Monday, January 30, 2006

A brush with the tabloids

No, not the Daily Mail doorstepping me again, but waiting to have my hair cut gave me a chance to read the Mirror, Sun and Express in the barber's shop.

In The Sun an article that referred to 'pop pervert Jonathan King' curiously omitted to mention that the convicted paeodophile is a former Sun columnist.

In the Express there was an opinion piece by right-wing commentator Leo McKinstry bemoaning the high salaries paid to local authority chief executives.

Ho hum! I am not one who thinks that all criticism of bloated bureaucracies in local councils is just right-wing propaganda. And it is frustrating when people who have conspicuously failed in one high-profile role go on to an even higher-paid job.

But even shorn of the empowerment executives and community cohesion co-ordinators that McKinstry bemoans, local authorities are still significant organisations because they collect refuse, clean streets, mend roads, run education, social services and planning departments etc. The extent of the frilly bits is often exaggerated. I imagine it would be pretty hard to find anyone remotely capable of doing the job to be willing to run, say, Birmingham City Council for the average national wage, or whatever similar amount McKinstry thinks is appropriate.

Of course, McKinstry's view will be coloured by his period as a member of the majority Labour group on the appallingly-run Islington Councilin the early 90s. Freed of his responsibilities by the electorate (he lost his seat to the Lib Dems) in 1994, I imagine he is not really in touch with how local government has changed in the last decade – in Islington more so than in most areas thanks to Steve Hitchens and his Lib Dem team.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Unnatural selection

Back in the early 1990s the satirist Chris Morris, in his Radio 4 parody of the Today programme, ‘On the hour’, announced that 'under new government reforms, school headteachers will have to fight each other in the playground for the right to teach the brightest children'.

Satire can often be uncomfortably close to reality and it gets close to the heart of the current education debate. The government have at the same time tried to claim that their education proposals are far reaching and that they are in keeping with Labour traditions. But as Martin Kettle pointed out in yesterday’s Guardian, both these things can’t be true.

Insofar as school admissions policies are concerned, it is hard to see why anyone would want to give schools more control over who they admitted if it isn’t an attempt to bring in selection by the back door. Schools will inevitably want more intelligent, well-behaved children who will get lots of A-Cs at GCSE and fewer who display challenging behaviour and who are likely to push up the truancy figures. In today’s target culture, this pretty much stands to reason.

Education in general, and secondary transfer in particular, is about the only policy area where I retain pretty unreconstructed left-wing attitudes. Hearing Tory John Redwood on Question Time last week reminded me why. Whatever he actually said, what he appeared to mean was that grammar schools are good because they get state school children into Oxford and Cambridge. For many on the right, elitist grammar schools are a feeder for elite universities and this is about the only education worthy of the name. Universities like the ones I went to (Leicester and Birkbeck, London, since you ask) should call themselves mechanics institutes and teach practical skills like woodwork and not get delusions of grandeur.

From such a viewpoint, although a return of the 11+ is not practical politics, anything that inches the school system back in that direction is a good thing. I suspect Labour go along with this as a kind of electoral calculation – those who take a real interest in school selection policies are likely to favour selection on ability and are the constituency worth courting.

To me, any progressive and liberal policy should regard it as important that local rather than central government should be responsible for education. We should strengthen not weaken LEAs. Of course, I am not totally unreconstructed. I do believe that comprehensives can become a bit monolithic, that diversity is a good thing, that parental choice, as far is it is possible, should be encouraged. It is right that schools should have OFSTED inspections so that there is some guarantee of standards and incentive to improve. But selection by the front or back door, NO!

My wife, who taught in comprehensive schools in Hertfordshire for many years, always says that no evidence is ever produced to show that comprehensives let down bright children – just flat assertion. I suspect that comprehensives find it harder to match the hothouse atmosphere of schools that get lots of students into Oxbridge, but leave more people equipped to go to the Leicesters or Birkbecks or to take educational opportunities in later life than was the case with secondary moderns.

How do we resolve the vexed selection question? Not by giving schools more control over admission policies. In south-west Hertfordshire, where the more popular schools have by hook or crook always kept a stranglehold on who they admit, the result is that schools lower down the pecking order struggle to get a balanced intake, no matter how good their facilities or teaching staff.

My former political colleague in Leicester, Robert Pritchard, used to argue mischievously that all children should be given their first choice of school. If that meant that the popular schools ended up teaching classes of 100 then so be it. Parents would soon get the message and the intense battle for places at the so-called 'best' schools would end.

In the absence of any other fair way of deciding school admissions, I have always thought a ballot is the answer to oversubscription. Since secondary transfer is so contoversial in my neck of the woods I have kept this view to myself – ‘Lib Dem councillor wants to make a lottery of your children’s education’ etc. Then a couple of years ago a writer in the New Statesman wrote an article promoting exactly this idea, making me think it was not as eccentric as all that. Perhaps I should try promoting it within the Lib Dems, I thought. But the following week I was brought down to earth when the first person to write in saying this was a stupid idea was a leading Lib Dem county councillor and education expert from the midlands.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

More Liberal than thou

I have just taken the politics test at to which I spotted a reference on another Lib Dem blog.

I have often considered such tests a bit of fun but essentially a waste of time that prove nothing. This one is different. The result for me is:

"You are a

Social Liberal
(73% permissive)

and an...

Economic Liberal
(33% permissive)

You are best described as a:


You exhibit a very well-developed sense of Right and Wrong and believe in economic fairness."

Funnily enough this is exactly what I have always said about myself (apart from the bit about Democat but we have to make allowances for this being an American test).

Through articles in Liberator, letters in Lib Dem News, postings on this blog and the occasional speech at conference, I have sought to explain where my fellow Lib Dems have been backsliding in their Liberalism and why they should pay more attention to my consistently liberal worldview.

This test proved my point – I knew I was right!

"If I had I wouldn't tell you"

That was the reply given by Bill Clinton on the campaign trail in 1992 when asked by prying journalists if he had ever had an extra-marital affair. It's just about the best answer a politician could give when confronted with allegations that might just have a grain of truth in them. If only Clinton had stuck to this line through his term of office he might have saved himself a lot of trouble.

To cheer up my fellow Lib Dems I can report one Liberal sex scandal that has been disproved. It has often been suggested that the nineteenth-century prime minister Lord Rosebery had a secret homosexual life and was indirectly involved in the scandal that brought down Oscar Wilde. Lord Alfred Douglas's brother worked as Rosebery's secretary and committed suicide. His father the Marquess of Queensberry blamed Rosebery, whom he suspected of seducing his son and this incident drove him mad – leading to the hounding of Wilde. There has occasionally been sceculation that the Liberal Attorney-General's decision to prosecute Wilde was to stop Queensberry levelling accusations at Rosebery (who was prime minister). I am happy to say, however, that Leo McKinstry's biography of Rosebery comprehensively demolished this myth. It establishes that Rosebery, whatever his political faults, was entirely blameless.

Thirty years ago there was of course much speculation about another Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, but he too turned out to be entirely blameless. It was just sheer bad luck that a man whose dog was later shot on Exmoor spent years claiming to have had a gay relationship with him. The New Statesman in this week's backward glance feature includes an article by James Fenton on Thorpe from 1976.

