Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Legislation coming down the track

The Gracious Speech has already attracted criticism for the lack of any firm proposals for social care reform (yet again), and the desire to introduce specific identification at polling stations at election time. 

As has been pointed out ad nauseam the latter is a remedy for which there is no disease. There are other parts of the electoral system relating to voting in absentia which have enabled large-scale fraud over the years and probably still do so. Is it too cynical to point out that Conservative, as well as Labour, agents have made use of biraderis to harvest absent votes, and ask whether this abuse will be tackled? The only logical reason for introducing photo-ID is to discourage voting by those people least likely to have a passport or driving licence and clearly not those most likely to vote Conservative. The solution floated by Conservative MPs interviewed on TV and radio today was that local authorities could issue, free of charge, a special card to those without any other ID acceptable to the government. Oh, sure, every council of whatever stripe is sure to process such applications speedily and impartially.

I share both those concerns, but there is another which worries me more. Prime minister Johnson and his xenophobic Home Secretary have frequently had their attempts to subvert the rights of citizens and refugees stamped on by the courts. So the intention to "restore the balance of power between the executive, legislature and the courts" is ominous. 

There is once again the promise to speed up the planning process when, according to the Local Government Association (LGA), the delays in building houses are down to developers not to the planning process, over a million unfulfilled planning permissions remaining outstanding. The LGA feel that what is needed is a measure to incentivise developers to build houses more quickly.

There is a pledge to establish in law a new Building Safety Regulator to ensure that the tragedies of the past are never repeated. There is no mention of a need to restore the fire safety regulations torn up by the Thatcher government and not reconsidered by any successive administration.

"Legislation will increase sentences for the most serious and violent offenders and ensure the timely administration of justice". This will need extra prisons to be built in a country which is second only to the United States in the number of its citizens which it locks up. What is more likely, of course, is that the government will reclassify more prisons as Category A and release more convicts well short of their full term. 

Finally, will the promise to "simplify procurement in the public sector" mean that more contracts will be awarded without the safeguards of a tendering process?


Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Scottish Independence referendum

 I have said elsewhere that natural justice dictates that the Scots deserve a renewed referendum on independence because the vote in 2014 was based on the false premise that the UK would remain in the EU and that Scotland would be out in the cold if she left the Union. 

However, before there is a fresh plebiscite, the Scottish government has to establish what relationship an independent nation would have with the EU. Scots need to know what exactly they will be voting for, bearing in mind that in previous elections they showed a strong preference to be in the EU.



Monday, 10 May 2021

Mixed fortunes

 I came fairly close to being the only directly-elected Welsh Liberal Democrat (WLD) in the round of elections just completely. I failed to regain a seat on Coedffranc community council by just two votes. (A link to the offficial declaration of the by-election should appear here.)

Elsewhere in Wales, WLD vote plunged where we have done well traditionally - by over 20 percentage points in Brecon & Radnor and Montgomery, for instance. If our leader, Jane Dodds, had not managed fourth place on the Mid-Wales list, she would surely have to resign for this performance. As it is, serious questions will be asked at this year's AGM and I will not be surprised if the party launches an inquiry before that. 

If asked, I will venture as my opinion that we have still not shaken off in Wales the memory of Nick Clegg and co. aquiescing in the Osborne austerity of 2011, especially agreeing to endorse the Welfare Act. We should have re-established our unique identity as a party of freedom, justice and fairness, not beholden to rich donors from right or left. We looked just like another party, with a main slogan which was little different from the Conservative offering.  Nor did Jane appeal to the electorate as a personality, though one hopes that will change with more exposure in broadcasts from the Senedd.

Distancing myself from the national campaign and instead campaigning on my own record almost came off. The success of local campaigners in England is encouraging:

  • We have already seen the Liberal Democrats gain seats from both Labour and the Conservatives, with BBC’s Projected National Share of vote putting us on 17%.

  • We have put the Tory’s Blue Wall seats on notice with big gains in the South of England, whilst Lib Dems in the North have made inroads against Labour. 

  • We are up on votes, up on seats and up on councils run. 

  • We have gained St. Albans City and District Council, and other gains have seen us oust Conservatives from running Councils in Cambridgeshire and Tunbridge Wells. 

  • Lib Dems have held Cheltenham, Eastleigh, Mole Valley, Watford and Winchester Councils

  • Lib Dems have taken control of Amersham Town Council with eight out of 15 Councilors.

  • There was an incredible eight gains in Oxfordshire to give us 21 seats, leaving the Tories out of control.
  • Great progress in Wokingham (+3), Guildford (+2) and Surrey (+5) as we took two seats from the Conservatives.

  • The Lib Dems gained in Devon as we claimed three council seats from the Tories and are now the official opposition party. 

  • We've had a big result against the Conservatives, ousting them on Cambridgeshire County Council with 5 gains. We also picked up seats on the District Council in what is a great result for the Liberal Democrats.
  • We have made gains from them in Kent, Lincolnshire, Surrey and Essex. 

  • In the North we have gained seats in areas such as Sunderland (+4), Barnsley (+3),  and as well as becoming the largest party on Stockport Council. We have also made gains in Rotherham (+3). 

  • We have gained 3 seats in Sheffield against Labour to push the Council into No Overall Control. 

  • We also bested Labour in Hull - winning the popular vote by 1400 and with 10 seats to Labour’s 9.

  • In Barnsley we made gains, adding three councillors to Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council and Lib Dems made another three seat gains on Rotherham Borough Council.

  • And there was a good result in Woking where we made two gains overall and ousted a sitting Tory mayor. 

We have a chance of making similar advances in Welsh local elections next year. There is still talent at the local party level which should be given its head with no micro-management from the national party.

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Miles Malleson

Terry Teachout wrote recently: 

Known today solely for his small but striking character roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright,” Anthony Asquith’s 1952 film version of “The Importance of Being Earnest” and several of Alec Guinness’ comedies, [Miles Malleson] was also a dramatist of no mean gifts whose plays had nonetheless vanished from the stage long before his death in 1969.

As a regular picturegoer in the 1950s, I was already familiar with Malleson's frequent appearances on film, usually as a rather bumbling elderly gent. Typical was his turn as the music-hall-obsessed parent of Ian Carmichael's Windrush in Private's Progress. So I was surprised when our young French master praised his work in bringing Moliere to the British stage (Moliere's Tartuffe, or The Hypocrite, was one of our set texts that year). Clearly this was someone whose own plays need looking at.

Here is proof that he was actually young once. 


Saturday, 8 May 2021

Elizebeth Smith Friedman, codebreaker

 New to the PBS schedules for the UK is a documentary entitled The Codebreaker which outlines the life of an unsung heroine. The programme would have done her more justice if it had explained clearly the difference between substitution codes, relatively simple to crack, and ciphers where no one symbol in the encrypted message represents a character in the original. If Betty Friedman really was able to crack the output from an Enigma machine, even if an early version of the encryption device, without the electronic aids developed at Bletchley Park, then she truly was a remarkable woman. 

