Friday, 31 December 2010

Happy 2011, everybody!

My favourite island malt is on hand, and I have the URI for BBC Scotland's hogmanay programmes. They must be more appropriate than Jules' Hootenanny, much though I admire Mr Holland's usual choice of guests.


The report that the number of people aged one hundred or over in the UK more than quadrupled from 2,600 in 1981 to 11,600 in 2009 came in the same month as the deaths of two remarkable men. Hugues Cuénod , who died on the 6th, was a light tenor who started his musical career in 1920s Paris, where he would not only have known Ravel and Les Six, but also expats like Prokoviev, Stravinsky and Cole Porter. He may also have mixed in the same circles as Roy Neuberger, who died in Manhattan just before Christmas. The art-loving Neuberger made Paris his home before returning to Wall Street to make his fortune in 1929 - coincidentally the year of Porter's first big Broadway success.

I don't know how active Neuberger was either in collecting or in finance in  his latter years, but Cuénod performed at the New York Met at the age of 85 and gave his last performance on stage in his native Switzerland when he was 92. It goes to show that if one is lucky enough to avoid the ravages of dementia (one in four of us will succumb, apparently) then the decline in physical power is made up for the much slower diminution in intellectual capability. The downside is that the young and middle-aged generations in the first world are going to have to work longer in order to support themselves in retirement.

Congratulations to Peter Walker

Peter Walker, cricketing all-rounder and entrepreneur, has been made MBE. It is overdue recognition for all he has done for Wales on and off the field. I can recommend his autobiography "It's not just cricket" for a fuller picture.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Snow falls in Westminster, so climate change called into doubt

All right, so a heavy snowfall in England and Wales is unusual before Christmas, but, as Marcus Brigstocke drove  home in his typically confrontational fashion on the latest "Now Show", what is happening on  ones own doorstep is not indicative of the rest of the world. Global temperatures are continuing to rise, as the Weather Club and  web sites like this  indicate.

There was a time, as people of my generation will remember, when there was some snow every winter, sometimes at least as severe as the current situation: early 1963, for instance,  or 1947/48 when the opposition attacked the government for lack of preparedness. Some things do not change.

Paradoxically,  one of the predictions of climate scientists is that, as the North Atlantic warms up, Britain will get cooler in winter because the Gulf Stream/North Atlantic Drift will move westwards as the Greenland ice sheet retreats. This particular bad winter for us is down to La Nina and fluctuations in the jet-stream as I understand it, but perhaps we had better prepare for more frequent severe winters in future as well as hotter springs.

As to how far global warming is caused by man - well, that's another matter.

Update 2010/12/27: Another contributory factor is said to be the loss of ice-cover in north European seas, as reported in this Independent article:

"Say the ocean is at zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit)," said Stefan Rahmstorf, a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.
"That is a lot warmer than the overlying air in the polar area in winter, so you get a major heat flow heating up the atmosphere from below which you don't have when it is covered by ice. That's a massive change," he told AFP in an interview.
The result, according to a modelling study published earlier this month the Journal of Geophysical Research, is a strong high-pressure system over the newly-exposed sea which brings cold polar air, swirling counter-clockwise, into Europe.
"Recent severe winters like last year's or the one of 2005-2006 do not conflict with the global warming picture, but rather supplement it," explained Vladimir Petoukhov, lead author of the study and a physicist at the Potsdam Institute.

Love of music no guarantee of food quality

Seeing this posting about the shortcomings of catering in a renowned concert hall reminded me of Ronnie Scott's one-liners about the quality of food in the club he gave his name to. He once said that 3,000 flies can't be wrong and, on another occasion, that even his cockroaches ate next door.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Pretoria Pit

Only six months ago we were mourning and commemorating the men who lost their lives in the Six Bells explosion of 1960. In the way of these things, another melancholy anniversary falls this year: the centenary of Lancashire's worst pit disaster and Britain's third largest loss of life from a single mining accident. 344 men and boys died at the No. 3 Bank Pit belonging to the Hulton Colliery Company in Bolton. The story is told here.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Campaign for increased powers ramps up

The "Yes for Wales" campaign web-site is now up and running. However, the Opera web-browser, which is probably the most standards-compliant, does not render it in full. Safari is happy with it, and I haven't yet tried Firefox, but I would guess the web-site has been tested using only Microsoft tools. All right, so perhaps 90% of PC users in Wales default to Internet Explorer (by the way,  have the developers checked compatibility with IE5 or earlier?), but I feel that there could have been more thorough testing.

More positively, we should welcome the appointment of a senior public figure, from outside of the world of politics, to head the campaign. Roger Lewis may have to overcome some resistance in the parts of the nation furthest removed from Cardiff, who do not feel as empowered as those of us closer to the capital or as enthused by the handling code, but his previous experience in broadcast media should help.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

I didn't sign the pledge!

In the unlikely event of my being elected to the Westminster parliament, it seems that I was not committed to voting against the rise in tuition fees. A search through my "Sent" folder reveals that I did no more than commit myself to the party manifesto, in an email to the NUS. Perhaps a few more senior LibDems should also have been wary of planting their tick on the NUS pledge Web page.

Nevertheless, I think I would have taken my cue from the resolution at this year's Welsh LibDem conference and also shown solidarity with Mark Williams, Roger Williams and Jenny Willott, who are to be congratulated on sticking to their guns. Jenny felt she had to resign her PPS position as a result. If this were Labour or even the Conservative party, the whips would no doubt ensure that she would be cast into the outer darkness as punishment for her indiscipline. I trust that the Liberal Democrat leadership will be true to the party's tradition of respecting members' consciences and in due course recognise her undoubted ability with a position in government. (My feelings about Mark & Roger's being excluded from the Welsh Office are already on the record.)

The different nature of the Liberal Democrats has escaped at least one BBC political journalist, who stated that the party was weaker because the leader had not exercised tight control over them. On the contrary: both the party and the House as a whole were strengthened by the open debate today. This was adult politics, not the playground politics of "whose gang is bigger and harder". Yes, there was some trivial party point-scoring, from both sides (the growing deficit may be a fact, but did so many coalition spokespeople need to go on about it?) but there were many thoughtful contributions, too. One had some respect for the Labour MPs, like Jeremy Corbyn, who proclaimed that they had always opposed tuition fees, even when their party was in government. Labour's summing-up by Gareth Thomas was from the school of Ben Elton, but David Willetts was masterly, even if one did not agree with all his arguments.

More, I hope, when the official voting figures become available.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Today in Parliament

At Welsh Questions today, Peter Hain welcomed the investment in nuclear power on Anglesey and criticised the loss of public sector jobs, with particular reference to Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan's sex. At the same time, he claimed credit for Labour for initiating the process which saw Wylfa on the shortlist for upgrading, but he didn't apologise for the shameful dithering over the decision which almost certainly led to the end of Anglesey Aluminium. Nor did he mention the Labour government's cutting a swathe through Inland Revenue offices and Job Centres throughout Wales, far more damaging to small businesses than the downsizing of the Newport Passport Office.

Elfyn Llwyd protested at the delay in confirming the extension of GW electrification from Didcot into South Wales. He has a point. As I understand it, the timing depends on a decision whether to order all-new train sets or to adapt the existing HS125s (refurbished not all that long ago) to electric working. There are also implications for ESW freight.

However, it seems from this report in the Independent of February 27th that this link with the plans to replace all the ageing InterCity trains was made long ago.

Lord Adonis [Labour Transport Secretary] said: "Over the course of the procurement there has been a reduction in the capacity of the debt market to support the transaction as originally envisaged, and passenger growth has also slowed." The Government's recent commitment to electrify the Great Western main line from 2016 also needs to be factored into the investment plans, he said. 

