Saturday, 31 May 2014

Liberal Democrats are not in politics to be kingmakers

It comes to something when the best defence of Liberal Democrats in government comes from a newspaper columnist (Mary Dejevsky, quoted here the other day) rather than party HQ.

The current party leadership seems to have fallen back on the comfort cushion offered by Andrew Grice today:

The Lib Dem turmoil eclipsed the real story of the local and European elections: it looks impossible for the Tories or Labour to win an overall majority next year. Without the Clegg crisis, Labour’s poor performance would have become the story. It miscalculated that Ukip would mainly damage the Tories, repeating Tony Blair’s mistake: the working class has “nowhere else to go”. It does now – Ukip. Privately, the Tories and Labour calculate the Lib Dems could hang on to more than 30 of the 57 seats they won in 2010. No one knows the impact of the Ukip wild card but it is clear that Nigel Farage’s party will hurt the Tories and Labour more than it harms the Lib Dems. It’s a safe bet that the Lib Dems will have a lot more seats than Ukip, which will struggle to win more than a handful.

His analysis may well be correct, but we should be seeking to advance, not just sit in the centre with no apparent policies other than providing a minister as the German Free Democrats did. The FDP is now absent from the national parliament and is going to have to rebuild from its local bases.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Ups and downs in the European Parliament

Maelo Manning "joined the Lib Dems at the age of 10, I am now 14, and never have I questioned my belief in the party until now. In these four years I have seen the party go from having no chance of being in power, to being in Government and reverting back to having no chance again."

While I joined the (Social and) Liberal Democrats at a greater age than Maelo, I have seen greater vicissitudes for Liberals and Liberal Democrats in my lifetime.  In the 1950s, it was said that the parliamentary party could go to work in Westminster in a taxi, a gift for cartoonists.

This all serves as an introduction to my recent ferreting in UK-Elect (recommended for political anoraks - and it's British). That confirmed that having minuscule UK Liberal Democrat representation in the European Parliament is nothing new. This is the table for mainland Great Britain:

Year of election Labour Conservative Liberal Democrat Green Plaid Cymru SNP UKIP

1. Member countries had to use a form of proportional representation from 1999 onwards. In the UK, the government decided that this should be by closed party lists in mainland Britain and single transferable vote in Northern Ireland.

2. BNP gained two seats in the 2009 election, but lost them again in 2014

3. Data for 1979 and 1984 taken from House of Commons Research Paper 99/57.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

"A leader with a good track record - if only he told us"

Mary Dejevsky writes in The Independent:

Nick Clegg reportedly considered resignation, then decided the manlier course was to stay. He was right. But he has a far better defence to mount than he has so far allowed himself to make or his haggard demeanour suggests.

First, the results for the Lib Dems were not as catastrophic as their Europe wipe-out makes it appear. Unlike those commissioned by Lord Oakeshott, many pollsters (Ipsos Mori and YouGov) reckon their support will hold up reasonably well in next year’s general election. Of course, it suits the Conservatives, and especially Labour, to keep the focus on the Lib Dems. But they held on to councils they might well have lost.

Second, it is hard to think of anyone else who would be doing any better as leader. Clegg took the Lib Dems from being a party of protest to a party in power. As junior partners in coalitions have invariably found, that slice of power comes with a price, but is it not more laudable to be able to do something than just talk about it?

Third, many of the recriminations now coming from inside the party and its supporters reflect old grudges. Clegg’s decision to go into government at all stripped them of their protest banners. He is blamed for joining the Conservatives rather than Labour, but the arithmetic only added up one way. And there is the red herring about university tuition fees. The Lib Dems joined the Coalition as the very junior partner. This was one of the compromises that had to be made – and, by the way, the new fees have not deterred low-income students who are funded and whose numbers have increased.

Fourth, Lib Dem ministers have, by and large, acquitted themselves well in government. They have policies to their credit, including the rise in the income tax threshold that has taken large numbers of low-earners out of tax, the pupil premium and – yes – free school meals. And they have tempered others – on Europe, immigration and benefits. Preventing or watering down policies is not noticed as much as implementing them, but it is no less vital. [My emphasis - FHL] As a bonus, Clegg’s international experience and cosmopolitan background have helped David Cameron through many a foreign spat. 

Clegg has his weekly radio phone-in on LBC, recently won an award, and inspired Boris (who is hardly publicity-shy) to request his own. On the air, Clegg comes over as calm, genial, reasonably direct (for a politician) and well-informed. Nor, contrary to popular wisdom, did he mess up his Europe debates with Nigel Farage. His problem was that the scales are always weighted in favour of zealots without power or responsibility. Anyway, the debates are not what cost his councillors and MEPs their seats.

Nick Clegg’s mistake, if there has been one, is not to have boasted enough of his party’s success in government. Being in a coalition, though, calls for solidarity until the next election looms. Perhaps he left it too late – though the clashes with Michael Gove over money for free schools suggest otherwise. This Government has almost a year to run; the Lib Dems still have a (small) share of real power. Their leader has less to regret than he seems to fear.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Euro elections

Peter Black's blog post has reminded me of the piece I started writing during the Neath count, stuffed in a pocket and forgot:

Labour got their vote out in Neath Port Talbot as they failed to do in their council elections in England, London and Cambridge excepted. It will be interesting to compare the UKIP and Conservative tallies of 2009 and 2014. I suspect they will show some switching from the latter to the former. Labour in Wales seems to have resisted the racist drift to UKIP that was so evident in the English north-east. (That is not to say that UKIP is explicitly racist, but it is the way most people seem to see the party, helped by the coverage given by the BBC.)

