Wednesday, October 31, 2007

David Hemmings to stand for Lib Dem leadership

From the East Anglian Daily Times:
Now that David Laws, acting leader Vince Cable, and Julia Goldsworthy have all decided not to stand, and it would be highly surprising if Charles Kennedy attempted a comeback, the only other MP who may mount a challenge is backbencher David Hemmings.
Unfortunately, Hemmings died in 2003, which may prove something of a handicap. Still, he was the coolest actor in Britain for a while in the 1960s, as well as being the original Miles in Britten's opera The Turn of the Screw as a boy.

I suspect they were thinking of John Hemming, the Lib Dem MP for Birmingham Yardley. But, as I revealed three years ago, David Hemmings was a Liberal supporter.

Royal Family "blackmail"

The Internet laughs at British injunctions.

If you search for something like royal blackmail on Google News you will discover that the person involved has been named by a number of reputable foreign newspapers.

Later. I have written more about this affair in another posting.

Chris Huhne's manifesto published

You can find The Liberal Revolution on Huhne's campaign website.

Nick Clegg needs to leave his comfort zone

At last. Something from Nick Clegg to inspire us.

The Guardian reports:

Nick Clegg, the odds-on favourite to become Liberal Democrat leader, yesterday announced that he will break the law and refuse to provide details of his identity if the government presses ahead with plans to make ID cards compulsory.

Drawing a parallel with resistance to the poll tax, he said he would also urge his fellow MPs and Lib Dem councils not to cooperate.

It's not just that this is a striking, Liberal and correct: it is that it is something concrete. Until now the Clegg campaign has been conducted largely in code.

Take his widely publicised opinion that "over the last two years or so the Liberal Democrats have been looking inwards too much”. This could mean anything from a plan to scrap the party's democratic policy-making process to a call for everyone to stop thinking and go out to deliver Focus. How are we to know what it really does mean?

Clegg's most substantial contribution to the campaign so far has been his My Vision for Britain. This present the same problems of interpretation.

He says:

We need to set some ground rules here: our universal public services must be free to use and accessible to all. But beyond that, I want us to think afresh about how they should be funded and delivered.
What I take that to mean is that Nick is open to the idea of a diversity of providers in education, but maybe that is just me projecting my views on to him.

Similarly, when Nick says:
We must not be critical of the many parents who care deeply about their children’s education. But we cannot ignore those who are either unwilling or unable to care at all.
I suspect that this signals support for mandatory home-school contracts and I am suspicious of it. But again, that could tell you more about my views than it does about Nick's.

You don't expect the leadership candidates to rewrite the party's policy during the campaign. It would not be healthy if they tried to do it. But they have to give party members some idea of the direction in which they would hope to move the party's thinking.

What I am saying, I suppose, is that Nick Clegg - the great communicator - needs to start communicating something solid. The danger was always that, as the bookies' favourite and with the support of the majority of both media commentators and the party's great and good, is that he would fight a safety-first campaign.

That would be understandable, but the Lib Dems need more from him.

In short, he has to leave his comfort zone?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The unpatriotic Conservatives

Yesterday I suggested that because many leading Conservatives are neo-cons they have no basis from which to mount an attack on Labour's disastrous foreign policy.

Here is another illustration.

As I also mentioned yesterday, the Labour minister Shahid Malik was stopped and searched at Washington DC's Dulles airport after a series of meetings on tackling terrorism. This is not the first time he has been singled out by US authorities.

And what is the Conservative reaction?

Here is Michael Forsyth's question to Steve Bassam in the Lords yesterday:
My Lords, does the noble Lord not think that Ministers should set an example in co-operating with security officials at airports and not complain publicly about their treatment however much they are inconvenienced?
That's right: one of Her Majesty's ministers is detained by the minions of a foreign government, and Forsyth's reaction is to side with that government.

It seems that their love of all things American is so overwhelming that we can't even rely on the Tories to be patriotic any more.

Ludlow Town Council latest

Britain's most entertaining local authority, Ludlow Town Council, has failed in its efforts to find a new clerk. Perhaps they should consider paying danger money?

More in the Shropshire Star.

Now the BBC does name Emily Thornberry

On Friday I complained that the BBC had failed to name Emily Thornberry (Lab, Islington South) as the MP whose action were described by Sir Philip Mawer, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, as "unwise and unfortunate".

That post was read by a lot of people thanks to Iain Dale and, in particular, Biased BBC. Yesterday it had visitors from the BBC itself.

Now the report does name Emily Thornberry and has this footnote:
Earlier versions of this story did not include the name of the MP as it was a straight report from Sir Philip's report in which she was not named. We added the name, and some extra background, once we became aware of her identity.
I think I can fairly claim victory here. But I am still amazed at the original report. It took me a few seconds with Google to find out that Thornberry was the MP involved. What does the BBC employ journalists for?

Thanks to James Graham for noticing the change.

Craig Murray is on Newsnight tonight

Craig Murray tells us that this evening's Newsnight (BBC2, 10.30 p.m.) will be covering the use of forced labour in the Uzbek cotton industry.

He also recommends this short documentary from the Environmental Justice Foundation.

BritBlog Roundup 141

Over at Mr Eugenides.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Halloween vs Bonfire Night

It is traditional at this time of year that I should have a moan about the way that Halloween is replacing Bonfire Night. Creeping Americanisation and all that.

But an article in the Guardian this morning casts a new light on this phenomenon. Sarah Churchwell writes:
There is a great deal of resentment toward "American cultural imports", the myriad ways in which we are contaminating your demi-paradise with our corrupt practices. I hate to break it to you, but in the case of Halloween, you are the ones bastardising our culture. If your version is a violent, threatening and ugly spree across the month of October, don't blame America, blame yourselves.

Shahid Malik and the Special Relationship

From the BBC:

Britain's first Muslim minister, Shahid Malik, says he is "deeply disappointed" that he was detained by airport security officials in America.

The international development minister was stopped and searched at Washington DC's Dulles airport after a series of meetings on tackling terrorism.

Mr Malik, MP for Dewsbury, West Yorks, had his hand luggage checked for explosives when returning to Heathrow.

He said the same thing happened to him at JFK airport in New York last year.

Vince Cable boycotts the Saudi king

Congratulations to Vince Cable for his refusal to attend any of the ceremonial events associated with the state visit of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

I was also struck by the emptiness of the Conservative response:
Conservative shadow defence secretary Liam Fox warned that Mr Cable's move would be seen as "juvenile gesture politics" and risked insulting one of Britain's main allies in the Gulf.
This could have come from a most starry-eyed Blairite junior minister at the time of the invasion of Iraq. Fox has nothing new to say and nothing to add because he agrees with current government policy.

The Conservatives' trouble is that many senior members of their shadow cabinet - and Fox is prominent amongst them - are essentially neo-cons. Because of this they have no time for the traditional Tory scepticism about foreign entanglements when Britain's national interest is not directly affected.

And what exactly is this main ally in the Gulf of ours like? This morning's Independent gives us the answer:
While King Abdullah is cheered by our political leaders, many of his victims will be protesting outside. Sandy Mitchell, 52, went to Saudi Arabia to work as an anaesthetic technician at a hospital in Riyadh more than a decade ago – and got a rare outsider's glimpse into how the king maintains his power. He explains: "One day in 2000 I was getting out of my car at the hospital when I was pounced on. I was battered to the ground, a hood was put over my head, and they manacled my hands and feet. I thought – I'm being kidnapped."

