Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Claire Ward MP fails "honesty booth" test

Although I am still coming to terms with my new computer, it would be wrong not to mention the performance of Watford's Labour MP Claire Ward on the 'honesty booth' feature on Radio 5 Live's Morning Phone-in today.

The basic idea is for an MP to answer various questions after which listeners text in to say whether they think the MP is being honest. Only 11 per cent of listeners reckoned her answers honest. Lembit on the same feature last week scored circa 70 per cent.

Perhaps more damning and accurate was the following listener comment:
“It’s clear she’s not a liar, just a typical Blairite. A wriggler. Not exactly dishonest but not honest. Not to be trusted.”

The really sad thing for me was the lack of any personal warmth or critical judgement other than blind support for everything the Labour government does. Not so much sycophancy as psycho-phancy. Challenged by a listener's question to say something nice about David Cameron, she simply couldn't. The one policy of Tony Blair's that she didn't agree with was elected mayors 'for towns'. And why might that be, we wonder.

Alternately funny and scary, it's well worth a listen in the brief time it will be on the web.

For those following the link, the interview is about 2hrs 24mins into the programme, with listener feedback at 2.42.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Forced conversion

Tomorrow is a red letter day. After 15 years I am set to abandon the ranks of Apple Mac users and install a PC at home.

This is not a decision I have taken willingly. It is a kind of forced conversion. My working life has been in publishing (not quite as grand as it sounds) and has always involved working on Macs. So it seemed sensible to have a Mac at home as well. And over time, part of my indentity has become entwined with being a Mac user – a sense of belonging to a select band, creative and with intellectual aspiratations. PCs by contrast seem humdrum, dull and dour.

As a Roman Catholic, I found Umberto Eco's description of Macs as Catholic computers and MS Dos (as it was in those days) as Protestant rather appealing. (According to Eco, Windows was a kind of Anglican compromise.)

I can remember an article in the Belfast-based political magazine Fortnight, which sought to apply Eco's theory to the province's political parties. A ring round identified that both the UUP and DUP used PCs, while Sinn Fein used Macs. The SDLP, perhaps in a show of conciliation, used PCs. But the clincher was that the cross-sectarian Alliance Party used both PCs and Macs.

For a long time, having a Mac at home was not a problem and when dealing with 'proper' commercial printers it was sometimes an advantage. But it has become increasingly difficult to sustain. My employers now use PCs and I keep getting key commands wrong at home and at work. All my Lib Dem colleagues use PCs and so does Watford Council. Although sharing documents across the platforms has become much easier, it is still frequently a source of irritation, when people can't open documents I have sent them.

I never got round to upgrading to OSX, partly because Apple created it in such way that installing it meant replacing almost all software. Some bits of software aren't upgraded for OS9 and others not at all for the Mac. This iMac is now five years old and has become sluggish. It's time to replace it and buying another Mac (it would be my fourth) simply doesn't make sense.

So, tomorrow the Mac is going, to be replaced by a PC that will be more efficient but less fun. Sitting in my tiny room, working on my Apple Mac I have felt a bit like the occupant of a priest hole, keeping up a recusant tradtion. Tomorrow I conform to the Establishment. I feel a bit of a heretic. Henceforward, logging on will involve the kind of disappointment involved in setting out to attend Mass and finding only a prayer meeting.

More prosaicly, I have never known changing computers to work smoothly. Don't be surprised if there is another hiatus in this blog.

Charles Kennedy - my part in his downfall

Like Iain Dale, I was struck by the lack of a mea culpa moment from Charles Kennedy on Tuesday.

Indeed in all the comments I have heard from Charles since he stood down, there has been no sense at all that he thinks he did anything wrong and one senses he still has 'issues'. I'm no moralistic teetotaller myself, but I tend to harrumph a bit at this modern insistence that alcoholism is an illness. It seems to deny any sense of personal responsibility and imply that suffering from it is simply a piece of bad luck – like a bad dose of influenza.

Perhaps this is a safe moment to mention my own encounter with Kennedy's 'illness'. As leader he visited Watford in 2002 at the launch of Dorothy's mayoral campaign. He took part in a walkabout in the town centre, which went well enough. But he looked pale, washed out and genuinely ill.

Charles made it only a couple of minutes through his speech before rushing out to the lavatory. We all assumed either that he had a very bad dose of gastric flu or similar. Perhaps naively, we didn't really think of alcohol, because he didn't fit the stereotype – not red faced, bombastic, tired or emotional. But it was all still a little bit embarrassing. How little we knew!

Thank you, Simon

Thanks to Jonathan Calder for pointing out the following from Simon Hughes on the leader's speech.

I guess it was a seven or eight out of ten speech, in terms of speech, but it did the necessary for the party.

How thoughtful of him to remind us all why we didn't vote for him as leader.

Too early to tell…

I'm a history student rather than a political pundit, so I think it wise to allow time to elapse before making any judgement about the success or otherwise of Ming's speech and the Lib Dem conference as a whole.

That's the reason why all my fellow bloggers have beaten me to an instant opinion on the subject (see Lib Dem Blogs aggregated) etc.

It's not just that I couldn't be bothered and can't get it together. Absolutely not. Not in the least. Not at all. No!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

For liberty, against freedom

Today we debate the Lib Dem 'themes' paper Trust in people: make Britain free, fair and green or TIPMBFFG as Alex Wilcock has dubbed it.

Given the great fanfare with which the whole 'Meeting the challenge' project was launched last year, the paper is dull and disappointing.

To ride my own particular hobby horse briefly, it again treats freedom as a purely a matter of constitutional and civil liberties. I would like to see a bit more of the small 'l' liberalism that sees freedom as the government butting out of people's lives and leaving them in peace.

One of the frustrations for me of Blair's view of Britain is that it is a joyless one in which any instance of people having fun has to be part of some bigger project of social improvement. Sadly, as I have commented before, the Lib Dems are too often actually more nannyish than Labour over this - viz the horrific predictions by our MPs of the effect of the Licensing Act.

I suspect my views on this have more support among fellow Lib Dem bloggers than they do in the party as a whole. If only we ran the party!

Not too taxing

I sat through the whole tax debate and was pleasantly surprised by the ease with which the commission's proposals were agreed. This was clearly not just a deference vote, but reflected the greater substance of the speeches in favour of the unamended proposals.

However appealing higher tax rates for higher earners may sound, at some point one has to face the reality of diminishing returns. The punitive tax regime of the pre-1979 Labour government simply meant that tax exile and avoidance was more common.

Nigel Lawson used to boast that by reducing tax rates he increased the tax take, because it became less cost-effective to avoid paying tax. All this puts me in mind of George Orwell's comment that 'some things are true even if they are printed in the Daily Telegraph'.

Local difficulties

No blogging yesterday. In part this was due to an ultimately fruitless attempt to speak in the Local Government debate. This is one of the frustrations of conference. You put in a card to speak in a debate and then hope to be called. But as in this case, one can spend hours creating a beautifully crafted speech that is never delivered.

At least the local government paper was referred back, amid severe criticism from various local government figures including our Herts CC Lib Dem group leader Chris White. Regular readers will may remember my previouscriticism of the policy paper.

The amazing thing, though, is that there was no mention in the paper or the debate itself of the notion that decentralisation and local control is a way of improving public services. Back in 2003 when the party approved the Huhne Commission report, this was our big idea. Now it is all but forgotten.

Monday, September 18, 2006

I'm in print

Conference-goers who fight their way to the corner of the Hewison Hall and find the LGA Liberal Democrat Group stall will find the following publication:

Delivering best practice for you in local government
Best Practice Guide number 1
The Watford and Cambridge Story
by Cllr Ian Nimmo-Smith (Cambridge and Cllr Iain Sharpe (Watford)

Of all the publications available at conference this is the one I would most highly recommend to my fellow delegates. And while you can spend small fortunes at the Westminster Bookshop stall or elsewhere, this small booklet is entirely FREE.

Hurry, hurry while stocks last! But whatever you do don't get trampled underfoot in the rush.

A doner kebab supper

At conference one ends up eating badly and irregularly.

We emerged from fringe meetings sometime after 10 o'clock, hungry but too tired to find a restaurant and sit down for a proper meal.

At times like this, and after a few glasses of wine, the only thing that will do to it is a doner kebab. And luckily enough there is a kebab shop just round the corner from our hotel.

There is no defending the doner kebab gastronomically. 'Rat meat' I once heard someone call it. It is impossible to eat with any semblance of dignity. Even if it is real lamb rather than rat, it's hardly the butcher's finest cuts. It doesn't even have the dignity, as fish and chips do, of being a great British tradition. After having eaten one, I am always overcome with a feeling of deep shame.

And yet there are those terrible moments when a doner kebab, with a few chips, is the only thing that will do.

And the winner is...

Stephen Tall is a worthy winner of the Lib Dem blogging competition.

Had I had a vote, it would have gone to Liberal England, which to me is the Godfather of Lib Dem blogs.

It joins a long line of might have beens - Stirling Moss never winning the Formula One Championship, Colin Montgomerie never winning a Major, Evelyn Waugh not winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Watford losing 2-0 to Everton in the 1984 Cup Final etc. etc.