It would be easy to blame our failure on Nick Clegg. Certainly, having the deputy PM fronting the election broadcast which went out on Welsh TV did not help, but our literature in Wales featured local faces: Kirsty, our excellent lead candidate Alec Dauncey, campaign director Aled Roberts and round here Peter Black. We could have done with more high-profile figures putting their heads above the parapet. Perhaps they were intimidated by the opinion research figures published by media who have no great love for the Liberal Democrats - virtually a self-fulfilling prophecy.

[Later] There seems to have been an illiberal swing not only in the UK but also across Europe as a whole. In some countries this manifested as a move to ultra-conservative parties, in others it was to socialists, as in Greece. People at the lower end of the income ladder are still not feeling the benefits of the economic upswing which is there in the official figures but not yet felt in people's pay-packets. In the circumstances, the traditional liberal values of fairness and civil liberties take a back seat. I find it significant that although Germany returned one neo-Nazi MEP for the first time, on the whole they are still represented by the established  parties who strongly support the EU. Germany has the soundest economy in the EU and rode out the storm following the 2008 credit crunch.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Sound like humans, and explain as well as listen

Could there be any more dramatic illustration of what Lynne Featherstone complained about on Vote 2014 than the later reactions to the English local election results by other party speakers (mostly men with safer seats)? I inwardly cheered when she said early on in the proceedings that Farage was going down well with the voters because he sounded like a human being. Then I groaned when others robotically ground out the message that we needed to listen to what the voters were saying. (Labour speakers were also guilty of this.) The vox pop response was: you're listening, but you're not hearing.

Another line in the Great George Street script was: we need to get across what he have done in government. I believe that most voters do know that we are responsible for the raising of the personal allowance and state pension guarantee, but they weigh that against other coalition measures which have been unpopular.

Let us change tack. Let our MPs explain in their own words what moves them as Liberal Democrats. Let us not only listen, but respond to views which must be challenged. Certainly, simple messages, and especially those which affect people's pockets, are effective but people can get tired of them. They need to hear the backing as well as the solos.

They also need to hear what we would do in the future, rather than dwelling on the last four years. The Conservatives have been very good at this. Tories have increasingly moaned about how those perishing Liberals have held them back in government and proclaimed what they will do with an overall majority. We already have party policy which we have been forced to compromise over in coalition but needs restating: cancelling the Trident replacement, restoring fairness to benefits - especially housing benefit - and more fairness in taxation, for instance. One trusts that Glasgow 2014 will provide more ammunition, but we don't have to wait until October.

The Democratic Alliance in South Africa made progress in the May national and provincial elections on a liberal manifesto. Nick Clegg took a bold step in breaking with previous shamefaced campaigns by nailing our European Union colours to the mast. I would like to see him, Danny Alexander and Steve Webb doing the same with Liberal values on the domestic front.

Trekking in Nepal, yomping in Wiltshire

If you're fit, love a challenge, have holiday money to spare and want to enjoy scenery which is even more amazing than Wales, then the Annapurna treks in March and October of next year are for you. The Gurkha Welfare Trust and the charity challenge company Discover Adventure are partners in the fundraising treks, which each have up to 40 places available. More details here, where there are some great pictures even if you have no intention of going.

Something closer to home which is physically testing in a different way is the Gurkha Run on Salisbury Plain in October.

If, like me, you are more armchair-bound and would like to help Gurkha veterans (who have long-established links with Wales) and their families in other ways, then visit

Saturday, 24 May 2014

A small anniversary

It has not weathered well, but this stone records that the Waterfalls Centre at the southern edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park was opened 25 years ago today. Well worth a visit if you are in the area, even if you don't tackle the Waterfall Walks themselves.

Friday, 23 May 2014

"Best child protection in the world"

According to the BBC, academics at Kingston University (presumably Kingston-on-Thames, not Kingston on Hull or Kingston, Jamaica) reckon that England has one of the most successful child protection systems in the world.  Presumably the exclusion of Wales was deliberate, as I cannot think of a local authority round here which has a totally trustworthy children's service. But it appears that wherever that most successful system in England is, it is not in Birmingham.

Will the new Labour administration voted in yesterday do any better? The record of Labour in this area is not promising.

Real votes in real ballot boxes

For years, almost since the start of the coalition government, the press and BBC have been predicting a return of a Labour government in 2015. Labour MPs have been acting as if it were a certainty. Published opinion research has backed them up. For almost as long, I have been predicting that Labour would not recover the ground they lost in 2010 and that the Conservatives would probably increase their numbers of MPs, mainly at the expense of Liberal Democrats.

