Sunday, 30 December 2012

Bad year, good year, for music

2012 seems to have been a particularly bad year for music and musicians. From Etta James in January, through Whitney Houston, Dory Previn and Davy Jones in February, the year also took Earl Scruggs, Alan Hacker, Greg Ham, Levon Helm, Bert Weedon, Frank Parr, Roland Shaw, Donald "Duck" Dunn, Derek Hammond-Stroud, Donna Summer, Robin Gibb, Andy Hamilton, Herb Reed, Graeme Bell, Brian Hibbard, Evelyn Lear, Maria Cole, Lol Coxhill, Jon Lord, Kitty Wells, Graham Jackson, Colin Horsley, Jimmy Jones, Marvin Hamlisch, Ruggiero Ricci, Scott McKenzie, Ian Parrott, Joe South, George Hurst, Andy Williams, Big Jim Sullivan, Bill Dees, Hans Werner Henze, Elliott Carter, Martin Fay, Philip Ledger, Ian Campbell, Jonathan Harvey, Dave Brubeck, Charles Rosen, Lisa Della Casa, Galina Vishnevskaya, and Ravi Shankar plus a host of others whose names were unknown to me. Not all of them achieved their Biblical three-score-years-and-ten.

Just recently we lost Fontella Bass - of whom I hope there will be an appreciation on BBC-3 - and Richard Rodney Bennett.

Some of Sir Richard's public statements may have appeared snobbish or dismissive, but a sympathetic interviewer (like Francine Stock on "Front Row" or Neil Brand) could reveal his warm side. He clearly had a rapport with jazz singers Marian Montgomery, Cleo Laine and Claire Martin all of whom he accompanied in professional engagements.

2013 looks like being a good year for anniversaries. As On An Overgrown Path warns us, we are going to be awash with Britten celebrations and performances. But there was a reminder on Radio 3 this morning that George Lloyd, Morton Gould and Jerome Moross (another "classical" composer who was like Sir Richard splendidly inclusive) were also born in 1913, while in continental Europe there will be celebrations of Alkan, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi (born 1813) and Francis Poulenc (died 1963). In August it will be Gabriel Pierné's 150th and in December, Mascagni's.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Happy birthday, Leonardo Torres

Not Fernando - this is a celebration of one of the pioneers of automation, Leonardo Torres y Quevedo, who was born on this day 160 years ago.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Has the ANC really changed?

Newly re-elected party leader and South African president Jacob Zuma is determined on "political education and cadre development as well as decisive action against ill-discipline" to eliminate dissidence in the African National Congress. So, though the party has calmed international financial markets by appointing Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the nation's richest men, as deputy president and effective prime minister, the rhetoric is still straight out of the red book.

The president has to face a motion of no confidence in the South African parliament next February.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Romania becomes more liberal

There were many more newsworthy events over the weekend: yet another mass shooting in the States and key votes in Japan and Egypt rightly dominated the headlines. However, another election closer to home gave promise for the future of continental Europe. One quarter of the seats in the Romanian parliament were won in an election last week by a Liberal party, which will be the junior coalition party in a social democrat-led government.

It seems like only yesterday that Her Majesty was persuaded to entertain a brutal dictator on the grounds that Romania was a little more friendly to the West than the rest of the Communist bloc.

Friday, 14 December 2012


Expediency has triumphed over concerns about public safety. The Tories believe that gas prices will plunge in England and Wales as they have done in the United States as a result of fracking. They may well be disappointed, as Lancashire Labour MP Graham Jones points out. Even if the miracle were to happen, and the UK were to become self-sufficient in gas, would a major earthquake be a price worth paying for lower fuel bills? Geologists seem content that the tremors which fracking caused around Fylde were merely an acceleration of natural settling, but what may be relatively benign on the Lancashire plain could be destructive in more disordered geology. Even if we are willing to pay that price, what about the cost to the environment? Some may find the Green Party's language apocalyptic, but the thrust of their logic should not be ignored.

One wonders whether Ed Davey totally believed the answer he gave in the House of Commons yesterday.

In Wales, the Western Mail believes that the green light has been given to shale gas exploitation in Wales. I believe that the Welsh Government has some say in the matter, but so far they have not even issued the technical guidance to local authorities that the Liberal Democrats have called for. There is also the little matter of the local environment, which planning authorities must have regard for when making decisions.

The consideration by Bridgend CBC of an application for shale gas exploration in Maesteg will be instructive. I understand that Peter Black, AM for South Wales West, has registered an objection and that the planning committee will discuss the matter in January.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Ash die-back

- or chalara fraxinea, the binomial given it by the Polish professor who first described it. Radio 4 had an interesting programme about the fungus's origins, spread and possible remedies yesterday:

The Woodland Trust (Coed Cadw's parent organisation) has issued a handy leaflet on the fungus, with a request to report trees showing the signs pictured within. There is a chalara helpline: 08459 33 55 77 and two email addresses: and

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Permeability of the security services

I haven't read the Pat Finucane report yet, but the prime minister's summary of it in his statement in Westminster today was frightening. Sir Desmond de Silva stops short of blaming Northern Ireland Office ministers, but otherwise unfolds a grim tale of elements of the security services and of the Royal Ulster Constabulary colluding with loyalist gangs in violent action against republican sympathisers, culminating in the murder, in front of his wife and children, of a respected solicitor.

I accept that the RUC has been replaced, and that the security services are now established on a legal basis with oversight, but it seems to me that what went wrong in Northern Ireland could go wrong again. The administration should not put more information about all our personal contacts into the hands of more spooks.  Liberal Democrat MPs are right to oppose the offending provisions of the Data Communications Bill.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

I've got a handful of thongs to bring you

"Pliable", no hagiographer, has a sarcastic comment on forthcoming anniversary plans. He writes: "you can buy a Wagner thong from But I searched in vain for a Britten thong, which surely would become a collector's item. Come on Aldeburgh, step up to the plate."

Friday, 7 December 2012

Crossed kukris

If you are still casting round for a Christmas present with a difference, and want to support a good cause, why not visit the Gurkha museum shop at Although the Campaign for Justice for the Gurkhas was successful in winning the right to residence of some loyal servants of the Crown, the plight of those who live in Nepal and their families remains.

Incidentally, the Fair Fuel UK campaign has proved another success for Peter Carroll, as George Osborne was persuaded to put off a rise in fuel duty sine die. Now, if  he could only succeed on a personal level in winning a Westminster seat for the Liberal Democrats, he could make a difference on a wide range of issues.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Anyone would think they did it deliberately

Local authorities, already hard pressed to achieve responsibility for housing benefit in April 2013, are handicapped by the mess that the Labour Welsh government has made of approving the necessary regulations. The BBC story is here:

Peter Black has commented that the Welsh Government had treated the public and the Welsh Assembly with contempt, adding: "We are meant to be a legislature not the Carl Sargeant fan club."

