Monday, 21 August 2017

Janice Dudley

The general public has difficulty getting its head round the fact that political opponents can get along and even be friends. Janice Dudley was one of those people I was happy to cooperate with at a community council level and even occasionally on the county borough council, even though I could not subscribe to Plaid Cymru's ideology. We might even have been friends but a frostiness developed after I stood in Bryncoch South in this year's local elections, although I was never after her place on the council which was clearly impregnable, but the second place previously held by a Labour man.

Her sudden death which came in what should have been the year crowning her political career is a tragedy. My heart goes out to her family and her many friends and colleagues.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Paid repatriation

The notion of paying people from the Commonwealth - and even their descendants - to leave the UK has raised its head again. John Rees-Evans, a candidate for the leadership of UKIP, has proposed paid repatriation of Indians. It is all very reminiscent of the 1960s, when Enoch Powell suggested a similar scheme for all immigrants from the Commonwealth. Ironically (or cynically?) he had been responsible for encouraging immigration of specialists, as a 2011 briefing paper recounts:

In 1963 the Conservative Health Minister, Enoch Powell, who later led the call for stricter controls on immigration, launched a campaign to recruit trained doctors from overseas to fill the manpower shortages caused by NHS expansion. Some 18,000 of them were recruited from India and Pakistan. Powell praised these doctors, who he said, 'provide a useful and substantial reinforcement of the staffing of our hospitals and who are an advertisement to the world of British medicine and British hospitals.' Many of those recruited had several years of experience in their home countries and arrived to gain further medical experience, training, or qualification.

Powell was not alone. A considerable body of fellow-Conservatives, the Monday Club, had a policy on immigration which called for:

  1. Scrapping of the Commission for Racial Equality and Community Relations Councils. 
  2. Repeal of the race relations laws. 
  3. An end to the use of race or colour as criteria for the distribution of state benefits and loans. 
  4. An end to positive discrimination and all special treatment based upon race or colour. 
  5. An end to all further large-scale permanent immigration from the New Commonwealth. 
  6. An improved repatriation scheme with generous resettlement grants for all those from New Commonwealth countries who wish to take advantage of them. 
  7. The redesignation of the Ministry of Overseas Aid as a Ministry for Overseas Resettlement.

Though the Monday Club was eventually disowned by the Conservative party, it included at its peak at least thirty Conservative MPs and more than a dozen peers. several of whom are still active. Few have publicly renounced their Monday Club views as one-time secretary to the group John Bercow has done.

It seems that Mr Rees-Evans's ideas are too extreme even for UKIP. One hopes so. If Mr Rees-Evans or Anne-Marie Waters should win the prize of UKIP leadership, and thus a guaranteed platform on BBC as well as other media, then the immediate prospects of race and foreign relations in the UK are dire.

We will probably not return to being the welcoming, state of the 19th century as described by veteran socialist Ruth Brown in an often-cited paper of 1995. However, we have survived "swamped by immigrants" scares before and will do so again.

In keeping with its role as the 'workshop of the world', Britain long enjoyed a reputation as a liberal provider of refuge and political asylum. The British ruling class had little use for immigration controls for most of the 19th century. The 'free' approach to immigration flourished in the heyday of free trade, as British capitalism expanded to the four corners of the globe. During the boom years of the industrial revolution British capitalism lapped up labour with an insatiable thirst, if only to throw workers back into unemployment in times of slump. Britain's bosses showed little interest in the national or ethnic 'character' of the labour power which they sucked into the expanding British economy.

However, by the turn of the century Britain clearly no longer 'ruled the waves', its industry increasingly undermined by cheaper imports from abroad. The end of the 19th century was marked by deep economic depression and political crises, as huge price rises led to massive cuts in virtually all workers' standards of living, and rising unemployment forced millions into abject poverty. The working class responded with the explosion of 'new unionism', embodied in the strike wave which swept Britain in 1889, involving thousands of women and immigrant workers.

Sadly, the heroic struggles which characterised this period of 'new unionism' proved to be shortlived. The ruling class fought back, and against the background of working class defeat the first law aimed at controlling immigration into Britain was introduced. The 1905 Aliens Act introduced by Balfour's Tory government had an overriding advantage for the government and the ruling class as a whole. It institutionalised the idea that immigrants alone were responsible for the rapidly deteriorating conditions which most workers were suffering.

The introduction of the act was accompanied by a rise of anti-Semitism, led by the gutter press, against the growing numbers of impoverished Jewish refugees arriving in London's East End. In parliament Tory MPs whipped up an anti-Semitic frenzy. One even likened Jewish immigration to the entry of diseased cattle from Canada. Jewish refugees were simultaneously accused of taking British workers' jobs and of living on welfare, in the same racist--and self contradictory--mythology which opponents of immigration continue to employ against migrant workers today.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Paki-bashing refers.

One wonders why men of Muslim sub-continental origin have become associated with organised sex-trafficking of young vulnerable girls. These associations seem to come in waves. There was a spate of "Irish tinkers" being implicated in various scams, and long before that, prostitution in central London was said to be controlled by Maltese families.

In cases like Oxford, Rochdale, Rotherham and Newcastle I suspect that what has happened has been something like a dam bursting. Police and social workers have long known that grooming for sex has gone on, but have been unduly afraid of seeking prosecution because of fears of being labelled racist - or of the sheer amount of evidence which needed to be handled. Once one crown prosecutor had taken the plunge, the rest felt free to follow. The result is that the involvement of Muslim men in this shameful business has been highlighted.

Why did men of Pakistani and Bengali descent get involved? It has been suggested that it is because Islam is more protective of its young women than nominally Christian Britain, and that the Old Adam seeks an outlet. However, the same could be said of orthodox Judaism and there have been no reports of sex-rings in Childs Hill or Cheetham. Besides, it seems to me that Muslims here are regressing to the secular mean. I believe the truth is more prosaic and down to opportunism. In the big towns and cities in England outside London, the mini-cab trade has come to be dominated by men from the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. This gives plenty of scope for the criminally-inclined to pick up and transport their victims. Not having been stopped by the authorities at an early stage, the information about easy pickings no doubt spread to other area by word of mouth through clans and extended families.

