Sunday, 31 December 2017

One hundred years of divorce in Russia

A decree published in Russia on 18th December 1917 (old style) made divorce legal.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Year-on-year inflation

UK CPI year-on-year inflation hit 3.1% in November, and is predicted to be at a similar level for December. Part of an EU trend no doubt? Well no, as you might have guessed from the BBC's omitting comparative figures from its reports earlier this month. I extracted these figures for 2017 from

Month     CPI inflation in France   Estonia    Italy         UK
January                              1.34%     2.76%   1.00%    1.91%
February                            1.21%     3.41%   1.61%    2.30%
March                                1.15%     2.82%   1.41%    2.30%
April                                  1.17%     3.18%   1.91%    2.69%
May                                   0.81%     3.33%   1.40%    2.89%
June                                   0.69%     2.91%   1.20%    2.68%
July                                   0.72%      3.57%   1.18%    2.58%
August                              0.90%      3.93%   1.20%    2.87%
September                        0.99%      3.67%   1.10%    2.97%
October                            1.06%      3.78%   1.00%    2.96%
November                        1.20%      4.24%   0.90%    3.16%

Italy has a similar economic mix to the UK. France by some measures has just overtaken UK in the table of richest nations. I have included Estonia as the only other EU nation where CPI was consistently above Britain's. However, it should be pointed out that this is a small and still fast-growing economy, exceeding 4% GDP growth in each quarter so far in 2017. UK did not reach 1% in any of those quarters.

Taxes and honours

William Wallace makes a compelling case for bringing the UK into line with comparable democracies in relation to tax fairness: He concludes:

The IMF urges the UK to narrow the tax gap between employed and self-employed, to shift property taxation from sales to values, and to reduce tax allowances on corporate debt. Above all, it calls for higher taxes, to invest in public services while shrinking long-term debt, and to cope with the increasing proportion of elderly. Liberals and social democrats should grasp the argument that an open, democratic society rests on a sense of common citizenship, shared community and social justice, and that redistributive taxation is an essential element in building and maintaining that sense.

There is justification for going beyond the tax rates proposed while we have the additional burden of sharing the cost of nuclear weapons with the USA, which none of our competitors have. I resent having to borrow money to pay for armaments over which an increasingly bellicose and isolationist US has ultimate control.


Looked at objectively, the award of a knighthood to Nick Clegg is unexceptionable. Many men who have contributed less to public life have been so honoured. However, the Conservative government must have known that it would stir up old animosities within the Lib Dems at a time when the party is regrouping under new leaders in Westminster and Wales.

I repeat my own view that Nick is an instinctive liberal, and that if he had wanted to join the Conservatives he could easily have done so, and would have had a successful career as a Tory MP, maybe even as a junior minister, to this day. He was handicapped by his sheltered experience of life, never having to worry about where the next pound was coming from, and by the fact that, though he led the party, he was never of the party.

An honour for Jo Swinson was long overdue. It is "only" a CBE this time round, but she is young yet and a damehood will surely come with leadership of the party.

More here:

Friday, 29 December 2017

Whither the Welsh Liberal Democrats?

As may be obvious to regular readers, I have not produced much original material over Advent and the early Christmas holidays, either raiding my sock-drawer of  previously discarded drafts or even leaving a blank page. The reason was a very heavy cold, which affected concentration on reading other people's blogs also. So I have only just got around to reading in full Peter Black's weighty piece from Christmas Eve.

One must bow to his analysis of what got us to here, though I wonder what he now thinks might have happened if the "rainbow alliance" had gone ahead. It is clear that if Welsh Liberal Democrats had been in government from 2007 on, the disastrous cuts to the NHS in Wales perpetrated by the "One Wales" government would not have been made. On the other hand, would we have achieved the local government gains in 2008 if Labour had been able to hit us early with the slogan "in bed with the Tories", or been so successful in Wales in the general election of 2010?

 I agree with him that the party is in good hands both here in Wales (with Jane Dodds) and on the UK stage (Vince Cable). However, it is going to be an uphill struggle. Not just England and Wales, but also the whole Western world, seems to be going through an illiberal phase, and public opinion in Wales is dominated by the London media as Peter points out:

Our other problem is one of identity. Unlike Scotland, Wales does not have a national media to speak of. The Western Mail, the so-called national newspaper of Wales is outsold by its more regional sister papers, the South Wales Evening Post and the South Wales Echo. There is no one Welsh newspaper that can be bought anywhere in Wales, whilst much of rural Wales relies on weeklies for their news and gossip. One of the biggest selling papers in Montgomeryshire is the Shropshire Star.

