Friday, 31 March 2017

Purchase of the United States Virgin Islands, 1917

A glimpse into the US Department of State archives reveals a complex and unedifying history of the US Virgin Islands. The simple statement that Denmark sold them to the US on 31st March 1917 conceals the fact that the States were virtually holding a gun to the Danes' heads. Denmark agreed to a transfer in a referendum, but the inhabitants of the islands were not consulted nor were they guaranteed the same protection from racial discrimination as they had enjoyed under the Danes. The islands were administered by the US Navy from 1917 to 1931.

Pleasing extreme vegetarians over polymer notes has high environmental cost

My reaction to the news that the Bank of England was planning to use palm oil in the manufacture of future polymer notes was the same as that of the Independent.

On Thursday, the Bank said that the “only practical alternative” to animal-derived additives are those derived from palm oil - an ingredient which has been controversial for its contribution to deforestation.

I understand that most vegans base their stance on respect for animals. They should consider that increased use of palm oil threatens one of our most endangered and endearing animal relatives, the orang-utan.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Punishment for MPs who transgress

Guido reports that a committee recommends that MPs who break their code of conduct should be prosecuted in the criminal courts. To me, this seems an expensive way of persuading members to keep to the strait and narrow, besides potentially adding to the already bloated prison population. We should be reducing the number of imprisonable offences, not adding to them.

Far more effective in my opinion would be to compel MPs standing again to publish as part of their paid-for election communications a list of all reproofs and censures they have earned during their previous term in parliament. For most voters, who do not follow the minutiae of the Commons, this would be the first they would know of how their former representative was regarded by his fellows.

A counter-factual: Sarah Palinsky as Russian president

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. for $7.2 million or 2.5 cents an acre. What could have happened if she had hung on to the territory?

It's what Wales voted for, part 13

ITV News reports:
UKIP's leader in the Senedd, Neil Hamilton, has been ordered to apologise after telling a fellow AM that "suicide is an option". He made the remark to Labour's Eluned Morgan, who was expressing her regret that Britain was leaving the European Union.
Today's a profoundly sad day for the nation and also for our children and our children's children. Of course, those who will pay the highest price for Article 50 will be those who can least afford it.
AMs repeated to each other what they had heard Neil Hamilton say and the Lywydd (Presiding Officer) Elin Jones ordered him to apologise. He seemed reluctant to comply.
What was unparliamentary about the remark? ... In deference to you Llywydd, I will apologise for whatever remark I am supposed to have made.

Eluned Morgan said that she would have liked an apology as well but the Presiding Office ruled that she had accepted Neil Hamilton's apology on her behalf.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest

Several news stories have been buried recently, most of them not uplifting.

In America Westinghouse Electric, one of the pioneering companies of the electrical revolution in the US and also one that drove the development of nuclear power from submarines to generating stations, has filed for bankruptcy*. The New York Times writes:

Westinghouse Electric Company, which helped drive the development of nuclear energy and the electric grid itself, filed for bankruptcy protection on Wednesday, casting a shadow over the global nuclear industry.
The filing comes as the company’s corporate parent, Toshiba of Japan, scrambles to stanch huge losses stemming from Westinghouse’s troubled nuclear construction projects in the American South. Now, the future of those projects, which once seemed to be on the leading edge of a renaissance for nuclear energy, is in doubt.
Westinghouse designs were once favoured by the Thatcher governments but only one power station using the Westinghouse SNUPPS system was commissioned, Sizewell B, which will be running until 2035. More to the point, Westinghouse's troubled owners Toshiba had pitched a Westinghouse design for the Moorside complex near Sellafield. The Lancashire Evening Post has the story.


The Guardian last week followed up its investigations into modern-day slavery in the former British protectorate. Qatar is the richest state per capita in the world. The recent announcement of a $6.28bn investment in the UK by Qataris may have contributed to the silence on the part of the rest of our media on the shady foundations on which so much of the state's infrastructure is built.

... and finally

A man in southern Sweden received an unusual surprise on Monday when postal workers somehow managed to confuse him with Vladimir Putin, delivering mail addressed to the Russian President through the Swede's mailbox. More here.

* Westinghouse Brake and Signal at Chippenham, stemming from George Westinghouse's other great invention, the railway air brake, was a separate company and has long since been swallowed by a series of conglomerates. It is now part of Siemens.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

No you-know-what in our campaign

I see that some parties in England on the Remain side of the EU debate are intent on using the disillusionment with the process of Leaving to encourage tactical voting to get rid of Conservative and Socialist local councillors. This may have some limited effect, though I suspect the "Richmond effect" will not transfer so easily as its enthusiasts expect. But I disagree on principle with majoring on national issues in contests which will affect the direction of local councils for the next four or five years. Besides, it risks putting off voters who are natural Liberal sympathisers but are also dubious about the EU, if they believe we are just a one-issue party.

I am glad to say that none of the Liberal Democrat literature that I have seen being prepared for the county borough elections in Neath Port Talbot mentions you-know-what. We certainly have more than enough local matters to fill our Focuses!

