Monday, January 31, 2011

Labour peers win a battle but will lose the war

Nicholas Watt reports on the Guardian website this evening (and in tomorrow's paper:
A two-week standoff in the House of Lords between Labour and the coalition over a constitutional reform bill was partially resolved today when ministers agreed to a key opposition demand on shrinking the House of Commons.

Labour agreed to abandon a filibustering campaign, which had forced peers to sleep on camp beds in committee rooms during overnight sessions, after the government announced that it would allow limited public inquiries when parliamentary constituencies are redrawn.
Labour still want further concessions. Notably:
Vary the size of the new parlimentary constituencies by 10% above or below the electoral quota size of around 76,000 voters. This would mean that constituencies could vary in size from 83,600 voters to 68,400 voters. Under the government's plans, constituencies can only be varied in size by 5% either way of the 76,000 quota.
This latter concession would be more important and more reasonable in that it would make it possible to make constituency sizes more uniform without giving rise to the local anomalies - part of the Isle of Wight being included in a mainland constituency, the prospect of a constituency crossing the Devon and Cornwall border -  that are so exercising people.

The Conservatives want to do away with public inquiries because in the 1990s they confirmed their reputation as the stupid party by allowing Labour to run rings around them when they were held. As a result the constituency boundaries on which the 1997 election was fought were substantially favourable to Labour and this is one of the reasons that they won such a landslide.

Liberal Democrats tend to be fond of public inquiries, but it has to be admitted that there is something spurious about them when it comes to constituency boundaries. Because, when a new set of boundaries are proposed within a county are proposed the parties scrutinise them to see if they are more of less favourable to them than the status quo.

If a party likes the look of the new boundaries then it tends to keep quiet. If it does not like the new boundaries it will look for pretexts upon which it can argue that they sunder historic or cultural ties.

So a short-term victory for Labour peers. But the tactics they employed to win it have strengthened the case for reforming the Lords. By behaving just like the MPs many of them were until recently, they have destroyed the argument that the upper house is qualitatively different from the Commons. And if they insist on behaving like MPs, why should they not be elected like MPs?

Some say the first dinosaurs were destroyed by a meteorite. This new crop will be destroyed by their own misguided tactics.

A tribute to John Barry

The film composer John Barry died yesterday at the age of 77.

As his Daily Telegraph obituary says:
Barry’s most fertile creative period was the mid-1960s. The success of his scores for the Bond films (that for Goldfinger displaced the Beatles’ album A Hard Day’s Night from the top of the American charts) led to commissions for numerous other spy films, such as The Ipcress File (1965) and The Quiller Memorandum (1966) and later for the television series The Persuaders.

The themes he wrote for these, however, tended to reflect the shabbier deeds of their heroes and made use of such unearthly-sounding instruments as the cimbalom to suggest an atmosphere closer to Graham Greene than Ian Fleming.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Six of the Best 126

On The Andrew Marr Show this morning Ed Balls claimed that the last Labour government did not run a structural deficit. Nick Thornsby's Blog has the figures that prove it did.

"I took the trouble of looking up how often as Tommy McAvoy he had spoken in the House of Commons in the last four years. The answer was just once in four years when he muttered just four words. Now as Lord McAvoy he has spoken 77 times on this Bill." On Liberal Democrat Voice, Chris Rennard reports on Labour's filibustering on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in the House of Lords.

In a very personal post on his A Liberal Helping blog, Matthew Hulbert writes of how his father leaving home made him a Liberal Democrat. (That sounds remarkably like the opening to my own article about Harborough's Liberal history in the Journal of Liberal History, 68.)

Asked, by the current government, to review 10 Labour initiatives in a bid to help inform future policy, Professor Janet Walker of Newcastle University and Professor Cam Donaldson of Glasgow Caledonian University, said: "The most depressing conclusion from our review is that despite substantial social resources having been spent on pilots, pathfinders, evaluations and the roll-out of programmes, there is no hard evidence as to their effectiveness." Community Care on the difficulty of discovering whether all that public spending does any good.

The self-explanatory No Police Spies website was launched recently.

Transition Leicester has the latest on the campaign to protect Aylestone Meadows in Leicester from development associated with sports pitches.

Pulp: This is Hardcore

As I said when discussing Blue Jeans by Blur, "I understood BritPop: good tunes, guitars and harmonies." That is hardly surprising in a child of the 1960s, and you can add cheeky cockneys of varying authenticity and overrated bands from the North West to the mix.

Still, I think the great song the era produced may have been Pulp's dissipated farewell to it. Here the band plays live for Jools Holland.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Oxford to Market Harborough by canal in 1950

The person who posted this priceless video on Youtube speculates that this journey was made to reach the National Festival and Rally of Boats held at Market Harborough held at 1950. That must surely be right: I can't imagine why else the canal basin here would be so full of boats in this era.

Enjoy colour footage of the old railway swing bridge over the canal at Oxford and then the canal through city, with the campanile of St Barnabas easily recognisable. Then it is on to some some broad locks that must be on the Grand Union somewhere around Braunston, though I don't recognise the precise locations. This part of the film is then repeated.

After that it is on to Watford locks, Foxton locks and the canal basin here in Market Harborough.


Write for Liberal England

Don't forget that Liberal England is now accepting guest posts. So far three have appeared:
If you would like to write one yourself, please send me an email so we can discuss your idea. I am chiefly interested in political posts, but this blog is noted for its eclectic range of interests...

I am also happy to receive suggestions of links to include in my regular Six of the Best feature.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Nigel Slater, Toast and Space Dust

Over Christmas I enjoyed the TV adaptation of Nigel Slater's Toast - I used to wear jumpers like that in the 1960s - and have since read the book.

It is a remarkable piece of writing and, being divided into short sections, is ideal for reading on the commute to work and back. Take a heavy novel with you and the train can be past Wigston Junction before you remember who is who and what has been happening.

Slater even mentions Malcolm Saville twice.

One thing worries me. Slater tells the story of his boyhood and adolescence through the food he and his family ate. He is very good on the sweets of the period, mentioning long-lost chocolate bars like Summit and Aztec that most of my readers will be far too young to remember.

But he also mentions having bought Space Dust in the 1960s - and I have no memory of having eaten it or even heard of it in that decade. Wikipedia appears to back me up: its disambiguation page for Space Dust redirects you to Pop Rocks - a brand it says was first offered to the public in 1975.

So is Nigel Slater wrong about Space Dust or is my memory at fault?

Calder on Air: Nick Clegg on The Andrew Marr Show

My column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Marring my Sunday

Sunday mornings were not made for television. They were made for having a lie in, for not shaving and for wandering into town, ordering a skinny latte and almond croissant and reading the papers. So you can imagine what a sacrifice it was for me to get up...

To be honest, I watched The Andrew Marr Show (BBC1) on Monday evening via the BBC IPlayer. I am glad that I did, because if I were compiling a list of the people I would not want to encounter first thing on a Sunday it would read pretty much: Peter Hitchens, Amanda Plattell, Clare Short. And that was the panel that opened the show by leafing through the Sunday papers – after we had seen Marr bombing round in an open-topped car like a poor man’s Simon Dee.

