Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Unhelpful messages No. 3

Error: bX-aiksoi : supposedly an explanation for not uploading a post ! What the hell does it mean ?

Unhelpful messages No.2

Terms and conditions apply.
Classic FM adverts

Unhelpful messages No.1

Other parts were played by members of the cast.

BBC Radio 4

Desperate Anachronisms

I have been watching the BBC's Desperate Romantics about the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (to be precise, about the leading pre-Raphaelites as all the others don't get a look-in). I have been enjoying it despite the suspect dialogue. Did Rossetti really frequently exclaim "shit". Don't misunderstand. I'm not objecting to the coarseness. I simply doubt that it was the expletive of choice in the 1850s.

The latest episode went beyond the substitution of modern Atlantic dialect for mid-Victorian upper class speech. It was historically innaccurate. The brothers suspect that Ruskin is trying to arrange adultery between his wife Effie and Millais in order to begin divorce proceedings against her. His marriage was actually annulled in 1854 and she married Millais in 1855. At that time divorce required a private Act of Parliament, which may have been beyond Ruskin's means. Divorce through the courts only became available in 1858. In the same programme Holman Hunt refers to Rossetti's libido, a term which didn't come into use until Sigmund Freud developed psycho-analysis forty years later. If the writer Peter Bowker can't be bothered to get his history right, surely the BBC also employs researchers and script editors.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The strange case of Jack Straw, justice, Gary McKinnon and General Pinochet

As Home Secretary Jack Straw evaded his legal obligation to extradite murderer and torturer Pinochet by saying that he was unfit to face trial. Pinochet returned home to greet his supporters showing no signs of unfitness. Even tea with Margaret Thatcher hadn't made him sick.

Perhaps as Minister of Justice, Straw might see the case for refusing to extradite Gary McKinnon as unfit to face trial, or does that get-out-of-jail free card only apply to corrupt dictators and not to UFO-geeks with aspergers. I don't suppose Straw will stop the extradition. Giving him the post of "Secretary of State for Justice" truly took New Labour into the realms of 1984.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

We're over here !

I may have missed something. I don't watch or listen to every news broadcast, but what has happened to the news I care about - Lib Dems won't replace Trident ? The Today programme had more important news - carrots prevent cancer better if not chopped up - so no room for us. Liberal leaders (and Nick Clegg is no exception) are always accused of not doing enough, not making an impact. With the media including the BBC determined to ignore us, what does Nick have to do, climb a tall building dressed as superman ?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Nick Clegg says: Don't replace Trident

Tonight on BBC News at Ten Nick Clegg said that Britain cannot afford to replace Trident. The report also said that he poured doubt on its military usefulness. Tomorrow's Guardian will have an article by Patrick Wintour under the title: "Nick Clegg says Lib Dems won't replace Trident because world has moved on", already available on the net.

Like we said in 2007, Trident is useless, dangerous and expensive. I am delighted that it will be the Liberal Democrats who have the courage to say so to the voters.

Friday, June 05, 2009

In the name of God, go !

Someone has sent me Cromwell's speech when he dissolved the Long Parliament. Still topical, yes, but let's not forget how dreadful England (not to mention Ireland) was under his protectorate without an elected parliament.

Oliver Cromwell's Speech on the Dissolution of the Long Parliament
Given to the English House of Commons

20 April 1653

It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money. Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter'd your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth? Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defil'd this sacred place, and turn'd the Lord's temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress'd, are yourselves gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors. In the name of God, go!

Monday, June 01, 2009

Gordon Brown steps in !

I nearly missed the news today ! I was just in time to turn my radio on to hear that Gordon Brown has contacted Simon Cowell to see if Susan Boyle is all right ! Well, that's a relief ! It's so good to know that the Prime Minister has his finger on the pulse. You couldn't make it up, could you ? Well you never know, Gordon, might be worth the odd vote on Thursday...the very odd vote. Roll on a General Election, I say.

Bumps on the head ? The face of evil ?

What is it about physiognomy and fascism ? Can you really judge a man by his boat ? Look here at these chaps. OK, the prat on the right could be in any party, even mine. After all, we've got Lembit Opik. The chap on the left, however, could only be a fascist, couldn't he ? He could be a Tory of course, but actually he's Barry Bennett, BNP Euro-candidate in the South-West, whose opinions include: "David Beckham is not white, he's a black man." and "... whatever's good enough for Hitler's good enough for me. God rest his soul." For more lowdown on the low-lifes of the BNP, see yesterday's Observer.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Fair votes referendum NOW !

Alan Johnson has called for a referendum on PR to be held on the day of the next general election. What is the logic of voting to change the electoral system on the same day as electing a new House of Commons under the old system ??? Of course, a referendum on the Jenkins Commission's recommended Alternative Vote top-up System is now more than ten years overdue. Labour's manifesto commitment to hold a referendum was the first of many promises broken by Tony Blair's government.

Small problem: under our daft, archaic and essentially monarchical non-constitution, the PM only needs to give everyone about four weeks' notice of when his time runs out, whereas public debates on referendums should last longer.