Monday, 27 March 2017

Labour has it both ways again

Welsh Labour's official response to the Boundary Commission's proposals for the definition of the new, larger Westminster constituencies required by legislation accepts the carving up of Port Talbot and the consigning of Skewen to Swansea East (pdf here). The only counter-proposal they make in respect of the Bay region is a minor adjustment of one of the Swansea wards. The introduction to the document states:
This submission is made on behalf of the Labour Party and the Welsh Labour Party. It is being presented as an overall response to the Initial Proposals of the Boundary Commission following a detailed consultation process within the Labour Party involving all Members of Parliament, Constituency Labour Parties and others within Wales.

Yet local Labour representatives (no names, no pack-drill as they used to say in the army) seeking re-election make a show of objecting and claim that they were always opposed to the Neath and Port Talbot proposals.

Even if I were not a member of the party, I would be impressed by the Liberal Democrat counter-proposal (pdf here) which was drawn up by an expert in the field of local authority mapping. It genuinely has taken into account local views and I am happy to fall in with it.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

On the morrow of the march for Europe...

..I quote extensively from quaker Jonathan Fryer's post of last Friday:

As the Metropolitan Police had been warning for months that there would almost certainly be a terrorist attack in a London, following those in Paris and Brussels, the Westminster outrage should not have been a shock, but of course it was. Nothing can truly prepare one for the random carnage caused by pure hate. For everyone directly or indirectly affected by the assault its repercussions are bound to be traumatic, and even though the death toll was mercifully lower than in incidents in France, Belgium and Germany, every life lost or person seriously injured is one too many. There were three aspects to the Westminster attack that seemed destined to inflict the maximum psychological damage. Firstly, the random nature of running into pedestrians (including young tourists) on Westminster Bridge, the symbolic heart of London as a visitor destination. Secondly, the fatal stabbing of a policeman, someone serving in the line of duty to protect the public. And thirdly the targeting of Parliament itself, the centre point of British democracy. Whoever planned the outrage (on the first anniversary of the Brussels attacks) has clearly thought it through. But that should not make us panic, or indeed make us cowed. For years Londoners got on with their lives when the IRA bombing campaign was happening; every waste bin was suspect and many were sealed as a defensive measure. The best response to the latest threat is to keep calm and carry on, while championing the values that underpin our society. That means eschewing ethnic or religious profiling in our daily lives; the idiot who posted “Kill All Muslims!” as a reaction on his Facebook page has been promptly un-friended.  I think the Westminster attack makes it all the more important for that message of solidarity [(the big March for Europe)] among Europeans (of whatever ethnicity) to be heard loud and clear.

Image may contain: 1 person, sky and outdoor

Thanks to the Facebook page of the 48% for the image.

Devastating explosion in New Ferry, Wirral

The early news reports last night of a "big explosion in Birkenhead" certainly grabbed my attention as an ex-Wallaseyan. Full marks to the Liverpool Echo for keeping us up-to-date. Fortunately there have been no deaths, though there have been injuries, and no houses have been affected. A dance studio has been completely obliterated but, such is the generosity of Merseysiders that a fund to replace it has already started.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Port Talbot Parkway less used than valley railway stations

Rail Wales, the magazine of Railfuture in Wales, has published a list of the twenty most used rail stations in Wales. Neath is ninth, with 837,000 passenger entries and exits in 2015/16 (up by a percentage point on previous years). Twentieth is Treherbert, with 510,000 movements. Port Talbot Parkway does not appear, as it did not in the 2013/14 figures. Port Talbot could be underestimated because of a failure to record arrivals out-of-hours, but the same is true of Neath.

If the ranking is genuine, then one wonders why so much money has been spent on a futuristic new Port Talbot station building when a few relatively simple, but necessary, upgrades would have sufficed. Meantime, Neath has languished with nothing to show for the thousands which the council spent on a study.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Brexiteers still fighting the war they said they won

Simon Wren Lewis has it right. Now that the BBC, post-referendum, feels free to report European matters dispassionately instead of pulling its punches, Leavers want to continue to muzzle the corporation in order to inhibit the counter-referendum movement in the country which will surely grow in line with inflation and in inverse proportion to wage growth as the Brexit negotiations proceed.

Guess which EU nations want less food regulation?

PJvw43.4 Food - Degree of support by country [draft3][16.03.2017] (1)

Who would have thought that France was happier with more intervention from the EU on nutrition and food choice than the UK? The chart above (from the EU's Votewatch site) shows only Czechia and the Netherlands as wanting more freedom on food standards than our government.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Keith Palmer gave his life for others

There were other innocent victims

Our sympathy goes out to the family and friends of PC Keith Palmer who yesterday was the first point of defence against a terrorist attack on Westminster, and bravely rose to the challenge.

One of the other victims has been identified in the press as a young woman who was born in Spain but saw her future as a wife and mother in England. Another has yet to be named. The fourth fatality was of course the attacker.

Our thoughts must be with all concerned. I also felt for the visiting Breton children caught up in the attack, and their parents. The Guardian had the details:

The three injured French students were part of a group of teenagers visiting London from the Saint-Joseph de Concarneau lycée (secondary school) in Brittany and were halfway through a week-long visit to London. There were four classes on the trip – about 96 pupils, all aged 15 and 16. About a dozen pupils were believed to have been walking on the bridge when the speeding car ploughed towards them.

