Saturday, 27 February 2016

The way we were

Mike German, leader of Welsh Liberal Democrats, Cllr Keith Davies and Frank Little

The man on the right has aged rather less well than in the other two in this picture from eleven years ago, when we campaigned successfully to keep Post Office counters open in New Road, Skewen, eleven years ago. Local campaigners will be back outside the mini-mart at 11:00 today, hopefully including two of the three above.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Why UKIP want seats in Wales

Few people believe that UKIP has the well-being of Wales at heart in putting up candidates for the Welsh general election. The need is to get their hands on a chunk of AMs' salaries (which have recently been increased, in spite of WLD objections) to prevent their party going the same way as the BNP. Guido Fawkes has publicised the relevant figures:
Income  between 1 October and 31 December 2015:
Conservative Party – £5,152,334
Labour Party – £2,669,241
Liberal Democrats – £828,657
UKIP – £196,282
BNP – £180,000
SNP – £54,030

Thursday, 25 February 2016

That's you, that is

I am sure that I am not the only one who has been reminded of Baddiel and Newman's warring historians when witnessing the exchanges between Cameron and Corbyn at the dispatch box. Yesterday's prime minister's question time had echoes of this episode. The subject was the NHS in England:

Jeremy Corbyn: We all want a strong and successful NHS, but that will not be achieved by provoking industrial action, misrepresenting research or failing to get a grip on the cost of agency staff in the NHS, which now amounts to £4 billion. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s own local NHS trust has overspent on staffing costs by £11 million this year, yet has managed to spend £30 million on agency staff. Will the chair of the Oxford anti-austerity campaign be writing another letter to himself on behalf of his constituents, asking for the Health Secretary to intervene to support his local NHS?
The Prime Minister: I am very proud of the NHS in Oxfordshire and everyone who works in it. Having met the head of the Oxford Radcliffe trust recently, I know that he supports the move towards more seven-day services. That is absolutely vital.
Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab): Ask your mother!
The Prime Minister: Ask my mother? I know what my mother would say. She would look across the Dispatch Box and say, “Put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem.”
Jeremy Corbyn: If we are talking of motherly advice, my late mother would have said, “Stand up for the principle of a health service free at the point of use for everybody.” That is what she dedicated her life to, as did many of her generation.
The PM would presumably make the excuse that it was a Labour member who started it. However, his escalation, I suggest, came close to being out of order. It was yet another example of "dead cat" tactics. To give him his due, Corbyn asks pointed questions. Cameron either veers off the subject or repeats spurious claims.

Jeremy Corbyn: This dispute with the junior doctors has been on the basis of misrepresented research about weekend mortality. I will read the Prime Minister what the researchers themselves say:
“It is not possible to ascertain the extent to which these excess deaths may be preventable; to assume that they are avoidable would be rash and misleading.”
Are the Prime Minister and his Health Secretary being “rash and misleading” with these figures?
The Prime Minister:  [...] Let me answer very directly the question about excess deaths. The 6,000 figure for excess deaths was based on a question asked by the Health Secretary of Sir Bruce Keogh, the medical director of the NHS. Now that we have had time to go into these figures in more detail, I can tell the House this: the Health Secretary was indeed guilty—he was guilty of an understatement. The true figure for excess deaths at the weekend are 11,000, not 6,000.
The government's interpretation of this statistic has already been refuted. Moreover, where there has been a real problem - stroke deaths at weekends - clinicians in the English NHS have virtually solved it without having to change junior doctors' contracts.

I fear today's Conservatives view the junior doctors in 2016 as the equivalent of the miners for Mrs Thatcher. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the dispute, the government will be seen to be defeating militant trade union action. At the end of the day, they will have sufficient power to defeat the BMA. There is one difference between the miners and the junior doctors: the doctors have plenty of alternative employment opportunities, and those who have not already moved across to our NHS in Wales* or left for other nations in the Commonwealth will surely do so. The result will be a deterioration in hospital provision. Mrs Thatcher rejected plans to privatise the NHS, not because she was opposed to the process, but because she knew that the NHS was held in such high regard that to proceed would be electoral suicide. Cameron and Hunt, with a background of genuinely increasing hospital deaths, would not find it so difficult.

* There will be more if Mark Drakeford addresses the problem of the assignment of new doctors. It seems that at present the latter may be posted anywhere in Wales. This creates difficulties for a doctor in a Merseyside hospital, say, who would be content with an assignment in north Wales where it would be easy to maintain contact with family and friends, but find a move to south Wales more trying.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

EU referendum (final instalment for the time being)

I want to come back to Michael Gove's reasons for wanting to leave the EU. The full thing is here. Comments on selected passages (in italics) follow.

