Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Two e-mails from Gordon Brown in fifteen minutes – further proof that the environment is now mainstream

It’s nothing to do with ‘saving the planet’, but reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a pressing problem facing the international community. A rudimentary knowledge of geology is all that’s needed to understand that it’s our species that’s at risk, not the globe we live on.

It’s a mark of human vanity that ‘saving the planet’ has become a battle cry for many in the green movement. But, were our species to die out today, it would leave barely a trace in the fossil records unlike, for example, the dinosaurs who were around for ages.

But climate change does pose a threat to our species. At worst it could cause the earth to become uninhabitable for creatures like us. But this is unlikely to happen. More likely would be a reduction in the total population as more areas became difficult to sustain an existence in.

So what’s to be done? Carrot or stick, unilateral or multinational? Any one who tells you there is an easy solution is lying.

The heartening news is that the topic is now firmly on the agenda of governments rather than only the subject of political fringe meetings.

The Independent, amongst others, has noted that this is Gordon Brown’s baby in Britain. Hence the e-mails to party members. If he can help bring the sort of stability to the world’s climate that he’s brought to the British economy, he really will earn his place in history...

Monday, October 30, 2006

As entrepreneurs take over the Green movement, where will the hair shirt brigade go next?

The Guardian fretted on Saturday’s front page about Europe’s failure to meet its "targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions" and the Indy’s leader, as usual, blamed our government. But there were more upbeat environmental thoughts in the Times first leader. Under the headline "Green is good" it pointed out that "The green rush is no longer the preserve of idealistic inventors, but of smart money-men and large institutions."

Having for many years been a member or on the fringes of various groups attempting to promote worthy ideals, I’ve reached the not very startling conclusion that you won't get far in a lobbying campaign unless there's a group with a commercial interest backing your cause.

For example, all my (few and feeble) attempts to promote walking as the best form of transport in towns have been miserable failures to judge by its decline. I’m a member of ‘Living Streets’ which used to be called the Pedestrians’ Association before the image consultants moved in. But, with an annual turnover of about 89 pence and no companies that profit from people walking to sponsor it, it’s not making much headway.

So it must be good news for those of us genuinely concerned, although not hysterically so, about climate change that businessmen are moving in. They are our best hope for some real action rather than waffle.

Bad tidings however for the sort of fundamentalist ‘greens’ who love wallowing in gloom and doom especially if America and/or ‘big business’ can be blamed. It has given them plenty of excuses to dream about imposing draconian restrictions on the lives of their fellow creatures especially those who seems to be enjoying life a little too much.

Of course there are still worries. Some businesses will sell stuff based on highly questionable ‘green’ credentials. We’ve already had leaflets trying to sell us solar heating devices that would never generate a worthwhile return on their cost nor, almost certainly, in terms of the greenhouse gases used in their manufacturer and installation (about which their suppliers are silent).

So it’s good news that, according to the Times the "Advertising Standards Authority [is considering] issuing guidelines on what businesses can say about the practice of carbon offsetting". But, in a world dominated by scientific ignoramuses there will, no doubt, be loadsa money to be made out of the well-intentioned gullible...

Friday, October 27, 2006

Meacher tries to scare us off nuclear energy with Big Numbers that turn out to be Quite Small

I’m not surprised that people are scared by the word ‘nuclear’. We’ve all seen the pictures of Hiroshima after it was bombed (although curiously poor old Nagasaki seems to get forgotten). And radiation sounds scary especially to those who didn’t pay much attention during school science lessons.

But nuclear generation of electricity has an enviably good safety record. Many more people have been killed, seriously injured or made chronically sick by the coal, gas and oil industries than by the nuclear one. France manages to generate three quarters of its electricity in nuclear plants and has never had a serious incident.

Chernobyl was of course a major disaster but its cause lay in the failed economic and political policies of the Soviet Union. As in the rest of their horrendously polluting industries, they simply couldn’t afford to build in the safety systems that were commonplace in the wicked old west. How curious that so many current members of the Green Party apparently want to install a similar centrally control economy in Britain.

On his blog site, Michael Meacher uses a piece of crude spin in an attempt to worry people about the problem of storage of waste from our nuclear power stations. He says it would fill the Albert Hall five times over. Gosh! Now the Albert Hall is really rather small but I suppose saying that the waste wouldn’t quite fill the Palace of Westminster wouldn’t have been quite so dramatic.

Ardent green lobbyist, Prof James Lovelock, visited the site in Cumbria where it is all currently stored. He measured the ambient radiation right outside the storage building and found it to be less than that in Aberdeen Cathedral (which is made of granite) or that which occurs naturally in many parts of Cornwall and elsewhere in Britain.

He's now convinced that Nuclear energy is our best short term strategy for generating the electricity our society relies on whilst avoiding a climate catastrophe...

Thursday, October 26, 2006

What might the French teach the British about local government reform?

French local government at its lowest tier successfully gives local communities some real powers. This is not the case in Britain. There is speculation today about further changes to local government in England ahead of Ruth Kelly’s announcement of a White Paper.

In contrast to France’s structured system, the British one is a shambolic muddle. A typical fudge some would say. We have some unitary counties, some two-tier counties which also have district, borough or city councils, some unitary cities, some metropolitan boroughs (or have they gone now?), some elected mayors and a unique system in London with an elected assembly and a separately elected mayor.

Right down at the lowest tier a few areas have parish or town councils but most don’t. Where such bodies exist they have hardly any power and only tiny budgets. In contrast in France the Communes do have sizeable budgets and real powers. But most of them are pretty small; out of over 35,000 only 52 have more than 100,000 inhabitants, the average is about 1,700. Even Paris counts as a commune, with about two million inhabitants, but, like the other big cities, it is further sub-divided into Arrondissements.

Above that very local level, which is responsible for all those lovely pots of geraniums and the like in French traffic calming features, are 99 Départements roughly equivalent to English counties and above them are 26 Régions. By contrast with the communes, these seem to have no real autonomy but are there to run services as decreed by the state.

According to Jean Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow’s interesting book ‘Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong’, from where I gleaned most of these numbers, the whole system is specifically designed to stop the State breaking up and to keep power firmly at its centre. Even Paris has few real powers, ironic because the State’s power is nearly all housed in Paris.

Will Britain ever achieve such a structured system? I doubt it. Most countries that have these sorts of systems have been invaded and/or had revolutions and/or emerged from fascist or communist dictatorships in the twentieth century. By contrast the British system has evolved over centuries. It gets tinkered with from time to time of course. Apart from the establishment of the GLC in the 1960s, the 1974 tinkering is the first I can really remember and many of its creations (such as the county of Avon) have already been swept away.

I wish we could get a really strong system of really local councils to replace the pretty hopeless districts and boroughs etc (which are too big to be local but too small to be very influential). But I don’t think we ever will and we’ll have to put up with ‘postcode lotteries’ when it comes to services such as recycling, forever...

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Still no word on Woolwich

I’m disappointed. Apart from the former MP for Reading East I can’t find any mention of a Woolwich Station in the Labour leaning blogosphere (if such a thing there be). And even she’s going on about the wrong one and for reasons that are unlikely to be at all clear to anyone who hasn’t dabbled in the politics of that Berkshire town or read its local paper.

