Saturday, 30 January 2010

Big Garden Birdwatch

RSPB are making an extra-special effort to recruit amateur counters this weekend for the "Big Garden Birdwatch". I hope to make my usual contribution tomorrow morning from a nearby footpath (I don't have a garden as such).

Since the extra publicity is bound to increase the number of returns this year, one trusts that the RSPB takes this into account when calculating whether there has been a real increase in the numbers of the various species.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Swansea Canal Society take over Clydach museum facility

From the South Wales Guardian: "The City and county of Swansea have granted the society the use of the disused canal museum in Coed Gwilym Park. They aim to use the outside (caged) area to develop an exhibition of canal artefacts.

"They hope to use the inside as an information/tourist office, which will be manned by volunteers."

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Jacques Brel accused of abetting a war criminal

In spite of continuing cover-ups (covers-up?), the author of On an Overgrown Path puts a convincing case that Jacques Brel, musical hero of radicals around the world, at one time collaborated with Jacques Touvier, a lifelong anti-Semite and loyal servant of Vichy. The revelations coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day.

There is an unexpected appearance of the name of Alastair Campbell towards the end of the message.

Second day of lawyers' testimony to Chilcot

I'm just watching the evidence of Lord Goldsmith, the attorney-general at the time of the Iraq adventure, to the Chilcot Inquiry. Questions centre on three statements of advice he gave to the prime minister. Only the last one stated that it was definitely lawful to invade.

It is not easy to follow his convoluted arguments, but they seem to boil down to this: there was a reasonable case for using sufficient force in order to compel Saddam to correct a material breach of UN Resolution 1441. However, what constituted a "material breach" and "sufficient force" could be decided by politicians. He couldn't say definitively that it was lawful to invade without a a specific further resolution by the UN. He only decided to give a firm "Yes" in his final advice in order to put at rest the minds of civil servants and soldiers who were going to be called upon to act upon the Prime Minister's determination  to proceed. The implication is that he personally had not reached a black or white judgment on the matter, but merely leant towards intervention.

I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me that, in criminal law, a reasonable case is no more than a green light to go to trial in a higher court. As to leaving the users of force to judge whether it was no more than sufficient is akin to giving carte blanche to international vigilantism.

Lord Goldsmith made one interesting statement: that lawfulness was not the only justification for going to war. The word "morality" hung in the air without actually being spoken.

It seems that my earlier posting was prophetic.  As Michael Savage put it in the Indy today, Sir Michael Wood's "evidence blew apart assertions made repeatedly by Mr Blair's ministers and advisers at the time of Ms [Elizabeth] Wilmshurst's resignation that her views were not shared by Sir Michael or other lawyers at the department".

On one side we have a legal politician (the attorney-general) and a politician with a domestic legal career behind him (Jack Straw); on the other we have Wilmshurst and Wood, steeped in international law. I know whose opinion I would rather take.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Labour supporter uses WRU email system for fund-raising, and nobody is surprised

I did expect some reaction when BBC broke the story, so I didn't bother complaining here. However, I have just checked the aggregated Welsh LibDem blogs site, and it seems it has passed our activists by. I  can only assume that they are inured to this sort of thing from Labour.

A Welsh Labour spokesperson is quoted as saying: "Facing up to a Tory Party bloated by [Lord] Ashcroft's millions in the next general election will be a tough ask and Labour, like all political parties, needs to raise money." So that makes it all right, then.

Update: Betsan Powys has blogged the story.

St Helen's Balconiers

In these days when the personal cost of supporting sport seems to rise exponentially, it is good to report that a vital part of Glamorgan cricket costs only £5 in annual subscriptions. St Helen's Balconiers Society was founded at the end of August 1972 by a small group of Glamorgan members who generally sat in a corner of the old pavilion balcony. The inspiration was the then record opening partnership between Alan Jones and Roy Fredericks against Northants. I'd like to say that I remember it well, but, it was a warm day and the event is recollected through a haze of Allbright or whatever the St Helen's bar was selling in those days.

Anyway, the Balconiers are actively recruiting in order to secure the future of first-class cricket in Swansea. John Williams & co accept that the county must maximise the benefits of its own headquarters in Cardiff on which so much has been spent, but insist that the county should not neglect its heritage or its roots.

