Saturday, February 25, 2006

Ken suspension nonsense

One way of cheating at this blogging lark is not to write one's own opinions but just point readers to another article one agrees with.

In this case rather than write at length on the nonsense of Ken Livingstone's supsension as Mayor of London, I am happy to point readers to Alex Wilcock's posting on the subject at Love and Liberty , with which I agree wholeheartedly.

Also there was a good piece (follow 'Listen again' links on the Today programme this morning in which Steve Hitchens of Islington was interviewed about his own battle with the Standards Board.

Holocaust denial and the frailties of the media

Finding myself on the opposite side of a debate from Alex Wilcock (see comments on previous posts) gives me pause for thought and before moving on to pleasanter matters I will try to bash back a couple of the objections to my arguments and perhaps even end on slightly conciliatory note.

First it is a myth to think that exposure to public debate automatically exposes dishonest or fallacious arguments. In reality figures who don’t play by the normal rules, such as Irving or representatives of Northern Ireland paramilitary groups, frequently get the better of interviewers on radio or television. Listen carefully next time a Sinn Fein spokesperson is interviewed on the Today programme if you don’t believe me.

There are a number of reasons for this and for present purposes I’ll stick to the Irving example. Irving’s dishonesty and lack of scholarly standards were only fully exposed several decades into his publishing career, through the work of a team of scholars, led by Professor Richard Evans, who produced a report several hundred pages long as part of Deborah Lipstadt’s defence case. This exposed how Irving systematically manipulated source materials to exonerate Hitler and present the Jews in a bad light and ultimately to deny the holocaust. During the course of the trial Evans, under cross-examination from Irving, ended up refusing to accept without referring to the original source, any quotation made by Irving from documents that were before the court. The judge was initially exasperated by this insistence but as the sheer scale of Irving’s misquoting and attempted manipulation of evidence became apparent, he became rather more understanding of the difficulties faced in dealing with Irving’s modus operandi. Nothing Irving says about Nazi Germany can be relied upon.

Such things may be brought out in a long trial, but they make poor television or radio. As a result, Irving will get a better deal than he deserves from broadcast interviews. There are various scenarios that present themselves. He might be interviewed by a John Humphrys type, whose detailed knowledge of Nazi Germany will inevitably be far less than Irving’s. The interviewer will be in no position to spot or expose Irving’s lies and distortions. Or the broadcasters might persuade one of the few expert historians whose knowledge is as detailed as Irving’s to debate with him. But there are problems here too. The format for such things is that the presenter acts as neutral referee between two antagonists who are presented as having equally valid viewpoints. I doubt if any programme would open by saying ‘In the studio we have Professor X representing genuine historians and right-thinking people everywhere and David Irving, proven charlatan who is known for spreading a message of hate against Jewish people.’

And that, I suppose, is why a Richard Evans would not want to go on the Today programme to debate against Irving. The latter speaks confidently, with an air of authority and comes across as an avuncular, old-fashioned English gentleman. Any historian debating him on air would have to be very sure of their own broadcasting skills. Next, debates are normally conducted between intellectual and moral equals. Any reputable historian who agreed to debate Irving would be implicitly conceding a degree of parity between him and them. The listener/viewer is therefore presented with two scholars disagreeing, rather than a historian exposing the lies of an intellectual fraud. And lastly, to agree to debate with someone is to agree that there is a point at issue that is worth discussing. Debating with Irving gives the impression that there are two legitimate points of view: one that the holocaust in its essential details with which we are familiar happened, and one that it didn’t. This again concedes ground to Irving.

As a result of all these things, media exposure for Irving does not result in him being subjected to the full glare of intellectual scrutiny and revealed as a fraud, but rather affords him credibility. I say all this not to advocate censorship, but to say that those of us who defend free speech have to be aware that it is not all a bed of roses.

Which brings me on to my final, and I hope more conciliatory point. Ideally, perhaps, holocaust denial should not be a crime and I don’t see any need to make it illegal in Britain. Indeed on a purist Millite reading, maybe we should permit total free speech unless it is direct incitement or conspiracy to commit criminal acts. But in response to specific contemporary or historical circumstances, even democracies that uphold free speech will have difficult issues to confront at the margins. Even for Millites it is hard to judge at exactly what point someone is indeed ‘shouting "Fire" in a crowded theatre’.

For (serious, not silly) reasons, to do with its history and the need to protect its democracy from a far-right resurgence, Austria does have laws against holocaust denial. Irving deliberately breached such laws when addressing a far-right rally many years ago. He knew that by making his recent trip to Austria he might well be arrested. It was a deliberately provocative act, in which Irving took a gamble that he would either not be prosecuted or not be convicted and in either case he would have a major propaganda coup. Instead the Austrians held their nerve and Irving is now in prison. Given the situation the Austrian authorities found themselves in and the resurgence of overt holocaust denial in various parts of the world, I am convinced that they chose the lesser of evils. In this case, I can’t bring myself to regret the verdict or sentence. In the circumstances a failure to act by the Austrian authorities would have been worse. Much worse!

POSTSCRIPT: Irving himself of course goes to great length to suppress free speech by exploiting Britain's draconian libel laws to threaten legal action against historians who dare to criticise him. Even after the Lipstadt case, Richard J Evans had difficulty finding a publisher for his book based on his report presented at the trial, because of the risk of Irving suing. Possibly by adding to Irving's disgrace, the Austrian courts will, paradoxically, enhance free speech for genuine historians by making it easier for them to publish the truth about holocaust denial.