Finally, Steve Webb made a statement about pension uprating which showed why pensioners should be grateful not only that Liberal Democrat policies have been adopted by the coalition government but also that there is a pensions expert in charge. He coolly explained why the internationally recognised CPI was to be used as the price inflation indicator for public service pensions and as part of the triple-lock guarantee for state pensions. He pointed out that RPI could swing wildly and in September 2009 was actually negative. In reply to a question from Jenny Willott (LD, Caridff Central) he said that there was an inquiry into how home-owner costs could be incorporated into the CPI, while reminding the house that CPI already included rents. I felt that the BBC report did not do justice to a statement which is going to affect more people than the improvements to the tuition fee regime will.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Tuition fees

In welcoming the Welsh Assembly Government's decision to protect Welsh students from an increase in tuition fees, Peter Black recommended that the coalition government in Westminster look again at their decision. Speaking on BBC Radio's "Good Morning, Wales", the South Wales West AM agreed with Plaid Cymru's Nerys Evans that WAG's decision was a triumph for devolution and a good argument for a "Yes" vote in the forthoming referendum on increasing powers for the Assembly.

In Westminster, John Leech, MP for Manchester Withington best expressed LibDem back-benchers' position:

The coalition Government should take no lessons on tuition fees. It is worth reminding the House time and time again that it was the Labour Government who introduced tuition fees, after making an explicit manifesto commitment that they would not do so, and with an enormous Commons majority. It was also the Labour Government who were responsible for setting up the Browne review, with the explicit intention of increasing fees. But because they knew that it would be unpopular, they cynically delayed the outcome of the review until after the election to avoid losing votes.
This evening, I want to make it very clear that I do not support a rise in tuition fees, and I have made it clear publicly that I will vote against any attempt to lift the cap on fees. Call me old-fashioned, but unlike the Labour party, I actually support free education and I believe that a first degree should be free. That is why I supported our policy to scrap tuition fees. The House should be clear that things would have been different under a Liberal Democrat Administration, rather than a coalition Government, but we have to face the fact that 66% of people voted in the election for parties that were committed to increasing tuition fees, so in coalition discussions it was always going to be difficult to win the argument on tuition fees and force them to be scrapped.
I will vote against an increase in fees, even though I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State [Vince Cable] has worked incredibly hard to come up with proposals that will make the system fairer than the current fees system. Nobody will pay back any fees until they earn more than £21,000, there will be no up-front fees for part-time students and additional support will be made available for poorer students.
I will vote against tuition fees simply because I believe that an increase in the cap will discourage some young people from going to university in the future. Under these proposals, the 25% least well-off graduates will be better off than under Labour's current system, but the flaw in my right hon. Friend's proposal is that no one goes to university thinking that they will be among the least well-paid 25% of graduates, so it will put some off.
The Labour party needs to come clean on its plans for higher education funding and student finance, so that its sudden cynical conversion to opposition to increased fees can be exposed for the sham that it is.


Friday, 26 November 2010

The Irish medicine

It is not often you will find agreement with John Redwood on this blog, but when he writes, with respect to the Greek and Irish emergency financial measures: "these countries could get into a vicious circle of more cuts, less tax revenue, more cuts, less tax revenue. With interest rates as high as they are the country will find an increasing proportion  of its public spending absorbed on paying interest charges, leading to the need for further cuts in other spending to try to balance the books."

The Fianna Fáil government proposes (there is no guarantee that the budget will pass on December 7th) among other things to cut the minimum wage by 12% and increase VAT by stages to 23%. €7bn will be cut from government spending, including €865m from reducing public sector pensions. The income tax threshold would drop from €18,300 to €15,300 (about £13,500), but even so one would expect the tax take to fall as economic activity was inhibited.

By contrast, the raising of the tax threshold (first instalment on January 1st) and the guaranteed raising of the state pension here, both Liberal Democrat measures, should ensure a slight increase in activity.

There is one measure which will gladden the heart of many Liberal Democrat colleagues: to introduce a "site value tax" to Irish local government finance.

An argument against badger slaughter to control bovine TB

This is the most authoritative statement I have read yet against the Labour/Plaid coalition's policy of mass slaughter of badgers in Pembrokeshire.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The 80/20 principle

A contemporary of Puccini, the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed that the resources of his country did not follow an even distribution. He devised a series of formulae to model this phenomenon and the solution that fell out was that roughly 20% of the population owned 80% of the wealth. Later it appeared that this ratio had more general applicability and this 80/20 rule is also named Pareto's Principle. We shall probably find that 80% of the cuts in UK administration will occur in the first 20% of the coalition government's life.

There is one field to which, in my experience, the principle does not apply: computer projects. Here, the ratio is 90:10. For instance, a project becomes 90% complete in 10% of the time. The remaining 10% takes 90% of the time and effort to get working.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Back to that greater oil calamity

It's time to talk about the Niger delta again

"Plans to share petroleum wealth were meant to bring peace to Nigeria's troubled oil province. But [...] an arms amnesty is failing and the Delta remains a powder keg" Daniel Howden, in the Independent.

"Visible from space, deadly on Earth: the gas flares of Nigeria" Howden, a month later.

 "Nigeria's agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill. The US and Europe ignore it" John Vidal, Observer.

"Apocalypse Now" Fred Bridgland, The Herald (Scotland)

Even the Financial Times has an article, which their policy prevents me copying here, by Patrick Dele Cole: "Leadership required to tackle delta’s oil spills", drawing attention to the effects on the people and the environment of oil company operations in the Niger delta.

BP put $20bn (£13.5bn) in a compensation fund for victims of the Gulf oil spill (BBC). So far, there has been an award of $1.5 bn against Shell (now departed the delta) in a Nigerian court in 2003, but no record that it has been paid. Deepwater Horizon has long since been capped; the pollution in the Niger delta goes on.

Friday, 19 November 2010

A new attempt to by-pass Parliament

Liberal Democrat Voice is reporting another attempt by the executive to grant itself sweeping powers. Mark Pack is hopeful that this, too, can be resisted: "The good news is that Liberal Democrat and other peers are not exactly lining up to give this legislation united unqualified backing in the Lords, and the government is also (to its credit) talking about making changes to the proposals. With the right public pressure the legislation can be made right."

At the risk of someone screaming "Godwin's Axiom" at me, I should point out that Hitler managed to acquire dictatorial powers initially quite legally by means of legislation which also allowed the by-passing of parliament in special circumstances. As Thomas Jefferson is quoted: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty".

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Glamorgan has become "a commercial operation"

Club president Peter Walker has resigned, and deposed captain Jamie Dalrymple has virtually torn up his player's contract. So far from being implicated in the decision to appoint a new county captain behind Matthew Maynard's back, Peter Walker asserted on BBC-Wales News this lunch-time that he had been completely in the dark. The chairman, Paul Russell, and chief executive Alan Hamer, had jointly taken the decision and presented it to the president and the committee as a fait accompli.

In his interview, Walker stressed that he had worked well with Russell and his vice-chairman, and that these two had ploughed much of their own money into the club. He recognised that they were due some return on their investment, but he felt that Glamorgan Cricket had become too much of a commercial operation. It was clear that he saw that he could not fulfil the task he set himself when he had been elected, of being the voice of the members in the administration and of creating greater transparency in its dealings. (There has still been no explanation for the departure of Mike Fatkin and the groundsman last year.)

There is a report by cricinfo on today's departures.

Coalition ale "bland, but good"

Jonathan Calder relays this report from the Stroud News & Journal, that Conservative minister, Neil Carmichael, and his defeated opponent at the general election, LibDem councillor Dennis Andrewartha, recently celebrated Nailsworth Brewery's new "Neil's Coalition Brew". Real ale drinker Ronald Hannan described it as "a bit bland, but it’s good".

