Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Fostering illiberalism

Stephen Tall has beaten me to exposing Don Foster's ill-considered and illiberal response to the announcement of Manchester's successful bid to host the first regional super casino.

I have often complained about the tendency of some Lib Dem spokespersons to be more nannyish and anti-fun even than New Labour. Foster is among the very worst offenders, previous transgressions being attacking the rail industry for not installing CCTV in all stations and the hysterical scaremongering in 2005 about the effects of the Licensing Bill.

One further absurdity of his reaction is the attempt to invoke local choice to defend a centralist policy. One reason he gives for opposing any further super casions is that they are 'against the... concerns of many local communities.'

Yes, Don, but not necessarily against the wishes of the communities that submitted bids to host super casinos. Otherwise they wouldn't have bid, would they now? And those local communities that are against super casinos can just decide not to bid. It's called local decision-making. It's something the Liberal Democrats are supposed to be in favour of, along with individual freedom. Don Foster evidently either doesn't understand or doesn't much like either concept.

Sidmouth wreck reminiscences

As the MSC Napoli salvage operation gets under way, I note Rod Liddle in last week's Spectator reminds us of the last notorious wreck on the Sidmouth coast. Back in 1974 a hovercraft sank after trying unsuccessfully to gain access to Sidmouth harbour. As Liddle puts it:

As the craft flapped pointlessly in the surf, many yards from shore, a magisterial figure in a smart suit emerged from within its bowels and waded, with steadfast expression and immense resolve, through the waves, a look of destiny upon his face. People looked on in amazement and trepidation. For it was the Right Honourable Jeremy Thorpe MP — and he’d come to do a spot of canvassing.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Belated Burns' night thoughts

I failed to post on the 300th anniversary of the Union and on Burns Night. For the latter I plead the effects of a heavy cold that meant neither haggis nor whisky was consumed.

As I sign off again for a few days, I would merely encourage readers to look at this article by Michael Fry writing in a recent edition of Prospect. Fry advocates independence for Scotland, largely because it would create a real political debate and ideological choice north of the border.

It has long struck me that it is an odd political system where three of the four largest parties are centre/left and essentially collectivist, as is the case in Scotland. While I am sure that the Lib Dems have done good things in coalition, the most frequently trumpeted achievements - free care for the elderly, abolishing tuition fees and a smoking ban - may be worthy enough of themselves but are not really distinctively Liberal policies.

So without necessarily agreeing, I see Michael Fry's point.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

That adoption row: Christian morality or thinly-veiled bigotry?

It is not so very long ago that a significant proportion of the population would have accepted, at least as an aspiration, the view of most Christian churches that sex was something that should happen within marriage, meaning heterosexual marriage. Views on sexual morality have changed – and a good thing too. By not altering its teaching to move with the tiems, the Roman Catholic Church has come to appear at best anachronistic, and at worst bigoted. Even most practising Catholics have moved on and their views on divorce, gay and lesbian rights, contraception and abortion tend to have more in common with non-Catholics than with the Pope.

And yet, like it or not, Christianity is part of national life. Christian organisations have a long tradition of doing humanitarian and philanthropic work, so the notion that they cannot follow the Church’s teaching in so doing. I can see how it might feel that Christian organisations are being prevented from following Christian morality in the way they work.

For me, as a Liberal and a Catholic, I can understand both sides’ point of view. The question is whether the Church is genuinely concerned to abide by the tenets of its own teaching or whether it is just engaging in a sly bit of homophobia. If the former then no doubt the Catholic adoption agencies refuse to give babies for adoption to heterosexual couples who are cohabiting or where one or both parties have previously been divorced.

If the point is that these agencies exist to find Catholic homes for Catholic children then just possibly it’s fair to allow them to discriminate in favour of couples who are within a marital unit that the Church recognises. Otherwise it might be difficult to bring the children up as Catholics.

If it is just same-sex couples who are being singled out, then the churches’ moral case falls to the ground.