Big problem: The main block to PR has always been the strange unwillingness of MPs elected under first-past-the-post (stupid name for a system without a post) to vote for their own demise. However, we are now in a most unusual period when many MPs do not expect to be re-elected anyway. Perhaps Labour MPs would be willing to respond to a referendum now, as a way of avoiding a huge Conservative majority next year. If we wait to hold a referendum until general election day, we can be certain that a new government led by David Cameron will ignore the result. They would probably set up a new Royal Commission to think about it for another ten years.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The opacity of hope

My dictionary defines opacity as the quality of being difficult to understand. I was delighted when Barack Obama decided to close down Guantanamo Bay, but I do NOT understand why he has reinstated military tribunals and now has defended the "enhanced interrogation" authorised by the Bush administration to extract information from terror suspects as "legal, essential, justified and successful". Isn't there enough bad news already without this ?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Going, going, gone ! Not with a bang but a whimper.

At last, the Speaker has seen sense and announced his resignation. MPs must not imagine that his departure is the necessary reform of the Commons. So much more needs to be done. They would do well to look at the procedures of some other parliaments, perhaps not as old but then not as archaic nor hidebound by conventions that protect the executive from effective scrutiny. May I suggest having a look at the European Parliament ?

Oh mother ! What a parliament !

Once again the so-called mother of parliaments reveals its essential weakness. Once it challenged kings. Now it lies at the beck and call of Prime Ministers. The House of Commons does NOT control its own timetable. That privilege resides with the government of the day, so it's up to Gordon Brown whether MPs get to debate no confidence in his old mucker, the Speaker. Look ourt of the window, Gordon. Look at that statue of Cromwell and remember his words:

"you have been sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!."

Snuggery strikes again

Remember the Rev. Snuggs who cut down a yew tree. Well here's more snuggery - schools are giving up on proper ties in favour of clip-ons. I suppose it will put the next generation of yobs on a level playing field (if it hasn't be sold off) with the police when they come up against each other.

Actually, it's not a new story. Bramhall High in Stockport stopped using normal ties in 2007.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Dissolution : ask the Queen ?

It occurs to me ( and many others) that trust in parliament cannot be rebuilt without a general election. One of the many appalling features of our uncodified constitution is the power of the Prime Minister to choose the date of a general election. Gordon is in no hurry. I consulted my ancient edition of de Smith's Constitutional and Administrative Law to see if the Queen could dissolve parliament without his advice. The last precedents were in 1783 and 1834 and may not be helpful. de Smith says:

"[The Queen]...would also, it is submitted, be justified in dismissing her Ministers if they were purporting to subvert the democratic basis of the constitution".

He gives the examples of extending the life of parliament, obtaining a majority by duress or fraudulent manipulation of the poll. As m'learned friends say, this case is not on all fours. Nor of course is parliament; it is prostrate.

de Smith goes on to point out the difficulties in the way of the monarch 's insisting on a dissolution.

"It is true that the Queen might urge upon the Prime Minister that a dissolution might be in the best interests of the country and he might reluctantly agree to advise her to dissolve. But if he did not agree, and the Queen were to insist on a dissolution then she would have to remove the Prime Minister and find a new one; the procedure upon a dissolution of Parliament entails the making of an Order in Council and the issue of a royal proclamation under the Great Seal, and this requires the cooperation of Ministers."

He concludes that if the Prime Minister's colleagues refused to choose a different leader, the Queen could call the Leader of the Opposition to be Prime Minister for the sole purpose of advising a dissolution, which David Cameron would undoubtedly do. The Queen would thus become embroiled in party politics, but she would have immense popular support for doing it.

Whatever the political consequences, surely an election is a necessary condition of the renewal of our political system.

Since posting this, I have seen that Craig Murray has started a petition to the Queen to dissolve parliament. You can sign it here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

MPs' expenses: ask the tax man

The country is awash with proposals for reforming the system of MPs' expenses and allowances (Lynn Truss, please note position of apostrophe). Here are two more. Firstly, remove certain support functions from individual expenses altogether. For example, parliament itself should employ the support staff, as happens in the European Parliament. (It would be helpful if leading members of the Liberal Democrats could refrain from cheap cracks about "the Brussels gravy train" and perhaps learn some lessons from the EP instead). Secondly, pay MPs a higher salary and let HMRC decide which expenses are allowable as wholly, necessarily and exclusively incurred in the course of work. This would put MPs on the same footing as all citizens. There would still be disputed items but the decision would lie with the taxman and the courts, not the House of Commons fees office operating special rules for MPs.

Incidentally, according to Michael Brown, former Tory MP, Margaret Thatcher is to blame as she blocked a salary increase and introduced allowances instead, thus deceiving the electorate.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Swine pandemic in Commons

As the pigs of Animal Farm finally proclaim, "ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS". If MPs do not wish to be equated with these same pigs for exploiting their allowances in ways that would be forbidden or condemned in any other job, resisting the publication of their expense claims and then defending their behaviour because it was "within the rules" that they themselves had agreed to and failed to change, they must do more than change the rules.