He woke up in the Madhethe interrogation centre, where the Saudi police demanded he confess to being a British spy ordered to plant bombs in the country. He told then the bombs were obviously the work of Saudi Islamists – a view now accepted to be true – so they hung him upside down and began to beat his feet and buttocks with an axe handle for eight days. All the while, he could hear his friend Bill Sampson being gang-raped in the next room.

Mr Mitchell was eventually released after 32 months, when he was swapped for several Saudi citizens being held in Guantanamo Bay. But he warns: "The torture chambers in Saudi weren't created for me. These rooms were like a human abattoir. There was years' worth of blood on the floor that nobody bothered to clean. It was all over the walls. We were lucky we survived, but there are countless Saudi people who we never hear about who don't survive those chambers."
Later. According to the BBC, Kim Howells:
told a conference ahead of a state visit by Saudi leader King Abdullah that the two states could unite around their "shared values".

Chris Huhne on scrapping Trident

When the timetable for the Liberal Democrat leadership election was announced, some members complained that the contest was being rushed through. How could we have a proper debate if we were being railroaded into having a new leader in place before Christmas?

Then it became clear that there were only going to be two candidates - and two very similar candidates at that - some of us started to wonder how the contest could possibly be made to last so long.

Weeks and weeks of two very similar men saying very similar things? My personable Westminster-educated former MEP who has spent two-and-a-half years in the House is better than your personable Westminster-educated former MEP who has spent two-and-a-half years in the House? It was not a prospect that inspired.

So it is good to see something of interest happening in the contest. Chris Huhne's call for the scrapping of Trident is encouraging. And it is particularly encouraging because of the reasons he gives for it.

Traditionally, Liberals who have opposed Trident have used two arguments.

The first is that nukes are really, really awful and if only you knew how really, really awful they are you would agree with me.

It does not occur to them that their opponents may know just as much about nuclear weapons as they do.

The second is that if Britain gives up its independent nuclear weapons then it will set an example that other countries will follow because they are so impressed by our superior morality.

To which the only possible answer is "bollocks".

Instead, Huhne has offered a different argument:
it would be 'ridiculous' to spend up to £15bn updating the ageing submarine-based nuclear arsenal, describing it as a Cold War relic. He also argued this would risk further tying Britain to American policies, something he suggested should be avoided in the wake of the Iraq war.
I think there is far more chance of voters accepting this argument than there is of their accepting the two traditional ones. It is forward-looking, acknowledges the national interest and lacks the faint aroma of hand-woven yoghurt that traditional Liberal policies sometimes have.

Incidentally, I was amused by Antony Hook's counter-argument that, if we reopen the Trident issue, then the debate at our Harrogate Spring Conference this year will turn out to have been a waste of time.

When you have been going to Conferences for as long as I have, you will realise that most debates turn out to have been a waste of time.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The end of British Summer Time

Some people say we should keep British Summer Time all year round.

If you are one of them, think about the question again on about 6 January. And ask yourself if you would really like it to be an hour darker and colder when you have to get up for work.

Tim Gill: Rethinking Childhood

Over the past few days Tim Gill has had a fair amount of publicity for the launch of his book No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society.

According to this press release, Gill argues:
We all want to keep children safe – but are we going the right way about it? By over protecting children we stop them developing the skills and resilience they need to protect themselves – while those working with children can become so anxious about risk prevention they lose confidence in their own good judgement.

Readers of this blog will know that I hold similar views myself.

Tim Gill has his own website Rethinking Childhood. And, rather generously, if you visit the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation site you can download a free .pdf of the book.

Rachid Taha: Rock El Casbah

Now that I am into this embedding videos thing, here is a current favourite song.

This is a live version, recorded with Mick Jones from The Clash.

Craig Murray's blog is down

Does anyone know why? (It ought to be here.)

Embedding Stanley Unwin

I am beginning to see why the young people make so much fuss about this Internet thing.

Two weeks ago I pointed you to a clip of the immortal Stanley Unwin on Youtube. If you visit that page now you will find that I have embedded the video.

Deep joy.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Another resting place for St Wystan

In March I noted that there are three villages that claim to be the resting place of St Wystan: Wistow in Leicestershire, Wistanstow in Shropshire and Wistow in Cambridgeshire.

Now English Buildings has suggested a fourth site for his burial. Writing of St Wystan's church at Repton in Derbyshire, the blog says:
It’s quite unusual for a parish church to have a crypt. You usually find these underground spaces beneath large cathedrals, where they housed sacred items such as the remains of saints. Parish churches didn’t often run to such precious relics, but monasteries sometimes did, and the church at Repton began as a monastic church, and an important one, that became the burial place of the kings of the Saxon Midland kingdom of Mercia. King Ethelbald of Mercia, who died in 757, was buried here; so was King Wiglaf (died 840). When Wiglaf’s grandson Wystan was murdered, he was laid to rest here too. When Wystan was canonized, Repton became a place of pilgrimage.

The cycle of abuse

Today's Story of the Day comes from the Daily Telegraph:
A man has been placed on the sex offenders’ register after being caught trying to have sex with a bicycle.

Friday, October 26, 2007

House Points: Europe and boundaries

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News - perhaps not my most inspired effort.

I heard Michael Meadowcroft tell the Berehovo story at a Liberator fringe meeting at Lib Dem Conference a couple of years ago. On his own website Michael credits it to the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn.

No boundaries

Gordon Brown was back from Lisbon on Monday, waving his red lines. Cheered on by the Tory benches, David Cameron demanded a referendum on the reform treaty. His party is feeling happier, but that's largely because it has reverted to the agenda that lost it the last three elections.

This will give whoever wins the Liberal Democrat leadership contest - and House Points in scrupulously neutral - a terrific opportunity.

It fell to Vince Cable to lead for us. And for the first time our demand for a referendum on our continued membership of the European Union made sense to me.

Vince said much has changed since Harold Wilson's referendum of 1975. There has been the Single European Act, the Maastricht treaty, the Amsterdam and Nice treaties, and now this one. "The time has come for consultation with the British public on the cumulative effect of those treaties, because there is anxiety about national sovereignty, and that has to be addressed through public debate."

But the danger is that such a referendum would be about the past. If it were won - and it would probably be won by scaring voters about the economic consequences of withdrawal - it would only give retrospective approval to those treaties. The first time something new came up, we would be back to square one.

It would be backward-looking for the Lib Dems too. For decades, it was congratulating ourselves on our foresight in backing the Common Market that kept up our morale. But Europe is a more complex issue these days.

Michael Meadowcroft is fond of using a story about a peasant from the village of Berehovo to show how arbitrary national boundaries are. The peasant says: "I was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, educated in Czechoslovakia, started work in Hungary and was for a time in Germany, spent most of my adult life in the Soviet Union and now I am retired in the Ukrainian Republic." His companion says, "You must have done a lot of travelling." "Not at all," replies the peasant, "I never left Berehovo."

But the boundaries of Europe are arbitrary too. When we debate whether Turkey should join the EU, we find there are no simple answers any more.

