Monday, January 30, 2006

Experts, Energy and the Environment

The disaster in Poland in which the roof of a trade hall collapsed* set me pondering about how much we rely on experts. I've often sat in theatreas, catherderals, meeting halls and the like wondering how the buildings stay up but glad that they do. I've been to some boring plays, concerts and business meetings.

We take for granted the role of experts in our everyday lives. Not just the ones who ensure that buildings rarely collapse but ones who ensure planes don't fall from the sky, cars stop when you brake, power stations don't explode, a constant stream of entertainment reaches our homes, bridges don't collapse and thousands of other everyday encounters with potential danger pass unoticed.

Even so we're suspicious of experts and always questioning their motives. Many journalists like nothing better than to find a maverick prepared to go against the grain of current wisdom. They impute the reputations of the majority of experts but rarely question those of the dissenter. And of course they can always point to examples of where the consensus of experts has been proved wrong, they have to keep quiet about the overwhelming number of times when it's been correct.

There are all sorts of self-appointed alleged experts around at present pontificating about the environment. I supose Sir James Lovelock started as one of these but he's grown into a well-respected authority. He was on Radio Four's Start the Week this morning. (If you want to hear him but miss out on Borris Johnson explaining his curious theory about, inter alia, why we need to re-introduce Roman games if we want to unite Europe skip, forward about 15 minutes).

I admire Professor Lovelock (perhaps because he reinforces my prejudices). He's particularly sound about the futility of much of what we're currently doing in Britain under the environmental banner. He thinks installing solar panels or building wind farms is worse than useless because it diverts attention from what we should really be doing. Given that much of the rest of what he terms this 'imperfect world' will go on producing greenhouse gases regardless of what we do, he wants our government to prepare for the probable affects of climate change. This requires some drastic action, for example to be ready to evacuate low lying areas if (when?) they flood. Much of London is built on low lying land.

A report issued today, called "Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change", seems to confirm what he is saying about the inevitability of dramatic climate change.

Professor Lovelock wants Britain to reduce its dependency on imported fuel and sees nuclear electricity as the least-worse way of filling the gap before other sources of electricity (which is essential for our civilisation) can be developed. He gently countered the objections voiced by another contributor that we don't know what to do with the waste. He's been to Sellafield where all our high-level waste is stored along with some from Japan. He measured radiation levels and found them to be generally lower than those naturally occuring in Cornwall. Outside the building with the really active stuff he found they were only a little higher than those in St Ives.

* there seems very little to unite the leader or comment sections of the UK press today which probably means there's nothing much to fret about. The story from Poland at least gets a mention in most papers although rather less than it would have done had it happened in Nuneaton.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Mark Twain on blogging

"Alas! that blogs so voluminously begun should come to so lame and impotent a conclusion as most of them did! I doubt if there is a single pilgrim of all that host but can show a hundred fair pages of blog concerning the first twenty days ...... and I am morally certain that not ten of the party can show twenty pages of blog for the succeeding......" Written in the nineteenth century these words were published in "The Innocents Abroad", his amusing account of a voyage from America to the Mediterranean and many of the surrounding countries. I mistyped 'journal' as 'blog'.

His point was that journals were started with great enthusiasm and with high-minded resolution to keep them going. In the dull days of the slow voyage by paddle-steamer across the Atlantic the travellers kept to their ambitions. But as soon as they landed somewhere interesting they found little time to write.

I'm about to move into the third month of this blog. Already I've failed to keep up my daily additions. And I've veered pretty quickly from reviewing a single topic, noting its contrasting coverage in the mainstream media (MSM), to general waffle, anecdotes and, although many may not have realised, humour all loosely tied to 'something in the papers'.

Speaking of MSM, I've had a few bits and pieces printed in the 'quality' press over the years and many letters to the editor both in them and my local papers. My blog rarely attracts 100 readers a day; even the popular ones in the genre seem to get but a few thousand visitors. The stuff in the MSM was probably seen by hundreds of thousands of people and even the local letters were probably read by tens of thousands. My letters in the Sun in 2001 (about what a rascal William Hague was) may even have been seen by millions of people.

So we've a bit of a way to go yet in the blogsphere..........

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Gloom and cliché keep the Telegraph ticking

Labour is at 40% in their poll* and in its ninth year of government. It's more than three years to a General Election and the country's doing pretty well. So it isn't hard to understand the misery suffered by the Telegraph and its hard-core readership.

I should be more sympathetic. I can remember the mid 1980s when it seemed that I had more chance of winning the National Lottery than of seeing a Labour Government again in my lifetime. And that was before the National Lottery had been started.

Patricia Hewitt has announced, in an interview with the said paper, that the government intends to introduce health screening for everyone who wants it. Seems an eminently sensible idea to me. But it doesn't take much for the Telegraph's leader writer to trot out their pathetic 'nanny state' cliché. Even more gloomy are the blatant lies: "But in this case, we have a government that after nine years has found no means of improving the NHS....". Never let the facts spoil a good rant.

My GP's practice already runs health screening sessions, at least it did a couple of years back and I assume still does. I was summoned to be asked some lifestyle and family history questions, to have my blood pressure taken and to endure a couple of other tests. Happily I got a good score and didn't have to go on to the next stage.

But this wouldn't fit with the Telegraph's gloomy agenda. A shame really because, away from the editorial line, it has lots of rather good stuff in it.....

* the latest Yougov poll for the Telegraph puts Labour on 40% and the Tories on 39%. But I couldn't find a reference to it on the Telegraph web site I had to seek out the Yougov one. It's an impressive result for a government which is, according to some of its critics from both without and within, engaged on introducing allegedly deeply unpopular reforms....

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The SDP - a warning from history

A quarter-of-a-century ago the SDP was established in the UK after the 'gang of four' had concluded that the Labour Party was beyond rescue. There must be many politically active people today who know little of these events.

It's hard to remember quite how dire the situation was within Labour then. I wasn't a member, a branch secretary must have lost my application form*, but I worked with someone who was an activist. He was terminally depressed. He explained how Militant had taken over his neighbouring constituency and their tactics in trying to do the same in his.

Labour Branch meetings were pretty dull then* and few people showed up regularly* (how unlike life today). Militant would pack the meetings and, if there weren't enough of them to form a majority, they would bore everyone else into submission. Then they'd get places on the Committees and do the same to those.

Labour rapidly became unelectable and the Tories were riding high.

Although it's easy now to say that David Owen, Shirley Williams and the rest of them should have stayed on to fight, it was quite understandable that they chose to leave and to establish a new party. I nearly joined partly because of Dr Owen's 'private wealth, public squalor' speech** to their Torbay conference and partly because they were the first party that allowed you to join just by phoning with your credit card number.

For every analyst who will tell you that the SDP's alliance with the Liberals kept Margaret Thatcher in power by stealing votes from Labour there is another who will say that they merely stopped her Tories getting even more votes. I'm coming round to the view that the latter is closer to the truth particularly in view of current mutterings about defections from the LibDems to the Tories.

It's always fun to speculate about what might have happened had something been different in the past. If the SDP had never existed would Labour have come to its senses sooner? If so would they have won in 1992? If so would they have been booted out a few years later after the ERM fiasco? If so would Michael Portillo now be starting his tenth year as Prime Minister instead of scruffing around TV studios for work? We'll never know.

Lesson 1: Labour, like all parties is a coalition. Most of the time the various factions live in reasonable harmony. Neil Kinnock's greatest gift to the party was his part in taking on Militant. His second greatest gift was losing the 1992 election.

Lesson 2: Those who think Labour's heart is on the extreme left are wrong. It never has, and never will, win an election from there.

Lesson 3: The Liberal Democrat party is a marriage of inconvenience between the old Liberal Party and the SDP. There are good reasons why the gang of four didn't just join the old Liberal Party but started the SDP. Now the marriage is falling apart. After the leadership election the LibDems must be forced to come clean about what sort of party they are.

Coming soon - when I found out for sure that the SDP/Liberal alliance was doomed......

* read Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997 by John O'Farrell for a fuller description

** this speech seemed to me to sum up all that was wrong about Thatcherism - that one phrase was particularly telling about the affects on much of the nation of her policies.

Cricket on UK Television

Parliament's Culture, Media and Sport Committee is due to publish a report on broadcasting rights for cricket at one minute past midnight on Wednesday 1 February 2006. Well worth staying up for, or why not Sky Plus it?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Staying Warm

Alan Coren has been sent a thermometer by Ken Livingstone. So, he writes, has every Londoner over 60. It's to tell them if their home is too hot or too cold. Although the too cold level is desert-like compared to the house I was brought up in. You knew it was cold when your glass of water had ice on it when you woke up....

I sympathise with Mr C when he writes: "the website my gnarled fingers have to seek with queries about my thermometer is I’d have preferred www.helpthemiddleaged, or www.helptheremarkablywell-preserved, or even www.helpthesprightly." When does middle age start and when ditto old age these days?

