskets and set off for Bournemouth. I arrive to find a shadow minister pleading with the doorman: “But don’t you know who I am?” The doorman ponders a moment and replies “No.”

I have given strict instructions that should that swarthy little Maradonna fellow turn up at the Home he should be shown the door - and quite possibly the rough end of an orchard doughty too. He has a record of using illicit substances and some of us have not yet forgiven a certain handball yet either. All in all, he is not a suitable person to be a parent, as these “children’s rights campaigners” one hears quoted everywhere would no doubt agree. Incidentally, it is pleasing that these campaigners are devoting their efforts to keeping children in orphanages: at one time they used to try to spring them.

Passing through Winchester I feel suddenly peckish and – “any port in a storm” and all that – enter a McDonald’s restaurant. The table service proves disappointingly slow, but I am able to attract the manager’s attention eventually. The minion he dispatches to take my order is strangely familiar and when he asks “Um large or um regular?” I am able to put a name to a face. “Rising Star!! I exclaim, “What the devil are you doing here?” “Examining career opportunities after I leave Parliament” he says in his best Westminster voice, before lapsing into broad Cherokee: “Rising Star find new job. Um squaw make heap big trouble.”

To St Asquith’s where, I am happy to report, after poor Kennedy’s recent “difficulties with the script,” the Reverend Hughes is word perfect. His reading is taken from one of the gospels and I think there is a lot in what it has to say.

I am informed that my negotiations with the Rowntree Trust have borne fruit to such an extent that that august institution has donated two million pounds to the Liberal Democrats - no doubt there is something about my share to be found in the small print. After our experience with Mr Michael Brown, I hope that the party will exercise due diligence and ensure that Rowntree’s is a bona fide company. No doubt there will be volunteers to test its products.

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

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Gunpowder, treason and plot

Walking across Market Harborough last night, I was intrigued that the best firework display was that taking place at the town's Roman Catholic primary school.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Commons needs a cat

Tim Worstall argues that "our civilisation is disappearing down the plughole, sucked into a vortex of our own gross stupidity".

His evidence?

The Commons is infested with mice. Fair enough, old, Victorian, building, a thousand or two people wandering around, lots of cafeterias and dining rooms, lots of people using take away trays to eat at their desks and so on: sure, there will be mice around. It's even rumoured that the mice have become immune to poison and the pest control people doubt that they'll be able to eradicate them.

Now, given the accumulated human wisdom that is our inheritance as a civilization, what would be a rational thing to do? Why, for example, does damn near every farm in the country have a few cats sunning themselves on the hay bales (and those that don't usually have a couple of terriers scurrying around the yards)? Yes, well done, we'll control the mice by bringing in a predator or two.

Can we do this in the Commons?

The work appears to have forced the mice out into the open. Requests for a House of Commons cat to do its traditional job of catching vermin have been rejected by the "authorities" on health and safety grounds.
You have to admit he has a point. Tim does not give a link to the news story he is quoting, but there is a short item on the subject here.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Islam and Liberalism

Theo "As I look out over this magnificent vista..." Butt-Philip has details of a John Stuart Mill Institute event being held at the National Liberal Club on 13 November.

Polly Toynbee is a snob

Here she is in today's Guardian, commenting on the IPPR report on British teens:
The number of badly behaved teens in Asbo-type trouble, drinking, taking drugs and having too-early sex mirrors the proportion born poor in their generation. As Nick Pearce, the IPPR director, says, this is all about class - again. There is no great mystery, no strange British pathology or innate savagery in our genes. These aimless, uncared-for young people are the price paid (mostly by them) for gross inequality of opportunity and reward.
Radical politics used to revolve around the belief that the poor are as good as the rich. In Toynbee's hands it has degenerated into the belief that the children of the poor - all of them - are a delinquent underclass. This is the crudest prejudice.

And Toynbee's answer? Inevitably, it is:
All schools should become "extended" 8am-to-6pm havens by 2010, offering breakfast, tea and after-school activities and activities that only the middle classes take for granted.
Why not take the children of the poor into care and have done with it? Clearly, the less time they spend with their parents the better.

House Points: The Iraq inquiry debate

My column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

2003 and all that

When Tobruk fell to Rommel on 29 June 1942, two Conservative MPs tabled a motion of no confidence in the direction of the war. Churchill mounted a robust defence of his premiership and received the support of 475 members. Even so, there were 25 votes against him and 27 abstentions.

That is how the Commons behaved when Britain was fighting for survival. On Tuesday, by contrast, ministers repeatedly told the House that even holding an inquiry into the Iraq war would be a mistake. In the clunking words of Margaret Beckett, there was a danger of "sending the wrong signals at the wrong time".

To be fair, as football managers say, it was William Hague who made the point that Commons debates were held about military events at the height of the first and second world wars. “People didn't say we mustn't ever debate these things because it might encourage the Germans."

