Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas

For anyone reading this I hope that Father Christmas brings you everything that you asked for tomorrow morning.

A touch of empathy

Accustomed as we are to being reviled in the media and held in low esteem by the public, we politicos can do with such crumbs of comfort as are offered to us.

I am currently reading Understanding the British empire, a collection of essays by the eminent imperial historian Professor Ronald Hyam. Whereas historians often display a studied detachment or even mild cynicism towards the politicians they study, Professor Hyam comments:
...government is about taking almost impossibly wide perspectives, and it is an extremely difficult business. Historians should respect that fact, at least when they are assessing intelligent men [sic] of goodwill and sound mind.
He quotes the imperial proconsul Lord Cromer as writing:
More than forty years experience behind the scenes of poltiical life has led me to be a very indulgent critic on the faults of political men [sic again]. I have come to the commonplace but very true conclusion, stated by Taine in the preface to his great work - namely, that the government of human beings is a very difficult task, and that in dealing with them it is far easier to go wrong than to go right.
Even leaving aside Professor Hyam's empathy with the difficulties confronted by those who have to make difficult decisions, this is an excellent book, both scholarly and accessible and the culmination of a lifetimes work. No doubt it will not sell as well as books by more famous and less knowledgeable authors, but it deserves to reach a general audience.

Perhaps to help shift units, the publishers should highlight the essays that  deal with Hyam's preoccupation with sexuality and empire, including one entitled 'Penis envyand "penile othering" in the colonies and America'.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Controversialists should not sue for libel

Historian Niall Ferguson's threatened libel suit over a negative review of his latest book is discussed on David Allen Green's excellent New Statesman blog (if only his articles appeared in the magazine I might have renewed my subscription).

The moral of the story is that those who make a living from the expression of controversial opinions (and for that matter Bloggers and the like who do it as a hobby) really shouldn't run to the libel laws when they find themselves criticised (however unfair the criticisms might seem).

Last year when Professor Orlando Figes got himself in a spot of bother over anonymous reviews he posted on Amazon, the problem was less that he posted the reviews at all, but rather his threat to sue when (correctly) accused.

Ferguson is always likely to arouse the ire of those who disagree with his neo-Thatcherite take on history and a hostile review in a small-circulation publication is hardly likely to damage his reputation. Figes' trashing of fellow historians' books would have been little more than an amusing curiosity if he hadn't tried to silence them when they rumbled him.

It might be a different matter if, like poor Christopher Jefferies, they were wrongly accused of a vile crime. But for the most part anyone who courts contoversy has to be able to take it as well as give it. The best way to deal with unfair criticism is to rebut it in print. Those tempted to sue would be better taking a couple of aspirin and having a lie down until the mood passes.

Green's article is worth reading in full, but I was rather taken with one quote in it. When A.J.P. Taylor's The origins of the second world war was savaged by Hugh Trevor-Roper, who said it would harm his reputation as a serious historian, Taylor replied:
The Regius professor's methods of quotation might also do serious harm to his reputation as a serious historian, if he had one.
As far as I am aware, Trevor-Roper didn't sue.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Are the Lib Dems really pro-European?

I was planning to get my head round this whole Euro row thing so that I could post something vaguely coherent on here. But Jonathan Calder (Small row in Europe, not many hurt) has pretty much summed up my view, so why say the same thing again when one can just post a link?

It seems to me that the reaction of Lib Dems to the Cameron veto has been relatively restrained. I don't really find this surprising. Lib Dem attitudes towards Europe reminds me of G.K. Chesterton's The man who was Thursday. In this novel, the members of an anarchist cell are one-by-one revealed to be undercover policemen. In a similar way, Lib Dem activists, often portrayed in the media as starry-eyed pro-Europeans, are more often than not undercover Eurosceptics. Time and again I let slip in conversation to a Lib Dem colleague that I don't quite share the party's zeal for the European project only to be told that neither do they.

Genuine Euro-enthusiasts seem to me relatively thin on the ground in the Lib Dems, although one did tell me during the 2005 general election that the campaign was a useful building block for the referendum on the European constitution. But such sentiments are relatively rare. I am not of course saying that there are many Lib Dems who are Eurosceptic in the Tory sense (obsessive about sovereignty and regulations). It's just that it wouldn't surprise me if the Euro-doubters are actually a majority in the party, but have simply assumed we are in a minority and not felt strongly enough ever to put up a fight on the issue.

I suppose the next few days and weeks will show quite how brightly the Pro-European star burns within the Lib Dems.

Monday, December 05, 2011

On Hislop and the bankers

My critique of Ian Hislop's recent BBC documentary When Bankers Were Good appears on the History & Policy website. It begins:
... although entertaining and informative, Hislop's programme could also serve as a warning against using history to advance a contemporary policy prescription on the basis of very thin evidence.
Among the aims of the website are to: 'demonstrate the relevance of history to contemporary policy making and to increase the influence of historical research over current policy.'

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Halfway to New York: Out of time

From my stepson travelling in South America I receive a text telling me that a friend he used to be in a band with, is now in a new band and they have a single out. Would I download it from iTunes?

I did so more as a favour than anything else, imagining I might give it a perfunctory listen before reverting to better things.

But it is actually very good indeed, outstanding even - in a kind of indie/rock/pop style. It is called Out of time by Halfway to New York. When they are famous I will be able to say: 'My stepson used to be in a band with the guitarist, you know'. So listen to it via the youtube link and if you like it download the song.

Friday, December 02, 2011

When the left could still laugh, or when a New Statesman article endorsed cannibalism

In my possession I have a reprinted copy of article* taken from the New Statesman arguing that as part of a programme of national recovery:
Surplus 'students' of both sexes should be sold to Arab sheikhs for their harems, thus preserving our university art treasures...
Surplus car-workers, politicians, steel-workers etc. should be eaten on a 'natural wastage' basis.
So far as I know no one from the New Statesman apologised for what might be considered a deeply offensive article that is at once racist, homophobic and insulting to students and members of the working class.