Criminal libel

A fellow resident of Skewen (a Skewenian?) a Mr Saul Gresham, had a letter in yesterday's Independent. He wrote:

One of the reasons that people fear the press is that in order to obtain redress for wrongdoing they need to employ expensive lawyers. If, however, libel were to become a criminal offence such that public prosecutions became the first stage of legal action, then the likelihood of casual and wanton defamation would be reduced. The civil action could follow later and would be less costly to the wronged party and consequently more likely to restrain the less reputable members of the press.

In fact, there was an offence of criminal libel on the statute book until three years ago, when it was removed by an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill introduced in the Lords by the Labour government. The abolition was widely welcomed by journalists and civil rights campaigners, no doubt minded of the history of its use by authoritarian governments.

However, the escapades of the press as they affected ordinary citizens since then suggest that, rather than removing the offence altogether, it would have been more prudent to amend it along the lines Mr Gresham has in mind. In any case, a more enlightened judiciary these days would not allow its oppressive use as 18th and 19th century governments got away with.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Leveson report and the EU

Willis Pickard at Liberal Democrat Voice points out another instance of misrepresentation by the London press: its coverage of European Union matters. The defenders of the status quo maintain that all the sins which gave rise to Leveson were criminal acts,  so that there is no need for a change in the law. Here,  however, is another case where the criminal law would have been ineffective, as with the defamation of people who cannot afford recourse to law.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

More tree-felling

I'm glad I referred to the NPT web-site before I set off for a long-delayed meeting again with Friends of Craig Gwladus for their regular monthly maintenance morning. Fungal diseases of trees seem to be on the increase these days - warmer damper weather helping their spread, perhaps? - so one has to accept the council's reasons for closing the park while felling takes place and their assurances that replacement broadleaved saplings will be planted. The candidates for replacement must be restricted: ash is obviously out, elm has not yet generated immunity from so-called Dutch elm disease and there must be worries about oak. So far, the ancient oaks in the park seem to have been free of oak decline but the risk of introducing the disease on imported saplings would be too great.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Government interference: Conservatives have double standards

On the same day as most of the print media cheer David Cameron for setting his face against any laws to ensure the press meets its own code of conduct, there is a report that Theresa May wants to be as statist as Labour when it comes to state snooping on the Internet, including emails and Worldwide Web access. Nick Clegg and the parliamentary Liberal Democrat party are proving as robust over the Data Communications Bill as they are over Leveson.

Actually, the support for Leveson's "statutory underpinning" is not 100% on the LibDem benches. John Hemming, MP for Birmingham Yardley, asked the deputy prime minister yesterday: "Why do we need legislation, ministerial involvement through Ofcom and implicit licensing for news printed on dead trees, but not for news displayed on computer screens?". On the other hand, 40-odd Conservatives are said to favour Leveson's back-stop in spite of their leader's misgivings. If Labour is truly united behind Ed Miliband, then there is theoretically a majority for Leveson in the House. However, as we have seen with Lords reform, it is not enough to have a clear majority in favour of legislation if one or more of the party leaders are not willing to see the business through. We are promised a draft Bill on Leveson within a fortnight; it remains to be seen whether either a timetable or a guillotine motion will be applied to it against the virtual certainty of a filibuster by opponents of Leveson.

This split in the legislature is reflected in the pages of the Independent. Editor Chris Blackhurst asserts that legislation is not only unnecessary, but undesirable, and media editor Ian Burrell clearly agrees with him. Former editor Simon Kelner feels that the press has already had its drink in the last chance saloon. Columnist Joan Smith welcomes the Leveson report and feels let down by the prime minister. Steve Richards attacks David Cameron but does not come down on either side of the legislation argument.

It is probably obvious by  now that I side with Nick Clegg over the statutory back-stop. What finally convinced me was a interview on Good Evening, Wales with Joshua Rozenberg the lawyer/journalist. He pointed out that the legal profession, which once operated unchecked under its own rules, is now regulated by a very similar mechanism to that proposed by Leveson for the press. The Legal Services Board has a duty to see that the Bar Council (barristers) and the Law Society (solicitors) properly apply the rules they themselves have drawn up.

Where I agree with John Hemming (and with Conservative MP John Baron who put the point explicitly yesterday) is that many victims feel aggrieved because they are unable to seek justice through the legal system, which is often considered too complex and costly. Legal aid is not available for defamation cases. Ideally, there would be such strong disincentives to lies being printed in the first place that there would be no aggrieved victims.

Much has been made of the fact that the chair of Ofcom (which body Leveson sees as the equivalent of the Legal Services Board) is appointed by the minister in the Department of Culture Media and Sport. The judge is, however, open to the possibility of another organisation seen as less close to government doing the job. I suggest that another solution would be an amendment to the legislation relating to Ofcom so that the appointment is made by a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament rather than a government minister.

The press in this country - including, yes, its equivalent on the Web - is the last unregulated profession. What Leveson proposes is the same light touch as lawyers themselves have submitted to. Thinking of the memorable words that Rudyard Kipling suggested to his cousin Stanley Baldwin about power without responsibility, even harlots are more regulated than the press.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

World Food Prices

Just over four years ago, BBC World Service started an index of food prices, based on the experience of its correspondents in key locations round the globe. Unfortunately, it ceased to be kept up after a matter of months, but during its short life it hinted that some nations were weathering both the economic slump and the rise in wheat prices better than most. The last published graph is here.

Monday, 26 November 2012

UKIP threat to Conservative electoral progress

David Cameron has only himself to blame. Having won the leadership of his party by appearing to be at least as Eurosceptic as his rivals, he is now threatened because he has not fulfilled the implied promise of retracting the UK from the EU. Never mind that he recognises the value to Britain of staying within the Union (and probably had some inkling of this even before he came into government) and that he knows that the Conservatives need to appeal to a broad swathe of the UK electorate in order to succeed at the next election, the little Englanders in his party are out to get him. I have only the Indy's report to go on, but it appears that Michael Fabricant is in their number. He believes that the Conservative party is now structurally Eurosceptic and that an alliance with UKIP is necessary. There is clearly pressure on Cameron to take a harder line on our links with the continent. There is implied pressure to deselect EU-realist Conservative MPs.

All this is music to the ears of rival party leaders. The Conservative party could become more extreme - or more split. The UK electorate does not like extreme or split parties. The real threat from UKIP  is not so much in terms of votes. UKIP has probably garnered as many genuinely anti-Europe votes as it is likely to reap in 2015, in spite of support in the London press for its stance. UKIP's recent gains are as likely to be protest or anti-politician votes, as Professor Curtice points out in a side-bar to the Indy article quoted above. The greater danger for the Conservatives in my opinion is that they will lose their activists. Just as Labour party workers tend to be more socialist than their leadership and Liberal Democrats more liberal and democratic than theirs, so the average Tory constituency worker is more class-conscious and jingoistic. UKIP's domestic manifesto - leader Nigel Farage is now stressing that they are no longer a one-issue party - will appeal to those Tories also.

