Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Underdogs 2: Montrose FC

One of the delights of my childhood was the occasional visit to Links Park to watch Montrose FC, then, during the mid-1970s, enjoying the most successful years in their history, including finishing one spot off gaining promotion to the Scottish premiership.

Having moved down to Watford, I never had occasion to go back to Montrose and watch the 'Links Park Dynamo' again. But a few years ago, visiting old haunts, I was disappointed to see that the ground had changed out of recognition since the 1970s.

To my delight, therefore, I have found a series of short videos showing Scottish football grounds in the 1980s. Possibly I am the only person in the world (or at least outside Montrose) who is interested in this, but just in case, here is the link. We used to stand in the terrace (now demolished) that ran along the side of the pitch.

Underdogs 1: George Harrison - This Song

In all things I root for the underdog, so naturally I have always believed that George Harrison was the true genius of the Beatles, and I have been rediscovering his solo output recently. To support my case, I cite this early (1976) video This song, a humorous response to being sued over his hit My sweet Lord's resemblance to The Chiffons' He's so fine.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Cruiser versus the tabloid bruiser

Why is it that when someone dies who was not quite in step with its editorial line the Guardian feels the need to trash them? It isn't big and it isn't clever and merely makes the liberal left look every bit as nasty and mean-spirited as the right.

The most notorious case was Polly Toynbee's attack on Auberon Waugh, which however wrong-headed of itself, at least had the merit of appearing heartfelt and reflecting a genuine clash between opposing styles of journalism.

There is rather less excuse for setting tabloid bruiser Roy Greenslade (editor of the Mirror under Maxwell and assistant editor of the Sun during the Falklands era) to flay the earthly remains of Conor Cruise O'Brien.

Mick Fealty of the Slugger O'Toole website commented on negative postings about O'Brien that 'the answer is not that people should not speak ill of the dead, but that people say something of value about them'. This is the test that Greenslade's piece fails. There is an air of the Guardian feeling that because O'Brien was an apostate from the liberal consensus, they needed a hired gun to dole out a verbal beating, even if it is as ill-informed as Greenslade's article.

He starts by describing the obituaries as a 'hagiographic outpouring', which I suppose they may be if you are a republican-sympathising tabloid journalist unable to recognise the subtleties of nuance and qualification in language. My reading of the obituaries, inluding the one published in the Guardian, was that while they were mostly respectful, as they should be to someone who had had such a long and varied career, few were unqualified by criticism.

On the substance of O'Brien's career, the best Greenslade can do is accuse him of 'flip-flopping', particularly over the partition of Ireland. Where to start here? I suppose some people may regard it as a damning indictment that over the course of 60 years, someone should alter their opinion at all on a given issue. Possibly Greenslade has never had occasion to change his 'mind' on anything. But given that O'Brien had engaged with Northern Ireland, its politics and history alternately as a historian, diplomat, politician and newspaper columnist, over several decades, it is no surprise that his thinking evolved, a concept that Greenslade clearly finds hard to comprehend.

In this case, the criticism is that in the 1940s O'Brien organised anti-partitionist propaganda, then became opposed to irridentist nationalism, then in the late 1990s 'he disavowed the very unionist viewpoints he had been prosyletising for'. At face value, hardly a case of serial flip-flopping, but even less so if we consider the reality. Greenslade article offers a link to the book he cites as justification for this claim, but in fact it just turns out to be the Wikipedia entry on O'Brien. Greenslade appears not to have read the book he cites, or if he has has not understood it, and gives no clear evidence that he even knows which one it is.

In his various publications including States of Ireland and Ancestral Voices (links given in previous posts) O'Brien explained how as a civil servant in the 1940s he conducted anti-partitionist propaganda. At the time opposition to partition was almost a given for anyone involved in politics or administration in the Irish republic. O'Brien realised that the propaganda was not doing much good given Unionist hostility to a united Ireland, but felt it was probably not doing much harm. When the Provisional IRA begin its armed campaign in the early 1970s he concluded that the prevailing anti-partitionism of the Irish state offered a kind of moral justification for the Provisionals and began to re-think his view of partition, defending the rights of Unionists not to join a united Ireland. In the late 1990s, fearful of excessive repulican influence in the peace process, and Sinn Fein gaining power in Northern Ireland and the Republic, he argued in his book Memoir: my life and themes that Unionists should consider whether they would stand more chance of sidelining Sinn Fein and wielding greater influence by joining a united Ireland. It was certainly not a case of returning to old-fashioned nationalism. So while his views hardly remained unchanged between the 1940s and 2008, it was more a case of his opinions evolving in response to the course of events (a practice supported by his hero Edmund Burke) rather than of constantly changing his mind.

Certainly he has been more consistent than republican apologists who made excuses for a quarter of a century of violence and thousands of deaths aimed at creating a united Ireland, only to find Sinn Fein accepting a partitionist settlement after all.

Next Greenslade attacks O'Brien for having the 'temerity' to complain about lack of free speech in Nkrumah's Ghana while denying terrorists and their apologists access to broadcasting airwaves in Ireland. Again, I suppose nuance is lost on Greenslade, although the rest of us might understand the difference between the general proscription of free speech in an incipient dictatorship and specific restrictions on organisations dedicated to overthrowing the state. (In the 1970s at least, the Provisional IRA regarded itself of the legitimate government of the 32 counties and did not recognise the 26-county republic.) Whether or not one agrees with O'Brien's solution to this (although the subsequent Fianna Fail government did not repeal his legislation), it is a genuine dilemma for any democratic government faced with a campaign of paramilitary violence.

Bizarrely, Greenslade claims that such restrictions helped to delay the peace process. While he offers no evidence for this, the implication is that if only people had understood republican arguments sooner, all would have been well. But of course the Provos only formally became part of peace talks once they had declared a ceasefire and on the basis of a partitionist settlement. Republican arguments of the mid-1970s bore little or no relation to the discourse of the peace process. In any case they were never lacking for 'useful idiots' in the British left and liberal media to plead their cause. One does not have to be an unswerving follower of the Cruiser to recognise this. Indeed the Guardian's own Northern Ireland correspondence has just written a book about it, Gunsmoke and Mirrors.

In a final display of petty-mindedness, Greenslade chooses to quibble about O'Brien's exact title when he worked for the Observer, nearly 30 years ago. Goodness knows, that there is enough to disagree with Conor Cruise O'Brien about. Even as a stong admirer of his, I might mention his Euroscepticism, regarding Islam as a monolithic force, support for George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, and his opposition to David Trimble's role in the peace process combined with a misplaced confidence that Ian Paisley would not do a deal with Sinn Fein, as examples of where I part company from him. (Although of course one should make allowances for his advancing years and declining health.)

There was certainly room for considered criticism of O'Brien amid the obituaries, but Greenslade's piece isn't it. It is best regarded as the homage that a bad writer unintenionally pays to a much better one. O'Brien's reputation is enhanced rather than diminished by Greenslade's attack.

PS: In the heat of the moment there I forgot to acknowledge Jonathan Calder for drawing my attention to the Roy Greenslade article.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

'We don't do relationships'

I never did quite get round to posting properly on the Haut de la Garenne case in Jersey, nor on the Haringey Baby P issue, as I had intended.

This article by Edinburgh University academic Mark Smith, on the Good Enough Caring website run by my father Charles Sharpe, sheds much light on the current difficulties faced by the social work profession and possibly therefore on both the aforementioned controversies.

It begins:

Having spent almost 20 years working in residential child care I now teach social work. I was horrified (although sadly not altogether surprised) when a student reported back from a field visit that she had been told by a children and families social worker, ‘we don’t do relationships anymore”. It wasn’t even said with regret apparently, just a statement of what the social work role had become.

On the death of Conor Cruise O'Brien

‘He was never afraid to take up unpopular positions, with the result that few ever agreed with him all the time’ was the verdict of Irish Labour party leader Eamon Gilmore on Conor Cruise O’Brien, who died on Thursday.