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

What gets us in trouble...

An activist not a million miles from Oldham writes: "It seems to me that the policy plans that get the coalition in the most trouble aren't the Liberal ones, and aren't the Tory ones.  They're the Labour ones.

"AV referendum: Lots of flak: not doing what either of us proposed, should we be spending money on this in a recession, blah blah.  Whose policy was it then?   Labour's. 

"Housing benefit cuts:  As per page 20 of Labour manifesto.

"Tuition fee changes.  As laid out in Labour's Browne report.  Actually tweaked to be a little less bad.

"VAT rise:  OK, there was a 0.5% difference in it, but essentially the same plan.

"If they weren't so loud and aggressive about it, you'd be able to enjoy the irony that what the unions and their fellow travellers are campaigning and protesting against most vigorously is the coalition doing the things that they bankrolled Labour to deliver in the first place..."

One could add the revenue settlement which Alistair Darling was planning for Wales, worse than that imposed by Osborne & Gillan.

Glamorgan taking a leap in the dark

I woke this morning to the news on Radio Wales that the Glamorgan committee had sacked Jamie Dalrymple as captain and, without consulting Matthew Maynard, the county's director of cricket, had appointed the untried Alviro Petersen as Dalrymple's replacement. (It would have been courteous to members, by the way, for the committee to notify those of us on email directly, rather than telling the media first.)  The logic, apparently, is that, at the start of the 2010 season, the committee set Maynard and Dalrymple the target of winning a one-day trophy which, after a promising start, the county failed to do. For me, the advance (the county was very unlucky not to gain promotion) in the two-innings game, proper cricket and the base for our Test teams, was ample compensation and Dalrymple should have been allowed to remain in place for the remaining year of his contract. Surely what was needed was not a new captain, but finding an additional good containing bowler.

One wonders what rôle the president, Peter Walker, with his South African connections, played in this decision. Presumably he will be issuing a statement in due course, which will be read with interest. His election was supposed to have ushered in an era of increased transparency, connection with the members and erasing the old fault lines which have prevented the county maintaining a place at the top level of English & Welsh cricket.

There have been some sudden changes of direction and strange appointments as captain in the past. At least, unlike Robin Hobbs and Tolly Burnett, Petersen's best days as a player are ahead of, rather than behind, him. Let us hope that he fulfils the promise as a county captain that the committee sees in him - and that there is not another mass exodus of talent from the county.

Friday, 12 November 2010

DWP gives up on Voice Risk Analysis

Another of Labour's "Big Brother" schemes for cutting down on benefit claims has been abandoned by the coalition government. The Department of Work and Pensions and a few local authorities had been sold on the idea that a claimant's voice on the phone could betray dishonesty, lie-detector-wise, if analysed in real time by a sophisticated program. Warnings from independent researchers about the United States software cut no ice with DWP, who spent a total of £2.4million on pilot projects at JobCentre Plus and with various local authorities.

More details here.

Our dream of a "citizen's income" comes closer

Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, and Steve Webb, pensions minister, issued the following statement yesterday:

The welfare white paper we have launched today has fairness at its heart.

Our Universal Credit is a radical and liberal policy. It will simplify and amalgamate the main welfare benefits into one single system; ensure that work always pays; and alleviate poverty by boosting take-up and encouraging people into work. It is exactly the kind of change that we came into politics to make.

Labour failed miserably on welfare. During their 13 years in office the welfare bill rose by 40% to £87bn. Under their system people moving into work can still lose more than 90% of every pound they earn: a punitive tax on the shoulders of the poor.

The welfare system should not be judged on how much money is spent on it, but on how much of a difference it makes to people’s lives. We will return the welfare system to its historic mission, as articulated by the great Liberal William Beveridge, to offer security but not ‘stifle incentive, opportunity and responsibility’.

Poverty plus a pound is simply not an ambitious enough goal.

That is why the plans we are announcing today will remove artificial disincentives to work. It must always be worth working, even for a few hours. Taken together our welfare reforms should reduce the number of workless households by 300,000 within three years of implementation.  And of course any fair system must include power to use sanctions, so we are giving JobCentre advisers the powers to ensure that there are appropriate and measured steps that can be taken against the small minority who persistently refuse genuine opportunities to work or to train to get the skills to work.

Making welfare work and making it fair is a key test for any government. We are determined to ensure that a government of which the Liberal Democrats are a part passes that test.

Nick Clegg MP
Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Steve Webb MP
Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions  

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Finally, European fisheries policy could be overhauled

Chris Davies, Liberal Democrat MEP, has the following article in the latest Eurofile:

I like the new Fisheries Commissioner, and after her recent presentation to the European Parliament’s Environment Committee I guess I am not alone. Maria Damanaki is Greek, has been a socialist Member of Parliament in her country for many years, and arrived in Brussels knowing next to nothing about fisheries policy.

But she is no fool. Nor is she without courage; as a student she was a radio voice of liberation who was  tortured for her views by the military dictatorship of the time. 

I had asked that she speak to the committee about her plans for reform of the Common Fisheries Policy. I hoped that its ‘greenish’ tinge would strengthen her convictions, counter balancing the less ambitious views of the Fisheries Committee with whom she normally works. She did not disappoint.

“The proposals I make next year will be ambitious. If we lose this opportunity there will be no future for fishing," she said. "We cannot ignore the scientific advice any more. 80% of EU fish stocks are not healthy. We need root and branch reform. 

“We cannot continue to give money to fishermen to throw fish back in the sea, dead. (Discards) are unacceptable. Money should be used instead to provide help with storage and market intelligence.

“Small scale fisheries are the most sustainable and provide economic opportunities for coastal areas. We want to support them while controlling industrial fishing. The owners of the big boats take most of the fish and have the loudest voices, but they employ few people.

“I do not have many allies among the EU’s governments. Fisheries ministers are not generally supportive of radical change. There will be a hostile reaction to change. The Commission has tried to achieve radical reform in the past and twice has failed. I need help.”

My number one political objective is to make sure that she gets it. So all credit to Nick Clegg for his response when I raised the issue with him.

“The Commissioner is quite right,” Nick said. “If it goes to the Fisheries Council the vested interests will block reform. Bring this to me early and I will work to get it taken up to a higher political level.”

Judging by the contributions from both Labour and Conservative MPs in recent exchanges over Europe in the House of Commons recently, Nick will have the backing of Parliament.

London-Swansea electrification

Peter Black has a piece on Freedom Central about the coalition government's consideration of the electrification of the main railway line from Paddington to Swansea. It seems that the decision which successive governments have deferred is likely to be made within the next ten days.

The point is made in the Western Mail article to which Peter refers that an electrification team has been set up as a result of London's Crossrail. Start-up costs for the upgrade of the old Great Western line will therefore be much reduced. The practical thing to do is surely to announce immediately that London-Bristol will follow on Crossrail, and, while that electrification proceeds, consider the further extension to Swansea and, in England, to the West Country, whose industry has also been blighted by poor communication. Breaking the projects up in this way will reduce the headline costs.

The trouble is that politicians do not think in terms of continuity. "Stop-start" has not only bedevilled British railways but has also added cost to our motorway network. Let us hope that a sensible decision is taken in this case.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Labour meeting sending wrong message to electorate

First, there has to be the usual warning that we are relying on BBC reports of what was a private meeting. However, the only radio interviews I have heard so far dispute only the attribution of comments to particular MPs, but not that the comments were made. The BBC informant or informants gave the impression that support for Woolas predominated, and that Harriet Harman was "attacked from all sides". The grounds for the attack appear to be the following three:
  1. In announcing that Phil Woolas was suspended from the Labour Party and implying that he had no future in the parliamentary party even if he won his appeal, Ms Harman was pre-judging the normal disciplinary machinery of the party.
  2. That no action should be taken against Woolas until all his appeals had come to an end.
  3. That judges should not be ruling on the conduct of elections anyway.
As a member of a party which often criticises its own leaders for making policy "on the hoof", I have some sympathy with the first point.It was surely right for Ms Harman to express her own distaste for the Woolas campaign's methods (good for her - but did she really not know what was going on in Oldham East?), though she must have jumped the gun in pronouncing his suspension.