But let’s see what Hague was saying last time the Iraq war was debated in the Commons. This was on March 18 2003 and it took the country to war. In those days life was simpler: “there are powerful moral arguments on the side of military action”; “in some of the opposition to the government's stance there is a hint of appeasement”; “The prime minister has put before the house the right decision. He deserves the support of honourable members in all parts of the house.”

And Hague was not alone. There were saner voices from the Tory benches - Kenneth Clarke, John Gummer and Douglas Hogg all voted against the government - but his party was largely enthusiastic for the Iraq war.

Iain Duncan Smith (remember him? me neither) said: “I hope and believe that … the suffering of the Iraqi people will be short-lived.” John Maples said: “If we withdrew our support for the alliance at this late stage, we would destroy the credibility of our foreign policy for a generation.“ Boris Johnson appeared to be calling for Zimbabwe to be invaded too.

Above all, Charles Kennedy was barracked unmercifully because the Tory benches were outraged that he was opposing the government.

The moral, as I am sure William Hague would agree, is that people should remember their country’s history. But we Liberal Democrats remember 2003 as well as 1942.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Walberswick to Dunwich

Last summer I walked along the sea wall from Walberswick to Dunwich. I am glad that I did, because it may no longer be possible.

The Guardian reports:

The washing away of sea defences on the Suffolk coast could have caused irreparable damage to a nature reserve that is home to one of Britain's rarest bird species, it was revealed today.

A combination of a surge tide and strong north-westerly winds destroyed a mile-long section of shingle and dune bank between Walberswick and Dunwich, north of Ipswich, yesterday.

It goes on to say that it is unlikely that the sea wall will be repaired because of the costs involved and the government's policy of "managed retreat" for vulnerable coastal stretches.

Dunwich is famous as the town that was lost to the sea, although ultimatley the changing course of the River Blyth had more to do with its decline than its eroding cliffs did.

Anyway, here is a plug for Bridge Nurseries and its tearoom and a picture of one of Dunwich's lost churches.

CCTV and the decline of public life

In my essay in Liberalism: Something to Shout About I wrote:

Then there is the depopulation of public space over the past 30 years. Semi-official figures like park-keepers and bus conductors have disappeared, largely out of a desire to save public money, and been replaced by technological alternatives. The result is a landscape less friendly to children - you try asking a CCTV camera for help if you have lost the bus fare home.

Inner Hippy has a post on the same theme, which takes the analysis further:
So what is the cost of saving all this money? An environment where people no longer feel protected by authority and where kids/hoodies/drunks/idiots are empowered to assume ownership of these public places - all because the boundaries have been removed. Cameras do not provide boundaries, they provide an intrusive and antagonistic presence that people do not respect or trust.
I am also reminded of a passage from Alexei Sayle's novel The Weeping Woman Hotel which I posted on Serendib:

those into whose charge fell the open spaces during the 1960s were having none of that old malarky - they couldn't quite explain to you how a bandstand could be oppressive of racial minorities while simultaneously putting down women, they just knew it somehow did.

Who is Guido Fawkes?

Not the chap with the pointy beard and the barrels of gunpowder, but the distinguished political blogger.

Tim Worstall points us to a Wikipedia article that gives the answer.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Another curiosity

The Nottinghamshire oilfield that helped win the Second World War:

Right at the very time the U-boats were having their best successes in the North Atlantic, the Oil fields surrounding Dukes Wood were having their most successful year, thanks to a large part by the efforts of the Americans who came over to drill the extra 106 wells needed at this vital time.

Because these oil wells were situated largely within wooded areas they managed to keep the knowledge of this strategic target from the attentions of enemy aircraft.

Not only were Americans recruited for this war effort but Italian prisoners of war were also used. By 1945 almost 240 wells were being operated and production had totaled 400000 tons (about 3 million barrels).

Respect to Charles Kennedy

Charles's contribution to the Iraq inquiry debate yesterday deserves to be celebrated.

First, a personal note:

Let me put on the parliamentary record the genuine gratitude of myself and my family to colleagues on both sides of the House, in all parties, for the expressions of goodwill and support that we have enjoyed and much appreciated over the course of the past few months. I am particularly grateful to be contributing to this debate, on this of all issues, which probably consumed more of my time as leader of the Liberal Democrats than just about any other, short of fighting general election campaigns.
Then some acute political points:
I recall the role played by the Conservatives. I do not want in any way to shatter the convoluted consensus that the former leader of the Conservative party, who is now its foreign affairs spokesman, sought to fashion earlier, but we should remember the time when Conservative Members were shouting out things like “Charlie Chamberlain”—showing, I always felt, a paucity of knowledge of the history of their own parliamentary party—and failing to ask the pertinent questions about what became known as the dodgy dossier.

I can tell the House—as I had my briefing in No. 10 a few minutes later—that the Prime Minister was as taken aback as anyone when the then Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), emerged from No. 10 Downing street and announced on its steps that war was now both inevitable and desirable, which was not even the official position of the Government at that point.