Friday, 30 August 2013

More responses to the Syria votes

The truth is rarely pure and never simple (Wilde). Guido and some media commentators are presenting the defeat of the government's motion last night as a clear challenge to Cameron's leadership. To be sure, there are pretenders to the throne in the list of Tory rebels, but I detect various other strands. There are those Conservatives who object on principle to military adventures where there is no measurable gain to our own interests. There were also many who could see missile strikes doing more harm than good, which is my view.

When an Israeli commander used an internationally-deprecated incendiary chemical on civilians in Gaza, there were no calls to use military means to discourage Israel from deploying white phosphorus shells in future - nor should there have been. (Though there was a good case for impeaching those responsible as war criminals, and I was disappointed that the government moved to give immunity in the UK to such dubious visitors.) World opinion, following an international judicial inquiry, succeeded, albeit over three years later. The key to stopping the oppression in Syria is the Russian government. They have shown that their support for Bashar al-Assad is not unconditional, and the West should work upon that.

We should also double our efforts on the humanitarian front.

The entire ministerial team at the Department for International Development seems to have absented itself from the votes. They tackle the humanitarian issues of conflict day-to-day and also have to keep channels open to administrations throughout the world. I believe that to be seen to be endorsing military action in the middle east would hamper their work, and that they therefore took a practical and ethical decision, not a party political one.

There are calls for the prime minister to sack Justine Greening. This is unlikely because, to be consistent, he would also have to remove coalition members Steve Webb at DWP and deputy government whip Jenny Willott, who also were absent from the vote. Both are doing good jobs.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Reaction to the Syrian votes

The line taken by the presenter (Roger Hearing, I think) of The World Tonight tonight was that the defeat of both the Labour amendment and the coalition's substantive motion was that it left the UK's position unclear and that we had let down President Obama. The implication was that the USA could no longer trust the prime minister of the UK to deliver on his promises.

To me, the decision of the house was not ambiguous, though the majority against the second vote was narrow. Both motions approved the use of military action against Syria in principle, and this was what the House rejected. Jim Fitzpatrick, Labour's spokesman on transport until today, was in no doubt.

As to the democratic rejection of the prime minister's stance, it may be rare in Westminster, but the US presidency is well used to agreements reached in international conferences being rejected by Congress, from world trade to the international criminal court.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Syrian evidence has to be a lot harder than Iraq's

James Revill in The Guardian adds his voice to those doubting that the Syrian regime is responsible for all the chemical attacks which have been shown in TV news broadcasts. The argument that the rebels would not use chemical weapons on their own would hold water only if the forces opposing Bashar al-Assad were homogenous. In addition to the genuine revolutionaries, an al-Qa'ida associate seeks to impose a Sunni régime by force as well as the probable involvement of a Salafist group or groups funded from Saudi. One has only to consider the way the groups nominally supporting the Spanish Republicans during the civil war fell out among themselves, to see that the indiscriminate deployment of chemical weapons by anti-Assad forces is quite possible.

The government side is hardly monolithic, either. Russia no doubt has agents in the country of its only ally in the Middle East. It is possible that the chemical attacks have been carried out by a (Shiite) Hezbollah unit from Lebanon, who would not be too concerned about a Western attack on Damascus. Informed opinion is that the culprit is a rogue Syrian army commander who has gone beyond his brief. It does not seem credible that Bashar al-Assad himself would deliberately invite a US attack, given the clear warning from President Obama last year.

Before launching missile strikes which, however "surgical", are bound to kill and injure bystanders, President Obama needs to be absolutely certain not only chemical weapons have been used but also who used them.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Oh, happy day!

It was overshadowed by the tragic event of three months later, and marked over here more for the great Martin Luther King speech which it occasioned, but the march in Washington DC for negro (as was OK to say then) emancipation and respect was a joyous event in itself. It far exceeded the organisers' expectations, as Kwame Kwei-Armah's documentary celebrating its fiftieth anniversary shows.

Friday, 23 August 2013

HS2 rethink

When someone with as substantial a reputation as Alastair Darling publicly announces that he has completely reversed his stance on the scheduled high speed rail line, then its remaining proponents in government should cast a cold eye over the figures again. The worry is that expenditure on HS2 will virtually drain the rail transport budget dry. Many of us would argue that the road/rail expenditure balance is anyway skewed too much towards road. Better value than HS2 could be gained by improvements to the existing network - including perhaps full restoration of the Great Central.