What is it with 'Liberator'?

My first stop at conference is normally at the liberator stall. Liberator is is magazine of the radical liberal activists and, as you might expect is run by an editorial collective.

I have been a subscriber for 15 years and an occasional contributor. One of the delights of the magazine is the eclectic range of contributors, including all shades of opinion from liberals inside and outside the Lib Dems.

However, I confess to becoming irritated at the mean-spiritedness of its editorial line. In this issues it denounces the editors of the new CentreForum publication Britain after Blair as 'in the hands of the economic lunatic fringe'.

Liberator of course denounced the original Orange Book to which Britain after Blair was dubbed a successor. And yet it struck me that none of the contributions would have looked out of place in Liberator. And any of the essays in the magazine's own new publication Liberalism - something to shout about would have perfectly easily slotted into the Orange Book. And Britain after Blair includes at least one contribution from a member of the Beveridge Group which was set up to oppose any hint of economic liberal lunatic fringery within the party.

So it is a pity that Liberator, which is the oldest periodical circulating within the party and is always a good read, appears so cranky and mean-spirited, and as a result lacks influence within the party.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Brighton here we come

Every year it's the same. The large bundle of conference papers arrive sometime in August. I promise myself I'll make time to read them properly before conference. But other, more pressing matters always present themselves and I end up scanning crucial policy documents before or during debates.

So I haven't pondered much the tax question. I am reduced to feeling that since the people I normally agree with tend to be supporting the tax commission's proposals, and those I frequently disagree with are opposing them, I should probably support it.

There are other reasons too. I am confident that the tax proposals are intended to be redistributive, to benefit the poor disproportionately, without making us appear a party of envy. The rearguard action to defend the 50p upper rate smacks to be of tokenism.

While I agree with Alex Wilcock that no one should present the 50p rate as unreconstructed socialism, defending the 50p rate paints us into the position of having an old-fashioned left/right debate that says nothing about what it really means to be liberal.

Would that people were a little more exercised about the utter feebleness of the local government policy paper.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Raymond Baxter dies

BBC News report here.

I can't claim to have been a great Tomorrow's world enthusiast, but his role as the occasional Mornington Crescent commentator on I'm sorry I haven't a clue was memorable.

Those John Freemans in full

Jonathan Calder notes that the death of Sir Anthony Dodds-Parker means that there are now only four surviving members of the 1945 parliament.

Among them is John Freeman, MP for Watford 1945-55, who is now 91. Watford MPs have in general been a pretty undistinguished bunch. So I have never bothered to find out about Freeman's life or career. But I was aware that he had the same name as the presenter of the BBC
Face to Face television series (1959-62) whose polite but probing questioning famously reduced Gilbert Harding to tears and clearly unnerved Tony Hancock. Freeman was a kind of Paxman prototype, although with a more subtle approach. There was also a John Freeman who edited the New Statesman in the early sixties. So there seemed to be a lot of John Freemans about in those days, but then again, it's a fairly common name.

Now I discover via Wikipedia that all three John Freemans are one and the same. I am rather ashamed to admit this ignorance, although Freeman is rarely mentioned in Watford as a famous person with local connections.

He certainly seems an interesting character. After leaving behind his various careers as a politician, TV presenter and magazine editor, he went on to become British ambassador to the USA, chairman of LWT for 13 years and in retirement a bowls commentator on TV. Perhaps we Watfordians should celebrate him a bit more.

You can listen to extracts from Freeman's Face to Face interview with Evelyn Waugh here.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Leader resigns after nine years in government…

...after pressure from an ambitious and abrasive colleague who believes the leadership is his rightful inheritance. Despite the misgivings of many party colleagues, it's too late to find a credible rival, so the leadership contest is likely to end up as a coronation. Some believe the new leader will save the party from electoral cataclysm. Others that he will alienate people and the haemmorhage in support will continue.

No, it's not the British Labour party now or next May but the Irish Progressive Democrats (PDs). Read the full story here. The PDs are supposedly the liberal party of Ireland. They are more like European liberals than British Lib Dems, with a Thatcherite view of economics. Combining this with a strong belief in secularism and a visceral hostility to republicans, they have targeted an electoral niche market – liberal-minded affluent, middle class and metropolitan - and punched above their weight in Irish politics since their formation in 1987.

It remains to be seen what impact their new leader will have on their electoral fortunes.

Condensed blog

Busy, busy, busy the last couple of weeks so a few things that I intended to blog about have been and gone. Here’s a brief catch-up.

Tip for the top
Great gig at the Horns, Watford by the excellent local band Cynosure, in which my stepson Ben plays bass. Their distinctive indie/rock sound with jangly bits and noisy bits is sure to make them the next big thing. You can test whether this is mere step-paternal pride or mature critical judgement by listening to the songs on their MySpace site here.

Betjeman centenary (1)
Fascinating to watch Betjeman’s Metroland film last Monday. But, rather Pooterishly, I wondered why he stopped at Croxley Green and didn’t follow the Metropolitan line into Watford where our elegant inter-war Cassiobury estate is surely the quintessence of Metroland.

Betjeman centenary (2)
Amused at the catfight between Betjeman’s official biographer Bevis Hillier and A.N.Wilson, who has just published a new biography of the poet. Angered by Wilson’s negative reviews of his own books, Hillier forged a letter from Betjeman and sent it to Wilson as a hoax. The latter was fooled and referred to the letter in his book. Can’t stand A.N. Wilson, but in this at least he seems more sinned against than sinning.

Modern Times
Critics have been lavishing praise on Bob Dylan’s new album. For me, although there are a couple of great songs, there is also quite a bit of filler. The first Dylan album that I bought on its release was Shot of love in 1981. That too had a couple of great songs and many that were less memorable. It was as universally panned by critics as Modern Times has been universally praised. But back then the fashion was for knocking middle-aged rock stars off their pedestals. Now it is for helping elderly ones to climb back up.

Most successful Labour leader
As fluffy toys go, Millennium Dome Elephant is normally sound enough in his views. But he should beware of lionising Clement Attlee at the expense of Blair. The 1945-51 Labour government was centralising and dirigiste and institutionalised many of the least successful aspects of the post-war consensus. Let’s not repeat the socialists’ mythology for them. For more on this, read Edmund Dell’s excellent (and sadly posthumous) A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain.

Friday, September 08, 2006

A glimpse of Blair the socialist

In its ‘Backward glance’ section the New Statesman rather amusingly reprints an article from 1980 by one Anthony Blair, which is an impassioned attack on Jim Prior’s trade union reforms.

There will be some liberals who regard the earlier, union-backing incarnation of Blair with rather more sympathy than they do the union-bashing prime minister who ‘sold out’ to Thatcherism. But not me! Through the 1960s and 1970s trade unions were an essentially destructive force, promoting sectional interests rather than the common good. Whoever was in office in the 1980s would have had to take on the unions if they were to have a hope of governing successfully.

The article is certainly an interesting curiosity. Since Blair was going out of his way to write this kind of nonsense, rather than just keeping his head down and towing the party line, presumably back then he really believed it. Or was he just trying to curry favour within the Labour party?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Will Brown be the loser in the long-run?

The combination of work all day and meetings all evening meant I missed all of yesterday’s political excitement.

Andy when I did eventually land home, I was more interested in finding out the Scotland result against Lithuania, so the extended political coverage was just a nuisance.

For what it’s worth, though, here are my thoughts on New Labour’s internal wars.

I have always thought that Brown’s best chance of winning a fourth term would be a handover relatively late in this parliament – late enough to call a general election during the honeymoon period without appearing to cut and run.

This attempted putsch even if it hastens a Brown premiership in the short term will probably do him long-term damage. No doubt it increases the likelihood of a serious Blairite challenge in any leadership election and a legacy of ill-feeling even if Brown wins. There must be at least some danger that Brown will suffer Heseltine’s fate – the regicide doesn’t get to wear the crown.

Any honeymoon period is likely to be short, much shorter than, say, John Major’s after the Tories ditched Margaret Thatcher. Major had the advantages of being relatively unknown, of thus being able to distance himself a little from Thatcherite excesses and having a much more conciliatory style than his predecessor. Also, it wasn’t him who had wielded the knife.

Brown by contrast has been an architect of New Labour, the second most important figure in the government for nine years, at the heart of past and current conflict and has a more combative style than Blair. The novelty of a Brown premiership will soon wear off.

Even if the current putsch is successful, while it may hasten Brown’s occupancy of No 10, it will reduce his chances of uniting the party and winning the next election, so it will shorten the time he gets to stay there.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The laws of man and the laws of God

Despite being a believing and intermittently practising Roman Catholic, I find it impossible to have any sympathy with the Glaswegian firefighters who have been disciplined for refusing to distribute leaflets at the Pride Scotia march.

As you would expect, I am on the liberal wing of the Catholic Church and disagree with many of its teachings on matters of sexual morality. And yet I am usually willing to offer a limited defence of its emphasis on monogamy and abstinence if only as a necessary corrective the twin panaceas of condoms and sex education that secular progressives seem to view as only possible solutions to problems such as HIV/AIDS and teenage pregnancies.