This is reflected in the ambivalence of many of the obituaries. The Cruiser defied easy ideological categorisation. As a former Irish Labour party politician and a member of that party when he died, he can be seen as a man of the left, the more so in the light of his championing of secular values in Ireland and his hostility to the influence of the Catholic Church. His career in the United Nations, and in particular his involvement in the Congo places him as an anti-imperialist. His long-standing opposition to the Irish republican movement is less easy to pigeonhole, but his strong Zionist sympathies, not to mention his support in his later years for George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, meant that he often drew more praise from right- rather than left-wingers. The more so in view of his later identification with Unionism and his opposition to the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

In truth, once he was freed from involvement in front-line politics in 1977, Cruise O’Brien was that rare thing – an intellectual who did not feel himself bound by the set menu of either left or right, but who was willing to think things out for himself and reach his own conclusions. That is what makes him difficult to pigeonhole and therefore why he is not being mourned as a hero of left, right or centre, however respectful most of the obituaries may be. Of course, some of the reactions to his death have not been respectful at all, and the virulence of some of the comments on, for example, the Slugger O’Toole website from republican sympathisers would no doubt have pleased him as much as the positive tributes. 'A man cannot be too careful in his choice of enemies', as O’Brien’s fellow Trinity College Dublin graduate, Oscar Wilde, once said

I hope that at least some liberals will shed a tear for his passing and more importantly should read his work, for however much we too will not agree with him on everything, there is much he has to teach us. In the first place, O’Brien was a scathing critic of nationalism and in particular of the dangerous cocktail of nationalism and religion. In Ireland he exposed how republicanism, even when dressed up in secular language, was closely linked to religious notions of blood sacrifice, which enabled its adherents to see themselves as being on a more profound moral plane than those forced to make the shabby compromises of democratic politics. He was particularly critical of ‘sneaking regarders’ - nationalists who formally opposed violent republicanism but nonetheless were ambivalent about confronting it. O’Brien’s critique of Irish nationalism was all the more powerful because he came from a strongly nationalist background, but the wider message is that we should look upon all national movements with scepticism rather than simply assume that national conflicts are a matter of victims versus oppressors and back the ones we regard as the good guys.

When he was a minister in the 1973–77 Fine Gael–Labour coalition, he was much criticised for extending the ban on representatives of and apologists for the republican movement appearing on state broadcasting channels. This was seen as compromising his liberal credentials and was criticised as an attack on free speech. Yet O’Brien justified it on the grounds that an organisation which did not recognise the legitimacy of the Irish state, formally claimed to be the legitimate government, and used violence in order to undermine the state, should not be granted access to the airwaves by the government which it sought to overthrow. In doing this, he tackled head-on the reality that free speech can never be an absolute and that democracies will in extreme circumstances have to protect themselves from their enemies.

Indeed, one of the threads that run through O’Brien’s writing, is that in general order is better than anarchy and that attempts to overthrow governments by violence generally leads to more bloodshed rather than greater justice. This led him, for example, not only to oppose the republican movement in Ireland, but also American attempts during the Cold War to destabilise hostile governments – he was a strong opponent of US funding of the Contras in Nicaragua during the 1980s.

It is perhaps no surprise therefore, that the historical figure with whom O’Brien most closely identified was Edmund Burke, the eighteenth century Whig reformer who became the earliest and most trenchant critic of the French revolution. His biography of Burke, The Great Melody, is a brilliant, though highly personal study of his fellow Irishman, which argues that in supporting reform of British rule in America, India and Ireland, while opposing revolution based on abstract theory, Burke was being consistent by objecting to abuse of power, no matter from which quarter it came. As I am inclined to think that liberals too easily cede Burke to the ranks of conservative thinkers, I would recommend The Great Melody to Liberal readers of this blog as a way of gaining an insight not only into the mind of one of the great thinkers of the eighteenth century, but also one of the most important public intellectuals of the twentieth.

It is the fate of writers of non-fiction that books go out of print very quickly, but for those who wish to understand the conflicts in Ireland over the last century in its emotional and spiritual as well as political dimensions, it is worth tracking down O’Brien’s States of Ireland, his response to the start of the Provisional IRA armed campaign and also Ancestral Voices, his later reflection on the links between religion and Irish nationalism.

If nothing else, at least read the obituaries, which are many and various, including those in the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Irish Times, The Times, New York Times.

There is also a very interesting interview from the 1990s in the UC Berkeley Conversations with History series on Youtube.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Coverage of Jersey in the press

Richard Webster's blog inlcudes an interesting discussion of the treatment of the 'murder inquiry that wasn't' in last week's press. He pertinently points out that

...the invocation of evil is too often used to justify all manner of shortcomings on the part of those who crusade against it. Because, in our own culture, we seem to have adopted child abuse as our ultimate evil, the assumption is frequently made that actions which are less than entirely scrupulous can be justified so long as they are aimed at defeating this evil.

While the conspiracy theorists are letting rip about cover-ups and the like, it is perhaps pointing out one more plausible explanation for the nature and timing of the police's announcment. A couple of weeks ago the Jersey Evening Post reported that defence lawyers for the two people so far charged as a result of the child abuse inquiry were arguing that their clients could not get a fair trial because of the media publicity about the case.

Perhaps the police hope that by separating the specific evidence in individual cases from the falsehoods of the 'House of horrors' media sensation they are more likely to achieve successful prosecutions in those cases where there is compelling evidence of abuse. Whichever way, the tactics adopted by Lenny Harper and his supporters have probably hindered rather than helped the victims of abuse and reduced the likelihood of bringing abusers to justice.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Jersey revelations should come as no surprise

At Spiked online and on his own blog, Richard Webster points out that the conclusions of Jersey police's recent statement 'could in fact have been reached by any journalist who had sceptically studied the evidence about Haut de la Garenne already in the public domain'.

Webster was of course responsible for exposing the falsehood of the police's original claim that a child's skull had been found at the former children's home.

I hope to post at greater length on this issue (when I get around to it, as the saying is), but suffice to say for now that given the horror we all feel about child abuse and the sensitivity needed to investigate it, it's best if the police don't go out of their way to encourage media sensationalism on the basis of (at best) suspect information.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Prescott, privilege and class prejudice

I have just finished watching the first part of John Prescott’s programme about class. Although it was at times both fascinating and quite moving, in the end I find Prescott’s chip on his shoulder about class, his visceral resentment of anyone who appears too posh or privileged, hard to sympathise with.

This was particularly so at the moment when he began sounding off at a teenage lad at the Henley Regatta who went to a private school. It turned out that the young man had two-thirds of his fees paid by the state because his father was in the army, at which point Prescott demanded to know why the government paid for the education of officers but not of other ranks. To which the obvious answer is ‘Well you tell us that John. You were in government for 10 years and in a better position than most to change it and you didn’t. You were the one with the power, not the young man you were berating.’

Prescott’s bête noir Simon Hoggart, who regularly made fun of the way the former deputy prime minister tortures the English language, is certainly not the archetypal toff that Prescott seems to imagine. His father, Richard Hoggart, may have been a university lecturer, but he grew up as a working class boy in Leeds and his most famous book The Uses of Literacy is a discussion of working class culture. I have heard Hoggart père speak (he received an honorary degree when I graduated from Leicester University many moons ago) and he doesn’t sound any posher than Prescott.

I suppose part of my irritation with Prescott is that I entirely lack the strong class affiliations that he has. I could with equal accuracy describe my antecedents as middle class (or at least petit bourgeois) business people or working-class factory hands. I could portray my own upbringing either as a privileged existence at prestigious private schools or a difficult one spent living on council estates and attending evening classes at a further education colleage to get into university. Whichever way, I am automatically suspicious of anyone who too obviously wears their class loyalty on their sleeve or who appears to judge people according to class.

One prejudice I do confess to, though, is against people who boast of not reading books, as Prescott appeared to do at one point in the programme. This is not something I have picked up from a supposedly privileged education, but from my four grandparents, and in particular from my maternal grandmother who left school aged about 13 virtually illiterate, yet whose voracious reading habits in the course of a long life have taken in most of the great works of literature. She has always taken a particularly dim view of people who can read but don’t.

Perhaps if Prescott had spent more time reading and less time talking he wouldn’t mangle the English language so much, and it is this latter point that is what really seems to bother him. Interestingly, it emerged that Prescott grew up in a private, semi-detached house and came from a rather less deprived background than that of his wife Pauline. Yet Mrs Prescott now speaks with a less pronounced accent than her husband.

Which puts me in mind of the story told about Henry Kissinger’s elder brother, who had entirely lost the distinctive Austrian accent that was so marked in his younger sibling. When asked why this was, the brother commented, ‘Unlike Henry, I listen to other people’. It would be unfair to say this was wholly true of Prescott. His meetings with the three unemployed young women from London revealed his genuine concern for the poor, an ability listen and to communicate with them on their level. But Prescott clearly judges people according to his perception of which class they belong to, and this is something I find unsavoury from whichever direction it comes. Perhaps that is one reason why I am a Liberal and not a socialist (or, for that matter, Tory.)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Why do Watford Conservatives refuse to condemn Ian Oakley?

This week’s Watford Observer states that the Chairman of Watford Conservative Association, Steve O’Brien, has refused to comment after former Conservative parliamentary candidate Ian Oakley received a suspended prison sentence having admitted 75 charges of harassment and criminal damage.

I have commented before about the bizarre silence of Watford Conservatives over the whole Oakley affair. The most charitable, albeit unlikely, explanation was that they were waiting for the whole legal process to be complete. Now there can be no excuse.

Just to be clear – there has been no official comment by Watford Conservatives on Oakley’s arrest, resignation, conviction or sentencing. They have not condemned Oakley’s offences, not expressed regret that these acts should have been committed by such a senior Conservative and not expressed sympathy with his victims.