It will be interesting to see the response from Railfuture, whose support for HS2 was already conditional.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Michael Brown (2nd repeat)

The message still hasn't got through. No doubt it will have to be restated the next time Michael Brown makes news - presumably an attempt to extradite him during the next general election campaign.

"Why" asks Private Eye this week "are the Lib Dems still refusing to hand back the £2.4m donated to the party by convicted embezzler Michael Brown." The Eye also attacks the Conservatives over £365,000 of Polly Peck money. (To be even-handed, they really ought to mention the massive Labour Party overdraft which cannot be helping the Cooperative Bank in its current difficulties, mainly caused by the bank's taking over the failing Britannia Building Society in 2008 and thus relieving the then Labour government of some embarrassment.)

There is a practical reason why the money, given as I understand it personally to fellow Scot, Charles Kennedy, cannot be repaid. It was totally spent (many would say wasted) on a 2005 election poster campaign featuring Charles Kennedy as party leader. It would be more realistic to ask More O'Ferrall and the other hoarding owners to pay it back.

It is also misleading to state that the party accepted the money from a convicted embezzler. Brown was not charged until several years after the donation. Until then he was indistinguishable from a large number of financial operators. I concede that this alone should have caused the leader to turn the donation down, or at least consult officers of the party and/or governing committees. I don't recall a single party member who was happy with it when the news leaked out, even before suspicions were raised about Brown's company.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Women in computing

I recommend listening to "the I.T. Girls" (a cute title which rather sums up the attitude towards female programmers in the 1950s and 1960s) while it is still available on iPlayer. Martha Lane Fox, herself a pioneer IT entrepreneur and one of the few successes of the first boom based on the World Wide Web, moderated a programme about the first UK women programmers. There was a brief introduction touching on Ada, Countess Lovelace - so brief that it fudged some of the details, and, considering that Ada's place as the world's first programmer is pretty well known by now, could have been left out. Afterwards, the programme got into its stride.

She introduced Mary Coombs, who as Mary Blood was recruited when the original small LEO programming team expanded. LEO was the world's first computer designed for commercial work when it went live in 1951. As one of the few computers of any kind working in the country at the time, outside customers were interested in buying time and expertise, which the hard-nosed Lyons management, wanting to see the new machine pay for itself, were ready to sell. More programmers were needed to extend the bread-and-butter (or rather bread, tea and cakes) work of LEO and Mary Blood was one of the first half-dozen. (For more about the rise and fall of Leo Computers, pick up the very readable "A computer called LEO" by Georgina Ferry or David Caminer's recollections here.)

There were also reminiscences from Dorothy Cooper of BOAC (I cannot find any WWW links presumably because she had worked on a computer system whose records have been expunged for commercial or other reasons); Ann Moffatt who started programming at Kodak and went on to manage the automation of the Australian stock exchange and now appears to be happily retired in Queensland; and, of course, Steve Shirley (a 2002 pdf file here).

England manager sacked

In this case, it is Hope Powell who has been given the boot. Writing as one whose closest contact with women's football* is via the TV screen, the decision seemed inevitable after the England team's poor showing in Sweden this summer. I would say that she paid the penalty for being too faithful to the squad she had built up over the years. The squad included veterans who were not 100% fit at the start of the tournament, and when England lost Rachel Yankey (a world-class winger) to injury early in the tournament, she did not take the opportunity to bring in a direct replacement from the next generation. Jess Clarke had to wait until England's chances of progressing were virtually over before coming on as a substitute.

Having written all that, I think tribute should be paid to Ms Powell's overall record. England women have had a better record of reaching world and European finals than the men over the same period.  I see from the wikipedia entry that: "As well as managing the England Senior team, she oversaw the whole set-up from Under-15s to the Under-21s, a coach mentoring scheme and The FA’s National Player Development Centre at Loughborough University." Not someone who can be completely cast aside, in my view. The English FA must look to augment the staff on the development ladder.

