Wednesday, 31 July 2019

UK not on fast track

- but not the slowest either

Last Saturday, the South Wales Evening Post headlined a story about fast trains "On the wrong track". This year's report of world train speeds in a biennial series from Railway Gazette International shows the UK in 13th place. The magazine's survey reflects a real-world railway from the passengers’ point of view. Trains are selected if they run from Monday to Friday and average more than 160 km/h between different station pairs. The survey does not include one-off or weekend services. Entries in the tables are based on the timetables in use for May and June 2019.

The point that the Post makes is that in 1977 the UK made it to second place. Since then, we have been overtaken not only by prestige projects such as those in Japan and later China (who now holds the record at 317 kph) but also by fellow EU members Italy, France, Spain and Germany who have the same problems of upgrading existing infrastructure in a modern democracy. Austria comes in at 179.6 kph, the same as the UK, but with the probable excuse that there not as many lines on a level grade as here. Norway, Sweden and Finland are even slower, but so, surprisingly, is the Netherlands.

Personally, I am less concerned about the top speed of our top lines than about the experiences of the majority of rail passengers. Resuming the electrification programme initiated by the coalition would not only raise average speeds and reliability of service, but also go a long way to reducing our CO2 production.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Llanelli boy must make good

It is not many people in  my circle who can say they have shaken hands with a future Lord Chancellor, but many years ago I met the young Robert Buckland. It was in the armistice period of a long-forgotten campaign (possibly the European Parliament elections of 1994) between the closing of the ballot and the counting of the votes when the agents, candidates and their guests guardedly socialise. Then, although I found him personable, I rather dismissed him as an ardent Thatcherite and all that this entails. Following his career over the years since, I came to realise that he was more of a one-nation Tory (to quote Iain Macleod) than that. Although I am sorry to seen that he has taken the Johnson coupon of a disorderly withdrawal from the EU, his is probably the best of the new appointments of the new administration.

His pledge to reform courts, tribunals and criminal legal aid is most welcome, though, as Liberal Democrats have pointed out, the restoration of civil legal aid to the just-managing is more pressing. The cuts to criminal legal aid have received more publicity because, dare I say it, that is where barristers are most affected and the bar is very good at achieving media coverage. That is not to deny that young barristers struggle to make a living now, and something must be done to prevent any accused being denied a proper defence in court, but there are ordinary law-abiding people  put at a disadvantage in disputes over state benefits or tenancies because of the cuts made by successive governments. One trusts that the new Lord Chancellor will listen to solicitors and Citizens Advice as well as his fellow-barristers.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Seeds of Brexit

There has been some discussion in the groups I belong to on Facebook and on Cix as to who was our worst prime minister. David Cameron was in the lead for some time, but Theresa May came up to run neck-and-neck until she announced her resignation. Pity, if not sympathy, seems to have been a factor in that last change. For some reason, Labour PMs have not come into the reckoning. I would have ranked Callaghan as a challenger if only for his failure to go to the country in 1978, thus ensuring that Mrs Thatcher achieved an absolute majority in 1979. I would add his failure to back Barbara Castle's union reforms and his reversing of Roy Jenkins' progressive policy at the Home Office. Gordon Brown also came into consideration, but his custodianship was largely a continuation of what had started under Tony Blair, and he did at least come to realise what mistakes he had made as a chancellor and appointed Alistair Darling to start to put them right.

There must be some nineteenth-century qualifiers, but post-Victoria, only Bonar Law comes into consideration. However, it seems that  the worst one can say about him is that he was ineffectual.

No, May and Cameron take the top two places because they have been held culpable by all sides of the political argument. May has some excuse in that she was loyally following the path which had already been set down. She also felt it her duty to issue the Article 50 letter initiating the withdrawal mechanism as practically her first act on taking office. However, at no time did she pause in the face of evidence that Brexit was fatally broken by immanent contradictions, not least the UK's borders with Ireland, Spain and some island dependencies. The 2017 election served only to make it more likely that we would leave without a deal - which is perhaps what Mrs May's advisers aimed for. Away from Brexit, she identified many of the difficulties experienced by the worst-off in our society but failed to do anything to ease them. Indeed, she presided over a tightening of "austerity".

Cameron is condemned by Leavers for delaying the Brexit referendum and, when this returned a majority in favour of leaving the EU, in reneging on his promise to immediately legislate to leave and stay in office long enough to see it through. In the event he dithered and finally dumped the mess on his successor, after he decided after all to resign. Remainers condemn him for holding the referendum at all, or at least for declaring that it would be binding however narrow the majority. I would certainly condemn him for the last, but my main criticism would be that he should have held the referendum in 2010, when the Labour leadership was still on board with the European project. It could have taken the place of the pointless referendum on AV, a Gordon Brown idea which was in neither coalition partner's manifesto and which even Labour failed to support when it came to the vote.

There are other roots of the unsatisfactory 2016 referendum, though. We could have had a more civilised debate in the 1990s when Ming Campbell originally floated the idea, for a start. A more serious decision was taken by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in pushing through the devolution programme bequeathed to them by John Smith. In 1979, a virtually insurmountable hurdle had been built in to the Scottish devolution referendum by an anti-devolution Labour member. For the 1997 referendum, they went to the other extreme and stipulated only a simple majority.

