Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Dogmatism, Lefties and ear wax

The short BBC4 TV series called 'Lefties' ended last week. It was rather light-weight but made interesting viewing tinged with nostalgia for those of us old enough to have had leftward leanings in the 1980s.

It could usefully be used as a warning to anyone tempted towards political absolutes and dogma. Although the programmes were edited to make the Lefties of the tittle seem pretty foolish most of the implied criticism was justified. There is an interesting mixture of opinions on the BBC4 have your say site (but it won't be there for long). Perhaps the series will be on BBC2 one day; much of BBC4's output finds its way there. They could also usefully make some about the equally dotty right-wingers who were busy setting up private armies and such around the same time.

The first programme was about some South London squatters. I lived in London and vaguely admired what they were doing and what they stood for (still do, sort of). But it's obvious now that they were parasites and dreamers. Their lifestyle relied on the efforts of others - the people who'd built the houses, the suppliers of their gas, water, electricity etc. even the people who owned or worked at the building sites from which they 'liberated' some of the material to make the places habitable. Unsustainable.

The second was about radical feminism. I couldn't watch it all - the jargon, oh the jargon and sloganeering! Although their ideas were founded on good sense some of the feminists became so radical as to be absurd. Their hatred of men even led to their excluding boys from the crèche. Madness.

The third was about a well intentioned attempt to set up a radical alternative to the popular Sunday papers of the time (most right or extreme right in outlook). It was a disaster. People were appointed with little experience and mainly for their political views or to fit an idealised view of a perfect mixture of genders / ethnic backgrounds / disabilities. A couple of days before the launch half the staff were sent on a deafness awareness course*. The endeavour resulted in the loss of about GBP 6.5 million much of which had come from ordinary workers' pension funds. Irresponsible.

* the course allegedly consisted mostly of walking around Manchester wearing earplugs. Not a bad idea but such terrible timing! I had my own deafness awareness training when both my ears became solidly blocked with earwax. It made me very sympathetic to deaf people. Everyone thinks you're stupid if you can't hear, there's no outward sign. My NHS doctor could do little so, after three days, I went to a private doctor. His practice was near Harrods and he managed to unbung one ear before I fainted. Going home on the Piccadilly and Bakerloo lines I'd never been so glad to hear how noisy they were! Eight quid (plus tube fares) well spent**.

** of course I could have had a day out in Brighton for less than that in those days....

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The PM writes (so does the might-have-been)

Tony Blair has a piece in the Observer today . I’m an unrepentant fan of the PM believing that he’s the best* there’s been in my lifetime (Atlee was PM when I was born). He’s also the first to be younger (slightly) than I am.

If Labour had won the 1992 election Michael Portillo would probably now be PM the Tories having romped back to power after the ERM debacle. He's in today's Sunday Times and reminds us that he and Tony Blair “were born in the same month of the same year, May 1953”. Funny old world.

The title of Tony Blair’s piece pretty well sums it up “I don't destroy liberties, I protect them” – it’s well worth reading. Michael Portillo’s is five hundred words longer and a little duller but still worth a scan. Under the title “My generation of spoilt brats is being challenged” he writes about how comparatively easy life has been for anyone born in the west since the Second World War. Apropos of “Muslim disaffection at home” he declares that “nothing in my generation’s liberal upbringing (and little in our history since the Jacobites) has equipped us to deal with an enemy within. We believe in reason, compromise and secularism”. But he suggests no way forward and seems to have forgotten about the IRA's campaign.

In contrast, the Prime Minister seems to get it. Writing about the Tories aping the LibDems in parliament on civil liberties issues he concludes: “their attitude to liberty does indicate, though, a refusal to understand the modern world. If the nature of the threat changes, so should our policies. That is not destroying our liberties, but protecting them.”