The results in the English local elections as they trickled in early this morning supported my prediction. If anything, Labour's failure to advance is more marked than I thought it would be at this stage. Worse for Labour is that their only major successes have come in London, reinforcing the impression that they are a London-centred party.

The sad loss of Kingston-upon-Thames bore out the second part of the prediction, although the lateness of the declaration suggests recounts in several close contests. There were bright spots, though: where LibDem organisation was strong (Kingston apart), we seem to have held on; and while there has been a large net loss, there have been some individual gains of council seats.

UKIP of course has been the major story. Nigel Farage's party has, outside London, been the repository of protest votes which Labour should have hoovered up. They seem to have affected Conservatives in the south and east, and Labour elsewhere. What remains to be seen is the quality of its new councillors. One recalls another extremist fourth party at the end of last century making local election gains, only to lose them all as the ineptitude of the new councillors over their term was revealed. However, UKIP has gained many more seats than the BNP did, and their members are generally sharper.

UKIP has benefited from media exposure above and beyond their deserts. One can understand those newspapers and blogs run by tax-dodging millionaires giving a boost to their mates, but what is the BBC's motive? Surely BBC News and Current Affairs is not, as some Tory conspiracy theorists would have it, run by friends of Labour who see UKIP as uniquely damaging the Conservatives? My own view is that they have no real knowledge of what defines parties - or even contact with the real world - and that they see elections only as horse-races, with UKIP as the plucky outsider coming up on the rails.

I hate to sound like Goebbels, but Farage is basing his campaigns on the Big Lie: say something outrageous often enough and loud enough and people believe it, especially if you lard your speeches with occasional genuine fact. We've seen it in his European Parliament campaign (see the EU fact-checking site) but it appears it will form part of his Westminster campaign. Gary Lewis of Maesteg has drawn our attention to the response of Labour's Andy Burnham to a UKIP smear.

What is the peculiar hold that Farage has over voters across the political spectrum? For the last few years, a Facebook friend, a former LibDem councillor who has been, on Facebook, tearing into the LibDems in coalition for their attack on social security and on the NHS in England (in which she has some justification). You would think that her protest vote in her council ward would go to Labour or even to a more socialist party like the Greens. Yet she publicly declared that her vote went to UKIP, whose policies would see privatisation of the NHS and even more misery for those on benefits. Nor has she ever expressed any racism as far as I can recall.

The full extent of UKIP's advance should become clear in the Newark by-election of 5th June when a known face which is not Farage's will be in the spotlight.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Salvation or purgatory? Some Euro odds and ends

Nathan Gill of UKIP on Sunday Supplement repeated the old canard that in the last EU referendum "you was voting on whether or not to be part of a trading bloc". As I have previously blogged, Edward Heath among others made clear the political dimension. Now, thanks to Bill Newton-Dunn's blog (temporarily unavailable for some reason) I find that even Mrs Thatcher recognised the need for the common market to enforce rules from the centre and that the EEC was more than just a free trade area.

Nor is our entry fee £55m per day - it is more like £36m, about £20m of which we get back in one form or another.

I was impressed by Alec Dauncey's quiet authority on ITV's Sharp End (as previously on Sunday Supplement) which reinforced my commitment to a LibDem vote today.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

If Brussels has a legitimacy problem, the solution is to vote tomorrow

 – and for candidates willing to engage with it

That was the message of the Indy's leader today. It goes on:

It is possible that a large proportion of voters will mark their ballot paper tomorrow – in both the European and council elections – to reflect their feelings not about issues that MEPs and local councillors can address, but about the performance of the national parties since 2010. Given the volume of national political bickering in this country, and the relatively muted EU and local campaigning, this is perhaps understandable. But these are crucial elections in their own right.
Yet some of the largest and most complex contemporary problems require trans-national political responses – and the European Parliament has great influence on the European Commission, the civil service body which puts together EU law. Following the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, the head of the Commission will need to be vouched for by the Parliament, where previously the decision was solely down to national governments who make up the European Council.

In their plenary sessions, MEPs will also have a say on cross-border issues from finance to terrorism to migration policy. Some 90 per cent of what the EU does must run through Strasbourg. On climate change, for example, the UK’s 73 MEPs will influence the level at which future EU emissions targets are set. Quite simply the Parliament is more powerful than most national legislatures. A vote for a candidate who promises properly to engage with it is a vote that recognises the inter-connected nature of progressive European society.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

European Parliament turnout trends 2004-2009

Thanks to the Irish office of the EP for this graphic:

There are negative and positive sides to a potential low turnout in the European Parliament elections: the negative side is that it makes it more likely that fanatics will be elected; on the positive side, if Liberal Democrats' normal vote comes out, we will be sure of a MEP from Wales.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Do we really want our security forces to use torture?

A constant source of annoyance to Liberal Democrats and others with a positive attitude to Europe is the confusion between the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights. (Incidentally, no such confusion arises over the EBU and Eurovision, probably because even UKIP realises that attempting to ban UK's participation in the annual song contest would be very unpopular!)

There are those Tories, though, who know the difference and still want us to leave both. Home Secretary Theresa May has shown that her mind is working that way. The official Conservative line of repealing UK's Human Rights Act is bad enough: it would leave our membership of ECHR intact, but mean that only those who could afford to take their case to Strasbourg would be protected by it. To go further would imply that the UK no longer respects the rights and freedoms set out in the Convention, except where already enshrined in our own legislation - and, of course, that legislation can be amended.