The wikipedia entry is more illuminating and for a great explanation of codes and ciphers (together with some exercises!) I recommend Simon Singh's The Code Book.


Friday, 7 May 2021

Who will be happy with today's Senedd election results?

 Counting starts today in the parliamentary elections in Scotland as well as Wales. Both use a form of voting which attempts to reflect the true proportions of party preferences across the nation. However, for reasons detailed in the critique below, many will not be happy about the outcome. Unlock Democracy (the successor to Charter 88) and Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform (LDER) are two groups who want to progress to a better system and will be holding a Zoom meeting on 19th May in the light of the results of the current elections.

The discussion will be conducted by Wendy Chamberlain, Lib Dem MP for North East Fife, vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for electoral reform and president of LDER, and Tom Brake, director of Unlock Democracy and former MP for Carshalton and Wallington.

Proportional representation in action?
LDER Chair Denis Mollison writes:

Elections for the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, and for the London Assembly, will all use the Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system. It is an opportune moment to consider how well the system is working, in terms both of proportionality and voter empowerment.

How does MMP work?
MMP is often explained as a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, topped up with additional members so as to make it reasonably proportional overall (hence its alternative name of 'Additional Member System’); where the numbers of additional members are calculated by an obscure sequential process.  But it is better understood as a proportional party list system invaded by a lot of FPTP cuckoos – the constituency members.  If the system is working as intended, these constituency members simply replace some from their own party’s list; but if there are too many of them from a particular party, they may also displace some from other parties, thus making the overall result disproportional: this situation is called an 'overhang’. Overhangs have never happened in the London Assembly, but are frequent in Wales, and the likelihood of them is crucial to understanding the forthcoming Scottish election.
 
The list-PR ('regional vote’) part of this system, while much better than FPTP, has a considerable disproportional bias in favour of larger parties: around 42% of the votes is sufficient to win 50% of the seats. But worse is to come when we factor in the constituency results. In these three UK elections, more than half the seats are allocated to the FPTP constituencies, and a dominant party with around 40% support may be able to win almost all of these, and thus an overall majority; if it does that, its regional vote no longer matters. The possible result is a cascade of disproportionality, because the rational choice for its supporters is then to use their regional vote to vote tactically for their second choice. Alex Salmond’s new Alba Party has been formed with the explicit intention of exploiting this flaw in the system. Also, it becomes impossible to say exactly how disproportional the result is, because we no longer know what the voters’ real preferences (supposed to be reflected in their regional votes) are.


Forecasts for the Scottish Parliament
Detailed predictions based on polls taken around the beginning of April can be found at www.macs.hw.ac.uk/~denis/mmp_elections/scotland2021.html.
These present figures showing for each region: (a) how seats would be allocated from simple list-PR, (b) a graphic of how constituency votes might change for each seat in the region, and (c) the resulting allocation under MMP.
 
The predictions show the SNP winning 63 constituencies but just 2 regional seats, giving them the barest possible majority in the 129-member parliament. This is of course subject to various uncertainties, even if party support were to remain unchanged on election day, but as it shows the SNP exactly achieving their target it makes a convenient central estimate on which to base discussion.
 
Before summarising their implications, note that the analysis presented is on a region by region basis, which (pace almost all press coverage) is the only way to understand an MMP election.  In particular, constituency results only matter where they either increase or decrease an overhang, and overhangs are a regional phenomenon.  In the estimates considered, 4 regions (C, G, NE and W) seem very likely to have overhangs, 2 may (Lothian and MSF), and 2 are unlikely (H&I, South).
 
The key result is that the SNP’s fortune rests almost exclusively on constituency contests, precisely the opposite of what is supposed to happen if the system is working proportionally. Constituency results are more difficult to forecast than regional seat allocations under PR: parties concentrate their campaigning on the small fraction of voters that live in marginal constituencies, with difficult to predict effect. There are 10 seats where the majority in 2016 was less than 7%, of which the estimate shows the SNP winning 5, so it seems reasonable to suggest a possible error of +/- 5 seats in the forecast, giving them a total in the range 60-70.
 
Second, the contest among other parties depends almost entirely on their relative regional votes. One of the oddities of the system is that if a party (here the SNP) loses a constituency that matters (i.e. in a region with an overhang), the party that benefits is not necessarily the one that wins the seat – it is whichever was the list runner-up in that region, which may be a quite different party. Thus the contest among other parties, particularly the question of which party comes second, does not depend directly on the constituency battles that will decide whether the SNP wins a majority. So the election really is a game of two halves: the constituency vote is crucial for the SNP, the regional vote for determining how the non-SNP seats are shared among the other parties. Because the latter depends just on their regional votes, it is much more predictable, with the dominant uncertainty being simply the accuracy of opinion polls, typically +/- 3%.
 
The final remark on Scotland here should be that these polls only represent one snapshot. As I write (1 May) the polls have been narrowing, and an overall SNP majority looks less likely, though their projected support is not yet low enough to threaten the great majority of their seats that they hold with majorities of 12% or more.


London Assembly
In the London Assembly, no party has held a majority, though Labour fell only just short in 2012 and 2016, winning 12 of the 25 seats on 41% and 40% of the regional vote respectively. There have been no overhangs, though the Conservatives came very close in 2004: they won 9 constituencies, and were only 1.3% behind Labour in another, while their regional entitlement of 9 seats could have fallen to 8 on a less than 0.5% swing to Labour.
 
A recent poll by Yougov  suggests that Labour have a chance of an overall majority in the current election (44%, 12-13 seats), with Conservatives on 29% (7-8), Green and Liberal Democrats each on 11% (just enough for 3 seats).


Wales
Wales has a significantly smaller proportion of regional seats in its system, only one-third as against 43-44 % in Scotland and the London Assembly. As a result, there have been regular overhangs, all in favour of Labour, in 4 of its 5 regions; in 2011 Labour won 50% of the seats despite having only 37% of the regional vote. In 2016 they fell back by one seat, but retained power by bringing the one Liberal Democrat, Kirsty Williams, into coalition as Education Minister.

Polls from April 2021 suggest it is very unlikely that Labour (ca. 34%, 26 seats) will achieve an overall majority. They are likely to have to negotiate an agreement with Plaid Cymru if they are to stay in power. 


Discussion
This round of elections is likely to confirm that MMP as a system, while a great improvement on FPTP, is at best not very proportional, and significantly worse when there are overhangs.  Overhangs can be eliminated by adding extra 'compensatory’ seats, as is done in Germany; but the number of such extra seats may be large – in their most recent election 111 extra MPs needed to be added, making the proportion of regional seats 58%.
 