* I’ve ‘met’ three of the eleven. Harold Wilson on Liverpool’s Lime Street station in late 1969 or early 1970 (when I was studying at the fine University just up the hill and he was coming to the end of his second** stint as PM), Ted Heath at Selfridges in Oxford Street the day after the IRA bombing there in December 1974 (when he was back in opposition and I was Christmas shopping) and the present incumbent at Huntley in March 2005 (when I was unemployed and he wasn't).

** first if you think he did only two

Friday, February 24, 2006

Labour and Conservatives equal first

Two opinion polls show the Tories and Labour enjoying virtually equal support. Mori for the Sun has Labour on 38% and the Tories on 35% while YouGov in the Telegraph pretty well reverse the figures giving them 36% and 38% respectively. Given the 3% error usually claimed for such polls, this suggests that the two main parties are neck and neck.

It's around the magic 100 days since David "nice boy" Cameron took over the Tory helm so his honeymoon period must be officially over. Neither of these polls nor the papers' commentaries on them will bring him much comfort. History may be repeating itself - their last three leaders enjoyed a initial polling boost whilst they merrily trotted out supposedly centrist views. But, when the poll bubble burst, the rumblings from the Tory heartlands soon sent them scuttling to the right.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Royal Blues

Prince Charles and I are both baby-boomers* and reaching that stage of life at which we might be expected to start thinking that some people may be expecting us to feel as though we should be acting as though we realise that we're getting closer to reaching an age at which people may be starting to think that perhaps we're getting fairly close to being not all that far away from approaching our middle age**.

So you might expect me to be a bit sympathetic towards him especially as we both live in Gloucestershire (me rather more often than he). But I'm not really although I do feel sorry for him because of the accident of birth that means his life must be lived to a large extent in the public domain. But he doesn't seem to have made any attempt at an imaginative leap to find out what life is like for people outside his class.

He is, of course, not alone in this failure of the imagination but he has had more time and opportunity than most people get. Perhaps his mind isn't up to it. Without attracting well-deserved ridicule, I could never claim to have a first class mind*** but even with my feeble powers and the good imagination I've been blessed with I have made something of an effort to see the world through the eyes of people in very different circumstances to my own.

Even though he's met millions of people, the Prince of Wales seems largely to spout the views and prejudices only of his own class. He's like a person who says everyone he's spoken to agrees with him but who fails to acknowledge (even to himself) that he's spoken only (for examples) to his golf club chums or his fellow SWP activists. His much quoted comment about having to endure the discomfort of a Club Class airline seat will not have won him many new friends. Perhaps he's been badly advised; his current court case has the potential to become an Oscar Wilde-like nightmare for him .

The British papers are enjoying it especially as it involves one of their own - the Mail on Sunday. The Independent thinks that "the High Court action ... now appears to have rebounded badly on the Prince.". The Guardian's leader writer has made an amazing discovery: "Prince Charles's concerns are both small c and big C conservative. The Prince of Wales, in short, is a Tory." and concludes: "The influence of the prince has increased, is increasing - and ought to be diminished. If the prince does not act himself then, now as then, parliament may have to do so.".

But another old fashioned Tory rides to the rescue. Writing in the Telegraph, Boris Johnson is outraged because "it turns out that the Mail has illicitly obtained his private diaries, his private diaries, and has splashed them over several pages" - so outraged he wrote it twice. He reminds us that the Prince "is a 57-year-old landowner with a not particularly good degree in anthropology who talks to flowers and wants to be reincarnated as a piece of feminine sanitary equipment." Boris urges him to "keep firing off those green ink letters to ministers" and declares that "the Prince's actions are completely harmless, and sometimes useful." before asking "Can I have my knighthood now?"

Where will it all end?