But even someone who holds deeply tradional Christian views has no reason to refuse to put out leaflets at a gay pride march. Firefighting and information about fire safety surely cannot apply only to those whose domestic arrangements comply with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Otherwise it's no fire safety information then for cohabiting couples, remarried couples, indeed anyone who is sexually active other than in a first marriage.

Archbishop Mario Conti's support for the men on the grounds that: 'In some cases their religious sensibilities would have been offended' is a disgrace, using religous morality as a cover for the sort of bigotry that is a million miles away from true Christian faith.

Homeopathic remedies to be licensed as medicines

There was an interesting debate on the Today Programme about the new regulatory system that allows homeopathic remedies to be licensed as medicine.

This reminds me that couple of years back the Liberal Democrat peer Dick Taverne published an excellent book, The march of unreason, a robust defence of scientific method against the claims of faux medicine and some of the claims made by the environmental lobby. He made the point that alternative medicine is a big business in its own right and yet manages to get away with sounding like part of the counter-culture unlike the nasty, capitalist pharmaceutical companies.

There is an interesting article about Taverne's book on Spiked which you can read here.

POSTSCRIPT: Alex Wilcock has written at length and with great vituperation on this subject. Let's hope he managed to have a couple of aspirin and had a good lie down after publishing this post.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

On the proposed ban on violent pornography

Jonathan Calder and The Whiskey Priest both highlight the government's proposed ban on violent pornography, which has been enthusiastically welcomed by the Liberal Democrat spokeswoman Sandra Gidley MP according to this BBC report.

Where to start? Given the horrible circumstances of her daughter's death it is quite understandable that Liz Longhurst would campaign for such a ban and that many politicians would want to support her. Even the most entrenched opponent of censorship must feel at least a twinge of sympathy and recognise that they would be batting on a sticky wicket in opposing this. For the Liberal Democrats to do so would risk making us appear simply cranky rather than principled defenders of free speech.

My problem is that when issues like this arise our party spokespersons act as uncritical cheerleaders for banning things rather than as questioning and sceptical voices. Such a ban is not going to end violent crime and probably won't stop the really determined from accessing banned material. Questions are already being raised about whether it will be possible to enforce the ban effectively (see BBC report cited above). Liberals, surely, should at the very least be the least gung ho! of the parties for a measure like this.

It's another example of the problem I have repeatedly highlight both here and elsewhere - the gap between our professed principles as expressed in the abstract and the stance we take in practice when confronted with hard issues.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Thish ish all about personalities – It's the ishoos that matter

… As Tony Benn might say.

I find it hard to get interested in let alone excited about this instant biography of Charles Kennedy by a hack I’ve never heard of.

And much of the talk about whether Lib Dem MPs were too cruel or too kind to Charles or whether they ‘covered up’ his drink problem is nonsense too.

I don’t claim any great medical expertise, but whereas it’s pretty obvious if someone has a cold or has broken their leg, drink problems are harder to be certain about:

A likes a drink. B gets drunk at parties. C is a heavy drinker, D has a drink problem, E is an alcoholic, F is a recovering alcoholic. All the above categories may segue into one another and to the untrained eye it is hard to tell exactly which stage someone is at. I once had a work colleague who was more or less permanently drunk, but quite lucid, by no means incapacitated and perfectly capable of doing his job. Other people might occasionally have a couple of pints at lunchtime and be knocked out for the afternoon.

It was quite understandable that journalists and Lib Dem MPs alike did not rush to publicise whatever they may have known about Charles’s difficulties with alcohol. Charles should have gone quietly once he had lost colleagues’ confidence and dealt with his problem quietly and discreetly away from the limelight.

The new biography will end up on the remainder shelves soon enough. Charles as an outgoing leader who brought the party some success is entitled to a speech at conference. One trusts that conference will be stage managed enough to ensure that Charles does not upstage Ming.

Being a new third party leader is a tough job anyway – Thorpe, Steel and Ashdown all saw a drop in the party’s number of seats in their first election as leader. So it’s no surprise that things are tough for Ming now, but there is plenty of time for him to establish himself before the next election.

All in all, a storm in a tea cup – or even a whisky glass.

Let’s talk about the ishoos!

Socialism and a liberal dilemma

I’ll never quite cut the mustard as a polemicist. Each time I post something controversial on this blog I then worry that I’ve been rather horrid to the person I have criticised.

So, pondering my last post on obesity, I should point out, in fairness to Sandra Gidley, that she is doing no more than reflecting a strategic dilemma that the Liberal Democrats face at the moment.

Here’s what I mean. Most Lib Dems would agree that they want the party to be liberal. But they also want it to be ‘on the left’. Unfortunately, for the past century left–right discourse has not been about liberalism versus illiberalism but about socialism versus capitalism. As a result, many liberals worry about being too anti-socialist in case that puts us on the right.

If left means socialist then the correct left response to any social problem is to say that it can and should be ameliorated, or even solved, by increased government action (and spending). When confronted with the Department of Health report on obesity, a Lib Dem spokesperson may consider the ways of responding.

One, distinctively liberal, response might be to say that while obesity is a real problem, in the end it’s a matter of personal lifestyle choice and something the government can’t easily solve, even if it has a duty to make sure people have access to the right information. But to many people this smacks of complacent, uncaring Toryism. In short, it sounds like a right-wing response. (I should say here that I don’t think its right wing, because I believe progressive politics should be about setting people free to make their own choices, not about bossy, authoritarian government. But let that pass.)

A second option would be to agree that obesity is indeed a serious issue and welcome the fact that the government has recognised this and is doing something to tackle it. This would reconcile the liberal versus left dilemma, but is a rather uncritical position for an opposition party to take.

That then leaves the third response, which is the one Sandra Gidley has chosen, namely to say that it’s a terrible problem, a ‘time-bomb’ even, that the government isn’t doing nearly enough to tackle it and ought to be doing far more. This is no more than the standard response of many Lib Dem spokesman to any number of social issues concerning public health, safety child care etc.

Unfortunately, the end result is that on these domestic issues we have little to set us apart from the other parties beyond saying that we always want a bit extra public spending, state intervention and government bossiness than they do.

In my view the collapse of socialism in the last decade of the twentieth century was a chance to redefine progressive politics along liberal lines. Unfortunately, too many Liberal Democrats cling to the comfort blanket of the (essentially socialist) nostrum that to be on the left must always mean supporting more government.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Fatuous about flab

Some while ago I signed up to receive something called the Daily Bulletin from the Liberal Democrat campaigns department. It is a sort of briefing sheet for campaigners, giving the party line on the issues of the day. In practice I rarely manage to read it, partly from lack of time and partly because I am so often annoyed and exasperated by the pronouncements of our parliamentarians, that it’s best for blood pressure if I refrain.

For some reason, however, I opened Friday’s edition and read the following from Sandra Gidley MP on the Department of Health survey which predicts there will be 13 million obese people in Britain by 201O:

These figures are shocking, but hardly surprising. The extent of the obesity epidemic has been known for some time. This week’s rebranding of Caroline Flint as fitness minister was a gimmick intended to shift attention away from the Government’s failure to tackle the time bomb of obesity in this country. Obesity is one of the issues which she should already be dealing with as the Minister for public health.

This sort of thing is just so fatuous that it makes me footstampingly cross. To avoid the rest of this post coming across as a childish tantrum, I better find something to help me calm down. Perhaps I’ll go downstairs and have a piece of that tasty-looking lemon cheesecake that my dear wife bought from Marks and Spencers.

Mmmmmm! Delicious. Now, back to Sandra Gidley. The first problem here is the assumption that obesity is entirely the responsibility of the government. Not a thought here of the Liberal notions of individual choice and responsibility. In fact, obesity is the result of too many like me people eating cheesecake and spending time on their computers instead of going out for an invigorating run. No one, not even the New Labour government, forces us to do this. If obesity rates are to be reduced it will be because individuals decide to change their lifestyles.

Secondly, Sandra Gidley assumes that the problem of obesity can be easily solved by additional (although unspecified) government action and that therefore the Labour government is culpable for failing to take said action. But it is far from obvious that this is the case. Other government campaigns on health/lifestyle issues have met with mixed results. Anti-smoking campaigns have surely left nobody in any doubt that smoking is bad for you. But it took quite a long time to get adult smoking rates down from over 50% to around 30%. And they have obstinately refused to fall further.

Endless information campaigns about the dangers of alcohol abuse have left us with a prolonged moral panic about binge drinking. Not to mention the continued failure of the ‘war on drugs’!

Thirdly, this survey is a forecast, which may or may not prove accurate, about what might happen in the future. Yet Sandra Gidley attacks the government as if it already a reality. It is disingenuous and wrong to attack the government for ‘failure to tackle’ a hypothetical situation which has not yet arisen and possibly won’t ever do so. One might add that these studies are not infallible and should be treated by liberals with a modicum of scepticism not uncritical acceptance.

In short public concern about obesity levels is a fairly recent phenomenon. It is not clear that there are easy solutions that the government can implement with a guarantee of success, because in the end people have to become convinced to change their eating and exercise habits and it may take a while to persuade them to do so. We tubbies may thwart the best intentions of the health fascists – sorry, enthusiasts. The answers are not straightforward and for Liberal Democrats to pretend otherwise is unworthy of a serious political party and merely cheapens the tone of the debate.