The haunted lavatory at Gravesend Library

The Bexley Times reports:
Gravesend library is home to an unsociable ghoul who flushes the toilet when he thinks everyone's gone home. Gordon Jenns, 61, who has worked at the library for 14 years, has experienced the phantom flusher several times.
Not only that:

Dartford library's spectral resident, Kathleen, is less shy and frequently makes herself known to staff. She was a spinster and the daughter of the first librarian, though why she insists on pestering the staff remains a mystery.
Whoo! Whoo!

Sshhhssh!! If you want to spook, please go outside.

Why doesn't the BBC name Emily Thornberry?

From the BBC website:
Parliament's standards watchdog has said an MP who inserted a quote from herself into an Electoral Commission press release had been "unwise".

Sir Philip Mawer revealed in his annual report the unnamed MP then e-mailed the doctored press release on to the media as if it were an official release.

He said her action had not breached the code of conduct as there had been "no intention... to deceive the public".

However, he said, the MP's actions had been "unwise and unfortunate".
The MP may be unnamed in Sir Philip's report, but a Google search soon reveals that she is Labour's Emily Thornberry from Islington South and Finsbury.

It also reveals that her conduct was the subject of a report by the House of Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges.

Why is the BBC so coy?

Guardian: Labour peer "admits cash for access"

Iain Dale has an advance copy of this morning's Guardian front page. It was also mentioned on Newsnight a little while ago.

The Guardian's story runs:
A Labour peer has admitted taking money to introduce an arms company lobbyist to the government minister in charge of weapons purchases. The case of 'cash for access' in the House of Lords is likely to ignite fresh concern about ethical standards in parliament. The lobbyist paid cash for an introduction to Lord Drayson, the defence minister in charge of billions of pounds of military procurement, according to evidence obtained by the Guardian. Money changed hands with former Labour frontbencher Lord Hoyle, previously Doug Hoyle, an ex-government whip and former MP for Warrington.
Later. The full Guardian story is here.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Sir John Bourn resigns

Two weeks ago I wrote: Sir John Bourn should resign.

Today it was announced that he is to retire in January. That will do, I suppose.

Those leadership hustings in full

Chris Huhne's campaign website has a full list of the hustings that will take place during the leadership election:

Rugby 27/10
11.45am, Saturday 27th October 2007
The Benn Hall, Newbold Road, Rubgy CV21 2LN

Leeds 3/11
3pm, Saturday 3rd November 2007
Civic Hall, Calverly Street, Leeds LS1 1UR

Cardiff 7/11
7.30pm, Wednesday 7th November 2007
Marriott Hotel, Cardiff CF10 1EZ

Edinburgh 10/11
11am, Saturday 10th November 2007
The General Assembly Hall, The Mound, Edinburgh

Bristol 13/11
7.30pm, Tuesday 13th November 2007
Novotel, Victoria Street, Bristol BS1 6HY

Plymouth 17/11
2pm, Saturday 17th November 2007
Novotel Plymouth, PL6 8NH

Worthing 19/11
7pm, Monday 19th November 2007
River of Life Church, 19a Broadwater Road, Worthing BN14 8AD

Cambridge 21/11
7.30pm, Wednesday 21st November 2007
Churchill College, Cambridge CB3 0DS

Manchester 24/11
11am, Saturday 24th November 2007
Manchester Town Hall, M60 2LA

London 27/11
7pm, Tuesday 27th November 2007
Friends Meeting House, Euston Road, NW1 2BJ

Government right not to outlaw smacking

The BBC reports:
A complete ban on smacking has been rejected by ministers, after a review suggested most parents opposed one.

Laws were tightened in England and Wales in 2004, but minister Kevin Brennan said they appeared to be working and would not change further.
This seems to me the right decision. How could a complete ban on smacking possibly be policed? If this power were given to the authorities it would inevitably be exercised in an uneven and arbitrary fashion.

And please do not say that you want a law to "send a message". Laws do not send messages: they involve people in worry and expense even if they are innocent or not eventually prosecuted.

It will be interesting to see what the party's reaction is. In recent years Liberal Democrat spokesmen have tended to support a complete ban, in part because our policy is often written for us by pressure groups. Here is Joan Walmsley speaking in 2004:
"Assaulting a child is as unacceptable as assaulting an adult, and the law should clearly say so."
Leaving aside the overblown language of "assaulting", I do find this argument interesting. Those who oppose smacking generally deploy it as though it is absolutely clinching. If it is wrong do X to and adult, then it must be wrong to do X to a child. QED.

But there are all sorts of things we do children that we would never dream of doing to an adult. We make them go to school, we send them to bed before the end of Heroes, we make them eat up their greens.

If smacking children is wrong, it cannot be just because it involves treating children differently from adults.

More than that, this arguments feeds the current crisis in relations between adults and children. In my more fogeyish moments, I believe the problem is not so much that parents don't discipline their children as that they somehow believe they are no longer allowed to discipline their children.

I am pleased that smacking is on the way out, but I do not believe a complete ban is workable or desirable.

Parliamentary Intervention of the Week

Last week, that is.

And the winner is Lembit Opik:
I feel duty bound to ask whether the amendment, if passed, would make it more difficult for a financial mutual in the United Kingdom to enter into a merger agreement with a kipper-making co-operative on the Isle of Man.
I am sure that it makes perfect sense if you read the whole debate in Hansard.

Thanks to Kerran Cross.

Virtual Shropshire

Photo by Sabine J. Hutchinson.

I have found a website with galleries full of beautiful photographs that capture the charm of Shropshire.

Visit Virtual Shropshire for yourself.

Do not crush beer cans between your breasts

From The West Australian:

A Pinjarra barmaid who crushed beer cans between her breasts and hung spoons from her nipples has been fined, along with a second barmaid and the bar manager, with breaching the terms of their liquor licence ...

A Peel Police District spokesman said the result sent a clear message to all licensees in Peel that this type of behaviour would not be tolerated in licensed premises.

I hope you have all received that message loud and clear.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Drop Jonathan Ross altogether

Yesterday I suggested that the BBC should drop Jonathan Ross from Film 2007 and give it to the far more interesting Mark Kermode instead.

That would leave his chatshow.

For some entertaining vituperation against that, read Tam Cowan in the Daily Record:
In the same week that 230 job losses were announced by BBC Scotland, I wonder how many Beeb employees smashed their TV screens within the first five minutes of the Jonathan Ross show on Friday night?

Believe it or not, the man with the infamous £18million contract asked his guest, the captain of the England women's football team, if the players swapped jerseys at the end of a match.

Jeez-oh, even Bobby Davro stopped using that gag about 15 years ago.

Skittles the Stiperstones Inn cat

I was pleased to find that Skittles, whom I mentioned the other day, also features in the Shropshire Star's review of its restaurant:
Walking into the Stiperstones Inn is like stepping back in time. There is a roaring coal fire in the middle of the lounge with a cat, called Skittles, lying lazily in front of it.
And later:
We called in on a Friday night and the pub was jam-packed.

We made our way through the lounge — taking care not to trip over Skittles — and were shown into a small dining room.
I would only add that in my experience Skittles is a sensible cat and not at all the sort to trip you up. She merely sat under my table for a while, then wandered off.