Friday, January 27, 2006

An amusing conservative

Mr Dale’s blog invites Lib Dems to have a sense of humour at their own expense, before printing a puerile rewriting of the Twelve Days of Christmas mocking the Lib Dems. It’s the sort of thing that passed for humour among Members of the Federation of Conservative Students in the 1980s.

One conservative who really did know how to make fun of liberals and lefties was Michael Wharton, author for many years of the Way of the World column in the Daily Telegraph, who has died aged 92. Wharton, who wrote under the alias Peter Simple, created a vast array of characters from ‘progressive’ Britain – left-wing prelates and clergymen, social workers and agony aunts, many of whom lived in the fictional conurbation of Stetchford and rejoiced in the thought that ‘we are all guilty’ for society’s ills.

Wharton’s skill was to get inside the mind and master the language of those he sought to satirise. It was a quality he shared with other great right-wing humourists such as Auberon Waugh and PJ O’Rourke. His work was therefore so much more effective than the ‘What is the world coming to’ windbaggery of a Paul Johnson or Simon Heffer.

When was in my teens during the 1980s the best humour seemed to come from the right. True, there was the alternative comedy of Ben Elton et al but this seemed to consist mainly of saying ‘Thatch – what a fascist’ and the like.

What made Michael Wharton funny was his scepticism of all schemes for human improvement – one reason why he and his kind are hated by the Polly Toynbees of this world who see laughter as a distraction from the New Labour project.

The Daily Telegraph has a very good obituary
of Wharton. The Telegraph has become rather boorish and tiresome lately so I have been forced to defect to the Guardian, but this is very much in the old style. There is also a nice tribute by AN Wilson in the Spectator

Once more round the Bermondsey block

I notice the posting on Tory candidate/publisher/blogger Iain Dale’s site about Bermondsey, which unintentionally amounts to praising us with faint damnation. If the most damning evidence is a single leaflet which is not anti-gay or and does not attack Tatchell, but which is capable of a double meaning, then this is pretty thin stuff indeed. I also can’t help but be amused at the way Peter Tatchell is cited as an almost impartial source in all this as though he was a mere disinterested bystander rather than the one most likely to have an axe to grind.

The problem is that too many Lib Dems (myself included) allow ourselves to be stung by opposition criticisms of our campaigning tactics and to think that there must be some kind of case to answer. In reality 99 times out of 100 accusations about Lib Dem tactics are levelled not because they are true but because mud sticks. People will hear the general accusation but not wait around for the detailed refutation.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Battle of Bermondsey reprised

The Evening Standard tonight highlights the Bermondsey by-election of 1983 in the light of the Simon Hughes revelation.

But I feel certain that it is wrong in saying that the Liberals described Simon as 'the straight choice' during that election campaign. 'It's a straight choice' was a standard slogan for promoting tactical voting – i.e. a straightforward choice between Party X and the Liberals.

The real homophobic campaign was run by 'Real Bermondsey Labour' candidate John O'Grady, who was supported by outgoing MP Bob Mellish. Despite this Labour were more than happy to quote Mellish's endorsement of subsequent Labour candidates on their leaflets.

Opponents often accused the Liberal by-election team of the 1980s of dirty tricks. For the most part this sprang more from the against-the-odds victories it achieved than what they actually did wrong. Tactics that are now commonplace in all parties – tabloid newspapers, spoofs of opposition leaflets, quoting canvass returns to promote tactical voting were all pioneered by the Liberals during that period. Opponents complained of dirty tricks then copied the tactics.

The Hot ginger and dynamite blog prints a leaflet from what it calls the 'notoriously un-homophobic Brecon By-Election, in which sexuality was famously not an issue' using the 'It's a straight choice' tactical message. This is not a wise example to quote since Brecon and Radnor in 1985 was the Liberal campaign team's one real moment of shame. One leaflet referred to the Liberal candidate as the only one with a secure/stable/normal (I forget which) family background. This was designed to contrast with the Conservative candidate who was in his thirties and single and the Labour candidate who lived with but was not married to the mother of his children.

On this occasion, even making allowances for less enlightened times, this clearly crossed the line. Richard Livsey apologised at the time and it prompted some soul-searching within the party to make sure that the by-election team did not lose the run of themselves again.

However, at Bermondsey it seems to be a case of the Liberals being tainted by the sins of others. Certainly it will have suited the Labour Party who were quite happy to have the support of O'Grady and Mellish at future elections to blame the Liberals for the homophobia of the by-election campaign.


I heard the Secretary of State for Health, Patricia Hewitt, on the radio this morning defending her NHS policies against whoever is criticising them at the moment. I can’t actually quite bear to listen to Ms Hewitt because whatever she is actually saying, the message that is conveyed is something like: ‘I am not only a very clever person but also a very good person. I am not sure whether you are disagreeing with me out of malice or stupidity but to make my sentiments clearI am inflecting my voice with a mixture of one part scorn to two parts pity.'

She is one of a breed of Labour women who share this quality of condescension, others including Margaret Jay, Tessa Blackstone, Patricia Hollis and Margaret Hodge, all of whom set me covering my ears and scurrying from the room whenever they appear on TV or wireless. They also serve as a reminder of why I never remotely considered joining the Labour Party.

Postscript: In case the sexism police are patrolling this blog, I can only apologise, plead provocation and promise not to reoffend.

Not to worry

‘Nothing matters much and very little matters at all’, the Tory prime minister Arthur Balfour is supposed to have said. As the only major party leader of the twentieth century to have lost three general elections and won none at all, Balfour could have done with taking life a little more seriously.

But it is an aphorism that Lib Dem activists would do well to bear in mind and to help them keep their nerve. Unfortunately journalists, especially in the broadcast media, can’t get away with saying ‘This latest scandal, while no doubt embarrassing, is of no lasting importance and will be soon forgotten.’ So they have to talk of crises, damaging revelations etc.

In the past 20 years there have been two periods of genuine difficulty for the Lib Dems. The first was 1988–90 with the disasters of the European elections etc. But the Lib Dems had a stronger local base than either the Greens or the SDP and a parliamentary by-election in a seat where we had a strong local government base helped trigger recovery.

After Blair took over the Labour Party and dashed for the centre ground, our raison d’etre seemed in doubt. There was a steady trickle of defections from the Lib Dems to Labour from those who felt that they would rather be in a bigger, stronger centre party than a smaller weaker one. But even then it soon became clear that we could capitalise on the Tories difficulties in those areas where we and not Labour were the clear challengers. So we gained more seats even as our share of the popular vote declined.

As I said in a previous post, the real threat is if a national mood develops that the Labour government has delighted us long enough and it’s time for a change. If the Tories start to build up big opinion poll leads we are in difficulty. There is no sign of that happening yet. And, at risk of sounding like Dr Pangloss, I suspect that even if we did fall back at the next election enough Lib Dem MPs holding on against the tide to leave us closer to today’s 62 MPs than the 20 of 1992.

Simon Hughes’s confession

Simon will doubtless have had his own reasons for pouring his heart out to Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun, a publication renowned for its enlightened approach to gay issues. This is summed up by the headline it gives today’s story: A second Limp-Dem MP confesses’

I am sure the news will have come as a massive shock to Lib Dem activists.

On other pages: “‘I said Hail Marys’ – Benedict XVI’s amazing admission.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Traitors grate

I don't suppose that Adrian Graves' (who he?) defection would have even made regional TV news but for the current leadership contest. Parliamentary candidates for development seats (in Suffolk West we finished third with 17 per cent of the vote in 2005) are pretty low in the Lib Dem food chain. Certainly as a majority group leader in a district council I would expect to have precedence over them in any parade of Lib Dem worthies.