The Coren dynasty bring much joy to our household. Dad and Giles in the Times and Victoria on the telly searching for definitions. Loadsa smiles....

PMQs – does Cameron read my blog?

Last week my readers will have learnt that the PM seemed to be hinting at compromise for those opposed to the merger of police forces. A point few, if any, other commentators picked up. This week David Cameron devoted his second block of questions to this point and asked directly if ‘strategic co-operation’ was an alternative to merger. Tony Blair said the government is listening but reminded the house that the proposals had come about because the Association of Chief Constables had said that the present structure of 43 forces is unfit for purpose.

And the point of reorganisation is to strengthen local policing and local accountability. The problem isn’t (as Mr C has said it is) about incompetent police officers.

More to come on this I’m sure and more to come from me about today’s wide-ranging PMQT….

'24 hour' drinking law update

It is two months today since the new licensing laws came into effect, this has allowed, inter alia, pubs to stay open after 11pm in England and Wales. When the enabling Act was going through Parliament and in the run-up to its implementation the press, radio and TV were full of dire predictions of mayhem on our streets and a collapse of civilisation.

So what's happened since? I've really no idea but not much it would seem from the almost total lack of reporting. In spite of hundreds of journalists being deployed on the first few nights of the new arrangements there seems to have been little to report.

This is typical of modern news coverage. We're treated to huge amounts of speculation before things happen but precious little afterwards. It seems there are hundreds of rent-a-mouth experts on hand to tell us how awful things are about to become and to blame it all on a heartless government intent on bringing unhappiness to the population. No wonder the blogsphere is infected with simple souls who buy this wicked government nonsense!

So much for the news revolution. We get no more news than we had in the 1950s, less about foreign affairs probably. But it all comes quicker, there's loads more waffle but very little proper analysis or follow-up.....

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Educating Labour Rebels

Gordon Brown's timely entry into the education debate is welcome. In an exclusive interview with the Sun he has put his weight behind the reforms in the education white paper. Unhappily, at least in their on-line version, the Sun puts bashing John Prescott higher than praising either of the two Mr Bs. But they quote Mr Brown thus: "We cannot allow schools to tolerate a culture of second best or failure. Reform, reform and reform is our message."

I was intending to draw my faithful readers' attention to William Rees-Mogg's musings in yesterday's Times but time overcame me. It's not often I find myself in agreement with this former editor of that paper and even rarer that I disagree with one of my great political heroes, Neil Kinnock. But yesterday I agreed with the spirit of Rees-Mogg's piece even though some of the detail was tosh. It was headlined "Beware the curse of Kinnock".

Today, as so often, David Aaronovitch, is bang on in his Times article. He's also a fan of Lord Kinnock but is certain he's wrong this time. Addressing the concerns that only middle class children will benefit from the reforms Aaronovitch writes: "The problem is .... that this built-in advantage to the articulate and wealthy is exactly what happens at the moment. Yet the evidence is overwhelmingly that social entrepreneurs are far more interested in solving the problems at the underachieving end of the spectrum than they are in “pandering” to the pushies". Absolutely right - we have selection by postcode and house price at the moment.

Unusually, Polly Toynbee gets it wrong in the Guardian as well. She has to dredge up some LSE research to support her argument, now that's not likely to be remotely biased is it? But a letter writer to the same paper produced a rather fine effort last week imho. After updating readers about the realities of OFSTED, he concluded that "freeing schools also from the often-dead hands of LEAs and dogma-blinded councillors will further free teachers to educate rather than just train their pupils". What a wise and erudite chap that Mr Hughes must be (subject to ratification).

Monday, January 23, 2006

Rupert Murdoch talks to the nation

Like him or loath him, Rupert Murdoch is worth listening to. You can download an interview with him that was on Radio Five. It was quite a coup for them to get him, he doesn't give many live interviews especially ones that last for 24 minutes.

I've made the mistake of loathing him but, as he puts it, if you're a catalyst for change you're bound to make enemies. I remember how people scoffed at Sky television when it started but they don't scoff now. I was against his taking on of the print unions but can now see they needed taking on and that the newspaper industry is stronger than it would have been.

His views on English politics are, of course, interesting. He thinks we've got a pretty good government and doesn't seem very impressed yet with David Cameron who he says is bright but so far all image. He likes Gordon Brown and noted the similarity in their Calvinist upbringings.

I think he's right about the need to support Tony Blair's education reforms. The world is growing increasingly competitive and 1960s solutions aren't good enough. He's also right about the growth of an underclass and the need to give them more incentive to work their own way out of their problems.

What he says about the BBC branching into non-broadcasting areas is interesting. He obviously has an interest but he made some good points, for example about the danger posed to local newspapers.

Whatever you think of him it's hard to deny that he's canny. Definitely worth listening to......

Telegraph declares: “Tony Blair was right”, shock

It’s bash the LibDem day for the Telegraph's leader writer. Under the headline: “The Lib Dems are a laughing stock – again” he* concludes; “Tony Blair told his activists: "Never underestimate the Tories; never over-estimate the Lib Dems." He was right. On both counts.” The Daily Mail comment writer feels: “It's' hard not to feel at least a twinge of sympathy for the Liberal Democrats.” But goes onto demonstrate that it’s possible.

The Times leader writer says: “Sympathy for Mr Oaten has to be balanced against the extraordinary recklessness of his behaviour. … [for him] to assume that … he might be able to rely on the polite silence of those who sell themselves for sex was an example of being “in denial”.”

I rather agree with Max Hastings in the Guardian when he writes about his regret “that so few politicians are undone by failure in the performance of public office, so many by personal embarrassments.” and he’s certainly correct that “this sort of stuff still sells newspapers in millions” but a lot of the rest of his piece is blatant anti-Labour tripe.

My main worry is that able people are increasingly put off public life. It is possible to have a more (financially) rewarding and private life in a boardroom than on the green benches of parliament. We are all losers if our insatiable demands for scandal are driving good people away.

* it may be a she but I doubt it. We need a word for person of unknown gender; (s)he is too clumsy.

Welcome to the worst day of the year

Researchers have concluded that today, being the fourth Monday in January, is the most depressing day in the year. Or perhaps it’s because the second to last Monday, I can’t remember. I think the researchers are from the University of Cardiff but it might have been somewhere else. Cardiff is in Wales where people are noted for their gloom. January is a bit grim but I reckon that February is worse.

When I had a real job with company pension scheme, staff discounts, team building training, holidays and such like, I liked to get to Easter before taking any days off. That way I thought I’d broken the back of the year and could eek out the rest of my meagre allocation through the remainder of the year.

Meanwhile you can mull over the thought that if you can get through today and if the researchers are correct then the rest of the year should be easy. And the mathematically challenged might ask themselves why, if this is the fourth and also second last Monday and 4+2=6, why there are only five Mondays this year in January (which is one more than the month has in most years).

Why can’t researchers study useful things such as why only a few dozen people visit my blog even though it’s four weeks old this very day?

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Is Cameron really Prince Charles?

Far from being a Tony Blair clone, David “’nice boy’ Cameron is more like Prince Charles according to Richard Ingrams in yesterday’s Independent (pay to read section). Both are “wealthy patricians” wanting to do their bit for the community. Both are patrons of peculiar ‘green’ soothsayers (Porritt for Charles and Goldsmith for Cameron).

But Ingrams really gets into his stride when writing about Cameron’s attack on WH Smith for selling chocolate oranges instead of apples. Ingrams has a long running feud against WH Smith going back to the days when they refused to distribute Private Eye of which he was then editor. Perhaps this whole piece is an excuse to ask again why Smith’s got the nationwide franchise to sell books and magazines at stations.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

I google, you google, he she or it googles

I can't remember quite when I started to use Google. I was slightly put off it in the early days because it became the search engine of choice on the company's internal web site. This was full of Amazingly Good News about How Fantastically Well our Company was Doing. Unfortunately we all knew it was in Big Trouble but the only clue to that on the site was the share price tucked away in a corner. It was falling.

The site was maintained by the department my friend John called the 'nail-varnish' although not to their faces. I'm ashamed to say that I sometimes referred to them as 'those daft tarts in HR'. They were terribly keen on whatever was the latest corporate fad but they weren't all women and they weren't all completely daft.

One has to adopt the ethos of one's department.

Anyway they had enough influence to send us away occasionally on the sort of courses during which we had to walk blindfold through stinging nettles or drop eggs off the fire-escapes of middle-market hotels suspended on parachutes made out of paper. The eggs not the hotels. This was supposed to build team spirit but in reality it made us despise each other and the Company even more.

So it took me a while to put Lycos to one side and become a Google addict. It's no exaggeration to say that it has changed my life and that I use it many times pretty much every day. It's hard to remember what life was like pre-Google.

The strange thing is how they, along with Apple, have managed to retain their image as the "good guys" whilst poor old Microsoft is now despised by the usual suspects who see conspiracy around every corner. Odd; Bill Gates seems to me to be a pretty inoffensive member of the human race.

