Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Blind prejudice

Mukul Chawla's parting words on leaving the independent Bar included this illustration of how racial prejudice can work against a person's own best interests. He is writing about his first crown court trial:

My client’s first words to me in the corridor outside court and in the hearing of my prosecutor and a number of my co-defending counsel were “I don’t want no fucking Paki defending me.” I gulped and explained that I was all he was going to get.

My first Crown Court trial had not started in the auspicious way that I had dreamt of. Our relationship never really improved. The next two weeks were spent in a haze of panic, sleeplessness and endless writing and crossing out questions to ask and points to make. I had one point in my favour. The police officer who interviewed my client had neglected to write down that he had cautioned him in accordance with the Judges Rules (This was pre PACE). The more he insisted that he had cautioned my client the sillier he looked. Wise words from one of my co-defending counsel prevailed upon me in that, while I had wanted to make this cross examination last hours so that I would be seen as the new Rumpole of the Bailey (or, at least of Inner London), I only needed to ask half a dozen questions before resuming my seat. In the event, after two weeks my client was acquitted (I still suspect that the Jury felt sorry for him because of his representation) and because the Judge had heard of my difficulties with my client, he insisted on telling my client how fortunate he was in being represented by me. Two senior members of my chambers were in court waiting to be called on and heard the Judge’s comments. My client didn’t wait to say thank you.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Life is Zanzibar-ish

A recent* Dave Gorman show on the Dave channel (formerly UKTV G2) tackled among other things how fake news comes to be accepted. He told how one of those pranksters who delight in planting incredible factoids in wikipedia entries (you know, like "Al Gore invented the internet") had credited him with hitch-hiking round the Pacific Rim countries. Gorman spotted this and edited out the offending item, but not before the Northern Echo had picked up on it (trawling through wikipedia counts as research for lazy journalists) and published it, uncredited, as part of a pen portrait of the comedian. As a result, some wikipedia editor took it upon himself (it was almost certainly a "him") to reinstate the lie, citing the newspaper as confirmation. The story is told through Twitter here.

It is all very reminiscent of the Zanzibar fallacy, one version of which is set out here - a vivid retelling, though I think "chota peg" is more accurate than "chukka peg".

In the 18th century, Jonathan Swift wrote "Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it" and that was in the days of sailing ships and horse-drawn mail coaches. Since then, each advance in communication - telegraph, wireless, internets - has speeded the flight and replication of falsehood. We now have to be very sure of our sources before passing on any assertion.

Incidentally, Modern Life is Goodish is recorded in the Notting Hill Tabernacle. Perhaps more use of these wonderful buildings in Wales could be made by our television companies.

* Actually it seems to have been a repeat from two years ago, although Modern Life is Goodish is one of the few shows which actually originate on Dave

Budget response

There have been some excellent Lib Dem responses to yesterday's budget statement. They will no doubt appear on the local party's blog and Facebook page in due course, so I will not attempt to cover the same ground here. However, it did strike me that Mr Hammond was unduly pleased with the GDP growth rate of the UK. It is not just that it is low in historical terms - the global economy has after all been hit by various depressing actions recently, not least the trade war started by the US against China and other nations - but that it is low by comparison with other leading nations, including virtually all our fellow-members of the EU.

Aside from the official statements, Caron Lindsay's post on Liberal Democrat Voice struck home.

I don’t live in a terribly affluent household, but, even so, a budget that gives us £20 or so extra a month while people are really struggling to find even the most basic housing, or to put food on the table, has got its priorities well and truly wrong. I would much rather pay a bit more tax to make sure that people got the public services and medical treatment and social security that they need.

Add to this injustice the fact that Universal Credit has only had half of what George Osborne took out of it in 2015 as soon as we were out of the picture put back. If Iain Duncan Smith reckons it needs £2 billion, then it probably needs more to make it work for people.

"We are all in this together" has an increasingly hollow ring.

One other item struck me at the time of delivery, that:

We will open the use of e-passport gates at Heathrow and other airports, currently only available to European economic area nationals, to include visitors from the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Japan.

So whites and honorary whites get the welcoming treatment, but not those from our Commonwealth partner, probably soon to overtake us in the world GDP league table, India, nor from Singapore.

Monday, 29 October 2018

The Swiss myth

This Brexiteer argument has been doing the rounds:

When it was displayed in a Facebook group comprising people who actually know the Swiss border, it elicited such comments as:

Switzerland is in the single market and have freedom of movement, and also in the Schengen zone, in which the UK isn't. But I bet when someone says to quitters that getting the Swiss deal means accepting single market and freedom of movement, they will start stalling and shout shallow arguments again.