Most people rely on UK newspapers and UK TV and radio channels for their news. As with the rest of the world, these traditional news outlets are declining in favour of internet-based media. That is an area which the Federal Party is still playing catch-up on, the Welsh Party are decades behind them.

Part of the trouble is the lack of money. In Westminster, the party - as the only one on the national stage supporting staying in the EU - has been receiving contributions from business and can expect more as the Brexit deadline date looms. In Wales we are living off scraps, and have to rely on ingenuity and much voluntary action.

I should like to see us make much more of the fact that Liberal Democrats are not bound by sectional interests, by financial speculators, the trade unions or narrow nationalism. We should not be a party favouring only those with sharp elbows, as we were seen to be under Nick Clegg. Perhaps more contentiously, I suggest that our desire through the EU  for joint control of matters which no single nation can tackle alone is only a step towards greater international cooperation and away from the sort of isolationism espoused by Mrs May and the current president of the United States. It is worth restating the opening to the Liberal Democrat constitution, and perhaps some of our parliamentarians should re-read it:

The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.

We look forward to a world in which all people share the same basic rights, in which they live together in peace and in which their different cultures will be able to develop freely. We believe that each generation is responsible for the fate of our planet and, by safeguarding the balance of nature and the environment, for the long term continuity of life in all its forms.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Cole Porter's lyrics

Perhaps Donald Macleod has been stretching the definition of "composer" in recent years in his regular Composer of the Week programme on Radio 3. Musicals are essentially a collaborative venture and one of the distinctions between them and opera is that there is always a professional orchestrator on hand to provide the scoring for the former, while the opera composer tends to be in sole charge. Kurt Weill, one of the few writers of both musicals and opera, was rather scornful of composers who could not score their own melodies. George Gershwin, aspiring for opera- and concert-hall respectability, though largely self-taught, orchestrated his latter works, including Porgy and Bess, himself. For me, Irving Berlin, who could do little more than pick out his tunes on a piano , was a step too far for CotW. However, there is much less doubt about the classically-trained Richard Rodgers who could certainly write a basic score, though he found it a chore, and this week's subject, Cole Porter, similarly qualified.

Rightly, Macleod has concentrated on Porter's music and its sources. However, I find the origins of his skill at word-setting equally interesting. Porter was fiercely protective of his lyrics, and would rather withdraw a song from a show than accede to a request to alter even a line. (The one person for whom he made an exception was his long-time friend, Ethel Merman.) He particularly objected to Sinatra's altering his words in performance, once firing off a telegram to the effect: "if you don't like my songs the way I wrote them, why do you sing them?". His favourite interpreter was Fred Astaire, who did not have the greatest voice but who stuck squarely to the sheet music.

Cole's father, Samuel Fenwick Porter, is described in the Wikipedia entry as "a shy and unassertive man", though one finds this difficult to square with the fact that, starting with a single drug-store, he built up a chain of stores. He was also rather more hands-on with his boy's education than Wikipedia suggests. A seemingly-frustrated poet himself, he drilled the young Cole in the works of English poets, especially Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets like Donne. One wonders whether his initial reluctance to tackle Kiss me, Kate was as much due to resentment at this early training as to diffidence at matching himself against the Bard.

Sadly, I can back little of the foregoing two paragraphs with URIs, reliant as I am of my memory of the first biography of Cole Porter by his friend George Eells. Because this (naturally, in view of the date of publication) side-stepped its subject's homosexuality - while not avoiding descriptions of Porter's camp life-style - it has been largely disregarded in favour of Charles Schwartz's later work.
However, I feel that the early influences should be given their due weight.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Merry Christmas and a Good Yule

Happy Christmas, everyone, and, in the immortal words of Dave Allen, may your god go with you!

Friday, 22 December 2017

Conductors' personal standards, then and now

Jessica Duchen draws attention to charges of sexual misconduct against Charles Dutoit. This is one of the great orchestral conductors of any age, and his fall from grace would be significant.

