Tuesday, 31 December 2019

The BBC should do right by Neil Innes

It was gratifying to hear Michael Palin on Radio 4's PM programme yesterday confirming that the warm personality of Neil Innes that came over the airwaves was a genuine reflection of the real man. If anything, he was too nice. Someone more aggressive might have succeeded in forcing the BBC to release a DVD set of The Innes Book of Records, Provided that the corporation has not actually destroyed the originals (there are precedents), it is surely right for the BBC to do justice to Innes after his untimely death which it did not do in his lifetime.

[Later] For reasons why, start with Jonathan Calder's post.

Friday, 27 December 2019

Peter Schreier

It is sad that the great German tenor has died, but in a way appropriate that it was on one of the key Christian festivals. He had been associated with the sacred music of Bach, Bruckner and Mozart from early on in his career. One of my musical memories is of listening to the Prom performance of Bach's Matthew Passion in the first year of my marriage. Schreier's first entry as The Evangelist, pure and clear, caused us simultaneously to look up and catch each other's eye.

One trusts that Radio 3 will be spurred to celebrate his life and career with appropriate repeats.

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

The first night

Perhaps because the lead-up to Christmas has been truncated and overshadowed by the general election, we can spread our celebrations over the traditional twelve days, which started at dusk today.

Anyway, I wish all my friends, relations and readers a joyful Christmas.

Monday, 23 December 2019

Bank of England: Private Eye gets it wrong

The city correspondent of Private Eye magazine anticipated that the Bank of England governorship would go to a woman for the first time. However, at the last minute Minouche Shafik has been passed over in favour of the early front-runner, Andrew Bailey. It is rumoured that Ms Shafik lost out because of her opposition to Brexit, which would make for an uneasy relationship with the Johnson government. Mr Bailey, as chief executive of the FCA, was on the other hand swift to blame EU rules for avoiding an intervention in the Woodford affair, according to the Eye.

It will be interesting to see who is selected to replace Mr Bailey at the FCA. It ought to be someone who has not spent their working life in the big banks.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Gurkha Welfare Trust inauguration

On the 22nd December 1969 at 14:00 hrs. fourteen men, eight of them military officers, met in donated offices in Moorgate in the City of London. This was the first Trustee meeting of The Gurkha Welfare Trust.

Among them was Colonel C.S.F. Carroll, OBE, MC, later to retire as Brigadier Carroll. In 2008, Peter Carroll helped oversee the Gurkha Justice Campaign, fighting for the rights of retired Gurkhas to a decent pension.

Friday, 20 December 2019

Global warming: warnings from Victorian times

Thanks to JSTOR, I now know that the great Joseph Fourier, mathematician and physicist, had the intuition back in the early nineteenth century that the earth's mantle of various gases was responsible for keeping the planet warmer than his calculations showed that it should be. He also surmised that "over a long period of time, the amount of heat held in by the atmosphere could change — altered by both the Earth’s natural evolution and human activity."

Fourier did not pin down the exact mechanism or which gas was most responsible for what we now name the greenhouse effect. This identification was first made by an American amateur scientist, Eunice Newton Foote. "She took several glass cylinders, put a thermometer in the bottom, and then filled them with gas combinations ranging from very thin air to thicker air, humid air, and air with 'carbonic acid,' or what we now call CO2. Foote placed the cylinders in the sun to heat up, then in the shade to cool down. When she observed how the temperatures changed, she found that the cylinder with CO2 and water vapor became hotter than regular air, and retained its heat longer in the shade. In other words, wet air and CO2 were heat-trapping gases. When she wrote up her experiment for an 1856 issue of The American Journal of Science, Foote made an eerily prophetic observation: What happened inside the CO2 jar could also happen to our planet. 'An atmosphere of that gas,' she noted, 'would give to our earth a high temperature.'"

Three years later, John Tyndall, after whom the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research is named, followed.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Will our new liberal, one-nation Tory prime minister help Emma and Jake?

"the British government [has failed] to honour the spirit of a commitment in the Belfast Agreement that people from Northern Ireland could identify as British, Irish or both."

Thus the case of Emma d'Souza, who has always considered herself to be Irish, facing a British decision to reject an application for residence by her American husband, Jake. Her case has been taken up by the Irish government and Northern Ireland Alliance former MP Naomi Long.


So the BBC is about to turn off a very useful function for those of us who do not wish to lash out on smartphones or connect our TVs to the Internet. From the very inception of teletext (a generic term which was briefly copyright by ITV for its own service - Ceefax was the name chosen by BBC for the scheme which it had pioneered) it was useful to pull up reactions to events as they were shown on the box. For instance, one could gauge market reaction (e.g. the value of sterling or of stocks on the London exchange) to news or look at football results and tables.