Anyway there was a nice little programme on BBC2 last night about Google. Did you watch it?

Jacobson vs Dawkins vs Religion

Howard Jacobson’s on fine form today gently rubbishing Professor Richard Dawkins and, especially, his recent programmes about atheism on Channel 4. Writing in the Independent*, Mr Jacobson puts into words rather better than I could many of the misgivings I had about these two programmes entitled ‘The Root of All Evil’. “Professor Richard Dawkins, in his role as evangelist of disbelief, offering a walk-on part to every crackpot who ever took the name of God in vain” isn’t bad for starters but I’m not sure he’s correct to assert that “Nothing returns one quicker to God than the sight of a scientist with no imagination, no vocabulary, no sympathy, no comprehension of metaphor, and no wit, looking soulless and forlorn amid the wonders of nature.”

Jonathan Miller's ‘Brief History of Disbelief’ series on BBC4 which was later repeated on BBC2 and the associated ‘Atheism Tapes’ (unhappily not repeated) presented the case far more powerfully than The Root of Evil. With quiet rational debate and a wealth of historical research it was far superior to the hysteria that spoilt so much of Dawkins’s programmes.

I can’t agree with Jacobson when he writes that Dawkins’s argument was “that what you cannot scientifically prove cannot be”. On the contrary one of the best aspects of the programme was the emphasis on the uncertainty which pervades all scientific investigation and its superiority over blind faith. But he’s right to criticise the choice of obvious extremists for most of the interviews. I’d have liked to have heard much more of the conversation Dawkins had with the Bishop of Oxford and far less of the ranting clerics.

Jacobson neatly illustrates what was wrong by pointing out that you wouldn’t be playing fair if you made a programme attacking atheism and used Stalin or Pol Pot to support your argument. Fundamentalists, wherever they lurk, are dangerous.

There’re a couple of letters on the topic also in the Indy under the title “Unscientific theories about religion”. I especially liked this paragraph: “I am not claiming this as an argument in favour of religious belief, but I think it's fairly strong evidence that religious bigotry is only a symptom of a more general human tendency towards tribal violence: get rid of religion and people will simply kill one another over socio-economic theories, or nationality, or race, or culture, or, failing all else, football. They do all of that already.” in the one from Gillian Ball.

* unless you subscribe to their portfolio service, you’ll have to pay to read all but the first couple of paragraphs. But Howard Jacobson is the principle reason I shell out GBP1.30 on Saturdays. Others are (in the magazine): the Weasel, Debora Ross and Will Self.

European emotions

The 'British Subject NOT EU Citizen' embossed letter I mentioned yesterday has awoken the curiosity of at least one* of my readers. So here is a bit more detail. The letter came from Kent. Like many border counties, Kent seems to harbour a greater percentage of people suspicious of 'foreigners' than does the rest of the UK. The inhabitants of Herefordshire and Shropshire, for example, seem more than usually hostile for Englishmen towards the Welsh and those of Cumbria and Northumbria ditto towards the Scots.

The distrust of the continent seems to sweep along the south coast if the number of UKIP posters during the 2004 election is anything to go by (but these also seem to be favoured by people over 65 many of who now live frightened lives behind lace curtains at the seaside (I'm only jealous except about the lace curtains and the fright)). A survey in Portsmouth allegedly discovered that its inhabitants still think that the French pose the greatest threat to Britain's wellbeing.

Anyhow the chap who wrote to me has strong views. He thinks Britain has gone down the pan since we turned our back on the Commonwealth and embraced Europe. He has curious views on Iraq as well; he thinks it was a lot better off under the strong leadership of Mr Hussein. Most curiously he lavishes praise on Tito's Yugoslavia which I thought was a federation - a word guaranteed to make any Eurosceptic's goose-pimples rise.

I can remember Britain in the sixties and early seventies. Apart from the hippy-euphoria it was a land of perpetual sterling crisis, derelict factories, decaying docks, balance of payments deficits and many other signs of economic decay. It has lost an empire and not yet found a role. Thirty years on since joining the EEC we have one of the strongest economies in the world and seem to have found a role quite high in the premiership of nations. The Commonwealth is as strong as its ever been as evidenced by Mozambique's joining it even though their country was never part of the British Empire.

We get so little news about the EU except for overblown scare stories. It's the subject no politician wants raised for fear, in many cases, of unleashing the tabloid dogs. It's far from perfect but it's far better than the alternatives. People have said similar things about democracy.

And, after two weeks of living in a tupperware-box-like-environment, the sun has come out. We saw snowdrops whilst out walking this morning......

* one reader is > 1% of About Whose News's total present readership so I can't afford to let down the person who left a comment yesterday If he is who I think he be (subjunctive) he'll find more information in his hotmail account if the address I've been given be (subjunctive) his. I hope the dissertation be (dialect) going well.

Friday, January 20, 2006

When will the EU dog bark for David?

I got a letter today, it had a sticker on the front with a little Union Jack and the message "British Subject NOT EU Citizen". So I had a clue about its contents. I think it must be from someone who had read one of my 'letters to the editor' possibly in the Times when they used to print full postal addresses.

It reminds me that there is a hard core of natural Tories who are passionately opposed to Britain's EU membership. The question is: will this issue ever surface again and if it does how will David Cameron deal with it? (Questions - sorry).

Will he go for the Howard fudge - inventing a fantasy EU that will never exist because none of the other 24 member states wants to play - or will he ignore the issue and reckon that these people might vote UKIP in European or local elections but will return to the fold at General Election time? Or neither of the above?

In the unlikely event that you'd like to know more about the letter's content and my analysis of its shortcomings, please leave a comment.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Good news for speech wireless fans

It was reported on BBC Radio 4's 6 o'clock news that Channel 4 is intending to launch digital speech radio channels. Curiously there's nothing about it on the Channel 4 or BBC News sites that I can see. But there is something in the Media Guardian. Channel 4 do however own up to Jon Snow's new podcast. I wonder what he's like without the ties.

Much as I love the BBC Radio output, some competition in the serious speech area should be good especially if it takes away the slightly arrogant edge that sometimes creeps in. Perhaps they'll offer a better alternative to Radio 4's increasingly lacklustre Today programme than Radio Five currently provides. But given that it's Channel 4 there's still likely to be plenty of anti-government gloom to contend with....

EU President baits British tabloid with tax plan

“Barely three weeks into his presidency of the EU, Austria's Wolfgang Schuessel proposes yet another increase in the power of Brussels” roars the Daily Mail comment column. Not only is he looking again at the constitution, he’s also revived the idea of EU taxes. One of these “would undermine the City of London's competitiveness”. Belatedly acknowledging that it’s never going to happen, the writer goes on: “sooner or later [UK ministers] will surrender, as they have been surrendering since the day we joined, more than 35 years ago”.

No wonder our economy is performing so woefully after 35 years of surrender to these evil eurocrats. But we joined only 33 years ago and isn’t our economy doing rather better than it was in 1970? If the writer thinks 33 is more than 35 perhaps he isn’t the world’s greatest economist after all.

The Independent is less hysterical: “The proposal … revived a debate that has raged for years in Brussels which has to get all 25 member states to agree on its seven-year spending programmes. …. The European Commission agreed to study the tax plan as part of the review but said it was "premature" to speculate on the outcome. …. Gary Titley, leader of Labour's MEPs, said: "While a direct tax is not acceptable, a more rational way of doing this, to get away from the 3am carve up, has to be the way forward". He suggested a levy bolted to indirect taxes…”

The Telegraph ends its report thus: “Tax policy must be agreed unanimously by all 25 EU nations. The Treasury said in a terse statement: "The UK Government has made clear that it is opposed to an EU tax, and believes that taxation is a matter for member states to determine at a national level."” So there’s nothing really to fret about after all.

Oaten allegedly out

The Times online is reporting that Mark Oaten is dropping out of the LibDem leadership race. Menzies Campbell's soundbite on Radio 4's Today this morning perhaps impressed Mark more than it did me. Switching on for the weather, I was distressed to catch Ming being asked if he wasn't too old for the job. He said he wasn't that that it was about 'open minds not open-necked shirts'. Oh dear.

Truth, what is truth?

For this writer, who hasn't found enough time in his life to study philosophy or languages, this morning's 'In Out Time' on BBC Radio 4 was a gem. It was about relativism. It asked (according to its web site): "Why has relativism so radically divided scholars and moral custodians over the centuries? How have its supporters answered to criticisms that it is inherently unethical?"

I can't possibly do the programme justice in a review, but I urge you to listen (which you can do from the web site). Suffice to say that since I got Really Interested in Politics I've found it useful to try to see the political world from other people's perspective. Supposing the Daily Mail comment writer is correct, what then? It's a useful way of refining one's own thoughts. Absolute certainty ain't half dangerous and it's a shame that our media demands that our politicians must present themselves as absolutely certain.