There can now be no innocent explanation for the silence of Watford Conservatives. For avoidance of doubt, I refer to those who are in charge of the local Conservative Association. I am sure that ordinary Conservative supporters and members in Watford and elsewhere do indeed abhor what Oakley has done.

The official Watford Conservatives’ silence suggests ambivalence about the whole affair. It implies that they are not really sorry that Oakley did what he did, believe that at some level the Lib Dems deserved it and are not willing to condemn the criminal behaviour of a Conservative if there is any danger that this will give comfort to the Lib Dems.

The Conservatives no doubt believe, perhaps rightly, that the media attention has passed and the story will soon be forgotten about. But questions remain about Watford Conservatives, foremost among which are: what is their real attitude to using criminal methods for political advantage? and why do they feel unable to condemn Ian Oakley’s actions?

Until such questions are answered, Watford Conservatives will rightly remain tainted by the suspicion that they tacitly condone Oakley’s behaviour.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Is this Brown's Darlington?

Older readers will remember how in 1983 Labour's unexpectedly good result in the Darlington by-election extinguished any threat to Michael Foot's leadership, leaving him free to lead the party to its disastrous general election defeat in the same year.

The broadly positive reaction to Gordon Brown's speech at the Labour conference in Manchester might just about have saved his skin too - although Ruth Kelly's resignation won't help Brown.

As with 1983, the problem now is both about the leader and the party - changing leaders now might do some good but not much. Back then, if Dennis Healey had taken over as leader, he might have saved a few Labour seats, but not much more. The scale of the Foot disaster probably helped to make the more sensible members of the party realise that things had to change.

I note that back in 2006 this blog pointed out the many negative precedents for lieutenants taking over from long-serving and electorally-successful party leaders. Rosebery, Balfour and James Callaghan and Alec Douglas-Hume all led their parties to catastrophic defeats, Neville Chamberlain never got as far as a general election. Anthony Eden and John Major who did win general elections are hardly happy precedents either.

So the odds were always against a successful Brown premiership. Let's face it, if Brown had been good enough, he would have been chosen ahead of Blair in 2004 - he was older, more experienced and had greater intellectual depth. The fact that those who dreamed of New Labour New Britain went for Blair not Brown was an unequivocal vote of no confidence. Elevating Brown to the top job was a bit like a football team replacing a top striker with a dependable centre half.

The problem, however, is not just one of leadership. Despite fears among the political classes about the fickleness of the electorate, in fact at five of the last six general elections they have re-elected the governing party. This, too, is unprecedented. In the previous six elections, the incumbent government won just twice, and these - 1966 and October 1974 were snap elections called while Labour were still in honeymoon periods.

Of course, for much of the last 30 years the party in power has faced an official opposition that looked unconvincing, if not impossible, as a party of government. If we return to a period when both Labour and the Conservatives inspire doubt and confidence in equal measure then we are likely to see changes of power happen more regularly.

So Labour are probably best advised to stick with the devil they know. Brown has probably earned the right on the basis of past service to lead the party into the next election. One can't help feeling that the electoral tide has now turned against Labour and they will have to accept their coming defeat with dignity and try to regroup in opposition.

At least, that's what I would probably conclude were I a member of the Labour party. But of course I'm not, but rather a Lib Dem campaigner in a marginal seat where we are hoping to unseat a Labour MP. So instead, I will hope for the anti-Brown campaign to gather pace, a messy act of regicide, continuing bitterness and bad feeling, leading to catastrophic defeat and the ultimate replacement of Labour by the Lib Dems as the main alternative to the Tories.

Whichever way, it's time to get delivering those leaflets.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A lament for the end of Julian Clary's column in the New Statesman

Recently Jonathan Calder joked about expecting dismissal as New Statesman online columnist for being spotted by the editor carrying a copy of the Daily Mail at conference.

At least I assumed it was a joke. But now I wonder. For I read in this week's magazine that Julian Clary has been relieved of his column (that sounds uncomfortably close to a double entendre) by the Staggers' powers that be. Of course since his piece is humourous, it could be a joke and Clary has just decided he's had enough. But my antennae are always twitching as to whether the NS will retain its sense of humour.

Back in the 1980s it was virtually unreadable - a steady diet of left-wing politics, unleavened by humour or light relief of any kind. So, despite its right-wing leanings, I became a Spectator reader.

A few years ago, however, I changed loyalties and took out a subscription to the Staggers having begun to find the Spectator too conventional in its right-wingery, while the NS seemed to have rediscovered its lighter side, stopped taking itself too seriously and engaged an eclectic range of contributors. Not everyone liked its use of comedians as columnists (This Week - Kelly Monteith on the US Presidential Elections), but both Julian Clary has really been very good at doing humour for a serious readership (as has Shazia Mirza whose column appeared on alternate weeks from Clary's).

Now I'm worried that the humourous bits of the magazine will be given over to worthy articles by Polly Toynbee or Jackie Ashley and their like and the magazine will become unbearable for all who don't spend their whole lives dreaming up schemes to organise the poor. Fortunately, if that does turn out to be the case, my subscription is due shortly and I can always decide not to renew. But let's hope not! I have got to like the Staggers over the years and feel that reading it is a kind of insurance policy against developing excessively right-wing views as I advance further into middle age.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Frank Luntz - an apology

Liberal Democrat bloggers may have in the past given the impression that they consider American pollster Frank Luntz as a wholly inappropriate person to be used by the BBC because of his clear right-wing bias.

In fact we now realise that Mr Luntz is a wholly impartial expert, with an unrivalled insight into the popular appeal of political leaders.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Gerry Rafferty missing

Catching up with emails after returning from conference I found myself listening to City to City by Gerry Rafferty.

Out of curiosity I check on Wikipedia to see what he is up to these days, and was surprised to read that he is missing, having checked out of St Thomas's Hospital on 11 August leaving his belongings behind. Strangely, though there is hardly anything on the major news websites about it.

This seems odd, since although Rafferty is hardly an A-list celebrity these days, both 'Baker Street' and 'Stuck in the middle with you' are very famous songs, so you would expect his sudden and unexplained disappearance to be more widely reported.

There is a brief report here.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Lib Dems still in thrall to anti-GM superstition

I get these regular email briefings from Cowley Street on various topical issues. In general, I tend to ignore them, partly because as a non-parliamentary candidate they don’t apply to me, but perhaps more in case they plunge me into a gloom because the party line differs from my own view.

But curiosity led me to open the suggested response to enquiries on GM-food, drafted by Roger Williams MP, who is apparently our agriculture spokesman. I hoped our line might have softened since the days when Donnachadh McCarthy used to propose a seemingly annual anti-GM motion at party conference.

My hopes have been raised by the knowledge that some voices – most notably Evan Harris and Dick Taverne – have been raised in favour of a more balanced policy. But clearly there is a way still to go as the Roger Williams' line appears implacable in its hostility.

Perhaps most depressing is the statement that: ‘Liberal Democrats oppose commercial growing of Genetically Modified crops until it is known that they are environmentally safe.’ This amounts to a ruling out of GM food for ever and all time. For it will never be possible to prove that they are environmentally safe. All that can be proved is that there is no evidence of it causing harm. The problem with the anti-GM lobby is that their position has become a matter of faith such that there is no evidence at all that could convince them of the merits of GM-technology. Clearly there is some way to go before the party sees sense on this.

Monday, August 18, 2008

On the government's decision not to list Robin Hood Gardens...

This blog's pretentions to be topical are generally undermined by the long gaps between postings. During the July hiatus, I missed out on the news that government minister Margaret Hodge has decided not to list the controversial neo-brutalist 'masterpiece' Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson.

Although the building has many champions, the decision not to list it apparently now clears the way for its demolition and a redevelopment scheme.

My late great-grandmother, Sarah Bridges was for many years a resident of Robin Hood Gardens, and made her own valiant attempts to demolish the building.

As she got older, she became more forgetful, but was unwilling to accept the fact. On one occasion she put an unopened tin of sponge putting into the oven, went into the next room and forgot about it until the cooker exploded. To protect her from herself, they removed the cooker, so she then tried heating tins of food in the electric kettle, which again exploded after she let it boil dry. After that she was put into a care home.

I like to think that when the bulldozers move into Robin Hood Gardens (assuming they haven't already) they will merely be completing work that my great-grandmother started many years ago.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

'Nasty Russia and plucky Georgia' is a dangerous myth

I suppose it’s a salutary lesson. Earlier this week I suggested that given my ignorance of a subject, Jonathan Calder’s more informed view would be a good guide to my own reaction. Today I find myself in the unlikely position of agreeing with an article by leftist Guardianista Seumas Milne that is branded ‘disgraceful’ by Jonathan on the Liberal England blog. (Memo to self - don't form opinions by proxy, you'll find yourself disagreeing with everyone sometimes).