Friday, February 24, 2006

David Irving - not just an 'idiot' but an evil man

During my 20 years as a Liberal Democrat activist, I seem to have spent a lot of time (metaphorically-speaking) patrolling the border between libertarianism and authoritarianism. I have frequently taken fellow Liberals to task for being highly selective in their defence of liberty.

So it comes as something of a shock suddenly to find the boot is on the other foot, as has been the case over the David Irving trial, conviction and sentence. It’s not just that fellow Lib Dems are taking an ostensibly more libertarian position then me on this. On last night’s BBC1 Question Time, only one of the five panellists defended the action of the Austrian court. The mood of the audience was clearly against the conviction too. Overnight it seems I have transformed from arch-defender to arch-infringer of free speech. And all this without in any way changing my own views.

Suddenly finding myself at a point on the spectrum to which I am unaccustomed provokes a bit of soul searching. But this only reinforces my opinion and makes me worry about fellow liberals and democrats who wittingly or otherwise blind themselves to the precise nature of the menace of holocaust denial.

I have already posted extensively on this subject, both here and in comments at Forceful and moderate . I would encourage readers interested in this subject both to follow up the links already posted and to read this article from last week’s New Statesman.

To reinforce my earlier post, I would merely add the following.

While in principle one would like to support absolute free speech short of direct incitement or conspiracy, in reality societies have to respond to specific circumstances. I fail to see any moral difference between our own laws against inciting racial hatred and laws against holocaust denial. I have seen it argued that the former can only be used where violence has ensued. But even if this is true, the offence remains the same and the effects of such hate-speech beyond the offender’s control. It is perhaps worth remembering that Irving’s offence was committed via a speech at a far-right rally. He was not prosecuted for the content of his books.

Austria has laws against holocaust denial, precisely to stop a recrudescence of far-right politics, given that Nazism is part of the country’s past. Although I don’t think that a law against holocaust denial is necessary in Britain, I can see why it has been considered so in Austria.

Since that Austria has a law against holocaust denial and Irving deliberately travelled to Austria to provoke and test the nerve of the authorities there, it was the lesser of evils for him to be prosecuted and convicted. It would been far worse if Austria had been seen to chicken out of the prosecution – that really would have handed a propaganda victory to Irving. In the light of the furore over Jorg Haider's Freedom party, Austria would have been roundly criticised if it had failed to prosecute, while Irving would have been free to tour the broadcasting studios crowing at his victory.

Paradoxically, I would feel much more comfortable with the argument that Irving should not have been prosecuted if journalists, broadcasters, bloggers etc. actually took the trouble to understand the precise nature of Irving’s message of hate and to condemn it. If people writing about Irving could at least be bothered to use the word ‘disgraced’ in their references to him, as they would with Jeffrey Archer or Jonathan Aitken, that would be a start.

From the exchanges at Forceful and Moderate, I detect further signs of this tendency to view Irving as an essentially harmless eccentric – like the fascist leader Roderick Spode in the Bertie Wooster novels. References to him as a ‘pretty rubbish historian’ or an ‘idiot’ miss the whole point. His message of hate is that much more insidious because conducted via footnotes rather than jackboots and conducted by a man wearing a Saville Row suit rather than a Nazi uniform. Irving is not simply expressing an opinion. He is peddling a proven lie that can only be intended to whip up hatred towards the Jews.

This is not an academic issue. Had Irving not been convicted, his next gig would no doubt have been the holocaust conference in Iran, where holocaust denial is officially sanctioned alongside presidential remarks that Israel should be wiped off the map. In certain countries in the Middle East the notorious anti-semitic forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is widely read as if a genuine historical document. Antisemitism is threat that we cannot lightly discount or regard as mere eccentricity.

Irving is a malevolvent, dangerous and evil man. He is not a harmless buffoon. I would encourage those who for genuine reasons lament the decision of the Austrian court on the grounds of free speech at least to acquaint themselves with the poisonous nature of Irving’s life and work and to recognise that even as he sits in his prison cell, he is far more to be scorned than pitied.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What is 'social liberalism'?

I read John Harris’s report on the leadership contest in today’s Guardian. Harris approvingly quotes Simon Hughes thus:

What's at stake in the party… "is whether we remain a party committed to greater equality and narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, or whether we become a party like some of the liberal parties in Europe - moving more to the right, seeing it more as a free-market party. But as it happens, the most extreme supporters of that view are not in the contest."

Being an old-fashioned Labour supporter whose core beliefs have never evolved beyond ‘public sector good, private sector bad’, Harris will no doubt approve of this sort of thing.

But I can’t help feeling that those who stress their ‘social liberalism’ and take sideswipes at the Orange Book need to put up or shut up. What exactly do they believe?

Nobody seriously argues these days that in a global economy we can go in for Keynesian demand management, let alone socialist planning, within tariff walls. We have to work within economic constraints. I am sure that even for Vince Cable and David Laws the question about higher taxes for higher earners is not whether it is in principle right, but whether it will actually do more harm than good.

I have never seen a decent explanation of what those who describe themselves as ‘social liberals’ actually advocate as a Lib Dem economic policy, other than dewy-eyed sentimentality about the public sector and nostalgia for the days when it was possible to believe that higher taxes automatically led to better services.

Or to put it another way – does support for ‘social liberalism’ and rejection of ‘economic liberalism’ amount to anything more than a refusal to accept the world as it is?