Labour should benefit in the relatively few constituencies which are Labour/Conservative marginals. However, unless there is some honesty in Labour campaigning in 2015, any Labour gains will we wiped out by Conservative gains over Liberal Democrats. If Labour campaigns hard for its candidates in seats where it has consistently come third, and against coalition, as it did in 2010, then the anti-Tory vote will be split where it counts most. If Labour wants cooperation with LibDems after the next general election, it would help if their leadership recognise publicly the more progressive measures which our parliamentary party have managed to achieve through the coalition, and the restraint which we have managed to impose on the most reactionary Tories.

Later: the Liberator collective has an interesting sidelight on the appeal of UKIP.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Could Zuma become another Mugabe?

Liberals in South Africa fear that another seven years of Jacob Zuma as president of the republic will lead to disastrous economic and political consequences. The Democratic Alliance has moved to remove him and his cabinet from office. A South African news site reports:

The DA has filed for an urgent court interdict to allow the motion of no confidence against President Jacob Zuma to be debated in the National Assembly, the party said on Saturday.

Parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko said the Democratic Alliance would never allow the ANC to defeat the aims of constitutional democracy. 

"That is why yesterday [Friday] I filed papers at the Western Cape High Court to seek an urgent interdict to compel the Speaker of the National Assembly to uphold the constitutional right of the opposition to have this motion debated." Mazibuko was speaking at the DA's Gauteng North Regional annual general meeting in Tshwane. She said the African National Congress was blocking the motion of no confidence against Zuma because it was scared that its own members would vote against him. "The ANC parliamentary caucus is blocking it because they fear, rightly, that their own members will side with the opposition to vote against the president," she said 

She said the Constitution allows for the motion to be considered in the National Assembly. "It is indeed a sad day when a member of Parliament must seek an order of the court to compel the legislature to respect the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, and our rights to hold the President, that we elected accountable," said Mazibuko. A motion of no confidence in Zuma was tabled on November 8. It was brought on the grounds "that under his leadership the justice system has been politicised and weakened; corruption has spiralled out of control; unemployment continues to increase, the economy is weakening, and, the right of access to quality education has been violated". 

On Thursday while answering questions in the National Assembly, Zuma said he felt "aggrieved" by media reports that the government had paid more than R200 million for his Nkandla home. Mazibuko said the public was hurting too and questioned if Zuma knew that. "How does he think the millions of people who have no work feel when their president lives in such grand splendour? How does he think the parents of children who never received textbooks... feel?" asked Mazibuko. "How does he think the widows and children of the 34 police and security officers, and mineworkers who were gunned down in cold blood at Marikana feel?"

While we are rightly concerned about the Netanyahu government's cynically timed military action in Gaza, and its effects on peace in our region, we should also be aware of the threats to democracy south of the Sahara. It should not be forgotten that the tentacles of past ANC corruption reached into the City and the last Labour government.

Friday, 16 November 2012

John Walter: perils of press proprietors' dependency on government

Today is the 200th anniversary of the death of John Walter, founder of the Daily Universal Register, which became The Times newspaper. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry records that:

"Like other newspaper proprietors of the period, Walter received money from the Treasury to ensure a degree of favourable coverage. During the later 1780s and 1790s this amounted to £300 a year."

This was at a time when the average weekly wage for a labourer in the Home Counties was 8 shillings (40p).

"Part of the agreement required Walter to publish certain paragraphs approved by the government. However, this turned out to be a disastrous bargain for Walter, since on 21 February 1789 he printed articles from Thomas Steele, the joint secretary of the Treasury, which accused the royal dukes of insincerity in celebrating the king's recovery from illness and of conducting an opposition party. Steele's articles were declared by the courts to be libels on the royal dukes. Walter was sentenced in November to a £50 fine and a year's imprisonment for his attack on the duke of York. While still in prison, Walter was further tried for libels on the prince of Wales and the duke of Clarence, and sentenced to an additional £200 in fines and a further year in prison."


When Paddy Ashdown speaks on military matters, and especially on the sort of expeditions on which he has experience, then the powers that be need to listen. I remember his advising four or five years ago that we should keep our forces in Afghanistan, but change our strategy, because there was still - just - support among the population for their ability to keep the peace. That support has clearly evaporated.

That does not mean that we should forget Afghanistan. There is not only a moral requirement to continue to support good governance and the social well-being of what is one of the poorest countries in the world, there is also the self-interested motive which was the Labour government's pretext for putting our troops there in the first place: preventing the country becoming a breeding-ground and safe haven for terrorists. There is already civil support from EU nations and from Canada. The UK should share in this.

There is probably enough mineral wealth to support a viable Afghan state, if multi-national corporations, with the aid of warlords and/or private militias, are prevented from exploiting it at the expense of the nation. A start could also be made to increase Afghanistan's income by licensing the opium, which their farmers have some expertise in producing, for medical purposes.

Monday, 12 November 2012

One misidentification does not refute a large body of evidence

Before people who weren't around at the time dismiss the evidence of widespread abuse because of one fouled-up Newsnight segment, they should read the report by the respected journalist Nick Davies:

There may even be copies out there of the Jillings report, which had officially been ordered to be pulped.

He Di

Never mind Xi Jinping, He Di (pronounced "Her Dee") with his Boyuan Foundation could be the most significant person in the China which will shortly become economically the most powerful nation on the planet.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

One has to make a choice in the PCC election

Electing Police and Crime Commissioners is a backward step. That is not only the view of the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties, but also that of students of the history of the process in the United States. Police authorities, which the new posts will replace, may have their faults, but their constitution allowed for proportional representation of political views across a police region. The PCC system means that one man's (and throughout Wales, it is bound to be a man) views will prevail.

However, we must face the reality that PCCs will soon come into existence. If we care about ensuring the least bad option, we have to vote. It is tempting to spoil the ballot, but so far nobody has come up with a way of making sure that a mass spoiling registers with the government.

I believe in keeping party politics out of policing. I shall therefore be giving my votes to the independent candidates, even though both are based in the Cardiff region. My first preference will be Mike Baker, because of his relevant experience, though ideally the PCC should have business acumen as well.

Churchill, Carter, Obama, Affleck

Coincidentally, at the same time as I was reading "Patriot of Persia", Christopher de Bellaigue's biography of Muhammad Mossadegh, Channel 4 broadcast a programme about an Israeli war-game posited on a first strike against Iran and Ben Affleck's "Argo" was released in the UK.