The issue is the Russo-Georgian conflict over South Ossetia. Last week I cited with approved the Guardian article by Mark Almond, which warned against a simplistic paradigm of Russia bad, Georgia good. Misha Glenny’s article in yesterday’s New Statesman showed a similar nuanced view.

Sadly, almost everywhere else (other than Seumas Milne’s article) it seems Russia is portrayed as the baddie. It appears that all three of Britain’s main political parties, plus both main American presidential contenders take this view. As I suggested above, I don’t like to think of myself as on the side of unreconstructed leftists, but this episode to me smacks of dangerous western hubris.

As anyone who has read Margaret Macmillan’s book on the 1919 Versailles settlement, Peacemakers, twentieth century Europe has seen any number of minority ethnic, religious or national groups trapped inside often arbitrarily drawn borders. These situations have given rise to tensions that we can only imagine, sitting as we are in a relatively homogenous state whose borders have been pretty well established down the centuries. South Ossetia is one such problem, over which Georgia and Russia need to find a modus vivendi.

Like Russia, Georgia has questionable democratic credentials, although both are clearly a long way from being like the former Soviet Union. Yet Georgia has made a point of cosying up to America, attempting to join NATO and in this instance was at least initially the aggressor. It is very well to accuse Russia of overreacting, but it is not that unusual for a country reacting to an act of aggression to want to make enough impact to deter future acts. This is not to condone everything that Russia has done, but merely to say that Georgia was playing a dangerous game and should have seen that it risked reaping a whirlwind.

It is worrying to see references to that bible of cold war hawks 20 years ago Jean-François Revel’s How Democracies Perish. For we are not in a cold war situation with Russia. The current regime there is not like the Soviet Union. But as liberals all too often fail to recognise, patriotic sentiment is a very powerful force in the world, and one which we can’t simply ignore. We may have seen the break up of the Soviet Union as a case of liberation from communist oppression, but for many Russians it will have also been a national humiliation.

After a decade or more in a kind of international disgrace Russia now appears on the rebound – more confident and successful than it has been since the 1980s. For most of the past 200 years Russia has either been a great power or a superpower, with the exception of the years immediately after the October 1917 Revolution and the period after the end of the Cold War. It was never likely to accept for long being surrounded on its borders by a potentially hostile military alliance.

The current conflict is a warning that the west has pushed Russia too far. International diplomacy always has and always will depend on pragmatism if peace is to be maintained. The harsh reality is that smaller countries take up an overtly hostile and provocative attitude to their larger and more powerful neighbours at their peril. That is what Georgia has done in this case, with the tacit, and triumphalist, support of the USA and NATO.

It is in the interests of a peaceful world to find a solution that saves face on both sides. Let us hope that somewhere within the USA or the European Union there exists enough understanding of statesmanship to understand this and not drive Russia into a siege mentality.

Friday, August 15, 2008

On the death of Jerry Wexler

The BBC News website reports the death of 'legendary' Muscle Shoals producer Jerry Wexler.

I can't claim detailed knowledge of his career, but he did produce one of my favourite albums, Bob Dylan's masterpiece of bad-tempered spirituality Slow Train Coming, the first record of his born-again Christian era.

The most famous story from the Wexler/Dylan encounter is told as follows:

During the record­ing Dylan tried to interest Wexler in Biblical matters. Wexler comments: "When I told him he was dealing with a confirmed 63-year-old Jewish atheist, he cracked up." Wexler was tolerantly amused by the whole business: "I liked the idea of Bob coming to me, the Wan­dering Jew, to get the Jesus feel."

But I see that like all famous anecdotes, its factual accuracy is challenged - see here.

Whatever the truth, their liaison resulted in a great record.

Tenuous top five: my brushes with celebrity

This blog could do with a bit of light relief, so I will take up James Graham's suggestion in a comment at Liberal Democrat Voice that:

Maybe we should do a list of the top 100 minor celebs that Lib Dems have vaguely met in pubs?

This is a bit like the 'Anyone for Tenuous' feature that used to run in Viz comic.

Anyway, here are my top five:

1. England women's football player Kelly Smith, 'the best player in the world' used to babysit for my stepchildren (she lived just down the road from us).

2. I was taught French by James Mason's brother. Mr Mason used to tell the story of how his father had told his three sons that there were three professions he wanted them to avoid: acting, teaching and the church. And sure enough one became an actor, one a teacher and one a priest.

3. I was at school with Rob Wainwright, the former Scottish rugby captain. My father taught at the school and coached its rugby team, which included Wainwright I as he was known then, (it was a prep. school so we were all known by our surnames) and taught him to play rugby.

4. And I was also at a different school with Jay Rayner, the famous novelist, food critic of the Observer and son of Claire Rayner.

5. The lady who used to babysit for my wife when she was a little girl later married the actor Kenny Baker, R2-D2 out of Star Wars.

Have Watford Conservatives entirely lost their moral compass?

A week on from the news of Ian Oakley’s conviction being reported in the local press, and we still have no official comment from anyone speaking on behalf of Watford Conservatives – no formal expression of regret, apology, or sympathy for Mr Oakley’s victims.

There is, however, a letter in today’s Watford Observer (letters are not available online) from Gary Ling, former Conservative councillor and former Mayoral candidate, who might reasonably be considered a senior Conservative figure in the town.

His comments are forthright indeed. He describes the episode as ‘a concerted form of collective retribution’, ‘truly disgusting’, a ‘smear’, a ‘spectacular own-goal’ and ‘low-blow tactics’. Unfortunately, these epithets are not used to refer to Mr Oakley, but rather to the Liberal Democrats’ reaction in Watford to the news of Oakley's conviction. Mr Ling attacks us for implying guilt by association, claiming that our response has been ‘as bad, or worse’ as/than Mr Oakley’s activities.

Of course claiming guilt by association is exactly what we have tried to avoid doing, and indeed I don’t see anywhere a suggestion from us that the Conservatives were collectively part of Mr Oakley’s criminal campaign. What we have said is that it ought to be investigated by the Conservatives to find out if anyone else knew/was involved or whether there was any negligence in failing to detect what he was up to. Given the extent and timescale of the hate campaign, I think it is fair enough to ask for this. It is not the same as asserting that individual Conservatives or their local association were complicit. It is saying no more than that they need to be asking themselves some tough questions.

To be fair to Mr Ling he does leave the reader in no doubt that he condemns what Mr Oakley has done. But while he states that this view is agreed with by the chairman of Watford Conservatives, the latter has made no public statement at all on the subject. Or rather, after the arrest, but before the conviction, he described the whole thing as a ‘little hiccup’ and appeared primarily concerned with its effects on the Conservatives’ electoral prospects. Before the court hearing he noticeably sat next to Mr Oakley, who was also seen to be embraced by two other leading Watford Conservatives.

So let’s say it one more time. No one actually thinks that Watford Conservatives as a body endorsed what Mr Oakley did. But they gave him positions of responsibility in their organisation. By his own admission, the Conservatives were the intended beneficiaries of his criminal campaign. And so close were the margins that they held their three borough council seats, that it is legitimate to feel that they did derive some benefit from this (even though, no doubt the candidates themselves were unaware of what he was doing).

In the wake of what has happened, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that the Conservatives investigate the whole affair. Other Conservatives have endorsed such a call. It would have been the decent thing to do to express some degree of regret and sympathy and an apology for having introduced Mr Oakley into Watford politics.

So far, in the wake of the conviction, we have had official silence from Watford Conservatives. This fact, combined with the comments from Mr Ling, suggest that some local Conservatives have entirely lost their moral compass.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Gaffe culture and that Policy Exchange report

The controversy over the Policy Exchange Cities Unlimited report pretty much passed me by until reading today’s postings from James Graham and Jonathan Calder highlighting the role of Lib Dem academic Tim Leunig as co-author of the report.

James described at length the media circus associated with this and wonders whether Policy Exchange has engineered this.

My problem with the whole episode is different and concerns the media (Guardian in this case) attempt to link the report with the Conservative leadership through phrases like ‘Tories’ favourite think tank’ and a claim that David Cameron had been ‘forced to distance himself from the report’.

I don’t pretend to know exactly how close Policy Exchange is to the Tory leadership. I have only come across it concerning Simon Jenkins’s pamphlet on localism and Martin Bright’s (Labour-supporting political editor of the New Statesman) work on the government’s engagement with Islamists.

It seems to me that the quality of political discourse is already reduced by ‘gaffe culture’ whereby if politicians try to express a view out of the mainstream their words are pounced on and quoted out of context by hostile media and political opponents. Now it seems politicians must feel obliged to dissociate themselves from reports published by independent bodies, which they have not commissioned and whose authors may not even belong to their political party.

PS: It is perhaps worth saying that I haven’t read Cities Unlimited, so can’t comment on its contents, but my views are normally very similar to Jonathan Calder’s on such matters and his comments (see link above) seem to me on the right lines.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Dawkins' false dichotomy between Darwinism and religious belief

Thanks to the magic of TV on demand, I have just watched the first part of Richard Dawkins’ series on Charles Darwin. Although Dawkins’s preoccupation with what he sees as the evils of religious belief is not quite to my taste, he ought to be interesting and informative on Darwin and evolution.

