Friday, August 31, 2012

Tynemouth station

It is a monument to the age of steam, a gateway to the breathtaking beaches of the North East and an architectural achievement that has stood firm for 130 years.
wrote Helen Nugent in the Guardian in April.
Now the long-neglected railway station at Tynemouth is receiving the loving touch that it deserves. 
A multi-million pound renovation project promises to return the Victorian station to its former glory. Close to completion, the transformation of Tynemouth station is, according to the council and planners, a "true tale of a heritage phoenix rising from the ashes".
She's right you know. And another good thing about the station is that it still has one of the North Eastern Railway's tile maps showing the extent of its lines in the region.

These used to be quite common in the stations of Yorkshire and the North East. I could not find the one at York station when I was there earlier this summer, though there was one in the National Rail Museum.

Even better, those maps were made at Jackfield in Shropshire.

Richard Jefferies Halt

From This is Wiltshire:
Visitors to the Miniature Railway at Coate Water could soon see the attraction double in size if a planning application is approved. 
The railway has submitted an application to Swindon Council for the approval of plans to change the use of nearby woodland to provide an extension to the railway and erect a station platform. 
In the application, Hilary Foley, secretary of the North Wilts Model Engineering Society which operates the railway, said: “We have recently been granted the inclusion of extra land within our lease and wish to extend our railway track down towards the Richard Jefferies Museum, effectively doubling the length of ride for passengers and hopefully in time incorporating a station or halt for visitors to the museum.
More about Richard Jefferies and Coate in this guest post.

Leicester's Richard III dig makes encouraging progress

The University of Leicester website had encouraging news of the dig at Greyfriars that hopes to find the body of Richard III:
Progress in our search for the body of King Richard III is exceeding our expectations. The first week could not have gone better. 
That was the message from Richard Buckley, co-director of our Archaeological Services, who is leading the dig to find the medieval monarch at the Greyfriars site in Leicester City Centre. 
Richard presented the latest discoveries from the site at a press briefing held today in the evocative setting of Leicester’s 14th century Guildhall. 
Among the findings so far are medieval window tracery, glazed floor tile fragments, a fragment of stained glass window, part of what may be the Greyfriars cloisters walk and a section of wall which they believe could have belonged to the Greyfriars church. These discoveries have led the team to conclude that it was a high-status building.
Reading between the lines, they have found the Greyfriars monastery, something they were not confident of doing at the start of the dig.

Which must be why Philippa Langley, of the Richard III society, says
“We are in the right area. We have started to get a sense of where Richard’s body may have been brought. I did not think we would be where we are now at the start of the dig. I am totally thrilled. For me, the whole dig is now coming to life.”
The dig is being filmed by Channel 4 for a documentary that will be aired later in the year.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Runners and riders in the Corby by-election

The Northamptonshire Telegraph keeps us up to date as the ballot paper for the forthcoming Corby by-election takes shape.

Labour has chosen Andy Sawford, son of the former MP for neighbouring Kettering Phil Sawford. And the Liberal Democrats have chosen Jill Hope, who has previously fought Harborough and Milton Keynes North.

UKIP has chosen Margot Parker and the paper reports that George Galloway has said he is keen for Respect to field a candidate too.

The Conservatives are meeting to choose and candidate between the lines and, reading between the lines, they may not be an entirely happy ship. Two prominent local Tories - David Sims and Peter Bedford - who originally let it be known they were interested in standing have failed to make the shortlist.

As to the yesterday's silly season story, as put about by Tory bloggers who wanted more hits:
Former England cricket captain Andrew Strauss had been rumoured to be one of those being considered for the shortlist, but his name was ruled out yesterday after it was revealed he had missed the deadline for consideration.
And quite why Strauss would want to rush to stand in a contest he would almost certainly lose was never explained.

Finally, back to UKIP... I think I have discovered the shameful secret that Roger Helmer was so anxious to hide this morning.

The Telegraph says the party has opened campaign headquarters "in the former Baguettaway shop in Everest Lane".

Nasty foreign things, baguettes.

Paddy Ashdown calls on Lib Dems to back Nick Clegg

Responding to the media chatter around Nick Clegg's position as Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown has an article in tomorrow's Guardian calling on the party to back him:
We will be judged at the next election by one fact and one fact only. Whether we have had the mettle to stay the course in delivering effective government for our country at a time of crisis. That is the only thing that matters. All the rest is the froth.
When we all overwhelmingly supported Nick Clegg's decision to lead us into government, we knew it would be difficult. We also knew that we were embarked on a course that would change our party as well as our country. Nick challenged us to leave our comfort zone and make the change from a party of perpetual opposition to one capable of carrying the burdens of government. 
Without Nick, that decision would never have been made, and the historic opportunity to show who we really are would never have existed. It is the job of our leader to take us into government. I failed; Nick has succeeded.

In which I miss a scoop by seconds

Who should be at the counter when I went to get a coffee at the station this morning but Roger Helmer, sometime Conservative and now UKIP MEP for the East Midlands?

Not only that. As I walked in he was saying something like: "...I hope there's not a Guardian journalist here, ha ha" to an acolyte.

It happens that I have written for the Guardian quite often. And I got the feeling that, had I walked in a few seconds earlier, I would have overheard some indiscretion or UKIP secret that would have made, if not an article for the paper, then at least a posting for this blog.

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Somebody's Flung the Cat Again hates it when politicians talk about "hard-working families" - and has some good news from Tim Farron.

"Lives have been ruined by priests who pretend to be godly. Those priests have been knowingly, deliberately and persistently protected by others who pretend to be godly. We have even seen an abuser of children ordained as a priest, despite four bishops and an archbishop knowing the truth about him." A Comfortable Place on the publication of the report of an inquiry by the Archbishop of Canterbury's office into  two decades of child protection failures in the Diocese of Chichester.

Top of the Cops looks at the slow-motion car crash of this November's police and crime commissioner elections, with particular reference to the Conservative selection in Cambridgeshire.

"Killing a learner’s natural curiosity doesn’t happen overnight. It can take as long as 12 years, and in some rare cases even that isn’t long enough." TeachThought helps you hasten the process with its 12 easy steps.

Love and Liberty looks forward to the publication of Alan Garner's Boneland and back to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

On his Guardian blog, Jonathan Jones cuts Damian Hirst in half and pickles him: "1970s Blue Peter was worthy – "too middle class", it might be called by a modern TV executive – and promoted intelligence as well as fun. It was definitely the bookish kids at primary school who won Blue Peter badges. So young Damien Hirst, like me, sat watching Valerie Singleton narrate illustrated biographies of Grace Darling ... So what does Hirst do? He goes on today's Blue Peter and mocks the educational values of 70s Britain and the traditional BBC that he and I both benefited from."