Affleck had prepared himself for directing his fact-based thriller by reading up on what had led up to the Islamic revolution which forms the background to "Argo", as his gallop through post-war Iranian history on Radio 4's "Film Programme" demonstrated. The only thing missing from this objective overview was the trigger for the US Tehran embassy siege, the decision by that decent man, president Jimmy Carter, to allow the deposed Shah to enter the US for urgent medical treatment. This was misread by the revolutionary guards, including a young Ahmedinajad, as political support for the hated dictator. The economic situation of the time is widely blamed for Carter's loss to Reagan in the presidential election of 1980, but the mishandling of the embassy siege, which made the US look weak, must have contributed.

Another decent man, Barack Obama, has apologised for the United States' part in the coup which gave the Shah absolute power in 1953. So far, neither the United Kingdom government, BP (the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company as it was then) nor the BBC (the Overseas Service had abandoned its traditional neutrality in order to assist the coup) have done the same. Churchill and Anglo-Iranian played on the American fear of Communist advance to induce the US to take the lead in removing Persia's democratic elected government, in order to maintain Anglo-Iranian's semi-colonial status in the oil-bearing region.

As Bellaigue's book makes clear,  the Iranian communists, the Tudeh party, were a nuisance, but nowhere near strong enough to take power. Mossadegh, on the other hand, was a democrat (even though he had arguably a more royal pedigree than the Shah, scion of the usurping Pahlavis) who had widespread support on account of his demonstrable incorruptibility. Bellaigue suggests that "Mossadegh's Iran would have tilted to the West in foreign affairs, bound by oil to the free world and by wary friendship to the U.S., but remaining polite to the big neighbour [USSR] to the north. In home affairs, it would have been democratic to a degree unthinkable in any Middle Eastern country of the time except Israel - a constitutional monarchy in a world of dictatorships, dependencies and uniformed neo-democracies. The broad strokes of his government would have been egalitarian and redistributive, with a planned economy eroding the power of the 'thousand families', but dappled with elitism (a literacy condition for voters; a penchant for French-educated cabinet mnisters). In social affairs, secularism and personal liberty would have been the lodestones, and the hejab and alcohol a matter of personal conscience. Sooner or later, women would have got the vote."

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Thatcherite governments

Labour has been fond of saying that the "Conservative-led government" is "more Thatcherite than Thatcher". While agreeing that Clegg, Alexander and Laws could probably squeeze a little more out of David Cameron, on a number of scores the coalition is not only more liberal than the Thatcher/Major governments, but also less Thatcherite than New Labour.

For instance:

ID cards
Published Green Paper proposing a national database of personal details.
Legislated for national database and compulsory ID cards
Repealed database and ID legislation
Public photography
Permitted arrest of anyone taking photographs near public buildings
Repealed the law in question (section 44 of theTerrorism Act 2000 )
State Pensions
Broke the link between state pension and the wage rate index
Did nothing, resulting in the farce one year of a 75p weekly increase
Established triple-lock: pensions tied to highest of 2.5%, the wage rate index and CPI
Top tax
Cut top rate of tax to 40%
Did nothing for twelve years, then introduced a top rate of 50% which lasted 36 days of their administration.
Set top rate at 45%.
Post Offices
Closed around 7,000 post offices
Closed a further 6,000 post offices
Ended programme of post office closures
Military invasions
Permitted US invasion of Grenada, a Commonwealth country

Joined US in invasion of Iraq
Has resisted direct intervention in Libya, Syria, Iran

Friday, 9 November 2012

Ramsay Mac

Today is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the death of James MacDonald Ramsay . He had a heart attack while playing deck quoits on board a cruise liner, something which his opponents no doubt had a sardonic chuckle over. Widely seen as the arch-betrayer of the Labour Party at the time, his reputation as someone who made the modern Labour Party possible (and virtually destroying the Liberals as a party of government in the process) has grown in recent years.

In a neat bit of synchronicity, it is also ninety years since he fled his Leicester seat, where he was looking insecure, for South Wales. As the ODNB puts it, "In 1918 Aberafan, like most of Wales, had been a Lloyd George fief, but when the general election came in November 1922 MacDonald was elected with a majority of 3207."

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

We must resist back-door Beecroft

I am grateful to Gareth Epps for this analysis:

George Osborne is proposing to give rights to employees in companies to have shares, in return for reduced employment rights. This proposal has caused considerable concern among Liberal Democrats, especially as we have only last month at our Autumn Conference brought forward serious and detailed proposals on Mutuals, Employee Ownership and Workplace Democracy. While our plans enjoy wider backing in the tradition of Liberal co-ownership proposals dating back to the Jo Grimond era, Osborne’s rushed plans (announced barely a fortnight ago) do not.

Osborne’s proposals seem to be an attempt to bring back the discredited Beecroft proposals by the back door: proposals which had no support in the world of business, or anywhere else for that matter. He has managed the feat of uniting the CBI, TUC and the Chartered Institute of Personnel &
Development (CIPD) in opposition. A recent YouGov poll showed that Conservatives are more likely (by 46 to 37 per cent) to be against the proposals than for them. The body representing employee-owned business, the Employee Owners’ Association, says (see that the proposals are completely unnecessary: that ‘there is no need to dilute the rights of workers in order to grow employee ownership and no data to suggest that doing so would significantly boost the number of employee owners. Indeed all of the evidence is that employee ownership in the UK is growing and the businesses concerned thriving, because they enhance not dilute the working conditions and entitlements of employee owners.’

Apart from George Osborne and a handful of Tories, there is no support for these unworkable proposals, much less a body of evidence in support. Indeed, it is only evidence that will consign them to their rightful fate.

There are a number of flaws to the proposals as they currently stand, including:
  • The concern that an unemployed person may be compelled to enter a job without rights or face losing their JSA.
  • The tax break proposed by Osbourne would appear to be of greatest benefit to financial services firms in the City - a blank cheque to bankers.
  • The tax break takes no account of the over 100,000 existing employee owners in the UK, all of whom have full employment rights.
  • Just like Beecroft, many of the proposals will not do anything to allow entrepreneurial businesses to grow better.

Ten years ago, I was working for what was one of the fastest-growing companies in the UK. It ruthlessly used legal procedures to incentivise its workforce, while removing employees not felt to be doing enough, or re-employing them as consultants. That can be lawfully done - why do more now? Well, as Lucy Bone in Huffington Post puts it: ‘It is high-earners who could profit most from the Employee/Owner scheme.

They will see the opportunity to make their remuneration package as tax efficient as possible. The proposal has most obvious synergy for City workers, whose high salaries disincentivise them from bringing unfair dismissal claims and who are paid large bonuses, often in shares. These employees will be paying higher rates of income tax and CGT, and so have much to gain from today's proposal. Ironic, perhaps, that a proposal to help small business may in fact bring benefits to that most unloved of employees: the banker.’

