Monday, 31 May 2021


The suggestion that the Wuhan Institute was the source of SARS-CoV2 has raised its head again. The Biden administration is taking it as seriously as Trump did, possibly for the same political reasons. Unless the CIA can obtain biological samples from the earliest cases in China, one cannot see the Biden investigation making any more progress than the official WHO survey did. 

People should look at the evidence from the other way: not that the virus turned up in the Wuhan market because of the proximity of the institute, but that the virus had leapt the species gap elsewhere in China some time before and that it was only identified in Wuhan because there were experts on hand in the city. I understand that there are rural parts of China where people live very close to bats of the kind which bear the coronavirus, even sharing huts with them.

The PR line that the virus entered the country is generally regarded as ludicrous outside China. One wonders why their government persists in that, allowing the allegations against the Wuhan institute to thrive. Probably they would rather have scientific workers (whom bureaucrats and politicians  dislike) take the blame than admit that the virus had been free in the wild for months without the government taking any action. 

The top brains at the Wuhan institute may well have come to this conclusion based on sequencing the samples in their possession. That would be one reason for the restricted access granted to the WHO scientists by the Chinese authorities. Until the Wuhan research findings are published, or an independent lab has access to the Chinese samples, we shall not know for sure. In the mean time, if it has not been done already, those which have been retained in Italy should be checked. It always seemed unlikely that the large number of cases there resulted from a couple of tourists from Wuhan in December 2019. There are also likely to have been other coronavirus deaths in France and Italy which were put down at the time to pneumonia or influenza based purely on symptoms. (I refer to earlier postings on Covid-19 especially

Sunday, 30 May 2021

Is your sex aid trying to kill you?

ESET recently posted a link to this April blog entry about increasing encroachment of "smart" devices on our way of life. As Jake Moore wrote:

If you try to purchase a new appliance these days, there is a good chance you will be guided toward the most up-to-date, state-of-the-art, smart appliances first. Whether you are in the market for a new dishwasher, fridge or even toaster, the chances are there is an internet-enabled device waiting to target you, but why the increase in IoT (internet of things)? Do we really crave every item in our houses to be smart, or do these companies have something a little more sinister up their sleeves where they actually just make things smart in order to learn more about us?

From the toothbrush that sends you a notification in the form of a graph of how well you brushed your teeth in the morning to the smart fork that senses if it thinks you’re eating too fast (I really am not making this up), we might just be walking into a future of IP-connected mayhem. IoT has boomed in the last decade and while I love a good gadget with a truly smart capability, where should we draw the line?

He goes on to describe how the door on his new dish-washer unexpectedly flies open. 

The mind works in mysterious ways. Mine immediately went back to a security scare of an intimate nature from a few years back. InfoSecurity magazine takes up the story:

The internet of things is famously insecure - but people keep connecting all kinds of random things to the web anyway. Including (essentially) their private parts—and that’s a state of affairs that can lead to some bad vibes, man. Literally.

Security researcher and founder of Pen Test Partners Ken Munro, in a recent session at SteelCon appropriately called “Dicking Around,” showed just how easy it is to hack a sex toy’s camera, intercepting and viewing a feed from the device and, with a bit more effort, taking control of it directly through the firmware.

[Warning: the sexual puns get worse - or better, depending on your point of view - in the rest of the article.]

Saturday, 29 May 2021


 Fingers are crossed for later today. Naturally, I want Swansea City to win the Championship Final and regain their place in the Premier League. However, Brentford have been knocking on the door for years and this may be their year. One notes that Brentford won at the Liberty in the League season just completed, while champions Norwich lost. It is not going to be easy.

On the international front, the Team GB boss has selected just one Welsh player for the trip to Tokyo for the Olympics. Sophie Ingle is clearly more than a token and deserves her place, but one wonders why Laura O'Sullivan who was a key player in making Wales difficult to beat in the last World Cup qualifiers was not also selected. 

Friday, 28 May 2021

Australian trade deal: a question missed

In the Commons yesterday, Greg Hands, Minister of State for trade policy,  was happy to bat away questions, too many of which were purely repetitious, about the welfare of cattle. I do believe he was sincere in believing that Australia would be rigorous in preventing hormone-treated beef being exported to the UK. The question of transporting live cattle and sheep over up to 48 hours is more difficult to police and there was no indication from the government that they would address that issue. There will now be pressure from farmers to withdraw government commitment to a law banning live stock transport, a matter which has over the years divided Welsh Liberal Democrats, bearing in mind our traditional significant farming constiutency. (I seem to recall at least one close vote on including a ban in our policy.) The PM's consort and the Labour party will no doubt be put out if the government reneges on the Queen's Speech commitment, but in this I believe the government will want to be seen to maintain a level playing-field.

