Sunday 29 November 2009

Respectful, but not solemn

If you haven't heard it already, it's worth listening to Bill Bailey's "Private Passions" (in conversation with Michael Berkeley), which is available for the next seven days. Bailey is a "proper" musician, who almost embarked on a concert career, so that his humour is all the more telling through his playing music straight.

He also revealed a great interest in the music & instruments of other cultures, for which there was sadly little time today. Perhaps he should collaborate with Andy Kershaw or Lucy Duran in an exploration of this side of his shows in another R3 programme?

Think before you vote

David Peter has a biting criticism of the present political condition, for which not only the media but also we voters are to blame.

A fair voting system is only part of the solution. After all, we have BNP representatives in the European Parliament as a result of proportional voting and STV is no guarantee against rogues coming to the top, as the Irish Republic has shown.

Thursday 26 November 2009

Kommissar Harman true to form

Lynne Featherstone reports that the Leader of the House plans to push her Equality Bill through Report Stage and Third Reading in a single day.

One recalls that one of Labour's first acts in power was to speed through a measure to allow patenting of plant species. On that day, the Labour payroll vote complained that Liberal Democrats Norman Baker and Simon Hughes were keeping them from an early train home by actually debating the issues. In the words of Kiki Dee, the government is going out the same way it came in.

One wonders, though, whether her own side will all give Ms Harman an easy ride.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Liberal Democrat leader should be more positive

The local party web site has published a rebuttal of newspaper spin that Nick Clegg is contemplating coalition with the Conservatives after the election, and Peter Black has already commented.

It seems to me that the current party leadership is inviting this sort of speculation by not being positive enough. When Paddy Ashdown led the 1997 general election campaign, he refused to allow the party to be defined* in relation to the other two national parties, but stressed that the more Liberal Democrat votes were cast, the more Liberal Democrat policies were likely to be implemented. This was from a base of just over a third of the seats we have now.

His attitude to the Conservatives was: "we can and should be the sensible, common sense Party that appeals to the values of decency and fairness which many Tories believed in (and which their Party no longer seems to); we cannot compete with them for occupation of the 'Right'. There will always be a right wing Party in Britain and it will never be the Liberal Democrats !"

One can add "civil liberties" to the list, and it would still be true today.

*sadly not true of some press liaison people, I am reminded.

Monday 23 November 2009

RSPB says WAG will miss key target

In 2001, EU Heads of State set a target to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010, and at that time, the Welsh Government (then a Labour-LibDem coalition) set out its own aim to meet this target. As we approach 2010, it is now widely acknowledged that this ambitious commitment will not be met and we are still losing biodiversity at an alarming rate.

RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) Cymru is calling on the National Assembly for Wales to hold an inquiry looking at the reasons why the 2010 target will be missed and to make recommendations to the Welsh Assembly Government on how we can meet our future targets, including the Wales Environment Strategy target to have brought about recovery by 2026.

By following the link below and adding your name to the petition, you can help the RSPB make the Assembly Government face the fact that we are still losing our wildlife and urge them to ensure we meet the target to have recovery of biodiversity underway by 2026.

Sunday 22 November 2009

Boundary Commission at bottom of learning curve

When I learned last year that several key figures in the Boundary Commission for Wales were to retire together, I feared there might be trouble. The publication last month of some strange recommendations to ward boundaries in Neath Port Talbot suggested that the new lot had something to learn about geography. Now it seems that their mathematics needs brushing up.

Rodney Berman, the leader of the Welsh Local Government Association’s Liberal Democrat Group, smelled a rat when he examined proposals for Newport and for Denbighshire. The Commission had been given guidance by the Minister for Local Government, Brian Gibbons, that in reviewing the electoral arrangements of all Welsh counties it should aim “to achieve electoral divisions with a councillor to electorate ratio no lower than 1:1750”. The Commission confused lower with higher ratios. For example: in Newport, Commissioners are proposing moving from a current ratio of councillors to electors of 1:2283 to a ratio of 1:2447 on the wrong assumption that 1:2447 is more than 1:2283. In actual fact a ratio of 1:2447 is less than a ratio of 1:2283 because it gives you a lesser number of councillors for a given size of electorate.