If social workers and those in charge of children's homes had been more vigilant, and those who had gone the extra mile, reporting abuse to the police, had been listened to, we would not have reached this dire state.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Unilever cut the mustard

The news that regulatory approval had been given to the conglomerate Reckitt Benckiser (of which Reckitt & Colman was once a major component) selling its remaining food businesses to McCormick caused me to check whether Colman's Mustard was part of the sale. McCormick is the US firm best known over here for its ownership of Schwartz herbs & spices. Fortunately the long-established British brand stayed in (part) British hands because Unilever had bought all the Colman's side of the business in 1995.

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.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Indian listings

According to the current Private Eye, these exciting jobs writing listings for various broadcast media are to be outsourced by Ericsson to India.

Mind you, the guys and gals in Gurugram, Chennai and Bengaluru may be more scrupulous than those in England who failed to check which version of Casino Royale went out on ITV4 this week. So those people who were led by the EPG to expect to see Daniel Craig's first outing as Bond were instead treated to the spoof starring David Niven.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Bizarre programming languages

A casual reference to INTERCAL (number one on the list to which this is a link) intrigued me. There was a period towards the end of the last century when every man and his dog (especially if the man and his dog had just graduated in computer science) produced a new computer language or operating system. I should have realised a long time ago that, considering the obscure syntax and/or special application of these languages, it was inevitable that some spoof languages would be devised. Moreover, some established languages were ripe for spoofing: consider a sample of APL:

[6]    L←(Lι':')↓L←,L       ⍝ drop To:
 [7]    L←LJUST VTOM',',L    ⍝ mat with one entry per row
 [8]    S←¯1++/∧\L≠'('       ⍝ length of address
 [9]    X←0⌈⌈/S
 [10]   L←S⌽(−(⍴L)+0,X)↑L    ⍝ align the (names)
 [11]   A←((1↑⍴L),X)↑L       ⍝ address
 [12]   N←0 1↓DLTB(0,X)↓L    ⍝ names)
 [13]   N←,'⍺',N
 [14]   N[(N='_')/ι⍴N]←' '   ⍝ change _ to blank
 [15]   N←0 ¯1↓RJUST VTOM N  ⍝ names
 [16]   S←+/∧\' '≠⌽N         ⍝ length of last word in name

- which is difficult to understand even with the comments to the right of each line of code.

On the other hand, there are descriptive languages like COBOL, which was designed to read like English, presumably so that managers of any intelligence or accountants could gain at least a superficial understanding of what a program did. My favourite on the Listverse list is therefore Shakespeare, which is surely inspired by COBOL:

The first line in a Shakespeare program is called the “title” and acts as a comment. The “Dramatis Personae” is the section
where variables are declared. Each variable name must be the name of a character from a Shakespeare play.
A piece of code in Shakespeare is broken into “Acts”, which contain “Scenes”, in which characters (variables) interact.
Each Act and Scene is numbered with a roman numeral and serves as a GOTO label. They are written in the form:
Act I: Hamlet’s insults and flattery.
Scene I: The insulting of Romeo.
Before “characters” (variables) can “act” (be acted upon) they must first be “on stage”.
To call a variable to the stage the “Enter” command is used. To tell characters to leave the stage, use the “Exit” command.
“Exeunt” calls more than one character to leave, or in the case that no characters are listed all the characters
will leave the stage.

I look forward to the movie (cinema, TV or Netflix) where the technical consultant manages to insinuate a screenful of INTERCAL at a critical point in the plot.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Fifty-three years on, Martin Thomas (Baron Thomas of Gresford) has been reminded of his first parliamentary campaign. What struck me about the newspaper report included in the Liberal Voice piece (apart from the fact that his lordship was even more handsome then than in later life), was how little had changed politically.

We need Lords reform as much as ever. The hereditary element may only be a faint echo of its former domination, but the upper House is now swamped with political appointees as a result of successive prime ministers seeking to redress the political imbalance left by the previous incumbent. It is a matter of shame that Conservative and Labour front benches conspired against the will of the people in 2010 by preventing the Liberal Democrat-inspired Lords Reform Bill from proceeding.

The rating system was very unfair. Fifteen years later, Margaret Thatcher was to replace it with something even more regressive, the community charge. Now we are back to "rating plus" in the form of council tax, which is only marginally fairer than rating. We still need a progressive system, like local income tax, or the site-value rating proposed by the Liberal party in 1964, or a combination of the two.

The politics of fear is still with us. The Conservatives continue to have nothing to offer but the assertion that they are more stable and sound than the main opposition, which admittedly is in an even worse state than it was in 1964. George Brown may have been over-susceptible to alcohol, but at least he did want Labour to take the country forward* rather than back to a discredited state socialism espoused by Corbyn and McDonnell.

Substitute "Premier League footballer" for "the Beatles" and multiply the weekly take-home figure by six or more, and the statement about pay disparity holds. The Conservatives may claim that the gap between the highest- and lowest-paid has narrowed, but only by comparison with the Blair-Brown years when it reached historic proportions.

We still lack a fair voting system. Worker participation in commercial and industrial enterprises has barely progressed. We have yet to see a British post-world-war government with a truly international outlook - post-Thatcher, we have become even more insular.

The one very clear change is one for the worse. Lord Thomas reminds my generation:

When I harangued the voters in Rhuddlan, lengthy speeches were acceptable. Every sentence had a real live verb in it, and, more significantly, the press reported every word. 

But he concludes his piece on an optimistic note:

But remember how Vince and Nick and Ed, Jo and Lynne and Jenny, and others of our Party fought within the coalition for the values and aims which had inspired us on the long march. Of course there were mistakes, but whatever the backlash, let us be proud of what we achieved and proud that the vision has remained intact.
What strikes me when I re-read this speech, is the consistency with which we have maintained our goals and the continuing relevance of our policies in a much changed world.

* Brown might have succeeded in those hopeful days of the late 1960s if prime minister Wilson had not trimmed under pressure from trade union barons and the Treasury.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Fixed-odds betting terminals: Hammond rebuts rumours of government backtrack

Chancellor Hammond has been forced to dismiss claims that he wants to scrap the planned crackdown on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), after reports in the Daily Mail at the weekend alleged that he planned to block attempts to restrict use of these controversial gambling machines.

The report claimed that Hammond had said that such plans would be ‘financially crippling’ for the UK as FOBTs generate almost £400m annually in tax revenue and plans to reduce the maximum stake allowed to just £2 would almost halve this income figure. Another government spokesperson, Tracey Crouch of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, called the report "fake news".

