Sunday, 29 August 2010

Danny Alexander is right

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander, has clearly implied that higher earners have little prospect of a Reagan/Bush style tax handout before the coalition agreement runs out. There will no doubt be some chuntering from the Thatcherite wing of the Conservative party. They should remember the rhetoric of Osborne and Cameron in opposition, continued into government, that Labour did not "mend the roof when the sun was shining". What would have been right for Labour is also right for the coalition. (Mind you, I don't remember any Conservatives endorsing the Liberal Democrat policy at the 1997 general election of raising the standard rate of income tax by 1p in the pound.)

The danger to the coalition comes not from the Liberal Democrat side, as Labour seems to believe. The leaders signed up to the agreement, the party as a whole overwhelmingly endorsed it, and the parliamentary party will stick to it. Hard as it may be for the opposition to understand, we believe that binding agreements are just that.

No, the more likely outcome is that the new intake of Conservatives, together with some of the old "dries" who should know better, will suffer the same delusion as New Labour: that the laws of history and economics have been suspended simply because they have been elected. Alexander is right to slap down any possible rebellion now.

Cricket is returning to its roots

We shouldn't be starry-eyed about cricket. Its practitioners are not as painfully honest as golfers or snooker-players. As this essay makes clear, cricket would not have developed into a national, then international, game without gambling. Along with the gambling came corruption. The image of cricket as an icon of sportsmanship and participation for the love of it has always been a false one, no doubt fostered by our Victorian empire-building forebears. Even in his own day, the hallowed Dr WG Grace was known to indulge in gamesmanship.

However, the involvement of large betting organisations in Asia has taken the corruption to a new level. One remembers sadly the termination of the career of Mohammad Azharuddin, a beautiful batsman and, as a Muslim in India, someone who could have been a model for multiculturalism in that state. Then there was Hansie Cronje, the apparently God-fearing South African all-rounder who led his country in the early post-apartheid era. Both were corrupted by money from gambling. Now it looks as if Pakistan's best young bowler, and someone who looks as if he would justify a place in a World XI before long, Mohammed Aamer, has also been persuaded to stain his career by bowling no-balls to order. We are a long way from charges being brought, but the prima facie case, from Jonathan Agnew's testimony that the transgressions were extremely obvious, is strong.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Mrs Vincent Price

Out of the blue, there is an appreciation of Coral Browne (1913-1991) by John Amis. I have long thought that Mr Amis should publish a book dedicated to the bons mots of Sir Thomas Beecham, for whom he had been a musical dogsbody. Clearly, he could do the same service for Coral Browne. I can, however, add to those on his blog a couple of her put-downs related on Ned Sherrin's radio programme - the first by her second husband, Vincent Price, shortly after their marriage, the second, if I recall correctly, by the lady herself on a later visit.

To a house-guest, inspecting the modern art at the Prices' California home, enquiring, in a scornful tone, the title of a piece: "It's called: we like it".

When the box-office clerk at a local theatre told her that on the night she wanted a pair of tickets for a particular production that there weren't any to be had. "Charlton Heston is in it, you know" Carefully timed pause, then Ms Browne responded: "How about after the interval?"

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Plans for a Severn Barrage may be found in the long grass

"Escalating costs" may have caused the coalition government to postpone to an undisclosed date a decision on a barrage across the Severn Estuary. At the ONS 2010 oil & energy conference in Stavanger yesterday, UK energy minister Charles Hendry refused to answer direct questions about the barrage, but gave a clear signal that whichever scheme was chosen would not start any time soon.

It will be interesting to know if those who have been holding back on tidal lagoon schemes for the Severn Estuary, because of planning blight due to the barrage, will now be encouraged to push them forward.

Defecting Liberal Democrats

"Come in, Mr & Mrs Jones. You asked about your son's prospects after school. I have to say that his GCSE results are moderate, to put it kindly. His English is slipshod but passable, he has a shaky grasp of history and his mathematics is appalling. He does not think logically, so philosophy and science are obviously barred to him. He may, however, have the makings of a political journalist."

Monday, 23 August 2010

Azmat and Moazzam Begg

What a pity Steve Evans' documentary ("British Muslims, Father and Son") is not available on "Listen Again". The story of a father, first fleeing India's post-partition violence as a child, then making a career in banking in this country at a time when we still welcomed Commonwealth citizens, and a son whose experience of racism in Birmingham drove him to connect with the ummah, was riveting and instructive. It was all the better for being told by a relatively conservative commentator, who was therefore going to question motives throughout, while reporting scrupulously in the best BBC tradition.

There were all sorts of ironies along the way. Azmat Begg's own father had fought for Britain in World War II, and indeed the family had a tradition of serving the British colours. Azmat is observant, but not a militant Muslim, so he had no qualms about sending his boy to a Jewish primary school, the King David, because he felt it was the best. While there, Moazzam reports , he suffered no racial or religious abuse; it was only when he moved on to secondary school that the mindless chants of "Paki" (applied, he noted, also to those of Indian and Sri Lankan descent) and violence affected him.