Nil nisi bunkum

I was uncomfortable with the overly fulsome tributes the other week to Loyalist leader David Ervine, examples aplenty here. So I was pleased to read a typically forthright ripose from Ruth Dudley Edwards here.

One of the sad things for me about media coverage of the Northern Ireland peace process is the way that reporters are so indulgent of those with nasty paramilitary pasts, so long as they can master inclusive language and Guardian speak.

Had a former Alliance Party leader died suddenly, it is hard to imagine that they would have received the kind of eulogies afforded Ervine by the great and the good, nor the same level of media coverage. And yet the likes of John Alderdice or Oliver Napier have devoted their lives to opposing sectarianism and promoting peace.

Ervine's political party had negligible political support and his terrorist organisation failed to disarm. But because he managed to sound like a Guardian editorial, Ervine is hailed as a great man of peace.l

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Today programme - alarmist and simplistic

Unusually this morning, I listened attentively to much of the Today programme. That is to say, I wasn’t either in a half sleep or rushing to get ready for work. A couple of the items, both presented by Sarah Montague, highlighted two of the things I dislike about the programme – its' love of alarmism and simplistic solutions.

When the person in charge of the anti-pollution work on the ship grounded off Sidmouth stated that the situation was under control, Ms Montague’s disappointment was almost audible. She spent the rest of the interview trying to get the interviewee to backtrack. The more reassuring he was, the more incredulous she sounded.

A couple of items later, she interviewed health minister Ivan Lewis about his campaign to improve the quality of food provided to older people in hospitals and nursing homes. I confess I hadn’t heard of Ivan Lewis before this morning, although he sounded a decent enough chap for a government minister. I have no idea how necessary his campaign is. I imagine that while most institutions responsible for providing meals to the elderly do a good job, there will be those who cut corners in the belief that the old folk won’t really notice. Which I think was broadly what Ivan Lewis was saying.

But Sarah Montague spent the interview sneering and hectoring – repeating a refrain about pensioners starving, demanding to know why the government hadn’t done anything about this before and why no more government money was being spent on meals for pensioners, as part of the campaign. Ivan Lewis asserted that the problem was not about resources and whether or not he was right, Sarah Montague offered no evidence to contradict him other than a shrill screech of 'No more money'.

The way the Today programme deals with issues like these makes it a positive obstacle to understanding. The programme presents all problems in public affairs are only really interesting for their potential for death and disaster. Their only possible solutions are tougher government intervention and more state spending. Although I suspect that the majority of Today listeners will be broadsheet readers, its approach is relentlessly tabloid.

The Castro follies

I am not normally one to praise the opinions of Conservative MEPs, but there is an excellent article by Daniel Hannan on Castro’s closing days in this week’s Spectator. Unfortunately this has now disappeared behind the magazine’s firewall but really keen readers can always nip out and buy it.

He highlights the rival madnesses that seem to afflict western attitudes towards Fidel’s regime. On the one hand many people on the democratic left regard Castro as a hero for standing up to America. As former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby put it:

One of the earliest lessons I learned as NS editor was that many readers regard Castro rather as Telegraph readers used to regard the late Queen Mother, and
that harsh criticism of the Cuban president would lead to threats of cancelled

When challenged about the repressive nature of the Castro regime, western Fidelistas will point to Cuba’s amazing healthcare system, as though healing the human body is an acceptable substitute for destroying its spirit.

On the other hand, without the sheer folly of the American blockade, it is pretty much impossible to believe that the Castro regime would have lasted so long. Castro has survived on being able to present himself as a patriot opposing American domination. Because Florida is a swing state, no presidential regime has had the courage to stand up to the Cuban exile population in Miami.

The regime in Cuba will struggle to survive Castro’s death for long – only American pig-headedness could possibly save it.

As I was only just saying…

...Expect a long gap. I didn’t expect it to be quite this long, but it’s harder to start blogging again once you have stopped than to keep going when you’ve started. Let’s see how it goes this time.