One of the contributors to the programme spoke about 'moments of enlightenment'. I had one when I realised that many people must regard Tony Blair in the same way that I regarded Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. I couldn't then see (as I can now) that anything she or her government did was sensible because I so despised her basic philosophy.

I've also only recently realised how much our individual 'truth' depends on our language. I'm hopeless at learning other languages and really envy people who can speak more than one. I'm struggling with French but even those struggles have helped me to see how my own thoughts and truths are, to some extent, dependent on my native tongue. It's one of many things that makes me suspicious of the sorts of people Richard Dawkins was confronting on the tele on Monday. People who hold that the Bible contains absolute truth when it's been translated many times and originated in spoken thoughts. Even reading the King Jame's version alongside a modern translation will help to show that it ain't necessarily so. The Pope has declared relativism to be responsible for moral decline, at the end of the programme there's an insight into why this probably isn't true. Heavy stuff......

So go and listen.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

My soul laid bare?

Can this really be me? Maybe it only works for North Americans in search of love:
You are a

Social Liberal
(68% permissive)

and an...

Economic Liberal
(36% permissive)

You are best described as a:


Link: The Politics Test on OkCupid Free Online Dating
Also: The OkCupid Dating Persona Test

PM Questions – and some old faces

After last week’s excitement it was back to near normal this week. When Ming stood up for his turn the Speaker had to intervene and reminded MPs that everyone had had a bit of fun last week but they must now allow the old chap to be heard. The LibDem leader asked two very short and bland questions about implementation of the recommendations following the Soham murders. Mr Blair answered the question he thought that Ming should have asked about Ruth Kelly’s department.

Earlier we’d learnt that a heartless LibDem council had closed a swimming bath in Chesterfield. The PM was suitably horrified. David Cameron used his first batch of 4 questions to fret about the cost of ID cards. Mr Blair reminded him that most of the cost is around the biometric element that will be needed anyway for passports. He didn’t manage to get Mr Cameron to come clean about the real basis of his opposition to the cards but he did succeed in getting in a couple of digs about how often and how rapidly Tory policy changes these days. Mr C came back later with some questions about climate change allowing Mr B to say something like: ‘Where Tory policy is sensible it’s in agreement with the Government’s policy but when it’s not in agreement it’s not sensible.

A real treat, John Redwood got called and asked about academic selection, so not all the Tory backbenchers can be all that thrilled with their new leader’s education policies. Then, joy of joy, came Dennis Skinner who seemed amazed to have been called. He spoke about carbon emissions and reminded the House that the Tories had closed the clean coal technology plant when they were in power. As Mr B said ‘when things go wrong it’s always the Tories fault’ which is pretty much Dennis’s constant refrain.

Lots of other interesting points including a hint of compromise over police force mergers; the PM spoke of strategic cooperation between forces. A possible alternative to ‘unpopular’ mergers? Then two points of order, how exciting!

'There just ain’t no justice,….

…..the cold girls should get the fur coats.' The proposals to speed up the process for fining antisocial behaviourers (?) are getting a rough ride. Much of this is coming from the legal profession and those associated with it. Some is coming from liberal theoreticians.

Worryingly, seventeenth century philosophers are being invoked to support both sides of the argument. Back then only a few thousand Englishmen would have had any recourse to anything like what we know today as the legal system. Magnus Linklater in the Times today rather lets the cat out. He quotes Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) “If a man be interrogated by the sovereign or his authority, concerning a crime done by himself, he is not bound (without assurance of pardon) to confess it; because no man . . . can be obliged by covenant to accuse himself.”

Now I know the locals worthy and busybodies who sit on the bench in your local magistrates’ court carry, at least in theory, the authority of the sovereign, but I don’t think they are quite what Mr H had in mind. Perhaps we all like to imagine that defence barristers all model themselves on Rumpole of the Bailey and get deeply involved with their clients before bringing about minor triumphs for justice and freedom.

But it isn’t like that. In reality a barrister will usually know as much or as little about their client as would the official in the prosecutor’s office who, under the proposals, would determine the sentence for those pleading guilty.

As for the Police fitting people up and getting them a criminal record, neither of these seem to me to be more or less likely than they are under the present arrangements. And I’m confident that sensible potential employers will take as little notice of such convictions as motor insurance firms take of speeding fines i.e. none unless there are lots of them.

Something has to be done to increase the chances of wrong-doers suffering some penalty. And yes we need carrots in addition to sticks. But at present the balance seems to be to far weighted in favour of the yobs.

Mr Linklater doesn’t agree. But the paragraph I quote below suggests to me that he’s a bit out of touch with the realities of the present system of local justice:

“Everyone, whether pleading guilty or innocent, is entitled to it, and the magistrate or sheriff who hears the case is duty-bound to inquire into every relevant detail — the circumstances of the arrest, the weight of police evidence and the personal background of the accused. The idea that all this should be determined in the privacy of a prosecutor’s office, on the say-so of a police officer, and on the basis of a signed plea, is to turn the founding principle of the British legal system on its head.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

News about the EU

There is some to be found but most of it's well tucked away. The Times has a story about the proverbial Polish plumbers because "A two-year ban on Eastern workers imposed by 12 of the 15 old member .. is coming up for review. .... Most member states ... are insisting that the restrictions must stay. ... [but] In Britain the arrival of Eastern European workers has been widely seen as a success ..... Countries with strong economies such as Britain and Ireland have been not been disturbed by the new workers but many EU countries have high unemployment, making the issue far more controversial."

In the Independent's European section they report that "Dock workers fought police and smashed windows at the European Parliament and paralysed several ports around the continent as protests against plans to liberalise port services ended in violence." They were protesting against "The draft legislation on ports [which] proposes opening cargo handling to competition, ending monopolies for the loading and unloading of goods. Unions fear the measures will cost jobs, depress wages and erode safety at 400 European ports." The Guardian also reports this story but in their International section - hey it's only 30 years since the UK joined - noting that "The European parliament looks set to reject the plans to liberalise cargo handling at EU sea ports on Wednesday, two years after voting down the previous draft legislation on port services." Bit unfair to break their windows then eh?

The Telegraph also uses confines the EU to their International section reporting that heckling is to be banned in European Parliament. Apparently it "will this week approve a strict new disciplinary code to stamp out banner-waving, heckling and other protests."

Good, so now we know all about what's going on in the EU.......

Monday, January 16, 2006

Liberty and the pursuit of happiness

One man's ceiling, another man's floor.

Odd cove this liberty chap. Sometimes those who drone on about it seem to have something they want to hide even if it's only that they watch ITV3 behind their lace curtains. Or they want to be free to do something that may inconvenience, annoy or harm others such as driving too fast, baiting bears or stealing policemen's helmets on boat race night.

It gets mixed up with the curiously English obsession with privacy that only really took hold imho amongst the Edwardian lower middle classes but which now fuels a largish section of the UK press. I don't much care who knows what I get up to and I don't much care who reads my e-mails or listens to my conversations. But others seem to care a lot.

It also gets mixed up with law and order and innocence until proven guilty which is a fine and noble principal that only really benefited the nobs and serious criminals in the days when policemen and vigilantes allegedly kept the peace with a few swift clips around the ears of the miscreant masses.

I can't help feeling that Mr Blair is onto something with the respect agenda. Given that the forces of Civil libertarians are lined up against him alongside the Daily Mail and the Telegraph on its bad days, perhaps he has found the true centre ground.

Anyway this is a Big Issue when I go canvassing and talk to the non-chattering classes. I was surprised at the genuine level of gratitude that many people expressed for what has already been done to clamp down on low level antisocial behaviour. But many people are still afraid to go out at night and that can't be right even though some of their fears may be irrational.

The venerable William Rees-Mogg in the Times doesn't agree: "In the history of Britain there have been many periods when liberty was threatened. The immediate threat is a government with a lust for control, with little respect for liberty". Neither does Rachel Sylvester in the Telegraph: "People would, for the first time, get a criminal record (as well as a fine or community service order) without ever having their case put for them by a defence barrister in court."

Politics and journalism - must Kelly resign?

Does the 24 hour news culture doom us to the politics of panicky decision making and sound-bites? Who, I wonder, apart from some die-hard opposition supporters and opportunistic journalists, really thinks that Ruth Kelly should resign? I'm not in favour of school-children being molested but it is unthinkable that there are not some people with unsavoury sexual appetites amongst the 300,000 or so teachers in the UK to say nothing of the ancillary staff.

However the press has decided that here is a good, sensationalist story with which to fill their newsprint and websites. And the 24hr news channels have equally enthusiastically seized the opportunity to fill a bit of airtime. Most of the papers have more or less predictable takes on the 'story' today.

