Friday, 16 March 2018

Nick Tregoning

Nick, who died earlier today, was a great companion, quick wit and fighter for what he believed in. This led to a split with the Swansea and Gower party when he recognised and warned against an attempt to hijack it by a person driven purely by personal ambition. In the end, he was proved correct but in the meantime the Aberavon and Neath party were glad to welcome him in order to maintain his Liberal Democrat membership.

He was also a good source of gossip about the workings of the party, but did his stint in making Welsh conferences work. Outside politics, he was a keen amateur theatrical and one trusts there will be fulsome tributes and reminiscences from his colleagues.

We had lost touch over the last few years, initially because of a job that took him to West Wales and latterly because of increasing ill-health. We may never know the nature of the illness which intermittently incapacitated him and which presumably was the ultimate cause of his passing. I only know that fate has robbed us of someone who still had so much to give.

LEO - some computing history to be preserved

From a joint press release issued this week:

The Centre for Computing History, a major archive, hands-on museum and learning centre in Cambridge and the LEO Computers Society, a group passionate about the promotion of the world's first business computer (the Lyons Electronic Office - or LEO - from the 1950s), today announced a new partnership that will work to protect a wide range of heritage objects that are currently at risk.

The direct connection between the two organisations lies in the social and tech history that they both focus on. The LEO Computers Society is committed to getting these British room-sized computers of the past greater recognition as game changers in the development of computing in the UK. The LEO is already recognised in the Guinness Book of Records as the first business computer in the world but its story remains less well-known than it should be. The Centre for Computing History recognises just how important these 'giant brains' were and, following a successful exhibition held at the Centre in November last year, realised how much important documentation the Society has about this key moment in history. They immediately sought to make sure the archive is protected for the long term.

There is more here.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Trump tariffs

There is a useful background briefing from the EU members research service. Some facts and a historical perspective stand out for me:

Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, as amended (19 U.S.C. §1862), authorises the US Secretary of Commerce to conduct investigations that seek to determine the effects of particular imports on US national security. If such an investigation finds that those imports threaten to impair national security, the US President can take action to adjust imports. Since 1963, 26 investigations have been initiated, of which eight found potential security threats and five resulted in presidential action. The most recent investigation dates from 2001 and concerned imports of iron ore and semi-finished steel. It did not find a threat to US national security. According to the Section 232 investigations, the US imported around 30 % of its steel in 2017, and 64 % of its aluminium in 2016 (this figure rises to 89 % for primary aluminium, i.e. not recycled). The Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) has calculated the size and origin of US imports of steel and aluminium for 2017 (in terms of value). In the case of steel, total US imports amounted to US$29 billion, and the top 5 foreign sources were the EU (US$6.2 billion), Canada (US$5.1 billion), South Korea (US$2.8 billion), Mexico (US$2.5 billion) and Brazil (US$2.4 billion). For aluminium, total US imports amounted to US$17 billion, and the top 5 sources foreign sources were Canada (US$6.9 billion), China (US$1.8 billion), Russia (US$1.6 billion), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (US$1.3 billion) and the EU (US$1.1 billion).
The Trump administration bases its decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium imports on national security concerns. Under WTO law, countries can indeed invoke national security to justify trade restrictions: the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) contains security exceptions in Article XXI that permit WTO members to deviate from the agreement’s rules in specific cases. So far, countries have rarely invoked these exceptions and the WTO has never had to make a ruling on it (though recently there have been a few instances in which Article XXI GATT was brought up, including a dispute between Qatar and the UAE).

Wednesday, 14 March 2018


That is how responsible people budget: first, they work out what they can afford; then they decide what their priorities are; and then they allocate between them.
(From the Chancellor's statement yesterday)

So there we have it. Not decide what the basic priorities are and then work out how to obtain the money to cope, but sense what your conservative constituency will volunteer in tax and dole out accordingly. Even within his narrow brief, the chancellor has his priorities wrong - for instance, why are we spending so much in the US on a Trident replacement, when we cannot guarantee the safety of a political refugee on the streets of one of our great cities?

The chancellor made much of GDP growth figures, both actual and forecast:
The economy grew by 1.7% in 2017, compared with the 1.5% forecast at the Budget, and the OBR has revised up its forecast for 2018 from 1.4% to 1.5%.

But, as several opposition speakers pointed out, on both counts those figures put the UK at the bottom of the G7 league table. Moreover, as I have pointed out previously in this blog, our growth has been lower, and predicted to continue to be lower, than in the rest of the EU while inflation last year was the second-highest in the Union.

Both Mr Hammond and the former chancellor made much of the fact that at long last the day-to-day government deficit has been eliminated. Much of the credit for that is owed to David Laws, the coalition's first secretary to the Treasury and perhaps his target would have been reached sooner if it had not been for needless tax concessions to the top earners and to the banks.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018


Yesterday was Commonwealth Day. I would have missed the fact but for the BBC's taking the opportunity to broadcast more pictures of Meghan Markle (she attended the annual service in Westminster Abbey accompanying the Queen and other members of the royal family). At a time when the government is anticipating the European family, one would have thought that they would have given more prominence to the Commonwealth. We may have to rely on their goodwill.

And what is being done to counteract France's charm offensive in India? We did not wrest control of India from the French 250 years ago, only for us to lose economic influence there now.

Corbyn was right to raise Russian economic influence

but chose the wrong time to do it

We are all familiar with the way in which huge fortunes, often acquired in the most dubious circumstances in Russia and sometimes connected with criminal elements, have ended up sheltering in London and trying to buy political influence in British party politics—“meddling in elections”, as the Prime Minister put it. There have been more than £800,000 of donations to the Conservative party from Russian oligarchs and their associates. If that is the evidence before the Government, they could be taking action to introduce new financial sanctions powers even before the investigation into Salisbury is complete.

The whole question of Russian investment, especially of "hot" money, in the UK needs looking at. Further, the suggestion that money is channelled to MPs (on all sides of the house) from Russia through third parties - consultancies and commodity traders and so on - should be investigated. 
However, Jeremy Corbyn was rightly criticised - not least from his own side of the house - for linking the subject at such a sensitive time to the Salisbury nerve gas attack.

Perhaps an honourable member could raise it at an adjournment, if neither the government nor the back-bench business committee sees fit to allocate time to it. One can understand the official opposition's reluctance to air the malign influence of dubious inward investments in the City, since the doors were opened to them during the Blair-Brown years. Private members who wish to mount such a debate will find ample briefings in back editions of Private Eye.

On another matter which was raised in yesterday's questions on the prime ministerial statement, Labour's Chris Bryant was wrong when he asked:
can we just stop Russia Today broadcasting its propaganda in this country?

while  Conservative Crispin Blunt was surely right:
while I support all the measures the Prime Minister will take against the Government of Russia if the situation turns out to be as we all anticipate, will she try, as far as is possible, to ensure that British society, in its widest sense, can continue to be open with the people of Russia so that the virus of truth and openness can do its work on that regime?

It is surely better to increase the exposure of the Russian people to an objective view of world affairs rather than censor any broadcaster here. There may be a case for looking at Russia Today's access to the parliamentary estate, however.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Southport conference

Once again, sadly, illness has prevented me from attending Liberal Democrat federal conference - not to mention the expense. Lord Street, Southport, was once reckoned to be the richest in the UK. Things have probably changed with the decline in the fortunes of south-west Lancashire, but prices for B&B were still eye-watering last time I looked.