It's a bit late for an apology, actually, since the article was published in 1975 and both its author, Auberon Waugh, and the editor who published it, Anthony Howard, are sadly no longer with us. It was clearly intended to by funny - indeed it was part of an extended joke whereby Waugh, whose satire was based on expressing outrageous reactionary views for comic effect, wrote articles for a magazine largely known for its earnest high-minded socialism. Waugh's views were, even in 1975, clearly beyond the pale and meant to be so. They were intended to wind up the magazine's lefty readers.

Of course I mention this in the light of today's controversy over Jeremy Clarkson's use of offensive reactionary views as a humorous device. (Clarkson, though, is nowhere near in Waugh's league as a satirist). My New Statesman example suggests it is not merely dew-eyed nostalgia to think that there was once a time when the liberal left could recognise that views expressed by a humorist might be intended to amuse, and not attract po-faced condemnation and demands for apologies.

* The article is from the New Statesman 23 May 1975 and reprinted in In the lion's den, a collection of Auberon Waugh's New Statesman articles.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

George Harrison - not the Fabbest but still pretty Fab

For me, remembering to post about notable anniversaries is a bit like sending birthday cards: a couple of weeks out from the day I make a mental note not to forget. Then it doesn't cross my mind until after the event has passed.

In the nick of time I've remembered that today is the tenth anniversary of George Harrison's death. I had intended to watch Martin Scorcese's two-part documentary on the Quiet One and use it as the basis for my argument that he was the true genius of The Beatles. But I forgot either to record the second part or watch it when it was available on iPlayer.

While I note that at least one person has tried, it isn't really tenable to argue for George as the greatest Beatle. He's my favourite because he was the plucky underdog who emerged from the shadows of the other two. I quite like his songs too.

His solo career showed that he wasn't quite the songwriting equal of John and Paul. Yes, All things must pass is a great album because he had built up a backlog of material, having been rationed to two songs per album with The Beatles. The follow up Living in the material world is a fine piece of work also, perhaps underrated because his religious preoccupations are to the fore. But after that he ran out of steam, and I suspect it was because he didn't have the others to keep up with. His solo albums between the mid-70s and mid-80s each had their strong tracks, but overall lacked inspiration or ambition.

It was only when he started working with Jeff Lynne of ELO fame that things got better. 1987's Cloud Nine was a return to form, the first Travelling Wilburys album was very good and the posthumous Brainwashed , probably the second best of his career.

While George was known to complain that his songs didn't always get a fair hearing in The Beatles, I suspect he needed strong collaborators to inspire him to great work, and he was fortunate that they didn't come much better than his Fab colleagues.

The YouTube link is to Sam Brown singing one of George Harrison's very last songs Horse to the water from the tribute Concert for George. His own version, a collaboration with Jools Holland, was recorded shortly before he died and doesn't quite have the oomph that the song deserves. Sam Brown really does it justice. Unfortunately the audio and video are badly out of synch so it's better listened to than watched. Frustratingly also, the song can only be downloaded from iTunes with the whole album. These tribute things are normally pretty uneven overall, but this is one of the best cover versions of a Harrissong.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Coventry, rugby, nostalgia

Today, for the first time in six years, I made a trip to the midlands to watch a Coventry Rugby Club home match - this one against National Division One leaders Ealing Trailfinders.

Coventry is my birthplace and I have supported the city's rugby team since childhood. Until the 1980s they were one of the big beasts of English rugby, up there with Leicester, Gloucester and the leading Welsh club sides. The first game I ever watched was the great David Duckham's last home match in a Cov shirt.

Until a few years ago, I would generally get to a couple of home games each year, combining watching the match with a visit to my grandparents. But when grandad died five years ago, and then my grandmother moved south to be cared for by my mother, there was no personal reason to visit Coventry any more. It seemed perverse to take a whole day out of a busy life to watch second tier (and now third tier) rugby. The more so as we have Saracens playing premiership rugby ten minutes' walk away - although Saracens have never really adopted Watford and in turn I have never quite adopted them.

Anyway, because it conjured up family memories it was quite a sentimental trip today, but an enjoyable one, not least because my team won. It is nice to see that at this semi-professional level, players still stop to talk to supporters, club officials are relaxed about people wandering on to the pitch after the game, and generally the corporate takeover of rugby that one sees in the premiership is thankfully absent.

In days gone by Cov were famed for their forward game, and tended to see off southern teams like Rosslyn Park and Harlequins who threw the ball about a lot but never won anything. It was a bit like that today. Ealing came at Cov with their effete passing and offloading game, displaying the kind of skilful play that so disfigures the modern game. But Cov were having none of it and scored a winning try in injury time after a rolling maul which at one point included 13 of Cov's 15 players.

Cov have a long way to go to regain their glory days but perhaps today was a start.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Whatever the truth, Roebuck's suicide was a terrible, lonely death

For one with not much more than a passing interest in cricket, I have found myself pondering the fate of Peter Roebuck rather more than I would have expected.

I hope it is not pure ghoulishness. Rather it is the combination of how the story has unfolded and the struggle of a media that likes people to be monsters or angels either to know what to say about someone who may have been a bit of both.

On another day I might not have even clicked the button to read the reports of his death. I remembered his role as Somerset captain in the 1980s and his part in the controversy over the Richards/Garner/Botham departures and vaguely aware that he had gone on to become a cricket writer. But beyond that he hadn't much permeated my consciousness and it was intriguing to learn of this brilliant but tormented soul, whose suicide somehow didn't completely surprise those who knew him.

But there was more than that. However tactfully, most obituaries and tributes referred to his 2001 conviction for caning three 19-year-olds whom he was coaching. This is the sort of information that once known permanently colours one's perception of anybody. An open-minded person might reflect that the history of sport is littered with charismatic coaches with odd methods, and consider that this may have been an error of judgement for which Roebuck was righly punished, but which should not be held against him for all time. Yet it is hard to avoid agreeing with the trial judge's reported comment that: 'It seems so unusual that it must have been done to satisfy some need in you'.

When those who had spent the day of his suicide with Roebuck reported that they saw no sign of what was to come, one sensed the grim inevitability of unpleasant revelations explaining his apparently sudden decision. And so it proved: his leap from a sixth-floor window was triggered by his imminent arrest on a charge of sexual assault.