The injured teenagers were taken to hospital where doctors were reported to be trying to save the life of one of them late on Wednesday. The condition of a second teenager was said to be “critical”. There was no information on the third student’s injuries.

The local French newspaper Le Télégramme reported that one student ended up on the car bonnet, according to other pupils. They had arrived in London on Sunday evening. The newspaper said the headteacher, Xavier Rebillard, had spoken to parents who had gathered at the school to wait for news.

We must wait for the report of the official investigation into yesterday's tragedy, of course, but surely the immediate calls from all sides not to overreact are correct.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Blind Veterans and technology

Blind Veterans (see sidebar) have started a supporter newsletter named "Debrief". I was particularly interested in the article in the first issue dealing with technological assistance. At the charity's Brighton centre, in addition to other assessments, IT instructors

help assess veterans' needs and run various workshops and training sessions to help meet them. They start by asking blind ex-service men and women about their lifestyles, what they do and what they want to do, how they communicate and who they want to communicate with.

For those with some residual sight, there is software to make tablet computers usable. For these and others there is also the Amazon Echo Dot and its incorporated voice-driven assistant, Alexa. Such devices enable blind veterans to lead fulfilled lives, and for those still of working age, productive ones.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Councillors should take the bus once in a while

After scrapping one of the best train/bus interchanges in the country, Cardiff City Council still does not have funding in place for its planned replacement bus station. Describing the situation as "outrageous", Liberal Democrat council group leader Elizabeth Clark said she feared Cardiff wouldn’t “have a proper bus station again”.

Meanwhile, Neath Port Talbot has been taking out bus shelters - even relatively new ones - and gradually replacing them. The new ones (presumably to be subsidised by advertising in illuminated panels) are airier and more attractive than the old blue jobs. Time will tell whether they are more vandal-resistant. The trouble is that the programme is too long drawn out. For instance, my regular stop for a week or more has had neither shelter nor bus stop sign. The new shelters still do not have printed timetables. The optimist in me anticipates a linked electronic indicator system such as the one which has been in operation in Cardiff for many years - there are already indicators in Neath's Victoria Gardens. The cynic fears that this is an attempt to push would-be passengers to the council's phone app. Everybody has a mobile these days, right?

In each case, the council clearly believes it is doing good and that the upgrades will be better than what went before. However, officials should make sure that the transition is as swift and as painless as physically possible. The Cardiff example is egregious, but passengers in Neath are suffering a period of inconvenience and there is no intimation as to when it will end. If councillors had to rely on public transport as their young, old and physically handicapped citizens have to, perhaps these people - and those of us who believe that public transport is the "green" future - will receive more consideration.


One of those widely-celebrated festivals I had never heard of, I was alerted to Noruz (or Nowruz) by, of all things, a point of order raised in the House of Commons on the first of this month. Marking the start of the Zoroastrian new year, dedicated to fire, and also having been adopted by the founder of the Bahá'í faith as the start of their new year, it is one of the great survivors of the Islamic takeover of Persia/Iran.

[Later] The festival is being used to demonstrate against the unjust detention of three women, including that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, imprisoned in Iran since April 2016. Mrs Ratcliffe has UK as well as Iranian citizenship.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Wet blanket time

I don't wish to disparage Ms Lynn's great - and occasionally brave - war effort, but she was not the only "forces' sweetheart"*. Anne Shelton and Gracie Fields also did their bit.

The great "British" flag-waver "The White Cliffs of Dover" originated in America from a poem by Alice Duer Miller and cribbing from Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's "Over the Rainbow" by jobbing song-writers Nat Burton and Walter Kent when the US authorities wanted a song to encourage reluctant Americans to support Britain against Hitler - and months later to  boost the morale of a nation which was dragged into war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

*actually, my ex-ATS mother used to refer to her as "adenoidy Vera".

[updated 2017-03-21]

Liberal Democrats stick to multi-lateral policy

Caron Lindsay sums up the nuclear weapons debate at the Liberal Democrat conference here. I was saddened by the large majority by which the abolitionist amendment was defeated, but at least my conscience is assuaged. A chest infection prevented my attendance in York, but as it turned out my one vote would have been irrelevant.

It seems to me that insufficient weight was given to the economic argument. As I wrote around the time of the 2015 debate:
The nuclear deterrent may have been just that in an earlier age but it is not one now and the cost of Trident replacement - conservatively, £15bn for the hardware, and £2bn annual running costs - could be better diverted into more relevant areas of defence.

The costs have gone up, but another serious argument has arisen as a result of the US presidential election. Who would have thought even two years ago that we could be prevented, by means of its built-in technological lock, from deploying Trident against the only major power likely to threaten us militarily, namely Putin's Russia? Yet the White House is now occupied by one who is friendly to authoritarian Russia and antagonistic towards the democratic Germany. If Putin decided to follow in the footsteps of Catherine the Great and extend the Russian empire westwards, would the US president enable Trident so that we could threaten nuclear retaliation, or would our fleet have to float impotently while we attempted to stem the progress of the Red Army with our conventional forces?

