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.