Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2014 CE

The worst things seem to happen to me in even-numbered years, so I approach midnight with some trepidation. Moving away from the personal, so many signs look good. Admittedly, international clouds have yet to disperse: Syria and Egypt seem to be getting worse, while trouble is flaring again in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. However, the UK employment figures are heading in the right direction, although a rise in incomes at the lower end is long overdue. The party has passed its lowest point in terms of membership and there are signs that clear gold water between the Liberal Democrats and their coalition partners is becoming evident to the public.

So here's hoping for a good 2014. We must brace ourselves for media overkill on the centenary of the Great War, but also hope that celebrations of Dylan Thomas do him proud.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Refugees need practical help, not gestures

It struck me as odd that Nigel Farage was quite ready to open British doors to 2 million refugees from Syria even though he has objected to "millions" of Bulgarian and Romanian fellow-citizens of the EU entering the country. His media release would be more convincing if he had previously spoken out against the consistent discrimination against refugees not only by this government but the previous one. Crucially, there is rarely any safe place to go for individuals facing extreme prejudice in their country of origin. This is not the case with the Syrian refugees, who are, I suggest, best helped in the camps established just outside the Syrian border. They are as safe here as in the UK and do not have to make major adjustments to their life-style. Nor will they be any less liable to sexual exploitation, sadly, if our own recent history is anything to go by, nor to racial prejudice which increases in proportion to the size of an incoming identifiable community.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

So Little Time

I've picked up this Bantam paperback again. I come back to it every ten years or so, and each time find a different facet of the book. The pages are now brown at the edges and will surely become brittle before long. That is not surprising, as I see from the printing history page that it was the second Bantam edition, printed in 1963. It would therefore have been on sale in the UK in '63 or '64. Looking back over fifty years, I can't remember where I bought it, but I do know why.

The author

John P Marquand started out as a journalist before achieving a comfortable living writing spy thrillers featuring a Mr Moto. He then turned to the novels for which he would want to be remembered, depicting "certain phases of contemporary life", as he put it. Those which lasted longest are this one and H. M. Pulham Esquire. 

The story

On the face of it, it's just another depiction of a mid-life crisis. Jeffrey Wilson, an ex-journalist and first world war veteran, who didn't quite make it as a playwright, is now a successful script-doctor on Broadway and in Hollywood. He becomes obsessed with memories of the past and attempts to recapture the spirit of his youth by writing a play for the actress with whom he has a brief affair. This is all set in the period when the United States is about to enter the second world war. 

The adaptation

Bernard Braden, who, with his wife Barbara Kelly, was all over BBC radio in the 1950s, mostly in light entertainment, made a rare foray into serious drama with a serialisation of So Little Time in 1956. It was this that made such an impression on me that I bought the book. Braden was largely true to the story, as I recall, though he had necessarily to make large cuts. However, he introduced one powerful feature: the reading before each episode of the verses form Ecclesiastes which end: "A time to love and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace."

The decades

I was a very nostalgic young man. In the 1960s, I revelled in the accounts of Jeffrey revisiting the places of his youth. I was also struck by the clear influence of Thomas Mann - I had been reading Buddenbrooks, Königliche Hoheit and Der Zauberberg as background for my A-levels - right down to the annoying repetitious speech-patterns of the minor characters.

In the 1970s, it was the theme of war that stood out, unsurprisingly given the times we were living in. Jeffrey had a "good" war in Europe, but realises that the coming war against the Nazis is going to be rather different. His eldest son, encouraged by Jeffrey's more gung-ho fellow-flier from WW1, Minot Rogers, is keen to join up, but Jeffrey tries to prevent this.

The 1980s were the time of routine at work and in the home. In the 1990s, the patter of the adviser managing Jeffrey's investments while making money by churning struck home. This was even more striking in the Noughties, though, as my own income became even more intermittent, just as striking was the comfortable existence of all the main characters, with the exception of Jeffrey's incorrigible brother, Alf.

Picking the book up now, it is noticeable how the figure of Walter Newcombe dominates the early chapters. Newcombe is an ingenuous foreign correspondent who has risen without trace, David Frost-like, though without Frost's attention to detail. Perhaps, virtually retired now, apart from politics, and becoming an armchair critic, I now come back to the craft of writing and the realisation, like Jeffrey, that originality is a rare gift. The references to ageing also resonate more, though Jeffrey is no more than middle-aged in today's terms.

It may not be a great book, but it is certainly a good one and one that reflects sections of American society as Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh did of British. The book finishes, as I should have remembered, in the period between Pearl Harbor and Christmas 1941. Appropriate then, to finish with this paragraph from the last chapter:

You could not tell what anyone was thinking. The windows of the stores were full of Christmas decorations; the dogs were being aired; the trucks were rumbling up the avenue. There was a familiar background of sound that pulsed through the air like heartbeats. There was the smell of spruce from the Christmas trees on the sidewalks. There was the clatter of ash cans from a truck, on which was written the admonition about keeping the city clean, and the signs wre still on the green busses: "Welcome to New York." It was astonishing to see everything move on as it had always moved - too much in the shops, too much traffic in the cross streets, too many people, too much of everything. But everyone  must have known there would never be a day quite like that again. Everyone must have known that everything was changing. The trouble was you could not see it change.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Sunday, 22 December 2013

The next Holy Roman Empress?

I have long felt that the most ardent supporters of a Federal Europe are from countries which have closely bound in to a historical empire: Italy, obviously (Mussolini traded on restoring imperial splendour); France, dreaming of a new Bonaparte; Austria and Spain thinking of the Hapsburgs; and those lands which were the core of the Holy Roman Empire (neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire at the end in 1806). Nations north and west of Germany, cherishing longer periods of independence, are more resistant.

There was a reminder when the Independent ran a story that Ursula von der Leyen was the clear heiress to Angela Merkel's throne. The gracious lady is said to be a passionate advocate of European integration. (Angela Merkel is wary of this, recollecting no doubt the downside of being brought up in the Soviet empire.) What is as worrying is that vd Leyen clearly shares with the Poles the belief that Christianity is the bedrock of Europe. According to a potted biography on a feminist website, when she took over the Family portfolio she "succeeded in making such issues as childcare and family policy important political concerns in Germany once again. 'I want us to have more children in this country again. That’s the most important thing!' She pushed through a new law for 'Elterngeld' (one-year parental pay for parents who stay at home to care for their children), which despite massive protests from all sides includes two months for fathers. (During these two months the state pays parental support only if the father stays home.) Among her conservative colleagues and voters, of course, she did not only win friends with this provision.

"Virtually simultaneously she alienated the opposite side when she set up an 'Erziehungsgipfel' (education summit) which was limited to representatives of the Catholic and Protestant churches and excluded all other religious and pedagogically concerned groups."

Saturday, 21 December 2013


I was thinking about crosswords anyway when by chance I discovered that today is a significant anniversary. It is appropriate that the inventor was a Liverpool man, though he had to cross the Atlantic to make history. My father hailed from Merseyside.

Probably the most enjoyable part of my visits back home was the lazy Sunday morning exchange of puzzles - the general knowledge and skeleton in my mother's Sunday Express and the Ximenes (succeeded by Azed) in my father's Observer. The latter would usually be passed or thrown across to my mother or myself with the remark: "I've left you the easy ones".  They weren't, of course, and there would follow collegiate solving accompanied by much twitting of each other's abilities. My habit of insulting people I like stems from that family atmosphere and I regret that it has often been misunderstood.

Nowadays I have a renewed interest in joint solving of cryptic crosswords through my long-distance friendship with Norah Clewes who I "met" through the crosswords forum on Cix. The Independent has replaced the Observer as the source of my exquisite torture, but it is almost like old times - apart from the insults.