I have still to digest the reports from the conference, but it looks as if (a) inspiration has been drawn from the charismatic leadership of Justin Trudeau in Canada; (b) there is a reaching out to the people for whom the new Old Labour leadership has no real concern (as opposed to exploiting); (c) membership power ensured that the "top table" did not have all its own way; and of course (d) the party reaffirmed its policy that the only sane way forward for the UK was to remain in the EU.

On the last point, the media seized on Vince's "blaming" old white men for the Brexit vote. I am sorry that he followed the media error, following the rather crude Ashcroft opinion polling, of lumping all over-65s together. I would separate out that post-war generation which experienced the best of the recovery but none of the trauma of war.

However, Brexit was just the first section of the speech. To put it in context, here is the speech in full.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

More on Churchill and the European community

Barnaby Towns, a former adviser to William Hague, links the cinema release of The Darkest Hour to Winston Churchill's view (and that of later Conservative leaders) of Britain within Europe in an article in the current New European. He writes:

Brexiteers fondly quote Churchill – “We are with Europe; but not of it” – but don’t mention that he wrote these words in 1930, for an American magazine. In fact, wartime and post-war Churchill set the tone and precedent for a different conception of the British national interest in Europe.

From Churchill’s May 1940 offer of an indissoluble union with France, the text of which declared “France and Britain shall no longer be two nations,” through his support of Britain’s application to join the European Economic Community in 1961, pragmatic realism defined his approach.

In 1950, Churchill warned of “disadvantages and dangers of standing aloof” from Europe, stating that the opposition was “prepared to consider, and if convinced to accept, the abrogation of national sovereignty, provided that we are satisfied with the conditions and safeguards”. Critical of the Labour government for spurning the European Coal and Steel Community, the EEC’s forerunner, Churchill welcomed the 1957 Treaty of Rome establishing the Common Market, saying “we genuinely wish to join”.

It is interesting that in that speech on the Schuman plan (to set up the ECSC), Churchill also tackled the question of pooled sovereignty.

To win the war we agreed to put our armies under S.H.A.E.F., a great Anglo-American organisation that was for the tactical and limited purposes prescribed. No one would ever have suggested that General Eisenhower should have had the power to say what units of the British Army should be suppressed or disbanded, or how they should be raised or remodelled, or anything like it. All these remained questions within the control of the autonomous sovereign States which were willing to agree to a larger unity for certain well defined functional—I use the "functional" because it is coming into use—functional purposes. Surely, this is one of the points we could have urged, and even have made conditional upon our agreement to any final scheme.

It is simply darkening counsel to pretend, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman did, that by participating in the discussion, under the safeguards and reservations I have read, we could have been committed against our will to anything of this nature. I would add, to make my answer quite clear to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, that if he asked me, "Would you agree to a supranational authority which has the power to tell Great Britain not to cut any more coal or make any more steel, but to grow tomatoes instead?" I should say, without hesitation, the answer is "No." But why not be there to give the answer?

Churchill's analysis highlights the chances we missed to help form the direction of the European Community, perhaps even the Treaty of Rome itself, from its earliest beginnings. Even though we joined late, we helped shape its recent development and we could still be a positive force within the EU if only this reactionary government would see sense.

Gas price vice - the EU dimension

The current Private Eye reports that cross-channel flows of gas stopped last week because regulators in France prevented French traders from selling gas to Britain in order to preserve their own stocks. This would have been in contravention of the EU's principle of the free movement of goods. The Eye says "similar French behaviour 14 years ago caused the European Commission to rap them over the knuckles, and it was supposed to be a thing of the past". It occurs to me that the UK has been too soft in asserting its rights within the EU, expecting to be wet-nursed by the Commission. France would not have stood for such treatment if the positions had been reversed. It does not bode well for gas supply in Donald Tusk's putative Free Trade Agreement.

Friday, 9 March 2018


It is probably too much to expect that the announcement on the White House lawn in the early hours signals the beginning of the end of the sixty-eight-year Korean conflict. However, it does ratchet down the nuclear tension. Hawks in Washington warn that there have been false dawns before, but surely they must concede that the dictatorship in North Korea has never gone this far before.

Two factors must have pushed President Kim into the prospective historic talks with the US President. Firstly, behind-the-scenes pressure from China. Secondly, the prospect of ending UN sanctions. The poverty, peaking in episodes of starvation, of the common people has not cut the icy attitude of the family dictatorship in the past. However, the latest roster of sanctions has clearly threatened the very functioning of the state.

So it looks as if President Kim is ready to concede - after enough caveats wrung from President Trump and his southern neighbours in order to save face - that nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula be put beyond use.

Over one thousand United Kingdom servicemen lost their lives in the Korean war which broke out in 1950. There were also long-term physical and mental traumas. We had joined the US in a coalition under the UN banner, which would not have come together if the Soviet Union had felt able to attend the critical security council meeting and wield her veto. We were forced to borrow to finance our continued military expenditure, which was otherwise being wound-down after the world war.  That debt burden hung over the 1950s and 1960s.

The Korean war stopped in 1953, but reached only a truce. North Korea is still technically at war with South Korea. My initial euphoria at watching, live, the South Korean delegation on the White House steps, similar to my viewing of the breaching of the Berlin Wall, is therefore excusable, but there is a long way to go.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Gas price crisis heightened by government complacency

The recent Arctic surge across Europe drove wholesale gas prices to levels not seen for many years. Britain was then hit by the snowfalls resulting from storm Emma hitting the cold air over these islands, increasing the demand for gas. National Grid was forced to issue its first deficit warning for eight years, threatening to hobble British industry.

The situation was foreseen by The Guardian and Private Eye magazine last summer. Decisions taken then by Centrica and by the Conservative government's refusal to listen to expert opinion calling for a continuing gas storage facility mean that not only was Centrica (and down the line, British consumers) held to ransom by gas traders but also that these price hikes could recur next time there is a "beast from the east". The Conservative government's answer will clearly be to increase shale gas exploitation.

In defence of women's privacy

Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse feels compelled to bring in specific legislation to penalise "upskirting". Vera Baird from the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners is quoted as saying that legislation as it currently stands “is far from clear as there is no specific offence”.

I remember, from before the CPS let alone PCCs, when police were far more ready to use the common law to prosecute men who would invade women's privacy. The tool then was a mirror attached to footwear.

It shows how reluctant the authorities are to use the common law these days, but also how much more complacent the police are about offences insulting to women.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Why does Baron Hain not retire gracefully?

News comes from South Afrcia that Peter Hain, former MP for Neath, has taken up a special adviser rôle with, after the Guptas, probably the nation's most notorious business family.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Gavin Williamson misspoke - but covered his tracks

Europhobes and Americophiles have long maintained that it has been NATO alone which has preserved the UK's security since the last World War. That is disputable, but impossible to refute. However, the Defence Secretary went further yesterday claiming that the EU had nothing to do with keeping the peace in Europe since the war, that this was all down to NATO.

His only excuse is that he is too young to recall the days before the expansion of the EU, when both Spain and Portugal were dictatorships, when Greece suffered a coup allegedly inspired by NATO apparatchiks, or when Turkey (a NATO country) invaded Cyprus (a protectorate of a NATO country).

Someone in government must have had a quiet word with him, because the Hansard record has been softened. It is a grey area, but to me this goes beyond editing "to remove repetitions and obvious mistakes but without taking away from the meaning". At least we know that the official government line is not completely anti-EU.

(In reply to an earlier question Williamson had said: " we cannot outsource Europe’s defence to the United States" . This is interesting in view of UK's dependence on the USA for the Trident programme.)