Headline of the Day

Well done ABC News:

Police Say Texas Mayor Killed in Donkey Attack

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Brian Binley launches extraordinary attack on David Cameron - again

In February Brian Binley, the Tory MP for Northampton South, described Prime Minister David Cameron and his government as a 'shady, back-street second-hand car dealership'."

Today he has done it again. In the course of a comically incoherent rant on his blog, Binley writes:
The LibDem minority has run ragged over the government in a manner not remotely justified by the level of their electoral support. When will the leadership wake up to their responsibility as the leading partner? Allowing the LibDems to have their way in a hopeless effort to avert yet another puerile tantrum, whilst at the same time ignoring the pressing needs of an economy struggling to raise itself from base camp, does nothing to engender good will from those who pay the price. 
My point is that Mr Cameron should never have hitched his star to any of the self-indulgent lunacy that has been characteristic of the unreasonable demands of his coalition partners. It was always going to fail, and has created unnecessary distance between him and the country. Why did he not put his foot down and assert his position, firstly, as Prime Minister, and secondly, as leader of the Conservative party? What are his true priorities? It seems that appeasing the childish tit-for-tat approach to politics that is the entire Liberal Democrat mindset has dominated his thoughts for far too long. The country needs a full-time Prime Minister and not a chamber-maid for a marginal, irrelevant pressure group who have got him in a virtual arm-lock with a constant stream of threats to abandon ship.
If the Liberal Democrats are annoying the likes of Binley so much, we must be doing something right.

Last time Binley's outspoken words were soon replaced on his blog by a far milder version. I wonder how long they will last this time?

Athletes with intellectual disabilities return to the Paralympics

This video was produced with the help of a public engagement grant from the British Psychological Society, who are my employers.

You can read more about Professor Jan Burns' work in Nature.

Campaign to save HSBC branch in Kibworth

HSBC ("the world's local bank") wants to close its branch in Kibworth.

The locals are not taking it lying down: there is a petition to sign and a Facebook page to like.

Headline of the Day features rare whale vomit

You'te not going to like this, but the Daily Mail has done it again:

Moby Sick! Rare whale vomit found by schoolboy on beach could be worth £40,000

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The burial of Alexander Rollo at Tynemouth Priory

Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our hero we buried.

We buried him darkly at dead of night,
The sods with our bayonets turning,
By the struggling moonbeam's misty light
And the lanthorn dimly burning.

Charles Woolfe's "The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna" was once a widely memorised and recited poem. Moore won the 1809 battle, which formed part of the Peninsula War, but lost his life in the process.

The bearer of the lantern (or lanthorn) at his burial was Corporal Alexander Rollo. He lived until 1856 and is buried at Tynemouth Priory.

Nick Clegg demands emergency tax on Britain's wealthiest

Tomorrow's Guardian has an interview with the Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister:
Britain's wealthiest people should face an emergency tax to avoid a breakdown in social cohesion as the country fights an "economic war" caused by a longer than expected recession, Nick Clegg has said. 
In the first interview by a senior member of the cabinet to mark the new political season, the deputy prime minister told the Guardian he is embarking on a battle to persuade his Tory coalition partners of the need to ensure the rich shoulder a greater burden of the economic pain.
You can read the full interview on the newspaper's website.

Six of the Best 272

Liberal Youth has launched Bears for Belarus, a campaign to raise awareness of the Lukashenko dictatorship.

"He was never destructive, but he spoke up when he wasn't happy and spent his time developing ideas. He had that winning combination of the sharpest of minds, the most liberal of hearts and the most determined of mindsets." Caron's Musings brings together some tributes to Donald Gorrie, the former Edinburgh Lib Dem MP who died last week.

"Sure, the 2010 Tory campaign was riddled with mistakes and poor judgments, but that 37% is essentially the Tory ceiling. That’s why Cameron wanted the boundary changes, so he could get a majority next time, and his apparent apathy in allowing the boundary changes to be broken demonstrates the extent to which he has accepted he will never deliver the promised Tory majority." A Brief History of Liberty on David Cameron's problems.

"Surveillance Chess is an art performance for a single recipient: the CCTV operator in his control room. Before the performance begins he has total power over his system: he is the all-seeing, seemingly untouchable and incessant observer of public space in front of his camera. !Mediengruppe Bitnik obtains access to his system and to surveillance images and seizes power. But the invitation the play chess makes it clear that the unfriendly takeover is intended to be friendly."

Would you let your children play in the street? asks the Independent. Until recently, Lucy McDonald wouldn't, but thanks to a joint effort with her neighbours, their pavements have become a playground.

Time has some terrific vintage photographs of London.

Trivial Fact of the Day

TV historian Dan Snow is the great great grandson of David Lloyd George.

Whatever you say the Liberal Democrats are that's what you're not

Peter Kelner's latest commentary for YouGov makes sobering reading for Liberal Democrats:
Most right-of-centre voters place the Lib Dems on the Left – and most left-of-centre voters place the party on the Right. Few voters feel that the party’s ideological location is the same as their own. This is especially marked among voters who have switched from Lib Dem to Labour: they are overwhelmingly on the Left themselves, but feel that the Lib Dems no longer are. 
The problem the Lib Dems face is the opposite of the benefit they enjoyed at the height of Cleggmania two years ago. Then, for a short while, millions of voters projected their own idea of the perfect political party onto the Lib Dems and said they would vote for them. Today, many voters project their idea of the LEAST perfect party onto the Lib Dems and say they will cast their vote elsewhere. Unless the party dispels this mixture of confusion and aversion, it will struggle to revive.
This problem of being all things to all people dates back long before Cleggmania. In fact, our campaigning ("keep it local") sometimes encourages just that attitude.

One can also understand the voters' puzzlement about what we now stand for. Through the Blair and Brown years the Liberal Democrat complaint against their governments was essentially that Labour was not being social democrat enough. And then we went into coalition with the Tories.

In large part that move was forced upon us by the election result: the economic situation demanded a stable government and the arithmetic of the Commons meant that a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition was the only one possible.

But it also reflects a shift in the balance of power within the Liberal Democrats. Ever since it was created the party has played host to a remarkable variety of views. That is no bad thing - let a thousand flowers bloom and all that - but it does make possible remarkable shifts in direction.

And what we have seen in recent years is a shift in the Liberal Democrat programme from a social democrat one that promised more spending on public services to a free-market one.

In many ways I welcome that, but the proponents of this shift have to ask themselves why it has alienated are more left-wing voters. I share the analysis that socialism does more to benefit the managerial and professional classes than it does to benefit the workers, but the workers do not appear to see it that way.