What worries me more is something which has more wide-ranging implications, a binding dispute resolution procedure. The openness of a tribunal to rule on business disputes was an obstacle to Canada concluding a trade deal with the EU. In the end, Canada backed down on her initial proposition that such tribunals should meet in camera. Another term for the procedure is Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) and is explained on an Australian government Web site. ISDS appears to be included in all Australian trade deals signed so far, and it is part of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Hands sees the Australia deal as a stepping-stone to inclusion in the CPTPP for the UK. This article implies that ISDS is an opaque procedure as opposed to the EU's investment courts. 

One trusts that the whole draft trade agreement will be debated in the Commons and that the question of dispute settlement will be examined. Small businesses and public services, especially the NHS, may depend on it.

Thursday, 27 May 2021

Dominic Cummings supergrass

 Watching the Select Committee session on BBC Parliament yesterday was like observing the interrogation of a supergrass: you knew that the evidence was valuable, but you had to assess it with the witness's own motivations in mind. Chairman Greg Clark was firm in his conduct of the business, clarifying Cummings' often vague recollections, pinning down dates, exact words and names of those present at key events. 

The early impression gained was of a man promoted beyond his level of competence. Cummings had been an effective enforcer for the Brexit campaign but on his own admission yesterday, he is not smart and does not have any scientific understanding - hardly the man to be a chief assistant to the prime minister of the United Kingdom. This impression was confirmed by Sir Peter Bottomley on PM later that day. The Father of the House (and husband of a former Health Secretary) was unequivocal: he would not have appointed Cummings if he had been PM.

Much of the evidence had already been intimated by Cummings' Tweets. However, the outright condemnation of Matt Hancock, the current Health Secretary, as a liar came as a shock in those exalted surroundings. It is possible that the false statements which Cummings cited were based on civil service briefings - something the committee needs to get to the bottom of - but, while shifting the blame for lying onto officials, it would expose Hancock as an incompetent cipher. In fact, no minister and few civil servants came out well from the testimony, apart from Chancellor Sunak whom Cummings went out of his way to praise for his response to the Covid-19 emergency.

The session confirmed that the government did nothing during the crucial first eight weeks of the spread of the virus, even after it was declared as a dangerous pandemic by the WHO half-way through that period. This is a period which I believe the committee should have probed more deeply, and perhaps will do so in later sessions. There was also cnfirmation of dither in early March, an early laissez-faire attitude based on a misunderstanding of the concept of herd immunity being replaced by panic.

Cummings was scathing about the quality of senior civil servants as well as politicians from the PM down. He may well be right. However, the solutinn would appear to be improvement in the recruitment, remuneration and promotion procedures of the service, winding back the "reforms" of Thatcher and Heseltine. The alternative, of more direct appointments of the like of Cummings, would clearly be disastrous.

Afghanistan centenary

 After 84 years of British rule, Afghanistan attained sovereignty on 27th May, 1921. Let us hope the next 100 years are of greater peace and prosperity than the first.

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Another first for LEO

LEO, "Lyons Electronic Office", was the world's first operational business computer. Among recent reminiscences by Tom Brooks, who joined Leo Computers as a programmer in 1963, is a suggestion that the company also led the world in enabling programming by visually impaired people. 

In the early 1960s, the Post Office was already a large user of third-generation LEO machines. Tom Brooks writes:

The Post Office was a benevolent employer. It accepted that it had a social duty to engage a variety of people suffering with a disability. [...]

The use of braille in mechanised output was not a new concept. The first commercial typewriters that produced braille were available by 1952. From 1960, the need to produce output in braille, to enable partially sighted and unsighted individuals to read, was addressed by the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky. Producing readable output in braille instead of as text is known a “braille translation”. In 1965, braille translation software was made available on the IBM 7090 computer in order to produce output in braille. 

What was different about the LEO experience was that braille was to be used by visually impaired programmers for the benefit of sighted persons. The programmes were developed entirely in braille by visually impaired people. The whole computer programming cycle of producing and testing programmes, to produce computer applications that would be used by sighted people was conducted by visually impaired people. It is not believed that this had been done before. 

The Post Office collaborated with the RNIB to test the aptitude of two visually impaired persons for engagement as programmers. These successful applicants were then engaged by the Post Office [and] programming started in 1965.