Any truck either driving to or just passing through Switzerland has to have a Carnet which has to be stamped for clearance. It also comes at a cost, Switzerland is a bloody nuisance for anyone shipping goods through it, why, because it has a hard boarder.

I am sorry to disappoint you...... But there are still borders and checks on what you can carry into Switzerland indeed if moving your house contents, you can't just take them into Switzerland you have itemise each piece and get the paperwork stamped.....

You're supposed to carry your passport or ID all the time there. And there are definitely checkpoints where the roads cross the border.

Surely Switzerland is part of Schengen allowing for free movement of people - one of the fundamental objections in the [Leave] campaign....?!!

 I had two boxes of tee shirts in my car on a trip through Switzerland. I either had to pay £170 duty, which i could claim back, or not go through Switzerland. The borders are monitored and there are physical checkpoints.

 If the Swiss model was implemented, Kent roads would come to a standstll. Commercial goods would have to be customs cleared in and out- trust me I've done it !!!

Took an overnight train from Munich to Milan that went through Switzerland. Got woken up at the border when the train stopped and guards with sniffer dogs came through the whole train checking passports.

 Last time I drove into and out of Switzerland I had to show my passport and get an ATA Carnet stamped.
The professional entertainment goods I was transporting were rented and were eventually returned by me to a rental company. This is why I needed thi
s particular customs document. That I showed at the border.
Checks were made. I was delayed entry into Switzerland from Sunday night and was not allowed to continue my journey until Monday morning.

Or you could just watch the Three Blokes in the Pub series.

Currency conversion within the EU could become cheaper

Just as we are scheduled to leave the EU,

Since the introduction of the euro, the EU has launched various initiatives to reduce the cost of cross-border transactions, among them a set of single euro payments area (SEPA) standards, regulations on cross-border payments, and the Payment Services Directives.

Nevertheless, cross-border euro payments made in non-euro-area Member States are still subject to high fees. Furthermore, when paying with a card or making an ATM withdrawal in a country using a currency other than the euro, it is almost impossible to know exactly how much it is going to cost.

On 28 March 2018, the European Commission presented a proposal for a regulation amending Regulation (EC) No 924/2009 and aimed at making cross-border payments in euros cheaper across the entire EU, while also bringing more transparency to currency-conversion practices.

[From a bulletin of the European Parliament Research Service. The full article shows the timeline of the regulation's adoption.]

In advance of the workshop referred to in my earlier post, the EU is already taking measures to safeguard the parliamentary elections to take place next May.

In his 12 September 2018 state of the Union address, President Jean-Claude Juncker announced the Commission’s proposed new rules to protect Europe’s democratic processes from manipulation by third countries or private interests. These measures, as laid out in the Commission’s September 2018 communication on securing free and fair European elections, include recommendations on election cooperation networks, online transparency, protection against cybersecurity incidents and steps to counter disinformation campaigns in the context of the European elections. As election periods are a strategic target of hybrid threats, the Commission and the High Representative identified steps in June 2018 to boost resilience and capabilities. Increased EU-NATO cooperation on hybrid threats has materialised in the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, established in Finland in 2017. Following Parliament’s call to look into the problem of fake news, in its 26 April 2018 communication on online disinformation the Commission issued an action plan and proposed tools to counter online disinformation, including a code of practice for online platforms to increase clarity about algorithms and close down bots and fake accounts. The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica revelations highlighted the relevance of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which took effect on 25 May 2018 and gives the EU tools to address the unlawful use of personal data, including during elections.

There is more here.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Apologies to "lionel" and "Penderyn"

The notification to my email address of comments submitted to this blog has broken down for some reason. So lionel's comment to The "Welsh" Super-prison and Penderyn's to Flags out for England - and Wales? were missed and I came across them by chance. They have now been posted and responded to.

Czechoslovakian independence

For five years we have been marking the centenaries of deaths, masses in the Great War and latterly of individuals such as Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Samuel Thomas Evans.  At last we can start commemorating the first glimmers of hope from that era. Before the formal armistice of the eleventh of November, the war was practically over in large parts of the former Austro-Hungarian empire. The Czech and Slovak people took advantage of the situation to declare independence on 28th October 1918. It seems that this is the first time they were able to come together as a separate nation since the subjection of the kingdom of Bohemia over 600 years earlier.

There were to be two further periods of subjugation, firstly under the Nazis (Hitler used the pretext of protecting the minority German population in order to invade) then under Stalin. Freed again when the USSR broke up, the nation split twenty-five years ago. Czechia and Slovakia joined the European Union separately, but 28th October is still celebrated.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Lobbying footnote

With reference to an earlier posting, several executives deserted the sinking ship of Bell Pottinger to form Consulum.