From the introduction to the Official Texts section of the ECHR website:
The rights and freedoms secured by the Convention include the right to life, the right to a fair hearing, the right to respect for private and family life, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and the protection of property. The Convention prohibits, in particular, torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, slavery and forced labour, arbitrary and unlawful detention, and discrimination in the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms secured by the Convention.

Last year, when Theresa May made her reactionary speech, I had considered posting that she was starting us on the slippery slope that led inevitably to the torture of suspects, but rejected so doing for fear of being thought paranoid. However, it seems from a recent Amnesty International survey that over a quarter of those sampled do not consider torture in the case of suspected terrorist offences unreasonable. If this is representative of the British electorate, then there is a grave danger that a future majority government would feel empowered to use the first "emergency" to push through legislation which would put Life on Mars in the shade. It's all the more reason not to give the Conservatives a majority next year.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Fantasy casting

Do you ever imagine yourself as a Hollywood or Drury Lane producer, able to assemble your ideal cast for a classic production?

My dreams go back a long time. I would have loved to have seen Orson Welles, knowing his hobby of conjuring, as Prospero, with John Houseman, the other half of a well-documented break-up and partial make-up with Welles, as the usurping duke cast up by The Tempest. Those two greats have since passed on, as has Marlon Brando who would have made a superb King Lear. There is a story told by a fellow-actor that Brando himself had the ambition to play Lear, and had the part by heart - even when he needed cue cards for whatever film they were currently working on. Goneril and Regan would have to be Kristin and Serena Scott Thomas, still happily with us at the time of writing. They would speak in RP, contrasting with the rural English of Lear (Brando would have had no trouble with that) and of Cordelia. (She would be played by the most promising newcomer of the day.)

Turning to books, the Sheens would have to play the main male leads in "So Little Time" (see earlier post). Martin would be the older Jeffrey with Emilio Estevez as his younger version. There should be no difficulty in finding a younger member of the clan to play Charlie. Sally Field was my original choice for the wife, given her ability to play a wide age-range, but now I think I would go for Goldie Hawn and Naomi Watts as the older and younger versions.

This was all sparked off by noting that Nigel Kneale's "Kinvig" is on YouTube. Probably spread too thin over a series, this neat idea would make an ideal one-off TV movie. Matthew Kneale could adapt his father's scripts. Des and his wife would be Harrison Ford and Kathy Bates, with Martin Lawrence as the anorak Ted. To cap it all, the dual role of angry customer and ethereal being from outer space has to be played by Charlize Theron, who has all too rarely been given the chance to show what she can do in a comedy.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Sentenced to death for following her mother's religion

There have been some gross miscarriages of justice on the part of religious authorities but this is the most appalling of recent years.

Amnesty International have a campaign to save Meriam Yehya Ibrahim. AI has a history of successes where enough people round the world write in to show their concern. Please sign up here:

Friday, 16 May 2014

Talking about music (2)

BBC Radio 4's "Last Word" today caught up with the death of Antony Hopkins - and also brought the sad news of the death of Stan Bootle/Stan Kelly. There cannot be many people who not only contributed to "Computer Weekly" but also to "Sing" magazine.

Cameron less communitaire than Major

I happened to turn up my copy of the Conservative Manifesto for Wales 1997 yesterday. It was interesting to compare attitudes to Europe then and now. Major was then, and Cameron is now, opposed to the Social Chapter and the euro, but Major was rather more in favour of co-operation within the Union:

Our priorities for Europe's development will be enlargement of the Community, completion of the single market, reform of the European Court of Justice, and further strengthening of the role of national parliaments. We will seek more co-operation between national governments on areas of common interest - defence, foreign policy and the fight against international crime and drugs.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Why I shall be voting Liberal Democrat on Thursday 22nd

First of all, I want to see an increase in the LibDem vote in Wales on May 22nd. This will give the lie to

Anonymous writes: HMMM

I'm not certain what happened there. That sentence was in a draft which somehow escaped and was supposed to be at the end anyway.

What I was going to say was that I was going to vote LibDem because of my commitment to the party, but also because Liberals are good for Europe and LibDems in Europe have been good for England, so should be good for Wales, too.

I have flirted with all three main parties (and even voted for a Welsh Nationalist once, but only because I knew he was a liberal at heart and there was no LibDem standing). I was early attracted to the then Liberal policies of co-ownership (and the steady rise of the John Lewis Partnership has provided outstanding evidence of how right that policy is) and devolution of power from Westminster. Later, I became attracted by the concept of democratic planning as set out by Evan Durbin, who influenced both Hugh Gaitskell and Roy Jenkins. Real life intervened as I had to move to the great wen to struggle to make a living and also came into contact with real trade unionists.

When social democrats (both new members, who included many middle-ranking professionals whom the traditional parties had appeared to neglect, and escapers from the Labour Party) joined liberals to form a Liberal Democrat party in 1985, it was clear where my political home should be. The exploitation of the British people by both Thatcher/Major and Blair/Brown showed that it was not enough to have liberal leanings and just sit on the sidelines.