Tom Brooks' article also serves to remind us that the UK Post Office was once a leader in information technology. What a contrast with the situation today!

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Why is Priti Patel blocking the Daniel Morgan report?

 After an exhaustive Channel 4 documentary about the savage murder of the private investigator, one would have thought that there were no further secrets to reveal. There were loose ends and conflicting testimony, but it seemed that the law of dimnishing returns had set in especially after the deaths of some key participants. However,  the inquiry initiated by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary has clearly unearthed more evidence which, according to current Home Secretary Priti Patel, raises issues of national security. Why she should feel this is so when she and her ministers swear blind that the Home Office has not received the report is just one more mystery.

Roger Williams, former Liberal Democrat MP for Brecon and Radnor, whose pressure on behalf of the Morgan family obtained the inquiry, was of the opinion that although Mrs May was difficult to persuade, once she had committed to a course of action she would see it through. One feels that not only would she not attempt to block publication of the report by the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel if she were still Home Secretary, she would be more straightforward in dealing with its revelations. It comes to something when the combination of Cameron as PM and Theresa May as Home Secretary now looks relatively liberal.

One suspects that the real reason that the current administration wants to suppress the report is nothing to do with national security or even the links between the police in south London and criminal gangs. The Channel 4 documentary concentrated on the latter. There was less in it about the cosy relationship between Southern Investigations, in which Morgan was a partner, and the red-top press. The Panel inquiry may have been more wide-ranging and turned up more evidence of illegal activities procured by, in particular, the Murdoch press. Johnson may have broken most links with former Conservative-led governments, but he continues to be indebted to the power of Murdoch

We are at a crisis. Either Patel ceases to block publication of her own volition or Parliament must overrule her and release it. If neither happens, we in the UK continue to slide down the path of elective dictatorship.

Monday, 24 May 2021

How YOU can support EU citizens in the UK

 The words "betrayal" and "raw deal" come to mind. The following is a slightly edited version of a post by Robert Harrison on Liberal Democrat Voice:

Many [...] will have been horrified to hear about the treatment of EU citizens arriving in the UK, as reported in the GuardianPolitico and other newspapers. 

Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are cases of European citizens who have lived among us for many years suddenly finding themselves unwelcome with questions being raised about their entitlement to healthcare and even school places for their children. This was not supposed to happen. EU citizens were told “nothing would change” after Brexit and it was one of the negotiating positions of the European Commission during the withdrawal negotiations. The principle set out in the  Withdrawal Agreement was that those Europeans living in the UK at the end of the transition period would continue to maintain their rights. It is simply not happening.

The Withdrawal Agreement set up an Independent Monitoring Authority to monitor the implementation of the citizens rights aspects and its website can be found here

The Authority is now looking for members to join its Citizens’ Panel to support the work of the authority. This is an excellent opportunity for members of our party who also hold another nationality to get involved and support our fellow citizens. Applications close June 11 (or earlier) and can be made at this link

Please encourage others to get involved.



Friday, 21 May 2021

Sakharov's legacy in danger

 Andrey Sakharov, born this day in 1921, was a major Russian protagonist for a nuclear test ban. As EPRS reports:

Born on 21 May 1921 in Moscow, Andrey Sakharov was a physicist who in 1948 joined the Soviet atomic programme, where he played a leading role in work that led to the country’s first successful test of an atomic bomb in 1949. In the 1950s, Sakharov helped to develop the first Soviet hydrogen bomb and the Tsar Bomba, the largest atomic bomb ever exploded.

However, by the late 1950s Sakharov was becoming increasingly concerned about the dangers of these new weapons; together with other nuclear scientists, he persuaded the Soviet authorities to sign a partial test ban treaty with the US and UK in 1963, prohibiting atmospheric and underwater nuclear tests. Sakharov’s opposition to antiballistic missile defences, which he felt would increase the risk of nuclear war, eventually put him at loggerheads with the Soviet regime.

In 1968, Sakharov wrote his ‘Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Co-Existence, and Intellectual Freedom’, warning of the dangers of nuclear weapons and criticising the repression of dissidents. The essay was never published in the Soviet Union, but typewritten copies circulated widely and reached Western media. As a result, he was excluded from weapons research, and instead turned to theoretical fields such as particle physics and cosmology.