I suggest:
1) Sack the speaker who exploited the rules himself, spent £100,000 of public money on m'learned friends trying to stop publication of expenses and failed to give his staff the backbone to stand up to absurd claims;
2) Force the resignation from the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet of the worst offenders;
3) Introduce retrospective Capital Gains Tax on all the capital gains made by MPs over the last ten years through abuse of the second homes allowances.

Only such drastic measures can begin to restore confidence in democracy. If we don't restore it, we will give strength to the campaigns of the demagogues of UKIP and the BNP.

What ho ! Wedding and Wodehouse

At a recent wedding reception a guest I had not met before said that I had already been described to her in suitably Wodehousian terms. I took this as a compliment, but on subsequent reflection over the eggs and b, I began to have doubts. She may not have been referring to Jeeves' superlative grey matter but to the young master himself or to Bingo Little, known to have frequented the National Liberal Club and conceived a passion for a waitress there (I have not). Surely she wasn't think of Aunts Agatha or Dahlia (of whom a well-known Somerset Liberal sometimes reminds me).

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bloody marvellous ! Gurkha victory

Like many bloggers, I'm always moaning when I say anything at all, but today I am rejoicing. Congratulations to Nick Clegg and the parliamentary team for defeating the government. On a less glorious but still highly enjoyable note, how wonderful to see Joanna Lumley and Nick Clegg sharing the limelight, with David Cameron playing second fiddle. I shall go out and buy the SatNav with Joanna Lumley's voice saying, "Turn left here, darling".

Friday, April 03, 2009

Gruntled, highly gruntled

Before I came to Chard, the small town in Somerset with one of the worst crime rates in Britain - ram-raids, murders, all out attacks on houses and quite a lot of litter, I lived in Lewes. This week Mark Steel visited Lewes and captured the character of the town, which he called stroppiness and I call a love of freedom and a determination not to be bossed about. OK, Mark Steel said it better.

They call me Mr Tibbs

I don't read the Daily Mail. Honest. Never. However, the Today programme has drawn my attention to an article by Guy Walters about how you address people and the growth of informality. I share Mr Walters' resentment when strangers, sales people in particular, call me David. I have tried responding, "Do I know you ?". In writing I often resort to the old Quaker habit of using both names, which is about showing respect to everyone equally. Sidney Poitier's character Virgil Tibbs insisted on Mr when the southern cops called him boy. Richard Crossman noted in his diary how his colleagues treated each other with greater respect and calmness in cabinet than when they met in the Labour Party's national executive. He attributed the different behaviour to different modes of address. In cabinet, titles - Prime Minister, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary ; in the NEC, first names - Harold, Jim, George. Of course, Mr Blair removed this distinction when first names made their appearance in cabinet, a clue to his evident disregard of cabinet government.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Transports of Delight 2

If you thought travelling by Ryanair couldn't get worse, you were sadly mistaken. Now they are thinking of charging for using the loo on the plane. Flushed with, and perhaps bowled over by their own cleverness, they have not considered the chain of consequences of this motion. Passengers desparate to avoid spending extra pennies will not dare to buy drinks during the flight. Net result - Ryanair's revenue down the drain. If you can bear more news, try Ryanair Campaign, where I found this cartoon.

Transports of Delight 1

Returning from Whitby down the M1, I made the unforgiveable error of stopping at Moto's Donnington Park Services. Britain's motorway services are so famously awful that it is hard to choose which is the worst but Donnington is a candidate. It is a vast aircraft hangar devoid of beauty or utility or of course service. Presumably Moto impose their exhorbitant prices to recover the costs of their fascist architecture, because clearly little money is spent on training their demoralised staff. I'm sure it's a dreadful, badly paid job but they would enjoy it more if they treated their customers with more than indifference.

Penrose in Whitby

I spent a long weekend in Whitby recently and I recommend it. Over the weekend the name Penrose came up again and again. I had packed Roger Penrose's "The Emperor's New Mind" in another forlorn attempt to finish the book. I needn't have worried. As I sat at dinner at the wonderful Magpie Café, a young bearded Englishman at another table explained the entire thesis enthusiastically to a young bearded Frenchman. My eagerness to overhear this conversation meant that I missed some of my hostess' remarks about...yes...Penrose, but I discovered she meant the English Surrealist painter and poet Roland Penrose. A visit to the Whitby bookshop yielded science fiction I hadn't read before, "White Mars" by Brian Aldiss and...sorry, you guessed...Roger Penrose.

Friday, February 20, 2009

BBC: Not very appealing, not much trust

(Thanks to the Grauniad for the cartoon).
I have been pursuing the BBC's arcane complaints procedure to express my disgust at their refusal to broadcast the DEC appeal for Gaza. First, I received a response that simply re-iterated their original statement without answering my points. I replied to this as required and after two weeks received a response to my response to their response to my original complaint. This told me off for not using their webform and said that as the Director-General had made the decision, they couldn't consider any further complaint but I could complain to the BBC Trust.

As I had read their detailed procedure, I wasn't entitled to appeal to the trust until I had exhausted the BBC's own internal procedure. Meanwhile others had complained straight to the trust. Despite the fact that the trust had already received an appeal and reached a decision, the BBC's letter to me made no reference to it.