So I am a Liberal Democrat party member by rational choice, rather than tribalism. This does mean that I occasionally, much to the disgust I suspect of my more competitive party colleagues, have a good word to say for individuals in other parties. But none of the other parties has freedom, fairness and justice as their predominant and explicit constitutional aims.

In the EU

Liberal Democrat MEPs are part of the ALDE bloc, currently the third most powerful in the European Parliament, after the moderately conservative European People's Party group and that of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. (Plaid Cymru is in the fourth largest, the Free Alliance Greens; the British Conservatives are in the fifth, the rather more extreme Conservatives and Reformists.) Not only is the Liberal bloc large enough regularly to influence votes, it has been one of the major sources of reforms in the EP and beyond.

Reducing the barriers to competition in mobile telephony and the use of the Internet is the most recent successful ALDE initiative. Last year, the ALDE Group was instrumental in ensuring electronic cigarettes would not be classified as a medicinal product (which would have greatly increased their cost, limited the product choices and restricted their retail availability).

Liberal Democrat Sharon Bowles, as chair of the European Parliament's Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee (ECON) has been influential in bringing more fairness and transparency to financial affairs in the EU, something which has not endeared her to those Conservatives and UKIPpers who would seem to prefer the casino of earlier years. Other influential LibDem MEPs are Chris Davies (scan his news page for some of his successes), Catherine Bearder and Sir Graham Watson. Not only do these LibDems punch above their weight politically speaking, but they also keep their constituents informed. I have given up trying to find out what Wales' current representatives do in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Flipping the bird to Murdoch

Finally, the mass media (including the BBC, whose motives are highly suspect) have been pumping out the message that liberalism is finished and the contest for the future is between two conservative parties and fascists. An increase in the Liberal Democrat vote in the EP elections would not shame them - for they are shameless - but demonstrate to the electorate at large that they do not have to believe specious figures, even if they appear in print headlines or on a BBC news web site. I believe that Welsh people on the whole take a more intelligent view of politics than the population west of the Dyke. I am hoping that postal voters are already applying, and voters in person on the 22nd, will apply that intelligence to a rational choice.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Coal mine disaster in Turkey

Unsurprisingly, given this nation's own tragic experiences, BBC-Wales led its news bulletins this morning with the desolating report of a disaster in Soma, western Turkey. I trust that both the unions and government bodies in the UK have offered whatever assistance they can usefully provide to the Turkish authorities.

A step on the way to parliamentary democracy

Today is the 750th anniversary of the Battle Of Lewes, when the barons, led by Simon de Montfort, with the aid of Welsh archers, defeated Henry III. In 1265, de Montfort presided over the first English parliament attended by elected members. Though the barons were later defeated in Evesham, parliament continued under Henry III's son, Edward I.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Devolution and all that

It's a pity that Sharp End was shunted from its Thursday evening slot. It was my regular escape from the Question Time bear-garden. Last night, Adrian Masters showed what he could do with double his usual paltry allocation of time in a celebration of fifteen years of Welsh devolution. He and the four current party leaders provided the right mix of consensus and political argument which by common consent has marked the Assembly's own discussions (First Minister's Questions excepted, and if you haven't seen the programme, it's worth catching for the interchange on this subject between Carwyn Jones and Kirsty Williams alone).

I was glad to see that the debate avoided altogether the relationship between constituency and list members, which Labour in Westminster is making so much of during the progress of the Wales Bill, though by so doing the leaders missed a nuance. The "top-up" provided by the Welsh regional lists is not quite enough to give true proportionality, so that there is always a bias (known technically as overhang) towards the party which wins most constituency places - currently Labour. The Welsh system was copied from that devised as a result of the Scottish devolution settlement. This is truly proportional, but the arithmetic was eased by the larger number of Scottish constituencies.

As I understand it, the Scottish system was a compromise between Scottish Labour who would have preferred first-the-post for all Scottish Parliament seats and Scottish Liberal Democrats who proposed (naturally) STV in multi-member constituencies. It was Andy Myles of the LibDems who did the calculations to ensure that the Scottish AMS was as fair as any list-based system can be.

I see that Andy Myles has joined his friend Craig Murray in arguing for full Scottish independence. The fact that two men with clear Liberal credentials support a complete breakaway from the UK shows that the issue is not as clear-cut as the Westminster party leaders make out. It is something which is best left to the Scots, I suggest. The rather heavy-handed "No" campaign has been counter-productive if the reports in the Scottish media are to be believed. (Perhaps this is David Cameron's secret aim. He may look forward to the Labour contingent to Westminster from north of the border being eliminated, not to mention the social security bill.) By all means provide the data to the Scottish electorate, but let the figures speak for themselves.

Of course, a "Yes" vote would not be the end of the story. There would follow months of hard negotiations with both the UK government and the EU over finance, including the currency to be adopted by Scotland. There is resistance by other member states of the EU to accept an application from what they see as a breakaway state, setting a precedent for their own dissatisfied regions. There may or may not be a rosy long-term future for Scotland, but there will certainly be an initial period of uncertainty to live through. This would surely effectively freeze major investment in Scotland for a period of years.