Liberal Democrat Shadow Culture Secretary Christine Jardine had earlier reacted to the rumours by asserting that the Government should not put cash before responsibility. She added: "This review is well overdue and there is an abundance of evidence showing the damage these machines do. Liberal Democrats have been calling for a £2 maximum stake on FOBTs for nearly a decade and there is immense support for that."

Monday, 7 August 2017

Venezuela and Turkey

Vince Cable is right to condemn Jeremy Corbyn's tacit acceptance of Venezuela's slide towards dictatorship. We should also condemn those conservative politicians from David Cameron on (not to mention ex-communists) who want a closer relationship with a Turkey which is on a similar path.

Last month, the EU issued a statement:

On 15 July 2016, the people of Turkey witnessed a coup attempt that claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians and left more than 2,000 people injured. One year later, the EU reiterates its condemnation of the attempted coup, as it did during the very first hours of that dramatic night of 15 July 2016, and recalls its full support to the democratically elected institutions of the country. The EU stands in solidarity with Turkey and all the Turkish people. Respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law are essential principles of the European Union. They embody both the foundations of our relationship and the aspirations of the people of Turkey and the European Union. As a key partner and a candidate country and as a member of the Council of Europe, Turkey has subscribed to these principles. Turkey has the right to bring the individual perpetrators of this coup attempt to justice in strict compliance with the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. The EU stands ready and willing to continue to work with a stable, economically vibrant and democratic Turkey. To this end, and in the framework of the EU's engagement with Turkey, a High Level Political Dialogue will be held in Brussels on 25 July at which representatives of the EU and of Turkey will discuss areas of shared interest and common challenges.

I believe access to cheap fridges and Transit vans is too high a price for continuing to deal with an increasingly fascistic régime. The mass arrests sweeping up virtually all public defenders of individual freedom concern UN's spokesman on human rights even if they do not bother the EU's representative on foreign affairs. Surely not only should talks about joining the EU be suspended, but also Turkey's associate member status should be looked at until total democracy has been restored.

Neath Guardian, a symbol of our times

In an article for the i newspaper last month, Simon Kelner revealed that it was the printed Neath Guardian which gave him the start on a distinguished journalistic career. Kelner was the editor of the Independent between 1998 and 2011 which included, in my opinion, the peak years of the newspaper. He writes:

I started my career on a local paper in the South Wales town of Neath, a vibrant, industrious community. The Neath Guardian was a respected chronicler of the town’s activities, and was a brilliant training ground for young journalists. But, over the years, as advertising revenues declined, costs were cut, quality suffered, and inevitably circulation dwindled. The paper became a freesheet and then, in 2009, ceased publication.

The title had a brief revival online, courtesy of the people behind the Neath Ferret (see side-bar) and unconnected with the Western Mail who own the print title, but the site has not been updated for the last three years.

Kelner's article was triggered by the retirement of Sir Ray Tindle ("something of a hero to most journalists"), chairman of Tindle Newspapers Limited.

In his empire are Journals, Beacons, Tribunes, Echos*, and the like, and they are all united by a common purpose: to serve their respective communities. “I see a greater need for our local press than I have ever seen in my 80 years or so connected with this business,” Sir Ray said in his valedictory statement. “Local news in depth is what people need.” [...] Unfortunately, there are very few people like Ray Tindle around, who, in this era of fake news, are prepared to support these increasingly essential instruments of local democracy.

* including the Glamorgan Gem group which includes the Bridgend and Porthcawl Gem.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Victorian cat lady

As the Countess de la Torre, Theresa Reviss was up before the Victorian beaks on several occasions for keeping too many animals in her London apartments. Typically,

THE COUNTESS DE LA TORRE AND HER CATS - St James's Gazette, 18 August 1884
The Countess De La Torre, of 38, Pembroke-square, was summoned at Kensington Saturday for disobeying a prohibitory order of the justices do away with number of cats and dogs which she kept in her dwelling-house. In defence the Countess said that seven of her cats had been destroyed and she bad given seven away. She had three cats still, and stray ones came to the house. By direction of the chairman, two officers of the vestry proceeded to the house of the Countess to ascertain the number of the cats and dogs. They found thirteen cats and seven dogs, and the smell in the house was most offensive. The chairman made an order for the Countess to pay 10 shillings a day from the 2nd August, on which day the decision of the justices was confirmed, to the present time. An order was also granted giving permission to enter the house and abolish the nuisance.

If only there had been a 19th century Facebook!

Reviss, allegedly the illegitimate daughter of an actress also named Theresa, had been brought up by the Bullers, an old East India Company family. Charles Buller, a radical Whig politician, who died unmarried in 1848, settled money on her with the "testamentary injunction" to be good. It seems she was anything but. Thackeray, who knew the family, is said to have based the character of Becky Sharp, the anti-heroine of Vanity Fair, on her.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Bercow on TMS

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow was the tea-time guest of BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew on Test Match Special today. Aggers had clearly not done much research, or he would surely have quizzed Bercow about his fanatical love of tennis. What I found as surprising was that Bercow professed to no knowledge of cricket.

What Aggers concentrated on was PMQs. I would like to have asked the Speaker why he does not remove persistent chunterers from the chamber. Perhaps they are among his supporters.

Friday, 4 August 2017


I have been catching up on the earliest episodes of STV's police procedural, thanks to the Drama channel. Last night's (or rather, this early morning's!) drama had a parliamentary by-election as background, so I naturally made a point of watching it. Writer Glenn Chandler used the episode to deploy a wide range of reasons why returning to capital punishment would be a bad idea (the first murder victims were a policeman's widow standing as a candidate on that platform, and her agent). It was clear on what side of the argument Chandler stands, though he surely should have given the candidate some stronger arguments, without weakening the overall case against. It was significant that the university-educated DS Jardine was overtly opposed to hanging, while the rough, tough, DCI Taggart was non-committal.

Taggart broke new ground for UK TV in several ways. The DCI was authentically working-class, as was Mark McManus, the man who played him. Jim Taggart was quite prepared to play away from home (though we were not shown an instance of his achieving his end!) while maintaining a prickly relationship with his disabled wife. The series anticipated Midsomer Murders with the gruesomeness of some of its homicides.