My starting point is simple. I believe that the decisions which govern all our lives, the laws we must all obey and the taxes we must all pay should be decided by people we choose and who we can throw out if we want change. If power is to be used wisely, if we are to avoid corruption and complacency in high office, then the public must have the right to change laws and Governments at election time.
At present we have a virtual elected dictatorship, there being no consistent opposition in the House of Commons. If corruption is not already flourishing (and the financial pages suggest that this government is as much in thrall to the bankers as Gordon Brown ever was) then all the conditions exist for it to do so. If Michael Gove believed in a fair voting system for Westminster, his argument would carry more weight, but it seems he does not.
But our membership of the European Union prevents us being able to change huge swathes of law and stops us being able to choose who makes critical decisions which affect all our lives. Laws which govern citizens in this country are decided by politicians from other nations who we never elected and can’t throw out.
We elected David Cameron and his ministers (though Scots would dispute this). As I hoped to demonstrate in earlier posts, Mr Cameron needs only the support of one or two heads of government of other EU nations to block measures such as tightening vehicle pollution limits or abolishing mobile phone roving charges.

We can take out our anger on elected representatives in Westminster but whoever is in Government in London cannot remove or reduce VAT
VAT may be reduced as an emergency measure such as when the country is in or on the brink of recession. How an emergency is defined could be open to interpretation! But I do have sympathy with this point, even though I don't see the Conservatives wanting to reduce regressive taxes any time soon.

cannot support a steel plant through troubled times,
Surely a trading bloc larger than an individual nation has more power to combat dumping? What failed in the case of Tata was government awareness of the situation and/or willingness to pursue our steel-makers' case within the EU at an early stage. Other EU nations have similar problems and I'm sure we could have made common cause.

Mr Gove may be referring to direct state aid. If so, I am surprised that a "dry" Conservative should contemplate such a thing. The restrictions on state aid were quite rightly brought in (largely at UK behest, I believe) to produce a fair market across the Union and prevent fellow-members distorting competition by propping up, for example, inefficient state airlines.

 cannot build the houses we need where they’re needed
That is down to private builders who are sitting on undeveloped land banks. One cannot see that changing in a non-EU Britain. Or is Mr Gove saying that the EU prevents us from restoring powers to local authorities to build social housing?

 and cannot deport all the individuals who shouldn’t be in this country.
I would like to see a worked example.

we set up the first free parliament
That was in Iceland, surely, and the Isle of Man's Tynwald also has claims. If Mr Gove objects that qualification for membership of those bodies was restricted, then he should note that New Zealand beat us to granting universal suffrage.  

By way of contrast, the European Union, despite the undoubted idealism of its founders and the good intentions of so many leaders, has proved a failure on so many fronts. The euro has created economic misery for Europe’s poorest people.
No, national governments' short-sighted populist economic policies created those failures. The low interest rates which obtained when the euro launched may have encouraged feckless financial policies, but where national chancellors were responsible, as in Germany, there was no long-lasting misery. One notes that Germany achieved a record budget surplus last year. Is the pound to blame for our continuing deficit? 

European Union regulation has entrenched mass unemployment.
In my estimation, those EU countries which suffer from high unemployment are those in which corruption is entrenched and where too many influential citizens are allowed to escape taxation

 EU immigration policies have encouraged people traffickers and brought desperate refugee camps to our borders.
The increase in refugee movement has been caused by the destabilisation of the Middle East, to which both the Blair-Brown and Cameron governments have contributed. The EU is responsible only to the extent that it recognised a government-in-waiting which had no prospect of success but increased the fission in Syria. On the other hand, the EU continues to support civil society in Afghanistan which should help to stem emigration from that country.
The EU is built to keep power and control with the elites rather than the people.
Things are changing.  A process of increased transparency and parliamentary accountability has begun, which I date from the accession of  the Nordic nations. Even in France, the electorate is beginning to question the imperial aspirations of some of "the elite". We have rather more friends on the continent than inward-looking conservatives believe.

This growing EU bureaucracy holds us back in every area. EU rules dictate everything from the maximum size of containers in which olive oil may be sold (five litres) to the distance houses have to be from heathland to prevent cats chasing birds (five kilometres).
Mr Gove mocks the trivial rules and standards, but he does not acknowledge the power of the EU to curb the power of virtual monopolies such as Google and Microsoft.
ECJ judgements on data protection issues hobble the growth of internet companies.
Not the successful entrepreneurs who speak at LibDem conferences.

