Friday, 29 September 2017

Liberal Democrats and coalition

Dr Mark Pack writes that one should not believe the conventional wisdom that the Liberal Democrats are unpopular because we went into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. He cites a YouGov survey which he interprets as supporting his point. Well, maybe the overall result does not show an overwhelming revulsion against that decision, but neither does it show enthusiastic support. Indeed, if you look at the Scotland column, you find that a majority (33%) falls into the category "The Liberal Democrats were wrong to go into coalition with the Conservatives and I haven't forgiven them". Unhelpfully, the survey lumps Welsh respondents in with the English Midlands, but it is a fair bet that Wales' response would have been on a par with the Scots'.

A question I would like to have seen on the survey was: Were the Liberal Democrats right to stay in government after the financial crisis had passed? It seems to me that much of our unpopularity results from the repressive legislation, like the Welfare Reform Act, passed in 2012 and afterwards.

What is also noticeable from this survey is, not surprisingly, the unclear image the party has. Fewer than 10% of respondents in any region had a clear idea of what the party stood for. Of the 20% or so who felt they had a broad idea, I would guess that most associate us with the EU and very little else. It would have been instructive to have inserted the words "Apart from remaining in the EU" in front of that particular question.

On the general question of membership of the EU, support for leaving remains stubbornly high. The inflation resulting from sterling's fall against the dollar had clearly not hit home by the time the survey was conducted in the middle of this month.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Fair votes in Welsh local government

I reproduce in full a recent email from Anthony Tuffin of the STV Bulletin:

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Growing anti-Semitism

Guido Fawkes highlights a fringe meeting at Labour's Brighton conference which would be difficult to distinguish from a gathering of a Hamas chapter in England. Granted that Guido more than most on-line journos exaggerates, generalises from the individual and takes quotations out of context, there are indisputably too many instances of an anti-Jewish trend within Labour.

The number of people in the UK who identify as Jewish seems to be holding steady, but it is around a tenth of that of British Muslim, which is growing. Is there a cynical electoral motive for the Labour leadership not to stamp on this trend in the party? Does "for the many, not the few" imply scapegoating minorities?

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Legal aid and the Bach Commission

Legal aid is not sexy, it is nothing to do with the EU  and it does not affect the upper- and middle-income people who run our broadcast media, so it is unsurprising that the publication of the final report of the Bach Commission passed most people by. Of the print media, only the Independent and Guardian highlighted it, though there was a passing mention in other journals.

There was a fringe meeting in conjunction with the release at the current Labour Party conference. There were two one-hour fringe meetings at the Liberal Democrat federal conference in Bournemouth, for which I was sadly indisposed, so I cannot comment on proceedings. One was on the effect of the restricted access to legal aid as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) and the other on what could be done to help people of restricted means with legal problems. One wonders whether any of the participants had sight of the Bach recommendations in pre-publication form, which would have helped discussion.

The Ministry Of Justice will merely "consider the findings". One cannot see the Conservative Party conference giving it any time. On the criminal side, they will not be concerned about the clear increase in unsafe convictions; on the civil side, there are too many landlords in its ranks for the plight of vulnerable tenants to be eased; and, of course, the fact that it was commissioned by the Labour leadership and facilitated by the Fabian Society puts it beyond the Tory pale.

I believe that Liberal Democrats should not be tribal in this area, and that the matter should be discussed on the floor of the next qualifying conference. We are unlikely to afford to mount our own commission, after all. The report asserts that, in spite of a small grant towards the cost, the project was "entirely independent from the Labour party and does not necessarily reflect its views" and that "the commission had full editorial control of the report and its conclusions".

There is some feeling among fellow-Lib Dems that we should not touch the subject of fair and equal access to law, because we were part of the coalition government which imposed LASPO and we would not want to draw attention to the fact - but if our new leader is brave enough to re-visit the subject of tuition fees, why should we not re-examine legal aid too? Besides, New Labour started the cuts, so are vulnerable to a counter-attack if they raise that issue.

The headline recommendation by Bach is for a
a new Right to Justice Act. This act will:
• Codify our existing rights to justice and establish a new right for individuals to receive reasonable legal assistance without costs they cannot afford
• Establish a set of principles to guide interpretation of this new right covering the full spectrum of legal support, from information and advice through to legal representation
• Establish a new body called the Justice Commission to monitor and enforce this new right The purpose of the Right to Justice Act is to create a new legal framework that will, over time, transform access to justice. But early government action is also required. In part two of this report we set out an action plan for government so that it can take the first steps required to make the right to justice a reality.
• Legal aid eligibility rules must be reformed, so that the people currently unable either to access legal aid or to pay for private legal help can exercise their right to justice. This includes establishing a simpler and more generous assessment scheme for civil legal aid; ensuring all benefit recipients automatically qualify for legal aid; and making the contributions to legal aid more affordable
• The scope of civil legal aid, which has been radically reduced, must be reviewed and extended. The priority should be to bring early legal help back into the scope of legal aid – across a broad range of legal issues – in order to encourage early dispute resolution and prevent further distress and cost downstream. All matters concerning children should be brought back into the scope of legal aid. With respect to representation at court, some areas of family and immigration law should also be brought back into scope
• The operation of the legal aid system needs reform. The legal aid system is creaking at the seams, and practice as a legal aid lawyer is becoming increasingly unsustainable. An independent body that operates the legal aid system at arm’s length from government should replace the Legal Aid Agency and action must be taken to address the administrative burdens that plague both the public and providers
• Public legal capability must be improved. At present, most people’s ability to understand a legal problem or to know where to turn for information and support is poor. We call for a national public legal education and advice strategy that improves the provision of information, education and advice in schools and in the community