Lorely Burt elected chair of Lib Dem Parliamentary party

Congratulations to Lorely Burt on being elected chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary party.

Reproducing the party press release, Lib Dem Voice reports that she defeated Andrew George and John Thurso to win the post. The press release does not reproduce the voting figures.

One bonus for Lorely is that the press will consistently call her "the chair of the Liberal Democrats" even though there is no such post.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Drop Jonathan Ross and save the BBC £18m

Liz Hunt, in the Daily Telegraph, says "BBC's Jonathan Ross is sleazy, smug and crass."

I don't know about that, but I am watching Film 2007 and BBC's Jonathan Ross is dull, dull, dull.

The BBC has a broadcaster on film who would make it a more interesting programme overnight: Mark Kermode. He was on Newsnight Review with Matthew Sweet a couple of weeks ago. Both are infinitely more interesting on film than Ross is.

With Ross you always suspect a conflict of interest. If he gives big Hollywood names bad reviews, will they refuse to appear on his chatshow next time round?

And does he have to mention the fact that his wife is a screenwriter every week?

Clegg vs Huhne

In the last election campaign I used this blog to declare my support for Chris Huhne. It was not a hard decision to make. To my mind he was by some way the best of the four candidates set before us.

This time I find the candidates - Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne - much more evenly matched. Therefore the sensible thing to do is to see how the campaign develops and decide whom to vote for when the time comes to send my ballot paper in.

Would Jim Callaghan have won an autumn 1978 election?

Paul Linford has posted an entertaining list of what he regards as The Top 10 Political Misjudgements.

At no. 1 in his list - by which I assume Paul believes it to be the most disastrous misjudgment of all - is Jim Callaghan's decision not to call a general election in the autumn of 1978. He writes:
Prime Minister Callaghan ducks out of an autumn 1978 election after private polls show it might result in a hung Parliament. The ensuing Winter of Discontent puts paid to Labour's credibility as a governing party and leads to 18 years of Tory hegemony which ultimately removes all vestiges of democratic socialism from the British state.
That is not quite how I remember it. While Callaghan's government had managed to defuse the sense of crisis that had existed earlier in the 1970s, there was still a strong feeling that Labourism was worked out and that the future belonged to Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives.

As I recall, the prospect that faced Callaghan in the autumn of 1978 was a narrow defeat. He held on, hoping that the country's economic position would have improved by the spring. In fact the trade unions finally lost patience with his austerity programme and the Winter of Discontent ensued, guaranteeing a rather more comfortable Tory victory in 1979.

Alan Watkins, always an acute observer, remembers it thus:
Was it a missed opportunity on the part of Callaghan in autumn 1978? My view at the time was that the prime minister had allowed the speculation to get out of hand. The date of the election was regarded as a certainty. When the newspapers were disappointed in their expectations, they duly took their revenge. Callaghan's elephantine attempts at humour at that year's TUC conference only made matters worse.
And I recall someone writing at the time that Callaghan held on because (1976-9) would look so much more impressive after his name in the history books than (1976-8).

So a myth about Jim Callaghan and an autumn 1978 election has been allowed to grow. Or is there hard evidence that he could have won an earlier election?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Moura Budberg: Nick Clegg's great great aunt

Just when you thought the Lib Dem leadership campaign was going to be dull, the press has discovered Moura Budberg. Nick Clegg's great great aunt, she makes even Elspeth Campbell look mundane.

As the Mail on Sunday tells it:
Of all the many colourful names in the Clegg family tree it is his greatgreat- aunt (sic.) Moura Budberg who stands out above the rest.
The Russian-born noblewoman was widely suspected of spying for both the Soviet Union and British intelligence. Sensuously beautiful – and with a distinctly liberal attitude to sex – her life was full of shadowy entanglements and glamorous liaisons.
MI5 was warned by the British Embassy in Moscow in the early Twenties that she was 'a very dangerous woman'.
She was mistress to science fiction writer H.G. Wells and the Russian literary giant Maxim Gorky, as well as Robert Bruce Lockhart, probably the most famous diplomat and spy Britain ever sent to Moscow.
According to one account she offered sexual favours to a Lubyanka prison commandant after the 1917 revolution to secure her own release.
She then took food parcels and books to her lover Lockhart, jailed in a Kremlin dungeon under suspicion of masterminding an attempt to assassinate revolutionary leader Lenin in 1918 and topple the Bolsheviks, before brokering his release.
Later she came to know both Lenin and Stalin, once giving an accordion to the great dictator.
And there's more.

The Mail says Budberg was born Maria Ignatievna Zakrevskaya in St Petersburg in 1891 (though Wikipedia claims she was born in the Ukraine). She married the Tsarist diplomat Count Djon Benckendorff and they lived at Jäneda in Northen Estonia. The Count was later shot by an Estonian peasant. (We phoned Lembit Opik for a comment, but he was out.)

Back in 2002 The Times got very excited by the release of Budberg's MI5 file, claiming that she had revealed that Anthony Blunt was a Communist at a dinner party in August 1951. Another guest, himself a former intelligence officer, had reported the conversation to MI5:
“The most startling thing Moura told me was that Anthony Blunt, to whom Guy Burgess was ‘most devoted’, is a member of the Communist Party. When I said, ‘I only know about him that he looked after the King’s pictures’, Moura retorted, ‘such things only happen in England’.” Having read the report, an MI5 officer sent a typed note to B Branch on September 3 1951: “Do you think we should extract the last paragraph for the file of Anthony Blunt? Is it sufficiently reliable?” Hand-written on the note, and in capitals, is the word “NO”.
Budberg wrote - or at least translated and adapted - two film scripts. The Sea Gull (1968) was directed by Sidney Lumet, and Three Sisters was directed by Laurence Olivier. She even appeared as an actress in the film of Peter Ustinov's film of his play Romanoff and Juliet.

And according to Godfrey Smith, she fell hopelessly for H.G. Wells because his skin smelt of honey.

We do not often talk about great great aunts, but the Mail explains the relationship:
Budberg's sister, Alexandra, was the mother of Clegg's grandmother, Baroness Kira von Engelhardt, who was born in Russia in 1909.
Those interested in the family should also read the Times obituary of Budberg's daughter Tania Alexander.

If, as everyone seems to be agreeing, the Lib Dem leadership contest is about personality rather than policy, Chris Huhne may be in trouble.

See also my article on Moura Budberg for the New Statesman website.

Uncle and Mistress Masham's Repose

The Daily Telegraph asked several writers to name their "unsung favourites" amongst children's books. Two of my own favourites are among those named.

Will Self chose Uncle by the Revd J.P. Martin:
Uncle is an elephant of grandiose character. He lives in a ramshackle castle with a couple of sidekicks, one a monkey, the other a lion who can increase his weight at will.

Uncle is really an exercise in materialist excess designed to appeal to the pre-pubescent proto-capitalist. The eponymous hero possesses high-speed lifts, enormous halls, numerous swimming pools etc etc… In the basement there's an oil lake which a mysterious Charon-a-like paddles a boat across.
And Jill Murphy chose Mistress Masham's Repose by T.H. White:

As with C.S. Lewis's stories, you're in awe of the imagination behind it. When I read it as a child I thought it had really happened.

