Monday, 31 October 2016

Sarah Olney selected to stand for LDs against Zac Goldsmith

The emergency selection committee, meeting as a result of the declaration of a by-election in Richmond Park, has restored my faith in internal Liberal Democrat politics by confirming their previous local choice to fight the seat. This is the second winnable seat on the run where a young woman has been chosen as a candidate.

Her c.v. outlined here points up her political inexperience. Old hacks might see this as a drawback, but it is surely a positive selling point that Sarah, as a young working mother, is the sort of person who is seriously under-represented in parliament.

Trade agreement signed with Canada

Well done to plucky Belgium for wresting a concession over dispute resolution out of Canada, and thanks to the recently-installed Liberal government in the dominion for acceding to it. It is not an absolute guarantee that the quasi-judicial procedure will be open and transparent, but given the record of the European Court of Justice that will almost certainly be the practical result. One wonders how keen the Canadian Conservatives, under whom the CETA negotiations began, would have been. (It is noteworthy that our Conservative masters were quite happy to wave the treaty through without even bringing it to the attention of our parliament.) Anyway, the treaty has now been signed.

Another key feature is that it maintains Europe's high food protection standards, which has been a major sticking point in the TTIP negotiations. As the EU's helpful FAQ page puts it:

CETA will not affect EU rules on food safety or the environment. As now, Canadian products will only be able to be imported to and sold in the EU if they fully respect our regulations. For example, CETA does not affect EU restrictions on beef containing growth hormones or GMOs.

Nor will CETA restrict either the EU or Canada from passing new laws in areas of public interest such as the environment, and health and safety.

CETA provides the basis for a future dialogue between the EU and Canada on policy developments. Both sides will share information about best practices. This does not affect our scope for developing new laws in response to the needs and priorities of European citizens.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

A plea for fair reporting of contentious issues

I make no apologies for returning to the question of what people in public life did or did not say about the Jews. This piece (by a representative of the closest that the Jewish people come to an aristocracy!) confirms the conclusion I had reached about the wilder statements from some Labourites ("Three pieces of advice to help British leftwingers kick racism out of their anti-Israel rhetoric").

The Palestinian Return Centre, sponsors of the Balfour Apology Campaign whose event Baroness Tonge chaired last week, seeks to put right the misreporting surrounding it.

Prominent Liberal Democrat activist Linda Jack writes on Facebook:

I worry about the way the media seem intent on accusing anyone of anti-semitism who questions the actions of the Israeli State. I worry about the inaction of those states, ours included, who choose to ignore the responsibility of all those involved for the injustices and inequalities that are currently being occluded by the manufactured smoke screen that screams anti-semitism at the slightest criticism of said state. No one who holds a meeting can be held responsible for the comments of everyone at that meeting, such meetings will always attract a range of people with sometimes obnoxious views, on both sides. I am very sorry to lose Jenny, those of us who know her know that her concern about the current plight of the Palestinians springs from her deep compassion and humanity. We should remember that she, like many of us, began her campaign after visiting Israel/Palestine and witnessing the reality of what is going on there. I spent most of my adult life as a Christian Zionist, a fervent defender of the Israeli State. I visited several times as a guest of the state, but it was only when I visited as a trustee of Elijah Trust that I actually met Palestinians and had my attitude well and truly challenged. We must not let justified criticism be shut down like this, it is an affront to our common humanity. My love for Israel and all its people, Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian, all faiths and none, is not diminished by my despair at the actions of the Israeli government - its a bit like suggesting I am anti British or anti Christian because I am against the damage the Tory government is doing to my fellow citizens.

Changing the subject to that of immigration, one should not believe that the London Daily Mail and the London Daily Express represent the views of a majority:

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Drowning from the inside

Discover magazine reports on a “robot smoker”, a remarkable fusion of engineering, IT and biochemistry, which is helping to explain what goes on in the lungs of tobacco smokers. (The whole article is here.)

But it is not just smokers themselves who are affected. The researchers looked at
the cilia [...] — tiny hairs responsible for clearing bacteria-carrying mucus out of our lungs. A heavy smokers’ characteristic cough is a sign that their lung cilia aren’t working as well as they should be. Previous studies of smokers looking at the cilia had proved inconclusive, however. Using their new chip, the researchers say that they have found good evidence that the cilia become impaired after being exposed to smoke. While they still waved around about as much as healthy cilia on average, their waving was much less coordinated, and there tended to be more weaker cilia. This could readily lead to a build-up of mucus in the lungs and the tell-tale “smokers’ cough.”

Note the phrase "exposed to smoke". Children brought up in a household where both parents smoke, a common situation in the 1940s and 1950s, are at risk of having their lungs damaged. (Add asthma and colleagues will realise why it takes me longer to recover from bad colds than most people. Even after the infection has gone, it takes at least as long to get rid of the mucus, which actually seems to increase during the recovery period, leading to a feeling of drowning from the inside.)

