Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween and the Caledonianisation of British culture

Jonathan Calder bemoans the increased celebration of Halloween at the expense of bonfire night, something that he sees as an example of 'creeping Americanisation'.

However, when I was growing up in north-east Scotland in the 1970s, Halloween was widely celebrated, as much as, if not more than, bonfire night. I remember that my grandmother, a Dundee Catholic, did not really agree that Guy Fawkes was such a baddy.

My memory of Halloween being traditionall well-celebtrated in Scotland is supported by some of the postings in response to this article by the historian David Cannadine. I prefer to regard the rise of Halloween as an example of the 'Caledonianisation' of English culture, which I see as a very good thing.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Why I'll be supporting England tonight

Despite being a Scotland supporter, I have just about talked myself into backing England in tonight's rugby world cup final.

My reasoning is as follows. Last night's third place play off, in which Argentina convincingly beat France, was excellent for its own sake, showing the coming of age of a rugby nation outside the traditional eight 'founder nations'. But it also means that if Argentina beat the French by 24 points, whereas they only beat Scotland by 6, then clearly the Scots are 18 points better than France. By contrast England only beat France by 5 points, which makes Scotland 13 points better than England.

So, by my reckoning, if England win tonight then morally that makes Scotland world champions - something that I am sure Jason White and Co will confirm in next year's Calcutta Cup match in Edinburgh.

Friday, October 19, 2007

There should be a referendum on the EU treaty

Both Lib Dem leadership candidates have rejected a referendum on the new EU treaty within the last 24 hours. I can't help feeling that they are making a mistake.

However limited the terms of this particular treaty, there is a wider problem of democratic legitimacy surrounding the EU. Even if we blame the Sun and Daily Mail, we have to deal with the reality. The EU is all too easily portrayed as a conspiracy political insiders and wire-pullers against the wishes of the public.

It is surely time that pro-Europeans in all parties turned round and confronted their opponents. It would be far better than the present course, which seems to be to snigger privately about how UKIP-types are all bonkers and to avoid talking about Europe publicly if at all possible.

A day of reckoning on Europe cannot be indefinitely postponed. Nick Clegg has said that this is a "modest" document that does not need a referendum. Chris Huhne said much the same thing on television last night. But it's very modesty is why pro-Europeans should want a referendum. This is the best chance for a "Yes" vote to prevail. If the public can't be persuaded to vote for something so innocuous then that must be faced up to not dodged.

I can well imagine that if the Tories were in power, they would have ended up negotiating a very similar treaty and also that a Labour opposition would pander to populism and called for a referendum to destabilise the Conservatives.

In short, no progress can be made on the evolution of the EU without the public having their say and endorsing a way forward. This treaty is surely the best opportunity Europhiles will get for a referendum victory.

So I would encourage Nick and Chris to think again and quickly. Supporting a referendum would be both the correct and the popular position for the Lib Dems to take.

A Neo-Con defends inheritance tax

I always like it when people come out with arguments you wouldn't expect given their general political outlook. So I enjoyed this defence of inheritance tax in The Spectator from right-winger Irwin Stelzer.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Was it baldness not oldness that did for Ming?

During the 1964 general election, Alec Douglas-Home was told by a make-up artist that he would never look good on television because he had a "head like a skull".

In the television age no bald party leader has ever won a general election. Michael Foot. Neil Kinnock, William Hague and Michael Howard join Douglas-Home in the ranks of baldies who have lost. Iain Duncan-Smith never got as far as a general election. In each case there may have been sound political reasons for their failure, but the fact remains.

Mark Oaten is known to have questioned whether the Lib Dems would elect a bald leader. They did, but poor Ming Campbell has had to bow out early too.

It’s hard to believe that John Smith would have lost to John Major in 1997, despite his shiny pate, and I don’t remember him being considered untelegenic. Perhaps it was because he had a pleasing oval-shaped head.

Much was made of Ming’s age, but was this really the problem? Had Paddy Ashdown still been in the Commons and returned for another stint as leader after Kennedy resigned, it is hard to believe his age would have been such an issue. He is older than Ming, but still has a fine head of hair.

Paradoxically, I wonder whether the fact that Ming is quite lean, fit and trim worked against him. It made him look thin and cadaverous on television. Perhaps if he had been a bit tubbier round the middle and chubbier in the face, he would have seemed a jolly gent and appeared easier on the eye, and less ghostly, on television.