The coalition (no doubt so advised by the civil service, who like to put off decisions) seems to be waiting on the Scottish vote before looking at further powers for Wales after passage of the Bill currently going through Parliament. The party leaders in Cardiff Bay were unanimous last night in their view that discussions on Silk and other recommendations for further devolution should proceed without regard to which way the Scots vote.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Talking about Antony Hopkins

Two days ago I blogged about Pauline Boty, someone who is forgotten because she died too young. Antony Hopkins, who died early last week aged 93, outlived too many of those he influenced. It doesn't help that search engines assume that "Antony" is a mistyping and point users to a certain Welsh-born American actor.

Hopkins introduced a generation at least of BBC radio listeners to music without talking down on the one hand or assuming an ability to read or play music on the other. There have been obituaries in The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph but nothing so far in The Indy or on the music blogs I follow. Shamefully, there has not been much from the Corporation, which has not outgrown the attitude it acquired at the end of the twentieth century of fearing to be thought elitist. This was said to be the reason for its cancellation of Hopkins' Talking About Music in the first place.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Why I want to stay in the EU

Cards on the table: I was not in favour of acceding to the Treaty of Rome when Edward Heath took the UK into the European Common Market (YouTube video here). It is not that I was against European cooperation. Indeed, I had been enthused by presentation by a European Community enthusiast to an assembly of the whole school when I was at Oldershaw Grammar. (Looking back, I see that as an unusual decision by our headmaster, so conservative in other ways.) I felt that the membership of the European Free Trade Area together with our ties with the Commonwealth gave us the best of both worlds. (There was also the Council of Europe to which practically all democratic European nations had joined.)  Joining the EEC would mean turning our back on the Commonwealth economically speaking. It was not a comfortable position to be in. If I remember correctly, all the newspapers were in favour of going in apart from the Daily Express, still standing up for the British Empire, and the Communist Morning Star.

It is not true, though, that Conservative leaders had been silent on the political implications. Heath and Macmillan had both spoken of pooled sovereignty. Both had served in the armed forces and were, I believe, moved at least as much by the need to prevent another European war as by the economic prize on offer. Perhaps there was a conspiracy of silence over the preamble to the first Treaty which declared that the signatories were "determined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe", something which has never been removed and which therefore governs European Commission and Court of Justice rulings to this day. In any negotiations over a new treaty, those words should be the first to be revised, in my opinion, and I am sure that a majority of EU member states would be in favour of that.

It would be good still to have that UK role as hinge between the ancient democracies and high-tech economies of Northern Europe, together with Canada, and the developing nations of the Commonwealth. However, Commonwealth nations have long since forged new trading links and key EFTA nations have followed us into the EU so, like the last Stagecoach in Merthyr, that bus has departed for good. We are, as they say, where we are.

It would be a mistake to sever economic ties with 27 other European nations with no guarantee of an adequate replacement. We would still have our transatlantic links, of course, but our experience of the 2008 economic crunch should have taught us the dangers of ever-tighter binding to the US economy. 150,000 (Plaid Cymru) through 170,000 (LibDem) to 190,000 (Labour) are the estimates of the numbers of jobs in Wales linked to the European Union. It would be dishonest to claim that all those jobs would be lost if the UK left, but it is equally dishonest to assert that the majority would be safe if, in the words of Tata Steel's submission, the UK were left "isolated and weakened".

On the positive side we benefit from the EU's economic mass. The EU can conclude favourable international trade deals. The EU can force mobile telephone companies to adopt a common tariff across the Union. It can even punish the mighty Microsoft for anti-competitive activities.

People who object to the free movement of Polish plumbers and Latvian leaflet-deliverers should consider that at least the same number of UK citizens are plying their trade on the continent. They should also remember the UK recession-before-last when the continent offered an escape from the dole. "Auf Wiedersehen, Pet" was reality-based. When Ireland was booming, Welsh youngsters with easy access to ferry ports made a living in the Republic. One hand washes the other.

But as former MEP Diana Wallis complained elsewhere on the Web, we hear the economic arguments to the exclusion of all the others. It is only natural that political parties should plug a simple message that resonates with the most people, and currently that message is about job security. There are other reasons, though.

Ms Wallis's concern is with the law. The link above leads to an article summarising the efforts being made to ease red tape across the EU and bring the standard of protection of the individual up to a common standard. That standard is needed because of the EU arrest warrant, which otherwise is such a boon to us, as Nick Clegg has emphasised.

There is also the Charter of Fundamental Rights. This is different from the European Convention on Human Rights, but entrenches and extends it. (By the way, leaving the EU does not necessarily mean rejecting the ECHR, though many leading Conservatives would like to do both; whether the converse is also true is a moot point.)

Some employment rights are guaranteed by the EU, and it is clear that they are what the Conservatives and UKIP most object to, together with the measures intended to ensure the future good behaviour of bankers.