The first teletext made use of the spare lines in analogue transmissions which did not appear on the screen. The displayed characters were those devised by Sam Fedida of the then Post Office research organisation for its Prestel system.

With an appropriate card (such as those made by Hauppauge) in ones computer one could capture the teletext digital stream. Indeed, I devised a suite of programs (in COBOL, not the easiest vehicle for list processing!) for my PC which would automatically read the pages containing the football results and generate tables. It worked for just over a year before it was overtaken by the switch from analogue to digital TV transmission.

Digital saw an improvement in the quality of the characters displayed and I have continued to refer to teletext virtually every day. If BBC cannot maintain this last redoubt on UK television, perhaps a provider which is at least as well endowed and under no pressure from stockholders can take it over? I look to you, al Jazeera.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Bicentenary of fair voting systems

Anthony Tuffin of STV Action reminds us that on 17th December 1819, occurred the historical first election under a proportional voting system. (Or perhaps it was the next day - see the wikipedia article.) It was devised by Thomas Wright Hill who deserves to be better known than as the father of Rowland Hill, postal pioneer. A mathematician and educator, Thomas Hill was part of that Midlands upwelling of scientific and philosophical inquiry which had earlier led to the society described in Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men. I hadn't realised that when Joseph Priestley, co-discoverer of oxygen and a Lunar man, was burnt out of his house by a mob incensed by his sympathy for the French revolutionaries - and possibly his unitarianism - Thomas Hill had tried but failed to rescue Priestley's apparatus.

That first STV election was held to elect the committee of a learned society in Birmingham which Thomas and Rowland Hill had founded. He later tried STV in one of the schools he ran.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Two more pubs to go

Sadly, there appear to be no takers for the Smiths Arms in Neath Abbey which had to close in such tragic circumstances.

And now there is a planning application to change the use of the Canterbury Arms by Victoria Gardens in the centre of Neath from a public house into three shops and six flats.

EFTA should be the forward path now

When Stephen Kinnock proposed joining the European Economic Area, I was one of those who objected. The fight to remain in the EU had not yet been lost and at least one EEA head of government had expressed objections to our joining. Now, subject only to rubber-stamping by Johnson's new party in the Commons, we will be out of the EU by February. The difficulty of convincing other governments of our good faith remains, but if we succeed we will return the UK to a position that we were in before we joined the European Community. Then we were members of the first free trade area in Europe, namely EFTA, which a UK Conservative government had helped set up in 1960. It seems that re-joining EFTA could provide a first step to becoming part of the wider EEA.

Friday, 13 December 2019

Another Berwyn prison tragedy

A young man who had not been addicted before he entered prison was introduced to "spice". In spite of being aware enough of the dangers to post a video warning of them, he has been found dead almost certainly as a result of taking the drug.

Surely Wales can do better with the prisons within our boundaries? We must not allow the blanket coverage of the general election to stifle this story.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Westminster's midnight

It has already been remarked that the day after today's poll is the inauspicious Friday the thirteenth. It also happens to be St Lucy's Day, which used to be the shortest day of the year before the reform of the calendar. Thus John Donne could refer to the day's midnight and the year's in one of his most complex poems.

This year, St Lucy's Day also marks a political crisis. When all the votes are in (and it looks as if the very last counts may have a bearing on the overall result) will the UK be set on a course which takes us out of the EU, influencing the future direction of Europe and continuing to benefit from the opportunities the Union offers, or will we become yet another once-great state to become kicked around by the great powers of East and West? Will we start to rebuild our economy and our social structures or be taken in by grand schemes funded by unsustainable borrowing? It is a choice between putting the Brexit jinn back in its bottle for a decade while we concentrate on reconstruction at home or arguing for another year or more about the shape of the trade agreement with Europe, all the while turning in on ourselves. Will we return to an honest democratic path or continue to be seduced by liars and cheats?

The thirteenth of December may no longer be the winter solstice, but this year it will certainly be a turning-point.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Green business newsletter likes our manifesto

This op-ed from Business Green reminds us of another Liberal Democrat initiative in coalition that was vindictively killed off by the Conservatives when they contrived an overall majority in 2015: the Green Investment Bank.