This is why legislators took the seemingly illiberal step of banning smoking in cars where children are present. The smaller enclosed space of a car, especially on a long journey, presents more dangers than smoking in the home.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Jenny Tonge: the explanation

Mark Pack gives an objective summary of the reason for Baroness Tonge's departure from the Liberal Democrat benches.

I believe she was foolish in chairing such a controversial meeting, certainly at this time. She must have known that heretical and probably antisemitic views would be expressed, and that Zac Goldsmith's resignation was imminent, putting her, as a prominent local resident and former MP in the area, under Tory media examination.

Here, for completeness, is Jenny Tonge's statement:

Today I have resigned from the Liberal Democrat Party at more or less the same time as they decided to suspend me! I have been a Liberal all my life and formally joined the party as a fresher medical student in 1959. I was a a local councillor for 9 years and an MP for two parliamentary terms. I shall sit in the House of Lords as an Independent.

The reason for my suspension is that I chaired a meeting to launch the Campaign to commemorate the Balfour Declaration next year and to ask our government to apologise for not fulfilling the words of that declaration which sought to protect the rights and lands of the indigenous people of Palestine when Israel was created. They have failed to do this and much suffering and extremism has ensued. In the course of the evening one member of the audience made a 'rant' against Israel quoting some very confused history which I confess I did not hear or understand! I then called the next member of the audience and moved on. The contribution was ignored by the audience after a few claps of relief! Apparently this is my sin!

I am at last free of being told what I must and must not say on the issue of Palestine., lest it offends the Israel Lobby here, who like to control us, as they do in the USA.

They are trying to destroy the Labour Party with spurious accusations of anti Semitism and now they have set their sights on the LibDems.

I have never been anti Semitic, and never will be. I am anti Injustice and that is why I criticise the Israeli government's flagrant disregard for International Law and Human Rights in the Occupied territories of Palestine and Gaza.

I would only add that the accusations against certain Labour MPs - who have admittedly since apologised for blatantly anti-semitic remarks - are not so spurious.

Exploitative Scotland

Craig Murray has criticised Baroness Scotland's meanness in employing an illegal alien. It shows how low the Commonwealth figures in the Conservative government's estimation that they raised no objection to her appointment to the Secretary-Generalship. Now we have evidence from Guido Fawkes that she looks after her friends as well.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

The Jenny Tonge witch-hunt steps up

Following the very similar briefings against Baroness Tonge in both (not surprising) and Private Eye (very surprising in an organ which prides itself on digging to the roots of apparently disinterested reports), leader of the House of Commons David Lidington himself lit a brand just now. It is one thing to criticise a member of the Upper House for his or her views or for the company he or she keeps, but Mr Lidington went too far in instructing Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron to revoke Jenny Tonge's membership of the party. Even if it were in his gift (quite properly, such judgments are made by properly-constituted machinery within the English party), I trust that Tim would resist any move to expel a member based on third-party reports.

Let us be clear. Jenny Tonge is not an antisemite. (The briefings carefully do not state that she is, knowing that such an assertion would be actionable. However, their insinuations are practically as damaging.) Her only crimes are to criticise the discriminatory actions of the Likud-run Israeli government, to point out how dependent the state of Israel is on support from both private and public funds from the United States, and to protest at the war crimes committed by sections of the Israel Defence Force. It is this last which has probably made her the target of a "my country right or wrong" faction. She is one of the few people from the UK, on either side of the debate, who has actually witnessed the effects on Palestinian and Arab families of the heavy-handed reprisals of the IDF.

If the government is able to push membership parties to expel people who criticise the human rights records of administrations abroad on whose good terms they desire to remain, where will it end? Will criticism of Saudi Arabia be suppressed? Mrs May would clearly like it to be, judging by the way Mr Corbyn disconcerted her at Wednesday's session with a question about Yemen. Given the way the Conservatives are putting the UK's future in hock to China, the People's Republic would surely follow.

[Update at 16:00] BBC Radio news has just announced that Baroness Tonge's membership has been suspended. I await details.

Access to justice

Christina Rees, Labour MP for Neath, writes in her latest blog:

I was honored* to have been involved in the Bach Commission on access to justice, and am looking forward to the launch of the interim report later this month. The Tories have led a vicious attack on legal aid, leaving many people without support or representation. As the country’s most senior judge, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, said earlier this year “our system of justice has become unaffordable to most”. We must not allow this nasty Tory Government to get away with these raids on working class people, and hold them to account on their failures with the justice system. In addition, we must be proactive, and I am eager to work with a range of partners to develop a set of policies that see justice as a vital public service, accessible in the same way as health or education.