James Graham pretty much sums up my view of defections. Unless there is a whole string of them they have little impact on the public and are a bit of a one-minute wonder. They often look cynical rather than principled. I hope the Paul Marsden episode taught the Lib Dems a bit of a lesson.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!

All being well, tomorrow evening I shall celebrate Burns Night with haggis, neeps and tatties at our local Wetherspoons pub. Although when I lived in Scotland as a child we always had a Burns supper at school on 25 January, complete with a recitation of ‘Address to a haggis’, it’s only recently that I have started making a point of celebrating Burns Night.

It’s a case of reasserting my sense of Scottishness. It’s now nearly 30 years since my family moved down to England when I was 10 years old. I speak with a Watford accent and nobody meeting me would pick me out as a Scot. In addition, I begin to realise that I am unlikely ever to return to Scotland to live. And although I spent the formative years of 3–10 years old in Kincardineshire and have a father from Dundee, I have an English mother and was born a good way south of Hadrian’s Wall.

Yet I still consider myself a Scot and make a point of correcting anyone who describes me as English. Doubtless not all Scots would regard me as one of their fellow countrymen. My sister, who lives in Fife and was born in Montrose, but who speaks with the same sort of accent as mine, occasionally finds people unwilling to accept her bona fides as a Scotswoman.

In this the Scots are quite unlike the Irish, who seem to retain a sense of Irishness generations after their families emigrated. I suspect that this is a question of national self-image. The Catholic Irish will see their ancestors as having been forced into exile as a result of Saxon oppression. Being part of the Irish diaspora is a badge of honour. By contrast the Scots regard themselves as punching above their weight within the United Kingdom and therefore will be slightly suspicious of those who have left. That’s my theory anyway. Leave Ireland and your grandchildren’s grandchildren will remain Irish. Move from Edinburgh to London and within months you can cease to be Scottish.

Perhaps as a way of over-compensating for my slightly suspect Scottishness, I do support all teams who play against England at sport. This isn't a question of being hostile to English people. It’s just that if you are a Scotland supporter in a sense every game is against England. If Scotland beat a team that England have lost to, that shows we are better than them. It’s part of Scottish folklore that six months after England won the 1966 World Cup, Scotland beat them at Wembley, thus making us the real world champions.

Despite this, I don’t regard myself as in any sense a nationalist. My politics are liberal, cosmopolitan, internationalist and I regard a sense of national identity as being very different from political nationalism. Yet when I went on a tour of the Scottish parliament earlier this year I did feel some stirrings of patriotic pride. Perhaps it’s a question of being happier as part of a race of plucky underdogs than top dogs. Or maybe my insistence on not being English is just a fear and hatred of morris dancing.

Whichever way, tomorrow evening I shall tuck into my haggis, wash it down with a nice single malt and perhaps even later on torment my poor wife by insisting on dusting down from the shelf my volume of Burns’ complete works and reading aloud from it. For I am a Scotsman!

Sex scandals are soon forgotten

I notice an article entitled ‘Can Lib Dems recover after Oaten?’ by Nick Assinder on the BBC News website. It’s a fatuous question and the article doesn’t really give much of an answer.

I say ‘fatuous’ because of themselves sex scandals rarely do much damage to parties, the electorate being canny enough to realise that no party has a monopoly on sexual purity or peccadillos. Sometimes a party can be damaged if there is a whole series of scandals that in combination make it look sleazy or dishonest. This happened to the Tories in 1963–64 and 1995–97. But even the Thorpe scandal didn’t really damage the party electorally (although it did cost us Thorpe’s own seat). A Guardian poll today puts us at 19 per cent, which is remarkably good really. My guess is that in a few weeks only a small proportion of ordinary voters will even be able to remember who was involved in the scandal.

The crucial question for this parliament is whether Cameron begins to look like a prime minister or whether he will be exposed as a lightweight. History suggests that the Liberal Democrats' worst years are when the Conservatives defeat a Labour government – see 1924, 1951, 1970 and 1979 general elections. Often the Conservatives have taken votes disproportionately from the Liberals, so that there was even a net swing from Liberals to Labour.

So it will depend on whether there really is a public appetite to replace Labour with the Conservatives, which we will not really be able to tell until nearer the time. And even in 1979, the party only made a net loss of two seats – down from 13 to 11 – compared to the previous election as MPs used their local reputation to hang on to their seats. Losses of a similar proportion now would still leave the Lib Dems with more than 50 MPs.

Whichever way, the Lib Dem performance in 2009 will not be affected much, or indeed at all by the problems of the last few weeks.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Trumpton riots

Liberal England reveals itself to be a follower of the greatest band to emerge from the Wirral – the excellent Half-man half-biscuit. They emerged in the 1980s with a brand of semi-satirical songs that dwelt on the ennui of life on the dole spent watching daytime TV, most notably the famous 'Trumpton riots' ep. They famously twice refused television appearances because the recording clashed with Tranmere Rovers home matches.

HMHB have made a bit of a comeback in recent years, carrying on with excellent punning album titles: 'Trouble over Bridgewater' and 'Cammel Laird Social Club', the latter released at the time the Buena Vista Social Club film was all the rage. Their latest album Achtung Bono has got very good reviews such as this one.

Word magazine included one of its tracks on a free CD a few months ago. Entitled 'For what is Chatteris?' it eulogised the merits of a Cambridgeshire market town:

Car crime's low, the gun crime's lower/ the town hall band CD- it's a grower. You never hear of folk getting knocked on the bonce/ although there was a drive by shouting once

before going on to lament 'What is Chatteris if you're not there?'.

Anyway, Half-man Half-biscuit are this week's recommendation in my quest to convert my fellow Lib Dem bloggers to the cause of obscure but great music.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Doorstepped by the Daily Mail

It was not my finest moment and a bit like a scene from a sitcom.

My dear wife was making brunch and we realised we were out of bacon. So I popped round the corner to get some, without pausing to pick up my keys. When I got back, Dorothy in the kitchen with the radio on couldn't hear me knocking. Just as I was starting to get irritated at being stuck on the doorstep, up pops a besuited chap saying 'Are you Iain Sharpe'? He turned out to be a Daily Mail journalist doing background research on the Mark Oaten story and he had me as pretty much a captive audience.

Had the situation been less awkward I might have kept my sang froid, said nothing and shut the door. As it was, I couldn't quite do the 'no comment' routine so I said positive but I hope fairly bland things. That's what Chris Huhne and Sandra Gidley seemed to have done in the Observer that I had just read, so that's what I did too. But I am not used to dealing with Daily Mail journalists and just hope that I haven't inadvertently put my big foot in it. I am sure that somebody will be only too quick to tell me if I have!

Friday, January 20, 2006

Double standards on terrorism

I am often struck by the stark contrast between the tough words of the government on dealing with the terrorist threat here in Britain and the appeasement shown towards paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland.

I have just noticed this was touched on by the excellent Ruth Dudley Edwards in last weeks's (Dublin-based) Sunday Independent.

I hope to tackle this theme in more detail in a later post.

Things will hot up for Ming

I notice elsewhere on the Lib Dem blogosphere that Ming rashly agreed to give up his petrol-guzzling Jaguar classis car in response to a question on Sky TV put by a Simon Hughes supporter.