* Joe Queenan, who has set himself up as something of a (critical) authority on this matter, defines bbs as anyone born in 'the West' between about 1943 and 1964 - so there's lots of us.
** middle age used to begin in Britain at 34 but that was when life expectancy was only 65. Now it begins around 65 so no baby boomer has yet reached it although many Tory politicians and their supporters were, of course, born middle aged.
*** My favourite Rupert Murdoch anecdote concerns a meeting he is alleged to have had with a former editor of the Times. This possibly double-barrelled old chap told the Aussie Magnate that he'd met many British Prime Ministers but that none of them had had, in his opinion, a first class mind. The Wealthy Antipodean bloke is reported by some as having advised his employee that some of the Prime Ministers probably though that he was a bit of a $$$$ as well. One joy of growing older is the realisation that different people's minds operate in quite different ways and at vastly different speeds. One joy of the internet is that it enables us to read all sorts of opinions from all sorts of newspapers without having to purchase the wretched things. It's always wise to recall that about ten times as many people read the Daily Mail as read the Guardian.....

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Fascinating facts from EU cities

I'm grateful to David Rennie for drawing my attention to "an addictive website crammed with obscure and gripping data about 258 cities across the European Union". Mr Rennie is the Europe Correspondent of The Daily Telegraph and writes a 'weblog' which may interest those few people who are interested in things European.

This Urban Audit website contains lots of data and provides tools allowing comparisons to be made between cities. I've discovered for example that Bristol comes in the top quintiles for visits to museums and quantity of cinema seats for its inhabitants.

"Cities are radically different from their countries. The profile of city residents differs from country residents on almost every socio-economic indicator. City residents are more likely to be single. They are less likely to have young children, and if they do have children they are more likely to be single parents. They are more likely to have a tertiary education." says the report.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Petrol is cheap - people are fat

Two pieces of evidence this week to support my theory that petrol is too cheap. Going down the M5* with the speedometer reading about 76 mph**, hundreds of cars went whizzing past. Increasing speed to that of the overtakers reduced our mpg by about 12%. Petrol must be too cheap; the people in a hurry didn't look rich.

Delivering some leaflets this morning (in the forlorn hope of persuading four people to come to the Branch AGM and thus make it quorate) I noticed people buying their newspapers. I saw some of their cars later, they had driven less than a mile to the shop. Not quite as bizarre as the people who drive similar distances to the nearby gym.

In 1982 I changed jobs and had to drive to work so the price of petrol was pertinent to my 'total remuneration package' calculations. It was just under GBP2 a gallon. If it had kept up with inflation it would now be over GBP1 a litre but it isn't.

What's to do about it? Nothing. There isn't the political will. The Tories put a fuel price escalator in place in the UK but less than a decade later they couldn't resist supporting the fuel price protesters; it was the only time during William Hague's leadership that they overtook Labour in the polls.

Even with all-party consensus it would be difficult to re-impose. However many figures are produced to show how cheap motoring is now compared to 50 years ago or how the taxes raised on drivers don't pay for the bits of the NHS, emergency services or police that wouldn't be needed if there were no cars, the pro-road lobby is too powerful.

Even worthy, well-meaning Independent readers have grown used to living the green dream in the 'country' and driving sixty miles or so each way each day to work. But they do carefully recycle all their rubbish and would use public transport to catch their budget flight to their unspoilt holiday locations if the times were a little more convenient......

*the certain essential domestic tasks mentioned in my 'Blog off' post below were not undertaken. We went to Cornwall instead.

** most speedometers over-estimate a vehicle's speed because the law says (I think) that they should be accurate to within +10% and -0%. So we were probably travelling at about 70 mph.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Dear Sir,

I’m still addicted to writing to newspapers. Today the Guardian has kindly included one of mine but unfortunately they’ve put it in with this cluster which is mainly about ID cards. My swipe at Chris Huhne’s article and the LibDems was really directed at their opposition to the terrorism bill. And it's always good to have a pop at Simon Jenkins.

I don’t buy the “Slice by tiny slice, we are waking up in a society where our traditional freedoms are draining away” line that Mr Huhne was peddling. Or the assertion in his title that “Our freedom is at stake”. There is no evidence to support the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ theory that is often trotted out when the police or secret services are given some more powers. There is no evidence that Britain is becoming anything remotely like a police state.