Rumours are that the Canadian coach - a man - is favourite to take over. Two of the teams in the European semi-finals this year - Sweden and eventual winners Germany - are coached by women, but clearly the FA has to appoint the best person available. Canada play exciting football and were robbed by a couple of (in my opinion) bad refereeing decisions of a place in the 2012 Olympic final.

* I have, though, had my hair cut by an Welsh international-class player.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Russians, English academies against homosexuality

In the case of the various academies in England, the apparent attempt to return to the days of Section 28 by the back door seems to have been inadvertent. The web-sites and statements of policy of the academies seem to have been cut-and-pasted from a document originating from before the repeal. (One recalls the embarrassment caused to the oil companies and the environmental authorities by a similar unthinking paste job for the Gulf of Mexico oil-drilling operations.) The swiftness with which schools acted to take down the offending statement, after being contacted by the Indy or Stephen Williams MP, rather bears this out.

The Russians, on the other hand, have knowingly not moved out of the 19th century. So far from repealing discriminatory legislation, they have enshrined anti-LGBT prejudice in law. There is a growing movement to boycott the Winter Olympics in Sochi as a result. Stephen Fry's letter to the PM calling for such a boycott has made waves. It is unlikely that either the British or American teams will officially be withdrawn, but there may well be individual withdrawals by both straight and gay competitors.

It continues to puzzle me that Russia has yet to recognise the contribution which gays have made to the nation in the past, not least in the arts.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky is the prime and well-known example, but just from music alone, Balakirev and Glazunov were probably homosexual also, though whether practising or not we will probably never know. Among performers, the great Sviatoslav Richter felt he had to contract a lavender partnership to keep the homophobes quiet. And perhaps Anatoly Vedernikov, who was just another name when I bought the Russian MK LP (sleeve alongside) of Prokofiev's fourth piano concerto, was another who had to keep his sexuality secret. It was noticeable that he didn't tour in the West until his latter years after the Iron Curtain came down, though he managed to have a career in Japan alongside his Soviet one.

Monday, 19 August 2013

My entry for mixed metaphor of the year award

"Chloe Smith is a pawn in the firing line" - attributed to Graham Allen MP. Pawns, of course, don't actually fire. They are, though, often sacrificed, as Ms Smith was in September last year when she was effectively demoted from the Treasury to her current post.

Perhaps "catspaw" (defined by Chambers' as "a person who is used by another") would be a better description of Ms Smith's rôle. Mr Allen is seriously worried about the way the Transparency Of Lobbying [etc.] Bill fails to meet the coalition agreement's statement of intention. I don't think he sees the deputy prime minister, the man nominally in charge of constitutional reform, as the manipulator behind the scenes, but someone rather higher up. As chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, Mr Allen is sufficiently concerned that he has recalled its members ahead of the resumption of Commons' sittings next month. He will hold special sessions to elicit evidence from leading figures in the industry, evidence which he hopes will be sufficient to stall the Bill at Second Reading on 2nd September.

More in the Indy's report here and its previous background comment here.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Where are the Egyptian liberals?

The Free Egyptians Party (member of Liberal International) has not published much in English since late last year if its Facebook page is anything to go by (the main page, mostly Arabic, is more up-to-date). However, its founder, billionaire Naguib Sawiris has publicly committed himself to a post-Morsi Egypt. One wonders whether his faith in the economic future of the nation has been shaken by the increasing strength of the Muslim Brotherhood's demonstrations and the disproportionate violence of the army's counter-measures. Tourism, one of Egypt's major earners, has virtually shrunk to nothing and there must be doubts about international investment (other than the Salafists' contribution to the military machine) in the current uncertainty. There is a danger of religious polarisation.

It seems to me that both the Brotherhood and the Egyptian army have failed to move with the times. Morsi clearly thought that having achieved power through election, he could rule like Mubarak, as Sadat did before him, manipulating the nation's constitution as necessary to secure absolute rule for the Brotherhood. The army seems to want to reverse everything achieved since the Tahrir Square riots. The people will surely not stand for either position, having glimpsed what democracy can look like. Nor is it to the long-term benefit of the army to be in a state of continuous conflict, given their own commercial interests. Syria must be a warning to them: Bashar al-Assad has maintained power - just - through repression, but the economy has collapsed around him.