Sadly, the series lost three of the leads over no more than seven years: Mark McManus himself in 1994, Iain Anders (Superintendent "Biscuit" McVitie) in 1997 and Robert Robertson (pathologist Dr Andrews) in 2001.

It also ran through the roster of Scottish screen acting talent, including Sean Connery's cousin and niece, having to import a few people from south of the border to fill in. Many appeared more than once in different rôles; the best example is Alex Norton who played a ne'er-do-well in an early episode only to return as DCI Burke in 2002. There were some notable early appearances, like Siobhan Redmond as an investigative reporter and Alan Cumming playing a young (heterosexual) lover.

There were progressive moves later on. The series had already featured strong women on the other side of the law and even among the victims, but season 6 saw the introduction of Blythe Duff as Jackie Reid, initially as a WPC but eventually a key member of the detective team. What could have been a first came in 1995 with an "out" homosexual DC.

It seems that no Taggarts were made after 2010 because ITV decided not to network the show any more. In any case, it did seem to have lost its way, differing only from a dozen other cop shows in its setting.  I would like to have seen STV revive the hard edge of the early shows, perhaps reversing the contrast between the tough senior officer and the middle-class detective sergeant by introducing a young DC with a chip on his shoulder, having grown up during successive periods of austerity, counteracting a comfortable university-educated senior staff. I proffer it as a free suggestion to Glenn Chandler if he ever wants to pitch another Taggart to ITV bosses.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Shenley Fields

I have been following a lead from the inquiry into the Jersey child abuse business and come across pages on a Birmingham history web site. It seems from reading these that there was a fairly abrupt change from pre-war years and a decade or so after the war, about which people cared for in the Shenley Fields Home as children have warm feelings, to a darker period which seems to coincide with links with Haut de la Garenne on Jersey. I am interested to know more, and Cathy Fox probably even more so. If you do not want to comment publicly via the link below, you can find my email address fairly easily.

Trump's USA is anti-Christian

It was established some time ago that conservatives in government on both sides of the Atlantic were indifferent to the sufferings of Christians in other countries. Now comes news, courtesy of France24, that the US authorities want to deport a US resident of long-standing, a Christian Iraqi, back to a country where he will clearly be attacked and possibly killed because of his religion. So the Trump régime is not just unchristian, it is antichristian.

When our prime minister, a vicar's daughter, returns from her continental walking holiday, will she remonstrate with the President? If that fails, will she offer asylum to this man and other Iraqi Christians?

US checks and balances working

There are things wrong with electoral systems in the US, like being wedded to first-past-the-post ballots which most progressive nations have dropped and being dominated by big money. However, the checks and balances built in to the system by the founding fathers, who recognised that both dictatorship by one man and rule of the mob were detrimental to the common weal, have served the nation well and continue to do so. There was an example earlier this week when President Trump was compelled to sign a renewal of sanctions against Russia among others.

President Donald Trump signed a sweeping sanctions bill Wednesday that is intended to punish Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. [...] The new law limits Trump’s autonomy with respect to Russia policy in a provision that requires congressional approval for any revisions. Bipartisan support in Congress ensured a veto-proof majority, effectively forcing Trump to abandon his conciliatory approach toward Russia by signing the legislation. The law, which also levies sanctions against North Korea and Iran, targets Russia’s energy sector by granting Congress the authority to sanction individual investors in Russia’s oil export pipelines. This measure has drawn significant criticism from European investors in a pipeline project, known as Nord Stream 2, that would transport Russian oil to Germany. The legislation also brings new sanctions against Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors in an effort to obstruct weapons exports.

Imagine the danger to Europe if the US president had complete executive power unchecked, and was happy to let his partner in crime eat his way westward. This is the sort of power which Erdogan in Turkey and Maduro in Venezuela seek - dictatorship with a servile, nominally-elected parliament rubber-stamping their oppressive measures.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Macron's displaced persons solution has merit

It seems logical - and humane, considering the number of migrants who have lost their lives or those of their relatives in the Mediterranean - to deal with the movement of people from Africa to Europe nearer the source. Sorting out the genuine refugees from economic migrants in Libya or next-door in Egypt would not only be more efficient but also cut out some of the exploitation.

So when President Macron came up with something along the same lines, I was surprised at the hostility it engendered.

"The idea is to create hotspots in Libya to avoid people taking crazy risks when they are not all eligible for asylum. We'll go to them," he said during a visit to a refugee shelter in central France on Thursday, adding the plan would be put in place "this summer".
Libya is the main launchpad for African migrants trying to reach Europe in rickety boats operated by smugglers that frequently sink.

He later slightly amended the proposal.

However, while giving an official speech later the same day, Macron said there was no question of "hotspots" in Libya. France will instead have OFPRA (Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons) "missions … on African soil, in safe countries"

Of course, what we really need is a joint EU approach. France, Italy, Greece and even Hungary should not have to struggle alone.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Would this heroine be successful today?

Thanks to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, I now know about Esther (Tess) Simpson, born as Esther Sinovitch on 31 July 1903. She became a sought-after secretary-cum-translator-cum-interpreter after the 1914-18 war, but took a drop in pay in order to work for what became the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning. Simpson, a Quaker, had been appalled by Hitler's wholesale dismissal of Jewish lecturers and professors from German universities. She had asked Leo Szilard if she could be of use to the Academic Assistance Council recently founded in London by William Beveridge, Maynard Keynes, Gilbert Murray, Ernest Rutherford, and others, to help these persecuted scholars.

Tess Simpson was to persevere in that endeavour for the next sixty years. When challenged, late in life, about the council's exclusive focus on intellectuals, she replied: 'What was happening [in Germany] ... was anti-human and I wanted to do something to mitigate against that ... Each [refugee organization] could only do so much but of course I felt terrible about the plight of others' (The Times, 1 July 1992).

At first almost all the refugees were Jews. But after the Nuremberg laws of 1935 German academics could be expelled if they had just one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish wife. Between 1933 and 1940 Tess Simpson became a one-woman reception centre for nearly 2600 refugee intellectuals. They arrived in Britain rejected, nearly destitute, and traumatized by the humiliation and hatred meted out to them by Nazis, and found themselves in a country still suffering massive unemployment, whose popular newspapers were as hostile to Britain's being 'flooded' by foreign asylum seekers as at any other time, before or since. Tess Simpson was almost always the first person to meet each new arrival and she greeted him or her with warm sympathy, high intelligence, and immense practicality, setting them 'on the stairway to survival and success' (Hampstead and Highgate Express, November 1996). Many of these desperate people were eventually to become among the most eminent thinkers in their fields in the world, but they all started in Britain as Tess Simpson's 'children' for whom she found a new life, often locating work for them in small colleges in the United States or in university colleges in the British Commonwealth, if not at first in Britain.