Not so much a big stick after all

Sajid Javid's statement in the House yesterday must have come as a relief to those running leafy suburbs, having read the trails referred to here.

He still has not addressed the difficulty of those of average income and below in obtaining a home of their own.

Monday, 5 March 2018

May government wields a partial big stick over housing

Peter Black, who knows more about these things than I do, has not commented on Sajid Javid's threatened diktat over house-building, so I shall tentatively venture an opinion. This government's record on aid to home ownership shows a partiality to the larger conservative constituency. It has done nothing to ease the borrowing shackles which prevent councils building homes directly. All that Javid's proposed measure will achieve is to put pressure on green belts and green wedges, where private builders foresee the greatest profits. Ironically, there have already been warning voices that most of the councils affected are Conservative-controlled.

The Trump tariffs

Perhaps I am thinking too simplistically, but surely if car and white goods manufacturers benefit from cheaper steel from across the Canadian border, will not tariffs push up end-prices? If so, will Trump's fans be so enthusiastic?

Sunday, 4 March 2018

What the EU does for people with rare diseases

The EU has the might to rise above the economic liberal assumption that if a drug company cannot make serious profit on drugs to treat rare diseases, then the disease is not worth treating.

The EU provides funding for patients’ organisations that connect patients, families, policy-makers and healthcare professionals. European laws have created incentives for researchers and companies to develop treatments, or what are known as ‘orphan drugs’ for rare diseases. To exchange information and provide support on complex or rare diseases that require highly specialised treatment and a concentration of knowledge and resources, the 2011 EU Directive on Patients’ Rights in Cross-border Healthcare established European Reference Networks of healthcare providers across Europe.

The Norway solution

Leaving the EU but joining EEA or EFTA is very much a second-best response to the 2016 referendum in my opinion. However, it would seem to solve the Irish border conundrum, as well as protecting UK industry and farming, if this article is to be believed:

In the north-western corner of Europe, cross-border mobility and trade is flourishing between Norway and Sweden. More than 25,000 people commute to work over the border, and the countries are among each other's most important trade partners. One is an EU member; the other is not.

The efficiency and smooth running of the border may therefore seem surprising. The explanation lies in a combination of cultural preconditions and legal arrangements between the two countries. The question then arises: could these Norwegian-Swedish border arrangements serve as a model for other parts of Europe, such as post-Brexit Ireland?

Norway and Sweden have large cultural similarities, including each being able to understand the other's language. The countries were even united between 1814 and 1905. Even though this union was dissolved, the countries continued to cooperate and have shared laws. In the 1950s, they entered a passport union together with the other Nordic states Denmark, Finland and Iceland, which allowed ID-free travel between these countries.
Norway and Sweden thus have close ties, characterized by a high degree of trust. This is indicated by the fact that several of the border crossings in the sparsely populated areas along the 1,630km long border are unattended.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

The EU and sustainable development

For all Theresa May's fine words, there is doubt whether trade deals struck outside the EU would encourage sustainable development. One senses that Liam Fox's department is desperate to sign deals, any deals, in order to keep the Brexiteers' promise about UK's improved global reach. Virtually all the advances made in social and trade policy, including many which the two big parties claim credit for. There is no guarantee that the UK under this government will make progress on those fronts without the EU's boot behind it.

For the EU's latest on thsi front, see

Friday, 2 March 2018

Memories of South Ealing

Sitting here in my snug back room with a wintry scene outside, I have suddenly started remembering names and faces from fifty-odd years ago. I know what the immediate trigger was - staring at a blank crossword grid, the words of a lecturer on my first computer course came back to me: "If you are not problem-solvers, then what are you doing here?" It was one of the two male lecturers, either Lionel or the only one whose name I cannot remember, and the only one with a pronounced London accent. The others, Jacky, Gill (Jill?) and Lionel spoke RP and were probably all ex-teachers. I recall Jacky saying that the company had learned from experience that it was more effective to train people with an aptitude for teaching to program than to train computer experts in the art of teaching.

I have found links to Leo computers and hope to expand on this posting later.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

A present from the Department for Transport in time for St David's Day

Railfuture Cymru passes on the information that:
The transfer of rail services to the Welsh government has taken a significant step forward with the laying of a draft order in Parliament.
The draft order was laid before Parliament yesterday (28 February 2018) and will, subject to approval from MPs, Lords and the Privy Council, devolve the procurement and management of Wales and Borders franchise train services within Wales. This follows detailed discussions between the Department for Transport and the Welsh Government on how powers will be devolved to Welsh ministers.
The agreement also takes into account the fact that many of the franchise services operate on both sides of the border between England and Wales and includes safeguards to protect all passengers using these routes. Rail Minister Jo Johnson said: “This is a positive and significant step in the franchise devolution process and is an example of the effective cooperation between the UK and Welsh governments.
“The devolution of these powers delivers on recommendations made by the Commission on Devolution in Wales and demonstrates the commitment we made as a government in the 2015 St David’s Day Agreement.”
Welsh Government Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport Ken Skates said: “I welcome this recognition of the extensive nature of the cross-border services – and services wholly within England – provided by the Wales and Borders franchise and the need for appropriate accountability for rail operations on each side of the border.
“It will be important for devolution of funding for Network Rail to be delivered in the future and I will continue dialogue with the Department for Transport to that end.”
As well as continuing with present franchise funding arrangements, the UK government will also provide an extra £125 million towards upgrading the Valley Lines, part of the Welsh Government’s metro project in South Wales.

Roger Delgado

Today is the centenary of the actor who was not only the first Master in Dr Who, but before that a stalwart of the BBC Drama Repertory Company. Even on the radio, he tended to play villains or foreigners, as in this production from 1953.

I cannot claim to have known him, but I did at least pass him in a road in Kew in the 1960s after I had been doing some research in the locality.

A biography was published earlier this year.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Auditing prominent companies

Vince Cable has drawn attention to the lack of competition in the audit market. If Adam Smith were alive today, he would surely suspect a "concert party".

As Private Eye has frequently pointed out, there is also a danger of a conflict of interest when an audit firm provides additional management advice to the company it is auditing - not that I am suggesting this is what happened in the Carillion case.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Hand-wringing in Westminster

Many pious words were spoken in the Commons yesterday in the wake of failure of the UN-mandated cease-fire in Eastern Ghouta. All sides of the House knew implicitly that the time when the UK could influence affairs in Syria, let alone do any good, had long past.

Seven years ago, when the Syrian authorities responded violently to a civil demonstration, the coalition government had several choices:

  • do nothing, but advise Assad that he risked destroying his nation if he continued to overreact with force;
  • go into Syria with sufficient force (including ground forces) to affect régime change;
  • incite a rebellion which had no chance of success without external support.

Sadly, our government chose the third. At least the UK and the US stepped back from the threat of merely crippling Assad's defences, which would surely have led to a Daesh dictatorship in Damascus far worse than any other in the Middle East.

As it is, much of the country including many historic sites has been laid waste, long-established communities have been brutalised and the standing of both Russia and Iran has been improved, which is surely not what the West would have wanted.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Worboys, Bennell ... and Eichmann

Ian Walker's great piece on Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann trial in last week's New European revived Arendt's great question: Why? Summarising a complex article about a complex woman and her work is beyond me, but I would say that although Arendt opened our eyes to facets of evil, she did not find an answer to her own question.

Juxtaposing Eichmann, who was responsible for the smooth administration of the murder of millions, with two men who killed nobody - directly - may seem bizarre, but to me their depredations raise the same question: what made them? We know the reason for the magnitude of their crimes: Worboys and Bennell because people who were in a position to put a stop to their activities turned a blind eye, Eichmann because he worked for a racist régime which was for a long time untouchable. What we do not know is what made them the people they were.