Still nothing to help me find an excuse to go to North Woolwich even though I asked for suggestions days ago...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

How to get the result you want from an opinion poll you commission or a petition you draw up.

It’s easy to get signatures to ‘save’ rural Post Offices or local Hospitals but no quite so simple if you include ‘and I would be happy to pay loads more tax to achieve this worthy goal’ after the ‘we the undersigned urge HMG to ...’ bit.

So too with opinion polls; ‘do you want a road to be torn through local fields disrupting wildlife and bringing more polution’ would almost certainly get a strong ‘no’ vote but then so would ‘are you happy that nothing is being done to take traffic away from your High Street’.

‘The clue is in the question’ as Terry Wogan used to say on TV’s Blankety Blank when it was, almost, worth watching.

There’s a nice little article in the Independent today. It outlines some tricks of the trade and says that an “astonishing thing is that the opinion polls are as accurate as they are... The pollsters contact 1,000 people and extrapolate from their answers the views of ... 44 million voters”. I’ve always found this thought rather more depressing than astonishing. Are we really merely herd animals rather than ones who would be heard (ho ho)?

At the last general election there was some excitement about “push polling”. The technique is to put ideas into voters’ minds by asking them questions in a pseudo-poll. ‘Are you happy that the Tory council plans to make three million pounds worth of cuts to local public transport’ is a none too subtle example of the genre. Do such tactics work? Don’t ask me; commission a poll...

Would Michael Howard make a good witness?

It is widely reported this morning that the former Tory leader has been questioned by police investigating the so-called ‘Cash for Honours’ investigation (I bet they’ve given it fancier name than that up the Yard).

Thing is, would he be a reliable witness? I guess that being able to make himself invisible after dark might help...

Monday, October 23, 2006

Man tries to get rich by writing about the evils of money

Remember how the Tories used to run our public services on the basis of anecdotes? Oliver James seems to come from the same school. You must know the technique; take a couple of extreme examples and use them to prove your pet theory.

It’s every barroom bore's stock-in-trade. The ‘I’ve met three West Indians who would love to return to Jamaica therefore all West Indians would love to return to Jamaica’ / ‘a few out of thousands of operations have had to be postponed therefore the NHS is in crisis’ type of approach to life's complexities.

Mr James’s astonishingly feeble piece in the Guardian is there presumably to advertise his new book. I don’t think he’s written it out of mere goodness of heart; I expect he wants to generate some cash.

Odd because he thinks that “placing of a high value on money” makes people miserable. Another good excuse to bash New Labour it seems. How dare they make people affluent?

The evidence he produces to support his loosely defined thesis is questionable to non existent. But no matter, he’s spoken to someone about someone else who might just fit his case so it must all be true...

Pah! What, pray, do you know about Nottingham's modern and medieval malaise?

Now that this post has metamorphosed into one of these Guardian letters, it’s the sort of question my wife may ask. Quite reasonably of course but after being married to a know-it-all for more than a quarter of a century she might have grown used to it by now...

They left out my first paragraph in which I reminded people that, in his rant about New Labour’s alleged malevolent treatment of the East Midlands, Simon Jenkins revealed that he considers 1938 to be “recent”. Since writing the post and the letter it’s occurred to me that the faux Golden Age, which he eulogises, was before the Green Belt, which he’s so eager to leave exactly as it’s ‘always’ been, came into existence. Even London didn’t get one until 1938...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The NHS pseudo-crisis - engineered by opposition politicians, union leaders and the BMA.

I feel huge sympathy for the thousands of NHS employees whose jobs are ‘under threat’. I spent the final eleven years of my employment under threat of redundancy. One reorganisation followed another and we endured two painful mergers which felt more like take-overs.

I’m sure you wouldn’t want to return to the ‘good old days’ when, to get your car or home insured, you had to fill in incomprehensible forms and post them off or take them to your local tobacconist. And making a claim consumed vast amounts of time and paper. The industry had to react to changes in technology and customers’ expectations. We workers were the ‘victims’. Although many thousands were at risk in reality far fewer actually lost their jobs. Many who left were, like me eventually, people who relished the chance of taking their lives in another direction.

So it will be in the health service. Of those whose jobs do disappear, some will leave and many will find themselves new roles inside the service. This might mean relocation and all these changes will be painful. But the numbers who end up being made redundant against their will will be small.

I don’t blame union leaders for trying to protect their members jobs but the sensible ones will show flexibility and will help their members through this difficult time. I hope that Dave Prentis is wrong; according to Union Futures he said on GMTV this morning that "The crisis within the National Health Service could cost the Labour Party the next election". If he’s right it means that the NHS is doomed.

It can’t survive without changing. We can’t go back to the days of huge wards and ‘Carry on nurse’ style matrons or to the Tory neglect that saw it stagnating for eighteen years. It has to change and go on changing for ever otherwise it will fail to meet its patients needs and expectations. The only other option is to let a Tory government dismantle it; we mustn’t let that happen.

The protests against ‘cuts’ around here have been whipped up by Tory and Lib Dem politicians and attended largely by people with little real knowledge of their health service. It’s easy to tug the nostalgia strings with a ‘save our whatever’ campaign and ignore the fact that the ‘whatever’ is no longer suitable for twenty-first century treatment. And the BMA seems sometimes to behave like the bad old print unions who tried to preserve their members outrageously cushy over paid jobs against the march of time...

I need an excuse to visit North Woolwich; ah the changes thirty years have wrought!

In 1974 I collected my petrol rationing coupons from its Post Office. I’d sent a telegram to Brighton from there a few months before. And now the station is to close and I’d quite like to take a nostalgic ride to it before December.

It provided an occasional evening escape route after work, through the decaying docklands and East End, to the brighter lights ‘up west’. My petrol coupons were never needed but the nation came close to rationing the stuff during one of many supply crises as OPEC flexed its muscles to push up the price of oil. We sort of ‘solved’ it in a typically old-fashioned British way; long queues at petrol stations.

I was working at North Woolwich on the design of undersea telephone cables. State of the art technology in those pre fibre optic days allowed about a thousand simultaneous calls down one thick copper cable that was hugely expensive to manufacture and install. The telephone was also a fairly expensive luxury with fewer than half British homes having one. That’s why I had to send a telegram to the friends I was supposed to be taking to Taunton to tell them that my car had broken down.

The offices I worked in are long gone now. Because they were part of a factory complex with a ‘continuous manufacturing process’ we’d been allowed to run the generators and keep the lights on during the winter of daily power cuts and the three-day week. Britain seemed always in crisis then!

But I can’t think of a reason to go back to travel the line before it makes way for a new tunnel to take the DLR under the Thames. Any ideas?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

More gloom for Cameron as Labour majority predicted

Martin Baxter has fed the latest opinion poll results into his Electoral Calculus machine, turned the handle and now predicts a Labour majority slightly bigger than the ones Harold Wilson got in 1964 and 1974.

Even allowing for margins of error in the polls and the calculations, this is an astonishingly good result for a government not yet halfway through its third term of office. The wheels really do seem to have come off David Cameron’s ‘policy-lite’ campaign.

For Gloucestershire, Electoral Calculus is predicting that Labour will hold Gloucester (good) but that the Tories will take Cheltenham (not bad) and Stroud (very bad). I think Stroud may be winnable though because there was a large protest vote there in 2005 which split between the Greens (who, it is said, were helped by Zac Goldsmith, now one of Mr Cameron’s inner circle) and the Lib Dems. With the real prospect of a Nasty Party MP again (their last was the charming Roger Knapman now of UKIP), I hope the good people of the valleys may come to their senses.

