Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Cardiff Metro

It seems that the Welsh Government is following through on its promises about the railway development plan referred to in a previous post. There could still be technical problems beyond the control of the transport minister, however. Apart from the signalling delays referred to in that article , I understand there is a related problem in that the existing diesel multiple units strain to hold on if they meet a red or danger signal on the incline out of Cardiff Central toward Queen Street. Clearly power specification of the replacement units will be critical.

Monday, 29 June 2015

CPS uey on Janner

Guido Fawkes reports that our public prosecutor has yielded to pressure over the alleged paedophile behaviour of Greville Janner. I predict that for the reasons in this post, there will be no conclusion.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Network Rail

This is the official announcement about the shunting into the sidings of Network Rail's electrification projects in England. Note that although the government post-election still sees the Great Western electrification as "a priority", Mr McLoughlin carefully backtracked from any commitment to a date of 2018 for the wires to reach Swansea. We are fortunate that orders for the train sets to operate on the upgraded line have already been placed. The Department of Transport would look rather foolish with electric trains on its hands with no lines to run them on. Cancelling the contracts would not only be expensive but also do no good to the employment figures in the north-east. As it is, the Conservatives had better not drag their feet too much or their seats in south-west Wales may be in jeopardy.

According to news reports on BBC Radio on Thursday, Network Rail blames its failure to keep to plan on the "ambitious" Midland electrification on a lack of qualified staff. But the shortage of appropriately-trained engineers has been known about for three years or more, so that the timetable could have been adjusted well before the election. Another factor is said to be that Network Rail is employing new techniques (presumably to reduce track occupancy time) on the GWR electrification which is already under way and these have proved problematical.

It seems to me that another factor is Network Rail's debt burden, £34bn before the election and likely to exceed £50bn by 2019 according to this report. This shows on the government books. Spreading the £38bn of the electrification programme over five or even ten years is going to look better than concentrating it in three.

Friday, 26 June 2015

A chicken, not an eagle

The shadow leader of the house had another pop at the Liberal Democrats yesterday.

Finally, I feel compelled to mention the developing drama in the Liberal Democrat leadership race. Only the Liberal Democrats could manage to have a split when they have eight MPs. This week the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) had to apologise after his activists were caught discrediting his rival by calling round the party’s entire membership, which cannot have taken very long, although he earned the endorsement of boxer Frank Bruno, which means that at least he has one big hitter.

Anything to distract from the rather more bitter in-fighting in the Labour Party. But this is the second go she has had a go at our eight MPs this month but only one attempting to attack the fifty-six Scottish Nationalists. Perhaps she was abashed by this roar three weeks ago

And what about the Scottish National party? The vaingloriously self-styled Scottish 56 have now been in Parliament for nearly a month. They promised to make the Scottish lion roar at Westminster—
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Grrr!

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Continuity in transport policy

The BBC has headlined that the Welsh Government will push ahead with the M4 diversion over the Gwent levels in spite of the departure after next year's general election of transport minister Edwina Hart. No doubt they will have increased support from David Cameron, now that he is able to govern alone, on the grounds of its benefits for Welsh business. The FSB in Wales has a rather different view, expressed in that BBC report:

Iestyn Davies of the Federation of Small Businesses said "a £1bn piece of tarmac for around 13 miles" was not a priority for small businesses.

While he agreed the road around Newport was a "bottleneck", he said the money could be better spent elsewhere to support skills or improve transport across Wales.

There was another commitment made by Ms Hart, one which is rather more significant for transport throughout Wales. Rail Wales asserted in its last newsletter that Edwina Hart had in effect endorsed Railfuture's Development Plan* in an interview by Huw Edwards on BBC Wales TV:

She even stated that Network Rail would be an integral component in such a transformation [,] the kind of transformation that we have been advocating for some years, recognising not only the potential improvements this would bring for rail passengers but also the role an expanding network could have in nation-building (her words). For instance, she is thinking hard about Caerfyrddin/Carmarthen to Aberystwyth.

The latter is something that I know is supported by Liberal Democrats in West Wales. The Rail Wales article goes on:

The good news is that, after 2018, it is likely we shall have an interim set-up, much better than what we have now and one which can hopefully lead eventually to the vision as set out by Railfuture Cymru. It was encouraging to hear in the TV programme that Edwina thinks that she and her team have a good working relationship with the Dept for Transport in London - and, contrary to what you might envisage, her feeling is that their mood is not set totally against Wales going it alone eventually and having its own arms-length, not-for-dividend rail company - without interference from Whitehall.