Stellar orchestral conductors' careers threatened by sex scandals immediately called to mind the sad end of Sir Eugene Goossens'. I dimly remembered the reports of an Australian customs' seizure of pornography, but the full story emerged only within the last few years. The Sydney Morning Herald of July 2015 tells it: The brilliant career of conductor Sir Eugene Goossens came to an abrupt end in 1956 with a scandal over dirty photos. What the public didn't know was that his downfall was the result of his sexual obsession with a Pan-worshipping witch.

At the same time, the misuse of power as described by JD was doubtless going on. Goossens was a self-deluded man who, while his predilections remained private, did no harm to anyone. History will be less hard on him than any conductor who has blighted the life of a vulnerable performer or acolyte, and rightly so.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Paul Clement

I had gone to bed last night, having drafted the following for insertion on Saturday morning, before the match with Crystal Palace:

It is not enough to win today - given the Swans' record against the Eagles in recent years, the relative position of the two teams in the Premier League and the fact that the match is to be played at the Liberty, everyone expects a home win - the win must be an emphatic one. If Swans' strikers are not encouraged to express themselves to the extent of a margin of three goals or more, I see little hope for progression under the current management.

I woke up to the news that Paul Clement had been sacked. That has not changed my view of the match. Whoever is to take over at the Liberty - and it is unlikely that the American owners have taken this major step without having a replacement lined up - must ensure that performance levels rise.

I am sure Paul Clement will find greater success in the future. He did pretty well with Swansea City considering he had clearly little say over transfer policy.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Electrification: a reminder of what could have been

This posting was inspired by an official Network Rail media release headed "Severn Tunnel modernisation" sneaked out last year:

Autumn 2016
We’re working to transform the Severn Tunnel. The130-year old structure will close for six weeks from 12th September – 21st October 2016 to allow us to install electrical equipment that will ultimately power the new passenger trains.
The new fleet of electric trains will mean faster, quieter, greener, more reliable journeys between Swansea and London. With reduced journey times and more seats, journeys will be more comfortable for passengers.
The railway is set to be electrified from London to Cardiff by 2019 and to Swansea by 2024.[My emphasis]

Under the coalition Cardiff would have been electrified by the end of this year and Swansea soon thereafter.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

How many moves ahead?

It is a hoary old chess story, which points up the difference between tactics and strategy. The master of combination play is asked how many moves ahead he calculates and replies "usually 20" (or 10, or 30, according to the source); the positional player is then posed the same question and says: "One - but always the best one". The history of the tale is explored here.

I was reminded of that when I read Jon Andrew's contribution on Liberal Democrat Voice to the predictions stakes. He writes: "If a chess player decided that he or she had no idea what the next ten moves would bring so didn’t bother planning ahead, they would find themselves checkmated pretty quickly." Well, that is true up to a point. It certainly applies if you are an attacking player: you need to see deep into the branches of the tree of moves to make sure that there is not a hidden flaw in your logic. Likewise, if you are on the wrong end of an attack, you need to work out the best way to survive it. However, several very successful grandmasters (Tigran Petrosian comes to mind) relied on the steady accretion of small advantages leading to a winning position. For them, it was probably necessary only to check no more than two or three moves ahead. Of course, they depended on a positional sense developed over years of experience.

Yes, Liberal Democrats need to think tactically and many a local council or by-election campaign has been won by reading the runes and switching resources or changing a line of attack accordingly. On the other hand, one may also point to a couple of occasions in general election campaigns when the leader failed to anticipate the nature of a counter-attack by the Conservatives and their supporters in the media.

The long-term strategy must be right too, and I would define that as continually hammering out the core message of what the party stands for. Otherwise, the party is seen as a set of opportunists, not much different from the others.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Arthur C Clarke Day

Arthur C Clarke was born in Minehead 100 years ago today. He never lost his Somerset accent.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Is Chris Froome putting his health at risk?

Related imageCycling Weekly has explained the background to the latest performance-enhancing drug charges against cyclist Chris Froome.

The standard salbutamol single dose is 100 micrograms. That is usually enough to relieve asthma symptoms quickly. Only in the case of a severe attack should more than a couple of puffs be needed. Chris Froome's test showed that he had exceeded the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules (1,600 micrograms of salbutamol can be taken by an athlete via inhaler in a 24-hour period without the need for a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) certificate) even allowing for build-up in the system.

If a preventer (e.g. an inhaled corticosteroid) is taken regularly there should be only occasional need for salbutamol. In New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s, beta-agonists (the class of drug to which salbutamol belongs) were prescribed for prophylactic use. Prescribing policy changed when the rate of deaths among asthmatics began to rise noticeably.