My problem with free-market Liberal Democrats is that they have no clear idea of who it is that they want to persuade to vote for them. At its worst their style of argument is an adolescent one of "no one can tell me what to do". At its best it presents cuts in public spending and tax as desirable in their own right.

What it does too rarely is talk to average voters about how free-market policies will improve their lives.

Stuart Syvret on the rule of Law in Jersey - part 2

Part 1 was posted on this blog yesterday.

Thanks to voiceforchildren.

A Cog in the Wheel by Adelade Lubbock

This short review appeared in Liberal Democrat News a couple of weeks ago.

A Cog in the Wheel
Adelade Lubbock (edited by Sara Goodwins)
Loaghan Books, 2012, £9.95

Adelaide Lubbock, the mother of the Lib Dem peer Eric Avebury, must have been quite a lady. Born in London, she spent much of her childhood in Australia where her father was the governor of Victoria. She returned to England and, the mother of a young family, became a professional singer and actress – she was appearing with the Crazy Gang when Word War II broke out.

Rather than become an entertainer for the troops she joined the Red Cross, and at the end of the war she threw herself into work for the Allied Commission for Austria (ACA). This was formed in July 1945 to ensure Austria was “liberated from German domination and re-established as free and independent”. Now Adelaide’s diary of this period has been published by Loaghtan Books under the title A Cog in the Wheel.

Adelaide’s experiences ranged from struggling to improve the terrible sanitary conditions of the emergency camps to hearing opera in a bombed Vienna. She lived in everything from a tent to a house once owned by Richard Strauss.

Some things don’t change. Here is Adelaide’s verdict, as one of the few civilians working for ACA, on military officialdom:
These forms are in my opinion utterly impracticable, and could only have been thought out by one of those absurd theorising boobies who dress themselves up as soldiers and are called ‘experts’. It is folly to expect any harassed DP officer, with thousands of milling refugees clamouring to be fed and sent home, to sit down and fill in a registration form with thirty seven questions on it in quintuplicate; and not only this form, but eighteen others.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Shooters Hill Cheetah of 1963

"There is no new thing under the sun," as the good book says. So here is a post from Transpontine from March in this year.

It is an extract from the book Mystery Big Cats by Merrily Harpur, published by the Heart of Albion Press (which appears to have migrated from Market Harborough to Avebury recently):
The most famous labour-intensive hunt was for an animal dubbed by the press 'The Shooters Hill Cheetah'. On the 18th July 1963 David Beck, driving through Shooters Hill in south-east London, saw a large animal lying by the side of the road. Assuming it to be an injured dog he approached it, and then realised it was in fact a large cat with a long, upward curling tail. It ran off into Oxleas Wood. The same night police officers were amazed to see a 'large golden animal' jump over the bonnet of their patrol car. A check with zoos and circuses confirmed that no animals had escaped. 
It was a magnificent affair. It covered 850 acres and involved 126 policemen with 21 dogs, thirty soldiers, ambulance men and RSPCA officials. No sign of a big cat was found - except for some spoor. These were huge - some seven inches across, the size usually associated with a lion or tiger; yet they showed claw marks, the characteristic not of a lions, but of a cheetah's paw print. The 'cheetah', however, was never caught and the hunters dispersed.
Thanks to @Heresy_Corner on Twitter for the idea.

Daily Mail fails to cover its pawprints over the Essex lion

Go the Daily Mail website and you will find an article laughing at today's furore over the lion that was supposed to be on the loose in Essex.

The headline shouts:
Here, kitty kitty: Image of 'Essex Lion' that sparked massive police hunt is finally revealed as officers call off the search and admit sightings were probably of a 'large domestic cat'
And the article goes on to say:
It also emerged that an image believed to show the lion which was widely viewed online was in fact a fake. 
Essex police warned that 'several doctored photographs are in circulation through social networking sites and other media forums'. 
And officers said one night-time picture in circulation showing the silhouette of what looked like a lion, was 'never one that police were examining'. 
The image - which was widely distributed on Twitter - was thought to show the beast behind a car in a residential area in Basildon, Essex.
And it reprints the phony picture - note the credit to @Twitter.

But where did all those people on Twitter get this photo from? My guess is that for many of them the answer is the Daily Mail earlier today.

Stuart Syvret on the rule of Law in Jersey - part 1

"At the moment the way that Jersey's public authorities operate is not that dissimilar to Putin's Russia. All meaningful power is in the hands of an oligarchy and they don't like free speech, they don't like any challenge to their hold on power or their status or their hold on authority."

Part 2 tomorrow - thanks to voiceforchildren.

Richard III dig latest

Cartoon by Martin Shovel
Follow @MartinShovel on Twitter
and read his blog Creativity Works

More about the Richard III dig from
the University of Leicester

4Rutland - Campaigning for better government in the county

4Rutland - a group set up by three Independent councillors - now has a website:
4Rutland was formed as a response to concerns about risks posed by local Councillors who may put party political allegiance before the needs of people who live and work in Rutland. 
There is a concern that Full Council Meetings on major issues are brief, raising suspicions that decisions may be pre-determined. The Scrutiny process is minimal. Well qualified Councillors are side-lined, with little or no influence in debates that could be about spending £Millions of public money. With such a small Council this cannot be good for Rutland and the people we serve in these difficult times.
The councillors say they will use the site to:
  • Share our thoughts and concerns
  • Keep you informed of current issues at the Council
  • List meetings you might wish to attend
  • Provide internet links to a selection of interesting and helpful resources
With thanks to Martin Brookes, whose own blog was blocked by Rutland Council.

Headline of the Day

The Daily Mail scores a rare win with:

Welsh tourist 'set fire to French man wrapped in toilet paper dressed as an Egyptian mummy'

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Tynemouth Priory

When writing about the Priory on my return from Tynemouth, I used its gatehouse as an illustration. But that is as much a military building as an ecclesiastical one.

The photograph above shows some more of the ruins. The many gravestones date from the 18th and 19th centuries.

There were later military buildings here, but when the army left in 1960 anything that was not Medieval was obliterated. Today archaeologists would be looking to conserve those buildings as an important part of the site's history.

Jackie Trent: Where Are You Now, My Love?

This morning I listened to an edition of The Reunion in which Sue MacGregor brought together five women from the pop scene of the 1960s:
Petula Clark, the child star of the 1940s whose career went stratospheric in the 1960s; Sandie Shaw, the barefoot pop princess who won the Eurovision Song Contest; Helen Shapiro, Britain's first teen pop star who was supported by The Beatles, Jackie Trent, singer and songwriter who wrote hits for Petula Clark, Scott Walker and many others; and Vicki Wickham, the legendary producer of Ready Steady Go who went on to manage Dusty Springfield.
This seems to be one of those programmes that are archived on the BBC iPlayer, so it should still be available. Helen Shapiro and Petula Clark have already featured here.