The current edition of Private Eye suggests that the newer agency has no less controversial clients than its predecessor.

The Consulum website refers only to links to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. However, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed in March that the frim had also taken on the brief to spin for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to the UK. 

Friday, 26 October 2018

I agree with Vince

Vince Cable recently spoke to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the subject of tackling poverty. In it, he addressed the attacks on Universal Credit (UC):

in scrapping the whole project in relation to UC there is a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The fact that UC is becoming loathed and is being implemented incompetently and harshly does not invalidate the reasoning behind it. I strongly repudiate the Labour Party’s suggestion that Universal Credit should be scrapped without being clear what the replacement is: a classic case of soundbites taking precedence over thought-through policies (at the risk of being too partisan, the problem is that Messrs Corbyn and McDonnell are giving spending priority to subsidising well paid university graduates over people in poverty, which may be politically smart but isn’t socially progressive).

It makes a lot of sense to combine benefits to get rid of the complexity and perverse incentives, in particular the disincentive to work under current arrangements. The OECD has acknowledged the force of these arguments. Unfortunately, UC is being undermined by the problems I have summarised above, by the sanctions and testing regime built around it; by faulty IT; by unjustifiably long waiting times; and, above all, the way in which the Treasury has used its introduction to cut large sums, perhaps £5bn, from the benefits system.

There are three specific changes my party are arguing for in financial terms over and above the reforms in the way UC operates:

: · A reversal of the cuts to the work allowance worth around £3bn a year, which JRF analysis suggests would boost the budgets of 9.6 million parents and children, 4.9 million of them in working poverty, and take 300,000 people out of poverty

· Improvements to Universal Credit for the 800,000 self-employed who will eventually claim the benefit: by extending the period before the “minimum income floor” cap kicks in from 12 to 24 months; and averaging income over several months so that people are not penalised for fluctuating incomes (all at a cost of around £400m)

· Ending the benefits freeze a year early so that benefits are inflation proofed again (at an estimated annual cost of £1.6bn in 2019/20)

The overall cost is around £5bn and we have suggested how this can be funded by returning the corporation tax rate to 20% and by taxing wealth more fairly (by making pension tax relief more progressive, and taxing unearned gifts and capital gains more like income). There is a wide range of revenue possibilities if there were the political will to address the problem of funding UC properly. The Government must pause the roll-out of Universal Credit and urgently review both its design flaws and lack of funding.

We now have leaders both in Wales and at the federal level who are emphasising the Liberal Democrats' commitment - at the top of our constitution - to ensure that noone is enslaved by poverty.

Which? comes to Wales

Which? Member Services which had been in Hertford for as long as I can remember has now moved to Three Capital Quarter in Cardiff. The new phone number is 029 2267 0000.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Christmas Carol Service for Asthma UK

For those who can get to Chelsea easily, there will be a carol service with, it is to be hoped, celebrity readers, on 5th December in St Luke's church, Sydney Street, SW3 6NH. Tickets in aid of Asthma UK are £25 each (£10 for under 16s, and other discounts are available). Details at

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Even the most liberal of us

Race is a slippery concept, so the title of this Discovery article should perhaps refer to skin colour rather than race. However, ones ability to distinguish between faces does seem to be overwhelmed by what at first sight seems to be prejudice but is probably down to something more innate. It was something observed by the late Ruth Rendell. In her whodunit "Simisola" she has her usually objective and liberal Chief Inspector Wexford assume that the body of an African young woman is that of the missing daughter of an African-born local GP, even though when photographs of the two are put side-by-side, the features are shown to be very different.

I must confess I have the same difficulty with "African" faces, but familiarity helps. If asked to distinguish between Denzel Washington and Idris Elba, or Whoopi Goldberg and Queen Latifah, there would be little trouble. It is the less famous faces which cause difficulty.

As the Discovery article shows, this flaw is common to different cultures. The research is just one more argument against relying on eye-witness identification alone in criminal trials.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Local media succumb to Facebook

As in south Wales, so in central USA:

I think that the problem is our social interactions are being streamlined and directed by the automatons that regulate the Facebook "highway." Some of us choose to no longer engage in the social ways of Facebook. But in a post-Facebook world it is difficult to find a sense of community anywhere, even in our own physical communities. Facebook is either where the "audience" is, or we are given the illusion that Facebook is where the audience is. 

Now I will wax nostalgic. When we first arrived at our little university town in the mid 1980s, there was a newspaper that reported on much of what went on in town. There was an insert in the paper that listed all the concerts that were being given at the university, and there were articles promoting events. We used to write letters to the editor. Our kids used to write letters to the editor. Local people used to write columns. The paper was a big deal. The paper felt like a vital organ in our community until the early 2000s.