Surely on a constitutional matter, even when confirming government policy, a significant majority - say 60% - would be necessary? It was certainly obtained for Scotland in 1997 (74% to 26%) and in the first Euro referendum in 1975 (67% to 33%). Welsh devolution would not have been approved (only .6 of a percentage point separating "yes" from "no" in 1997)  on that criterion, but given the flawed nature of the Welsh devolution settlement that would have been no bad thing.

So the stage was set for the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. The then leader of the SNP Alex Salmond had little difficulty in ensuring that a bare majority would be enough, thus reinforcing the precedent. When some opinion polls indicated that "yes" might actually win, the Cameron government panicked, resorting to promises which were not completely fulfilled in order to maintain the status quo. There were also fear tactics, like the strong probability that an independent Scotland would not be a member of the EU. In the end, "no" won but the experience should have warned Cameron what was to come in 2016.

Then there is the question of trust. There is already a prejudice against government between general elections, which grows with the age of the parliament, and shows itself in by-election results. It was almost certainly a factor in the size of the defeat of the AV proposition. Remaining in the EU was official government policy at the time of the Brexit referendum. Add to the general anti-government feeling the mistrust engendered by the delay in mounting the referendum, when it was or had been part of each of the coalition parties' manifesto policies, and you already have a handicap before people start to look at the arguments. On top of that, deputy PM Nick Clegg and most Lib Dem ministerial colleagues had broken a personal pledge to the NUS over student fees. The Lib Dems were then, as now, most closely associated with the European project.

The Liberal Democrats are committed to a further referendum on the EU. Although popular feeling has clearly swung against leaving - certainly against leaving without an agreement - the outcome cannot be taken for granted.

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Like laughing at Bernard Manning, in spite of oneself

Boris Johnson's inaugural speech as prime minister was a bravura performance. The enthusiasm  was infectious and, if one did not know that the EU27 were adamant that the Barnier-May withdrawal pact could not be renegotiated and that not all of his promises could be fulfilled without an increase in tax or borrowing or both, one could be hypnotised into believing that a new one-nation-tory dawn was breaking.

Of course, he has the typical politician's belief that wishing something makes it so. "We got rid of 20,000 police since 2010. It was a mistake, which we can simply reverse by funding their return." In fact, while some officers may return, if they have not committed themselves to a new career, with a modicum of re-training, the vast majority of that number will have to be raw recruits who will only be fully qualified after two years. We also learn from BBC News that there is a shortage of expert trainers, so this lead time may be even longer.

"More bobbies on the beat" will be a good thing, but it has clearly been chosen for its appeal to the average voter, like the rather more sinister proposal to relax the protocol for "stop and search". If the PM really wants to tackle crime, he needs to reverse the cuts to the prison service and thus reduce violence, cut drug use and improve prisoner rehabilitation. If he succeeds in his aim of increasing the length of sentence for sexual and violent crimes, then he is going to have to build more prisons, too - or take at least as many imprisonable offences off the statute book. This last would be no bad thing, but is he prepared to stand up to both the Mail and the Mirror who  will no doubt go to town on it?

Friday, 26 July 2019

Liberal influence in Europe

There is confirmation of the shift in the centre of power in the European Union caused by the rise of Liberal representation after this year's European Parliament elections. In the following report from VoteWatch Europe, Renew Europe is the grouping which includes ALDE, of which British Liberal Democrats form a large part, and Emanuel Macron's La République En Marche!

Renew Europe is confirmed as the kingmaker in the new EP as the group was on the winning side on all the votes cast so far. That is because the group sided with a right-leaning coalition on issues concerning Venezuela and Russia, while it sided with a left-leaning coalition on issues concerning the migration crisis at the US-Mexico border. The performance of the other ‘rebranded’ group, namely Salvini’s Identity and Democracy was, not surprisingly, quite different. In fact, the right-wing group was mainly on the losing side, with the only exception of the votes on Venezuela. In this case, a majority of ID members were on the winning side when backing a tougher stance towards the actions of Maduro’s government. However, their French members (ie. Marine Le Pen’s colleagues) disagreed with the Italian League and other delegations and voted against recognizing Juan Guaidó as the legitimate President of the country.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Increase in rail-worker casualties

The immediate cause of the deplorable fatalities on the track near Margam has been identified. However, the report goes on to say that the Rail Accidents Investigations Branch (RAIB) will continue work to establish the root causes of the incident. In particular:

the RAIB's investigation will identify the sequence of events that led to the accident and consider: 
  •  what might have influenced the actions of those on site 
  • the protection arrangements that were in place 
  • the planning of the work and the implementation of Network Rail's standard for keeping people safe on or near the line 
  • any relevant underlying management or organisational factors

Possibly coincidentally (because it makes no reference to Margam), a report has appeared in Private Eye about the effects of the gig economy on track maintenance. It states that a trackworker on a zero hours contract was killed by a train while placing warning devices on tracks near Purley, Surrey, last November.