One of the song excerpts played in the programme was from "Where Are You Now, My Love?" This took Jackie Trent to number one in May 1965 - she wrote it with Tony Hatch, to whom she was married for many years. Their suburban take on Bacharach and David is very effective here.

The song owed part of its success to its use in the television series It's Dark Outside, which featured Oliver Reed among its cast.

But the footage in the video above does not come from that but the film Four in the Morning. This ominous downbeat piece of late kitchen-sink suggested it could be grim in London too - Billy Liar might have been no better off if he had caught that train. It starred Judi Dench in a rare early cinema appearance. This was years before it was made compulsory for her to appear in every British film.

Four in the Morning had a notable John Barry score in its own right. Elsewhere on Youtube you can find the main theme and some of this river footage with the correct music.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Richard III dig at Greyfriars, Leicester

Naturally, I went to Greyfriars today to look for the archaeological dig trying to find Richard III.

There wasn't a lot to see - just a mechanical digger opening a trench and no bones sticking out of the ground.

Still, I wasn't the only person whose curiosity had been piqued.

Six of the Best 271

Nouse, the University of York student newspaper, interviews Jenny Tonge: "Yes, I think Nick is right to say he will not go along with the Boundary changes when the Tories have stitched us up on AV and House of Lords reform. I wish he had behaved similarly on other issues too. Perhaps he is waking up at last!"

Mike Smithson at Political Betting finds that disenchanted Liberal Democrat voters in Corby are overwhelmingly turning to Labour and concludes: "Those in the blue team who think that appeasing the right is the route to electoral success are fools – but my guess is that they are likely to prevail."

Nic Prigg's Blog is deeply unimpressed by a leaflet from the Scottish pro-Union campaign Better Together.

Remember the Tory MPs who believe British workers are “among the worst idlers in the world”, that the UK “rewards laziness” and that “too many people in Britain prefer a lie-in to hard work”? Vox Political believes that they are the worst idlers of all.

Andrew Bibby, writing for the Guardian, reports a new wave of interest in workers' co-operatives.

Is Mark Pack the Kevin Pietersen of the Liberal Democrats? Read Guido Fawkes and judge for yourself.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The problem with children today: The Liberal Democrats and children - Part 2

Yesterday I posted part 1 of this essay, which I contributed to Graham Watson's 2006 collection Liberalism - Something to Shout About. Here is the second and final part - again, I have turned the original references into hyperlinks for this blog.

You can find details of how to order the book in that earlier post.

Towards a Liberal answer

Ask Liberal Democrats if they believe in children’s rights and they will say they do with some vehemence. In most Liberal and Labour circles, a reference to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is seen to settle any question, much in the way that a quotation from the Bible does for Southern Baptists. Yet we have seen in recent years that, the more rights children have, the less freedom they have.

One reason for this paradox is the extremely odd notion of children’s rights that we now entertain. The last time there was a significant children’s rights movement in Britain was during the late 1960s and 1970s, when political radicalism was in the air more generally. That movement was largely run by children and teenagers themselves and had as its targets abuses like corporal punishment, petty uniform regulations and the keeping of secret records by schools. The youngsters taking part were clear that their rights were to be asserted against the state and the schools that it ran.

In today’s children’s rights movement, there is no place for children themselves and no question of challenging schools – indeed the keeping of confidential professional records is central to the movement. Instead it is parents who are seen as the threat to children’s rights and the state as the body that upholds them.

This odd view explains how a commitment to those rights can coexist comfortably with the remarkably restrictive policies with which we now surround children – curfews, ASBOs and the like. If the 1960s movement was an attempt at a Kids’ Liberation (as it would undoubtedly have been called in those days), then our present-day version has more in common with the child-saving efforts of the nineteenth century.

For this reason, the children’s rights movement is quiet on the strange modern concept of ‘antisocial behaviour’. This construct lumps together serious criminality, which should be dealt with by the courts, and the sort of low-level nuisance that communities should be able to deal with themselves.

Sadly, these days Liberal Democrats are as keen on the concept as anyone: Ming Campbell’s first speech as leader was on crime, and he was at pains to emphasise that his party now supported ASBOs.

Yet when ASBOs first came in, Liberal Democrats did not oppose them because they curbed people’s liberty: we opposed them because we argued that the Antisocial Behaviour Contracts pioneered by Islington Borough Council were more effective. As these essentially applied only to council tenants, and threatened to evict those whose children misbehaved, it is hard to see them as a great improvement.

How do successful communities deal with low-level nuisance behaviour by children? In his Paranoid Parenting, the sociologist Frank Furedi coined the term ‘adult solidarity’. He wrote:
In most communities throughout the world adults assume a modicum of public responsibility for the welfare of children even if they have no ties to them. When the local newsagent or butcher scolds a child for dropping a chewing-gum wrapper on the road, they are actively assisting that boy’s parents in the process of socialization. When a pensioner reprimands a young girl for crossing the road when the light is red, he is backing up her parents’ attempt to teach, her the ways of the world. These displays of public responsibility teach children that certain behaviour is expected by the entire community, and not just by their mum and dad. … 
As every parent knows, in Britain today, fathers and mothers cannot rely on other adults to take responsibility for looking after their children. British adults are hesitant to engage with other people’s youngsters. This reluctance to assume responsibility for the welfare of the young is not simply a matter of selfishness or indifference. Many adults fear that their action would be misunderstood and resented, perhaps even misinterpreted as abuse. Adults feel uncomfortable in the presence of children. They don’t want to get involved and, even when confronted by a child in distress, are uncertain about how to behave.
This is the real reason why children lack freedom in Britain today: an almost total absence of adult authority and adult solidarity. We need a government that increases adults’ confidence in dealing with children, not undermines it by using children’s rights as a stalking horse to increase the state’s power over families.

As Steve Webb and Jo Holland might put it: “All is not well with the nation’s adults”.

The Tyne estuary piers

The North Pier at Tynemouth runs out to sea for a 1000 yards. At the far end is a lighthouse, and on the morning I walked to it the fog horn was sounding and the lighthouse came and went in the mist.

Across the river is the South Pier, which is even longer. You can see it emerging from the gloom here in a photograph taken from its northern sister.

The two piers define the estuary of the Tyne. The old guide books talk of the constant stream of shipping that passed between them, but today the only ships you are likely to see are the giant ferries heading for Norway and Denmark.