Previously celebrated as a ‘hero of Socialist labour’, Sakharov was increasingly regarded as a dissident from then on. In 1970, he co-founded the Moscow Human Rights Committee. His tireless defence of those unjustly persecuted and imprisoned brought him international fame, culminating in the 1975 award of the Nobel Peace Prize, but at home he was denounced by KGB head, Yury Andropov, as ‘domestic enemy No 1’. After Sakharov criticised the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, authorities stripped him of his honours and exiled him to Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod), a city that was closed to foreigners.

With perestroika in full swing, in 1986 Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, invited Sakharov to resume his ‘patriotic work’. Back in Moscow, Sakharov played a leading role in organising the Soviet Union’s emerging independent civil society. In 1989, he was elected as an opposition member of the Parliament, where he demanded an end to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. A few months later, he died of a heart attack.

Civil rights under Putin are regressing and Russia is back in the arms race. What would Sakharov have made of  this?

BBC News and Current Affairs must be purged

 The Bashir affair has brought the BBC into disrepute around the world. It may signal a low point in that fraud and a cover-up of that criminality were involved, but it has been only one of a number of mis-steps in recent years. One should not forget the smearing of at least two prominent Conservatives as paedophiles on dubious hearsay evidence and the sensationalist, profligate, coverage of the pointless police raid on Cliff Richard's property.

To me, they appear as the inevitable result of a conscious decision to compete with commercial broadcasting by descending to tabloid values. The process was accentuated by appointing former popular journalists to senior positions in the corporation. The result has been that of the Reithian aims of education, informing and entertainment, the latter has come to dominate.  Sensationalism, trivia and titillation have become the order of the day. 

What the BBC can do when it takes its responsibilities seriously has been shown by its coverage of the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic in the UK. It has deployed not only its excellent staff science and medical reporters, but also well-selected experts. It has given prominence to the best advice in news bulletins and in features. The corporation has contributed massively to Britain's recovery from the virus.

The corporation has a roster of expert reporters world-wide, probably as good as any global broadcasting organisation. Apart from the clearly well-staffed, perhaps over-staffed, Washington bureau, they are under-used. They come into their own when there is a massive natural disaster or political emergency, but their contribution of other news is passed over. Events like the corruption trial of South Africa's former president are ignored, even if the charges have implications for the conduct of former UK ministers. The coverage of the conflict between the government of Israel and Hamas has been welcome. While giving due prominence to the effects on ordinary families, it has also presented Israel's side of the story. But this wss a huge story which could hardly be ignored and the BBC was late to the party. The events leading up to the conflict did not figure in main BBC news bulletins and the corporation's Middle East staff are normally invisible, in spite of frequent incidents in the region.

To recover its reputation, BBC must dismiss all those who condoned Bashir's tactics and those who contributed to the cover-up, no matter how senior they are in the corporation. I believe BBC should go further and change the direction of its reporting. Stick to facts. Use its experts more. Avoid speculation, especially in political reporting, which should in turn be reduced to the bare essentials. Improve world coverage. Remember Reith. If that appears patrician and elitist, so be it. There needs to be an equivalent of The Times in TV news, but it does not mean that the corporation should stop presenting the news in a form that most people can understand.

Thursday, 20 May 2021

A different private model for railways

In introducing the Williams-Shapps programme for Britain's railways (pdf here), Transport minister Grant Shapps admitted to the House of Commons today that franchising was a big mistake. In drawing attention to the disputes which constantly arise, he validated the arguments against John Major's model of privatisation which arose from day one. It was obvious that Major and his advisors were creating a bonanza for lawyers and for few others - except the train leasing companies, of course.

There are over 100 references to freight in the Williams-Shapps plan, which is encouraging. Beeching has been rightly criticised for his failure to see a future for local passenger services, but he had progressive proposals for investment in freight. It is desperately sad that the government of the time (Conservative, one should remind Shapps) enthusiastically endorsed the former but rejected the latter.

So, a cautious welcome to the plan in its simplification of British rail administrative structure and, one hopes, elimination of opportunities for private contractors to game the system, abundant under franchising. However, I look forward to the assessment by the experts of Railfuture.

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

The Baltic dead zone

Concern at the turn of the century over the growing lack of oxygen in the Baltic Sea and parts of the North Sea led to a conference of concerned nations. In 2007, they agreed on measures to reduce factors such as effluent which deplete marine oxygen. However, it seems that global warming is counteracting these measures, as the Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research reports:

The Baltic Sea is a marginal sea in northern Europe with the world’s largest area of oxygen-depleted, thus, dead sea bottoms. The size of this area now roughly covers the area of the Republic of Ireland. This situation is caused by the consumption of oxygen during the decomposition of dead organic material from plankton blooms. During the past decades such blooms were fueled in excess by nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) loads from the land. With growing population and the subsequent intensification of the agriculture, especially since the Second World War, there has been a rapid increase in nutrient supply into the Baltic Sea. Although this trend has reversed since the 1980s, for example through the expansion of sewage treatment plants and reduced fertilizer consumption, the extent of the dead sea bottoms is still very large.