As a Controller of Site Safety (COSS) he should have been watched by an assistant. His brother was rostered as his assistant that night. Both were booked by an agency which 'engages self-employed individuals on zero-hours contracts'. The assistant was in bed; he was booked to work 60 hours that week in his daytime parcels-delivery job.

[...] British Transport Police has investigated ghosting 'involving other contractors' for more than 10 years. But Network Rail's contracting regime causes other safety problems. After a 125mph express nearly hit trackworkers in 2917, it emerged that people on zero-hours contracts feared losing work if they complained about unsafe practices. [...]

By outsourcing maintenance, Network Rail can conform to government employment rules while exploiting the gig economy.

If systemic errors are revealed in the course of the Margam investigation, I trust that the new Transport Minister, Grant Shapps, will not hesitate to correct them.

Mozambique: how soon we forget

"People across central Mozambique are struggling to rebuild their lives - four months on from two devastating cyclones. Nearly 650 people were killed and more than 160,000 were displaced after cyclones Idai and Kenneth tore through parts of southern Africa. Many are still waiting to return to what is left of their homes."

This report is from last week, but one fears that little has changed.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Enigma: the Polish clones

Eighty years ago, less than two months before the invasion of Poland which would trigger World War 2, a short conference of cryptanalysts began in Paris. At the meeting, representatives of the Deuxième Bureau and the British intelligence services were presented by Polish Intelligence with clones of the Enigma enciphering machine currently used by the German military and techniques for decrypting the messages it produced. These were the fruits of ten years work by the Ciphers Office of the Polish army's general staff and the brilliant mathematicians they had recruited. The Polish contribution to the Enigma decryption - including the invention of the "bomba kryptologiczna" (cryptologic bomb) - is detailed here.

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Two new party leaders

I regret that Jo Swinson did not promise to re-examine the rôle of seaborne nuclear weapons in UK's defence strategy (nor, of course, did Ed Davey) but if we have to have a prime minister with access to the relevant codes I would rather have a rooted wife and mother who is less likely to start a war than someone who has abandoned his family, failed to fulfil his duties as journalist, minister or even MP (how often has he attended the Commons since his re-election?) and treated the metropolis as a play-pen. Boris Johnson's mayoralty of London was made less than disastrous by having good people around him to keep him in check. Much depends on his choice of ministers. With so many recent resignations and refusals to serve, his pool from which to select is drying up. If he insists on choosing only hard-line Leavers, thus spreading the talent pretty thin, he is unlikely to obtain the confidence of the House of Commons. The traditional loyalty and cohesion of the Conservative Party will not come to his aid.

Jo has had an extra 24 hours to pick a shadow team. No rumours have emerged, which suggests that there will be no massive upheaval. However, she may have to retrieve portfolios from the Lords if the hints that more Members are about to cross the floor (or the gangway) have substance. Then there is the strong probability of Wales returning a Liberal Democrat again on 1st August. 😉


There is a pattern of Liberal influence in government. In 1977, during the Lib-Lab pact, a working party was appointed by the then Secretary of State for Industry to develop the idea of a Co-operative Development Agency. One of the working party's recommendations was that the Government should bear the cost of setting up the agency and running it for a period of three years. After that, it was expected that the CDA would become self-financing. The original remit of the CDA was a wide one—to promote the adoption and the better understanding of co-operative principles and to represent the interests of the co-operative movement. The Board of the CDA decided to concentrate on the worker co-operative sector and it has been successful in promoting the co-operative concept and encouraging the setting up of worker co-operatives. When the CDA was first founded, there were only 300 worker co-operatives; in 1990, when the Conservative government wound it up, there were more than 2,000. After the Thatcher/Howe monetarist adventure which cut a swathe through small and medium enterprises, it was found that proportionately more cooperatives had survived than their traditional counterparts. The CDA was a rare example of Labour/Liberal convergence, of one of Labour's roots (the cooperative movement) and a long-standing Liberal commitment to co-ownership coming together.

Under the coalition, when the Conservatives had already started to bully or con Liberal Democrat ministers into compromising party policy, the Finance Act 2014 offered tax breaks to employee ownership trusts. However, as a legal advisor pointed out, "Whilst the two new tax exemptions are welcome and go some way to putting employee trust ownership on a par with the tax advantages for direct employee share ownership, tax, of itself, should not drive business structuring. Employee ownership is a tried and tested business model in the UK. Businesses such as the John Lewis Partnership are proof of this. This is what should attract attention to this ownership model. Of course, the new tax exemptions certainly serve to raise the profile of this under-used business model." A month after EO Day, the Employee Ownership Association is pressing for more government action to promote a business model which gives greater financial stability and job satisfaction, resulting in low staff turnover.

There is more here.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Our aid money diverted to prop up Fox's failing Department

That was my first reaction when I saw this story. The BBC reports:

The Department for International Trade is to be given part of the official £14bn aid budget. It will spend the funds on helping developing countries learn from UK expertise on trade deals and attracting foreign investment. The move will see Liam Fox's department spending funds earmarked as Official Development Assistance. The funds will still count towards the government's target of spending 0.7% of national income on overseas aid.