Yet the whole programme was punctuated by the false dichotomy between religious belief and acceptance of the facts of evolution, as if the two were necessarily mutually exclusive. Dawkins appeared to be putting these as antagonists to a school science class. Either he managed to find the largest concentration of creationists in the country, or there was some editorial sleight of hand going on to portray the students’ religious faith as rejection of evolution.

When I was at school in the 1970s and 80s, I was taught that there was no contradiction at all between evolution and religious faith. One was a scientific reality, the other a matter of faith. The mainstream Christian churches had learned to take Darwin in their stride, and generations had grown up accepting both Darwinism and Christianity. When I decided to join the Roman Catholic Church, a quarter of a century ago, the priest who gave me instruction was quite clear that the creation story in Genesis is a benign myth – inspiring of itself but not to be taken literally.

My problem with Dawkins’ incessant attacks on religious belief is twofold. First, there is something of the spirit of religious fundamentalism about insisting that we must choose between God and evolution and the accommodation that has developed in western secular society between the two in the last 150 years has to be denied. The second is that there is a battle between rational science and fundamental religion, how does it help the former to alienate those who would naturally line up on that side of the debate simply because they continue to derive comfort from religious faith.

So one feels there is a degree of intellectual dishonesty at work as Dawkins asks whether his teenage science students have emerged from their a walk on a beach looking at fossils believing in evolution or still believing in God. This viewer remained quite happy believing in both. Dawkins will have to explain why they are mutually antagonistic rather than taking it as a given.

This is perhaps a good time to highlight this excellent review of the God Delusion by American biologist H. Allen Orr.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

South Ossetia - not just a question of good guys versus bad

Just occasionally I find newspaper commentators expressing my thoughts on a topical issue expressed almost exactly (and far better than I could have done.)

This applies to the article by Mark Almond in today's Guardian: 'Plucky little Georgia? No, the cold war reading won't wash'.

National/ethnic/border conflicts are usually complex and rarely have right all on one side. Yet, often prevailing left/liberal/democratic sentiment casts one side as the aggressor and the other as the victim. Closest to home this has been the case in Northern Ireland where Unionists were stereotyped as the bigoted oppressors and Nationalist claims to supercede sectarianism taken at face value.

The demonisation of the Serbs and the way in which the EU, following Germany's lead, uncritically supported the Slovenian and Croation bids for independence, contributed to the disastrous course of the Balkan wars.

In any situation where a minority ethnic group exists within one country, particularly if members of that group feel a degree of allegiance to a neighbouring country, the potential for conflict exists. No solution will ever be satisfactory to everyone.

The best option for the west in South Ossetia is to encourage the parties to make peace, and to avoid getting involved.

No apologies, now let's see how we can blame the Lib Dems...

That sums up a significant proportion (but of course by no means all) of the Conservative responses to the Ian Oakley affair. The latest to enter the scene is Essex Conservative activist Steve Horgan who, in response to a comment of mine, asks: this Liberal Democrats in a marginal seat trying to milk the Conservatives embarrassment?

Readers can see the exchange and make their own minds up. But since Steve's postings are indicative of a strain of Conservative reaction, it requires some sort of response, which is as follows.

Had the official Conservative party locally and nationally promptly expressed regret for Oakley's actions, sympathy with the victims and an intention to investigate what had gone on then there would be no need for us (and a Daily Telegraph columninst) to keep raising the question.

It is very well to make glib statements about the police investigation. When someone is operating in a cloak-and-dagger manner such as this, evidence is hard to come by. It took the police over three years to find enough evidence to arrest Mr Oakley. So, quite understandably, the police investigation has not conclusively answered questions about whether there was any degree of complicity or lack of diligence on the part of Mr Oakley's Conservative colleagues in Watford. One might have thought that for their own peace of mind at least, Conservatives would want answers to those questions too.

Bizarrely, Mr Horgan comments:

the statement that 'They were deliberately designed to subvert the democratic process in the direction of the Conservative party' makes little sense

It is possible, but would be rather strange, to argue that a Conservative candidate who harrasses and vandalises the property of political opponents is doing so purely for personal amusement with no thought of political advantage. It is, however, contradicted by the police's own account of Mr Oakley's statements, namely that: 'He told the police he had "wanted to change the political landscape in Watford" with the ultimate aim of a Conservative election win' and: 'He confessed he had harrassed Ms Brinton with the aim of "victory at the next election".' (Source: Watford Observer, print edition)

Perhaps even though Mr Oakley told the police he was carrying out his crimes for political advantage,Mr Horgan knows Mr Oakley's mind better than he does himself and has concluded that Mr Oakley was mistaken in his explanation of his own crimes. But I don't think so.

As for, 'it is difficult to see how it confers electoral benefit', in fact it is pretty straightforward. The crimes appeared to be aimed at dissuading Lib Dem supporters from displaying posters on main roads in marginal wards and at dissuading people from standing in the Lib Dem interest in local elections. It also made us refrain from asking people to display posters etc. for fear that they too would become victims. And it meant time that should have been taken up campaigning was instead spent visiting and reassuring victims, making statements to the police and generally dealing with the consequences of the hate campaign.

Given that during this time, the Conservatives won local elections in marginal wards with majorities of 2, 3 and 47 over the Liberal Democrats, in campaigns punctuated by Mr Oakley's crimes, it is very clear how they might have conferred electoral benefit.

Until the Conservatives give some kind of official reaction they will deservedly incur the suspicion that they are happy to take the benefits of Mr Oakley's actions while at the same time washing their hands of the whole business.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Do the Tories really intend to remain silent about all this?

After the news of Ian Oakley's conviction broke, Iain Dale in a wise posting commented:
I hope the Conservative Party will now launch an inquiry into how this was allowed to happen. Oakley has besmirched the good name of the Party in one of the most shameful ways imagineable.

No one in politics - least of all his political opponents - should crow about what happened today. Every party attracts the odd 'wrong 'un'

I agree that no one should crow, but it is impossible to refrain from commenting about the silence from both Watford Conservatives and the national party. After a sustained criminal campaign conducted by a Conservative parliamentary candidate, and aimed at benefiting the electoral position of Watford Conservatives, is there really just going to be this deafening silence, a shrug of the shoulders and 'not our problem'?

Had the Conservatives promptly expressed regret for what Mr Oakley had done and announced an inquiry into how this had happened, there would be an onus on all of us to await the conclusions of such an investigation. Instead it appear we are getting a stonewall operation, in the hope that it will all go away quickly - putting news management ahead of doing the right thing.

To be fair, on the day of Ian Oakley's arrest the leader of Watford Council's Conservative group rang me to deplore what had happened, and as Sara Bedford points out, the leader of Hillingdon Council has called on Mr Oakley to resign from the council.

But if there is no official response to this from the Conservative party, both in Watford and nationally, it will leave in the air the lingering suspicion that they are actually secretly rather chuffed at the way Oakley has managed to inflict damage on the Liberal Democrats in Watford, while they are now able to wash their hands of him as if nothing has happened.

PS: I am grateful to Alex Folkes for the reminder that Ian Oakley's strange public behaviour was drawn to David Cameron's attention more than a year ago.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Conservatives can't wash hands of Oakley

I notice with disappointment, but perhaps not much surprise, that the national Conservative party are trying a Pontius Pilate routine if the comment on the Mail on Sunday website is correct:

A Conservative Party spokesman said they could not comment on the issue as Oakley was no longer a member of the party.

The point is that these offences were carried out while he most definitely was a member of the party, and many of them while he was holding the responsible roles of either parliamentary candidate or general election campaign manager for a parliamentary candidate.

As was stated in court, the deliberate intention of Mr Oakley was to subvert the democratic process. It seems clear that his intention was to intimidate people from standing as Lib Dem candidates and from displaying Lib Dem election posters.

At the very least, the Conservative party owe Mr Oakley's victims some answers about how they failed to detect what he was up to. It is perhaps worth adding, as my colleague Sara Bedford points out, that Mr Oakley is not so divorced from the Conservative party as to prevent senior local Conservatives treating him like a long lost brother at court this morning.

Oakley conviction update

More here from BBC News.

Conservative parliamentary candidate guilty of harrassment and criminal damage

The Watford Observer is reporting that Ian Oakley, who until recently was Conservative parliamentary candidate for Watford, has pleaded guilty to two counts of harrassment and five of criminal damage. He has asked for 68 other offences to be taken into consideration.

This follows a three-and-a-half year campaign of criminal activity in Watford directed against Liberal Democrat candidates, councillors, members and supporters in Watford. Many of the victims were not even party activists but merely people who displayed posters at election time.