If a television programme has to fall back on talking about the day’s newspapers, that staple of cheap local radio, it is probably a sign that it has too much air time to fill. So we had to suffer Plattell dropping the names of everyone she knows (and conceivably several people she doesn’t), Hitchens settling a score with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones from a few weeks back, and Short using her worst, whining “I am so obviously right I can hardly be bothered to argue with you” voice.

Things picked up after that – though they would have picked up if Bonnie Langford had come on to tap dance after that lot. Instead we had Douglas Alexander, now shadow foreign secretary after Ed Miliband’s post Alan Johnson reshuffle. He came over as calm, sensible and just a little dull. His “we must move on from Blair and Brown” means in effect “we must move on from Brown” as Blair has already been written out of Labour’s. Whether the new shadow chancellor will be so keen to move on from Brown is another question.

Then it was on to the main event of the morning: an interview with a notably confident and aggressive Nick Clegg. It was clear that he has realised he needs to argue for the new regime on tuition fees and to counter the propaganda of the National Union of Students, which could put youngsters from poorer backgrounds off higher education even though they may well pay back less than they would under the scheme Labour introduced.

He also took on the “dinosaur ex-Labour MPs” in the Lords who blocking progress on the referendum on the Alternative Vote and redrawing of parliamentary constituencies: “It’s … been a principle of political reformers down the ages – by the way including the Chartists, great forerunners of the Labour Party – that every vote should be worth the same.”

And Nick gave a signal that there is likely to be fundamental reform of the banking sector: “I think the banking system needs to be made safe. It can never again become such an oversized liability for the British economy. That's why I think there is a strong case to look at the way in which you can hive off or insulate very high-risk over-leveraged banking activities from low-risk, high street retail banking.”

One area where he did pull his punches was on the resignation of Andy Coulson. Later that day on The Politics Show (BBC1), Chris Huhne was less circumspect – he has said so much so forcibly about this affair in the past that he could not realistically go back on it.

Still, a Liberal Democrat environment secretary being asked to comment on the words of a Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister? That I should live to see such times!

In a pleasingly quirky touch, The Andrew Marr Show ended with a song from Teddy Thompson, the son of Richard and Linda Thompson. The failure of their marriage was depicted by Richard Thompson in a series of brilliant but gruelling LPs. Let’s hope that is not a metaphor for the Coalition.

Vince Cable says he is staying in the Cabinet

The Scotsman reports a Commons press gallery lunch with the Vince Cable. After itemising all the speculation about his future, it goes on:
But at a Press Gallery lunch in the Commons, Mr Cable claimed that some of the policies he is supposed to be unhappy with, such as removing the structural deficit in the lifetime of the parliament, were originally his own ideas.

He added that he was "proud" of the university reforms although he acknowledged that his party "took a serious hit" on the issue.

He also highlighted the controversial privatisation of Royal Mail, pointing out that he had succeeded where his Tory and Labour predecessors failed.

On his own future, he said: "It took me 30 years to get into this place (parliament]. Throughout that time people said 'what's the point, you should do something else' but I did keep going and I did get in. The lesson is to stick at it and that is exactly how I approach my job now."

He added that he saw himself as an "important part of the government" over the next five years.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The closure of Leicester's museums shows Britain is too centralised

Today's Leicester Mercury reports:
Leicester City Council plans to close three museums and a historic building – except for special occasions.

Public access to Jewry Wall museum, Belgrave Hall, Abbey Pumping Station and the Guildhall will end in October, and the sites will open only for scheduled events, such as school visits and steam days at the pumping station.
I could blame the Coalition for cutting the city's grant, but large cuts would have taken place under Labour too. I could blame the Labour-run council, but I do not have alternative ways of saving money at my fingertips.

So rather than play the blame game, let's take a step back and look at the real issue here. It is that a city like Leicester should not be so dependent on central government in the first place. More tax should be raised locally and less should go to central government.

If the bulk of the funding for the city's spending is provided by central government, as it is as present, then to a large extent decisions about what it should be are placed outside democratic control. How much money is spent in Leicester becomes a decision for Whitehall rather than for the city's people and democratic structures. And the amount of funding the city receives can vary markedly from year to year, which results in violent changes in policy like this one over its museums.

Leicester ought to be able to raise the funds for its museums locally. The fact that it does not do so is a sign that Britain is too centralised - as we learned in the summer when we learnt that the government was funding children's playgrounds.

Six of the Best 125

Mark Pack reviews the new book (edited by Kevin Hickson) The Political Thought of the Liberals and Liberal Democrats Since 1945 on Liberal Democrat Voice. No matter that the contributors sound a little like the usual suspects, it is always good to see volumes like this appearing. The sad thing is that the price (£60 for a hardback) may mean that it finds few buyers outside academic libraries.

Certainly, Hickson's book will have a long way to go to rank with what may be the two most most iinfluential Liberal pamphlets of the 20th century, as discussed by Birkdale Focus. They are We Can Conquer Unemployment (1929) and Ownership for All (1938).

Niles's Blog reports that its writer, Alex Foster, that he will be a competitor in next week's Come Dine With Me, cooking his meal on Tuesday. We wish him well. (Snide voice: Ye-es.)

Back to books. Professor Paul Kelly reviews The Big Society: the Anatomy of the New Politics by Jesse Norman, Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, on the British Politics and Policy at LSE blog. He describes it as "an attempt to reorientate conservative thinking and as an attempt to replace Hayek with Oakeshott as the conservative guru of choice".

More than 30 years ago I heard a young American academic called Daniel Dennett address the Philiosophy Society at the University of York. Now he is world famous and, according to a profile by Arminta Wallace in the Irish Times ("Bright star of the atheist universe"), "with his flowing white beard and his twinkling demeanour he looks ever so slightly like Santa Claus". More than ever so slightly, judging by the photograph.

Joe Moran's Blog ponders "The crisp at the crossroads".

Andrew Neil on why a narrow elite runs Britain

Earlier this week I mentioned that Andrew Neil has a programme on BBC Two this evening (starting at 9 p.m.) asking why it is that the British political system is increasingly dominated by people who were privately educated.

He has also written an article on the subject for the BBC website:
The decline of the unions has clearly cut off one working-class route to Westminster. So has the decline of an affluent, aspiring working class, which seemed to disappear with the end of the Industrial Age.

But our education system must have something to do with it as well. Almost uniquely, Britain has developed a largely egalitarian non-selective state school system alongside an aggressive highly-selective private system. Perhaps it should be no surprise that the top jobs are once again falling into the lap of the latter.

Bernard Righton the politically correct comedian

I remember this act from the early 1990s. It turns out to have been an early incarnation of John Thomson.

There is a longer set from Bernard Righton elsewhere on Youtube, but this gives you a good idea of what his act was like.

Later. The shorter video has disappeared, so here is the longer one.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

GUEST POST Standards matter in higher education, not just participation rates

The author is a university lecturer on a short-term contract who wishes to remain anonymous.

I believe that higher education should be free, but also that it should be higher education. Recent debates within the Liberal Democrats (and beyond) have centered upon the first of these propositions, but barely touched upon the second.