The ID card furore also leaves me cold. The Government, Tesco and my insurance company to name but a few already hold enough information on me and pretty well everyone else for a mythical future “military dictatorship” to use against its citizens if it so wished. And I don’t think much of the line of reasoning that goes ‘it won’t solve every problem so let’s not solve any’. Having an ID card would have made it easier to sign up for Jobseekers allowance and to become a member of Gloucestershire Ambulance Trust’s PPI Forum – now don’t tell me you’ve never heard of that? And I want a passport that will let me into the USA…...

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Neanderthals, conservatives, language & evolution

‘Neanderthals were the last true conservatives’, ‘English is really mispronounced French’; two quips I heard this morning, the former for the first time. Regular readers will know that I’m interested in language but frustrated by my inability to speak any except English, some French and just enough Italian to buy beer, cheese, tomatoes red wine, insalata di fruiti di mari, ice-cream and olive oil (so almost enough).

English has evolved rapidly in my lifetime. Mostly this is a Good Thing but some trends bring out the grumpy old man. Why extra words? People park up their cars at train stations on their way to their weekend mini-break (as long as they’ve not been delayed by the sheer weight of* traffic). Perhaps it’s Americans to blame; many of them, especially their politicians, refuse to use three words if sixteen will do.

The quips came from this morning’s In Our Time programme about “Human Evolution - from early hominids to Homo sapiens”. Not a classic edition, it took a while to get going and for the contributors to relax, but worth a listen. Many reminders about why we’re not merely animals and the vast power of our intellect compared to other species. Whether this will turn out to have been a Good Evolutionary Ploy only time will tell; certainly many of the doomsayers in the so-called green movement seem to feel it wasn’t.

The Neanderthal quip arose because they were apparently content to rest on their laurels. If you’ve found a stone sharp enough to hack meat off a carcass why bother developing the Stanley Knife? The quipper** meant small c conservatives but it applies to some big Cs as well or at least to many of their supporters. You must have met the sort of people who think, for example, that cottage hospitals run by large matrons represent the pinnacle of health care? They rarely mention that if you went into one of those places suffering from much more than a broken leg you only came out if you were dead. Still they made you as comfy as they could and rarely woke you before 5:30 a.m.

Monday’s Start the Week programme was introduced by David Baddiel who demonstrated just how good Melvyn Bragg and Andrew Marr at hosting such programmes. It’s not that Mr Baddiel wasn’t any good but he wasn’t much good at segueing (now there’s a usefully anglicised Italian word). The edition is still worth listening to (via the web site) especially to hear Ann Widdecombe getting a bit flummoxed around absolute beliefs (but she was sound about why real politicians can’t rely on them). And baby-boomers like me might enjoy the discussion around Joe Queenan's latest book.

* I could, with some justification, have italicised that whole phrase.
** the best quip came right at the end – it’s about survival

Friday, February 10, 2006

Blog off

In 1975 or thereabouts I tried to take a ride on Glasgow's sweet little underground railway. Propped up at the station's entrance was a blackboard with "subway off" scrawled upon it in white chalk. This turned out not to be an ancient Strathclyde curse but their gentle way of informing us that the system was closed because of a strike. Those Scots have a fine way with words.

This blog is off for a few days whilst certain essential domestic tasks are undertaken. These are likely to require the temporary loss of broadband service. It, and thereafter this blog, should be back on Thursday or Friday. In the meantime why not try one or more of the many high quality services featured in the 'Blogs I Read' section?

By-election special

Congratulations to the LibDems for winning at Dunfermline and West Fife. It goes to show that voters are nicer than those political pundits who've had so much fun because of the party's leadership woes. The great thing about by-elections is that everyone can find some comfort in them and I can trot out an anecdote.

The Tories did pathetically in Dunfermline and West Fife despite David "nice boy" Cameron's now notorious attempt to steal votes away from the LibDems with his leaflet describing himself as a 'liberal Conservative'. As the only mainstream right-of-centre party standing they must worry about what happened to their core support never mind their failure to capture the centre ground.