You Can't Read This Book by Nick Cohen

This review appears in today's Liberal Democrat News. There are three more points I would have made if space had allowed.
  • Secular politicians can find it useful to deploy the concept of religious offence. Pussy Riot, whose real crime was surely to attack Vladimir Putin, were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" - a charge that manages to combined elements of Soviet and Tsarist tyranny.
  • Nick Cohen quotes the observation of Chris Dillow that those who are convinced that a secretive centralised state is bound to be inefficient are nevertheless convinced that style is the best way to run a private company.
  • Even if we Liberal Democrats expect less from the Coalition than we did even a few months ago, it is vital that the bill to reform libel law promised in the last Queen's Speech is passed.

You Can’t Read This Book
Nick Cohen
Fourth Estate, 2012, £12.99

Whether it is a collection of columns or original work like this, a new book by Nick Cohen is an event. During the Blair years his journalism made him the most effective critic of Labour’s assault on our liberties and accommodation with right-wing populism – so much so that it was a little hard to understand his outrage when the British people decided to vote for other parties at the last general election.

You Can’t Read This Book deals with the threats to free expression in the modern world. Cohen looks at the conflict between religion and free expression, the power of the wealthy to silence their critics and the determination of dictators to persecute dissidents.

The threat to freedom of expression posed by religion is fuelled by the concept of ‘offence’. Causing offence is one of the few sins that secularists still recognise and, as Cohen explains, much modern journalism consists precisely in manufacturing that offence:
We come across a fact we suspect will outrage a pressure group/political party/guardian of the nation’s morals. We call the pressure group/political party/guardian of the nation’s morals and ask, “Are you outraged?” “Yes we are,” the pressure group/political party/guardian of the nation’s morals replies, allowing us to generate the headline “Pressure Group/Political Party/Guardian of the Nation’s Morals Outraged by …”
Cohen is rightly hard on the many Western intellectuals who found excuses for not supporting Salman Rushdie over The Satanic Verses and he deals with less well-known cases such as that of Maqbal Fida Husain, the Indian artist who had an exhibition in London cancelled because of protests from Hindu activists.

You Can’t Read This Book goes on to look at the way British libel law insulates the rich and powerful from legitimate criticism. That law reverses the usual burden of proof and it has been used, for instance, against people raising legitimate questions about the claims made by ‘alternative’ medical practitioners. Above this, the generous interpretation that judges here make of what constitutes publication in Britain means many foreign oligarchs pursue their critics in our courts. The result is that a number of books on the financing or terrorism that are freely available in the US cannot be bought in Britain.

Cohen’s third theme is the power of the state, and here he is critical of those who think that those social media have fundamentally altered the balance of power in favour of the individual citizen. He asks why this should be the case with Twitter and Facebook when it was not with the printing press.

One thing these three threats have in common is that they are exercised in an almost random way. We are not living in a totalitarian world, but individuals can suddenly find their lives have been wrecked.

It is impossible to know in advance if a work of art will arouse the ire of religious extremists, while a libel action – which could lose you everything you own – is a worry for many more of us in a world where so many of us now publish our thoughts through blogs or social media. And Cohen likens this tactic to the way that authoritarian states periodically treat minor critics with extreme harshness to make every other dissident nervous. 

One final point… It is good to see Nick Cohen citing John Stuart Mill, but there is much more to On Liberty than the ‘harm principle’. Mill’s great work is a hymn to individuality – something that would fit Cohen’s theme in You Can’t Say That very well.

Richard III dig begins in Leicester tomorrow

As you may have heard on the news, the dig in Leicester to find the body of Richard III will begin tomorrow. The story was on the front page of the Leicester Mercury and there is a good report in the Daily Telegraph among many others.

The dig is being conducted by archaeologists from the the University of Leicester, on whose website you can read more about the dig:
The University of Leicester and Leicester City Council, in association with the Richard III Society, have joined forces to begin a search for the mortal remains of King Richard III. On Saturday 25 August 2012 – five hundred years after King Richard III was buried in Leicester - the historic archaeological project will begin with the aim of discovering whether Britain’s last Plantagenet King lies buried in Leicester City Centre. 
The project represents the first ever search for the lost grave of an anointed King of England ... 
In 1485 King Richard III was defeated at the battle of Bosworth. His body, stripped and despoiled, was brought to Leicester where he was buried in the church of the Franciscan Friary, known as the Greyfriars. Over time the exact whereabouts of the Greyfriars became lost. 
Led by University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), experts will be seeking to locate the Greyfriars site and discover whether the remains of Richard III may still be found. 
Richard Buckley, Co-Director of the Archaeology Service at the University of Leicester, said: “The big question for us is determining the whereabouts of the church on the site and also where in the church the body was buried. Although in many ways finding the remains of the king is a long-shot, it is a challenge we shall undertake enthusiastically. There is certainly potential for the discovery of burials within the area, based on previous discoveries and the postulated position of the church."
You can see Richard Buckley interviewed in the video above.

The site also quotes Phillipa Langley from the Richard III Society:
“Richard III is a charismatic figure who attracts tremendous interest. Partly because he has been so much maligned in past centuries, and partly because he occupies a pivotal place in English history. 
“The continuing interest in Richard means that many fables have grown up around his grave. Although local people like Alderman Herrick in 1612 knew precisely where he was buried – and Herrick was able to show visitors a handsome stone pillar marking the king's grave in his garden - nevertheless at the same time unlikely stories were spread of Richard's bones being dug up and thrown into the river Soar. Other fables, equally discredited, claimed that his coffin was used as a horse-trough. 
“This archaeological work offers a golden opportunity to learn more about medieval Leicester as well as about Richard III's last resting place – and, if he is found, to re-inter his remains with proper solemnity in Leicester Cathedral."
Things have moved on since June, when I first came across the theory that Richard may still lie buried under central Leicester.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Jill Hope to fight Corby by-election for the Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats have selected Jill Hope as parliamentary candidate for the Corby and East Northamptonshire by-election.

Jill has lived in Northamptonshire for more than 35 years. She currently works as a business manager, helping medium-sized businesses and was previously a local business start-up advisor. She was part of the team that was instrumental in the relocation of Barclaycard from London to Northamptonshire which generated local jobs and has worked with young people, helping them find work placements and as an adviser to the University of Northampton.

Commenting, Jill Hope said:

"I'm delighted to have been chosen to stand for election in Corby and East Northamptonshire. Working with the team of local Liberal Democrat councillors I will fight to address the issues and concerns of local people.

"We have already hit the ground running, putting out thousands of surveys, giving us a clear idea of the kinds of things people want us to fight for locally.

"I also want to use this election to set out the good things that Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government are doing for people locally.