For instance, Evan Harris writes "The biggest challenge facing higher education is the failure to attract students from poor backgrounds and the negative impact that tuition fees have on those who are debt-averse from aspiring or applying to university," while for the Social Liberal Forum "the key principles in Higher Education [are] widening participation, fair access and financial equity".

Dr Harris and the SLF are splendid liberals and all round Good Things, but are they losing sight of the intellectual goals of university education?

Many academics now find themselves defending an uninspiring status quo, for fear of something worse. I don't know any colleague who denies 'dumbing down', or who is satisfied with the quality of secondary education. Yet it is difficult for them to acknowledge this, for fear of inadvertently supporting attacks on universities.

For example, the Humanities and Social Sciences Matter campaign includes serious, well-meaning academics. They argue, amongst other things, that "university degrees should educate independently-minded, critical and informed citizens", and that we "cannot afford to abandon the funding of humanities and social sciences to the market".

Admirable sentiments, yet I'm unconvinced that these or other academics really believe that most current humanities graduates are 'independently-minded, critical and informed citizens'. Were this the case then the increase in graduate numbers over recent decades would have been accompanied by some sort of rise in the standard of public debate, civic participation etc etc.

Instead we have seen the opposite. This shouldn't really need illustration, but consider the general election turnout rate among students was 50 per cent, compared to 65 per cent in the population as a whole. (And I don't think that students and graduates are shunning the public sphere to enjoy satisfying private intellectual lives instead.)

My observation over the last decade at four old-established universities, and comparing notes with colleagues at many others, is that only a minority of humanities students are engaged in higher education. (I teach in the humanities, so don't have the experience to comment on the sciences.)

Most are not required to do nearly enough work to occupy their time, and few are motivated to do any serious reading. Six essays a year is pretty much the norm for required writing. Most departments and courses are far too big for academics to sustain intellectual relationships with their students, or students to know each other. Many students come to weekly seminars having done no preparatory reading, for them to have looked at one article or chapter is in many cases the most we dare hope.

Attributes that should be the basis for higher education (such as geographical knowledge, proficiency in a foreign language, or the ability to write coherent grammatical prose) cannot be taken for granted. This isn't to say that students don't learn at university. On the whole they seem to enjoy what learning they do, and their knowledge and analytical abilities improve. There is an inspiring minority who really are engaged. But being intellectually awake is not a requirement for higher education. Should we be satisfied with this?

So, is this the fault of academics? No, staff:student ratios our outside our control, while it shouldn't be our job to teach students to write in paragraphs, or to instill in them a basic work ethic. (School teaching is a vital task, but it is not ours.)

We live with an anti-intellectual consumerist public culture, and a wretched school system in which both state and private sectors pursue qualifications at the expense of education. New Labour's attempts to use university entrance as a blunt tool of social engineering were absurd.

Cuts in funding, and the further commodification of degrees, certainly won't help matters. But the social problems of ensuring fair access to higher education shouldn't obscure the intellectual challenges faced by universities.

And if the Liberal Democrats don't acknowledge this then who will?

Paul Marsden says he will sue the Daily Mirror over phone hacking

Today's news bulletins have carried reports that Paul Marsden - the Labour, Liberal Democrat and (briefly) Labour again MP for Shrewsbury - is to sue the Mirror Group because he believes his phone was illegally hacked.

I can report this news myself from the best possible source, because Paul Marsden has a blog. And on it he reprints the text of a statement issued by his solicitor:
Today Paul Marsden, former Labour MP confirmed that he has initiated legal action against a reporter and the Mirror Group following receipt of information and evidence.

Mr Marsden said, “I can confirm that I have instructed my Solicitor (Mark Lewis) to write to the Mirror regarding private stories which appeared in that paper. I have strong reasons to believe that I was the victim of unlawful hacking by a reporter who subsequently moved to the News of the World, under Andy Coulson.

“I understand that the reporter was suspended last year in respect of hacking carried out for that paper last year.

“It would not be appropriate to make detailed comments while sensitive enquiries are being made of the phone company O2.
Looking through his blog, I find confirmation that Marsden is indeed the author of The Blackfriars of Shrewsbury: History of the Dominican Friary, as I once suggested.

I also find that he has posted his poetry - a decision that may fairly be described as courageous.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Lord Bonkers to the Lib Dem Whips Office?

Living on Words Alone  completes his suggested reshuffle:

There would of course be one vacancy left and given the need for the parliamentary party to put the splits of the tuition fee debacle behind I would bolster the Whips Office (replacing Norman Lamb) with the inestimable Lord Bonkers – the party’s last remaining link to the Liberal landslide government of 1906, Bonkers is the epitome of loyalty to the party over the years, can recite the Areopagitica backwards and comes with unpaid support from Meadowcroft. I’d reckon he’d clampdown on the slightest sniff of rebellions as quickly as you can say ‘counterfactual’.
Lord Bonkers comments exclusively for Liberal England: A splendid idea!

Anthony Jenkinson: From Meerkat Harborough to Moscow

The Leicester Mercury's report on Meerkat Harborough quotes Bernard Bresbode from the town's civic society:
"It is an interesting idea. A community donation would also certainly be welcome."

He said a Russian connection may not be a million miles from the truth, as in Tudor times Harborough-born merchant Anthony Jenkinson travelled there and set up trading links.

Mr Besbrode said: "It could well be that a form of twinning could have been established then between Harborough and a Russian village."
Anthony Jenkinson was born here in 1529 and made four trips to Muscovy and beyond. You can read extracts from The Voyage of Master Anthony Jenkinson, made from the city of Mosco in Russia, to the city of Boghar in Bactria, in the year 1558: written by himself to the Merchants of London of the Muscovy Company on the web.

Jenkinson became lord of the manor of Sywell in Northamptonshire and is buried at Teigh in Rutland. The family later moved to Oxfordshire and one of Anthony's descendants, Robert Banks Jenkinson, became prime minister as Lord Liverpool.

Now vote for Meerkat Harborough by leaving a comment on Facebook.

Downing Street needs a cat again

What it could look like

We have all seen the film of the Downing Street rat. Yet, reports the BBC, the authorities are refusing to embrace the obvious solution, follow Winston Churchill and get a cat.

On reflection, we Liberal Democrats should have insisted that this measure was included in the Coalition agreement.

You will remember Humphrey, who held the position of Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office under John Major. He was shot by the incoming New Labour administration at the personal insistence of Cherie Blair.

Later Alastair Darling had a cat called Sybil at 11 Downing Street.

Sixties radio and sixties trains

Another of those nostalgic videos that combine railway film from the 1960s with hits of the same era. Here steam, diesel and electric locomotive power are accompanied by Radio Luxembourg and Radio Caroline.

Of particular interest to me is the footage of Leicester Central and London Road stations and of the platforms on the north to west curve at Ambergate. You even get a glimpse of Hemel Hempstead station in the 1960s.

Somehow the trains have aged far more quickly than the music.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

GUEST POST Children and the surveillance state: Will the Coalition keep its word?

