Friday, 27 June 2014

Station reopening

Thanks to "Britain's Growing Railways" (railfuture, 2010), I see that today is the 20th anniversary of the reopening of Skewen railway station, albeit slightly relocated from the previous station. It was part of a group of reopenings on what was for a time called the "Swanline" - Pyle and Llansamlet were opened on the same day, Briton Ferry twenty-six days earlier.

It is remarkable that there was an acceleration of station openings from 1984 through to 1995, even though these were the years of the railway- (and nationalisation-) hating Margaret Thatcher and the botched privatisation by John Major.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Sexual abuse of children

Jonathan Calder draws our attention to the call by 59 MPs for an investigation into the organised sexual abuse of children. This reminds me that the first speech I gave to a Welsh Liberal Democrat conference back in the 1990s was on the subject of the North Wales children's homes and the probability that they had become part of a paedophile network.  I am glad to see twenty years later that one by one criminal cases are being brought against alleged abusers. I am also glad to see that Alison Taylor has been vindicated.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Neath as was

Thanks to the online Neath Guardian for putting me on to Keith Edwards' videos of Neath gone by.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

At last, the realisation that Iran is not the greatest enemy

The Independent's cover story (print edition) today begins: "The collapse of Iraq has led Britain and the United States towards a historic rapprochement with Iran which could end 35 years of hostility." To my mind, that should read "63 years", going back to the election of the liberal prime minister Mossadegh and his attempts to end the stranglehold Anglo-Iranian (later BP) had over his nation. President Obama has admitted the role the United States played in overthrowing the democratically-elected government and imposing the dictatorship of Reza Shah. It is high time that our government apologised for Britain being the prime movers of that coup, and for the shameful part the then Overseas Service of the BBC played in signalling its start.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Government too managerial? No, not enough

The current passport scrimmage is a further illustration of the lack of basic administrative nous on the part of government ministers. I have already blogged about Iain Duncan Smith's failure to comprehend what he had taken on in Universal Credit (and recent reports emphasise this). Now it appears that executives in the Passport Office warned months ago that there was going to be an above-average surge in passport applications. Even if these were not taken on board by senior civil servants, the latter should have realised that increasing prosperity, which had reached those on middle incomes if not those at the bottom of the pile, meant that more people would have wanted to take overseas trips, inhibited by the economic crunch of the previous five years. Simon Calder demonstrated the simple arithmetic necessary on Radio 4's PM programme recently. In the first five months of this year, the Home Office received 3.3m applications, 350,000 greater than same period last year. Calder said that in two minutes "on the back of a boarding pass" one could show that projection of 310,000 extra for air travel, using figures from the Civil Aviation Authority's report back in January. Then one has to allow for travellers by train and ferry, which number one can assume to rise proportionately.

Theresa May's only possible excuse is that her civil servants and special advisers had not raised the problem with her - but what does that say about her management style? It appears that she was not told about attempts to reduce the passport application backlog by cutting checks and only learned about it by a roundabout route.

It is clear that government has become managerial only in so far as it manages its own publicity. I am not arguing for appointing technocrats to ministerial office, but for ministers learning a bit about the function of government, if they don't already have experience of managing a business or other real work. It would also help if top civil servants were less orientated towards the political effects of decisions and went back to a traditional view of their jobs.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Quiz: high ideals

Taking a cue from Lord Norton on Lords of the Blog, here is a selection of extracts from constitutions or manifestos in order of adoption. Two should be easy to identify, the others might be more difficult:

Extract 1:
The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.

No bill of attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.

No capitation, or other direct, tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the census or enumeration herein before directed to be taken.

No tax or duty shall be laid on articles exported from any state.

No preference shall be given by any regulation of commerce or revenue to the ports of one state over those of another: nor shall vessels bound to, or from, one state, be obliged to enter, clear or pay duties in another.

No money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law; and a regular statement and account of receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time.