This leaves judgement on his life and reputation in a strange state of limbo. Any fair-minded person would avoid judging the motivation for his suicide. It might have been fear of his guilt being exposed. But equally, even if innocent he would have known that his reputation would never quite recover. Even if not convicted there would be a sense he had 'got off' rather than been exonerated. The later accusation, combined with the earlier conviction and his charitable work helping young men through university would be combined to create a picture of a sordid predator. Already you don't have to look far to read an article about Roebuck written as if an accusation is proof of guilt and indeed of serial wrongdoing.

All of which might amount to an argument for defendants in cases of sexual assault or rape to be given anonymity, along with the victims. Who knows whether Roebuck, if innocent, would be alive today if there was a chance he could have cleared his name without facing trial by media also?

But issues around anonymity are not that straightforward and that wasn't really my purpose in writing about this. (And for avoidance of doubt I should add that sexual assault is an appalling crime and the police should assiduously investigate any report of it, however talented or philanthropic the alleged perpetrator.) Rather it is just a sense of the cruel vicissitudes that attend the human condition.

Perhaps a young man hoping for a way out of poverty and a new chance in life found himself suffering a grotesque sexual assault at the hands of his supposed benefactor. Or a brilliant but troubled man faced the horror of a false accusation when they were merely trying to do good. Either on its own is awful enough, but whatever happened led to a terrible, lonely death. Whether Roebuck was guilty or innocent, one would need a heart of stone not to feel a profound sense of sadness at the whole story.

PS: Clearly plenty of people have felt troubled by this story. I have also read these very measured pieces by Howard Jacobson and Geoff Lemon.

Book Review: Robert Ingham and Duncan Brack (eds) Peace, reform and liberation

This has been a busy, busy week, with no time for blogging. I did, however, make my
debut as a Liberal  Democrat Voice contributor, with my review of the Liberal Democrat History Group's new history of Liberal politics, Peace, reform and liberation, edited by Robert Ingham and Duncan Brack.

Friday, November 11, 2011

How they are related: Anna Chancellor and HH Asquith

We all know that Helena Bonham Carter is the great grandaughter of Liberal prime minister HH Asquith, indeed she lives in his old house at Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire. But I was curious to discover that she is not the only thespian of note descended from old Squiffy. Specifically Anna Chancellor of Spooks, The Hour and Hidden fame (and still better known as Duckface from Four weddings and a funeral) is his great great granddaughter.

Her great grandfather was Asquith's eldest son Raymond, whose tragic death on the Somme was symbolic of the 'lost generation' who fell in the first world war. Raymond's daughter Perdita was Anna Chancellor's grandmother.

In passing I might also mention that  her uncle is Alexander Chancellor, who edited the Spectator in the 1970s and 80s when it was an elegant, eclectic and enjoyable vehicle for fine writing rather than the organ of grim right-wing ideology it is today. And she is playing the lead role in Radio 4's current classic serial, an adaptation by Harold Pinter of Elizabeth Bowen's masterpiece The heat of the day, which is a cut above Spooks, Hidden and other such nonsense.

PS: Had I been blogging at the time I might have remarked that in January of this year, Raymond Asquith's son Julian died at the age of 94. He was just the second Earl of Oxford and Asquith, having inherited the title from his grandfather the former prime minister in 1928. He was therefore an earl for 83 years.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Should a Liberal really be advocating compulsory cycle helmets?

I see via Jonathan Calder at Liberal England that Lib Dem MP Annette Brooke's private members bill to make it compulsory for cyclists to wear a helmet has not been given a second reading.

Jonathan reiterates his opposition to compulsion and cites research that it simply reduces the number of cyclists on the road. I am probably a case in point on this. I own a bicycle, but use it all too rarely even though I do enjoy a nice cycle ride. I am middle aged, overweight and am trying to make an effort to eat less and take more exercise. This could include cycling. But it is already a bit of a palaver, remembering where the pump is, checking that the lights are working etc. Having to buy a helmet, find it when I need it and then wear the horrible thing on my head would pretty much guarantee that the bicycle will remain in the shed. I suspect a lot of occasional, recreational cyclists would feel the same.

[EDIT: Perhaps I should have looked a little further before posting the above. I see the bill was aimed at under-14s. But the point still stands - both as regards children who use their bike only occasionally and in that if legislation was passed for under-14s there would soon be pressure to extend it to apply to adults.]

Leaving aside the practical arguments, it annoys me when Liberal Democrats are in the forefront of trying to implement such petty restrictions on personal freedom. Over the years my libertarian instincts have been increasingly tempered by pragmatism. We are not a Libertarian party and are hardly going to call for an end to seatbelt laws or to reverse the smoking ban. But  for me, the correct position for Liberals on such matters is that of sceptics not cheerleaders. We should be the ones wanting to see clear and overwhelming evidence that the social good outweighs the infringement of personal choice. So I am disappointed that a bill such as this was put forward by a Liberal Democrat MP

Sunday, November 06, 2011

CD Review: The Bangles 'Sweetheart of the Sun'

Conventional wisdom has it about right regarding the oeuvre of The Bangles. Their first album, 1984’s All Over The Place, was a fine example of the emerging sixties-influenced guitar-based, jangle-pop ‘Paisley underground’ thing that was happening at that time.

Instead of continuing in similar vein, the band sought a short-cut to stardom, through songs such as Manic Monday and Walks like an Egyptian, enjoyable pop confections in themselves, but less than the band was capable of creatively. And then of coure they recorded the excruciating power ballad Eternal Flame.

So I wouldn’t have bothered with their latest effort Sweetheart of the Sun had I not needed to use up eMusic downloads before they expired and chosen this in haste because I had at least heard of the ban. It is pleasing to find that this album is really rather good, a worthy successor to All Over The Place. Unlike their intervening efforts, most of the material is written by group members without outside help.

All the things that made The Bangles worth listening to in the first place are here: pleasing harmonies, jangling guitars, memorable songs with soaring choruses. Beatles, Byrds and REM influences very much to the fore. Songs like the opener ‘Anna Lee’ and ‘I’ll never be through with you’ even sound like potential hit singles. The only complaint (as more than one reviewer has commented) is that some of the lead vocals sound strained – as if a nasty cold virus was going round and the group members hadn’t quite recovered when they recorded their vocals.