It seems to me that money that could be spent directly on people suffering from poverty and disease in third-world nations is being diverted to men in suits who will give "advice". Such advice has in the past enabled corrupt governments to use tax havens to deny their nations revenue to support public services.

The media release speaks of "UK expertise on trade deals". As I understand it, Dr Fox's Department is still learning, having had to recruit an outside expert and train up many civil servants as a result of losing access to the real expertise in Brussels. As for attracting foreign investment, surely that is the province of CDC or Actis, neither of which now need taxpayer funds?

The suspicion still remains that this a bit of Treasury sleight-of-hand to divert overseas aid money into helping to offset the cost of a troubled Department. There will also be the temptation to use part of it as a slush fund to pay "commission" in order to secure trade agreements. But even if my cynicism is ill-founded (and I hope it is), this diversion of funds is a long way from the original intention of earmarking 0.7% for helping people on the ground.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Several flashbulb moments

From the NASA history site:

The LM landed on the Moon at 20:17:39 GMT (16:17:39 EDT) on 20 July 1969 at 102:45:39.9. Engine shutdown occurred 1.5 seconds later. The LM landed in Mare Tranquilitatis (Sea of Tranquility) at latitude 0.67408° north and longitude 23.47297° east and 22,500 feet west of the center of the landing ellipse. Approximately 45 seconds of firing time remained at landing.

For the first two hours on the lunar surface, the crew performed a checkout of all systems, configured the controls for lunar stay, and ate their first post-landing meal. A rest period had been planned to precede the extravehicular activity of exploring the lunar surface but was not needed.

After donning the back-mounted portable life support and oxygen purge systems, the commander prepared to exit the LM. The forward hatch was opened at 109:07:33 and the commander exited at 109:19:16. While descending the LM ladder, he deployed the Modular Equipment Stowage Assembly from the descent stage. A camera in the module provided live television coverage as he descended. The commander’s left foot made first contact with the lunar surface at 02:56:15 GMT on 21 July (22:56:15 EDT on 20 July) at 109:24:15. His first words on the lunar surface were, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

So it is exactly fifty years since a manned spacecraft landed on the moon. (One should not forget that the Soviet Union had landed - or crashed - at least half-a-dozen objects on the moon's surface starting in September 1959.). Most people of a certain age can remember exactly where they were when it happened. My own memory is reinforced by the fact that my first daughter had been born the day before. There was a visit or two to the maternity hospital at Barnehurst, which even then was far from overcrowded so that Yvonne and young Catherine received the sort of personal attention which would astonish users of the English NHS today.

The new granddad (grandmother must have wondered what the fuss was about and retired to bed) and I settled down to watch the lunar excursion through the early hours of the morning. Notwithstanding the remarkable background programming fronted by James Burke and Patrick Moore, and both our perhaps conservative preferences for BBC, my recollection of the respective programmes was that ITV was providing the better pictures, so we agreed to stick with the commercial channel. We did hear and puzzle over the immortal first words. The rest of the time between then and my departure with DVL for Swansea is all hazy, but I do recall the first clear night and looking up at the full moon and saying to myself: "We've been up there.".

Friday, 19 July 2019

Brexit boost to pill-makers' profits

Just as Brexit did not on its own eviscerate Ford Europe or cause Deutsche Bank to embark on its current austerity programme, so the escalation in the price of pharmaceuticals was already under way before the June 2016 referendum. Phil Hammond, writing as MD in the current Private Eye, confirms there was rank profiteering. I quote extensively from his article. Two cases stand out.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) found that from 2011 to 2015, Auden Mckenzie was the sole supplier of 20mg hydrocortisone tablets (the primary treatment for Addison's disease) and charges to the NHS rose from around £46 to £90 for a pack of 30 tablets, increasing the yearly bill to the NHS from £1.7m to £3.7m. The CMA has provisionally found that Auden Mckenzie was making monthly payments to its rival Waymade not to enter the market.

The CMA has also accused four drug companies of unlawfully colluding to increase the price of prochlorperazine, a drug used to treat nausea and dizziness, by 700% over four years. Alliance, Focus, Lexon and Medreich allegedly agreed not to compete to supply the 3mg tablets to the NHS, forcing a price hike from £6.49 a pack in 2013 to £51.68 in 2017.

In July 2018, the Department of Health was given new powers to predict and control the spiralling costs of generics, but the National Audit Office has not been convinced that the DoH knew how to use its powers.

Now Brexit has presented the industry with a splendid new weapon. Sterling has hit a 27-month low against the euro, causing price inflation and making the continental market more attractive to pharmaceutical suppliers. Nor is the NAO confident that the DoH would be able to safeguard medicine supplies if and when the UK leaves the EU. These failures affect us in Wales, because the control of the price of medicines is not devolved to this country, as it is to Scotland.

There appears to be little real competition between the companies which have sprung up in the last twenty years or so. The government must use the powers which parliament has given it. If these fail, then it must look seriously at setting up its own manufacturing facility to keep the private sector honest.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Has it really been fifty years?

"Jul 18  1969:
              Senator Edward Kennedy drives his car off of a bridge and into a
              tidal pool on Martha's Vineyard.  The 28 year old passenger Mary
              Jo Kopechne drowns in the car."