"Whether it's the extra Pupil Premium money coming to our schools to help the most disadvantaged children get the best start in life, the biggest ever cash increase in the state pension, or the thousands of workers in Corby and East Northamptonshire who have so far had a £330 tax cut thanks to the Lib Dems.

"Liberal Democrat influence has made this a far better Government for local people than if the Tories were governing alone, and as MP I would make sure we deliver more tax cuts for ordinary people and not for millionaires.

"The people of Corby and East Northamptonshire want a full-time MP who will fight for them and for the things that matter to them. That is what I promise to deliver if they vote for me to be their new MP."

Jill Hope fought Harborough for the Liberal Democrats in the 2001 and 2005 general elections.

The problem with children today: The Liberal Democrats and children

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the essay I contributed to Graham Watson's collection Liberalism - Something to Shout About in 2006 and threatened to post it here. Well here is the first part.

Last time I discussed the book with Graham there were still copies available and you could obtain one by send a cheque for £6 - payable to Graham Watson MEP - to Bagehot Publishing, The Liberty, Old Kelways, Langport, Somerset TA10 9SJ. You can find the full contents in an earlier post on this blog.

Anyway here is part 1 - I have changed the academic references of the printed version into hyperlinks wherever possible.

The problem with children today: The Liberal Democrats and children

Conventional wisdom says that children are in ever-greater danger and must therefore be hedged around with more rules and restrictions. But taking away children’s independence is creating more problems than it solves. Liberal Democrats are wrong to endorse growing state control over families and should instead increase adults’ confidence in dealing with children.


Back in the 1970s, Punch published a cartoon showing a small boy dressed in skins staring into the fire burning at the mouth of the family cave. Looking on disapprovingly, his father remarked: “In my day we made our own entertainment.”

The idea that something is amiss with modern children has a pedigree going back at least as far as Aristotle. In 1503, a visitor to Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire complained that the choristers “rave and swear and disturb the priest celebrating our Lady’s mass, and want a good whipping,” and Geoffrey Pearson’s Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears  provides any number of examples from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More recently, Steve Webb and Jo Holland began their contribution to The Orange Book with the declaration that “All is not well with the nation’s children”.

I suspect that people have always believed that, and that the problems they highlight tell you more about them than they do about children. With that caveat entered, I offer my own contribution to this genre. What I shall argue is that, as far as there is a problem with children today, the fault is to be found not so much in the children as in the relations between adults and children. More than that, the conventional solutions, which Liberal Democrats subscribe to as enthusiastically as any one else, are likely to make things worse.

The problem and the conventional solutions

One topical area of concern about children is obesity, and it provides a convenient way into the debate about the travails of childhood in Britain today.

In April 2006, the Guardian reported  the publication of the National Health Survey for 2004 under the headline “Child obesity has doubled in a decade.” Researchers had weighed some 2,000 youngsters and found that 26.7 per cent of girls and 24.2 per cent of boys aged between 11 and 15 qualified as obese – nearly double the rate in 1995. Amongst younger children the picture was not much better.

These statistics were accompanied by some lurid quotations, with Colin Waine, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, talking of a “public health time bomb” in the making because children who were obese in their early teens were twice as likely to die by the age of 50. Amanda Eden from Diabetes UK said: “We will soon be seeing our children growing up losing limbs and becoming blind, as they develop the serious complications of having the condition.” Some have argued that this rhetoric was overblown and the definition of obesity too vague , but there is little doubt that our children are getting fatter.

The difficulties begin when you ask what we should do about it. The conventional wisdom holds that children are getting fatter because they eat too much, and the way to get them to lose weight is through more sport in schools. Yet both these beliefs are mistaken.

The most authoritative discussion of changing calorific intakes concludes that:
… even after adjustments for meals eaten outside the home, and for consumption of alcohol, soft drinks, and confectionery, average per capita energy intake seems to have declined by 20 per cent since 1970.
And will more sport in schools help? The Liberal Democrats certainly think so. Here is Don Foster launching a policy paper in August 2004:
We see sport as crucial to the nation’s health and well-being. With child obesity trebling in the past decade, it is time the Department of Health took a far greater role in promoting sport and active living.
Yet what research there has been suggests that children burn more energy in free play than they do in organised sport . So if we really want to do something about childhood obesity, we are going to have to encourage free play. This might sound uncontroversial, but there are many forces hostile to the idea.

Among them must be listed government ministers, to judge by Tessa Jowell’s speech to the government’s sport summit on 14 July 2003:
Here’s the truth – children don’t want to play sport on badly-drained 1950s scraps of land. They want showers, fences and floodlights. They want quality facilities.
Just how circumscribed children’s lives have become can be seen from another recent Guardian article. It tells us:
Research suggests that in 20 years the ‘home habitat’ of a typical eight-year-old – the area that a child can travel around on their own – has shrunk by nearly 90 per cent.
Things are worse than that, for the figures referred to cover changes that took place between 1971 and 1990. It is hard to believe things have got better since then: the same article mentions a Home Office survey from 2005 showing that a third of children aged between 8 and 10 never play out without an adult being present, and reported that the number of children walking to school declined from 61 per cent to 53 per cent between 1994 and 2004.

The great thief of children’s freedom has been the motor car and Liberal Democrats should support the setting up of home zones – residential areas where efforts are made to reduce the dominance of the car by measures like traffic calming, planting and very low speed limits. These sound non-controversial, but in practice traffic calming is often vociferously opposed and it can take a steady nerve for local candidates to stick to their guns in the face of it, even if my own experience is that most of the people who mention the issue on the doorstep want similar measures in their own street.

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

In our essay Cohesive Communities, David Boyle and I called for the use of community support officers and neighbourhood wardens to “reduce antisocial behaviour, co-ordinate the removal of graffiti and litter, and provide more visible uniformed community safety staff on buses and trains”. This would certainly be a step forward, but on reflection I wonder whether it would not be better to recreate the roles of these lost public servants rather than employ more of the new ones. The brief of community support officers is so narrowly focused on public order that they are always likely to come into conflict with venturesome children; besides, that order is best seen as a by-product of people going about their ordinary business rather than the result of enforcement action by the authorities. 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 other great factor that limits children’s freedom is our current preoccupation with the dangers they face out of the home – particularly the danger of sexual assault. Child abuse is not a new phenomenon and there is no evidence that children face greater dangers than they did years ago, yet we seem obsessed with the risk. Earlier generations of parents were content to let their children negotiate the outside world armed only with warnings about not accepting lifts or sweets from strangers, whereas today the danger seems so extreme to many that they prefer not to let their children out at all.