But Electoral Calculus still shows Birmingham Ladywood as currently a Labour hold, surely it will be a Labour gain?!

Short fuse test post

Following on from my post this morning about the resignation from the PLP of Clare Short MP (I was not the only one to blog on this topic), here’s a philosophical question. How do you test a fuse? Once it’s blown it’s useless.

A short tragedy, a long, drawn-out debacle or another Iraq martyr?

Clare Short has quit the PLP but not the Labour Party. Old news I know. I expect that experts in the history of the party will be able to tell us if there’s a precedent. Those who know the rule books backwards will be able to give an opinion as to whether those mighty tomes allow for such an anomaly (I’m rather of the ‘Rules are for blind obedience by fools and the guidance of wise men’ school of thought but there we are).

Such opinions may have more or less credence than those about the legality or not of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Like that debate, they may be of great interest to a few but are likely to be of little consequence to most of us.

It’s a shame that she’s come to this; her heart has often been in the right place but she lacks the subtleness of touch necessary to be a successful politician. She reminds me somewhat of the intensely passionate leftwing people I knew at University in the early 1970s. One of them suggested that only ‘thinking people’ be allowed to vote in student elections. I knew what she meant but my pragmatism made me see some difficulties in implementing this admirable policy.

I never thought that Clare was much good as a minister and her constituent Scribbles has suggested she isn’t a very effective constituency MP. But she’s not the worst MP in the House and the party needs some strident voices to keep debate healthy. What I’ve never liked about her, though, is her apparently insatiable appetite for self-publicity. That and the fact that she gets well paid by the media for rubbishing the party that gave her her fame.

Back to Iraq. As with too many others, the war seems to have poisoned her mind and made her blind to pretty much everything else. I don’t know whether the invasion was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing (but it was certainly a Bush Thing). I can’t decide whether it would have been Better or Worse had Britain not joined Bush’s coalition. I’m glad I wasn’t an MP who had to decide which way to vote.

Life doesn’t present us with black and white choices or simple answers. But Clare and her like can’t seem to grasp this simple truth. They seem to be as depressingly certain as Tony Blair seems to be on this issue.

Me, the pragmatist, thinks ‘we are where we are’ which way should we go now? But I’m certainly not certain I know The Right Answer...

Friday, October 20, 2006

Simon Jenkins, a pompous sentimentalist

I was taken aback to learn that Simon Jenkins is Skipper’s favourite columnist. I concede that Jenkins writes well although his florid style is not to my taste.

But he clearly views Merrie Olde England through heavy-duty rose coloured glasses. He hankers after a Britain where everyone (especially the riffraff) knew their place and few made any attempt to rock the proverbial boat.

In his diatribe about the East Midlands in the Guardian today he resorts to historical muddling and economy with the truth. He declares "the unelected East Midlands Regional Assembly, a band of placemen and stooges" to be John Prescott’s creature. But 80% of regional assembly members are councillors from the constituent local authorities and the remainder local businessmen and the like. They originate from John Major’s attempts to move decision making away from Whitehall and to get it closer to the people it affected.

Jenkins’s description of 1938 as "recent" gives a clue as to the man’s outlook on life. The East Midlands is not a particularly beautiful area but this has more to do with geography and decline of traditional industries than with Labour’s alleged wilfully poor planning. Most of the things he complains about, Nottingham’s inner ring road and "defaced shopping centres", "low-density private estates, cheap-flight airports, garish hypermarkets and gigantic warehouses", long pre-date Labour’s current term of office.

But Jenkins can’t stand Tony Blair; perhaps therein lies a clue to Skip’s admiration! Mine enemy's enemy is my friend is, though, a dangerous mantra...

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Jack Dee’s Lead Balloon coming soon to BBC2

It really is very funny. Droll characters combined with an edgy slapstick and farce in which you know what’s going to happen but still you can’t quite help laughing. Anyway it’s apparently moving onto the almost mainstream BBC2 to replace something in that channel’s really rather good Thursday night comedy line-up. Obviously I’m not including the unbelievably feeble and self-indulgent Mock the Week in that really rather good.

It will be good to get Jack off the channel that chose to PISLOASH or Put Its Stupid Logo On Alexi Sayle’s Head whilst Mark Lawson interviewed him. Bah, I feel a ‘because of the unique way the fools are funded’ rant coming on.

More in-depth TV reviews coming soon to a blog near you...

Daily Mail dubs Gordon Brown a first-rate Chancellor

And later in the same comment piece it says "it could be that Mr Cameron is wise to avoid committing to tax cuts". What’s gone wrong with the world?

I had to check that I was really reading their web site when I read the first two paragraphs: "Even Gordon Brown's sternest critics must admit that, by and large, he has done a first-rate job as Chancellor. Under his watch, there have been no sudden devaluations of the currency, no Winters of Discontent or Black Wednesdays - just nine years of steady growth...".

The tone is pretty positive throughout the piece although there are some buts. The three people who had commented are clearly not up to speed with our changing world...

No doubt my left leaning friends will use this as further proof that new Labour has sold out and abandoned all the party’s traditions. But as I explain elsewhere in this blog, Gordon Brown has managed to allow the government to do more genuine socialist good (sometimes by stealth) than any previous chancellor has.

And traditions such as getting booted out of office after six years (1951&70) or less (1979) are ones Labour can live without...

Why not make paying tax something to be proud of and perhaps even to boast about?

There’s a healthy little debate in the comments section of my earlier post about tax. It’s a very emotive issue. Many people are unable to see the benefits they get from paying tax because so many of the services it provides are now taken completely for granted.

Things like food not being poisonous, the bins being emptied, water being drinkable, the streets being largely free of outlaws, sickness benefits, not being invaded, the fire engine turning up or the doctor being just around the corner are now seen as birthrights rather than the amazing pieces of good fortune that they really are.

It’s extraordinary that in countries with insurance based health services those that can afford them seem fairly happy (relative to Britains paying NI and tax) to pay the premiums even though they are probably significantly higher than the amount they’d have to pay for healthcare in the UK. Perhaps it’s because they get something tangible; their very own policy.

The Treasury should think of ways of making paying tax a rewarding experience, perhaps they could give a ‘free’ go on the lottery for every hundred pounds paid. Wouldn’t it be peculiar to live in a world in which people boasted in bar rooms about how much tax they’d paid rather than how much they’d avoided?

Only one in eight Americans addicted to the Internet. What are the rest up to?

Another shock report from the US suggests that 175 million of its citizens are not spending large amounts of time using the Internet. Kinda makes you wonder what those folk can be doing doesn’t it? They can’t all be watching repeats of Friends can they?

Perhaps one of my tiny band of readers from the US could shed some light?

I wish this blog had some regular visitors from Canada, Central or South America. They might be able to tell me how they feel about the term ‘American’ being used to refer only to those who live in the USofA? Imagine how the French or the British would react if ‘European’ meant ‘German’ to the rest of the world.

If your country could afford to cut taxes would you cut inheritance tax?

What a sad lot the Tories are! After the fiasco of their early release of their dramatic new tax plan which looks extraordinarily similar to their old one, they’re now rushing about assuring interviewers that they’ll only cut tax when the nation can afford it.