Junk email

While I was away at the weekend someone sent me an email message with a huge attachment that clogged up my inbox. As a result a whole load of messages bounced back to the sender including one from David Steel in support of Ming's campaign and has created a stir over at Liberal England .

The first thing that occurs to me is why the Ming campaign has used Steel and Shirley Williams for their last-minute email messages to members. I would have thought that most people who would be influenced by either of them would already be voting for Ming. Instead, I would have tried to find Ming supporters from the more radical wing of the party to woo those members who consider Ming a bit too establishment.

The second thing is that while everybody loves Shirley there are many Lib Dems, including myself, who would be actively put off by a message from Steel. It's not so much the way he facilitated the creation of the SDP, rather than just encouraging Roy Jenkins to join the Liberals.

It's more that during the eighties, when the both the Tories and Labour left a huge gap in the political centre, Steel abdicated all intellectual leadership and missed a real opportunity for the centre party. Because he took no interest in policy or philosophy, he allowed David Owen to set the agenda for the Alliance. Because he failed to understand the significance of the failure of the 1974–79 Labour government, he didn't understand Thatcherism nor have any idea how to react to it. As a result he failed to move the thinking of the Liberal Party forward and allowed it to become a bit of an intellectual desert.

In an article in liberator a couple of years back I outlined at greater length my views on the horror of Steel's leadership.

Irving belongs in gaol

Amid trying to catch up with correspondence after a weekend away yesterday's verdict and sentence in the David Irving trial passed me by.

I suppose as a free speech zealot I should lament the verdict and sentence on Irving and defend his right to express his opinion, however repulsive. Yet on balance, I applaud the decision of the Austrian court and believe that Irving has got what he deserves.

Here's why! Even free speech purists admit of some limit to freedom of expression – at the very least when it comes to direct incitement to criminal activity. In Britain we have laws against inciting racial hatred and few people in mainstream politics argue that they should be repealed. Presumably the rationale for such laws is that racial hatred denies people's humanity and leads to racial violence and ultimately to murder, war and even genocide.

If holocaust denial isn't incitement to racial hatred, I don't know what is. It means saying that the murder of six million Jews and the attempt to wipe out the Jewish race entirely are matters of no importance, events that we can all simply pretend didn't happen and wipe from the historical record. In fact many holocaust deniers don't claim that no Jews at all were killed by the Nazis but that somehow they brought what happened upon themselves and have exaggerated the number of victims for political gain.

Were a group of pseudo-scholars in Britain and America, with support from far-right groups, to start arguing that the slave trade was a fraud invented by black people to gain better housing and affirmative action policies, I think we would have rather less difficulty in accepting that this was not a case of putting forward a minority viewpoint, but a deliberate attempt to create racial hatred.

I would have more sympathy with free speech purism in this case if I had some confidence that journalists would be a bit less indulgent to Irving. For example, I note that the BBC website persists in describing Irving as a 'historian' rather than, say, Nazi apologist or, if you want something neutral, 'writer on historical subjects'. (I am grateful to James Graham for drawing attention to Ann Atkins' disgraceful reference to Irving as a 'significant historian' on this morning's Thought for the Day).

The term 'historian' implies, or ought to, a degree of scholarly integrity, respect for sources and commitment to truthfulness that Irving's work entirely lacks. So much was proved by Professor Richard J. Evans' famous report on Irving's work during the Irving vs Lipstadt libel case. This showed that while Irving wrote on historical themes and, like historians, carried out research, he was a liar and falsifier who systematically manipulated evidence in the service of his anti-semitic and pro-Nazi opinions. He was a propagandist not a scholar.

Sadly, I suspect that there is a section of British intellectual society, largely to be found on the political right, who regard Irving as a largely harmless eccentric and possibly a useful corrective to political correctness. Such people criticised the Lipstadt libel case verdict as an infringement on Irving's free speech, overlooking the fact that it was he who had sued. For an example of this school of thought see the article published by the right-of-centre historian Sir John Keegan on the outcome of the libel case.

The whole point of Irving's life and work is to promote racial hatred of Jewish people by implying that the Nazis' attempted genocide is of no consequence and the lives of six million people were of no value whatever. The Austrian court has reached the right decision.

POSTSCRIPT: I recommend Professor David Cesarani's opinion piece in today's Guardian.

League against Patricia Hewitt

On 26 January I wrote here of my fear and loathing of health secretary Patricia Hewitt arising from the blend of scorn, condescension and pity that characterised her tone of voice whenever she responds to criticism of government policy.

It is good to know that I am not alone. In Saturday's Scotsman, Joyce McMillan asks:

What is it, I sometimes ask myself, about Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary? As a feminist, I salute the brains and determination that have taken her to her present eminence. As a social democrat, I can only admire the years she has spent, in and out of parliament, working for good causes to do with human welfare and equality…

before adding that

every time I hear her voice or see her face on televison my freedom-loving soul begins to rebel. It's something to do with that ineffable tone of we-know-best do-goodery.

Unfortunately the full text of this article is not available online unless you pay the Scotsman lots of money.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Today Programme impersonates The Sun

I switched on Radio 4 this morning and found myself listening to a broadcast version of The Sun.

The Today Programme this morning carried an interview with Bill Jenkins, the natural father of Billie-Jo Jenkins, whose foster father Sion Jenkins was acquitted of her murder last week.