After the fall of Norway in 1940, the British government, headed by Churchill, panicked about these and other 'enemy aliens' in Britain and decided to intern them all. To her horror Tess Simpson learned that over 500 of 'her' refugee scholars, many of them now doing work of national importance and of course anti-Nazis to a man, were about to be arrested, sent to camps surrounded by barbed wire, and possibly even deported. She made vain protests to the Home Office and had to spend the next year accumulating the most meticulous documentation attesting to the integrity of every single individual case in order to give Professor Archibald Vivian Hill, MP for Cambridge University and vice-president of the executive committee of the society, and Eleanor Rathbone, MP for the Northern Universities, the evidence they required before they could succeed in their joint effort, helped by Bishop George Bell of Chichester, to have all these interned intellectuals released. 'Do you know the story of Bruce and the spider? I am that spider', she later remarked (Cooper, Refugee Scholars, 134).

The public denigration of refugees was probably more flagrant in Tess Simpson's day than now, but fortunately the Establishment was - eventually - ready to yield to rational arguments rather than pander to ignorant prejudice.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Some of the reasons I like Morrisons

They still stock regional British cheeses when Tesco have given them up and they are only an occasional item in Lidl.

 - and they now sell peas and beans in pods, useful if you do not have a freezer:

though because they are so young, they do not give that satisfying "pop" when you open them.

Moreover, Morrisons now sell 4 pints of  semi-skimmed milk for £1. Why should one pay full price for milk with part of the goodness taken out?

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Black chair in Birkenhead

On the eve of the anniversary of Passchendaele, there was a fascinating piece on this morning's Sunday Supplement about the Eisteddfod in Birkenhead which followed. Hedd Wyn, the winning bard, having died in the battle, the chair which would have been awarded to him was empty and draped in black. It seems that the pressure to hold the Eisteddfod at all, and on Merseyside (then having more Welsh-speakers than Cardiff!) in particular came from prime minister David Lloyd George, who used it to support the war effort.

The tragedy of Hedd Wyn is told in a moving film.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Democracy in the EU

A post from the European Parliament members' research service bears out two of the points I have consistently said about our participation in the democratic process of the EU: the power of the Parliament has increased since our entry, and the electorate have not been well served by the people who should have been keeping us informed.

Generally, Union citizens do not seem to exercise their electoral rights as actively as they could. Regarding European Parliament elections, for example, overall turnout is low compared to national parliament elections, and has steadily declined since the first direct elections in 1979. This is despite the fact that the Parliament’s role has increased significantly over that period. According to Eurostat, in the 2014 European elections, turnout for the 28 Member States was 42.5 %, compared to an average 68 % in national elections. Nonetheless, turnout rates in European elections vary greatly among Member States: in 2014, from 13 % in Slovakia to 89.6 % in Belgium (where voting is compulsory). According to a Eurobarometer survey on Electoral Rights 2015, most people think turnout would be higher if more information were provided on the elections, the impact of the EU on citizens’ daily lives, and the programmes and objectives of candidates.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Police: back-office cuts hurt, too

A report published ten days ago by the HMICFRS (but commissioned when it was still just Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary) jointly with the Inspectorate of Crown Prosecution Services found serious failings in the operation of disclosure by police forces. As the preamble points out:

Disclosure of unused material is a key component of the investigative and prosecution process. When conducting investigations, the police have to retain every unused item which is considered relevant to an investigation. Each item is then reviewed to see whether it is capable of undermining the prosecution or assisting the defence case. If either factor applies it must be disclosed to the defence.

If this process is not done correctly and in a timely fashion, it may result in cases being discontinued or the trial process being delayed through unnecessary adjournments thereby incurring extra cost for the justice system and causing additional emotional distress to victims, witnesses and defendants. Ultimately, the failure to properly disclose material can lead to miscarriages of justice. The Criminal Cases Review Commission tells us that disclosure failures are the basis for a significant number of cases it considers.

A notorious failure was that of the breakdown of a case against the officers whose conduct led to the false imprisonment of the Cardiff Three. It is probably not a coincidence that a QC's report of his investigation into the collapse of the Mouncher trial was published on the same day.

Richard Horwell QC rules out deliberate mislaying of evidence in Mouncher, but it seems to me that cutting back-office functions to the bone offers great opportunities to those with malign intent. Malign or not, justice is not served by sloppy work by hard-pressed, over-worked and/or poorly trained staff, which must be the result of cutting financial support to police forces.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Against the Law

Even before 1954, there had been court cases involving sexual activity on the part of mutually consenting males ("acts of gross indecency") warranting a paragraph or two in the News of the World. Sometimes prominent figures, like the actor John Gielgud, were involved but were deemed to merit no more than a straight report.

Perhaps it was the involvement of a peer of the realm, coupled with the fact that one of those involved was himself a rising journalist, that brought the full front-page treatment to the Beaulieu affair. The reports three years earlier of the defection of Burgess and Maclean, in which homosexuality was a factor, may also have propelled same-sex relationships to the top of the press's agenda. Peter Wildeblood's 1955 book "Against the Law" gave an account of the affair and his fairly objective reporting elicited a great deal of public sympathy. Something had to give, and the Wolfenden inquiry was set up. It reported in 1957.

From there, Antony Grey's Quest for Justice: Towards Homosexual Emancipation takes up the story. He explains how two parliamentarians, Leo Abse, Labour MP for Pontypool, and Earl "Boofy" Arran, a hereditary peer, stirred a reluctant legislature into action. Lord Arran was already a controversial columnist in the London Evening Standard and well-known as a campaigner for protection for badgers, so when he led the way with his private Sexual Offences Bill in the Lords in 1965 it attracted some attention.

 It is worth at least skimming through the whole proceedings of the Second Reading debate if only to marvel at the unintentional humour of some of the opposition's remarks. It was also remarkable for the overwhelming expression of support in what was regarded as by far the more conservative of the two Houses of Parliament. As Lord (Frank) Byers pointed out, it also had the support of the broadsheet papers and the Daily Mirror - and of course the Liberal Council.