 As a minister I’ve seen hundreds of new EU rules cross my desk, none of which were requested by the UK Parliament, none of which I or any other British politician could alter in any way and none of which made us freer, richer or fairer.
Mr Gove underplays the role of parliament, which admittedly does not examine statutory instruments as thoroughly as it should.
It is hard to overstate the degree to which the EU is a constraint on ministers’ ability to do the things they were elected to do, or to use their judgment about the right course of action for the people of this country. I have long had concerns about our membership of the EU but the experience of Government has only deepened my conviction that we need change. Every single day, every single minister is told: ‘Yes Minister, I understand, but I’m afraid that’s against EU rules’.
Surely a criticism of our senior civil service and the multinational consultants who are largely taking over from them. France and Germany would not be so feeble.
We can take back the billions we give to the EU,
Only if we break entirely from the EU. An association agreement would require a financial contribution.

 the money which is squandered on grand parliamentary buildings
On one wasteful parliamentary building in Strasbourg - there I would agree. Liberals in the European Parliament have a good record in voting to have this abandoned. It seems that other parties and ministers (including Conservative ones) do not wish to upset the French.

 and bureaucratic follies,
The commission is rather more efficient than the British civil service

and invest it in science and technology, schools and apprenticeships. We can get rid of the regulations which big business uses to crush competition and instead support new start-up businesses and creative talent. We can forge trade deals and partnerships with nations across the globe, helping developing countries to grow and benefiting from faster and better access to new markets.
We are the world’s fifth largest economy,
Germany is the fourth largest and is quite happy to remain in the EU. The suggestion that we might overtake Germany in terms of GDP by 2030 is now discounted

with the best armed forces of any nation,

In terms of quality, maybe, but not quantity and they continue to be run down - but an irrelevant point

 more Nobel Prizes than any European country and more world-leading universities than any European country.
Also irrelevant. Whether in or out, there is still a problem of converting research into product.

 Our economy is more dynamic than the Eurozone,
Depends on what you mean by "dynamic"

we have the most attractive capital city on the globe,

the greatest “soft power” and global influence of any state
As great as tiny Norway?

and a leadership role in NATO and the UN. Are we really too small, too weak and too powerless to make a success of self-rule?
We are also heavily indebted. Part of our ability to sustain a deficit and therefore rising borrowing at tolerable interest rates is because we are part of a cooperative bloc. At the time of writing, the pound's value abroad has plunged because of the uncertainty created by the manoeuverings of various politicians in advance of the referendum. 

Monday, 22 February 2016

The unbearable dominance of the EU referendum

The newspaper headlines have been dominated for some time now by the EU referendum. Now that a date has been fixed, press activity has become more frenzied. The current effort is concentrated on pinning down to a view those politicians who have not already declared themselves "in" or "out".

The Labour first minister has already deprecated the timing of the referendum. He knows that Welsh public opinion is formed largely by the London-based media. (If we only had a vigorous native press as the Scots do!) The issues of the Welsh general election are therefore likely to be at the back of Welsh electors' minds. (I note that the election pitch announced in Carwyn Jones' conference speech was the simplistic "it's us or the Tories".) In theory, this blanket coverage of the EU situation should suit Liberal Democrats in Wales and in the London elections, as we have consistently been the most pro-EU party in the UK. Away from the City of London, there has been a dawning realisation that jobs of ordinary working people will almost certainly be lost - even before the negotiations for exit begin - if the referendum vote is for "Leave".

How many jobs would be lost, and how soon, is a matter of debate. Somewhere around 3 million jobs in the UK are linked to the EU. That is not to say that they are all dependent on the EU, but only a Little-Englander would claim that they would not be affected. I can believe Nigel Farage and his friends when they claim that the City would continue to thrive, but much of industry would wind down. Airbus wing production would surely move to Poland and Tata's future would be bleak, for instance.

That dispute over job numbers illustrates what will be the besetting trouble of the public debate over the spring and early summer: that both sides, but mainly the "Leavers", will be flinging extravagant claims back and forth. The unedifying AV referendum campaign of 2010 gives us a glimpse of what is to come. In that, the reactionary side resorted to misrepresentation and even downright lies, which were not corrected by that supposed bastion, the popular press. UKIP leaders have been peddling untruths for some time and surely worse is to come.