On the subject of costs, Bach says:
When the government first introduced LASPO it estimated it would save £450m a year in today’s prices. But last year, legal aid spending was actually £950m less than in 2010. The Fabian Society estimate that the costs of the proposals in this report will initially total less than this underspend, at an estimated cost of around £400m per year.
It was possibly beyond the scope of his brief, but I thought he might have mentioned savings which could be achieved throughout the justice system by streamlining procedures.

There is a pdf of the Bach report here.

AfD representation in Bundestag is the sign of a healthy democracy

 - as is the presence of UKIP in Cardiff Bay. (The Welsh electoral system is not quite as proportional as it should be, but it is at least an advance on the Westminster first-past-the-post system which is an archaic rarity among civilised nations.)  Proportional representation allows voters supporting sizeable minority views to see their preferences expressed. Under FPTP, the failure to do so builds up frustrations and, perhaps more seriously, causes ambitious politicians with extreme views to enter established parties.

I note that, like UKIP in Wales, AfD has suffered early schisms.

Monday, 25 September 2017

First Minister's speech to Labour conference yesterday

I hope that the text will be available later today when I shall be able to post actual quotations, but it was noticeable how Carwyn Jones' legal training enabled him to imply that the Labour government in Cardiff was responsible for the superiority of the NHS in Wales over that in England, without actually uttering a downright lie. In this he is superior to David Cameron who blatantly claimed Liberal Democrat improvements in pensions, tax treatment of the low-paid and apprenticeships (among other achievements of the coalition government) as Conservative achievements. refers.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Saturday, 23 September 2017

NHS staff and Brexit: things may not be so bad for Wales after all

( refers.)

The Fullfact charity has put continental Europeans' flight from the NHS into perspective. The skills drain started before the referendum and includes UK and non-EU citizens. So the trouble is likely to be more with the NHS as such (though Brexit is not going to help) and if Wales creates a distinctly separate identity and attractive image for the NHS here, we may reverse the trend on this side of Offa's Dyke.

Friday, 22 September 2017

EU funds may be available for UK Caribbean territories restoration

From the European Parliamentary Research Service blog:

EU Solidarity Fund

Providing for emergency and recovery operations in areas affected by a major natural disaster, the EU Solidarity Fund is open to Member States and candidate countries. A recent witness to the brute force of Hurricane Irma, the French territory of Saint Martin, one of the EU’s nine outermost regions and thus an integral part of the EU, is eligible for support under this mechanism. To receive help, the Member State involved (in this case, France) must apply to the European Commission for assistance within 12 weeks of the first damage. With a maximum annual allocation of €500 million, the EUSF may be used to fund measures such as providing temporary accommodation, supporting rescue services or cleaning up disaster areas. In principle, it is limited to non-insurable damage and does not therefore compensate for damage to private property. The EUSF has intervened in over 75 disasters to date, allocating a total of €5 billion to help alleviate the impact of natural disasters, including the 2007 hurricanes in Réunion and Martinique, both of which are outermost regions.
In the case of outermost regions, a special lower threshold is applied, such that the damage caused exceeds 1 % of a region’s GDP (rather than 1.5 % in other regions), to take account of their specific structural social and economic situation. In addition, following the adoption of an amendment to the EUSF Regulation in July 2017, Member States affected by a natural disaster may now draw on a special EU financing mechanism, to help supplement EU Solidarity Fund assistance. This allows the application of an extraordinary EU co-financing rate of 95 % under a cohesion policy programme in an affected region. Accordingly, programmes in outermost regions such as Saint Martin, which have an 85 % co-financing rate, will now be eligible for an additional 10 % support in the event of a major disaster. At the time of writing, Saint Martin had not yet applied for assistance under the EUSF.
In addition to this emergency assistance, it is also worth highlighting that several EU-funded programmes are already active in the region and improving the lives of local people. The ERDF-ESG Guadeloupe et Saint Martin operational programme, for instance, which has a total budget of €273 million, includes an investment priority on disaster management, providing funding for activities such as strengthening buildings against the risk of earthquakes. The Interreg V Saint Martin – Sint Maarten cooperation programme, focuses, among other things, on preventing the risk of flooding through better management and control of rainwater, while the priorities of the Interreg V Caribbean cooperation programme include increasing natural hazard response capacity by putting in place shared risk management systems. Saint Martin may also be able to receive support from the €587 million available to France under the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD), an EU fund that provides material assistance such as food, clothing and essential goods for deprived groups.