I did not attend that debate but was in the Strangers' Gallery for the closing moments of the earlier "motion for papers" (practically a sounding-out). I could have sworn that a noble lord asserted with great authority that this sort of thing did not go on in Scotland, though this is not recorded in the archive. Innocent as I was in those days, even I recognised that some of the artistic "goings-on" north of the border were at least camp. I was certainly there for Lord Arran's closing remarks, though he found it difficult to get started, close as he was to tears:

My Lords, I will not attempt to summarise this great debate. Too many good things have been said by too many good people to pick and choose. I will simply say that I have been surprised and delighted by the virtual unanimity of opinion in this debate on the need to implement the main recommendations of the Wolfenden 171 Committee on homosexuality. Lest noble Lords who spoke against should think I am disregarding them, I can say I am not. A former Chief Scout and a Commissioner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland are major personages; but, as has been pointed out, out of 22 speakers I think 17 or even 18, have been broadly—and some of them very strongly—in favour. They have included four of the Lords Spiritual and other names which are noted and respected throughout the country.

The Sexual Offences Act eventually gained Royal Assent on this day fifty years ago. The wikipedia entry and an Independent piece on the thirtieth anniversary regret that not all the oppressive hangover from Victorian times has been removed.

Gay edifices: should Wales follow Historic England?

The process of listing buildings of LGBT significance begun by Historic England last year has been given a boost by the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act which removed many of the Victorian restrictions on male same-sex relationships.

Those celebrations have rather obscured the memory of Wales' famous same-sex couple (in their time, internationally so) the Ladies of Llangollen. Their home is now a museum and presumably secure in local government ownership, but it would be a nice gesture to formally give it at least a Grade II listing.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Discriminatory casting

The fine actor (and it transpired, renaissance man) Paterson Joseph revealed on Radio 3's Private Passions last Sunday that racist attitudes by casting directors are still a hurdle for dark-skinned actors to overcome. (Thankfully we are not as bad as American theatre people, if this extraordinary report is typical. The point is that no part in a play set in academia in modern times should be defined by skin colour.) He expressed his gratitude to radio for giving him the opportunity to play a wider range of parts than would be available to him on the stage - an opportunity which has also been seized by Ben Onwukwe and Adjoa Andoh with distinction.

Cush Jumbo has also raised the question of discrimination against non-white actors on UK TV. In her case, though, I would suggest that the problem is the lack of good parts as such. The fact is that more good TV drama series are being made in the US now than in the UK. UK broadcasters seem unwilling to break out of the safe template of the police procedural. Good though some of these series are, few of the parts on offer are rewarding - Cush Jumbo's part behind a desk in Vera is a case in point, though one in which her very light brown complexion quickly became irrelevant, at least to this viewer.

The Good Wife gave not only Cush Jumbo and Archie Panjabi good parts, but also "white" British actors Alan Cumming, Marc Warren and Matthew Goode. US directors appreciate the technical ability and professionalism of British-trained actors. A list of US TV series which feature Brits - or Australians, Canadians or New Zealanders - would make this post far too long, but I would pick out another ground-breaking series which no BBC executive would dare to green-light these days: The Americans, featuring Taff Matthew Rhys.

Christopher Eccleston has consistently drawn attention to a more worrying aspect of UK casting: discrimination against working-class actors. His most recent attack came in the i newspaper of 17th July, but there is a more accessible and comprehensive article in the Guardian from two years ago. Eccleston's generation is the beneficiary of a breakthrough which began in the 1960s with the likes of Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Michael Caine, but which seems to be the last of the line. We are reverting to the situation of the 1950s and earlier when only well-off boys and gels could afford the necessary training and had the contacts, so came to dominate English stage and screen. One wonders how audiences put up with excruciating attempts at working-class accents for so long, something at least the current crop of privately-educated young actors have worked at. One hopes that we are currently going through no more than a phase, and that a proper balance will be restored, but the signs are not good.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Abuse of candidates

I have recently received and returned a questionnaire about my experience as a candidate in the last election. A significant part of the study concentrates on what level of abuse candidates had experienced during the campaign. I was pleased to report that I was not aware of any, though perhaps I was not seen as high-profile in a very polarised campaign. A chance remark from the Conservative (female) candidate after the count suggested that this was not the case with the front-runners and Labour's Christina Rees has certainly attracted some nasty comments on social media even before the election.

Another way of avoiding anonymous abuse is not to use Twitter, which seems to encourage such garbage by its very nature. Sheffield University and Buzzfeed have recently completed an exhaustive analysis of tweets received by politicians over the month leading up to the 2017 general election. (Thanks to Guido Fawkes for publicising this.) The reassuring thing is that even in the worst case (Conservative men), less than 6% of Twitter traffic was abusive, and in the case of female Greens and Liberal Democrats, less than 1%. This is still too much, though, especially as some of the language used is obnoxious, and the government is right to hold an inquiry.

Another finding is that race is clearly a motivator:

It is well worth reading the whole article and its other well-chosen graphs.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Brexit, Corbyn and food

I have deliberately laid off commenting on the Conservatives' and Corbynists' determination to leave the EU because: (a) Brexit is being discussed endlessly elsewhere; and (b) because I feel I have adequately laid out my position in previous posts.

However, a couple of very good posts on developments have come to my attention. First, Jonathan Fryer dispels any illusions that people may have had who voted Labour at the mad June election that Corbyn would reverse May's retreat from Europe.

[Corbyn] knows he cannot build the sort of high-tax, dirigiste socialist Utopia that he and his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, dream of. They do not support the European project; they denigrate it as a capitalist club. One should never forget how much Corbyn revered Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Secondly, Jay Rayner, award-winning journalist, food writer and chair of Radio 4's Kitchen Cabinet, lays out the  before-and-after benefits of our joining and remaining in the EEC/EC/EU. (He also reveals an aspect of the hypocrisy of Michael Gove.)  One passage stood out for me:

It is a mystery to me why farmers voted in such number to leave Europe. I assume they believed the false promise that the money based on acreage would just keep rolling in after Brexit. I also assume they hoped it would free them from environmental protection legislation. Certainly, both parts of the regime are flawed.

Indeed, interviews with farmers on Radio Wales' Country Focus, of which yesterday's edition from the Royal Welsh was typical, consistently cite the removal of "red tape" as a reason for voting Leave.