Terri Dowty is director of ARCH - Action on Rights for Children

You should have seen our high-fives back in May when the coalition agreement was published. Not just one, but three of our long-fought campaigns looked as if they would at last cross the finishing line. We were promised that Contactpoint - the central database of every child in England – was heading for the scrapheap; that the retention of children’s DNA on the national DNA database would be drastically reduced, and that parental consent was to become mandatory whenever schools demand that children provide their fingerprints in exchange for library books and hot meals.

We threw a party on the day that Contactpoint’s plug was pulled, and will rustle up something fizzy just as soon as we’ve seen whether the content of the imminent ‘Freedom’ Bill lives up to expectations.

Here at ARCH Towers, there are plenty more reasons to be cheerful: we’ve said goodbye to ID Cards and the costly dog’s dinner of an NHS IT project, and hello to a root and branch reform of child protection in the shape of the Munro review, which might just give us a coherent system after a decade of ill-considered and counter-productive policy.

It feels a bit churlish, then, to say that our jubilant mood is increasingly overshadowed by a nagging uneasiness: do these obvious (at least to us) improvements signify a fundamental shift in attitude, or do they simply deal with a few high-profile issues without challenging the underlying illiberalism that created the problem?

Before the election, both the Liberals and the Conservatives signalled their disapproval of the way in which so many intrusive measures had been introduced via regulations - and sometimes with no scrutiny whatsoever.

In their IT manifesto, the Conservatives went so far as to promise that no new database would ever be constructed without primary legislation. From that statement, one could reasonably assume that they deplored sweeping data-gathering powers being granted to ministers, so we felt optimistic that the powers already in existence would be revoked.

That simply isn’t happening and, so far, we haven’t been able to get any assurances that it will. Thus, s12 Children Act 2004, which empowers the Secretary of State to create children’s databases via regulations, remains in force and construction of Contactpoint’s nasty little sister, the eCAF database, continues. This is to hold and share the personal profile, or CAF, of every child seeking council services – around 4m children a year.

Attempts have been made to justify eCAF on the basis that it is consent-based, but this is moonshine. If consent is to be valid, it must be freely-given and we have lost count of the number of families and practitioners who have told us that the rule in their own area is: ‘no CAF, no services’. It also requires that the person giving consent has the legal capacity to do so, but 12 years old has inexplicably emerged as the blanket age at which a child can consent to data-sharing in their own right. There is no basis in law whatsoever for this assertion. It is nonsense. It has been made up.

The thrice-yearly school census, the details of which are specified in regulations, will continue to hoover personal data from school management systems about every state-funded school pupil and dump it on the National Pupil Database. This is a permanent data collection that includes information about behaviour and attendance. Exclusions for bullying, substance misuse and sexual misconduct each have their own codes, forming a permanent record of offences that were probably committed in the view of a headteacher- because the test for excluding a pupil is that the alleged behaviour occurred ‘on a balance of probabilities’.

To make it worse, the power to collect this information was gained via a last-minute, smoke-and-mirrors amendment at committee stage of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. It took just ten minutes.

If the coalition disapproves so heartily of draconian powers exercised via secondary legislation, why does it continue to use them? ‘No new databases without primary legislation’ sounded pretty promising, but we’re beginning to suspect that we missed a muttered: ‘because we have quite enough powers already, thanks’.

We don’t want to stop feeling optimistic that children and families might regain some of their privacy, but it’s hard not to feel that, yet again, we’re watching some horribly familiar shadow-boxing and semantic games.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

How undercover police turn their worst nightmares into reality

G.K. Chesterton's novel The Man Who Was Thursday involves an anarchist cell, every one of whose members is revealed to be an undercover policeman.

I have been thinking of it in recent days, as the number of undercover police officers involved in environmental pressure groups has become clear. Because it seems to me that the police are in danger of turning their worst nightmares into concrete reality.

First they convince themselves that essentially herbivorous groups like Plane Stupid or Reclaim the Streets are plotting to disrupt the nation. So they send undercover officers to join those groups and take the lead in plotting just the sort of destructive actions that they fear.

Then in today's Observer an undercover officer is quoted as saying: "You cannot not be promiscuous in those groups. Otherwise you'll stand out straightaway."

Well, maybe. But maybe too the promiscuity of environmental activists is a figment of police imagination. And maybe by attempting to fit in with this imagined promiscuity they make it a reality - at least in their own lives.

Ginger Baker's Airforce: Don't Care

If you can remember Ginger Baker's Airforce then you probably weren't in it. So it is just as well that there is an introduction to the band's history on Ginger Baker's website.

This loose group was put together by Baker after Eric Clapton walked out on Blind Faith. It issued two LPs in 1970, but few people played on both. This song is taken from the first LP, which was live and involved, among others, performers plucked from wreckage of Blind Faith and Traffic.

As far as I can discover, there are three saxophonists playing here: Graham Bond, Chris Wood and Harold Macnair. Steve Winwood is playing the organ and shares the vocals with Jeanette Jacobs. Jacobs was a member of the American girl group Cake and married Wood before dying at the age of 32.

Long, possibly substance-enhanced tracks of this sort can often descend into tedium and noodling, but here the sheer musicianship of those involved keeps things interesting.

Jim Parks on the birth of one-day cricket

I posted a short piece under this title over at The Corridor yesterday evening.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How to vote for Meerkat Harborough

Earlier this week I reported the exciting news that there are plans to rename the town Meerkat Harborough.

If you want to ensure that the honour of being twinned with Meerkovo goes nowhere else, then hurry to Aleksandr Orlov's Facebook page and post your nomination for Market Harborough on his wall.

Not that I understand Facebook.

In which I buy a tweed jacket from a man who makes Daleks

I have been thinking for some time that I have reached the age when a man should own a Harris tweed jacket. So today I went to Northampton to buy myself one.

It hasn't changed my character. So far, at least, I have not subscribed to the Daily Telegraph or made sarcastic comments about anyone's Latin homework.

The gentleman who served me said a lot of young people are asking for tweed these days because of Matt Smith (who, incidentally, comes from Northampton). But it turns out that he has a closer connection with Doctor Who than that...

Friday, January 21, 2011

How Tony Blair's foreign policy adventures caused our current economic problems

At some point in the middle of his premiership (and 9/11 is as good a date to choose as any) Tony Blair lost interest in domestic policy. Modernising the constitution and reforming public services suddenly seemed tame to him when set beside geopolitics.

This had two effects.

First, he loosened Gordon Brown's reins and allowed him to divorce Prudence and spend, spend, spend. With results we see all around us today. Even if you blame all of the current deficit on the bankers, you have to accept that this increased public spending severely limited the government's room for manoeuvre once the crisis hit.

Second, his foreign adventures soon made Blair and his government unpopular. When it came to setting the policies on which Labour would fight the 2005 general election (and scrape a third term) he had to endorse Brown's spending because the public no longer had much trust in him. They wanted jam today because they did not trust him to provide more tomorrow if they waited.

So did Tony Blair's foreign policy adventures cause our current economic problems?

Well, it's a theory.