Turning to the substance of the trust's decision, they have acted like a court hearing a judicial review or an ombudsman receiving a complaint. In each case, the reviewing body (trust, court, ombudsman) does not attempt to substitute its own judgement of the issue for the judgement of the initial body (BBC in this case) but only to review whether the initial body arrived at its decision in a proper way. This is usually expressed as they took into account all relevant arguments, did not take into account any irrelevant arguments and their decision was not so unreasonable that no reasonable body could have taken it. In other words, there is no appeal on the substance rather than the process. As long as he jumps through the right procedural hoops, the BBC Director-General is no longer under anyone's control as he was when there was a Board of Governors. Isn't it comforting to know that the trust claims "As representatives of the licence fee payers, we take complaints about the BBC very seriously" ? Like so many of New Labour's reforms, the replacement of the governors by the trust has weakened the voice of the citizen.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Going to market

With the founding of the Social Liberal Forum the debate between Social Liberalism and Classical Liberalism has started up again and prompted me to repost yet another article. You don't have to read it, but if you do I'd be glad of any comments.

Thoughts on going to market

I love maps. Particularly, I like maps of mountains like the Coolins of Skye. They are so much easier to climb than the real thing. Apostles of "the Market" both within and without the Liberal Democrats need to remember that the map is not the territory, the theory is not the reality. In texts from Adam Smith to David Laws there is "the Market"; in the world there are only markets. Let us therefore explore the reality and not only the map and build Liberal policy on what exists as well as what we would like there to be.

In the Platonic world of the Market, everyone has equal information, supply always responds to demand and competition is utterly free. In the world of Emron, Berlusconi and even Gordon Brown, information is shared very unequally, supply is controlled by the few and the demands of the many are often shaped by them too. In the real world of soap powder, beer, buses, railways and newspapers, producers seek to dominate markets and restrict competition. The evangelist of the Market will of course condemn these departures from theory, but we should take the advice of Sherlock Holmes and make our theories explain the facts and not the facts fit our theories.

The Market is as much an intellectual construct as was "the State" in socialist theory. For much of the twentieth century, political discourse was pre-occupied with "the State" (sometimes called the people, the nation etc). When people wanted the government to do something (and especially when people in government wanted to do something), they did not say, "Let's give this minister (commissioner, gauleiter, prefect etc.) more power". No, they talked of the interests of the State (people, nation etc.). This kind of talk shouldn`t work any more. The people (real existing people) don't buy it. However, in the last two decades of the twentieth century and in our own brave new era, there is a new god, "the Market". These words conceal a slide in meaning, which I call the idealistic fallacy. The Market is an idea, a slovenly abbreviation for "the free market" whereas real markets are not an idea and not very free.

Of course, as Liberals we should prefer free-er markets to less free ones, competition to monopoly, choice to compulsion. But we should also abandon the old theology of the Market versus the State, which is about as fantastic and as little use as Alien vs. Predator. Both are false gods. Real markets need real states. Actors in real markets need a framework of law and a guarantee of value. Contract law means you can rely upon bargains made with strangers; property law defines what can be owned and by whom (Can you sell your genes, your ideas or even your cat ? Can anyone else ?). A stable currency requires legitimate authority not just a cabal of gold miners. Modern enterprises involving capital from many pockets need company law and banking law.

Above all, making markets free-er requires competition law. Who can doubt that there is a free-er market today in the countries of the European Union because of legislation, not in spite of it ? Well unfortunately, many people, but they should consider what the markets of Europe would be like if each country had been adopting its own legislation on the subject for the last fifty years. With each government lobbied by its own interest groups, there would still be a protectionist plethora of tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade. Yet there are people who believe that you can have a functioning Free Trade Area without a democratic legislature to agree the rules. If you do doubt that markets need states and you think that freeing markets means less law and a weak state, take a good long look at Russia. The paradox is that law and freedom march together.

All political theories have an ethical root, explicit or implicit. They assume what human beings are like, how they behave and especially how they relate to each other. For Marx, your role as producer defines you; for the marketeers, it is more often your role as consumer. Feudal societies were made of subjects, nation-states of citizens. Liberals must build their ideas on the real complexity and diversity of people. Yes, we are all both producers and consumers but our roles in society are not exhausted by what we buy and sell. Yes, we are citizens but not everything in our lives, not even the most important, is covered by our public roles. As John Stuart Mill proclaimed, there is also the private sphere. Our freedom depends upon not expecting the state to solve all problems. It also depends upon not expecting the Market to solve them.

Ruskin lampooned the theories of economists by comparing them with theories of exercise - calisthenics. He said it was as if you based your theory of exercise on human bodies having no bones. From this premise you could prove logically that people could roll into balls or cylinders. Your logic would be impeccable but your premise absurd. This criticism still applies to modern economists who expect all behaviour in the Market to be based upon the rational expectations of people whose only motive is to maximise their wealth. In real markets people have other desires and motives such as to maximise their free time or the time spent or not spent in one person's company. In real markets people don't always recognise the course of action which will achieve their desires. In real markets their desires and their expectations are partly shaped by suppliers. Above all, in real markets people do not always have the means to convert their desires into effective demand.