He also agrees that the Common Agricultural Policy is flawed, and that this is recognised throughout the EU. I believe that we Liberal Democrats have not emphasised enough that a consistent component of our policy is reform of the CAP. The UK's leaving can only reduce the opposition within the EU to the big two who most benefit from the current CAP.

More and more people in the top half of income distribution in the UK are now realising that allowing Article 50 negotiations to proceed would be a mistake. However, not until the predictions of rising prices and factory closures become real and hit ordinary people in their pockets, or that the news outlets consistently report the dangers to our health of desperate trade deals with nations with lower environmental standards, will there be any practical effect.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

The crazy world of Michelle Brown

I find the brouhaha about Michelle Brown's use of the term "coconut" puzzling, but not as puzzling as her choosing this particular insult in the first place. From her pictures she appears to be a White Anglo-Saxon and "coconut" is a metaphor chosen by African-Americans to describe other African-Americans who they felt had betrayed the black cause. "Oreo" is a similar term, both relating to something which is dark brown on the outside but white on the inside. Both seem to have replaced "Uncle Tom" as a term of abuse. But what business is it of Ms Brown?

Umunna's crime appears to be a class betrayal rather than one of ethnicity. His alleged socialite life-style, removed from the interests of the people his party purports to represent, has long featured in the radical media.

Perhaps, more worryingly, what Ms Brown objects to is mixed marriages. Perhaps she would like to see the introduction of apartheid. Perhaps if people like her came to power there would be a Group Areas Act and people like Chuka Umunna would be restricted to "coloureds only" districts.

More likely she is just silly and should either be ignored or made fun of. The po-faced response to her inappropriate attack can only cause more trouble.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Don Henderson

Don Henderson died twenty years ago today. He starred in a quirky 1980s TV detective series, Bulman, deserving of a re-run. I recall an article of the time suggesting that there was a lot of Henderson in the title character. His co-star was a young Siobhan Redmond, happily still with us and still in business.

Reactions to electrification fudge

Railfuture is understandably disappointed:

Wales Online lists more responses here:

I found Alun Cairns' claims that the halt to electrification was actually a great leap forward quite specious. I fail to see what the bi-mode trains have in common with the Shinkansen apart from the country of origin and the vague physical likeness. If this was such an earth-shattering breakthrough, why was it not given full publicity together with an oral statement to the Commons or at least an answer to a planted question? It is almost certain that the decision was made some time ago but delayed until after the election in the hope of saving Conservative seats in south Wales and the Tory campaign in Bridgend. As it is, the attempt to dislodge Madeleine Moon was a dismal failure and they lost Gower. (Stephen Crabb managed to hang on in Preseli and I see he has been rewarded with the airy promise of an improved rail service to Carmarthen and Pembrokeshire.)

Adrian Masters clears the PR fog from what is undoubtedly a cynically broken promise.

Yesterday, it was confirmed that the Severn Bridge tolls will be removed next year. This will be a mixed blessing, and will add weight to the suspicion that the decision to curtail rail improvement is a concession to the road lobby.

Friday, 21 July 2017

When Israel Attacked USS Liberty

There was a fiftieth anniversary on the eighth of last month which I missed, having been occupied with an election at the time. On the 8th June 1967, an Israeli jet and torpedo boats attacked a US warship in the eastern Mediterranean. US naval survivors attested that the pilot could have been in no doubt of the nationality of their ship, as related in Anthony Pearson's 1979 book on the subject, Conspiracy of Silence. Pearson came to no firm conclusion as to the reason for the attack. A common theory was that the Liberty was believed to have picked up Israeli signal communications which indicated military action contrary to international law and in contradiction to Israeli government official statements.

publication in May this year promises to reopen the controversy, using documents released by the Israeli state archives since the Pearson book. The new thesis is that the US president himself was complicit in the attack, which stretches credulity to the limits. It seems to me that, beyond confirming that the Israeli pilot and his immediate operational commander knew that the target was a US ship, the new book adds nothing certain. We shall probably never know the reason.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Rail electrification: Mrs May to reverse another coalition policy

Wales Online is reporting that the government is to stop funding for the Great Western rail electrification west of Cardiff. It seems that Wales is being made to pay for the engineering misjudgements which caused the cost of electrification in England to overrun. Note that neither has there been an announcement in the House of Commons, nor has there been any indication to the Swansea City council leaders who have been in discussion with government ministers over the Conservatives' city deal. The city deal itself must be under threat from withdrawal of business interest which would have been attracted by the electrification project.

Wales' economy minister Ken Skates has been on the radio protesting that running diesel-only from Cardiff to Swansea maintains a contribution to pollution. He could also have pointed out that electric trains are more reliable than diesel-powered sets. There must be some doubt about the extra complication of bimodal power units. Electrification would have enabled the ageing commuter sets to be replaced as well as improving the long-distance service.

In the wider context, the shortage of modern diesel units already noted at least three years ago is going to be aggravated. Great Western is not the only electrification to be curtailed it seems. Train operators will have run down orders for new diesel units in the expectation that the electrification programme launched by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and confirmed (admittedly at a slower pace) by the Conservatives when they returned with an absolute majority in 2015 would proceed.

The signals that this decision sends out are that Brexit is going to reduce industrial and commercial activity outside the London travel-to-work area, and that Wales is to be written off. A Liberal Democrat initiative which reversed years of Labour neglect in Westminster is to be set aside; Welsh Labour protests - what will Corbyn's Labour nationally say?

Private versus public service pay: let us have some evidence

Philip Hammond has said some silly things about public service workers. (By the way, I am surprised he referred to women train-drivers. I would have thought that driving a bus was a tougher job, and women bus-drivers are a familiar sight these days. But then, it is probably many years since the chancellor boarded a bus.) The Daily Telegraph has also asserted that public sector pay continues to outstrip private sector pay, citing a recent IFS report. Since the only recent IFS report on the subject clearly refers to Graduate Recruits on its title page, it seems dishonest to draw service-wide conclusions from it.

Others, notably Boris Johnson who in theory ought to be on the same side as the prime minister and chancellor, assert that public sector pay has fallen behind and that the gap should be addressed.

Crude arguments about relative pay levels need to be picked apart. Do the protagonists include BBC executives, insulated from austerity and even public scrutiny, among their public service workers? Does the private sector include the poorly-paid and sexually-discriminated-against employees of companies to which local and central government work is outsourced? What about zero-hours contracts?