Support for overseas countries and territories

As overseas countries and territories (OCTs), the British territories of Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, the Dutch territory of Sint Maarten and the French territory of Saint Barthélemy have a special relationship with the European Union, governed by a Council decision on the association of the overseas countries and territories with the European Union. This text provides that humanitarian and emergency aid may be granted to OCTs faced with serious economic and social difficulties of an exceptional nature resulting from natural or man-made disasters. Under the rules, aid is financed from the general budget of the Union, with a non-allocated reserve of €21.5 million set aside to finance humanitarian and emergency assistance for the OCTs.

However, if the UK goes to the Solidarity Fund, there would be some clawback from the country's "Thatcher rebate", as this official answer in respect of the Cumbrian floods makes clear.

The grown-ups agree that there will be no Brexit

Vince Cable has been saying for some time that Brexit is unlikely. Now Paddy has been unequivocal: it will not happen because there will be parliamentary stalemate. (For once that metaphor, referring to the end of a chess game, seems appropriate.)

But we must be prepared for the repercussions of that outcome. 52% of people who voted in a referendum last year will feel cheated. Government (of whatever stripe) must go some way to meet the arguments of the Leavers.

There is some justification for the belief that at the bottom end of the labour market, immigration has a slightly depressing effect on wages. There is also resentment of people at the other end of the scale, including financial manipulators who are seen as abetting the financial melt-down in the UK.

If the minimum wage (I refuse to call it a living wage) legislation is policed as it should be, and there is stronger action than naming and shaming a few token employers, then the first objection can be met, especially as thorough inspection should also turn up non-EU citizens illegally employed, who must also be depressing wages.

Government should also withdraw right to remain status from those people who are or have been involved in activities which harm or have harmed the UK economy. Any outstanding international arrest warrants should be honoured. Benefit tourists should be deported - existing EU law allows this.

Of course, this will mean raising the staffing level of the Border Agency and of police forces, but the cost should be offset by the additional tax raised by the uplift in pay. Besides, Mr Dacre, would it not be a price well worth paying for a tighter immigration régime?

The answer to those who voted Leave in the genuine belief that the EU is a self-appointed institution and that it dictates all the law in its member states is clearly more education. The BBC has failed, and continues to fail, in this regard. This is a dereliction of duty, in view of its constitutional requirement to educate as well as inform and entertain. The government needs to be honest in explaining how it contributes to EU decisions and that it is not powerless in the face of the Commission. Political parties, including Liberal Democrats, need to take up part of this education burden, particularly as the majority of the print media can print lies about the EU with impunity.

The upside is that as soon as government announces that it has abandoned Article 50 negotiations and will seek to keep the UK within the EU, sterling's value will rise against other currencies' and inflation will stop - maybe even reverse.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

"Corporate Wild West"

Firm evidence to add my blog post of two days ago ("Uncollected company secrecy fines...") that the UK freed from regulation by the EU intends, under the Conservatives, to remain the corporate wild west.

From 25th April:

The government has agreed to drop key measures to tackle tax avoidance from the Finance Bill following a deal with the opposition.

These include tougher penalties for tax evasion, changes to prevent people avoiding inheritance tax through offshore trusts and the axing of permanent non-dom status.

Liberal Democrat MP and Public Accounts Committee member John Pugh said:

"Many voters will be shocked that measures to crack down on tax avoiders are being quietly dropped.

“It seems promises to crack down on tax avoidance after the Panama Paper leaks were nothing but hot air.

“This makes a mockery of Theresa May’s claim to be delivering for the many not the few.

"Meanwhile Labour is failing in its job to hold this government to account.

“This election is a chance to change the direction of the country and ensure Britain has a proper opposition."

And from the day before:

Britain will have to settle a €4bn bill over failure to tackle customs fraud before a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU can be agreed, The Times has reported.

Commenting, Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael said:

“This is a major embarrassment for Theresa May.

"Under her watch as Home Secretary, customs fraud was happening on an industrial scale. Now it is British taxpayers who are set to pay the price.

"The cost of the Conservative's divisive hard Brexit is soaring by the day."

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Some things have changed for the better

Whatever the faults of the present House of Lords, at least it no longer has an inbuilt Tory majority due to the hereditary system. I came across this great comment by Lord Tordoff, the Liberal Democrat whip in the 1990s about the easy job his Conservative opposite number in the Lords had: "Whenever I see the Duke of Atholl in the lobby, I know that he's got to the end of the alphabet again."

EU photographic prizewinner from Wales

Congratulations to Matthew Browne for his "Road improvement, walkways and cycleways in Wales" being a joint winner in the 2017 Europe in My Region photo competition, the only UK prizewinner.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The leader's speech

Vince Cable's speech to Lib Dems federal conference 2017 was well up to standard, with some cutting one-liners about Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May and the juvenile behaviour of the challengers to her leadership. Points that stood out for me were the reminder - complete with a ?Swahili quotation - of his financial qualifications in the Kenyan Treasury, his nailing of the responsibility for the banking crashes in the UK on Labour's emasculation of the regulators (egged on by the Conservatives, who wanted to go further) and the re-statement of the fact that the Liberal Democrats are not a one-issue party.