Well, good luck with that. The Blair-Brown governments of 1997-2010 led the way on cutting legal aid, as this history shows, and previous Labour spokesmen have shown no willingness to restore even the Conservatives' cuts.

*sic. Ms Rees should be wary of American-English spell-checkers.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Richmond Park candidate selection

Richard Brett, chairman of the English Liberal Democrats Candidates Committee, has invoked an emergency procedure to select a candidate for the Richmond Park constituency vacated by Zac Goldsmith. This is despite the local choice only three months ago of Sarah Olney. The interpretation in some quarters is that there will be an attempt to return to the Commons one of the senior members of the party turned out by the voters in 2015.

In my estimation this would be a mistake. Any former minister is bound to be tainted by his breaking of his word over raising tuition fees, which is still remembered in constituencies like Richmond Park. A LibDem candidate needs to attract Labour-leaning voters, which will not be helped by standing someone intimately associated with the decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, necessary for the economy though that may have been at the time. They would also be attracted by a party that kept faith with its original selection, rather than parachuting in a star, something we have rightly criticised Labour for in the past.

The campaign will be fought not on Heathrow expansion which virtually all candidates will condemn, but on the effects on local hospitals of decisions by the English NHS under the Conservatives, and by the government's rush to implement Brexit, which Mr Goldsmith supported and which the voters in that part of London rejected in the June referendum. Richmond Park is almost certainly the closest thing to an open goal for the Liberal Democrats in this parliament - certainly before Article 50 is invoked. Why not underline the party's commitment to a more diverse Westminster representation and endorse the selection of a non-elderly non-male?

[Later] I am advised that under the LD constitution Mr Brett had no choice in the matter. In the circumstances of the seat becoming vacant an emergency selection meeting has to be called, even though there is an existing prospective parliamentary candidate. The rest of my message stands, however.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Heathrow mistake

Chancellor Hammond has just confirmed that the government has plumped for an extra runway at Heathrow. At a time when business travel is declining, when leisure travel from the UK is clearly affected by the decline in the value of sterling and when we should all be concerned about the contribution of air transport to global warming this does seem to be a regressive move.

My party colleague Denis G. Campbell will no doubt have more to say at UK Progressive.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Historic child abuse resolution getting closer

Thirty years after Alison Taylor first exposed the way that vulnerable children had been exploited in north Wales and twenty years after William Hague (as Secretary of State for Wales) set up an inquiry to meet mounting public disquiet, a conviction of one of the key perpetrators has been achieved.

I recall that one of my first speeches to a Welsh Liberal Democrat conference was on the subject of Bryn Estyn and related matters. One of the most eminent of LD lawyers, Martin Thomas (now Lord Thomas of Gresford) replied in the debate. In his speech he expressed shock that people he knew locally - had even played rugby with - had been able to keep their dark secrets so successfully. Now that we know for certain that one of the perpetrators was a senior police officer, the mystery does not seem so inexplicable. Perhaps the taking down of Anglesea will embolden those to come forward who know of other people in key positions who were involved in the cover-up.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Where I was: Aberfan

Everybody in the UK active on social media who was alive at the time seems to be posting or tweeting where they were at the time of the Aberfan catastrophe, so here is my contribution. I cannot remember exactly where I was except that it would have been in south London, because there were other momentous events in my life taking place at the time. The Centralised Licensing Project (to become DVLA) had just been set up and I was preparing to get married. I would have learned of Aberfan from BBC Radio (it would be several years before we acquired a TV set). One thing I do remember is the thought that it had been a disaster waiting to happen, something the Guardian leader-writer of the following day also intuited:

How could it happen? A heap of waste, a man-made hill, dissolves in the rain and suddenly engulfs a school. South Wales is a land of slag-heaps. Its people live in their shadow. Why did this one move? The Coal Board must find out, and the answer may not be soothing. Miners are not careless men, but in some way had not forseen the waste they had piled round Aberfan had become unsafe. South Wales will be a restless places until we know why. Meanwhile mere words can do nothing to help.

The Welsh, who are used to tragedy, have now suffered their worst. The pits themselves do not kill children.

A disaster which overwhelms a school is a disaster of a special type. In ten minutes a community has lost something like half its children. Their absence will haunt their valley for sixty years to come. No amount of sympathy can fill a gap like that.

[...]This disaster was not natural, it was man-made. Aberfan is one of scores of communities in South Wales which huddle at the foot of slag-heaps. It is idle to pretend that an exceptionally wet October could be the only reason for yesterday's disaster; Wales is accustomed to heavy rain. There must have been other reasons too, connected with the way the heap was built, or was allowed to grow, and with the gap that was built, or was allowed to grow, and the gap that was left between the heap and the village. These are things that can be controlled. There must be a safe way for the Coal Board to get rid of its waste. There must be a way of ensuring that yesterday's tragedy is not repeated.