To make absolutely certain, Rodney had professors of mathematics and of medical statistics confirm his suspicions in writing.

Apparently, there is already a row between WAG and the Commission, presumably over the Commission's failure to take notice of minister Dr Gibbons' other request, to consider local accountability in drawing up its proposals. Rodney Berman says: "Angry letters have been exchanged with the Commission complaining that its independence is being threatened. But no-one seems to have spotted that the Commission has got its maths wrong, and this is a key reason why it has come up with results which are contrary to what the Minister intended.

“What concerns me most is the amount of time and money that could have been wasted as a result of this blunder. Boundary reviews that have been published, or are still in preparation, may now turn out to be invalid and the Commission may have to go back to the drawing board. This could mean the Commission is unable to complete its task of reviewing electoral division boundaries in all 22 Welsh local authorities in time for the next round of local elections in Wales in 2012.”

More details are on Freedom Central.

Neath Port Talbot council meets in just over three weeks time. The Boundary Commission proposals are on the agenda. It should be a lively session.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Probably the best result in Europe

The two top positions of the European Union, created by the Lisbon Treaty, have been filled.  Herman Van Rompuy was appointed permanent President of the European Council and Baroness Catherine Ashton was appointed High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.The Swedish presidency must be congratulated on not only achieving a satisfactory conclusion to the selection process, but also filling the gaps in the job descriptions left by the Treaty document They have ensured that, in particular, the post of president will not be the imperial one which was envisaged by the supporters of Tony Blair (as well as, one suspects, the French or Italians). We are fortunate that the revolving presidency terminated in Stockholm.

The appointment of Baroness Ashton is already being hailed in our media as a triumph for the United Kingdom. One hopes that this jingoistic reaction does not take the shine off what is actually a communitaire decision. During her time as Commissioner, she has earned the respect of MEPs across party and national boundaries. If anything, the cack-handed campaign by British ministers leading up to the election ran the risk of damaging her chances.

As Danny Alexander, MP, aide to Nick Clegg, said tonight, it was the right result for the wrong reasons.

Westminster arrogance

An article yesterday quoted Wales' head of the civil service as identifying "a lack of genuine commitment to devolution and a culture of arrogance in some Whitehall departments." Dame Gill has responded by reorganising the top level of administration in Wales to mesh more with Whitehall (and saving around half a million pounds at the same time).

However, judging by some of yesterday's contributions to the Queen's Speech debate, the civil service is taking its lead from the politicians.

Same old message from government on Afghanistan

Both the PM and Peter Hain have called for greater political understanding of our role in Afghanistan, then repeat the tired message which an opinion poll has shown that the UK public has heard, but does not believe. Mr Brown, in the Queen's Speech debate, again used the expression "keeping our streets safe", while Mr Hain varied with: “The government is determined not to be defeated by terrorism and extremism, which would threaten our security here in Wales.”

Yet, of those people surveyed by the Independent, "nearly half – 47 per cent – think that the threat of terrorism on UK soil is increased by British forces remaining in Afghanistan, while 44 per cent disagree. The position is at odds with the argument put by government ministers that the Afghan campaign was vital to preventing terrorism around the world – and in the UK."

[Later] There is a good piece in the Independent by David Davis, the Conservative front-bencher and once leadership contestant, now discarded by David Cameron. In his introduction, he writes: "the original 'ink-blot' strategy, based on the Malayan success, envisaged commanding and dominating areas of land and population. Within those areas the rule of law would apply, and the ordinary citizens would be able to go about their business, farming, trading, and supporting their families unmolested by the insurgents. Like ink-blots, these areas would expand until they joined up. The concept depended on guaranteeing security and normality to the population inside the inkblots, so that they would be better off than those in the insurgent areas.

"Instead, within months, and under pressure from President Karzai, this was abandoned in favour of defending a number of far-flung outposts, in locations where our authority did not extend more than a rifle-shot beyond the walls of the compound."