However, it is totally wrong to go further than that. Labour must dissociate itself from a man who has been found guilty of what, outside the political arena, would be libel, and of using racial suspicion as a political weapon. These are points of fact. If any of his appeals succeed, they can only be on technicalities. If Woolas is allowed to remain an active Labour member, the executive is sending a message that they approve of US-style character assassination and racism as valid campaign tactics.

It is often argued by Labour spokespeople that Liberal Democrats equally "fight dirty". However, when challenged, those people cannot come up with anything which a reasonable man would describe as "dirty". Staged photo-opportunities and misleading statistics are not in the same league as Woolas's antics, or what I know local Labour campaigners say on the door-steps but daren't put in their leaflets.

It's the third ground - that MPs are beyond the law - which really takes the breath away. Labour MPs are not alone in this arrogance: a Tory MP expressed the same view at the weekend. Do they still not get it? If judges cannot rule on electoral law, then who can? If Labour back-benchers don't like the provisions of the Representation of the People Act 1983, and preceding legislation which included the clauses against false statements, why did they not object before?

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Getting rid of Welsh & Scottish Questions must save some money

Why drag the Secretary of State for Wales to the House of Commons every month to answer such questions as:

Mr Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Labour): Given that the Secretary of State's Department does not stand up for Wales, what does it do?
Mrs Gillan: My Department stands up for Wales, unlike the previous Secretary of State, who stood back from Wales, allowed it to become the poorest nation in the UK and then compared it to Rwanda.


Neil Parish [Conservative, Tiverton]: Does the Secretary of State agree that streamlining regulation and stimulating the private economy will be essential to the Welsh economy?

Mrs Gillan: My hon. Friend needs very little reply except to say that I wholeheartedly agree with him and will do my best.

? One hoped that at least the irrelevant party point-scoring from English Conservatives would have ceased with the change of government in Westminster, but it appears not.

One could also question the existence of the post at all, but at least Cheryl Gillan has done more for Wales than the last Labour Welsh Secretary. She may not immediately have persuaded the Minister of Transport to authorise the electrification of the South Wales main railway line, nor the Minister of Defence to go ahead with the training facility in the Vale of Glamorgan, but then neither did Mr Murphy or Mr Hain. Both projects are still under consideration, and, if St Athan does proceed, then it will be on a basis of better value for money than the PFI scheme that Labour was considering. The block grant for WAG may have been cut by £1.8 billion, but we now know that Labour would have cut it by around £2.8 billion over four years.

The revival of the Welsh Parliamentary Party - a back-bench initiative - alongside the continuing Welsh Grand Committee is another reason for the abandonment of the charade of Welsh Questions.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Some prisoners to vote

As Mark Pack has pointed out, there was a brief window between 1870 and now when being in gaol was no bar to voting. Labour was responsible for opening it and then closing it again. The liberal Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, later to be a founder of the Social Democrats, oversaw the passing of the Criminal Law Act 1967 and the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland ) 1967. This legislation abolished the division between felonies and misdemeanours and, as a result, removed that ban on voting in Parliamentary elections. Two years later, when Jenkins was at the Treasury and the more conservative James Callaghan was Home Secretary, the Representation of the People Act restored the ban.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010


I've always been suspicious of fast growth in the economy, mindful of the saw: "up like a rocket, and down like the stick". However, I am heartened by evidence reinforcing the feeling that UK recovery is under way. In this Reuters report, the Engineering Employers Federation is quoted: "the recovery appeared steadier than that after past recessions". My own indicator is the number, and type, of jobs coming up on the contract market. There has been an increase in requirements for developers and planners, which has held steady so far this year. This does suggest a confidence in the UK economy, in spite of various warnings, like the EEF's: "that future growth could not be guaranteed." 

The absence of Web comment from Labour is puzzling. Surely they cannot have been wrongfooted by the unexpected rise in GDP? Perhaps they are saving their ammunition for prime minister's questions tomorrow. Certainly, they would be ill-advised to point to the low activity in the housing market as a sign of economic ill-health, as the shadow chancellor's first response on radio today implied. It was the over-dependence on the private housing sector which was the undoing of Ireland and Spain.

Labour is probably pinning its hopes on a domestic recession in the first quarter of next year as a result of the VAT increase. They should also note that this is also the period when the first of a series of rises in the personal tax allowance occurs, putting more money into many pay-packets. No doubt Conservative and Liberal Democrat spinmeisters are filing away every prediction of disaster on the part of opposition speakers.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Forestry Commission sell-off

Both the Telegraph yesterday and today's Independent report that Westminster's Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is forcing the Forestry Commission to sell about half its estate. DEFRA under Caroline Spelman was one of the biggest losers in the Comprehensive Spending Review and these land holdings must have seemed like an easy target. But it appears that this government is going further: laws which allow natural regeneration in some ancient woods and forests in England are to be set aside to make sites more attractive to leisure facility developers.

The effects on Wales are unclear. My reading of the devolution settlement is that responsibility for woodland here was transferred to the Welsh Assembly, to be held in trust for the nation. This is reinforced by Elin Jones's preamble to the 2010-2013 Corporate Plan "Our purpose and direction" (45-page pdf) by Forestry Commission Wales. However, "responsibility" and legal title are separate matters. In any case, there will no doubt be pressure from London for Wales to follow the Westminster line. There should be an early statement from WAG to set our minds at rest.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Labour still don't get it

Sharon Bowles MEP reports that in the European Parliament, Labour MEPs were part of [...] 'outer space' fiscal logic, voting against the freeze [in the EU budget, proposed by LibDem MEPs] and in favour of goodies such as £1.5 million for trade unions, more for the expensive EU earth observation programme, and more for EU information centres. She comments: "in this of all years, any increases on particular items needed to be funded by savings elsewhere, not through an overall increase in the EU budget".

Licence fee raided for broadband funding

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has announced that £300m of the £530m, which it will cost to fulfil the government's commitment to advance broadband, will come directly from the BBC licence fee, with the remaining £230m funded by underspend in the UK's digital TV switchover fund. This is in addition to BBC's taking responsibility for the World Service and paying for S4C.

According to, "The government wants to encourage public-private partnerships - between local authorities, broadband suppliers and community groups - to bid for chunks of the £530m to help roll-out superfast broadband to areas currently languishing at the bottom of the broadband pile, the DCMS spokesman added.

"The government has announced £530m to help fund broadband rollouts.  Osborne also detailed the locations for four rural superfast broadband trials that will test the commercial viability of deploying high speed broadband in remote parts of the country. '[Superfast broadband] pilots will go ahead in the Highlands and Islands, North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Herefordshire,' said Osborne - upping by one the tally of trials from the original three 'market testing pilots' announced back in June."

Why is Wales not involved? The Assembly Government must tell us what its plans for broadband are.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

EU asserts rights of foreign accused to free interpretation

Chris Davies, MEP, has made sure that his local media in the north-west (like the Rochdale News) carry the story that Britons abroad in the EU who wind up in court can now be assured of free translation facilities, but the good news from Europe hasn't made it into the national media at the time of posting.

(The draft directive appears to be

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Labour short of capable English MPs?