It has become fashionable to justify state action today in terms of "market failure". I dislike the term because it implies an assumption that the Market should have produced a rational allocation of scarce resources in the first place, to provide enough teachers or doctors or houses or whatever the writer wants. We should not even hint at such an assumption but understand ab initio that real markets are good for many things but not all things. Perhaps then we should expect real markets not to deliver social justice or human happiness in general but simply to deliver strictly economic objectives (assuming there are such things). Unfortunately real markets cannot always manage that either. As John Maynard Keynes so compellingly argued, markets will inevitably bring about a balance between demand and supply but the balance will not necessarily be at the level where all resources are used or all people employed.

As a young economics student I heard another unfashionable economist, Kenneth Galbraith, propose the motion that "This house considers that the market is a snare and a delusion". I spoke against him. Now I believe that talk of the Market is a snare and a delusion but that real existing markets are powerful tools of mankind to achieve its purposes. They cannot do everything. Liberals must be wary of state action. There is always a price as well as a benefit for interfering with a market. When it comes to the Market and the State, there is not one god and we should eschew the blandishments of those who say there is.

Hot air, hot Brown air

In November 2007 our great leader, Gordon Brown proclaimed:

"The climate change crisis is the product of many generations, but overcoming it must be the great project of this generation. And this project will have to involve not just America and Europe, as in 1945, but the entire community of nations. So once again leaders will have to show vision and determination"

As we know, Gordon's latest contribution to the "vision and determination" required is to approve the plans for a new runway at Heathrow. God help us all if he didn't have vision and determination !

If you want to stop this ludicrous idea from taking off (sorry !), have a look at Greenpeace's website on Heathrow and become one of thousands of beneficial owners of a plot of land at Sipson near Heathrow, the village Gordon wants to destroy.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Tea at Betty's !

Himmelgarten Cafe posts about the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Harrogate, but forgets to draw attention to the ever popular Constitutional Amendments. This year we'll be adding to 6.10(c): "(State Parties may appoint a substitute member should the elected member be unable to attend a specific meeting of the FCC)". Should be a lively debate !

At university there was this man called Rosenstiel who forever popped up at general meetings moving amendments making the Cambridge Union Society's constitution longer than the United States'. When I joined the Liberals back in the Neolithic Era, imagine my delight to find the very same man popping up to do the same job for the party. The mantle has now passed to Duncan Brack and at least he doesn't try to stop ambulances with his bare hands.

If all this isn't enough to wet the Liberal appetite, there's always tea at Betty's, although their website warns: "Our Veranda and Spindler Cafés at Bettys in Harrogate will be closed temporarily. From 5th January until Easter. Why not try our elegant Imperial Room? Or for our full café menu please visit Bettys at RHS Gardens Harlow Carr."

Stupid or corrupt ? You decide

Craig Murray posts in characteristic trenchancy about Tessa Jowell, arguing that if she didn't know what her husband David Mills was up to she was stupid but if she did, she was corrupt.

Comments from contemporaries on Camden Council suggests she may not be the sharpest tool in the box. For myself, I first took notice of her when she attempted to ban the Stop the War march from using Hyde Park to protest against the Iraq War, because the demonstrators would damage the grass ! Of course the hordes who swarmed to Hyde Park (like myself) for the Last Night of the Proms or (unlike myself) various corporate entertainment events would just float over the grass. The difference was that the latter would provide money (something she seems inordinately fond of) whereas the former were there to protest against the illegal war she and her colleagues voted for and which damaged slightly more than grass. Here are some of her other votes.
  • Voted for introducing a smoking ban.
  • Voted for introducing ID cards.
  • Voted for introducing foundation hospitals.
  • Voted for introducing student top-up fees.
  • Voted for Labour's anti-terrorism laws.
  • Voted for the Iraq war.
  • Voted against investigating the Iraq war.
  • Voted for replacing Trident.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

When the kissing had to stop

Actually I don't think Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson did kiss on the platform at Carnforth Station, but they couldn't do it at Warrington today where they have erected no kissing signs. Are the people of Warrington really so passionate that they need this restraint ? Perhaps they are trying to win back the world simultaneous kissing record for Britain. Until Valentine's Day this year, the record was held by Britain with 32,648 people, but now Mexico City has taken it with 39,987 participants. How on earth do they count it ?

Incidentally Brief Encounter was banned in Ireland for its sympathetic betrayal of adultery. The censors obviously didn't watch the whole film.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Strictly come sinking

Linda Jack says, "Two or three days before it sunk the Titanic was warned it was approaching an ice field, ignorance, arrogance or indifference meant it ignored the warnings. Vince Cable has been a clear and lone voice about the banks and personal debt for many years. No one listened." Here he is whispering words of doom in Kate Winslet's ear as they begin the Tango.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A welcome in the hillsides, a welcome in the vales

The England-Wales match today and, judging by last week's performance, the only sight that England will enjoy today is Kathryn Jenkins. Still, a welcome change from Tom Jones.

Friday, February 13, 2009

I disapprove of what you say...