I wonder whether the problem here, and with Ming’s difficult first performance at prime minister’s question time, is that he has become used to being treated by interviewers and opponents with the deference that is afforded to elder statesmen. If he becomes leader, he will find the questioning becomes more searching and people will be after his scalp.

From Slytherin Hall...

In today’s Watford Observer, a local Green party spokeswoman writes of me:

‘If the Hogwarts Sorting Hat were to be placed on his head it would undoubtedly announce his placement in Slytherin Hall.’

I haven’t actually read the Harry Potter books or seen the films, but I gather that this is not high praise. My crime on this occasion was to disagree with the Green Party on a local planning matter.

Being a veteran leaflet writer and practitioner of the vituperative arts, I think it is best to collect such brickbats from opponents as a badge of honour.

Some years ago, a Labour opponent described Lib Dem leaflets in Watford as ‘worthy of Joseph Goebbels’. At last year’s count our Labour MP made a point of thanking each of her opponents for a clean fight except the Liberal Democrats. The 14 per cent swing in our favour perhaps had something to do with this.

Invariably on such occasions you never get to find out what you are supposed to have done wrong – there are just vague accusations of dirty tricks. I suspect that many in the Labour Party resent us in taking them on in ‘their’ areas and winning and so regard almost anything we do as by definition playing dirty. Of course in Watford the Labour Party have got particularly strong reasons to feel sore on this count.

The Green Party are a different matter. Here it’s a case of believing so much in their own transparent goodness that they genuinely think that they should be above criticism. Perhaps some Liberal Democrats are occasionally guilty of this too!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Mark Oaten bows out

I think Mark Oaten has made the right decision in pulling out. He has a very positive contribution to make to the Liberal Democrats and I hope that whoever becomes leader will put his abilities to good use.

While it has seemed at times over the last few days that the attack dogs of the Lib Dem blogatariat were scenting Mark's blood, the initial responses on Lib Dem Aggregated Blogs to his withdrawal from the race, have in general been generous and constructive.

Ruth Kelly must stay

There is a humane and well-argued article in today’s Spectator on the Ruth Kelly crisis from a perhaps unlikely source – the conservative writer Leo McKinstry.

I have been rather in two minds about this episode. On the one hand, like many New Labourites, Ruth Kelly exudes an air of ‘Not only am I cleverer than you but I am also a better person than you. So if you disagree with me you are simply revealing yourself as both ignorant and malignant.' She is the sort of person whom a political opponent can’t help but want to see taken down a peg or two.

In addition Labour have been guilty reductio ad absurdam of complex arguments for political advantage: ‘Labour are on the side of the victim; the Liberal Democrats are on the side of the criminal’. So in that sense to Labour ministers deserve to be hoisted on the petard of nuance and grey area.

But, as McKinstry points out, the feeding frenzy is both unedifying and hypocritical. In many ways, society in general and the tabloid press in particular give mixed messages about sex and the under-16s and punctuate this with occasional moral panics. I don’t agree with all of McKinstry’s conservative moralising, but many of his points are well made.

While it is tempting to relish the discomfort of a Labour minister, it is for the best if Ruth Kelly stays.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

In darkest London

Last night by sheer good fortune I managed to catch the second episode of the TV dramatisation of Patrick Hamilton's 20,000 Streets Under the Sky. I watched the first episode when it was first broadcast last year. But a combination of council duties and inability to set a video machine in advance meant that I missed the other two. This is always happening to me.

Hamilton is nowhere near as well-known a writer as he ought to be. His best novels portray a particular stratum of inter-war London society – seedy characters who are on the margins of respectable life. They feature lots of scenes set in pubs and involving drunkenness. But where Hamilton really excels in portraying the internal battles go through to overcome their demons – drink, prostitution or an inappropriate relationship and the impulses that keep pulling them back. My favourite of his novels is the very powerful Hangover Square (great title as well).

If I remember, I may yet get to see the concluding part of 20,000 Streets next week,

Chris Huhne and Queen Victoria

When I heard Chris Huhne interviewed on Radio 4 last week announcing his candidature, I was put in mind of Queen Victoria's comment 'Mr Gladstone addresses me as though I were a public meeting'. These days of course you are even supposed to address a public meeting as though it were an intimate conversation, so that potentially counts against Huhne. I agreed with what Huhne was saying, but couldn't help feeling his style was overly didactic and academic, lacking in human warmth.

My researches here in Watford suggest something of a gender divide, with women in particular not warming to Huhne (including both those who have heard him on radio or attended the hustings last Saturday). But then I think he has strong support from among the women MPs, so perhaps the women of Watford are not as typical as Radio 4 might think.

I think we are going to try to raise a party from Watford to go to the Slough hustings, so I will find out more there.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Lib Dems light up

The Independent highlights the differering view of the leadership contenders on smoking bans.

I remember last year I wrote to Lib Dem News taking colleagues to task over excessive enthusiasm for a smoking ban. My letter provoked five responses, all hostile, a personal record.

My concern is that Liberal Democrats, while keen to proclaim commitment to freedom in the abstract, are rather keen to ban things they disapprove of in the specific. So our commitment to personal liberty, even in the social rather than economic sphere, seems highly suspect.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we have to be total wacky libertarians, let alone die in the last ditch defending tobacco companies. It's just that when a campaign gets under way to ban or restrict this or that, I would expect Lib Dems to take a questioning and sceptical role rather than that of cheerleader. Sadly, it was noticeable that one of the biggest rounds of applause given by conference in Blackpool was to Nicol Stephen's assurance that the Lib Dems in Scotland had got agreement for a total ban on smoking in public places, not John Reid's uneasy compromise.

With regard to a smoking ban, I suspect 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.

By contrast community pubs, which often double up as shops or post offices, may find the regulars who sustain them drifting away if it is no longer possible to sit in peace and comfort to have a drink and a smoke with friends. And of course if more of these local pubs do close down, you can bet that Lib Dem councillors and MPs will lament the loss of important local amenities, even as they congratulate themselves on supporting the smoking ban.

To declare my interest – I am currently having another go at giving up smoking. But being married to a non-smoker, I have probably not had a cigarette in a public place that might be covered by the ban for many years now. I actively seek out the non-smoking bits of pubs and restaurants. A smoking ban is not a matter of fundamental liberal principle. It is perhaps an idea whose time has come. But I would like to see our party be a little more aware of the poential drawbacks. Our attitudes to it do say something about whether we are at heart libertarian or authoritarian.

Pay attention – this blog is your essential guide to the leadership election

I notice a posting on Lib Dem Aggregated blogs warning us that with all the interest in the leadership election, our blogs are reaching a wider readership, including the media and political opponents.

Oh bugger! I can't be seen in public looking like this. Hang on while I put a tie on and scrape the tweak strands over the bald pate.

For those 'outsiders' who are researching party members’ views on the leadership election, this blog is all you really need to read. This is because I have an unerring knack of backing losing candidates. Whichever candidate I decide to make my last preference is pretty much bound to win. Just follow the postings here over the next couple of weeks and you will know in advance who will win.

Just look at my track record. In the 1999 leadership contest I voted for Malcolm Bruce for reasons I can’t quite now remember. I think he seemed less pro-project than Kennedy (possibly not my best call) and better organised than Simon. He may have been doing a good job as treasury spokesman too, but it's all a bit of a haze really.