Understandably, Mr Jenkins’ is a man tormented. Not only has he lost a daughter in horrendous circumstances but he must also feel guilt at the circumstances that led to his daughter being fostered and anger that this did not lead to her safety. On top of that, such closure as might have been afforded by Sion Jenkins’ conviction has now been removed by his ultimate acquittal. He feels that the court reached the wrong decision last week.

One can hardly blame him for feeling angry and bitter. What is disgusting is the Today programme’s exploitation of these emotions to enable Bill Jenkins to leave listeners in no doubt that he regards Sion Jenkins as guilty and the court verdict as wrong. Of course the programme was not brave enough to let him say this in so many words and exposte them to the risk of legal action. The reporter Sanchia Berg more or less allowed Bill Jenkins to present the judge’s decision on admissibility of evidence and jury’s failure to convict as bizarre and perverse without challenge. Even such ‘difficult’ questions as were posed were put in an essentially sympathetic manner.

Most despicably of all, however, the item finished a statement that Sion Jenkins had been invited to discuss these issues but had declined, a tactic that carries ‘so what has he got to hide’ implications. Actually Sion Jenkins has had a chance to discuss the issues at three lengthy murder trials, at the end of which he was acquitted. Perhaps he feels he should not now have to tour the radio and television studios protesting his innocence, when the court has already decided the issue. At least the Sun last Saturday had the excuse that it was reporting genuine emotions felt by those closely affected in the immediate wake of the decision. The Today Programme has no such excuse for its contemptible behaviour.

I say all this not because of some macarbre interest in a horrendous murder, but because in its way the reaction to this case is all part of the assault on jury trials. In effect the media have tried Jenkins again and pronounced him guilty. Even after emotions have had time to cool, the Today Programme resurrects the lynch-mob mentality. The folk memory of this case will be of a guilty man getting off Scot-free, whatever the reality of the evidence presented to the court. I am not hearing any prominent voices vigorously defending the integrity of the legal process.

Split decision at St Albans hustings

Posting late at night, my brief thoughts on the St Albans hustings.

Huhne well ahead on the speeches. Ming, who was clearly suffering from a very bad cold, made up considerable ground on the questions. No clear cut winner in my view. Others I spoke to varied in their assessments from a narrow win for Ming to a clear-cut one for Chris.

This suggests to me that when Ming is allowed to be himself he is very good indeed. When he is playing a tune called by his handlers he is less convincing. The Ming camp appears to have what you might call an attitude problem. Ming may be unwell – those accompanying him have less excuse for giving the impression that his visit is a chore for them and an honour for the audience. And I say this as a Ming supporter!!

Huhne scored a hit with many colleagues by getting there early and appearing keen to talk and listen to the members. Apologies if I sound like a stuck record but was disappointed to see that the Huhne is quoting praise from Polly Toynbee on his leaflet. Is it really wise to cite the support of someone who vocally supports another party and is clearly not any kind of a liberal?

Simon was, well, Simon – excellent at times, at others plugging his silly two-deputies idea.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Bird of liberty challenge

Tonight I will be going to the St Albans leadership hustings less to hear the candidates and more out of uxoriousness since my dear wife is going to be in the chair, keeping the chaps in order.

I don't really enjoy hustings meetings, which are too dry and worthy with predictable questions and very few good jokes. Perhaps we should have a hustings in the style of Reeves and Mortimer's 'Shooting Stars' with the candidates competing in the 'vibrosprout challenge' to see who becomes leader.

Part of me is tempted to find some particularly annoying, offbeat or surreal question to liven things up, but I suspect I won't catch the chair's eye.

Chris Huhne's secret vice

Peter Wilby's new media column in the New Statesman, which he started after stepping down as editor a few months ago, has been consistently outstanding: original, informative and funny.

This week he deals with the Sion Jenkins case, criticising the character assassination of Jenkins in the press following his acquittal. One of the good things about Wilby as a commentator is that while many of his contemporaries appear certain of everything, he acknowledges his own doubts and mixed feelings. He explains why the NS under his editorship was the first to publish an article arguing Jenkins' innocence yet was not sufficiently convinced to run a fully-fledged campaign on the issue.

Of perhaps more interest to Lib Dems, Wilby reveals Chris Huhne's secret vice. It seems that in the early 1990s Polly Toynbee's favourite Lib Dem had 'an uncontrollable passion for the Exchange Rate Mechanism or ERM'.

At the moment this piece is mysteriously not listed on the NS website. I will add a link if it appears.

Last gasp

Forceful and moderate puts the Liberal case against the smoking ban.

I can't bring myself to feel as strongly about this as once I might have done. But there are perhaps two reasons why I continue to be against the smoking ban:

1. It is a measure entirely dreamed up by professional campaigners – groups such as ASH which essentially get government money to lobby the government about new legislation. In 15 years as an elected representative, during which time I must have knocked on thousands of doors at election time, I have not had a single ordinary voter raise the issue of a smoking ban with me.

The pressure for this does not come from publicans, those who drink in pubs, catering or bar staff, most of whom I suspect would be happy to live with the current arrangements in which market forces are increasingly dictating a greater presumption in favour of non-smoking areas in public places.

2. I suspect there will be unintended consequences, in particular that small village pubs or backstreet boozers, which are dependent on the custom of a few regulars for survival, will lose enough of their clientele to drive them out of business. Then exactly the same people who supported the smoking ban will lament the loss of important local facilities that are at the heart of local communities.

My vote would have been to leave things as they are! In the end I am instinctively against banning things!

Labour cynicism over 'glorifying' terrorism

I see from the BBC News headlines that the House of Commons has voted to overturn the Lords' rejection of the new offence of glorifying terrorism.