For me, the Lib Dems offer the most compelling manifesto for the green economy. Most experts would agree the 2045 net zero target date is both ambitious and achievable, but crucially there is also a detailed £100bn plan for meeting the goal that centres on urgent action over the next decade. There is a willingness to borrow to invest to go alongside Leader Jo Swinson's genuine apology for the Party's involvement in the past decade's self-defeating austerity policies. That funding would enable massive home retro-fitting programmes, the reinstatement of the Green Investment Bank that was so short-sightedly privatised by the Tories, a huge surge in renewables and EV infrastructure development, and increased clean tech R&D. Add in tree-planting, important climate governance reforms in Whitehall and corporate boardrooms, and the promise of an environmental duty of care law and you end up with a programme that could drastically accelerate decarbonisation efforts without spooking markets or alienating the public.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Farage hypocrisy

So Farage professes himself shocked at Channel 4's exposure of racism in Brexit. He declares that he formed Brexit to get away from the racist party that UKIP had become. (He conveniently forgets that UKIP was less racist before he took it over.) Yet there is evidence that the mature Farage differs little from the the Nazi-idolising Dulwich schoolboy. A contributor to Facebook recalls an incident from earlier this century:

When Obama won his first Presidential election in 2008 the US Embassy in Brussels held a post election party, which I was invited to, at the Renaissance Hotel to celebrate this historic event. I caught a cab to Place Luxembourg (near the EU Parliament) and started to find my way to the hotel.

While walking I bumped into a smartly dressed man who was walking in the opposite direction to me. I decided to ask him the quickest route to the hotel and he started by saying: “Can you believe that Barrack Obama won? Unbelievable! Well, at least his Mother is white!”

That smartly dressed man was Nigel Farage.

The sin in Brexit Inc. is not to be racist, but to be exposed as such.

Monday, 9 December 2019

There is another funding crunch coming

This Sydney Morning Herald story warns of  another financial crisis on the way. It will not be caused by a plunge in trust in transatlantic financial institutions like the 2007/8 crunch, but as I understand the rather arcane explanation the effects will be the same: a shortage of ready money for big borrowers. This is not a time for prospective chancellors to plan expansion of the UK economy based on borrowing, as John McDonnell and Sajid Javid propose.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Mieczysław Weinberg, citizen of nowhere

Today is the centenary of a prolific, but until recently generally unrecognised, Polish Jewish composer. JD has more here.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Cathy Fox on Jeffrey Epstein

I respect Cathy Fox's persistent campaign to uncover the truth about sex offenders. Howevr, I feel that some of the sources she quotes make rather far-fetched allegations. At first sight, her piece on the Duke of York and Jeffrey Epstein falls into this category, yet when one looks at the charges logically they make sense.

For instance, Fox's assertion that:
Epstein and Maxwell were running a “brownstone” operation to sexually blackmail important powerful people, politicians and scientists so that they can be controlled. The best blackmail material is child sexual abuse material.
makes sense when you look into Epstein's history. His first brush with the law was as the promoter of a Ponzi scheme. His co-conspirator was sent down for eighteen years; Epstein mysteriously got off. Could he have already started a blackmail business when he was recruited for the fraud?

Then there is the reported suicide. Epstein had wriggled out of the worst punishment for his previous convictions. He clearly did not lack self-confidence; why should he commit suicide now? The federal authorities had carefully remanded Epstein to one of the most secure jails in New York state, and he had been held in a special unit at the time of his death. Admittedly, US federal jails are understaffed and there was venality on the part of his guards. Still, one does not have to invoke Mossad or the CIA to realise that there were powerful people who are grateful that he is dead.

Friday, 6 December 2019

Johnson and Patel's unrealistic prison proposals

Home Secretary Priti Patel has pledged to double some prison sentences if the Conservatives are returned to power. The Conservative manifesto promises to add 10,000 more prison places. However, apart from a vague statement of backing for  "all those who put their lives on the line" including prison officers, there is no commitment to restore the real terms cut in salaries of prison staff, let alone recruit more personnel. There is no sign that Johnson realises that more convicts require more warders, especially if he means what he says about rehabilitation. Or perhaps what he really wants to do is restore the oubliette, which would no doubt satisfy the more rabid Daily Mail reader?

Guide to rail operators in the UK

Barry Doe's 2019 update is now available as a pdf, with links to the latest map of train operating companies' domains.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Stand for what you believe in

Monday's i newspaper reported of Blaenau Gwent

a Labour stronghold formed mainly from Aneurin Bevan's old Ebbw Vale seat in 1983, and represented by Michael Foot until 1992. Labour's Nick Smith held in 2017 with a majority of nearly 12,000 over Plaid Cymru. But in distant sixth place that year were the Liberal Democrats, who secured just 0.9 per cent of the vote.