No title of nobility shall be granted

Extract 2:
Women [...] are accorded equal rights with men in all spheres of economic, state, cultural, social and political life. The possibility of exercising these rights is ensured to women by granting them an equal right with men to work, payment for work, rest and leisure, social insurance and education, and by state protection of the interests of mother and child, prematernity and maternity leave with full pay, and the provision of a wide network of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens. 

Equality of rights of citizens [...], irrespective of their nationality or race, in all spheres of economic, state, cultural, social and political life, is an indefeasible law. Any direct or indirect restriction of the rights of, or, conversely, any establishment of direct or indirect privileges for, citizens on account of their race or nationality, as well as any advocacy of racial or national exclusiveness or hatred and contempt, is punishable by law. 

[...] citizens [...] are guaranteed by law: 
freedom of speech;
freedom of the press;
freedom of assembly, including the holding of mass meetings;
freedom of street processions and demonstrations. 
These civil rights are ensured by placing at the disposal of the working people and their organizations printing presses, stocks of paper, public buildings, the streets, communications facilities and other material requisites for the exercise of these rights.

[...] Citizens [...] are guaranteed inviolability of the person. No person may be placed under arrest except by decision of a court or with the sanction of a procurator. 

Extract 3:
the present consti­tution [...] fails to protect individual rights against arbitrary curtailment.
[...] aims to achieve the responsible partici­pation of all [...] in the Government and Demo­cratic processes of the country and, to this end, to extend the right of franchise on the common roll to all adult persons.
[...] advocates a controlled consti­tution, in which a Bill of Rights will be entrenched. The Bill of Rights will be based upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the rights enshrined in it will be placed outside the powers of an ordinary parliamentary majority.
In order further to limit the power concentrated in the hands of the central legislature, and to enable those provinces or regions which have special language, cul­tural or other interests to safeguard their interests, [...] advocates a decentralised form of consti­tution. The powers of the provincial authorities should be defined in the constitution and should not be subject to alteration by an ordinary parliamentary majority.
If constitutional guarantees are to be effective, it is essential that the power to enforce them should be vested in an independent judiciary. The right of the Supreme Court to declare legislation invalid if it offends against the provisions of the constitution must be recognised, and the independence of the judiciary must be fully guaranteed.
By the fundamental principles laid down in its con­stitution, [...] is pledged to strive for the essential dignity of every human being, for the mainte­nance of the fundamental rights of the individual and for the maintenance of the rule of law. The full recognition of such basic freedoms as the freedom of speech, assembly and association, the freedom of religion and belief, the freedom of movement and the freedom to seek employment thus constitutes one of the cornerstones of the Party's policy.
Extract 4:

[...] exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.

We look forward to a world in which all people share the same basic rights, in which they live together in peace and in which their different cultures will be able to develop freely. We believe that each generation is responsible for the fate of our planet and, by safeguarding the balance of nature and the environment, for the long term continuity of life in all its forms. Upholding these values of individual and social justice, we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation and oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality. Recognising that the quest for freedom and justice can never end, we promote human rights and open government, a sustainable economy which serves genuine need, public services of the highest quality, international action based on a recognition of the interdependence of all the world’s peoples and responsible stewardship of the earth and its resources. We believe that people should be involved in running their communities. We are determined to strengthen the democratic process and ensure that there is a just and representative system of government with effective Parliamentary institutions, freedom of information, decisions taken at the lowest practicable level and a fair voting system for all elections. We will at all times defend the right to speak, write, worship, associate and vote freely, and we will protect the right of citizens to enjoy privacy in their own lives and homes. We believe that sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a democracy derives from the people.

My reader is invited to guess the nation, the body responsible for the document from which the extract is taken, and the rough date in each case.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

A more public Idaho

I guess that citizens of the state do not relish publicity, which must be one of the reasons for Carole King, who with her then husband and fellow Brooklynite Gerry Goffin wrote the sound track to my early working life, has settled there. Shortly after You've got a Friend was shown on BBC-4, the Indy published a report from Hailey, Idaho, the home-town of Bowe Bergdahl. Apparently, the homecoming of the army sergeant recently released by the Taliban is being played down.