I remember the Orpington by-election in March 1962. This was a Great Liberal Triumph and especially memorable because their candidate had a silly name - Eric Lubbock (now Lord Avebury). This wasn't quite the start of the Great Liberal Revival however. At the next election I think they won six seats. And the vice-chairman of the Conservative Party's prediction: "we shall march on and win the next general election" turned out to be wrong in every important detail.

Having a good memory is so much fun (see also my comments about Clement Attlee on my previous post).

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Tories’ Green Belt Flip

The Tories have decided that it’s a good idea to Concrete Over South-East England after all. What will their ‘traditional’ supporters, the ones who have been filling local newspapers’ letters pages with the ‘Prescott is trying to COSEE’ cliché for years, make of all this?

According to the Times online, the Conservatives have belatedly realised that not everyone benefits from the shortage of housing and the consequent upward spiralling of prices. Young people in particular often find it hard to afford decent homes near their work.

They need votes from young people (although, for most Tory activists, being under 60 counts as young (and I'm in no position to argue with that)).

Which New Labour policy will these flipping Conservatives attempt to pinch next?

Bowling with Melvyn Bragg’s Mother

Geoffrey Chaucer was a proto-blogger and early tele-worker I concluded from this morning’s In Our Time on BBC Radio Four. The first few minutes of the programme gave listeners a comprehensive overview of the man’s background, career and hobbies.

I’d never thought about him as a person before - scrubbing about like the rest of us to make a living and a name for himself. He did jolly well in both regards. His writing was a hobby (hence proto-blogger) and, once established, he managed to arrange his work so that he could do some of it from home. I bet he’d have appreciated the Internet.

In Our Time, which Melvyn Bragg (or his lordship to you and me) hosts, is a remarkable programme which is why I keep going on about it. You can listen to this week’s and hundreds of previous weeks’ programmes from the web site. Go on, you’ve clearly got nothing better to do. I’ve been busy with practical things for most of my life, for example learning to become an engineer and then finding out how to escape by becoming a Telecommunications and then IT manger, so a lot of the world’s knowledge and wisdom has passed me by.

Now, with three eminent guests each week, this lad from Cumbria helps me to fill in some of the gaps. The range of subjects is huge and the time span covered is immense. Time being a theme of this blog (don’t tell me you hadn’t noticed) that’s good. And today they spoke about another of my minor obsessions viz language. In particular the rise of English and the demise of French at the English court. I’m glad they resisted calling the French English (or English French) franglais which is quite a different thing. But they never really got to the bottom of why Mr C wrote in it rather than in French.

I must get back to producing my own translation into English of the opening paragraph of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu and capture the very essence of this great work which until now has eluded all translators. With my GCE (failed twice), a few evening classes and a free CD from the Independent I shouldn’t have too much problem. I hope it won’t be imperfect (linguistic joke (feeble)).

My mother-in-law used to play bowls against Lord Bragg’s mother. Fearsome things those Cumbrian Lady Bowlers…..

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

What's the point of blogging?

I almost stopped blogging. There seemed to be little enthusiasm for my daily 'compare and contrast' newspaper comment digest or my incisive views on PMQs. So like everyone else I've taken to random mumblings. Maybe MarkTwain was right.

But thanks to Normblog I now know that "The blogosphere is doubling in size every 5 and a half months" and that the Scotsman thinks that "Blogging is good for you" even though Normblog and Holyrood Chronicles dispute the shaky analysis .

And there's heartening news from yesterday's Times where Chris Ayres grumbles that columnists now get dissed in blogs; "These days ... anyone in the public eye is given a virtual custard pie in the face every other day". So some good done then. He's noticed the green-ink style of much blogging. In days of old, angry letters to MPs, newspapers and the like tended to be written in green ink. Even now some of them are typed on old mechanical typewriters; these have the advantage that you can tell when the writer is really cross because the print is driven deep into the paper as the keys are pounded.

