Thursday, 17 August 2017

Imperial symbols more important than health and safety?

When I learned of the Daily Mail's (and, it appears, Theresa May's) diatribe against the very sensible measures to protect the hearing of those working on the renewal of the Elizabeth tower, my mind turned to the needless deaths resulting from the gilding of Petersburg's St Isaac's Cathedral.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Discrimination in IT

An American academic contributed to the Google misogyny debate on The World This Weekend last Sunday. She blamed the decline in the UK IT industry on our failing to recognise that women could program.

I feel that was too simplistic. As I wrote in a comment on Peter Black's blog in response to another suggestion for our loss of a lead in various aspects of computing:

We were still pioneering computer developments into the mid-1960s - and US was never far behind anyway. After the war, Turing had continued to work on computing at NPL and others from Bletchley Park took their expertise into industry and academia. So while they may not have been able to publish, nothing was lost - apart from the electronic valves from Colossus!

Three things did for us in my opinion: a) the Americans were better at marketing their machinery (sales to the big retail banks were key); b) they used the embargo on sales to iron curtain countries to their advantage; c) they maintained indirect government support for their industry while Mrs Thatcher and Michael Heseltine abandoned ours.

I am glad that she placed on the broadcast record that the civil service agreed on equal pay for general service grades in the 1950s (though she did not realise that it would take about five years to achieve!) well ahead of other institutions*. However, she seemed to believe that machine grades, which were excluded from the 1954 equal pay agreement, incorporated computer programmers. In fact, the definition covered typists and, later, the people who pushed buttons and loaded paper tape and punched cards into computers. Programmers were drawn from executive grades, where equal pay certainly did apply. Now, here, I believe, is the insidious sexual discrimination which the American advocate missed. In order to be considered for direct entry as an executive officer, at least two GCE 'A' levels were necessary. It is now public knowledge that examination boards applied a fudge factor to girls' GCE results to pull them down to the same level or below those of the boys. In turn, this would have reduced the field for recruitment into data processing, where there was already a bias towards men. This was a shame, because I can vouch from personal experience that the women could at least hold their own with the men in civil service IT. One imagines the situation was similar in commercial computing.

On the subject of discrimination, Britain's ICT had a policy of excluding Jews from visible positions, because they had some lucrative contacts with Middle Eastern nations most of which had even stricter anti-Jewish policies than obtain now. I recall that it was a sore point with the IBM people we met in the 1960s.

*According to research by an academic Liberal Democrat, this advantage has been lost after the Thatcher/Heseltine reforms, which outsourced most traditional functions as well as allowing individual departments more freedom in setting pay rates.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Electrification follow-up

If you agree with me that Chris Grayling's decision to stunt rail electrification is a step backwards, there is a petition at which has at the time of writing attracted three-quarters of the signatures needed to elicit a response from government. (If there were a further 90,000 we could even achieve a parliamentary debate!)

Some wit, but no humour

John Galsworthy, who was born 150 years ago as of yesterday, has fallen out of favour of late. He dealt with social problems in novels and particularly in his plays, which were a critical and occasionally commercial success in Edwardian times. He had a sense of irony, but his lack of humour probably militates against revivals of Strife (1909), and Justice (1910), which would otherwise strike chords today. (Winston Churchill, then a Liberal minister, admired Justice.)

The novels making up The Forsyte Saga have never been out of print and perhaps we may yet see a dramatisation which combines the best and eliminates the drawbacks of the centenary BBC production and the 2002 ITV version.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Rail transport: Tory government contempt for Wales deepens

You would think that Wales, which voted Leave, would be rewarded by the Brexitories at the expense of London, which voted Remain. Instead, we see that Crossrail 2, currently costed at £31bn, will go ahead while progressive plans for rail in Wales are again thwarted.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

"Delusion" and "sound Conservative feeling" were absolutely convertible terms.