Fortunately, this is unlikely to be a problem for any of the current contenders for the leadership.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Liberal Democrat News - too dull or too interesting?

Jonathan Calder takes John Pugh MP to task for an article on Lib Dem Voice in which the MP for Southport describes the party newspaper Liberal Democrat News as ‘tribal, patronising, [and] horribly on message’, but offers no suggestions for improvement.

While agreeing that Mr Pugh’s intervention is a bit gratuitous, perhaps I can expand the critique a bit, in a constructive sort of way.

First, it has to be said that producing in-house media (of which LDN is an example) is always a difficult job. Having at one stage in my working life edited a magazine (well, glorified newsletter really), I know that you have to toe the official line and too much (or indeed any) iconoclasm or against-the-grain opinions can cause no end of trouble. Even humour can be tricky, with the risk of appearing to poke fun at the organisation you are supposed to be promoting.

But even so LDN is a bit dull. It’s not just to flatter Jonathan that I say that the only bit I regularly find worth reading is the House Points column and since he kindly publishes that on his blog, I often fail to open the envelope that LDN arrives in.

My top suggestion would be to have more interesting columnists on the back page, rather than the various party worthies who occupy it now, usually to puff their own achievements. Both Tony Greaves and Tom McNally used to exasperate me, when they wrote the back page columns, but at least they provoked a reaction other than boredom. There are some good writers in Lib-Dem blogland. Let the two past blog-of-the-year winners James Graham and Stephen Tall take turns writing the column, perhaps alongside Andy Mayer or Linda Jack to name two others who are never less than interesting.

Then perhaps it could carry a few more human interest features about people in the party other than the usual roll-call of MPs etc. Or events in the party other than local by-election wins and constituency dinners. For example, maybe more could have been made of the Liberal Democrat History Group’s ‘greatest Liberal’ competition before the result was announced. And perhaps there needs to be more guidance to writers to avoid sounding too on-message so that it reads a bit more like a newspaper and less like a piece of publicity material.

There, those are a few suggestions. For all I know they might even have been done already and I haven’t been paying enough attention to notice. But they might just get me opening the LDN envelope with a little more enthusiasm.

However inevitable Ming's decision may appear, I think he was wrong to go

For once I may get my blog post in within hours rather than days or weeks of the breaking news, although I see that are plenty of Lib Dem bloggers have beaten me to it.

The general tenor of comments from Lib Dems has been that this was inevitable. Apparently, however honourable, liberal and intelligent Ming may be, his leadership has not connected with the public and he just had to go.

It isn’t clear at this stage how far this was his personal choice and how far it reflected the groundswell of opinion among Westminster village Lib Dems or even party activists. It’s done now, the decision has been made and clearly can’t be reversed. But for what it’s worth, I think Ming was wrong to resign and that those who have called for him to go have tendered unwise advice.

With the sole exception of Charles Kennedy, every post-war Liberal (or Lib Dem) leader has struggled in their first couple of years in charge and has failed to increase the party’s number of MP at their first election as leader. Most have presided over a net loss of seats. One reason why Kennedy bucked the trend might have been because he was already a sort of celebrity MP, but the main one was that in 2001 the Tories (our main rivals for Parliamentary seats) were very unpopular and appeared to have a death wish.

Which brings me to the key point. Liberal Democrat advances tend to come when one or both of the other parties is one or more of unpopular, extreme and disunited. Tory weakness normally gives us a particular high. At a time when both the main parties are making a dash for the political centre, the Tories have a new leader who at least appears human (unlike the previous three) and Labour have a new prime minister who has until recently been enjoying a honeymoon period, things are inevitably going to be difficult. Both parties are trying to invade the other’s territory and are trampling over ours too.

So, progress during this parliament is likely to be hard-won and at times we have to dig in and avoid being driven back. Any leader is going to find it hard going. Particularly so as the last few weeks have been a set piece battle between Labour and the Tories. At a time like this a leader like Ming, who has experience and good political judgement, was what we needed. But the added advantage was that if we did well at the next election, he could take the plaudits and hand on the baton, if did badly he could bow out at what would seem the natural end to a political career. Whichever way, he would not be unduly damaged.

Instead, the pressure will be on a new leader to produce a dramatic turn-around, even though he or she will have the same problem as Ming in having to struggle for media attention and face tough questioning when they do get coverage. If they don’t produce a dramatic rise in our poll ratings, or increase the number of Lib Dem MPs at the next election, they too will face media stories about whether they will resign, the whole saga starts over again and a promising career will be brought to a crashing halt.