In case it seems a strange leap from writing about CD by the respected-but-obscure Jayhawks to the well-known-but-lightweight Bangles, it’s worth remarking that the producer of this album, Matthew Sweet, has also co-written and recorded with The Jayhawks, while Bangle Susanna Hoffs sang on Jayhawk Gary Louris’s solo album Vagabonds. Degrees of separation and all that.

For some reason I don't seem to be able to embed videos right now but here is a youtube link to a song from the album.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Adoption row: just another exercise in council-bashing?

I can’t claim any great expertise (or even knowledge) on the subject of adoption, but instinct and logic incline me to be very sceptical of the government’s latest exercise in council-bashing.

Take, for instance, David Cameron’s statement that "It is shocking that of the 3,600 children under the age of one in care, only 60 were adopted last year - this is clearly not good enough.” This takes it as read that the more children in care under 12 months old who are adopted the better. But is this a reasonable view? Unless parents have explicitly given up their children for adoption, then one hopes that in many cases local authorities will be trying to return babies to their birth parents if at all possible. A rush to arrange adoption is not necessarily the best solution. (One might even expect Conservatives to agree with this).

The other measure mentioned is how quickly councils arrange adoptions after agreeing that this is the best outcome for a particular child. But it hardly takes a moment’s thought to work out how this might be affected by factors other than the council’s ability to arrange adoptions. If the social services department is more reluctant than others to decide that children should be adopted then its success rate will appear higher because it has fewer cases to resolve. The reverse would also be true.
That is leaving aside the issue of whether socio-economic or demographic factors might make it easier to arrange adoptions in some areas than in others.

Given how serious an issue this is, how important to people’s lives, it seems unfortunate to say the least that Cameron and Conservative children’s minister Tim Loughton are using this as an excuse to pick a row with local authorities. Doubtless there will be some councils who really are not doing a very good job, although one suspects there will be others who are ‘named and shamed’ who have actually got sound reasons to explain their performance. Whichever way, government gunboat diplomacy doesn’t help.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Paul Tyler and 38 Degrees - pressure groups should be subject to scrutiny too!

Writing on the Guardian website last week, Lib Dem peer Paul Tyler took issue with the lobbying methods on the NHS bill of campaigning organisation 38 Degrees. He commented:

The kind of exaggeration 38 Degrees used made people ask whether simply filling up someone's inbox with a lot of half-constructed half-truths was a respectable way to campaign. The organisation had not asked people to engage with any of the detail of this issue, and had given a false impression about the headlines. Some would say this route leads us into a form of one-click rent-a-mob – what is now termed "slacktivism" – enabling ill-informed and disconnected instant electronic communication to take the place of genuine political discussion and interaction.
Regardless of the precise rights and wrongs on this specific issue, I think Paul Tyler highlights a wider point about the credibility and ethics of 'third sector' organisations and the campaigns they run and the free pass they are often given by the media.

So we see the NSPCC, which provides very little direct care for children, running ever more emotive advertising campaigns, which no doubt provide them with funds for another round of horror-movie-style ads.

Similarly, visiting a National Trust property earlier this year, I was shocked to see them running a disingenous campaign against the government's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), as if there every National Trust property was about to be surrounded by new housing estates. (The NPPF is far from perfect and many legitimate criticisms can be made of it, but this should not descend into caricature). Likewise, last year we had homelessness charity Shelter engaging in questionable use of statistics to generate publicity for themselves by attacking local authorities.

Third sector organisations are by no means necessarily noble and disinterested parties. They too have their vested interests - publicity helps them raise funds and gain competitive edge over their rivals. So they have every reason to make their claims sensational and their tactics noisy. Equally, they are likely to be represented by those well-versed in the political game. Campbell-Robb, the director of Shelter worked in the cabinet office under Labour; when MacMillan Nurses denounced the government over benefits earlier this year, their media spokesperson was former Labour parliamentary candidate Mike Hobday.

Of course, charities, NGOs, pressure groups and the like have a vital role to play in any democracy, but their arguments and campaigning tactics should be scrutinised as closely by the media and treated with a degree of scepticism. For that reason Paul Tyler's article is timely and welcome.

PS: I suppose for the sake of full disclosure I should mention that I had my own little local run-in last year with a well-known third sector organisation.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Lib Dems have a duty to contest police commissioner elections

The decision of the Federal Executive that the party should not contest next year’s police commissioner elections is misguided and wrong. To be clear, FE hasn’t actually said that Lib Dem candidates must not stand, but there will be no federal funding for these elections and its suggestion that ‘Individual Liberal Democrats may support non party candidates’ is hardly a rallying cry for local parties to fight energetic campaigns.

Perhaps I will be in a tiny minority in feeling so strongly about this, but it seems to me that the whole issue has been bungled by the party from start to finish. As a result, we have a mess from which we don’t even emerge with honour intact.

The election of police commissioners was always going to be a problem for the party, as it was one of the few elements of the coalition agreement that provoked strongly-held and near-unanimous opposition among Liberal Democrat activists. Although it was clear that the coalition would have a change of heart on creating police commissioners, in practice it wasn’t a problem as the elections were to take place on the same day as next year’s local elections. So we could fight two elections for the price of one, just as we do when European and council elections are fought on the same day.

Then came this year’s disappointing local election results, in which a difficult situation was made worse by many non Lib Dem voters turning out to vote No in the referendum and Tory or Labour in the council elections. At the Lib Dem local government conference in the summer, there seemed to be a strong view from councillors, campaigners and defeated candidates that having police commissioner elections on the same day as the local elections would be disastrous for our chances of holding council seats, and this opinion was expressed very strongly to ministers etc.

I found myself a lone voice in arguing the opposite case. The referendum did harmed in the council elections because the Conservative party threw all its weight behind getting its supporters out to vote, as the referendum became a must-win for Cameron. By contrast, police commissioner elections would largely be a local matter, influenced more by the ground war than the air war and in my view there was little cause for alarm. In the past we have not been harmed in the past by having European and council elections on the same day – arguably the need to knock up our local vote has helped us to get more MEPs elected. Perhaps the most obvious comparison is with mayoral elections, and there too people largely treat them as local elections. In my view local government colleagues were drawing the wrong conclusion from this May’s double header.