So it appears that Labour is committed to a progressive railways policy. I expect the Liberal Democrat manifesto to go at least as far. Questions will need to be asked of Plaid Cymru (do they still give priority to north-south air links? for instance) and the Conservatives going in to the 2016 election campaign.

* pdf here: http://www.railfuture.org.uk/DL702

Update: The government has decided to rein back Network Rail's modernisation programme. It is not unduly cynical to note the timing of the DoT's discovery that the programme was over-ambitious, a few weeks after the election. More anon.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Bureaucracy stifling English general practice

The Bishop of Chester's contribution to the opening question of Monday's House of Lords session was:

My Lords, I declare inside information, in that my daughter is a trainee GP. I asked her about these issues last night. In Cheshire and Wirral there are vacant training places with no GP trainees to take them. On asking her why people did not want to go into general practice, she said that it is the growing burden of bureaucracy and administration. What do the Government plan to do about that?

This is further evidence for Dr Phil Hammond's criticism, written as M.D. in the last Private Eye:

M.D. takes a simple view on NHS reform: the perfect structure doesn't exist in any organisation, least of all something as complex as the NHS, and it can be profoundly damaging to keep reorganising in the hope of finding it. 

The side effects of the ill-judged Health and Social Care Act have been so severe that even lawyers are blowing the whistle to the "Eye". As one put it: "I get so angry when the government says it's reduced NHS bureaucracy. It might have cut the number of managers but the bureaucracy has mushroomed after Lansley's Act. For example, to run community services out of a GP practice used to be simple - a single lease arrangement and contract between the GPs and the primary care trust (PCT). Now the PCT commissioning powers have transferred to the clinical commissioning group (CCG). The PCT's interest as tenant transfers to NHS Property Service Limited (NHSPS). NHSPS is now the direct landlord of the provider of the service and the commissioning contract is with CCG. so now there are four parties to the arrangement to provide simple community services from the GP premises  - the GPs, the CCG, NSHPS and the provider. [...] With each added party, there are more hoops to jump through, more people on the email trails, more people at the meetings, more approval processes, more professional fees, more time wasted and greater delay."

Conservatives will no doubt blame Liberal Democrats, and in particular Liberal Democrat peers, for introducing extra checks and balances as the Health and Social Care Bill was amended. But they were only necessary to prevent the privatisation which was enabled by the Lansley plan. (Why this was allowed to be unleashed in contravention not only of all the party manifestos but also the coalition agreement has yet to be explained.) The Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment had been to take out a layer of bureaucracy from the NHS in England without sacrificing its public service principles.

As far as I know, we have escaped the worst of this in Wales - but perhaps if any Welsh GPs are reading this, they can put me right.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Let us not forget about the legal aid cuts

The Independent's James Ashton's pen portrait of Catherine Dixon, the chief executive of the Law Society, draws attention to the fact that the Ministry of Justice is an unprotected department in the face of government cuts.

Around £700m has been taken out of the annual legal aid budget since 2010, leaving 600,000 people no longer entitled to help. The second half of a £220m cuts package is due next month. Contracts for duty solicitors who attend magistrates’ courts and police stations are being cut by two-thirds.

The cost of going to law in civil matters has increased as well.

The most recent increase in court fees means it is now 40 times more expensive to issue claims here than in New York. “If you are a Russian oligarch bringing proceedings here, the court fee is not going to impact on you but if you are a small or medium-sized business trying to recover payment from a larger organisation then it is really significant.”

“If we were a developing country, then establishing a rule of law and access to justice would be fundamental before we start thinking about health and education,” Dixon adds. “Given that, it really is critical that we don’t undermine it.”

Monday, 22 June 2015

Neath losing its online news services

The Neath Guardian has been devoid of new content for months now. The Neath Voice Facebook page has closed down with the retirement of Peter Hain as MP. The Ferret provides an outlet for some local opinion and Stan carries out a sort of Private Eye service in relation to local politics, but these are not news outlets. The revamped Evening Post website is good - and I like its new email news feed - but it naturally concentrates on its Swansea base.

Reluctantly, I will have to take down my link to the Neath Guardian unless the people behind it can restore the service. The question is, what should replace it, if anything?