Maria spends her days in a wonderfully dilapidated old country house, alone apart from the cook and her dog, an old professor living in the rambling rounds and her wicked governess Miss Brown, who is scheming with the vicar – Mr Hater – to steal Maria's fortune. Taking refuge from Miss Brown's bullying, Maria stumbles across a colony of Lilliputians (whose forebears escaped from the villainous Biddel of Gulliver's Travels) on a tiny island in the middle of the lake. When her enemies discover her secret, it is the Lilliputians who come to her rescue.

Snailbeach Mine

While in Shropshire I visited the old mines at Snailbeach. Lead mining ended at Snailbeach around the time of the First World War, but the mineral barytes was extracted here until the 1950s and the spoil heaps were worked for spar into the 1970s.

That website, maintained by the Shropshire Mines Trust, will give you a good idea of the surface remains and of the old workings the public can visit on open days.

It's all very interesting for the visitor, but I can't help looking back fondly on the Snailbeach mines as they were when I first came across them nearly 20 years ago. Then the startlingly white spoil heaps were still in place. They made the area look like a minature version of the china clay country in Cornwall. Today those heaps have been landscaped and grassed over.

The buildings were deteriorating, but in many ways were just as they had been when the last miners had walked off shift. There were still tools lying about in the old blacksmith's shop in the mid 1990s.

BritBlog Roundup 140

Balancing daintily on The Wardman Wire.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Live from the Stiperstones Inn

In January I reported that a wireless network had been installed in the Stiperstones Inn as part of a scheme to bring internet access to remote parts of rural Shropshire. I decided to investigate the scheme on your behalf.

I am writing this post in the pub, a half of Stirling from the Three Tuns brewery in Bishop's Castle at my elbow, and I can report that the network works very well.

The Stiperstones Inn also has a female cat called Skittles, incidentally.

Friday, October 19, 2007

A weekend in Narnia

Malcolm Saville's foreword to The Neglected Mountain (1953):
The scene of this story is in the wild and lonely border country between Wales and Shropshire, hard by a mountain known as the Stiperstones. It is said that the curious outcrop of black quartzite rocks on the summit, known as the Devil's Chair, is one of the oldest parts of England - older even than the ice age - and it is little wonder that this desolate, neglected country is rich in folk-lore and legend. 
You will find the Stiperstones and the Long Mynd with its Gliding Station on the map and you can go to Shrewsbury, to Clun and Craven Arms and Bishop's Castle for yourself. But you will not find Black Dingle or Greystone Dingle or Barton Beach, for these places are as imaginary as are all the characters in this story.
Blogging will be light to non-existent for a few days as I am off to Shropshire for a long weekend. To someone who grew up reading the Lone Pine books by Malcolm Saville, this is a little like going for a holiday in Narnia.

Just one thing worries me.

In 1999 England played South Africa in the rugby World Cup and I watched it in Bishop's Castle. We lost.

Last year England played Portugal in the football World Cup and I watched it in Bishop's Castle. We lost.

On Saturday England will play South Africa in the rugby World Cup final. I shall be watching the match in Bishop's Castle.

Why Ming Campbell was right to resign

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News. Since I wrote it, it has become apparent that we shall probably not get a proper debate on policy this time either.

A snappy headline

My plan this week was to look at Mark Oaten’s adjournment debate on children in prison. I was ready with the wry observation that the only 17-year-olds you dare call “children” these days are those who have been banged up for a serious offence. Instead, I have to tackle the decline and fall of the Ming Dynasty.

Sir Menzies did the right and noble thing - both for himself and for the party. It was clear his leadership was chiming with neither the press nor with the public. Nor, it has to be admitted, was it chiming with large sections of his own party.

I always believed we should have chosen a younger leader last time round. In particular, we should have had a full slate of candidates to choose from. Those - lets call them “Sir David Steel” - who suggested that Ming’s should be the only name on the ballot paper set before Liberal Democrat members were hopelessly misguided. Even the contest we were permitted failed to reinvigorate the party with a proper debate on policy.

It must also be admitted that Ming could sometimes appear a rather elderly 66 - quite understandably, in view of his illness a few years ago. But the way he was ridiculed for his age tells us something unpleasant about modern British society. It suggests we no longer have any respect for age, wisdom or dignity.

I think in particular of the Mock the Week show that went out in September just after our Conference. This is the BBC2 programme where five leading comedians and Russell Howard improvise comedy based on the week‘s headlines. For 10 or 15 minutes they unleashed a tirade against Ming, all of it based on the assumption there is something inherently funny about being old. If they had attacked a woman or someone who was gay or black in the same way they would never have worked for the BBC again.

It must have been particularly galling for Ming - a former Olympic sprinter and British record holder - to suffer this. You suspect he could have given his most of his critics ten yards’ start and still beaten them. Perhaps he should have issued that challenge?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Other possible Lib Dem leadership candidates

It seems that you have to have gone to Westminster School if you want to lead the Liberal Democrats. So let's try a different approach.

Wikipedia has a list of the school's former pupils. Therefore other possible candidates include:
  • Louis Theroux
  • Ruth Kelly
  • Helena Bonham Carter
  • Imogen Stubbs
  • Nigella Lawson
  • Shane McGowan
  • Nigel Planer
  • Martin Amis
  • Tony Benn
  • Flanders & Swann
  • Kim Philby
  • John Gielgud
  • A.A. Milne
  • Sir Charles Dilke
  • Lord John Russell
  • Henry Purcell
  • John Locke
Now that's what I call a short-list!

Hemming: It's a two-horse race

It's looks as though John Hemming, our last hope, will not be able to enter the contest.

Well, he didn't go to Westminster and he's not been an MEP.

Rio Ferdinand Syndrome

I have noticed a worrying outbreak. Liberal Democrat bloggers have started to refer to themselves in the third person the way that egotistical sportsmen do.

See what I mean?

Theo Butt Philip pays tribute to Sir Menzies Campbell

Chris and Glynis come out for Cleggy

Jonathan Calder condemns new fashion.

Later. And there's Glyn & Irene Nightingale Back Nick Clegg. I think I am on to something.

We need a proper leadership contest

With Steve Webb announcing this morning that he is not to stand for the leadership, it looks as though we may be down to a Clegg vs Huhne contest.

I think that is a great shame. I should have liked to see both David Laws and Steve Webb standing. That way we should have a lively contest with a range of opinion represented and a number of personable candidates.

And there would have been much more chance of the Liberal Democrats recapturing the public imagination.

What I fear now s that we shall have a repeat of the last leadership contest. Then Lib Dem MPs largely closed ranks around Ming Campbell - David Steel went so far as to call on them to ensure that Ming's was the only name on the ballot papers set before the membership. The press was pretty solidly behind Ming too.

All this meant that there was little proper debate. And the party chose the wrong leader as a result.

Shropshire: It's all too beautiful

The Shropshire Star kindly informs us that a crop of hallucinogenic fly agaric mushrooms can be found in the churchyard at Rodington, between Shrewsbury and Telford.

There are more photographs on the newspaper's website.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Bust of John Major unveiled at Westminster

Oh yes.

Shropshire sock garters

With public endorsements from Ming Campbell and Lord Bonkers, sock garters look set to be the must-have fashion accessory this autumn.

Having carefully searched the net, I can recommend those supplied by Wood's of Shropshire. The firm is based in Church Stretton and there is a nice picture of the Stretton Hills on their website.