The consultation site is still open for a couple of days (note that it was launched not long ago, giving less notice than the govenment's own rules, which state that consultation to changes in
the law is supposed to last for 12 weeks.) It can be accessed via the Internet at:
You can respond directly to the consultation at

Care homes not safe yet

Southern Cross, the health services company which failed spectacularly last year, had at least twenty residential care homes in South Wales, two of them in Neath Port Talbot borough. It seems from this piece in the Independent yesterday that the successor companies which took over its operations are no more transparent and not much less indebted than Southern Cross. HC-One, which runs Clwydi Gwyn in Skewen, is ultimately based in the Cayman Islands. There is still a possibility that the debt burden which dragged Southern Cross down could in turn see the end of its successors (NHP/HC-One owes £1.8bn).

The saving grace is that the law prevents residents being turned out on the street.

Monday, 5 November 2012

North Wales child abuse

Bravo, Roger Pinney, Eddie Mair and his editor. Everything I was calling for yesterday in PM today.

Here's hoping that David Cameron is as good as his word and that the Welsh government are kept in the loop.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The news is right here, BBC

It is virtually impossible to find on the Web a justification for BBC's blanket coverage of the US presidential election. The cynic would suggest that BBC staff like being in the States, especially during the pre-Christmas (and -Hanukkah)  shopping season. Besides, there is lots of free TV footage, courtesy of the campaign teams.

Presumably, if put in the dock over this, the director general would say that it is necessary to inform the British public about who is going to run the free world for the next four years. That view would be defensible if BBC-News actually reported on how the election of either Obama or Romney would affect the rest of the world. If anything, Romney would be slightly better for the UK economy - though not necessarily for the generality of Americans - yet there is a barely disguised bias towards Obama in the media coverage here. (That is not an endorsement of Romney, by the way, and it is based on the premise that he would not start or abet an attack on Iran.) Instead, the BBC is more concerned with process, treating the poll as if it were just another sporting contest.

As I type, BBC-News is belatedly but slowly waking up to the implications of the paedophile ring centred on North Wales childrens homes in the 1970s or 1980s. When the edited and anonymised Waterhouse Report was published in 2000, Paul Murphy, the then Welsh Secretary said that there was no evidence of a high-level paedophile conspiracy. In view of recent allegations by Rod Richards (former Conservative MP and AM) and Labour MP Tom Watson, one wonders whether he would care to review that statement.

In any case, a whole generation has grown up since Bryn Estyn. The BBC has a duty to inform them of the historical background, as well as reminding those who were around at the time of the extent of the abuse. Now that the Children's Commissioner for Wales has added his voice to the demands for a fuller and more transparent inquiry, it is no time to allow the US horse-race to bury bad news.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

More on "The Magnet"

This film, shot in the late 1940s partly on the streets of the county borough of Wallasey, has featured disproportionately on this blog and on Liberal England. Yet another reminder of yet another nom-de-guerre appears in the obituaries pages of today's Independent. John Clive, veteran supporting actor and latterly a thriller writer (a work based on the death of Dr David Kelly was left unpublished at his death) made his first film appearance in the Ealing comedy under the name "Clive Kendall".

Monday, 29 October 2012

Labour has short-changed taxpayer

I had thought that the so-called "Short money" was provided to opposition parties in order for them, among other things, to develop policy in the absence of access to civil servants which they would have had if they had been in government. However, the Independent today reveals that the Electoral Commission has a separate special fund "designed to help parties draft manifestoes and explore policy areas". Labour has received a total of £954,691 for this purpose since the last general election.

At the time of Labour's Manchester rally, I blogged an objection to the party's booting policy discussion into the long grass. It seems that we have been short-changed not only as electors but also as taxpayers.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Hear your police commissioner candidates

The two politicians and the two independent candidates for the post of police and crime commissioner (PCC) for the South Wales area were interviewed for half-an-hour by Vaughan Roderick on BBC-Wales' "Sunday Supplement" this morning. The Web page for this programme is at

The outcome illustrated many of the flaws in the whole Conservative experiment. (It should be remembered that the United States of America, where the system originated, has given up on electing their police commissioners.) I would single out Alun Michael for an unashamedly party political approach - virtually all his answers included an attack on the coalition government. Caroline Jones, to be fair, began with a non-party pitch, but was dragged into a partisan fight by Michael's approach. One is still disappointed by her support for not only the PCC concept, but also the bias in the electoral process to those candidates with money behind them.

There is a BBC summary of the candidates here:

The candidates' web-sites are:

Saturday, 27 October 2012

103 years of a Liberal reform to end

It is piquant that a Liberal Democrat in a coalition with Conservatives should administer the funeral oration over the last vestiges of something initiated by a Liberal who went on to become a famous Conservative prime minister. David Heath, the new minister for agriculture, is presiding over the consultation about the ending of the Agricultural Wages Board.

On Thursday 25th October, this interchange took place during DEFRA questions in the House:
Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): In 2009, the Minister said : “any weakening of the Agricultural Wages Board or its abolition would further impoverish the rural working class, exacerbating social deprivation and the undesirable indicators associated with social exclusion”. What has changed, and how would he explain that change to the 1,020 workers who were previously protected by the board in his constituency?
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr David Heath): I think I know rather more about workers in my constituency than the hon. Gentleman. I am aware of the circumstances in the agricultural industry, and I am also aware that there are now many protections for low-paid workers. I would not be proceeding with the consultation unless I was convinced that this was in the interests of those who work in my constituency and throughout the country.

Winston Churchill, when a minister in the great reforming Liberal administration of the early 1900s, pushed through the Trade Boards Act 1909. The incentive for the Act was described in the 1928 "Yellow Book":

The determination of wage-rates is pre-eminently a subject for collective bargaining, and constant readjustment is needed as the conditions change through the introduction of new processes, the expansion and contraction of markets, and the rise and fall of prices or of the cost of living. But there are many minor trades so ill-organised that collective bargaining cannot take place.

The Act

set up machinery for the fixing of minimum wage-rates where lack of organisation deprived the worker of  adequate protection, and for enforcing these rates by process of law

The boards mirrored collective bargaining elsewhere, the workers and management both being represented under a neutral chairman. However, representatives were appointed by the government. Before the Great War, only seven trades were covered, but after a revising Act of 1918, a further twenty-nine were added before the Conservatives took control in 1922. Agricultural wages had to wait for a minority Labour government in 1924.

The system was given a boost and new names by the Attlee administration with the Wages Councils Act 1945 and the Agricultural Wages Act 1948. It survived successive Conservative and Labour administrations until the advent of Margaret Thatcher. The putsch which she began was virtually completed by John Major in 1993. The only survivor was the Agricultural Wages Board.

Blair-Brown did not resurrect the wages boards, but instead gave us the minimum wage. The AWB may therefore be seen as something of an anomaly.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

More power to local councils

Steve Richards is agin it. When I saw the headline in his comment piece in the Independent on Thursday ("So you're in favour of giving councils more power? Neither am I"), my reaction was that here was a democratic socialist typically defining democracy strictly in terms of the central politburo in Westminster. Closer reading reveals that his argument is more nuanced than that, but still wrong in my opinion.

