Tuesday, 31 October 2017

PR debate in Westminster Hall

The record of the debate sparked by a petition to parliament is here.

The case for PR was well summed up my local MP, Labour's Stephen Kinnock:
 I thank the Petitions Committee for enabling this debate. I rise to argue that the central purpose of the campaign for proportional representation must be to shine a light on the clear, strong and manifold causal links between the state of our broken politics and the state of our discredited voting system.
The simple fact is that the British people deserve an electoral system in which every vote counts. Why do the vast majority of developed nations use proportional representation, while our electorate are forced to accept second best? Why should our people be forced to accept the fundamentally flawed logic of a system whereby seats in Parliament do not reflect vote share? Why should we have to tolerate tactical voting? Polling found that on 8 June 20% to 30% of the electorate voted tactically. Why should we have to put up with a system whereby almost 7 million people felt that they had to hold their nose while voting?
What does it say about our democracy when millions of people are going to the ballot box to vote for the “least worst option,” as opposed to voting for the party or individual they feel will best represent their values, beliefs and interests in this place? Can we really sit here today, in the building that is sometimes referred to as the cradle of modern democracy, and defend a system that fails to pass the most basic principle of democracy—namely, the right of voters to vote for the party or candidate that they actually support? Perhaps most importantly of all, why should the British people have to accept a system that delivers the winner-takes-all political culture that is the root cause of the deeply divided, polarised and fragmented country that we have become?
Decades of research from around the world shows that proportional representation correlates with positive societal outcomes: greater income equality, less corporate control, better long-term planning and political stability, fairer representation of women and minorities, higher voter turnout, better environmental laws and a significantly lower likelihood of going to war. This is the real prize of electoral reform: building a better politics. It is the means of shaping a more inclusive society in which resources are allocated on the basis of real needs and opportunities rather than cynical swing-seat electoral calculations. It should therefore come as no surprise that polls consistently show that a majority of the public want PR. The latest poll shows that 67% want to make seats match votes, and those people are joined by a growing alliance of parties, MPs and public figures who want real democracy.
There are those who argue that the great advantage of first past the post is that it delivers “strong and stable” government—I think the less said about that, the better. We are also told that the great danger of PR is that it will mean back-room stitch-ups. What, like the £1 billion bung for the DUP?
There were also contributions from Liberal Democrats Wera Hobhouse and Tom Brake. Indeed, Labour's John Spellar apart, all the opposition representatives spoke in favour of PR while Conservatives defended the existing system. It was disappointing that the debate should be split on party political lines, as I know that there are Conservatives who favour PR, while Spellar is not the only conservative on the Labour benches.

It was also disappointing that no new arguments were deployed against the body of evidence, which continues to be augmented, supporting the case for fair votes. We heard again the tired old assertion that first-past-the-post delivers strong government, even in the face of the experience of two out of the last three general elections in this country.

The pro-PR cause clearly had the upper hand yesterday evening, but a Westminster Hall debate cannot directly change the law. It was another case of winning a battle, but not the war.

Monday, 30 October 2017

They furrin bank accounts

Our xenophobes are more sophisticated these days. "'Eave 'arf a brick at 'im" has been replaced by "stop his money". Helen Byrne on Liberal Democrat Voice draws attention to an increasing threat to innocent bank account holders who have the misfortune to be different from the conservative norm.

If persons born outside the UK become automatically suspect, then some notable parliamentarians would be subject to Home Office attention. Baron Hain (born in Kenya, brought up in South Africa) and (Baroness) Floella Benjamin (born in Trinidad) come to mind. This Conservative government might also be happy to see the following MPs under financial pressure:

  • Margaret Hodge (Labour) — born Cairo, Egypt
  • Rushanara Ali (Labour) — Bishwanath, Bangladesh
  • Wera Hobhouse (Liberal Democrat) – Hannover, Germany
  • Khalid Mahmood (Labour) — Azad Kashmir, Pakistan
  • Yasmin Qureshi (Labour) — Gujrat, Pakistan
  • Virendra Sharma (Labour) — India
  • Deidre Brock (SNP) — Perth, Australia
  • Catherine West (Labour) — Sydney, Australia
  • Keith Vaz (Labour) — Aden Colony, present day Yemen
  • Valarie Vaz (Labour) — Aden Colony, present day Yemen
  • Jim Dowd (Labour) — Bad Eilsen, Germany
  • Nia Griffith (Labour) — Dublin, Republic of Ireland
  • Natascha Engel (Labour) — Berlin, Germany
- but they should also be aware of:

  • Boris Johnson (Conservative) — born New York, United States of America
  • Tobias Ellwood (Conservative) — New York, United States of America
  • Greg Hands (Conservative) — New York, United States of America
  • Mark Field (Conservative) — Hannover, Germany
  • Rehman Chishti (Conservative) — Muzaffarabad, Pakistan
  • Edward Garnier (Conservative) — Wuppertal, Germany
  • Paul Beresford (Conservative) — Levin, New Zealand
  • Shailesh Vara (Conservative) — Uganda
  • Rory Stewart (Conservative) — Hong Kong
  • Flick Drummond (Conservative) — Aden, South Yemen
  • Alok Sharma (Conservative) — Agra, India
  • Crispin Blunt (Conservative) — Germany
  • Daniel Kawczynski (Conservative) — Warsaw, Poland
  • Nadhim Zahawi (Conservative) — Baghdad, Iraq
  • Marcus Fysh (Conservative) — Australia

and Bob Seely, MP for Isle of Wight, will not disclose even to the Parliament web site where he was born.

Fair votes will be debated in Westminster today

It will be in Westminster Hall, rather than the main chamber, but it is a sign that the desire for proportional representation in general elections has not been killed off. The debate is scheduled to start at 16:30.

Stephen Kinnock, MP for Aberavon, expects to speak in favour of reform.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Browning inspires MacNeice - and prefigures Kafka?