I wore garters in the Cubs, but I suppose that doesn't count.

Huhne and Clegg campaign websites in place

Which Westminster-educated former MEP to support?

Chris Huhne has a website.

So does Nick Clegg - just.

Vince Cable will not stand for the leadership either

First David Laws, now Vince Cable.

The BBC reports:

Acting leader Vincent Cable, who will take Sir Menzies' place at prime minister's questions, will not stand.

Mr Cable, 64, said he had concluded that an older candidate would not be electable because of the "irrational prejudice" about age that dogged Sir Menzies' leadership.

Lord Bonkers on sock garters

Paul Walter
traces the origins of the claim that Ming Campbell wears sock garters.

Lord Bonkers adds:

I am devoted to sock garters. One is not dressed properly without them and they can be used to fire ink pellets to any part of the House if a speaker is Going On A Bit.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

David Laws will not stand for leadership

From the Chard & Ilminster News:

"I believe that the Party will now have an excellent choice between a number of high quality candidates for the leadership of the Party.

"I will announce who I am supporting when the candidates have announced their intentions to stand. I have decided not to put my own name forward for the leadership, but will instead concentrate on my work as local MP and on my new responsibilities as Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families."

Railways on Skye

On holiday on Skye a few years ago, I was convinced that there had never been a railway on the island. Except that when I got the map out to plan a walk in Trotternish (the island's North-East peninsula) I came across what look remarkably like the track of a disused line.

And it was. For when I got off the bus and went walking I came across the remains of the Lealt Valley Diatomite Railway. This narrow gauge line ran from Loch Cuithir to the coast at Invertote and was open between 1890 and 1920. Diatomite is a mineral used in everything from dynamite to toothpaste.

It turns out that it was not the only railway on Skye. It turns out that there have been six at various times, including one that used to take supplies to the Talisker distillery.

And one of the lines is still open. The Storr Lochs Hydroelectric power station was built in 1952 and includes a standard gauge electric cable railway which still carries spares and supplies down a 1 in 2 gradient. It is shown in the picture above.

The War on Pies

Earlier today I qustioned the War on Drugs.

Stumbling and Mumbling suggests that the War on Pies is equally flawed.

Zimbabwe's slow suicide

There is a good article by Susie Linfield in Dissent. She traces the collapse of Mugabe's Zimbabwe through a study of five widely available books:
  • When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa by Peter Godwin
  • Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa by Peter Godwin
  • Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller
  • African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe by Doris Lessing
  • The Stone Virgins by Yvonne Vera
See the This is Zimbabwe blog too.

Those Lib Dem leadership odds in full has the latest odds.

Cheeky Girl slams Barnett formula

icWales reports that Gabriela attended the Liberal Democrat conference in Aberystwyth with Lembit at the weekend. The website quotes her as saying:
“The only issue that wasn’t raised was one I really wanted, the Barnett formula. Probably if I’m coming next year I’ll push it harder and everybody can see I’m a dead boring girl.”
It also says that Lembit admitted he never intended being the Lib Dem candidate for London Mayor but played up to the hype because he found it funny.

Anti-drug laws make things worse

There was an exchange in the Commons yesterday that demonstrated the mindlessness of the "War on Drugs".

There was a question from Dr Brian Iddon, the Labour MP for Bolton South-East:
I welcome the reduction in the misuse of any drug, whether legal or illegal, but does my hon. Friend the Minister recognise that enforcement action can have unintended consequences, as evidenced by the shift from the smuggling of low-tetrahydrocannabinol-content cannabis from places such as Morocco to the large-scale farming in rented properties of high-THC-content cannabis all across Britain? I can report that, in the past three or four months, Bolton police alone have captured 20 houses where farming is conducted by Thai and Vietnamese criminal gangs.
And the reply from the minister, Vernon Coaker?
I accept my hon. Friend’s point that, at times, when the law is enforced in one area, the crime is displaced to another, but the important issue is surely that we enforce the law.
If it is making things worse, maybe enforcing the law is not "the important issue".

Anyone here speak Giddens?

Can anyone translate the conclusion of today's Guardian article by the former Blair guru Anthony Giddens into plain English?

It goes:
Therapists such as Susie Orbach have long insisted that developing emotional literacy should be the foundation of most areas of social policy. I agree. Whenever individuals' behaviour is controlled by habits that they should control, we are at the fulcrum of the relationship between domination and freedom. Government has been reluctant to intrude, but now it must.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Shock candidate for Lib Dem leader

Well, he is at a loose end at the moment.

Shirley Williams then and now

Over the next few weeks you will receive e-mails and letters from all sorts of Important People telling you to vote for one candidate or another. Take my advice: ignore them and make up your own mind.

Here, for instance, is Shirley Williams commenting on Ming's resignation today:

The original expectation was that there was going to be an election probably last month.

Gordon Brown had indicated that, Ming was prepared and ready to lead into that fray, but I think now that the election is not likely to be before 2009 or maybe even 2010, Ming feels that he ought not to be leading at that point and I think that's right.

I think he would find it quite hard to manage an election two years off and to maintain the kind of dreadful pace of elections nowadays.

But what did she say when she was urging us to vote for him to be the next Lib Dem leader? Here she is writing in February 2006:

Dear Jonathan

I am writing to you to let you know why I am supporting Ming Campbell to become leader of our Party.

Liberal Democrats can celebrate the commitment, talent and hard work of our MPs and peers. These qualities will take us much further given time and experience. Ming Campbell is the leader we need to guide us through the challenging years ahead.

As I say, make up your own mind.

Andrew Gimson on the fall of Ming

The Telegraph sketchwriter observes:
The Lib Dem way of running things appears to consist of whole-hearted support tempered by assassination.

The Harborough Bank

The Harborough Mail reports that a £10 banknote issued by Harborough Bank in 1841 has been sold at auction for £1056.

There was more about the Bank in an earlier report from the same paper:
The banknote features the names of Inkersole, Goddard and Goddard, the Harborough businessmen who owned the bank.

Barnaby Faull, head of the banknotes department at Spink, added: “All towns and cities in England used to issue their own banknotes. Merchants would get together in the town and start up their own banks but their notes – which were like IOUs – could only be used locally.”
All of which reminds one of the Lib Dem thinker David Boyle and his enthusiasm for local currencies.

Incidentally, the Harborough Bank went under a couple of years after the note was issued, but the independent Market Harborough Building Society is still going strong.

Thank you, Sir Menzies

Ming Campbell has done the right thing by resigning as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

It had become clear that, fairly or not - and politics often has little to do with fairness - his leadership had failed to fire the imagination of the press, the public or his own party. As Iain Duncan Smith remarked, and then proved, a new leader has own a short time before his image becomes fixed in the public mind for better or worse.

Having lived through the decline and fall of Charles Kennedy, his colleagues would probably not have had the stomach to force him from office. So he has done the party a great service by resigning gracefully.

BritBog Roundup 139

You can find this week's selection of the best in British blogging at Redemption Blues.

What do you think of John Pugh?

John Pugh, the Lib Dem MP for Southport, has a short article on Lib Dem Voice about the party's newspaper Liberal Democrat News.

The article has provoked some discussion, though I have not joined in. I have to declare an interest as the paper's (albeit unpaid) weekly columnist.