He asserts that local services are increasingly provided by private and third-sector organisations answerable only to Westminster. He also seems to be saying that because Parliament has powers to summon ministers to make statements to the House of Commons, statements which can be questioned, and local councils cannot call decision-makers to account, then powers should not be devolved to local authorities.

The snappy answer to the last point is to grant more powers of scrutiny along with the powers to run more services locally. But my contention is that the scrutiny powers are there anyway. The last round of local government legislation strengthened the scrutiny function. Moreover, most full council meetings have the powers, within a certain time window, to call in decisions rather than rubber-stamp them. There is also the possibility of tabling a motion for debate in council, which would also have the effect of cabinet members (or mayor) and officers to answer for their actions. Members of opposition groups seem to use the latter weapon to effect in England, while in Wales it seems too often to remain sheathed. During my brief tenure on Neath Port Talbot CBC, I obtained a debate on the level of ex-council house rents. I was told by an officer that this was the first time that the standing orders had been used in that way since the authority had been set up in 1996. Mr Richards would no doubt ask me what the outcome was, and I would have to admit that the chair (illegitimately, in my opinion) curtailed discussion and the Labour majority on the council voted it down. But that brings me on to other point.

Mr Richards says: "If a free school flopped, Michael Gove would have questions to answer on the Today programme. Under the robust regime of the Speaker, John Bercow, Gove would also be in the Commons responding to an Urgent Question after his Today appearance." I put it to him that if the Tories had a majority in the House, the Speaker would have not felt as free to exercise his powers. Indeed, if there had been a Conservative overall majority in 2010, the scuttle was that Bercow, more liked by Labour and Liberal Democrats than by Tories, would have been out on his ear.

In the end, what is achieved by an Urgent Question? I suggest that, apart from dragging a minister to the House, it has no more effect than the powers which local authorities have. The issue is aired, seen by political anoraks on BBC-Parliament, and perhaps is picked up by the more serious newspapers. The government will make sure that no further action is taken, unless the coalition partners do not see eye-to-eye, in which case the questionable decision would probably not have been made in the first place.

We have a rare, and I fear probably brief, period when the electorate has given more power to ordinary members of the House of Commons than if any party had an absolute majority. This has led to more back-bench debates, and more scrutiny of ministers.

If we want to perpetuate this in Westminster, we need to introduce proportional voting for general elections. If we want to make local government more representative, and increase its power of scrutiny, we need to do the same there. STV works in Scottish local government, why not in England and Wales?
And let's have more decisions made at the appropriate level, not handed down from on high.

I'm not crowing yet

I did predict some time ago a 1-1.2% growth in GDP at the end of the year, but that was for year-on-year growth. Today's figures show a 1% (or 0.8% if one takes out the notional contribution of the Olympics) increase of the third quarter of 2012 over the second. I am, however, looking forward to this time in January and the explanations from the IMF and others as to the accuracy of their forecasts.

It is surely the right time, before we experience another Lawsonian or Brownian boom-and-bust, to tighten mortgage lending rules, as the FSA intend to do.

Monday, 22 October 2012

ANC showing itself in its true colours

The ruling African National Congress in South Africa has always been linked with Soviet communism. Admittedly, no other major power was interested in supporting the underground opposition during the years of struggle against the racist National government, but it does mean that a core of ANC activists received their political education from Stalinist cadres. The authoritarian mind-set came to international prominence at Marikana.

Now there are signs of political paranoia as the State Security Agency has turned its attention to the Democratic Alliance, the South African party which is a member of Liberal International, forming close links with Britain. In the line of fire are Western Cape premier Helen Zille, who has been promoting South Africa in this country, and her former assistant Mark Coetzee who has been taken on by Nick Clegg as an adviser.

Thursday, 18 October 2012


I haven't had time to read the WAO report referred to in the local Liberal Democrat blog, but it is already clear that people, including our own AM Peter Black, are pulling their punches in the area of the links between the Labour party and the leadership of the Swansea-based All-Wales Ethnic Minority charity. Maybe the file which is said to be with the CPS covers this issue, but I doubt it.

There is also the wider question as to how the Welsh government regulates grant-funding generally, as raised in the discussion on Radio Wales this morning (available until 25th Oct.) and in this contribution to  Iain Dale's blog by Ali Goldsworthy.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

McCarthyism by another name

It seems that the covert blacklist of trade unionists and other "troublemakers" (usually those who blow the whistle on unsafe practices) is alive and well. Its latest manifestation is the Consulting Association. An ancestor was the Economic League.

It was interesting to come across an 18th century precedent when reading "Darwin's Ghosts" by Rebecca Stott. (This is a very readable and informative book, by the way, which incidentally gives due credit to one-time Neath resident Alfred Russel Wallace.) Stott describes how Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, worried about how his late book "Zoonomia", which contained a chapter casting doubt on the Biblical description on creation, would be received.

Was Erasmus frustrated by the silence? It is impossible to know. He seems to have been living on tenterhooks. He was under surveillance; he knew that. Three years earlier, John Reeve, a judge in London, had set up the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers, employing spies in every town who were instructed to watch local subversives.

I don't suppose this was the first instance of what we would now call McCarthyism, but it was still surprising to see how well organised it was at so early a date.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Brod/Kafka archive to be made public at last

If I hadn't been aware of Franz Kafka and Max Brod before starting A-level German, the inspired critical linking of the impersonal and arbitrary legal system of Josef K's world in The Trial with the operation of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe would have brought the lifetime friends to my attention. (In reality, the sufferings of Josef K and of K in The Castle almost certainly relate more to religious guilt and redemption than politics, but the parallels are compelling.) As it was, encouraged to read German literature beyond our set book of a Stefan Zweig novella, I not only picked up the Kafka novels but also a collection of German poetry. In this, there was a mysterious poem, entitled "Paradiesfische auf dem Tisch" if I recall correctly, by Max Brod.

Max Brod it was who preserved the most significant of Kafka's works when he escaped from Prague to Israel before the shoah. Kafka had asked those who possessed any of his writings to burn them after his death. Fortunately for posterity, nobody seems to have obeyed this request. For a long time, the Brod archive, apart from the Kafka novels, has remained under lock and key. Its tortuous history and the momentous legal decision which enables it eventually to be made available on the Web are outlined here. To be fair to Brod's heiress, Esther Hoffe, her motives in holding on to the Kafka papers seem to have been to draw attention to Brod who she felt was undervalued. What motivated her daughters' intransigence, I can only surmise.

Certainly, Brod is a significant figure in his own right. In addition to his own books and poetry, he was Leoš Janáček's biographer and librettist. It speaks a lot for Brod's character that the ultra Slav nationalist Janáček worked with him.