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

New president of the European Commission

Ursula von der Leyen, Angela Merkel's favoured candidate, scraped home in a 52%/48% (a familiar ratio!) secret ballot yesterday. On the face of it, this is another success for the EU in electing a person who had a life outside politics (she trained as a gynaecologist and also mothered seven children). Part of her education had been in London, at the LSE, where she is said to have enjoyed the more liberal atmosphere than in her native country. She had been plucked out of private life by Merkel in 2005 to head Germany's Ministry of Family Affairs. Both there and in a promotion to Labour and Social Affairs four years later she pushed an agenda of empowering women, and one can expect her to do the same in Brussels.

However, appearances can be deceptive. She spent "the first 13 years of her life in Brussels as the daughter of a high-level official at the European Union's predecessor institutions. Those formative years helped von der Leyen become fluent in English and French, in addition to her native German, and gave her confidence on the international stage. These were the characteristics the EU's 28 heads of state cited when they nominated her" (from Deutsche Welle's pen portrait). She also succumbed to "consultantitis" when she took her third government job, that of Minister of Defence. This was not her only shortcoming there, as DW points out.

My main concern is that she is an unapologetic advocate of a United States of Europe, an outdated concept in my opinion. Putting such a person in charge of the Commission will only encourage its centralising tendencies. Moreover, her record at the Ministry of Defence suggests that she will not keep a tight hold on the budget nor tackle the problem of tax avoidance left to her by Jean-Claude Juncker, the previous president who had arrived at his post via the finance ministry and then premiership of Luxembourg, which has benefited from being home to so many "brass-plate" companies. There are however checks built in to the EU constitution, the last two revisions of which gave more power to the European Parliament. The EP which has just been voted in shows signs of being the most lively yet - certainly much more liberal than the one it replaced - and I expect it to hold the Commission and its new president to account.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

What governments have done to reduce greenhouse gases

On a Radio Wales phone-in programme this morning, I heard an apologist for the Welsh government declare that there was no need for the climate change demonstration in Cardiff because we in Wales were on the right track. Now, I am cynical enough to believe that these demos do nothing but enable a lot of ingenious young people to let off steam. In the current case, the aims are symbolic rather than practical: it costs nothing to make a declaration in parliament or to pass a law against the nebulous  ecocide. I also wonder how many travelled to the capital by car.

However, Labour in Wales are not blameless when it comes to perpetuating our addiction to fossil fuels. It is only six years since they weakened building regulations aimed at reducing carbon emissions by 40%. The Welsh NHS has continued to close local hospitals, increasing journey times for staff and patients alike. In spite of resistance from Education Secretary Kirsty Williams, small schools are going the same way. Parents, and more especially grandparents, need little enough excuse to drive children to school, adding to local pollution as well as to greenhouse gases. On top of this, this year there has been another round of cuts in bus services. Buses may rely on internal combustion engines (though there are promising hydrogen developments) but at least they reduce the fossil fuel consumption per person.

A small cheer for Transport for Wales, which is actually expanding public transport. There is also a programme for finally ridding ourselves of the inefficient Pacers by the end of this year. But don't get me started on Chris Grayling and the abandonment of electrification.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Trump trade policy counter-productive

Well, that worked well, didn't it? Part of President Trump's scheme to "make America great again" is applying trade sanctions to all and sundry, but especially China. The result has been not to reduce the deficit on trade with China, but to increase the trade gap. It has helped to dampen China's growth, though, with bad effects on the rest of the world. Does The Donald really want to go down in history as the US president who plunged the world into another Great Depression?

The UK will be the first nation to be dragged down, just as we were in the banking failures of 2007/8. The next prime minister will be closer to the current US administration than Mrs May. The only escape is via a general election, and soon.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Consumer protection: will there be compensation on top?

The European Parliament research service reports that:

Currently, consumer organisations or independent public bodies can bring actions in the name of consumers in courts or before administrative authorities to stop infringements of consumer legislation. According to the proposal, they would be able to demand compensation for consumers as well. While work on the proposal is ongoing in the Council, the European Parliament adopted its first-reading position on 26 March 2019. It added safeguards to protect companies against abusive litigation, and deleted a precondition that consumers should wait for a final injunction order establishing the existence of an infringement before being allowed to demand compensation.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Perry at the bar

As if in answer to my unspoken wish, the CBS Justice channel is reshowing the original Perry Mason series. This is what rescued Canadian Raymond Burr from playing heavies in films noirs, most notably in Hitchcock's Rear Window, launching him on a distinguished TV career which also took in Ironside. My recollection is of seeing Perry Mason over here on ABC-TV, one of the original commercial franchisees, in the late 1950s, though the show was later picked up by BBC.

CBS seems to have started the re-runs at series 6, when the producers (including Gardner himself) had long since run out of the Erle Stanley Gardner stories with which they started. The quality of the scripts is mixed and acting and production values are clearly compromised by a tight shooting schedule. On the other hand, the images and sound from the original 35mm film are amazingly sharp and clear. One wonders whether the film quality of series 1 to 5 is as good.