It is more likely (though still a remote possibility, thank goodness) that we will be dragged into a war in the far east, and be expected to deploy Trident on behalf of the United States and Japan against China, the nation the current UK government is depending on to fund so many of our technological developments. Just the threat of such an alignment would surely persuade Beijing to pull out.

It will be argued that Trump is a temporary aberration. But he is going to be there for nearly another four years, and who is to say he will not renew his mandate in 2020? The established parties in the United States seem to be eroding, increasing the chance of mavericks with good PR and money succeeding to the presidency in future.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Netherlands not a pointer to France

It seems to me that Liberal International is optimistic when it proclaimed in the warmth of the Dutch results:
The election, which saw the highest turnout of Dutch voters in 30 years amid earlier concerns that the far-right party of Geert Wilders would emerge with the most seats, is seen as a bellwether for the French elections later this year.

 France sticks to a first-past-the-post system (though with a run-off election) of voting which favours the leading parties. Nor does she have an explicitly liberal party. These are major differences with the Netherlands. So it is almost inevitable that Marine le Pen of the National Front will be one of the two candidates for president in the final vote on 7th May. The signs of a racist campaign are already evident - and that was from the conservative, not the fascist, camp.

The prospects in Germany which also has a proportional system and now a resurgent liberal party are much better. It would be great if the increasingly racist AfD were to be stopped in its tracks next September - but a lot can happen between then and now.

Friday, 17 March 2017

St Patrick and Banwen

This is what the contributor to ODNB has to say:

Patricius, or Patrick, was born in the late fourth or first half of the fifth century in Roman Britain, that is, south of Hadrian's Wall. His father, Calpornius, was a deacon; his grandfather, Potitus, a priest. His mother may have been called Concessa. Patrick's family were of free birth and belonged to the local gentry. In addition to (or perhaps before) being a deacon, his father was a decurion, that is, a member of a 'city' council. Calpornius lived at the vicus ('small town') 'Bannauem Taburniae' (or 'Bannauem Taberniae'), owning a nearby country estate (villula) run by slaves, which was where Patrick was captured by Irish pirates (see below). Emendation to 'Bannaventa Berniae' produces a plausible place name, but it still cannot be securely identified: Bannaventa near Daventry is too far from the coast for Irish raids; the Banna on Hadrian's Wall, now identified with Birdoswald, is on a military frontier with no appropriate villa sites nearby. The villa could well have been in south-west Britain, or perhaps somewhere not too far from the coast between Chester and the Solway Firth; Wales is unlikely.

People round here would object to that off-hand dismissal, with no reasons given for it. The Irish influence in this region after the Romans left was strong. I still believe that Banwen has as good a claim as any place to be Patrick's original home. It will be objected that no villa has been found in the Dulais valley. I would counter that there has been no serious digging there, which is not exactly a trendy area for archaeology.

Anyway, whether Patrick was from England or Wales, he was still an immigrant to Ireland, which gave current Taoiseach Enda Kenny an opportunity to lecture Donald Trump on the subject.

The godfather of descriptive maps

I had assumed that infographics and before them the visualisation of data on maps were twentieth-century developments.  To be sure, there has been an explosion in such things as cheap computing power has made them more accessible and reproducible, but it seems the pioneer was one Charles Joseph Minard in the nineteenth century. Only a couple of his significant works are reproduced in this article by Betty Mason, but there are more in a pdf by Michael Friendly of York University.

It seems that we have a blind spot when it comes to French innovation.

Not enough judges

This week's Law in Action on Radio 4, which included an interview with the Recorder of Cardiff, was worrying.

Joshua Rozenberg presents the specialist legal magazine programme. This week he looks at why there's such a shortage of Judges The Judiciary is still reeling from last year's "Enemies of the People" headline. Low morale is rife and many Judges are fed up with the job. Vacancies for senior Judges and circuit Judges are now at an all-time high. What can be done to address this situation? The programme includes interviews with three senior Judges.

Those in authority made clear that the shortfall would not be met by lowering standards. However, there will have to be more recourse to "part-time" judges which, while proving acceptable so far, must raise some concern.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Prima facie electoral malfeasance

Just what the Conservatives - and the allegations go right into Downing Street - did wrong in at least twelve electoral districts in 2015 is summed up by Mark Pack's posting. This makes it clear that the £70,000 fine imposed by the Electoral Commission is not the end of the matter. The EC does not have powers of prosecution, so it passed documentation of the linked criminal issues to the Metropolitan Police. Other police forces have passed papers to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Before those of us worried that Nigel Farage may get into the House by the back door, and before UKIP start cheering, it should be pointed out that queries were raised about the UKIP expenses in South Thanet at about the same time as those of the Conservatives. This investigation has not gone away.

Channel 4 News topped its news bulletin tonight laying out unequivocally what the Conservatives have done and what the effect of such breaches of the law has on our democracy. There was also a plea from the Electoral Commission for more powers of investigation and of enforcement. The maximum individual fine the EC may impose is £20,000 which is nothing to a political party with deep pockets.