In short, the current political climate is going to be hard for us, regardless of who the leader is and for reasons we can’t control. I was grateful that Ming had taken on this difficult assignment, which he was carrying out with dignity, and thereby protecting the next leader, Clegg, Huhne, Davey or whoever, so that they could take over at a point when the political landscape might open up for us again. This really was not the moment to change leaders.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Harriet Harman insults our intelligence

I have always found Harriet Harman a particularly irritating politican. I think it has something to do with her patronising tone of voice that seems to say: 'I am both more intelligent and have better intentions than you. So if you disagree with what I am saying you are either a knave or a fool.' It's a quality she shares with other prominent Labour women, Margaret Jay and Patricia Hewitt being prime examples.

Ms Harman was at her worst with the announcement on Question Time last night that she thinks Parliament not the prime minister should have the power to call elections. She delivered this opinion with the aura of gravitas as if making a great concession. Yet of course we all know that in practice even if Parliament did have the final say, it would amount to a vote of no confidence by government MPs if they were to vote against a prime ministerial request for a dissolution. It's the sort of thing that might lead to them being deselected.

So Harriet Harman's proposal is just another piece of New Labour spin - designed to appear statesmanlike, but in fact signifying nothing. It's Harriet Harman letting us know she thinks we're all stupid. A pity that the BBC reported it as though it were a serious story.

"They had better give it to me now before I popped off"

I was impressed by 87-year old Doris Lessing's cantankerous reaction to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. After claiming that the Nobel Prize judges had told her in the sixties that they didn't like her, she comments:

"So now they've decided they're going to give it to me. So why? I mean, why do they like me any better now than they did then?"

and adding

"They can't give a Nobel to someone who's dead so I think they were probably thinking they had better give it to me now before I popped off."

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Pumas non plus...

...Or at least not tonight.

I have enjoyed seeing Argentina beating France and Ireland on their way to reaching the quarter finals. One of the problems with rugby as a world sport has been its dominance by the 'traditional' nations, so it is good to see another nation crashing into the big league.

But I draw the line at supporting anyone against Scotland. On the basis of performances so far, the Scots need all the help they can get, even if only by my efforts at telepathy through the television. I might have felt a little more phlegmatic at the prospect of a Scottish defeat, had it not been for England qualifying for the semi-finals. I can never be happy at England doing better than the Scots.

So I will brave the awful ITV coverage, thankful that at least it's Martin Bayfield not Jim Rosenthal presenting and hope for a Scotland win in the knowledge that whoever qualifies for the semi-final, I will be supporting them.

Off downstairs now!

Friday, October 05, 2007

Belated National Poetry Day Celebrations

There are lots of posts I intend to make on this blog, but to which I never quite get round. But this one sets a record in being a year and a day late.

It was National Poetry Day yesterday, something I didn't spot until it was over. A shame because I intended to mark it with a posting, indeed with a posting I meant to make the same time last year.

The day before National Poetry Day 2006, I found myself on Coventry Railway Station. I had been visiting my grandfather who was seriously ill and who died just a few weeks later.

On a plaque on the platform for London bound trains, I spotted the first stanza of Philip Larkin's 'I remember, I remember', which I confess to not having read before. Sadly, it was partially hidden behind a Virgin Trains noticeboard.

It is a sad poem and the the circumstance in which I became aware of it was sad too, not to mention it being a cold, dark autumn evening. But happily, while Coventry may have brought back unhappy memories for Larkin, for me the site of signs for Coventry, the city of my birth, always gladdened the heart for it meant a visit to doting, and in turn much loved, grandparents.

I Remember, I Remember

by Philip Larkin

Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and, watching men with number plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
"Why, Coventry!" I exclaimed. "I was born here."

I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been 'mine'
So long, but found I wasn't even clear
Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed

For all those family hols? . . . A whistle went:
Things moved. I sat back, staring at my boots.
'Was that,' my friend smiled, 'where you "have your roots"?'
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started:

By now I've got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn't spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family

I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
'Really myself'. I'll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,

Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and 'all became a burning mist'.
And, in those offices, my doggerel
Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read
By a distinguished cousin of the mayor,

Who didn't call and tell my father There
Before us, had we the gift to see ahead -
'You look as though you wished the place in Hell,'
My friend said, 'judging from your face.' 'Oh well,
I suppose it's not the place's fault,' I said.

'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.'