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Paths in the woods, music and sport

This post by Elaine Fine, a musician, chimes with me as a listener and as a fellow-walker. She relates this experience

I love to hike in the woods. I love following trails because they help me make sense of the immediate world at hand. I have to trust that a well-worn trail will lead me safely to wonderful places in the woods, and I have to trust that a good trail will lead me safely out of the woods. Sometimes there are choices to be made when trails intersect, and I have to go with the experience that the trail I pick gives me on that particular day, and on that particular walk. If I take the same trail through the woods on different days, the trail will be different because of the nature of the living things that live by the trail.

to concert-going predominantly but also to other activities.

Pressures against closer EU increase

European Conservatives are rejoicing at the results of last week's Danish general election. While the media here speculate on whether Helle Thorning-Schmidt will now spend more time in the Afan valley*, EU-watchers will speculate on the effect that a new populist/conservative coalition will have, one that is anti-immigration and pro-Cameron-style reforms to the EU. The two social liberal parties lost support, while the main economic liberal party, which will probably provide the next prime minister, increased its numbers. (It intrigues me that both the incoming Venstre and the outgoing Radikale are both affiliated to Liberal International.)

We await a response from Liberals and Democrats in Europe.

* my guess is that she will take heart from the fact that her social democrats actually increased their number of seats in the Danish parliament and will immerse herself in the fightback by the party

Saturday, 20 June 2015

The evidence is against the Andrews Plan

You would expect Peter Black and the Welsh Liberal Democrats to be against the forced merger of unitary authorities in Wales proposed by Leighton Andrews. One might suspect Labour councillors in their opposition of having a vested interest in maintaining a large number of wards.  But the Labour Welsh Government should surely take note of the consistent criticism of the plan by Jeff Jones, who is now, as an ex-councillor, above the fray.

Most telling of all is the view of an expert with no axe to grind. Colin Copus is professor of local politics at de Monfort University in Leicester. He told "Good Evening, Wales" last Wednesday:

"It's strange that we seem to be pursuing something that the rest of Europe simply doesn't pursue at all and that is increasing the size of local government to almost meaningless entities. I think one of your speakers referred to huge councils. Most of the rest of Europe seems to be able to make small local government work and work very effectively, and reorganising simply on a hope that there will be tremendous benefits is something that should be avoided.

"A lot of the savings that are estimated for reorganisations of course are just that: estimates. It's very rare that after local government reorganisation does anybody go back and check these and if they found that if those savings hadn't been made they certainly don't then suggest returning to the original system.

"But I think what has to be made clear in any of these debates about increasing the size of local government is one thing, and that's for fifty years or so research from across Europe has shown that there is no consistent improvement in cost-effectiveness or efficiency in increasing the size of local government. There can be, but it's not a consistent outcome of mergers of local authorities. What is more consistent however is that democratic criteria of local government are damaged.

"So turnout in local elections, trust in local councillors, communication between councils and citizens and communities, trust in local government officers, engagement in local government: all of these very vital valuable democratic criteria are damaged the bigger local government gets. So you have to ask yourself a very very important question: what is the purpose of local government? Is the purpose of local government in Wales simply to do what it is told by the Assembly and deliver services or is it to be a democratically-elected alternative set of political loyalties to the central government in Cardiff that local people can have some connection to. It's those questions that will drive size. and not any estimates of how much it may or may not save. [...]

"Rather than go through what would be a protracted and very expensive process of reorganising local government - because it doesn't come for free, it is an expensive process and it is distracting from the work that local government has to do - what alternative exists is that government, central government in Cardiff, simply gets out of the way and allows councils to work together in the ways that they see best for their local communities. And, as an alternative to mergers, that voluntary cooperation, that voluntary joint working, does work and it's shown to work again across Europe."

"Forced adoption"

The Liberal Democrat John Hemming has long campaigned against the courts taking children away from their natural parents on dubious grounds. (One wonders who will take up this cause in the Commons now that John has lost his Birmingham seat.) Too many of these children have gone on to be adopted elsewhere. Locally, we have the notorious case in which a child was unlawfully taken on United States soil in 1998 by officers of Neath Port Talbot social services.