In contrast, the BBC, finally having to catch up with Channel 4 in view of the official report, played down the news. They hardly questioned the official Conservative line that the offences were down to poor administration and that the party had cooperated with the Commission - both assertions that Jon Snow and Michael Crick were able to refute [sic] on Channel 4 less than an hour later.

updated 2017-03-16 19:25

Netherlands Liberals and Greens make gains

The English media were talking up the prospects of Geert Wilders' racist PVV party in yesterday's Netherlands general election. In the event, PVV made some gains but far from the quarter of the seats expected by the BBC. The initiative remains with VVD ("economic liberals") to form a government. The Labour vote crashed, but the Green Left advanced. Both these outcomes were remarked on by the BBC, who were typically silent about D66 (the nearest equivalent to UK Liberal Democrats) recovering ground lost at the last election.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Turnaround rort

Let's get the politics out of the way first. Blair, Brown, Balls and Mandelson let the UK economy rip in the early years of this century, matching an economic loosening under Bill Clinton in the USA. Part of this evil spell was Ed Balls' "light touch" regulation which led to the crash of many financial institutions, including at least one based in New York. The lack of regulation* also meant that dishonest bankers could use their position to strip decent small and medium-sized enterprises of their assets. One such scheme drove around 200 SMEs, customers of HBOS, to the wall. Because Lloyds and RBS were also unnecessarily pushing companies into administration for the sake of profit, a large segment of the SME base was removed in the period leading up to the 2007/8 credit crunch because of these criminal and dubious practices.

The story of one of HBOS's customers who suffered at the hands of the fraudsters is told here. The writer is a journalist who came to the aid of Nikki and Paul Turner (and helped drain four bottles of wine on his first visit, according to their testimony on BH on Sunday) after all their other avenues of complaint had been blocked. Their joint investigation revealed the industrial scale of the embezzlement at HBOS's rogue unit in Reading.

The way that the Turners was ripped off was typical. Journalist Ian Fraser explains:

The Turners blamed this on a rogue Bank of Scotland senior manager whose improbable name sounded like that of a Victorian villain – Lynden Scourfield. They alleged that Scourfield, lead director of impaired assets at HBOS’s Bank of Scotland Corporate unit, had been working in cahoots with a band of self-styled “turnaround consultants” dubbed Quayside Corporate Services, which was led by David Mills, who I later discovered had left his former employer, Lombard North Central, the factoring and invoice discounting arm of National Westminster Bank, under a cloud in 1995.

The seemingly wilful destruction of Zenith
[the Turners' music business] sounded bad enough. But what made me realise this story had legs was that the Turners had documentary evidence to back up every claim, and had already done a significant amount of research into the activities of Scourfield, Mills and Quayside. Critically, they had discovered that Zenith was not alone in having been treated shabbily.

They had identified dozens of other businesses across the UK which had been through the mill at the hands of Mills and Scourfield and, in many cases, the punishment meted out had been far worse than that endured by Zenith. The affected firms came from a wide range of sectors including aviation, consumer credit, music publishing, packaging, nightclubs, restaurants, sporting goods, textiles and top-shelf magazines – and included well-known brands like Smollensky’s on the Strand, Euromanx airline and magazine Asian Babes.

The modus operandi of the fraud, which I confirmed in interviews with directors of other affected firms, included that the companies would, often arbitrarily and without notice, see their bank accounts transferred to the tutelage of Mr Scourfield’s “high risk” team based at Beauclerc House, Reading. Many of the companies that were transferred were not in default or financial difficulties. Triggers included that they had sought additional facilities to fund acquisitions or growth, or just that Scourfield and his cronies had taken a fancy and had cherry-picked them from across the Bank of Scotland network.

The next step was that Scourfield would force the companies to adopt Quayside personnel as advisers, shadow directors or directors, effectively using blackmail to ensure the companies acquiesced. The standard threat was, if they did not comply, they would be “shut down”. With Quayside in the driving seat, Scourfield would then turn on the monetary taps, granting huge and usually unserviceable additional loans to the firms concerned, a process sometimes eased through by the writing of fake business plans, which Scourfield used to placate his seniors in the bank. Those who were responsible for signing off his loans are believed to have included Paul Burnett, who wound up working for Mills.

The next thing that the legitimate owners and managers of the affected firms knew was that Quayside personnel – the most unsavoury of whom were David Mills, Michael Bancroft and John “Tony” Cartwright – started behaving liked trumped up Mafiosi, treating the companies as their own personal ATMs and syphoning out cash, dressed up as “consultancy fees”, to fund lavish lifestyles, exotic holidays, foreign real estate buying binges and romps with high-class hookers as well as generous bribes and “inducements” along similar lines for Scourfield, who was sometimes also known as “Gerard”. All the while, Mills and Co were destabilizing the businesses, plundering their assets, and setting them on a path towards insolvency.

The Turners have lost over ten years of their lives when they should have been enjoying themselves running a thriving music business, but at least they will get financial recompense. There may even be a feature film deal. The courts protected them when the bank unjustifiably and repeatedly tried to possess their home. That is the good part of the story.