It is depressing that Iain Duncan Smith, who claims to have negotiated in Europe, is ignorant of the democratic basis of EU decision-making in claiming (as on The World This Weekend) that policy is dictated by unelected officials. (His other claim that staying in the EU increases our risk of terrorist attack smacks of desperation.) Michael Gove's statement has rather more intellectual rigour but there are some disputable points which I want to come back to in a later post. He correctly identifies that decisions are made by elected people, both in the parliament and in the council of ministers, but when he argues that "Laws which govern citizens in this country are decided by politicians from other nations who we never elected and can’t throw out." he ignores the fact that our elected ministers in the Council and our elected MEPs contribute to that law-making. He also consciously or unconsciously echoes the complaint of the Scottish Nationalists who chafe at the decisions of a Conservative government in Westminster which Scotland had overwhelmingly rejected at the polls.

In the end I fear it is going to come down to personalities as the average voter is more clear as to whom he or she trusts than they are able to evaluate all the opposing statements. So far on that score, "Remain" is winning on points!

Sunday, 21 February 2016


Katharine Whitehorn's discussion today with Michael Berkeley over her taste in music had no revelations for someone who had followed her career even after giving up The Observer on a Sunday. She has been rather more candid in previous BBC features. However, it is a good starting point for someone unfamiliar with the journalism she pioneered. (Is there any chance of BBC repeating on Radio 4 Extra her original reading of her autobiography?)

One thing I would object to is Michael Berkeley's assertion (and her apparent acquiescence) that at the time of the Beatles, "when I'm sixty-four" was generally seen as an age when one was doddery. It is true that when the first state pension was introduced* it was payable at age 70 when "only one in four people reached the age of 70 and life expectancy at that age was about 9 years" (Paul Lewis, Setting the virtual retirement age so high is seen by some as a cynical move by the Treasury to save the taxpayer and employers money. From just before she was born, though, the pension age was reduced to 65 which clearly recognised that people had active life after retirement. In the early 1960s, when "When I'm 64" was written, in large part because of the NHS, it was already a cliché that there were people who were busier in retirement than they had been during their working lives.

* by David Lloyd George, in that great pre-war Liberal government which also included Winston Churchill, who had brought in William Beveridge as a senior civil servant.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Cameron is a secret outer

How else to explain:

and now holding the referendum on 23rd June when so many English and Welsh football fans will be away in France for the European Nations Cup? Moreover, only just over a month after national elections in Scotland and Wales, some local elections in England and PCC elections throughout the nation, voter fatigue will have set in. Only the most EU-obsessed electors will be bothered to turn out.

* and on the social security front, less than could - and should - have been achieved by normal negotiations out of the public eye, in my opinion.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Conservative asset-stripping

The Thatcher government sold off the Georgian silver, the nice furniture and the Canalettos; Blair-Brown did a sale and lease-back deal on the land and gardens; and now Cameron and Osborne are flogging off the fixtures and fittings at fire-sale prices.

After Royal Mail, other government assets have gone or are in the process of going. In no particular order:

The "Nudge Unit" (Behavioural Insights Team) was sold in February 2014 to employees and a charity according to the official media release (as relayed by the BBC here). Fair enough, a supporter of co-ownership one might think. However, Private Eye reports that a full eighth of the shares went to the two civil servants who had set up the unit, and that only 22.5% went to an employee benefit trust for the rest of the staff. The Eye claims that the value of the business on which the sale was based was £100,000, while last reported profits were £1.8m.

An interest in the King's Cross Central redevelopment was sold at a profit, but this article reckons that the taxpayer did not get their fair share of the eventual value of the site.

We also risk making a loss on the sale of Lloyds Bank and RBS shares.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

The Labour supreme soviet needs educating

Private Eye reports:

Labour party members in Northern Ireland have launched a selection procedure for candidates to stand in the May elections to the Stormont assembly - but the national party still refuses to allow them to field anyone against allies in the SDLP.

If this is true, it shows that centralist Labour still dictates to national parties how they will pick candidates. More to the point, it betrays ignorance of the province's electoral system. Alone among the national assemblies of the UK, Stormont uses the same fair voting system as the Republic of Ireland and local government in Scotland. Technically speaking, it is single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies. Voters mark their ballots with a 1, 2, 3 (etc) preference rather than the crude cross of Westminster elections or constituencies in the Scottish and Welsh parliaments. In practice, it means that electors need not fear that picking their favourite automatically works against their second preference. So in a constituency which is largely Labour in outlook, there is no danger of a split vote allowing a Unionist candidate to come through the middle and scoop the pool. Indeed, in a multi-member constituency, there is a probability that a mix of Labour and SDLP members would be returned.