I was one of the few people to vote for Beith over Ashdown in 1988. I remember this election much more clearly than ’99. Paddy gave the impression that he supported a kind of ‘Year Zero’ approach, dropping the word Liberal from the party’s title and wanting us to stop talking about our Liberal heritage. There was also the sinister way in which the same advisors who had poisoned Steel’s relationship with party workers seamlessly transferred themselves to Ashdown’s side.

I was only 10 years old at the time of the Steel v Pardoe contest in 1976 and unaware that it was taking place. But I just know that John Pardoe would have got my vote if I had been old enough and a party member. Pardoe was combative, proud and confident in his Liberal values and sceptical about alliances with the right of the Labour Party. In many ways, he was all I could have hoped for in a Liberal leader. He lost the leadership election by a remarkably wide margin, his seat at the subsequent general election and his political career was over at the age of 45.

In 1967, I was unable even to say the word Liberal let alone have a view on who should succeed Jo Grimond. This was the last time that the MPs alone chose the leader. I am not sure who I would have preferred. Eric Lubbock was a bit eccentric and Emlyn Hooson rather right-wing. But I like to think I would have spotted Jeremy Thorpe as one to avoid. He first permeated my consciousness during the 1974 general election, when I was prone to interrupting my parents' watching the TV news to ask 'Who's that?' about whoever was on screen at the time. With his trilby hats and angular face, Thorpe seemed to me then rather sinister and a bit scary. Nothing that happened subsequently caused me to revise this opinion.

For much of the twentieth century there were no leadership contests, often because the party had too few MPs for there to be more than one credible candidate. Going back further, to 1894, I would have undoubtedly supported the Little Englander Sir William Harcourt (who lost) over the imperialist Lord Rosebery (who won). But I suspect I would have preferred the Marquess of Hartington to W.E. ‘Education Act’ Forster in 1875, thus spoiling a perfect record of backing losers. But even then I would have liked to have seen their magic lantern presentations before reaching my final decision.

Coming back to the present day, as soon as Kennedy resigned I posted here that I would support Ming. No sooner had I done this than demands arose to avoid a ‘coronation’. Then alternative candidates emerged. Then Ming made a mess of prime minister’s question time, then his presentation as the weekend was said to be lacklustre and Simon overtook him as the bookies' favourite.

This leaves me with a dilemma. I still support Ming. But, given my track record, I fear the best way to show this support would be to start noisily praising each of the other candidates in turn.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Distinctive yet moderate – a tricky balance for the Lib Dems

A few Lib Dem bloggers have referred to Andrew Rawnsley’s article in yesterday’s Observer He warns that ‘When so much is in flux, the third party should be very wary of suddenly lunging to the left or lurching to the right.’

This is particularly apposite with regard to the programme of Chris Huhne who is in many ways the brightest and the most powerful intellect of the leadership contenders. Huhne has been calling for a switch towards more environmental forms of taxation, including an increase in fuel duty.

I don’t disagree, transport being one of the areas where I still find myself in sympathy with the environmental movement. However, this does produce an electoral problem for the party. Under STV, there is room for parties that take brave stances and carve out a niche for themselves in the political marketplace. The Progressive Democrats have done this in the Irish Republic – they are small but credible and influential.

Under FPTP, to get any parliamentary representation at all a party needs to be able to claim 35 per cent or more of the popular vote in individual constituencies. This means the Lib Dems can’t just aim at those people for whom civil liberties and the environment are priorities. Since we have a relatively low core vote, we have to win over converts who will by definition be swing voters who may revert to their previous choice. If we put forward rather bracing policies that alienates these people, our parliamentary representation will diminish and we move back to the margins. That gives an incentive to blunt our message in the hope of not causing offence.

Rawnsley argues that ‘The third party could be led by a Teletubby and it will still prosper if Labour and the Conservatives are simultaneously unpopular.’ Equally true is that if the main parties are unpopular it doesn’t really matter what the Liberal Democrats’ policies are, provided they are sufficiently moderate and responsible to allow the party to be most people’s favourite protest vote. Also, our policies get less scrutiny the more people think the prospect of Lib Dems holding power is remote. With 62 MPs, the Lib Dems could end up being the decisive player in a balanced parliament, so we cannot hope that our policies will go unnoticed. The other parties will make sure they are scrutinised even if the media don’t.

So the challenge for the party is to be sufficiently distinctive under FPTP to make it worth voting for us, but sufficiently moderate and responsible to be able to put together the requisite coalitions of support to win parliamentary constituencies. It is quite a delicate balancing act. I fear that Huhne’s programme is intellectually correct, but a bit too courageous for present circumstances.

Lib Dem Watford hits the big time

Watford Borough Council has been shortlisted in the ‘Most improved council’ category of the Local Government Chronicle Awards.

At the time Dorothy won the mayoral election four years ago and the Lib Dem administration too office, an Audit Commission report gave a verdict that Watford was ‘one of the worst-performing district councils in the country’ – a damning indictment of the previous Labour administration.

The council was an example of Labour at its worst. The previous leadership was obsessed with taking part in government pilot projects (‘Better government for older people’ etc.) rather than managing core services well. A veneer of community focus hid poor organisation and a lack of concern about service delivery.

We have turned this round by being uncompromising in pursuing priorities and concentrate on delivery of core services. Although none of the main services has so far been externalised, the knowledge that we would be willing to use the private sector if necessary has been a powerful driver for improvement in performance by in-house teams.

Last year the award was won by Southwark LBC and this year Islington are also on the shortlist. All in all Lib Dems seem to be making a good fist of sorting out Labour ineptitude.

For full details of the LGC Awards shortlist, click 'here'.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

I esteam hym ne moore than a pygge

The New Statesman has introduced a 'backward glance' feature that reprints articles from its back catalogue. I suppose it is chepaer than paying contributors.

This week's offering in an article 'On Spelling' by Hilaire Belloc. As one who consistently laments the poor standards of spelling and grammar among my fellow Focus editors, Belloc's article gives me pause for thought. He writes:

'What fun our posterity will have with our ridiculous worship of spelling!'

He praises previous generations for whom:

'When they said of a man "I esteam hym ne moore than a pygge" one knows what they meant and one feels their contempt vibrating. Put into the present stereotyped form it would far less affect, or effect, us.'

Would any readers like to take up Belloc's challenge and show how anachronistic spelling might increase the impact of a political message today?

Gordon Brown tries to escape history's ghosts

Gordon Brown’s speech advocating a revival of Britishness and a Union Jack is an attempt to demonstrate that he too has a vision for the country that goes beyond number-cruching and partisan politics. Unfortunately, it feels contrived and vulgar. It brings to mind John Major’s cones hotline and citizen’s charter. Like Major, Brown is trying to escape from the shadow of his predecessor without being overtly disloyal.

The only time I have ever seen Union Jacks displayed prominently in front gardens was in a protestant district of Belfast on the day of a Rebublican-organised march. It made me feel distinctly uncomfortable. It is a great pity that the Union Jack, which should be a symbol of unity between different nations and cultures, has become the preserve of the far right in Britain and an emblem of sectarian tension in Northern Ireland. But Brown’s wish for overt displays of patriotism is pointless and cheap. Since there would be massive resistance to turning Remembrance Sunday into a celebration rather than a commemoration, another date would have to be found for ‘British Day’ that would have little or no resonance with the public.