The depressing part is the fact, revealed when the case finally came to court, that in spite of denials at the time, the people at HBOS responsible for investigating crime within the organisation were well aware in 2006 that financial crime was being committed. There is also the strong suspicion that accomplices avoided prosecution and are still working in business banking. Moreover, the big accounting firms who must have known what was going on have escaped action. Nor is there any sign that the incentive to produce profit regardless has gone away.

*Fraser suspects worse, that the regulator (FSA) "may well have been compromised. In 2003, chancellor Gordon Brown made the bizarre decision to appoint the then HBOS chief executive, James Crosby, as a non-executive director on the regulator’s board, a role Crosby took up on 15 January 2004. The appointment came hard on the heels of claims from Crosby, made in a speech to a Merrill Lynch banking conference on 7 October 2003, that the UK government was guilty of 'unnecessary meddling in the SME banking sector'."

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

We should not be defined by Brexit

Mark Williams, in his interview by Vaughan Roderick last Sunday and in the conference speech to which it referred, emphasised the UK and Wales' links with Europe. He denied that he was speaking to the 48% Remainers, but the fact that the subject of the referendum came up at all distracted the wider audience from the fact that we are about to fight local elections on matters much closer to home, such as the way Labour citadels have spent taxpayers' (or borrowed) money, their record on education, the environment, social services, libraries and all the many other things that touch citizens' lives.

Many of our voters - indeed, quite a few members - will have voted Leave in the referendum (for rather more high-minded reasons than "let's get rid of the foreigners") and we must not risk turning them away by implying that we are only a pro-EU party. Liberal Democrats are the only meaningful opposition to entrenched conservatism in most of England and Wales. The domestic agenda is important and more immediate, as Daisy Benson pointed out in a recent article.

I can understand Tim Farron and the party strategists jumping on the anti-Brexit bandwagon, because it has attracted new Liberal Democrat members. Some are disgruntled ex-members of other Westminster parties, despairing of their leaders' standpoint (or lack of one) on Europe, while it seems most are younger people new to politics, many deliberately excluded from voting on their future last June, angry at the decision which was made to follow the popular vote and the shambles which has followed. (Incidentally, Mark Williams has picked up that dreadful mantra that "we respect the people's verdict". It was constitutionally an opinion, and on a shaky majority at that. What I say, and what our lords and masters should be saying, is that "we hear what the people say", no more and no less.) However, one recalls the wave of support that Charles Kennedy's Liberal Democrats rode as a result of our stance against the invasion of Iraq. We became associated with Iraq, and our support sank as that adventure faded from the headlines. Let us not lose the new intake.

One other thing: it would help our image if the parliamentary party had at least one member present during Commons debates on important matters. It is not pleasant to be constantly reminded by Peter Bone of the absence of LibDems, especially when the SNP benches are always well-populated. We seem to have been drilled into a mind-set that parliament is an adjunct to campaigning, rather than the reason for it, that our people will only turn up if they plan to make a speech. Contrast that with Tam Dalyell's description of the late Clement Freud, once Liberal member for Ely: "he was an excellent attendee, and would listen, more than most, to what ministers and other MPs actually said. He would attend debates even though he had no intention of taking part."

Monday, 13 March 2017

South Africa running on empty?

South Africa has been out of the news recently, but that could change.

I am grateful to Sam van den Berg in the Western Cape for pointing out this two-year-old prophecy by RW Johnson. His thesis is that the infrastructure which was put in place by the white minority governments has been allowed to decay for lack of maintenance and that not enough has been done to encourage wealth creation and stem disinvestment. By his reckoning, the ANC government will go to the international financial institutions for a massive hand-out this year.

That it has not happened yet is probably down to the recent rise in commodity prices. SA is dependent on imports of petroleum, but is otherwise rich in many of the minerals in demand during a rise in world economic activity. However, there must be worries about the effects of the next down-turn.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Save the FGM clinic

It is strange for a Welsh-based blogger to call attention to the imminent loss of a clinic in Acton, West London, but it is a rare facility, as this web page explains. One would have thought that the week in which International Women's Day fell was a good opportunity for the government and/or the local council to announce that the threat of closure would be lifted, but so far not a squeak from Mr Hunt or Ealing LBC.

Please sign the petition.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Consider Peter Righton before going soft on paedophiles

I understand the thought processes of the chief constable who feels that those who merely look at pornographic images of children should not be pursued with the full machinery of the law. After all, just looking does nobody any harm, does it? What he should have considered is that behind every image on the Web is an exploited, probably damaged, child. Adding a click to the count of views of the disgusting web-sites only encourages abusers to persist.

Moreover, serious abusers can get away with "coughing" for a lesser offence as prosecuting authorities are intent on securing easy convictions. Such was the case with Peter Righton, as detailed by Cathy Fox. He "worked in children's homes, including in Maidstone, Kent, and was a lecturer in child protection and residential care, including at the Open University and in Birmingham. He was Director of Education at the National Institute of Social Work, and vice-chairman of governors at New Barns School in Toddington, Gloucestershire. He was also a consultant to the National Children's Bureau."

In spite of a sickening record of child abuse, which he had even documented, "Righton had been allowed to die with just one minor conviction for possession of indecent images of children".