Oh dear, oh dear ! The Today programme could not find a minister to defend the government's stupid decision to ban Geert Wilders from entering Britain, so they found Chris Huhne to do it for them. Chris began by saying "Freedom of speech is absolutely crucial" and then showed that he doesn't know the meaning of absolute by trying to draw a dividing line we should not cross, a principle for exceptions to freedom of speech. First he argued we should not allow "incitement to hatred or incitement to violence". John Humphries pointed out that these are two different things. Chris tried again. We shouldn't allow speech which is "creating the conditions for violence". We should have "freedom up to the point where there is potential for harm". Talk about stop digging when you're in a hole. Chris had not thought through the principles he was trying to enunciate. Freedom of speech is not absolute but it is bloody important.

The home secretary has the power to stop people entering the UK if she believes there is a threat to national security, public order or the safety of UK citizens, but she cannot exclude people simply because of their views. Wilders says the government's reason for not allowing him to enter is because his opinions "threaten community security and therefore public security" . The Home Office website gives no information on the point. No minister appeared on the Today programme.

Chris is wrong and Jacqui Smith is wrong, wrong in principle and wrong in practice. They are wrong in principle because what they object to is Wilders' opinions (and they are objectionable) but his views do no not themselves incite violence, they upset and offend many people, some of whom may become violent in reaction. His film if anything condemns violence. The film combines extracts from the Koran which encourage violence with clips of actual violence by Islamists (NB. This is the general term not for Muslims but for what the press calls Islamic extremists). I'm sure a similar film could be made with extracts from the Bible and clips of Christian violence or from the Torah with Jewish violence. The offence lies in not distinguishing between Muslims and Islamists. Wilders may be ghastly and his views dreadful but we should not prevent the expression of views which create "the conditions for violence" or "where there is the potential for harm". A literal interpretation of these tests would prevent the expression of any opinion which could possibly upset or offend anyone prepared to resort to violence when upset or offended. Nor should we allow the Home Secretary or even a judge to decide on a non-literal interpretation. The link between such words and actual violence is not sufficiently proximate. Offending the violent is NOT inciting violence. If you think it is, you are handing over power to the bigot.

They are wrong in practice. Jacqui Smith's decision (which she would not defend in public but Chris did) has given more publicity and support to the wretched Wilders that letting him in to the UK would ever have done. Polls on the Daily Mail and Guardian websites both show an overwhelming majority of voters opposing the ban. Newly elected Presidents of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats traditionally receive a copy of the Milton's Areopagitica which contains the phrase,
"...who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter ?". I commend it to Chris. The right response to Wilders and anyone like him is to hear them, to argue with them and show that they are wrong.

There is another worrying implication here. Wilders is a European citizen and parliamentarian. He was invited by a European citizen (Lord Pearson of UKIP may not like this description) and parliamentarian. Wilders' attendance at the meeting in the House of Lords was prevented by Jacqui Smith, a member of the Executive. The prevention of discussion among parliamentarians by the Executive is characteristic of fascist government. Of course I do not say that our government is fascist but they do need to consider more carefully the implication of their decisions.

Finally, on the subject of offending people, have a listen to Marcus Brigstocke on religion on YouTube. Perhaps Jacqui Smith will prosecute him.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sorry !

An American writer, Tom Perrotta, has suggested
two new holidays, "Grievance Day" and "Apology Day". On Grievance Day, you could approach someone and complain that you've suffered at their hands. After three months, on Apology Day that person can apologise or respond. What interested me were some of the comments on the idea.

"That would be the worst idea ever. Some people don't take kindly to being told they have done something wrong, there would be fights left right and centre". Where did this comment come from ? Northern Ireland. It's such a pity when your worst prejudices are confirmed.

I preferred this comment from Grantham. Bless. "I spend half my life saying I'm sorry, a whole day dedicated to it will save me a lot of time." As they say in Lincolnshire, "Now then."

What’s the difference between a Liberal and a Social Democrat ?

Charlotte Gore's question prompts me to republish an old Liberator article.

Why I am still a Liberal

I met a lesbian on a train to Brussels. I met her because she sat right opposite me and started reading Paddy Ashdown's diaries. I took pity and rescued her and we had a conversation. She had, she told me, been a Euro-Communist as a student but having met lots of Liberals, she had now become a Liberal. This was not easy, she confessed. It had actually been harder to come out as a Liberal than as a lesbian.

I came out as a Liberal in 1974. I came out of the Labour Party, because of Europe, because of incomes policy, because of the environment, because the Chief Whip of the Liberal Party (David Steel) attended late-night Young Liberal caucuses whereas the Chief Whip of the Labour Party (Bob Mellish) only mentioned the Young Socialists when he wanted to swear. It was Brighton - the Liberal Assembly of 1974 – heady days (and nights).

I joined the Liberal Party but if I am honest, I wasn't a Liberal. I was, although I didn't know it at the time, a Social Democrat. In those pre-Thatcher days we all had much higher hopes of the role of the state. Seven years later a Social Democrat Party was created but by that time I had become a Liberal. I voted for the Alliance but after another seven years, I voted against the merger. To the many who have discovered the Liberal Democrat Party since then, this is all archaeology and my views have "gotta be mediaeval". Just stop digging, you might say. But I'm sorry, I can't pretend that two different things are actually one and the same nor that some magical Hegelian synthesis has produced a third thing, which is better than either. I am stuck with Alan Beith's formula when he stood for the leadership, "I am a Liberal, I am a member of the [Social and]Liberal Democrats".