I suspect Brown is trying too hard to appear statesmanlike rather than the fiercely partisan political obsessive that he is. The reason for this is that the historical omens do not look good for a Brown premiership. That is no doubt why he has an action plan for the first 100 days as prime minister and is making speeches like the one yesterday.

Brown is known to detest the comparison between himself and Anthony Eden where the person who had been the clear second figure in the government succeeded to the office but failed in the job. There are other precedents too, which are not good for Brown. Neville Chamberlain was the obvious and unchallenged successor to Stanley Baldwin in 1937. He had waited a long time to become PM and felt himself better-fitted to the role. He was out of office within three years – unlucky, perhaps to be in power at the time when the appeasement policy that both he and Baldwin supported was discredited. Likewise, in 1903 Arthur Balfour was the automatic successor to his uncle Lord Salisbury. He led the party that had won two successive landslide victories to its (then) greatest ever electoral defeat.

The precedents are not good either where there is more of a contest to follow successful leaders. Rosebery, Callaghan and Douglas-Hume all took over from long-serving leaders and took their parties to defeat. The only one to buck this trend and win an election was John Major – hardly the role model whom Brown would wish to follow.

The next problem that Brown faces is that governing parties whose electoral position starts to slide are rarely able to turn the tide. This was true of the Conservatives in 1987/92/97 and Labour in 19050/51. Going further back, the Liberals won their great landslide in 1906, had their majority reduced in 1910 and then never won another election.

Lastly, the most successful leaders have tended to be the ones who appear to rise above mere party politics and appear the right choice for the nation as a whole. In the last hundred years there have been three party leaders who have won three elections for their party – Baldwin, Thatcher and Blair. The first and last of these managed to appear as non-partisan, unifying figures. The same cannot be said of Margaret Thatcher of course, but she conveyed a sense of being on a mission to rescue the country from going to the dogs. The Conservative Party was merely her instrument for achieving this. Brown, by contrast, is a dour party loyalist who cannot hide his contempt for political opponents.

While it is possible to argue about the detail of any of the above examples, it is nonetheless true that there are no positive precedents for a successful Brown premiership. I don’t know whether he will be able to re-write the script, but hare-brained ideas such as this one will only reinforce doubts about his vision and judgement.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Music artist of the week: The Decemberists

I know that at least a couple of my readers share at least some of my musical interests, so I will press ahead with another recommendation.

This is 'Picaresque' by The Decemberists who are from Portland, Oregon. They blend an interesting combination of styles, primarily acoustic, laced with strings and accordions, but in a rugged rather than cosy way. Their songs come across more as plays or short stories – clearly fictional rather than personal or introspective. They also deal with fantastic historical themes – tales of sailors, pirates, soldiers and chimney sweeps. But this avoids the tweeness of, say, Steeleye Span, who put me in mind of Morris dancing, or the didacticism of Al Stewart. They steer clear of the American civil war, which is the staple historical theme of groups such as The Band, REM and the Long Ryders. On the latest album includes songs about a doomed relationship between a feckless aristocrat and a peasant girl, while another is about hating being forced to play sport as a child. Their singer sounds strangely like Mike Myers as Austin Powers. He also appears to have swallowed a thesaurus – words such as ‘palanquin’, ‘ largesse’, ‘phalanx’ and ‘concubine’, not often found in pop songs – crop up on the latest album. They also have great song titles – such as 'My mother was a Chinese trapeze artist' from their early 'Five Songs' EP. And, unusually, given how rock'n'roll trades on the romanticism of American geography (Route 66 etc), many of their songs have British or European themes or settings.

As I get older I find that even music I like has a remarkable sameness – here a singer songwriter who sounds a bit like Dylan, there a band obviously influenced by Neil Young, country acts in the tradition of Gram Parsons. But The Decemberists reassure me that I haven’t heard it all before – they are true originals.

You can listen to samples of their work here.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Crushed by carers

This blog would be trading under a false description if I failed to mention Wednesday night’s BBC 1 programme ‘When Satan came to town’ about the allegations of ritual satanic abuse of children in Rochdale in the late 1980s.

I watched the programme on video last night and it did make uncomfortable viewing. I remember well the air of moral panic that surrounded child abuse issues during that time. It demonstrates just how credulous intelligent, professional people can be, since the details of the allegations, repeated so many years later seemed self-evidently ludicrous.

What did the most damage was the absolute conviction of social workers that they were acting in the best interests of the children and that of course abuse was happening. It led them to ignore the evidence and manipulate the facts to suit their preconceptions. Although the programme was by no means sensationalist in tone, it was hard to escape the feeling that the treatment by the children by Rochdale Social Services itself amounted to abuse and cruelty.

As a society and we rightly find sexual abuse so wicked and abhorrent that there is a temptation to rush to judgement without giving those accused the presumption of innocence. Cases such as those of Ian Huntley or Victoria Climbie, where inaction by professionals led to tragedy, reinforce this.

So it is always tempting to think 'no smoke without fire', 'better safe than sorry' and therefore to deny natural justice to those who face accusations of abuse. There is also a temptation for those of us involved in public life to keep our heads down over such issues and keep quiet – we don't want it levelled at us that we are soft on child abusers.

But we have a duty to defend the rules of justice and to remember that even in pursuing the very noblest of ends we should not resort to dishonest means. More particularly we should respect evidence, retain healthy scepticism and not make people's lives subservient to moral crusades.

These questions are all dealt with in more depth and detail at the website of the author and campaigner Richard Webster, which readers may find interesting.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Mark Oaten as I knew him

I have crossed swords with James Graham on quaequam blog about my old Watford buddy Mark Oaten, who I see is often on the receiving end of, ahem, 'sustained and aggressive' criticism from a small but noisy section of the party.

Mark, however, seems untroubled by it all and among my acquaintances some people who I would not have down as Oatenistas are contemplating supporting him. But there is a way to go. I have a lot of time for Mark, but was never an uncritical admirer, either when he was my group leader in Watford or since he has gone on to greater things.

To read some Lib Dems writing about him you would get the impression he was in favour of hanging or had a portrait of Enoch Powell on his wall. I suspect there are two reasons for this. First, Mark is insufficiently deferential to liberal pieties (I can hardly imagine him enjoying the liberator songbook) and secondly he doesn’t trouble to disguise his personal ambition.

But he is also ambitious for the party, which is or ought to be a good thing. I suspect some Lib Dems like their MPs as quirky ‘characters’ content to champion their constituencies, rather than single-minded aspirants to cabinet office.

In my experience Mark is a good Liberal with an occasional tendency towards populism and a Paddy-like weakness for new ideas. (Neither of which of course are great sins.) But when a few years ago research was done on the way Lib Dem MPs voted on liberatarian vs authoritarian issues in parliament, Mark (and Lembit) were the most consistently liberal (or permissive). You would think this was something that radical liberals would approve of..

Likewise, for many years the Lib Dems could have been accused of hiding impeccably liberal crime policies behind relentless campaigning for ‘more police’. Mark has at least tried to guide us towards policies that are liberal but don’t make us seem irresponsible. He has tried to widen the scope of the campaign against ID cards with some success. Although clearly he has sought out the home affairs brief, it is still a pretty tough job and one he has made a good fist of.

Even where I have disagreed with him – e.g. over the licensing act – I am surprised that he gets opprobrium that others deserve more. Don Foster et al were coming out with the line of scrapping the legislation until binge drinking was brought under control.