There is a simple guide here.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Dalyell on Lubbock

Tam Dalyell has a rather longer memory than the BBC, who gave the death of Lord Avebury only the briefest of mentions on its main bulletins. Thanks to his obituary in the Independent, we are reminded that Eric Lubbock's maiden speech was one of those rare ones which ignored the convention of being non-controversial. It spoke of the poor state of nurses' pay. Fifty-odd years later, nothing has changed  on that front. One can only imagine what he would make of the decision by both Conservatives in Westminster and Labour in Cardiff to scrap student nurses' bursaries.

Other Lubbock propositions before their time were to reduce the voting age to 18 (we had to wait over thirty years for this) and to introduce the single transferable vote for parliamentary elections (we are still waiting). Throughout his parliamentary life he promoted racial equality and encouraged members of ethnic minorities to join the Liberal and Liberal Democrat parties. As Lord Avebury in 1973, he set up the fund to raise money for Peter Hain's defence against the vindictive Bennion prosecution over the anti-apartheid campaign.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

A beacon on the African continent

In so many African countries, when a head of government and/or of state is criticised, he (it is always a "he") reacts by shutting up or even eliminating the critic. Independent judges are not immune. How reassuring then to read that Jacob Zuma has bowed to the judgment of the courts in the case of the Nkandla scandal, even though it is surely another step on the road to his fall from power. Democracy and the rule of law are alive and well in South Africa*.

Now, will the new generation of leaders of the ANC dare to re-examine the bribery allegations surrounding the arms deals of an earlier decade?

* Tunisia is another notable exception.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Lloyd George museum likely to close

Gwynedd County Council seems determined to close the museum in Ll G's boyhood home. The money to be saved is relatively modest, so one trusts that wiser counsels will prevail in the face of growing objections.

Conservatives vote to increase vehicle pollution

A typical, misleading, claim by Brexiters, from Michael Caine all the way down to UKIP, is that the European Union is run by the Commission. Earlier this month, there was an example of how Commission proposals are subject to European Parliament approval - and how conservatives are relaxed about the Commission when it suits them.

On 4th February, the Commission presented proposals to double diesel car emission limits temporarily. Green, and most socialist and liberal MEPs voted to reject these, but the Commission was rescued by the conservative groupings including David Cameron's Conservatives and UKIP.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Eric Lubbock, Baron Avebury

I hope the obituaries in the mainstream media will do this great Liberal justice. I would like to claim that I met him in the great days of the 1960s revival, but I just missed out. I had made the trip to Orpington during the general election campaign following his great by-election victory for a public meeting (they were still common in those days!) which I must have seen advertised in one of the two London evening newspapers. Eric Lubbock was in much demand for media events, so at the last minute his place was taken by his wife, Kina. It was still a great meeting and it occurred to me then that they must have been a formidable team.


Today is the 250th anniversary of Thomas Malthus, the reverend gentleman whose predictions of population growth based on pure supposition blighted the thinking of too many conservative politicians. His work was debunked in the 19th century and evidence against has consistently mounted since then.

Saturday, 13 February 2016


Russia's excesses in Syria are the subject of leads in most broadcast news bulletins. Her continuing breaches of the cease-fire via proxies in Ukraine have recently been noticed also. But she has also, out of the headlines, been nibbling away at Georgia and other states in the same region. If Putin wanted to drive yet another former Soviet dependency into the arms of NATO, he is going the right way about it. Already a NATO partner, Georgia seems to be moving closer to membership.

Friday, 12 February 2016

End of independent UK press refers.

My first reaction was a feeling of betrayal, tempered by the memory that I had resolved to give up the print edition of the journal if there had been another unannounced price rise - it seems to have gone up by 20p every year for the past three years.

Apart from the Financial Times, which is not available at every paper-shop, the Lebedevs' decision will leave no national newspaper which is not associated with a political party.

It could have been better. At the time of the launch, the Indy looked to overtake one of the other (then) broadsheet papers, The Times, Telegraph and Guardian, in sales. Indeed, in 1992 it briefly outsold The Times before Rupert Murdoch launched a vicious price-cutting campaign which the less well-capitalised Indy was ill-equipped to resist. The aftermath was that the Mirror Group took a stake and a then Mirror executive and former Murdoch employee, David Montgomery, forced cost savings including the dispersal of a unique library. For me, that was the point of no return as all that remained  of its original unique qualities was the paper's political independence.