So that’s ok isn’t it?

Except that one of the headline grabbing taxes they’d cut is one paid by only about the richest tenth of the population and even they pay it only once and then only when they no longer need the cash...

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Cabinet reels as new Labour toady writes critical letter to a national daily

It had to happen one day. After nine and a bit years of letters to national, regional and local newspapers reminding their readers what a wonderful job the Labour government is doing and how much better it is than the only possible alternative, there’s one in the Guardian today which contains the stingingly critical sentence "It's depressing that a Labour government has encouraged this anachronism to flourish and grow."

Even though it might be read by more than a thousand times the number of people who read this blog, I doubt if it will cause the cabinet to reel. It’s an unpleasant thought isn’t it; them all in kilts prancing to the music of the pipes? Anyway Alan Johnson seems to be talking more sense on this topic than does his boss...

Many a time and oft at the GC have they railed me. They call me misbeliever, centre-ist* and spit upon my gentile gabardine. Still have I borne it with a patient shrug. Have I what as like?

* or, more often and not just at GCs, Blairite stoodge, government sycophant, etc...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Only two and a half weeks to Guy Fawks Night and no bangs heard yet. Another Labour success?

The Firework Act has been around for a couple of years. This year it seems to have had the desired effect at least around here. A few years back pretty well every evening in October was accompanied by the sound of fireworks going off late into the night.

This is the sort of legislation that causes libertarians to throw up their hands. Curbs on individual freedom, nanny state gone mad etc. And it’s probably upset the people around the corner who used to hold firework parties in the early hours of most summer Sunday mornings.

But I think its a Jolly Good Law (and I know it isn’t really called the Firework Act but I’m too busy to look up its real name or even the date it was enacted – sorry)

Politicians must be boring, have no private life and have nothing to say...

That’s, more or less, what David Blunkett said in the extract from his memoirs that he read on Radio Four this morning. How true; how many towering political figures from the past would survive today’s media onslaught? How long would it have taken, for example, for the Daily Sludge to have uncovered some of Winston Churchill’s character flaws and served them up for our salacious delight?

I’m not sure why the post I wrote yesterday on this topic (and about how you can listen to the broadcasts from the web site) has vanished but no matter. Today he outlines many of the trials and tribulations of being a minister and the extra difficulties if you’re blind. He talks about the compromises necessary in politics and the irritation of former colleagues who, like Roy Hattersley to name but a few, can’t resist indulging (well chosen word) themselves in the newspapers.

At the Any Questions broadcast that I endured last Friday, there was a little discussion about whether he should have published the book whilst the government of which he was part was still in office. The conclusion was that he should have waited before publishing. I’m not sure that I agree, we need to be reminded that being in government isn’t as straightforward as some journalists, opposition politicians, bar-room bores or bloggers might have us believe...

Another Tory cliché exposed as nonsense, this time by a Tory MP

Tories love to huff and puff about how professionals should be left to manage their affairs without meddlesome bureaucrats poking their noses in. This school of thought, shared by those sad folk who really believe that the old days were the best, suggests that doctors, teachers, lawyers etc. will all act perfectly and always in the nation’s best interest if allowed the freedom just to get on with it.

But, presenting a report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee into ‘failing’ schools, its chairman Tory MP Edward Leigh "insisted that the "signs of decline" needed to be picked up early and dealt with swiftly. He voiced concern, too, over the lack of data by which to judge primary schools, amid fears that poor performers were slipping through the net" according to a report in today's Times.

Hang on Edward, how do you gather data without a proper inspection regime and, err, some bureaucrats?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Hear David Blunkett reading from his new book The Blunkett Tapes

Today he said some harsh but true things about the National Union of Teachers. His memoirs are this week’s Book of the Week on BBC Radio Four and, for one week only, you can listen to the episodes from their web site. If you click on ‘Monday’ you’ll get today's (but if you click on ‘Tuesday’ today you’ll get episode two of Michael Palin's surprisingly dull Diaries)...

(Don't know how this post became smalled yesterday but here, when I press the button, it is again with any luck)

Tories and devolution of power to local bodies; can you believe it?

Here are a couple of ‘letters to the editor’ about one of my current hobbyhorses. The first was in Saturday’s Guardian Review (did you spot it?):

In his review of Simon Jenkins's new book ("The sofa ascendancy", October 7), Douglas Hurd endorses the case it makes for "the transfer of power to a revived local government". Perhaps he's forgotten that Thatcher, the book's subject, took power away from local government because she couldn't trust it to use it wisely. How would Hurd or Jenkins devolve real decision-making power while avoiding that favourite Tory cliché, the "postcode lottery"?

And this one was in the Gloucester Citizen a little while back (the Forest is the Forest of Dean, Mark Harper is its MP (and supporter of Liam Fox)):

The Forest's Conservative MP seems to have forgotten that his party's policy is to devolve decision making in the health service to local bodies. You report that he's concerned about differences between waiting times for his constituents registered with Welsh or English GPs

Minor variations are bound to occur if decisions are being made locally. Does Mr Harper want to return to the situation where all decisions are taken centrally by bureaucrats in Westminster? Is this another change of policy by the Conservatives?

Tory MPs have voted against all the improvements and extra money which Labour has put into our health service. Mr Harper himself stood for election just over a year ago with a manifesto promising to cut Labour's spending plans.

If his party had had their way in Parliament, Forest people, along with everyone else, would be waiting even longer for treatment now than patients had to in 1997 and our nurses and other health workers would still be being paid pitifully low wages.

Can anyone access Tom Watson’s blog?

All my attempts to read Tom Watson’s blog posts, the first two lines of which sit tantalisingly on Bloggers for Labour, end up with the dreaded ‘The page cannot be displayed’ page. I’ve tried several times from two PCs running different versions of Windows but with no luck from either. Is it Explorer, the orange network or is his site just far too popular?

Answers on a postcard, or even in the comments box would be nice...

No news today according to the British Media, so let’s pad our programmes out with a daft survey or two

It must be a nightmare for them; no big story to lead their TV or radio news bulletins, nothing to splash across their front pages. A good sign of a quiet news day is when I can’t remember by eight o’clock what was in BBC Radio Four’s seven o’clock news. A quick perusal of Britain’s four quality newspapers shows them all to be leading with different stories today and the BBC News web site has yet another as its lead.

Radio Gloucestershire has national and local news mixed together at half past seven. Today its main story was a new process for dealing with chemical spillages that is to be demonstrated at the Fire College at Morton in Marsh today – hold that front page chaps.

One of the padding stories the BBC desperately resorted to on the Today programme was about a ‘survey’ some Eurosceptics have carried out in British businesses about the EU. As so often with such things, the clue to the answers could be found in the question. It’s like asking burglars if they think the police spend too much time investigating burglaries.

News; who needs it?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

As our climate changes, are we borrowing days from our descendants?

With our Indian Summer drifting into mid October it would be hard to argue that the climate in Britain hasn’t changed in the last fifty years. How much of this is due to mankind’s activities is a subject of some discussion, some science and lots of emotion. As a part time very amateur geologist I’m aware that the climate has changed many times before and that the planet will survive even if our species doesn’t. And I’m pretty confident that our species will although whether six billion of us is really about five billion too many of us to be sustainable as some have suggested is something I can’t begin to blog about.