As a Guardian reader at the time, I would have read and agreed with this. We eventually found out, in spite of Coal Board obfuscation, that the Aberfan disaster was indeed effectively genocide or at least corporate manslaughter.Though the slag-heaps have gone, there is no evidence that the corporate (both private and public) mindset has changed.

The only other firm memory is of my late father-in-law returning from a photographic trip through Wales the following spring. He related how he had passed through a village which was unnaturally quiet and found out only later that it had been Aberfan.

Friday, 21 October 2016

By-election bumper bundle

There was a significant by-election in Blaengwrach ward yesterday. It resulted in a Plaid Cymru gain from Labour with a swing which would indicate trouble for Labour in the council elections next May, unless there is a major change in Labour's image before then.

Crocker‐Jaques, Peter Damian (Welsh Conservatives / Ceidwadwyr Cymreig)      4  0.9%     +0.9%
Edwards, Carolyn (Plaid Cymru ‐ The Party of Wales)                                   225 47.9%     +3.5%
Evans, Thomas John (Independent)                                                                58  12.4%   +12.4%
Price, Sarah Ann (Welsh Labour / Llafur Cymru)                                          143  30.5%    -20.1%
Pritchard, Richard Herbert (UKIP Wales / UKIP Cymru)                                 39    8.3%    +8.3%
Plaid Cymru gain. Turnout 32.6%. Swing from Labour to PC 11.8%

There were other by-elections in principal authorities in the UK yesterday:
Kettering BC, Rothwell: Conservative gain from Labour 
Bracknell UA, Central Sandhurst: Conservative hold 
Weymouth & Portland BC, Wye Valley: Conservative hold 
Braintree DC, Bumpstead: Conservative hold 
St Albans BC, Clarence: LD hold 
Middlesbrough UA, Central: Labour hold 
Kings Lynn & West Norfolk BC, Heacham: Independent gain from Conservative 
Medway UA, Strood South: Conservative gain from UKIP
Braintree DC, Witham North: Labour gain from Conservative
Labour should not be losing any seats to the government party at this point in the electoral cycle, even in Tory heartlands. The other point of interest is the loss by UKIP in an area in which they appeared to be strong at the 2015 general election.

Oh, and there was a result in the Westminster constituency of Witney, too. There was a 19.3% swing from Conservatives to Liberal Democrats. Just for fun, as Peter Snow used to say, I fed this into UK-Elect and produced the forecast on this simple swing that the Conservatives would be wiped out completely if an election were held now on the current boundaries. Of course, this does not allow for the decline in the UKIP vote and the fact that Labour support has become patchy.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Wood-burning at Drax

There is news that mv Agnes continues to break previous records in delivering wood pellets to the port of Tyne for onward transmission to Drax power station. It may be good for rail freight in Britain, but the transatlantic and cross-country journeys do nothing for the UK's green credentials.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Minority acting opportunities

A frequent complaint of British actors of Afro-Caribbean background is that they have to cross the Atlantic to achieve recognition. But it was not always so. Before the advances in civil rights in the USA in the 1960s and 70s, colour-barred US performers found the atmosphere of Europe more congenial. Paris, London and Scandinavia provided second - in some cases, first - homes to black jazz musicians. Singer and dancer Josephine Baker became a French citizen, the part-Celtic Elisabeth Welch settled in London and Paul Robeson was made welcome in Britain (though not by Special Branch) both between the wars and in his later stay in Stratford-on-Avon.

Now another example has come my way, thanks to the "Talking Pictures" slots on Bay TV. "All Night Long" (1962) gave a first screen break to Paul Harris, who went on to a twenty-year career on screen and on stage. (Three years earlier, the same director Basil Dearden had made a breakthrough with "Sapphire", a whodunit with a background of race relations. This is also available on "Talking Pictures".)

Contemporary black US actors may feel hard done by. I believe the British actors' success in the States is down to the same qualities as their white counterparts, instilled by our classical training, of technique, versatility and discipline.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

How British will our "deterrent" be?

This is a schematic illustration of an Astute-class submarine, on which the Successor-class will be based. These vessels are planned to carry the Trident-II nuclear ballistic missile commissioned by the Conservative government. Although the boats will be built in England (largely from French steel, as the Daily Mail, quoting the Mirror, has pointed out), practically all the equipment will be foreign. (The basic illustration is from The Submariners Lounge; I am indebted to Private Eye magazine for the detail indicated by the yellow arrows.)

The Eye adds that should "any of this foreign technology go wrong, the subs will have to be lifted out of the water for complex maintenance. There is a huge crane at their base in Faslane designed to do exactly that. The Shiplift, which cost £314m [...] was built by Jacobs Engineering, based in Dallas, Texas."