So farewell then Andy Coulson

When the Guardian broke the News of the World phone-hacking story in July 2009 I wrote that it "could be a huge political scandal". So far that has to count as a bit of an overstatement, but the affair did for Andy Coulson today.

The case against him was always as I expressed it in that original post:
as Andrew Neil explained on Newsnight yesterday evening, it is inconceivable that Coulson would not have quizzed his reporters about their methods when they came to him with big stories.

An editor has to be able to judge the truth of a story and how defensible it would be in court. The way the story was come by is central to both these question.
If this affair, as appears to be happening, now comes to centre on relations between the News International and the police then it could still turn into a huge scandal.

In any case, I can claim to be more prophetic than Guido Fawkes, who has always argued that Coulson would survive. Try a post from 11 December of last year:
What has been a politically motivated attack by enemies of the Murdoch press was bound to fail without a smoking gun, however much they huffed and puffed.

Six of the Best 124

"I didn’t join the SDP and then the Liberal Democrats to always be in opposition, to always be watching on while others played politics. I want us to be in power – again and again – to put into place as many of the policies I believe in." Keith Nevols enjoys seeing the party in power.

Sara Bedford at Always Win When You're Singing suggests that Nick Clegg should take advantage of the transfer window to sign Clarke Carlisle. He is the new Chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association and appeared on Question Time last night.

Living on Words Alone suggests that, by encouraging the smuggling of counterfeit cigarettes, high taxes on tobacco are doing more harm to health than good.

Social Media Week London (7-11 February will see more than 70 (mostly free) events taking place the city, reports Londonist.

Far Away Is Close At Hand In Images Of Elsewhere. English Buildings explains the origins of a famous graffito beside the railway into Paddington.

Song of the Paddle explores the River Welland between Gretton and Wakerly, taking lunch beneath the Welland Viaduct.

Ed Balls will challenge subeditors

The BBC soon changed the headline on this report, but it remains in the RSS feed.

Posh and Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain

It may annoy some recent commenters on this blog, but this is a potentially important and interesting programme. From the BBC Two website:
David Cameron and Nick Clegg seem made for each other: Eton and Oxford meets Westminster School and Cambridge. But does the return of public school boys to the top of our politics say something worrying about the decline of social mobility in Britain?

Andrew Neil goes on a journey from the Scottish council house he grew up in to the corridors of power to ask if we will ever again see a prime minister emerge from an ordinary background like his.

In this provocative film Andrew seeks to find out why politicians from all parties appear to be drawn from an ever smaller social pool - and why it matters to us all.
Posh and Posher - a silly title - is being shown next Wednesday, 26 January, at 9 p.m. on BBC Two.

Later: Read more on Andrew Neil's programme.

The Tory right turns on Baroness Warsi

I am on the electronic mailing lists for public events held by the University of Leicester. When, a few days ago, I heard that Baroness Warsi would be giving a lecture, I asked for a ticket.

I never dreamed that this event would be the lead story on the seven o'clock news on the morning it took place.

For some reason the Daily Telegraph decided to splash on some unremarkable remarks by Warsi as though there was something startling about them:
Islamophobia has “passed the dinner-table test” and is seen by many as normal and uncontroversial, Baroness Warsi will say in a speech on Thursday.

The minister without portfolio will also warn that describing Muslims as either “moderate” or “extremist” fosters growing prejudice.

Lady Warsi, the first Muslim woman to attend Cabinet, has pledged to use her position to wage an “ongoing battle against bigotry”.
Then during the day the Spectator announced:
EXCLUSIVE: Warsi did not clear speech with No. 10
And Tim Montgomerie chipped in on Twitter:
BREAKING at @Spectator_CH The accident prone Sayeeda Warsi did NOT clear her speech on Islam
Note in particular the snide "accident prone".

Having attended her lecture, I can report that this campaign by right-wing elements in the Tory part represented a ridiculous overselling of rather a mundane lecture. As Warsi herself said, there was nothing in the Telegraph that she has not said in public before. And does No. 10 have to clear academic lectures anyway?

Why is the Tory right was out to get Sayeeda Warsi? No doubt there are those among it who cannot cope with seeing a Muslim woman from a humble background in the cabinet. But I suspect the less Blimpish among them are out for revenge for her remarks after the Oldham East & Saddleworth by-election.

She told the BBC in the aftermath of the declaration:
"We had many many, members of Parliament turning up, we had some who made much comment about the fact that we weren't fighting a strong enough campaign but interestingly didn't turn up to campaign.

"I would say to those who are critical: 'Unless you were here, unless you were out delivering and unless you were knocking on doors, you really don't have a right to complain about us not being vigorous enough'."
I don't suppose she has been forgiven for that.

Besides, to the Tory right she is just another Cameroon who is preventing the party from adopting the hard-line policies that would sweep them to power (much as they did in 2001 and 2005).

But what was the speech like?

I did not find Warsi's claim that Britain is facing "a rising tide of anti-religious bigotry" convincing. In fact she hardly tried to prove it at all.

There was some good stuff, notably the parallels she drew with the position of Muslims in Britain today and the struggles over Catholic Emancipation two centuries ago. But the speech in general lacked a coherent overarching argument.

And though the term is widely used, I am not convinced by talk of "islamophobia". Opposition to Muslims or any other group does not necessarily arise out of fear: more often it arises from distaste or even envy. Besides it is easy to deploy such concepts in an attempt to rule out legitimate criticism of religion.

Her responses to the questions were far more impressive than the speech itself. She was scathing about the previous government's Prevent programme, which failed to tackle extremism, annoyed the mainstream Muslim community and suggested to other people that those Muslims were receiving preferential treatment.

She was also critical of what she termed "state multiculturalism", which tended to emphasise people's difference rather than what we have in common and could see different ethnic groups competing for the same funds to build a community centre.

And though a question blaming British foreign policy for Muslim hostility won applause from the audience (some of it seemed to come from me) she was having none of it. Her defence of British values would have melted the hearts of the Tory right if she had heard it.

I was part of a typical multiracial, multi-faith Leicester audience - I found myself sitting next to a Jewish Dawkinsite of my acquaintance.

In front of me was a young man with a blue pen who wrote out a long, critical question about the campaign Warsi fought as Conservative candidate in Dewsbury in 2005. The word "homophobia" - another phobia - featured prominently. He made no effort to ask it, but perhaps he felt better for writing it.

That campaign was later described by Pink News as follows:
Her leaflets claimed children were being “propositioned” for gay relationships.

They said: “Labour has scrapped Section 28, which was introduced by the Conservatives to stop schools promoting alternative sexual lifestyles such as homosexuality to children as young as seven years old.

“Labour reduced the age of consent for homosexuality from 18 to 16, allowing schoolchildren to be propositioned for homosexual relationships.”
All deeply reprehensible, though Pink News reports that she later thought better of these claims. And I distrust the style of argument that seeks to pin a label ("racist", "homophobe") on an opponent and uses it as an excuse to ignore anything they say about anything else.

I have often argued that the divides within the two Coalition parties are more significant than the divide between the parties. Warsi is in the half of the Conservative Party that I am comfortable being associated with - her opponents are in the half I do not care for.