In 2012 (the last year for which I can find statistics) in Wales as a whole there were  371 adoptions as a result of court orders (about 180 per million population) compared with 4835 (about 90 per million) in England. It could be that children are genuinely twice as much at risk in Wales as in England, but I doubt it. It is also probable that there are at least as many unjust removals as John Hemming and his group have detected in England.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Ronnie Gilbert

 Women in Black is an extraordinary group. I came to it because I needed to find something I could do as a Jew, which I’d never done before. I mean, the Weavers started our stardom with an Israeli song, “Tzena, Tzena, Ttzena,” and how I got from that to Women in Black is what I’m writing about now. I needed to find some place where I could put my passion for peace and for saying that we never, ever, ever will do anything but make the world worse, whatever war we’re in. And I was very moved by Women in Black because I remembered in the 1970s, when Argentina was taken over by military dictatorship and people were disappeared, dropped from helicopters to their deaths, and the disappeared women. This actually started in Chile, and they went to Argentina, and how everything was under military rule and under guns, and these women walked out into the plaza, silently, dressed in black, with their the names of their children and the pictures of their children and said, Where are they? Where are they? Where are they? And that silence was heard throughout the world. And I thought, That’s power. That’s women’s power. So that’s how I got into Women in Black.
[from a transcript of a 2004 interview]

There was, of course, the music.

Ruth Alice Gilbert, born New York City 7th September 1926, died Mill Valley, California 6th June 2015.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

FGM and forced marriages: credit where credit is due

I could not understand when I read this article why Yasmin Alibhai-Brown gives all the credit for UK government action against female genital mutilation and forced marriages to personal intervention by David Cameron. Was it spite against Liberal Democrats entering coalition in 2010? A disagreement with Labour, whose MPs she claimed did nothing? Or currying favour for some unknown end? It's a mystery surpassed only by the lack of letters of objection to the Independent editor.

Whatever, the situation called for some fact-checking. Using the search facility on "They Work For You", I found that the first question in the previous parliament about FGM was from a Labour MP, Jim Sheridan, in June 2010. He received a positive answer from Stephen O'Brien at the International Development department. The cause was pursued by Liberal Democrat Lynne Featherstone both at the Home Office and later when she was moved to International Development. Lynne took the campaign to Africa. The first involvement of both David Cameron and Theresa May seems to have been in February 2013.

He seems to have spoken on forced marriage rather earlier: on 11th January 2012, nearly two years into the coalition, though he was name-checked by Lynne Featherston in 2011. Again, Lynne had taken the lead on this matter, together with Jeremy Browne at the Foreign Office and Conservative ministers Damian Green (before he was fired by the PM for being too liberal) and Anne Milton, not to mention the persistent pressure of Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lester of Herne Hill. Ms Alibhai-Brown could also have given credit to the former Labour MP Ann Cryer.

The SNP government in Scotland also deserves credit.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Trust in government

It wasn't 2010 which was the outlier in election data points, it was 1997. As Yvette Cooper pointed out in a prophetic article shortly before the Labour landslide:

Cast a glance back through history and there is an identifiable parallel between economic confidence and support for the government of the day. Splash across the Atlantic to the US and the link is even clearer. So when the odd unusual election violates the trend, it is worth looking further for explanation.

In Britain and the US, only two elections seem to violate the thesis that economic confidence and political support go hand-in-hand: the 1997 election in Britain, and the 1992 election in the US.


What went wrong for George Bush in 1992 might provide a clue to the Government's persistent unpopularity here in the UK in 1997. [...] the longer the party was in power, the harder it became to win again. It doesn't take a leap of imagination to reach the same conclusion here: 18 years of the same faces is simply too long for many voters to stomach.

But there is another important factor [even] taking into account the period in office, the 1992 US election doesn't quite fit the historical trend. So what else was different about 1992? One thing emerges above all others: trust. Read my lips, said Mr Bush, no new taxes. But that isn't what he delivered after getting elected in 1988. By telling porkies, or at least by breaking promises, George Bush violated the trust of the electorate. No wonder they wouldn't reward him for the state of the economy if they didn't feel they could trust the economic statements he made.

Her article concluded:

The facts of the economy matter less when you don't trust the statements about them made by the Government. The strong statements made in 1992 first about not raising tax, and then about supporting the pound in the ERM, all crumbled spectacularly. Likewise the persistent weaknesses in the economy during the recession made a mockery of all those wild claims about economic miracles during the Eighties. Hardly surprising then that the link between government support and economic feel-good has not been patched together.

If the polls are proved right in six weeks' time, and if the explanation suggested by the US evidence is accurate, the lesson for politicians is straightforward. Voters are not mugs. They may not like it when the economy doesn't match up to their hopes. But they hate being lied to even more. Governments who want to be re-elected can't just hope for economic good news, they have to earn voters' trust on economic policy as well.