Defying stereotypes, I was very fond of my mother in law even though she was one of the most pessimistic people I’ve met (apart of course from John). She provided a fine balance to my father in law who was one of the most cheerful ditto.

One of her typically gloomy Cumbrian sayings would be trotted out if we had a fine day, say in February, and someone remarked how nice the weather was. ‘Aye but we’ll pay for it in the summer’ she’d assure us, ‘it’s only a borrowed day!’

There’s a puritanically gloomy streak running through some sections of the environmental movement and some of my friends on the left as well. ‘You may be happy today but just wait a few months/years/decades and things will get far worse’ they delight in opining. But that’s not been my experience so far...

Schadenfreude and your heart of stone

Schadenfreude is an awful indulgence but so terribly hard to resist. Imagine the many woes of everyone’s blogging chum Iain Dale: His favourite football team hasn’t scored for ages and is languishing third from bottom in the Premiership. Dubbing him “the mastermind behind the David Davis leadership campaign” (eek), Recess Monkey alleges that CCHQ is pulling his strings (yuk). His favourite political party is struggling to keep a lead over an allegedly unpopular government halfway through its third term. He lives in Tunbridge Wells.

In its post conference analysis, the UK Polling Report reckons that “The Conservatives ... saw very little rise in their figures ... there was no boost at all to the party’s image (in fact the proportion of people thinking the Conservatives had made it clear what they stood for fell by 4 points)” Thanks to elephunt at Impossible Promises for directing me there.

As the much-plagiarised Oscar Wilde quipped, when referring to the death of Little Nell in Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop, 'you would need to have a heart of stone not to laugh’.

Telegraph headlines Gordon Brown’s Robin Hood-style pension wealth redistribution success. Doing good by stealth?

More than a million UK pensioners enjoy incomes higher than the national average earnings of people who still have to work for a living. At the other end of the scale more than two million UK pensioners are now substantially better off thanks to the Pension Credit scheme which was introduced in this Labour government’s first term.

Well off pensioners receive the State pension plus pensions from their previous employers and/or private pension schemes. The pension funds behind these schemes have for a long time enjoyed extremely generous tax concessions from the treasury in an attempt to encourage people to save for their old age.

One of Gordon Brown’s changes to the tax system was to remove one of these concessions leaving many others still in place. The Sunday Telegraph reports that this has resulted in about one hundred billion pounds less in these funds than might otherwise have been the case. This amount would have generated about five billion pounds a year in income for these funds.

Pension credit pays out something like 1,650 pounds a year on average to about three million pensioners who would otherwise have only the state pension to live on. That’s about five billion pounds a year. So the so-called ‘raid’ on pension funds for the wealthy has paid for the extra money going to help the poorest pensioners.

Sounds good to me. Taking subsidies away from the wealthy and spending them on the poor. Starting to address the anomaly whereby the state pays more to the richest pensioners than it does to the poorest.

Here’s something for campaigners for an increase in basic state pensions to think about. Would you rather give every pensioner, including the best off, an increase of a thousand pounds each a year or the least well off an increase of five thousand a year each?

As the Americans put it: you do the math. Unfortunately most journalists and many political campaigners aren’t very good at sums.

By the way most of the above figures are very rough guesstimates, I haven’t got time to check their accuracy but they won’t be a million percent adrift...

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Tory U turn on Iraq – opportunism or genuine conversion?

Four years ago the Tory benches were baying at Tony Blair to stop pussyfooting about and to get behind George Bush’s Iraq invasion plans. A higher percentage of Tory MPs than Labour ones voted for our troops to join the war.

How times change. According to the TelegraphLiam Fox, the shadow defence spokesman, applauded Sir Richard's intervention and said troops "could not remain for an infinite amount of time"”. Err Liam, has anyone ever suggested that they would or should?

I’ve only met the famously rightwing Dr Fox once. I was nursing a friend at the bottom of the stairs in Westminster Hall down which she had just fallen. As it’s the main exit from Parliament, a lot of people went by including a number of MPs with groups of visiting constituents. Most saw we were in control of the situation and went on their way but one came bouncing up to see if he could help.

I found his intervention rather unhelpful and a tad intrusive. Only after he’d gone did the policeman who was assisting us tell me it was the good Dr Fox MP. Now if he’d told me he was a doctor I’d’ve been less hostile. I suppose he assumes that everyone recognises him even when they’re kneeling at his and some stairs' feet propping up an injured friend in semi-darkness. Twit...

A workers’ co-operative for the British upper middle classes

It’s a curious anomaly; John Lewis is a chain of shops that caters mainly for the British middle classes and yet it’s run as a workers’ co-operative. Actually they’re not called workers but partners. The first clue I got about the firm’s unexpected status was the door marked "partners’ entrance" on their store in London's Oxford Street. I thought it odd to have a door just for the board members who probably rarely visited the shop but all became clear when I noticed ‘ordinary’ staff using it and I asked one of them about it.

I caught the end of Katherine Whitehorn, who sounds very posh but who used to review films for the Observer so might be a bit of a leftie, describing the joys of John Lewis on Fi Glover’s Saturday Live. It turns out not to be quite as dull a programme as I first thought.

Friday, October 13, 2006

BBC Radio Four’s Any Questions comes to the Cheltenham Literature Festival

Should you ever find yourself holding a ticket for Any Questions, if there’s a poor boy on the street then let him have your seat ‘cos the only good thing about it is that it’s in the warm and dry.

I was in the audience tonight; dull doesn’t begin to describe it. Being squeezed into a (public, natch) school’s hall with a bunch of people who consider that even thinking of supporting Labour deserves drawing and quartering isn’t the best way to spend a Friday early evening. Mercifully it was all over by ten to nine. People who listen by choice to this programme should be transported to the Isle of Mann for their own safety.

Green advertisement perhaps delivers an unintended message

‘Save 49 ponds a year’ says the big poster currently occupying the advertising hoarding at the bottom of our hill. It’s a British Gas advertisement urging us to turn our thermostats down by a degree.

We’re lucky; we live in an affluent suburb of an affluent town. An extra fifty quid a year wouldn’t make the slightest difference to any of our neighbour’s lifestyle. The message they’re possibly more likely to take is ‘it won’t cost me much if I turn the heating up a bit’.

That’s one problem with trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It needs lots of us to do quite small things that in financial terms won’t give us any benefit. In fact travelling by more environmentally friendly modes of transport often costs more and/or takes longer. Oh dear.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The NHS is good in parts around here

Pop your postcode into this site to see how it’s doing near you. The good news for us is that our hospital trust is rated as good both for quality of services and for use of resources; the bad news is that our ambulance trust is rated as weak for both.

The Great Western Ambulance Trust only came into being in April so I’m not sure there’s really been time to assess its performance. It was formed by the merger of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Avon’s trusts. I’m on the PPI Forum for it, my suggestion that it should be called The Western Ambulance Trust was rejected on the grounds of initials.

The NHS is about a decade behind commerce in measuring performance. They’ve gone through the pain and frustration of being measured only on quantity and are at last now also being measured on quality. If the Tories hadn’t left them to fester for eighteen years they wouldn’t be so far behind either in measurement technique or performance. But I don’t suppose such subtleties will stop opposition politicians from trying to make political capital out of the alleged crisis.