As I said, the bile from the blogosphere doesn’t seem to damage the Oaten camp. For those Lib Dems who enjoy knocking lumps out of their party’s home affairs spokesman for sounding too tough, when the other two parties attack him for being too soft, that is the sort of thing they enjoy.

Orange segments

Joe Otten, whose blog I had not come across before, makes a noble effort to debunk the myth that the Orange Book is ‘right-wing’. To be fair, this point was made by Jonathan Calder in his liberator review shortly after the notorious volume was published.

My thoughts on reading the book shortly after it came out were that it was uneven in quality and that some of the articles sat uneasily alongside one another. If we accept a definition of ‘right-wing’ as in favour of free markets and less state control then the articles by Laws and Cable could perhaps be characterised as right-wing. But to be fair both saw free markets and social justice as mutually complementary objectives. Some articles departed from normal Lib Dem thinking, but not in an obviously left or right way (e.g. the articles by Huhne and Clegg). One or two appeared simply to rehash existing Lib Dem policy (e.g. Edward Davey). And the article by Steve Webb appeared if anything a bit socialistic – positively Polly Toynbeeish.

Furthermore, the contributors have not always been agreed about the contents of the book – Huhne published an article opposing Laws’s views on health policy.

Whatever its merits and shortcomings, it is just plain wrong to characterise the Orange Book as part of a right-wing project. Sadly, the myth has already been created and there are plenty of Liberal Democrats who are only too willing to feed it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Here come the snakes

No, not a reference to Lib Dem leadership contenders, but the best album by my favourite /band/group/artist/beat combo, Green on Red. They split more than a decade ago, but played a reunion at the Astoria, London last night.

I wouldn't have missed it for the world. So instead I missed it for a meeting of Watford Borough Council's Development Control Committee, of which I am a member.

This is not the first time such a thing has happened. Indeed it has happened so often that sometimes I almost become paranoid that my favourite artists checked the register of Watford Council meetings and set their London dates to clash with them.

In fact, I didn't even know Green on Red were playing until I saw them listed as the 'live choice' in yesterday's Evening Standard, which I read over the shoulder of a fellow passenger on the Silverlink County line. I have got to the stage in life where I don't regularly read the music press or check for concerts. GoR never really had that big a following and there is no website official or unofficial in existence. So I didn't go and I wasn't there!

Still, in the cause of championing the underdog, I would encourage readers to check out Green on Red. In many ways they are the precurors of bands such as Wilco, Son Volt etc. who blend country, punk, folk and rock influences and who made country music almost cool again in the late 1990s. The best way I can describe their sound is as a cross between Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the Rolling Stones and the Velvet Underground. Their lyrics consisted of tales of outcasts, outsiders and underdogs. Somehow these carried more conviction than, say, Bruce Springsteen who dealt with similar themes, because whereas Bruce was clearly wealthy and successful, Green on Red never quite made it.

I don't know how the gig went because I can't find a review of it. Interested readers can view the Time Out preview here

Monday, January 09, 2006

Let's have a heated debate

If there is anyone out there who assiduously reads both this blog and my occasional Liberator articles, you are in for a sense of déja vu. For those who remain, here goes.

It seems we are going to have a contested leadership election and there is lots of talk about having a ‘real debate’ about the future of the party. Here are my thoughts on this debate.

It is already being posited in the media and among many in the party as right-wingers/economic liberals versus left-wingers/social liberals. Some of those who are regarded as being in the former camp, notably Nick Clegg, repudiate the right-wing label which, when used by fellow Lib Dems, is usually a term of abuse.

For my own part I regard myself as both a social and economic liberal, but certainly not as ‘right-wing’, either in the context of the wider political spectrum or within the Liberal Democrats. I would like to be part of a distinctively liberal party, which is to the left of centre, but on a spectrum that is not measured purely by how high public spending should be.

Looking back through history, left vs right has not always equated with public vs private. In the nineteenth century, radicals saw their main role as to oppose ‘privilege’, which manifested itself in various forms. There were the legally-entrenched privileges afforded to Anglicans in the professions and the public service. Radicals wanted religious equality. The old corn laws protected landowners by keeping corn prices high and making food dearer for the poor. That is why radicals supported free trade.

In the twentieth century left–right politics became defined by socialism versus capitalism. To be on the left meant believing in state ownership and control in order to create a more equal society. Support for private enterprise came from the right. Although democratic socialists opted to make compromises with capitalism, it was indeed a compromise – ultimately they saw the public sector as good and private enterprise as at best a necessary evil. Liberals, who found themselves marginalised in this debate, either decided that they were not socialists and drifted to the right, or that they were left of centre, and so must be pro-state and anti-private sector.

The events of the late twentieth-century should have made much of this redundant. The success of right-of-centre governments in much of the western world during the 1980s, combined with the collapse of the Soviet block, discredited socialism as even a long-term objective. We are all now in the business of managing welfare capitalism. This isn’t something completely strange – for example for the past 80 years politics in the Republic of Ireland has been dominated by two parties who don’t fit a traditional left–right division.

The role for Liberals, I would suggest, is not just to argue for higher tax and more public spending, but to champion liberal ideas such as decentralisation and greater power for individual citizens. In all things we should keep uppermost in our minds the needs of the poor, excluded and under-privileged - that is surely what being left of centre means. I don’t believe, however, that preservation of inefficient direct labour forces that provide a poor service is in any sense 'left' – just an illustration of the silliness of socialism. Sometimes challenge and change can help to drive improvement of public services.

To conclude:

I am a liberal. I am left of centre. I am not and never have been a socialist. I believe that as liberals we should have the confidence to articulate a clear and progressive agenda without feeling the need always to doff our hats to redundant socialist nostrums that state provision of public services is always better.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Charles resigns…

It became increasingly obvious yesterday that Charles was not going to survive and today's statement came as little surprise. We can hope that Charles will continue to play a role in the party – as well as no doubt getting syndicated newspaper columns and his own TV show etc.

It looks as though MPs are closing ranks behind Sir Menzies Campbell. I have never been a particular fan of his, but he has the dignity and gravitas and reputation as a big hitter to hold his own against the other leaders. He is probably among the best known of the Lib Dem MPs. He will nudge the party in the right direction politically, without being obviously parti pris in any ideogical debate.

Simon Hughes would simply not do and I don't see the grassroots support that political journalists often assume is there for him as leader. Yes, activists, especially those from a Liberal tradition, love Simon. But that is very different from saying that they want him to lead the party. My impression was that he ended up almost by default as the main challenger to Charles last time because he was seen as more sceptical of links with Labour. Voting for Simon was a safe option for those who knew he wouldn't win, but who wanted to fire a warning shot across the bows of Kennedy and his then supporters.

If there is a contest I will vote for Ming.

The game is up

Clearly Kennedy can't survive now and it is a matter of someone twisting his arm strongly enough over the weekend to get him to resign with as much dignity as he can muster. It is a great shame. I didn't vote for him in 1999, but feel that the party made the right decision then and I the wrong one. It is hard to see how any of his rivals would have done as good a job in the last two elections.

Cymru Mark in response to my last post implies the Lib Dems would have done equally well under another leader. I think not. Kennedy, because he was the favoured insider candidate, was able to move the party away from links with Labour without a revolt. Likewise a leader from the traditional Liberal wing of the party would carried less credibility in opposing the war – Hughes's opposition to the war would have been predictable – Kennedy's was signficant.