So just as Conservative fortunes reverted to the norm in May this year, Liberal Democrats' share of the credit for the improvements in people's living standards and job prospects was nullified by the voters' loss of trust. On top of the other factors mentioned on this blog and elsewhere, that was the killer blow.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Labour Party leadership contest gives members real choice

Jeremy Corbyn has found his way on to the Labour ballot thanks to the intervention of fellow MPs who do not share all his values. These nevertheless recognise that the membership in the country, which is rather more socialist than the amorphous Westminster party, needs to have a real choice. There is criticism of the impracticality of his economic agenda, though one wonders whether he is any more deluded than the Labour Treasury team of the noughties, which believed that there were no limits to borrowing. His rivals in the current contest acquiesced not only in that misguided policy but also in the erosion of civil rights at home and human rights abroad, another key difference between the contestants. Mr Corbyn has consistently spoken up on these matters, whether his party was in opposition or in government. I would like to see real debate in the Labour Party on this issue.

The trouble with the Liberal Democrat leadership contest is the opposite. Traditional Liberal belief in the rights of the individual and support for Beveridge's view of the social service state are well served by both candidates. It would have been more democratic to have someone from what is generally viewed as the "economic liberal" wing of the party, represented most prominently in the last parliament by Jeremy Browne. I would of course have voted against him or her.

Does Yvette Cooper still want to be tough on the economy?

I dimly recall Yvette Cooper as an economics journalist on the original Independent. It seemed to me at the time that she made a lot of sense. I could not remember any particular article, so I used dogpile to ferret out her early contributions. Sadly, it seems that the Indy started uploading to the Web in significant quantity only at the end of 1995 by which time Ms Cooper (she did not become Mrs Balls until 1998) must already have been eying up a safe Labour seat.

However, I did find this piece from mid-1996 in which she recommends fiscal rectitude on the then chancellor, Kenneth Clarke. In the events of the 1996 statement and the 1997 budget, Clarke did in fact impose fairly tight spending limits. What happened? Labour swept to power in a landslide and benefited from an unpredicted surge in tax income while maintaining the Clarke spending plans for two years. The result was a budget surplus until 2001 and what turned out to be a deficit budget in advance of an election in which Labour retained power.

It is going to be interesting to hear Yvette Cooper's pitch to her comrades in her bid for the leadership, particularly as it relates to taxation and spending.

Monday, 15 June 2015

FIFA defence stranded by South African hospital pass

In view of recent documented reports by BBC, it seems safe now to say, without fearing a letter from m'learned friends, that the South African administration ensured that a bribe was paid to Jack Warner, a former vice-president of the international association football authority and virtual controller of CONCACAF. The ostensible reason for the payment was to further the African "diaspora legacy support programme", of which it has been difficult to find any references before the FBI broke the corruption charges story earlier this year. (That would equate the driving out of Jews from the Holy Land with the purchase of slaves from West Africa. I suppose pull is as valid a reason as push to call a diaspora, but it seems to me that very few West Indian plantation workers were extracted from the lands now ruled by the Republic of South Africa.) The true reason, it has been alleged, was to secure votes for South Africa's holding the association football World Cup in 2010. There is a rather less well-documented allegation of a briefcase full of cash finding its way from South Africa to Trinidad.

A key figure is Danny Jordaan, a veteran of the student anti-apartheid struggle and former chief executive officer, now president, of the South African Football Association. South Africa's Mail & Guardian has published a letter of his which seems to show that money passed from the ANC government (without the knowledge of the Ministry of Finance) to FIFA, via a debt cancellation with South Africa's local organising committee for the World Cup. FIFA then made a grant to CONCACAF, but in practice to Warner.

In the football-mad nation of South Africa, it seemed that the ANC had pulled off a master-stroke in installing Jordaan as mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay municipality (the former Port Elizabeth) at the end of May. However, the football bribes scandal may well ensure that ANC will lose in local elections next year there as a result. The question is whether the liberal DA or the new kids on the block, the socialist EFF, will pick up the pieces.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

"Rothschild massaged RBS sale figures"

The loss to the taxpayer occasioned by the rush to sell RBS shares is closer to £14bn than £7bn according to Jim Armitage, City editor of the Independent and London Evening Standard. He wrote yesterday:

You may have spotted yesterday that, unlike the rest of the media, this newspaper’s coverage of the RBS shares sale did not refer to the “£7bn” loss taxpayers would make on the deal.

The reason was this: I didn’t like the way Rothschild – the government’s advisers – massaged the numbers. The loss the public should be told about is far higher.

Firstly, Rothschild blended the good bank bailout investments (Lloyds, the former Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley) with the bad (RBS) to get a nicely scented overall figure showing that we’ve made a tidy profit of £14bn on our interventions.