Legality must be restored in the form of Morsi. This should persuade the bulk of the demonstrators mobilised by the Brotherhood to return to their homes. Morsi in turn must recognise that he cannot impose an Islamist constitution on a nation which does not want it. He must agree to a more liberal constitution, then step down to make way for new elections.

Later: Baroness Deech's comment should also be read. I would suggest that the international organisations she refers to already include the European Union and Liberal International.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Marikana update

Representatives of the South African government and of the ruling ANC party did not take up places reserved reserved for them at the recent commemoration of Marikana. According to James Nichol, the London solicitor who is acting for families of people killed in the massacre, on the World Service's news magazine programme this morning, there are no funds for legal representation of the aggrieved, and consequently the official commission is unable to proceed. Nichol himself is working pro bono. He sees the no-show as a turning-point in the fortunes of the ANC. (As a member of the Socialist Workers Party, he might be somewhat biased.) He does point out that non-white unemployment has risen since the ANC came to power, and that the wealth gap between richest and poorest has increased.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The dream that kicks* - digitally

Last night, Channel 4 screened a programme of a type which BBC-2 used to do so well (e.g. Howard Schumann's Talking Pictures) but has virtually given up on. (BBC4 has not seriously picked up the baton, either.) Entitled Side by Side, it was an examination of how digital imaging, recording and projection has virtually taken over the commercial cinema. Fronted by Keanu Reeves, whose name presumably guaranteed the finance for the documentary, and featuring most significant figures from the last two decades in Hollywood, it was not only an excellent introduction to the technology and its impact, but also touched on the future of the cinema experience. (Yes, it was shot digitally on this and this.)

Actually, that summary does not do justice to Reeves' contribution. He was not only one of the producers of the programme, he also participated in discussions where his experience - almost a veteran now - as a screen actor must have helped draw out his star guests, though the programme's credits assign the writing strictly to director Christopher Kenneally.

The contributors were inevitably Hollywood-based, though it was surprising how many of the cinematographers had British or Commonwealth accents. (I must admit to BSC-spotting in the credits of movies shown on TV.) It was good to see that doyenne of film editors, Anne V Coates, who had taken to the new technology in her 80s with, it appears, hardly a flicker.

It was not only an easy introduction to the way that digital production works, but, in explaining the differences with traditional film, also illuminated how these movies on Celluloid** were produced. It wisely avoided mentioning nitrate stock, or matting, and only touched on the benefits of digital visual effects. It was sad that the work of the early adopters in e.g. pop videos is lost to them because the machines to play back the particular digital medium no longer exist. (This is an area where they should have learned from the computer industry, or even the early days of TV recording.) There is also a worry for the future in that there is no high-capacity medium which passively retains digital data: both disks and tape need to be exercised regularly to keep them usable (the terms "stiction" and "print-through" come to mind from my mainframe computer days).

Professionals can still tell the difference between film and digital projection, but it seems that the tipping-point may be about to be reached. Already, cinema audiences benefit from more consistent presentation than with film, thanks to the current generation of digital projectors. In the programme, a Sony representative reckoned that 50% of cinemas worldwide were digital-only and that digital projection would be virtually ubiquitous within a few years. This presents difficulties for drive-ins, film clubs and small cinemas (at least one in Wales has been forced out of business because of the cost of upgrading), but it is probable that cheaper projectors will be developed, just as cheaper feature-film-quality digital cameras have appeared in the last few years.

More serious is the competition from the home cinema. Even one of the veteran cinematographers on Side by Side confessed that he was happy to watch movies on his big screen at home. Why would he go out? - he was beyond dating young women, which he remembered as the main reason for cinemagoing in his youth. I wonder whether cinemas can survive as theatre survived the competition from cinema itself.

* A quotation from Dylan Thomas's "Our Eunuch Dreams" used by Michael Chanan for the title of his history of early British cinema.