This was not a popular view, however and there was near unanimity that the date of the police commissioner elections just had to be moved. But the consequences of the change of date needed to be considered also. If the police commissioner elections did not take place on the first Thursday in May, we would end up having to spend a lot of money and motivate activists to fight a set of elections that in most places we would have little chance of winning because of the size of the constituencies.

Regardless of whether it would help our prospects in council elections, the announcement in September that the police commissioner elections were being moved to November 2012 meant that it was highly unlikely that the Lib Dems would contest them seriously, or indeed at all.  Even before the date changed, the lack of urgency shown by the English party in developing approval and selection procedures for police commissioner candidates was a worrying sign that we were preparing to surrender without a fight any chance of influencing local policing. Likewise, at the recent federal conference in Birmingham there was a noticeable lack of training sessions, fringe meetings and the like on fighting police commissioner elections.

Federal Executive’s decision merely confirms what I feared. But while it may save the party money and spare campaigners the need to tramp the streets on cold, dark November evenings, it remains a bad decision. Effectively the national party is saying that having helped to create these posts it has no interest in ensuring that policing in our communities is carried out in line with Liberal principles. It is leaving it to the sheer chance of whether an independent, liberal-minded figure comes forward. Even then we are faced with the dilemma of whether to divert resources to campaigning for a non Lib Dem candidate or ignoring the election at the price of allowing authoritarian opponents a free run.

In my view, as a minimum, the central party should be look to use these elections as a campaigning opportunity. This would mean picking the best prospect of victory and treating it like a parliamentary by-election with the hope that at least one of the new police commissioners would be a Lib Dem. Elsewhere it should encourage the selection of candidates and a national campaign of talking to our supporters, to reaffirm their support, encourage them to vote in the police commissioner election and to recruit new members, helpers and so forth. In places with elections in 2013 this would help kickstart their campaign.

It occurs to me that there may be a Machiavellian hope lurking in some minds that by not contesting the elections, we are undermining their credibility and that if a series of local mavericks are elected the Conservatives will see the error of their ways and police commissioners will prove a short-lived experiment. I doubt whether this will be the case. Taking away people’s right to vote is unlikely to be popular.

Whichever way, the party nationally cannot expect to be taken seriously on crime policy if it effectively declares that it has no interest in taking responsibility for policing at local level. In my view it has a moral duty to contest these elections and the central party has a moral duty to give active support and encouragement to local campaigners to do so. Is it too much to hope that the party’s great and good will think again?

PS: Both Jonathan Calder and Anders Hanson have put forward strong arguments in favour of the Lib Dems contesting these elections.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One's a master spy, the other an Oxford scholar, yet neither can use a standard reference book

The recent conclusion of my time as a perpetual student means that I can now occasionally read books purely for pleasure, not as part of my studies. In particular, I can read the occasional novel, an indulgence largely foregone these last few years.

But perhaps because of years of studying obscure monographs and critiquing their arguments, I find myself doing the same with novels – reading them against the grain and searching for the weak link in the plot that undermines the rest of the story.

A case in point is the spy thriller Restless by William Boyd. The plot concerns the exploits of a woman working for British intelligence during the second world war and her revelation of this secret past to her daughter thirty years later as she seeks to resolve unfinished business.

To link the two time periods, Boyd has the mother (and spy) enlist the help of her daughter (an Oxford Phd student) to find the whereabouts of her wartime spymaster and lover who betrayed both her and his country. The only information they have to go on is a memory that at some point he received an honour, either a peerage or a knighthood. To track him down, the daughter has to consult her well-connected thesis supervisor, who seems to know everything there is to know about the great and good (or rich and bad).

At this point I groan and sigh. Our protagonist has been trained in the arts of espionage and can remember the most obscure details of what she has done and seen. Is it likely that she would be quite so vague about what honours have been conferred on someone she had once been in love with and who had tried to have her killed? Is it possible that neither our spy nor her Oxford scholar daughter would be aware that everyone who receives a peerage or knighthood is listed in Who’s Who? And just in case the villain tries to wrong-foot everyone by changing his name on being enobled, Who’s Who cross-references noble titles and family name. Each entry also gives an address for each subject, which would have relieved our heroines of the need for the elaborate piece of deception they engage in to be able to follow their quarry home and find out where he lives. It would have been so much easier to visit their local public library.

Marvellous things reference books! Yet I suppose if Boyd had allowed his characters use of them, the plot wouldn’t have been quite as exciting and I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading a whole book in a single sitting, something I haven’t done for many years!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Don't mention the civil war!

Just about caught up after a fortnight in Andalucia and ready to start blogging again. Andalucia is everything on expects from the guide book: wonderful scenery, centuries of architectural history reflecting that southern Spain was territory contested between Christian and Muslim worlds.

With my interest in more recent territory, I looked out for signs of commemmoration of the Spanish civil war. I realised, however, that since the return of democracy the so-called 'pact of silence' has meant there is little recognition by public bodies of the legacy of the war. Avoiding raking up its poisonous legacy was no doubt intended to help embed a new democratic system.

So I was surprised to see engraved on the facade of the Sagradio church in Granada the name Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, a Falangist leader, who might have become a rival to Franco for the leadership of the nationalist causes, but who was executed by the Republican government in 1936. Around the inscription red paint has been splattered on the wall to symbolise blood.

I ask the guide of our walking tour about this. She tells me that recent legislation (presumably passed by the current socialist government) requires the removal of Francoist memorials from public buildings. But the church is exempt from this. It has clearly been unwilling to remove the de Rivera inscription and this has, quite rightly, led to protests.

While I knew perfectly well that the Roman Catholic Church aggressively supported the nationalist side in the civil war, one might have hoped that today it could be a focus for reconciliation, but evidently not. I ask the guide to what extent the church remains a right-of-centre political force in Spain, in a way that is not really the case in Britain. Diplomatically, she says: 'The church is still very powerful in Spain, and has plenty to say about Spanish society.'

Friday, September 30, 2011

Eric Pickles - a man who never puts the bins out

Others have written (here and here) about the Eric Pickles' latest daft idea of a £250 bribe for councils to revert to weekly collections of residual waste.