Latterly the Indy's expert, experienced, Middle East coverage has kept me loyal. The question is: can the owners hang on to Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn and Kim Sengupta. The beady-eyed City coverage has been good, too, and I would also miss John Walsh.

The big switch occurs in March, so I will have at least another month of being able to fill in crosswords when on the move (a paper does not need a power supply).

Will the loss of the Indy give a reprieve to the Guardian, which is still haemorrhaging money? We will have to wait and see.

Google is not everything

In the Commons yesterday in a debate on government cuts to the assistance given to opposition parties for research and policy development, UKIP MP Douglas Carswell, said:

I am delighted that the Government are cutting Short money; few things this Administration have announced have pleased me more. Does the Minister agree that this is public money and that the public will deeply resent it being spent on politicians to do more politics? Does he agree that the rules on Short money need to reflect the fact that the cost of doing politics—of doing policy, research and communication—have come down? We live in a world where Google is at our fingertips, so we do not need researchers. We also have Twitter and blogs so we do not need a whole department of press officers. Does he agree that the public will resent using public money to pay for Spads and shadow special advisers, who have watched too much of “The West Wing”, to sit in Portcullis House at public expense?

His remarks about providing party political propaganda at public expense will strike a chord with many, though I would point out that parties which do not have financial support from the City or from trade unions are at a disadvantage. I have also criticised the use of Short money purely for PR purposes as well as the proliferation of Special Advisers.

However, I do take issue with his implication that Google provides a complete research facility. For a start, most of the links that Google or any search engine provide are to information that is partisan and/or misleading, especially on contentious issues. It is difficult to know what one can trust, outwith the traditional US papers which are fact-checked.

Links are increasingly skewed towards the interests of those advertisers which provide income for Google and the like. Moreover, there is an increasing tendency to promote links only to web pages put up in the last three or four years. It was already virtually impossible to find material from before 1997 when the World Wide Web really took off, as most sources had no incentive to put historical material online. For all these reasons, a diligent researcher and access to a decent physical library are worth their weight in gold.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Carter, Obama and Sanders

Jimmy Carter was unlucky in office as president of the United States. Partly because of the economic climate, partly because he was unable to overcome the checks (without the balances) of a largely hostile Congress, he was never able to put through all his ambitious programme of reform. His most humane action, of giving the exiled Shah of Iran refuge so that he could receive top-class medical treatment for his cancer, rebounded as Islamic Revolutionaries regarded it as a hostile act, leading to hostilities which have only recently died down. The juggernaut of the Reagan charm offensive prevented Carter from benefiting in a second term from improved economic conditions, to which his administration had contributed. But what he has achieved internationally since leaving office has been remarkable. There was just one example only last week when the ex-president recounted to their Lordships what his foundation, the Carter Center, had done for eradication of a nasty third-world disease.

President Obama has at least another eleven months to serve, yet even some of his erstwhile supporters have already judged his eight years (a term more than Carter managed) as a failure. I believe this is harsh and history will be more kind to him. He did at least get the beginnings of a federal health service on the statute book, which is more than the Clintons managed. There is also something more intangible: he immensely enhanced the United States image abroad as a nation where the colour of ones skin is not a bar to the highest office. But I believe the best is yet to come. Even the energetic Carter will have to concede to his age some day. Given a few years off during which his daughters will be at a critical age, Obama will surely take up the mantle of US goodwill ambassador.

Both Carter and Obama have been termed liberals by their fellow-countrymen, yet in so many ways in British terms they are conservative. If transported over here, they would sit quite happily in a Blairite Labour party or on the liberal wing of the Conservatives. Bernie Sanders, currently leading the hot favourite Hillary Clinton in nominations as Democrat party candidate, is more like a traditional British liberal than what he describes himself as, a socialist. He wants to break up the big banks (something we hoped we might do in coalition); a socialist would surely nationalise them. (There is more here.) It is not surprising that he has attracted some admiration from fellow Liberal Democrats on Facebook. He has also inspired the young even more than Obama's first campaign did; one has to go back to Eugene McCarthy for a similar phenomenon . His campaign budget may seem enormous to activists here (unless one is fighting a by-election for the Conservatives) but it is lower than the top three Republican spenders and a fraction of that available to Hillary Clinton. It also benefits more from working people than from corporations.