To my slightly political friends, I give the soundbite: A Liberal is an anarchist who has compromised with reality, a Social Democrat is a socialist who has compromised with reality. But you, dear Liberator reader, deserve more. Liberals begin with the freedom of the individual and, when they have compromised with reality a bit, they should end with it too. It is not a question of balancing liberty and equality. If you are serious about freedom, yes you will require the state to do something to help all individuals to have the chance of a greater freedom than Carlyle's freedom to sleep under a bridge. (But you will also allow that freedom. On a recent visit to Scandinavia, home of social democracy, I heard the case of some alcoholics living squalidly in an isolated hut. The social workers arrived :

"We've come to help you"

"It's all right. We don't need any help."

"No. Society has let you down. We must help you to lead a normal life."

"Society hasn't let us down."

"Yes it has."

"No, it hasn't. We like living like this. Go away")

There are many problems with pursuing equality but two will do. Firstly, even the harshest Communist dictatorships have never achieved it. It can't be done and, secondly if it could, it would be terrible, because it would destroy all liberty and that great flower of liberty – diversity. You cannot tell if two different things are equal, if the man with a television is equal to the man with a book or with a rugby ball. You cannot do it by monetary value – how do you balance living in Lambeth with living in Durham, or Cornwall, or Skye. If you think this is abstract theorising, look carefully at how the New Labour government runs education, health or local government. The drive to equalise becomes inevitably a drive to homogenise. For a civil servant or a Number 10 wunderkind you can only be equal when you are the same. So we have a national curriculum, performance indicators, best value and the whole theology of targets. And if a school or a hospital or a social services department should deviate from the prescribed parameters of performance, what's the solution ? Bring in a new central government agency or contractor. The drive to sameness replaces any genuine concern for social justice.

To me, the point of freedom is the freedom to be different. Diversity is not just an individual good but the key to a healthy society. The current obsession with nationally imposed standards will impoverish us all. I take the example of Education Authorities. At one time (roughly, pre- Shirley Williams) they had great autonomy. There was a great variety of provision around the country and when one currently fashionable educational theory failed, areas that failed with it could look elsewhere in the country for viable alternatives. But when everyone is (compulsorily) doing the same and the theory fails, everyone fails and there is nowhere to go. It is like the problem of a monoculture in crops. If everyone grows the same variety of wheat, they will all fail when one particular blight comes along. Without variety there can be no selection and no evolution. Choice is not simply a luxury for the rich but a real necessity for society.

A word about experts, by which I mean not the man who can (and does) tell you why one car (computer, voting system) is better than another for your needs, but the man who then says that you must have this because I am the expert, I know what you need and I know better than you. Expertise rather than serving choice so often serves to deny it. When you combine the man who knows best with the man who wants to make things the same for everyone you have, in my view, the heart of social democracy. And guess what ? That man is in charge of Britain today.

Liberalism is often caricatured and misrepresented, both in France where they don't understand it (there was once briefly a French Liberal Party during the Third Republic led by the aptly named Monsieur Bourgeois) and in the United States where it means at least two completely different things. The French have a strong faith in reason, which they associate with René Descartes. They really believe that an intellectual in Paris can define what is right for the whole country. Thus they attempted to set priorities for every road junction in the country according to one guiding principle, priorité à droit. It didn't work and had to be accompanied by many exceptions. Their idea of religious freedom turns out to be forbidding religious symbols at school. The word Liberal is generally used in a derogatory way in France to describe someone who rejects social cohesion and collective action.

The confusion between different kinds of liberal in the United States has led to the description "neo-liberalism" which may be a neologism but is not liberalism. Traditionally, liberal meant Democrats of the Edward Kennedy school (school of thought, not of driving), whose views were close to the British Liberal Party. These people believed that freedom should include freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity and that the state had a role in helping to promote such freedom. The neo-liberals on the other hand have absorbed a little classical (or is it neo-classical ?) economics. Like Margaret Thatcher they do not believe in society. They believe in freedom so strongly that they are prepared to bomb and shoot people to force them to be free. They really believe that you can impose freedom. I don't.

Traditionally people attempt to put political opinions on a single axis from left to right. If you are left, you favour collective action and limit the individual, especially in economic matters. If you are right, you favour individual action and limit the state. I have believed for a long time that this dichotomy between individualism and collectivism is false. The individual and society are not opposites but two aspects of the same thing. The analogy of the word and the sentence illustrates the point. The meaning of a word depends upon its role in the sentence but the meaning of the sentence depends upon the words. Meanings change through usage by the whole language community, not because of a decision of the Academie Française. All societies need collective action and find ways of organising it. In authoritarian societies, the state or the church organises it. In liberal ones, volunteers organise it in a multitude of different ways, some of them commercial but not all.