More on the Balconiers' page on the Glamorgan web site.

The lady

If you are on Facebook, please become a friend of Aung San Suu Kyi. The latest news is from a Radio Netherlands interview, which shows doubts as to whether the lady will be released from house arrest at the end of the year as promised by the junta.

It's only a technical recovery

Figures released later today are expected to show that the UK has finally come out of recession, later than any other nation in the G20. However, as Vince Cable wrote last year as the first signs of recovery world-wide were showing, this is merely a statistical event, and the practical effects of the crash are going to continue for years to come.

Iraq: recovered memory

Today may well prove the crucial, most revelatory, day of the Chilcot Inquiry. It was not news that the key players in government in 2002/3 were intent on removing Saddam by hook or by crook. Evidence to the Hutton Inquiry (even though Hutton's formal findings ignored this) and statements by Tony Blair since the invasion, which confirmed that Saddam had no meaningful strategic weapons, have shown this. However, we still do not know whether the Labour government was formally advised in the key period that invasion was contrary to international law. Today's witnesses should clear this up.

Witnesses to the Inquiry so far have tended to muddy the waters. Blair apologists have created the impression that everyone in the West was convinced that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that this conviction grew through 2003. The contrary is the case. As we know, Dr David Kelly originally believed in WMD, but changed his scientific opinion once he had spend any time in the country.

As Stephen Glover, columnist for both the Daily Mail and the Independent wrote in the Indy yesterday: "it is simply not true that there was an unchallenged consensus about WMD. In the months leading up to war there were lots of people who were publicly sceptical about the Government's claims." He cites Hans Blix (the UN's chief weapons inspector), Sir William Ehrman (the Foreign Office's then director-general of defence and intelligence), ex-Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden (later Lord Garden). The latter wrote in The Times on 17th February 2003 that "Saddam has very few, if any, long-range missiles".

It is convenient for the government that Robin Cook, David Kelly and Tim Garden are no longer around to give evidence, but lucky for us that there are journalists like Stephen Glover who are not prepared to take the word of such as Alastair Campbell, Jonathan Powell and Denis MacShane, but who will dig out the truth.

Incidentally, one would have thought that the Conservative Daily Mail would have been alongside the Murdoch press, rooting for war against Saddam right up until the invasion. That was certainly what Denis MacShane has been putting about. Not so. Mr Glover tells us that his other paper "certainly supported 'our boys'* during and immediately after the invasion, but it had been generally sceptical beforehand, and afterwards became positively hostile."

* This was the line taken by Charles Kennedy, for which he was criticised, particularly by the Green Party and Plaid Cymru, who would presumably have preferred 'our boys' to mutiny.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Ramblers at 75

The organisation formerly known as the Ramblers Association is celebrating is 75th anniversary this year. In addition to passing a "75" baton round Britain, they would like to hear of people who have a special reason to be grateful to Ramblers. Details at the birthday web-site.

Government lies on mandatory retiring age

In response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission's call for scrapping the mandatory retirement age in the UK, a government spokesperson on the Today programme said that there was no support for this move, I am led to believe.

On the contrary, both Lynne Featherstone in the Commons and Lord Lester in the other place have repeatedly tried to amend the Equality Bill to do this.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Lines up the Llynfi

Illustration copied from "Railways of the Llynfi Valley" by Clive Smith (Goldleaf Publishing, Port Talbot)

South Wales West Liberal Democrats are pressing for the upgrade to main line standard of the present single-track railway line to Maesteg, and its possible extension to Caerau. (A line used to run through to Caerau, as the section of historical map above shows, but I gather it was severed by a land-slip which it was felt at the time was not cost-effective to clear. A bus service connects trains terminating at Maesteg Castle Street with Caerau.) This should open up the Llynfi valley to employment opportunities in an area which has suffered several factory closures in the last decade. It will certainly provide extra capacity on an already over-crowded route to the capital. Commuter traffic into Cardiff can only increase, and an improved rail service will take many cars off the roads.

Liberal Democrat AM for the region Peter Black has written to Ieuan Wyn Jones, transport minister and deputy first minister, pressing the case.