I was disappointed that he is thinking of replacing student loans with a graduate tax, which was roundly criticised when Ed Miliband put it forward as a possible Labour policy. However, it seems that this is a result of discussions with the NUS and that Vince is holding up his end of a bargain. Moreover, he did not present it as a policy, but has asked David Howarth (a grievous loss to the Commons) to look at it and will lay the findings before conference.

He touched on the electorate's loss of trust in us. He might have added that, a couple of glaring examples (which I was not alone in criticising at the time) apart, it was only partly justified. The Labour-supporting media were all too happy to blame us for all the Tory depredations, not acknowledging that our ministers had softened the blows as far as they could, while both they and their Conservative-supporting counterparts gave us no credit for the positive things we had achieved. That trust is going to take a while to build up again, and I believe Vince should have stressed that it will be a hard slog. It is going to mean our candidates at all levels being cautious about what they promise and the national parties acting swiftly in the case of councillors who have clearly acted improperly.

The full speech will be put up on Liberal Democrat Voice in due course and there should be a link in the comments to this posting.

Uncollected company secrecy fines could pay for BVI restoration

£32m has been committed by the UK government to help fund the restoration of the British Virgin Islands in the aftermath of hurricane Irma. However, according to Private Eye magazine, thousands of UK companies, many with BVI connections, are liable to fines totalling £100m. The Eye quotes articles written on the Naked Capitalism blog by Richard Smith.

As from June last year, under The Register of People with Significant Control Regulations 2016, the person or people controlling a company should be readily identifiable from a register at Companies House. There are loopholes, described here, for anyone prepared to make a false declaration. Even so, around 100,000 companies have failed to meet the deadline for reporting anything at all. In theory, this should land them with a £1,000 fine and a further daily £100 levy.

The trouble is, says the Eye, the law is "effectively unenforceable".

Neither Companies House - whose recently departed chief executive, Tim Moss, took commendable steps to open up corporate data - nor any other part of government has the resources to police the system at a level that would present any sort of deterrent to the world's money-launderers. 

Without enforcement action,there is, alas, a danger the new rules do more harm than good. The UK gets extra brownie points for "transparency", so the use of its shell companies becomes a stronger reason for banks looking for excuses to handle questionable money to clear transfers  in these companies' names. Until the UK company tax system is policed properly, or it becomes harder to set up a UK shellco (and there is unlikely to be much appetite post-Brexit for either measure), the UK will remain the corporate wild west.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Tory redefinition

Jacob Rees-Mogg's intervention in the latest Trumpish rejection of expert advice by a government minister suggests a new form of words to get round Commons restrictions on unparliamentary language. Instead of accusing a fellow member of lying, and thus attracting the wrath of Mr Speaker, an MP could suggest that he or she had "had a romantic vision".

The relative costs of electricity

Glyn Davies MP reminded us over the weekend that he is happy for wind-generators to punctuate other people's horizons, just not those of mid-Wales. (For the record, I repeat my stance that I am in favour of wind turbines, but only where they are acceptable locally. I would add that we must ensure that there is storage capacity to smooth out the peaks and troughs associated with this form of generation.)

Mr Davies' posting had clearly been inspired by the headlines simplistically proclaiming that wind generation was cheaper than nuclear. The Guardian had earlier been more precise: it was cheaper than Hinkley Point.  The comparison had been made between the price guaranteed to the French and Chinese for building the experimental reactor in Somerset - £92.50 per megawatt-hour - and the reduction in the guaranteed price - £57.50 - sought by two offshore developers.

I looked out for real-world comparisons. The obvious place was in Canada where there is a mature nuclear power industry. I found the Ontario Energy Board Regulated Price Plan (pdf here) which has a table (page 20) listing the various unit costs. Using a conversion rate of 1 Canadian dollar to £0.6, it suggests current prices per mW/hr of: Solar £290, natural gas £84.5, wind £80.3, nuclear £39.8 and hydro £34.4. The absence of dirtier fuels like coal and orimulsion is noticeable.

Apart from this, most of the comparisons available on the Web are based on more theoretical calculations. The wikipedia entry is a good example. What does stand out is that the UK, the pioneer in nuclear power generation, pays more for nuclear-generated electricity than most. On the other hand, we really do seem to be cutting the cost of renewables.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Jo Swinson's speech to the federal AGM 2017

I have recorded in various places (including on this blog) that the erection of the Berlin Wall was for many of us more frightening than the Cuban missile stand-off a few years later. It was heartening that deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, should have hung her speech to conference this year on the demolition of the Wall. She is too young to have experienced the same sense of relief and joy shared by those of us who have lived with the Wall for more than twenty years, but it is a mark of the woman that she recognised that it was an iconic and momentous event.