I heard Charles Clarke on Radio 4 yesterday morning unconvincingly attempting to defend the government's position. The giveaway was when the interviewer asked how such a law would affect gable-end murals on both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland. Clarke dismissed this comparison as 'simply absurd'.

In these two brief words Clarke reveals the sheer cynicism of the government on this issue. The whole point of the loyalist and republican murals is to glorify terrorism (or armed struggle or whatever). The idea that they are not is 'simply absurd'. Yet the government would not dream of enforcing such a law in Northern Ireland and tearing symbols of support for paramilitary organisations, let alone prosecuting those responsible for them. That would upset the fragile 'peace' that reigns in the province.

In other words the glorifying terrorism clause is not to be fearlessly and impartially used against any manifestation of support for terrorism. Rather it is little more than a way of putting artificial distance between the British political parties in the hope that Labour can then use any future atrocity for party advantage.

Don't get me wrong here! I am sometimes exasperated by those on the left, whether in its extreme or liberal varieties, who play down the threat of terrorism and the particular difficulties that tackling it poses for democratic societies. There is a tendency on the left always to believe (whether out of naivety or cynicism) that terrorism can be easily cured by some simple change in policy by western governments.

But over this issue it is the government which is most worthy of opprobrium for exploiting the fear of terrorism to boost its own popularity. Fortunately, the feebleness and vacuity of Clarke's arguments gives me hope that the tactic won't work.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Ming best on balance

So far this blog has avoided anything more than tangential references to the leadership election, although particularly attentive readers might have spotted my name in the list of Ming supporters on the Campbell campaign website.

I imagine most readers who reach this site will already have come across the three extended essays (shortly to be published in paperback as part of a commemorative three-volume box set?) by Alex Wilcock at Love and Liberty. That is the post to read for those still making their minds up. For the closest approximation to my own views see Joe Otten’s posting in support of Ming.

From my own partisan but nonetheless fairly detached vantage point, I offer my own thoughts on the leadership election. So much has been written in Lib Dem blogland on this, that I apologise in advance if what follows includes some unintentional plagiarism.

First, I can’t help feeling that the members are missing out through the absence of Nick Clegg’s name from the ballot paper. I am not the first person to say this, and others who are now backing Huhne have hinted at the view that while Huhne has shown guts and leadership, Clegg has chickened out. For me, it’s quite understandable that someone who has just been elected to parliament feels that they need to learn the ropes and risk being torn apart if they go too fast too soon. But given that Huhne has stood after a few months in Parliament I would have preferred to have had the choice of Clegg as well. I would almost certainly have voted for him.

On to the actual candidates. Simon at his best is great at the inspirational speech that renews our enthusiasm and reminds us of why we fight for the Liberal cause. But he is not really a party leader and I have not seriously considered supporting him this time. It isn’t the disorganisation (a quality on which I can empathise with him) or the vicarish earnestness. I do think, however, that his failure to make an impact in the London mayoral contest was a significant failure.

There are a couple of interrelated problems with Simon. First, although he is a star platform orator, Simon achieves his inspirational effect by speaking in uplifting generalities and dealing with safe issues that his hearers will agree on. It is a quality he shares with the late (and much missed) Conrad Russell. Simon is altogether less convincing when being interrogated on the detail of difficult issues. One of his most annoying habits is behaving as though the point of any interview is for him and his interlocutor to find common ground and that each will assume the best of one another. This is what led to faux pas like the notorious Radio 4 phone-in programme during the 1992 general election campaign. In a way the reasons why Simon won’t do as leader are entirely to his credit as a human being – but nonetheless, he won’t do!

Huhne is a different matter altogether. At various points during the campaign I have had to remind myself of the reasons I am not supporting him. There is much in his message that is appealing, particularly on localism and the environment. He is the intellectual heavyweight among the three contenders. And when I see listed among his supporters many Liberal Democrats with whom I most closely agree about policy and philosophy, I begin to feel tempted.

Yet I am not going to support Huhne. The reasons why were perhaps best summed up by his performance on Question Time last week. As Margot Asquith said of F.E. Smith ‘very clever but sometimes his brains go to his head’. I am reminded that Clinton, who was perhaps the brightest and best-educated of American presidents, was clever enough to realise that looking too clever is rather dumb if you are hoping to have popular appeal. Chris does not appear to have learned this lesson. Of course all this may be a masterclass in triangulation where Huhne, having wowed the Lib Dem activists with brilliant mind, once elected starts wearing dark glasses and playing the saxophone to show his common touch. As things stand, I can see that Huhne will have a great appeal to thinking Lib Dem activists. Unfortunately, most of the electorate don’t fall into this category. I was also concerned that he was the most gung-ho of the leadership contenders for a smoking ban, denying that it posed a dilemma for Liberals. I have spent years bemoaning the contrast between Lib Dems’ commitment to liberty in the abstract but enthusiasm for banning things. Huhne strikes me as suspect on this. And, lastly, I was out of sympathy with Huhne’s contribution to the Orange Book, which struck me as excessively enthusiastic for international military intervention in the world’s trouble spots.

Which brings us on to Ming. I am not an uncritical fan – far from it. I disagreed with him profoundly on cosying up to Labour, and fear that he pays lip-service to localism and to the party’s local government base. However, he gets my vote for a number of reasons. He is a good liberal – sound on civil liberties and the core liberal issues, and the least collectivist of the three candidates. The policy direction he sets out shows that he has a wider political worldview than just foreign affairs and that he is willing to embrace the ideas put forward by some of the younger members of the parliamentary party.