I am sure I could say more about this, but blogging makes me hungry and if I don’t stop soon, I’ll end up having a second piece of cheesecake.

PS: Have just spotted the full report of Sandra Gidley’s comments here. The bit about school playing fields I agree with, but in general my comments stand.

Comment is liberated

My technological ineptitute has got the better of me.

Some while ago, some SPAM posts appeared on the blog – you know the kind of thing – 'Very nice, make some easy money by selling your soul to the Devil' etc. I decided to try and work out how to get rid of them, couldn't, gave it up as a bad job and left them there.

Since the blog has been largely inactive for a few months I thought no more about it. But I did wonder why the occasional posts I did make provoked no response at all. I don't expect mass readership and a heated debate. But I was surprised to be so anodyne and dull as to get no replies whatever.

Now I have realised that I had switched comment moderation on without realising it, but wasn't moderating and publishing the comments. So nothing ever appeared. My Watford Green Party adversary, Lobster Blogster, even accused me of censorship.

I have now corrected this and posted all the genuine comments and some of the SPAM ones from the last six months – some of them several times over. I may also have inadvertently deleted some. I don't know for certain. Thanks to all those who have posted.

My next task is to work out how to switch comment moderation off. This may happen straight away or it might take me several months. Watch this space!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Mass defections in Derby – Labour to Lib Dems

Jonathan Wallace reports the news of 37 Labour members defecting to the Lib Dems in Margaret Beckett’s Derby South constituency. This seems to be based on a press release from the national party.

I have reservations about this sort of thing and fear that the short-term publicity boost is not worth the longer-term problems. We have a little experience of this in Watford.

In the first place, single-issue defections are a worry of themselves. How deep is someone’s philosophical commitment to the Liberal Democrats if their reason for defecting is not being converted to a Liberal worldview from a Labour one, but anger over an issue which, although very important, is hardly central to British party politics. The concept of a mass defection, 37 people suddenly finding they have simultaneously decided to switch parties, makes me feel uneasy, too.

Lastly, I would be worried if views on the Middle East became a dividing line in British party politics. Traditionally all three main parties have included both Israeli and Palestinian sympathisers in their ranks. All three have maintained relatively bi-partisan views on the Israel/Palestine question, albeit with differences of emphasis in precisely how this was expressed. In so far as Britain can hope to do any good when in intervenes in issues in the Middle East it helps that this degree of bipartisanship exists regardless of which party is in government.

It would be an unwelcome development if Labour and Conservative Parties were strongly identified with support for Israel and the Liberal Democrats with support for Palestine and with British Jews and Muslims choosing their party allegiances accordingly.

I would advise the Lib Dem hierarchy to tread cautiously if there are more offers of mass defections on single issues.

Some day all this will be yours!

I have been mulling over the issue of inheritance tax, following Stephen Byers’ recent call to scrap it. Although his comments have been dismissed by a lot of people on the left as right-wing nonsence, I have a certain sympathy with his criticisms of inheritance tax.

Death duties are administratively neat, taking money at the point where it is passed to the legatees. The latter don’t miss what they’ve never had and have done nothing to earn. So far, so good! But one of the motivations for people to work hard and succeed in their chosen careers is to provide for their families and enable their children to have a better life. The ‘one day all of this will be yours’ sentiment seems to me a generous and noble one. The money and assets people have acquired during their lives has already been subject to tax, so there is no obvious reason why it should be taxed again.

These sentiments are perhaps coloured by my love of stately homes and the sense of historical continuity through generations that they give – even if the aristocracy are mostly a load of horrid old Tories. Recently I visited Dalmeny, just outside Edinburgh, the home of the earls of Rosebery. Dalmeny survives in the family’s ownership and is open to the public. But Mentmore , the another, and perhaps the greatest, of the Rosebery family homes has not been so fortunate. The house was reputedly one one of Britain’s great historic treasures with a collection of art and furniture unrivalled anywhere in Europe. On the death of the sixth earl in the 1970s the family gave the government the opportunity to acquire the house in lieu of death duties. This was rejected by the appalling Callaghan government and the house was sold, its contents auctioned off and dispersed.

The battle to save Mentmore for the nation was one of the great cause celebres of the heritage movement. It was one of the greatest losses to the national heritage of the post-war era. The house was acquired by the followers of the Maharashi Yogi and became the headquarters of the Natural Law party. It has now been sold again and is set to become a luxury hotel.

There is some irony in the fact that the prime minister who presided over the introduction of graduated death duties in 1894 was none other than the fifth Earl of Rosebery, who was primarily responsible for accumulating the treasures of Mentmore. Rosebery was only a reluctant supporter of the new tax, however. The real enthusiast, his chancellor Sir William Harcourt also became a victim of his own policy when in the last year of his life he inherited family estates at Nuneham, Oxfordshire.

Another by-election gain from the Tories

A couple of posts ago, I said that if the Liberal Democrats are to be the party of localism, we have to do more than just win the odd local by-election.

However, winning council by-elections is nice too, so congratulations to all responsible for the victory in
Harrow Weald yesterday by a 200-vote margin, thus regaining a seat lost in the May elections. Harrow Lib Dems have had a torrid time of it over the last few years, from losing control of the council in 1998 to the nominations fiasco and disappointing election results this year.

Let’s hope this victory is the spur to a sustained fightback since on the face of it Harrow should be good Lib Dem territory. Given Harrow Weald’s proximity to us, it’s no surprise that Watford Lib Dems did their bit to help, even if my own role was confined to delivering the Good Morning leaflet in the rain yesterday. Others did rather more, most notably Stephen Giles-Medhurst whose former stamping ground Harrow is.

Anyway, the Tories appear to have been making quite a mess of things in Harrow since taking control in May, and have received an early bloody nose.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Scottish smoking ban – I knew I was right

The Scottish Licensed Traders Association has said that its members report a 10 per cent reduction in alcohol sales north of the border since the smoking ban came into force. The story is reported here on the BBC website. It has been amended since this morning and in its earlier version mentioned that smaller pubs were suffering more than the large chains.

This makes my comments on this blog back in January seem remarkably prescient :
...the problem will be of accelerating the decline of rural village pubs and urban backstreet locals. The large vertical-drinking emporia will cope with a smoking ban and the young people who visit them will feel little embarrassment about standing around outside having a fag.

Of course no amount of squealing from ‘the trade’, nor clear evidence of loss of business would lead to a re-think of the smoking ban. In the article mentioned above, Scottish Health Minister Andy Kerr, rebutted the claims of the SLTA by saying that he hasn’t met a single person who wants the ban rescinded.

This isn’t quite the point. The non-smoking majority won’t demand smoky pubs and most smokers will realise the cause is lost. Of course some of the more puritanical advocates of a ban will probably think it no bad thing if pubs go out of business too, thus reducing alcohol abuse. There will also be those who supported the ban, but who will complain about the loss of a vital community resource if more local village pubs go out of business. They will never for a minute pause to think the latter unwelcome development is the unintended result of their own handiwork.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Have the Lib Dems lost the plot on localism?

The idea of localism is back in vogue. Members of the Labour government and Conservative opposition alike are repenting past addiction to centralised control of local services and promising more autonomy for local government. It would be nice to think that the Liberal Democrats, as the party most committed to devolution of power, has been making the running on this as a national issue. Sadly, this is not so.

Recently, I have read two excellent publications that make the case for greater decentralisation of local powers from central to local government. The first is Tristram Hunt’s Building Jerusalem, which charts the rise of Britain’s cities in the Victorian era and highlights the extent to which their success had been dependent on local rather than central initiative. The other is Big Bang Localism by Simon Jenkins, in which the former Times editor argues for a dramatic transfer of control of public services to local government from both the centre and unelected quangos. He believes that this would have the same revitalising effect on our democracy that the 1986 Big Bang had in reviving the City of London as a world financial centre.

As a Liberal Democrat, I can’t help noticing that neither of these authors is part of the Liberal family. Hunt is a former Labour party adviser and Jenkins an independent whose sympathies are most naturally with the Tories. It is hard to think of anyone associated with the Liberal Democrats who has established a reputation as a powerful advocate of localism. Centre Forum , the think tank linked to the Liberal Democrats, has produced no publications on this theme and doesn’t appear to have it as part of its work programme.

This point has been driven home to me by the almost simultaneous publication this summer of the cross-party Local Government Association’s document Closer to people and places and the Liberal Democrats’ own local government policy paper Your Community, Your Choice , which is due to be debated at Brighton in September. The former has all the shortcomings and compromises of a document that has had to be agreed by four political groups (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Independent). But it carries conviction in making the case for decentralisation of power. It tackles the problems caused by government targets. It calls for increased freedom for local government to go hand-in-hand with an agreed set of national targets to which local authorities will contribute. Local authorities would have to make their own arrangements for target-setting and in certain areas conform to minimum standards. Most importantly, the document exudes a confidence in local government’s ability to deliver improved services and to make itself more responsive and efficient.