Last Sunday's post came about because Theresa Reviss was rumoured to be the daughter of Charles Buller, whose birthday was on 6th August 1806. (I am on a mailing list of ODNB which sends out a biography of the day, extracted from its database.) Reviss seems to be a Cornish name, and Buller had Cornish connections - he was in turn MP for West Looe, succeeding his father, and, after a break, for Liskeard - so the allegation is plausible. Buller settled money on the infant Theresa and his parents took responsibility for her after his death in 1848, but it could also have been that Buller's brother Arthur was the father.

Buller was an early parliamentary liberal, though in those pre-Gladstonian days he would have been classed as a radical Whig. Indeed, he was one of the first members to use the term "liberal" approvingly in the House of Commons in a speech from which my heading is taken.

"In their hour of victory the Whigs had no motive for changing their name, but a new name had come into existence to denote those members of the party who favoured more radical reforms than the general body. As early as 1816 Southey had written, 'These are the personages for whose sake the continuance of the Alien bill has been opposed by the British Liberales', and in 1826 Scott's Journal referred to 'Canning, Huskisson and a mitigated party of Liberaux'. The Spanish Liberales were a group of reformers at the beginning of the nineteenth century who were in power from 1820 to 1823 and roused general abhorrence by the violence of their opinions and actions. There was a group of French Libéraux with similar aims held in like detestation by men of traditional views. In the second decade of the century the term Liberal cameto be applied by opponents to the advanced section of the Whigs, often in the Spanish or French form, and no doubt with the implication that their views and conduct were un-English; but as the name  was already used in a good sense, those advanced Whigs were not averse from accepting the designation. Like Whig and Tory, the word Liberal* was a term of abuse derived from outside England and intended to be offensive, and like Whig and Tory it was accepted with pride; but unlike Whig and Tory, it had the advantage for those designated by it of bearing a good natural meaning [...]" (Bulmer-Thomas, The Growth of the British Party System)

I was disappointed to find only one name-check for Charles Buller in Bulmer-Thomas's 1965 work, but as the ODNB biographer points out, Buller's ready wit cast him as a lightweight, a reputation which persisted. (One can think of several modern politicians whose work has been undervalued for the same reason.) He had deliberately honed a thespian style in the Commons, one of the first to do so. In addition to his far-sighted liberal views, not all of which were popular in his lifetime, Buller made many contributions as chair and/or report-writer of committees dealing with significant matters such as the storage of public records (eventually leading to the establishment of the Public Record Office), the development of Canada and also of the colonies and the drafting of a constitution for New South Wales (he was of course opposed to transportation). He drafted the charter of the New Zealand Company and acted as their agent and representative in the difficult negotiations with the Colonial Office after 1840. A river and gorge were named after him in the South Island of New Zealand, and his memory was also perpetuated in Australia at Mount Buller in Victoria.

Charles Buller was someone I would have liked to have known, and not just as a fellow-asthmatic. I shall probably be mining his speeches and publications for bons mots from now on.

* Perhaps the fact that the term still is used abusively by conservatives in the USA is because there was never a serious Liberal party in that country.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Don Shepherd, great but grounded

It was good to hear Don Shepherd still in good voice on Radio Wales this morning in a trailer for the celebration of his 90th birthday. He must be in the top ten of cricketers who should have played test cricket but were not selected. He says on the subject of missing England honours:

It never worried me. I played for MCC against the West Indians at Lord's in 1957, and I played for a Commonwealth team under Australian captain Richie Benaud.
If I'd been an Australian, he told me I would have played quite a lot of times.
But there were so many terrific off-spinners around towards the end - Fred Titmus, David Allen, John Mortimore, Ray Illingworth - and they could bat, while I was a bit of a slogger.
I was happy enough doing what I did and what happened to me through my life.

There is more in his biography, including his growing up and the family business in Gower. I am glad that my move to Swansea coincided with the final years of his career, including the 1969 championship win.