Although this case has triggered national coverage, I have resisted commenting in public until now to allow the court case to proceed unhindered. However it is disappointing that there have been at least some Conservative activists, including one parliamentary candidate, who after Mr Oakley's arrest have sought to play down what has happened or imply that somehow Liberal Democrats have brought this on themselves (see here and here. In fairness, I should say that others have taken a very different line.

Criminal activity should have no part in political campaigning in a democracy. I may well post on this at greater length soon, but my initial reaction is that the Conservatives now need to hold a full enquiry into this case and the conduct of Watford Conservative Association, with the findings made public. Mr Oakley has held two very senior positions in Watford Conservatives - general election campaign manager and parliamentary candidate. The intimidation campaign began during the 2005 general election campaign. We need to know how Mr Oakley was allowed to carry out so many offences without arousing the suspicion of his Conservative colleagues; whether any other Conservative activists were involved and what steps will be taken to stop this happening here or anywhere else.

I should perhaps add that I don't believe for a second that the local Conservative Association as a body would have condoned such activities. But we need to know whether or not other individuals were in any way complicit.

This was not just a case of a single act carried out in anger or a practical joke gone wrong (not that those things would be acceptable either). It has been a sustained campaign of intimidation, aimed at subverting the democratic process - and which arguably has made the difference to the results of elections in Watford - we have failed to win seats by margins of 2, 3 and 47 votes in wards where our candidates and supporters have suffered criminal damage during the election campaign.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

New Liberalism on the wireless

I have only just spotted and listened to Tristram Hunt's radio programme about 'The Middle Way' in his brief series Ideas - The British Version. It was broadcast last Sunday and will only be available on the 'Listen again' facility for another 24 hours or so.

It deals with attempts in the early 20th century to develop progressive alternatives to Marxist communism and laissez-faire Liberalism. It touches on New Liberalism, Keynesianism and Fabianism, dealing with their influence on British and continental politics.

I'm not a huge fan of Tristram Hunt and perhaps the programme is a touch simplistic. But New Liberalism does not often feature on Radio Programmes - even the rarified airwaves of Radio 3. So it's well worth a listen.

Friday, July 11, 2008

That Cheeky Girls documentary

I missed Wednesday night's TV documentary on the 'Living' Channel, Living with the Cheeky Girls.

However, a member of my household saw 15 minutes and summarised it thus: the one who isn't engaged to Lembit complained that she wasn't getting any sex while the other one complained that she was getting too much.

Still, at least it means a Lib Dem MP on TV, no publicity is bad publicity and all that.

For those eager to find out more, there was a review in the London Paper here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Henley's last Liberal MP

My apologies to Stephen Kearney and the team, but I haven't made it to Henley. I feel bad about it, but both events and prior commitments meant I never quite got there.

So I will keep my fingers crossed for a Lib Dem victory tomorrow. Stephen clearly has an interesting background, having been head of an international development charity and lived on a houseboat.

However, he will have to go some to cut as colourful a character as Henley's last Liberal MP, Phillip Morrell, who represented South Oxfordshire between 1906 and 1910. He and his wife Lady Ottoline had a notoriously 'open' marriage - he fathered illegitimate children, while Bertrand Russell was merely the best-known of her lovers. They befriended and encouraged various writers and artists from TS Eliot to Virginia Woolf and their home at Garsington Manor was a kind of unofficial refuge for artistic conscientious objectors during the first world war.

Aldous Huxley's novel Crome Yellow is reputedly a thinly-veiled portrayal of the Morrell menage.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Renaissance Birmingham

The recent Liberal Democrat local government conference provided an opportunity to visit Birmingham's Council House, one of the great municipal buildings in Britain.

Built in the 1870s in the classical style it resembles nothing more than an Italian renaissance palace. A Victorian extension to the building houses the city's museum and art gallery, which contains one of the finest collections of Pre-Raphaelite art in Britain.

It should remind us that despite the image of Victorian industrial Britain as being all Hard Times, Coketown and Grangrind, it was not all facts and philistinism. The point is best made by the inscription on the entrance to the art gallery, which includes the words 'By the gains of industry we promote art'. Perhaps it is also an illustration of how economic and social liberalism have often gone hand in hand.

For Liberals with an interest in party history the conference itself at the Birmingham ICC also had an air of homecoming about it. The venue stands on the site of Bingley Hall, where the National Liberal Federation, the party's first democratic representative body, was founded in 1877.

Peterloo memorial

Recent travels took me to Manchester where I saw the new and recently installed plaque to commemmorate the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in which 15 protestors were killed when the cavalry charged a peaceful demonstration demanding reform of Parliamentary representation.

The demonstration took place at St Peter's Field in Manchester and in a reference to the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier the term 'Peterloo' was coined.

Following a spirited local campaign, the new red plaque was installed last year, replacing a previous blue plaque that managed to sanitise the incident by making no reference to the fact that people were killed.

In the longer term the campaigners want to see a proper monument erected to the event.

One result of the Peterloo Massacre was the foundation of the Manchester Guardian newspaper. However, it was to be another 13 years before the Whig government passed the Great Reform Act.

It is not entirely clear to me why, despite Manchester's radical history, there has been a reluctance to have a proper memorial to Peterloo. Possibly it was seen as a stain on the city's reputation rather than something to be commemmorated.

The plaque is on the side of Manchester's Radisson Hotel, formerly the Free Trade Hall, which, as the name suggests, also has its place in British radical history.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Labour's cynical rhetoric over schools

'Schools get ultimatum: improve or face closure' is the screaming headline in today’s Observer. This outburst of tough talking is simply Ed Balls ‘dog whistling’ at right of centre voters, and using teachers who have to work in difficult schools as sacrificial lambs. The Education secretary’s comment that

With all the support on offer for parents and schools, no child is on a pre-determined path to low results - whatever their background and wherever they go to school

is empty rhetoric. The experience of my own local area is that the schools that get the worst results are those with the most challenging pupils – those who for social and/or intellectual reasons are unlikely to get five good GCSEs. There are schools in this part of Hertfordshire that have first-rate facilities, charismatic headteachers and highly-motivated staff, yet which still struggle to attract bright pupils with academically aspirational parents.

The challenge is how to ensure that schools achieve a balanced intake. This is more easily said than done. Some of those on the left (including Liberal Democrats) are critical of parental choice. Yet for the state to allocate school places regardless of family preference is paternalist social engineering of a kind that liberals should surely not support – although a depressing number seem to do so.

To be fair to the government (although I don’t see why I should be), I can imagine circumstances where the ‘brand image’ of a particular school has become so damaged that renaming, rebuilding, relocating and relaunching under new management might be a way of attracting children from a wider range of backgrounds and abilities.

There are no easy answers, and it is a subject about which all political parties need to do more thinking. But Nick Clegg is on the right track with the pupil premium policy. It has to be better than macho rhetoric that will do little to improve schools, but will further demoralise teachers who have to cope with some of the country’s most difficult children.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Press prurience and speculation about pieces of bone

Richard Webster's article Haut de la Garenne, press prurience and the lethal peepshow offers a valuable corrective to the latest sensationalist headlines about the Jersey child abuse investigation:

IF THERE IS ONE lesson which might usefully have been learned by the Jersey police as a result of their recent confusion between a skull fragment and a piece of coconut it is that premature speculation about small pieces of alleged bone is unwise.

Elected Mayors and the Liberal Democrats

I see that my dear wife has an article on Liberal Democrat Voice entitled Why Liberal Democrats should change their tune on elected mayors. It seems to be provoking a lively response.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Jersey 'skull' was not even a piece of bone

Richard Webster's new blog kicks off with a discussion of media reactions to the revelation that the so-called fragments of a child's body the discovery of which propelled the Jersey child abuse enquiry onto the front pages has been revealed by carbon-dating experts to be not a piece of bone at all.

Webster has written extensively about miscarriages of justice against care workers, most notably in his book The Secret of Bryn Estyn and his own investigation had led to this latest revelation about Haut de la Garenne. He is also interviewed by Brendan O'Neill in Spiked magazine.

It seems that police were apparently told as long ago as April by the carbon-dating specialists who had analysed the fragment that 'This one ain’t bone'.

The officer in charge of the case, Deputy Chief Officer Lenny Harper appears to have consciously sought publicity in order to encourage more possible victims to come forward. But it now appears that the main piece of evidence used to generate this publicity turns out to be bogus.

How much does all this matter? Given what we know about the historical failure of child protection policies and the insular nature of Jersey's society, it seems virtually certain that at least some child abuse will have taken place at Haut de la Garenne. If the publicity from the bogus 'child's remains' story has given any genuine victims the confidence to come forward, might it be that the ends will have justified the means?