"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" is one of Robert Browning's darkest and most mystical poems. I can think of only one other poem of his where the ultimate meaning is left to the reader's imagination, the more upbeat "How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix". There is only one reference to God in "Childe Roland" and none to Christianity or its philosophy, unlike Browning's dramatic monologues. With its theme of an unspecified quest which will almost certainly result in the demise of the quester, to me it prefigures Kafka's "The Castle". The poem has generated a remarkable amount of commentary on the Web, which speaks to its power.

It clearly gripped the imagination of Louis MacNeice, the Ulster-born member of the group of socialist-orientated writers which included Spender, Auden and Day-Lewis. His radio play inspired by the poem retains some of the mysticism and, aided by Britten's music, is equally gripping in its conclusion, but takes off into a critique of current social trends and, in the aftermath of the second world war, questions about the nature of aggression. I am not old enough to remember the first transmission but I do recall the impact which the 1950 broadcast had on me.

It will be interesting to hear whether a new production (on Radio 3 tonight at 9:30) with a contemporary cast  but retaining Britten's music will have the same effect.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Undead Hammer script rises again

In a trend which seems to have started with the reinvigoration of a Dylan Thomas adaptation, Mark Gatiss is breathing new life into The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula, a Hammer horror screenplay which never made it into production. One can see the attraction of setting the action in India, taking advantage of the blocked rupees which served Merchant-Ivory so well and one wonders why it did not go ahead. 

I might just give the regular shock/horror of Matthew Sweet's Sound of Cinema a miss today. A stellar cast has been assembled for this afternoon's presentation - but it won't be quite the same without Michael Ripper.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Andrej Babiš not a Donald Trump, nor a Czech Farage

The Czech ANO party is part of the ALDE group in the European Parliament. That in itself should have indicated to Her Majesty's Press* that this was no rabid anti-EU band like UKIP intent on breaking up the Union. Nor does a party which argues for strengthening NATO and the putative EU defence force look like a pro-Russian fifth column, as some have suggested. As to accusations of tax-dodging, it should be noted that these were made by an administration which Babiš had already accused of being riddled with corruption. The worst one can say about ANO (at present - we shall have to see what happens when a government forms in Czechia) is that it tends to be on the economic end of the liberal spectrum. However, Babiš promises many social reforms in his election manifesto also.

* I must admit that I missed the fact of ALDE membership when making my earlier post - also that ANO might join a reformed euro - but then I am only a citizen blogger, not a writer on a journal of record.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Both liberal parties represented in Netherlands government

ALDE's take on the recently-formed Netherlands government is here.

Holes, digging and research into pro-EU studies

The Conservative party machine has come up with a benign explanation for a Tory MP's letter to universities over European studies. Chris Heaton-Harris, the MP for Daventry, was not after all launching a McCarthyite witch-hunt of academics who have a positive attitude to Europe. He was, in fact, researching a book, according to a Conservative Party whip.

Let us put aside the uncharitable thought that if this was his true intention he would have been open about it in the first paragraph of his letter. He was merely using his status as a parliamentarian to obtain information for private gain, par for the course in this post-Thatcher age. However, there are still awkward little restrictions on the use of House Of Commons stationery and postage. In particular, MPs "must not exploit the system for personal financial advantage". One trusts that Mr Heaton-Harris has made the appropriate payment to the House authorities.

Mrs May at the EU summit

Last Tuesday, Mrs May's report back from the EU Council was interesting for two reasons. One was what she did say about immigration, and the other was what she did not say about free movement.

She reported that:

On migration, the UK is playing its full part. The Royal Navy has intercepted 172 smuggling boats and saved more than 12,000 lives since Operation Sophia began. Our National Crime Agency is working with Libyan law enforcement, enhancing its capability to tackle the people-smuggling and trafficking networks. At the Council, we welcomed the reduction in migrant crossings and the renewed momentum behind the Libyan political process; but we must also continue to address the root causes driving people across the Sahara and the Mediterranean, so the UK is also continuing to invest for the long term in education, jobs and services, both in countries of origin and countries of transit.

If all 28 nations follow up these fine words with action, there is hope for the desperate in Africa and Asia. However, one recalls the promises of support for North African nations in the wake of terrorist trouble there. The funds which several rich nations, including France, had pledged have proved to be illusory. I would like to see the UK holding the other 27 to account over this resolution.

The answer to the difficulties caused to Italy, Spain and Greece by immigrants can only be solved by providing facilities closer to home, on the African continent. Or will we continue to deal only with those migrants who survive the vicious people-traffickers and the perilous Mediterranean sea-crossing in a some sort of Darwinian exercise, as a character in the recent Swedish thriller Black Lake remarked?

The item which appeared to have slipped Mrs May's mind was reported by France24:

Most European Union states agreed on Monday on reforming the bloc's labour rules that poorer countries value for giving them a competitive edge but French President Emmanuel Macron criticises for undercutting his workers.

The issue of the so-called posted workers pits wealthier countries against poorer peers keen to preserve current rules that allow their citizens to work elsewhere in the bloc for salaries higher than they would get at home but still lower than the local labour force.
Macron has put reforming the so-called posting of workers directive high on the EU's agenda and is backed by Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, among others.
After some 12 hours of negotiations among labour ministers in Luxembourg, most of the EU's 28 members backed a compromise that would cap posting workers abroad at 18 months and introduce a four-year transition between reaching a final agreement on the reform and its taking effect.
But Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland said they could not back the proposal, while Ireland, Britain and Croatia abstained over concerns that the new rules would hurt their transport industries.
[my emphasis] So the UK government did not support one of the main demands of the Leavers in last year's referendum, that people from the other 27 should not come into Britain to undercut earnings here. One suspects that it was also horticulture and the NHS which the government wanted to protect. It was a sensible stance, in my opinion, but it was a pity that Mrs May could not have been open about it.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

The Carmichael debate

Reactionaries on the Tory benches are wont to herald the government's decision to quit the European Union as a triumph for democracy, of bringing back power to the assembly of the British people, the House of Commons. With the honourable exception of Peter Bone, they are not quite so quick to condemn the contemptuous way the government treats the Commons or their own complicity in the way representative democracy has been eroded under the Cameron and May administrations.

Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem spokesman on Home Affairs, brought this to a head  a fortnight ago in a debate granted by Mr Speaker Bercow, who one suspects from this and similar statements has sympathy with the line Mr Carmichael took. One concern was the flouting of the long-standing practice whereby Bill Committees reflected the composition of the House. In practical terms, in the present situation of minority government, there would have been a minority of government MPs on the standing committees examining Bills, or at best equal numbers of opposition and government MPs. Instead, the government has given itself a majority on crucial standing committees, notably the one on the contentious European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

The more immediate concern was the failure of the government to take action as a result of Opposition Day debates (note that these were on official Opposition motions, not the result of back-bench committee choices) on public sector pay and on student tuition fees. Since it was clear that the DUP, Mrs May's supporters in government, were on the side of the Opposition on both issues and that the Conservatives were on a loser, the latter chose not to participate in a vote on either motion.

As Mr Carmichael said:

The issues before the House on 13 September were questions of substantial significance. If they are issues on which the Government do not command a majority in this House, then the Government should not get their way. The Prime Minister went to the country in June seeking a larger majority than the one she had, but the people of Britain denied her such a majority. However difficult that may make life for her and her colleagues, the verdict of the people on 8 June ought to be respected in this House. It is the job of all of us in this House to ensure that it is, and Opposition day debates are one important way in which that should be done. Occasionally, it is possible for the Government and the Opposition to agree on a motion and for it to be passed without a Division. Until now, there have been very few examples of a motion being disputed in debate, but still passing without a Division.

Very rarely, the Government of the day are defeated in a Division. In my time in the House, that was most memorably accomplished in 2009, when the rights of Gurkha soldiers who had served the Crown to settle in the UK was at issue. Matters came to a head on 29 April 2009, when on a motion from the Conservative party in opposition the then Labour Government ​were defeated. It is worth going back and reading the Hansard of that debate. It is apparent, even just reading the words on paper, that that debate meant something. That debate was more than just a debate; it was a vehicle for righting a wrong and a vehicle for change.

The sentiments were echoed by Valerie Vaz for the Labour party.

The Conservative response was naturally to play the man, not the ball. Rather than address the issue, Mark Harper chose to concentrate on poor Lib Dem attendance at debates. Unfortunately, he had been ill-briefed, because he accused Wera Hobhouse of being absent from a debate which she had in fact attended.

It was outside the scope of the Carmichael debate, but I would add a third way in which government (and I include New Labour) treats the Commons with contempt, namely announcing policy to the media before bringing it to the House.

There is every sign that the government is intent on ignoring criticism and maintaining its course on all three matters. I would like to think that a Cable- or Corbyn-led government would have more respect for the people we send to Westminster to represent us.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Government should at long last see sense on housing

Lord Greaves speaks with long practical experience as a councillor in authorities which include the deprived and the affluent as well as the middle-class. His analysis damns New Labour as well as the post-Thatcher thinking which continues to dominate the Conservative party.

Year after year the Government say that they want to build more houses. However, they do not succeed; indeed, in recent years the situation has got worse. The philosophy is wrong, the analysis is wrong and the solutions are wrong. They continue to be wrong and things are not going to improve on the basis of present policy.
One real problem common to all Governments is that they are addicted to the idea of one policy fitting all—top-down rules, top-down planning and top-down restrictions. They do not allow local authorities and local people to get on with doing things appropriately in their areas, and it does not work. Then they always blame the planning system. I keep saying in your Lordships’ House that the plan-making part of the planning system is bust, but that is very largely due to the ever-growing plethora of top-down restrictions, top-down instructions and top-down attempted control by central government—something that we are now seeing again. By and large, the blame does not, in my view, lie with the development control system. Local authorities give planning permission for new housing and that new housing simply is not taken up. It is estimated that nearly 700,000 planning permissions have not been carried through.
Then we have council housing. We have a continuing central prejudice against local authorities buying and owning housesHarold Wilson, who followed Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister, used to refer to the 13 wasted Tory years in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, but those were the years when huge numbers of council houses were built. Building all those council houses was one of the greatest improvements made in the last century to the lives of ordinary people in this country. Yet we cannot do it anymore. We might refer to the 13 wasted Labour years we had before 2010, when the building of council houses dried up.
Why is this? Why is there such a prejudice against local authorities centrally? It is accepted that local authorities are the most efficient part of the public sector, and certainly the most democratic part. There is the problem, because democracy results in diversity: people do different things in different areas and solve problems in different ways. The civil servants and their ministerial colleagues at the centre simply do not like that, because it is out of their control.

We learn that one of the early beneficiaries of the government's "Help to Buy" scheme was Mrs Bone, wife of the MP for Wellingborough. The couple have done nothing illegal, but what a condemnation of a scheme which was trumpeted as a help to couples wanting to get on the housing ladder that people earning well above the average family should be best able to take advantage of it!

Sajid Javid has said that the government should borrow money to fund the building of hundreds of thousands of new homes, according to the BBC. It is strange that he should come out with this revelation after a decade of historically-low interest rates, just as central bankers are signalling that the next move in rates will be upwards, and this imminently.

Even after commercial rates go up, government, both central and local, will find it cheaper to borrow than commerce and industry do. Javed is right, but it is essential that central government puts the power back in the hands of local authorities and housing cooperatives, who know what the real housing needs are.

Conservative did break electoral law:

will they get more than a slap on the wrist?

Mark Pack has the story:

An undercover Channel 4 News investigation raised concerns about the campaign involving calls made by Blue Telecoms, a firm in Neath, South Wales, on behalf of the Conservative Party.

These concerns prompted an ICO [Information Commissionier’s Office] investigation into the campaign’s compliance with data protection and electronic marketing law.

We’ve found that two small sections of the written scripts used by those making the calls crossed the line from legitimate market research to unlawful direct marketing. We’ve warned the Conservative Party to get it right next time.

Our electoral system depends on trust and all participants sticking to the rules. It should not be possible to buy an election nor cheat ones way to one. In my opinion, the Conservatives broke the spirit of the law in the 2015 general election, though the Electoral Commission passed as legitimate their tactics. Now it has been found that they broke the letter of the law as well as the spirit. It is important that the authorities show their independence and prosecute these offences to the limit.