Worboys and Bennell did not murder anybody, but they irreparably damaged their victims psychologically. Bennell could see the effects day-to-day, as most of "his" boys stayed in his training squads and even Worboys must have had some idea of the damage he had caused when he dumped his victims.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Guilt by association

It is hard to see why the red-tops are smearing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as a commie puppet. The tenuous Czech connection has been forensically dismissed by a BBC reporter with access to the Czech secret service archives, and Paul Anderson, who was a Tribune journalist in the period in question, has put the affair in context. The real danger of Corbyn is not his threat to renationalise the railway (with which even many long-suffering commuters from the Conservative home counties have sympathy) but his unholy alliance with Mrs May. He seems determined to augment the Brexiteers' drive to a poorer (except for financial speculators) United Kingdom outside the single market not only of the EU but also EFTA. (The prospect of "a" customs union which is different from the existing customs union has been held out by Labour's shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, but this is clearly the sort of "cherry-picking" which has already been dismissed by negotiators for the EU 27.) So why are the Tory-leaning tabloids attacking Corbyn now, years away from a general election?

Social media have also unearthed CIA records which mark Corbyn as suspicious - because he had close contacts with workers organisations around the world. There seems to be a general feeling in the US establishment (based presumably on their own experience) that all trade unions everywhere are either controlled by the Mafia or are communist front organisations.  Worse in their eyes are the TUC equivalents who dare to criticise the way that régimes favoured by the US suppress human or workers' rights or both.

Perhaps there is no specific reason for attacking Corbyn at this time. Perhaps the grandiose claims of a minor Czech agent who feels he has been forgotten have stimulated a minor press feeding-frenzy. This would be even more worrying. There are already signs reminiscent of the McCarthyism of the 1950s US, when careers could be threatened because of a youthful dalliance with socialist ideas or merely because of attraction to communist front organisations.

I "like" a Facebook page dedicated to Jammu and Kashmir, because I feel that the heartless anomaly created by the Indian independence settlement should be corrected. I stress that this should be negotiated away, hopefully through the good offices of the Commonwealth or otherwise by friends of both India and Pakistan. I reject the use of force, either by governments or terrorist organisations. However, it is very probable that there are other members of the group who are tied to Islamist extremism, which seeks to capitalise violently on the grievances of Kashmiris. Should I fear a knock on the door from Special Branch because of this coincidence?

This is just one personal example. In a world shrunk by the World Wide Web and globalisation, it would be easy to find links from anybody to anybody else. Let us hope common sense and objectivity prevail.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Friday, 23 February 2018

Libraries declining in Wales

BBC reported earlier this week that the number of professional librarians in Wales had declined by a fifth while the number of volunteers had increased 13-fold. The decline in facilities has not been as steep as in England, but it is part of a national trend. There is little doubt that if free libraries were not prescribed by law, many local authorities would have done away with them altogether.

There is still a place for the public library, if only because of the wealth of material published before 1997 when the World Wide Web really took off. The main libraries are already information centres rather than just a collection of bookshelves. However,, professionals are needed to guide the ordinary citizen. The popular Web search engines by their commercial nature bias their results towards the new and the paid-for links.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Where will Macron's party go next?

The next European Parliament elections will likely take place from 23rd to 26th May 2019. There is already speculation as to how many French seats will be taken by President Macron's party and whether he will have enough MEPs to go it alone or whether his people will join one of the other blocs in the parliament. Most opinion in Brussels points to En Marche joining ALDE, which would move that party even more towards economic rather than social liberalism. However, there is a minority view that EPP, the broad conservative grouping would be more to his liking. This graphic shows more:

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Czechs refute Corbyn spy scare story

Guido Fawkes and other reactionary outlets have been fulminating over claims that the leader of the Labour party was a collaborator with the Czech security services. While the Czech agent concerned has, for reasons of his own, puffed the affair, the archivist of the former communist organisation herself has confirmed that Corbyn was no more than "a person of interest". I am as ready as the next man to condemn Corbyn for the company he kept as a firebrand back-bencher. However, I do believe him in this instance that his meetings with Dymik/Sarkocy were innocent.

Where I will agree with Guido is that BBC TV channels have failed to deal with the story. However, an interview with the archivist herself was broadcast by BBC Radio News earlier this week.

We should put the current brouhaha in context. Respected Guardian journalist Richard Gott was fingered in the 1990s as a Soviet mole. Gott admitted: "I took red gold, even if it was only in the form of expenses for myself and my partner. That, in the circumstances, was culpable stupidity, though at the time it seemed more like an enjoyable joke". There is the incentive for intelligence officers to exaggerate the number and importance of the agents they are controlling, to boost not only their reputation in their service but also their expense accounts. And Corbyn's and Gott's chats over coffee are as nothing compared to the (admittedly minor) treachery by a Conservative junior minister in the 1960s.

Monday, 19 February 2018

How can this minister act objectively?

It is my clear recollection that in the 1960s and '70s government ministers, on appointment, sold off any shareholdings or put them in a blind trust.

Trusts can be active or passive. Active funds give trustees to the power to manage funds to their best ability, selling or buying according to market conditions. Passive funds effectively froze the shareholdings etc. until the minister ceased to be a minister. Either way, the minister ceded responsibility to independent trustees in order to avoid a conflict of interest.

In the current Ministerial Code, there is a worrying element of discretion. The paragraph dealing with financial interests states:

7.7 Ministers must scrupulously avoid any danger of an actual or perceived conflict of interest between their Ministerial position and their private financial interests. They should be guided by the general principle that they should either dispose of the interest giving rise to the conflict or take alternative steps to prevent it. In reaching their decision they should be guided by the advice given to them by their Permanent Secretary and the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests. Ministers’ decisions should not be influenced by the hope or expectation of future employment with a particular firm or organisation.

An item in the New European's "Mandrake" column makes this relevant. Steve Baker, a minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union, purchased an interest last year in Glint Pay Ltd, a financial services holding company, and has retained it. This site asserts that:

Glint will offer a frictionless way to both store and spend your money in gold, including at the point of sale, just like a regular local currency. The bigger picture is that gold historically has been a better storage of value than any government-created currency, and therefore — with the aid of technology — is (arguably) a good candidate for an alternative global currency.

As "Mandrake" points out, there is a glaring conflict of interest here. Baker is bound to be involved in decisions which will affect the future value of sterling and possibly other currencies. He has had the temerity to accuse civil servants of a lack of objectivity, all the while possessing an indirect hedge in gold against a probable fall post-Brexit in both sterling and the euro.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Labour's EU agony on Radio 4

BBC's television news editors did not feel that Labour's policy forum meeting in Leeds at the weekend was worth covering, but Mark Mardell on Radio 4's World  This Weekend restored the balance. He even found time to interview Alba White Wolf aka EUSupergirl aka Madeleina Kay who was putting the case for staying in the single market and customs union to any delegate who would listen.

It was good to see that Swansea West's Labour MP and local party have nailed their colours to the same mast.

Will there be another "Yes, Minister"?

Joint author Jonathan Lynn has categorically answered that question. The death of his very good friend and writing partner Tony Jay last year has ended the possibility of a return of Jim, Bernard and Sir Humphrey. However, in a recent discussion with Vaughan Roderick, Lynn admitted to writing a short piece about Jim Hacker as a contribution to a book "Goodbye Europe". Hacker, now the Master of an Oxford college, and Appleby, a resident of St Dymphna's Home for the Elderly Deranged meet. These two rather confused old men discuss Brexit and Hacker says: "I'm against Brexit, that's why I'm voting for it".