Surely, in the end it does matter. The police's task is not just to publicise their own revulsion at child abuse, it is to get justice for the victims and punish the genuinely guilty. The saga of the skull fragment must surely cast doubt on the way the police have handled the investigation, and will not help them when cases actually come to court. At the same time media frenzy risks triggering not only truthful accusations against the genuinely guilty, but also false accusations against the innocent. Which again raises the twin dangers that genuine victims will not get justice if the currency of complaints has been debased by false accusations, and that the innocent will be convicted.

Remember that the football manager Dave Jones (in the news this week for taking Cardiff City to the FA Cup Final) some years ago found himself facing 13 charges of child abuse but the entire case against him collapsed when it came to court.

Child abuse is not only a serious crime, it is one that is rightly regarded with particular abhorrence by today's society. It is important therefore that when the police investigate accusations of child abuse they are thorough and rigorous in investigating evidence and avoid manipulating the media to achieve sensational coverage.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

100 years and a day ago - Asquith announces the introduction of old age pensions

I'm terrible for remembering people's birthdays a day or so too late, and it's the same with anniversaries of significant events. So I failed in my intention to post yesterday on the anniversary of H.H. Asquith's announcement in his budget of 1908 of the introduction of old age pensions. But no other Lib Dem blogger appears to have posted on the subject, and it is worth commemorating, so forgive this being a day late.

Although Asquith had succeeded Campbell-Bannerman as prime minister a month earlier, he had already prepared the budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer and chose to present it to the House of Commons instead of his successor at the Treasury, Lloyd George.

His speech was workmanlike rather than a great flight of oratory, but he did comment that the Liberals' sympathy for social reform was to be ‘translated into a concrete and constructive policy of social and financial effort.’ He pointed out that older people were:

still unprovided for except by casual and unorganized effort or, by what is worse, individious dependence on Poor Law relief. I said then that we hoped and intended this year to lay firm the foundations of a wiser and humaner policy… I propose now to show how we intend to redeem the promises which I then made.

Later in the month he introduced the Old Age Pensions Bill, which provided for non-contributory pensions of 5 shillings a week to those over 70 with less than £21 a year in income and who had not claimed relief under the Poor Law. Asquith described it as a 'modest and tentative' measure, which indeed it was. Asquith had effectively announced the measure a year earlier, putting aside funds to pay for old age pensions.

This has echoes of 100 years later, when George Brown announced a financial measure affecting the poorer members of society that was actually to be implemented the following year. But whereas the introduction of old age pensions was a step forward for a better, fairer society, the abolition of the 10p rate of income tax, introduced by a supposedly left-of-centre government was a step in precisely the opposite direction.

Mixed fortunes inside the M25!

Try as I might I can never keep up this blog during the local election period. It's partly that there's always another leaflet to write, or deliver, or canvassing to do, but also that I'm too focused the election campaign to write anything that would be of any interest to those other than anyone involved in Watford elections.

But here we did well - comfortably ahead on the popular vote in the Watford constituency (which includes part of Three Rivers District) and winning 14 out of 17 seats. We narrowly missed out on two more seats.

Indeed we and Three Rivers were the Lib Dem success stories within the M25 - things not turning out so well in London. It seems to me that the party didn't quite decide what it was trying to achieve in the London elections. Brian Paddick was selected way too late to have a real tilt at taking on Boris and Ken, and yet was too good a candidate to be a mere token presence. However, his campaign probably drew attention from the GLA contest where we really needed the votes.

If the party is serious about mounting a real challenge for the London mayoralty in 2012, I suggest that campaigners study the Mary Robinson presidential campaign in 1990 in the Irish republic - the only other example I can think of where a third party won a campaign with a multi-million sized electorate. If I remember rightly the key elements of that were early selection, a candidate with a reach well beyond the party base (which strangely Paddick didn't seem to have), clear unique selling points for the candidate, a really strong grassroots campaign building up credibility for an effective air war during the campaign itself. These things combined with an awful lot of luck.

Failing that the party would be better to concentrate on its GLA campaign and candidates even at the risk of looking less than serious in the Mayoral contest. But then my experience is of fighting elections in a town of 80,000 population not a city of 7 million. What do I know?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Gladstone's birthplace

We stayed on for another day in Liverpool to see at least some of the sights of the European Capital of Culture.

Liverpool has an air of grandeur, as befits what was a major city of empire. As is well-known, much of the city's economic power was built on the slave trade. Among those who profited from slavery was John Gladstone, father of Liberal prime minister William Gladstone. Gladstone pere was Liverpool merchant, who owned slaves on his plantations in the West Indies. Perhaps as a result of this, Gladstone always had something of a blind-spot about slavery, being less whole-hearted than one might expect in his condemnation of it.

William Gladstone was born at 62 Rodney Street, Liverpool, which consists of very grand Georgian terraces. The street was also the birthplace of the poet Arthur Hugh Clough and I see that there is a campaign under way to restore it to its former glory.

This year's conferences take us to places that mark both ends of Gladstone's life. At Bournemouth in September, those want to take a little time off from debates can visit the splendid St Peter's church where Gladstone took his last communion - there is a plaque in the church to mark this although no reference it would seem on the website.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

'No' to Lisbon referendum is a missed opportunity

To throw in my twopence-worth, I can't help thinking the Lib Dems have not only made a tactical mistake tonight, but also lost a strategic opportunity.

For many years Britain's political class has been considerably more Europhile than the electorate appear to be, at least judging by opinion polls.

Yet on the one occasion the electorate were called upon to vote about Europe they delivered an unexpectedly large pro-EEC (as it was then) majority. In recent times various referendum pledges have taken the sting out of the European issue at election time.

But the gap between politicians and public on the issue remains, and it is unhealthy for our political system, creating the impression that Europe is a kind of organised conspiracy against the public.

If the Lisbon treaty really is less of a big deal than the abortive constitution, a tidying up exercise more than anything, then surely this was the best opportunity for pro-Europeans to win a referendum. With no great principle at stake, a Yes campaign could explain the practicalities and hope for victory. This would quieten the Eurosceptics at least for a while.

By contast if the pro-Europeans lost the vote then that would put some responsibility on Eurosceptics actually to find a way forward rather than just opposing. I suspect that had the Conservatives been in power they would have ended up agreeing to something very similar to Lisbon.

The point is that at some point pro-Europeans will have to stand and fight, and this was probably the best chance to do that, so it's an opportunity missed.

Amid all this the policy we actually have for an in or out referendum on the EU makes very little sense at all. It would solve nothing, since even the Conservatives support EU membership, none but a small number of obsessives at either end of the political spectrum actually want us out of the EU.

From the evidence of Alastair Carmichael's interview, the parliamentary appear to be avoiding bitterness and recriminations. And Nick Clegg has made just about the best possible fist of defending a weak policy. But much as it pains me to say it, the rebels were right.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Casinos, liberalism and localism

I'm in the process of catching up on Lib Dem blogs from the past week or so. I have spotted this from Adrian Sanders MP about casinos and cite it as another example of what I was going on about here about sticking to a consistent Liberal ethic.

Now, I should say on the subject of casinos that my personal views are a bit puritanical. I rarely gamble and feel it preys on the vulnerable. Despite my usual libertarian impulses I am uncomfortable about TV adverts encouraging people to have a flutter on sporting events. So on this issue at least, I am not quite the wacky libertarian, although equally I don't want to impose my personal prejudices on everyone else.

So I feel uncomfortable about Adrian Sanders simply criticising the government for allowing casinos. To me the liberal solution ought to be about decentralised decision-making. It should be up to local areas to determine their policies towards casinos and the like.

I certainly wouldn't advocate a super casino for Watford. Yet I can't see why councils in Torbay or Blackpool or wherever should be prevented from encouraging them if they feel that would help with local employment and regeneration.

It's not so much the fact that Adrian Sanders disapproves of casinos and gambling that I have a problem with. It's the uncritical acceptance that policy in this area should be top-down and centralised.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Berwick-upon-Tweed: Scotland's Gibraltar or England's Kosovo?

I have been meaning for a little while to post on the subject of South of Scotland SNP MSP Christine Grahame for Berwick-upon-Tweed to be returned to Scotland.

My father always refers to Berwick as Scotland's Gibraltar. I am not much of a nationalist, but each time I travel northward on the east coast mainline, I think that the River Tweed feels like it ought to be the border. And from the train at least Berwick looks more like a Scottish than an English town.

Yet Berwick residents, Scottish and English alike, have seemed happy enough these last few centuries with their position. This may change as I understand that the government has approved a plan for unitary government in Northumberland, which will take away some of Berwick's autonomy. Joining Scotland may therefore look like an attractive option.

Across Europe many if not most wars have been caused by territorial disputes around which nation or empire a particular territory should belong to based on the wishes of its inhabitants.

How do you decide which unit of territory or population should get self-determination? What if Scotland declared that Berwick is an integral part of the national territory regardless of the views of the town's citizens? Or if Berwickers wanted to rejoin Scotland, should this only be done if the rest of England acquiesced? Or should it be just down to the views of those who live in Berwick?