Nowadays many of these seriously furious people have taken to writing and commenting on blogs or message-boards. I suppose it's good to have an outlet for all that rage. Chris quotes the, somewhat harsh, views of "Jean-Remy von Matt, the head of a German ad agency, [who called] bloggers the “toilet walls of the internet”. He fumed: “What gives every computer owner the right to exude his opinion, unasked for?”."

Perhaps I'm suffering from glass half-empty syndrome; Camden Lady's blog started at about the same time as mine did and she seems pleased with her viewing figures which look remakably similar to those for my efforts.

See I warned you - random jottings....

Beware of isms, ists, simple solutions and censors

There was a nice little programme on BBC4 TV last night called "My Dad Was a Communist". In it people such as Alexei Sayle, Arnold Wesker and David Aaronovitch recalled being brought up in a British Communist family. It also gave a brief history of the British communist party.

The idealism and naivety were striking. We learnt how the party had flourished during the rise of fascism in the thirties and that many idealists had gone to fight in the Spanish civil war and had urged Britain to intervene (the contrast between those brave souls and the present-day trendy-lefty anti-war stance wasn't made).

Most of it was about the 1950s and 60s. The participants described going to Russia and East European countries to summer camps and to be shown the 'success' of collective farms and factories. Alexi Sayle spoke about getting on a bus in Liverpool as an ordinary family and then being lauded at their destination and driven around in limousines.

The idealism started to wane in 1956 with the Russian invasion of Hungary but really went stale in 1968 when they invaded Prague to restore 'proper' government after the velvet revolution. Of course by then television was in every British home more or less and many of the realities of life behind the iron curtain were becoming obvious. But we still went on believing that the Chinese / Asian communism was the pure version....

It's easy now to mock the naivety but harder to remember how difficult it was to get anything approaching unbiased reporting in those pre-TV days. It's interesting that oppressive regimes always attempt to keep control of TV and, nowadays, the Internet. South Africa refused to have TV for years but once it arrived the fall of apartheid was hastened.

David Aaronovitch's closing remarks about the dangers of simplistic solutions in our complex world and Alexei Sayle thanking heaven that he and the rest of them never got near the levers of power were the most telling parts of the programme. If you missed it it will probably be on again. BBC4 can't afford many new programmes......

Monday, February 06, 2006

Would you want to live to be a thousand years old?

Ooh I don't like Clare Short! Almost pure prejudice I know but she's so stridently 'holier than thou' and was such a poor International Development Secretary of State. She was on Radio Four's Start the Week today talking about poverty and dividing up the world's resources. She wants people to read poetry rather than buy consumer goods. But she had no real answer to Andrew Marr's question about who would make them do it.

Kathy Sykes popped up to say that people don't need to be rich. She's a scientist who became more famous by flying off to exotic countries to be filmed doing faux-small-science experiments for TV audiences. She was on the show to publicise her new TV series for which I guess she gets a lot more than the 15 thousand dollars a year that she claims is all that people need to be happy. And I guess that Clare gets paid a lot more than that as well.

But what of living to be 1,000? Clare demonstrated the sort of politician she is by seemingly failing to listen to what Dr Aubrey de Grey was saying and angrily coming up with all sorts of instant objections. He was talking about a collection of essays exploring the politics of human enhancement and life extension being published by Demos and the Wellcome Trust. He believes "that the first person to reach 1000 years old may already be alive and [talked about] why this is something we should strive for".

The programme is, as so often, well worth a 'listen again' if you missed it......

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Memories are made

Ian Jack wrote a piece for yesterday's Guardian Review about memory, ageing and TV documentaries. He's a few years older than I am but, like me, has noticed that suddenly he's often the oldest person in the room. So many things which still seem fresh and new to us now feature in history lessons.