One wonders why Labour had to wheel out Geraint Davies (Swansea West) and Fiona MacTaggart (a Scottish member) yesterday to ask questions of Michael Gove about his statement on education policy, which applied only to England. Gove's replies to other members were consistently courteous and ecumenical, but, no doubt recognising political opportunism when he saw it, treated Davies rather differently:

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Secretary of State agree that his education policy-along with what will happen on Wednesday-consists of cutting overall resources for state education by between a quarter and a third and redirecting what is left away from disadvantaged areas and failing schools towards leafy suburbs and extra schools in middle-class areas? How can that possibly be construed as fair?
Michael Gove: The short answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is no. The slightly longer answer is that he could not be more wrong. The figures that he quotes and the dynamic that he invokes are utterly wrong. We will not be cutting in the way that he mentions; we will be increasing spending on schools. More than that, we will be targeting spending more effectively on the very poorest. I know that it is difficult for him to cope with, but the Government whom he supported from the Back Benches, before he lost his seat and came back representing somewhere else, presided over a growth in inequality and a freezing of social mobility. If he is committed to advancing the education of the very poorest, he should make another journey, like the one he made from Croydon to Swansea, from the Opposition Benches to the Government Benches on the side of social justice.

Monday, 18 October 2010

MEP calls for UK opt-in to EU anti-trafficking directive

The prime minister's resolve to have as little to do with the European Union as possible has put the government into an awkward position on this Anti-Slavery Day. Sarah Ludford MEP urges the UK government to mark the day's importance by announcing soon its intention to opt in to the EU anti-trafficking directive.

She says: "This reinforced EU law will strengthen our own anti-trafficking legislation and good practice, help to combat modern-day slavery across Europe and put trafficking gangs behind bars.

"Let's keep up Britain's 200-year-old record of upholding human rights and ending human sexual and labour exploitation by extending our leadership to international cooperation. I believe that participation in the EU Directive would amply fulfil the coalition government test for European 'opt-ins'."

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The newspaper that shouldn't have died

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the savage termination of the last liberal national daily newspaper, the News Chronicle. I am grateful to an article by York Membery in the latest Liberal Democrat News, both refreshing my memory and filling in the background details. It confirms what many people felt at the time, that, with better management, the newspaper need not have folded - certainly that it did not need to be abruptly handed over to the Daily Mail, a newspaper which was more illiberal then than it is now.

I remember the distress and anger with which Norman Cullis, an elderly colleague in the office where I had taken up my first job, and a life-long Liberal, reported the fact that the Daily Mail had dropped without warning on his door-mat instead of the usual Chronicle. He had no intention of continuing to take the rag, his opinion of which was one of the few things he shared with the office socialist, John Watkins. He asked me about the Guardian, which had become my regular reading as soon as I could afford a daily newspaper, and whose own Liberal history he would have been more aware of than I. My enthusiastic recommendation was put in doubt soon afterwards when editor Alistair Hetherington put the paper unambiguously behind Labour.

The Chronicle itself had supported Labour in the 1945 election, no doubt seeing Clement Attlee's party as the best hope for radical reform. It continued to advocate Labour in 1950 & 1951, but called for a big Liberal vote in 1955 and 1959. It had deviated from its roots less than most journals. One root was the radical Daily News (first editor, Charles Dickens) and another the Daily Chronicle, another Liberal-supporting newspaper. They merged in 1930. News Chronicle was part of the Cadbury family holdings because George Cadbury had bought the Daily News in 1901 to campaign for pensions and against sweated labour.

It seems that the post-war generation of Cadburys had lost sight of the family's earlier Quaker idealism. The chocolate side, as we know from the recent American takeover, had become just another limited company, quoted on the stock exchange. Laurence Cadbury, the family member responsible for the News Chronicle, "seems to have lost the will to keep it alive," in York Membery's words, "ignoring every circulation-boosting suggestion".

Nowadays, while there are daily papers which are not tied to a particular party, and which have from time to time plumped for Liberal Democrats at a general election, there is not one which is recognised as a Liberal Democrat paper, as the Daily Telegraph is a Tory one, and the Daily Mirror, Labour. The "dead-tree" press may be slowly dying, but the titles are moving across to the Web and BBC News still takes many of its stories from the "Street of Shame". The loss of the Chronicle still matters.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Liverpool saga drawing to a close

It seems that practically the last spite action by Hicks and Gillett to delay the sale by the Liverpool board and RBS has failed:

The Indy has several pages on the story of the decline of the club, including this one by Nick Harris. It seems that after the takeover, there was a crucial meeting in a hotel room in Marseille in December 2007. "Those present at the meeting included Gillett as well as the former Liverpool chairman, David Moores, and the former chief executive, Rick Parry. Gillett asked Moores and Parry to sign up to a 'whitewash', The Independent can reveal.

"At the time, a 'whitewash procedure', which is no longer allowed in law, would have allowed Hicks and Gillett to move their acquisition debt – run up when buying Liverpool – on to the football club's books, as long as serving directors gave written guarantees about debt repayments among other things.

"Hicks and Gillett had borrowed money to buy Liverpool and laden that debt on to a holding company. Now they wanted to shift it to the club itself, en masse. Moores and Parry felt Liverpool's income was already being used to fund the Americans' takeover, contrary to what they had promised. So they refused to sign up to the whitewash to put the debt directly on to Liverpool. 

"Hicks and Gillett, who even then were seeking to refinance the loans they took to buy the club, instead had to dip into their own wealth to smooth the refinancing. They also had to provide further personal guarantees on the loans. It was not so much a slippery slope as indicative of problems elsewhere. 

"Unbeknown to most, the credit crunch was threatening to bite both owners hard."

There are obvious political parallels.

Monday, 11 October 2010

I may be inadequate, but I am no longer pimply

Roy Greenslade quotes Andrew Marr as saying at the Cheltenham Literature Festival:
A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed, young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting. They are very angry people.
OK – the country is full of very angry people. Many of us are angry people at times. Some of us are angry and drunk. But the so-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night.
It is fantastic at times but it is not going to replace journalism...
Most of the blogging is too angry and too abusive. It is vituperative. Terrible things are said on line because they are anonymous. People say things on line that they wouldn't dream of saying in person.
I am sure that Lynne Featherstone, David Peter, Peter Black and Steph Ashley (to name the bloggers that come immediately to mind, and that's just from my "follow" list) would object to the stereotype, just as Greenslade already has done. Besides, the section of the blogosphere which I am part of is not aiming to compete with journalists, but with commentators. The paid competition includes the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, David Aaronovitch and Johann Hari, and is not superior. Marr himself occupies that grey area between commentary and journalism.

The best example of citizen journalism which I have seen recently has been Nick Thornsby's report of the judicial investigation of Phil Woolas's election campaign. Angry he may be about Woolas's conduct, but his reportage was admirably objective - and more comprehensive, about a critical case, than most of the press.

We are seldom vituperative, and, if we are angry, it is with good reason. We pick up on aspects of the news which are ignored by the professionals in the London village. We fill in the gaps which the commercially-dominated media leave.

If Marr is touchy about bloggers encroaching on his territory, it must be from an awareness that the quality of broadcast and press journalism is not what it was, or should be.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

European information-sharing hold-up

One argument thrown up against those of us who believe in a free market in labour as well as trade across Europe is for habitual offenders in one country to move across borders and repeat offend without the police being aware of their presence. The obvious answer is for enforcement agencies throughout the EU to share information, and, ideally, for each to have ready access to a comprehensive database.

It seems, from this posting by Sarah Ludford MEP, that Indian-scale bureaucracy  is holding up the latter.