By this time also Ray Collins, a veteran from Orson Welles' Mercury Theater company who played police lieutenant Tragg, must have been ailing (he was to die in 1965) because he appears only briefly in one or two episodes but in the spirit of generosity which characterised productions with which Burr was involved, he continued to be credited throughout. The police leg-work was carried out by a new character, Lt. Andy Anderson, played by Wesley Lau. 

I am looking forward to the rest of the re-runs, if only to spot actors in bit parts who would later make their name in more starry rôles.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Make do and mend

I am grateful to CAT's Clean Slate magazine for the following excerpts from an article by the Rapid Transition Alliance.

In 2009 a Dutch journalist called Martine Postma ran an experiment in her home town of Amsterdam. She brought together a group of handy friends and ran what she called a 'Repair Café' - a free event where people could bring their broken belongings and volunteers would help to try and fix them. Following the huge popularity of the events in Amsterdam, Martine set up the Repair Café Foundation and published guidance to help other volunteers do the same in other places.

A decade later, there are 1,700 repair cafés offering their services in 35 countries around the world.

It has also inspired a BBC TV programme.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Will there be a real debate about BBC bias?

I recently received an email from the petitions office of the UK parliament:

Dear Frank Little,

You recently signed the petition _Public inquiry into the bias in the BBC_:

We want to hear about your experiences and views before petitions about the BBC are debated in Parliament on Monday 15 July at 4.30pm.

We learnt a lot from a recent online discussion about what petitioners think, and we'd now like to ask a few survey questions before the debate.  Your responses to this very short survey will also help to inform the debate. Click on this link to complete the survey:

Unfortunately, the description of the survey was all too true. It asked two questions about the need for an independent high-quality source of news and a final yes/no query about retaining the licence fee.

It did not ask why I wanted to do away with the licence fee (answer: because it is in effect a regressive tax) nor what I would replace it with (a continental-style household levy linked to council tax and therefore more closely aligned with ability to pay).

I have been one of those critical of the boost to the referendum Leave vote which the BBC gave. To summarise my arguments: the BBC has never given the coverage to EU affairs which it has accorded to domestic politics, therefore leaving its viewers and listeners in ignorance about the benefits of membership; it has been obsessed with "personalities", in particular Nigel Farage, who have overwhelmingly mouthed a simplistic anti-EU message; and the only reports from the parliament on its main evening news bulletins have been those of confrontations, led more often than not by Farage. Satire programmes like Have I Got News For You provide no real counter-balance.

Other critics have suggested that there are direct (through the board of governors) and indirect (well-endowed lobbyists) conservative influences on the top of the BBC. I would give the BBC the benefit of the doubt and say that the trouble is that its news and current affairs set-up is too geared to tabloid journalistic standards. In my view, current affairs - rather than strict news-gathering - soaks up too much of the licence-payer's contribution. The recent publication of highest BBC salaries attests to this - and that list excludes "independent" providers like Andrew Neil's company. If programmes of commentary and analysis were done away with, it would go a long way to reducing the  accusations - from all colours of the political spectrum - of BBC bias. The trouble is that politicians like anything that gives them publicity and therefore are susceptible to the BBC's arguments for maintaining them.

There are signs that BBC News is reporting more and speculating less. Could it be anything to do with the fact that al-Jazeera has returned to non-HD Freeview? With the possible exception of US-based broadcasters, these must be the world's best media for news coverage and it is good that the average viewer is again learning about what is going on outside the M25 periphery. BBC has licence fee income and money from selling on its reports to support its worldwide network. Al-Jazeera is bankrolled by Qatar. Channel 4 News is good (even if its interviewers hector) but it can only highlight so many situations round the world.  It is a good time for the news junkie prepared to do a bit of channnel-switching. All three face threats. Let us hope they are kept at bay.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019


Could it have been the imminence of the celebrations of Neil Armstrong's epic footstep which inspired the organisers of the FIFA Women's World Cup just concluded? Before each match, the spectators were encouraged to count down to the moment of kick-off, in English it should be noted. In the days of my youth, that would have raised tempers across the Channel. I seem to recall a prominent politician being slated across the French media for daring to give a TV interview to an anglophone station in English. The French have matured since then, while we seem to become more chauvinist.

Who invented the countdown? It appears that the honour should go to a George Chetwynd Griffith-Jones, writing as George Griffith in the late Victorian and early Edwardian ages. According to his wikipedia entry, his "short story The Great Crellin Comet, published in 1897, was the first story to not only include a 10-second countdown for a space launch (though a countdown of sorts is included in Jules Verne's 1887 novel, The Purchase of the North Pole), but also the first story to suggest that a cometary collision with the earth could be stopped by human intervention.".

Monday, 8 July 2019

Access for all to public transport

It seems that work is to begin on the next phase of Network Rail's ambition to make all rail stations in England and Wales accessible to disabled people. However, it will all be for nothing if train operating companies are not forced to provide the same access to trains. Stories like this are still all too common.