My grandfather was 30 when the first world war ended about the same age I was when the last Labour government was forced out of office after the winter of discontent. No wonder people's eyes glaze over when I start going on about the rise of Militant and the SDP.........

But don't feel smug, soon you'll be the oldest person in the room and telling them again about video-cassettes, MP3 players and Tony Blair. Time marches on. Use it or lose it.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

What’s wrong with the UK Green party?

Apart from hiding behind an environmental front to push a Stalinist anti-business, anti-American and anti-EU agenda you mean? Here’s a brilliant letter which sums up what’s wrong with even their environmental policy (but the link will probably have died if you’re reading this after about the 6th February – sorry but you’ve missed a gem).

Was the press right to republish those cartoons?

Is it really brave deliberately to cause offence? Most of the UK press seem to agree with my view (or perhaps I agree with theirs?) that it isn’t. I got mildly lambasting by some simple souls after posting my opinion, perhaps in an offensively deliberately oblique way, on a comment over at Harry’s Place yesterday.

The Daily Mail says in its comment column today that: “freedom of speech also involves responsibilities … a key obligation of free speech is that you don't gratuitously insult those with whom you disagree.” and the Guardian’s leader writer declares that it “believes uncompromisingly in freedom of expression, but not in any duty to gratuitously offend”

The Indy’s leader is mostly only available if you pay* but it makes a similar point which you can read for free: “But while we defend Jyllands-Posten's right to publish, we also question its editorial judgement. …. There is no merit in causing gratuitous offence, as these cartoons undoubtedly do.”

Yesterday the Telegraph leader said: “The Daily Telegraph has chosen not to publish the cartoons. We prefer not to cause gratuitous offence to some of our readers, a policy we also apply, for example, to pictures of graphic nudity or violence”.

The Times leader today ruminates, inter alia, about another angle which I hadn’t considered: “the much misunderstood role of the free press. It is telling that the reaction of protesters and politicians alike in much of the Islamic world has been to hold governments responsible for editorial decisions taken in media outlets. The assumption seems to be that the idea of a free press is an elegant sham, that democracies, just like dictatorships, involve controlled news, so nothing sees the black of print without an element of official sanction. It is an outlook that, if it cannot be changed, will, unfortunately, result in yet more conflict.”

*With the Independent's print version today you also get a teach-yourself-Spanish CD which might make a handy bird scarer for your precious crops. You’ll have to buy the IoS if you want the book to go with it.

Lembit Opik environmental foe?

Lembit Opik's cavalier attitude to the environment can perhaps be explained by his concern that earth is about to be struck by an asteroid. If we're all doomed anyway why worry about a touch of global warming?

I'm grateful to Tim Worstall's blog (I can't stand blogspeak 'hat tip' nonsense) for drawing my attention to this tale in the Guardian about Lembit's failed attempt to fly Chris Huhne in a private plane to "an environmental action centre in west London to set out an agenda focusing on values such as the environment and localism".

Now I'm well used to tales about LibDems facing two ways at once over policy but what a classic! Crossing the country in a private plane to talk about the environment and localism - a clear case of do as we say not as we do.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Shirley Williams story

Not much to laugh about in the news today but Shirley Williams was on Desert Island Discs this morning which cheered me up. She's certainly led an interesting life and has lived through fascinating times.

She gave a reasonable account of why she and the others in the gang of four left Labour to form the SDP in 1981. And she had the grace to admit that she'd have been a hopeless PM.

What made me chuckle most were the reasons she gave for not re-joining Labour, the party that gave her her fame and fortune, once it had become obvious that the SDP was doomed.

Apparently it was primarily because, although Labour had been rescued from the wreckers and had dropped all the major policies which caused her to leave, it still had a few policies she didn't like. No wonder she feels at home with the LibDems who appear, to this completely biased reporter, not to have any coherent policies at all.......

Thursday, February 02, 2006

More about Hague's quest for friends

There's some more about William Hague scraping the European barrel in search of allies for Tory MEPs in David Rennie's weblog on the Telegraph's site....