In order to improve the environmental status of the Baltic Sea, its riparian countries signed in 2007 under the auspices of the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM) the so called Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP). They jointly agreed upon measures to reduce nutrient loads. However, results are not yet visible and due to the slow response time of the Baltic Sea, it will still take some time. To make matters worse, the global climate warming may partly counteract the measures. This effect was not considered in the original version of the BSAP completely ignoring the growing scientific evidence of climate change. 

Predictive models are being updated. The results from running these will be published and hopefully will inform stakeholders of how earlier preventative measures are working and suggest what more, if anything, needs to be done.

Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Gods of snooker

The second programme in the series was shown on BBC2 on Sunday night. Though it dealt with Barry Hearn's Matchroom taking over the game, it continued to be obsessed with Alex Higgins, as Ray Reardon complained in the first episode.

My main complaint is that the series implies that snooker emerged from nowhere, that it was not part of the national consciousness until David Attenborough put it on colour TV. On the contrary, I remember the awe in which the all-conquering Joe Davis was held, the scores of snooker matches being read out on the old BBC Radio Sports Report on a Saturday evening and the regular column on snooker on the sports pages of the News of the World - the paper taken by my granddad, I hasten to add. Admittedly, the game was in the doldrums with the passing of Joe Davis and the waning powers of his half-brother Fred, but it did have a past.

The past in South Wales was epic. There were mighty battles between Cliff Wilson and Ray Reardon before the latter went on to become a full-time professional, as a HTV documentary of the 1980s recalled. That programme also featured the then current stars, Terry Griffiths and the late Doug Mountjoy. 

Admittedly, before Pot Black, the game was very blokey. Perhaps a better title for the BBC series would be Making Snooker Sexy.

Monday, 17 May 2021

Keynes on civilisation

"Civilization is a thin and precarious crust, erected by the personality and will of a very few, and only maintained by rules and conventions skilfully put across and guilefully preserved" - JM Keynes, My Early Beliefs (1938) 

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Their Lordships dissect the Tories' "reforms"

I hope to comment at length on the speeches in the House of Lords from last Thursday, but in any case I recommend reading the whole debate at’SSpeech. The quality of discussion is more exalted than in the Commons. The speeches of Lord Falconer and Lord Wallace are particularly recommended, though that is not to say that I agree with everything in them, especially the former.

Friday, 14 May 2021

Spiral of violence in the Holy Land

 Those of us old men have seen it all before. An extremist politician wants power so he commits an inflammatory act which provokes violent retaliation on the part of Muslim Palestinians which in turn gives licence to the Israel military to bomb the locations of terrorist leaders. FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) is a very fertile ground for nationalist and authoritarian political campaigning In 2000, it was Ariel Sharon who jumped up and down on the Temple Mount leading to what is known as the Second Intifada. It worked for Sharon, because in 2001 he was elected prime minister.

In 2021, prime minister Netanyahu is in trouble. He has been unable to form a new government following a hung election, and thus has lost his immunity from prosecution. The charges of bribery and corruption which have been hanging over him for years have finally come to court. President Rivlin has asked the leader of the opposition to Netanyahu, Yair Lapid, to form a government. Lapid seemed on the brink of succeeding, with the support of the Palestinian Arab party. It is not yet clear who authorised the attack by security forces on the worshippers breaking their Ramadan fast in the al-Aqsa moque, or whether there was a prompt from on high to extremists to demonstrate on the eve of "Jerusalem Day", but the resulting conflict certainly aids Netanyahu. The formation of a cross-cultural government has been inhibited and in this period of limbo "Bibi"  remains in de facto control of Israel. 

Israel rightly condemns Hamas's indiscriminate rocket fire into residential areas of Ashdod, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv. The rockets may be home-made, but they are lethal. However, Israel's more targeted sophisticated attacks, involving artillery, warplanes and gunboats, while taking out identified Hamas leaders, have caused collateral damage. Civilians, including children, have been killed and buildings destroyed. There may be a silent tail of deaths in the coming winter as a result of homelessness. The relatve death toll on both sides tells a story, though I recommend listening to and reading a wide variety of reputable sources to get something like balance.