What strikes me is that Pickles doesn't understand the basics of refuse and recycling collections. While he cultivates the image of blunt, plain-speaking man, he is clearly so remote from everyday life that he never actually puts the bins out. Or else he would know that his proposals do nothing to achieve his stated goal.

According to the Daily Mail, Pickles says that:

My aim has always been to pass the chicken tikka masala test, so the nation’s favourite meal can be consumed on Friday night safe from the worry that two weeks later its remains will still be rotting in the bottom of the bin

But weekly residual waste collections don't achieve this. Leftover tikka masala goes into the food/garden waste bin, not general waste. Packaging goes into recycling bins or boxes. In other words, none of the chicken tikka masala or its packaging should end up in the general waste and none of it will be collected any earlier if councils moved from fortnightly to weekly collections.

The only way to end the rotting tikka masala nightmare would be to introduce weekly collections of food and garden waste. To their immense credit, Lib Dem colleagues in neighbouring Three Rivers have pioneered this, although they have met with little but begrudgery from the Conservatives. But Pickles is not proposing weekly food waste collections.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

CD Review: The Jayhawks - Mockingbird Time

The Jayhawks' trademark sound was based on the harmonies of joint songwriters and frontmen Mark Olson and Gary Louris. It's sixteen years since they recorded together under the Jayhawks moniker, eight since the band sans Olson released a studio album and three since the two of them recorded the (under appreciated) Ready for the Flood album as a duo. So the reunion album Mockingbird Time  has been much anticipated by the band's long-standing followers.

Before the release of the new album they professed the ambition to be the band who produced their best album work later in their career and that Mockingbird Time would be it. This was always going to be a tall order, the more so as their 1992 release Hollywood Town Hall was not only a masterpiece in its own right, but also highly influential, indeed genre-defining.

And so it proves. While Mockingbird Time recaptures the band's classic sound as if a natural successor to Tomorrow the Green Grass, the last Jayhawks album to feature Louris and Olson, this time the songs are not quite there. In particular, the limitations present in Olson's solo work are in evidence here - I liken him to Stephen Stills, writing songs that are worthy and workmanlike but rarely memorable.

One of the things that made the Jayhawks interesting to listen to was the way their songs never went for the obvious hooks (perhaps this is why they never had a hit), but spun off in unexpected directions. That is still the case here, but there is a shortage of good tunes.

This is not to say this is a bad album - the band are too professional in their songwriting and musicianship for that to be the case. The Byrds-influenced 'She walks in so many ways' will be an automatic choice for any future 'Best of' compilations, while Louris's 'Pouring rain at dawn' captures the spirit of wistfulness that is present in all the Jayhawks' best work.

And none of the songs here are weak or embarrassing, it's just that for the most part they are a bit off the pace. One or two reviews I have read suggest that this is an album that grows on you, and perhaps that will be the case. But anyone looking for an introduction to the Jayhawks should still start with Hollywood Town Hall. And for contemporary work in the same vein, try the outstanding Nothing is Wrong by the California band Dawes, who sound like they have listened to a Jayhawks album or two in their time.

Friday, September 23, 2011

So farewell then, REM

Perhaps more surprising than REM splitting up is that they were still together after so many years of releasing indifferent material, with each new album being hailed as a return to form but flattering to deceive.

It also provokes me to reflect on a quirk in my own musical taste, namely a tendency to lose interest in artists I like as soon as they become successful. I was a relatively early follower of REM, first hearing them in 1984 at the time of their second album, Reckoning, and playing 'Don't go back to Rockville' endlessly. Their wistful, melancholic sound was unmistakeable, as were Michael Stipe's mumbled vocals that left you with the impression of profound lyrics that you somehow couldn't quite hear. For a while I would buy everything they recorded as soon as it was released. I even rather liked their much-derided third album, Fables of the Reconstuction (hence the youtube clip).

They seemed to be a band that would remain a reasonably well-kept secret, admired by those of use who enjoyed now following the mainstream. And then of course the sound got louder, Stipe stopped mumbling, 'Everybody hurts' followed 'Shiny happy people' and the secret was out. While Out of time and Automatic for the people were in their own way fine albums, to me they lacked quintessential REM-ness. One started hearing people describe themselves as REM fans, who hadn't heard anything they had recorded before 1992.

So, listening to REM was no fun anymore and I mostly stopped buying the albums. But once upon a time they were indeed special.

Why I have little sympathy for the 'Philharmonic Four'

As an avid reader of newspaper and magazine letters pages, I have often found myself annoyed by people expressing what is clearly a personal opinion, but sending it from their employers' rather than their home address. Academics are particularly guilty of this, and unless they are writing specifically on an issue of professional expertise, there can be no justification for it. Often one suspects they are using their university address to give added gravitas to their opinion on a subject where their opinion is no more expert than anyone else's. At worst author's can give the impression that their view represents that of the institution from which they are writing.

It is in this light that I view the suspension of the so-called 'Philharmonic Four' for signing a letter to the Independent objecting to the participation of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in the Proms. The signatories of the letter in the Daily Telegraph defending their right to express an opinion are (deliberately or otherwise) missing the point. The problem is not that the four musicians expressed a view publicly, but that they signed the letter as members of their orchestra.

When expressing an opinion publicly, in whatever forum, it's always worth being clear about on whose behalf one is speaking or writing. I post on this blog, and occasionally write elsewhere, in a purely personal capacity. Sometimes I have to speak or write officially as a Lib Dem councillor or group leader, occasionally as an executive member of Watford Borough Council. On the other hand I don't have a public-facing role in my permanent job and would avoid even the appearance of speaking on their behalf - for example by signing letters to the press from work rather than home.

And that's where the Philharmonic Four have come a-cropper. Had they each signed as 'musician', it's hard to see how their bosses at the London Philharmonic could have objected. But unwisely, they chose to mention their employers. Of course, one could argue that it's wrong to punish musicians for a practice that academics get away with all the time. Which would be a fair point. But it would be better all round if people avoided using their employer's name to add gravitas to the public voicing of their personal views.