By contrast Your Community, Your Choice is perfunctory and diffident, a gentle lollop around a familiar course. Even the party’s local government spokesman Andrew Stunell seemed embarrassed by its inadequacies when he spoke at the recent Local Government Association conference. Although it makes the right noises and gives some positive commitments – 75 per cent of local government spending to be raised through local taxes; primary care trusts to be placed under local democratic control – these proposals are no more radical than those put forward by senior local government figures in the Labour and Conservatives parties. The document is short, lacklustre and uninspiring. It has nothing to say about the target culture that central government has imposed on local councils since Labour took office, it doesn’t propose to restore strategic planning to county councils and most of all fails to make any connection between improved public service and greater local accountability.

Why is it that on a theme that ought to be dear to our hearts the Liberal Democrats have so little to say? I think it is at least in part because we confuse localism with obsessive interest in local elections. We have got better at winning elections under the first-past-the-post system and become embroiled in the day-to-day mechanics of local government. Victory in the battle of ideas has to be organised, but our organisation has outstripped our ideas. We campaign tactically to win votes and seats, but not strategically to win the intellectual argument. As a result some activists will see greater powers for local authorities not as a vital objective for a better society but as handing over control of, say, health commissioning to a mean-spirited Conservative county council. Such considerations blunt our commitment to localism.

Right now, both the other parties are making the right noises about decentralisation. Of course, we have been here before. It is easier for Ruth Kelly to pledge to a conference of councillors, as she did earlier this summer, that Labour have learned from the excessive centralisation of their first two terms than it is to deliver real new powers to local authorities. Likewise, experience suggests that the Conservatives’ pledges in opposition to free local government from central control will be forgotten if they return to power nationally. But there are two clear dangers here for the Liberal Democrats. The first is that our localist clothes will be stolen by the other two parties. The second is that if we fail to campaign hard on this issue now and in the years to come, it will be easier for the other two parties to backslide later.

We need to have intellectual courage to promote liberal solutions. If we believe that local control will lead to better public services and revitalisation of our democracy, we must say so loudly, clearly and consistently. We need to do more than just win the odd local by-election or control of a few more councils. Rather we must shift the centre of gravity of debate so that a ‘big bang’ devolution of power along the lines that Simon Jenkins advocates is seen as a credible answer to popular dissatisfaction with public services. More than that, it must be clearly associated with the Liberal Democrats. In the short term we could do worse than reject the policy paper that is about to be presented to conference and insist that the policy wonks come up with something better.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Bromley and crime

I didn’t make it to Bromley and while doubtless a couple of visits would have eaten a little into the Tories’ precarious majority I refuse to feel guilty about it. After the local elections in Watford, followed immediately by a council by-election, I needed to restore some order to the other bits of my life and just had to sit this one out.

While it was clearly a very good result, I share some of James Graham's reservations about what I understand of the party’s campaign. Don’t get me wrong, I have no sympathy at all for the Tories, since the tactics they complain of are ones that they are quite happy to use themselves.

But I do get irritated by Lib Dems scaremongering about crime, especially as at national level we are very critical of this sort of thing when it comes from Labour and the Tories. I despair at the way party campaigners sometimes don’t realise how such things actually undermine the values we are supposedly fighting for.

Just to be clear, according to our constitution preamble, Lib Dems don’t want people to be ‘enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity’. Saying that people are afraid to go out at night without pointing out that such fears are usually unjustified entirely contradicts this principle.

There are very few areas where it really is unsafe to go out at night because the risk of being attacked is unacceptably high. Telling the vulnerable that they really ought to stay in because the streets aren’t safe is encouraging a form of voluntary enslavement.

More than that, it creates a vicious circle where people drive rather than walk because they feel safer in their car, which becomes a kind of armoured personnel carrier. If there were more people out and about on foot in the evenings, this would create a positive feeling of safety in numbers.

In Watford we have gone out of our way to campaign against unnecessary fear of crime, to reassure people that it is safe to go out at night and to explain that crime levels are actually lower than people often imagine. More than that we have taken the other parties to task for implying that nowhere is safe unless it has CCTV and round-the-clock police presence.

There is a real danger that those involved in the thick of an election campaign are carried along by the thrill of the chase and fail to spot how short-term tactics undermine the cause that we are supposedly fighting for. After the Tower Hamlets controversy of 10 years or so ago, I am sure that the by-election team would be very sensitive to avoid any hint of racism in our campaigns. But they need to be more aware of the other ways in which we can end up pandering to illiberal sentiments if we are not careful.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Local candidate set to win two-horse race (or the myth of Liberal dirty tricks)

The combination of Watford Liberal Democrats’ excellent victory in a council by-election last week and Iain Dale's ongoing criticism of Lib Dem campaign techniques prompts me to muse on the morality of election leaflets.

I have been writing Focus leaflets and the like for 20 years’ now, with some success and the inevitable accusations of dirty tricks from opponents of various stripes. It is noticeable that such charges have been levelled against us in Watford are usually very generalised, as if the mere fact of campaigning for a Lib Dem victory is itself a dirty trick. But there is precious little of what I have written and published down the years that I couldn’t justify as factually true and/or fair comment.

For what it’s worth I have two key rules:

1. Don’t write anything that I know to be untrue
2. Don’t write anything that undermines Liberal Democrat principles and values

For present purposes I’ll just comment on two key criticisms made against Lib Dems: regarding localness of candidates and bar charts on leaflets.

Over the years all four parties in Watford (and no doubt everywhere else) have had a mixture of candidates who live in their wards and ones who don’t. All four have used the ‘our candidate lives in the ward’ line at time, especially if they can draw a favourable contrast with their opponents. All four will also play down the importance of localness if their candidate does not live in the ward. The unwritten rule is surely that we all play up our candidate’s strengths and our opponents’ weaknesses. If there was a party that either only ever stood candidates who were ‘local’ or who never made an issue of ‘localness’ they might be able to climb the moral high ground. As it is, we are all pretty much on the same moral plane.

But I notice that the Conservatives in particular get all sanctimonious about this, being quite happy to criticise opponents for where they live and then complaining about Lib Dem dirty tricks if we use the same tactic.

The same is true of tactical voting arguments. Because Lib Dems have to work harder to establish our electoral credibility, we are great users of bar charts, showing us as serious contenders in ‘two-horse races’. But in fact no candidate with sense is ever going to come out and say ‘Actually I haven’t got a hope so you might as well back one of my opponents.’ In the recent Mayoral election in Watford, the Conservatives quoted national opinion polls to show us as in third place and out of the running (even though we had won last time). In a sense, fair enough. Had they tried to pass off the national poll as last time’s mayoral result that would have been dishonest. The electorate had enough sense to see that national opinion polls were not directly relevant to the situation in Watford and voted Lib Dem anyway. But I suspect that if the roles had been reversed, the Conservatives would have complained of dishonest Lib Dems trying to mislead the electorate.

In the end, all parties use remarkably similar techniques and tricks to win elections. There is no charge that is levelled at the Lib Dems that could not equally be made against one of the other parties.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Davey done good

After a longer-than-expected silence, I'll dip my toe gently back in the water by saying I thought Edward Davey did a good job on the Today programme this morning setting out the Liberal Democrats' new tax proposals.

As is often the case I agree with the posts by both Jonathan Calder and James Graham on this same subject, which I suppose is no surprise.

I only hope that the likes of James and Jonathan will state their views loudly and clearly over the next few months, because I fear that everyone from Lord Greaves to Liberator will step up to denounce the new policy as perfidious right-wingery, driven by what they see as the crypto-Thatcherite outlook of David Laws and Vincent Cable.

There are some Liberal Democrats who have slipped into a comfort zone of believing that radical Liberalism must be defined by support for higher taxation, higher public spending and as little role for the private sector in public services as possible. Clearly it's not big or clever to denounce such attitudes as unreconstructed 1970s social democracy, but I don't think such a description is unfair.

It is important that 'thinking radicals' within the party make their voices heard, so that this does not simply become stereotyped as a left vs right or, worse, social vs economic liberal debate.

For me it is good news that we are not making lazy assumptions that higher government spending automatically means better public services. It is also right that we should focus our policies on addressing distinctively liberal concerns such as the green agenda. It shows the aprty having a bit of intellectual confidence.

However, I share James Graham's concern that this policy sits ill with our commitment to a local income tax to replace council tax. I voted against the council tax policy when it was last debated by conference, although it hardly required a huge amount of soul searching to fall in behind it at the last general election. But it seems to me reasonable that there should be some form of property taxation, that this too has environmental benefits if it discourages such things as under-occupation of property and that we should be trying to spread the load of taxation, rather than concentrating more of it on income. But a lot of people within the party, particularly within local government, are very attached to the LIT policy. It will be a hard policy to ditch, even if ditching it is the right thing to do.

A special award for absurd hyperbole should go to Iain Dale for his description of the new Lib Dem policy as:

the most left wing tax proposals since Labour's 1983 "longest suicide note in history" manifesto.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Easter Rising: violence begets violence

I had intended post a long entry on the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, but the best laid plans and all that.