 Sadly, that "socialist" appellation is going to be a millstone if he ever gets to be a candidate. Hillary Clinton will surely be that candidate, but one trusts that she will take note of the sentiments which have inspired the Sanders campaign and map out her programme accordingly.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

A proud candidate

I was gratified this evening to receive my local party's endorsement as a candidate for Neath in the Welsh general election in May.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Launch of pan-African Liberal initiative

I found this, as reported in Liberal Democrat Voice, inspiring. It is good to see that UK Liberal Democrats are supporting the Africa Liberal Network. Throughout Africa, communities and small entrepreneurs are an essential part of traditional society. It seems to me that UK Liberal Democracy is in tune with this, while we have more informed views than some reactionary African states about basic social needs which we can bring to the table.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Belated moves to reform prisons

So David Cameron is at last facing up to the facts that there are too many people in prison, that the present prison regime encourages drug abuse and harm to prisoners, and that there has been no official support for reform - save a half-hearted attempt to encourage restorative justice (but without any visible funding) by Kenneth Clarke. Apart from Mr Clarke, the prime minister has consistently appointed Home Office ministers who appeal to the retributivist instincts of Tories, even during the days of the coalition when I am sure his Liberal Democrat partners were pressing him to be more progressive. There is more background information in this Independent article.

His latest appointee, Michael Gove, is clearly set on reversing the trend and I think it has been unfair of Mr Cameron to claim the credit for the initiative. One worry I have is that they are intent on copying an American model, that of the state of Texas, rather than look at the more long-standing justice and reform models of the Scandinavian nations. Could it be that a US-based private company will be involved in running their "reform" prisons?

Another worry is that no attempt seems to have been made to get the prison officers onside. A gulf, similar to that in the worst of British industry between the managers and the managed, has opened up between the governor class and the warders. It's the prison officers who manage, day by day, to keep the existing system from collapse or insurrection. There needs to be more cooperation between governors and staff. It is also important that staffing is brought up to the proper level. Extra expenditure here in the short term will lead to long-term savings.

It is also necessary to back up these reforms with a sensible parole system and a probation service which works. The experiment with privatisation of the latter has not been successful. We also need to cut back the mountain of imprisonable offences which Labour added to the statute book in the thirteen years they were in office.

I believe that if Wales had been granted jurisdiction over police and prisons in the devolution settlement, or in later Wales Acts, we here could have made a better fist of prison reform than in England, bringing reoffending rates below the UK average. Even now, the conservatives in Westminster seek to hold on to these powers in the latest Wales Bill (pdf of the draft here). It is not too late for parliament to release justice, policing and prisons from the reserved powers.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Out of the mouths of babes and subtitlers

I am grateful to Private Eye for this rare light relief from the difficulties at Tata. From the organ's letters pages:

the subtitles for the hard of hearing  [...] quoted the trade minister as saying: "The Conservative government is 100% committed to steal in this country"


Off to Welsh LibDems' spring (spring??) conference today and tomorrow, so blogging may be sporadic. It was good to see our leader in Westminster, Tim Farron, coming down early and mucking in with canvassing in Cardiff on Thursday.

Friday, 5 February 2016

A perverse finding

A man fleeing two charges of serious sexual misconduct in an EU country which is a signatory of the EHCR voluntarily holes himself up in the embassy, to another signatory of the EHCR, of a nation which has a poor human rights record. A valid international arrest warrant has been issued. Yet a UN Working Group has found that he has been unlawfully detained. I am among the first to condemn the authoritarian bent of the Conservative administration here, but I believe that, in the case of Julian Assange, Theresa May and Michael Hammond have it right.

One of Assange's supporters claims that the charges are fabricated, that the complainants were coerced by the Swedish police and that Sweden is the creature of the CIA who will have Assange extradited as soon as he sets foot on Swedish soil. This ignores the evidence that the upholding of human rights is more robust in Sweden than it is in the UK, where Assange chose to reside for some time before his trip to Sweden. If the US authorities wanted to eliminate him, they could have done it in a country which is more friendly than most to the USA.

Julian Assange's integrity as a witness on his own behalf may be assessed by reading Ian Hislop's report of a conversation he had with him back in 2011.

If an international group wants to criticise the UK for threatening detention of peaceful protestors, they could start with how the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 is being applied.

Right appointment at the right time

I've always been a fan of Robert Croft and couldn't be more pleased that he has been appointed head coach of Glamorgan CCC. He has international experience as a player and latterly as a coach. Moreover, he is Glamorgan and Wales through and through. The appointment more than makes up for the non-Welsh player signings that some members have been snarky about on Facebook.