The hopes of the 1990s for peaceful coexistence in the Middle East have been dealt another blow. Israel itself is increasingly a country ill at ease with herself. A respected Israeli writer, producer and journalist has Tweeted:

Thursday, 13 May 2021

English Labour

Having picked at the scabs of my own party on Monday, I cannot resist joinng in the post mortem on Labour's performance in England. In my estimation,  Jonathan Calder rather than Peter Black has Hartlepool right. A metropolitan Labour apparatus decided that they knew better than the local party who should represent them. It is a process which began in the 1990s after Tony Blair used personal networking to get selected for the then-safe seat of Sedgefield. (It has to be said that Blair had more connection with Co. Durham than some other planted MPs.) Chris Mullin (born in Chelmsford) followed in 1987 and then Peter Mandelson in Hartlepool in1992. The faithful accepted the situation while Labour was winning nationally, but after 2010 they could no longer stomach being taken for granted.

There were warnings from history. The people of Leyton resented Patrick Gordon Walker being planted on them in 1965, their popular MP having been persuaded to resign to make way for Wilson's favourite for Foreign Secretary. Gordon Walker had been ousted in a racist campaign in Smethwick. More recently, Peter Law was deselected in Blaenau Gwent so that a favoured Labour daughter could take a seat in Cardiff Bay. Not only did Law win his seat as an independent in the Welsh general election of 2005, but his widow also retained the seat for the remainder of a second term after his death.

This mistake of selection was made against a background of loss of identity by the Labour party. Jeremy Corbyn was a divisive figure, but at least people knew what he stood for. Sir Keir Starmer may be a safe pair of hands, but he has yet to come across as a personality in his own right. The criticism of Keir Starmer's personality, that it is that of a colourless lawyer, is the same as that which used to attach to former First Minister Carwyn Jones. The only distinguishing feature so far of Sir Keir's custody of the Labour party is his ruthlessness in removing links, organisational or personal, with Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum, together with sniffing out any hint of anti-Semitism with the zeal of a witchfinder-general. This is not going to inspire confidence in members, even those who are far from Corbyn supporters.

No more can Labour count on the strength of manual trade unions in post-industrial Britain, nor loyalty to the labour movement on the part of the members of the unions that remain.

I am reminded of those televisual hymns to north-east Labour, the series When the Boat Comes in and Our Friends in the North. The former opens, as I recall, with a scene emblematic of a party losing touch with what should have been its natural constituency. An open-air speech by a Liberal MP seeking re-election is derided by the young hero and heroine of the series. "Pompous wind-bag" is a phrase that comes to mind. 

Carwyn Jones on Sunday Supplement said that early on he and (the late and much-missed) Rhodri Morgan consciously determined to be unapologetic about being Welsh in their campaigns for the Welsh Assembly, now Senedd. 

Keir Starmer has been advised to look to Wales for ideas to recover his party's fortunes in England. Better perhaps would be to see what has happened in an English region, Merseyside. There are no Conservative councillors in Liverpool (or Birkenhead on the other side of the river, for that matter). There is a strong Liverpool Labour identity, in spite of the divisions caused by Militant and the current charges hanging over former mayor Joe Anderson. Michael Heseltine's efforts in the 1980s, well-meant in my opinion, but seen as pork-barrel politics by others, had no effect on the party map in Liverpool. What did help collect Liverpool together in an anti-Conservative laager was the ill-informed attack after Hillsborough on Liverpool fans by Margaret Thatcher and clearly Tory-inclined police chief relayed gleefully by Rupert Murdoch's Sun newspaper. A later attack on whingeing Scousers by Boris Johnson has cemented Liverpool's anti-Tory identity. 

An appeal to aspiration which worked for Tony Blair in 1997 is no longer good enough for electoral success. The way forward for Labour may be to create a series of identities, based on locality (which will mean trusting local constituency branches more) or common interest, interlocking under a shared ambit of democratic socialism. Sir Keir must divert the attacks in the media on himself personally to attacks on the party. Labour must not let itself plunge further down a death spiral. These suggestions may be impractical, but something must be done. The political scene in Britain needs a respectable viable outlet for socialist views just as it would be incomplete without a liberal party.

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Pioneer of industrial chemistry

 Anselme Payen died on this day 150 years ago. Among other things, he separated and named diastase, the first known enzyme, from malt, and cellulose from wood.

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
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 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. 

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 (, 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