It should not have done. The privatisation Rothschild was asked to explore was that of RBS, and RBS alone, not some irrelevant, sweetened mixture.

Even then, the multiple bank bailout calculations failed to include the £17bn cost of funding the £108bn or so cash the government had to find to buy the shares.

Rothschild also muddies the extent of our losses on RBS by including the “cash and fees” we taxpayers received from the banks in return for the state guarantees we gave them. This too was tricksy accounting.

Sure, this too-big-to-fail insurance (which allowed the sickly banks to borrow more cheaply than they otherwise would) didn’t cost the country any actual cash, but it was still a liability.

Meanwhile, in its tables on the finances, Rothschild gives the impression that these fees were a return on the money we taxpayers spent on the shares. They weren’t.

Ignore them and focus on the numbers that are relevant to how much we stand to lose by selling the shares now.

We paid £45.8bn for them; they are now worth £31.6bn. That means a £14.2bn loss.

The lesson from the Rothschild report? Be sceptical when big City banks advise you to sell to big City banks.

I'm with Armitage when he deprecates the rush to sell RBS shares. All the signs are that international business is taking a pause after the surge out of the 2007/8 confidence crash. Far better to wait for a couple of years when the cycle should be on an upswing again. Armitage sees the spreading of the sale as a hopeful sign

bankers predict it will be five to seven years before the entire RBS stake is sold.

This may not be what RBS management wants to hear, but a lengthy, staged sale is vital to get a good outcome for taxpayers. Unlike with Royal Mail, it means there is a far better chance of avoiding the galling prospect of a state-owned asset being largely sold at what transpires to be too low a price.

It would also ensure that the country gets to share in more of the upside from the remainder of RBS management’s restructuring programmes.

The danger is that the Chancellor takes the price achieved by sales during 2015/16 as indicative, and subsequently places shares at that level privately as was done with the initial Royal Mail offer.

Walk for greyhounds

My former party colleague Gary Lewis is planning a sponsored walk in aid of Greyhound Rescue Wales. Details are on his Facebook page,

Friday, 12 June 2015

Liberty and liberalism

The Independent is running a series on the constitution of the United Kingdom in this year of celebration of Magna Carta. Oliver Wright has written a provocative contribution on the supremacy of parliament (trumping ECHR, EU legislation and presumably TTIP) but what stimulated me most was Andy McSmith's opener on democratic liberty.

He writes:

Most educated people in the English speaking world have also heard the famous passage from the 1776 American Declaration of Independence, which was indirectly influenced by Magna Carta. It says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”

Actually, these truths are not “self-evident”. They are not evident at all, for instance, in North Korea, or in parts of the world ruled by religious zealots. When Thomas Jefferson wrote them, he was being deliberately provocative, throwing those words in the face of the British property-owning class who believed that they had a right to hold arbitrary power in check, but did not extend that right to American colonists. Jefferson himself, despite his proclaimed belief in an “unalienable right” to liberty, was a slave-owner*.

Yet the fact remains that, in our liberal democracy, we do believe that citizens have unalienable rights – and not just those listed by Thomas Jefferson. Most people in modern Britain would say that a UK citizen has a right to free speech, a right to express their sexuality, a right to belong to any legal organisation he or she chooses to belong to, a right to be paid if he or she is in work; some might add to these a right also to have paid work, and a right to eat, to be housed, to be educated, and to be cared for when old or sick. But the legal document that defines all these rights does not exist. They are certainly not found in Magna Carta

It seems to me that the Liberal Democrat constitution picks up where Magna Carta et al. leave off.

* although a paternalistic one, whose attitude to the practice was complicated.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Date of EU referendum

I disagree with the Electoral Commission's recommendation. A referendum held in May along with regular national assembly or local government elections will attract a higher turnout, and those voting will be regular citizens. A separate referendum held later in the year will suffer from voter fatigue and those people who do turn out will be those most highly-motivated to vote on emotional grounds, not the silent majority.

As to the argument that more than one ballot on the day would confuse UK voters, I would draw the EC's attention to the experience of US citizens who regularly vote for a range of public officials (possibly including the proverbial dog-catcher) alongside the national and state ballots.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Liberalism and the individual

Two thoughts occurred to me after reading Gordon Lishman's article on Liberal Democrat Voice, both relevant to the last election.