Moazzam's career of helping, or attempting to help, Muslims in Bosnia (where he was impressed by the motivation of British forces), Chechnya and Afghanistan were outlined. In Kabul, he wanted to help run a school for young women, against the philosophy of the Taliban, and was appalled by the Taliban's violent justice. The method by which he was abducted to Guantanamo and the privations he endured there are already well-known and were lightly sketched in. There was rather more on the fight by his father to have him released. Azmat had been puzzled by his son's actions before, but knew that he could not be guilty of the crimes he was charged with by the Americans.

Evans questioned Moazzam's motivations. To me, it's an old story: a young man, reacting against his parents' generation and against discrimination, takes a radical path. He suffers a reality check, then diverts his idealism into more mainstream channels. In Moazzam's case, as director for the prisoner rights organisation, Cageprisoners, which is concerned with more than detained Muslims.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Labour spin merchants have too high an opinion of themselves

I just have to quote this item from the Indy's Business Diary in full:

Labour aides not going cheap

So much for socialism. PR Week magazine reports that "scores of former Labour Party advisers" who lost their jobs when their bosses were booted out of power are missing out on alternative careers in the public relations sector, which has always been a favourite bolthole for political aides who find themselves back on the job market. The problem, it would seem, is that most are asking for "completely unrealistic" salaries. The agencies apparently balk at their six-figures demands.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Second-generation printed electronics

Swansea University's Centre for Printing and Coating leads the way in printing electronics on to any traditional printing surface, according to this article by Sarah Arnott in the business pages of the Independent. "The prize is potentially enormous", Arnott writes. "Alongside massive revenue opportunities, it is also a rare chance to claw back competitive advantage from the East. Compared with traditional printing, printed electronics are vastly expensive, because of the high cost of materials. But by shifting the high cost from labour to materials, the structural advantage of China or India is eroded."

But Germany, the Netherlands and USA are in the same position, and the article implies that the UK lead is no more than a year. The government and British industry should learn lessons from the experience of 1930s Hungarian refugee Paul Eisler. He fled the fascists in 1936 and immediately offered his invention of the printed circuit to his new hosts in Britain, first to the radio and electronics industry (he already had a working radio incorporating a PCB as a demonstration) then, when war was imminent, to the Air Ministry as, if I remember correctly, part of a bomb-aiming device. The invention was belatedly taken up here, but it was the US who realised the benefits after the war - and apparently largely reneged on payments under Eisler's patent.

There is a Conservative mantra that government cannot - should not - pick winners. However, it is in the best position to act as honest broker to bring together the companies representing the various technologies in what is already reckoned to be a winning development, and perhaps to act as guarantor for some of the smaller SMEs in these days when banks are loth to lend.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

There WAS a structural deficit

In spite of the efforts of the deficit-deniers in Labour (listed by Guido Fawkes here) with the honourable exception of Alistair Darling (also noted by Guido), the public do realise that there is a difference between the acute difficulties caused by the banking failure and the chronic condition of dependence on borrowing initiated by Labour budgets from 2000 on.

To use an admittedly gruesome medical analogy, people with a long-standing condition like AIDS are more susceptible to infections, like TB. Brown and Darling tackled the TB of the credit drought (rather too slowly, in the opinion of Vince Cable and others) but it is left to George Osborne and Danny Alexander to administer the painful anti-retrovirals.

It is also no use complaining, as Labour speakers are wont to do, that MPs then in opposition said nothing. Just a few minutes searching the Web on the term "black hole" reveals warnings such as this, dating back to the early years of New Labour.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Open-cast coal

BBC yesterday reported that the British Geological Survey predicts an increase in open-casting greenfield sites in the UK, because of our seemingly insatiable demand for power. Perhaps the Beeb is hyping the story somewhat, as "Countryfile" last night featured an item on open-cast coal. There is no corroboration on the BGS web-site, though there are some interesting statistics which show a gradual increase from a low in 2007.

A large slice of current production, and that in the immediate future, comes from Neath Port Talbot. We, as a council, have given Celtic Energy permission to extend their operations centred on the former Selar farm. I am told by one of the local councillors that the company's operation of the site, and their adherence to the conditions imposed for its restoration, are a model.

However, we must not let our standards slip. What can happen when the democratic process is subverted by large commercial interests is illustrated by the allegations of residents of mountain country in the states of Kentucky and West Virginia. There is a Huffington Post article on the subject.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

PFI is Phffft

This posting ( emphasises that the Welsh decision not to go down the PFI/PPP route for public services was a joint one by Labour and the Liberal Democrats in coalition. It also points the way to a healthier scheme for the involvement of non-government bodies in social enterprise.

VJ Commemoration

Today is the 65th anniversary of the Japanese surrender, which brought to an end World War II. There is a programme of events commemorating VJ Day, the 15th August.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Forecasts negative, outcomes positive

We in the Liberal Democrats are used to predictions (in the form of opinion polls) falling short of actual figures (numbers of Liberal Democrats elected). This continues. In spite of ratings reported in the press seemingly entering negative territory, we are continuing to hold our own in local by-elections since the coalition came to power in Westminster. Indeed, if one counts town council by-elections, we are showing healthy gains. We are holding on to the increase in membership we made at the time of the general election.