Salbutamol is safer than the favoured drug in New Zealand, but even so at high doses there are side-effects affecting the heart and even breathing. I would be worried if I found myself taking 400 micrograms in a 24-hour period, yet I understand Froome's medical advice is that he can take up to 800 micrograms in 12 hours. If, as the latest test seems to show, he exceeded that during La Vuelta, then questions must be asked.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Labour set to repeat old mistakes

The Guardian reports that John McDonnell has spoken at the launch of a report commissioned by Labour on how to better direct investment and improve productivity.

A possible Labour plan to move much of the Bank of England from London to Birmingham and other cities would form part of wider efforts to rebalance the UK economy away from a reliance on the south-east, John McDonnell has said.

 The shadow chancellor said too many decisions were made in Whitehall or Westminster, resulting in “a distortion of economic policy direction”, and there was also an argument for holding sessions of parliament around the country. 

 The report, produced by an economics consultancy and a management consultant firm, argues that far too much investment, particularly in high-tech sectors, is focused only on London and the south-east and east of England. To redress this imbalance, the report suggests locating Labour’s planned national investment bank in Birmingham and making the city home to a new strategic investment board to liaise between the Treasury, the Bank of England and the business department. It says some functions of the Bank of England should be moved to Birmingham, with more offices for the bank in Glasgow, Belfast, Cardiff, Newcastle and Plymouth, to ensure better regional decision-making. McDonnell did not rule out the idea that this could mean the Bank largely leaving Threadneedle Street in London, where it has been based for almost 300 years.

I am all for moving administrative functions out of London, but splintering the Bank of England looks like repeating the mistakes of Brown/Balls Treasury when the tripartite system of financial regulation led to speculators playing the system, enabling the transatlantic credit crunch of 2007/8.

Monday, 11 December 2017

ME helpline

Today Clare Ogden of Action for ME sent out an email offering advice and a contact number for sufferers during this period which can be stressful. As someone who knows what it is be frustrated by a body which won't do what you want it to, I am happy to pass this on.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Star status and sexual exploitation

This was written about opera and paedophilia, but, changing some of the terms, it could have been about the pop world, theatre or even politics and any variety of sexual abuse:

The cult of interpretive genius in which a single man can come to be seen as so gifted and important that institutions and systems will protect him for 40 years is connected to a view of sexual abuse that sees perpetrators as uniquely perverted predators rather than as the horribly predictable outcomes of the accumulation of power. In order to make and hear music in healthy ways, and think about sex in healthy ways, we must destroy and replace the insular star system and the dysfunctional and unjust accumulations of power it enables.

Friday, 8 December 2017

We are heading for permanent transition status with the EU

In other words, a messy typical British compromise which will please no one. The UK will be giving up its right to influence EU decisions, both in the Council and the European Parliament, which is what members of the European Movement (such as myself) have been fighting against. On the other hand, the UK will not be able to break free of the customs union so long as the Irish border problem remains, i.e., indefinitely. This will displease those who expected Cameron and May to keep their promises to take us out of the EU altogether.

It would be a Norway-style relationship in all but name. If I remember correctly, I predicted this outcome in a Web debate organised by the Evening Post during the general election campaign - I certainly remember saying that nobody would be happy with the outcome of the negotiations.

Of course, Vince Cable could be right in his assessment that her own party will tear Mrs May's accord with the DUP and the EU27 to shreds, in which case we will be back to square one.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Sack-Damian-Green-at-all-costs camp should beware of what they wish for

It is very tempting to use any pretext to drive a minister in a government you hate out of office and out of parliament. However, consider the precedent which would be set. Any member with iffy (including politically dubious as well as sexual material) images on his office computer could be scapegoated. It could lead to vigilante groups organised by opposing whips, barging into suspects' offices in the hope of seeing something they could feed to the media.

The history of the Green affair as laid out in this Guardian article.

Two senior police officers have now condemned the retired policemen and even suggested they could be prosecuted.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The protean Brian O'Nolan

It was good to hear celebrated the life of the wonderful Irish writer Flann O'Brien. The Great Lives programme on Radio 4 had time only to concentrate on the books and just touched on the other personae of a man who was brought up as an Irish speaker ("before it became fashionable") in Ulster - before the partition, of course - but made a living as a civil servant and writer in Dublin.