So, what was a British strategy, proven in Borneo as well as Malaysia, and one which no doubt Paddy Ashdown would have endorsed if he had been given the task of UN oversight, was abandoned in favour of one which suited the USA and President Karzai, but has not been as successful. Davis states, however, that there have been belated second thoughts.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Devolution: a good day to bury embarrasing reports

As a (Labour) correspondent in North Wales points out, there has been no official reaction to the publication of the Jones Parry report. At the time of writing, not even the National Assembly for Wales web-site refers to it. Of course, most of the UK media will be concerned with what - probably irrelevant - measures are in the Queen's Speech delivered this morning.

Peter Black can, however, be relied on to deliver a verdict. Glyn Davies will also have something to say, I'm sure.

Plaid welcomes the report, though in rather broad terms, but there is nothing from Labour.

Monday 16 November 2009

Dark Skies

Congratulations on Wigtownshire and the Forestry Commission in establishing the first Dark Sky Park in the UK.

However, I can't help feeling that Powys CC has missed a marketing opportunity, as there are parts of the county which are surely as free of light pollution as anywhere in Scotland. The Scots are already reckoning the amount of increased tourism which the designation is going to give them.

Saturday 14 November 2009

Disappearing DNA database story

It has been reported in the Daily Mail, and referred to in today's Independent, that a £150,000 p.a. city solicitor lost her job because her employers discovered that her name appeared on the Home Office DNA database. The story was that her DNA had been taken because of a complaint against her, which had proved to be unfounded. It is just the sort of anecdote which we opponents of the casual saving of innocent people's DNA, as well as of the proposed National Identity Register, fear may become all too common.

However, the Daily Mail web site no longer has the story in question. Click on the link and you will receive a "not found" message. Since there appears to be no other source for the story, one wonders whether the Mail jumped the gun and printed before it could stand the story up.

Friday 13 November 2009

More failings in the CRB

Richard Baum draws attention to the increase in number of disputes with the the Criminal Records Bureau.

Liberal International President: "hombre con cojones"

That once darling of the Left, Daniel Ortega, was criticised by the new Liberal International president, Hans van Baalen, for his attempt to subvert the constitution. Ortega responded by banning v. Baalen from Nicaragua.

This is a good illustration for Americans that "liberal" does not mean "socialist", but I doubt if the story will get into any of the media north of the Rio Grande.

In more detail: The new President of Liberal International, Hans van Baalen, MEP, has been expelled from Nicaragua by the populist Sandinista President Daniel Ortega. Van Baalen heard of this action against him shortly after leaving the country for Costa Rica. The LI President confronted Ortega and called on him to respect the constitution which prohibits him from entering a new term as president. Van Baalen also reached an agreement with the leaders of the Liberal opposition parties BND, PLC and ALN, to combine forces against Ortega during the 2011 elections. He told Ortega: “Check out in 2011, Mr. President”. While supporters of Ortega harassed the LI delegation during a press conference, liberals outside chanted: “Van Baalen, hombre con cojones”. Van Baalen commented on the situation: "Ortega is trying to bypass this article in the constitution illegally. The violation of civil rights is not just a national matter that can be ignored." Van Baalen was in Nicaragua leading a high level delegation to several Central American countries. See coverage of the LI visit on the LI youtube-channel

Thursday 12 November 2009

Burmese Liberals in exile

Liberal International has given observer status to the National League for Democracy - Liberated Areas of Burma. The aim of the organisation is the restoration of British-style parliamentary democracy to Burma.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Simple and complex messages of war

2009 has been an extraordinary year for anniversaries. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) feed has alerted me to another one and enabled me at last to put a name to one of my favourite pieces of public art. In 1934, the year which saw the deaths of three great British composers, Holst, Delius and Elgar, Charles Sargeant Jagger also died, on 16th November. It is Jagger's memorial to railway employees who died in the Great War which is a perpetual presence on platform one of Paddington station, and which I usually had time to pause before when waiting for the South Wales train. The sculpture is at once monumental in scale and personal in effect, as it depicts a Tommy, in a rare break between actions no doubt, reading a letter from home. Jagger, who knew whereof he modelled, having served in Gallipoli, France and Belgium, being gassed and winning the MC, seems to have made a conscious decision to introduce contemporary and realistic types into his memorials, breaking with the tradition of allegorical and other classical figures.