MMP also rates poorly in voter equality and empowerment. It combines the marginal seat and tactical voting problems of FPTP with the party lists of list-PR. And it is poorly understood: very few voters realise that if the system is working as it should electing a candidate in a constituency simply replaces someone from the same party on the list.
 
For electoral reformers, the most interesting question in this election is whether Labour, Plaid and the Liberal Democrats can win 2/3 of the seats in Wales between them, as that would enable them to complete the reforms proposed in the McAllister Report of 2017 (http://orca.cf.ac.uk/125328/), which include replacing MMP with STV.


 


 

 


Thursday, 6 May 2021

More on road-building and the environment

 Private Eye 1545 reported that the Westminster Tory government tried some environmental sleight-of-hand in sanctioning a new road scheme in the English Midlands.

 A last-minute out-of-court admission by the government that transport secretary Grant Shapps broke rules when authorising a controversial Derby road scheme may have kept evidence out of the public arena - and crucially out of the sight of campaigners seeking to halt much of England's five-year, £27bn roads programme.

Last week, expert witnesses for the campaigners claimed total carbon emissions from the roads programme's various schemes would be muh greater thanthe government had indicated. The court case, due in the summer, will hinge on the schemes' compatibility with the UK's commitments on climate change - the same topic that scuppered the road scheme in Derby.

Local residents were about to start court action on the A38 expansion when the government admitted Shapps had given the scheme the go-ahead without explaining how the cumulative impacts of that and other new roads fitted in with climate-change targets. Had the case gone to court, the defence may well have revealed information about the government's rationale on carbon and roads. 

Are the supposed environmental benefits of the M4 Relief based on now-discredited assumptions?


Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Through the Night

John Shea, the presenter who anchors Radio 3's small-hours presentation of music from round Europe and occasionally further afield, has written a Radio Times piece celebrating the programme's 25th anniversary. In it, he explained the genesis:

Donald Macleod  [...] launched Through the Night - and with it, 24-hour broadcasting on Radio 3 - in the small hours of 5 May 1996. Remarkably, in those early days he produced and presented the whole thing himself. The playlist featured performances from around Europe that didn't necessarily find a place in our daytime schedule, and two years later we began to share the resulting programme with several other European Broadcasting Union member stations, under the title Notturno.

That's still the basis for TTN (as we call it) a quarter of a century later. Our small team of producers look through the EBU concert offers a few months ahead, and schedule one to start every programme. This usually fills most of the first couple of hours, then we're off on that musical journey around "Europe" - which regularly includes the USA, Canada, China, Australia and New Zealand, by the way. You've probably all wondered at some point how certain countries qualify for the Eurovision Song Contest. Welcome to the classical equivalent! 

Long may the programme continue. In these times when the channel is increasingly dumbed-down, it is the last redoubt where, apart from the Thursday afternoon and Saturday evening operas, one can guarantee complete performances .


Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Johnson's man in Wales should have been quizzed more

The less confrontational style of interviewing on Radio Wales' Sunday Supplement is more likely to provide information about the various parties' programmes to the voter than the methods employed at BBC HQ. The major reason for my giving up listening to Today was the interview technique which was about as fruitful as a pig's bladder on a stick. Last Sunday's programme was a good example. Without labouring the point, Vaughan Roderick established, from non-answers, that Andrew RT Davies would not stand in the way of the Tory government in Westminster legislating to overrule decisions which were within the competence of the devolved Senedd. The main case in point, of course, was the M4 relief road for which the only clear benefit was to the road-builders who are traditional Conservative party donors.

However, Davies was not asked to explain his assertion that tarmacing the Gwent Levels had environmental benefits, nor to expand on "hitting the party's environmental objectives", one of Davies's three bullet points early in the interview. Green and ecological policies are clearly increasingly important in UK elections, and it would have been illuminating to hear the party leader's response to questioning on those issues. 

Another bullet-point was "improving the National Health Service in Wales". The Tory manifesto pledges to "build five new hospitals and provide extra funding for the NHS every year, with 3,000 more nurses and 1,200 doctors by 2026". Davies was not given the chance to explain where the necessary extra funding was coming from, given that his party's actions in Westminster in extending the "hostile environment" post-Brexit had actually driven away EU doctors, nurses and technical support staff. 

Yes, I know that I promised not to blog on the Senedd elections, but there had to be a calling out of the easy ride given to one of the major contestants. Nor is the Conservative party alone in being hypocritical on the environment or resisting giving further power to Wales.

Monday, 3 May 2021

Maria Ressa

 On World Press Freedom Day, congratulations to the brave operator of Rappler, who has been awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. In these days of increased danger to journalists, let us hope that this world attention keeps her out of the Filipino jails she has been all too familiar with.


Tags and coinages

 The most recent Word of Mouth on Radio 4 was fascinating. (Incidentally, how good it is to hear Michael Rosen practically recovered from his long Covid experience.)  It looks as if Ralph Keyes' new book on word coining will find its way onto the booshelves here, in spite of my mental resolution not to add anything more to the clutter. In his interview with Michael Rosen, Mr Keyes was refreshingly unpedantic about his work, accepting that, while correcting many misattributions, we may never know what was the source of some of our favourites.

One anecdote intrigued me. It seems that Winston Churchill was a deliberate coiner. "Summit" as applied to meetings of heads of government was one of his. He also liked short, single nouns to replace lengthy descriptions of everyday objects. One he tried to have adopted was "klop" for hole punch, which however has not taken off. Churchill did not like stapling papers, preferring to string them together on tags, a process which pre-digitised civil servants know well and one which in retirement many still find useful. I still have quite a few "liberated" from the old Ministry of Transport. Those items are widely known as "treasury tags", and they are still sold by WH Smith under that description. Perhaps Smith's continue to use the colour coding for length - red for the shortest tags, purple for the longest. Anyway, my contribution to the story would be that the official description in the stationery catalogue was not Treasury, but India tag, because the useful little item was invented in the historical India Office


Friday, 30 April 2021

Commercial property: asset or liability?

Regular readers of this blog will know that it reflects the view of many that the days of council-sponsored city and town-centre malls are long past and certainly before various south Wales councils were persuaded to pour council taxpayers' money into shopping developments which have not matched their promoters' promises. Now Private Eye records:

Just over a year ago the National Audit Office warned tha ounils could find their burgeoning property investments badly exposed to market whims. Yet 2020 saw little let-up in the appetite for commercial real estate. England's patchwork of 353 local authorities added a net £1.5bn to their balance sheets in 2019-20 - just in time for the pandemic to throw the market into disarray. [...] The strategy is simple: borrow money at record-low rates, buy up property, and pay off loan interest and expenses with rental income. Whatever's left can be used to fund public services.