He comes across as an engaging personality who speaks with authority, but also with a nice sense of humour that will go down better with non-committed voters than would Huhne. I have also heard Campbell speak in the past about the need for Liberals to be ‘cavaliers’ rather than ‘roundheads’ and that appeals to me too. I realise that the ‘banners’ versus ‘permissives’ debate is fairly peripheral, but it is important to me and Campbell seems more on my side in this than Huhne.

So Campbell it is then. Of course in any contest such as this, one’s choice will end up being on balance rather than a matter of fundamentally disagreeing with the candidates one is not voting for. For me Hughes has an engaging personality but not the intellectual gravitas to be leader. With Huhne it is the other way round. Campbell has both. That is why I will be voting for him.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Guilty even after being found innocent?

At the newsagent this morning I noticed the Sun's screaming headline labelling the former deputy head teacher Sion Jenkins, who was acquitted this week of murdering his foster daughter in 1997, a coward for refusing to accept its challenge to take a lie-detector test to prove his innocence.

The saying is ‘innocent until proven guilty’ but this seems to be a case of guilty even after being found innocent. Perhaps more worrying than the Sun’s reaction, which was pretty much par for the course, was the Guardian’s front page headline on Friday: ‘Jenkins: the allegations of violence the jury never heard’ – these being accusations that he beat his wife and daughters.

I can’t claim to have followed this case closely. From what I have gleaned, however, Jenkins does not come across as a particularly sympathetic character, although people seldom do if they come to public attention through being accused of a particularly vile child murder.

But he has now been tried three times for this murder. On the latter two the jury did not reach a guilty verdict and he has now been acquitted. The forensic evidence that resulted in his conviction in his first trial was discredited, leading to the verdict being overturned. Whether or not we warm to him as a human being, Jenkins is entitled to be regarded as an innocent man.

The evidence that the jury did not get to hear was not directly relevant to the case. While clearly it was not in Jenkins’ interests for it to be heard by the court, the fact that it wasn’t means it can now be repeated without him having the chance to refute it in court. But even if he is a wife- and child-beater that doesn’t make him guilty of murder. Surely it should still be the case that people can only be found guilty of murder if there is enough evidence to convict, them rather than if they seem a thoroughly bad lot who should be kept in prison on a ‘better safe than sorry’ basis.

This case seems to me to highlight a worrying trend in attitudes to our criminal justice system, which is epitomised by the government’s periodic attempts to change the judicial process to get a higher conviction rate for certain offences. Acquittal in a controversial case can no longer be explained by the suspect’s innocence, but instead must be a sign of perversity on the part of the judge or jury.

The journalist Bob Woffinden, who has campaigned on cases of miscarriages of justice, wrote in the wake of Jenkins’ original conviction that:

A handy rule-of-thumb for determining whether a correct verdict has been reached at a trial is this: the dodgier the conviction, the greater the smear job conducted immediately afterwards. If someone has been properly convicted, the police do not need to gild the lily when briefing the press. In this case the prosecution pulled out all the stops in its character assassination.

Certainly, after the original trial the press printed a series of stories accusing Jenkins variously of paedophilia and falsifying his cv. Now after his acquittal his character is being smeared again, with information that can appears to have come from the police.

However much or little sympathy one might have with Jenkins, this point is that if he is guilty of murder he should have been convicted by a jury and sent to prison. Now that he has been acquitted he should not be re-tried and deemed guilty by the press.

Poison Prescott

We Liberal Democrats have had to endure being the butt of satirists' jokes over the past few weeks, at least until the Dunfermline result was announced. On Radio 4's News Quiz, which is recorded on a Thursday evening, the panellists had much fun at our expense, but the witty asides seemed curiously dated by Friday when the programme was broadcast.

Labour, meanwhile, in the twilight years of Blairism appear almost beyond satire. Take John Prescott's speech to the party's spring conference in Blackpool, which apparently had the assembled delegates laughing like drains.

According to the BBC News website

Adopting a comedy "posh" voice, he mocked "Dave" Cameron, "David to you and me" - and his privileged background - "Just an ordinary lad from Eton".

As opposed of course to '"Tony" Blair, "Anthony Charles Lynton Blair to you and me" - "just an ordinary lad from Fettes".

Maybe my sense of humour is letting me down here, but for me this sums up all that is unpleasant about the Labour Party. Aneurin Bevan once notoriously described the Tories as 'lower than vermin', although he later apologised. But I suspect that somewhere deep down in the psyche of the Labour Party is the belief that their motives and intentions are so much better than everyone else's that no jibe at their political opponents can ever be too far below the belt.

How else do we explain why Labour delegates great with hilarity a speech mocking an opposing party leader for having a privileged background, a public school education and an abbreviated forename in contrast to their own leader who has er… a privileged background, a public school education and an abbreviated forename?

Curse of Toynbee

I like to think that posts on this blog are well-considered and thoughtful ruminations on issues of the day – which is perhaps why readership figures have been so low lately.

So some readers, especially younger ones who don't read the Guardian, may have puzzled by my wild-eyed denunciation of one of that newspapers best-known columnists in yesterday's post. I would encourage them to follow this link to see the curse of Toynbeeism at its worst and this excellent deconstruction of it by the world's favourite Liberal Democrat blogger.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Time for a jolly good gloat

Many Liberal Democrats will find themselves unable to wipe the smile from their face after last night’s excellent victory in the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election.