Thursday, 19 December 2013


My father - engineer and soldier - was born one hundred years ago today.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Santa's Big Bang Theory

Jenny Gristock, materials scientist and science writer, has begun to republish some of her earlier articles at sciencewriting.net. The latest is a reworking of one she wrote for the Evening Post in 1996.

British Scientists investigating the source of some mysterious bursts of electromagnetic radiation think they have made the ultimate discovery: how Santa manages to deliver presents to the whole world in one night.

Each burst is so brief it was a miracle that the radiation was detected at all. [...]

For more, go here.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

CDC: questions need to be asked

The recent article in the Independent reporting the anniversary of the appointment of Diana Noble as chief executive has a traditional, rosy, view of the former Commonwealth Development Corporation. According to Lucy Tobin, it "invests taxpayer's money into poverty-stricken emerging markets" including "a scrap metal plant in Kenya, a textile business in Bangladesh and an engineering business in India".

Regular readers of Private Eye have a different picture. I cannot give a direct link to a PE article, but articles from the Tax Justice Network detail the story: just search on "CDC". Note that though this channel for possible financial rort was opened by Tony Blair, it has continued unchanged (so far as I can see) under the coalition government. A report by the Commons International Development Committee in 2011, chaired by Liberal Democrat Malcolm Bruce recommended an investigation by HM Treasury into the use of tax havens, and for CDC to adopt best practice on tax. Chancellor Osborne and Secretary Alexander, who have declared war on tax avoidance, should surely be interested. Perhaps their firms of treasury advisers have their own interests to protect and have warned ministers off an investigation.

Not only is CDC itself using tax havens, but it also, according to Private Eye, recommends the use of tax havens to companies exploiting natural resources in third world countries, thus diverting tax revenue which could help those nations in their development. Oando plc is a case in point.

One would expect that Justine Greening, the minister for International Development, after nearly eighteen months at the Treasury in her first appointment, would be ideally placed to put CDC back on the strait and narrow. At worst it could be sold off to the highest bidder, but if not, its policy on tax havens should be reversed and it should be refocused on helping the small businesses in developing nations which need it.

What is more surprising, considering how high the readership of PE in the Commons must be, is that not only has there been no debate about CDC since the IDC report, there has been only one (written and innocuous) question to minister Greening on the subject. Labour is clearly sheepish about raising yet another dubious policy which started on their watch, but why has no backbench Conservative or Liberal Democrat raised it?

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Chris Howland

The Independent has just caught up with the death of Chris Howland. Someone who has reached the age of eighty-five should be celebrated rather than mourned. He had a very full life as an entertainer in Germany from his early days as Sergeant Howland, C at the Hamburg end of Two-Way Family Favourites right up to the end, it seems. However, he could have been a successful TV host back in his native Britain but the vehicle which should have made his breakthrough was unfortunately tainted with allegations of fixing. Twenty-one was never proved to be dirty, but as far as I know Howland made no regular appearances on our screens again.

I still remember with affection his Saturday morning record shows on British Forces Network in Germany. His play-in and play-out music was, if I recall correctly, Robert Farnon's "Melody Fair", but this was often accompanied by a caged bird which he brought into the studio (self-operated of course). In summer, the tame bird would be joined by the local sparrows outside the open windows.

Friday, 13 December 2013

John Donne's "A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day"

'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world's whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar'd with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
Of all that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night's festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight is.

Friday, 6 December 2013


When we see David Cameron pay his tribute - clearly sincere - to Nelson Mandela, we should remember that behind him on the Conservative benches are heirs to these views:

  • 'This hero worship is very much misplaced'- John Carlisle MP, on the BBC screening of the Free Nelson Mandela concert in 1990
  • 'The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land' - Margaret Thatcher, 1987
  • 'How much longer will the Prime Minister allow herself to be kicked in the face by this black terrorist?' - Terry Dicks MP, mid-1980s
  • 'Nelson Mandela should be shot' - Teddy Taylor MP, mid-1980s

We should also remember that it was the Liberal Party which consistently set its face against discrimination and segregation, even when it was not financially advantageous to do so.

I can add nothing to the many real tributes which have been paid but regret that Mandela's last days were so undignified. Those who have temporary control of his ANC party assiduously cashed in on his barely-living image in photo-ops. As a correspondent in South Africa wrote: "Sad but significant that he had to be twice martyred -- by two very different brutal regimes.".

Thursday, 5 December 2013

It is really Plan B, but a mean version

I am glad to have Stephen Tall confirm my assertion that Osborne G effectively abandoned Plan A when he consented to the coalition agreement.

Small business Saturday in Neath

I trust that residents will be supporting this initiative, which is supported by all political parties at the national level. More details here: http://neath.fyinetwork.co.uk/my,4232-12-Neath-Business-Champs

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

More on PISA

Further to yesterday's posting, Welsh LibDem education spokesman Aled Roberts' response is here. It is typical of Tories' approach to education that Michael Gove, in the House of Commons yesterday, placed the abandonment of league tables at the head of reasons for the Welsh slide. Kirsty Williams was more realistic on "Good Evening Wales", pointing out the huge funding gap between English and Welsh schools, which is only just being addressed by the Welsh Government.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

PISA: England, Wales stand still while others overtake

The performance of Welsh teenagers in mathematics, reading and science after thirteen years of Labour education ministers was the major subject of First Minister's Questions today. Kirsty Williams and Peter Black will have commented elsewhere on the worst attainment scores in the UK, so I will confine myself to another important factor. The snapshot published by PISA (pdf here) shows that the best-performing nation, mainland China, also has the lowest proportion of low-achievers. Again, the UK as a whole is no better than the average for OECD countries. It is important that in a desire to increase the number of high-achievers, as appears to be the aim of English education minister Michael Gove, the people at the bottom of the cornflakes packet, as Boris Johnson put it, are not neglected. Everybody deserves education to make the most of their abilities, and exclusion tends to lead to social disorder.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Science-based policy

Round about the time that the government, after two false starts, finally embarked on an evidence-based approach to cigarette packaging, the Independent drew attention to the continued shunning of serious scientific advice by Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State at the Department for the Environment. Mr Paterson was appointed by David Cameron to replace Caroline Spelman at DEFRA last year. The Independent comments:
At the time, Tory MP and environmentalist Zac Goldsmith noted that the appointment was “odd”, and that if the Conservatives wished to retain their green credentials, then it would have been better to appoint someone who didn’t dismiss environmentalism as a left-wing issue.

A year on, Goldsmith’s view hasn’t changed. At his party’s conference in Manchester, he joked to a fringe meeting that Paterson had recently said there could be advantages to climate change.

Goldsmith said : “This is a huge step forward. As far as I know he previously didn’t think global warming was happening. Matt Ridley has famously claimed there would be a 'net global benefit to human or planetary welfare' from global warming up until temperatures increased 2.2C from 2009 levels.

In step with his brother-in-law
[Matt Ridley, of Northern Rock fame], Paterson has stressed the positive rather than the overall negative effects from global warming. He recently said: “Remember, for humans, the biggest cause of death is cold in winter, far bigger than heat in summer.”

In addition to his brother-in-law, Mr Paterson seems to rely on informal advice given him by a network of other climate change sceptics, rather than his chief scientific advisor, Professor Ian Boyd. The Independent is calling for DEFRA to "open its books" on all the sources of advice given to its ministers.