It is hard for anyone outside the Westminster bubble to judge how bad the problem has been with Kenneday's behaviour and therefore whether the reaction has been reasonable. My last post seems to belong to a previous era - we are now at the stage where Charles's every faux pas is blamed on drink – even though everyone has off days.

I suspect the key to this lies at the last party conference – by avoiding taking a stance on the controversial motions on Europe and the post office, Charles failed to please either wing of the party enough to make them go the extra mile to support him. It has been telling how few of the party's big hitters have leapt to his defence. In a sense ditching Kennedy is a decision by default to get on with the ideological battles rather than have a leader who ignores and rises above them. I suppose only Ming can now steer us in the right direction without triggering a split.

It is a great shame, but Kennedy is now doomed. As Gladstone said of Parnell. 'It'll na dee'.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Revolt of the classroom swots?

When Abraham Lincoln was told of complaints about General Ulysses Grant’s drinking, he is reputed to have said: ‘Find out what Grant drinks and I’ll send a case of it to all my other generals.’ These days, sadly, thrift and sobriety win out every time over eccentric brilliance.

Jonathan Calder (or rather Lord Bonkers) rates the 11 Lib Dem MP signatories of the letter of no confidence in Charles Kennedy as ‘Not a bad side, though the tail looks a little long for comfort and we may regret the absence of a second spinner.’ In fact they are a team of Geoffrey Boycotts or Gary Kirstens, but wihout the brilliance of a Botham or Flintoff.

Put another way they are all hard-working, earnest and worthy but a bit dull. One can well imagine them being exasperated by one such as Kennedy who can be wayward but has a charisma that they lack. It’s a case of ‘Please Miss, Charles is messing about again and distracting us. You should make him stand outside, Miss.’ Given that the Brent East by-election was one of Charles’s finest hours, Sarah Teather’s signing the letter smacks of ingratitude.

For Charles to have had a chance of survival it needed more ‘big hitters’ to come out loudly and clearly in his defence. Although Lembit Opik did well on television last night, that’s not quite the same thing. I suppose his team will now work overtime this weekend to convert begrudging supporters into keen loyalists and opponents into begrudging supporters.

It may help to point out that any successor will now have their leadership soured by the public perception of them as the beneficiary of a brutal and unnecessary act of political disloyalty.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Nice to see you... points mean prizes

It has taken me a while to recover from the new year. Not due to over-indulgence but rather the Daily Express front page headline, glimpsed in a fellow shopper’s basket in Sainsbury’s, which read ‘It should have been Sir Bruce’.

This was a reference to the entertainer Bruce Forsyth, who apparently received a CBE in the new year’s honours list. Someone in the Daily Express clearly believes this should have been a knighthood.

I remember an article many years ago in the Spectator by Auberon Waugh about a woman who committed suicide partly in reaction to the news that Forsyth was returning to our television screens. That may have been an overreaction! But had he been knighted I can well imagine that many Britons would have felt driven to make the ultimate sacrifice out of shame and embarrassment.

Charles Kennedy on Today

Charles Kennedy came out fighting this morning on the Today programme. He was on sufficiently good form to make anyone wonder what the fuss is about.

For those of us outside the bubble, it is hard to know what to make of it all. Clearly there are enough people at the top sufficiently exasperated with Charles for it all to have become an issue: this wouldn’t have blown up as it has if it was just a couple of would-be leaders getting impatient.

On the other hand, I can’t help feeling that some people expect the Lib Dem leader to by hyperactive as Paddy Ashdown was in trying to get the party into the headlines. So they find Kennedy’s laid-back style frustrating. But Kennedy seems to go down well with the electorate precisely because he does not appear as a politician on the make and doesn’t behave as though politics is everything.

My problem with Kennedy is that he tries to rise above the internal party debates, indicating that he sort of agrees with the Orange Book crowd, but wants to avoid antagonising those who disagree. Here I think he does need to show leadership. In my view the future of the party must lie with the Cleggs, Laws, Daveys and Oatens, because there can be no future as a major player for a party that simply calls for taxation and public spending to be always just a little bit higher than whatever they happen to be now.

Kennedy is seen as less ideologically driven than some of those mentioned above. He has a chance to nudge the party firmly in a more distinctively Liberal direction, while avoiding the kind of ill-feeling that would arise if an Orange-Booker took over now!

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Smoking behind the bicycle sheds

Jonathan Calder deals here with the issue of 12-year-olds being prescribed nicotine patches and whether parents should be told about this.

The different branches of the state seem to give out very mixed messages about parenting. On the one hand we have parenting orders, parenting classes, ASBOs and ABCs, all of which are designed to put greater responsibility on parents for the conduct of their children. Parents can even be prosecuted for their children's truancy from school.

Then another branch of the state, in the form of GPs, counsellors etc, will withold information that parents need to know if they are to carry out their responsibilities properly. This controversy mirrors those concerning under-age children having abortions or being prescribed contraception.

While I don't have empirical evidence for this, I suspect that children who smoke or regularly have sex under-age are more likely to get into trouble in other ways – truanting or shoplifting, for example. Parents should be treated as responsible adults so that they can be aware of problem behaviour in their children and takes steps to put it right – after all they would be expected to sign a piece of paper if their child was in detention at school. On a more prosaic note, I wonder how effective nicotine patches will be if children end up taking them off when they go home in case their parents find out.

As a society we seem unsure whether parents are part of the problem or part of the solution when it comes to children's behaviour. We blame them when their children are out of control but at other times treat them as objects of suspicion.

Of course it stands to reason that if professionals have genuine evidence to make them suspect a child will be at risk if they share a certain piece of information with parents, they should be allowed to use their discretion. But surely the presumption should be in favour of adult solidarity.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Acts of love and war

Although I opposed the war in Iraq, I couldn't help feeling uncomfortable about this both at the time and since. I think it's because of the rather strange company one finds oneself in as an opponent of the ward. Listening to the much hyped Christoper Hitchens vs George Galloway debate I found myself cheering on Hitchens. I have no sympathy with the strand of leftist thinking that simply opposes everything America does, even if this means lining up with religious fundamentalists. At the same time, I have some respect for those such as Hitchens who have been consistent in supporting the Iraqi secular left, even though I think the war was profoundly wrong.

In the book I have been reading over Christmas, 'The People's Act of Love' by James Meek I found a quote that perhaps sums up my view. It is a novel set in Siberia during the chaos of the Russian Civil War in 1919, in a town has been occupied by a Czech legion (this really did happen for reasons too complicated to explain here) and which is inhabited by a religious sect that believes in castration.

One of the characters comments:

'In London and Paris and New York they see the Reds as an anaarchic, destructive, turbulent menace which demanded to be controlled. Here in the dark forest, looking into the cirlce of lights, Mutz saw only a new order, a new empire, coming to take its place among the old, and how he wanted to be inside the circle, and not outside, with the maneaters, handmade angels, narcophilic visionaries and Bohemian warlords.'

This sort of sums up my view. Much as I would like to be with the Nick Cohens, Christopher Hitchens and Oliver Kamms setting the world to rights in the name of democracy and progressive politics, the reality is that their vision ends not in order but in anarchy. Like them I hold no truck with totalitarianism and dictatorship but with some reluctance accept that it is simply not in the power of the western democracies to create peace, order and harmony through military force.