Stories are emerging that Bergdahl had lost faith in the US mission in Afghanistan and was not at his post when captured. He is said to have been more fluent in Pashtu than English at the time of his release. Clearly, he must answer to the charge of desertion in the appropriate court, but I trust that after any action which is taken against him he can act as a guide to Afghanistan for ordinary Americans, much as Rory Stewart MP has for this country.

Saturday, 7 June 2014


I was too optimistic yesterday in welcoming the promise in the Queen's Speech  of  "right to recall". Details filtering out reveal that the Bill will be much watered-down from what Liberal Democrats and radical Conservatives hoped for before the 2010 election. (I only hope that the "pubco" Bill doesn't also turn out to be as flat as last year's swipes.)

The Independent, surely swimming against the tide of public opinion, is against giving constituencies the right to recall members of parliament who have turned out to be corrupt. Therefore, it is a measure of the feebleness of the Bill that yesterday's leader column praised it (with faint damns). The writer says: "A strong recall power, of the kind favoured by Goldsmith [Zac Goldsmith, Conservative MP for Richmond Park], would mean that, no sooner had the result of a close election been declared, the political opponents of the successful candidate could start to look for excuses to collect signatures for a petition to demand a by-election. Imagine how such a power might be used by a minority in any constituency". Goldsmith's response is that a reasonable threshold (he is in favour of 20% of the electorate) would deter frivolous recall petitions. This is supported by wikipedia's summary.

It is important to give people this extra power in a democratic state. Steve Shaw of Unlock Democracy wrote in 2011:

The Power Inquiry of 2006 showed evidence that over three-quarters of people felt they had little or no power between elections, and that 56 per cent of people consider that they have no say in what the government does.

Parliament is meant to hold the government to account. Yet currently the reverse happens: party leaders and whips control how MPs vote and the Parliamentary legislative timetable.

Citizens have no way to hold their MPs to account. General elections are almost never about voting for your MP, but rather about voting for the next government and based on the current government’s record.

Introducing recall: the power for voters to remove their MP, would be very effective at reversing this in a way unlike any other proposed reform. It would mean MPs are truly held to account and thus make MPs more responsive to their voters and less so to the government, political party leaders and whips.

Zac Goldsmith, feeling betrayed by the Conservative leadership and traduced by Nick Clegg, posts here.

Friday, 6 June 2014

The Westminster sausage-machine

We should be grateful that Labour speakers in the early exchanges on the Queen's Speech debate did not resort to the "zombie government" rhetoric which has featured so strongly during the recess. The most notable culprit is the shadow Leader of the House, who seems convinced that the Commons is doing its work only if it is churning out legislation throughout its working hours (and preferably creating new imprisonable offences while it is at it). Of course, the full - probably too full - programme of Bills has stemmed the criticism. Some of these are overdue and worthwhile, like the recall and pubco legislation.

But this interchange on Wednesday:
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This morning, the Downing street press office made available to the British and, indeed, international press a 100-plus page document that sets out in great detail every item in the Queen’s Speech, but Downing street is not making it available to Members of Parliament and it is not in the Vote Office. Is there anything you could do, Mr Speaker, to bring to the urgent attention of Downing street office holders the need to share the information with Parliament?
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. If Ministers have prepared material which they feel would be helpful in understanding the full import of the Queen’s Speech, I have no doubt they would wish to share it with hon. and right hon. Members as soon as possible.
illustrated that party managers and spin-doctors still treat the debating chamber with contempt. Speaker Bercow stands up for ordinary members so far as he is able, and has been subject to sniping from the Conservative side in part for it. However, it does require some sacrifices of media publicity by the leaders of the coalition to the benefit of the House as a whole. This will be difficult for David Cameron and Danny Alexander whose previous careers were in public relations. Restraint from the front bench of the Labour Party would be welcome, too.