It is shameful for those of us who live in Neath that this particular illegal operation was based here.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Shock news on EU audit: nothing happened, for the ninth year in a row

The propaganda by Farage and others should be set against the facts:

The European Court of Auditors gave the EU annual accounts a clean bill of health for the 9th year in a row. The Court found that, in particular in cohesion policy and agriculture, the overall estimated level of error for payments has further declined from 4.4% in 2014 to 3.8% in 2015.
No errors were found in the examined revenue transactions. Administrative expenditure continued to be the area with the lowest level of error.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

NHS origins: Bevan, Beveridge and ... Willink?

I quote from "Medicine Balls" (written by Phil Hammond, a physician in practice as well as a writer and performer) in the current Private Eye magazine:

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt was up to his usual cherry-picking tricks at the Tory conferences, claiming that the brains behind the NHS was not Nye Bevan, but Conservative health minister Sir Henry Willink and his 1944 white paper.

In fact, the idea for a state health service is usually credited to the social researcher and poverty campaigner Beatrice Webb in 1909. Lloyd George introduced state-organised health insurance in 1911*, but for workers only. Lord Dawson, president of the Royal College of Physicians, reported in 1920 that "the best means of maintaining health and curing disease should be made available to all citizens", and it was William Beveridge who first proposed "cradle to grave care" in his 1942 report.

Willink's contribution was important - garnering cross-party support for a consensus that "everybody irrespective of means, age, sex or occupation shall have equal opportunity to benefit from the best and most up-to-date medical and allied services available". But it was Bevan who fought the vested interests and made it happen in 1948. The Conservatives voted against the creation of the NHS 22 times, including in the third reading.

Bevan resigned from government in 1951, as a matter of principle over the introduction of prescription charges. Nothing, it seems, will tempt Hunt to resign.

*presumably on the Prussian model, which continues in France and Germany, and which Beveridge would have studied as a young researcher

Friday, 20 October 2017

Czechia elections

This Sunday (oops!) Saturday, elections will take place in Czechia which may produce a result as significant as that in Austria, which attracted some media attention. The front-runner is a party ANO 2011 standing on an anti-corruption plank. However, leader Andrej Babis is himself accused of tax-dodging, the reason for his being sacked earlier this year from the current coalition government.

While committed to remaining within the EU, ANO 2011 would not have Czechia adopt the euro and would resist the move to ever-closer integration.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Understanding between faiths

Housekeeping my archive, I came across tributes to Sir Sigmund Sternberg, who died a year ago. One must admire his efforts in reconciling the Abrahamic faiths in the face of continued dissension within each of them, leading to violence in the case of one, Islam. Perhaps the aims of the Three Faiths Forum will be achieved, but, if so, it can only be a first step. Islam needs to be reconciled with Hinduism, Buddhism and Shinto. Eventually, there must be a common understanding of what lies at the heart of all faiths worldwide and historically.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Future for nuclear power in the UK

There was an interesting little debate late last night in the House of Lords. It was moved by the Earl of Selborne to take note of a report on nuclear research published by his Science and Technology Select Committee in the spring (and rather overshadowed by other political events). The debate was sparsely attended, but each speaker brought valuable experience or knowledge to the discussion.

The most interesting point for me was the general agreement, even by the government spokesman summing up, that the UK lost the plot during the Thatcher years.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Boundary review: it looks like good news for Skewen

The latest revision of the Boundary Commission for Wales' proposals returns Skewen to the Neath constituency where it belongs.

I am sure that many local interests contributed to the change of thinking by the BCW, but I would put in a word of praise for our local Liberal Democrat party, and especially for the coordinated work of the national party, led by WLD's behind-the-scenes mapping genius. The outcome (assuming it survives a further 8-week period for objections) is also a tribute to the persistent campaigning of former county borough mayor and Skewen resident Keith Davies

Alun Cairns' bimodal trains prove not to be so great an advance

On Sunday afternoon, GWR issued this message:

On Monday, 16 October, our brand new ten car long distance services will operate in passenger service for the first time. This is the first new train to be introduced in Wales for a generation, and is a very significant day for our customers and partners in South Wales. 
The first Intercity Express for South Wales, the 0815 from London to Cardiff, and the 1055 from Cardiff to London will  be brand new ten carriage trains. 

The 1145 from Paddington will be the first train to travel right through to Swansea.  As well as the platform showcase at Swansea, where we have also invited local media, a helicopter will film the journey of the 1145, creating a film that we will make available online so that everyone can see this fantastic new train makes it way through the beauty of South Wales. Cardiff 13.47 .Returns from Swansea at 15.28.

Earlier services were not trouble-free. The first - 8:15 - service to Wales was cancelled. The first service from Bristol was severely delayed. The Bristol Post reported:

The maiden voyage of one of Great Western Railway’s new high speed trains was delayed leaving Bristol due to an unexpected fault. Commuters on board the brand new Hitachi train, which was due to depart Temple Meads station for London Paddington at 6am, were delayed by 26 minutes as staff reportedly struggled to couple carriages. A separate problem was also reported with the air conditioning, which caused liquid to leak from vents above seats.

Tim Farron put the boot in:

“Chris Grayling promised this would be a fantastic new service, instead it ended up going badly off the rails.
“At least he got a first-hand experience of what many rail passengers have to put up with every day: overcrowded, delayed and unreliable trains.
“This whole sorry episode sums up the government’s failing transport strategy.
“Ministers need to step up investment in the railway network across the UK, instead of posing for photo ops that go embarrassingly wrong.”

English NHS loses another 162,000 files

The Guardian reports that the Shared Business Services scandal is worse than previously admitted. Vince Cable is quoted as saying that: "The safety of thousands of patients has been put at risk due to incompetence and lack of proper oversight by the government. Jeremy Hunt must urgently come before Parliament to explain what steps are being taken to prevent this from happening again.”

This is another benefit of Wales taking a different path with the NHS.

Consultation on concessionary fares scheme for Wales

The Welsh government seeks views on free bus travel for older people, disabled people and injured service veterans in Wales.