Just how much Mr Paterson is divorced from settled scientific conclusions on global warming is exposed by this response to his performance on AQ earlier this year.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Another might-have-been

Sir Cyril Townsend died on the 20th November. He was Conservative MP for Bexleyheath from 1974 to 1997. I hadn't realised quite how liberal he was until I read John Barnes' obituary in the Independent today. He would clearly have been at home in Heath's Conservative party (and if he had been born earlier would have made a good minister under Macmillan) but for most of his parliamentary career was at odds with the Thatcher administration. Barnes writes:
In 1990 he gave his support to Michael Heseltine’s candidature for the leadership. Although far happier with John Major’s leadership than Thatcher’s, he was dismayed at the growth of euroscepticism and stood down from Parliament in 1997. Eventually his continued support of the European cause led him to join the Liberal Democrats in 2006.
If Thatcher had remained as party leader instead of Major would Townsend have moved to the Liberal Democrats earlier, and what effect would that have had on the 1992 general election?

Friday, 29 November 2013

An illusion shattered

I was brought up believing that our armed forces were exemplary in their conduct of anti-terrorist campaigns in the 1940s and 1950s. This is not the fault of my parents, but of the impression created by the press and the BBC. The first chink in the post-war governments' PR armour came with the revelations by Barbara Castle and others of the atrocities committed at Hola camp in Kenya, which made front-page news in the Daily Mirror. Still, these seemed to be an isolated case and we had the shining example of our hearts-and-minds strategy in Malaya, as opposed to the vicious communist forces.

Now comes confirmation that not only were our forces brutal, but that there was a standing policy of destroying all papers relating to our colonial past as the UK retreated from Empire. The papers which helped the Hola victims gain compensation were the ones that "got away", saved one assumes by the last governor of Kenya,, more enlightened than his colonial masters.

We probably still have a better record in counter-insurgency than most, but the difference is less marked than it used to appear.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Another shortsighted rail "improvement" in Wales

I can do no better than quote Aled Roberts AM (from the Daily Post's report):

Mr Roberts said: “When the transport minister announced that she had agreed a £44m scheme with Network Rail and explained that it would improve north-south journey times and links with Wrexham , everyone assumed that she was backing the original Network Rail Scheme. 

 “But it now appears that the Welsh Government has cut the construction of a second rail track between Wrexham and Gresford from the plan to lay a second railway line to Chester. 

 “The effect of this U-turn is to reduce by half the number of trains that will be able to use the Wrexham to Chester line. The inevitable consequence will be congestion, especially when the new prison opens and generates an extra 1,000 passengers a week. 

 “It will also make it less likely that there will be direct services to the north-west of England. “Wrexham could be condemned to years of rail congestion and delays if the Welsh Government does not reverse this U-turn and adopt the original plan.” 

 He added: “Not only must we consider the rising number of passengers visiting the prison, there is also the issue of the increasing number of freight trains that are using this line, particularly to the Kronospan factory in Chirk. 

 “Today the business minister agreed to provide me with a statement as to the nature of the new Network Rail scheme. I also asked that the statement confirm whether an assessment has been made showing how the revisions to the Network Rail plan will affect rail passenger capacity at Wrexham and connectivity with London and Manchester.”

One is reminded of the decision to provide only a light-railway single line when Bridgend-Maesteg was reopened. Passenger volumes since have shown what a shortsighted decision this was.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Drawbacks of easier fast travel

Yesterday, Radio 4 broadcast a programme about the dangers from zoonoses - diseases which circulate among animals which can leap to infect humans. More frightening is the possibility that they are capable of mutating to allow human-to-human infection.  Contact with both domesticated and wild animals which harbour pathogens has long imperilled the lives of people in Africa and South Asia. An increase in the attractiveness of these places as holiday destinations and availability of jet travel to them puts more of the world's population at risk

Now there is a warning that the United States could see epidemics of dengue fever, once thought eradicated there, for the same reason.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Dogpile's new name


There were search engines for years before Google, and even meta-searchers which collated the results of several engines. Dogpile, which became webfetch on this side of the pond, was one of these. Now Infospace, which owns both brands as well as zoo.com seems to be embarking on a further programme of rationalisation.

For the serious searcher, there are tools which can not only refine search criteria but also link with your own personal data. Infospace provides these, as well as other providers such as Copernic. But webfetch has been free, which I trust zoo is also.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Birth of a hundred conspiracy theories

Just two days after the assassination of President Kennedy, Jack Ruby, a business failure and a shady figure on the fringes of the Mafia, shot dead Lee Harvey Oswald and thus ensured that the true reason for the assassination would never be known.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Fifty years ago today

Everybody of a certain age remembers where they were. My memory is of a Ministry of Transport cricket club cheese-and-wine party held in the resident clerk's flat at the top of St Christopher House, Southwark. It was going so well that the drink ran out and a small party had to be sent out to seek more supplies - not a difficult task as the area was well-supplied with pubs and wine merchants, not to mention Becky's Dive Bar underneath the Hop Exchange. When they returned, they passed on the reports that President Kennedy had been shot. Nobody believed it at first. A senior executive officer, who should have known better, made an off-colour joke (mercifully, I cannot remember the details). After some confusion, JHH (Jimmy) Baxter gathered us all together and embarked on a long story about an epic Scottish club cricket match in which he may or may not have taken part. The punch line was weak, but it didn't matter. It had taken our minds off the tragedy in Dallas.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Cooperative movement and politics

Jonathan Evans, the Conservative MP for Cardiff North, spoke up for the mutual and cooperative principles in British business in questions on the Business Statement in the House of Commons today. Jason McCartney (Conservative, Colne Valley) in the same session questioned the failure of the Co-op to provide a dividend this year, which enabled Leader of the House Andrew Lansley to make the point that the Labour Party had benefited from soft loans from the Co-op. If I recall correctly from his blog, John Redwood shops at his local Cooperative store in Wokingham.

I assume all three are Co-op members and wonder whether they, and other Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who are also Cooperators, have been assiduous in attending general meetings of the organisation in order to question its far-too-close ties with the Labour Party. I must confess to being remiss in this respect after a single foray back in the 1990s. Perhaps if more of us had persisted, the Co-op would not have landed in the mess we see today.

Mr Evans is wrong, though, in advocating that mutuals should not involve themselves in politics. They cannot shackle themselves in this way while their conglomerate and multi-national rivals are active in the political sphere. What is clear is that the Co-op should not have tied itself to one political party. While acknowledging the common roots of the Labour, TU and Cooperative movements, I feel that the Co-op should have taken stock of its political strategy a long time ago. Most of its aims of social justice in the retail sector had been met, and it was already moving to a "green" agenda when New Labour came to power in 1997. The Blair/Brown governments were very helpful to the big supermarkets, who now have huge power especially over planning decisions. Indeed, Terry Leahy of Tesco and David Sainsbury were Labour supporters. That power is inimical, I would suggest, to ecologically-aware retailing and to local choice.

Therefore, donations to the Liberal Democrats (of course) and to the Green Party would have done more for the Co-op's interests than continuing to serve the Labour Party slavishly. The Cooperative Party is theoretically an arms-length organisation, but it is constitutionally bound to promote cooperative principles and should at least have made it known to the MPs it sponsors that its support was not unconditional.

As to the way in which a disgraced Labour councillor with no business experience was able to surf to the top of a prominent retail bank, we await detail from one of the three inquiries whose launch has recently been announced.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Liberal Democrat responsibility

When I read Andrew Grice's snide comment, which could have come straight from Labour's media department, that "We might have expected the Lib Dems, who know a thing or two about making rash, uncosted promises in opposition, to play Labour at its own game" followed by "Yet Nick Clegg has adopted a more grown-up approach than his senior coalition partners", I thought that he had it arse-about-face. Just because we expected the criticism that a third party could make unrealistic promises, from early on Liberal Democrat election manifestos were costed, and vetted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

To take an example of the party's scrupulousness, the contentious tuition fees policy was rigorously costed for the 2010 election manifesto, even though the party hierarchy had been outvoted by conference over its inclusion. It did not fail to be put into operation because it was financially unviable, but because the party was outvoted on the issue, both Conservatives and Labour standing on a policy of continuing with the student loans system and increasing fees. It was the leader's election machine which advised candidates to sign up to the NUS pledge. It was Nick who stood in front of the "Tory bombshell" VAT rise poster while Vince Cable was elsewhere advising that the economic situation was so bad that a VAT rise could not definitely be ruled out.