There was an interesting discussion about politics and journalism on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week this morning. Armando Iannucci, Estelle Morris, Michael Moorcock and Jacky Law all have books to flog or conferences to publicise and so trotted into Broadcasting House's basement (it's amazing down there, most of the equipment is so old that it was probably purchased by Lord Reith). Armando explained that his TV series 'The Thick of It' is a comedy which over-emphasises the hectic chaos of politics (both these points seem to have escaped some contributors to message boards - 'I've worked in politics and it's just like this' is the sort of tripe they post). He agreed that it's almost inevitable that any government of whatever flavour would now have to have more than one eye over its shoulder at what the media were up to and would probably have to indulge in the kind of bartering 'we'll give the low-down on this if you ignore that' that allegedly goes on. A similar discussion was had later in connection with the pharmaceutical industry.

Rupert Murdoch is a canny man. He realised ages ago that he'd have far more influence through running media outlets than by going into politics.

We're all doomed; but are we bothered?

Many thinkers believe we are pessimists because our potential ancestors who were too optimistic took too many risks and were wiped out (equally the real pessimists couldn't be bothered to get up and were also extinguished so we're only mildly pessimistic). We do seem to enjoy being scared and if it's about something that we can do nothing but blame the government, or nowadays the Americans, for, so much the better. On a lean news day, the Independent majors on Professor James Lovelock's gloomy outlook for life on Earth.

Ghosts, goblins and bumps in the night were pretty scary before reliable electric light. The twentieth century was dominated for the British by fears of mechanised total war in Europe and then of nuclear destruction. Worthy people joined pacifist movements and, later, CND. They were really asking for the impossible, for weapons to be un-ivented.

Now we fret about climate change and many tend, almost gleefully, to accept the most pessimistic predictions. Such concerns may well be justified but, as Professor Lovelock makes clear, there is very little anyone can do about it. But it has become like a religion with its own curious rituals. Well-meaning people get really cross if we don't sort our rubbish into different coloured boxes or forget to switch off our televisions. Worthy newspapers like the Independent rail against climate change yet still stuff their pages with travel tips to exotic locations and lifestyle features on topics most of which unnecessarily increase our energy consumption.

What's to do about it? I agree with the good professor that governments should worry more about planning for the affects (or is it effects?) of climate change as much as they do about trying to prevent it. Not building on low level land would be a good start but would bring out the droves of Nimbys on the higher ground. And Professor Lovelock thinks nuclear energy is the only viable short-term fix to our impending electricity generating crisis.

But don't panic. On a cosmic scale does it really matter if our species is wiped out? The planet will survive.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Being European

How many times have you asked yourself ' how can we develop a better understanding of the more ethereal notions of being European?' I know I do at least eighteen times a day. To their credit BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House dedicated more than five minutes at the end of their programme this morning to this question and to the future direction of the EU and its constitution. It started at about seven minutes to ten if you care to listen even though it doesn't get a mention on their web page.

The piece spent some time looking at Austria (which now holds the presidency) and its constitution since the breakdown of post war consensus. A comparison was drawn with the European project now that the EEC of six countries firmly wedded to the social model has evolved into an EU of 25 countries without such a common commitment. I think people often forget how young the EU is; they expect it to be perfect even though it's only just begun. Fascinating to be able to witness its progress. I liked the theorist who said that lovers of Europe must accept that it exists as many different cultures and many different political structures. For me that's part of its joy and strength. He said European identity is not like a lake but like a river; not static but changing. Try telling all that to the Daily Mail.

And try suggesting we all fly the EU flag on Europe Day. Anyone know when Europe Day is?

Oh, and the ever entertaining Phil Hogan took his mother to Paris for the weekend. "She has been desperate for foreign adventure since sending off for her first passport three years ago, the year after my dad died. The pair of them rarely went further than you could get back from on half a tank of Esso Extra. Now suddenly she's Amy Johnson."

Taxing Times for Hughes

Simon Hughes, now the favourite to be the LibDem's next leader, is ready to ditch the 50% tax rate policy that formed part of his party's last manifesto. "Hughes's dramatic move towards the Lib Dem 'modernisers' came in an interview with The Observer". We've come a long way from Denis Healey's 1970s threat to 'squeeze the rich until the pips squeak' when he was, or was about to become, Chancellor of the Exchequer. It all seemed so obvious then, the state needed to spend more and taxing high earners seemed the obvious way to raise the cash.

But now there is a broad consensus amongst economists and (sometimes reluctantly) politicians that high rates of income tax really do slow down the economy. Only the loony tunes parties in the UK now favour high rates of income tax. Oh dear, another certainty of my youth has bitten the dust. Another triumph for political reality over political theory......

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Things have got better since the sixties - part 2

When I was at school in the fifties and sixties many of the teachers were psychopaths, sadists, perverts, bullies or any combination of the above. Most of them had come out of the war with no career so I suppose they had a lot to be angry about. And some of them were jolly good teachers

It would be a pity if all teachers were completely bland. Howard Jacobson, slightly tongue in cheek I think asks in the Independent: "government and education .. exist only so long as there are crazies to staff them. You could say the same of the army, the police, ophthalmology, television, dentistry, religion, accountancy, surgery. Who, by any definition of normality, would choose to cut open people's stomachs for a living? How can a person of flesh and blood take satisfaction in a ledger? What man, not desperate to reveal something untoward about his gender orientation, would believe in the Virgin Birth, smother himself in incense and dress in women's clothing?" Anyone not offended yet? You'll have to pay a quid to read the rest on-line. But why not sport an extra thirty pee for the complete paper (with a splendid free DVD) should your newsagent have any left?

Tom Utley made a similar point in the Telegraph yesterday: Kelly should be brave enough to face down mass hysteria. "But all this was nearly 40 years ago, long before the current outbreak of mass hysteria over paedophilia. So perhaps I am being very old-fashioned when I say that I cannot begin to understand all the fuss now being made about the fact that Paul Reeve was allowed by Miss Kelly's Education Department to work as a PE teacher at the Hewett School in Norwich." The Daily Mail would not be impressed. Never fighting shy of an excuse to take a pop at the Government its comment column declares today: "Despite a frenzied week of searching the records in Whitehall, nobody has the faintest idea how many potential child abusers are in our schools". Even the Mirror thunders: "Would Kim Howells have wanted any of his three kids to be taught PE by a sex offender who had been cautioned by police for leering at child porn?" And the Sun's web team want "to hear from you if you know of someone who has got a job in a school despite being on the register." And they'd also like you to drool over some pictures of pretty young ladies.

Primrose Hill, allegedly

The most successful Direct Action I've ever been part of took place on Primrose Hill about thirty years ago. The authorities had decreed that the park, of which the hill is the main part, should close at sunset like the neighbouring Regent's Park which already did. On the first night of the closure, without, as far as I know, any collusion, a couple of hundred people turned up at sunset and sat quietly on the hill. It was a mild evening and the poor park-keepers, who'd been sent by their pen-pushing masters to lock the gates, drove around for a while and then went home. Next evening there were more people, one determined couple had brought camp beds. Hardly any of us spoke but we just went on turning up each evening. After less than a fortnight the absurd policy was abandoned. How civilised.

I lived then in St John's Wood which is on the other side of the hill to the area of North West London that shares the hill's name. I was delighted to learn that the young turks allegedly destined one day to run Labour allegedly are called the Primrose Hill Set. It's so much nicer there than in Notting Hill where the young millionaires who allegedly think that they've taken over the Tory Party (but many Tories are not so certain) allegedly live. But I'm dismayed to learn more about another Primrose Hill Set, a bunch of C-list celebs who allegedly don't confine their intimacy to their marital beds and whose medicine of choice is allegedly stronger than is aspirin. Gareth McLean tells us about one Barry Smith today in the Guardian.

BTW has anyone noticed the striking similarity between the photograph on the same page allegedly of James Harkin and the one allegedly of Norman Johnson four pages further on? Could they, in any way, be related? I think we should be told.

Major new blow for Cameron

Less than 100 days since becoming leader, David 'nice-boy' Cameron is thought to be reeling after being endorsed by a failed bus conductor. Speaking on BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme a Mr John Major condemned sound bite politics before delivering enthusiastic support for the new Tory leader via a series of sound bites, one of which the BBC has since used in its so-called-news bulletins.

Mr Major failed the London Transport test to become a bus conductor. The criteria for becoming Conservative Prime Minister are not so demanding. In a recent poll 50.8% of voters in Huntingdon agreed that they'd gladly vote for a dead parrot provided it could be persuaded to wear a blue rosette.

The same Mr Major went on to lead Britain for seven dreadful years which felt to many, especially those who didn't have their noses far enough into the sleazy trough, like a century. Fortunately a super-hero, Mr Tony Blair, has spent the following eight and a half years struggling valiantly to bring this once great nation back to prosperity. In spite of the flinching of cowards and sneering of traitors, he has had much success.