I think it’s fair to say that as a child, apart from one Christmas watching the animated film “When the Wind Blows”, I hadn’t given much thought to nuclear war. But the cloud had hung threateningly over the world, at times perilously close to disaster on an unimaginable scale. Thanks to the diplomacy, courage and political leadership which led to the end of the Cold War, we have enjoyed three decades with much reduced levels of nuclear threat

But now the picture darkens for all of us. Jo listed North Korea, Turkey, Venezuela and Myanmar as places where liberal values and human rights are in full retreat. In the case of North Korea there is also a realistic threat to the well-being of people outside her borders. Climate change is real, leading to the increase in number and intensity of hurricanes and typhoons. The current leader of the free world is in denial not only of the vast majority of scientific belief that human activity is a major contributor to global warming, but even that global warming itself is "fake news".

Closer to home, intolerance of religious faith and of difference generally are on the rise. Anti-Semitism has become respectable again, something I believed the revelations post-World War Two had put an end to.

Jo ended with one gem of hope:

In the Netherlands and in France this year the populists were defeated. In Canada we cheered Trudeau’s Liberal victory.

Creating the bold vision we need is bigger than any single political party. Indeed it’s bigger than party politics itself. We need to reach out and collaborate across society, with thinkers, activists, the young and the old, faith groups, trade unions, entrepreneurs – and with all of you who want to change the world.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Perspective on UK trade post-Brexit

There is optimism that big deals will be signed at the Southampton Boat Show for the delivery of luxury vessels. McLaren F1 has declared its faith in the UK. Aston Martin, aided by the Welsh taxpayer, has committed to building its new model in St Athan.

I am sincerely happy for all of them, but it is wrong for Leavers to cite them as a triumph for Brexit. All their products are relatively price-insensitive, so the imposition of WTO tariffs would not make them less attractive in mainland Europe. (The same is true of fine French wine and German cars, so the argument that France and Germany have to give us a tariff-free post-Brexit trade deal does not stand close scrutiny.)

Those companies also employ relatively few, high-paid, workers. The picture is different for "bread-and-butter" manufacturers. Cost matters to the average buyer of the family car. Tariffs will make it more difficult to sell on the continent small- and medium-sized cars built in Britain. The future of Ford's Bridgend engine plant darkens. Now Toyota, on which company Mrs May banked, is having second thoughts, as is one of the major Japanese sources of development finance, Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, reports.

they are reconsidering their operations in Britain after the UK completes its divorce from the European Union, a serious setback to the British government's efforts to convince companies here that it will be business as usual after Brexit.

The timing of the announcements by Toyota Motor Corp and the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ is unfortunate given that Theresa May, the British prime minister, was in Japan in late August on a mission specifically to reassure Japanese businesses that they will not lose out in the EU market place should they choose to keep their European headquarters in the UK after Brexit. Didier Leroy, the executive vice president of Toyota, broke the bad news to the British government in an interview this week with Reuters at the Frankfurt car show. "A few months ago, the UK government was saying 'We're sure we'll be able to negotiate [a deal] without any trade tax'," he said. "They are not saying that any more."

Jerry Pournelle

I had hoped that Radio 4's Last Word would have had something to say about the  Sage of Chaos Manor who departed this life just over a week ago. Chaos Manor was Pournelle's description of his home base, full of assorted computing machinery, from which he wrote a regular column for Byte magazine. I had been introduced to the latter as part of a bargain bundle of magazines (still in storage somwhere, if the weevils have not got to them) which I bought when I first made tentative steps towards converting from "the big iron" to personal computers. Pournelle's great contribution was to write from the perspective of the intelligent user, rather than that of the geek*.

Pournelle's day job was as a writer of SF, usually in partnership with Larry Niven. I must admit to having read only Footfall, which I found quirky but baggy.

Here are some more informed obituaries, from The Register, the New York Times and a personal friend.

*Our own late, great, Guy Kewney was towards the geek end of the scale, having worked as a Leo programmer, but since he could also write beautifully was in the same small pioneering league as Pournelle.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Let us not undermine the Grenfell Tower inquiry

Activists, some of whom may have a political purpose, have attacked the judge in charge of the Inquiry into the causes of the lethal tower block fire. They have mistaken coolness and a desire to avoid charges of partiality for antagonism.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Nancy Spain

Centenaries are coming thick and fast. Yesterday's was that of Nancy Spain, who I used to enjoy listening to on BBC Radio's "My Word!", where she and E Arnot Robertson partnered Denis Norden and Frank Muir respectively in a panel game which not only entertained but also challenged the intellect. Sadly, such shows are a thing of the past, even on Radio 4.