Later: I have come across an argument from the Polish foreign minister, one of the Solidarity generation, on Mark Pack's web pages: It concludes as follows:

Saturday, 10 May 2014

A public airing at last

In the chaotic and TV-less ménage which I shared in Brockley Rise in the 1960s a regular date was with "The Public Ear" on BBC radio on Sundays. Fresh, provocative, it was hosted by Pauline Boty and a young bloke whose name I forget. Only later did I discover that Boty was foremost a pop artist and by that time she had already died of cancer. Her name vanished from the media, surfacing occasionally in a colour supplement as a fan tried to interest the establishment in her work, which all this time had been stored by her brother on his farm.

Now it seems, from Alastair Sooke's Culture Show essay (Pop Goes the Women) that the paintings have finally been rescued and conserved. I believe that if she had lived, her reputation as a painter would have thrust aside by the men who followed, just like the other women featured in the BBC-2 documentary. However, she had so many talents that I am also sure that she would not have remained out of the media floodlight - actress, performance artist, BBC presenter, perhaps a politician - who knows? At least we have something tangible to remember her by.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Labour's "European" party election broadcast

Well, that was disappointing. I made a point of catching yesterday's Welsh Labour PPB (as I still think of them) in the hope that it might have something more to say about Labour's performance in and aspirations for the European Parliament than the leaflet pushed through the door last week.

In the event, it had far less to say. It had nothing to say about Europe. It was an off-the-shelf general attack on the Westminster government, which could have been broadcast any time. This would be excusable if there were to be local elections in Wales as there are in England, but on the 22nd May we will be solely concerned with the European Parliament.

Welsh Liberal Democrats may be criticised for using the Nick Clegg-helmed PPB (if only we had the funds the other parties can call on, in order to produce our own video!), but it must be conceded that it makes a positive case for participation in the EU. Kirsty Williams and Alex Dauncey reinforced the point at the launch of the Welsh LibDem Euro campaign.

By the way, if you want to catch up on all the Euro PPBs, the BBC has provided a list here.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

No voter apathy here

Some South African polling stations have stayed open beyond the official cut-off  time of 21:00 in order to accommodate the last of the queues.

Biting the hand that used to feed me

The other day I needed to confirm that Malvina Reynolds wrote Little Boxes and came across this marvellous resource from which I see that back in 1975 Ms Reynolds foresaw concerns that are even stronger today:

Computers, computers, computers wherever you turn.
Those chips are so loaded with hot information
You'd think they would burn.
Some of it's factual, actual,
Some of it's made of thin air.
Whatever gets in a computer
Stays there.

You can put almost anything in there that comes to your mind.
The programmer gets lost in the shuffle, the scuffle,
The dope stays behind.
Some of its factual, actual,
Some of it is double-faced.
Whatever gets in a computer
Isn't erased.

Our lives have been fed to computers, every thought, every dream,
Everything that we've bought that has rusted or busted
Or split at the seam,
Every up, every down,
Every howl, every glimmer of luck.
When something gets in a computer
It's stuck.

The stuff that we have in our heads is a different affair.
We've hoarded and sorted, amended and bended
And let in the air.
But computer banks grow like a cancer,
They can always produce a wrong answer
And they never are troubled with doubt.
And once you get in a computer
You never get out.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

National Review of Asthma Deaths

The National Review of Asthma Deaths, something that Asthma UK has long pressed for, is the first UK wide investigation into asthma deaths. It was published today and here is Asthma UK's response:

Wales appears to suffer disproportionately, and not just because of our damp climate. Sound advice is subject to a postcode lottery. Not every health region has an asthma specialist in place, something that the health minister should surely look into.

Not every clinic or pharmacy teaches the proper use of inhalers. I was lucky in being corrected by Dr VL Jones in Morriston in the 1980s after being ill advised by a clinic in Sussex where I was working at the time. This appears to be a reversal of the usual pattern, where pharmacological advice is more readily available in England than in Wales.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Brightness falls from the hair

Andrew Motion nailed Dylan Thomas on Essential Classics (from 90 minutes in). I would add to the influences Motion cited certain 19th century French poets who were more concerned with where words took them than absolute logic. Thomas did once dub himself "the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive". Thomas was also concerned with the construction of poetry and I am sure he was aware of this declaration by Gautier when he wrote In my Craft or Sullen Art.

The musical link to this morning's theme of death in life which Motion chose was Constant Lambert's setting of Thomas Nashe's Summer's Last Will and Testament. This contains a line which has metamorphosed down the centuries through James Joyce and TS Eliot to Nigel Balchin and others. But it appears the printed version is may not be the original which Nashe intended.

The illustrative poems this morning were A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London and The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower. The latter was one of the earliest Thomas poems I remember reading and in the spirit of yesterday's Radio 3 feature by Rachel Trezise I wondered whether it was the earliest. I knew that there were two of his in the additions contained in the 1948 edition of the Golden Treasury, which I had been given as a present when in secondary school. It turned out that they were in fact This Bread I Break, which I remember responding to at the time, and When Once the Twilight, which I couldn't make sense of at all. I still can't, though I do now recognise a hint of auto-eroticism in the first verse.