Now our local paper is owned by a conglomerate, and aside from the obituaries, there is very little of local interest. We stopped subscribing because there is nothing worth reading. The (no longer) local paper does host a Facebook page, but it does very little in the way of creating a feeling of community for our town. 

[From the blog of composer and violist Elaine Fine]

Who abused Theresa May?

Many Labour MPs, together with Vince Cable (Lib Dem leader) and Caroline Lucas (Green) went out of their way in the House of Commons yesterday to condemn the weekend's abusive briefings against the prime minister. The nastiness was apparently anonymous but clearly emanated from MPs on her own side, people who she could have expected to support her. In the Q&A that followed Mrs May's report back from the European Council, Jeremy Corbyn and Yvette Cooper condemned the abuse, as did Jacob Rees-Mogg and one or two others on the Conservative benches.

Bill Cash, John Redwood, Justine Greening, Sammy Wilson (DUP), Sir Desmond Swayne, Sir Oliver Heald, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Sir Patrick McLoughlin, Heidi Allen, Nick Boles, James Duddridge, Anna Soubry, Greg Hands, Jonathan Djanogly, Dr Julian Lewis, Gillian Keegan, Alister Jack, Robert Neil, Sheryll Murray, Simon Hoare, Peter Bone, Alberto Costa, Richard Drax, Dr Caroline Johnson, Mark Pawsey, Kevin Foster, Rebecca Pow, Richard Graham, Philip Hollobone, James Morris, Helen Whately, Jim Shannon (DUP), Douglas Ross, Rachel Maclean, Andrew Bowie and Chris Philp did not waste their breath on the matter, no doubt mindful of Speaker Bercow's frequent admonitions to keep questions short.

Boris Johnson was not in the Chamber.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Elections in the digital age

The Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA) of the European Parliament Research Service has just posted:

Until recently, discussions of technology and elections focused primarily on e-voting. Controversies highlighted the potential for modernising the voting system, as well as the security flaws that open opportunities for interference and manipulation. Now, the role of technology in elections is much broader – and so are the controversies.
On one hand, social media platforms have made communication between politicians and the electorate more direct than ever. On the other, electoral campaigns can target smaller groups of people with highly customised messages, which can lead to the fragmentation of debates and the emergence of polarised political bubbles. The opportunities for outside interference and manipulation have multiplied, as any actor can deploy targeted messages, even if they are not part of the official campaign. Furthermore, automated ‘bots’ flood social media platforms with messages that simultaneously promote various extreme perspectives with the ultimate aim of polarising society.
Information about these messages is imbalanced in favour of the platforms and their paying clients. They have access to masses of information and analytical data about the citizens, while citizens have no access to the processes that decide which information they receive, nor to the full range of promises made and sentiments aired to other groups. This makes it difficult to make well-informed voting decisions before elections, and to hold politicians to account after elections. The burden falls upon the citizen to choose between risking exposure to cutting-edge propaganda techniques if they use social media, and missing out on key loci for democratic participation if they avoid such platforms.
One trusts that Richard Allan and Nick Clegg, both former Lib Dem MPs for Sheffield Hallam, both now working for Facebook, will contribute to the STOA workshop on 7th November on the subject or at least observe it.

Friday, 19 October 2018

What should we make of Michael Caine?

Michael Caine is to be admired as someone who worked his way up from south London poverty to being a star name. He has honed his technique such that it looks effortless, that he is just being himself, yet he can act out of character if pressed to do so. Nor is he precious about it. He has passed on his expertise in master-classes. On The Man Who Would Be King, he ensured that he did not receive more screen time than his friend Sean Connery. In an interview in the latest Radio Times, he recalls that he felt it was terribly unfair that a talented actress might not get a part because she wouldn't do something sexual with the producer, but that when he was in Hollywood he was a nobody and could do nothing about it. He admits to still learning about the troubles that people of colour still have in the industry.

In personal life, he has used his money to look after his mother and other members of his family. After a young life as jack-the-lad, he married just once and is still with wife Shakira after 45 years, in a business where bed-hopping seems to be the norm.

He clearly appreciates that acting is a cooperative undertaking. Yet he seems to be anti-trades union and is so virulently against nations working closely together that he proclaimed on the John Humphrys programme on Radio 4, as reported by the Evening Standard:

"I don't listen to all these pundits. I'm a Brexiteer myself. Certainly.

“People say ‘Oh, you’ll be poor, you’ll be this, you’ll be that’. I say I’d rather be a poor master of my fate than having someone I don’t know making me rich by running it.”