Chief Whip in 'Big Brother' blunder

Why did Hilary Armstrong try to jump on the anti-Galloway bandwagon? Perhaps her advisers not very bright. Now, when George re-surfaces, he can claim that the campaign against him was all a New Labour plot and that they lent on Channel 4 to censor him. If only they'd left him to dig his own hole. The Party that, briefly, had such sharp PR seems to have lost it. I'm sure A. Campbell might have said, "Leave him Hilary, he just ain't worth it".

This from the Times "Mr Galloway’s feline frolics prompted Hilary Armstrong, the Labour Chief Whip, to visit his Bethnal Green and Bow constituency to start a petition urging him to get back to work. ... Mr Galloway’s party sprang to his defence. The Respect website said that his constituency surgery was open as normal yesterday, adding: “He has not attended votes in the Commons when the outcome has already been decided by the whips’ offices of the two major parties (which is most of them). His decision to take the risk of going on Big Brother was motivated by the need to reach a large and young audience with the political message the majority of his constituents support.” "

Friday, January 13, 2006

US-style lobbyists besiege Brussels

Every day I search the British press for some news about what's happening in the European Parliament. But I hardly ever find any. This is curious especially as some newspapers would have their readers believe that the EU exists almost exclusively to destroy the British way of life. You might hope that the machinations of one of its principal institutions might get the odd column inch.

The Independent today carries a letter from Glyn Ford the only Labour MEP in the UK's South West Region. He warns about US style lobbying at the Parliament. He notes that "there are over 3,000 registered lobbyists trying to influence 700 MEPs". And concludes: "It's going to get worse. In the US we've seeing the consequences of predatory lobbying and the abuse of science by big business and fundamentalist groups over climate change, condom safety and creation science. The signs are it's speeding across the Atlantic - Europe needs to prepare for the onslaught of the mad and the bad."

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Dacre misses out on bonus

The Guardian Unlimited reports that "Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre's pay package slipped below the GBP 1m mark last year as he failed to pick up a bonus. [he] was paid a total of GBP 997,000 for the financial year ending October 2 2005."

This is the man whose paper has been known to comment unfavourably on the remuneration packages for Prime Minister (GBP 183,932 pa + expenses) and MPs (GBP 59,095+ expenses).

I hope that the Mail will carry a telephone number for donations.......

In Our Time - Prime Numbers

It's a long time since I took maths A level and I was never the most enthusiastic of pupils. But I did enjoy this morning's In Our Time on Radio 4. As often happens Melvyn Bragg's guests made a highly specialised subject fairly comprehensible. I really can't imagine how such a programme would be made, and made weekly, without a public broadcasting service of some sort. Much of this one was about Riemann's hypothesis which hasn't yet been proved but hasn't yet been disproved. It was interesting to be reminded how much of maths is experimental and that most great mathematicians needed some luck to stumble on their theorems.

'Great discoveries often happen over tea' said one contributor (or something like that). This is also apparent in business, the famous water-cooler or informal meeting affect. So if, like me, you get bored doing what you're supposed to be doing at work and like to go for a wander, you can use this phrase to convince your boss that you have your company's best interests at heart.

Maths often starts to make my brain hurt as do large numbers and big universes. I was reminded of a maths teacher who said we were lucky to live in a universe where pi was nearly equal to 22 dived by 7. I wondered, and still do, what a universe where it equalled, for example, an even more convenient 5 would be like? I liked the analogy used on the programme of nature throwing a dice to decide if a number should be prime and the dice having to have more and more sides as the numbers got bigger. But it would be dangerous to push the analogy too far, you might end up thinking you're hearing secret harmonies......

Liberty going up in smoke?

Growing up in a suburb south of London in the 1950s & 60s one of my treats was to take the train to London. Finding a 'no smoking' compartment was quite a challenge, there were only a handful in those days probably making up less than a fifth of the trains' accommodation. One indication that life has got better over the years has been the slow but steady increase in the proportion of 'no smoking' areas on public transport. No you can't smoke even on the stations. Such a proposal would have been laughable back in 1960 even though then the dangers of smoking were becoming obvious.

We didn't notice the smell of smoke on our clothes then because they always smelt of smoke. Mind you the air around London was pretty foul then, don't get me started on the great smogs of the early sixties, we'd be here all day. I did smoke briefly. On the bus going home, in the woods near school, furtive smoking. Fortunately I noticed that I couldn't run up hills and so gave it up. So I hope that MPs will vote for a total ban in pubs and restaurants. I love pubs and restaurants but increasingly hate smoke. The Telegraph leader writer doesn't agree. Never shy of having a pop at Labour (s)he declares: "How strange that back-bench Labour MPs, who seem so cowed by Mr Blair on issues ranging from the invasion of Iraq to the building of Las Vegas-style casinos around the country, show such bloody-minded resolve over the relatively peripheral issue of smoking." and it gets no better, ending: "Once again the Labour Party, which prides itself on its commitment to the human rights of various groups, shows that it is blind to the simple concept of the liberty of us all."

This goes to the heart of the Liberty argument. So often one person's freedom impinges on the freedoms of others. Speeding drivers, graffiti artists, railing clerics, tax dodgers; liberty and privacy are always questions of balance. The Times leader writer is unimpressed by the partial ban; "The proposal is as fuggy as it is illogical." but goes on: "A blanket ban is over-prescriptive and unnecessarily illiberal." ... "The free vote provides an opportunity. MPs should be given a wider choice than simply having to pick between an outright ban and a messy compromise." But then the writer recommends licensing smoking establishments in a similar way to drinking ones. This won't much please its many readers who favour 'small government' will it?

The Guardian leader is pleased they'll be a free vote (and wants to see more of them even though they "do not invariably produce better outcomes than whipped votes - as the last efforts at House of Lords reform proved.") but is cagey about what the outcome should be this time. But I think we can guess. Yesterday the Mirror was more straightforward declaring that: "A Blanket ban on smoking in public places is possibly the single most effective thing this or any other government can do to save lives.". Very sound.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Prime minister's questions

I rather like the new-style PMQs with David Cameron asking questions that must make some of his backbenchers mutter disapprovingly. It was odd to see William Hague sitting beside him, I expected him to jump up with one of his witty but, as he admitted when he went, futile questions. His new leader chose Iran and then Aids and overseas aid as his two topics. On the latter Mr Blair, who seemed on very good form, resisted saying that the Tories had voted against all the increases that Labour has put through. Two Try backbenchers got a rougher ride being reminded that what they were asking for was the opposite of what was in the manifesto under which they were elected last May.

Sir Menzies Campbell was better than Charles Kennedy who never seemed able to alter his questions in the light of what the PM had previously said. But Sir M was a bit too like Michael Howard and deservedly got short shrift in return for his criticisms of public services under Labour. He left an open goal by asking why so many schools had temporary heads, a poor strategy for a temporary head. Mr Blair was able to have some fun at his and Simon Hughes's expense.

Much about antisocial behaviour and the new respect initiative, something about trams in Nottingham and games in Glasgow, lots of figures that are better than they were in 1997 and that was it for another week as Mr Blair made way for Peter Hain and his reasonably dramatic statement about Northern Ireland.

PMQs - the best daytime television is available to view or listen to at the BBC Parliament site or, if you're really keen, you can sign up for a Podcast via the Guardian.

NHS beats Social Insurance unshock

It's always good to have one's prejudices reinforced. In the Times today Daniel Finkelstein, who was adviser to both John Major and William Hague, stood as a Tory candidate in Harrow West and isn't a bleeding heart liberal, writes about his dismay at the reaction of some people to David Cameron's pledge to stick with the NHS. All sorts of 'thinkers' are forever inventing schemes which they fondly imagine will miraculously reduce the cost of healthcare. But I've never understood why, for example, moving some financial administration out into multiple insurance companies could possibly do anything other than to raise overall costs (I worked for an insurance company for 15 years).

The article quotes Mrs Thatcher's memoirs "The NHS, she wrote, had a “relatively modest unit cost, at least compared to some insurance-based systems”". even "Nigel Lawson quickly came to the view that an insurance system “inevitably results in a massive further escalation in the cost of healthcare”."

Right wing free market fantasists often bleat on about small government yet they can't point to many successful modern states that don't have what they'd regard as too much regulation and too much other government interference. They remind me of the theorists who would construct in their minds the ideal communist state back in the 1960/70s. Even after it became obvious that the Eastern Europe model wasn't working we could kid ourselves (for I was one of them) that they had the answer in Asia. But it's an illusion. And Small Government is another illusion. A Hughes rule: 'if it ain't working somewhere in the world it almost certainly won't work anywhere in the world.'

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

More on Pensions

Here's news for all the morons who think Gordon Brown's tax changes are to blame for companies closing their final salary pension scheme. The USA has the same problem according to the New York Times : "Even strong, stable companies with the means to operate a pension plan are facing longer worker lifespans, looming regulatory and accounting changes and, most important, heightened global competition. Some are deciding they either cannot, or will not, keep making the decades-long promises that a pension plan involves."

British Politics Bland?