And how will this row affect her? She said she came from a working-class background and had spent much of her professional career as a defence solicitor in prisons and police cells. "It takes more than a few blogs to upset me."

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The departure of Alan Johnson and the dangers of Ed Balls

The announcement of Alan Johnson's resignation came just as I was leaving work. Guido Fawkes suggests there will be a scandal in the Sunday papers and implicates Ed Balls in its leaking. (Later: Tomorrow's Daily Mail suggests a different story is behind his resignation.)

Whatever the truth of that, Johnson never looked comfortable as shadow chancellor. His appointment has to count as a bad error by Ed Miliband, ranking alongside his naming of Phil Woolas as shadow immigration minister - though at least the latter showed a wicked sense of humour.

When Ed Balls was passed over as shadow chancellor I suggested that it was a sign of weakness rather than strength on Ed Miliband's part:
I am reminded of the way the England selectors used to leave out good players (John Snow, Phil Edmonds) because they might be disruptive or hard to control.
Well, Miliband has his star fast bowler now.

Will Balls strengthen the Labour team? He certainly knows his economics, but he is heavily implicated in the failures of the Brown years. More importantly, his instinct will be to return to a Brownite "Labour investment vs Tory cuts" attack.

If Ed Miliband does not try to rein him in then, however popular this approach is in the short term, Labour will lack credibility as an alternative government come the next election. If Miliband does try to rein him in, there will be fireworks.

If there is scandal brewing over Alan Johnson then he might have been doomed whatever job he was given. But he is a likeable politician and would have been an asset to the shadow cabinet in an elder statesman role - something like shadow foreign secretary or shadow leader of the House. I am sorry to see him go.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Rothwell Congregational Sunday School

There I was in Christine's Book Cabin. They had a book on Rothwell Congregational Church, so I had to buy it.

When I was there a couple of weeks ago I was taken by the Sunday school that stands next to the church, though I felt there was something a little home-made about it.

I may have been on to something. For the book, Memorials of the Independent Chapel at Rothwell by G.T. Streather, says:
After all the heartaches and attendant problems which had led the way, a new block of buildings for use as a Sunday School and general purposes had finally been erected. Amid great rejoicing these well-built spacious rooms, designed by Mr William Dawkins, the church organist, had come to fruition.

Built on two levels, the entrance to the upper room was about ten-feet from the south-east corner of the Church. The entrance to the lower room was from Gas Street, as Meeting Lane had then become. Direct communication between the two levels was not made at that time.
Or perhaps I am being unfair to Mr Dawkins as he was a stonemason in his day job. A genealogy site records that he was the organist at the Congregational Church for 36 years and died in 1890 aged 66.

The Sunday School was opened on Good Friday 1886, but the book says that Rothwell Independent Church already existed in embryo form as early as 1655.

Guest Post: In praise of slow government - Simon Beard

In the week that peers are being made to stay up all night to block a Labour party filibuster and the health secretary has block-booked the Today programme in order to explain his NHS reforms he is rushing through it occurs to me that perhaps we should be asking "is this really necessary?"

And, just as the conservative right have given up on conservative values, perhaps it is time for Liberal radicals to suggest that no, it isn't.

Its not that the reforms are all bad reforms, many of them are eminently sensible, but given that we are legislating to ensure fixed five year parliaments is it right that everything gets crammed into the first 12 months?

Doing this means hampering parliaments ability to scrutinise legislation, and hence the change that it will all need to be redone n two years time anyway.

Doing this means depriving citizens of any real sense of what is going on and why.

Doing this means that those professionals who work for the state face a double uncertainty, even if they escape the cuts they are going to be asked to change the way they work dramatically.

Let us not forget after all that we have just got rid of a government that never liked to end a parliament with the same education system it began with (that sort of thing is just frightfully common!). Those who work in the public sector hardly had time to get used to one set of regulations days before it was taken away, torn up and a new one given to them instead. This is not the way to get the best out of people. It is also not the way to run a government.

Naturally parties fear getting bogged down and this can easily happen once they stop believing they can change things. However, the real cause of most political stagnation is initiative fatigue, not a lack of initiative. The last Labour government really did do quite a lot in its first two years, but one thing it apparently failed to do was sit down and decide what it wanted to do next.

Let's not make that mistake.

Instead the government could be taking time over the things that need doing right now, redrawing electoral boundaries, cutting the deficit, restoring some of our civil liberties; and plan out just how they will ensure that all the reforms they have planned for the next five years can be fitted in with enough time to keep people informed about what they are doing, and without cause for all night sittings. In the mean time, perhaps our police officers, teachers and nurses could finally get a chance to just do their job for a change.

Simon Beard is a philosophy student at the LSE and blogs regularly for ResPublica.

Yes, it's Meerkat Harborough

From the Leicester Mercury:
An advertising agency acting for the Compare The Market insurance website wants to turn Market Harborough into Meerkat Harborough for a day as part of its latest campaign.

It will promote Meerkovo, the mythical Russian village home of Aleksandr – the now infamous meerkat who launched the adverts, along with the "simples" catchphrase, in 2009.

London advertising agency Good Relations is looking to launch a competition to find a twin for Meerkovo, and wants to use Harborough as an example for the TV ad.
Meerkat Weighton? Meerkat Deeping? No, they just won't do. It has to be Meerkat Harborough.

Would you like to write for Liberal England?

Do you have an idea or argument you would like to share with the world? Would you like to publish it on a (ahem) popular blog?

I have decided to invite people to contribute guest posts to Liberal England. I can offer the prospect of hundreds or thousands of readers for your thoughts and would be happy for you to link to your own blog, pressure group or employer in the post.

So if you have an idea for a posting please send me an email. If I am too far out of sympathy with your views I will say so and turn the offer down, but I hope to be reasonably, er, liberal about what I accept.

I am assuming that guest will want to write about politics. But if you did want to embrace the eclecticism for which this blog is noted and write about the Stiperstones, the Spencer Davis Group or obscure buildings in villages near Market Harborough I would be happy to consider posts like that too.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Little Bowden Village Institute

On Saturday I bought a copy of Boatbuilders of Market Harborough by Bob Hakewill and Michael Beech. How could you resist a title like that?

It mentions that Little Bowden Joinery in Queen Street used to fit boats out - and I can remember seeing hulls in their yard. But what is really interesting is that the authors say the company's premises, which it still occupies today, "used to be the Village Institute".

Something else to investigate.

Penny Red in pantomime

The blog row of the day has been the one between Guido Fawkes and the ubiquitous Laurie Penny. Guido has discovered Penny, who writes the Penny Red blog, advertising for an intern and offering less than the national minimum wage.

There is a big problem over the rise of the intern, because offering these unpaid posts tends to restrict entry to attractive professions to young people from wealthy families. I am less concerned about a short-term, personal assistant post like the one Penny is offering, though how she squares the set up with her very public radical conscience would be interesting to know.

What struck me more was Guido's description of her as a "privately educated revolutionary who learnt about the hard knocks of life at Wadham College, Oxford".

So just another rich kid pretending to be one of the workers, then. I should not be surprised at this by now, but you would have to study Penny's writings very hard to find any hint of this background.