James Callaghan apparently never said ‘crisis, what crisis’ about the winter of discontent in 1978. Were he around today however he could, with justification, say it about our NHS. It has problems but it’s so much better than it was in 1997.

Liberal Democrat support for airport expansion causes an amusing thought

Further to my earlier post about the Liberal Democrats forcing through support for the rescue and expansion plan for our airport, an amusing thought occurred to me. Perhaps, in the pompous statement from their web site which I quoted viz. "All our policies have a green thread running through them" they were using ‘green’ to mean “naive and lacking in experience, especially because of being new to something” rather than “politics supporting or promoting the protection of the environment”. Thank you Encarta Dictionary: English (U.K.).

Gosh, I bet your sides are splitting...

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Mainstream British journalist in cheerfulness outbreak shock

I know it’s not what middle aged men are supposed to do but Chris and I, in our bantering breaks from work, often agree how much better life is now than when we were Very Young (in the 1950s and early 60s if you must know). Perhaps it’s the Cheltenham air because, following his trip down here to be part of our Literature Festival, former Tory advisor Daniel Finkelstein has penned this cheery piece for the Times (who are the festival’s main sponsor again this year).

"And in our country? Well obviously we’re richer here too and live longer and all that stuff. But even the things we complain about tell us that things are getting better. ... We are so lucky to be living when we do, so blessed. It’s a crime to waste it moaning about what’s going wrong. As someone once said, we’ve never had it so good."

Back in the mists of time, when this blog was Very Young, the banner at the top read something like ‘a Panglossian view of politics, life and suchlike’ but I’ve changed it a few times since then. If Mr Finkelstein’s notion catches on, as perhaps it should, maybe I’ll need to change it back.

It’s probably just as well that John sometimes pops into the office to remind us that all change is bad, every silver lining has a cloud and that we’re all doomed. We wouldn’t want optimism to become commonplace in Britain now would we?

Liberal Democrats vote for airport expansion

In a surprising reversal of their Party’s policy in such matters, the LibDems have forced through a vote in favour of a rescue plan for Gloucestershire’s pathetic little airport. Although they no longer control Cheltenham Borough Council, the LibDems won enough of the independents’ votes to push the measure through against Tory wishes. I don’t know how our one Labour councillor voted.

I can’t believe I typed ‘surprising’ – anyone who’s dabbled in politics for a while knows that the LibDem’s policies are as flexible as something very flexible.

I wonder if they’ve looked at their party’s web site which declares that: "All our policies have a green thread running through them".

What is mildly amusing is that the LibDems carried out a survey in Churchdown and found that "74 per cent of those questioned were in favour of keeping the airport". By a quirk of history the airport is owned jointly by Gloucester and Cheltenham councils and kept afloat by their council taxpayers. Churchdown, like the airport, is part of Tewkesbury Borough. It does nicely out of the airport through its rates.

The airport has been accurately described as a ‘rich man’s playground’. Its runway is so short that only light aircraft can use it and most of the flights are leisure ones. How ironic that the LibDems should vote to go on subsidising the wealthy.

I feel a letter to the Echo coming on ...

More people have voted for me than for the French Prime Minister

Strange isn’t it? Along with many other senior politicians, the French Prime Minister has never stood for election at any level of government. Instead the President appointed him.

He hasn’t as much power as a Prime Minister in Britain does but he’s still Pretty Important. The French go in for elites. Apparently if you enter the Civil Service after attending one of the few Grandes Ecoles you go straight it at a grade which is the highest that anyone who enters without this privilege can obtain no matter how long or distinguished career they may have had.

All very odd for a country that, as I remarked in my last post, seems in many ways to be closer to the socialists ideal than Britain does.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The limitations on the power of a government in a liberal democracy (cont) as illustrated by differences between France and Britain.

Astonishingly, given I’ve blogged about it before, there are still some people who don’t appreciate how difficult it can be for a government to do what it wants in an advanced liberal capitalist mixed economy democracy such as ours.

‘The government should do something’ is a frequent cry from, for examples, single-issue groups, naïve political dabblers or the sad powerless folk who lurk behind lace-curtains terrified by what they’ve read in ‘the papers’.

But there are many and varied forces which can prevent, or at least slow-down, government action. Powerful groups such as financiers, lawyers, doctors, the press and, to a lesser extent than in the ‘good old days’ trades unionists can do all sorts of things to box in our leaders. And then there’s the will of ‘the people’. Remember the Poll Tax ‘riots’ or the fuel protesters’ blockade?

France has a nominally right of centre government and yet has been unable to introduce a new contract of employment for young workers which would be laughably lax if proposed in Britain. Britain has a nominally left of centre government yet is unable to increase the price of petrol (it’s now cheaper here than in France) in order to invest the money raised in improving public transport. It had to rely on an independent mayor to push through London’s congestion charge.

France gives this casual observer the impression of being far closer to a socialist paradise that Britain does. They have wonderful railway networks, their towns are cleaner and brighter than ours, there seems more sense of communal responsibility than in England. And yet their unemployment levels are far higher than ours, racial tensions much worse and many in their government (including the Prime Minister) are unelected appointees.

It’s a funny old world, eh?

How many ways are there to say there are no traffic jams?

One of the minor joys of living out in the wilds of Gloucestershire is the relative lack of traffic. Relative, for example, to London where I lived for most of the first thirty years of my life and where a bit of my heart remains. Most mornings I listen to the seven-thirty news headlines on our local BBC radio station. Just before the bulletin, after a bit of banter with the presenter, a cheery lady reads out the local traffic news before handing over to someone in Bristol for information about ‘conditions further afield’.

There is hardly ever anything for either of these characters to talk about. So they have to waffle for a while about ‘traffic moving well through the roadworks’ and the like. On misty mornings such as today some sad driver has usually rung in to warn of ‘mist on the Cotswolds’ or ‘wet roads in the Forest of Dean’ perhaps but nearly always ‘everything is flowing freely with no major hold-ups in the town centres’. Joy.

You can apparently 'listen again' to the breakfast show from its web site although why anyone would want to is a mystery. It’s quite a good and pleasantly jolly programme which recently won an award, but it is essentially ephemeral. After the 'listen again' link, click on ‘Mark Cummings’. Enjoy.

Monday, October 09, 2006

TV recommendation for fans of the British hard left

Tomorrow night BBC Four television is showing again ‘My Dad Was a Communist’. Essential viewing for anyone tempted by, or interested in, hard left politics. Listen carefully to what Alexei Sayle (if my memory’s working) says towards, or possibly right at, the end of the programme.

This programme is due to be followed by ‘Mark Lawson Talks to Alexei Sayle’ which might also be worth watching, so I best record it ...

Popular French philosopher condemns anti-Americanism as a new form of fascist thought

It’s not that he’s especially pro-American but he is strongly anti-anti-Americanism. He thinks it is a huge danger in western European liberal thinking. Invented by France and Germany, anti-Americanism has now spread throughout Europe.

He’s not suggesting that we all have to start loving Bush; it's more that we shouldn’t through out the proverbial baby with the proverbial bathwater. He reminds us that many Americans also despise Bush ...

Listen to Bernard-Henri Levy on BBC Radio Four’s Start the Week programme from its web site. His bit starts about half-way through. And/or read his book ‘American Vertigo: On the Road from Newport to Guantanamo’ which is published by Gibson Square Books.