After a bit of excitement around the new Tory leader and the sinking of the LibDem one, our political commentators appear to be in panic again. There are so many of them with so much print space and so much airtime to fill but there are so few real stories. That's why they have to drag up stuff about alleged panic in New Labour's ranks whenever anyone sneezes in the Palace of Westminster and why they harp on so much about the differences of approach and opinion between the Prime Minister and his Chancellor of the Exchequor. Stories about conficts between PMs and their Chancellors have been around since I started being interested in politics (1956 if you must know; I had a cold and so did the Prime Minister (or so it was reported). At my very tender age it was jolly exciting to have the same illness as the PM. Only about 40 years later did we learn that Sir Anthony Eden's cold was really a nervous breakdown. Who thinks spin is a recent invention?)

Most of my adult life I've been a revolutionary moderate or a radical centreist so I'm all for a bit of dullness mixed with quiet managerial efficiency and reform in politics. I'm glad that the extremists in both main parties have had their wings clipped. We need them there to keep the moderators on track but we don't want them running the shop as they were in the 1980s do we?

But I have some sympathy with the commentators; it must be grim to read the latest opinion poll in the Times which shows the parties more or less where they've been for a decade. Given the 3% margin of error the pollsters own up to, Labour 39%, Tory 36%, LibDem 16% Others 9% won't set the world alight. So nothing of substance to write about then but they can't stop, they have livings to make.

In the Telegraph, Alice Thomson complains that "Politics is no longer red, blue or yellow; Left or Right; Tory, Labour or Liberal Democrat. It's all about sets now. There is the Notting Hill Set, the Primrose Hill Set and the Orange Book Set." and asks "If all three parties are led by similar individuals expressing similar views; if all three political options have rejected "isms" from communism to socialism to capitalism and would hate to be called ideological; if all three leaders are making their pitch to voters on a promise to be the best managers of Team Britain - then how will the electorate choose between them?". The Telegraph leader writer also seems dismayed by the rush to the centre using education as today's example and castigating David Cameron who has "promised to prevent the opening of new grammar schools."

The Mail's comment column declares "With almost reckless abandon David Cameron is ditching any policy baggage which may impede his born-again Tories in their race for the centre-ground." But they seem less bothered because it gives them a chance to attack Tony Blair's record. They carry on the theme by rubbishing his announcements on the 'respect' agenda: "Not an approach that commands much respect, is it?" they think. While in the Guardian Zoe Williams thinks she's found a reason. Writing about Channel 4's Big Brother TV programme she says: "The ... argument is very rarely openly framed, yet is visible in all kinds of political discourse. It is that anyone with passion, with a judgmental moral code, with an idea in his or her head beyond "let's all stay calm, and make more money", is inherently foolish; and that such an individual's arguments are only valid if they are totally blameless from every conceivable angle, and in the unlikely event that they prove impossible to decimate with flimsy personal attack, can be laughed at for having anything so old-fashioned as a set of beliefs."

Libby Purvis writing, inter alia, about the late Tony Banks in the Times hits a nail: "But it is hypocritical of media commentators to complain about politicians disguising their rich humanity. We, ourselves, have done this to them. It is our fault. We mock, we sketch-write, we bestow cruelly apt nicknames (“Chatshow Charlie”), we force them to iron out everything that does not fit in with our template of middling ordinariness. If they speak robustly and wittily we accuse them of “gaffes”. If they admit that they don’t know something — anything — we pour contumely on them." So you've got yourselves to blame you commentators! The extraordinarily reliably sensible David Aaronovitch in the same paper wants the LibDems to choose someone more exciting than "Sir Menzies (“Ming”) Campbell" as leader. He concludes "Of course, it’s possible that while he has been occupied in all those [television] studios arguing gently for the unilateral abandonment of the Iraqi people, Ming has been contemplating all these matters, and has a serious, well-considered programme of domestic policies. If so, he can prove it in the period between now and early next month, when nominations close; Ming on income tax, Ming on school reform, Ming on the health service. But if, as I suspect, he is not so much Ming the Merciless as Ming the Pointless, then people such as Mark Oaten and Nick Clegg will have to reconsider, and offer themselves up to the party. If we are going to have a Liberal Democrat party (and I’m often glad we do), it might as well be a good one." Aside from the "I’m often glad we do" bit I can't find much to disagree with......

Monday, January 09, 2006

Educational musings and that stupid poll on Today

Everyone's an education expert. We've all been to school even if it was many decades ago and many of us have children going or having gone through the system. It must be difficult being an education expert with so many of us here to shout you down. In the Guardian Peter Preston thinks that teachers are more important than systems and few would disagree. But he gives little clue as to how more people with what he calls the "spark" can be lured into the profession or those without weeded out.

Teachers are imho frequently poorly represented by strident leaders such as many in the NUT who seem to resist all change and any outside interference. I admire many of my own and even more of my children's teachers. But good as they are I wouldn't trust many of them to organise a jumble sale let alone a school. We do need professional administrators in our schools just as we do in hospitals. And it's unfortunate that it's so awfully difficult to get rid of duff teachers. This is in part because they work alone and therefore can't easily be assessed but also because teachers and head-teachers tend to be nice people who think they're being kind by covering up poor performance. Actually they're being unkind to the pupils and, often, to the person who might be happier outside the profession. It would be better for them to discover this in their late twenties than their early forties....

I'd like to see the power of LEAs reduced and, especially, the influence of local politicians over them. LEAs and many of our council chambers are packed with theoreticians rather than practitioners. So they are wont to have too much faith in dogma.

So too would, I think, Sir Bob Balchin who was a senior education adviser to the last Conservative Government. Writing in the Times he urges the Tories to give up on their pet obsessions such as vouchers and increasing the number of grammar schools and to concentrate instead on reducing bureaucracy and obsession with targets. So not all Tory dogma slain just yet then.

In the Times Thunderer column Carol Sarler lays into Radio 4's Today programme because of the poll they ran to find "Who Runs Britain" which concluded that it is José Manuel Barroso, some high up guy in the EU. Good for her, the poll was boring and daft. As she points out: "Ukip, with fellow Eurosceptics, had “encouraged” supporters to vote, in order that the rest of us would be shocked into Brussels phobia" . But that hasn't stopped the Daily Mail for example trumpeting as evidence that what they've said all along about the EU now has wide support. Shame on the BBC; "It would be possible to poll Today listeners properly. MORI would happily do it. At a price. But these self-selected samples are, at best, just samples of Today listeners who also happen to be sad bastards with nothing better to do than participate in a meaningless exercise in filler programming." And that would have stopped multiple voting. It always enrages me when I read dross like 'more people voted for Big Brother than did in local elections'. No they didn't - some people voted hundreds of times each. Herumph....

Another week, another start

BBC Radio 4's Start the Week programme (amongst others) makes me glad we have some non commercial broadcasting in Britain (Although I'm not convinced that the license fee is the best way to finance it). Today's edition is on again this evening at 9:30 or can be heard from its web page. One of today's contributors, Haleh Afshar, will be speaking at next Saturday's Fabian Society's conference "Who Do We Want To Be? The Future of Britishness" which is the sort of event that makes me wish I lived closer to London. I'm sure she'll be worth listening to especially if she can control her gushing giggle. But I did object to her assertion that the anti-war faction isn't being listened to. It certainly is being listened to and was listened to before the war in Iraq. The notion that we entered into the conflict light-heartedly is absurd. I'm "anti-war" (I'm anti all horrid things) but I can accept that there was a case, not a completely convincing one (but life is hard), for the invasion of Iraq - it certainly wasn't and isn't as clear cut as some of the more strident protesters would have us believe.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Sundays bloody Sundays

The English Sunday newspapers aren't what they were in the 1970s. Or perhaps it's me. Then they seemed full of really incisive journalism boldly exposing hypocrisy and corruption throughout public and business life. Today they seem primarily obsessed with gossip, speculation and personalities. Also the Saturday papers are much better and fuller than they were so it takes most of the weekend to plough through them. But imho it's a more worthwhile exercise than doing it with the Sundays....

.... most of which are dominated by Charles Kennedy's resignation. Not surprising but does it really justify quite so much hot air? The Independent on Sunday, for example, fills its first seven pages with the story relieving it only by an alarmist piece about GM Soya which starts "Women who eat GM foods while pregnant risk endangering their unborn babies". But it turns out to be a report of just one study (in Russia - a country with an interest in delaying GM). I'd be less skeptical if the results had been repeated elsewhere or if the alleged affect had been noticed in the US where mums presumable already eat the stuff. At the end of the full-page piece the IoS notes that the stuff isn't sold in the UK except in animal feed and quotes reassuring words from the manufacturer. The problem, as ever, is getting genuinely unbiased scientific results, scientists have to pay their mortgages. But those who want to believe that GM is evil will go on doing so and those who believe big business is wonderful will cry 'nanny state' or some such. A similar problem underlies the difficulty about how to classify cannabis. Its adherents will no doubt condemn the latest evidence of a link to mental illness as part of a wicked conspiracy to deny them pleasure rather than a genuine concern over public health.