Now I have heard those sentiments expressed locally, but by people who genuinely are not rich. It ill becomes someone who does not disguise his wealth to seek to condemn others to a dramatic fall in their incomes. One also notes that his latest release is part-produced by Studio Canal, a recipient of EU funds. As to mastery of ones fate, we still have it, but in much less than half of our public affairs, we have to share it with others - and we correspondingly have some influence on them.

I am not going to stop watching Michael Caine films* if they come up on TV, just as I will not stop watching films featuring Vanessa Redgrave in spite of her starry-eyed support of an impossible socialist dream. I just wish that their personal political views were not given undue significance simply because of their star status.

* However, I would not go out of my way to watch Swarm or Water.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Plastic packaging v. food waste

Clean Slate magazine is more than a mouthpiece for the Centre for Alternative Technology. It is also practical.

Sometimes that goes against what might appear to be green received wisdom. In this category falls Judith Thornton's article in the latest issue in defence of food packaging. She regards food waste as a greater evil than single-use plastic. She makes a good case but, whether you agree with her or not, she provides a useful guide to managing various food items and their different requirements. She is not a mere theoretician; she is a CAT graduate and used to manage the water and sewage systems there.

There is more here and the follow-up here.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Food inflation after Brexit

I have just seen Three Blokes in the Pub episode 15 and realised the effect a hard Brexit will have on pensioners (and anyone else who has an income uplift calculated on the basis of the CPI this autumn). Food costs, which are a major component of the spending of lower-income households, will go through the roof in spring 2019. Unless the border between the UK and the 27 is frictionless, the increased cost of imports because of increased insurance costs, expensive paperwork and delays at ports, coupled with the inevitable further fall in the value of sterling, will make 2008 look like a minor correction.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

More railway bits and pieces

Yesterday, I had the chance to check the reported experience of previous travellers on GWR's new electro-diesel trains. Rhodri Clark of the Western Mail summed it up:
When the diesel engines are thundering away beneath the floor, there are constant vibrations inside, even at station stops. On the move, there’s often a medium-pitch whine. Sometimes there’s a fit of juddering, as if different engines are trying to go at different speeds. For regular passengers on the London Paddington line, this might feel a retrograde step after the smoothness and quietness of InterCity 125 coaches, introduced 41 years ago.
I would be interested to know if passengers on the service with pantograph up between London and Didcot experience the smoother ride that generally comes with electric running.

I would add that I found the all-grey plastic surroundings depressing, especially as I was in one of the end-carriage seats which has no window. On the other hand, the lighting was excellent and the electronic reservation indicators worked well.

All in all, though, Chris Grayling is stretching it when he calls the new trains a great advance.

There is a plea for relaxation of a 1920 law which is inhibiting the involvement of young people, especially young women, on heritage railways. Chris Austin of Railfuture draws attention to a report by an All-Party Parliamentary Group issued in July. He quotes the group chairman, Nicky Morgan MP as saying: "Members of our group found some of the evidence from young people involved to be inspirational and the work being done by the railways to be a powerful force supporting social cohesion and a great example of vocational development and training".

Chris states that the number of young women volunteers is small, even though the opportunities offered in terms of encouraging young women engineers are entirely in line with government policy. He claims that a major stumbling block is the Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act of 1920 has inhibited the engagement of youngsters in railway work. There is more at the Heritage Railways Association website.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Transport for Wales: don't expect immediate miracles, but there are some good signs

Infamously, the first train under John Major's privatisation was a bus in Wales. There were echoes of that yesterday on Transport For Wales first day. Many travellers, including those venturing to Aberystwyth for the Welsh Liberal Democrats' AGM, were faced with journeys by replacement bus - including one journey where the bus failed to turn up. However, TfW can hardly be blamed for Storm Callum.

Nor can TfW be expected to replace instantly the stock (including the bogey-less wonders like the set pictured above which picked me up from Port Talbot today) inherited from Arriva Trains Wales. TfW has already ordered replacement trains but it will be next year before we see the end of the oldest of the legacy train sets.

What was evident from my two trips today was the efficiency and helpfulness of the on-board staff. That augurs well for the other promises made by spokespeople for the new franchise.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Peter Black retires (sort of)

One of the most assiduous and high-achieving AMs of the first 17 years of the Welsh Assembly has announced that he will not be seeking re-election to Cardiff Bay in the next Welsh general election. However, although he has turned his back on national politics, he will continue in public life in Swansea. One suspects that he will remain a power there for many years to come.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Rail: a moral victory

Extract from Hansard of yesterday:

Bill Presented
Railways (Franchises) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Tim Farron, supported by Sir Edward Davey and Tom Brake, presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to terminate a rail passenger services franchise agreement in certain circumstances; to repeal section 25 of the Railways Act 1993; to make provision for local franchising authorities in England; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 271).
The Bill was inspired by an extreme instance of a train operator not fulfilling its contractual duties, namely, running trains. The Lakes Line runs (or should run) in Tim Farron's constituency and he explained its vital significance here. Northern's response to criticism was to restore some trains to the Lakes Line but at the expense of the Furness Line, which it also runs.