Liberalism is a hard creed to follow, and I still believe it is a creed or, if you prefer, an ideology. It combines an analysis of society with a set of aims and methods for achieving them. It has something to say about the role of governments and the role of individuals. It does not say, "Look after yourself and don't expect anyone, especially the state, to help" – the guiding theme of Conservatism over the years. It does not say, "Don't worry. The state will look after you" – the inspiration of socialism now transmuted into "Don't worry. The state will tell you what to do and how and when to do it in precisely defined quantities". Liberalism asks each of us to think for ourselves and to work for each other. It accepts the incommensurability of individual desires and the value of diversity to society. It is the practical working out of liberty. I leave you with William Hazlitt: "The love of liberty is the love of others, the love of power is the love of ourselves."

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Golly !

I was going to express myself on the subject of Carol Thatcher and the BBC but Liberal England has said everything I wanted to say and then some.

I did look up "Golliwog" on Wikipedia, which reveals :

Creedence Clearwater Revival was originally called "The Golliwogs"

Golliwog was World War II British naval slang for a Gauloise cigarette

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Red Nose Day BBC

The BBC should have red faces not red noses. On 13th March, Red Nose Day, they will be asking for money "to make a difference to the lives of thousands of people living in abject poverty, or facing terrible injustice, both across Africa and in the UK" but not of course in Gaza, because helping people there would make "a range of people" think that the BBC is not impartial. I complained to the BBC about their refusal to show the DEC appeal. This was there reply:

"We note your disappointment at our decision not to broadcast an appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee to raise funds for Gaza.

We decided not to broadcast the DEC's public appeal because we wished to avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC's impartiality in the context of covering a continuing news story where issues of responsibility for civilian suffering and distress are intrinsic to the story and remain highly contentious. We also could not be confident that the aid resulting from audience donations could reach those it was intended for at a time of a fragile ceasefire and sporadic border access. We will of course continue to report the humanitarian story in Gaza."

This was my reply to them:

"Thank you for your anonymous response. I have listened with growing frustration and incredulity to the lame excuses presented by Mark Thompson and Caroline Thomson which you have reiterated.

The BBC's decision has achieved exactly what it claims to avoid. It has compromised public confidence in the BBC's impartiality. It has shown that you care more about the bigotry of those who believe that emergency help for Palestinians is anti-Israeli than you do about the actual plight of Gaza. Shame on you for giving into their bias.

The decision also demonstrates the well-known arrogance of BBC management. How can any of your managers from Mark Thompson downwards believe that they are better placed than the DEC itself to judge whether aid could reach its intended recipients ? Caroline Thompson says that viewers will be confused by seeing the same images of suffering in Gaza on the news and in the appeal. How much contempt for the intelligence of your viewers does this display ?

I had some hope that the BBC would pay attention to the anger and dismay of the general public (not to political pressure, as the other lame excuse goes) but it has become clear that the BBC, like the government, can never admit that it is wrong. Your failure to acknowledge your mistake exposes the BBC to the same contempt that many feel for politicians. I have therefore decide to cancel my television licence direct debit and to transfer the money saved to the DEC's appeal."

Rosenstiel's bicycle

I never thought to dream of Colin Rosenstiel and therefore when I heard his name on the Today Programme this morning, I knew I was awake. Colin has been reprimanded by the Standards Board for England for blocking an ambulance with his bicycle. It must be true - it was in the Sun. I am ready to believe it. Cllr. Rosenstiel once argued with a policeman who told him he couldn't ride down Burleigh Street in Cambridge because it was one-way. "No it isn't" said Colin, "It's just no entry at that end and I walked in." Colin went on to dumbfound the poor copper telling him that he (Colin) was on the relevant council committee and he knew about these things. Colin also challenged a police undercover operation when plain-clothes detectives posed as council workman outside a suspected terrorist's house, telling them that his committee had not arranged any such road works. All right, that's not true. It's a scene in Tom Sharpe's Wilt but I bet Tom Sharpe based it on Colin.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Shame on you, Caroline Thomson

First, the Israeli government did its best to make sure that we could not see inside Gaza by preventing journalists from entering. Now the BBC will not allow us to see the appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee for immediate, urgent help for the people of Gaza. The BBC gives two reasons for this. They question whether there is access to Gaza for any aid that is raised. Why does Caroline Thomson , Chief Operating Officer of the BBC, think that she can second-guess the judgement of the country's experts in giving aid (and the UN) ? Perhaps this is just cover for the second reason given. Caroline Thomson argues, "The most important thing that the BBC can do for the people of Gaza is to carry on reporting impartially." So why would broadcasting the DEC appeal affect that ? Because, she says, "it will look to a whole range of people that we are taking sides." She means of course the pro-Israeli lobby in Britain which springs into action when anyone shows the slightest sympathy for the sufferings of Palestinians. Giving in to those people is taking sides. Giving aid to the suffering is not. Presumably Ms Thomson thinks it is OK to pay £6 million to Jonathan Ross but the BBC must not show anyone asking for aid to Gaza. She says she has to take decisions carefully about the BBC's "unique gift of air time. Ross gets hours every week . She won't give Gaza two minutes. Shame on you, Caroline Thomson, shame on you.