Robertson's suicide in 1961 was surprise enough, but the dramatic end of Spain at the start of Aintree week 1964 was a real shock. There followed the revelation that she was in a relationship with Joan Werner Laurie, who died with her in the plane crash. Ironically, it seems that the partnership was under strain and that if they had survived, the two women may have split up. I recall a radio portrait by Natalie Wheen which marvelled at Spain's ability to seduce a procession of women, including some surprisingly starry names (which Wheen did not specify, unsurprisingly). That radio programme also made clear that there was no doubt that Thomas, brought up as Laurie's son, was actually Spain's. Thomas was interviewed for the programme and described the brutal manner in which his true parentage was revealed to him.

Noel Coward wrote in his diaries: 'It is cruel that all that gaiety, intelligence and vitality should be snuffed out when so many bores and horrors are left living'. Nancy Spain had so much more to give both as journalist and broadcaster.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Henry VIII or Hitler?

Changing the law via negative Statutory Instrument - subsidiary legislation which is not scrutinised in Parliament unless "prayed against" ("called in" would be the local council equivalent)  - has come to be known as "Henry VIII power", after the Statute of Proclamations of 1539 which gave the serial-monogamist monarch power to legislate by proclamation, overruling Parliament. Most of the routine EU directives are incorporated into UK law in this way. There is an authoritative description of the situation in a briefing note (pdf).

Now Mrs May's government, through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, wants to use the negative SI provision to incorporate into UK law all the EU-mandated legislation which we have adopted since 1972 which would otherwise fall with the repeal of the European Communities Act. If it were just a technical matter, there would be no objection, but as the Financial Times points out:

What worries critics is the part of the repeal bill (section 7 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, in particular) that deals with “deficiencies arising from withdrawal” — that is, references to EU regulators, the European Court of Justice and other entities that will no longer have any sway in Brexit Britain.  The government says it needs Henry VIII powers to tidy all this up. The problem, say critics, is it might try to alter not just the technical details, but also the substance and effect of the law. 

The FT article goes on to suggest that the Supreme Court may provide a back-stop in that it has power to rule SIs as unlawful if they are against the spirit or letter of primary legislation. However, I suggest that this power would be applied narrowly, in a legalistic fashion.

The Withdrawal Bill passed its major hurdle in the Commons on Tuesday. Some prominent Remainers on the Conservative benches voted for the Bill to continue on the grounds that it could be improved in committee. They must surely have known that Mrs May would ensure that she would have her way in committee, and sure enough the Commons last night resolved to change Standing Orders in order to impose a government majority on the Standing Committees sitting on EU legislation. There were reasoned objections from Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, and Valerie Vaz, shadow Leader of the House in the face of declarations from the other side which seldom rose above the equivalent of "we are in power, so suck it up".

Ms Vaz had to contend with thuggish barracking from the government side, such that deputy Speaker Eleanor Laing had to intervene on occasions. Ms Vaz anticipated the argument that Labour would do the same in the Tories' place:

In 1974, the minority Labour Administration had a Government majority on the Committee of Selection, but it appointed Standing Committees with no overall majority. That is, there were Committees with equal numbers. In October 1974, there was a Government majority and that was reflected in the Committees. In April 1976, when the Government lost their overall majority, a motion was passed that stated that the Committee of Selection would appoint Committees with a Government majority only when the Government had an overall majority. That was the Harrison motion. From that point, the Committee of Selection nominated Standing Committees of equal numbers. That was a Labour Government being honourable.

Alistair Carmichael said in moving the Liberal Democrat amendment:

The most important job that we as Opposition Members ​of this Parliament have to do is scrutiny, which is why the composition of the Committees to which we commit Bills upstairs matters. That is why it is, in fact, a matter of quite fundamental principle. I think that we might all acknowledge that, from time to time in this House, we indulge in a little bit of hyperbole, occasionally even straying into polemic. 

I think of some of the matters that the right hon. Gentleman [Oliver Letwin, the previous speaker] and I opposed during the years of the Blair-Brown Government. One example is when they tried to extend detention without charge to 90 days. I remember also the passage of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. He and I and others described them then as constitutional outrages—it was a “power grab” and an “affront to democracy”. I may even on occasion have indulged in a small measure of hyperbole and rhetoric myself. [Hon. Members: “No!”] We all do it. I am reminded that when Paddy Ashdown was leader of my party, it was a joke popular among other parties—obviously not to me or the media at the time—that the message on his answering machine was, “Thank you for calling Paddy Ashdown. I am not able to take your call. Please leave your message after the high moral tone.” We have all done it, but the difficulty that is caused by relying on rhetoric and hyperbole is that it is difficult then to know what to say when we come across a proposal such as that which the Government bring to the House today. I can describe it as others have done as a, “constitutional outrage”. I can say, as others have done, that it is an affront to democracy. However, to say that suggests that that is somehow just the same as those measures that we have previously described in those terms, but it is not. It is much worse. It is an obnoxious measure for which I know of no precedent in my time in the House.

In this country, we do not have a written constitution. We proceed much of the time according to the process of convention and principle, and so it is also for the ordering of our proceedings in this House. Here, too, we often rely on the process of convention and precedence. It is a delicate system of checks and balances. I am certainly not saying that it is one that is incapable of improvement. I have supported many improvements to it over the years, but we have to approach these matters in a rather more holistic manner than is being taken by the Government tonight. Once we start removing these checks and balances, we risk at least one of two things.