Councils need all the income they can get to cover the shortfall from central government. Alas, theory and practice are different things. Take Newcastle city council, which owns shopping centres and office blocks. The portfolio fell in value by more than 20 percent last year, leaving a £40m hole in accounts which had to be plugged from reserves. 

The picture is unlikely to be any different this side of Offa's Dyke. 

 

Thursday, 29 April 2021

Poet who saw the dark side

 Michael Collins was not the first human to see the far side of the moon. That honour belongs to the crew of Apollo 8, followed by those on board Apollo 10. However, he was memorably the man who commanded Apollo 11 while Armstrong and Aldrin dominated the TV screens of the world. He was also the first man in the Apollo programme to possess the gift of the use of language, as this article celebrating his 85th birthday demonstrated. He was known as the poet of the group, which caused President Nixon some slight amusement when he spoke to the astronauts on their return and not even Collins could find the words to describe their experience. 

His lack of bitterness on net being selected to set foot on the moon wss clearly genuine. He also, rarely among the astronauts, kept his marriage together. He may have left NASA not long after the moon landing, but he remained in public service and, as National Geographic records, he stayed involved in human space exploration for most of that time. An estimable man, and an inspiration.


Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Hurrah for cronyism

 President Bolsonaro in Brazil is to be investigated by his country's Senate; Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist party in Northern Ireland is reported to have lost the confidence of her senior colleagues; but in Westminster the prime minister sails blissfully on, defended stoutly by an erstwhile challenger in the Commons last Monday. As a rebuttal of the charge of cronyism, Michael Gove singled out just one success story:

Opposition Members criticised the appointment of a vaccine tsar as cronyism when Kate Bingham has been responsible for saving millions of lives. What she does not say is that Opposition MPs criticised Kate Bingham for spending money on public relations when that money was there to ensure that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds were able to get the vaccines they required.

That PR campaign does not seem to have proved value for money, but one has to accept that Ms Bingham's direction of the vaccine programme has been successful. This is because she is, apparently alone among the friends of the prime minister and/or the Conservative party who have benefited from pandemic-related contracts, she is an expert in the relevant field. Her unique achievement does not justify the whole slew of dubious hand-outs of which some are listed here.

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

The Mullin gap

 I am near the end of Chris Mullin's View from the Foothills now. It has been an entertaining read, very good on the difficulties of reconciling family life with a Westminter MP's existence, particularly when the MP in quesition is a junior minister. In turn, Mullin makes clear that the life of a junior minister is not as attractive as the title sounds. There are some interesting analyses of places which are still in the news today like Afghanistan or one which has achieved even more prominence, Tigray province. 

Disappointingly, the diary entries for the most critical months of the period which the book covers are missing. There is a huge gap in the late summer and early August coverng the period when Dr David Kelly was hounded to death. It must have been during this time that the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction which he had taken on trust because of Tony Blair's assertion that they existed were finally shown to be smoke and mirrors. Will those missing diary entries see the light of day eventually?


Monday, 26 April 2021

Canada's sheen peeling

Canada still had sufficient faith in her Liberal government, in spite of the revelations of a corruption cover-up, that they returned Justin Trudeau to power in 2019. The mood was reinforced by a better handling of the immediate effects of the Covid-19 pandemic than Trump's USA. However, Christian Science Monitor says:

The pandemic amplified all the things Canada lauds itself for when it compares itself with the United States – as a nation that is a fraction of the size of the powerhouse next door often does. Its universal health care, a functional government, a communal spirit, and a rule-abiding culture were held up as reasons that case numbers stayed reasonably low. The U.S., meanwhile, bickered about masks and whether the virus was a hoax as cases surpassed anywhere else in the world.

Now Canada finds itself amid a daunting third wave. And as the U.S. has flexed its muscle in an ambitious inoculation campaign, a counternarrative is emerging among some Canadians that finds them unsettled but also humbled. It underscores a national inclination toward comparative assessment that can often blind the country to its own shortcomings on everything from gun violence to racism to health care – and make it too hard on both the U.S. and itself.
Quebec and Ontario have been hit by a "third wave" necessitating severe lockdowns including school closures. This in spite of Canada being the world's most egregious hoarder of vaccine.

The current situation is just a snapshot in time; Canada’s per capita death toll is still only a third of that of its neighbor. But the reversal comes as a punch, particularly because it involves health, one area where Canadians overwhelmingly agree their model is superior to the market approach taken in the U.S.

However:
despite a harsh third wave, Canadians remain firm in acknowledging that that shouldn’t take away all that Canada has done right, while the U.S. fights culture wars around the pandemic. Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, says the pandemic has not been politicized like it has in the U.S. “I think Canadians can be too smug about themselves,” he argues, “but on the other hand, it is objectively the case that our society is, at the present time, more sane, more coherent, and just more together.”

Sunday, 25 April 2021

Johnson's personal phone and security

 He may or may not use a Huawei, but the Daily Telegraph reports that Boris Johnson's careless use of his personal phone has long concerned government security advisers. All and sundry can lobby him directly as Peter Black commented last Thursday. It may even be that it was not Dominic Cummings who was responsible for the leaks about wallpapergate, but a simple hack of that smartphone.


Friday, 23 April 2021

Apology to those expecting posts today or tomorrow

 I have been preparing for an electoral photoshoot tomorrow, but hope to resume normal service on Sunday.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Russia avoiding Ukraine confrontation?

 It is underatandable to act cautiously in response to the withdrawal of some of Russia's military from eastern Ukraine. However, to the world at large, the West should welcome the defusing of tension on the borders of democratically-run Ukraine and in the Black Sea. We should also go easy on the treatment of the opposition in Russia. While we may deprecate the way Navalny in particular has been treated, imposing sanctions over what is an internal matter is dubious, especially as some of our "friendly" nations are at least as repressive as Russia. We should, though, call out Putin on his recent bellicose pronouncements which threaten the freedom of his neighbours.

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

European Super League suite et fin

 With reference to yesterday's post, I must admit I anticipated a more drawn-out struggle between the organisers of the American-style breakaway and the representatives of football organisations in Europe. However, the withdrawal of all the English teams, half the proposed roster, has killed the Super League.

Media commentators are already praising fan power, and no doubt Johnson's spin-doctors will ascribe the uey to government ministers' threat to legislate. (There is in many people's opinion still a need to legislate in this area in view of the many scandals in English football since big money entered the picture.) However, I believe the decisive factor was manager power. If there is one commodity more precious than star players in European football today, it is star management. Manchester City's Guardiola has publicly criticised the lack of sporting competition implicit in the Super League scheme; Liverpool's Klopp is known to be unhappy about it; and Chelsea's Tuchel with his roots in Germany, where there is a regime of clubs being directed by fans rather than money-men, may be assumed to feel likewise. These are three of the top ten managers in Europe, and would be difficult to replace. 


Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Europe's football Superleague

 The London Evening Standard has a summary of the situation. The journal also carries a powerful statement by Everton football club. It does not mention their local rivals by name, but historians of Merseyside football will no doubt recall that Liverpool FC arose from Everton's expulsion from Anfield after a dispute over money.

Everton stateement

Everton have this morning released a very strong statement on the Super League plans...

Everton is saddened and disappointed to see proposals of a breakaway league pushed forward by six clubs.

Six clubs acting entirely in their own interests.

Six clubs tarnishing the reputation of our league and the game.

Six clubs choosing to disrespect every other club with whom they sit around the Premier League table.

Six clubs taking for granted and even betraying the majority of football supporters across our country and beyond.

At this time of national and international crisis - and a defining period for our game - clubs should be working together collaboratively with the ideals of our game and its supporters uppermost.

Instead, these clubs have been secretly conspiring to break away from a football pyramid that has served them so well.

And in that Pyramid Everton salutes EVERY club, be it Leicester City, Accrington Stanley, Gillingham, Lincoln City, Morecambe, Southend United, Notts County and the rest who have, with their very being, enriched the lives of their supporters throughout the game's history. And vice versa.

The self-proclaimed Super Six appear intent on disenfranchising supporters across the game - including their own - by putting the very structure that underpins the game we love under threat.

The backlash is understandable and deserved – and has to be listened to.

This preposterous arrogance is not wanted anywhere in football outside of the clubs that have drafted this plan.

On behalf of everyone associated with Everton, we respectfully ask that the proposals are immediately withdrawn and that the private meetings and subversive practises that have brought our beautiful game to possibly its lowest ever position in terms of trust end now.

Finally we would ask the owners, chairmen, and Board members of the six clubs to remember the privileged position they hold – not only as custodians of their clubs but also custodians of the game. The responsibility they carry should be taken seriously.

We urge them all to consider what they wish their legacy to be.

These are sentiments with which most genuine football fans across Europe, never mind the UK, will agree. Sadly, the motivating factor behind the Superleague is not the improvement of the game in Europe, but brand marketing internationally, especially in south Asia. The South Korean habitués of the Juventus Bar or the Liverpool Bar could not give two won for promotion and relegation in the English leagues and are probably familiar and comfortable with the American sports franchising system. It is rumoured that the backing for the Superleague comes from a large US investment bank and a streaming service. Many of the teams in the twelve breaking away are American-owned. 

UK politicians now have a decision to make. After years of benefiting from the reflected glory of the successes of English and Scottish league teams on European fields, not to mention the exploits of the Welsh and English national teams, they should feel that they have to give something back to the game. There have been fighting words from prime minister Johnson, but so far his only action has been to set up a committee, a typical civil service cop-out. The fact that it is to be chaired by a former Conservative MP further casts doubt on its value. 

One measure which could be brought forward relatively quickly and would surely gain majority parliamentary support is to give fans, by law, controlling interest in league clubs, as the Guardian reports is the case in Germany. The "fit and proper person" league rule as to club ownership could be given legal teeth. 

The alternative is to stand aside from Superleague developments, accept that the big football teams are no longer sporting clubs but businesses, and treat them as such. There should be no more hidden subsidies. The Revenue should no longer give them an easier ride than other commercial entities. The concession to alien sportsmen (and women) that they alone can by-pass immigration regulations should end.

One fears that what will happen is neither one thing nor the other. The government will huff and puff but do nothing of consequence. The result will be that a few rich football teams will prosper, but lose touch with their tradtional followers. The grass roots, the weekend amateur clubs on the King George Memorial playing-fields and the like will no doubt survive, but British football will be hollowed out as the professional league clubs in the Championship and below go to the wall.

If Johnson and his advisors take the trouble to look ahead, something they have conspicuously failed to do on weightier matters, they will see that a government which came to power on a populist agenda will be seen to have destroyed the people's game in this country. Moreover, because Murdoch does not have an interest in the Superleague, which may even pose a threat to Sky, he will find the Sun, the Times and other Murdoch media against him. Electoral catastrophe looms, not because the Tories failed to keep Covid-19 out, nor because they lied about Brexit, but because of ordinary people being denied the spectacle of their local favourites kicking a ball about on a Saturday afternoon.

Monday, 19 April 2021

Gun ownership: battle for the hearts and minds of the English-speaking world

 This documentary is two years old (al-Jazeera should really be more open on the face of its films as to when they were originally released) but it seems that the issue is still live. It shows how the bigoted, racist One Nation party in Australia wants to reverse that country's strict gun control laws instituted in the wake of the mass shooting at Port Arthur, and is happy to solicit covert help from the USA's powerful gun lobbyists, the NRA. Complementarily, it also shows how concerned the NRA is that the successful action taken by Australia and New Zealand, who used the Australian law as a templete, could resonate with the voters in America. There is hidden-camera footage of NRA activists demonstrating how to discredit the gun control movement and its adherents using social media, shamelessly lying in the process.

Two thoughts occur: though One Nation's Pauline Hansen is an extremely effective politician, One Nation is still in a minority in the Senate. The PR electoral system allows such minority views to gain public expression while showing how small a minority they represent.

Secondly, if Australia and New Zealand can hold the ring, then the pressure for a more civilised gun regime in the US will increase. On the other hand, if there is a retreat down under, our home nations could be next in the line of NRA's fire.


Sunday, 18 April 2021

Comedy horror

Having replayed last week's Film Programme, I wonder if there might be a comic slant on the situation the film crew find themselves in. They have been shooting The Power in a superannuated hospital of the type which used to be known as a lunatic asylum. This has been on the brink of being disposed of for some time but remains in constant demand as a TV and film location. Some of the people who spoke to Antonia Quirke for the programme claim to have heard the sound of children crying on one of the deserted corridors. 

What if the ghostly inhabitants of such a building wanted to protect it from an evil property developer and therefore tried to scare off said developer while at the same time contrived to prolong the stay of the last film crew using the premises? Their motivation would not be revealed until the final reel, of course.


Saturday, 17 April 2021

Peter Ustinov

 Yesterday was the centenary of one of the most remarkable men of stage and screen of the twentieth century. There is a biography on the Internet Movie Database which neatly summarises his remarkable background and his varied achievements. He was probably at his best as a raconteur. BBC4 was wise to show his performances on Parkinson on Thursday, but their choice of film showing him as an actor (Topkapi) was not so worthy of his talents. I would like to have seen a revival of Private Angelo, which was something of a hit for him in its time. He not only took the title part but also wrote the dramatisation for the screen of Eric Linklater's book. 