So it is no surprise that the general air of doom in the media is lightened by what is actually happening where it matters. Property repossessions are down on last year, whereas they were expected to rise, and the Council of Mortgage Lenders is revising its forecast for the rest of this year. The employment rate is rising fast and the claimant count is continuing to fall. Given that the redundancies in the private sector announced last year should still be working themselves out, and that there is evidence that employers have endeavoured to retain key employees during this depression (having learned their lesson from 1996/7 when they let too many skilled people go, and were caught short in the recovery), I find the former statistic surprising as well as gratifying.

There is an interesting contrast in today's "Independent". The front page and the five pages which follow, largely written by Sean O'Grady, the paper's economics editor, lead on "The Gathering Storm: Britain's Faltering Economy". On the other hand, associate editor and principal economic commentator Hamish McRae lists reasons to be cheerful.

My guess is that, as in 1997, the recovery is going to be faster than predicted and that growth will be slightly above the Bank of England's forecast. However, I am expecting that banks will be cajoled or, as Vince Cable threatened in a recent interview, ultimately forced, to lend to small and medium enterprises. The trouble is that, as last week's half-yearly reports showed, the banks continue to make larger and faster returns on their "casino" activities.

I have a modest proposal for the government. Rather than go down the legislative route and slap extra taxes on the big banks, why not threaten to remove government business from them? Government departments, including the Treasury itself, must give the clearing banks billions of pounds worth of business every year merely to carry out their normal functions, no doubt spread evenly across the market so as to be fair to everyone. That business could be withdrawn from banks who did not have a good SME lending policy, or which unnecessarily put basically viable businesses into receivership for the sake of quick profits.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Lives of famous ramblers

The 75th anniversary of the Ramblers (founded as the Ramblers Association) is marked by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography with a selection of historical pedestrians:

Monday, 9 August 2010

Patricia Neal 1926-2010

She may have accepted that her own life could be described as a Greek tragedy, but in the end it was a fulfilled one. Having lost her movie career to a series of strokes, and then lost her marriage to Roald Dahl, she rebuilt her professional life in television and was working into her 70s.

One or other TV company is bound to show "Hud", and probably also "The Day the Earth Stood Still", but her finest performance in my opinion was in "A Face in the Crowd". This film is long overdue a DVD release in the UK. With "Mad Men" reviving interest in the 1950s advertising industry, and the commodifying of political leaders more topical than ever, it is crying out for TV showing, too. I can only assume that there are copyright restrictions preventing its screening here.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

When I see the word "progressive", I release the clip on my constitution

"Progressive" is the weasel word of choice for Labourites and their fellow-travellers these days. Peter Black draws attention to a recent article by Owen Smith MP, in which he describes the Labour-directed government in Cardiff as "a genuinely progressive coalition".

Other commentators have bemoaned the Liberal Democrats abandonment of "progressive politics" in choosing to enter coalition with the Conservatives rather than side with New Labour. Anthony Seldon, Daniel Jones in "Our Kingdom" and "Left Foot Forward" to quote just a few from a cursory Webfetch, illustrate the point. Most telling of all is the subject, and the dramatis personae, of a conference mounted in Congress House before the election.

My mind harks back to my early days as an impecunious civil service clerical officer in London. The "Progressive Café" in Rochester Row, close to my lodgings, was the most reasonable eaterie in the area. Next door were the company offices of "Progressive Tours". Some idea of the company's motivation can be gained from the holiday destinations: Romania, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine and Hungary among others behind the Iron Curtain in those days. Needless to say, political discussions with the waiter were interesting. It seems to me that this use of the word "progressive" is hanging around.

There is an undeniable technical meaning of the word as applied to taxation: income tax is progressive, VAT and council tax not directly so. As to the everyday meaning, I quote from the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution and invite readers to decide whether a forward-looking coalition could be formed with Labour, given their record in Westminster and Cardiff:

The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.

Memories of former brewing companies

Liberal England draws attention to the Brewery History Society's web site of liveries of defunct breweries. There is a Wales page, but there are some notable gaps locally which need to be filled! "Vale of Neath" is notable by its absence* from its home town, and why is there no contribution from Swansea? Surely there are still some visible reminders of Hancock's in and around the city?

*There is some tiling on the frontage of the Royal Exchange in the Melyn, which I hope to capture, if someone doesn't beat me to it.

Monday, 2 August 2010

RSPB at SeaSwansea

The RSPB West Glamorgan Local Group will have a stall at SeaSwansea which will be taking place at the Museum Park in front of the National Waterfront Museum between 11am and 5pm on Saturday 14 August and Sunday 15 August, 2010.

For details see

Thanks to John Roach of the local group for the notification.

There is more about RSPB locally at