The Welsh Assembly Government and Network Rail should follow up the success of "Rails in the Vale", which restored the Cardiff to Bridgend line through Llantwit Major, and give an equivalent service up the Llynfi.

Jean Simmons

One of the longest screen careers came to an end yesterday. Jean Simmons started work at the age of 14 in 1943 and had her final credit in last year's "Shadows in the Sun". Along the way, she survived being sold, without her knowledge or say-so, by the Rank Corporation to Howard Hughes' RKO, whereupon "her career went down the toilet", according to her then husband, Stewart Granger. It would not happen even to second-division footballers today.

It is a sign of her determination that she rescued the career to star in "Guys and Dolls" and "Spartacus", as well as featuring in many other films. (Other British actors did not recover from initial disappointment in America; David Farrar and Diana Dors come to mind.) Then she managed the transition from big-screen popularity to more mundane work on TV (though with an alcoholic episode on the way). But even if she had never gone to Hollywood, the work she had done in Britain would have established her reputation. This lunch-time's BBC radio obituary picked out her Ophelia to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, Estella in "Great Expectations" (she later went on to play Miss Havisham for US TV) and Kanchi in "Black Narcissus". I would add "So Long at the Fair", but there were many other assured performances. One I treasure is a very early one, when, for a joyous few minutes she took over the war-time drama "The Way to the Stars" by skipping on to a bandstand to sing "Let him go, let him tarry".

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Gordon Brown, the Thatcherite

If anyone doubted that the Prime Minister was happy in the cloak of economic liberalism handed down by Alderman Roberts, they need only read his interchange with Nick Clegg in the Commons yesterday. When Nick taxed him with the nationalised RBS providing a large proportion of the debt finance enabling Kraft to take over Cadbury, and thus contributing to job losses in the Midlands, he replied:

"If the right hon. Gentleman is really suggesting that the Government can step in and avoid any takeover that is taking place in this country overnight, and then tell a bank that it has got to deprive a particular company of money by Government dictate, his liberal principles seem to have gone to the wall."

The UK's liberality is a one-way street, though, as James Moore, the Independent's deputy business editor, pointed out in a scathing analysis in yesterday's paper. Only in Britain could an already debt-laden foreign corporation get away with buying a profitable native company. He writes: 

"Nearly every company in the FTSE 100 effectively has a 'for sale' sign hanging above its headquarters. That's the way the City of London likes it. Almost as soon as a bid is tabled, the debate in the Square Mile focuses not on whether it's any good, but on how much the target can wring out of its suitor"

It's a different story in the US, home of Reaganomics and the Chicago school, where takeovers of transport firms and the Nasdaq exchange have been blocked by Congress, and where there is a law against airlines passing into foreign ownership. Even in the EU, the French "went so far as to declare yogurt a strategic national asset when the predators came a-calling on Danone".

Brown should be consistent. If he really believed that markets should be allowed to work without interference from government, he should have left HBOS and RBS banks to stand or fall in the market, rather than bale them out with (borrowed) government money.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Award to long-serving community councillor

Coedffranc Community Council this evening presented Liberal Democrat Keith Davies with a permanent memento in recognition of 30 years service as a member. He is pictured here with council chairman Charles Fletcher.

That Massachusetts by-election result - a liberal Democrat view

It seemed to me that Senator Edward Kennedy held his seat on a personal vote against a steadily changing electorate in the state, so that the Democrats' losing it in the special election caused by his death should have been no great surprise. Nor, judging by this summary, does it suggest a big swing in November's scheduled Senate elections. But for a more informed verdict, read this by the Vice Chair of Democrats Abroad UK.

She points out that, although Republican senators have regained the power to fillibuster, there is still a massive Democrat majority in the Senate. President Obama's ability to act on the international front - aid to Haiti being the latest example - is hardly going to be affected. However, legislation in support of international agreements is going to be more difficult to push through.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Greed Aspiration is Good

Gordon Brown's theme for the Labour election campaign is a re-spinning of Tony Blair's successive appeals (1997, 2001, 2005) to Mondeo Man, Worcester Woman and the Bacardi Breezer generation.