Leaving EU and EFTA means more red tape, not less

From an article in Prospect magazine:

What [he free market Brexit lobby doesn’t] understand is that European regulation often encourages trade.
It is understandable that there is some confusion. Regulation can, after all, act as a significant “non-tariff barrier.” Say a country has certain rules about the use of recyclable content of food packaging. When another country tries to export to it, those goods have to be stopped at the border and checked to see if they comply with that law. This gets in the way a bit, meaning that trade becomes more difficult.
But here’s the thing. One of the chief aims of trade negotiators over the last few decades has been about melding rules together. If two countries have the same rules—and especially if they have the same institutions making decisions on whether they’re both following those rules—goods can cross the border without being checked. Everything moves freely and you can do more business. The European Union is one of the purest examples of this principle in action.
So while some forms of regulation hinder trade, others can help maximise it. So far, so straightforward. But to really see the effects, consider an example.
Take aviation. Britain is currently a member of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Every inch of a plane is covered by the accreditation system it operates, providing safety guarantees for the landing equipment, the engine and everything in between. This means that Britain is no longer fully in control of its decisions on aviation safety equipment. They are certified at the continental level. If you stay in the EASA, you haven’t “taken back control.”
But the advantages to membership are considerable. When a British company develops a new part for a plane, it only needs to get it signed off once, by the European regulator. They will then take care of everything that needs to be done with safety certification bodies in China, India, the US and the rest. It’s one portal to the world—and it was achieved through regulation.
Now imagine Britain leaves the EASA, as it will do if hard Brexiters get their dream of total separation. The British firm will have to get its new product signed off by a British regulator, then again for the European market with the EASA, and then again with all those other countries the Europeans used to negotiate with on our behalf. One bit of red tape suddenly becomes multiple strands.
The same dynamic is true for almost all UK exporters. Since Europe is our largest market, they are going to produce goods to European standards just to be able to do business, no matter what the British government eventually decides about Brexit. To do this they will have to follow EU regulations.
But what happens if the UK suddenly diverges in one area? It might adopt the US portion system on food labelling, rather than the grams-based information used in Europe. Now a firm would have to print both sets of information on each product. Or worse, what if the UK started demanding that certain information was included in food labelling, while the EU banned its inclusion? Now the firm would have to make two versions of every product.
This is the reality of shared regulation: It can help, rather than hinder, trade. It can reduce barriers and minimise red tape—but it does so by taking away a bit of control from the nation state.
The government’s gloomy predictions of economic damage outside the EU are not some kind of witchcraft, dreamt up by the Remainer saboteurs of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s imagination. They are the direct consequence of a political programme which seeks to remove the UK from any shared regulation. Doing so doesn’t reduce barriers to trade—it encourages them.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Fugitives from justice in South Africa

The Sunday Times of South Africa reports that members of the Gupta family, implicated in charges of corruption levelled at the outgoing Zuma administration, are on the run. It appears that Zuma's son Duduzane (Zulu for "Comfort"!), who was on the Gupta payroll, is also a fugitive.

Ajay Gupta‚ the patriarch of the embattled Gupta family‚ is “on the run” and surrounded by a team of heavily armed bodyguards.
Hawks officials confirmed on Thursday afternoon that Gupta was a fugitive from the law and that they had obtained a warrant for his arrest.
The warrant comes as Times Select on Wednesday ran an exclusive story indicating that Ajay’s brother‚ Atul‚ was also being sought.
The confirmation follows the appearance of the brothers’ nephew‚ Verun Gupta‚ in the Bloemfontein Magistrate’s Court on charges of corruption‚ fraud and theft on Thursday.
There is evidence that the Guptas laundered money through British banks. One hopes that, if members of the family flee to a country with which the UK has an extradition treaty, the authorities here will not hesitate to extract them for trial.

We wait to see when Zuma will be brought to trial, and how many of the 700+ charges of corruption, money laundering and racketeering will be proceeded with. Some of these precede Zuma's period as president, and there is a distant possibility that Baron Hain of Neath, who was a Foreign Office minister for Africa and was also at the Department for Trade and Industry for a time in the noughties, may be called as a witness.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Paedophiles in football

Deborah Davies's programme "Wall of Silence", slotted into Channel 4's schedule at short notice last night after Barry Bennell's conviction, should have been watched closely by all those concerned with the development of young footballers. Now working for al-Jazeera, Deborah Davies was following up her revelations for Channel 4 twenty years earlier following Bennell's first conviction in the USA. The depressing message from yesterday was that nothing had changed, in spite of the warnings. The only silence that had been broken was that of the victims, who in middle age finally felt able to come out to their families and to the public. The Football Association, though it has now started its own inquiry, has not answered questions about its lack of action over twenty years. Admittedly, it set up a child protection strategy in the noughties on which high hopes were pinned, but, as Deborah Davies revealed, it failed because of lack of cooperation from the clubs* and, after secretary Adam Crozier moved on, starvation of funds. The conclusion I draw is that Bennell was far from unique and that the FA and most football clubs did not want to admit that paedophilia was rife in the game. I should be glad to be disabused, but I fear that there will be more revelations about other perpetrators.

* I believe Charlton Athletic to be an exception, but unfortunately cannot find a reference on the Web.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

The quality of political discourse

One of my favourite quips (though one which nobody else finds witty, unfortunately) is that political journalists are those who failed to make it as sports commentators. In most of the media, broadcast and print, the differences between political parties are described in terms of the personal qualities of their leading members. They are rated in terms of their ability to win elections, rather as one might weigh up the chances of Manchester City against Manchester United. Their policies and philosophies become almost irrelevant.

Commentary is free, but facts are ... expensive*

There was discussion on last week's Sunday Supplement radio programme (about 20 minutes in) of an academic study into the way election campaigns are reported in many advanced Western democracies. The authors ask who is getting the best deal out of election coverage: the media, the politicians or the voting public. Their conclusion is that it is a toss-up between the first two, but there is no doubt that the voters are the worst served. In some cases, politicians themselves dissuaded editors from going too deeply into policies (perhaps because those policies at the time of an election are not thought through?), but, as presenter Vaughan Roderick conceded, to cover policy discussions properly, journalists need to do their homework. Journalists' time, especially that of specialists, is expensive.

The most recent programme reinforced ones impression of decline in the quality of political discourse. Chris Bryant MP had criticised the behaviour of the House of Commons, particularly at Prime Minister's Question Time. Speaker Bercow too has observed that there is heckling of members organised by the opposition party's whips and, though he has frequently drawn attention to it, nothing has changed. Vaughan Roderick brought together David TC Davies and Carolyn Harries, MPs from opposite sides of the floor, to discuss the matter. One would have expected the combative "Top Cat" to defend the rowdy behaviour, but instead he deprecated it and agreed that it had got worse. Both he and Ms Harries observed that attacks had got nastier, in social media, at hustings and even face to face.

The semi-anonymity of social media is clearly a factor in encouraging "keyboard warriors" to vent their spleen irresponsibly. Victorian legislators recognised the increased power of the printing press because of contemporary technological advances, and that it gave trouble-makers the ability to spread hundreds, maybe even thousands, of copies of mischievous pamphlets quickly. Accordingly, they passed the Printers and Publishers Act 1839, later incorporated into the Newspapers, Printers and Reading Rooms Repeal Act 1869 which is still on the statute book. This prescribes in essence that printed matter must bear the identities of both the author and the printer. It is more difficult to legislate for electronic media, but I feel that some mechanism should be introduced so that the ultimate author of Tweets and Facebook posts can be determined by the average user without recourse to specialist software.

