Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Claire Ward MP fails "honesty booth" test

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Forced conversion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Kennedy - my part in his downfall

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Simon

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

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

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

Too early to tell…

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

For liberty, against freedom

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

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

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

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

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

Not too taxing

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

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

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

Local difficulties

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

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

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

Monday, September 18, 2006

I'm in print

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

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

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

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

A doner kebab supper

At conference one ends up eating badly and irregularly.

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

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

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

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

And the winner is...

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

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

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

What is it with 'Liberator'?

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Brighton here we come

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 15, 2006

Raymond Baxter dies

BBC News report here.

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

Those John Freemans in full

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Leader resigns after nine years in government…

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

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

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

Condensed blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 08, 2006

A glimpse of Blair the socialist

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

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

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

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Will Brown be the loser in the long-run?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 01, 2006

The laws of man and the laws of God

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

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

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

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

Homeopathic remedies to be licensed as medicines

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

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

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

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