I will be interested (if my German is still up to it!) in reading the correspondence between the two friends and other cultural figures of the 'twenties and 'thirties, including the aforementioned Stefan Zweig.

Home Secretary's statements today

Mrs May made the right decision over Gary McKinnon, but on rather dodgy grounds. She clumsily avoided her shadow's direct question as to whether the Home Office had obtained independent medical advice on Mr McKinnon's condition. She explicitly relied on the medical evidence put forward by the defence, which suggests that other factors dominated her thinking. Today's decision does not address the underlying flaw in the extradition treaty with the US, that it is asymmetric in its operation.

Mrs May also shaded the views which she put forward yesterday over the European Arrest Warrant. It is good news that the government is actually going to talk to the Commission about Tory objections to it. One hopes that she will also talk to fellow EU justice ministers (it is the council of ministers after all who ultimately makes EU decisions), where she will probably find much support over one of the quibbles she raised today, that the EAW sweeps up very trivial offences.

Tories seem to want to revive the Costa Del Crime

The presence in Spain of fugitives from British justice, safe because the European Arrest Warrant procedure was not made retrospective, is a permanent affront. The EAW made sure that there was no increase in their numbers. It has also made it possible to repatriate drug-dealers and paedophiles from other parts of Europe to stand trial here.

Yesterday's statement by Home Secretary Theresa May throws the UK's participation in the EAW after 2014 into doubt. Mrs May intends that we should opt out from EU justice powers but thereafter pick and choose what aspects we should opt in to. This is dangerous. It presupposes that the British public will not elect a more reactionary government at the next general election, which could come as soon as 2014. The benefits from opting-in far outweigh the losses.

There have been hard cases. To my mind, those individuals who have suffered from defective prosecutions would have been aided by more vigorous consular support.

When a fellow party member agrees with a Liberal Democrat MEP colleague that she has got it wrong, Mrs May should think again.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Employment rights and economic growth

David Blanchflower in the Independent uses these data from the OECD to make the point that further reducing employee rights is hardly likely to improve the UK's economic performance, given that our light touch is second only to that of the USA. America's own economic performance and rate of re-employment after the 2008 crash are hardly exemplary. The same could be said about Hungary and Ireland, also below the OECD average.

(click on the graphic for a better view)
Four of the six most regulated countries - Portugal, Spain, Greece and France - are among the least favoured by the ratings agencies. A large part of the economic woes of Greece and Spain is due to the failure to collect tax due. The "black" economy of Spain and Portugal is said to comprise between 20 - 25% of activity. There is much grumbling in France about the costs of employing people and threats to move businesses to England. That all seems to back up the theory that less regulation would encourage more work "on the books".

However, equal top of the employee protection league is Turkey, whose economy is thriving - so much so, that the UK continues to support her case for entry to the EU. Germany, Norway and Sweden too have more employment protection in place than the OECD average.

It seems to me that not only does employment protection legislation not harm the national economy, but that it may also dampen the effects of external shocks, such as the 2008 credit failure. More important is a cohesive and respected revenue system.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The UK’s First Renewable Micro Grid

I am in the middle of a sort-out of old periodicals, accumulated while I was serving on the council and not having time to digest thoroughly. Among them is a copy of CAT Supporters Update, in which there is a description of the centre's micro-grid, providing up to 30kW of electrical power at the time of its installation in 2009. The system integrates all the wind, solar, biomass and hydro energy on site and is linked to the national grid via an automatic switch box. There is also a battery providing 3 hours of back-up if all the sources cease.

It is good to see that not only is the system still going strong, but that CAT also has a meter on its blog showing the output currently.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Switched on at last

The headline and the map extract are cribbed from the October issue of Railwatch magazine. The editor has celebrated the coalition government's announcement of railway improvement schemes all over England & Wales* by spreading the map over the front and back covers.

It's nice to have an excuse to remind people of the government's commitment to improving transport in South Wales (and that the new trains will be built in Britain), but I would also point out a little patch of red in the top right corner of my extract. This represents electrification of  the line from Barnt Green to Bromsgrove. This is clearly intended to improve the reliability and frequency of trains from the Worcestershire town into Birmingham, but it also happens to be on the routes to the Midlands from Cardiff and Bristol. Surely the next step is to extend electrification to Cheltenham, Gloucester and Worcester and later to Wales.

Not obvious is another significant improvement, on the branch line from Barnt Green (where the new extension of electrification will begin) to Redditch. This narrowly escaped the Beeching axe, but was given a new lease of life with electrification. From two or three journeys per day in each direction in cheap and already aged diesel multiple units, frequency has increased to two per hour through much of the day. Passenger traffic is now so buoyant that it is deemed necessary to double-track the branch, increasing frequency to three per hour. There is a lesson here for Network Rail and the Welsh Government with respect to the electrification of the Valley and Llynfi Lines.

*It seems that the SNP government in Edinburgh is going in the opposite direction, cutting back on some projects previously programmed.

West Coast cock-up - or conspiracy?

It is a pity that Railwatch went to press before the West Coast Main Line débâcle, though it did catch the cabinet reshuffle which saw Justine Greening replaced by Patrick McLoughlin as Transport minister. It would have been good to have the insights of the experts of Railfuture. However, more of the reasons for the collapse of the bidding process have come to light. One did have suspicions when the name "Goldman Sachs" came up, though the ex-banker in question denies direct involvement in the bidding process. It appears that the mistakes were not in calculations as such, but in assigning weightings to future passenger numbers and inflation, both in the guidelines provided to bidders and in the assessment of the bids. There is a suggestion that there was a bias against Virgin Trains in the Department because of the way that Richard Branson outsmarted the civil servants when he renegotiated the franchise in 2006. There is obviously a need for the inquiries which Mr McLoughlin has initiated.


Another announcement which Railwatch was too late to catch was that English rail fares would not rise (as scheduled) by inflation plus 3% in the New Year, but by inflation plus 1%. For this, credit must largely go to Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat minister in the Department. But two questions remain: why use the discredited RPI (which is almost always higher than CPI) as the measure of inflation; and what is going to happen in Wales?

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

More Taliban barbarism

Caron Lindsay has already written at length about the latest affront to civilisation in the Swat valley. I would just like to add this reference which underlines that the prophet himself would have condemned the attempted murder of a fourteen-year-old girl.

In particular (the emphases are mine):

Anna King, a modern Muslim woman and a convert - or, better to say, a revert - to Islam, explains the Islamic emancipation of women as follows:

"Islam first gave women their rights in a time when women were nothing but the property of men. Islam gave women the right to buy and sell on their own, own businesses and express her views politically. These were all basic rights which the American woman was not granted until relatively recently! It also encouraged women to study and learn Islamic knowledge, breaking a ban which several religions had stipulated, which forbid women to acquire any religious knowledge or touch religious texts... It also abolished the practice of marrying a woman without her consent. Thus, one would have to be very stubborn indeed to refuse such obvious facts and proofs that Islam was women's first liberator."