In the last week or so, when I heard of just how much was being put into the campaign, I did begin to think that this was a lot of effort just to make sure of coming second, but I doubt whether any of us who didn’t get to Dunfermline actually believed we could win. This is a sparkling return to form for the Lib Dem by-election team after the disappointment of Hartlepool. Willie Rennie is a thoroughly good thing and has the right knowledge and experience to be able to build on the victory and have a long tenure as MP.

The real reason, though, that a bit of gloating is in order is the glib way in which opponents and media confused our ephemeral embarrassments with long-term decline – see for example Iain Dale’s 28 January posting on his blog.

Sex scandals and the like are fun for opponents and uncomfortable for supporters of the party who see one of their leading figures exposed in the tabloids. But they don’t last and appear to have little impact on the voters.

At first glance, Labour are the main losers from Dunfermline and West Fife, but in fact the Tories finishing fourth have most to worry about. The Conservatives have yet to put in a convincing by-election performance as the main opposition party. Since Labour took power, the Lib Dems have had three by-election gains from Labour, one from the Tories and two near misses. No one would seriously have expected the Conservatives to win this seat, but for a party that seriously hopes to win the next general election, the least they would have wanted was significant swing in their direction, perhaps overtaking the SNP and/or us.

Unlike in 1970 and 1979, the voters getting tired of Labour isn’t going to mean victory falls into the Conservatives’ laps. All the more reason for Lib Dems to take the battle to both of them.

Huhne campaign in freefall

Yesterday’s YouGov poll appeared to give a significant boost to the Huhne campaign, putting the apparent outsider as the front runner, four points ahead of Ming Campbell.

What a difference 24 hours can make. This morning the Huhne campaign is all-but dead in the water after the wretched and appalling Polly Toynbee, that epitome of the illiberal centre-left, supported his candidature in her Guardian column today. A proud advocate of the nanny state, Toynbee stands for the kind of top-down, experts-know-best politics that Liberal Democrats should be against. Hilaire Belloc’s quip, originally said of the Webbs, that ‘Running the poor is their hobby’ could have been invented for Toynbee.

Suffice to say that any Liberal Democrat leadership candidate that she endorses must be regarded with some suspicion by true liberals. I’m not sure how those impeccable liberals, Calder and Graham, the nice cop and tough cop respectively of Bloggers for Huhne, are going to explain how they have ended up in such unwelcome company.

Meanwhile, I suspect that the Huhne campaign will have to act quickly to arrest the haemorrhage in support among Guardian-reading Liberal Democrat members that will inevitably follow Toynbee’s endorsement.

POSTSCRIPT: I notice that at least one Huhnite blogger has spotted the danger facing his candidate and already fired off a letter to the Guardian.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

If voting changed anything they'd abolish it

Last night the BBC was reporting government plans to scrap the the local government elections in 2007, pending another round of local government reorganisation. This would cover elections for pretty much every shire district in England.

The idea is that the government's white paper, due to be published in June, will provide for county councils and shire districts to be abolished and replaced with unitary authorities with populations between 250,000 and 1,000,000. Because these will be fairly large authorities there is also talk of some ill-defined neighbourhood governance, which the minister David Miliband is supposed to be very keen on.

Miliband is considered to be an advocate of localism within the government, but I can't help feeling that this will actually be a step backwards for local government. Councillors and officers alike spend too much time bemoaning the problems of the two-tier system, without a thought for the shortcomings of the alternative. Although the two-tier system certainly has its irritations, at least now we have districts that are usually but not always based on recognisable communities and a higher tier based on historic counties.

This will then be replaced by larger authorities, which have neither common history nor a sense of community identity. Either this will make local government and governance more remote from the people it serves or it will be necessary to re-create the two-tier system through a stengthened network of town and parish councils, thus defeating the whole point of the reorganisation.

So a set of proposals intended to make local government both more local and more efficient will, I suspect, fail on both counts. In turn local authorities that are not based on recognisable communities will be less popular with their citizens (as were the 'artificial' counties of Avon and Cleveland), which will in turn by used by governments in the future as a reason not to trust local authorities with more powers.

Sadly, I doubt whether the powers that be within local government recognise this threat, let alone have the will to fight it.

Ballad of the yellow berets

I don’t want this blog to become an extended plug for the New Statesman, but Peter Wilby in his excellent media column captures much of what I feel about the cartoons furore.

There have been a number of reasons why the rate of posting on this blog has slowed down over the last few days, but among has been a subconscious nervousness on my part. On the one hand there is the temptation to assert boldy and fearlessly my own secular liberal views on free speech. On the other, I am not just an individual who publishes a blog but a Liberal Democrat councillor and group leader in a multicultural town on an authority which we control.

Free speech must be defended, but of course it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We bloggers don’t have editors to tone down our more outrageous statements or to spike our more ill-advised articles. So rather than run the risk of a few badly-chosen words get misinterpreted and cause trouble in my own backyard I allowed myself to be occupied with other things. There! I feel better for admitting it. Perhaps Wilby’s article helps me to salve my troubled conscience.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Tatchell on Hughes

There was an article by Peter Tatchell on Simon Hughes in last Thursday's New Statesman. My eyes were initially drawn to the griping about the Liberal campaign (see this blog passim), which was all based on hearsay. So I was planning to have a go at Tatchell. But on reading the whole article I found it was actually fair-minded and generous.