Monday, 17 October 2016

Unforeseen Brexit threat to NHS

The Guardian's political science web page highlights a probable threat to the European Medicines Agency based in London. Unlike most of the bad news in the national media about the NHS, there would be an impact on the devolved health services in Scotland and Wales as well as in England.

The writer suggests that we could see delays to the approval of new medicines, that the EMA’s headquarters would move elsewhere within the EU creating a knock-on effect on future investment and relocation decisions by global and European pharmaceutical companies, and that losing the EMA could lead to a significant brain drain.

These considerations did not figure in the public debate leading to the EU exit referendum, but would have more serious implications for ordinary people than other matters which made the headlines. (The moneyed behind both campaigns would not be affected because they largely have private health insurance or can shop around for treatment.) It is probable that there are other hitherto hidden benefits of our EU membership which will come to light in the months before Mrs May intends to make use of the royal prerogative to invoke article 50.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Petition for sensible boundary changes

If you navigate to Peter Black's web site, you will find a side-bar caption "Don't Cut Port Talbot In Half". Click on it to sign a petition which is part of a campaign finding cross-party support. This aims not only to keep Port Talbot together, but also to prevent Skewen being merged with Swansea East.

Films noirs

This is a thought-provoking article by Graeme Ross, celebrating the dark films of the middle third of the 20th century. RKO and Warner Brothers dominate, but not exclusively.  There are two titles which I do not recall - Criss Cross and Detour - which I shall look out for (BBC-2 on a Saturday morning and Bay TV's "talking pictures" slots are obvious areas).

I would add one more title to the list: "Born to Kill", also distributed as "Lady of Deceit". The typical noir plot points are there, but there are also hints of darker things. Lawrence Tierney, already known as an aggressor in private life, plays one of the leads. Walter Slezak is great as inquiry agent Arnett and a feature of the film is his relationship with the more elegant Helen (Claire Trevor). My favourite quotation from the movie is his: "Has it occurred to you? Neither of us looks like a scoundrel, do we?". The version I have seen was clearly cut and badly, too. Perhaps it is too late to hope for a full restoration.

"Night and the City" is such an iconic production that it has been remade several times. Gerald Kersh, on whose novel the original was based, wrote more books about the dark side of London and perhaps these could be mined further by an enterprising film-maker.

"The Killers" is notable among other things for the debut of Burt Lancaster. Based on an Ernest Hemingway story, this is another film which was remade and inspired others, like "Point Blank", in the same genre. It was reported that Ronald Reagan did not mind most of his old films being shown on TV during his first presidential election campaign, even "Bedtime for Bonzo" which showed he could take a joke, but he did object to the 1964 version of "The Killers" in which he is a criminal mastermind.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

The Nobel Dylan

Amit Varma writes of the Nobel committee redefining literature. He approves of the award to Bob Dylan, saying:
What matters is that the Nobel Prize Committee, with this bold award to Bob Dylan, has acknowledged that literature exists outside the narrow confines of past conventions. For this, they must be congratulated.

I would say that times have changed the criteria for the Nobel judges. The citation “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” could equally well have applied to the lyricists of the golden age of American musicals, like Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter. Those two may have been felt to be disengaged from politics or daily life*, but Ira Gershwin and the more controversial - and under-celebrated - Maxwell Anderson certainly had a broad range including political commentary. Nearer our own time, Stephen Sondheim changed the shape and status of musical theatre, reaffirming the need for original, literate lyrics. None were recognised with a Nobel award.

I follow Varma's reasoning, and that of other writers who endorse the Nobel award, but I disagree with it. It introduces fuzziness to the definition of literature, an amorphousness into which the term "music" has already disappeared. Dylan's lyrics are great, rising above the general level of all the popular genres in which he has performed. (One could say the same of Joni Mitchell, whose lyrics I find more poetic, and of Paul Simon.) But they are not literature on a par with Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, Gunter Grass or even Dario Fo, who passed away yesterday, among other Nobel laureates.

The comparison with Shakespeare is very slippery. If Dylan has a literary antecedent, it is surely the transgressive François Villon - but his place in the literary pantheon is also debated.

(By the way, I am glad to see that many of the commentators admire one of my favourite tracks, "Black Diamond Bay". It is surreal and also captures the cynicism of the post-hippie generation which gave rise to his best-known work.)

* An exception is Porter's "Love for Sale". I recommend the Shirley Bassey version.

It's what Wales voted for, part 12

 - or, I told you this would happen. Writing about the Welsh Assembly's Ukip members, Private Eye reports:

they also use Assembly money to bolster Ukip in England.