It is surprising that the adaptations outnumber his own work. Probably his best original writing is in  Romanoff and Juliet a superficially light-hearted romantic comedy set against the background of the Cold War but which has some sharp points to make about the futility of the stituation. Typically, it started as a stage play in which Ustinov himself had written a key part for himself, one which he carried forward into the screen version. It is good to see that it is in Talking Pictures TV repertoire of classic films.

He also wrote Beethoven's Tenth (with himself as Ludwig, of course) premised on the return to life of the composer in the twentieth century. Clearly thought too highbrow for the English-speaking market, there was a French TV version which surprisingly did not cast the multilingual Ustinov.

Finally, radio listeners of a certain age remember with affection In All Directions, written, acted and improvised in partnership with Peter Jones.

Friday, 16 April 2021

EU'a recovery fund may be too little, too late

 Euronews briefing earlier this week reported that the €750 billion recovery fund that EU leaders agreed last July is still on stand-by

Despite the new rise in infections, the re-imposition of restrictions and the closing down (again) of businesses, the much-awaited package, also known as Next Generation EU, is paralysed. In fact, the cash doesn’t even exist. At least, not yet.

The European Commission is still waiting for the ratification of the Own Resources Decision, the legal instrument that would allow the executive to borrow the money on the financial markets and then distribute it in the form of grants and loans. As of today, only 17 out of 27 member states have ratified the bill, with approval from every country needed for the process to continue.

As we told you last month, the German Constitutional Court delayed the country’s signature and is now examining an emergency appeal that argues the Own Resources Decision breaches EU law. It’s still not clear when and how the Court will respond, but the decision has already cast an ominous shadow over the whole process.

"It was German Chancellor Merkel, together with President Macron, who very much pushed exactly for this financial facility (that) we have created on the basis of Article 122 in the Lisbon Treaty," Johannes Hahn, the EU Budget Commissioner told Euronews this week.

"It's important that they (the German court) lift their reservation. And I'm also confident that this will be done in due time so that we are indeed not losing any time."

The Commission is also waiting for the recovery and resilience plans that each EU country has to submit before April 30. These plans must lay out the reforms and public investment projects that will be financed by the billions of euros from Next Generation EU, and they have to be approved by both the Commission and the Council.

But these programmes are also proving to be controversial and divisive. In Poland, the ruling coalition is split on how the money should be spent and repaid. Even the pro-European opposition parties are threatening to vote down the plan because they fear the current right-wing government will not use the cash in a fair and transparent manner.

Brussels is feeling the pressure. Southern countries are increasingly impatient and investors are becoming concerned over the lack of action. To make matters more awkward, the US Congress managed to pass a colossal $1.9 trillion relief bill in a matter of weeks, a fact that only served to underline the EU’s tardiness. The International Monetary Fund has welcomed the Biden-led initiative with open arms: the forecast for the US economy has been upgraded to an impressive 6% in 2021.

The Commission hopes that the recent developments will turn out to be just temporary hiccups and the eagerly anticipated cash will arrive in summer. The team of President von der Leyen deliberately designed Next Generation EU to advance the twin goals of making the bloc more sustainable and digital. Around 30% of the bonds (equal to €250 billion) will be green bonds, making the EU the largest issuer of this kind of debt security.

"At the end of the day, we will only be successful if each and every member state is contributing to this reform agenda because it's about the recovery of the single market and the single market is only as successful as every part of the single market is," Hahn told us.

The clock is ticking and the pandemic rages on. And the recovery fund still has a long path ahead.


The EU is a great and necessary institution, which the UK was ill-advised to leave, but it does not respond well to emergencies. Such things as response to epidemics are best left to individual nations. In the long run, the measures taken by China and the US will lift the global economy, including European nations and the proposed recovery fund, if it is ever ratified, will prove to be irrelevant for all but the very weakest economies in the EU.

Thursday, 15 April 2021

Key dates

A reminder from our friend Anthony Tuffin of Real Democracy

The critical dates for voting in next month’s elections are:

 

  • You must be registered to vote by midnight on Monday 19 April (next Monday).
  • The deadline to apply for a postal vote for the elections in England and Wales on 6 May is 5pm on Tuesday 20 April (next Tuesday)..  The deadline for Scotland has passed.

 

To apply for a postal vote, go to www.electoralcommission.org.uk where you can find a link to an application form. Download it, complete it and send it to the Electoral Registration Officer. [at the Civic Centre in Port Talbot]

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

More from the foothills

 The Chris Mullin of 1999 to 2002 was prescient about policies (he early caught wind of Tony Blair's eagerness to fall in behind GW Bush in the plan to invade Iraq and condemned it, and also predicted a disastrous outcome for New Labour's embracing of PFI) but not so good at assessing people. Here he is about someone he saw as a fresh young libertarian:

More than once, when we reached an impasse [on a select committee on drugs], David Cameron came to the rescue. The more I see of him, the more I like. He's bright, personable and refreshingly open-minded.

In the light of Greensill, what does Mullin think of him now?


Tuesday, 13 April 2021

River pollution

 I missed the Panorama programme on this subject yesterday (BBC Wales shunted it to a late night slot). However, it is clear that the negligence of water companies in England in allowing the frequent overflow of raw sewage into watercourses is greater than that of Dwr Cymru, which at least has no shareholders to answer to. Presumably there were no complaints from Scotland where water and sewerage are predominantly still under public control.

 One trusts that the Westminster government's laissez-faire attitude to the water companies who are a crucial factor in English public health will be rigorusly questioned in the House this week.


Monday, 12 April 2021

What has gone wrong with nursing?

 Has anything changed for the better since this special report by Christina Patterson for the Independent starting 12th April 2012?

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Prince Philip: a footnote from the foothills

As part of my programme of returning to print books at bedtime (all this playing spider patience on my laptop is clearly not good), I have recently started on "A View from the Foothills". This is a distillation by former Labour MP Chris Mullin and his editor of his diaries from his time as a junior minister in the Blair government. It is obvious that Mullin has no time for royalty in principle and little respect for her majesty in person, but it was natural the other day to peek in the index for references to the late Prince Philip. It is also obvious that Mullin does not like the Blairite waffle of most of the pre-prepared speeches he is expected to deliver. So one suspects a certain sympathy with the late consort in this entry from 5th December, 2003, when Mulliin accompanied Jack Straw, then the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, at a Commonwealth Conference in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria:

Jack has gone home, so I am 'attending upon' the Queen, who is officially opening the new British Council offices. We are on the roof terrace. Her Majesty, the Duke, a fresh-faced equerry, an immaculate lady-in-waiting and myself. David Green, the Council's top man, has just read out a little speech with the Queen standing impassively beside him. I am next to the Duke, alongside a group of English women. When Green has finished the Duke remarks loudly, 'Huh, that speech contained more jargon per square inch than any I've heard for a long time.' Then he turned to the women: 'You're teachers, aren't you? Can you tell me what all that meant?'