Now it is Nick who is pushing for the coalition to cut taxes without saying how to pay for it. I trust that our next manifesto will be more honest.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Legislation in limbo

Thanks to a post on the Lords of the Blog website by Lord Norton of Louth, I now know that there are 147 pieces of legislation, sections or schedules of Acts which have received the Royal Assent since 1977, which are not in force because the necessary Commencement Order has not been made or Statutory Instrument laid. The full list obtained in a parliamentary answer in the Lords is here. (The term "full list" may be a misnomer, judging by Lord McNally's introductory remarks.) The list includes two Acts which had not been brought into force at all. The Mortgage Repossessions (Protection of Tenants etc) 2010 was brought into operation since that parliamentary answer, but nothing seems to have been done about the Third Parties (Rights against Insurers) Act 2010.

It is not alone in limbo. The Easter Act 1928 is a famous example. This would fix the date of Easter, but requires the agreement of both Houses of Parliament before a Commencement Order can be issued. Since this agreement has never been obtained (too many bishops in the Upper House?) it has never come into force. However, the reason for the 2010 Act being in limbo is obscure. According to the preface to an explanatory note issued in March 2010 to our legislators (pdf here)

This Bill would disentangle insurance proceeds payable to an insolvent company or
individual from insolvency proceedings. This makes it easier for a person injured by the
insured to access the proceeds of insurance policies payable to the debtor. It is a largely
uncontroversial measure, previously proposed by the Law Commission and Scottish Law
Commission, and, following consultation, has widespread support from the majority of
stakeholders. It applies to the whole of the United Kingdom

The Bill was part of the new, expedited procedure for bringing through Parliament, Law Commission Bills that command widespread consensus and support. It addressed situations of real hardship. It originated in the Lords, where, in committee, there was a reference to a quibble by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, but otherwise nothing to obstruct its smooth passage. In the Commons, it was welcomed by both sides of the House with no debate.  So why has it not been brought into force?

Sunday, 17 November 2013

I'm missing Beryl

 - not to mention those Charmin bears, killed off by a rebranding exercise. Joanna Quinn clearly finds it difficult to finance her own work since advertisers on TV became seduced by CGI to the detriment of the craft of individual animators (Nick Park being a rare exception). However, it's a long time since we saw some of the classics on TV. Perhaps Channel 4 will oblige?

Friday, 15 November 2013

From a transit of Venus to a slave-state boundary

Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon arrived in Philadelphia on November 15th 1763 to begin a survey to settle a dispute between the early colonists of North America. The boundaries that resulted between Maryland, Pennsylvania and what was to become Delaware came to have symbolic status. Mason and Dixon were skilled geometers. They had been appointed after the diputants had sought the advice of James Bradley, the then astronomer-royal. Mason was Bradley’s assistant at the observatory, an Anglican widower with two sons. Dixon was a skilled surveyor from Durham, a Quaker bachelor whose Meeting had ousted him for his unwillingness to abstain from liquor. In 1761 Mason and Dixon had sailed together for Sumatra, but only made it to the Cape of Good Hope, to record a transit of Venus across the sun to support the Royal Society’s calculations of distance by parallax between the Earth and sun. There is more historical detail here.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Labour feel so strongly about the bedroom tax - not

It was an unequivocally aggressive motion put by Labour in the House yesterday:

Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House regrets the pernicious effect on vulnerable and in many cases disabled people of deductions being made from housing benefit paid to working age tenants in the social housing sector deemed to have an excess number of bedrooms in their homes; calls on the Government to end these deductions with immediate effect; furthermore calls for any cost of ending them to be covered by reversing tax cuts which will benefit the wealthiest and promote avoidance, and addressing the tax loss from disguised employment in construction; and further calls on the Government to use the funding set aside for discretionary housing payments to deal with under-occupation by funding local authorities so that they are better able to help people with the cost of moving to suitable accommodation.

Yet we now know that, even after Ms Reeves and various other Labour figures criticised minister Iain Duncan Smith for his absence, over forty Labour MPs - including both those for Swansea seats - could not be bothered to turn up to vote.

Moreover, Ms Reeves had dodged a key question put to her in an intervention:

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Obviously it was the Labour party in government that introduced the bedroom tax—in the private sector. On 19 January 2004, Labour Ministers said:

“We hope to implement a flat rate housing benefit system in the social sector, similar to that anticipated in the private rented sector”.—[Official Report, 19 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 1075W.]

The question for the shadow Secretary of State is, “When did you change your policy?”

It is something that Steve Webb picked up on in his reply on behalf of the government:

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): One of the strangest things in this argument about the private rented sector is that during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill I never once heard the Government mention it—it is one of those later justifications. The problem is that people in the private rented sector were not suddenly told one day, “Your house is too big; you have to start paying for the extra rooms regardless of whether you can move.” That is a huge difference and the two things are not comparable. If we want to talk about equalising, perhaps we should equalise rents.

Steve Webb: I am interested that the hon. Lady mentions rents, because if we compare private and social tenants, she is saying that social tenants, who already benefit from subsidised rent, should not have to pay for an extra bedroom, whereas private tenants paying a market rent should pay for it. That does not seem fair to me.

In an intervention on the hon. Member for Leeds West, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) pointed out something that has not hitherto been flagged up—Labour’s intention to extend the principle of the local housing allowance to social tenants. Let me quote Hansard from January 2004 when the late Malcolm Wicks stated:

“We hope to implement a flat rate housing benefit system in the social sector, similar to that anticipated in the private rented sector…We aim to extend our reforms to the social rented sector as soon as rent restructuring and increased choice have created an improved market.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 1075W.]

Interestingly, the Labour party planned to do that, yet when this Government do it, suddenly it is somebody else’s problem.

John Hemming: From what the Minister has said, the Labour party was quite happy to have a bedroom tax, not just in the private sector but also in the social rented sector as soon as rents had gone up.

Steve Webb: I congratulate my hon. Friend on drawing the House’s attention to the Labour party’s plans. Not only did the Labour party invent the principle of paying for an extra bedroom, it intended to extend it.

There is little doubt that making these cuts when there was little one-bedroom accommodation for those affected to move to has caused hardship, as was recognised by the last Liberal Democrat federal conference. However, one has to ask what Labour did to provide extra social housing when it was in power, especially since the trend towards single-person occupation was already marked early in the Blair-Brown administrations.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

What Olympic legacy?

The message in this report was to be expected: so far from encouraging participation in sport, last year's Olympic Games in London has if anything deterred people.

UK Ltd (or should that be London Ltd?) has made money out of the 2012 event, but more was expected.

The point is that sport - except possibly at the highest professional level - should be fun. Competition is good, winners should receive their due share of praise, but nobody should be thought less of for being on the losing side. Ambitious sports teachers should remember Boris Becker's reaction to attacks from the media when he lost to an unseeded Australian in the first round at Wimbledon in 1987: "I lost a tennis match – it was not a war, nobody died out there."

I would like to see more concentration on schoolchildren getting the best out of themselves. Tim Woodhouse of Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation, giving evidence to the Commons' Culture, Media and Sport select committee this morning stressed that PE in schools should concentrate on health, rather than competition. If I recall correctly, something like four out of five girls - irrespective of religion, though that is a complicating factor - are put off PE. A major factor is the poor state of changing-rooms, in addition to PE being seen as "not cool". (Incidentally, it was depressing to see how poorly attended the session was, both in the gallery and in the committee seats.) It is reasonable to conclude that his remarks apply to Wales as well as England.