Parliament is more than a machine for producing legislation - though Private Members' Bills have also been shamefully deprived of time in recent years. The great parliamentary speeches and interchanges of this generation which come to mind have been occasioned by self-standing motions or ministerial statements - the latter showing a welcome increase during this parliament. My one exception is the speech by Stephen Dorrell in favour of Lord's Reform, ironically in support of a Bill which the coalition was unwilling to assign proper parliamentary time for scrutiny. (It will no doubt be said during next year's election campaign that this or that party voted against the Lords Reform Bill. The truth is that each major party in the Commons voted in favour of the Bill; it was only the dispute between the two front benches over time allocation which prevented its proceeding.)

Peter Oborne in the Telegraph wrote that this government may rank with the greatest. It was certainly a game-changer, showing that continental-style coalitions can, even in the UK's antiquated system, be efficient and stable. Otherwise, I would say its legacy will be mixed. Steve Webb's pension improvements will stand for a long time. The shift back from casino capitalism to an industrial base for the economy will support us through the next hard times. There are many improvements which have received virtually no public recognition, like the Green Investment Bank, which will actually have some power thanks to Liberal Democrats. But then welcome support for pensioners and low-paid workers were counter-balanced by mean attacks on benefits (though these would have been even meaner without the Liberal Democrats in government) and may easily be reversed by future governments. Nothing has been done about the scandal of brass-plate companies through which UK money is able to flow abroad without the taxman being able to put his hands on it. The answer to the scandal of fixed-odds betting terminals is not to tax them (which merely makes them more attractive to the Treasury) but to repeal Labour's Gambling Act 2005.

For me, the great changes introduced in 2010 relate to the working of parliament. Cabinets may no longer appoint chairs of select committees which scrutinise among other things government decisions. Time is set aside for debates on matters decided by ordinary members, through the medium of the Back Bench Business Committee presided over assiduously by Natascha Engel. There are still improvements to be made and evidence (as above) that the executive is grabbing back power.

The signs are that there will be another hung parliament in 2015 or, if one party has a majority, it will be a slim one. This could be an arena in which the back-bench gladiators are able to reassert themselves and strike a blow against the executive and the party machines and for the people who put them there.

[Later: for a more informed comment, read Lord Tyler here.]

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Greening the film industry

Hollywood has been notoriously spendthrift and wasteful. The reuse of sets and costumes from Cleopatra by Carry on Cleo was a notable example of a British company recycling what would otherwise have been simply burnt or dumped. It is therefore satisfying to learn from The Film Programme that this has now been regularised. There is also a Film Festival running until 8th June.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Stefan Zweig: ethnicity is not enough

Three statements from a recent "Open Book" edition surprised me: first, that nobody in the UK has heard of Stefan Zweig; second, that his work was "accessible"; and third, that he did not, in his writings, tackle Nazism head-on.

In fact, Zweig's name has come up more frequently in Richard Strauss's 150th anniversary year, as the composer famously refused  under pressure from the Nazi authorities  to remove his Jewish librettist's name from the programme for "Die Schweigsame Frau". But it is as a supreme exponent of the novella - the long short story - that Zweig's reputation rests. I cannot believe that any Briton who is interested in the arts at all has not come across the story of the art collector now blind who can describe his etchings from memory to a visitor; "The Royal Game" (Schachnovelle), [Genfer See] or even Max Ophuls' film "Letter from an Unknown Woman" (from Brief einer Unbekannten) This is before Wes Anderson's hat-tip.