Friday, September 09, 2011

The problem with the rugby world cup

As a fan of the game with the oval shaped ball, I should be rather more excited about the Rugby World Cup than I am. This is because it is a rather unsatisfactory tournament for one simple reason - there are too few games where the result is in doubt and likely to make a difference to who qualifies for the next round.

In soccer there is a sense that in any given match anything can happen. Algeria can hold England to a draw; the cup-holders can be eliminated without winning a game. Even the weaker teams who are unlikely to progress to the next round might have a say in who does qualify.

In rugby this doesn't happen - nearly every time the stronger team will win out, overpowering their opponents, and as teams are allowed to substitute nearly half their players during the course of a match, rugby's powers have ensured an even stronger bias in favour of the bigger rugby playing nations.

By my reckoning , of the 40 pool games only about six that could both be won by either team  and make a difference as to who qualifies. (Those involving Wales, Fiji and Samoa in Pool D and Scotland, England and Argentina in Pool B.)

Admittedly, the last Rugby World Cup did offer some surprises - Argentina's victory over France in the opening game, and their becoming the first country outside the traditional eight to reach the semi-finals and Wales's defeat at the hands of Fiji. Yet still the majority of games at the pool stage started as a foregone conclusion.

Rugby also has been poor at broadening its competitive base - Argentina still don't take part in a major international competition, as a result have not built on their success of four years ago and last month were reduced to playing one of their warm-up games against an English club side.

The tournament will open in a few hours with a game in which the only matter in doubt is whether Tonga will be able to restrict New Zealand to a margin of victory lower than 50 points (unlikely). So I shall wish the underdogs well (other than those playing Scotland or, in deference to my dear wife, Wales) but suspect I won't be watching all that many games.

Monday, August 22, 2011

On prejudice against country music

The Independent's pop music critic Simon Price excuses his surprise at learning that the country and western artist Brad Paisley sold out the O2 arena by saying 'he operates in a genre which still dare not speak its name in sophisticated company.' He adds:

The one thing, in the great tribal Taste Wars of the Eighties, that everyone could agree on was that country-and-western was rubbish. Even its main British proponent had to sneak past the defences by giving himself the self-consciously wacky name Hank Wangford.

While it's certainly the case that people who should know better unthinkingly mock country music, the above comment is testament more to the author's ignorance than anything else. While there was plenty of cheesy and naff country music around in the 1980s that was only part of the story. Elvis Costello recorded an album of country and western standards that spawned hit singles. Bands like Jason and the Scorchers and the Long Ryders fused country and punk influences in a way that was just as reverential to the former as the latter. And Paisley Underground bands such as REM, while hardly belonging in the country section of record shops, were clearly influenced by country music traditions.
If all of the above don't qualify as country, there were plenty of respected artists around who did. Steve Earle (see youtube link) was a kind of country-and-western Bruce Springsteen. Dwight Yoakam revived and reinvented traditional, hard-core country, while Rosanne Cash, kd lang and Nanci Griffith each emerged as serious songwriters working within a country-and-western tradition.
Simon Price's comment is a bit like saying all rock music is naff and citing the oeuvre of Cliff Richard as proof.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Total Politics blogger awards voting thingummy

I don't really approve of such beauty contests, but in response to the various pleas (now I know how voters feel when they are knocked up) have given in, logged on and voted.

But those folk at Total Politics don't make it easy. For your vote to count you have to name five blogs, then separately name five bloggers, write 'Blank' down the rest of the list, designate the Blank by category (I thought 'Non-Aligned' was best) then name your favourite twitterer or whatever.

It took me three goes to cast my vote successfully. If I didn't have better things to do I wouldn't have bothered.

More on Richard Webster

There is an obituary at the Good Enough Caring blog by Mark Smith of the writer Richard Webster, about whom I wrote recently. It might seem a little eccentric of me to post twice about a relatively obscure writer whose work is a little removed from the normal subject matter of this blog.

But one of Webster's preoccupations was the concept of 'noble cause corruption' - how people can be less than scrupulous methods in promoting a cause that they believe to have an overriding good. It is regular, if intermittent interest of mine, and part of the reason for the name of this blog.

At St Edmundsbury Cathedral

The weekend took me to Bury St Edmunds where I was surprised and delighted to realise that the Perpendicular Gothic tower of St Edmundsbury Cathedral was completed as recently as 2005. I didn't think they still did that sort of thing, and can imagine voices saying that there were better causes to spend the money on, or that additions and alterations to the cathedral should be in a contemporary rather than traditional style. The architect Stephen Dykes Bower, was a Gothic revivalist and official 'Surveyor of the Fabric' for Westminster Abbey. When he died in 1994 he left a legacy to St Edmundsbury so that the tower could be completed.

We were told by a guide that before the tower was completed there had indeed been many local people who were sceptical of the tower project, but now it was finished there was almost universal agreement that it was worthwhile. Which I suppose goes to show that sometimes it is worth being bold and courageous even where a project is not universally supported.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The riots: are Labour no longer quite so tough on crime?

It was predictable that figures on the left of Labour such as Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbott  should be quick to link the riots to the coalition government’s spending cuts. Less so perhaps that the party’s deputy leader and New Labour establishment figure Harriet Harman should do the same. It raises the question of whether Labour’s curious journey on crime has come full circle.

Back in the 1980s one could be forgiven for thinking that much of the Labour party, while by no means condoning crime, believed that much of it was an understandable if regrettable response to Thatcher’s cuts. Labour viewed the police with suspicion, particularly after the miners’ strike. At local level they could be reluctant to support initiatives like Neighbourhood Watch, or to tackle low-level criminal and nuisance activities that later became known as anti-social behaviour.

Such attitudes were doubtless sincere enough, but they didn’t play well with the sort of voters Labour needed to win a general election. As Labour’s shadow home secretary, Tony Blair set about mending fences with the police and changing Labour’s rhetorical tone to the ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ formula. In doing so he managed to neutralise a perceived weakness of the party. But this wasn’t enough.

When Blair took over the leadership, one of New Labour’s trademarks was establishing that they were the party that was toughest on crime. To this end, the Blair government introduced endless new pieces of legislation and hundreds of new criminal offences introduced in a bid to outflank all comers (including the Tories, the traditional law and order party) on the right on crime policy. Labour were the party that was against crime, so by definition their opponents, especially the Lib Dems, weren’t. (See Nick Cohen’s book Pretty Straight Guys for more on this.)