First, we can bring the machinery of Parliament to a grinding halt, and tonight the Government risk breaking our machinery beyond repair. The alternative prospect is that we raise the possibility of other parts of the system reacting in a way that is designed to compensate for our breaking of the checks and balances. 

"Henry VIII" has been supplanted on social media by a twentieth-century parallel: the usurpation of power by the Nazi party in 1930s Germany. Neither are exact precedents. The Windsors are not aiming to cut out Parliament (as Henry did), nor are they likely to be as supine as German president Hindenburg if there is a real threat of dictatorship. Our constitution is more robust than that of the Weimar Republic in resisting power-grabs. However, the chipping away at the scrutiny power of Parliament is clearly a threat to the governance of the nation. We may not be at a cliff-edge, but we are at the top of a very greasy slope.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017


Theresa May has compared herself to Geoffrey Boycott.

Self-obsessed, blinkered, with a poor record as a leader, quickly losing the respect of the team when in charge and all-round bigot to boot.

One can see the resemblance.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Black Widow

It is astonishing to think that this engaging thriller is over thirty years old. Today is the anniversary of its release in the Republic of Ireland, seven months after its US release. It is also surprising that it was not taken up by cinema chains in England and Wales. (I caught up with it on TV and enjoy watching it again on its occasional re-runs.) Perhaps the fact that both leads are female or that some starry names played victims discouraged 1980s screen buyers with Victorian attitudes.

In my opinion, neither Winger nor Russell have been better. The plot construction is great. The writing is subtle and on occasions witty. I like the fact that we are told nothing about the background of investigator or investigated. Both seem to have come from nowhere. There is a delicious scene early on where Winger's character spins her FBI boss a tall description of her unhappy childhood before letting him down with a bump. The poster describes the movie as an erotic thriller, but most of the sex is in the head. There is a hint - no more than a hint - of a lesbian interest when the two leads meet for the first time. The only clunky business in the film is when Winger gives Russell a brooch in the shape of the black widow of the title. Feminists forgive me, but I also enjoyed the contrast between the opening when Winger is like one of the lads in a poker game in an office with painted-over windows and the ending when she skips into the sunlight in a pretty floral dress.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Jerry Pournelle

The SF writer and computing journalist died yesterday. One trusts that the broadcast media will do him justice - though perhaps he was a little too "old-school" for Click! If not, more anon.

Labour believes north Wales medical school is "thinking too long-term"

At least, that was what Vaughan Gething was reported by Radio Wales as saying in response to pressure from Plaid Cymru and professional bodies for a medical school in Bangor. The online report is more cool. However, it would be typical of politicians not to think beyond the next election. Labour has been in power, alone or in coalition, since the Assembly was set up. If they had ensured that medical training was augmented across the regions, it is almost certain that we would not now be complaining about the shortage of GPs in practices throughout the country.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Labour supports government over Brexit

As predicted, Keir Starmer has rowed back from his apparent anti-Brexit stance of a few weeks ago. In the Commons yesterday, he confirmed that Labour stands by the referendum decision. From Hansard:

Labour voted for the article 50 legislation, because we accept the referendum result. As a result, the UK is leaving the EU. That we are leaving is settled.

Our tagati deserted us

Now we know why Liberals and Liberal Democrats hung on in Wales for so long. It was magic. South African president Jacob Zuma has revealed all in a speech in Lwandle in the Western Cape. The Times of South Africa reports him as crediting the continuing success of the Democratic Alliance (Liberal Democrats' sister party) in the region on sorcery and the supernatural.

Addressing a packed Lwandle Hall‚ in Strand‚ on Thursday‚ Zuma said ghosts might even been voting to keep the DA in power.
“I don’t know where they get the luck to win here because people in the majority are not living comfortable. I don’t know‚ [maybe] it’s because of witchcraft‚ witches practice their craft in different ways‚” said Zuma.
He said nowadays witches even used electricity.
“In the last elections I was satisfied that we are taking the Western Cape‚ I even said so. What went wrong? I too can’t tell you. It’s witchcraft‚ you never know. Maybe even ghosts are voting‚” said Zuma.
His address [to ANC cadres] comes a year after the party took a massive beating in the 2016 Local Government Elections‚ losing all councils.
In the City of Cape Town‚ the DA won back the municipality with a two-thirds majority.
Zuma said the ANC was a party which was backed by both the ancestors and God.
Zuma also had words for his political opponents‚ saying he was not going to leave office until his term ended.
“There is not a single country where its president face eight votes [of no confidences] in parliament and all of them failed. The last time ...they used large sums of money‚ buying people‚ money that is hard to say no to‚” said Zuma.
He said his opponents during the motion were so desperate that they ended up pleading with him to please step down but could not come up with reasons for him to step down.
“Ancestors would abandon me if I would leave because of people who talk a lot .... I will be with you‚ even when my term has ended. I will be in branches‚ speaking‚” said Zuma.
He said he would never disappear even if people poisoned him.