Is our PM prodding Cameron’s silent dog?

William Hague was reported to be grim faced yesterday after trying to find some new friends for Tory MEPs. The former jovial leader of the opposition has been despatched to find a way to get the new incumbent off the hook so effectively baited for him by Euro-sceptics during the recent leadership campaign.

In an attempt to keep them quiet, David “nice boy” Cameron promised to withdraw his MEPs from the EPP-ED grouping in the European Parliament because it’s too pro-EU and a tad federalist. But there’s no other group for them to join and they risk losing all influence. So Mr Hague has been talking to some very peculiar MEPs from some very peculiar parties. The French interior minister and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy is unimpressed says the Guardian’s Nicholas Watt.

Is the long silent Tory EU dog about to bark again and reignite the old feud within the party? Can it be just coincidence that Mr Blair has, as the Independent reports, decided to start talking about Europe again?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Few cheers for Cameron

A rather subdued Prime Minister’s Questions session today. Perhaps MPs are tired after the excitement of last night. Tory MPs seem to make less and less noise every time their new “nice boy” leader stands up. When he rose for his second bout of questions today there was barely a murmur. But perhaps that was because one of his rapid U turns had been so cruelly exposed after his previous question.

There are a lot of very odd Tory MPs who seem to be rather dim but I’m sure they’re not. They do love their clichés though. At nearly every PMQs one of them prefaces his (it’s always a he) question with ‘before the Prime Minister retires will he find time’ or some-such. I suppose they think they’re being witty and original; perhaps the first one who did it was, slightly. But it’s rather sad to watch as they pause, expecting huge guffaws, and get silence.

The warm up session for Mr Blair rotates. This week it was Deputy PMQs which is rather better sport than the others. So the House went from discussions about the capacity of the drains near Aylesbury to the alarming situation in Iran in under an hour.

It was Menzies Campbell who mentioned Iran but his questions were both so short it was hard to know what his angle was. Perhaps it’s his new tactic in an attempt to avoid the embarrassment of his first go. Even when uttering only a few words he can still be fabulously pompous.

The Rev Ian Paisley rose to put a question but was cut short by the speaker after what seemed like a couple of hours. He was so incensed that he raised a point of order after everyone else had left. He complained that Mr Blair hadn’t answered his question. Rev P is wonderfully old but as he’s sat through hundreds of PMQs you might have thought he’d have learnt by now…..

Improve your life – learn about risk assessment

This is a dull post even by my standards. A paragraph in a letter in today’s Times, “The failure to distinguish between “risk” and “hazard” is the reason why so many foolish decisions are made in the name of health and safety. The hazard is a circumstance with the potential to cause harm, the risk is the likelihood that this potential will be realised.” prompts me to write about Risk Assessment. It’s a subject so dull that until recently only people in insurance knew much about it. Insurance is a job for people who find accountancy too exciting. But it does make quite a lot of money.

Now Risk Assessment is helping much of industry and commerce to allocate resources sensibly. It’s slowly creeping into the public sector and helping there too, for example it’s being used to reduce the regulatory burden on businesses which are unlikely not to comply.

It can help you as well. At its heart it’s incredibly simple. For a particular topic you need to assess the impact and also the probability of that impact materialising. Then you can plot things on a matrix (or graph) and look for things with high impact and high probability and deal with those first either by reducing the impact or the probability. This can be incredibly powerful if you’re trying to determine which of many competing topics to give your attention to. It works even better at the corporate level.

For example, if you’re running a business you might determine that there’s a high risk of mistakes in your accounts but, providing the size of error is likely to be low, the impact is small. This might stop you falling into the trap of spending hours getting your accounts 100% accurate instead of getting busy finding new customers because you would have assessed the impact of that failure as high.

This gives a clue as to where any effort should be directed. It should be focussed on reducing the impact or the probability of those things which fall into the upper right triangle of the matrix.