Scanning once more those 1941 additions to Palgrave, I was struck by how much the themes of death and old age run through them. There were "Webster was much possessed by death" and "Here I am, an old man in a dry month" (Eliot), through "Necrological" (John Crowe Ransom - whatever happened to his reputation?) to Stephen Spender's "New Year" which is not totally optimistic. All in the spirit of one of their inspirations, Thomas Nashe.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

The danger of UKIP is not its xenophobia

Shamelessly stolen from the Unions Together web pages:

Although clearly not a xenophobe himself (the current Mrs Farage is German), the UKIP leader is happy to pick up racist votes provided his candidates' views don't make it into the national media and embarrass him into dropping them. Abolition of immigration is not his real aim, although this is the implied hook which lures away Labour voters as well as Conservatives and neo-Nazis.

What Mr Farage and far too many Conservatives want is a return to a Thatcherite low-wage, low-skill economy, where the only real money is to be made in the financial markets. The only difference between them is that the Tories believe they can negotiate away the social chapter from within the EU.

Top marks to the trade union campaign for avoiding the crude attacks on "racists and nutters" which is the main parties' line on UKIP, and which may well be counter-productive, and concentrating on issues rather than personalities.

But before anyone decides to switch to Labour as a result of the TU propaganda, I should point out that both Blair and Brown had to be forced kicking if not screaming into adopting social legislation from the EU. Under Blair-Brown, the UK was the last nation to pass anti-age-discrimination laws, for instance.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Addressing the EU democratic deficit (part two)

I like this interchange on Nick Clegg's recent "Twitter Town Hall":

Much of the suspicion of the EU is fostered by Conservative ministers (and Gordon Brown, noticeably Eurosceptic, before them) tacitly blaming the European Commission for unpopular decisions which were in fact taken by heads of government in the Council of Ministers. Publication of minutes of the Council, or at least of heads of agreement, would be a big step towards transparency in EU matters.

Eurosceptics and Europhiles alike would surely welcome the first point.

As to the third point, the European Parliament now has considerable power which some parties use positively and others do not. That power means that 75% of EU law is made by the Parliament, in public, whereas the majority used to come from the Council of Ministers and the civil service, the European Commission.

(Incidentally, it turns out that this is the source of Farage's misbegotten claim that 75% of UK law is dictated by Brussels, as against the real figure which lies between 6.8% and 50%. The story is here. Does one think better or worse of UKIP that their slogan is not a barefaced lie but results from ignorance?)

Friday, 2 May 2014

Dual candidacy

An inordinate amount of time was spent last Wednesday afternoon during the committee stage of the Wales Bill on the subject of dual candidacy. Labour MP after Labour MP stood up to defend the change that Peter Hain made in 2006 to the original voting system for the National Assembly fpr Wales , banning a candidate from both standing in a constituency and appearing on a regional list. Clause of the Bill would restore the original arrangements.

As both Welsh Office ministers (David Jones and Stephen Crabb) pointed out, that made the Welsh system virtually unique among Additional Member systems in the world. It disadvantages parties with a smaller pool of talent, among which Mr Jones freely admitted the Conservatives stood at the inception of the Assembly for Wales. New Zealand had looked at changing to a ban on dual candidacy, but had decided against, as had Scotland. It is significant that the Scottish Labour Party, which benefits from dual candidacy, had not pressed to abolish it.

Labour's case is that a candidate who has been rejected by the voters in one contest should not get a second chance in another. Put another way, Labour is mandating parties on who they should choose for their lists. The only valid argument put forward on Wednesday was that voters did not have a choice of top-up members - but that is an argument against closed lists in general, not against dual candidacy.

Huw Irranca-Davies put it this way in an intervention:

However, does the Secretary of State accept that if a candidate who, for very good reasons, was wholly objectionable to the electorate—not a Lord Bourne, but somebody wholly objectionable—was No. 1 on a closed list because of the party selection, Conservative, Liberal or Plaid Cymru voters would have no choice but to vote for them? That is one of the big problems with the reversal that he is proposing.

I would be more impressed by the sincerity of this view if Labour had not ensured that names of list candidates did not appear on the ballot paper in the Welsh general election of 2011.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

More on those EU-dictated laws

For a further attempt to grasp the slippery statistic of how much UK law is dependent on Europe, tune in to Radio 4 tomorrow, in the Open University-sponsored "More or Less".

It is certainly not the 75% claimed by Nigel Farage.

Addressing the EU democratic deficit

Following a footnote in our local party's relay of the exposure of UKIP pseudo-facts, I would commend a recent posting in Liberal Democrat Voice. I must admit that my eyes glazed over after reading a few pages of the Lisbon  Treaty, but Nick Tyrone of the Electoral Reform Society persisted to pick out this gem:

there is a yellow card system working, created by the Lisbon Treaty, which means that if nine EU countries want to pause a piece of legislation, they can do.

This goes some way to counter the secrecy in which heads of government collaborate over new EU measures in the European Council. However, Nick goes on:

Problem with the yellow card system is that it is unwieldy and the time frames so limited; countries have eight weeks from the start of the legislative process to organise the rethink. We recommend a green card system, that means national parliaments can be proactive, as well as a red card system, which would allow legislation to be scrapped if an agreed upon number of reasoned opinions were against it.

The ERS report to which he comments is here in pdf form or as a video.