As I say, an extreme case but one which will resonate with other rail users. Tim's Bill has practically no chance of even being debated, but the fact that he was able to gain a second reading without objection shows that there is widespread sympathy in the House with the feeling that backsliding train operators should be replaced expeditiously. If the current Minister for Transport, Chris Grayling, does not act on this, then the PM should replace him with someone more proactive.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

More daunting challenges to the funding of overseas aid

As one might have expected, the political media headlines were all about Brexit. Much was made of  the failure of Mmes Mordaunt and Truss to mention "Chequers" in speeches this week and naturally that was seen as part of a challenge to Theresa May's leadership. Then there was Dominic Raab's stonewalling statement in the House about the Brexit negotiations which said nothing that we did not know already.

Surely more important were the Urgent Questions which were granted by the Speaker yesterday. Food Labelling and Allergy-Related Deaths brought out government foot-dragging over loopholes in regulations on proper labelling (for which we have to thank the EU anyway), not to mention the shortage of epipens, and Dangerous Waste and Body Parts Disposal: NHS needs no further comment.

But what worried me most was Penny Mordaunt's response to being called to account for her proposals for the Government Overseas Aid Commitment and Private Investment in it. She was clearly nettled at being hauled back to parliament to explain what was to her no more than an administrative decision but what to most observers was a change in direction which should have been brought to parliament. So often her replies to MPs contained the words "read my speech", bordering on contempt for parliament.

Her speech is not easy to find on the Web, by the way. This is the BBC's summary which must be slightly more objective than those in the press. From what I can gather - and her explanations yesterday may have been deliberately confusing - she wants, in two ways, to reduce the amount of money that the government puts into overseas aid while nominally continuing to hit the 0.7% GDP annual legal minimum. First, she wants to attract private money, and she held up the CDC as an example of producing a good return on development loans. Secondly, she wants to include any interest paid on development loans to be ploughed back into overseas aid but to be treated as new money. Both these proposals will mean changing the OECD rules on development assistance (pdf here) . The exclusion of "primarily commercial objectives" is pretty clear. One trusts that the proposed rule changes will be resisted. However, Ms Mordaunt managed to throw enough red meat to satisfy those MPs behind her who see no purpose in foreign aid other than to provide income for British construction companies and financial institutions.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

The Hanover Bankers

Guido Fawkes reports that one of Health Secretary's first appointments as a special adviser is Richard Sloggett from Hanover Communications. As this blog has previously noted, Hanover is a very Conservative-orientated lobby group, which has among its clients some players in the privatisation business.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Who was Sarett Rudley?

As previous posts on this blogspot have shown, I like nothing better than delving into records. In my first job as a junior civil service clerk in the old Ministry of Transport. I was fascinated by the files going back to the setting up the regional roads office and delighted in burrowing into the old correspondence - something I might go into on another occasion. One can imagine what a boon the Internet and search engines from Lynx through to Google turned out to be.

The World Wide Web also introduced me to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), now owned by Amazon, but founded and still managed by a Brit. Just occasionally, the excellent Independent obituaries (which sadly did not survive the cull when the paper went online only) provided snippets about screen actors which were not already recorded on the IMDb so I became one of the many contributors to IMDb. I also signed up to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography's (ODNB) daily extract from its extensive archive.

It was an ODNB update which started me on the Sarett Rudley hare. Felicity Anne Cumming (I link to the Indy's obit since the ODNB is a subscription service, albeit a free one) was an adventuress who, it was noted, was first married to Richard Mason. He wrote three romantic novels on which successful films were based, The World of Suzie Wong being the one that provided him with a pension for life. The IMDb has no references to Mason marriages. but I recalled an Indy obit and managed to find it from a back issue (it is no longer accessible online). The obituarist Jack Adrian (probably a fellow-author, Chris Lowder, using one of his pseudonyms - just the first in this saga!) recorded that Mason was married three times but tantalisingly gives no names. When all else fails, try Wikipedia - and, sure enough, there is an entry for Mason which lists Cumming as his first wife, Margot (Maggie) Wolf as his widow and mother of his two children and, in between, Sarett Rudley, with whom he went "to raise sheep on an estate in Wales".