** A registered trade name!

Monday, 12 August 2013

A cell of ones own

The second of Robert McCrum's Sins of Literature on Radio 4 is about isolation. Although several of the writers featured, like Martin Amis and Deborah Moggach, insist that one has to continue to live in the real world, the actual process of writing is a solitary one. Most physically separate themselves, though one recalls the now well-known story of JK Rowling starting the Harry Potter series in an Edinburgh cafe, where she was clearly able to cut herself off from her surroundings. I also recall James Thurber telling a story against himself in a Home Service programme in the 1950s, when he must have been on a British promotional tour. His second wife was far more sociable than he and insisted on dragging him to cocktail parties (there's a very 1950s term!). His ability to isolate himself was aided by his near-blindness, but Mrs T did try to get him to mix. In a moment of exasperation, finding him once more alone and staring into distant space she accused him: "Thurber, you're writing!".

Sarah Waters finds walking useful in forming ideas or solving plot problems. I can't claim to be a great writer like her, but that chimes with my experience in solving a programming problem. Both she and Howard Jacobson find literary festivals problematic.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Labour leadership

The trouble is not with Ed Miliband, who is now widely scorned for not showing leadership, but with the Labour Party which is not giving him the ammunition with which to take its case to the country. Labour ducked out of formulating a clear agenda at its last policy-making conference. As a result, the shadow cabinet is forced into a reactive position, responding negatively and unthinkingly to each coalition government proposal. Too often this has resulted in a volte-face as the results from focus groups have come in; the benefits cap is a case in point.

Another handicap is that the internal strife between what are loosely described as the Blairites and the Brownites has not ended with the younger Miliband's election. In my opinion, this is another source of inconsistent messages from Labour's spokesmen and women.

I am sure Miliband craves an agreed policy platform. My guess is that he will have to wait until practically the last moment before the next general election, when a manifesto will be drawn up in reaction to the mood of the time and sprung on both the wider Labour party and the electorate.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

What happened to the Master Singers

I finally got round to make a start on digitising my vinyl collection. I began with the 45s and was gratified to find that there was little to be ashamed of in my choices (well, apart from a couple of Nana Mouskouri tracks). Since I hadn't played most of the discs for years, it was inevitable that the occasional "What happened to?" question came up. In particular, a surprise top 30 hit, produced by George Martin on the Parlophone label of Beatles fame, sung versions of various public information items by a group named the Master Singers, raised the question.

I was delighted to find which not only recounts how the record came to be made but also what happened to the Master Singers afterwards.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Planning for increased young population needed

No doubt the redtops will seize on the immigration element in the ONS's annual population assessment just released (pdf here). The FT however picks out the "baby boom" element. The increase in the number of live births in a time of economic depression was predictable (indeed I predicted it in 2008, but was a couple of years out in my guess!). Not only are there fewer jobs for women, causing them not to put off that biological question any longer, but there is apparently across all societies a drive to produce children when times are tough.

There is a need for government to plan to take account of this. It no doubt contributes to the strain placed on the NHS in Wales, whose budget Labour has consistently cut. The maternity services strategy document (pdf here) issued in 2011, when the population trend was already noticeable, does not go much beyond platitudes. There is still time, however, for the government and especially councils to shift resources into early years education in their 2014/15/16 budgets.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Science and politics

Catch this programme while you can. It goes to the heart of the way politics (in the widest sense) treats science. By-passing the rights and wrongs of GM and climate science, it shows how what science you believe tends to depend on your political/philosophical standpoint, rather than your logically choosing which faction to support depending on how sound their approach to science is. There is some consolation in that we are less polarised here than in the States, where it seems all scientists are generally assessed as "liberals".

This was in a week when evidence was released that global sea level last year was the highest since accurate measurement began. All right, that's only twenty years ago when satellites were first there to produce the figures, but it's still at least as significant as the drop in 2011 which was seized on by Nigel Lawson and his ilk that climate change science was liberal baloney. The deniers are quiet at present, showing how selective they are when it comes to the evidence.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

David Ward and Jenny Tonge

Why is David Ward MP being given more generous treatment by the Liberal Democrat leadership than Baroness Tonge, when his transgression would appear to be more serious? He has had the parliamentary whip withdrawn, but only temporarily. Jenny Tonge was not only stripped of her front-bench position in the Lords, but also virtually forced out of the party.

Israel is hardly an apartheid state, though there is racial discrimination, as there is in the UK. It is not institutionalised as it was in South Africa or even in the USA until recently. There is as much discrimination against other Jews as against Palestinians.