One can read many things into the statue, but most conditioned by hindsight. To the pals, by trade, profession or locality, who volunteered for the front in their thousands, the call was simple: to fight for their country, even at the risk of death. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

By the time the second world war came round, people had become more knowledgeable, so that a more honest, if more complex, message had to be put out. The fight was for more than ones homeland and loved ones, but also for the small nations and minorities of Europe. The full horror of the extermination camps had yet to be realised, but the steady stream of Jewish refugees had made it obvious that there was persecution on a large scale. Although the British people could have stuck with a government which promised "peace for our time", it decided that it would back Churchill in standing up to the dictators.

This government seems to have miscalculated in its need to persuade the electorate to support the war in Afghanistan. It seems that the public no longer believes the government, judging by a poll in The Independent newspaper. It has used a simple message, based on fear: our boys need to fight in Helmond to prevent terrorism on the streets of Britain. Now this may be one of the beneficial outcomes some way down the line, but it seems to me that it is not the main reason for NATO forces to be in Afghanistan, and that the electorate deserves a more nuanced explanation, even if it cannot be expressed as a simple headline. It is essential that Afghanistan join the community of nations as a stable and self-sufficient entity. A lawless state bordering Pakistan is surely going to destabilise the government in Islamabad, which is already under much pressure. A more militant regime in Islamabad, armed with nuclear weapons, is bad news for India and thence for the world economy, in which India is now a player. It is also a good thing that women are, by the extension of education, being given the status which the Prophet accorded them, rather than the subjection of tribalism or the Taliban. Opium poppy is being replaced by wheat (I should like the UN to go a stage further, and, where wheat will not grow, licence poppy-farming for pharmaceutical purposes.) Finally, there is the blow to the prestige of the British Army, and therefore to its effectiveness in future campaigns, if we are seen to turn tail now. The men themselves want to finish the job and the Afghan people still prefer us to the Taliban.

I've rather run on, but I must finish with another set of complex thoughts on war, from the Great War to Iraq, by Robert Fisk. He cites the best-known writers on the subject, but surely his own prose stands comparison. Here he is on an Iraqi soldier, caught by Iran's terrible response in 1985 to Saddam's attempt at expansion by conquest:

I see another body in a gun pit, a young man in the foetal position curled up like a child, already blackening with death but with a wedding ring on his finger. I am mesmerised by the ring. On this hot, golden morning, it glitters and sparkles with freshness and life. He has black hair and is around 25 years old. Or should that be "was"? Do we stop the clock when death surprises us? Do we say, as Binyon wrote, that "they shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old"? Age may not weary them nor the years condemn, but their humanity is quickly taken from their remains by the swiftness of corruption and the jolly old sun. I look again at the ring. An arranged marriage or a love match? Where was he from, this soldier-corpse? ... And his wife? He could not be more than three days dead. Somewhere to the north of us, his wife is waking the children, making breakfast, glancing at her husband's photograph on the wall, unaware that she is already a widow and that her husband's wedding ring, so bright with love for her on this glorious morning, embraces a dead finger.

The unknown railwayman and the unknown Iraqi are linked. They were deceived or compelled into war. The men whose deaths in Afghanistan we mourn had been far better educated about the situation, and better than the British public has been. They deserved better support from the MoD. Their fellows and successors need that support still.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

More Welsh beer

Further to my previous posting about bottled beers & ales, and courtesy of Carwyn Edwards' world-wide newsletter about things Welsh, I have learnt of Newmans Brewery's launch of a truly all-Welsh beer. Unfortunately, I have not been able to sample any of the company's products, but there is more about Celt Experience on the web-site.

Monday 9 November 2009

New nuclear

As regular readers may be aware, I do not share my party's black-and-white (I think the in-word is "Manichaean") view of nuclear power generation. For me, it has long been an economic decision, taking into account the costs of waste disposal. At present, it is still cheaper to build fossil-fuel-powered power stations, but with the long-term trend of increases in oil, gas and coal, and the emergence of one or two standard nuclear designs, bringing down design-and-build costs there, the lines on the graph may cross over in the foreseeable future. Moreover, any new coal-fired power station should have exhaust gas capture built in, which will add to the cost.

However, Labour is wrong to use the power of the state to impose nuclear power stations on a population. It is illiberal. It is reminiscent of state socialism - or rather, since the beneficiaries will be private companies - of the dictatorships of Hitler & Mussolini.