Planning constipation

The habit of house-builders (and big supermarkets!) of sitting on land which has planning permission, not developing it until profits can be maximised, continues. The Local Government Association states that 475,000 houses are waiting to be built in England (and one assumes that, proportionately, Wales is in the same situation). This in spite of relaxation of building standards by both the UK and Welsh governments thanks to pressure from the builders. The Association asserts that the figures prove that the planning system is not a barrier to house building. There are some who disagree, as this article points out.

Private Eye and The Independent are on the side of the LGA and pour scorn on David Cameron's plan to demolish 100 tenanted estates. This would clearly reduce the housing available to the poor in favour of homes for the better-off. It is reckoned that the Tories' "starter homes" are affordable only to those with a household income of over £70,000.

Liberal Democrat Peter Black's plans for Wales are in bold contrast. I myself have called for an Irish-style "use it or lose it" planning framework.

Dada, it's been good to know you

On February 5th  1916, Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings began a series of cabarets in a bar in Zurich. The odd collections of poems composed of sounds, simultaneous readings etc., became wilder and wilder until the bar was closed down by public demand on June 26th of that year.  But the group of players had started what they would call the Dada movement.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

MPs should do their research

In International Development questions in the House yesterday, Mary Creagh revealed that she does not listen to Radio 4. She is also clearly unaware that Zika is a forest in Uganda.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): The Zika virus crossed the Pacific and went from French Polynesia to Brazil in May last year. Since then, 4,000 children have been born with microcephaly. What analysis has the Secretary of State made of the risks to the poorest women and girls in the world if the virus crosses the Atlantic from Brazil to sub-Saharan Africa? Will she promise to keep a very close eye on that and use all British scientific knowledge to ensure that it does not happen?

I have complained in the past that not enough MPs are elected who have scientific or technical knowledge. It is also clear that special advisers provide no expertise other than that of handling the media.

The real question is: how far has Africa been affected? Is microcephaly as prevalent as in Brazil and WHO is unaware of this (hard data are presumably patchy) or have Africans acquired immunity over the years?

Kids Company scandal

Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the committee, presented the Public Administration and Public Affairs Committee report on the failure of Kids Company to the Commons this morning and answered questions on it. Mr Jenkin trod a delicate line between asserting his belief in maintaining the integrity of our system of government and direct criticism of ministers in the cabinet office. He did, though, imply disapproval of prime minister David Cameron's use of the disgraced charity for publicity. He also questioned the power and unaccountability of the Cabinet Office.

It was good to hear a Conservative standing up for the traditions of the British civil service as established by Northcote and Trevelyan under the direction of Liberal prime minister WE Gladstone in the nineteenth century. The report had confirmed that after the Department for Education had refused to continue funding the charity, the Cabinet Office had forced the diversion of funds from that Department's support for youth services in England to its own coffers and thence to Kids Company. Both auditors and other senior civil servants strongly advised against this. Ministers Matthew Hancock and Oliver Letwin had to sign a letter acknowledging this in authorising the payment.

This was the most egregious example yet of government decision based on pressure from headline-hogging pressure groups and anticipation on how ministers could be presented in the media, rather than on hard evidence and advice from knowledgeable and impartial civil servants. As a result, millions of pounds of our money have been wasted.

There was praise for the all-too-few journalists and an editor who were not swept up in the Yentob and Batmanghelidjh spin machine. There was criticism of those who were aware of the charity's shortcomings but neither went public nor had a quiet word with trustees or charity commission about them. The trustees themselves are not blameless, but the committee found them to be ill-equipped to judge on how well the charity was meeting its aims. The committee called for stricter standards on the appointment of trustees.

Will it happen again? Mr Jenkin was pessimistic but trusted that there would be improvements. I wonder how seriously the government will seek these. Both Conservative and Labour politicians have interests in maintaining the system as is.

Footnote: it has just been reported that charity Age UK received commission from the utility company concerned for steering old people into schemes like this. Not only did they not disclose this to the people concerned, but also failed to warn them back in 2014 that prices can go down as well as up - which they duly did, leaving their pensioners worse off.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

First landing on the moon

The first rocket assisted controlled landing on the moon was achieved fifty years ago today by the USSR's Luna IX.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Arctic sea ice disappearing

For most people, 40 years is a very long time. But from the perspective of NASA’s science chief, Ellen Stofan, it’s the blink of an eye:
As a geologist, I’m used to thinking of things that are rapid as happening on a timescale of 10 to 20 million years. When you see the rate of change happening in the Arctic, it is quite concerning. As scientists we’re not used to seeing such a rapid pace of change . . . This is a warning of the worst effects of climate change.
 Read the full article here.