Hamilton's 'chief of staff' in the Welsh Assembly, Robin Hunter-Clarke, is a Lincolnshire county councillor who lives in Skegness, 245 miles from Cardiff. The 23-year-old came close to becoming an MP in 2015 with 34 percent of the vote in Boston and Skegness. In the absence of any obvious work being carried out by Ukip AMs on the ground in Wales, it appears Welsh taxpayers' money is contributing mainly to the Skeggy economy. Hunter-Clarke's wife, Melanie, is also employed by Hamilton.

Private Eye also reminds readers that Neil Hamilton and Mark Reckless continue to live in England.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Their Lordships question Saudi links

The revamp to the BBC Parliament TV channel has been to the good. The interpolated graphics are prettier and, best of all, that strident mindless minimalist noise has gone, replaced by more mellow and subtler interval music. The excellent team of guides and summarisers Keith McDougall, Alicia McCarthy, Joanna Shinn and Kristina Cooper remain. There has been increased daytime coverage of the European Parliament (though still no guidance or summary, and rather too late to affect the Brexit referendum). Nor is there any obvious cut-back to the showing of proceedings in the Lords, where the debates are better informed than in the Commons, without the noisy name-calling and visible animosity (and that is just within the parties).

Re-showing this morning was Lords question time. Liberal Democrat David Alton asked of the government bench:
whether, in the light of the killing of 140 people following a Saudi air strike on a funeral in Yemen, they are reassessing the licensing of United Kingdom weapons sales to Saudi Arabia since the conflict in Yemen began.

Baroness Anelay stonewalled, but other peers pitched in. Dale Campbell-Savours (Labour) asked for action to be taken
against those civil servants and officials who deliberately misled Ministers into believing that arms being sold by British companies were not being used in the Yemen when they knew the contrary to be true and they were deliberately misleading Ministers?

A further thrust came from another Liberal Democrat, William Wallace:
We all understand the dependence of the British arms industry on sales ​to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf—of course, that dependence can only increase as we leave the European single market and walk away from co-operation in European defence procurement—but the Saudi Government seem to be becoming increasingly sectarian in terms of the split between Sunni and Shia, and Saudi money continues to flow to places such as Pakistan, Indonesia, and Britain* to support radical Islamic views, rather than moderate Muslim views. Is it not time that the British Government conducted an overall review of their rather dependent relationship with Saudi Arabia and took more control of it?

Cross-bencher Indarjit Singh pointed out that the UK was not alone in providing munitions used in Yemen:
bomb fragments found at the scene of the funeral carnage were those from an Mk 82 American guided bomb. Saudi Arabia is one of the most barbaric countries in the world, with beheadings, amputations and the enslavement of women, while, at the same time, exporting its medieval version of Islam to neighbouring countries such as Syria, Sudan and Yemen. Can the Minister give me a good reason why the West—principally the United States and ourselves—supplies some £7 billion-worth of arms to Saudi Arabia each year? I might add that boosting our trade by exporting the means of mass killings is not a good reason.

To be fair to the noble baroness, she did accept that she understood
the sense of outrage felt by the noble Lord about the killings being suffered by the people of Yemen.

While not accepting any responsibility on the part of the government, she undertook
that the UK will continue to press as strongly as we are able in the diplomatic sphere to achieve a peaceful resolution but, in the meantime, continue the aid that we provide there.

*and Syria

Amnesty highlights "two-tier legal system"

No doubt this is the sort of "political" activity by charities which the Conservatives would like to stop. (There are sections of Labour, too, who were sensitive to criticism from independent bodies when they were in power.) Amnesty should stick to wringing its hands over political prisoners in far-off countries, they would say. However, this report does a great service in highlighting the way that access to justice for poorer people is increasingly restricted, creating hardship for the affected people at least as great as that of the benefit cuts. All parties have a share of the blame, but Liberal Democrats with fewer vested interests able to dictate policy are well-placed to promote more fairness in this area. A start has been made, though one wishes the party had gone further, and earlier.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Independent sigtheendht (3, 3, 2, 2, 5)

I bought the first print edition of The Independent, my copy of which I hope has survived storage. I have the last print edition. I subscribed to the online edition when it was first on offer, hoping that this bold experiment would enable the Indy's special journalism to continue. But instead of maintaining the paper's standards, the move seems to have accelerated the cuts which were already visible.

The first major blow was the loss of the Obituaries section, which was once a USP. (It is still not clear what has happened to the obituary library. Has it been parcelled up and sold off, as happened to the unique photo library when Mirror Group briefly became a major shareholder in the 1990s?) There followed a series of contributors and features dropping off, not big things in themselves but cumulatively impoverishing the journal. There is now a great disparity between the detailed coverage of the Middle East and of the rest of the world which practically comprises no more than summaries of agency despatches.

What has finally decided me to give up my online subscription is the dismissal of John Lichfield, someone who explained the French to the Brits better than most and who was great at picking up significant stories which escaped the other media. Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, James Moore and Kim Sengupta are still there, but I can get at their writing by other means.

