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-Fran├žois 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.