Let's have an objective evaluation of public service in Wales

I couldn't agree more with Peter Black when he writes about the proposed closure of the passport office in Newport, Gwent:

this is the wrong move for two main reasons:

Firstly, this is not some regional sub-office. Wales is a country in its own right and though we rightly form part of the United Kingdom in terms of Home Affairs and Foreign Relations, there is a great deal of sense in having a passport office based here, both for employment reasons and prestige. The fact that Wales will become the only country in Europe without a fully-fledged passport office is actually very significant.

Secondly, if the Home Office is trying to save money by reducing the number of local offices then they have chosen the wrong target. Everybody knows that civil service offices in London are difficult to sustain. The over-heating economy in the South East makes it hard to attract staff due to the relatively poor wages civil servants get, the rent, rates and general overhead costs of keeping offices in London are massively more expensive than elsewhere, and the rationale for keeping an office in the UK capital tends to rest on prestige rather than sound economics.

The logical alternative would be to close the London Passport Office and relocate the head office functions elsewhere. That would save far more money and ensure that the job losses occurred in an area where there are at least alternative jobs. It would also enhance the Newport Office as it would then become the nearest passport office to the Southern international airports albeit with good transport links along the M4 and on the main train line.

The Government seem to be arguing that people from South Wales and the South West of England can travel to London to get their passport. I say, let those in the South East of England come here instead.

Perhaps the coalition government rationale is to reduce the number of public sector jobs in Wales, where they form a higher proportion of employed people than in most parts of the UK. However, only 300 posts in Newport are involved, and surely, of all civil service jobs, they are most critical to selling ourselves abroad. This supposedly business-friendly government should not make it more difficult for businesses in Wales to extend their markets by travelling abroad.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

New Government IT strategy published

I commented favourably on the Conservatives' manifesto for IT before the election. Now it seems that little time has been wasted in making it coalition policy, minus the silly bits.

It still seems odd that the Liberal Democrat party, which probably has proportionately more IT-savvy members than any other, from professionals to anoraks, could not put together its own IT manifesto.

Message of caring Conservatism not getting through

In Birmingham this week, the parts of Iain Duncan Smith's and David Cameron's speeches which signalled a return to the Conservatism of Butler & Macmillan and which probably resonated most with Liberal Democrat observers, were not met with rapturous applause by the activists there gathered. There is more evidence that Thatcherism is not dead from these items in The Scotsman newspaper.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Conservative and Labour dirty tricks at the general election

No apologies for a second dip into Liberal Democrat Voice today. This article reveals that Conservative CHQ was responsible for planting in the press many of the lies and misrepresentations of LibDem policy which took a large amount of Cowley Street staff time to rebut and largely refute. The Conservatives denied during the general election campaign that they were responsible, but insiders have now opened up to academic researchers.

This sort of thing does not help grown-up politics. If there is still suspicion in the grass roots of the Liberal Democrat party of our coalition partners, the way they conducted their campaign is a large factor. Given that we are probably entering a period in national politics where close electoral results, and coalitions, are likely to be the norm, it behoves party campaigners to give their opponents more respect in future.

More on the badger cull

Liberal Democrats are often accused of being two-faced over the badger cull, that MPs & AMs representing urban areas are against it, while rural members have to be in favour. I believe it is more a matter of genuine personal belief. As supporting evidence, I offer this plea for evidence-based action by Andrew George, whose Cornish constituency can hardly be described as metropolitan. He doesn't seem to have suffered at the ballot box for his nuanced stance.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Alternative Technology news

The Centre for Althernative Technology's information site is now up and running: This features up-to-date information on sustainable technologies and energy practices.

CAT, in conjunction with the Schumacher Society, is to run a conference and workshops in Bristol on 16th October under the banner: "Zero Carbon Britain - from Aspiration into Action". The event will run from 10.00 to 17:30 and will take place in Council House, College Green, BRISTOL BS1 5TR. More information at

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Labour's deficit

You would think that the message would have got through to the public by now that the structural deficit created by Gordon Brown was separate from, though aggravated by, the mortgage-led crash. (The UK government was not such an innocent party in the latter, either, but that's another story.) If banking had not reached a crisis point, some other factor -  high demand for basic raw materials, or an OPEC strike, or a food shortage, say - would have brought the boom years to an end.

Yet, no doubt thanks to Labour apologists deliberately fogging the issue, many people still believe that our economy was basically sound until the banks failed. But just look at the run of budget figures from 2001/2 when there was a surplus of £10.6bn: deficits of £12.3bn, £20.4bn, £19bn and £15bn, all before the troubles of 2007.

A posting on Liberal Conspiracy and resulting comments are instructive. One in particular struck me: looking at the pre-crash deficit and the post-crash deficit, it’s quite clear they would have had to be running a really quite massive surplus to have avoided having an enormous deficit afterwards – something I don’t think the Tories would have tolerated in opposition. If Labour had insisted on running a surplus on that scale, I can guarantee they would have been screaming blue murder about the greedy state unnecessarily hoarding money when they could be cutting taxes on wealth creators.

But running a surplus through the noughties was just what Brown said he planned to do.  Look at the Treasury Red Book for Budget 2001. The projected surpluses for 2001/2 through to 2005/06 were £17bn, £15bn, £8bn, £9bn & £9bn. It is a pity that he didn't heed the warning signs in 2002 when the actual outturn for 2001/02 was £6.4 bn less than the original projections. Instead, he embarked on an expansionist budget which relied on optimistic growth figures and tax returns. He carried on fiddling one or the other or both through the rest of his tenure.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Kirk & Marks

Re-reading the Tony Curtis obits today reminded me of a scurrilous story put about in Hollywood, no doubt by actors jealous of Kirk Douglas, and referring to his ego and his liberal sympathies. No top star (apart from Brando, who was contractually bound elsewhere) wanted to touch The Defiant Ones before Tony Curtis agreed. Douglas was said to have been ready to sign up, but "only if I can play the black part".

Mr Nice, the Howard Marks story, is due for release on the 8th of this month. Rhys Ifans stars as Marks, Chloe Sevigny as his wife, and David Thewlis as Jim McCann of the IRA. It will be interesting to see who was cast as Lynn Barber.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Home Office minister catches up

Honestly, you wait ages for a Lynne Featherstone blog entry, then ten come along at once.

Goldilocks planet

The news that astronomical techniques have become so refined that planets only a little bigger than Earth can be detected orbiting distant stars is very exciting. I look forward to the day when the first unambiguous signs of life outside our solar system are proved.

However, I cannot understand the speculation about sending a "space ark" to Zarmina's World (discoverer Steve Vogt named it after his wife).The star Gliese 581 is a red dwarf, which, if my limited knowledge of astronomy is correct, is much further advanced in stellar age than our sun. By the time any spaceship from here reached it, Gliese 581 may well be no warmer than a cinder.

Deputy Prime Minister pays official visit

Peter Black reports (with video) on Nick Clegg's visit to the National Assembly this week.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Neath & Port Talbot Ramblers

The Neath and Port Talbot Ramblers Association has published its Winter Walks programme.

There are more details at

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

A prisoner's right to vote

Having found myself in agreement with Peter Hain over a question of arithmetic (see previous posting), I must protest at his gratuitous & illiberal attack on Nick Clegg (which is remarkably similar to that by David Cameron before the general election) for advocating that the UK should finally legislate to give all but the worst offenders the vote.

In fact, as Robert Chesshyre pointed out in an article in the Independent in February of this year, "the Government pledged – reluctantly and under extreme pressure from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) – to introduce votes for at least some convicted prisoners". So Nick was only stating the policy of the last Labour government.