Monday, 11 November 2013

What would the Conservatives of yesteryear think?

The ODNB entry for Sir (Benn) Jack Brunel Cohen, Conservative MP for Liverpool Fairfield from 1918 to 1931, notes that not only did he help to shape the British Legion, becoming its first honorary treasurer, he later chaired the national advisory council (Ministry of Labour) on employment for the disabled, which gave rise to the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act of 1944. He "thus achieved his longstanding aim of requiring employers to have a quota of disabled people among their workforces. He became the chairman of the Ministry of Labour's national advisory council to oversee the working of the legislation. Cohen stood down as the British Legion's treasurer in 1946, but in that year became vice-chairman of Remploy Ltd, which grew out of the Disabled Persons Employment Corporation, founded in 1945, and was its chairman in 1955."

I believe he was not alone in that generation of Conservatives who, having seen action in one or both world wars, regarded it as a public duty to assist the disabled in employment. One wonders what they would make of the current crop of Tories who, following Labour's lead, have virtually eliminated Remploy.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Music for BBC SF operas

It was good to see Ron Grainer acknowledged in print as the originator of the Dr Who theme. It seemed as if the priesthood now in charge of the franchise had written him out of history. The genesis is described in an article in yesterday's Independent.

The producer Verity Lambert asked Ron Grainer, composer of the opening music for Maigret and Steptoe and Son, for a tune with a beat that was “familiar yet different”. A single A4 sheet was despatched from Grainer's home in Portugal to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, where Delia Derbyshire was placed in charge of fully realising Grainer's composition – and, at a time before synthesisers, had to create each new sound from scratch. The swooping noises on the soundtrack were created by Derbyshire painstakingly adjusting the pitch of an oscillator to a carefully timed pattern, while the rhythmic hissing sounds were the product of filtering white noise. All of these musical effects had to be captured on individual tape recorders.

In that same article, Holst's Mars was cited as the theme music for the first two Quatermass serials on BBC-TV, but of course there was much more underscore than that. There is a list here. (Not listed is another piece of library music entitled if I recall correctly "Tank Action", very derivative of Mars.) Trevor Duncan features heavily, but I notice a couple of heavyweights in the list, Mátyás Seiber and Hans May, like producer Rudolph Cartier a refugee from the Nazis.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

The Song Show

There is still no sign of a replacement for what was an entertaining but intelligent weekly survey of popular song - mostly American, but a good proportion of British, with the occasional Continental dash. Without this programme, I would not have heard of Susannah McCorkle, Annette Hanshaw or Dave Frishberg. It is good to have an extra hour of swing and other big band music (though Clare Teal's chirpiness sounds a bit forced). She includes vocal jazz standards, as do Jazz Record Requests,  Geoffrey Smith's late night programmes and even Composer of the Week (!) on Radio 3. On Radio 2, there are plenty of programmes tied in with current stage and screen musical releases and regular looks at the star writers and performers. However, there is nothing which covers the sweep of popular song from the end of the Victorian ballad to the start of hard rock, as Russell Davies used to.

Friday, 8 November 2013

IDS should learn from Polaris technology

 - it's not quite rocket science

Andreas Whittam-Smith, in the pages of the newspaper he co-founded, has twice in recent months attacked the election-timetable-obsessed Cameron government for failure to plan. In September, the peg on which he hung his argument was HS2; yesterday it was Universal Credit.

There are various ways of planning and controlling large projects. PERT/CPM and Gantt are the most well-known. There is an overview here. The irony is that, as Mr Whittam-Smith points out, the huge US healthcare insurance programme has suffered setbacks, in the nation which established a means of bringing big government projects in on time.

In addition to answering the questions posed by Mr Whittam-Smith, DWP needs seriously to apply a project-planning tool. By "seriously", I mean that a permanent control team headed by a senior executive has to be set up, realistic estimates have to be drawn up, outcomes reviewed regularly and anyone with a stake in the outcome has to be involved. That does not mean that ministers should micro-manage the project; the planning charts would be hierarchical and the higher up the chain of command, the broader and less detailed the charts become. It should still be possible to see in what areas the pinch-points are occurring.

Of course, DWP civil servants may already have done all this but then been hit by a political diktat - the end-date shown by the planning software displeases the minister, who imposes his own go-live date. As a consequence, corners are cut and time-scales artificially shortened - testing is usually the function which suffers. I've seen it happen at close quarters; happily, the first major check caused a pause for thought and reassessment, putting the project back on track to a successful implementation. Sadly, any lessons learned from this experience would have been lost along with experienced staff as government computing was privatised from 1979 onwards.

It is clear that both Iain Duncan Smith and probably the permanent secretary are floundering. It needs someone at ministerial level - and therefore with some clout - with IT management experience to be put in charge for the duration of the Universal Credit implementation. As a Liberal Democrat, I immediately think of Richard Allan, but no doubt there are Conservative Lords or MPs with similar experience. However, there are advantages to appointing a LibDem. There is an outside chance that the Conservatives will not be the largest party in the Commons after the next election. The UC programme is virtually certain to continue into the next administration, and for the sake of continuity a Liberal Democrat would be more acceptable than a Conservative at the helm in 2015. From the Conservative point of view, a LibDem would be a convenient scapegoat if there were a further failure in the UC system.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Alfred Russel Wallace

The co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection and designer of the Mechanics Institute in Neath died 100 years ago today.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Sir William Henry Preece (15th February 1834 - 6th November 1913)

If he is known today, it is for his resistance to change. As the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography recounts:

As electrician to the Post Office (which was then responsible for all communications in the realm), although he had been the first in Britain to demonstrate a working telephone, he told a parliamentary inquiry in 1879 that he foresaw little demand for the device in Britain, saying the telegraph and a "superabundance of messengers, errand boys and things of that kind" already met the need. Like other Post Office officials, Preece resisted anything that might undercut the existing telegraph system, an attitude that did much to delay the spread of the telephone in Britain.

However, this Welshman (born and died near Caernarfon) was a great administrator and populariser of science and technology.

Mexican Independence

Two hundred years ago today, Mexico declared independence. It was a false start. The country got into debt with France, who in 1863 sent her armies in to make recovery. They installed a puppet emperor - a Hapsburg, no less - but failed to support him. He was overthrown and assassinated in 1867.

We do things differently today. Imagine invading Iceland when their banks failed, holding millions in UK local authority deposits, then installing Sir Mark Thatcher as Viceroy.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Swansea City FC and the Cooperative Bank

Having read the Post's report of chairman Huw Jenkins' thoughts on Swansea City, I trust the club will continue to do things the right way. The nub was "that's the biggest challenge I've got, to make sure that [...] everybody working with the club believes if we keep doing things differently, we can compete, irrespective of the size of the club or budgets." I believe that the reckoning will come for the clubs whose current success is dependent on individuals whose wealth may be transient. I also believe that some would not stand prolonged scrutiny by Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs.

It seems to me that the failure of the Cooperative Bank resulted from a desire to compete with the Big Four, adopting their tactics and neglecting the bank's stated principles. If they had stuck to the latter, they would have found that the field had "come back to them" in racing parlance. For instance, they have a bill for mis-sold PPI just like the others.

Then there was the purchase of an overvalued asset in the shape of the Britannia Building Society (rather like a certain club owner - allegedly). This acquisition was convenient - I put it no higher - for the Labour government in that they could claim that no major building society was forced to close as a result of the credit crunch under their stewardship. Unfortunately, the Coop did not benefit from a sweetener from the taxpayer as the Nationwide did when they took over the Dunfermline. Ironically, Labour would have found it electorally dangerous to bail out the Coop as they had with the outright capitalist banks, especially as the party had - and still has - a large overdraft (reckoned by Guido to be over £3m). The final straw was an assessment that the bank was undercapitalised to the tune of £1bn. Maybe if Labour had been returned they might have softened the blow, but a Tory chancellor was never going to shed tears over the bank's predicament. Osborne probably rejoiced over the hedge funds' success in defeating a previous rescue attempt which would have left the Coop movement with more control over the bank.