On the subject of ease of access to public transport, there would be a prime opportunity for the situation in Neath to be improved. The bus interchange at Victoria Gardens does not comply with current disabled access law and was possibly in breach when it was constructed. The crown post office (kept open while the Liberal Democrats were in coalition, it should be noted) has now been abandoned, joining the old Post Office Building alongside it. What ought to happen is that, while retaining at least the facade of the listed Post Office Building, a fully-accessible bus station should be built alongside Neath rail station giving passengers easy interchange between bus and train. That would have happened in the days when all the entities concerned were under a single ownership and an integrated transport system was official government policy.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

A social climber

"Mavis Carne - his lean rapacious wife, trained like a greyhound for the vigorous athletics of social climbing"

- from South Riding (Winifred Holtby)

Friday, 5 July 2019

Gaming the system

Under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, Labour's front-bench speakers are predominantly state socialists. They tend to believe in the old Clause 4*, and certainly more firmly that there should be no private companies involved in the public sector at all. (There are of course counterparts on the other side of the Commons who believe that public service is intrinsically wasteful and where it cannot be abolished can always be rendered more efficient by handing it over to a commercial company.)

There was a good example of this "Four legs good, two legs bad" approach in the House yesterday. Leeds East  MP Stephen Burgon took advantage of an Urgent Question granted by Speaker Bercow. The premise for the UQ was the completion of the legal process by which Serco was fined £19.2m (with costs) by the Serious Fraud Office for offences connected with electronic tagging committed between 2010 and 2013. (Conservatives loathe Bercow for his readiness to grant UQs to the opposition and indeed he may well have stretched the meaning of the word "urgent" here.) Burgon immediately widened the question from the particular to the general by condemning not only the Serco contract but also the employment of Carillion and the privatisation of prisons.

Carillion was a clear case of bad management. Only the most hardened communist would claim that the state should act as its own builder. However, there is a selection of construction firms out there even after the monopolistic march of Carillion. The client/provider model in the case of construction is straightforward. There is a clearly specified contract. When the builder fulfils it, he gets paid - albeit in stages on bigger contracts. There is no political philosophy involved. All the government department has to do is ensure that the firms on a short-list of tenderers are capable - and financially sound.

The picture on prisons is less clear. As the then minister responsible Rory Stewart pointed out, although there were private prisons which performed badly but also some still in the public sector which did so; conversely, there are private prisons which are ranked as satisfactory.

But trying to monetise purely social functions like the probation service is, in the words of the late Paddy Ashdown, a mug's game.

The point is that there is no one simple solution for every case. There should, though, never be a scenario where private providers are expected to make moral decisions. The onus is on ministers and especially their civil service advisers to ensure that involving private enterprise in a public service is appropriate and, if so, that contracts are drawn up so that a successful bidder is not able to game the system.

*"To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service."

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Plight of migrants in Libya

The recent callous, deadly and apparently arbitrary air raid in the Tripoli suburb of Tajoura has drawn attention to the over thirty detention centres in Libya. What was part of a process devised by the EU as a humane alternative to migrants risking their lives on the open sea has proved to be anything but humane.

Who was responsible for the raid is still a matter of conjecture. The Qatar-based al-Jazeera points the finger at the insurgent forces of Khalifa Haftar, who has the backing of Egypt and the UAE. (Qatar supports the UN-recognised Libyan government in Tripoli.) Haftar denies responsibility, but the stance of the United States in blocking a Security Council condemnation suggests that Washington may suspect an Egypt or UAE connection.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Brexit themselves invite Nazi comparisons

I usually avoid echoing memes which have gained wide currency. However, there seems to have been a concerted counter-attack by Nigel Farage's fan club to people on Facebook posting obvious comparisons between the orchestrated disrespect shown by the Brexit Party to the European Parliament and the disrespect shown by a section of the Nazi party to the Reichstag. The photographic evidence is clear:

Brexit party 2019. Nazi party 1930. Turning their backs to democracy.

as is the documentary evidence. Goebbels' strategy as set out in Der Angriff, his journal of propaganda, is strikingly similar to Farage's:

We are an anti-parliamentarian party [...] We enter the Reichstag to arm ourselves with the weapons of democracy. If democracy is foolish enough to give us free railway passes and salaries, that is its problem. It does not concern us. Any way of bringing about the revolution is fine by us. If we succeed in getting sixty or seventy of our party’s agitators and organizers elected to the various parliaments, the state itself will pay for our fighting organization.

Phrases such as "Remainers have lost the plot" and "it shows disrespect to the victims of Nazi atrocities [to compare Farage to Goebbels]" abound on Facebook. What these people are blind to is Brexit's clearly deliberate aping of the Nazi stunt. Is there another recorded instance of this offensive gesture in a parliament chamber?

Liberal Democrats do not believe in the House of Lords as presently constituted. However, our peers work within the system constitutionally to change it. Similarly, we are opposed to the Police And Crime Commissioner system, but while it is in operation we stand candidates to make the best of it. Even Sinn Fein, opposed as they are to Westminster's rule over Northern Ireland, do not make a hooligan demonstration in the Palace of Westminster: their MPs merely stay away.

This is not the first borrowing of Nazi iconography by Nigel Farage. His racist - and misleading - "immigrant threat" poster of 2016 echoes images from a Nazi propaganda film. His rhetoric, too, with his appeal to the common man deceived by those in power, could come straight from the Goebbels play-book.