I am in good company in feeling distaste. Chris Dillow, usually described as a "left-wing" economist even quotes John Stuart Mill who "deplored the 'struggling to get on…the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other's heels' as a 'disagreeable symptom' of a passing phase of society. Brown, by contrast, seems to glorify such grubby materialism."

I do not argue against aspiration, merely against Blair's and Brown's (and Mrs Thatcher's before them) narrowly defining it in terms of material possessions.

Numbers in politics

We are going to be bombarded by statistics from all political parties in  the next sixteen weeks, as is normal during an election period. However, this time round mathematicians and statisticians are coming to our aid in the media.

Today the Independent newspaper starts a fortnightly series, exposing the spin put on the statistics of knife crime by the Labour government.

In BBC Radio 4's "More or Less", Michael Blastland explains how political parties' claims can be both true and misleading and how the Conservatives as well as the Liberal Democrats are currently not fairly represented by our electoral system. 

Sadly, this is the last in the current series, but, thanks to its links with the Open University, the programme has an extensive web archive.

Finally, "More or Less" examines, with the help of Roy Noble, the use of Wales as a comparison in news stories. You may argue that this is nothing to do with the politics of numbers. I say: just wait.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Schnittke's posthumous Ninth

I seldom post about music, mainly because I am not technically qualified, but I felt I had to say how moved I was by the broadcast of Schnittke's last symphony this morning in Radio 3's "This Week's Composer" series. Although Schnittke was severely handicapped by a series of strokes in the last ten years of his life, his compositions increased rather than diminished during that time. A common outcome of stroke is an inability to recall the names of familiar objects, even though ones other intellectual abilities are unaffected. Thus, Schnittke could write the music for his ninth, but the instruments' names on the score were virtually indecipherable. After his death in 1998, two fellow-composers undertook the work of reconstructing the symphony. Alexander Raskatov finally succeeded after the first, Nikolai Korndorf, died of a brain tumour.

Arguably, because of the process of preparation of the performing edition, Owain Arwel Hughes's recording with the Cape Philharmonic may not have sounded exactly as Schnittke intended, but the musical structure must have been faithfully reproduced. Schnittke was consciously aiming for a simpler style in his later works, as his friend and biographer Alexander Ivashkin told R3 presenter Donald Macleod. The work reminded me of the slow movement of Malcolm Arnold's sixth, though not quite as bleak.

The first work in the programme was the ebullient soundtrack music for "The Master and Margarita" , in Schnittke's more familiar polystylistic mode. The film for which it was intended was shelved, and the later Russian adaptation of Bulgakov's novel used another composer. I see that a Hollywood (?) version is in course of production; is it too much to hope that at least some of Schnittke's score is used in this?

Thursday, 14 January 2010

LibDem MP alleges contempt of parliament by leading solicitors

John Hemming has received a letter from Withers plc objecting to his raising a constituency matter in the House of Commons. Speaker John Bercow accepted that John had a prima facie case for a discussion on the floor of the house.

I don't know the ins and outs of the particular case, but I am prejudiced against any solicitors who are ignorant of the difference between the meanings of "rebut" and "refute". ("We strongly refute Mr Hemming's allegations that our actions were intimidatory in any way.")

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Marianne Stone

When a historian of the British film industry was interviewed on a Radio 4 arts programme a few years back, he was asked who he would most like to meet whom he hadn't yet interviewed. The surprising answer, ahead of several starry names, was "Marianne Stone". 

The reason was the number of connections she had with other performers. Not only did she appear in over two hundred films from the 1940s to the 1980s - though seldom in a featured role - she was also married to the  film critic, commentator and occasional actor Peter Noble. Between them, they must have met everyone of anyone of significance in British movies, and many stars before they became famous.

Someone needs to write a study of the British film companies, like Butcher's, who did not make major features, but who provided a steady supply of "B" pictures to the UK circuits. (The traditional cinema programme would consist of a major film, more often than not a Hollywood feature, preceded by advertisements, the "B" picture, or second feature, and trailers for forthcoming presentations.) These second features, supported for many years by the quota, had an after-life on TV when its rapid expansion gobbled up more material than could be provided new. There was some dire product, but some minor gems -allowing for the minuscule budgets - as well.