For those who wish to follow me out of the door, go to You will need the email address and password you provided when subscribing in the first place.

The title of this post was inspired by the fact that the Inquisitor crossword is no longer in the Indy, but does now appear in the Saturday i.

Happy birthday, Paul Simon

Paul Simon is 75 today:

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

First female US senator was Welsh-born

A few minutes' walk from this house is a utilitarian but very well-kept meeting hall of the Community of Christ, once known as the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints*, aka the Mormons. I knew that the Mormons had proselytised in south Wales in modern times, even organising baseball leagues in the Cardiff area in order to publicise themselves. I assumed that the Skewen hall dated from those times, until I heard an item on the last "Sunday Supplement".

The author of a new book (in Welsh, but we are promised an English version in due course) about Martha Hughes Cannon, the first woman elected to the US Senate, explained that there was a large emigration from Wales to found Mormon communities in the States. (Malad, Idaho, is an archetype.) Llandudno-born Martha Hughes was part of that migration, which has been played down in Wales since Victorian times because of the association with polygamy. The pioneer of women's rights is much more celebrated in the USA, notwithstanding her seemingly contradictory support for polygamy (she was the fourth of six wives).

*The church used to have a UK subsidiary organisation named "The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints Manufacturing Company Limited". When the then Ministry of Transport was designing the original IT system for what was to become DVLA, research turned this up as one of the longer registered vehicle keepers and I remember gleefully incorporating the name in my test data when I was one of the programmers of the vehicle registration system.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Tom Blakeley and Mancunian Films

Today is the centenary of Tom Blakeley, son of the founder of Mancunian Film, proprietor of Planet Film Productions, and father of Michael Thomas Blakeley, cinematographer and one-time film producer.

If Christina Gregg (née Griggs) and/or Alan Joelson chance to read this and have the time to fill in some gaps for a curious follower of British film history, would they kindly get in touch?

Monday, 10 October 2016

"Can", "may" and "should" do not mean "will"

(graphic courtesy of Greenpeace UK)

In a conference speech of 2002, Theresa May said: "You know what some people call us - the nasty party." Nothing has changed in fourteen years. But it seems that Mrs May is still more intent on changing people's perceptions of the Conservatives than the party itself or its actions.

So whatever communities feel, the idea that Whitehall knows what is best for them persists. At the time of writing, it is clear that Whitehall is wrong. I have yet to obtain firm figures, but all the evidence is that fracking for oil and gas in Britain's more disorganised geology would be more expensive than the cost of extraction and processing in the plains of America. It would almost certainly be more than the $50/barrel of oil which the international market looks like settling around. Yet this is one of the Conservatives' justifications for encouraging fracking. The other is security of supply. So are they anticipating our being at war with further plunges in the value of sterling imminently?

As to safety, I believe the English protesters are looking at the wrong end of the process. As a report from the government's chief scientific adviser ( shows, "The health, safety and environmental risks can be managed effectively in the UK". I do believe that UK regulations are tougher than the States'. While the fields are operational and earning revenue, the operators will be able to cover the running costs. The trouble comes when the installations are no longer financially viable.

The report says: "Well integrity is the highest priority. More likely causes of possible contamination include faulty wells." Experience in the States is that most contamination events result from faulty capping of abandoned wells. It is all too easy for companies to avoid paying for restitution, as we in Neath Port Talbot and other south Welsh communities have found to our cost. There is no sign that the Conservatives plan to close the loophole opened by the last Labour government which enabled those people to evade their responsibilities.

The report is full of "should"s and "must be"s but without political will they are not certain to be fulfilled.

Here, there is no guarantee that the Welsh government's moratorium (note, not a ban) on fracking will hold.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

London domination of Labour élite

This confirms my impression that the Corbyn Labour party is very London centred:

It is understandable as London was the only major area of the UK where Labour made progress in the 2015 election.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Blogging will be light

The last cold has left me exhausted and there are troubles on the domestic hardware front, the fridge being only one of them.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

It's what Wales voted for, part 11

A statesmanlike and sympathetic response from the de facto leader of UKIP in the Welsh Assembly? I do not think so.

Neil Hamilton, the Welsh Ukip chief, has suggested Steven Woolfe “picked a fight and came off worst” before being taken to hospital after collapsing in the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Film music

This is a splendid piece by Jessica Duchen, marking the twenty-first century's fastest trend in orchestral music in the concert-hall, recreating movie music tracks. The only quibble I have is that it is very Hollywood-centric, ignoring the great Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone and Russian and French composers for the cinema. Nor does the article mention British composers of the classic film period, but one cannot complain about the attention now being given to them in British concert halls.