We need to return to wage awards in the public sector based on fair comparisons, matching like-for-like in public and private sectors. My guess is that such research would find that senior civil servants would be poorly rewarded in comparison with chief executives of major companies, that people at the bottom end of civil and public service pay-scales do worse than equivalents outside (though with better pension guarantees) but that a wodge of middle-ranking executives do rather better. But my guess is no better than Hammond's, or Johnson's, or Corbyn's until a truly independent expert body is commissioned to the detailed work and update it at least biennially.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Brexit motives

The Observer was just the latest organ to report the malign effects of Brexit. The trouble is that none of its readers need to be converted by its editorial and reporting. They are clearly convinced Remainers already. I would be more encouraged if the Mail or the Sun cast doubt on the decision to trigger Article 50 (it is too much to hope that the Express would). Besides, too many reports miss the point. I do not know of any Leave voters who actually believed that £350m lie on the side of the German bus built in Poland (as Lord Roberts memorably put it). Nor did too many of them doubt that there would be some adverse effect on our most successful businesses, including finance. To them, it was a small price to pay for the ability to have full control over our laws and our territorial waters, and for the ability to treat all migrants on an equal footing. As Tom Watson points out in the current issue of Private Eye, there was a strong class element, too. He quoted a contribution from John Bird (the Big Issue man) to the Lords debate on the Queen's Speech:

I was a bit unhappy on the day after we had our referendum. I was unhappy because when I walked into my little Cambridgeshire village and met an incredibly educated, sophisticated and well-placed member of the community, I found that he was absolutely outraged that “these people”—who were described as “scum”, “rubbish”, “below life”—had taken him and his wife and family and other people out of something which for him was the most precious thing on earth other than the United Kingdom. I then went down the pub that evening and met people who had voted to leave. Many of them were cock-a-hoop, aggressive and rather vicious. 

In other words, "Brexit can't hurt because life can't get much worse for us, but it is going to hurt you smug b******s who are making money out of Europe while we're not."

Times change. Those people who dismissed warnings from the Remain camp about loss of international confidence in sterling are faced with the fourth or fifth month running when inflation is above the government's target of 2%. Prices are rising even in the very competitive UK supermarkets. The organisers of the various Leave groups may not be feeling the pinch, but surely those ordinary voters they convinced to vote for them last June are.  These people must be wondering whether giving up pooled sovereignty in the EU is a principle worth defending in the face of continuously falling living standards.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The forelock vote

For a society which has supposedly achieved equality of opportunity, there have surprisingly many instances where UK political parties have chosen "posh" leaders. The Conservatives have obvious historical examples - Churchill, related to the Dukes of Marlborough, and Lord Home - but even Labour has turned to privately-educated men, notably Tony Blair (Fettes), Gaitskell (Winchester) and Attlee (Haileybury), among the Callaghans and Wilsons. Even Jeremy Corbyn went to a prep. school.

Thatcher and Heath came from well-to-do families at least, so John Major was something of an aberration. It was no surprise that the smooth David Cameron, with connections to minor nobility, should win a contest for the Conservative leadership against David Davis, brought up by a single mother on a council estate. Davis again seems doomed to failure in the election which will follow Mrs May's inevitable fall from the top position, because Jacob Rees-Mogg, member for the 19th century, a rich man who married in to the aristocracy, has clearly signalled his intentions.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Sad end to an iconic boat

This is the Royal Iris as I remember her as I was growing up in Wallasey. Although deprecated in conversation as "the fish and chip boat" because of the nature of the excursions which were run regularly on her, we were quietly proud of her then distinctively modern lines.

Merseytravel, the agency which took over eventual responsibility for the Mersey ferries, sold her in 1991 and she has since been rusting away - in Woolwich, for some reason. The Liverpool Echo has more.

There are more depressing images here.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

True art is international

The most complete version on the Web of one of my favourite cricketing stories is in the pages of the Times of India, relayed by R Guha. It helps to know that Arthur Mailey was not only a writer but also a fine cartoonist and admirer of the great masters.

Australia were touring England, and Bradman was scoring centuries and double centuries (and, once, even a triple). In desperation the England selectors chose a young wrist-spinner named Ian Peebles who hadn't played much county cricket. The day before Peebles's first Test match, the two teams were entertained at the home of the Duke of Norfolk. During lunch, the former Australian googly bowler Arthur Mailey, who was covering the tour as a journalist, was seen huddled in a corner with Peebles. After the meal was over, Mailey asked the host's staff for a cricket ball. The request granted, he went out into the garden with the novice. With an ancient oak tree serving as a wicket he showed Peebles how to more effectively disguise his wrong-un. After the lecture-demonstration was over, Mailey was accosted by the manager of the Australian team. "Don't you know that what you taught him will be used against us in the Test," he remonstrated. "Spin bowling is an art," answered Mailey, "and art is international."

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Wimbledon International

I just about remember the time when the Australians took over domination of the men's tournaments at Wimbledon from the Americans. I believe that before the transatlantic invasion, the All-England championships had been contested by the English and French, with the occasional German interloper. The Americans continued to prevail in the women's game and made a come-back in the men's when attritional baseline tennis won back over serve-and-volley. There was a brief incursion from Sweden, but it was probably the entry of east European competitors which broke the whole thing wide open and now there is a very healthy global competition. The 2017 men's final is to be contested by a Swiss and a Croat, an American and a Venezuelan Basque are in today's women's final while the doubles involve two Russians, a Scot, a Channel Islander, a Swiss, a Finn, a Pole, an Austrian, a Brazilian, a Croat, a Romanian and a lady from Taipei.

Friday, 14 July 2017

The lies are all out there -

- but truth stands a chance

Ian Burrell reports in the i newspaper that Full Fact, the UK's independent fact-checking charity, is to receive funding to help its service. The Omidyar Foundation, set up by eBay's founder, and Open Society Foundations, the brainchild of George Soros, have together awarded half-a-million dollars for the development of automated fact-checking tools

When the row over fake news generated by LeaveEU and its ilk was at its height, I recommended that people check all statements with Full Fact, rather than InFacts.  I am not saying that InFacts told lies, but as a clearly pro-Remain site it could not be seen as impartial, which Full Fact is.