Perhaps it is no bad thing, since I suspect that those who read this blog don’t share my interest in the subject. But I do recommend this article by Ruth Dudley Edwards from the Irish Independent. For me it raises wider issues about the way in which we (ie people with progressive liberal views) are inclined to look at ethnic and national conflicts, not just in Ireland, but in the Middle East or former Yugoslavia etc. One side is labelled good and progressive, the other reactionary and anachronistic.

Yet there are usually shades of grey, right and wrong on both sides. For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to take a less negative view of the Easter Rising. Irish Catholics, an overwhelming majority on the island, had voted solidly for a separate Irish Parliament over 25 years and seven consecutive general elections. Although home rule was on the statute book by 1914, its implementation was suspended for the duration of the first world war. So it was understandable if many felt that constitutional nationalism had failed. But it is certainly the case that the Easter Rising has left a malign legacy in appearing to give precedence to physical force over democratic mandates.

Terrorism and the chattering classes

There doesn’t seem to be much comment in Liberal Democrat blogging circles on the so-called Euston Manifesto (rotten title), which was the subject of an article by Nick Cohen in last week’s New Statesman and is described as ‘a new democratic progressive alliance’. I suppose this could be crudely described as a cri de coeur from the pro-war left, although signatories apparently include some supporters of the war. A formal launch is promised in May.

Perhaps more fairly, it might be described as an attempt to define a middle position between crude anti-Americanism and uncritical support for Bush and is aimed as a counterpoint to the John Pilgers and George Galloways, who appear to give succour to the Iraqi insurgents, rather than championing democracy in Iraq and the wider Middle East. The manifesto itself seems carefully worded that only the most extreme and impossible could oppose it.

Although it is supposedly a non-party affair, I don’t detect many Lib Dems among the list of signatories. I suppose some will dismiss it as just the agonising of London chattering classes. And it's hard not to chuckle at a document signed by Nick Cohen, Oliver Kamm, Francis Wheen and John Lloyd, which complains at the lack of a public platform for the signatories' views. However, it raises issues that we need to engage with. We are happy for those who were against it to vote for us, and to repeat a set mantra about protecting civil liberties. But there also needs to be a wider discussion about terrorism, the nature of the threat it poses to the west and how we contain it without compromising our liberal democratic principles.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Shameless plug

My dear wife has an article in a new publication by the New Local Government Network, Elected Mayors - making a difference?.

Meanwhile I welcome Oxford Lib Dem blogger Stephen Tall A Liberal Goes A Long Way: No to ‘superbosses’ (Yes to elected mayors) as a convert to the cause of elected mayors.

Music from hell

As expected, the endless round of writing and delivering leaflets, knocking on doors etc. during election time is making it difficult to think of topics to post about.

By way of a diversion from politics I did notice that Q magazine this month includes its selection of the 50 worst albums of all time and came up with a pretty good list.

This prompts me to offer my own briefer list – five of the worst ‘classic’ albums. You’ll often find these in the CD collections of people over 35, but whatever you do don't suggest listening to them.

Crosby, Stills and Nash (self-titled)

The received wisdom is that while CSN became rather coke-addled, overweight and anachronistic from the 80s onwards, their debut album is still a masterpiece. But it isn’t! Nash wrote pretty tunes, but banal, half-witted lyrics. Crosby produced tuneless, ‘experimental’ songs with pretentious lyrics. And Stills is competent but workmanlike as a songwriter. Soaring harmonies mean nothing if the songs are no good.

Pink Floyd – Dark side of the moon
After the Live8 reunion their reputation is high right now, but Roger Waters is a clunking and obvious lyricist, lacking subtlety or grace:

New car, caviar, four star daydream,
Think I’ll buy me a football team.

The music overblown and pompous. All in all, lacks redeeming features.

Carly Simon – No secrets
Carly Simon doubtless saw herself somewhere in the Carole King/Joni Mitchell singer-songwriter mould. But although ‘You’re so vain’ is one of the great put-down songs, there is little else here to move, inspire or amuse. Lacks King’s crisp turn of phrase and strong tunes or Mitchell’s powerful insights into the human condition.

Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA
The album that made Springsteen a household name, but achieved at the price of dumbing down and sacrificing all the things that made him an interesting songwriter. The title track might have been a powerful tale of mixed emotions, but the bombastic production turned it into a cynical attempt to have it both ways. Designer misery!

Queen – Greatest Hits
OK, a compilation, not an album proper, but it would be wrong not to include the worst band of all time. Their enduring popularity diminishes us all. Bohemian Rhapsody is often praised because of its ground-breaking structure and extreme length for a hit single, but it’s seven minutes of pure nonsense. The ironic, knowing, tone of all their work means it lacks any emotional power. The lyrics are cliche upon cliche - 'Friends will be friends' etc. Their uplifting ‘anthems’, ‘We will rock you’ et al. would have been the ideal accompaniment to Nuremberg rallies. And they played Sun City during the apartheid era.

The best we could have hoped was that they were so strongly identified with Freddie Mercury that his death meant the end of Queen. However, the recent reunion shows that even that was wishful thinking.

Friday, March 31, 2006

The MP and the supermodel

One way or another I haven't read a newspaper all week or watched television, so I'm reduced to piggybacking on an old Liberal England item about the unlikely spat between Phil Willis MP and Jodie Marsh.

There are a couple of issues here. First, this kind of thing is typical of Phil Willis. While clearly an intelligent and charismatic man, his political always strike me as patrician and Fabian rather than obviously Liberal.

While he describes his parliamentary question about whether Ms Marsh is a suitable person to lead an anti-bullying campaign as 'tongue-in cheek', the precise wording is interesting. He invites the Secretary of State to 'take steps to deny Jodie Marsh access to schools for which her Department is responsible'.

If I were Ruth Kelly I would reply

Liberal Democrats usually accuse the government of attempting to micromanage public services that you say should be controlled locally. Now you are asking me to issue a diktat to all headteachers in the land about who they are allowed to invite to speak in their schools. Come on folks - make your minds up!

On the main issue, however, for once I agree with Phil Willis. Even from the brief extract from Ms Marsh's blog quoted here it's pretty clear that she freely uses the language of the playground bully and could hardly spearhead an anti-bullying campaign without unintended irony.

One of the strange phenomena of our age is the attraction people find in adopting victim status. So Ms Marsh is effectively saying to the world, without any sense of self-contradiction: 'I was bullied at school. That makes me a Victim and gives me the right to be as boorish and offensive as I like to people who get in my way. Anyone who disagrees is a fat ugly minger.'

Thursday, March 23, 2006

That 7/7 challenge

Some while ago Jonathan Calder nominated me for this 7/7 challenge thing. Never one to rush things, I have had seven weeks to mull it all over, so now here goes:


1. Finish my Phd
2. Learn to speak Italian
3. Watch Scotland beat the All Blacks at rugby
4. Start driving again
5. Learn to appreciate classical music
6. Publish a book
7. See a Liberal Democrat MP elected for Watford


1. DIY
2. Read an entire article by Polly Toynbee without cursing
3. Proofread my own writing
4. Stand Cliff Richard
5. Assertiveness
6. Support England at any sport
7. Telephone canvassing


1. The wonderful railway journey from Kings Cross
2. St Giles Cathedral
3. The prospect of one day watching Scotland beat the All Blacks at rugby*
4. The pubs along the Royal Mile
5. The National Library of Scotland*
6. The new Parliament building
7. Dalmeny House*

* Still to do!


1. Hmmph!
2. Bollocks!
3. Absolutely
4. There was an interesting article in the New Statesman…
5. I've got 100 unanswered emails in my inbox
6. PCs don't actually work, you know – Macs are much better
7. I'm just popping out to the shop to get some beer


1. Sunset song – Lewis Grassic Gibbon
2. The fox in the attic – Richard Hughes
3. Death and nightingales – Eugene McCabe
4. Good behaviour – Molly Keane
5. Passion and cunning – Conor Cruise O'Brien
6. In the lion's den – Auberon Waugh
7. Africa and the Victorians – John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson


1. None, but if did then…
2. High plains drifter
3. White hunter, black heart
4. The good, the bad and the ugly
5. In the line of fire
6. Paint your wagon
7. The outlaw Josey Wales


All I could nominate have done it already.

INSTEAD – 7 favourite quotes

1. 'Compassion is the base currency of second-rate minds – a substitute for thought' – Auberon Waugh
2.'Some things are true, even if they are printed in the Daily Telegraph' – George Orwell (attr.)
3. 'Counterfeit philosophies have polluted all of your thoughts/Karl Marx has got you by the throat and Henry Kissinger's got you tied up into knots' – Bob Dylan
4. 'We all know that prime ministers are wedded to the truth, but like other married couples they sometimes live apart' – Saki (HH Munro)
5. 'By hating vices too much they come to love men too little' – Edmund Burke
6. 'The review pages of the daily, weekly and weekend quality press in Great Britain are still dominated by a generation of young, conservative historians and journalists who came during the Thatcher years to such intellectual maturity as they possess.' - Richard J Evans
7. 'I may have written nonsense. But my nonsense isn't the nonsense his nonsense says it is' – Conor Cruise O'Brien (attr.)

That's your lot!