The consultation ends on 12th January. There are full details on the Welsh government web-pages.

Anti-Brexit rallies barely reported

The European Movement UK ran a day of action on Saturday 14 October highlighting the threats Brexit poses to the NHS in 13 different locations across the UK from Macclesfield to Southsea. 
Islington, Leicester, Macclesfield, Oxford, Salisbury, Stockport, Streatham, Winchester, Hackney, Wandsworth, Greenwich, Reading, Southsea, Halesworth, Birmingham, Hammersmith, Bakewell, Cumbria, Mile End.
The Regional Rallies covered:
East Midlands Region, Eastern Region, London Region, North East Region, North West Region, Northern Ireland, Scotland, South West Region, Wales, West Midlands Region, Yorkshire and the Humber.
I was assured by people who were at the Cardiff rally that not only were ITV and BBC filming, but the Western Mail gave a good write-up of the event. Unfortunately, I cannot find a copy on-line. I do not recall a TV Welsh news bulletin showing footage of the rally. For that matter, I can find only one report of the rallies in an English newspaper -  one by the Express, displaying all its traditional balance and objectivity. There is nothing in Monday's print i, either.

It was different north of the Border. The Edinburgh Evening News carried a report and the Scottish Sun was almost positive in its coverage. The Record critiqued 

The conclusion ought to be that the Scots needed updating, but that it was so obvious to the English consumer that the groundswell against Brexit was growing that they would be bored by further reports. To which Springfield/s own Bart Simpson would respond, as he did when hearing how objective Fox News (part of the Murdoch empire, as is The Simpsons) is: "yeah, right."

Monday, 16 October 2017

We must prepare for hemispheric cooling

It has long been known that a super-volcano in the heart of North America erupts around every 600,000 years. There are fears that a fresh one is overdue. Fortunately, there will be years of forewarning. But there is a need for planning now.

The last sizeable volcanic activity led to the "year without a summer". Agriculture in North America and Western Europe was devastated. A Yellowstone eruption would be on a far larger scale. As well as laying waste towns and cities in the United States, it would practically wipe out agriculture in most of the northern hemisphere for a year or more.

There will be a need to provide fresh fruit and vegetables for a population which has increaseed 400 per cent in 200 years. Fortunately, technology has also advanced in that time, as undercover marijuana farmers have proved. However, a plan will have to be developed in advance so that when the need arises production of the necessary growing facilities can be ramped up quickly.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

The Great Forecasting failure

The wikipedia entry on the "great storm" of thirty years seems, to someone who lived through it, a fair and balanced account. One memory from that time is not confirmed by the wikipedia contributor, that a North Atlantic weather-ship (these were the days before detailed satellite data) had recently been retired and not replaced, thus reducing the number of points producing useful data. There is though a hint in the final paragraphs of the wiki entry, "The Met Office conducted an internal inquiry, scrutinised by two independent assessors, and a number of recommendations were made. Chiefly, observational coverage of the atmosphere over the ocean to the south and west of the UK was improved by increasing the quality and quantity of observations from ships, aircraft, buoys and satellites."

There are two other recollections of those times. That week I was working on a contract in England and on the morning of 16th October I woke up to find a fallen tree across the driveway of the B&B I was staying at. Some time after I had picked my way round it, it occurred to me that if the tree had fallen in the opposite direction it would have smashed through the window of the ground-floor room I was occupying.

The 15th October 1987 would also have been a great day for short-selling, because as communications crashed along with the power and telephone lines, investors deprived of information cashed in stocks in favour of gold and hard currency, leading to a big LSE fall.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Tinsel-town then and now

Emma Thompson, on BBC yesterday, put the Harvey Weinstein phenomenon down to a "crisis in masculinity". In fact it is nothing so new age. Weinstein is simply following in a disreputable Hollywood tradition,  though one that one hoped had run its course.

 The most notorious abuser of power was probably Harry Cohn.

2,000 mourners attended [his funeral], prompting the famous remark by Red Skelton: "It proves what Harry always said: Give the public what they want and they'll come out for it."

Another, possibly apocryphal story, is that one Hollywood insider in the queue, asked why he was there replied to the effect that he had been told that it was an open-coffin affair and he wanted to assure himself  "that the bastard was dead".

During his career he gained a reputation for his combative and autocratic manner and he ran Columbia as a one man dictatorship, becoming in the process one of the most unpopular men in Hollywood. [...] Harry Cohn was not a prepossessing character and was one of the most unpopular men in Hollywood. He was a blustering, foul-mouthed, abrasive taskmaster and acted like a tyrant at Columbia. His office there contained a large height adjustable desk for Cohn and small seats for his visitors, enabling him to seemingly dwarf them. His desk also contained a photo of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, whom Cohn admired. Cohn also delighted in eavesdropping on employee's conversations using concealed microphones on sound stages and in dressing rooms. He developed a reputation for using the "casting couch" - expecting sexual favors from actresses in return for career advancement.

Sound familiar? Louis B Mayer was another molester. The incident in this summary of Judy Garland's career may be typical. There were others before and since.

Two things have changed, one for the better: the police have got involved, which would not have happened if one of the old-time studio heads had been accused. If Harvey Weinstein is guilty of any of the charges against him, he is going to go down - or at best, be stuck in the US legal system for years.

The thing that has changed in Weinstein's favour is the diminished power of the gossip-columnists. Nowadays, every person with an internet account can be their own rumour-monger, and scuttlebutt on the Web is treated accordingly. Those few traditional news media are stretched financially, so that Weinstein was able to square them. Any victims could be silenced with confidentiality agreements.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Yet another new party launch

On November 4th, there will be a symposium on forming a new exclusive Welsh party. My immediate reaction to Jac's post was that this would be about as successful as the Women's Equality Party, though perhaps there is slightly more scope for gaining an elected representative via the additional member system (hobbled though it is) of the Welsh Assembly.

As a democrat, I want to see all substantial strands of opinion represented in our parliament. However, I trust that what could turn out to be a Cymric Independence Party does not gain too much traction in view of the economic damage it could cause.