Euan Sutherland, the new chief executive, has insisted that the change of ownership will not affect the bank's ethos because it is written into the constitution. However, constitutions can be changed and there was a reminder yesterday of commercial reality with the news that branches and jobs are to go.

Vivien Leigh

There are rare screen actresses whose beauty is timeless. In my opinion, Vivien Leigh born on 5th November 1913 was one of them.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Eco warriors under false colours?

Thanks to jaxxlanders for drawing our attention to the report in the Mirror about claims on the public purse some of our richest MPs make for heating their homes. Top of the list must be Nadhim Zahawi, "a millionaire Tory who claimed a staggering £5,822 in just 12 months – more than four times the average household energy bill – to power and heat his £1million constituency home in a sprawling 31-acre estate. [...]  The Stratford-upon-Avon MP even boasts on his website of his 'achievements' on the Energy Bill Committee at improving 'energy efficiency measures to homes and businesses'."

However, neighbouring Labour MP, ex-cabinet minister Peter Hain, is not far behind. He has claimed £4,571 on his Ynysygerwn property which he has designated as his second home. He said he had no choice because the property only uses expensive heating oil.  This is in spite of the solar panels which he had installed, aided I believe by the limited grants which were then available. (For more background, see the Telegraph's original report on the expenses scandal.) Mr Hain has been prominent in recent years in speaking out in favour of a Severn Barrage promoted by his wife.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

25 years of Internet infections

"On November 2, 1988, Robert Morris, Jr., a graduate student in Computer Science at Cornell, wrote an experimental, self-replicating, self-propagating program called a worm and injected it into the Internet" There is more here about the damage it wrought.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Gwent levels under threat again

Top of priorities for Carwyn Jones, First Minister, is to resurrect the scheme to build a new section of the M4 motorway, bypassing Newport. He hopes to be able to do this through the borrowing powers which have been promised by David Cameron and Nick Clegg in their long-delayed response to Pt 1 of the Silk Commission Report (pdf here).

Apart from my worries about the scheme in itself (the environmental damage, the irrelevance to Wales as a whole), I am concerned about allowing the devolved government the power to borrow, especially as it is likely to be dominated by Labour for the foreseeable future - and we know what Labour did to UK borrowing when in Westminster. The major cause of the Spanish economic crash was not (as it was in London) a failure to regulate their central banks, but the over-extension by local banks on the back of a splurge by local regional governments.

I do welcome the devolution of some minor taxes and the possibility of varying income tax. The latter would bring us into line with Scotland. However, a BBC political correspondent suggested today that Mr Jones is not so keen on this. I can foresee the response by many in the House of Commons (and not all on the Conservative side) to this stance when the enabling measure comes before parliament, that Wales will beg or borrow but not take responsibility for raising extra cash from its citizens.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Churn in Royal Mail shares

According to this week's Private Eye, 84% of the shares in the privatised Royal Mail are already in different hands from their initial owners'. If true (and the Eye admits that it cannot identify the shareholders because only one, an offshore hedge fund, holds above the 3% necessary for disclosure), it makes a mockery of the government's strategy in privatising the organisation. The aim was to ensure that the bulk of the shares was in the hands of long-term institutional investors, as this interchange last week at BIS questions showed:

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): How many and what proportion of employees of Royal Mail opted out of the allocation of free shares. [900669]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): Of the approximately 150,000 employees who were eligible for free employee shares, only 372 opted out of the scheme. Therefore, 99.75% of employees have accepted the shares that we offered them.

Mr Hollobone: Is not the number of posties who have opted out of the scheme remarkably low? Despite the threats of industrial action and union militancy, is it not clear that the vast majority of Royal Mail employees have accepted the invitation from Her Majesty’s Government to take part in the biggest employee share scheme of any major privatisation?

Vince Cable: Yes, it is a very positive story. The engagement of almost every employee of Royal Mail is extremely encouraging. I seem to remember that under the last Labour Government we lost in the order of 2 million working days through industrial action in every single year. This is a big change for the better.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): May I remind the Secretary of State that before this privatisation every one of my constituents had a share in Royal Mail? It has been revealed that only a tiny number of people in most constituencies now have any shares at all and that the Prime Minister’s hedge fund friends own a lot of them.

Vince Cable: On the contrary, the share register is dominated by large long-term institutional investors, most of whom hold the savings of millions of our citizens.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): This afternoon, I am due to meet for lunch that great Welsh export and one of the world’s best rugby players, George North. As the Secretary of State knows, George North was bought by Northampton from the mighty Scarlets at a very reasonable price during the summer. Does he think that the hedge funds feel the same as Northampton Saints, because they have acquired the Royal Mail crown jewels at a cut price?

Vince Cable: No; in fact, the offer was framed in such a way as to ensure that the shares were acquired predominantly by long-term institutional investors. A few hedge funds are involved and, indeed, some hedge funds take a long-term view.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Who are these women?

Over the years I have moved a hoard of pictures culled from various sources as I have upgraded my computers. Most of them I can identify, but there are a few whose origins are lost. I think they may have been distributed in the 1990s to illustrate the capability of graphics software or hardware. I also remember one of a model with a big hat, entitled "Lady be good", which I associate with Apple.

Any information as to who the models are and how they came to be captured on gif and tif would be welcome.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Neil Gaiman it isn't

"The Aida Protocol", published by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) is a comic-book style tale of an attractive member (think Katrine Fønsmark from Borgen) of the group. The story involves theft from cross-border oil supplies, blackmail and attempted suicide. However, the book betrays its origins in France, where bandes dessinées are taken seriously. The climax is not a shoot-out on the streets of Brussels but a crucial vote in an EC meeting after a pitch by our heroine which begins: "A key budgetary debate to be held soon will enable us to realign ...".

I shall hang on to the book, though, because it has a good summary of the powers of the European Parliament and the position of Liberals within it.

"The Aida Protocol" is fictional but Members of the European Parliament, much like Elisa Correr, are increasingly important players on the European political scene. In effect, since its first direct election by universal suffrage in 1979, the EP has seen its role gradually grow through successive European treaties; it co-legislates with the Council of Ministers on a host of subjects that affect the daily lives of citizens and consumers across the 27 Member States of the Union. Over the last few years MEPs gave most notably adopted a series of European laws [...] The ALDE, the third largest group in the Parliament, is at the centre of the European political chess-board, which is often a key hinge position between the two major groups, the S&D, on the left [...] and the EPP, on the right which includes conservatives and Christian Democrats.

Incidentally, it was encouraging to see the prime minister in the Commons yesterday reporting back on the recent meeting of the Council of Ministers, and responding to questions. It would be better, though, if he made these statements more frequently. So far as I can see, the last such was in December of last year. Even better would be the more active participation of Labour members. As Peter Bone MP pointed out at the end of the session, there were just five Labour members present when the PM sat down.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Pardon me, boy, is that a demolition?

The US equivalent of the Euston Arch was Pennsylvania Station in New York. In both cases, preservation societies had grown in importance before their demolition, but both erections were so iconic that commentators tend to date the preservation movement each side of the Atlantic from them. Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the start of The Penn's demolition. There is more here.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Dylan and music

There are two historic rooms in which I would like to have been a fly on the wall. The first was the hotel room in Chicago which Louis Armstrong hired so that he and Bix Beiderbecke could jam together, something which two men of different skin pigmentation could not have done in public (or even on shellac) in most of America at that time.