So far, the Conservatives have made no comment on what is, admittedly, just a trail so far. But I imagine they hope that this problematic decision will be out of the way by the time of the general election? There was some muttering from the Conservative benches against the Infrastructure Planning Commission. Will the Conservatives make a manifesto commitment to abolish this fast-track planning procedure, as, I trust, the Liberal Democrats will?

Update: In the debate on Ed Miliband's statetement in the House this afternoon, Dr Greg Clark confirmed for the Conservatives that they are right behind the Infrastructure Planning Commission. He is on all fours with John Prescott, who used the opportunity to sneer at elected planning committees. There is, though, one point on which Dr Clark (and David Heathcoat-Amory) are clearly correct on: the avoidance of hard decisions by government over the last dozen years, which has meant a drift to the current emergency where the only solution is a nuclear one, and based on just two designs, both of which have been questioned technically.

The drift also lost hundreds of jobs on Anglesey because nobody was prepared to give assurances about a constant electricity supply, which an aluminium smelter requires, at the time when the operator required them. I note that Wylfa is one of the sites proposed for replacement nuclear power stations.

Thursday 5 November 2009

Inventor says mobile phones now too complex

The first demonstration of a mobile telephone took place thirty years ago. Martin Cooper, the man at Motorola responsible for it, worries about the way things are going. He is all for doing one thing well, rather than trying to cram too many facilities into one device.

I must admit that my mobile has a camera, but otherwise it is the cheapest I could get. If it weren't for the political activity, I wouldn't have one at all.

There is one other feature which I am told is unusual to find on a cheap 'phone: the ability to switch from an aural ring-tone to a low-frequency buzz. This is invaluable for the occasions when I forget to switch the phone off before going into a meeting.

Monday 2 November 2009

David Nutt

Richard Baum has a very thoughtful piece on the dismissal of the head of the drugs advisory council. Having read this, and seen the short Q&A session on BBC-Parliament this afternoon, I am now not so certain that Alan Johnson was wrong to respond to the recent attacks by Professor Nutt on the subject of declassifying cannabis.

The Home Secretary was responding in the Commons this afternoon to an urgent question put down by Christopher Grayling, his Conservative opposite number. He immediately established that there was not a Rizla between the respective policy positions. However, what Grayling most objected to was not Nutt's attempt to re-open the cannabis debate, but his earlier use of a homely analogy to put the dangers of Ecstasy in proportion. In a lecture, he had pointed out that, based on mortality statistics, it was more dangerous to go horse-riding than to take E.

This is demonstrably true, and, as Chris Huhne for the Liberal Democrats argued, Dr Nutt had a perfect right to make the point he did, in a lecture which was reported in a journal of pharmacology. If academics, who give their time as advisors gratis, are going to be called to account by the media for papers and lectures which are part of their "day job", they will be increasingly reluctant to volunteer.

It was unsurprising that nobody on the Conservative benches stood up for academic freedom in this area, and that most of the payroll vote on the government side also supported the Home Secretary. It was puzzling, though, that the Speaker did not call Paul Flynn (Labour, Newport West) who is known to have liberal views on drugs. Unless he has recanted of the views on his blog, he would have helped to balance the discussion. It was not for want of trying to catch the Speaker's eye.

As it was, it looked as if only Liberal Democrats and one SNP member were prepared to stand up for a position which will no doubt be caricatured in the popular press tomorrow. (Though I have faith that the Independent will support us on this.) [There is an Indy report here - FHL 2009-11-3]

Alan Johnson had at his disposal a more apposite and respectable argument, that put by Professor Robin Murray on Radio 4's "World at One", that Professor Nutt was slow to accept evidence contrary to his position on cannabis. Murray cited the potency of "skunk", the damage to memory caused by long-term use of cannabis and the significant correlation between cannabis use and schizophrenia. Murray asserted that Nutt had initially rejected all three findings, but had later had to accept them. If this accusation is true, then Nutt's suitability as chairman of the advisory council would be in doubt. A closed mind would surely disqualify him.

Nutt should have a chance to answer these criticisms in public. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to see this real debate on the science. As Chris Huhne said, so far the debate has not risen above the schoolboy level.