The impression that Penny is merely playing at being a revolutionary is strengthened by a little gentle googling. For she turns out to have been a stalwart of the Oxford Light Entertainment Society. Her triumphs included Jack (in "Jack and the Beanstalk"), Ogdred (in "Cinderella") and Tommy the Cat (in "Dick Whittington"). Such amusing young people!

So is Laurie Penny a serious left-wing figure?

Oh no she isn't!

Six of the Best 123

It's a bit late for post-mortems on Oldham East & Saddleworth, but this one comes from Chris Davies MEP who used to be MP for the old Littleborough & Saddleworth seat: "On a number of occasions I delivered pieces of literature that I thought would not persuade a single extra person to vote for us, and sometimes I feared that they might do us actual harm. Voters complained that they were assaulted by the sheer number of leaflets, but a criticism of greater concern is that too much of the paper we distributed said nothing worth saying."

But What Does Richard Kemp Think? He thinks it is time for a Campaign for the Abolition of Parliament, that's what.

The "Edwardian attitudes" towards parental leave that Nick Clegg complains of were still around in the 1970s, says Mary Reid.

Owen Jones on LabourList offers a dispatch from the wilder shores of the Labor left - the annual conference of the Labour Representation Committee.

David MacLean, the Leicester Mercury's political correspondent, has little time for his opposite numbers in television and their attitude to reporting local councils: "TV reporters, mainly because they appear on the gogglebox most evenings and probably get recognised in Waitrose as a result, are usually the worst. 'I’m on a deadline', they tell press officers breathlessly, as if to distinguish themselves from the rest of the media pack who are also working to deadline."

Malcolm Redfellow's Home Service remembers Nat Lofthouse and Susannah York (who played together in the classic Bolton Wanderers forward line of the fifties).

Parts of the NHS are second rate

It seems it was the American journalist Michael Kinsley who first observed that a gaffe takes place when a politician inadvertently tells the truth. There is no clearer illustration of this than David Cameron's interview for the Today programme yesterday in which he said or implied or was thought to have implied that parts of the NHS offer a second-rate service.

Of course parts of the NHS offer a second-rate service.

If you doubt this, have a look at the front page of yesterday's Leicester Mercury:
Two elderly women were let down by the NHS in the care they received up until their deaths.

Today, we reveal that staff are facing disciplinary action following the treatment of 72-year-old Sylvia Densham, who died of infected bed sores while waiting for a hip replacement operation.

Leicester City NHS Community Health Service has admitted failings.

In another case, the health ombudsman has found that 92-year-old Joan Adams, who died from internal bleeding four weeks after being admitted to hospital, suffered more discomfort and distress during the last weeks of her life than was necessary because of "service failure".

Following the inquest into Mrs Densham's death, Leicester coroner Catherine Mason wrote to the Community Health Service listing her concerns over the treatment she had received.
"Second-rate" appears something of a euphemism here.

What is also telling is Labour's reaction to Cameron's interview. John Healey, one of the more able figures in the shadow cabinet, is quoted by the Daily Telegraph, as calling the prime minister's remarks "an insult to millions of NHS staff".

This is a thoroughly modern reaction: what matters is not whether something is true but whether it might cause offence to someone.

More than that, Healey's implication that the only factor that determines the quality of care received is the efforts of staff is strange. A socialist, of all people, should understand that workers can be doing their best but be poorly managed or resourced.

Besides, amongst "millions of NHS staff" there are bound to be some who are not doing their best.

The government's NHS reforms look rushed to me. But the direction of travel - making NHS services more responsive to individual and local circumstances - is one that Liberals should support.

Monday, January 17, 2011

India hold the Ashes

I have just written something for the cricket blog The Corridor to draw attention to a post by a fellow Lib Dem blogger.

Nikolaus Pevsner revisited

After my post on Pevsner and Rothwell Congregational Chapel I received an email from Susie Harries, who is writing a biography of the great man - Bringer of Riches: A Life of Nikolaus Pevsner.

She wrote to me:
Pevsner was aware of his weakness where Nonconformist churches were concerned. Part of the problem was that his county trips were limited to university vacations and he worked to a fairly hectic schedule, based on research from existing sources, which were much more comprehensive for the CofE ...
His wife was indeed a fast and erratic driver; in one car (a Ford Prefect) the horn sounded every time she turned right, and she nearly killed them during the tour of Essex, when they were towing a caravan. But it would have been much worse if he had been driving himself: he failed his driving test so often that the driving school were embarrassed into offering him a discount.
You can read more from Susie Harries on her blog about Pevsner.

Another good introduction to Pevsner and his series The Buildings of England is Jonathan Meades's 2001 programme Pevsner Revisited. The first part is at the top of this post and Youtube will offer you the subsequent ones automatically.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Comus: Diana

Diana Diana kick your feet up
Lust bears his teeth and whines
For he's picked up the scent of virtue
And he knows the panic signs
It is back to Rob Young's Electric Eden for inspiration, but we are a long way from "All Around My Hat". Here Diana is the quarry not the huntress and is pursued "through the steaming woodlands".

Comus were a band based at Ravensbourne College of Art and then in Beckenham and were championed by the young David Bowie.

They were very much a band of the early 1970s. The recording of their first LP was hit by strikes in the electricity supply industry and its publicity and distribution was hit by a postal strike.

Young writes of them:
Comus deployed mainly acoustic elements - guitars, violin, flute and oboe, bongos and percussion, plus electric bass - with a viciousness seldom heard in the pastorally inclined folk-rock of the time.

[Roger] Wootton wrote songs around a distinctive chopping, driving rhythm guitar. Colin Pearson's fiddle buzzed and trilled like a forbidden pagan jitterbug. Andy Hellaby's electric bass urged the music forward, occasionally locking into a Can-like mantric groove. Rob Young's flute cavorted like Pan gloating at the revels.

And then there were the vocals - Wootton swooping from a saturnine soprano to a guttural, lecherous goading, shadowed by [Bobbie] Watson's angelic counterpoints and milk-souring disharmonies. Their repertoire was snarled tales of innocence corrupted, brutal ravishment, clinical derangement and murderous gore.

Comus was the son and cupbearer of Bacchus, representing anarchy, chaos and excess. Comus is also the title commonly given to a masque by John Milton that was first performed at Ludlow Castle in 1634.

You can read more about the band on the Comus Official Website and there is a good article about them by Chris Blackford.

Calder on Air: The Archers and EastEnders

My column from Friday's Liberal Democrat News.

Same old, same old

England didn’t just retain the Ashes in Australia with three innings victories: they retained the Ashes with three innings victories, every one of which was clinched during the shipping forecast. You could hear those vital overs described in plenty of other places, but there was still something wonderfully old-fashioned about the way the Radio 4 announcer’s voice broke in with “And now the Shipping Forecast, issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency...” and the latest news from South Utsire.
Another Radio 4 institution was on less sure ground over Christmas as poor Nigel Pargeter was tipped off the roof at Lower Loxley to mark the 60th anniversary of The Archers (Radio 4). For a day the nation held its breath, hoping that the blameless Nigel had landed on one of the less popular characters like Helen or Shula, but it was not to be.