The other - come to think of it, not far removed in time - was at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea, where school-friends Dylan Thomas and Daniel Jones would create imaginary worlds, play word games and fling bits of poetry back and forth. I was reminded of this link between poet and future composer when I heard Cerys Matthews' 99th birthday tribute this morning. She and guests emphasised the musicality of Thomas's verse, and how it in turn inspired musicians.

Earlier, on BH, it was sad to hear even Swansea citizens associating the name first of all with consumption of beer and not with the fine craftsmanship of his writing. Auden, for instance, a sloppier writer in my opinion, was also a drunk, but he is remembered foremost as a poet, if only for "Night Mail" and "Stop all the clocks". One hopes that over Thomas's hundredth year, print and broadcast media will restore perspectives and kill some legends.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

What was the point of privatisation?

There have been some shifty reactions to the 8-10% rise in utility charges so far announced by three of the largest suppliers. Labour's leaders responded with a promise to freeze prices temporarily if they come to power in 2015 - a promise of Elastoplast in the future, but no long-term solution. Ed Miliband claimed that energy prices went down while he was at the relevant Department (I believe this coincided with a fall in the wholesale price of gas across Europe) but otherwise stayed stumm about the years between 1997 and 2010. Sir John Major, in a move which seemed more calculated to undermine Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron than to help the hard-pressed citizen, proposed the same sort of windfall tax which Labour implemented in 1997 and which he had campaigned against when he had been the defending prime minister. David Cameron himself blamed "green" levies as much as wholesale prices, ignoring the fact that the infrastructure companies came second in the order of components of consumer bills showing an increase.

One would have expected a ringing endorsement of the market, a declaration that no matter how high the cost of supplying gas and electricity by the Big Six appeared to be, it would have been far worse if the utilities had still been in state hands. So I thought I would check back through Hansard to see if that was indeed the rationale for privatisation of electricity supply.

In fact Nicholas Ridley, when opening the Second Reading debate, put wider share ownership at the top of the benefits of privatisation. Next came "the opportunity to develop commercially and to be truly accountable both to its customers and to its shareholders."

It was in fact Malcolm Bruce for the Liberal Democrats who envisaged financial benefits to the consumer:
The way in which electricity currently operates cannot be defended. It uses its statutory requirement to keep the lights on as an excuse for wasteful investment and inefficiency. Despite the Department of Energy's aim of a 20 per cent. energy saving during National Energy Efficiency Year, electricity consumption increased. None of the targets for the electricity industry set by the Department of Energy has been achieved. The industry's response to rising demand has not been to promote energy conservation and efficiency but to build massive new power stations of questionable economic efficiency which are incompatible with the development of combined heat and power as the most efficient form of power generation. I do not defend the present structure and organisation of the electricity industry.

But he did go on to say:
The industry must be strongly and effectively regulated by an agency with teeth — teeth to intervene on and control prices and to require that greater attention be paid to energy efficiency and choice. After four years more of this Government so many utilities will be in the private sector that it might be appropriate to draw the agencies together so that they can pool resources and learn from experience.
I spent time in the United States last year finding out how public utilities operate there. I was impressed by the way that public utilities commissions operate. Without exception, amazement was expressed, by Republicans as well as Democrats, that the British Government should privatise utilities as central monopolies without real competition or adequate regulation. I remain convinced that we shall have to put that right. We also need some kind of anti-trust powers so that monopolies can be examined and be broken up to enforce competition. Because of the Government's record and the sweeping terms of the Bill, we need more detail of Government thinking before the House can be expected to support the Bill.
An open-minded approach to the privatisation of electricity might yield useful answers to the problems that British Gas and British Telecom are now manifesting. We should improve the operation and accountability by the electricity industry

Dr John Cunningham virtually committed Labour to renationalising electricity and bringing back the water boards. What happened to that, then?

Me? I've switched my electricity supply to Good Energy. I believe they are wrong in turning their backs on nuclear power as a non-carbon source of electricity, but they seem to be straightforward people to deal with - and they have promised not to put up their prices in the current round.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Another solution for the NHS

There is an interesting suggestion in Liberal Democrat Voice. England should follow Sweden in localising its public health service. Welsh citizens suffering from a devolved health service and looking at some Labour council administrations might query the proposition. To my mind, what makes the difference is ethos. In the UK governments have become conditioned to market theory, that practitioners throughout society are motivated by money. In Sweden - in Scandinavia generally - there is still a belief in public service.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

IMO bans dumping of PIB at sea

In February of this year, hundreds of seabirds in waters off the southern coast were killed by a glue-like substance. It was later identified as high viscosity polyisobutylene (PIB). Now, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has announced that PIB dumping at sea will be outlawed from next year, thanks largely to pressure from the European Commission and the UK government. There is more in a media release from Sir Graham Watson MEP.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

The Berry-Atanasoff Case

Today is the fortieth anniversary of a patent ruling which was of great commercial import to the IT industry in the United States. We now know that the Berry-Atanasoff analyzer was not a computer in the sense we mean it today, but nor was Eniac the first working stored-program machine, being anticipated by at least two computers in the UK.

Friday, 18 October 2013

A dysfunctional Senate should not be an argument against an elected House of Lords

A letter in today's Independent suggests that the recent deadlock in the United States Congress is a grim and dreadful warning against electing the House of Lords. It should be pointed out that the present House of Lords, full of placemen and placewomen, can also block legislation and occasionally does. However, there are two major differences between the two upper houses. Firstly, the Lords cannot block money Bills, so the Commons will always achieve its budget. Secondly, an elected UK government will, because of the Parliament Act, always get its way eventually. None of the proposed reform schemes would alter the powers of the Lords.

Moreover, Senators are elected by the first-past-the-post system and, because of the domination of two-party politics, are even more beholden to their local party machines than our MPs are. Hence the sight of Republicans being torn between threats of Tea Party dominated state machines and the blandishments of Wall Street and the President. (Whether the US is right to assume that the world will continue to allow her to run deficit budgets is another matter.)

If the Electoral Reform Society has its way, the influence of party bosses will be insignificant. Even if party lists are allowed, the fact that when reform does come it is virtually accepted that it will be by a proportional system and that the terms will be so long that a member of the Upper House (whatever it is to be called) does not have imminent re-election at the back of his or her mind.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Pubs, puffing and the post

In a powerful speech on the adjournment last night, Greg Mulholland MP attacked the so-called pubcos and the misbegotten legislation that enabled them to flourish. His concern was to save not only public houses as an institution but also to save those tenants who suffer from the unscrupulous practices of pubcos. He set out in detail and at length, but clearly, how we had reached the current situation. If you haven't already done so, I recommend reading it, though, as Mr Mulholland made accusations against several named individuals under parliamentary privilege, care should be taken in quoting from it.

However, when Mr Mulholland said:

this whole sorry saga is a tale of one of the worst examples of reckless, irresponsible capitalism this country has ever seen—a get-rich-quick scheme for a greedy few that has marred lives and closed thousands of pubs and that has caused losses of billions for the UK economy, pension funds and the Treasury. [...] the large, leased pubcos are not pub companies in any real sense. They are highly leveraged property companies
A quick look at the share prices of [the prominent pubcos] reveals the profile of a classic pump-and-dump operation, with a huge surge like a giant heartbeat, then failure and the resultant flat line.
With positive broker comments and heavy financial public relations, the insiders exited and the gullible lost money. Pension funds, choosing to believe the hype from the companies and the endless positive messages of house brokers, stayed in and lost fortunes for pensioners. Naive retail investors did the same. The winners were the insiders and the directors; the losers were the publicans, their communities and the pensioners whose funds unwisely left money in the pubcos.

the surge in the price of Royal Mail shares was fresh in my mind.