I can also recommend Radio 3's Saturday afternoons with Matthew Sweet.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

It's the wrong system, Mr Howlett

Congratulations to Ben Howlett, Conservative MP for Bath, for standing out against his party's policy on electoral reform. He has agreed publicly with Tim Farron that "the Government’s boundary review will still leave an 'in-built problem' in Britain’s voting system that can only be fixed by introducing proportional representation".

However, he has not advocated the system of PR which puts most power in the hands of the voters. Instead, he has opted for the AMS of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments and of the London Assembly which he says is "working well". He is mistaken. Although it improves proportionality between parties, any list system puts power in the hands of the party managers to give preference to candidates and works against independent candidates. If the calculations are mishandled, they potentiate the dominant party, as is the case with Labour in Wales. Also, an ambitious list member can thwart the intentions of both his party and electorate by switching allegiances post-election. No, STV is the way to go.

Political speeches

These are a few personal responses to speeches at the main party conferences.


I have already commented on John McDonnell's Liverpool speech. It went down well in the hall, as did Jeremy Corbyn's on the last day. Corbyn was shameless in Hillsborough shroud-waving in his opening remarks, as if only Labour took the part of Liverpudlians affected by that outrage and the outrageous cover-up which followed. He was wrong in his sweeping condemnation of the market economy, though he did by implication apologise for the last Labour government's failure of regulation which helped to bring the trans-Atlantic financial market into disrepute. He was right to draw attention to the failures of Conservative-led governments and the deficiencies of existing political structures, but his old socialist solutions will not work. Nevertheless, if he can truly unify the Labour party I feel he and McDonnell are people we can do business with. Because of the arithmetic in the Commons after the 2010 election, what killed a coalition between Labour and Liberal Democrats was the lack of discipline (something Conservatives possess in spades) on their benches. For that reason, contributions such as that by Tom Watson were distinctly unhelpful. He should have listened carefully to Tim Farron's advice that there are certain UK constituencies which Labour will never win but we might. If he is really concerned about the lives of ordinary people, he should be looking to build bridges to other parties which share those instincts.


David Davis, while resolutely defending the position of little-Englanders, also showed his instinct for the protection of civil rights. Some of his statements (e.g. "Britain has always been one of the most tolerant and welcoming places on the face of the earth. It must and it will remain so.";"Britain already goes beyond EU law in many areas – and we give this guarantee: this Conservative government will not roll back those rights in the workplace.") did not receive the rapturous applause of some of his colleagues. However, I would question the historical accuracy of one of his assertions: "So we will not turn our backs on Europe. We never have; and we never will.". The Birmingham Conservative Neville Chamberlain turned our back on the people of Czechoslovakia in 1938.

The response to the speech of Boris Johnson tells you all you need to know about Tories' appreciation of the face of Britain abroad. A reference to one of the most significant thinkers of the last century ("there is a view that has gained ground over the last few years that Fukuyama was wrong") was met in the hall with blank incomprehension but a pun on the name of a distinguished Pole ("the EU is actually trying to veto the ivory ban in spite of having a president called Donald Tusk") brought the house down. Oh, those funny foreign names. (Liam Fox in his otherwise rabble-rousing speech also name-checked Fukuyama, with the same blank response.)

I used the red button on BBC TV to check on the progress of sterling during Phillip Hammond's speech yesterday. The pound had dropped below $1.30 in value round about the time that Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Opposition was reaffirmed and reinforced. One would have expected a rousing opening day of the governing party's conference to produce a rally in the conference. Instead, Mrs May's speech setting an early date for repeal of the European Communities Act and invoking Article 50 depressed the currency markets as much as it elated the Conservative representatives. Sterling drifted even lower on the second day, as Phillip Hammond's plans to increase borrowing well into the next decade sank in. (The pound did hold its own against the Cuban peso, though, and actually appreciated against the Paraguayan guarani.) The last time it was so low was also under a Conservative government, though only a rank pessimist would see it reaching near parity as it did in March 1985.

Monday, 3 October 2016

American replaces European at the Liberty Stadium

Francesco Guidolin was unable to reproduce even his moderate Italian successes with Swansea City, so the Swans have parted company with him. I think his main difficulty was establishing a rapport with club and community, as he did with both Parma and to a lesser extent Udinese in his native country. He did not succeed in overcoming the language barrier, as Pochettino did at Southampton and Tottenham, in spite of the significant familial links between Swansea and Italy. He should be remembered at least for his keeping Swans in the Premier League after taking over at a difficult time.

The Liberty welcomes American Bob Bradley as a replacement. A promising sign is that he professes an admiration for the French game in this Guardian article. Next to results, what Swansea fans have missed most is style.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Berlin elections

The Guardian is full of doom and gloom about the advance of AfD (Germany's equivalent of UKIP) at the expense of the conservative CDU/CSU, but I prefer to celebrate the return of the liberal FDP.