You must read this…

Sorry, but I can't resist this recommendation.

The Darbyshires' farewell to the Liberal Democrats and riposte to their moment of fame in the New Statesman, 'Hitting back', is quite brilliant.

The laughter left my ribcage aching and it is the funniest thing I've read and the longest piece of sustained personal vituperation since the late Auberon Waugh used to write in Private Eye.

It surely must be a shoo-in for Tim Worstall's Best of British Blogging 2006 when it is published.

The only trouble is that after this, the rest of us who have any pretensions to using humour on our blogs might as well hang up our keyboards.

Blair, protestants and bigotry

A couple of weeks ago I highlighted the tendency on the left towards double standards over political violence, citing Northern Ireland as an example. So all violence is bad but protestant violence against catholics is regarded as sectarian and driven by bigotry; catholic violence against protestants is political and driven by oppression.

It is disappointing to see Tony Blair fall into this trap. One of the positive things Blair has done is move the Labour party away from its previous rather obvious pro-Green and anti-Orange bias on Northern Ireland questions. He should know better.

Those loans - what's all the fuss about?

Try as I might, I just can't get excited by all the controversty about the loans and peerages row besetting the Labour party.

In general, the British political system is pretty free of corruption. Even in the areas where it is part of folklore that bribes take place, it seems to be myth rather than reality. From time to time I see TV dramas where the plot involves councillors being bribed to pass planning applications. Yet in 10 or more years as a member of a planning committee, the most I have ever experienced is a polite letter from applicants arguing that their application meets all the relevant criteria. I'm not saying that there is no corruption in public life in Britain. Just that any there might be is almost certainly of negligible proportions.

It's in this light that I judge the recent furore. Where political parties nominate working peers, these are likely to be people who support the party's cause and have had some degree of success in their chosen career. So it's no surprise if some of them are seriously wealthy and made generous donations to the cause of the party they believe in. While making large donations to a political party shouldn't entitle someone to a peerage, neither should it be a barrier to it nor a cause for suspicion.

The only problem, it seems to me, is if a peerage is rather obviously bought by somebody who is clearly unfit to serve in the House of Lords and whose only real qualification is to have given a party a large amount of money. And there are safeguards against that.

Participation in the democratic process is a positive thing. Political parties need money in order to put their case to the electorate. Some people may just pay a few pounds to attend a constituency fundraising dinner. Others with more money on their hands may make rather larger donations. Good! It all helps make sure we have a vibrant political system. It is illogical that charitable donations are automatically seen as a good thing, even though some of the cosyest sounding charities will have controversial campaigning agendas, while giving to political parties is seen as a little sordid, even though the latter, for all their vices, are a necessary guarantor of an open society.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Three myths of the left

In today's (Dublin) Sunday Independent, Eoghan Harris comments on his move away from socialism (he was a member of Ireland's Workers' Party) following the disintegration of the soviet bloc in 1989:

I identified three ideological lines on the left to which I could no longer subscribe: the patronising notion of alienation (which assumes that working people do not know what they want); taking up fixed anti-American positions on foreign affairs (which always finish by favouring the local Provos whether they be Hamas or the Iraqi insurgents) and the notion that crime can be completely blamed on a bad environment.

Many on the British left equally abandoned entirely these notions and ended up on the path to New Labour – a position that was hardly identifiable at all as being on the left.

But others (including not a few Lib Dems) clung to these notions as if to a life-raft in a storm, denying that times had changed.

Which perhaps explains why the British left of today is so uninspiring.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Hopeful signs on the left?

Is it just me or are there positive signs that in response to New Labour control freakery a strand of thinking is developing on the left that is sceptical of government activity rather than always assuming as a default that state intervention in social problems is benign?

In this week's New Statesman, the magazine's political correspondent Martin Bright takes the government to task for its obsessive legislating on education and crime, before concluding:

I have a suggestion: a moratorium on legislation. I suggest the following wording for a pledge in the next Labour (or, for that matter, Conservative or Liberal Democrat) manifesto: “We will introduce no legislation in the next parliament as there is quite enough already. We will make do with our flawed but probably quite adequate existing laws and concentrate on improving our schools, hospitals and railways.” I’d vote for that.

Me too!

Friday, March 17, 2006

My new title

Jonathan Calder highlights the Elect the Lords campaign’s website that invites people to buy virtual peerages in the wake of the scandal besetting the Labour party.

I have long had a pleasing political fantasy that runs as follows. A Liberal Democrat government finds its plans for second chamber reform blocked by opposition placemen and placewomen in the House of Lords. To overcome this it decides on a mass ennoblement of loyal Lib Dems. And how better to achieve this than to award peerages to all the party's council group leaders? In order to satirise the whole system, those of us who happen to be majority group leaders could have titles a step or two higher than mere barons or baronesses. Having got my ferret-trimmed gown and seat on the red leather benches, I would immediately be overcome by the weight of historical tradition and realise the importance of having an upper chamber able to reach reasoned conclusions free from immediate electoral pressures. If enough of us went the same way, we could preserve the existing arrangements.

The only question is what title to take. I should probably include Watford somewhere in there. But then there already is a Lord Evans of Watford. And if one takes the place where one lives as a title it may seem as though one is literally trying to lord it over one's neighbours. So that won’t do!

Maybe then I should look further back into my past for inspiration. I grew up in the north east of Scotland, where the nearest town was Montrose. But this would invite comparisons with the great civil war royalist commander, James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose and I don’t want to get delusions of grandeur. (Incidentally, Montrose is widely but erroneously believed to have been hanged at Edinburgh in 1650. In fact he cheated the gallows, has exceeded Lord Bonkers for longevity, but sadly came down in the world and is now a mere Lib Dem blogger.)

So, perhaps I should look to the place where I lived, the small fishing village of Johnshaven (‘Johnner’ to locals), Kincardineshire. While it is too small a place to have a marquisate or earldom named after it, maybe a viscountcy would do. So there we have it: Iain Sharpe, 1st Viscount Johnshaven. That sounds about right.

I’ll go online now and buy my new virtual title – an elected House of Lords is certainly a worthwhile cause. But then again, I’m a grippy Scot at heart, with short arms and deep pockets. I wouldn’t want to waste money that I could spend on beer or books. Perhaps I should just know my place and remain a commoner.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The lost springs

Blogging has been slow, by which I mean non-existent, for the past week because campaigning in Watford is hotting up and has taken all my time. This is the twenty-first consecutive year that I have spent the spring fighting election campaigns in May (well I didn’t do much in the year I sat my finals, but apart from that…) first in Leicester and subsequently in Watford.

What this means is that for me April is a missing month. The end of March and the start of May are mysteries too. Personal matters and outside interests are put on hold as life becomes an endless cycle of writing leaflets, printing leaflets, delivering leaflets, canvassing and handing out leaflets. Famous people I admire die, authors I like publish a new book or music artists release new albums and it all passes me by. My wife got the back garden lawn paved over a few years ago because I never managed to cut the grass before the middle of May, by which time it was a wilderness and beyond rescue.

During last year’s general election campaign Pope John Paul II died. As I semi-practising Catholic I should have regarded this as a momentous event, prompting me to a degree of reflection and contemplation. Instead it was a case of ‘Oh that’s very sad, but then he was quite old and unwell, now where did I put that bundle of leaflets?’ Some months later I was taking part in a quiz where one of the questions was the title of the new Pope. It was deeply embarrassing to find that as the only RC in the team I was also the only one who didn’t know the answer.

All this is paving the way to a feeble excuse in case this blog may goes into hibernation (or whatever is the spring equivalent) over the next few weeks. Blogging requires some time to think about things that might be of interest to people outside my immediate circle of Watford Lib Dem colleagues. This is hard to do when the constant thoughts going through my mind concern printing and delivery deadlines or what outrageous lies Labour/Conservatives/Greens have told about Watford Borough Council’s leisure proposals/planning policies/finances in their latest leaflet in Ward X.

Watford is a Liberal Democrat success story. In 2002 we took over a council that was left by Labour a bizarre throwback to 1980s-style rotten boroughs – smug, complacent and useless. It has been transformed into an effective organisation, focusing on successful delivery of services. We have taken a distinctively liberal approach, refusing to fall for the twin myths that expensive services automatically equal good ones, or that all the public want are a low level of services at a low cost. In areas like tackling anti-social behaviour, we have been successful innovators (recognised by an LGA Lib Dem group award). Unfortunately we did not win the Local Government Chronicle ‘Most improved council’ award, but did well to get on the shortlist in the first year we entered. (Not that I’m competitive but I’m now busy sticking pins in a wax model of the logo of the winner, Wakefield MBC.)

So we have much to be proud of as we enter Dorothy’s re-election campaign. Wish us luck! Good luck to all Lib Dem bloggers who are fighting elections too! Anyone who is not, do feel free to come and help in Watford. Posts may be intermittent between now and May 4. A normal service will resume after then.

Friday, March 10, 2006

The left, sectarianism and Northern Ireland

One of the reasons for the name of this blog is my interest in paradox and the way political issues are often not quite as they seem. I like to think that those of us who are on the liberal left of politics will have an enlightened outlook, letting reason be our guide. But all too often, the left (including some Liberals) does little more than mirror the prejudices of the right.