The description of Ms Rudley as a writer of television teleplays for Alfred Hitchcock Presents was intriguing (we are now two degrees of separation from Anne Cumming). There are no biographical details for her on IMDb. She suddenly appears as a screenwriter in 1956, adapting other people's original material, until 1959 when she signs off with an original screenplay - perhaps a leaving gift from the Hitchcock production team? That would fit with a departure for Britain in the late '50s, especially as she also has a 1958 credit for a contribution to ABC's Armchair Theatre. In 1968, she contributed to Journey to the Unknown, described on IMDb as an English series, shot by MGM in the US company's Borehamwood studios, but featuring American actors in the leading parts. A 1989 credit proved to be misleading, because it was a remake of an earlier Hitchock episode. So Sarett Rudley effectively disappeared after 1968.

She almost came from nowhere - but not quite. In 1949, a well-meaning but unfortunately untheatrical "colour problem" play was put on in Brooklyn. How Long Till Summer ran for just seven performances. The authors were Sarett and Herbert Rudley. Herbert Rudley had a long career on stage starting in 1926 and became a stalwart character actor on screen until 1983. He had no other writing credits of any kind that I can discover, so presumably the play was virtually all Sarett's work. Herbert Rudley was actually born Herbert Shapiro and adopted his mother's maiden name as his own fairly early in his stage career. (Obviously Jewish names were out in those times. For instance, Emanuel Goldenberg changed his name to Edward G Robinson. English and French surnames were OK, other continental European monickers a bit dicey.)

It turns out that a Sarette (sic) Tobias became Rudley's mistress in Hollywood while he was still married to Ann Loring, causing an interesting court case. IMDb lists Sarett Tobias as a screenwriter with two credits to her name in 1945 and '46.

A bit more digging turned up a 1948 marriage between Rudley and Tobias, which had not been listed on IMDb previously. That led to a date and place of birth: 26th September 1917 in Colorado Springs, which ties in with a US census return of 1940 showing a Sarett Tobias, the wife of a medical doctor in Los Angeles.

From the time her earlier surname appeared, a faint bell rang. Was there not a leading character named Tobias in a major film? Eventually it came to me: Sarah Tobias was the victim in The Accused, written by veteran journalist turned screenwriter Tom Topor. Pure coincidence, or had the author met the former Sarett Tobias?

So I have clearly identified the second wife of Richard Mason with the (bored?) young housewife and mother in Los Angeles who took to writing screenplays. But where did she come from? Here is where it gets murkier. There is no Sarett listed among the Colorado births, but there is a Sarah Rude of the right birthdate. She takes a couple of journeys by sea (as shown in passenger lists) with her mother, travelling under her maiden name of Teichman, then nothing.  This is almost certainly the same person, but I cannot make the Milton Tobias connection.

And what became of Sarett Mason? Presumably she returned to the States - or did she go to Italy? Jack Adrian reported that Richard Mason remained on good terms with both his first two wives. There is more to discover there.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Fake bogeys

I enjoyed Al Murray's not-too-solemn history of Germany. Together with Misha Glenny's take on the subject for Radio 4, it made me realise how little I had really absorbed in sixth-form German lessons.

Murray is a descendant of William Makepeace Thackeray and a history graduate, so he is well equipped to front a programme on the History Channel attempting to answer the question: "Why does everyone hate the English?". In his preview in the Radio Times, he poses another question, more pertinent to the current mood in England and Wales: why have British newspapers and the Tories not moved on from the 1939-45 war? He writes of a visit to Hamburg during the making of his series.

Germany, which tipped the world into war, its leader in pursuit of his own racial bogeymen, has a lot to teach us. And in Germany it's taken time and effort to process this history. In the history museum in Hamburg, the story of the wartime firebombing is told dispassionately. The city was destroyed over a few days and nights by Allied "area bombing", a firestorm raging in residential areas. Tens of thousands of people were killed.

You might think this would be a reason to hate the English. Instead, the tone was one of "you reap what you sow". Rather than shaking their fists at the English the way we might at the Germans, what was on offer was a sober assessment of how it had happened. And part of that display? A bust of Hitler, presented not as a bogeyman, but as a warning.

After all, what he did was to gather every grievance, ancient and modern, real and confected, serious and glib, heartfelt and unjust, bundled them all together and pile them onto a bogeyman himself. Warning enough.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Calorie-counting goes back a long way

It seems to me that calorie-counting among slimmers goes in and out of fashion. A younger correspondent seems to believe that it is a new technique, yet I remember it being an obsession, in the media at least, in the 1950s. It was, though, a considerable surprise to find that it entered the popular consciousness 100 years ago.