At no time did Jenny Tonge put blame on "the Jews", which Ward has done. On the other hand, Ward has not criticised the actions of the Israeli government. One can assume that it is more serious to attack Likud than to be vocally anti-semitic, or that Clegg is eyeing the thin majority in Bradford East, George Galloway and Respect having won a by-election in Bradford West.

The Lloyd automobile mystery

This was going to be a complaint about the misleading subtitle of Dominic Sandbrook's Das Auto, which spent more time whingeing about the failure of BMC (Austin, Morris etc) than on German successes. First, the British failure was an oft-repeated story (though Sandbrook didn't mention the part played by the financial services industry in failing to support investment); secondly, by concentrating on VW and to a lesser extent on BMW and Mercedes, he didn't give due credit to the other interesting German manufacturers of the post-war era. Looking up the details of these raised an interesting question.

Volkswagen was very important, and Sandbrook gave due prominence to its rescue by REME, and the failure by both Rootes Group in the UK and Ford of America to take a stake in the new company. However, there were other export successes. People of my generation will remember the "bubble-cars" and "microcars" HeinkelIsetta (produced by BMW under licence from its Italian originators), Goggomobil and especially the Messerschmitt which gave rise to a number of wry jokes when it appeared on British roads.

However, some of the most popular German cars did not register over here. I remember from my trips in the 1950s (my father was serving in REME in the British zone at the time) that Borgward family cars like the Isabella were as common as Mercs and BMWs, and that Lloyd (part of the Borgward group) was a favourite microcar marque. Borgward probably deserves an English-language programme to himself.

That Lloyd name always intrigued me, but I hadn't bothered to research its origins until now. tells us that "the Bremen motor-manufacturer NAMAG (Norddeutsche Automobil und Motoren Actien Gesellschaft) brought out automobiles under the marque Lloyd from 1906 onwards". The question remains: why Lloyd? The obvious answer is to associate the new machines with the cachet of Lloyd's of London, but I wonder whether it was also inspired by David Lloyd George, who was appointed President of the Board of Trade in the 1906 Liberal government. Ll G's wikipedia entry states that his work on the 1906 Trades Disputes Act attracted praise from Kaiser Wilhelm, so he clearly already had a continental, if not international, reputation.

Does anybody know the answer?

Monday, 5 August 2013

John Amis

I thought he would go on for ever and I shall miss him. John Amis was on my reading list as soon as I learned that in his eighties he was gracing the blogosphere with his music criticism and reminiscences. He was still attending performances and posting his sharp observations only two months ago. I trust the pages will be left up for this and later generations to enjoy.

Like many, I first became acquainted with his work through My Music, when he occasionally stood in for Ian Wallace or David Franklin, finally taking over permanently from the latter in 1974. (The programme had a long run, using only five performers throughout as I recall; the musicians were augmented by Frank Muir and Denis Norden, with Steve Race in the chair. Sadly, only Denis Norden is still with us.) Amis was also deeply involved in the Hoffnung concerts. His turn (with Gerard Hoffnung) as one of a pair of pretentious German critics puffing squeaky-gate modern music is a gem.

He was a fund of great Thomas Beecham stories, having worked as a dogsbody for the old rogue great man just after the war, including a tour of Australia. I just hope that somewhere those tales are recorded, as the BBC in its wisdom seems to have wiped all but the last year of My Music recordings. At least the corporation still has the programmes commemorating Amis's 90th birthday last year.

US-brokered Middle East peace talks

Whether there will be an agreed two states of Israel and Palestine is going to depend on how heavily the US government is prepared (behind the scenes) to use its financial muscle to support the solution. Given that the Democrat Party traditionally enjoys majority Jewish support in the US, the Obama administration would appear to have the best chance for ages to bring it about. However, Chris Davies MEP in his regular Notes is cautious:

The best news this week is that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are to meet in Washington for preliminary discussions about a two-state solution. Certainly the chances of success cannot be considered good. A majority in the Knesset may now be against any sort of independent Palestinian state; too many Israelis have grown accustomed to managed occupation and seem prepared to accept gradual annexation of Palestinian land and to live as dominant partners in some kind of apartheid structure. Meanwhile, Palestinians are divided, with Hamas leaders refusing to accept an agreement on any terms and challenging the right of Mahmoud Abbas to speak on behalf of all. But despite the difficulties huge credit must go to US Secretary of State John Kerry, and behind him President Obama, for their persistence in bringing the two sides together.