What I will says is that the useful debate that has followed is despite the article, not because of it. Pugh writes:
In current circumstance the party needs to do some serious soul searching and balanced stock taking and reflect the sceptical, mature rationalism that is so much part of Liberalism. I am not sure where Liberal Democrat News fits into that.
I suppose serious soul searching is to be preferred to frivolous soul searching. And balanced stock taking must be better than the unbalanced variety. But what does Pugh want?

Is he calling for Lib Dem News to be closed down? Or is he full of exciting ideas about how it can be improved?

If the latter, it's a shame that he could not find time to share even one of them with us.

The Tories and money

There is general hilarity in the Lib Dem blogosphere this morning at the ruling that Branislav Kostic would not have left £8.3m to the Conservative Party if he had been of sound mind. The Tories will have to return the money to Kostic's son.

Well, if you can't laugh when your opponents are deprived of millions of pounds of funds, when can you laugh?

Of greater importance, however, may be the story that the government is planning to control parties' spending between elections. As the Daily Mail says:

At present, spending on seats between general elections is not covered by the law and strict limits - of £30,000 per constituency party and £10,000 per candidate - only kick in once a general election campaign starts.

Labour would prefer an all-party consensus. It hopes the Tories will back new local spending limits in return for Labour promising one-off donations by trade unions would count towards a new cap on individual contributions worth about £50,000.

There is little sign of agreement as talks resume. Mr Cameron is thought reluctant to halt the operation being funded and masterminded by his deputy party chairman.

I bet he is, but democracy cannot flourish without reasonable controls on the influence that wealthy individuals are allowed to exert. Even if they are sane.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

John Bird and John Fortune: Well Anyway

I have just watched the South Bank Show documentary about the two Johns. There was no mention of Well Anyway - the situation comedy they wrote and performed for the BBC in 1976.

I remember enjoying it at the time and being impressed by them, even though I was too young to know anything of their involvement in the satire boom of the early 1960s.

Yet there is next to nothing about the programme on IMDB and only a little more detail at
The setting for this British sitcom was the Earl's Court District of London. By day a photographer and sculptor, John Dally (John Bird) moonlighted as a private eye. Dally's hectic if well-balanced existence was upset by the arrival of John Chance (John Fortune), who claimed to have been a college pal of Dally's from Cambridge. Presumptively moving in with his "old friend" for what was supposed to be a few days, Chance remained on the premise for what seemed to be forever -- or at least, for the duration of the series' seven episodes. Written by its two stars, Well Anyway was originally broadcast from September 24 to November 5, 1976.
I am coming to the conclusion that I am the only person alive who remembers certain television programmes. This is one of them, and other examples are Gophers! and Edward Woodward in 1990.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Stanley Unwin in Carry on Regardless

Here is a clip of Professor Stanley Unwin in prime form.

It may help the younger generation make sense of this.

The order of the party conferences

There is an interesting posting on Skipper. Bill Jones asks how the order in which the party conferences is decided. As he points out, the sequence in which they take place can be important:

This point was made to me by a perceptive member of my current affairs discussion group whom I meet every Wednesday at the university ... His point is that by always convening last, the Conservatives benefit most from any 'conference bounce' produced.

If Labour had 'conferenced' after the Conservatives, Bernard suggests there would have been a completely different outcome. Brown and Darling could have 'trumped' the aces deployed by Cameron and Osborne and would Cameron have risked his 'Bring it on' challenge not knowing what Brown was going to say the following week?

How will Gordon Brown rewrite the Bible?

In today's Daily Telegraph Andy Burnham paved the way for another government theft of Tory policy. As the paper says:
Andy Burnham, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, says there is a "moral case" for promoting the traditional family through the tax system. "I think marriage is best for kids," he says. "It’s not wrong that the tax system should recognise commitment and marriage."
If Gordon Brown is intending to steal this policy too, it will present him with an interesting problem. For in his speech to the Labour Conference this year he said:

And I say to the children of two parent families, one parent families, foster parent families; to the widow bringing up children: I stand for a Britain that supports as first class citizens not just some children and some families but supports all children and all families.

We all remember that biblical saying: “suffer the little children to come unto me.” No Bible I have ever read says: “bring just some of the children.”

And we were left in no doubt afterwards that this was a condemnation of Tory family policy.

I am sure Brown is entirely capable of correcting the Bible to bring it in line with his own views, I am just interested to know how he will set about justifying it.

England 3 Estonia 0

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave on 6 June.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Should the European Commission choose London's buses?

I have always been an admirer of Sarah Ludford. Unlike some of our MEPs, she has always struck me as a practical politician rather than an evangelist for the European project.

Each week she sends out an e-mail bulletin. In the latest one (the story is not on her website yet) she writes:
Only weeks after I asked the European Commission to investigate the dangers of bendy buses and the reasons for their poor safety record, another awful incident has occurred. This week saw the tragic and distressing accident when a man was killed after being dragged by a bendy bus on Ilford High Road. This is a further sad indicator of the potential dangers of these buses, and I will be adding this information to my dialogue with Commissioner Barrot who had already promised me to raise the matter with Transport for London.
Reading the details of this accident, it is clear that there is a serious question mark over these buses. But why is it a matter for the European Commission? We have a London Mayor, a London Assembly and London MPs. Can't they tackle this matter between them? Isn't a great city like London capable of choosing its own buses?

Meanwhile, these buses do look set to become an issue in the next Mayoral election. The great Craig Murray recently wrote:
I am seriously considering voting Boris, mostly because of his high profile stance against the calamitous bendy buses which are eternally preventing me from crossing when there is a little green man. I also strongly approve of his stance on bonking. Doubt it will happen as have never voted Tory, but another candidate needs at least as strong a bendy bus stance to get my vote. Bonking more optional.
And in my essay in Liberalism: Something to Shout About last year I wrote:
Perhaps the next Lib Dem London Mayoral candidate should campaign for a new generation of Routemaster buses and promise to employ conductors on them.

The return of House Points: Where Gordon Brown went wrong

My column returns to Liberal Democrat News this week, but thanks to the postal strike I have not seen a copy of the paper yet.

Party games

Welcome back to Westminster. Most MPs expected to be out on the streets by now, wrestling with letterboxes and being harassed by Jack Russells. Instead they find themselves in the Commons listening to Alistair Darling help himself to fistfuls of Tory policies.

Gordon Brown, it has to be admitted, has made a fool of himself. But let’s be clear why.

It is not because he has failed to call a general election. Ours is not a presidential system and there is no obligation - constitutional or moral - on any new prime minister to call an immediate election.

In fact if Gordon Brown had gone to the Palace to ask for an early dissolution, there would have been a lot to say for the Queen replying with something like: “Mr Brown, you have a large majority and two and half years of this Parliament left. Go away and govern, you silly little man.”

Nor is there much to the Tories’ vulgar claim that Brown has ‘bottled’ it. If a prime minister is not sure he will win a mid-term election, it is a good idea not to call one.

No, Brown’s mistake was to allow the speculation to run on for so long. In particular, he pulled off the extraordinary feat of forcing the Conservatives to stage a successful party conference. Confronted by the prospect of an imminent poll, they forgot what a rabble they are and put on a convincing show of confidence and unity.