The most chilling paragraph of Cathy Fox's report is this:

Much has been made of Savile being given the keys to Broadmoor. Righton didn’t need the keys, he could walk in to any children’s home or local authority boarding school in the UK on ” official business ”

Those premises may have included facilities in South Wales.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Twenty years ago today ...

... we had our first firm indication that Tony Blair/s Labour party would be far more conservative than the one led by Neil Kinnock and the recently-deceased John Smith. From the Liberal Democrat press release:

The Liberal Democrat Environment Spokesman, Matthew Taylor MP, has
co-tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons today with Sir John
Hannam (Conservative), Jerry Hayes (Conservative) and Cynog Dafis (Plaid
Cymru) slamming the Labour front bench for their decision not to back an
amendment to the Finance Bill on Tuesday which would lower VAT on energy
saving materials to 8%.

Class 4 NICs - an unsatisfactory compromise

Guido Fawkes posits a fundamental disagreement about fiscal rectitude between the chancellor and his prime minister. Mrs May and her advisers appear to believe in the same magic money tree as Ed Balls and Gordon Brown did, while Phillip Hammond - who has experience of running a real-world company, rare among government ministers - is desperate for any measures to reduce the deficit.

The result is an unsatisfactory compromise. If the extra revenue is necessary now, and with Brexit looming it surely is, then the enabling clauses should be part of the Finance Bill, the regular budget legislation. (At least the tax is progressive.) Instead, it is being delayed. But that does not get over the main objection from back-bench Conservatives and the self-employed who feel they have been shafted over these extra contributions, that the Conservatives lied to them in their manifesto, because clearly the government is determined to go ahead with the legislation anyway.

Or perhaps this is a hint that Mrs May is preparing for a general election before the NIC legislation comes before the Commons in the autumn? A new manifesto would give a fresh mandate.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Tory student fees?

One of the few consolations of no longer picking up IT jobs on a self-employed basis is all the government paper-work. On the other hand, one keeps more of ones own income. Now even the advantage of lower NI contributions is to go as a result of yesterday's budget. This is a clear breach of the Conservative 2015 manifesto.

It may be that the writers of the Cameron promise made it out of ignorance of the world of work outside of employment by large organisations. Nor did they plan on UK leaving the EU. The Conservative Research Department wonks had clearly calculated that there was no need to increase NI contributions by employees and that any budget shortfall could be accommodated by further cuts in social services. They did not realise that they needed to put the qualifier "class 1" in front of the term "national insurance contributions" and did not foresee the accelerated growth of self-employment. The civil servants however did their homework as this media release shows.

Hammond's decision will be seen as a betrayal by sole traders, a sector in which the Conservatives have traditionally been strong. What he may not have factored in, which will probably come back to bite him, is that around 20% (and growing) of journalists are self-employed and thus are liable to pay Class 4 contributions. He will attract the same bad press as Nick Clegg did when he went back on his promise to vote against student fee rises.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Frankie Howerd

A centenary which I missed has been marked by Jonathan Calder. Frankie Howerd was one of my boyhood heroes, too. I loved his radio appearances on Variety Bandbox and in his own show (which featured Swansea's own Gladys Morgan - who remembers her now?). As those listings show, he was good at spotting scriptwriting talent. But he was a troubled man.

As reminiscences by Bob Monkhouse and others revealed, he constantly and sometimes embarrassingly sought physical consolation from the young men he worked with. Eric Merriman, another noted scriptwriter, testified to his pathological anxiety, having been rung up by Howerd in the middle of the night querying details of a script he was to deliver the next day. Howerd in later life was to blame childhood abuse by his father for his troubles, but nobody has been able to find corroborating evidence.

On the other hand, he was well-liked by people, both men and women, who knew him personally. He seems to have been the reverse of the typical star performer, professional and respected at work, but cold and distant off-stage. I would like to have known Francis A Howard, but not to have worked with him.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

David Miliband is unlikely to come back

There was an interesting thought by Damian of Cwmbwrla on Peter Black's blog over the weekend, that as Jeremy Corbyn's approval ratings with the Labour membership slump, David Miliband could launch a comeback via the by-election in Manchester Gorton. Miliband's Jewish background would clearly not hurt there. In the medium to long term he would be well placed to take over the leadership should he win the seat.

But in the current political climate, Gorton is not going to be a walk-over for Labour. The odds against Jackie Pearcey winning the seat for the Liberal Democrats are shortening as I write. Even if David Miliband does return to the Commons, the short term result will be increased turmoil in the Labour Party as MPs publicly take sides, and the papers will be sure to whip up the fraternal rivalry with Ed all over again. Labour is very unlikely to win the next election. Indeed, they will struggle to maintain their position as the official opposition. Miliband will be loth to give up a well-paid job with an international organisation for an uncertain future.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Music: women's week

Jessica Duchen has a preview of events scheduled for the day after tomorrow, International Women's Day. I would add that Radio 3 has been giving us tasters starting last Saturday, when Record Review was devoted to the works of Dame Ethel Smyth.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Women inventors

A challenge thrown out by the reactionary Polish member of the European Parliament (after he made a speech during a debate on the gender pay gap including the observation that "women must earn less than men because they are weaker, smaller and less intelligent") was "name one thing a woman has invented".