Surely this really is the last chance of achieving a two-state solution? Israel's policy of settlement building and of changing the facts on the ground has already made it virtually impossible to conceive of a genuinely independent Palestinian state being created. Maybe it's time to start talking about the economic interdependence of the two peoples - and the need for something like the EU to be born in the Middle East. 

Although there have been protests by Israeli citizens about a falling standard of living, Israel still enjoys great financial support from both private and public sources in the West. Apart from Iran and Syria, whose concentration on assisting the militants in Palestine is as much an embarrassment as help, there is no similar support for the Palestinians. So there is no incentive for the Netanyahu government to make any concessions, unless the US and EU are prepared to wield a financial stick. As Chris Davies continues:

An influence upon the debate has been the decision by EU foreign ministers to start putting some substance behind their words. From January next year, whenever Israel reaches an agreement (about virtually anything) with the European Commission (and by implication with any EU member state) it will be required to sign an explicit declaration that no part will apply in any way to Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 line, including in East Jerusalem where the vast majority of settlement expansion has taken place.

 While Palestinians have praised the EU, Israeli politicians have reacted with fury (and horror). Some have claimed that the EU decision could halt all economic, scientific, academic and cultural co-operation. Maybe they have at last realised just how much they could be affected if their allies tire of Israel's refusal to end its occupation. Although some commentators have suggested that the timing of the EU move was 'unhelpful' to the peace process you can be absolutely sure that the USA had been fully consulted about it. Even Israel's strongest supporters within the EU have lost patience and in this instance I have no doubt that they were given tacit encouragement to play 'nasty cop' to John Kerry's nicer version.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Owain Glyndwr Centre once more

The Guardian reports that a logical decision has been taken over the naming of the main community centre of Blaenhonddan CC. I trust that this is the end of the saga, and that the council-tax payers in the community will pay as little as possible to effect the reversion to the original name. I also hope that Labour accepts the decision and does not embark on another campaign, expensive in terms of both money and councillors' time, to reverse it.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Volatile bird numbers

This web page reproduces and augments the graphic in the current issue of Birds magazine, illustrating the decline of some of our most common bird species. However, the simple overall figures must mask local variations. In particular, there has been no shortage of sparrows round here and it has been a good year so far for blackbirds (like a recent visitor, left). It seems to me that the conservancy bodies in England should look at what has changed there as compared with South Wales, say. My own theory is that there are fewer wild places producing insect prey and nest sites.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

LibDems should not follow the other parties' path of patronage

First of all, may I congratulate Nick Bourne, a relatively progressive Conservative former leader of the party in Wales and a casualty in 2011 of our mongrel system for election to the Assembly, and especially Christine Humphreys, Welsh LibDem president and near-miss (by just one vote) inaugural leader, on their elevation to the House of Lords. They will clearly be effective working peers, as Mike German and Jenny Randerson have proved to be before them.

However, I am disturbed at the appearance on our list of James Palumbo. I'm sure he's a nice guy, and as co-founder of Ministry Of Sound, he will bring useful knowledge of the leading edge of culture to the Lords. My objection is that his barony is already being seen to have been bought by his financial contribution to the party, just as the already-leaked honouring of Rumi Verjee was. As that posting by Stephen Tall explains, the party has regularly and democratically voted for an Interim Peers List, a procedure suspended last year only because it had been assumed that Lords Reform would proceed. I am sure that if the vote had gone ahead, Brian Paddick and Olly Grender of this week's nominations would have been successful anyway, but the passing over of so many of the names on the 2008 and 2010 lists is another symptom of the lack of trust in the membership by the leadership which has been highlighted in the media recently, but which already manifested itself in the coalition negotiations.

Of the fifteen on the 2010 list, it seems that only Sal Brinton has been installed as a life peer. A sound case can be made for all the other fourteen, but to me the most glaring omission is that of Mark Pack.

As I type this, I'm listening to the Countess of Mar and Baroness Falkner on "The World Tonight" on the subject of the inflation of the upper chamber. But that's another story ...