Chesshyre goes on: "the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe is fed up with British foot-dragging. A blanket ban on votes for convicted prisoners (those on remand or in jail in civil cases can vote) was declared 'unlawful' by the European Court six years ago." (It should be noted that the Council of Europe goes back further than the EU, and that the UK was a member from the start,) "European ministers, tired of waiting, have warned 'the substantial delay in implementing the judgment has given rise to a significant risk that the next UK general election will be performed in a way that fails to comply with the Convention on Human Rights'." So far nobody has demanded that the election be declared null and void on these grounds, much to the relief of Returning Officers up and down the land. 

Chesshyre believes that the foot-dragging had more to do with the fear of screaming headlines than with the practical or moral problems. I had the sneaking suspicion that Labour may also have been influenced by the fairly well-established fact that most habitual criminals would vote Conservative, given the chance. 

It is not as if the proposal is to allow Ian Huntley and his ilk the vote. "Most European countries set a threshold relating to the crime or length of sentence," writes Chesshyre,. "Those considered particularly bad or dangerous can't vote: the rest of the prison population can. By failing to take the necessary action, we [find ourselves] in a minority many might consider dubious company – Bulgaria, Romania and Armenia are among our fellow naysayers. Our major European partners – France, Germany and Italy – all allow some (in practice, usually most) prisoners to vote."

We are often told that voting is not just a right, but also a responsibility. If we are to reintegrate prisoners into society,  the ability to vote is as important as visitation rights.

Those Labour membership figures

We must give due credit to Peter Hain for giving a more credible account of the situation than Harriet Harman. In the story in the Evening Post, he speaks only of "tens of thousands" of additional Labour members, not the thirty-two thousand claimed by Ms Harman. Moreover, he does not assert as she does that thousands of Liberal Democrats switched membership, merely that some former LibDem voters joined Labour. This last claim, of course, cannot be proved or disproved, given our secret ballot.

From the posting and comments at, we can be fairly certain that the increase in Labour membership since last year is 21,394, that is, the difference between the figure stated in Labour's accounts for the year ending 31st December 2009 (156,205) and the declared membership for the issue of leadership ballots.(177,559). It should be noted that this figure is only 559 more than they reportedly had in May 2007. Labour has done no more than share in the general rise in political activity since the turn of the year, benefiting all parties, as it became obvious that we were heading for a close election.

Finally, to round off the correspondence started by my posting about Ms Harman, the authentic version of Godwin's Axiom: "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." There is a corollary that: "once this occurs, that thread is over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress".

For those who don't like my researches into The Big Lie, may I offer this gem from CH Spurgeon, the great 19th century nonconformist preacher: "If you want truth to go round the world, you must hire an express train to pull it; but if you want a lie to go round the world, it will fly: it is as light as a feathe, and a breath will carry it. It is well said in the old proverb, 'a lie will go round the world while truth is pulling his boots on'.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

A singular disappearance

I know this is going to read like a letter in green ink from Disgusted Of West Cross, or just another example of my "onanism" as one of my many anonymous followers recently put it, but I have to get this off my chest. For some time now, I have been niggled by the misuse of "criteria" and "phenomena" as single nouns, when in fact they are plurals. The last straw was loaded this morning on Radio 4's "Broadcasting House" in an otherwise impeccable piece by Dr Mark Roodhouse on the "phenomena" of the spiv. One is used to daily journalists, not noted for respecting the English language, blurring distinctions of usage, but Roodhouse is an academic's academic.

I have to hold my hand up at this point, as a contributor to the degradation of "datum" as a singular. The word was safe in its scientific haven, where the tradition of Latin had not died, but once the explosion in IT in the 1960s occurred, all sorts of half-educated people had to be recruited as programmers and systems analysts/designers. It is little wonder that we picked up mathematical and scientific terms from the pioneers of computing without completely understanding them. The fact that we called IT "Automatic Data Processing" in those days is indicative.

Many will object that this does not matter. Greek and Latin are dead languages. We have managed with "sheep" and "fish" as both singular and plural in English virtually since English existed as a separate language.
One answer is that language helps shape our thought, as Orwell memorably pointed out in his essay on language and political thought. If our perception of distinctions in language is dulled, then our thinking, in particular our ability to analyse, is also dulled. To a handyman whose only tool is a hammer, every screw looks like a nail.

My response is that these distinctions are still useful. The best example is the word "medium". As a noun it has several meanings deriving from the sense of an "intervening means, instrument or agency" (Chambers). (Hence the medium who professes to act as an intermediary between us and the spirit world, and who is still pluralised with a final "s".) In the sense of a means of transmitting information, it was famously used by Marshall McLuhan. So far, so good. We could refer to the "print medium", or the "medium of radio", and use the plural "media" to cover all the various means of communication. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way "media" has come to mean just "television" and, unless that word is rescued, we are going to have to find a new, probably more cumbersome, phrase to describe the gamut of press, broadcasting and the arts.

There is hope. It is fashionable on this side of the Atlantic to sneer at American dumbing-down, and also to assume that scientists are not interested in the finer points of language, but, in my experience, all the scientists from the USA who have contributed to "Material World" or BBC news programmes speak of "a phenomenon" or "a criterion" and treat "data" as a plural. It must be something to do with the high regard in which correct English usage is held over there, most visibly expressed in the competitive spelling bees culminating in a national championship. I remember when these used to be a teaching tool in English & Welsh schools. Perhaps they should be brought back.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Cordoba Institute

While checking BBC-Parliament for the start of the transmission from Liverpool and the Liberal Democrat Conference, I chanced on the repeat of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's talk to the Council of Foreign Relations in New York last Monday. (There is an audio version on the Council's web-site.)

It occurred to me that here was a man who was intellectually head-and-shoulders above those orchestrating the campaign against a Muslim cultural centre in Lower Manhattan. (It should be noted that there is already a Muslim meeting place ten blocks away from where the twin towers stood.)

Rauf's Cordoba Institute takes its name from the Muslim regime in Spain, before it was swept away in 1492. Under the Muslims, all were allowed to practise their religion freely and arts, science & philosophy thrived.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Richard Livsey has died

I feel almost a personal loss. The BBC report is here.

[Later] Peter Black has filed a more worthy tribute on Freedom Central.

Television licensing

So the BBC Trust has condescended not to demand yet another increase in the cost of a TV licence. Perhaps they should look at a progressive reduction in the fee, now that the major investment in iPlayer and their web pages is behind them.

It is instructive to look back to 1964, when BBC-2 - clearly a major investment - was launched. BBC had long since lost its monopoly, but still provided rather more TV proportionately than it does now in this multi-channel age. Yet the licence fee was £4, or about 22.7% of the average weekly wage. [Figures from The Times newspaper of that year, via their online archive.]

The average weekly wage now is £446.50. If the broadcasting licence now cost the same proportionately as it did in 1964, it would be just over £101. Instead, it is £145.50. Where is the extra £44 going? Those of us of a cynical disposition wonder whether it is spent on expensive star names, an inflated political news department and non-jobs such as the director of the advisory centre for politically correct reporting - all right, I made that last one up, but Janet Street-Porter, a former BBC executive, has referred to similar horrors in her occasional reminiscences of her time at the Beeb.

One can quite understand government reluctance to abolish the licence fee in favour of funding the BBC from general taxation - it raises questions of perceived independence, for one thing - but they should remember that the licence fee is a regressive tax. It is probably the UK's worst example, next to vehicle licensing. They should therefore bear down on the BBC to continue to cut costs.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Small Back Room

I have just been listening to Simon Heffer discussing the Powell and Pressburger film. All he says about the movie, which he admires, is true, but he does not give credit to the original novel by Nigel Balchin. Pressburger's script follows the novel fairly faithfully, certainly in terms of the main characters, though I dimly recall the conclusion to the novel as being more ambiguous than the film-makers' upbeat ending. The typical Archers' quirky touches do not detract from the central character study, and the visuals are great.