To be sure, women famous in the fields of science and technology were mostly researchers or facilitators. In my own field, Charles Babbage had the brilliant idea of the analytical engine, but it was Ada Lovelace who documented his inventions. The first standard business computer language, COBOL, would probably not have gained acceptance without the work of the "sewing circle" which included Grace Murray Hopper and Jean Sammet.

However, there have been inventions by women. On the domestic front, there is the Anywayup Cup, devised by the inspirational Mandy Haberman. Before personal computers made editing printed documents easy, corrected texts had to be retyped until Tippex came along, invented by Mike Nesmith's mum. Going back in time, there is a good case to be made for Eleanor Coade, though there is no historical record of how Coade Stone came to be invented.

Those were just memories, off the cuff, before any serious research. There must be other examples. The comments field is open (subject to the usual proviso that it is scanned by this blogger for any objectionable material before publication).

Later: EU supports female inventors with an annual Women Innovators prize. The 2017 finalists are introduced here.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Petitions to the EP

Did you know that, as a citizen or bona fide resident of the EU, you may petition the European Parliament just as you may the parliaments in Cardiff and Westminster? The petition must be on a matter which comes within the Union’s fields of activity and be written in one of the EP's official languages (unfortunately not Welsh - so far). There is more explanation here.

Friday, 3 March 2017

So much unfinished business

Most of the tributes to Sir Gerald Kaufman at Business Questions yesterday marked his attributes as a parliamentarian, his helpfulness to new members, his flamboyant life-style, his concern for his constituents and his service - behind the scenes as well as publicly - to the Labour Party. He was a visceral campaigner for the latter and it is a pity that none of the Liberal Democrat MPs who crossed swords with him in Manchester survived the 2015 general election and thus could not contribute anecdotes about Sir Gerald during the "ground war". In the immortal words of Sir David Steel on Robert Mugabe, "he was no liberal". But who knew that he was a bosom pal of the Conservative Michael Fabricant?

The most moving tribute came from David Winnick, who shared not only Sir Gerald's Jewish background, his commitment to Israel's right to exist but also his condemnation of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Sir Gerald would dearly have wished to contribute to the debate held last month, on the illegal settlements in Palestine, if illness had not intervened.

He would no doubt have stayed for the later debate that day on football governance. He would have been concerned about the way "the people's sport" had been to a degree taken over by dubious characters with it seems little concern by the English leagues' managements.

I have long known that Sir Gerald in his early days had been a contributor to "That was the week that was" and people of my generation should be grateful for that. What I learned only yesterday was that Sir Gerald was a great friend of Stephen Sondheim and had enabled productions of Sondheim musicals in Manchester. No doubt this covered the period when Sondheim could hardly be staged in the States and contributed to the warm feeling which he has towards Britain.

The Commons will be a poorer place without Gerald Kaufman. His mantle as Father of the House passes to Ken Clarke, an estimable figure, but one who will not be contesting the next election. One wonders whether there will be any left of that group of "Commons men" in the next intake.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Chess, cricket and music: a search for two Foxes

Elaine Fine's Musical Assumptions blog raises an interesting query about a mysterious British composer:

Kalitha Dorothy Fox (1894-1934) [...] is one of the sixty-three women with entries in Corbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, and was a member of the Society of Women Musicians (SWM), which was affiliated with the Royal College of Music. We know about her death (a suicide reported in the minutes of the SWM), but nothing of her life. Fox’s Sonata for Viola and Piano (which is in the IMSLP), one of ten pieces in her catalog, was published in 1925 with a dedication to G.H.B. Fox. There are mentions in various periodical publications of a G.H.B. Fox who played chess and cricket, but it is unclear whether he was a musician or how he may have been related to the composer. We do know that this Sonata was once broadcast on the radio from Bournemouth, and that it was part of a concert on July 12, 1931 concert celebrating the twentieth anniversary concert of the SWM.

Many of my fellow-bloggers share an interest in at least one of the subjects in the heading. I throw out Ms Fine's query in the hope that someone this side of the pond may recognise one of the two Foxes.

A melancholy note: one must add Dorothy Fox's name to the roster of composers who died in 1934, led by Holst, Delius and Elgar.

The "Sextons"

The centenaries are coming thick and fast. Today is that of Tom Keating, who was not well treated by the art establishment. He had his revenge by releasing fakes and delighting in seeing how they were taken up as genuine. He made no real profit by his actions and it looks as if he himself never made any false claims, often giving the pieces away or trading them for the price of materials. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry concludes:

In 1982 Keating found new fame as presenter of Channel 4's Tom Keating on Painters, a series in which he talked about his favourite artists and demonstrated their style. This won him the Broadcasting Press Guild award for the best on-screen performance in a non-acting role. He followed this with a further series on the impressionists. In 1983, 135 of his paintings were sold at Christies for £72,000 and, for the first time in his life, he had real money. However, his health, which had never been good since the war, was declining rapidly. Keating died in Essex County Hospital, Colchester, on 12 February 1984.