So there was no space for Myles na gCopaleen's (his identity as a columnist in the Irish Times) weakness for puns. A running gag comprised supposed dialogues between Keats and Chapman which concluded with a pun by Keats. This is the one I remember best: (There is a representative sample of Myles at'Brien)  Myles was an obvious influence on the late, great, Miles Kington and to a lesser extent on other writers of humorous newspaper columns.

The classic Brian O'Nolan pun was surely the one which terminated a brave piece contributed to the Guardian newspaper in the early 1960s, and the one which introduced me to Flann O'Brien. It was a history of episodes in his writing life and his ambiguous relationship with organised religion, relating how each public criticism he made of the latter was followed by some seemingly divine punishment. It was funny and touching at the same time, culminating in a description of the facial cancer which was to kill him. The pay-off was that he supposed that the article had been his "agony in the Guardian".

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The railway in Cardiff

There is news of developments in Cardiff, gleaned from Rail Wales, the magazine of Railfuture in Wales.

Approval has been given for the restoration of the building at Cardiff Bay (formerly Bute Street) station. It is rather more imposing than a mere station building and I suspect it may have housed the offices of one of the many local railway companies which were eventually absorbed by the Great Western. One cheer for preserving the existing structure (and hopefully what remains of the Victorian interior), but none for the unsympathetic extension which has also been given approval.

No cheers for Cardiff city council and its chosen developer for yet again postponing a decent replacement for the bus stands which used to be so convenient for travellers to the capital via Cardiff Central station. It now looks as if there will be no new Cardiff bus station before 2020.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Railfuture Cymru tweets

Tweets on topical news affecting rails in Wales, plus links to items of interest outside the nation, can be found @RailfutureWales.

Railfuture Wales is always looking to widen its membership. We have too few women (whereas our Scottish cousin has a woman in the chair!) and we could do with more members under retiring age. If you are a Welsh-speaker, you would be especially welcome; please click on the Railfuture logo in the side-bar to take yourself to the Web site.

Et in Arcadia ego

It should not have come as a surprise, but sexual harassment is as common in the orchestras playing the sublime music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms as it was back-stage in the Young Vic. Perhaps the situation is worse in orchestras because they have been virtually male preserves (apart from the occasional lady harpist) until the 1960s. It also took some time before the policy of integration which started in provincial orchestras like the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic reached the London orchestras, something which was not achieved until the 1980s. However, it seems that the worst excesses affect freelance players.

The Music Matters programme which exposed the extent is repeated this evening at 22:00.

[Later: Jessica Duchen has written an extensive piece about misuse of power in the world of music]

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Votes at 16 put off yet again

Conservatives objected to the Representation of the People (Young People's Enfranchisement and Education) Bill at the session devoted to Private Members' Bills last Friday. So the adjourned Second Reading is deferred to May 2018 when it may well be overtaken by another general election and therefore lost. The Bill has received only the initial 90 minutes debate of November 3rd, much of which was absorbed by a speech by Bernard Jenkin and spurious interventions and points of order from other Conservatives.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Wales at Work no more

The Radio Wales business programme, that is. Like so many good broadcasts these days, its content is now only on the Web, though presenter Brian Meechan remains as industrial correspondent. Considering that some of the most enterprising small businesses in Wales are in areas of zero or poor broadband and minimal mobile telephone coverage, the decision to take Wales at Work off-air seems very short-sighted.

Radio 4 has Inside Business, but this tends to centre on international and big UK businesses. At least we still have Country Focus.

Friday, 1 December 2017

I agree with Tim

Tim Farron spoke recently about the conjunction of Christianity and liberalism. As has been recommended in another place, his entire Theos speech is worth reading but I would pick out one of his conclusions:

I believe in pluralism, I am not a secularist but I believe in a secular society where there is no ‘state faith’. That in Britain we have a church trapped as part of the furniture of the state is a waste of a church. A boat in the water is good. Water in the boat, is bad. A church in the state is good, the state in the church is bad. Really bad. It pollutes the message of that church. It compromises it. Weakens its witness.

I am a secularist, but I agree with that. We are fortunate in Wales in that there is no established church.

The media and the public generally should not give Tim or any other declared Christian a harder time than they do Sadiq Khan, a practising Muslim, or Lord Winston, an observant Jew, or any of the prominent practitioners of other faiths. We should also recognise the liberal aspects of most other great faiths of the world.