Chris Coleman

I agree with just about everybody that Chris Coleman should remain as Wales soccer manager through to the next European cup campaign. There is no obvious successor, given that the Welsh FA does not have the sort of money on  offer to prise successful club managers away from the top European leagues.

The only doubt I have is that he is too nice. His obvious concern for his group of players makes for good team spirit, but it also means that he will find it difficult to drop players from the current core squad when their performances decline. I can think of one senior player last Monday who failed to come up to the mark after Joe Allen was so cruelly invalided off.

On that point, a Mourinho or a Ferguson would have used his pre-match press conference to demand that the referee be strong in the face of an Ireland team which has a record of making up for its lack of skill with physical harassment.

But the qualification campaign was largely lost early on, when Wales conceded - or struggled to achieve - draws against teams they needed to beat. More ruthlessness on part of both manager and players is needed if we are to see another glorious European Cup campaign.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Catalonia: there must be talks

The chief minister of Catalonia has pulled back from the brink of  a full-scale declaration of independence for his region. That should have been the cue for serious talks which are clearly what the silent majority in Catalonia and throughout Spain want. However, first reports are that the Spanish government is intransigent.

There was a wide-ranging debate on the subject of the Catalonia situation in the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week. It was poorly-attended compared with the discussion on Brexit which preceded it. However, some idea of the various parties' standpoints could be discerned.

Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the Commission stated the official line that the rule of law must prevail. However, he went too far in my opinion in condoning the use of force:

As Jean-Claude Juncker said in his State of the Union address to this House last month, our Union is not a state but it is a community of law. We must never lose sight of this. There is general consensus that the regional government of Catalonia chose to ignore the law when organising the referendum held last Sunday, the Spanish Constitutional Court having suspended the Catalan laws on the organisation of the referendum and issued daily penalties against those who went against its orders.

That does not change the fact that we have all seen saddening images from Sunday. Let me be clear: violence does not solve anything in politics. It is never an answer, never a solution, and it can never be used as a weapon or instrument. Europe knows this better than anywhere else. None of us want to see violence in our societies. However, it is a duty of any government to uphold the rule of law, and this sometimes requires the proportionate use of force.

There followed speeches from the European People's Party and the Social & Democrats group which broadly supported the official position. It was left to Ryszard Legutko for the ECR to introduce some democratic common sense to the debate, and at the same time to criticise double-standards. He did not mention Austria, Hungary and Poland by name, but one suspects he had those countries in mind:

Mr President, the European Commission repeatedly resorts to a moralistic language. We have just heard it talking about a union of values, but when we view the actions of the Commission in the handling of this particular situation in Catalonia, it looks more like a union of selective values. The double standards of the Commission is something that leaps to the eye. All are equal, but some are more equal than others. Everything depends on who is involved. Let us be honest, ladies and gentlemen, if it were another Member State rather than Spain, the consequences and the rhetoric from the Commission would have been far harsher.

I want to be clear: I do not believe the EU, or the European Commission for that matter, strengthens the EU’s unity through infringement proceedings, or triggering the articles of the Treaties or all the political point-scoring and suchlike. This polarises the debate and pushes Member States and its voters further away from the EU. I urge the Commission to practice the virtue of self-restraint, but consistently, not selectively.

Coming to Catalonia, I do believe – a rather simple-minded observation but always worth repeating – that significant progress can be made through patient negotiations. Whether and how soon an effective resolution is possible in Catalonia, I do not know, and very few people, if anyone, in this Chamber knows that. I wish to be honest with our Spanish colleagues: riot police and violent scenes have not helped but shocked and, whatever your intentions, those scenes will continue to be a part of the image of your government for some time. Let us admit it, the handling of the crisis was appalling. It was really appalling.

What are the next steps to be taken? Whether it involves constitutional reform, or the granting of a referendum or international mediation, the role of the Commission is probably as an intermediary or a go-between. It is for the Spanish Government, Spanish society and the Catalonian people to decide for themselves. However, I do caution that the passions of those citizens in Catalonia seeking a new settlement is unlikely to fade away by simply drowning out or ignoring the voices of dissent.

The ECR includes UK's Conservative MEPs. One would have expected our Conservative Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, to respond in a similar fashion upon hearing of the clashes in Barcelona, but instead he refused to condemn the police violence.

Guy Verhofstadt on behalf of ALDE reinforced support for the rule of law but deplored the violence and called for talks.

Mr President, I have to tell you first of all that I am a big admirer of Spanish democracy, especially since that dramatic date of 23 February 1981. That was the day that Colonel Tejero attempted his coup d'état. Javier Cercas, in his famous book ‘Anatomía de un instante’, describes how, under the threat of Tejero’s pistol, three Spanish political leaders stayed upright in their seats, refusing to hide under their benches. They were Santiago Carrillo, the historical leader of the Communist Party, Adolfo Suárez, the first Prime Minister of democratic Spain, and his deputy, General Guttiérrez Mellado.

Despite the shots, not one of them blinked, an act of courage and determination that anchored forever democracy in Spanish souls. Spanish democracy was born under the pistol of the putschist Tejero, so no one among us has to give a lesson in democracy to Spain.

Now, 36 years later, Spanish democracy has to surmount itself again – to surmount this deep division and to overcome this existential crisis. It has to do so not by believing that the judiciary can solve the problems on its own, and certainly not by using deplorable violence, even though it is based on a court ruling. In other words, this cannot be done just by relying on the power of the state.

I urge all sides to stop the escalation and to go and sit around the table. The spirit there, around that table, has to be the understanding that the future of more than 70 European nations, the future of Catalonia, the future of my own Flemish community, lies not in brutal separation but lies in deep cooperation – cooperation inside federal structures in a federal Europe. Look a little bit – if I can ask that – to your own Basque countrymen. Look at what they have achieved, how they have developed their country, defeating terrorism and reinventing themselves, proud and autonomous.

Other speakers praised modern Spanish democracy and contrasted it with the Franco dictatorship. They might have pointed out that Franco was particularly harsh on the Catalans and that the actions of the Guardia Civil must have roused disquieting memories for older citizens of Catalonia.