One of the teachers, a bit right-on, replies, 'No, sir. We're not actually teachers...'

'Not teachers? What are you, then?'

'Well, sir, we empower people.'

That set him off. 'EMPOWER? Doesn't sound like English to me...'


Saturday, 10 April 2021

Do not go gentle

 It was appropriate that Stravinsky's setting of Dylan Thomas's poem to his dying father should have been playing on Radio 3 just as all BBC networks were taken over by the news that Prince Philip, duke of Edinburgh, had died. One can imagine few people more likely to rage against the dying of the light than the queen's consort for more than two generations. 

As the tributes from biographers, industry and the environmental movement poured in, we were reminded of what a driven and multi-faceted individual he was. He would have been a remarkable figure in his own right even if had not married into the royal family. One imagines him rising to a high rank within the navy, then retiring but then, still full of vigour, chairing one or more of our great public companies.

Critics remind us of his casual expressions of racial prejudice, something common to people of his generation and class, which he never quite shook off. A greater failing in my view is ironically a reflection of his own strengths - that he failed (possibly through trying too hard) to instil those very attributes in his own sons. As is so often, it was his daughter, the present Princess Royal, who most takes after him, and, as a commentator pointed out, skipping a generation, Prince William very much resembles him.

One expects Queen Elizabeth, out of her oft-expressed sense of duty, not to give up the throne but to soldier on to the end. It will be more difficult without her husband of seventy-three years and ones heart goes out to her.


Friday, 9 April 2021

Racist abuse of footballers: Swans take a social media intitiative

 BBC reports:

Swansea City have announced a week-long social media boycott on all platforms to combat abuse and discrimination. Players, including first team, academy sides and women's team, staff and the club's official accounts [stopped posting] from 17:00 BST on 8 April.

This is a significant gesture, but it seems to me that Facebook, Twitter and the rest will take notice only if more star players, those with a large online following, join in. Swans probably have a fan base out of proportion to their present position in the League hierarchy, but with all due respect do not command the star power of the leaders in the Premier League and the glamour of their international players. If the latter, in whom commercial interests have a stake, show solidarity then we might see the social media platforms take steps to reduce, if not eliminate, this blight on both the beautiful game and the Web.

Thursday, 8 April 2021

Seaborne conference

There was a nice little spoof on Liberal Democrat Voice last week, suggesting that negotiations were under way (sorry!) to hire cruise ships unused in the current pandemic as conference and fringe venues. That brought back memories of early days as a keen young attender of Civil Service Clerical Association annual conference and hearing tales from the old sweats. Apparently, in the straitened times after the war, there were few alternatives to the big conference towns like Blackpool and Brighton which were expensive. (They still are, but at least there is now more competition among towns and cities for conference and convention business.) The bold decision was taken to hold the 1947 conference in a holiday camp at Pwllheli, which would presumably have then completed its summer season. It was a bright idea not repeated - conference delegates presumably missed the more agreeable resort venues - but in many ways it was a great success. Because all the facilities, including the "chalet" accommodation, were concentrated in a relatively small area and there was little incentive to leave the camp area, there was much positive interaction between members from all points of the kingdom who would otherwise hardly meet in a more normal conference venue. This unusual cohesion even led some leading lights of the CSCA seriously to consider an out-of-season liner for a later conference but nothing came of the suggestion.


Wednesday, 7 April 2021

AstraZeneca vaccine: a slight pause

 It seems I was too dogmatic in my condemnation of all reservations about the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine a month ago. It remains the case that any adverse side-effects of the vaccine are minuscule compared with the dangers of catching SARS/CoV-2, dangers which include affecting the brain, but a scientist has postulated a mechanism by which the vaccine may stimulate an auto-immune response resulting in abnormal platelet production in a small segment of the younger population. As a result, Oxford University has suspended a trial involving children and teenagers.

As I understand it, the proposed mechanism applies to all vectored vaccines. The university has hitherto produced candidate vaccines against 'flu, Zika and MERS. Moreover, Johnson & Johnson's new vaccine, developed by their Belgian subsidiary is of this type.This is still awaiting approval in the US. More data about very rare events are clearly required.

It does, however, seem suspicious that only AstraZeneca (AZ) has attracted adverse publicity about their vaccine. The platelets scare is the latest of several reports of different national health bodies suspending or attenuating programmes of vaccination involving AZ. Some liberals have pointed out that, alone among the big pharmaceutical companies, AZ is selling the vaccine at cost and is "collaborating with a number of countries and multilateral organisations to make the University of Oxford’s vaccine widely accessible around the world in an equitable manner". At present, demand is outstripping supply, but the time may not be far distant when vaccination against pandemic diseases becomes a "buyer's market" and competition among the multinational giants becomes fierce and profits are squeezed. An ethical approach to pricing will not be welcomed by rivals.


Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Let's stop multinationals shopping around for most favourable tax regime

 There will surely be a general welcome for US Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen's call for a  minimum global corporate income tax rate, while at the same time doubts abour her ability to gain agreement - in the short to medium term at least - must arise. 

Monday, 5 April 2021

Vaccine certificates and Big Brother


As someone who wholeheartedly joined in the campaign against the Blair-Brown governments' tendency toward a police state, I unsurprisingly object to prime minister Johnson's proposed Covid certificate scheme.  In 2010, the incoming Conservative/Lib Dem coalition quckly put an end to Section 44 and ID cards. Incidentally, it is good to see that the organisation which sprang from the No2ID campaign is still in existence and keeping a beady eye on government attempts to invade our privacy. It is worrying to see Johnson and company reversing that liberalisation along with other coalition policies. For all their faults, Cameron and Clegg would not have countenanced Johnson's repressive measures.

I have no trouble with individual employers insisting on proof of immunity where their circumstances demand it. Pub landlords already have the power to bar or eject people on certain grounds, so setting additional criteria for admission seems a minor step. Such bottom-up initiatives should be accepted, and, because their own money is involved, implementors would surely put in place optimum schemes. A Tory administration putting its grubby finger in is another matter. Apart from the civil liberties aspects of any government supervising citizens' access to employment, to hostelries and to places of entertainment, one suspects that the Johnson "trial" is yet one more opportunity to throw public money to government cronies for minimum effective return.



Saturday, 3 April 2021

Happier railway news, closer to home

 The figures for passenger transfers, published by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) last month generally show a slight decline in March 2019 to end-February 2020 over the corresponding 2018/19 statistics. However, Neath held steady (0.7% increase) while Port Talbot Parkway increased passsenger usage by 4.7%. Indeed, Port Talbot has showed a steady increase from the time of the (what many people consider sub-optimal) remodelling of the station completed in 2016.

Incidentally, for those interested in taking an active part in the improvement of railway services in Wales, https://www.railfuture.org.uk/display2552 gives a good introduction to the work of Railfuture. The organisation could always use more young people and more women.