Why does he do it? Partly because it works, just as Tim Bell was inspired by the Nazi machine in his promotion of Margaret Thatcher, but also, I suggest, to induce the obvious reaction by his opponents on social media. Look at these rabid Remainers, he seems to be saying, how can they compare me, your friend in the public bar who is only fighting for your freedom, with the monsters who enslaved and slaughtered millions? Why, I even welcome Jews to my party!

Actually, I have always thought Farage more like the comic opera figure of Mussolini than the more obviously evil Hitler. Fascist Italy, before the pact with Hitler, had no death camps and was not constitutionally anti-Semitic. It was still, however, socially repressive and undemocratic. Farage shares the fascist contempt for elected representatives and the intelligentsia. A Faragist Britain may not be genocidal, but it would be conformist, without friends as neighbours and, except for the self-appointed elite, impoverished. 

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Public subsidy of private business

BBC Business this morning reported that President Trump has resumed his war of words over subsidies to Airbus. One trusts that the EU negotiators will counter-attack with the way in which US public bodies at various levels have supported their native IT industry and their plane-makers

On top of that, we learn as a result of the 737 Max 8 disasters that the Federal Aviation Agency, whose advice tends to be followed by other certification bodies round the world, allowed Boeing to "mark their own homework".

Monday, 1 July 2019

Liberals attacked from all sides

In a Tweet, former leader of the Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt has responded to President Putin's declaration that liberalism is obsolete: "Mr Putin and his far-right friends want Europe to become more unfree, because our tolerant, open, prosperous societies are a threat to their autocratic dreams and oligarchic interests. Motivation for all us to expand rights, freedoms and diversity in Europe."

Lib Dem leadership contender Jo Swinson rather dismisses Putin's significance: “Liberalism has faced down bigger challenges than Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson or Viktor Orban. It’s survived and thrived on our continent for more than two centuries and through two World Wars. It’s not about to lay down to let nationalists and populists take over."

On the other side of the Atlantic, "liberal" has often been a term of abuse, never more so than in the conformist 1950s. Michael Goldfarb went further in 2010 in a historical analysis for the BBC News web-site.

On either side of the Atlantic - for that matter, wherever English is spoken - liberal means whatever the speaker says it means, although that is often not what the hearer thinks it means. Confusion reigns.

In America, neo-conservatives call themselves neo-liberals when it comes to economic theory. They advocate liberal interventionism in foreign policy.

It must befuddle Rush Limbaugh's fans to think that Britain's Conservative Party is in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. [...] A couple of years ago, if you told an American that the Liberal Party was in power in Australia, the last thing he would have thought was that Liberal leader John Howard was a conservative slightly to the right of Ronald Reagan.

[...]  And if you remind them that their other true British hero, Winston Churchill, started out a Conservative MP and then became a Liberal MP before returning to the Conservative fold, it absolutely makes their head spin.

The reason for Churchill's change of allegiance was trade policy. He was a free trader, but his Conservative colleagues believed in protective tariffs, so he crossed over to the Liberal benches in the House of Commons.

That happened around a century ago, and if you go back another century you get to the origins of the liberal confusion. According to most scholars, the word liberalism was first used in 1815 in English. It comes from the Latin word liber, meaning free. That part is easy to understand. Of course, what it means to be free is hard to pin down, and the methods for ensuring that governments allow their citizens to be free is equally muddy.

(I would add that Churchill, while solidly nationalistic to the point of being racist, was in many ways a social liberal when it came to the British people and remained so. As a Liberal colleague of Lloyd George he had introduced the wages councils, later to be abolished by Mrs Thatcher. One of his last contributions as war-time prime minister was to give RA Butler a free hand over the ground-breaking Education Act.)

Two years ago, Phillip Collins in the New Statesman added to the  confusion:

In the US, the ideas of John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu are doing battle with Donald Trump’s, and we should all be thankful that, thus far, those of Locke and Montesquieu are winning. 

Before asking who should speak for liberalism, we should note that liberalism is doing very well on its own account. Almost everyone is a liberal, although nobody likes the label. This is largely because no matter what sort of liberal you are, there is another sort of liberal that you are not. Any term that encompasses figures from Milton Friedman to Bernie Sanders, or from Nick Clegg to Daniel Hannan, runs the risk of including too much. For our present purposes, let us define a British liberal as someone who still believes that market capitalism delivers many more benefits than problems, who thinks that Britain is less prejudiced than it used to be and is glad of that, who is comfortable with recent levels of immigration, but who also believes that inequalities of power in Britain are too stark. It is immediately obvious from this description that, with credible leadership, this is a set of propositions that could command a majority of the British people. To this extent, the notion that Britain is somehow beyond liberalism is ridiculous.

He goes on:
It would be a disaster for the idea of liberalism for it to be bound up in the separate question of Britain’s membership of the EU. It is perfectly possible to be on opposing sides of that divide and remain a liberal, yet the demand for a second referendum is becoming, by default, the defining “liberal” cause.

Indeed, I know good Liberals who believe that the EU is an undemocratic organisation and that leaving it is a liberal act. For that, I blame the BBC.