If I had been the Spanish prime minister this summer, I would have said to the Catalan chief minister: "have your referendum if you must - we will not try to stop you - but bear in mind that it will be no more than an opinion poll because it will not have the force of law. Of course, we will seriously listen to the outcome if a large majority of those eligible to vote indicate dissatisfaction with the current constitutional arrangements." That would have avoided the violence and probably encouraged those Catalans - estimated to be as much as half the population - who do not want separation to come out and influence the final vote.

Realistically, there would be little future for Catalonia, as for Scotland, as an independent state. There would have to be unanimity by the EU member states in order to accept her as another member, and Spain is not the only country who would vote against. Catalonia may be the most productive region of Spain, but over a third of its output goes to the rest of Spain. Outside the EU tariff wall, that production could virtually disappear.

However, the Catalans have a good case for more autonomy. It seems they do not yet have all the powers available to the Basques. There must be talks.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Historical child abuse

The long-awaited inquiry into sexual abuse of children in Rochdale in the last century has got under way. One wonders why the official announcement goes out of its way to name Sir Cyril Smith alone as an exploiter of Knowl View special school. Smith could not have acted alone and indeed earlier reports (which unfortunately have dropped off the Google search time-frame) named the fellow-councillors who joined him in providing themselves a facility in which their sexual predilections could have free rein. The very fact that Rochdale council resisted an inquiry for so long is implicit testimony that more than one councillor (which Smith was when the only abuse we can be sure he committed) was involved. One trusts that the inquiry names and shames those other councillors, even though they are probably now all dead, like Smith.

That abuse, detailed by Private Eye when Smith was still alive and never challenged in the courts, was mild by comparison with some of the more lurid allegations which have been made since Smith's death. What is more serious is the cover-up which followed.

The cover-up extended to procuring a knighthood for Cyril Smith in one of Margaret Thatcher's lists. Jimmy Savile was another who benefited the same way. Both were made less touchable thereby. Perhaps there should be an inquiry into how major honours were awarded under Thatcher.

In the case of both Savile and Smith, the abuse could have been stopped at an early stage. Other people knew about it (rather more about Savile's than Smith's) but chose to remain silent.

Edward Heath is different. Nobody accused him of abuse in his lifetime. His close friends and his godchildren were genuinely shocked when the latest accusations surfaced. In spite of denials by Thames Valley police, I believe they are false, generated by a "fishing-trip". There are obvious reasons for Edward Heath's name to be blackened at the present time.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Professional tennis

Around this time ninety years ago, Dan Maskell, a professional coach and thus unable to take part in the prestigious amateur events, helped to organise the first world professional lawn tennis championships at his home club, Queen's. He duly won it.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Conservative disloyalty

Challenged on cix to define the term "the Establishment" which I had off-handedly tossed into an argument, I consulted Anthony Sampson's analyses of modern Britain which I felt sure contained a snappy definition. (For the record, even Sampson reckoned it was more of a perception than a defined entity; it seems that the closest one can get is "the closed circle of interlocking families and interests which are perceived to run the country" [my gloss].) At the time of writing his first analysis, The Anatomy of Britain, it was natural to link the Establishment with the Conservative party. In the pages on the latter I was struck by this observation:

Who really runs the Conservative party? The question is carefully shrouded in mystery: 'Loyalty,' said Lord  Kilmuir, 'is the Tory's secret weapon'

That rang true in 1962, before Heath, Thatcher and finally Hague democratised the selection of leader, and they and John Major broke the stranglehold which old Etonians had on the party. The annual conference is even more tightly controlled now (thanks largely to Lord Bell) than it was then - I remember actual debate in the 1960s and 1970s - and the press (TV was rather more restrained then) would run conspiracy stories, but today's open gang warfare would not have been permitted.

Another worry for the Conservatives must be their dependence on outside finance. In the late 1990s through the early years of this century, the Conservatives must have lost half the money from industry and the City, which they traditionally counted on, to the finance-friendly New Labour of Blair, Brown and Mandelson. However, they still had their base of around 400,000 members (estimate in "The Conservatives in Crisis", Manchester University Press). So, the party remained viable and was able to mount slick (and arguably dishonest) campaigns in 2010 and 2015, especially as commercial interests deserted Labour in the light of the mishandling of the economy. However, the returning money was predicated on the Cameron manifesto of continued membership of a reformed EU. Only those interests which will clearly benefit from Brexit will keep contributing to Tory coffers. Meanwhile, membership has plunged.

The last time that the Conservatives reported their membership was in 2013, when the total was said to be 149,800. Since then, the party has remained silent on the subject, but there are reports that the total had fallen to 100,000 this year and was on a downward trend. This week's conference will not have helped recruitment.

It's what Wales voted for, part 15 and last

In part 12, this blog passed on the message that Welsh UKIP seats were helping to fund the party in England. A lot of good it has done them, since the results of yesterday's local by-elections show that the party organisation has fallen apart. Now Peter Black reports that the party's final financial prop has been kicked away.

So I am winding up this series in anticipation of the party itself entering its death throes before long.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Port Talbot steel

Earlier this week, the Evening Post voiced the fears of many of us that the long-term future of the Port Talbot works is less certain in the hands of Thyssenkrupp than it was under the original Tata management. When there is another downturn in the demand for steel, Port Talbot will be top of the list for sacrifice ahead of more profitable plants owned by Thyssenkrupp on the continent. The worker representatives on the latter's supervisory board (a post-war German initiative which the UK should have followed long ago) are clearly going to give priority to their fellow Germans if there is a threat to company profitability, especially as they will know that the borough voted to turn its back on the EU in last year's referendum.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Another way in which Thatcher was wrong

In the course of her speech in Manchester earlier this week, the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said:
For all the devolution of power in the last 20 years, our Union continues to be far too London-centric. [...] Where you can sell a three bed semi in Ilford, and buy half of Sutherland. Where, in a capital city already zooming forward on the jet fuel of high finance, the economy is further boosted by enough civil servants to fill Wembley stadium.