It is tempting to call for more child-only spaces and more vetting but the danger is that, in taking steps to meet the supposed dangers to children, the authorities will merely confirm to parents that those dangers are real and convince them of the rightness of their decision to limit their children’s freedom.

One can see such a process at work in an attempted solution like the ‘walking bus’. Under such schemes, children are walked to school in a group under the supervision of volunteer adult escorts. They can join the crocodile only at certain points, and at the end of the school day the bus drops them off at the same stops, where they are collected by their parents. The trouble with such schemes is that they give parents the message that the outside world is so dangerous that it is hard to blame them for deciding to drive their children to school instead.

It is not only children’s physical health that is put at risk by this lack of freedom and autonomy. In an article in Psychology Today, Hara Estroff Marano discussed  the situation in America, where some 40,000 schools have abolished the mid-morning break:
Kids are having a hard time even playing neighbourhood pick-up games because they’ve never done it, observes Barbara Carlson, president and cofounder of Putting Families First. “They’ve been told by their coaches where on the field to stand, told by their parents what colour socks to wear, told by the referees who’s won and what’s fair. Kids are losing leadership skills.”
She argued that this lack of independence is leading to psychological problems amongst university students as they try to live away from home for the first time.

And psychological problems are not confined to students. One of the fastest growing mental diagnoses in the Western world is ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. As Sami Timimi and Nick Radcliffe have written, it has reached epidemic proportions, particularly amongst boys in North America. Those who have popularised the diagnosis claim that children who are sent to health professionals because they are thought to be overactive, impulsive and to have poor concentration are suffering from a medical condition that needs to be treated with drugs.

The drugs most commonly used with children who have a diagnosis of ADHD are stimulants such as Ritalin, whose chemical properties are indistinguishable from speed and cocaine. They are prescribed to children as young as two, with boys being far more likely to be given them than girls, and they are prescribed in remarkable numbers. Timimi and Radcliffe write:
By 1996 over 6 per cent of school-aged boys in America were taking stimulant medication with more recent surveys showing that in some schools in the Unites States over 17 per cent of boys have the diagnosis and are taking stimulant medication. In the UK prescriptions for stimulants have increased from about 6,000 in 1994 to about 345,000 in the latter half of 2003.
The striking thing about the diagnosis of ADHD is that its symptoms – impulsivity, activity, poor concentration – are so like what we used to see as normal childish behaviour. One informal definition of the disorder is that a child is “always on the go”; if someone had said in the 1950s that a small boy was always on the go, it would have been meant as praise.

Six of the Best 270

Mark Gettleson, on Conservative Home, argues that a Liberal Democrat meltdown would kill the Tories' chances at the next election: "The Coalition has united the centre-Left and split the centre-Right for the first time in a century."

A new report from Big Brother Watch looks at how the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act has been used by both local and public authorities in recent years: "A decade on and more than three million authorisations later, our research found how there is still a great deal of uncertainty about how and why the powers are being used – and a clear need for the Coalition to go further to protect civil liberties."

Again on Conservative Home (Reader's voice: Are you feeling all right?), news that Eric Pickles is increasing the rights of bloggers to attend council meetings.

The Greasy Spoon celebrates Rex Whistler and The Tate Gallery Restaurant.

"Sometimes extraordinary events can reveal extraordinary qualities in human beings and Nina Bawden proved herself to be truly extraordinary, not only as a top class novelist but also as a woman with moral courage who risked everything to stand up for justice." Spitalfields Life pays tribute to the novelist and children's writer, who died this week.

Internet Curtains follows the River Leen Greenway from Bulwell to Basford in Nottinghamshire.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Tynemouth Watch House

This is Tynemouth Watch House, headquarters of the town's volunteer life brigade since it was built in 1887. It was designed by Joseph F. Gomoszynski.

It is like a New England rendering of the sort of late Victorian house you find on Leicester's London Road.

Today the Watch House is home to a museum, though it was locked when I was there last week. It is also due for a major refurbishment.

It forms part of a distinctive group of buildings that stand between the sea and the Collingwood Monument. There is something of Southwold about them.

Julian Huppert coming to Northampton, 5 September

Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, is coming to Northampton on 5 September.

Northamptonshire Lib Dems are holding a fundraising event, starting at at 8 p.m. at Kingsley Park Working Men's Club, 120-126 Kingsley Park Terrace, Northampton NN2 7HJ. All proceeds will go to Paul Varnsverry's campaign in the county's police and crime commissioner election. Tickets are £10 and there will be a buffet included - you do not have to be a member to attend.

The organisers need to know numbers for the buffet, so If you intend to come please let them know.  You can pay via a cheque made payable to Northamptonshire Liberal Democrat Group and sent to: Cllr Chris Stanbra, 9-10 Skagerrak Close, Corby, Northamptonshire NN18 9EF.

Why Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells is a Conservative

An abstract from the journal Social Psychology & Personality Science:
Disgust Sensitivity, Political Conservatism and Voting
Yoel Inbar, David Pizarro, Ravi Iyer & Jonathan Haidt 
In two large samples (combined N = 31,045), we found a positive relationship between disgust sensitivity and political conservatism. This relationship held when controlling for a number of demographic variables as well as the “Big Five” personality traits. Disgust sensitivity was also associated with more conservative voting in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. In Study 2, we replicated the disgust sensitivity–conservatism relationship in an international sample of respondents from 121 different countries. Across both samples, contamination disgust, which reflects a heightened concern with interpersonally transmitted disease and pathogens, was most strongly associated with conservatism.
This finding does not surprise me. I have long thought that concepts like 'homophobia' and 'transphobia' were misconceived. Right-wing opposition to sexual freedom is based, not in fear, but in disgust.

Liberal Democrat Conference and police accreditation: The dog that no longer barks

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?" 
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time." 
"The dog did nothing in the night-time." 
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.
This time last year the Liberal Democrat blogosphere was filled with outrage at the party's decision to require people to be accredited by the police before they could attend its autumn conference.

That outrage was turned into a critical motion at that conference, which was duly passed.

Then, earlier this year, the party's bigwigs announced that they were going set aside the party's constitution and ignore that motion.

The result? Near silence.

It seems the party is already happy with the notion that in modern Britain you must be approved by the police before you can attend a political conference.

That is how liberties are lost.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Six of the Best 269

Seven non-religious arguments against marriage equality are taken apart by Neue Politik.

"Go behind the scenes of most think tanks and you find a group of barely post pubescent scribblers, with first class honours degrees but fourth class experiences of the real world and real life." Richard Kemp gives his view of the Policy Exchange report calling for the sale of social housing in affluent areas.