The tendencies to see women as "an inferior species" who has no right for education and that must be totally secluded from the society arose much later in the Islamic world, as a result of deviations from the right Qur'anic path.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Origins of one-nation conservatism

Ed Miliband, George Osborne and even Wikipedia ascribe the concept of "one nation conservatism" to Disraeli, and in particular to his Manchester speech of 1872. However, Jane Ridley, one of Dizzy's biographers, has stated that he never used the actual expression "one nation". The nearest he comes to it is by exception, in this excerpt from his novel Sybil: "Two nations [...] who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones [and so on]".

It has been an annoying exercise to pin down a phrase which seems to have been with one since childhood. The Web has not been of much help, but thanks to Anthony Sampson's Anatomy of Britain I believe that it was Iain Macleod who fixed the expression in the nation's consciousness when he founded the "One Nation" group of new Conservative MPs on his election in 1950. Macleod explicitly saw himself as a political heir of Disraeli, though one wonders whether he also had in the back of his mind the United States pledge to "one nation under God".

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Online Neath Guardian

This is a belated (seven days late) acknowledgement of the launch of a new online newspaper under the title "Neath Guardian" (no connection with the Trinity Mirror corporation which presumably still owns the title of the late lamented print edition).

I wish the webmaster well in their new endeavour, and hope that correspondents from all over the district of Neath will support the publication with news and views.

Another Liberal hero

Sunday Supplement is a mine of information. For instance, I didn't realise that Disraeli's beloved Mary Anne was born in Cardiff until Vaughan Roderick dropped that information into a discussion about "one nation" (a phrase which Dizzy never used, incidentally).

But I am most indebted to this morning's programme for turning me on to William Powell (WRH Powell, not his more conservative antecedent), the radical Liberal MP for Carmarthenshire 1880-1889, about whom the local history society has just published a book. While remaining true to the land-owning class's leisure pursuits of hunting and horse-racing, he had a genuine concern for his tenants. For instance, he provided a school free of the dogma taught in the otherwise obligatory (Anglican) church school, to which his largely non-conformist tenants objected. He abolished toll-gates where he could, thus defusing locally the Rebecca Riots which rumbled on in other parts of Wales.

On the national front, "he advocated the disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales, education for all, tenants' rights, expansion of the franchise, local democracy, Home Rule for Ireland and for Wales". His radical stance provoked the Western Mail into dubbing him a "communist". I'm sure he would be fighting further social security cuts if he were a member for Carmarthen today.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Tax drives oil rig firm HQ from Stavanger

Seadrill, the world's biggest offshore rig company according to this report from News and Views from Norway, is to move its corporate HQ from Stavanger. Possible destinations include Houston (Texas), London, Dubai and Singapore. The major reason is the tax régime in Norway.

The timing of the decision ("before year end") may be significant. By then, the result of the US presidential election will be known and the UK "autumn" statement will have been debated.

One trusts that the chancellor will not be tempted into loosening financial controls or reducing corporation tax further for the sake of attracting corporate tax tourists.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

West Coast main line rethink

The Guardian account has the sub-head: "Transport secretary announces competition has been cancelled following discovery of flaws in franchise process". The smart response to this is that people were pointing out the flaws both in John Major's original scheme and Labour's rejigging a long time ago.

I don't believe that "civil servants can't do sums" is the whole story. It looks as if politics, both at the political level and within the Department, influenced both the original award to First Group and its reversal. There will surely be developments. It's a pity that the story broke too late for this week's "Private Eye".

Meanwhile, government has decided that the taxpayer will reimburse all the original bidders (not just First and Virgin) for their costs, some tens of millions of pounds in total.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Policy-free Labour conference

I thought this was going to be the conference which confirmed the direction that the Labour Party would be taking after their election defeat. Policy commissions had been set up which duly reported in the summer of this year. One would presume that after tidying up by the various party committees, each policy initiative would have been summarised in a proposition for conference to approve. Instead, as I understand it, the proposals are to be distributed to the grass roots for their comments in a new Web-based consultation exercise. It looks like pushing unpalatable (either to the executive or to the party's backers) decisions over the horizon.

I shall probably be told that it's all a part of the new spirit of localism and democracy which has been injected into the party. Certainly, that is to be welcomed. But there are signs that it was a fairly late decision not to stage policy debates in Manchester. Large slabs of time have been taken up by non-party events. There was the stimulating seminar led by Michael Sandel on the theme of the market economy on the opening day. Today, we saw the very ecumenical (Conservative peer Seb Coe featured prominently) celebration of the successes of the London Olympics.

Some ideas have been thrown out by shadow ministers, but there is no sign that they have been through the mill of Labour's democratic processes. There were presentations of laudable local initiatives, like food banks. There was a strong feeling for the Union with Scotland. On substantive changes in formal policy, not a word.

So far, this has been a conference dedicated to polishing Labour's image and, for the faithful, of improving the mechanisms of winning elections, though very little about what they would change if they do win.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Guess whose book has just come out in paperback

Peter Hain was at odds with Harriet Harman on Radio Wales this morning by calling for a Labour/LibDem coalition.

As I commented earlier, such calls are either mischievous or wishful thinking, because the electoral arithmetic in 2014 or 2015 is going to be very different from that of today. There are even signs from council by-elections this year that Labour support is already receding from its peak in May.

The pro-coalitionists point to the appointment of Paddy Ashdown as election campaign chief as evidence that the Liberal Democrats are planning for another LibLab pact in 2015. Certainly, Paddy was in favour of merging the two parties when Blair was Labour leader, but then Alex Carlile was another who wanted to join us to Labour in 1997. Lord Carlile now favours merger with the Conservatives. I'm not saying that Paddy is on the same trajectory, but that things change over fifteen years. I sense that, after two years of participating in government, Liberal Democrats in parliament at least have more self-confidence, enabling them to make more objective choices as to who to collaborate with.

What I most objected to this morning was Mr Hain's claim that the coalition was more right-wing than Thatcher. In so far as "far right-wing" means anything, it calls to mind authoritarianism and the suppression of civil liberties. It should be remembered that Labour introduced detention without trial, locking up refugee children, enabling people to be arrested for taking photographs near public buildings and, if the 2010 election had not intervened, would have introduced compulsory ID cards and a central database of personal details of every citizen.

That was all ended in coalition, thanks largely to Liberal Democrats. As well as acknowledging and apologising for its acceptance of Thatcherite economics, Labour should also roll back its illiberal social policies.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Political parties and flight from justice to Cyprus

The coincidence of the sentencing of Asul Nadir and publication of a new book by Ken Follett was a reminder of another incident nearly twenty years ago. It should be stressed that the financial transactions involving the Labour party and Mr Follett with Mr Costas were conducted in all good faith.