It's not available online (unless you pay), but this week's edition of the NS is pretty good and probably still available in the shops for another couple of days.

POSTSCRIPT: The NS online manager informs me that it is available online here. If you have already read an article on the site the same day this won't work, but otherwise it should be

Frank Hadden – my choice for Lib Dem leader

Apologies to the doughty band of regular readers for the lack of posts in recent days. I had intended to spend last evening updating the blog to take my mind off what I expected to have been a heavy Scottish defeat at the hands of France in the Six Nations Championship. Instead Scotland gave the performance of their lives against the mighty French and gained a famous victory, so I was too busy celebrating to blog.

Scottish rugby has been through a tough time lately – a lot of internal bickering led to a loss of confidence and the dramatic ousting of the former national coach. The team appeared to have missed an opportunity to compete on the same terms as bigger and stronger rivals. Competition against a revived and rejuvenated team in blue (France) threatened to spell disaster.

However, the new coach Frank Hadden united the players behind him, encouraged them to be bold, to play with confidence and take the fight to the opposition with gloriously successful results. It strikes me he is just the man to lead the Liberal Democrats. He is a Scot, like many former Liberal leaders, and a former schoolteacher – a profession much worshipped by Lib Dem activists. He has a nice, wry, self-deprecating sense of humour. I have no idea of his political views and it might be quite tricky to find a by-election in a safe seat but Hadden's the man.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Show some respect, minister!

Earlier this week we learned of a Labour press release from Home Office minister Hazel Blears blaming Watford Borough Council for a recent outbreak of criminal and anti-social behaviour on the town’s Sherwoods estate. Youths have started congregating in a local subway and a few weeks ago they drove a car there and torched it! According to Ms Blears the local authority by not installing CCTV, rather than the young people themselves, is responsible.

It may surprise some that the minister is able to take time out from her busy job to comment on a relatively small issue in a small corner of our small town. Fortunately she didn't waste too much time - while she did manage to visit Watford, she made her comments from the comfort of the Labour Club near the railway station, rather than the Sherwoods estate itself, a couple of miles away.

The reason for her comments lies in Watford’s electoral politics. This May will see the town’s second election for a directly elected mayor. Four years ago Watfordians voted in a Liberal Democrat mayor and council, bringing to an end 30 years of Labour rule at the town hall. Last year Labour narrowly retained the parliamentary seat, against a strong Lib Dem challenge. Locally, there is no love lost between the two parties. So this is just a piece of electoral skirmishing.

The irony is that Watford Borough Council, under a Lib Dem mayor, has been singled out by the government for praise for its pioneering work against anti-social behaviour. Our local community safety partnership is a part of the Home Office’s TOGETHER campaign. We have our fair share of ABCs and ASBOs, although as good Liberals we make sure these are accompanied by measures to encourage changes in behaviour. Hazel Blears also takes us to task for not funding police community support officers (PCSOs) but (a) surely these are police personnel who should not be funded by district councils and (b) Watford already has one of the highest budgets of any district council for discretionary services that contribute towards tackling antisocial behaviour. And in this instance, along with partner organisations, we are funding CCTV to address the problem.

There are two worrying aspects to the minister’s intervention. In the first place, unless the government really believes that the entire public realm should be covered by CCTV, it stands to reason that young people intending to misbehave will simply avoid places where there are cameras to catch them. While cameras will help to make this particular spot safer, they are not a panacea.

More important, though, is the message about the behaviour itself. Hazel Blears comes very close to letting those who make others’ lives a misery though anti-social behaviour off the hook. It’s music to the ears of miscreant teenagers if the grown-ups start bickering over whose fault their bad behaviour is. The logical extension of Ms Blears' comments is that young people who terrorise a neighbourhood can’t really be to blame if the local authority has not installed CCTV and there are no PCSOs patrolling the area.

If the respect agenda is to mean anything it should be a closing of ranks by society against the terrorising of vulnerable by an anti-social minority. If it simply a matter of parties bickering over the installation of security cameras then that lets the perpetrators off the hook and renders the whole debate pretty worthless.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Well done MPs

A busy few days at Watford Borough Council, during which time we have, among other things, passed a budget with a 1 per cent council tax increase - which will probably prove one of the lowest in the country.

So I didn't manage to comment on the vote in the House of Commons on the Religious Hatred Bill and now other Lib Dem bloggers have said it all!

One of the particularly unpleasant characteristics of New Labour is sanctimonious humbug. So they promote a measure that was quite obviously designed purely to win back to Labour Muslim voters who were alienated by the war in Iraq, while pretending this is somehow about justice or equality.

The bill effectively sacrifices Enlightenment values in the cause of electoral expediency. The notion that organised religion should be above scorn, satire or criticism belongs in the Middle Ages not the twenty-first century. I say this as a semi-practising Catholic and (with some reservations) a defender of the church against many of its secular critics.

When the last Pope died, some commentators tried to prick the bubble of 'de mortuum nil nisi bonum' by saying that his stance on contraception was responsible for the deaths of millions of Africans. Quite an accusation and if putting Catholics on a par with practitioners of genocide isn't religious hatred I don't know what is. I would defend John Paul II with entirely secular arguments, but would not for a minute say that the criticism should not be levelled or that there is not a case to answer or that Catholics should somehow be protected from these accusations.

For the reasons why society stopped persecuting people for attacking religion, see the case of Thomas Aikenhead , executed in Edinburgh in 1697 for, among other things, claiming that 'theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense'.