Chelsea-Marie Annett has been given the task to improve on two years ago and perhaps keep hold of the £500 deposit. Speaking to i, she is full of cold, a sign canvassing in the bitter South Wales winter is taking its toll. But Ms Annett is no paper candidate. Blaenau is her hometown and for her this election is about giving Remain supporters a voice.

"For me it's from personal experience," the 20-year-old student said. "Blaenau Gwent is a very poor area, and I didn't have the best chances growing up and I believe it's a place crying out for change.

"I know it's unlikely I'll win, but I think a vote for me is a vote for people who are dissatisfied with Labour. I'm optimistic. I've also got very numb hands canvassing in the winter, but it's worth it."

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

250th anniversary of an abolitionist

Elizabeth Heyrick, née Coltman, Methodist turned Quaker, and campaigner against slavery and capital punishment, was born on 4th December 1769 in Leicester.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

NATO's 70th

Prime Minister Johnson has pleaded for unity on the eve of this week's NATO meeting in London. This is against the background of two forces moving to break NATO up. President Trump, no doubt echoing US strategic thinking that China is the greatest threat to the world order, not Russia, wants to cut his country's support for the transatlantic alliance. President Macron wants to see an end to NATO and its replacement with an EU defence force - the dispute over Syria may be real but it is symbolic of a deeper difference of opinion over the most effective defence of Europe.

I agree with the Liberal Democrat position that NATO should continue and be strengthened. It is not an alternative to the EU. We need both.

Adrian Kingston-Jones, our candidate for Neath in the general election, and I agree that more needs to be spent on conventional defence. In a recent speech, Chuka Umunna sees our contribution to NATO automatically rising with GDP if we clearly resolve to remain within the EU. I personally part company with them over the nuclear weaponry commitment, which I see as benefiting the US global reach but demonstrably of little effect in Europe. That budget could usefully be switched to boosting the personnel and equipment of our own armed forces. I accept that I am in a minority in the LD party in thinking this way, but the fact remains that money must be found in order to avoid defaulting on our existing commitment to NATO at the least, let alone adding the extra 1% called for by defence experts. This is going to be a struggle unless the Brexit jinn is put back in its bottle.

Monday, 2 December 2019

EU needs to get a grip on financial rort

Tom Keatinge, the Director of the Royal United Service Institute's Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies criticises the EU's processes for tackling economic crime. It is true that the EU moves slowly, but that is not the same as inaction. However, he has a point when he suggests that a critical  element besides supervision and enforcement is

intelligence. Importantly, as almost all of the EU’s money laundering scandals underline, this must include the sharing of intelligence between countries to combat the transnational nature of large-scale financial crime activity.

He believes that the UK is beginning to get things right with reforms led by the Office for Professional Body Anti-Money Laundering Supervision (OPBAS). However, financial crime like pollution does not stop at borders and it is important that the UK and the EU27 share intelligence in this area.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Johnson's falling standards will hit UK manufacturers

Refusing to follow EU rules on energy efficiency standards will put UK manufacturers on the back foot, Andrew Warren warns. (Amongst other roles, Andrew is Chair of the EU Task Group on Sustainable Construction and Energy Efficiency).

He explains:

For the first three years following the Brexit referendum, every single indication from Theresa May's government was that both of these successful policies would be continued seamlessly even when the UK was no longer formally part of the EU. So UK product policy on energy usage would remain aligned with that in operation right across Europe - likely to remain UK manufacturers' largest single market.

This continuity would have ensured that the energy savings already achieved would remain for future years. And as new products continue to be added to the substantial list of those covered, the expectation had been that UK manufacturers operating in each sector would continue to make products that, at minimum, always complied with European standards.

It is now becoming clear that this is no longer the policy of any Johnson-led Government. [...]

At the end of October 2019, a big EU consultation forum was held in Brussels, under this same Eco Design Directive. This time dealing with water pumps. There are considerable UK manufacturing interests likely to be affected. Up until the last minute, it was feared that UK government officials would not be attending. Nobody officially would be able to put the case for British businesses. Options exist which could detrimentally affect such interests. After much strenuous lobbying from (unsurprisingly) the British Pump Manufacturers Association, a few days beforehand 10 Downing Street staff grudgingly approved the attendance of two civil servants from the Business Department. By that stage the zealots had conceded that any chance of achieving the declared departure date from the European Union before 2020 had evaporated. So at the eleventh hour these two civil servants were indeed given special permission to board the Brussels Eurostar, to help put across the arguments of British businesses to their opposite numbers from other governments. Leaving an empty chair may be portrayed by some as an overt gesture of true Brexit purity. Those operating in the real world might describe actually doing so as another pointless gesture that is truly a dereliction of duty by government. And a giant step back from ever achieving net zero carbon.