In 1963, the Conservative government set up the Location of Offices Bureau, assigned the task of encouraging the decentralisation of offices from central London. The Wilson-Callaghan administrations of 1964-1970 allowed it to continue (incidentally, enabling my move to the Swansea Valley with DVL in 1969).  Edward Heath between 1970 and 1974 encouraged it and it was not until Mrs Thatcher's doctrinaire government that it was abolished in the arbitrary bonfire of the quangos.

That marked the turning of the tide of decentralisation. Thatcher/Major and Blair/Brown concentrated power in the centre again, financially in the City of London and administratively in Westminster. This has resulted in the symptoms which Ms Davidson described.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Hammond tells that old lie about the European Community

In his speech to the Conservatives' rally in Manchester yesterday. the chancellor of the exchequer repeated the canard that a previous Conservative government had taken the UK into an organisation that was only a common market, that the EC and the EEC had morphed into the monolithic and authoritarian EU without our government being able to do anything about it.

Well, I am a little older than Mr Hammond and I distinctly remember that giving up some of our sovereignty was part of the discussion at the time of our accession and during the campaign leading up to the referendum of 1975. Moreover, the objective of an "ever-closer union" is explicit within the preamble to the founding treaty of the EEC and subsequent revisions - is Mr Hammond saying that predecessor ministers, including Mrs Thatcher, did not read what they were signing up to?

The EU has demonstrably become more democratic since Rome, from the adding of the words “in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen” after “ever-closer union” in subsequent treaties, to giving power to the elected European Parliament to hold the councils of ministers and the Commission to account, including the right to propose legislation.

So the EU is less authoritarian than the old EEC. Moreover, the aspiration to be a United States of Europe has been watered down and, if the signs from Mr Cameron's rather clumsy 2015 negotiations are to be believed, may well have disappeared from the next treaty revision. Instead, Mrs May's decision to withdraw has revived the imperial spirit in France and no doubt some quarters in Germany, to the dismay of liberals and democrats throughout Europe.

Motive for mass murder

The authorities in Nevada are said to be searching for a motive for yesterday's shooting, why a successful retired accountant with a steady rental income, whose only apparent flaw was an addiction to gambling, should have treated fellow human beings enjoying country music like targets in a video game.  I believe that the only answer is, that like our own Harold Shipman, because he could.

When I saw the pictures of the aftermath, of the position of the hotel in relation to the open-air concert, some dialogue from The Third Man came back to me. Holly Martins is talking to Harry Lime atop the giant ferris wheel in Vienna:
Martins: Have you ever seen any of your victims?
Harry Lime: You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?

The more physically distant or more dissociated from their potential victims psychopaths (and there are rather more people with psychopathic tendencies around than one cares to contemplate) are, the more ready they are to indulge their fantasies. What deters them is the lack of means.

The US should learn from Australia, another country with a frontier, anti-colonial mentality, where guns were almost part of everyday life. A massacre in Tasmania twenty-one years ago caused the Aussies to take stock and to take action.

The Sydney Morning Herald is not optimistic that the US will follow:

We point over and over to our own success with gun control in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre, that Australia has not seen a mass shooting since and that we are still a free and open society. We have not bought our security at the price of liberty; we have instead consented to a social contract that states lives are precious, and not to be casually ended by lone madmen. But it is a message that means nothing to those whose ideology is impervious to evidence.
You might think, from a distance, that this slaughter would at least dispel the myth that carrying a gun brings personal security. Even had every concert goer been armed, it would not have saved them from a killer 32 floors above them in a room full of military weapons. But history tells us Americans will learn no such lesson.
Even before the full scale of Sunday's slaughter was known, the US gun lobby was swinging into action, framing this as an event akin to a natural disaster, random and ultimately unpreventable. Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin was one of the first, tweeting "To all those political opportunists who are seizing on the tragedy in Las Vegas to call for more gun regs ... you can't regulate evil ..."
And he's right. You can't regulate evil. But you can disarm it. Once again we pray that the US will come to its senses and do just that. And once again, we are dreadfully sure it won't.

Sadly, I have to agree with them.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Conservative hypocrisy on student loans

Although the coalition government did not get rid of the student loans system, Vince Cable as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills managed to extract some concessions from chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne. One of them was clearly the guarantee to index the repayment threshold, because it was something that Osborne lost no time in withdrawing when the Conservatives gained an absolute majority in 2015. Now Mrs May's PR people are hailing as a great new offer to students what looks like merely returning to a coalition policy.

This "U-turn" would still leave the repayment threshold below the average household disposable income of £27,200. If England is to retain the student loans system, it should surely reflect the uplift that a university degree is supposed to confer. Residents of non-EU origin are liable to be deported if they earn less than £35,000 p.a. This looks like an arbitrary figure, rather than a reflection of an above-average contribution to UK society - why not bring the two figures into line at, say, £28,000 (index-linked)? If the chancellor is not willing to do that, then he should cut the punitive interest rate on student loans - and stop the periodic sellings-off of loan books to commercial interests.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Free trade or fair trade?

Vince Cable criticises Mrs May for espousing free trade while moving to exclude the UK from the most successful free trade area, the EU. He might have added that at the same time the EU protects third-world countries within its ambit from unfair competition. To those who would criticise the EU itself for being a protectionist organisation, I would reply that the best way to lower any protectionist barriers is to remain a member and work towards that end. Outside, we have no influence and concede more power to those EU nations with a protectionist bent.

But I would point out another May hypocrisy. She is quoted as saying:
A free market economy, operating under the right rules and regulations, is the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created.

The failures which Corbyn and McDonnell point to do not result from the nature of capitalism but the timidity of governments in the face of over-mighty financial and commercial interests, which if unchecked lead to cartels and monopolies. Mrs May does not have all the "right rules and regulations" at her disposal, and those she does have are not consistently applied. In this, she has followed the laissez-faire attitude of Blair, Brown and Mandelson. It does not help that the current president of the United States seeks to remove controls on multi-national corporations, but unless the government makes the effort to restore fairness to the economy, the Corbyn message that the only alternatives on offer are unfettered capitalism or a Stalinist state may become accepted wisdom.