The one objection I have is in the climactic scene on Chesil Beach where Sammy Rice, coming off a massive bender, is attempting to defuse a deadly new German explosive device. In those days before speaker-phones, Rice gives a running telephone commentary on his actions to a young ATS corporal, who relays it to the brass in their hut at a safe distance from the site of the device. The tension builds as the camera moves in on the face of Renée Asherson, playing the ATS corporal.- then to my mind, dissipates as there is a cut to Rice and the bomb.

As Rice, this was David Farrar's finest performance. Sadly, his career went downhill from then on, as he tried to make it in Hollywood and, apart from a few supporting roles, failed.

Voulez-vous bloggen?

Mark Pack calls pour kurzen Blogposten in einem message sur Voix Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol pour célébrer European Day of Languages auf sechs-und-zwanzigsten September.

William Robert Grove QC

Died 1 August 1896 Lawyer, Judge and Physical Scientist.Physics, Chemistry Patent Law Criminal Law, Royal Institution, Royal Society, Privy Council Known for Conservation of energy, Invention of the Fuel Cell, defending William Palmer.
Born in Swansea in 1811, Grove was the only child of John, (a magistrate and deputy lieutenant of Glamorgan), and his wife, Anne, née Bevan.  At the Royal Institution, Grove met Emma Maria Powles (died 1879) and married her in 1837.  In 1839, Grove developed a novel form of electric cell, the Grove Cell, the precursor of the fuel cell which powers the Honda FCX Clarity
In the 1840s, Grove collaborated with Gassiot at the London Institution on photography. From 1846, Grove reduced his scientific work in favour of law, to pay for his young family. He became a QC in 1853. 

Groves's daughter Imogen Emily (died 1886) married William Edward Hall in 1866. His daughter Anna married Herbert Augustus Hills (1837–1907) and was mother to Edmond Herbert Grove-Hills ("Colonel Rivers"), and John Waller Hills.

The lunar crater “GROVE” is named for him.
The current and annual Grove Fuel Cell Symposium and Exhibition is organised by Elsevier.

[Information provided by Paul Nicholls-Jones (mail: who is backing the campaign
for Swansea City to celebrate one of her world famous sons on his bicentenary next July 2011.]

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Oldham & Saddleworth electoral court

There is a report of proceedings so far in the ground-breaking electoral court in Saddleworth at One can quibble with the accuracy of some of the words used ("refuted" should read "rebutted", and Mr Watkins' barrister would have "re-examined" rather than "cross-examined" him) but otherwise llooks like a fair summary.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Harman goes on telling porkies

Harriet Harman, presumably positioning herself for a leadership challenge after Mr Miliband fails to lead Labour to victory at the next election, not only tells a lie about Liberal Democrat membership, but also repeats the lie afer being corrected. She puts herself in the position of the cartoon Jewish villain depicted by Hitler & Goebbels, telling a lie so colossal that no one would believe that someone "could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously".

Sunday, 12 September 2010


There is a timely piece by Andy McSmith in The Independent on the Thatcher/Howe budget of 1981. This "is firmly embedded in the mythology of the Conservative Party," he writes, "Margaret Thatcher believed the three great tests of her mettle that defined her as a prime minister were the miners' strike, the Falklands War, and the 1981 Budget." McSmith opines that: "Osborne is hoping that the 2010 autumn statement will do for his political reputation what the 1981 Budget did for Thatcher's and Howe's." There is a coincidence in the amount - £4bn - which Howe aimed to take out of the economy. Of course, £4bn was worth rather more then than it is now, so the effect was greater.

McSmith sketches in some of the background: " The Labour government had, at great political cost, pulled inflation down into single figures from the peak it reached in the mid-1970s." (One must not forget the major contribution in restoring financial stability, at much greater political cost, by the Liberals.) "The incoming Tory government had ramped it back above 20 per cent by putting up the most basic costs such as heating bills and rent and by awarding public sector workers a 25 per cent pay rise to avoid another 'winter of discontent'." Another significant factor, which McSmith does not mention, was an early decision by Chancellor Howe to "follow the market" with bank rate rises and consequently produce a spike in the sterling/dollar rate. This combination cut a swathe through British industry - indigenous machine-tool manufacture was virtually wiped out overnight - in turn signalling the reorientation of UK trade towards financial and intellectual products and away from traditional industry.

Thatcher and Howe hoped to have killed off Keynesianism in its native land. The fact that the Bank of England is pumping money back into the banks (in the form of "monetary easing") shows that it has returned in another form. Cameron and Osborne aspire to the re-balancing of the UK economy so that we are not so dependent on the City of London. These are two breaks with Thatcherism. So are those leaks about slashing the welfare budget merely red meat being thrown to the "dries" to keep them docile, or is this cabinet of millionaires really so insensitive to the reality of life in areas of high unemployment as to carry them out? Next month's spending review will tell us.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Scientific Research: EU expands while UK contracts

While Vince Cable signals an accountant's approach to blue-sky research (at least he doesn't go half as far as Mrs Thatcher, who gave the impression that only direct, applied research had her approval), the EU has embarked on a € 6,4 billion research package, the biggest ever allocated by the European Commission. It covers a range of scientific disciplines, public policy areas and commercial sectors. This project is a key element of the so called 'EU 2020 Strategy'that was launched in spring of this year, and also forms the basis of the so called EU Flagship Project 'Innovation Union', which is set to be presented later this year. However, European Liberals feel that "more steps are needed, as the European future cannot afford another Lisbon."

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Great apes will no longer be experimental subjects

The European Parliament has passed landmark legislation to ban animal testing on great apes and wild-caught primates. This will pass into law as it has been agreed with EU governments.

Animal experiments in science and research will be greatly scaled back: only tests that cause the least pain will be allowed, and thanks to the Liberal group the most severe and prolonged tests will be completely outlawed.

Testing on smaller monkeys will be permitted but only if the animals have been bred and raised in captivity, as this makes them more used to the laboratory environment.

More on Sarah Ludford's blog.

Monday, 6 September 2010

John Toshack

As I write, it appears, from BBC Wales reports, that John Toshack is minded to step down from the Welsh managership. It would be his own decision, and no pressure has been put on him by the Welsh FA.

Toshack is probably the most technically equipped manager Wales has had. He and Brian Flynn have brought on the most talented group of young players for a generation. What he hasn't done, it seems to me, is enthuse the team. What was clearly missing in Montenegro at the weekend was self-belief and a real desire to win. Toshack is quoted as saying that he has taken the team as far as he can. To my mind, that is a long way. What is needed now is someone who can take his squad and inspire them to run through walls for Wales, something we haven't seen, in my opinion, since the days of Mike England.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Footpath dead ends and new beginnings

The Ramblers' "Dead End for Walking?" campaign was launched recently, to warn of the risks to public paths from threatened cuts in local authority spending. The campaign web-site highlights areas in England where footpaths are under threat, but the same considerations apply in Wales. St Illtyd's Walk was already being starved of support before the current round of cuts, and there are threats to rights-of-way on Sarn Helen and connected footpaths. It is thanks to Cllr Steve Hunt in Seven Sisters that these concerns are kept on the agenda.

Having faintly damned our council, it is only fair to praise our Environment people for their participation in piloting Ramblers Cymru's "Communities on Foot" toolkit and creating the Community Walking hub at Glyncorrwg Ponds. The hub will be formally launched during the Corrwg Hills festival of walking, starting on the 12th September and lasting six days. The only thing missing is a grid reference for the centre: I make it 873985, and it's on OS Explorer 166 (Rhondda & Merthyr Tydfil).

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Danny Alexander is right

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

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

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

Cricket is returning to its roots

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

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