Friday, 2 April 2021

Two railway disasters

 In the early hours of the Friday of Easter weekend, we learned of a fatal railway accident in Taiwan at the beginning of an important festival for people of Chinese heritage.  In a beautiful part of the island, over 350 people were involved in a bizarre accident in which 48 were killed and over 100 injured. At the time of wrting, over 100 had escaped with difficulty and many were still trapped. Several carriages had derailed in a single-track tunnel in a mountainous region which has made rescue efforts difficult. The cause is said to have been a service truck parked on a slope near the entrance to the tunnel which slipped onto the track just before the train was due to pass. Until now, government-owned Taiwan railways had a forty-year record free of serious incidents.

That is more than be said for Egyptian state railways, starved of funds for investment, track maintenance and safety while the military-dominated government borrows from the EIB for prestige light-rail projects in Alexandria and Cairo. Last week's fatal collision was only the most recent and doleful of frequent incidents often involving casualties. Some low-level functionaries will, it is predicted, carry the can for the 32 deaths and dozens of injuries while the people at the top who failed to make vital spending decisions will be untouched.


Thursday, 1 April 2021

April spoof abandoned

This was originally to have been a report of an imminent invasion of Gibraltar by Spain. However, in view of the recent cuts in British forces manpower the spoof may well have been overtaken by reality and thus has been abandoned.


Wednesday, 31 March 2021

The light charge brigade

 Sitting here within about 40 miles of where Aston Martin will be building their electric SUV, I am worried by a report in the current Which? magazine. It highlights the paucity of fast-charging outlets, the prevalence of connection fees, restrictions on payment methods for some providers, unreliable apps and two different incompatible plug and socket combinations. 

The 2030 ban on sale of internal combustion driven vehicles is getting closer and the industry needs to sort its ideas out quickly. If not, the government needs to bang some heads together.


Tuesday, 30 March 2021

The starting gun has fired

 The election season here has officially restarted. As well as the Welsh general and police and crime commissioner elections on 6th May, there are seven local by-elections (one county borough, the rest community/town council vacancies to fill) which were delayed until now because of the Covid-19 epidemic.

To avoid clashes of interest, this blog will go into political purdah insofar as Welsh politics is concerned.


Monday, 29 March 2021

Authoritarians love a crisis

Thanks to Anu Garg for a recent Thought for the Day:

I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the rights of the people by the gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. -James Madison, fourth US president (16 Mar 1751-1836)

An exception is using a crisis to remove rights under emergency powers, returning only a proportion of them, slowly and grudgingly as the crisis passes.


Friday, 26 March 2021

Fifty years of Bangladesh independence

Today is Independence Day in Bangladesh (Bengali: স্বাধীনতা দিবস Shadhinôta Dibôs) and a national holiday. It commemorates the country's declaration of independence from Pakistan in the early hours of 26 March 1971 by the leader of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The founding fathers could not have predicted that their nation was to dominate the headlines today because of genocide in Myanmar.


Thursday, 25 March 2021

Why was the Westminster Department of Health a "smoking ruin"?

 One can well believe Dominic Cummings's description of the Whitehall department. It can only recover its self-confidence and its competence if the process begun by Andrew Lansley (critique by the Institute for Government in a pdf here) and continued by other Tory secretaries of state is completely unwound.


AV referendum: a view from the sharp end

 There was an interesting programme on Radio 4 last Saturday evening. The thesis of the show by Camellia Sinclair (producer) and Chris Mason was that the AV referendum of 2011 was virtually a dress rehearsal for the Brexit referendum of 2016. The same eminence grise, Matthew Elliott, was behind both successful regressive campaigns. 

Mason highlighted the financial pitch made in the AV referendum, but, on the ground, here in South Wales at least, Nick Clegg was the key factor. The opponents rapidly turned the campaign away from the merits of AV into a referendum on Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems decision to join a coalition with the Conservatives. It was interesting to hear the revelation that Lib Dems in the cabinet were incensed by Osborne's decision to line up the Tories in active opposition against the proposal, which Chris Huhne in particular took as a betrayal of the understanding between them. This sense of betrayal was mirrored by that on the part of Lib Dem activists at the sight of leading advocates of AV on the Labour side, Peter Hain prominent among them, going back on their principles and joining the anti campaign. 

It should be remembered that AV is not Liberal Democrat policy and entered coalition discussions only because Gordon Brown put it on the table as part of Labour's pitch to go into coalition with Lib Dems. One assumes that it remained there in talks with the Conservatives only because Clegg and Danny Alexander, who led the negotiations for the Liberal Democrats, were relatively recent converts to the party and were unaware of the merits and demerits of the various preferential voting systems. AV was never going to inspire long-standing Liberal Democrats to campaign enthusisatically for its introduction and that perhaps was an additional, if minor, factor in the success of the anti campaign.

The programme concluded with a few "what if?" questions. One can add a couple more: what if the arithmetic had been right, and we had chosen to go in with Labour in a coaltion? Brown had promised to introduce AV unconditionally (no referendum), but of course he would still have had to carry the House with the necessary legislation. Could he have whipped enough Labour MPs to do so?

Then of course there is the big one. Instead of an AV referendum in 2011, there could have been one on EU membership. Clegg would have been given credit for sticking to a manifesto commitment and regained some of the trust lost over student loan rates. Miliband would have been onside rather than fatally ambiguous like his successor, Jeremy Corbyn. Almost certainly, "remain" would have won.



Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Tony Greaves

 Not long ago, what would have been Paddy Ashdown's 80th birthday brought home how much the country missed surely the best prime minister we never had in modern times. Even after so-called retirement, Paddy was still making a contribution to public life when he died before his time. 

Now another sudden death has taken, it is not too much to say, a living symbol of Liberalism. There will be many better-informed people contributing obituaries of specialist book-seller, historian, liberal campaigner and latterly life peer Tony Greaves, so I shall not even try to write one here. He was not flawless. I am glad that Caron Lindsay has been as honest in her initial appreciation as Tony was in life. I have suffered from the rough end of the Greaves' keyboard on many occasions, almost always deserved, though our differences on anti-Semitism remained unresolved. I believe I may even have converted him to the work of Robin Ince and Brian Cox in popularising science. As Carol says, he was always ready to make up with people with whom he generally had common ground.

I do assert that the obituaries will not exaggerate the contribution that Tony made to modern Liberalism, to the political process in general and to local politics in his adopted Lancashire. We enter a period of campaigning for police and crime commissioners in England & Wales and important local elections in England. Tony was intensely critical of the party's official strategic campaigns over the years, with good reason, but I am sure he would not have been holding back in support of Liberal Democrat candidates between now and 6th May. His inspiration will be sorely missed at this critical time.