We search in vain for consistency in European precedent. Gibraltarians don't want to become part of Spain. But Spaniards don't accept its right to be separate from Spain. Kosovo has just seceded from Serbia against the will of the Serbs. Yet Northern Cyprus is still a pariah state within Europe, even though its residents clearly don't want to be part of the rest of Cyprus. I gather that both Spain and Cyprus voted against independence for Kosovo.

There but for the 1707 Union go we in Britain. So whether or not the Scots Nats get to reclaim Berwick, I suggest its very anomolous state - a town in a different country from its eponymous county - helps to undermine the case for an independent Scotland and is a good argument for maintaining the United Kingdom.

Castro and the Staggers

Peter Wilby once wrote that:

One of the earliest lessons I learned as [New Statesman] 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 subscriptions.

I wonder therefore whether it was brave or foolhardy of current acting editor Sue Matthias to publish in this week's edition this article by Isobel Hilton as its comment on Fidel's resignation.

Although balanced in tone, it is more negative than positive about El Comandante's legacy. So much so that it wouldn't have looked out of place in the Spectator.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Fact-checking Harry Potter

I am currently listening to a band called Bodies of Water whose excellent album/cd is called Ears Will Pop & Eyes Will Blink.

Their music is hard to categorise. They comprise two men and two women and tend all to sing at once, in a style a little reminiscent of the Mamas and the Papas. Then the music is all a bit grandiose and bombastic, in a way that reminds me of Arcade Fire. And then the songs seem to be all about religion, rather like Bob Dylan's Slow Train Coming or the entire oeuvre of Nick Cave.

You can hear for yourselves here (I can't do that clever putting the YouTube screen up on the blog thing - perhaps a kind reader might help me out with this).

Their music apart, I was rather taken with this website entry by group member David Metcalf about the jobs he had before the band 'made it'. One was fact-checking Harry Potter trivia games. He comments:

I may be the world's only expert on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets who did not actually read this book.

As one who believes that adults have no business reading the Harry Potter books, I approve.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Liberal England and Enoch Powell

Jonathan Calder highlights that within a week of his starting to write a column on the New Statesman website, the magazine's editor John Kampfner resigned.

A little further investigation reveals that Kampfner resigned over a row with the owner Geoffrey Robinson MP over the publication's costs. So how much must they have been paying Jonathan? Perhaps Lord Bonkers was demanding a cut to help subsidise his Rutland estates. The price was clearly too much for the Statesman's proprietor.

All of which puts me in mind of a story I heard about Enoch Powell, who was notoriously tough in negotiating fees for newspaper articles and the like.

Asked by an editor to contribute an op-ed piece, Powell immediately demanded to know how much he would get paid. On being told the intended fee, he said 'I'm not a charity you know.' The editor replied that Powell's then party leader Edward Heath has been paid the same for writing an article. To which Powell replied, 'Yes, and he would have written it for nothing if you had asked him.'

Journal of Liberal History

Sticking to historical matters, the latest edition of the Journal of Liberal History includes my review of James Moore's The Transformation of Urban Liberalism: Party Politics and Urban Governance in Late Nineteenth-Century England.

The latest edition isn't available on the web, so far as I can see, and I suppose it is not quite the done thing to put the review on this blog.

But this seems as good a moment as any to plug the Liberal Democrat History Group, which publishes the journal, a peer-reviewed publication that includes not just general articles, but original research by practising historians across the whole range of Liberal history. In my view it is easily the best thing published from within the Lib Dem family.

I encourage readers who don't already subscribe to do so.

Bermondsey revisited (again)

We are approaching the 25th anniversary of the Bermondsey by-election.

To commemorate the event, Jonathan Derbyshire has written fair-minded article, which appeared in last week's Time Out.

The author is the son of one of my Lib Dem colleagues on Watford Borough Council (although I gather he is not himself a Lib Dem).

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Making Liberal history sell

I have just finished Ian Packer’s excellent book Liberal Government and Politics, 1905-15, which offers an original and thought-provoking reassessment of the Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith administrations.

The book deals with a fascinating period of British politics. Written in lucid and engaging prose, it deserves a wider readership than just academic specialists. Yet, I suspect, few general readers are likely to get hold of it. For it retails at £49 and if it is typical of academic monographs will have had a print run of just a few hundred. It will end up only being obtainable through university rather than public libraries.

Dr Packer’s problem is that he is not already famous in some other field. Well-known politicians, be they William Hague, Douglas Hurd or Mark Oaten seem to manage to get books on historical subjects published in popular editions at reasonable prices. This is so even if they carry out little or no original research and merely piggy-back on the work of others. It’s less a case of ‘A Life of William Wilberforce by William Hague’ and more ‘Hague On Wilberforce’.

Further down the intellectual food chain, publishers fall over themselves to bring out books by assorted celebrities who seem to ‘write’ more books than they are ever likely to read.

Perhaps the answer is for academics to give up publishing books in their own names that are doomed to remain in obscurity. Instead they should act as ghost-writers for celebs who have no time between hairdos and buying clothes to do any writing, but whose names will certainly sell books.

That way, perhaps Dr Packer’s little volume could yet reach a wider audience as Victoria Beckham’s Book of Edwardian Liberalism.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Letter to Lib Dem News

For the first time in a while, this week I have a letter in Liberal Democrat News. In was a response to Bob Russell MP's comment to the effec that we don't need three Tory parties in British politics. This is what I wrote:

In political argument, there is an unofficial rule that the first person to mention the Nazis automatically loses.

In the Liberal Democrats there should be an equivalent rule - that in any debate the first person to accuse a colleague of being a Tory loses.

Bob Russell MP tells us that ‘there is no need and no room for a third Tory party’ in British politics, implying that some in our party think otherwise.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert in such things, but I try to take some interest in political debate within the party. I attend conference, subscribe to Liberator, CentreForum etc, and have read at least some of the Orange Book and Reinventing the State. Yet nowhere have I seen any Liberal Democrat argue that we should become a third (or even second) Tory party.

Perhaps Mr Russell has a grasp of political philosophy far more sophisticated and profound than my own. Yet I can’t help thinking that as we discuss how our Liberal principles should be best applied to current politics, it isn’t helpful if we resort to the cheap jibe of accusing colleagues with whom we disagree of being Tories.

The aim is to be distinctively Liberal, not any kind of Tory party.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Sticking to a liberal narrative - a small suggestion

During the latest hiatus in this blog, I was struck by the coverage given to Lib Dem MEP Fiona Hall’s call to ban patio heaters and Greg Mulholland MP’s proposal that pubs should have to sell wine in 125ml measures. Both of these raise the problem of liberals calling for individual freedom in the abstract, but in practice calling for more regulation of people’s lives.

Of the two I think that Fiona Hall’s quest is the more questionable. Patio heaters are certainly bad for the environment and it may well be true that they consume more energy (or whatever) than running a car. And yet lots of other things that are not eco-friendly are not banned. What if someone didn’t want to own a car, but liked occasionally to sit outdoors on chilly evenings, and used their patio heater sparingly? Why should they not have that choice.

Greg Mulholland, on the other hand seems a little unfairly maligned. If I have understood right, he has not (as has been claimed) said that pubs should not be able to serve larger measures of wine, only that they should offer small glasses as an option. This is a fair point. I have come across some bars that serve wine only in large 250ml measures. If wine is up to three times as strong as beer, then this is the equivalent of serving beer pint-and-a-half measures and nothing less. But if the suggestion is sensible of itself, it is so easily misrepresented that it risks making the Lib Dems seem nannyish.

How we are perceived by the public is not just about our principles or policies, but also a question of what our representatives choose to talk about. For example, the Liberal Democrats support controls on immigration. But if a Lib Dem MP chose to talk obsessively about the need for more strong immigration controls, to the exclusion of other issues, this would seem at variance with our general approach to politics, even if said MP was not going against party policy. It would look like pandering to the illiberal far right.

Projecting a clear Liberal narrative means that our leaders, parliamentarians, council leaders etc. need to consider when launching any initiative how it fits in with our Liberal principles. No one wants the kind of control-freakery that Mandelson and Co. operated in New Labour. But my modest suggestion to the new leader, if he wants to project the Lib Dems as a consistently Liberal force, is to give a very firm steer to the party colleagues along the following lines:

“Before speaking out or launching a new initiative on any issue, think how well it fits our liberal message. Is it

• decentralising or centralising?
• pro or anti civil liberties?
• pro or anti personal choice?
• good or bad for the environment?
• likely or not to combat poverty and exclusion?
• drawbridge down or drawbridge up?

If it fails one or more of these tests, then think twice about going public. Ask advice from the leader/party spokesperson/policy team. Sometimes these values may conflict and we have to prioritise one over the other. Sometimes our view will have to be tempered by pragmatism. But remember that the transient publicity we get on a single issue will affect the overall image of the party. It can serve either to undermine or reinforce our general message. Think before sounding off!”