Over in the newly Berliner-sized (a much nicer shape than dreary tabloid imho) Observer, the admirable Nick Cohen is unimpressed by the Tories' attempts to go green. He notes the large number of wealthy chaps in the environmental movement and comments that "Conservatives overwhelmingly believe in a smaller state and deregulation; in education vouchers and an end to a tax-funded NHS. You may think they're wrong, but you should not doubt their sincerity. All of which means the Conservative press has been gobsmackingly hypocritical these past three months. The editors and columnists who have laid into Tony Blair for his policies and style are biting their tongues now that a Conservative leader is stealing the policies and aping the style". He's also very sound on George Galloway and praises Channel 4 for their boldness in screening "the most uncompromisingly atheist series British television has dared to screen [which] begins tomorrow at 8pm".

European News

The sad truth is that, as ever, you'll have to search very diligently until you find anything much about the EU or the European Parliament. Even those papers which allege that these organisations rule our lives rarely report them. And the BBC Parliamentary channel hardly ever looks over the channel. No wonder some people form such odd views of the EU. But tucked away in the IoS business section there's a story about the East London Line extension which contains the information that "Transport for London will receive a GBP400m low-interest loan from the European Investment Bank because the work will benefit deprived areas of inner London". (The East London Line is close to my heart because New Cross was the closest to Greenwich that the UndergrounD got when I lived there)......

Who wants yesterday's news?

If you believe the song, nobody. Sorry I was too busy yesterday to bring you my incisive view of the day's comment columns. A bit late but I did want to draw your attention to Simon Heffer's piece in the Telegraph. Although only in his forties he writes like a man in his seventies who is gloomy and embittered having realised that his life is slipping away and he's neglected to find time to have any fun in it. Mr Heffer rails against the fiftysomething's now allegedly in charge of the country who he dismisses as being "still fixated by the dope-smoking, peace-and-love, hairy hippy self-indulgence for which [the 1960s] is famed". It must be hard for him now that the younger turks are apparently seizing control of the Tory party, perhaps he feels he's part of a lost generation.

In the Times Giles Coren writes about "how fed up [he is] with writing columns" (a vacancy perhaps for all those bloggers who really want a newspaper column). But don't get too excited, he's having a laugh with us. His spoof applications for jobs in each of our major parties are vaguely amusing.

Bye bye Charlie

I didn't have to be especially incisive to type "I think Charles Kennedy has had it" on Friday. But now it's official. He even gets a mention in the New York Times which notes that "Britain is a hard-drinking country, and voters generally find nothing to complain about if politicians enjoy a glass or two". Hmmm. Stand by for endless speculation in the UK press about who will be the new Liberal Democrat leader and how he'll be chosen. I hope the spotlight might also turn on the party's policies (or lack of them) and that the public might come to realise that while they sometimes 'talk the talk' in Westminster they act rather differently when in power in local government. All parties are of course coalitions of sorts but the Lib-Dems appear to me to be little more than a collection of (mostly worthy) folk quite interested in politics but lacking any coherent common agenda united mainly by their uncertainties and their dislike for one of the other parties....

Friday, January 06, 2006

In Other "News"

In the Times Notebook Mick Hume has a go at the detox industry ".. as leading scientists and clinicians ... pointed out this week, there is no real foundation to the detox industry’s claims. Despite their emphasis on "natural" treatments, the detox merchants seriously undersell the human body’s natural capacity to "detoxify" itself through our own organic gut, liver and kidneys...." Apropos the Jack Abramoff scandal, Gerard Baker writes about cash, corruption, charity and politics in the USA. "As Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, put it this week, US politics works as something like an incumbency protection racket. With the growth of the federal government in recent years, lawmakers have control over ever larger sums of money and ever greater influence over vast tracts of public life. At the same time, they have the essential task of ensuring they get re-elected. Fortunately these two responsibilities dovetail neatly into each other. By funnelling vast sums of public money to special interests in exchange for vast campaign contributions, they raise so much money that would-be opponents are scared off even before they can start." Scary stuff, I think we generally manage these things a bit better in Europe – but only a bit.

In the Guardian, Simon Jenkins is upbeat about the state and future of "upmarket newspapers" in the UK but irate over the cost and complexity of PCs. Like him I find it vexing that I want a machine to do a bit of word processing, a few difficult sums and to let me access the Internet yet I’ve had to buy a recording studio, a games machine and a film editing suite as well! (But my children enjoy the bits that leave a curmudgeon cold). Mark Lawson worries that 24 hour news broadcasting plays to our ghoulish tendancy. He concludes "the question that editors and audiences need to ask constantly is whether we are watching because we care or because we can. This week's events have strongly suggested that we need to cut back on our hospital visiting hours." What bothers me more are the rush to be first and ‘live’, the endless speculation before an event and the lack of analysis after.

In the Telegraph Tom Utley is enraged that he can’t blame Gordon Brown or the Government "for breaking the Utley family's central heating clock, or for the vicissitudes in the international gas market that have persuaded the suppliers to increase their prices". He is however convinced (although I’m not) that "the Government is almost entirely to blame .. for most of the other financial shocks awaiting families up and down the land in 2006." He grumpily concludes that "the Chancellor has had a very long wait for the keys to Number 10. It will serve him right if he takes possession of them at the very moment when the economy that he has abused for so long begins to collapse". Another triumph for hope over experience I think......

Please see my earlier post today for in depth (only teasing) analysis of the Kennedy and Galloway leadership issues....

Leaders about leaders

I think Charles Kennedy has had it. Even though habitual Liberal Democrat voters are a sympathetic (many would say naive) lot, some of them, and many more floating voters, are bound to wonder if an alcoholic can ever really be cured (they’ll remember poor George Best). More damaging will be the brand of ‘liar’ that will certainly be stuck to Mr Kennedy for denying that he had a problem so many times. The UK papers’ leader writers seem to agree. Even the Independent, which supported his party at the last general election, seem to think the game is up {you have to pay for some of their on-line stuff}. The Times leader leaves no doubt; it urges the party to have a proper leadership election. Reminding us of John Major, who used a similar ‘back me of sack me’ tactic in 1995 (when he was PM), it says "Mr Major’s victory was a setback for his party, which was buried by a new Labour landslide within two years. The Liberal Democrats must have a serious, defining contest."

The Guardian’s leader writer also wants a proper contest and implies that Mr Kennedy is a busted flush. It concludes: "His only strength is not that his colleagues want him to stay but that they cannot unite behind one person to challenge him. He may remain as leader for now but his party will pay the price while he does so". Also in the Guardian, Polly Toynbee thinks he should go although she thinks him "a decent man, with a decent view of the world". The Telegraph leader writer is less kind declaring that he "exhibited deplorable judgement in choosing to call a leadership contest". The writer believes a win for Kennedy "would be a blow to his party, which now needs a strong and confident direction". Also seeking comparison with Major in 1995 it says: "Ever since then, the Conservative Party has profoundly regretted being morally blackmailed into re-electing him". The writer thinks the Lib-Dems would similarly regret re-electing Charles. The Daily Mail comment piece broadly agrees. It says "many of the 62 Lib Dem MPs are considering whether to pre-empt the election with a confidence vote, thereby taking the leadership decision into their own hands. And the beneficiaries of the chaos [in the Lib-Dem party], of course, will be Labour and David Cameron's Tories". (Why only David Cameron's Tories, what about the rest of the party?!)

Hughes’s View

This puts me in a dilemma. I’ve learnt to mistrust his party having watched their ‘all things to all men’ tactics in recent elections. So I’d quite like to see them struggle for a few years with a wounded leader. An even worse outcome for them would be for a third rate candidate to win against him if all the real contenders chose not to stand. But a new leader would probably be best all round as it would force their party to come clean on policy. They got away without having their (lack of) policies scrutinised by the media for ages. But even at the last election the wheels were falling off as the contradictions between their tactics in Tory seats (remember the failed decapitation strategy?) and Labour ones were starting to be exposed.

Does any of this matter except to us political obsessives? Probably not. The entry of George Galloway into Channel 4’s Big Brother ‘house’ is likely to have more impact on more people. The Telegraph was delighted that he was booed on the way and noted that "Inside the house, he introduced himself to fellow "celebrities", saying: "I'm an MP." He enjoyed a prolonged handshake with Faria Alam, the former mistress of England coach Sven Goran Eriksson, and then went to speak to the red-haired actress Rula Lenska". I expect he’ll do well. He’s a charmer and up against a bunch largely of nonentities. Channel 4 will get a ratings boost but will Mr G get what he hopes for; more votes for his Respect party in Tower Hamlets in May’s local elections? It could well happen, the East End of London often elects non-mainstream candidates.

More views to come......

Proper links to come (maybe).......