First, because we know what we stand for (rather more than the other parties' followers seem to do), we tend to believe that the general public does too. It's what could be thought of as the Rolls-Royce mindset; we don't need to advertise our virtues because everybody knows what liberalism entails. It is clearly not true, and it should be recalled that Marks & Spencer used to think the company was above advertising until a succession of poor financial results caused the stock market to force a change of management and a change of direction.

Then, as Gordon points out in his conclusion

Liberals have written about the politics of identity. A person’s identity can be shaped by race, sex, sexual orientation or disability, and as we go through life by age, religion or the lack of it, community and work. Despite that, they are not defined by those things; they are people first and disabled or gay or young or anything else second. It’s why some of us have campaigned for years against defining people by adjectives: the young, the old, the mentally, the disabled……. Basically, we are all individuals, not part of a class or nation or group.
As with class or national characteristics, liberals occasionally slip into sloppy thinking about groups rather than individuals. After weeks of hearing “I vote Labour because I’m working class” or “I vote Conservative because I don’t like Scots”, it’s difficult not to dismiss some groups as beyond salvation. But for a liberal, no-one is beyond the hope that they can see themselves as a strong, independent person in their own right.
We have no core of class or other group identity to all back on. Our vote has always depended on rational decisions rather than emotion. Our new leader is going to have to keep that rationale before the public or the Liberal Democrats will not recover from this year's setback as we did in 1997.

Monday, 8 June 2015

HDP in Turkey

The usual suspects are claiming that the success of the mainly Kurdish HDP party in Turkey in comfortable exceeding the 10% threshold for representation in parliament is a "triumph for the left". I believe it is more a democratic response to Erdogan's attempt to assume even greater personal power. Another hopeful sign is that HDP could not have achieved its foothold without attracting the votes of non-Kurds.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Roy Webb

I had not forgotten about Roy Webb before Matthew Sweet belatedly got round to featuring him on Sound of Cinema yesterday. After all, his name comes up in the end-credits of virtually every RKO picture which BBC reruns (along with C Bakaleinikoff and Darrell Silvera, two other people of whom I would like to know more). As a reinforcement, Terry Teachout also wrote about Webb last Friday. It's an intriguing coincidence, because due to lead times neither article can have influenced the other.

However, I still know nothing about Roy Webb the man.

On the other hand, a reader's comment to the Teachout article gives me two new names to conjure with, Nathaniel Shilkret and Allie Wrubel:

UPDATE: A reader writes: The melody that Roy Webb uses throughout “Out Of The Past” is “The First Time I Saw You,” a song that was written by Nathaniel Shilkret and Allie Wrubel and first performed by Frances Farmer in an earlier RKO movie, The Toast Of New York, in 1937.

Frances Farmer was the beautiful and talented actress who was too radical or demanding for her own good. I hadn't realised that she could sing as well.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Hard-line Polish president

It seems that the new president of Poland follows the US line on foreign policy yet is less conservative when it comes to the EU budget.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Malcolm Bruce on Charles Kennedy

I had resolved not to add to the flood of encomiums for Charles Kennedy beyond my initial response, but I felt I had to link to this article after Caron Lindsay drew attention to it on Liberal Democrat Voice. Not only was it written by the man I gave my first preference to in that 1999 party leadership election (I seem to recall that Charles was my number 3), a man who was a contemporary of Charles in parliament, but also because it crystallised Charles' philosophy:

Charles’ mentor [...] was Roy Jenkins, who took him under his wing and clearly saw him as a rising star. With him Charles drank at the fountain of the politics of social justice, reinforcing a lifelong commitment to reform and the European ideal.

Someone posted on Facebook that Charles Kennedy should be commemorated by compassion. A truer memorial would be progress on just one of those political causes he fought for. Sadly, practically all those tories and socialists who have been falling over themselves to praise him as a person are too ready to back-track on all of them.

Not enough spin

Naturally, I am not talking about the practitioners of rotational medicine in politics, of whom there are already far too many. The subject is the decline of slow bowling in English cricket, both at the national level and in England and Wales at county level.

Graeme Swann opined on the most recent Test Match Special that Moeen Ali, a man who started off as a batsman and part-time spinner, was the most effective England-qualified off-break bowler. The top eleven wicket-takers in the championship last year were either pace bowlers or foreign-qualified or both. The twelfth was Abdul Rashid of Yorkshire a practitioner of right-arm leg-spin, a craft which has suffered an even steeper decline.