A Butcher's movie could virtually be guaranteed to include Marianne Stone in the cast, typically as a secretary or receptionist. I guess it was reliable and convenient work for her, and she in turn could be relied on  to give a solid performance with the minimum of fuss. 

She died just before Christmas, and a chapter of film history died with her. There are obituaries in the Times and Independent. Marianne Stone's credits, and many of her uncredited appearances, are listed by IMDb.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Is there an accountant in the house?

In May last year, when the scale of UK's debt commitment was already known, then Health Secretary Alan Johnson was quizzed by "Independent" readers. On NHS spending:

  • What cuts are going to be made to the NHS in these recession-hit times? LOUISE GRAYSON, HULL

    None. We've protected NHS funding over the next two years, increasing front-line resources by 5.5 per cent each year.

Does "the next two years" mean 2010/11 and 2011/12? Analysis of last month's pre-budget report reveals that there will be a real-terms cut from 2011. ( "NHS will feel PBR pain, by John Appleby", Public Finance).

Of course, cuts by the Minister for Health in Westminster don't directly affect Wales. However, the careless (or clever) use of statistics by Mr Johnson should put us on our guard against similar statements from Labour spokespeople on non-devolved matters.

Media release cock-up

It had to happen. All parties have been embarrassed by inexperienced unpaid office volunteers ("interns") making public mistakes. Now Julia Goldsworthy has been caught by allowing a media release about business rates to leave her office unchecked. Guido Fawkes is predictably exultant about the strange figures which presumably result from an incorrect formula being applied to a spreadsheet.

However, he displays his ignorance of local government finance when he rhetorically asks: "Do you really think business rates in Tory controlled Hammersmith and Fulham have increased over 200 times?". The parameters for calculating non-domestic rates are not in councils' hands, as this explanation (from Bedford BC) shows.

None of the above invalidates the criticism both of the business rate system or the 32% increase in real terms under Labour.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Brown and WE Henley are soul-mates

The Prime Minister quotes the old imperialist in his News of the World interview today. ("I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.") His critics within and without the party would no doubt respond with Oscar Wilde's verdict on Henley: "He has fought a good fight and has had to face every difficulty except popularity".

Thursday, 7 January 2010

What does Ryan Giggs have in common with David Lloyd George?

 - and Nelson Mandela and LS Lowry besides? The last name is probably the biggest clue. For the answer see the Independent's story (among others).

Unkind cuts

There is an  instructive piece by Lynne Featherstone on her experience of the Liberal Democrat party dislodging a leader, contrasting it with the efforts of Hewitt and Hoon yesterday (not to mention James Purnell's resignation last year, which was presumably also intended to trigger a leadership contest).

One other contrast could be mentioned: the fact that Charles was succeeded by Ming Campbell, a man respected throughout the party, even by those who disagreed with some of his views. It is hard to see an obvious successor to Gordon Brown who is not going to open up the splits which clearly exist in the Labour party.

Monday, 4 January 2010


It has been clear for some time that New Labour, in economic and foreign policy, was a continuation of Thatcherism.

Labour-Conservative coalitions, freezing out Liberal Democrats, are quite common in English local government. It is therefore surprising that no media commentator until now has floated the idea of a Con-Lab coalition after the next general election.

Jonathan Calder describes Martin Kettle's approach as whimsical. However, the comments on his Liberal England posting on the subject are very interesting.

I'm afraid that, unless there is a significant increase in the number of Liberal Democrat MPs at the general election, we are stuck with another five years of Thamablab (THAtcher-MAjor-BLAir-Brown) thinking.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Happy New Year to everyone, even Jack Straw

The Justice Secretary (what an Orwellian title that is) had better be careful where he parks his car after his attack on  police officers. He had also better check whether he is in a suddenly-declared S.44 area before he gets his camera out.

The reason that there are PCs doing clerical work is that government has insufficiently funded back-office staff, while insisting on the inclusion of targets for police numbers in the 'National Priorities' and 'Ministerial Priorities', which Police Authorities must comply with through their Local Plans. (There is more on