As to the easy-to-read prose, I suggest that this is down to the English translation. My recollection of tackling "Buchmendel" for A-levels in the 1950s is that Zweig makes maximum use of gender in the German language to build long but unambiguous sentences from multiple subordinate clauses. There is a particular extended metaphor comparing the retrieval of old memories to fishing in deep, dark oceans which I had hoped to find on the web - the text of the metaphor, that is, not the oceans. (You can see how it is easier in the German language to link to the female Metapher rather than to the plural oceans.) I didn't find that one, but I did find this description of memory destruction (memory is clearly an abiding interest of Zweig) in Ken Frieden's critique of Buchmendel:
in dem phantastischen Kunstbau seines Gedächtnisses mußte irgendein
Pfeiler eingestürzt und das ganze Gefüge in Unordnung geraten sein:
denn so zart is ja unser Gehirn, dies aus subtilster Substanz gestaltete
Schaltwerk, dies feinmechanische Präzisionsinstrument unseres Wissens
zusammengestimmt, daß ein gestautes Aderchen, ein erschütterter
Nerv, eine ermüdete Zelle, daß ein solches verschobenes Molekül schon
zureicht, um die herrlich umfassendste, die sphärische Harmonie eines
Geistes zum Verstummen zu bringen.

(in the fantastic artistic frame of his memory some pillar must have collapsed
and left the entire structure in disorder; for our mind is so delicately
tuned - this circuitry of subtlest materials, this fine, mechanical,
precision instrument of our knowing - that an obstructed vein, a convulsed
nerve. a worn-out cell, or a misplaced molecule suffices, in order
to silence even the masterful, most comprehensive, harmony of the spirit.

I am grateful to the Professor Frieden's commentary for the literal translation, which would be beyond me these days, but you don't need to read German to take the point: the example is just part of one sentence.

The third criticism has more substance. "Buchmendel" is suffused with Jewishness - boys at Oldershaw Grammar were grateful to our part-Jewish German master for explaining a bit of Yiddish which had escaped the clearly Anglo-Saxon editor of our set text - but Zweig's dream was of a world at peace, beyond religious and racist affiliations. Part of his dream was of a united Europe, the first signs of which he would have seen if he had not given up on life just as the war was turning against the Nazis.

There is more here.

Boris Lashes Mexico With Intense Rainfall and Threatens to Trigger Deadly Landslides

This Boris is a tropical storm:

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Potty law refers. Presumably as a precaution, in addition to his suspension from the Welsh Labour Party, Mark Jones has been removed from all Neath Port Talbot committees except for Planning.

The court will judge on the facts of the case, but whether he is innocent or guilty, Councillor Jones has fallen foul of a law which is in my opinion and of others with more medical knowledge than myself is outdated.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Liberal Democrat way forward

John Pugh MP writes:

Nick Clegg has said that we must and indeed should get the credit for the economic recovery and the economic competence it implies. I agree but even if successful, it’s still not enough.

Voters by and large don’t vote in gratitude. Ask the 1,700 or so Lib Dem councillors who have lost since 2011! If the nation didn’t vote for Winston Churchill for winning the war, they won’t vote for Nick Clegg just because they think he saved the economy. Those who voted UKIP last week didn’t do so because UKIP had done something for them.

My belief is that we need to fill out the anodyne “Strong Economy and Fairer Society” and start talking more about long-term, growing social inequality and declining social cohesion. Social inequality of course implies inequality in power as well as in wealth. I share the current concern over this with such obvious lefties as the Governor of the Bank of England, the Pope and my good friend Norman Lamb - all of whom have spoken out recently about it. The coalition story in addressing social inequality is much better than people currently credit.

Whether or no Nick Clegg remains as party leader - and the signs are that the party on the whole feels that now is not the time for a potentially divisive leadership contest - Liberal Democrat ministers must surely bend their minds to the "fairness" aspect of the slogan quoted by John Pugh.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

It's taken until now ...

... and in the most "westernised" nation in Africa, but the continent now has its first openly gay MP. He is naturally a member of South Africa's liberal party, the Democratic Alliance. Liberal International reports:

Speaking after he was sworn in to office, Zakhele Mbhele MP, said that he hopes his election will inspire others from the LGBT community to seek public office. Mr Mbhele said: “One of the most damaging things about homophobia is its destructive effect on a young LGBT person’s self-esteem. That was certainly one of the issues I grappled with when I was coming to terms with my sexuality in my teen years. Having more openly gay achievers in society can counter that damage by giving young LGBT people role models to inspire them to build their self-confidence and work ambitiously to achieve their dreams.”