They have an odd way of marking birthdays in Borsetshire, and I wonder if this heartless culling was such a good idea. You can argue that it was necessary to refresh the cast and introduce dramatic tension, but freshness and tension is not what Archers’ fans are after. We listen because we want things to remain the same.

Incidentally, one of my Liberal colleagues when I was on Harborough District Council remembered hearing the very first episode of The Archers as a small boy. As it was broadcast in the Dick Barton slot, he had been confidently looking forward to a series about Robin Hood. He was disappointed to be presented with “an everyday story of country folk” and had held a grudge against the programme ever since.

Another popular soap has also got itself into trouble through a controversial story line, though it being EastEnders (BBC1) it involved far more than someone falling of the roof. In fact, that’s an everyday occurrence in Walford: it’s best to keep a weather out for falling minor gangsters if you have to walk the streets there.

So the writers went in for a saga involving a cot death and a swapped baby. Like most of EastEnders it was pretty tasteless, but its defenders will say it is a drama and is entitled to be as tasteless or improbable as it chooses.

Except that EastEnders has traditionally taken itself extraordinarily seriously. Back in the 1990s, when Joe Wicks was afflicted with schizophrenia to jolly things along, the programme’s editor announced: “Because it has a continuing storyline, EastEnders was able to look at the effect that schizophrenia has on a family and on individual relationships. I wanted to humanise it and look at the emotional impact it has on people.”

And it has been taken seriously too. The National Schizophrenia Fellowship said: “People could watch Joe going through the motions. We showed things were not so bad and how you could get help. There is so much misinformation about schizophrenia with the media focusing on extreme cases. And Joe was a handsome young man, not a spotty loner. He showed that schizophrenia can happen to anyone and made it easier for people to talk about it.”

In those days – the early days of New Labour – EastEnders was practically an arm of government. Every charity and pressure group dreamed of persuading it to run a story that touched upon their pet cause. Today it is just another soap opera – and that is a relief for all of us.


Toast, Just William, Upstairs Downstairs. And, though a Morecambe and Wise show was out of the question, there was still a drama about their rise to fame.

You could dismiss Christmas television as lone long nostalgiafest. Certainly, there was a colossal amount of attention paid to period detail in the costume and furnishings. But quarrying into our national past is one way of seeking to understand the present – and a more promising one than that offered by EastEnders.

Choosing Leicester's Mayor

A sow yesterday

As the prospect of an elected mayor is already causing discord within the Leicester Labour Party, there is a strong case for returning to the traditional way of deciding who should fill the post.

In their The Lore of the Land, Westwood and Simpson write:
An odd story formerly current was that the mayor of Leicester was chosen by a sow. According to an article in the St James's Magazine in 1762, aspiring candidates would each sit with a hat full of beans in his lap and the new mayor would be the one from whose hat the sow ate first.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Market Harborough Magistrates Court

Despite the best efforts of Edward Garnier and local Liberal Democrat councillors, Market Harborough Magistrates Court is one of twelve magistrates courts and six county courts to be closed in the East Midlands. So much for localism and the Big Society.

Anyway, the Bigfern Guide to Market Harborough will tell you all about it:
The Magistrates Court stands on the junction with Doddridge Road and Kings Road. The older section of the buildings, centre and left, were at one time time the Police Station before new premises were built in Fairfield Road. The annex on the extreme left of the old building now house the toilets, and is also an entrance for the disabled. At one time, this section housed the cells where criminals and villains were held. The newer section to the right of the picture is the court room, and was built in 1911.
It also has details of a nasty case of tea larceny that was tried there.

Leicester Labour falling out over Aylestone Meadows

The internal politics of the Labour group that runs Leicester City Council are bloody and obscure. I once commissioned a Liberator article on the subject, but still wouldn't claim to be an expert.

But I know enough to have realised that when the council voted to have an elected mayor for Leicester - without allowing the people of the city a referendum on the matter - the contest to be Labour's candidate would provide good entertainment.

That battle will be concluded later this month. The best candidate, at least in terms of appealing to people who are not habitual Labour voters, would be Sir Peter Soulsby. Given Leicester Labour politics, however, that is no guarantee that he will be chosen.

This choice matters the national stage because Soulsby is currently MP for Leicester South and it is widely expected that he would resign his seat - either to fight the mayoral election or if he won that election.

Meanwhile, the election has ignited the controversy over the Labour-run Leicester City Council's plans to build build all-weather sports pitches and an accompanying car park and pavilion right in the middle of the Aylestone Meadows nature reserve.

Friday's Leicester Mercury had a report beginning:
A Labour councillor in Leicester has accused a party colleague of joining in a row about a football pitch to further his bid to become elected mayor.

Councillor Robert Wann has criticised former city council leader Ross Willmott for saying plans to build a floodlit sports pitch on popular Leicester nature reserve Aylestone Meadows should be ditched.

He says Mr Willmott is only using the issue to try to boost his campaign to become the city's first elected mayor.
I don't know the rights and wrongs of that, but I would be fascinated to know how Wann squares his claim that:
"Ross Willmott calling for us to rethink the plan is silly – the plan is still under consideration and a decision has not yet been made."
with his earlier attack on those seeking to protect the nature reserve:
"I think they are very selfish in their approach. The football facilities are part of an £11m city-wide improvement to sporting facilities which will benefit hundreds of local people."
One other point from Leicester...

The city council has generally been run by Labour, but in 2003 the Liberal Democrats became the largest party and took control as part of a coalition with the Conservatives.

It soon became apparent, however, that the Lib Dem group consisted of strong local campaigners who did not have much else in common. There was not enough shared ideology or a strong enough vision of how the city should be run. The result was that the group split and Labour surged back to power in 2007.

Let this serve as a warning to Liberal Democrat MPs and a reminder to us all that, as a party, we need to think and talk as well as campaign.

Friday, January 14, 2011

St Pancras c.1962

Six of the Best 122

It is time for the post-mortems on Oldham East & Saddleworth. Britain Votes crunches the numbers and finds: "Labour supporters will do well to notice that 'the coalition' still received more votes than they did and tactical voting against them is a new election dynamic that will need to address."

On Liberal Democrat Voice, Chairman Tim Farron supplies the party line: "So, the rumours of our death have indeed been exaggerated – we have proved that in Oldham. I for one am still extremely proud to be a member of the Liberal Democrats, who for the first time in over 65 years have the opportunity to make Government policy."

Jackie Pearcey looks at how the Labour-run Manchester City Council came to announce 2000 redundancies on the day of the by-election.

If not enough children from state schools are getting to top universities then the problem lies with the schools and not the universities, argues Ed Long - again on Lib Dem Voice.

Only in Leicester asks if turning off the traffic lights would save the city from pollution, gridlock and accidents.

"One of the real tragedies of Dickens dying when he did is that, had he lived only another seven years or so, we may have had a sound recording of him speaking, or even reading one of his novels at a public reading." The Victorianist writes about the 1865 railway crash that may have shortened the great man's life.