However, that does not explain the increased viciousness of personal confrontation. Here one must agree with Vaughan Roderick that journals must bear part of the blame, in their concentration on personalities rather than policies, and in their shrill treatment when they do deal with policies. Accusing MPs of treachery or judges of being enemies of the people is not conducive to calm and rational political debate.

* CP Scott's definitive maxim was "Comment is free, but facts are sacred."

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Health and social care in Wales

Image result for Welsh NHS logoThe final report of Parliamentary Review of Health and Social Care in Wales was published in pdf at the end of last month to a more muted response than health secretary Vaughan Gething would have hoped for. Perhaps this was because most of the report is "mam and cawl" and, where it is progressive, it retails ideas that have been circulating in respect of the English NHS for some time.

(For me, the report gets off to a bad start with the doctrinaire misstatement that the NHS was "born in Wales, based on a model developed by the Tredegar Workmen’s Medical Aid Society". In fact, the Tredegar scheme is one of a long line of insurance-based healthcare systems that go back to Bismarck's Germany and continue in France, Germany, some other western countries and Japan to this day. The unique and praiseworthy aspect of the Tredegar scheme was that it arose from within the community rather than being imposed by the government. The English NHS model was unique at the time - though it has since been followed elsewhere - in being funded from general taxation. Its principal architect, William Beveridge, had studied the German system before the Great War, when he was an advisor to Lloyd George and Churchill as they created the first British welfare state. Following a 1926 Royal Commission recommendation and other inter-war discussion documents, Beveridge decided that the insurance link should be broken.)

One cannot quarrel with the report's main recommendation that health and social care must be one seamless whole. Every expert seems to agree that this is where publicly-funded care systems must go. The difficulty is that along with responsibility for social care, especially for the care of an ageing population, go costs. Hence the paralysis of central government, both in London and Cardiff.

Another recommendation is that individual and community involvement should be strengthened. As I recall, this was the vision of the Labour-Lib Dem coalition government of the noughties, only for the Plaid-:Labour "One Wales" government to weaken the community health councils in 2010. There is no mention of CHCs in the report. On the other hand, it does imply that there might be more volunteer and part-time help to make up for staffing shortages at the local level.

In the report, there are many references to the need for training, and in keeping up-to-date with developments in medical practice. There is no detail as to where that training should take place. I see from wikipedia that there are five teaching hospitals in Wales, two each in Cardiff and Swansea, just one in North Wales and none in Mid-Wales. There has been a positive initiative to recruit and train nurses, but until Wales shakes off the shackles of the Conservative public pay cap, the Welsh NHS will continue to lose people to the likes of Debenhams and David Evans whose pay and conditions are more attractive. The pay scale of nurses in Wales is the worst in Britain.

There is no reference to general practice in the report, and of GPs only the issue of the central contract. Although the Royal College of GPs is cited in the list of consultees, it is difficult to see - apart from the breaking down of barriers between health and social care - where any of their concerns have been taken into account.

I suggest that most of the difficulties, including the recurrent winter crises, of the NHS would be cleared up by reversing the drain of GPs from Wales and by fulfilling the aspiration of optimal nurse staffing without resort to expensive agency nurses. Remuneration is a major factor, but not the only one.

The report is good as far as it goes, but like all previous such documents deals with institutions and processes, rather than people. We have had two major reorganisations in the NHS since devolution (the second one needless and costly in my opinion). Before we embark on another one, we should be sure that the people are in place to make sure that it goes smoothly.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Not just a one-issue party (continued)

I am glad to see that a Young Liberal activist shares my belief that we need to emphasise that the party's philosophy is broader, and has wider application, than our media image projects. Oliver Craven writes of:

concerns about housing, jobs, education and health and the provision of these as the population increases. The lack of provision is not the fault of migrants, it is the fault of a government failing to plan for the future of our vital public services.

I would only add "police employment law" to that list of failures. A genuine complaint by unskilled (and even semi-skilled) workers is that their jobs - typically on short-term building contracts - can be taken by immigrants who are in turn coerced or deceived into receiving less than the national minimum wage. This is an injustice to which our membership of a common travel-to-work area is irrelevant. The replacement labour is as likely to comprise immigrants who have no legal right to work here as those who do.

Monday, 12 February 2018


It is easy to see parallels between the sex scandals in Britain's leading charity and those in the BBC. In both, whistle-blowers were ignored. Both Oxfam and BBC are revered institutions which it is difficult to criticise without being characterised as a swivel-eyed reactionary. Both have also been springboards for political careers. There appears to have sprung up an atmosphere of entitlement in both.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

European Movement Action Day

There will be a nationwide Action Day on February 17th, that is, next Saturday. It will tie into ‘One Day Without Us’ to celebrate the contribution that migrants make to our society. In particular, the focus will be on EU nationals who help staff our NHS and provide vital services. It is likely that the Wales branch of the European Movement will be staging something in Cardiff, especially as public services in Wales are as dependent as anywhere in the UK on mainland nationals coming to work here.

It will be interesting to see whether the BBC covers it at all.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Zuma finally on his way out?

One South African source asserts that a deal between Jacob Zuma and president-in-waiting Cyril Ramaphosa will be hammered out over this weekend, allowing a smooth handover between the two. Zuma has grave corruption charges hanging over him. The same independence of the judiciary, inherited from British rule, which saved Nelson Mandela from execution, will prevent political interference in the judicial processing of the corruption charges. The president does, however, have the power of pardon. Is Zuma asking for a guarantee of a pardon if he is to be convicted? Dare Ramaphosa give such a guarantee, knowing that a presidential pardon will cast a shadow over his own administration if Zuma is found guilty of the most serious charges?

[Later: still clinging on, with no end date of negotiations in sight:]

Friday, 9 February 2018

Gaming the system

Mrs Thatcher believed, and John Major and the Blair-Brown administrations followed her in this, that the NHS would give more value for money if internal competition was created. That belief should finally have been refuted with the revelations about the Liverpool Community Health Trust in the House yesterday.

In introducing the Kirkup Report, Stephen Barclay (as has become the norm, Secretary of State Hunt put up a junior minister to take the flak) said:

The report covers the period from the trust’s formation in November 2010 to December 2014, and it describes an organisation that was, “dysfunctional from the outset”. The consequences of that for patient care were in some cases appalling, and the report details a number of incidents of patient harm including pressure sores, falls leading to fractured hips, and five “never events” in the dental service—an incredibly high number for one organisation.

The failings of the organisation were perhaps most starkly apparent in the services provided at Liverpool Prison, where the trust failed to properly risk-assess patients, including for nutrition and hydration, and it did not effectively manage patients at high risk of suicide. The review also identified serious failings in medicine management at the prison. There are many more examples of poor care and its impact on both patients and staff in the report, but what compounds the shock is the lack of insight into those failings displayed by the organisation at the time. This was the very opposite of a culture of learning, with incidents under-reported or played down, warning signals ignored, and other priorities allowed to take the place of patient safety and care for the vulnerable.

We have seen this sort of moral drift before, most obviously at Mid Staffordshire and Morecambe Bay. As with Mid Staffordshire, the management at Liverpool Community Health NHS Trust put far too much emphasis on achieving foundation trust status. The review states that,​ “the trust undertook an aggressive cost improvement plan, targeting a £30 million reduction over five years. This represented a cut in resources of approximately 22%. We were surprised that such an ambitious financial reduction was not scrutinised more closely—by both commissioners and regulators.”