Another effect of Gordon Brown’s dithering has been to emphasise the role that party interest plays in our system. You could say that this was a valuable exercise in political education, except that public’s opinion of politicians was quite low enough already.

The Liberal Democrat response to this has been to rediscover our support for fixed-term Parliaments. On Monday David Howarth and David Heath tabled a bill that would name the election date as the first Thursday in May every four years and outlaw the dissolution of Parliament between those polls.

This must be the right approach. Though quite how it squares with our frequent calls for Gordon Brown to hold an election as soon as he took over from Tony Blair is not immediately apparent.

Ming Campbell: Contrasting views from the regional press

Two columnists have taken markedly different views today of the future of Sir Menzies Campbell's leadership of the Liberal Democrats.

Writing in the East Anglian Daily Times, Graham Dines says:

With no election in prospect for at least 18 months, will Lib Dem MPs put pressure or Sir Ming to stand down? Since he took over, the party at best has been treading water and at worse appearing to be directionless.

But while Sir Ming's speech in Brighton to his party's conference did not galvanise the voters, the Lib Dems would be - to borrow a phrase from the late Lord Hailsham - “stark raving bonkers”­ to replace him ...

It seems, however, that the whisperers in the parliamentary party are still putting it about that Sir Ming - who will be in Mildenhall tomorrow to address the Lib Dems' eastern region conference - is not up to the job.

“It is pathetic,” senior backbencher Mike Hancock said in a radio interview this week. “The people who have persistently done it are some of the people who shouted loudest to get Ming into the job.

“It is a shower of people who haven't got the backbone or the balls to come out to say it to his face and to the party. The one thing that Ming has shown over the last six months is that he is not prepared to take this perpetual backbiting and snidey remarks behind his back.”

Someone throw a bucket of cold water over Mr Hancock, please.

Meanwhile, in the Yorkshire Post, Adam Davison takes a very different view. Billed as "a political analyst and former Parliamentary assistant to Harrogate MP Phil Willis," he writes:

Sir Ming will be under no illusions about the difficulties that could lie ahead if he chose to stay on, especially when you consider that he will be nearing 70 at the next election.

So he must demonstrate his own ability to take the hard decisions that matter by showing maturity and a humbleness which is non-existent in our other leaders, announce his resignation and then play his part in a much-needed reinvigorating leadership campaign.

I would not expect Ming to take this decision lightly, but there is no doubt that he must make it quickly. We have seen in the last couple of months how dragging one's heels can be damaging and the party needs acts of strong leadership, first in an act of great humility; secondly, in the announcement of key figures, such as Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg, their intentions to stand, and most importantly, through the setting out of a strong vision for a liberal Britain.

The leadership election must be a campaign of ideas setting out how each contender would seek to take the party forward through strategy and policy and finally start to address the question of what place the Liberal Democrats have in modern British politics.

Sir Ming has failed to be the king he hoped he could be, but his role as kingmaker could yet be his defining moment in the history of Liberalism.

Harry Potter and the Hindu gods

The BBC reports:

A community group in the Indian city of Calcutta says it has been sued by JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, for breach of copyright.

The group has been building a huge model based on Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as part of celebrations for a Hindu festival.

A court in the capital, Delhi, will start hearing the case on Friday.

Given that I have proved that Rowling derived much of her inspiration from the film Carry on Camping, I think this is a bit rich.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sir John Bourn should resign

It's good to see the Liberal Democrats championing a cause that is at once shamelessly populist and wholly justified.

Norman Baker is calling on Sir John Bourn to resign as head of the National Audit Office following revelations about his expenses. As Norman says:

"It is incredible that Sir John Bourn has seen fit to run up gigantic bills for largesse at the taxpayers’ expense.

"Even more serious is appearing to accept hospitality from companies such as BAE which compromises the independent and professional standing essential to someone in this post.

The full details of Sir John's high living were in this morning's Guardian. For those who missed the front-page story, here are a few highlights:
  • 175 lunches and dinners since 2004 with permanent secretaries, directors of big accounting companies and defence contractors at the Ritz, Savoy, Dorchester, Brown's Hotel, the Goring Hotel, Cipriani, Bibendum, Wiltons, Mirabelle and The Square. The bills, nearly all for two people, vary from £80 to £301. Many of the bills came to between £150 and £220. One bill for four people - two from the NAO - at Wiltons was £500. In the past six months, he has spent £1,651.56 on meals.
  • Entertaining by large defence contractors and accounting firms included a visit to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone on July 8, paid for BAE Systems, the company caught in a corruption investigation over a Tanzanian defence order. Sir John has refused to release an NAO document on BAE's biggest and most controversial defence order, the Al Yamamah defence deal with Saudi Arabia.
To me this looks like an example of someone in a prominent position wanting to have it all. Being one of the great and good can bring with it all sorts of pleasures like opera tickets and fine dining. But if you accept a position such as head of the National Audit Office then you have to be careful about how much hospitality you accept and whom you accept it from. It appears that Sir John lacked the judgement or the self-control to do this.

Incidentally, Norman also has his teeth into the Speaker. It turns out that Michael Martin has spent more than £20,000 of public money on retaining the solicitors Carter Ruck to challenge negative press stories about him. And there have certainly been enough of those.

Stormin' Norman says:

"Of course it's right that there should be legal advice available to all members of the House of Commons.

"But in this case it appears the very expensive Carter-Ruck has effectively been used to issue press releases and that those instructing them have been content to sign blank cheques irrespective of the cost to the taxpayer."

Gareth Southgate is right about the Mayday for Nurses campaign

A while ago there was a lot of publicity for Noreena Hertz and her Mayday for Nurses campaign. The charity had asked Premiership footballers to donate a day's wages to help nurses and published figures showing how generous each club had been.

Now, in the last couple of days, there have been stories about how quick to pay the players have been, again broken down by club.

Today, according to the Guardian, Gareth Southgate has had enough. The Middlesbrough manager is quoted as saying:
"I think it's outrageous that the campaign's fundraising style has bordered on blackmail, with the message being basically 'give us your money or we'll publicly shame you'. It's a strange way for a charity to act and one that has ensured that, although I had originally intended to make a donation, I have now withdrawn that promise."
Quite right too. As Southgate says, most clubs do a lot of work for charity and in the community and will have local causes that they are already committed to supporting. There can be little excuse for Hertz and her charity trying to push their way to the head of the queue like this.

And are nurses really such an overwhelmingly deserving case these days? Most of the extra money that has been put into the NHS in recent years has gone on higher salaries, and I am not aware that the nursing profession has missed out on this.

Mayday for Nurses' own blog seems to have been taken down for some reason, but you can find a summary of the charity's aims on the University College London site. It runs a hardship fund, which is admirable, and has some sensible aims:
No student nurse should have to quit his or her course because he or she cannot afford her rent.
But it also has some wholly unrealistic ones:
Nurses should not be paid less than all other professional key public sector workers. It is unjust that a nurse earns less than a tube driver, social worker, and policeman.
Newly qualified nurses should be guaranteed work upon graduation.
I wonder if all those football clubs read the small print before they signed up to the charity's "manifesto"?

The Carnival of Satire

Lord Bonkers' recent remarks on the abolition of the slave trade in Rutland have made it into The Carnival of Satire 85.