The rest of the programme is pretty interesting as well even though, as ever and like the Cheltenham Literature Festival, it’s really a book advertising feature!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

What does Rupert Murdoch make of Tony, Gordon, Dave and Britain?

Having boycotted the Sun with the best and nodded happily whilst media “experts” said that his Sky Television was doomed (How could it possibly succeed? Britain had the best TV in the world. It must have been true; we’d heard it on the BBC.), it’s curious that I’ve come to have a sort of half-hearted admiration for the Australian-American media tycoon. He certainly seems to have an eye for winners and, even if his views on the EU are a million miles from my own, he’s quite sound about the Royal Family.

And he’s important. This annoys a lot of people who feel that He Shouldn’t Be. That seems to me to be like complaining about the sky being blue or arsenic being poisonous. It just is, ok?

So what he thinks about British politicians is, at least, interesting. This piece in the Observer reports another piece in the New Yorker magazine.

Apparently he describes “Blair as a 'lame duck' ever since he announced he would not serve a full third term”.

He “said there was much to be said for Brown's 'Calvinistic' outlook but added: 'Is he such a micro-manager that he'd want to interfere with everything in the country? And does he still believe that the state can run everything better than private enterprise?’”

And that David Cameron “was essentially a 'PR guy' with no experience of life outside politics, other than working in television. 'He's charming, he's very bright and he behaves as if he doesn't believe in anything other than trying to construct what he believes will be the right public image,'”.

So there you are.

And he “described Britain as being 'totally hedonistic' and a nation of binge drinkers”. Oh dear.

News International newspapers' move to Wapping – a warning from history? A lesson for the NHS?

The action following the move of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers from Fleet Street to Wapping was second only to the Miners’ strike in bitterness and confrontation during the Thatcher decade. Naturally, being a good liberal leftie, in both disputes I was on the side of the workers. But with hindsight it’s easy to see that neither side was really wholly on the side of the angels.

By chance I listened to most of this programme yesterday. I had taken my daughter and some of her friends to a party in the wilds of Gloucestershire beyond even Stow on the Wold; it’s very dark out there. On the way home I listened to the wireless. If you want to, you can listen to the programme from its web site.

It tells the story of the 13 month dispute at Wapping but, as it’s presented by Andrew Neil, it’s somewhat from the ‘boss’s’ perspective. Nevertheless it is clear that some of the print workers were trying to hold back the relentless march of time; in many ways they were acting like the Luddites.

They had very well paid jobs that required not a lot of effort. For decades they’d had newspapers over a barrel; if they wouldn’t print them there’d be nothing to sell. But technology was overtaking them; it was inevitable that their easy days were ending.

Now such changes should have been introduced gradually and with proper consultation but that was the era of macho, ultra-aggressive industrial relations. However, just like the ill-led miners, they were doomed.

There may be lessons for some of those who resist change in our health service and for the managers who are tasked with pushing it forward. I must do a paper on the similarities between the BMA and SOGAT or perhaps one comparing Rupert Murdoch with, say, Patricia Hewitt (can’t remember the name of the real head of the NHS, sorry). Or maybe not ...

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Beware of hung parliaments – they may not produce the outcome you expect

A few people appear to be wishing for a hung parliament after the next general election. Clare Short has even declared that she will campaign for one. Not quite sure how such a campaign might be run because it seems to require a good deal of sophisticated co-operation between voters. But one or two people seem to think a hung parliament would lead to a reform of our voting system and thus usher in centuries of bliss.

There have been two hung parliaments in Britain in my lifetime. The first was the result of a general election early in 1974 which was the result of a miners’ strike. The immediate outcome of the election was a curious few days during which prime minister Edward Heath refused to move out of 10 Downing Street whilst he tried to cobble a deal with the Liberals.

In those innocent days it was possible to walk down Downing Street past his front door. There were steps at the St James’s Park end of the street and no gates at the other. I remember walking along it whilst the Old Jolly Sailor was deliberating inside. There was a small good-natured demonstration outside and a few people were wearing huge grotesque Edward Heath heads, yuk.

Eventually he made way for a minority government led by Harold Wilson who quickly called a second election which he won with a tiny majority. This was eroded away by deaths and by-elections and along came the Lib-Lab pact; not a formal coalition but a working arrangement.

Meanwhile the Tories had chucked out Grocer Heath for being too leftwing and selected the Grocer’s daughter to be their new leader. Meanwhile (2) the trades unions gave us the ‘winter of discontent’ at the end of 1978 which did little to endear Labour to the voters.

James Callaghan had taken over as Prime Minister from Harold Wilson (Chancellors of the Exchequer sometimes do you know) but eventually lost a confidence motion in 1979 by a single vote (I remember hearing it read out on the wireless, TV hadn’t then reached inside the Commons). The turkeys voted for Christmas was his explanation, I think he meant the daft Liberals. So we had an election earlier than he would have liked.

And Mrs Thatcher won. So that’s what you get from hung parliaments. Nice eh?

Friday, October 06, 2006

David Cameron has convinced one Labour leadership hopeful

Some of us are sceptical about DC’s centrist credentials but not, it seems, Michael Meacher MP. He writes: “What's the difference between Cameron and New Labour? Where's the choice?”.

But fret not; it seems he has a cunning plan to give us more choice. In summary it is, I think, to run for the Labour leadership so that he can transform it into a party that few outside its heartlands would consider voting for. So we’d all be able to choose between Labour, Lib Dem, Green, Respect or the SWP (to name but a few) for the honour of being the main opposition party to the Tory government that would rule for the next hundred years ...

Natural England, what a very odd thing to call it.

On Sunday Natural England took over all the functions of English Nature together with some of those of the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service. As a result, the brass plates on either side of the doorway of the rather fine John Dower House in Cheltenham, past which I'm wont to walk on the way to mon petit travail, were covered up on Friday and have now been removed and replaced. Urgent vital rebranding it seems.

Now I’m sure that setting up this new agency is an absolutely spiffing idea because a Labour Secretary of State was responsible for it being done.

But what a very curious name to give it. My friend John and I can’t think of one square mile of England that is ‘natural’ in the sense of being unchanged by human hand. Can you? We think England is possibly the most ‘unnatural’ country on the planet. Do you?

Gordon Brown is coming to Cheltenham tomorrow

We haven’t had many visits from cabinet ministers since May 1997. Before that the odd Tory one (some very odd) would turn up in the hope of drumming up enough votes to get the seat back from the Lib Dems.

But we do get quite a lot of politicians and ex-politician at the Times Literature Festival which starts again today. All of them have one major objective viz. sell some books. I’ve got a bit fed up with the festival talks; even though some of them are quite good it’s a bit odd being charged ten quid to listen to an advertisement.

Still the festival brings lots of jolly people to our little town. And this weekend the French Market is here as well, how lovely!

Steve Pound's readers are havin a larf

If you want a smile it’s worth reading his jolly blog post about pantomimes and party conferences ...

Is John McDonnell MP havin a larf?

Ignoring a Labour parliamentary majority which previous leaders could only dream of, John McDonnell declares that "the most significant feature of the recent period has been the electorate's increasingly angry disillusionment with New Labour".