Nowhere is this more true than on the question of Northern Ireland. For centuries it was implicit in British political culture that Roman Catholics in general, and Irish Catholics in particular, were politically backward and driven by superstition not reason. They were always to be regarded as slightly suspect and possibly disloyal. While naked expressions of anti-Catholicism are now beyond the pale, it is idle to pretend that there is no anti-Irish prejudice. Yet among some people on the left there is an anti-Ulster protestant prejudice that is every bit as irrational.

Before the ceasefires, when the bombing and shooting campaigns were at full throttle, I found this manifested itself in the following way among my Lib Dem or Labour supporting acquaintances. While they would condemn all paramilitary violence, they assumed that republican violence was somehow that little bit less bad than its loyalist counterpart. A united Ireland was self-evidently the right solution. Republican terrorism was based on misguided idealism, while loyalist killings were pure sectarian bigotry.

There is a good example of such double standards in an article by the left-wing writer Beatrix Campbell in this week’s New Statesman, on the BBC’s recent Facing the truth series. The programmes brought together victims and perpetrators of paramilitary violence during the Northern Ireland troubles. Campbell

The republican soldiers' mission was to kill the British state that was denying their right to be human. The loyalist soldiers' mission was to kill Catholics.

But it is not as quite as simple as that. Sectarianism exists on both sides of the divide.
Just a couple of weeks ago a march in Dublin organized by FAIR (Families Acting for Innocent Relatives) under the banner LoveUlster had to be abandoned due to riotsapparently organised by fringe Republican groups. As Ruth Dudley Edwards pointed out in a well-argued article in the (Dublin-based) Sunday Independent, FAIR is not entirely free of dodgy loyalist connections. But these events in Dublin show that Ulster protestants can be the victims of, not just responsible for, sectarian attitudes.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Ming names his minions

The reshuffle looks to have put together a pretty good team. Only a few are worthy of comment.

Home affairs will make or break Nick Clegg’s reputation. It’s off his normal territory and gives him a chance to establish his grasp of domestic policy. But it is a high-risk appointment for someone who is widely regarded as a future leader. It will be tricky to thread a path between the Labour/Tory/tabloid ‘soft-on-crime’ jibes and the section of Lib Dem activists who will noisily object to anything that looks like pandering to the Daily Mail. And at the same time manage to make a positive impact in the role rather than trying not to make waves. I believe that Nick is bright and able enough to cope with the brickbats and make a good fist of this one.

I am disappointed that Sarah Teather is moving from the ODPM brief just as she was getting her teeth into it. I didn’t start out as a massive Teather fan, but clearly she learns quickly and looked set to do a very good job. I hope she will now sort out our education policy. Edward Davey probably didn’t get a long enough run at education and was left a peculiar legacy by Phil Willis – who was very knowledgeable and respected but too close to the teaching unions. But even with Davey in charge, the motion agreed at Harrogate last weekend was bizarre in endorsing choice in all aspects of schooling bar secondary transfer. Let’s hope Sarah now gets a decent period of time to master the brief and make in impact.

I can’t pretend to be pleased by Andrew Stunell’s appointment as ODPM spokesman. He struck me as a very good chief whip and should have been left there. Ming may be thinking that by giving us local government folk one of our own (Andrew is a former chief executive of ALDC) that will keep us happy and quiet. But actually, it would do councillors good to have someone who is more at the cutting edge of new thinking in the party to take us out of the comfort zone. Stunell strikes me as an effective political operator, but hardly the person to lead the intellectual debate on localism at a wider level than just within the party. Also we need someone to manage the retreat from regionalism. When I heard Huhne speak at the hustings, the best bits were on local government and if Teather had to move from ODPM, I would have preferred Huhne to replace her. Is this an important policy theme for Lib Dems or is it not?

Huhne should do well at environment. But whereas Norman Baker always gave the impression he would be happier out there on the Greenpeace boat or lying in front of the bulldozers, Huhne will, I hope, have the breadth of vision to see that environmental policies are part of a bigger picture. He will have the authority and credibility to make this a crucial role.

For full details see here here.

Holyrood haggling

Weekends away always throw me out, which is why the blog has not been updated much in the last few days.

So I will just commend two excellent posts by James Graham on quaequam blog about policy-making and the pros and cons of continued coalition with Labour in Scotland. But a word of warning to James - considered and analytical posts like these risk entirely destroying your reputation as "crass, boorish and more a bruiser than blogger”.

I have wondered what would happen if in the next Holyrood election the Liberal Democrats became the second largest party - we finished second in Scotland in the popular vote in the 2005 general election.

It is normally only in exceptional circumstances that the two largest parties in a parliament will form a coalition together leaving the opposition a tiny rump. Such things can seem like an organised conpiracy against the public - depriving them of a potential alternative government to vote for.

At Blackpool conference to quiz a leading MSP about this and was surprised to see that it hadn't even registered as a potential problem.

Tone vs Ming

Tony Greaves is one of the party's treasures. He has also sold me a lot of books at very reasonable prices and ferreted out some that were very hard to find. So I hesitate to criticise.

But was the criticism of Ming in Monday's Guardian really necessary? The new party leader was not even allowed 24 hours grace after his inaugural leader's speech before being attacked by a senior party figure?

What Tony took exception to was Ming's use of the word 'modernise'. I agree that in its Blairite usage this is a problematic word. It is designed to imply that there is only one way forward - whatever the government is proposing - and that everyone else is stuck in the past.

Although there are some intellectual dinosaurs in all public debates, debates between and within parties are more often about how to rather than whether to modernise. Forward-looking policies may well come in a variety of forms.

But the use I heard Ming make of the word was simply to say that to be a Liberal Democrat was to be a moderniser. This seemed to me pretty uncontroversial and of a piece with his quip that he preferred open minds to open-necked shirts.

Give the man a chance, Tony!

Friday, March 03, 2006

Highlight of the conference

Along with everyone else, I am off to Harrogate, which makes a nice change from Dereliction-on-Sea where we all had such a lovely time in September.

For many people the highlight of the conference will be Ming’s first speech as party leader. However, many of the more discerning delegates will have their eyes on the item immediately preceding it on the agenda at 11.10 on Sunday morning. This will provide an inspirational tale for all Lib Dems of heroic campaigning and Liberal Democrat principles in action in local government.

Yes, Watford Liberal Democrats have arrived – it won’t be long before we are sending the tanks into Hemel Hempstead!

You read it here first

Everyone seems to agree that the Huhne campaign got off to a flying start but had a much worse second half. So what happened at that crucial midway point to derail the Huhne campaign. Yes, you’ve guessed right! It was Polly wot lost it. That Toynbee endorsement really did send the Huhne campaign into freefall as I predicted , more in hope than expectation.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Right result, rotten prediction, Congratulations Ming

Well, my man won. But then my prediction was way way wrong. My feeble excuse is that among the Lib Dems I speak to about such things, I have felt swamped by Huhnies over the last few weeks and a bit out on a limb in continuing to support Ming. I wrongly sensed a bandwagon rolling. But for the first time have voted for the winning candidate in a leadership election. The party has made the right choice.

It is good that the margin was so decisive. As James Graham pointed out a while ago the worst thing for the party would have been a narrow victory for Ming – the front runner limping home damaged.

It must surely be the right result in terms of the party at Westminster. It would have been difficult for Huhne to lead the parliamentary party when only one ninth of its members had backed him.

The key things Ming should do now are:

- Give a warm and generous response to the defeated candidates, especially Huhne. Clearly the latter’s campaign has put noses out of joint but the whole leadership contest would have been much poorer without it.

- Learn to love the party’s footsoldiers a bit more and show that he values them. To use a rugby term, the truck must remain attached to the trailer.

- Be his own man, not a bridge to the future. Bridges are for walking over. I can’t think of a better metaphor right now, but Ming must lead from the front. He must not be simply a mouthpiece for the younger MPs who played a leading role in his campaign.

He now has a great opportunity to take the party to unprecedented electoral heights. I am sure he will seize it.

Meeting the Darbyshires

And of course for those who just want to read the NS for the article on fellow Lib Dem bloggers the Darbyshires the link is here.

Peter Wilby on Labour education policy

Here goes for my weekly Peter Wilby plug. Excellent overview of Labour education policy in this week's education special issue. Do read! Of cours the thing I like most about the article is the way it agrees with the view I expressed the other day on this site - except Wilby has done more research and quoted more facts than I did.

First one to mention Joe McCarthy loses

I see that Ken Livingstone is accusing the Board of Deputies of British Jews of a McCarthyite witchhunt against him over the Oliver Finegold incident.

Nonsense! It is a rule of dinner-party discussion that the first one to mention the Nazis loses. The same should apply to McCarthyism.

In a free country, the Board of Deputies has got every right to try to persuade the Mayor to change his views on Israel. Democracy is about persuasion and argument after all.

And the Standards Board, through which the complaint was pursued, was created by the Labour government that Livingstone supports.

How very Labour to create such a body in a fit of holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness about standards in public life, but when it is used to question the standards of a Labour politician to accuse the complainant of McCarthyism.