This is the man who is in an unholy alliance with the Gupta family and Bell Pottinger. But maybe he is on to something. The ancestors must be keeping Welsh Labour in power, while the spirit of Lloyd George (often described as the Welsh wizard) has deserted the Liberal Democrats.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Aftermath of Irma

One of the benefits of our membership of EU was revealed by a London representative of Antigua and Barbuda in a TV interview a day before the eye of hurricane Irma passed over the UK overseas dependency. The nearby territories of Guadeloupe and Martinique are legally part of France, so Antiguans and Barbudans who need more than basic medical attention are able to call on the sophisticated medical facilities there. With 90% destruction of buildings having been reported, and those still standing being practically only public buildings, it is virtually certain that those facilities will be called on. Already, it is reported that a toddler has been killed. If hurricane Jose, currently only category 1, develops in the same way as Irma, the Antiguan prime minister predicts that Barbuda will have to be evacuated.

On a more frivolous note, one wonders whether the registry of the British Virgin Isles, home of so many tax- and scrutiny-dodging companies, has survived the wind, rain and storm surges of Irma.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Venomous Labour

Labour in public lose no opportunity of accusing us Liberal Democrats of dirty tactics, but as all LD campaigners know, this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. John Hemming, at last free to speak publicly after a two-year investigation into false allegations of child abuse, contrasts in a statement the restraint shown by the press and the disgraceful tactics of Birmingham Labour.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Cricket is less important now

Hurricane Irma is now forecast to be even more destructive than Harvey. It is bearing down on Antigua and Barbuda as I write, with storm surges in excess of three metres predicted. I feel for the members of the West Indies touring party, unable to help or comfort their families back home. The squad lists do not detail the players' island of origin (understandable in view of the desire for cohesion, and after heated inter-island rivalry in the past), but almost certainly Antigua is represented in the present squad. One feels for them.

The next referendum?

The following letter recently appeared in the Neath Ferret:

So we have got 45 Gay MPs - role models for our younger generation? It is not normal to be gay, which ever way you looked at it. I understand these people cannot help their genes and their sexual orientation - but the issues must be looked closely. Let's look at it from an extreme angle - what if all MPs were gay? Another thought, what if future cabinet ministers were only appointed if they were gay? Will it develop to a party (or club within Westminster), bearing in mind that birds of a feather flock together.

A thought experiment. Suppose a prominent politician, well-known for his amatory heterosexual adventures, feels that his way to the top is being blocked by a gay mafia. He forms a new party, (let's call it the United Kingdom Normal Party) and starts a campaign to reverse the social reforms of fifty years ago*. He is enthusiastically joined by the Express, Mail and Sun. The UKNP stands candidates in by-elections, who do not win, but influence the results. The pressure tells on the May government, which agrees to hold a binding referendum on the subject, confident in the belief that the British people will not make government and public life poorer by driving away homosexuals.

UKNP buys a battle-bus and adorns it with the slogan: "350 kids a week are buggered legally. We can stop this." This is half-heartedly rebutted in the case put by the government. The result is inevitable.

Of course, it would never happen. No government which had the interests of the British people at heart would allow their future to be jeopardised by unreasoning prejudice.

*Round about the same time as we joined the European Free Trade Area

Monday, 4 September 2017

E-Day sixty years on

"You bought an Edsel?" says Kathleen Turner's character in "Peggy Sue got married" after she is transported back in time. Before de Lorean, this was the biggest flop in motor manufacturing history. In both cases, the pre-launch publicity made the débâcle worse. Read more about the Edsel here.

Barry composer Grace Williams to be commemorated

Swansea has Daniel Jones (Dylan Thomas's bosom pal in schooldays) while Barry has Grace Williams. Jones was able to survive as a professional musician but Williams was restricted by the need to earn a living and by precarious health from achieving the volume of work her talent promised. On the 40th anniversary of her death, Bangor University is holding the First International Conference on Women's Work in Music starting today.

Celebrating the Achievements of Women Musicians 

The Conference aims to bring together academics, researchers and music professionals from around the world to share their research and experience of all aspects of women working in music. 
The Conference will seek to both celebrate the achievements of women musicians, and to critically explore and discuss the changing contexts of women’s work in music on the international stage. The diversity and richness of this work will be illustrated at the conference through presentations in areas such as:
  • historical musicology, 
  • music education, 
  • ethnomusicology, 
  • practice-led research and performance, 
  • composition,
  • music analysis, 
  • popular music studies and much more.

Thanks to JDCMB for the notice

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Högertrafik day

Fifty years ago today, Sweden changed from driving on the left to driving on the right, an assimilation with the rest of the continent of Europe which Napoleon had failed to achieve. There is a film of the changeover on YouTube.

So thorough was the change that the makers of a 1950s-set series of whodunits were hard-pressed to find sufficient right-hand drive cars to populate the roads.