There was much talking-up of the value of Royal Mail before the public offering, so it was not surprising that trading began above the offer price. However, the shares currently stand 50% above the offer price. It does seem that the advice to the Chancellor as to the pricing favoured city speculation rather than a fair return to the taxpayer, and I note that Lazards, the advisors concerned, are to face questioning by Select Committee next week.

I have this feeling that today's share price over-values Royal Mail. Whether the price settles down to something closer to the government's initial valuation, or plunges below it in a reflection of the pubco boom and bust, only time will tell.

Of course, if the coalition had adopted the approach in the Liberal Democrats 2010 manifesto, all this nonsense could have been avoided.

Monday, 14 October 2013

EU and economic clout

Chris Davies MEP, in his regular newsletter, cites two examples of the effectiveness of the EU.

Firstly, Ukraine is resisting bullying from President Putin to join a Russian-led trade alliance and is close to signing instead an accord with the EU. Uncertainties remain as to whether President Viktor Yanukovych will accede to European demands for the release from prison of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and for introduction of fairer electoral arrangements, but the signs are good.

Secondly, EU governments may next week give the European Commission a mandate to negotiate the first ever investment and market access deal with China. This could be a major advance. China is the EU’s second biggest trading partner but it is enormously harder for EU companies to get a stake in the Chinese economy than the other way around. Recent reports from China suggest that the country has a strategy of providing financial support for exports to Europe that risk destroying our domestic industries; "establishing global supply chains that allow China to control prices". We need to counter this.

Osborne, Cameron, Davey and even Boris Johnson have negotiated large inward investment deals. (Incidentally, does Chinese investment in the Manchester Airport industrial park imply that Manchester has overtaken Birmingham in the race to become the UK's hub airport?) However, there is less sign that they have achieved any advances for British business in China.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Polio on the increase again

This description of what could be characterised as the biggest pathogen exchange in the world  contains a warning and an indictment of the United States' conduct of its war on terror, as this article explains.

The best of MPs

David Heath, MP for Somerton and Frome, has announced that he will not stand for election to parliament again. He is only 59, but felt that 30 years in Westminster was enough. In his statement, he says that he promised his wife in 2010 that this would be his last term. So it is not the result of a fit of pique at being sacked from government.

It is a pity that Mr Heath will be remembered for initiating the badger cull, and not for his work as deputy Leader of the House. Sir George Young and he made a great team, I thought. Sir George was urbanity personified at the despatch box, while Mr Heath piloted through the Commons a whole slew of legislation reforming the business of the House, with wit and only occasional glimpses of exasperation. He also started work on recall and on the West Lothian question which has sunk without trace since he was promoted to DEFRA.

As one of a vanishing breed, someone who earned an honest crust - and in a technical job, too - before going into politics, Mr Heath's departure is doubly regretted.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Regional pay discrepancies

A report by Policy Exchange (which has links to the Conservative Party) is featured in the Western Mail and (with map) in The Independent this morning. The think-tank's recommendation is that because public sector pay is higher than that in the private sector outside London, the West Midlands and the East of England, the former should be cut. Perhaps a more positive recommendation is that private business should relocate from the overheated South-East to parts of the country where personnel are available at more sensible wages.

What struck me about the graphic was that the discrepancy in Wales was shown as just under 4% (as against 14% for South-West England and for Merseyside). I can only assume that Airbus in the north and the financial industry in Cardiff are skewing the figures. A more fine-grained analysis would surely show a two-digit discrepancy in West Wales at least.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Pumped storage developments

I used to wonder why Ffestiniog and Dinorwig were apparently unique in Wales. Surely the concept of a power storage facility making use of the natural contours of Wales had proved itself, and could be scaled up or down as appropriate. Indeed, it would complement the increasing acreage of wind farms, regulating the inherent unpredictability of their production.

Thanks to CAT's Clean Slate magazine, I now know that others were ahead of me. The Quarry Battery Company's scheme at Glyn Rhonwy, due to be completed in 2017, could be the first of many second-tier pumped storage schemes in a size bracket below Dinorwig, and for that reason less obtrusive.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Fears for all-Wales travel pass recede

While most of my party's propaganda about the draft Welsh budget has understandably concentrated on the increase in the pupil premium, I was concerned to see what had been agreed about other social spending. The pupil premium of course was first championed in England by Nick Clegg, later being adopted as Conservative Party policy also. It is a tribute to the tenacity of Kirsty Williams and her team that the Labour Welsh Government was persuaded to extend it to Wales (though Labour insisted on it being given a different name).

There are some other benefits which may not have the LibDem stamp on them, but have their origins in the Labour/LibDem partnership of 2000. I am thinking of free bus travel for the over-60s and free prescriptions in particular, as both of these measures were said to be under threat during the drafting of the budget. However, these are safe for another year at least according to BBC News. There have even been increases.
These measures probably do at least as much for the well-being of older and infirm people in Wales as the £570,000 increase over two years in the Welsh NHS budget.

We were sniffy about free school breakfasts when Labour introduced them, worrying about their cost-effectiveness. Now Nick Clegg has seized on the idea of free school meals for primary school children - though it has not yet officially been adopted as LibDem party policy - so we can hardly complain about an increase here also.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013


Donald Macintyre begins his political commentary in today's Independent: "In a climate in which Nigel Farage has become the man to beat in next year’s European elections, Nick Clegg is doing something rather daring, and making the most strongly pro-European speech by any party leader since 2010. His 'call to arms' in a letter urging British businesses and other institutions to proclaim the benefits of EU membership is a timely use of his platform as Deputy Prime Minister."

He goes on to emphasise Nick's aligning himself with both Tony Blair (who would probably have pushed his government more EU-wards if it had not been for Gordon Brown's presence) and Margaret Thatcher who, while rejecting the concept of a European superstate in her Bruges speech, concluded that “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.”

But Nick makes a case for more than just economic advantage. If it was only this, then there would be little to differentiate ourselves from Cameron and Miliband. Cameron and his friends in the city would like to see the UK opt out of social legislation and worker protection, while Labour would not seek to reverse any move along these lines judging by their resistance to anti-ageism and similar directives when they were in power, but otherwise they see the advantages of being inside a free trade area. Clegg goes further.

He cites our increased influence as a result of EU membership in trade deals, the fight against cross-border crime and the environment. I would add: the protection of democracy. I believe that Greece is an example of this. In pre-EU days, Greece suffered from political instability interrupted by a reactionary dictatorship (the Régime of the Colonels). NATO, which is credited with keeping the peace in Europe after the Second World War, did not prevent the latter; indeed, it may covertly have encouraged it. Contrast more recent history, when near post-war austerity would probably have seen a neo-Nazi party take advantage to seize power, were it not for the support of the EU. One can add Spain and Portugal, for a long time strangers to democracy, now with stable elected legislatures.

Liberal Democrats have always sought to reform the EU. Now that the European Parliament has been given increased powers of scrutiny, our MEPs have actually been able to achieve some improvements and (along with like-minded MEPs in the powerful Liberal & Democratic group) blocked some regressive measures. We have consistently argued for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which Mrs Thatcher short-sightedly signed up to. The pressure on the CFP has finally told, as Nick made clear in his speech.

I disagree with Nick on one point: we are overdue an unconditional in-out referendum, which would settle our membership for a generation, as originally proposed by Ming Campbell. I know there was small print in our manifesto which promised a referendum only if there were proposed changes in our relationship with the EU, but we gave the impression in the campaign that in government we would provide a referendum regardless. We could actually have had an EU referendum instead of that pointless and damaging vote on a change to the electoral system which was not supported by any party, even Labour from whence it arose. The longer the referendum is put off, the more likely it is that we will have a perverse result when it is finally held.