Hmm, never let inconvenient facts get in the way of a nice rant eh? I wonder if he can remember the majority that Attlee managed for his (very short) second term of office after his allegedly ‘successful and highly popular progressive first term’ (according to some leftie mythologists)?! (and I wonder if he’s read this post today on Luke’s blog which suggests that Labour perhaps isn’t quite finished yet?)

Mr McDonnell notes that "there was no policy content to Cameron's speech" – true but perhaps a case of a pot calling a kettle black?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Good news: the Tories have rediscovered some of the questions. Bad news: they’re still peddling the same failed answers.

After thirty years of telling the sick, poor or despairing to pull themselves together, the Tory leadership seems to have rediscovered social responsibility. It’s a pity that most of the parliamentary party and practically all of the membership are stuck in the ‘I’m alright Jack, sod everyone else’ mode but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Writing in the Times, Alice Mills at first seems quite upbeat: "What is heartwarming at Bournemouth is to witness the genuine conversion of a party". But then comes a long list of buts and a very pertinent question: "Where were you ... with your social consciences, for the past two decades?"

Well David Cameron was busy writing a manifesto including a scheme for people to buy their way out of the NHS.

The tired solutions include a greater reliance on the voluntary sector. I now work in it (but not for free) and know a lot of other people who do. We’re all certain that there isn’t an army of people available to work for nothing to do the things our public services should do. It is a fantasy to suggest this sector can ever take more than a tiny percentage of the load.

And then there’s ‘efficiency savings’ handing the running of services over to ‘the professionals’ (as if managers and administrators aren’t professionals). At the risk of repeating yesterday’s post, do we really want our doctors or nurses having to order the milk, pay the gas bills, organise the staff rotas or do any of the millions of other tasks needed to keep the NHS running. When would they find time to treat the sick?

Bonkers! They still pretend we can have something for nothing. As Alice puts it "The Conservatives have not even begun to work out the answers"...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Tories say they favour decentralised decision making except when they see the results

Today’s Times second leader says that two leading Tories “indicated that they favoured decentralisation”. Under the headline “The state they're in” it reports that “During the public services debate yesterday David Willetts, the Shadow Education Secretary, and Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Health Secretary, both criticised the target culture that is associated with the Treasury under the current Chancellor and indicated that they favoured decentralisation with “professional autonomy” for doctors, nurses and teachers.”

Apart from the worry that many doctors, nurses and teachers, who are extremely able at their jobs, couldn’t organise so much as a provincial jumble sale, there are other problems with this worthy notion.

Local decision making will lead to difference in service provision. So one Tory cliché (lets make efficiency saving by sacking all the organisers) gives way to another (the postcode lottery).

Decision making in the NHS is increasingly being devolved to Primary Care Trusts. The Forest of Dean constituency sits on the border between England and Wales. Its Tory MP is jolly cross because those of his constituents who cross the border for their NHS treatment get a different set of service levels to those who stay in Gloucestershire.

Now Mark Harper is perhaps not the sharpest pencil in David Cameron’s gang but we might hope, might we not, that he could get his head around this little conundrum?

Monday, October 02, 2006

Here’s one reason to keep an unelected Lords (or at least a portion of it unelected)

There are no scientists or technologists in the US government. If it wasn’t for the Lords they’re be none in the UK’s. That’s why the level of debate about climate change and other environmental and technological issues is so badly informed.

For ‘none’ perhaps we need to read ‘hardly any’ but I think I caught the gist of one of James Martin’s points that he made on Start the Week which made a welcome return to BBC Radio Four this morning.

He "made his name as a technology guru after predicting the rise of the internet and cellular phones as early as the 1970s. Now he is focusing on finding a solution to the many problems facing the world in the 21st century."
Lead by Andrew Marr they almost got onto the question about whether democratically elected governments will ever be able to take the long-term measures necessary to reduce mankind’s impact on the environment. See also my fascinating series of posts on ‘the limitations on the power of a government in a liberal democracy’ many of which I ain’t wrote yet.

You can listen again or download the podcast from the programme's web site ...

Is the BBC being unfair to the Tories?

Apart from one proto-William Hague-like Tory boy, only elderly party members seem to have been interviewed by the BBC after David Cameron’s speech to the Bournemouth conference.

The only TV coverage I’ve seen so far was on the BBC One news yesterday. Nearly all the members who had their ten seconds of fame by giving their opinion of their leader’s speech were even older than I am.

Is the average age of Tory members really so high? Or is this an example of the alleged blatant BBC pinko-liberal bias that causes retired alleged majors (many of whom in reality probably never made it above lance-corporal in the stores at Aldershot) to choke on their muffins?

Tax, the great election loser

Britain is a low tax economy but lots of people don’t believe it. Tax has always been a Great British Obsession. Since losing the 1992 election, after the Tories successfully played the ‘beware of increased tax’ card, Labour has been keen not to frighten off voters with Dennis Healey like promises to ‘tax the rich until the pips squeak’ (1974 Labour Party Conference).

But perhaps the tables have turned. Maybe the electorate is becoming wiser, the average IQ in Britain is alleged to be rising. At last the Great British Public has perhaps realised that you can’t get something for nothing; that decent public services have to be paid for.

David Cameron certainly thinks so. He’s risking the wrath of many of his party’s members by refusing to commit to lower taxes. The Independent today reports the results of a survey that suggests they don’t like it: "Although Mr Cameron remains popular with his party's members, they reject his stance on tax cuts ... ". If Labour gets back and maintains a lead in the opinion polls will the boy wonder be able to stick to his guns or will he be forced to do a William Hague and drop all his liberal stuff when the going gets rough?

Festival called off as autumnal weather batters Cheltenham

The Great British Cheese Festival had to be called off yesterday because the weather was so bad. Hail, thunder, lightening and 25mm of rain in an hour proved too much for the tents in Montpellier Gardens, Cheltenham (and for my internet connection). How sad especially as the festival was advertised as "1 sensational day out - whatever the weather".

Let’s hope that we have better weather next weekend when Gordon Brown comes to town. He’ll be peddling his new book, Moving Britain Forward, as part of the Literature Festival. His talk is in a real building with a real roof so he should be safe from real storms even though he’s clearly not immune to political ones.....

Sunday, October 01, 2006

What will our descendants know of Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher? asks Mark Twain

Mark Twain muses about "the unsubstantial, un-lasting character of fame". He wondered what might be "left of General Grant’s great name...". A good question, I had to Google to discover that the said General was US President when the humorist was writing and therefore well known to his readership.

Twain was writing in ‘The Innocents Abroad’about a trip he’d made to Pompeii, an excellent place in which to ponder on the fragility of fame, existence and suchlike. "Men lived long lives, in the olden time, and struggled feverishly through them, toiling like slaves, in oratory, in generalship or in literature, and then laid them down and died, happy in the possession of an enduring history and a deathless name. Well, twenty little centuries flutter away, and what is left of these things? A crazy inscription on a block of stone, which stuffy antiquarians bother over and tangle up and make nothing out of but a bare name...."

At least the General is now unlikely to suffer the fate that Twain anticipated for him, to be mistaken for a "popular poet of the ancient times in ... the United States of British America...". But we’re now only just over one century after him and I could but faintly recall his name (clearly those who constructed this site are a bit more knowledgeable – nice tune what?). What, indeed, will be known of him after two millennia, and will any of it be ‘true’. And what of famous British leaders of our own era, eh?