There is a direct line from the decision to pursue foundation trust status in that reckless manner to the harm experienced by patients. Indeed, an earlier report by solicitors Capsticks reported in March 2016 that the interim chief executive who took over from Bernie Cuthel found in her first week that

“there was an underspending by £3 million on district nursing. These teams were devastated because they weren’t allowed to recruit, some of them down to 50%”.

This is a district nursing service in which Dr Kirkup reports that patients were experiencing severe pressure sores, up to what is clinically called grade 3. That was accompanied by many of the hallmarks of an organisation that has lost sight of its purpose. As Dr Kirkup states,

“the evidence that we heard and saw amply confirmed the existence of a bullying culture within the Trust, focused almost entirely on achieving Foundation Trust status. Inadequate staffing levels, poor staff morale and appalling HR practice went unheeded.

(My emphases)

The Welsh NHS may have changed direction following devolution in 1999, but the basic Thatcherite structure is still in place - and the disgraced chief executive Bernie Cuthel now works for the Betsi Cadwaladr Trust.

This view that money motivates public service prevails elsewhere in the UK, from the privatised probation service to the railways. The sooner the government abandons its ideology and adopts an evidence-based approach to providing essential services, the better.

The border according to Heisenberg

Mrs May and the Brexiteers continue to believe in the border in Northern Ireland which can exist in two states: invisible and intangible, in order to comply with the Good Friday agreement, while at the same time controlling the flow of goods as a result of leaving not only the EU but also the single market and the customs union. Northern Ireland minister Karen Bradley put up a brave defence of the indefensible in the House of Commons last Wednesday, but she often had to resort to this sort of unrealistic answer:

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab)
May I welcome the glistening new team to the Front Bench? I am sure the whole House agrees with me in saying how pleased we are—we are absolutely delighted—that the Secretary of State’s predecessor is recovering so well from his surgery. May I particularly welcome the Parliamentary Under-Secretary? He is the eighth Minister that I have had the privilege of shadowing; I do not know whether this attrition is anything to do with my personal behaviour, but I plead not guilty.

Now that the new team have had a chance to find their way around, particularly on the border, and they have studied the issue of the electronic border, do they believe that such a frontier is feasible or is it just a fantasy?

Karen Bradley
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm words. I too pay tribute to my predecessor, who I am pleased to say is recovering well at home. I know the whole House wishes him well, wishes him a speedy recovery and looks forward to welcoming him back to this Chamber.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the matter of the border. We are determined that there will be no new physical infrastructure at the border, and we will maintain things such as the common travel area, which has been in existence since well before the EU.

Floods in New Zealand

Let me put in a good word for the Daily Mail, which has reported the recent severe flooding in New Zealand, resulting from cyclone Fehi.

It comes on top of floods in the North Island at the turn of the year. The BBC has been quick to report severe weather in California; why not similar disasters in a Commonwealth nation?

Thursday, 8 February 2018

What Liberal Democrats stand for

I was mulling over what to put in a leaflet to demonstrate that the Liberal Democrats are not a one-issue party, when I came across this by Phil Wainwright on Liberal Democrat Voice. These paragraphs in particular sum things up for me:

Our commitment to belonging and freedom is distinct from both the anonymous collectivism of socialism and the free-for-all individualism of capitalism. Monolithic state socialism and unaccountable, unregulated capitalism are equally disempowering. Liberal Democrats reject the imposition of conformity and hierarchy as much as we oppose the perpetuation of inequality and privilege. 

Yet this is a radical politics, centrist only in the sense that it upsets the extremist wings of Conservatives and Labour alike. It is left-leaning, because it is necessarily redistributionist. Liberal Democrats believe too many in our society are let down by inadequate education, health, environment, housing and welfare provision to realise their full potential. We are internationalist, naturally, committed to supporting these goals globally. Our politics also promotes localism and co-operative enterprise, encouraging people to work together to improve their own communities, workplaces and industries. In doing so, we challenge vested interests on the left, right and centre.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Alyn and Deeside by-election

Thanks to ITN News for publishing the full figures from the by-election caused by the death of Labour's Carl Sargeant.

  • Jack Sargeant Labour 11,267 61% +15%
  • Sarah Atherton Conservative 4,722 25% +4%
  • Donna Lalek Liberal Democrat 1,176 6% +2%
  • Carrie Harper Plaid Cymru 1,059 6% -3%
  • Duncan Rees Green 353 2% -1%
  • TURNOUT 29%
  • SWING 5% Conservative to Labour

I suppose the only way that Labour was going to lose this seat would be for the party bosses to parachute a candidate in from the south. Congratulations to Jack Sargeant on his win, but one suspects that the Cardiff Bay hierarchy will continue to take the Gogs for granted.

The turnout was very disappointing, especially as the background to the by-election has dominated the headlines in Wales. The people who did turn out were clearly not bothered about the effects of leaving the EU on Airbus and agriculture, since the top two candidates both represented pro-Brexit parties.

Donna Lalek's increase in vote share (pushing Plaid down into fourth place) is highly praiseworthy as I understand that her campaign started from scratch. It augurs well for Liberal Democrat campaigns in more winnable seats.

Plaid's poor performance is going to increase the pressure on Leanne Woods to step down as leader.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

A few thoughts on female representation

Today we are celebrating the restoration of women's right to vote. As this parliamentary briefing shows, the Great Reform Act of 1832 actually took away an implicit right. In practice, though, women voters may have been in a small minority because the franchise was based on property ownership. While there may have been no women MPs before 1918, there are occasional references to female local councillors.

Radio Wales' Sunday Supplement this week covered the centenary well (and still found time to compare the prospects of Theresa May and Carwyn Jones retaining the leadership of their respective parties!). The discussion between Vaughan Roderick, Helen Mary Jones and Kirsty Williams was particularly rewarding. There was agreement that the Welsh Assembly had fallen back from its position of gender balance when it was set up. Helen Mary seemed to believe that the main cause was the abandonment of zipping and all-women shortlists - though nobody pointed out that the Liberal Democrat representation in 1999 was exactly balanced without any overt pre-election gender preferences. I believe that another factor was the Labour government's move away from committee discussion, which tends to more consensual decision-making, to jousting on the floor of the Senedd. The latter may make better television but the aggression which it engenders puts people off. In trying to make Cardiff Bay more like Westminster, Labour has reduced women's interest in participating in government in Wales.

An end to polluting Jaguars outside no. 10?

The European Commission is disappointed with the progress made in reducing noxious vehicle emissions. It wants to give a boost to the process through public procurement. The proposal has been passed to the European Parliament for consideration.

In November 2017, the European Commission proposed a revision of Directive 2009/33/EC on the promotion of clean and energy-efficient road transport vehicles (the Clean Vehicles Directive), after an evaluation showed that the directive had yielded limited results, for instance by not encouraging a more significant uptake of clean vehicles in the market overall. The proposed directive aims to promote clean mobility solutions in public procurement tenders and thereby raise the demand for, and the further deployment of, clean vehicles. The proposal provides a definition for clean light-duty vehicles based on a combined CO2 and air-pollutant emissions threshold; for heavy-duty vehicles, it gives a definition based on alternative fuels. The proposal is in line with the European Commission's energy union package, which plans action on the further decarbonisation of road transport in line with the 2030 climate and energy targets, and with the EU's commitments under the Paris Agreement. The proposal has been assigned to the European Parliament's Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI). The Parliament has been strongly supportive of a wider deployment of alternative-fuel vehicles on the European market.