One would have expected that around fifteen years of four-day county matches would have encouraged spin bowlers who tend to come into their own towards the end of matches. I put it down to the timidity of captains and the longer time which has to be devoted to the development of young spinners in this era when the financial backers of the counties want to see instant success. In this context I was sad to see that the county of Don Shepherd, Jim McConnon, Peter Walker and Robert Croft now has a policy of playing a single spinner and that Andrew Salter has come into the reckoning so late in the season.  Spin bowlers operate well in pairs, especially if their styles are different - think Laker and Lock. I trust that the Glamorgan selectors will look at the evidence from the historical record at St Helen's and pick both Cosker and Salter for the match in Swansea on 6th August.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

They think they are so clever

The attitude of some MPs (surprisingly more on the opposition benches than on those of the Conservatives, among whom one would have expected more triumphalism) towards the Liberal Democrats resembles that of the school bully. Angela Eagle's sneer at Business Questions today reminded me of a sentiment engraved on the tomb of the glorious Black Prince. Translated from the Norman French it admonishes the passer-by:

Such as thou art, sometime was I,

Such as I am, such shalt thou be.

Liberal Democrats will rise again as in the 1990s and as Liberals did in the 1960s. A riven and rudderless Labour may be expected to suffer further losses before it finds its way again.

Short-term savings on Valley Lines would be a mistake

This is a rare disagreement with Eluned Parrott AM. Her call (backed by some Conservatives) for a light-rail option for the Valley Lines is short-sighted in my opinion. Travellers on the reopened lower end of the Llynfi line quickly learned of the disadvantages of not reconstruction to standard rail specification. The need to increase capacity has already resulted in the plan to construct at least one passing loop.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

CAT to host "Small is Beautiful" festival in September

The Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth will, from 4th to 6th September this year, host a weekend celebration of the ideas of radical economist E. F. Schumacher, who wrote the groundbreaking book "Small is Beautiful". The festival will blend small-scale technology use, ideas from international development and new economics with the arts through lectures, debates, workshops, music and installations. The festival aims to ignite imaginations and unlock positive responses to our future in a fun and creative environment.

There is more here.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Charles Kennedy

This is going to be incoherent, a jumble of memories and opinion, as I take in the news which I woke up to. Charles Kennedy has died at the age of 55 leaving a young family who I weep for.

I do not subscribe to the motto "never speak ill of the dead", but it is truly difficult to find bad words to say of Charles Kennedy. His one great handicap, his alcoholism, has long ago been recognised as an illness rather than a character flaw. There is no doubt that it marred his leadership of the party, causing him to miss engagements and key speeches, but in my opinion he was not well served by hangers-on who prevented him and the party from coming to terms with it.

He will be remembered in political history as the man who alone among the major party leaders - and the party had become a major force in his time - stood out against the Bush-Blair Iraq adventure. It is not generally known that he was initially prepared to go along with the Establishment line. He was convinced by advisers of the moral and electoral value of resisting the calls to war. Having once been persuaded, he was resolute in his opposition.

However, the stronger memories are on a personal level. I met him twice. The first time was after the leadership hustings in Cardiff on a hot morning in 1999 when we exchanged words about the effect on a rugby match that was being staged later that day. The second time was during the 2006 Dunfermline and West Fife by-election after his resignation in contentious circumstances as party leader when he might have been expected to keep his head down. His entry to the campaign headquarters on an unexciting industrial estate in Fife two or three days in was greeted with spontaneous applause by us volunteers. Everywhere he went, he connected with people immediately. As Mike German said on Radio Wales this morning, he was the next-door neighbour you could have a chat with over the garden fence.

It is a pity in a way that he was so charming and witty because his image tended to be that of a lightweight. Behind the humour was an acute political thinker as his speeches in parliament, rather than on TV, particularly on the subject of Europe, showed.

There could have been so much more. Fate has deprived us of someone who surely would have been a leader of the fightback for the party. More, at a time when European cooperation and civil and human rights are coming under increasing attack, not only from the government benches, Charles Kennedy would have been alongside us in the resistance.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Sad memory of the Top Rank

Forty-three years ago, Lee Harvey of the group Stone the Crows touched an unearthed microphone while standing in a puddle on the stage of the Top Rank in Swansea. Harvey was dead from the electric shock before he reached hospital, in spite of the best efforts of the band's tour manager, Dennis Sheehan, whose death last week has been announced.

I had other things on my mind at the time - the imminent birth of our second daughter and programming under pressure as part of the team forming the V part of DVL, so the sad event did not lodge in my memory. However, it occurred to me that my former council colleague Tony Wyn-Jones may have known more. This report from the Evening Post confirms that he was at the Top Rank then, but Tony also had only happy memories of 1972.