220px-Lulu_Peters_Diet_and_Health_1918_cover-2  Find out more here.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Syria: Jeremy Bowen misses part of the jigsaw puzzle

Jeremy Bowen, the BBC's Middle East editor, previews his series on the House of  Assad in next week's Radio Times. He draws out the contrast between the civilised veneer of the Syrian first family and the ruthless suppression of dissent in the country. He sketches all the key players except, it seems to me, the main driver of the brutality. The Independent obituary of February 2016 reports:

The daughter of a wealthy Alawite Shia family from Lakania province in Syria, Aniseh Makhlouf became the matriarch, behind the scenes, of the country's ruling Assad family. She was rarely seen in public after Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, became Syrian president in 1971, but even beyond his death in 2000 she was acknowledged still to be a powerful influence on Syria's government. She is said to have urged her son, President Bashar al-Assad, to crack down on opponents in 2011 as Syria's civil war erupted. It is believed she called for a still more heavy-handed response than the strong measures he already favoured, and she was thought to have remained one of the few people whose advice he continued to seek when the war intensified. Her hold over her son already included a fierce outburst of disapproval over Syria's withdrawal in 2005 from what had been 29 years of occupation of neighbouring Lebanon. She is said to have upbraided him at the time: “You violated your father's statement that Lebanon and Syria both belong to the Assad family.”

That apart, this looks to be a high-quality documentary series by Bowen, who, presumably because of Netanyahu's disapproval, we see and hear too little of on BBC News.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Just get on with it

So the new leader of the Conservatives in Wales believes that because the Labour party is about to change their leader, they should immediately thereafter move for a Welsh general election. This bit of grandstanding for the Tory rally in Birmingham neglects the fact that more than a simple majority is required in order to dissolve the Senedd. Besides, with such a precarious balance in Cardiff Bay, Carwyn Jones' successor has to convince more than just his Labour colleagues that he should be First Minister. Mr Davies should be directing his efforts there if he is not happy with Labour's choice.

If Paul Davies follows his own logic, all the Conservative FPTP AMs should have resigned and caused by-elections because his party has elected a new leader. Why do these people not get it through their heads that we have representative democracy, not a presidential system? It is especially true of Scotland and Wales where proportionality means that the Assembly more genuinely represents the people year on year than Westminster does.

I am afraid that my own party has not been above such posturing in the past. There was a call for a general election when Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as Labour leader and therefore prime minister, even though it was clear that New Labour policy was not about to change. The only time when a new general election could justifiably be demanded is when the mass of MPs openly reverse their views on a substantial plank of their original manifesto or a referendum appears to show that the electorate has reversed its own ideas. There was such an occasion in June 2016 - and we did not have a general election then.

The normal voter, as opposed to the political activist, chooses his or her representative to serve for a full term and then expects them to just get on with it. The normal voter should be respected.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Neath Abbey Ironworks open day

Vic James and company have revived the Friends of Neath Abbey Ironworks Company, and I have altered the link on the emblem to the right to point to their Facebook page. My own pages still exist and I hope to add to them as I have more time.

This weekend just finished saw a repeat of last year's successful open days. The Friends have done a remarkable job in clearing the site, aided by the National Lottery and an EU grant via the county borough. Pictured below is Bill Zajac, who I see from his Cadw c.v. specialises in mediaeval castles and warfare,  delivering an enlightening, authoritative talk from the mouth of a monument to the industrial revolution, blast furnace no. 2 of the former Neath Abbey ironworks.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Project Reality

I have just caught up with a discussion about what happens if there is a "clean break" between the UK and the other 27 EU members. The YouTube links are and The series distils much of what has gone before in the Three Blokes in the Pub series and in the last podcast draws on experience from business people in the audience, too.

We are now starting to see the practical effects on businesses exporting to mainland Europe. Goods and services which take time to prepare and whose delivery dates fall after the withdrawal date in March next year cannot be provided by UK suppliers.

The Conservative party's Brexit pitch from Birmingham was on BBC-Parliament this morning. One speaker was honest enough to admit that around 300,000 UK businesses trade with the rest of the EU and that they would be seriously affected by Brexit, probably put out of business altogether by a no-deal withdrawal. (In another place, John Redwood MP has suggested that they should start running their businesses down now.) However, the man went on, these are a minority of businesses in the country, we do most trade internally and we have a vibrant hospitality sector. Having thrown exporters and their employees out of work, that puts a heck of a burden on tourism to provide income for our hotels, B&Bs and brewers, even allowing for a continuing fall in the value of sterling.

Thought for the day

From October 1st 2013:

A strong nation, like a strong person, can afford to be gentle, firm, thoughtful, and restrained. It can afford to extend a helping hand to others. It is a weak nation, like a weak person, that must behave with bluster and boasting and rashness and other signs of insecurity.
Jimmy Carter, 39th US President, Nobel laureate (b. 1924)