The UK's Conservative and UKIP MEPs may be expected to resist this initiative. One trusts that they do not hold the swing vote when it eventually reaches plenary, but if they do, we could have an interesting situation if Brexit goes ahead. The UK would be instrumental in hobbling the other 27 states just before departing.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Nuke still missing off Savannah, USA, after 60 years

On Feb. 5, 1958, a B-47 bomber dropped a 7,000-pound nuclear bomb into the waters off Tybee Island, Ga., after it collided with another Air Force jet. [...] The bomb — which has unknown quantities of radioactive material — has never been found. And while the Air Force says the bomb, if left undisturbed, poses no threat to the area, determined bomb hunters and area residents aren't so sure.

There is more here.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Connie at 150

It used to be one of the stock quiz questions: who was the first woman elected to the UK parliament? The dive-in answer is Viscountess (Nancy) Astor, but in fact she was just the first woman to sit as a MP. Countess Markievicz beat her to it, but as a Sinn Feiner, refused to take her seat. That Markiewcz was in gaol at the time was also a complicating factor.

But even the correct answer conceals a more interesting fact, that the lady was born into the Ascendancy. Constance Gore-Booth (her Polish title was acquired through marrying a fellow art student before she was involved in the independence struggle), born 150 years ago today, was a member of one of the families who had ruled Ireland since the Plantations, and had been presented at court. So the first two women elected to Westminster were quite posh. Contrast that with the fight that working journalist Anne Clwyd had merely to be selected as a candidate by a constituency Labour party, as she related on this morning's Sunday Supplement, celebrating the centenary of the Act that introduced a measure of suffrage to Westminster elections.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

It's the season for a stonking Lib Dem gain on Wearside

Local Authority Byelection Results

Thursday 12th January 2017
Sunderland MB, Sandhill
LD Stephen O’Brien 824 [45.0%; +41.5%]
Labour 458 [25.0%; -29.9%]
UKIP 343 [18.7%; -7.2%]
Conservative 184 [10.0%; -5.7%]
Green 23 [1.3%; +1.3%]
Majority 366
Turnout 23.8%
Lib Dem gain from Labour
Percentage change since 2016

Thursday 1st February 2018
Sunderland MB, Pallion
LD Martin Haswell 1251 [53.9%; +49.5%]
Lab 807 [34.8%; -15.9%]
Con 126 [5.4%; -7.2%]
UKIP 97 [4.2%; -24.7%]
Green 39 [1.7%; -1.8%]
Lib Dem gain from Labour
Percentage changes from 2016

Sunderland voted "Leave" in 2016, in spite of being partly dependent on industry which exports to the EU. Alyn & Deeside also voted "Leave", although Airbus must make a huge contribution to the local economy; next Tuesday's by-election result will be interesting, to say the least.

Friday, 2 February 2018

"Out of intensive care, but not out of the hospital"

 - was Swansea City manager Carlos Carvalhal's assessment of the team's situation after the win against Arsenal. Chances of coming off the ward must have improved with the signings in the transfer window, borrowing Welsh international Andy King from Leicester for the rest of the season looking especially shrewd. One could wish for more cover at full-back, positions where Swansea City used to have strength in depth, but at least the ability to create and score goals has been enhanced. In addition, the team has recovered its self-belief.

This will be needed for tomorrow's tough match in Leicester and in the final run-in. There are home matches against fellow-patients Southampton and Stoke to come, but Swans will have to travel to Bournemouth, Brighton, Huddersfield and West Bromwich. There is also the little matter of the return fixtures against Chelsea, the two Manchester sides and a rejuvenated Everton. 

Thursday, 1 February 2018

A cross-bencher's view of EU withdrawal

I apologise for breaking my own self-denying ordinance in posting two Brexit-related contributions in succession, but this speech by a cross-bench hereditary peer in the debate on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill yesterday was so full of good sense that I had to share it:

The Earl of Sandwich:
My Lords, en principe I am against repealing the 1972 Act. I have a personal reason for this. My father was the 1960s equivalent of a UKIP leader. He campaigned against Europe and it irritates me that he has somehow posthumously won by means of an advisory referendum—referenced by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins—that not did not even express the will of the majority of registered voters.
Apart from that—I will get over it—I am unashamedly European. I have lived and worked in Europe and my degree was in European languages. I have Italian in-laws. I want to preserve peace in Europe. I support enlargement of Europe. I refuse to go into choppy, uncharted waters with a salt-caked smoke stack. I do not think that the Government have got it right.
However, I am also an independent. I sympathise with the Lib Dems, but I also understand some of the fears of Brexiteers about regulation, the eurozone, closer union and immigration. Those are genuine fears. But I would prefer that these vast issues were tackled inside Europe in some form or other. As the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and others made clear, this major decision is all about one party and not about the whole country. I see Brexit as a costly and desperate scramble to retain all of the undoubted advantages of the EU without having to sit around the table talking about them. Monsieur Macron was right: we are having our cake and eating it, but we are also getting bad indigestion.
The country now divides into three: the Remainers, the Brexiteers and those, like me, who are still asking, “How do we get out of this mess?”. The human cost of Brexit is undeniable: just look at the loss of NHS staff besides all the forecast effects on education, culture and the economy. But there may yet be a way out, short of complete withdrawal and without a second referendum.
Few of us want to sabotage the Bill. It is a necessary Bill and the debate is not about the Government’s plans—since on many things they have no plans. We must, and I am sure that we will, vote to retain all of our current EU-derived legislation. But along the way a few things stand out so starkly that they have to be mentioned, and they have been. We still do not know where we are going. Worse than that, on some issues we are going into a chasm or void—words used by the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, last week. But he also quoted Burns:
“Oh let us not, like snarling curs,
In wrangling be divided”.
The darkest hole is in the sea between Ireland and the United Kingdom, something equivalent to the Corryvrechan. The Government’s position on the border issue is muddy because they are trying to reconcile the irreconcilable between the Irish and Northern Irish positions. I urge the Government to show their hand soon and to be guided, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, said, by the Belfast principles, since as my noble friend Lord Eames and others said last week, they cannot leave the people in such uncertainty.
The people of Gibraltar share some of the uncertainty felt in Northern Ireland. How could the Government get so close to the cliff edge as to cause anxiety and even worse, if the people of Gibraltar are not given proper guarantees? Then, there is devolution. Last week’s debate showed clearly that the devolved Administrations were not properly consulted and that amendments in the Commons were never discussed. There are still many UK issues to resolve in the UK before we go back to the EU negotiating table.
Constitutional experts are still worried about the exceptional use of delegated powers and whether the Government should assign a single status to retained EU direct legislation. My noble friend Lord Kakkar showed how much damage there will be to science from any uncertainties that continue through the transition. Children’s charities and lawyers are concerned about the exclusion of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Other people are in considerable doubt about future references to rulings of the ECJ. The Greens and many others say that environmental law is not being fully translated into UK law. We heard about that from the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone. I shall be supporting amendments on all these issues unless the Government put down their own to meet these concerns.
I feel confident that this Parliament will now have a say on the final deal although, if it rejects the deal, there will have to be further renegotiation. The EU knows this and would like us to remain in Europe. I believe it is not impossible that, in the event of rejection, we shall have the opportunity to remain as a member under Article 50, but on new terms. If not, then the Government will have to look for some intermediate status, alongside the single market. No one seems able to forecast what that might be or even whether such a status exists.
In short, we have got ourselves into a mess. I doubt if any party, or any organisation outside Brussels, can pull us out of it but I hope and am confident that this debate will have made a contribution.