Mental Health Cop, in a terrific post, defends care in the community: "Very many of the county asylums in this country were appallingly desperate places.  They were often home to various undesirable and unfortunate individuals who were socially excluded but not necessarily mentally ill, they were often dumping grounds for the unwanted.  History shows that violence was rife; that many single, uneducated mothers and other social ‘inadequates’ were incarcerated for decades; and that ‘treatment’ was highly questionable."

"Will did not bounce off walls. He wasn’t particularly antsy. He didn’t exhibit any behaviors I’d associated with attention deficit or hyperactivity. He was an 8-year-old boy with normal 8-year-old boy energy - at least that’s what I’d deduced from scrutinizing his friends." Bronwen Hruska writes in the New York Times on the American enthusiasm for giving schoolchildren psychiatric medication.

Legal Cheek speaks up for online anonymity,

The invention of radar had its roots in a failed British attempt to develop a 'death ray', reveals io9.

So farewell then Svetozar Gligorić

The Serbian chess grandmaster Svetozar Gligorić has died at the age of 89. After fighting with the Partisans in World War II before becoming one of the world's leading players in the 1950s and 1960s.

Just as chess is important to Armenian identity today, having a player who could compete with the leading Soviet grandmasters as an equal mattered a great deal to the new state of Yugoslavia - this in an era when Stalin had said: "I will shake my little finger and there will be no more Tito."

Gligorić also had many battles with the young Bobby Fischer, coming out on top in most of them.

He was the author of the first chess book I ever bought with my own money - Fischer vs Spassky: Chess Match of the Century.

Ross McKibbin contrasts manufacturing and banking

"Ross McKibbin ... paints a brilliant picture of the state of government in the UK," said Greenwich Liberal the other day after reading Ross McKibbin in the London Review of Books.

I am not sure I would go quite that far - a lot of McKibbin's discussion of the government is guesswork - but this observation on wider British society is spot on:
Manufacturing takes place within the social world. Different kinds of people have an interest in it and its success or failure has observable social effects. Banking and finance, though we need them, are now asocial activities. 
When banks still had managers and close links to their local communities their attitudes were not so different from those of their clients. That is much less true now. The making of money, often a great deal of it, takes place in an enclosed world where long-term consequences are not considered. There has always been some feeling of separateness in banking and finance, but it has become much more pronounced in the last twenty or thirty years. 
The testosterone-fuelled atmosphere in the trading rooms bears little resemblance to most workplaces, except perhaps to the newsroom of the Sun or to 10 Downing Street during the last Labour government.

Headline of the Day

A local winner, in the shape of the Leicester Mercury, for:

'Self-combusting' noodles cause fire at food factory in Leicester

Monday, August 20, 2012

Time for Nick Clegg to speak out on civil liberties

Two reports in today's Guardian caught my eye:
  • The government's plan to establish a new generation of secret courts has sparked fresh controversy after it emerged that the fact that a hearing is to be held behind closed doors may itself be kept secret.
  • Fresh consideration is to be given to the introduction of airport-style mass security screening at mainline rail stations and across London's tube network.
These stories may well be nonsense, but wouldn't it be great to hear Nick Clegg telling us so?

Trotsky's grandson is alive and living in Mexico

Esteban Volkov is the 86-year-old grandson of Leon Trotsky. In this video from the Guardian website, he recalls the two assassination attempts orchestrated by Stalin on his grandfather, the second of which was successful. Volkov, as a boy, almost perished in the first himself.

Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy

I contributed this review to Liberal Democrat News in May of last year. I am reposting it because Assange is in the news again - and because I think it holds up well.

WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy
David Leigh and Luke Harding
Guardian Books, 2011, £9.99

Leigh and Harding tell the story of Wikileaks and its release of 250,000 secret diplomatic cables and classified files from the Afghan and Iraq wars. Their own paper, the Guardian, was one of the newspapers that was given this material, and they dissect its often fraught relationship with Wikileaks’ moving spirit Julian Assange.

This is very much the Guardian’s side of the story, but it is clear that Assange, by turns charming and impossible, is difficult to deal with. The book has obviously been written in a hurry and each chapter carries a subheading like “Emergency Operating Station Hammer, 40 miles east of Baghdad, Iraq, November 2009,” as though the authors half imagine they are writing a screenplay. Perhaps they have never got over seeing Paddy Considine play a Guardian journalist in The Bourne Ultimatum?

Julian Assange’s childhood was spent in hippy communes and as a teenager he entered the world of hacking – gaining unauthorised access to government and commercial computer systems just for the fun of it. Like many pioneers in the world of computing, he dropped out of formal education before completing his first degree.

His hacking soon came to have a political edge, and he dreamed up the idea of Wikileaks – a way of allowing people to leak documents while being sure they would remain anonymous. Such a system, incidentally, would have been useful to Sarah Tisdall, who was gaoled in the 1980s for leaking details of cruise missile deployment to the Guardian after the newspaper revealed her identity to the authorities.

Assange was an idealist, believing that he need only lay bare the workings of international diplomacy and power politics for the world to rise up in anger. But things turned out to be more complex than that: material needs to be analysed and put into context before the public can understand it. So when an extraordinary collection of American cables and files came into his possession he put together a consortium of newspapers to publish them.

Even when this trove was published, Assange was probably disappointed at the reaction. The idea that US foreign policy is wicked is taken for granted by most Guardian readers. When they read of civilian casualties, corruption and arm twisting it confirmed their prejudices rather than roused them to action.

It was in the Third World that the revelations had more effect, with local journalists begging for the material on their own countries. The recent uprising in Tunisia has been called “the first Wikileaks revolution”. The Wikileaks website continues to make the most astonishing revelations, most recently revealing the files on numerous prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Meanwhile in Britain, the drama of Assange’s remand and then bailing of allegations of sexual assault in Sweden has taken centre stage. While this does look very convenient for the Americans, no evidence of their interference in the process has emerged. Leigh and Harding suggest Assange has displayed rather Antipodean attitudes to women in the past, and the argument “I disapprove of American foreign policy therefore he must be innocent” is a pretty thumping non sequitur.

The real victim in this book is not Assange but Bradley Manning, the former pupil of Tasker Milward School in Haverfordwest, who leaked the material on Iraq and Afghanistan that made Wikileaks famous. It is easy to sympathise with a thoughtful young man, stationed in the heat and boredom of Iraq, who saw these secrets and horrors every day on his screen every day and wanted the world to know what was really going on. If nothing else, the Americans’ cavalier attitude towards cyber security is astounding.

Today Manning is being held under oppressive conditions in America – some believe the authorities want to force him to implicate Assange more deeply and give them a pretext to seek the extradition. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, there is a support site for him at .