Any attempt by opponents to suggest that things were more complex than government propaganda implied was derided as a sign that they were ‘on the side of the criminals’. I never ceased to be surprised at how easily Labour activists (even those who were active in the 1980s) adopted this rhetoric, using their ‘tough on crime’ versus ‘soft on crime’ mantra in leaflets, attacking opponents for not issuing enough ASBOs etc.

Now, and perhaps because they can’t resist attacking the cuts, Labour’s tone has come over all atavistic. It is true that in his House of Commons speech Ed Miliband did not blame the cuts for the riots. But one could well imagine that if the riots had happened two years ago, and Nick Clegg had made a similar to speech to the nuanced one Miliband made yesterday, Labour would have been very quick to spin the final section of it as condoning the rioters .

If this event marks a rowing back from Labour’s ‘tougher than the rest’ approach to criminal justice then that is to be welcomed. Things are indeed more complex than being either against crime or in favour of it. A sensible debate free from emotive posturing would be a good thing. Yet in the cold light of day Labour will wish to avoid any hint of appearing as apologists for the rioters, thereby compromising position on law and order. But I can well imagine that Conservative, and perhaps even Lib Dem strategists will be itching to turn Labour’s past rhetoric back on them. Indeed this may well already have started.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Liberal party and the Spanish civil war

Sticking to a historical theme, I notice we have just passed the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish civil war. Following the nationalist rebellion in July 1936, the main European powers pursued a policy of non-intervention that was flagrantly flouted by fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

One of the tragedies of this conflict was how lukewarm, the major democracies were about preserving democratic government in Spain (however flawed it was) and standing up to dictatorship. Most people who have any knowledge of this period will be aware of the International Brigade who fought to defend republican Spain. But what was the position of the British Liberal party? Well-meaning enough, it would seem, in calling for the spirit of non-intervention to be maintained, but hardly heroic. In his book Liberals International Relations and Appeasement, Richard Grayson writes

The Liberal Party never came to see events in Spain as an opportunity for making a stand against the dictators, as the party's main aim was to ensure that the war remained an internatl dispute. By the time it became apparent that this would never happen, it was too late. The work of Wilfrid Roberts, the Liberal MP for North Cumberland, as a political and humanitarian campaigner for the Republic was the only significant Liberal contribution to the struggle.

Journal of Liberal History Issue 71

I see that the summer edition of the Journal of Liberal History includes my review of Ross McKibbin's Parties and people: England 1914-51.

More than that it there are articles by Martin Horwood MP on Cheltenham's Liberal history, Ross Finnie on Russell Johnston and Kevin Theakston on the afterlives of former Liberal prime ministers. It's an impressive achievement of Duncan Brack (who must also be busy with other things) and his editorial team to keep producing this quarterly journal, which is not only highly-readable, but contains original, peer-reviewed research.

Subscriptions are a bargain at £20, giving also membership of the Liberal Democrat History Group. By subscribing you will not only have an enjoyable read four times a year, but also helping to promote interest in the rich and diverse history of the Liberal Democrats and their predecessor parties.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Pickles on town centre parking: ignoring the evidence, playing to the gallery

Anyone who has been involved in local politics or community and residents' groups will recognise the following: the person who knows for certain the solution to all an area's parking, traffic and transport problems, who is completely confident that his solutions are the only possible way forward and that only idiot councillors and officials could fail to support everything he proposes. He dismisses all counter-arguments as 'rubbish' and is unable to conceive of alternative points of view, let alone how many of his neighbours see things differently.

For the most part, the job of elected representatives is to listen to all viewpoints, consider the nuances of any policy issue and try to find the best way forward. Sadly, today we have Mr 'I Know Best About Everything' as secretary of state for communities and local government, and his latest pronouncement is that 'fairer' (i.e. more) parking in urban development will help to boost high streets and town centres. Although couched partly in terms of giving councils more freedom, the logic of Mr Pickles' rhetoric is that councils ought to end 'anti-car restrictions' and encourage more parking. This is all part of 'ending Labour's war on the motorist'.

In fact, while Labour's policy was dirigiste in the extreme, they merely continued and strengthened the approach taken by John Gummer in the previous Conservative government. Whether because of genuine support for the sustainability agenda, or because Conservative voters were angry at increasing greenfield development, high streets being destroyed by out-of-town shopping centres etc., the Major government began to re-think planning policy. Whereas since the 1960s the planning system had encouraged low-density development, which militated in favour of building on greenfield, out- and edge-of-town sites, the government now tried to encourage urban renewal, particularly by ending restrictions that meant town centre development had to have suburban levels of parking, amenity space and the like, which had made regeneration more difficult.

So trying to limit parking in urban development was not simply a perverse attack on motorists, but a rational response to planning and transport issues that was broadly shared across the political spectrum (even if Labour were unnecessarily control freakish about it).

Living Streets has posted a brief but pointed critique of Pickles (hat-tip Jonathan Calder). But Pickles would probably regard Living Streets as exactly the sort of tree hugging organisation that wages war on the motorist. So let's look at the practical, straightforward problems with increasing town centre parking that someone only slightly more open-minded than Mr Pickles might sympathise with.

In the first place, many town and city centres suffer from traffic congestion, which can be very frustrating to motorists. Providing more and cheaper car parking to encourage people to drive into town, rather than use other transport methods, will only add to motorists' frustration without doing much to improve town centre economies. Unless of course the government funds a massive road-building programme to enable people to drive to the new car parks. But even those not worried about the unsustainability of such an approach might recognise that large-scale urban road building has hardly been a panacea for town and city centres.

Secondly, parking space provides less economic benefit than business floorspace or housing (it certainly attracts lower business rates) so more parking really doesn't offer good value for money or make urban development more viable. Given the space constraints that often affect urban sites, developers forced to reduce the number of homes, offices or shops in a scheme in order to provide more parking may well seek to develop out-of-town instead, where there is plenty of room for everything. Which will kind of undermine the notion of improving the economic health of the high street.

Lastly, on Pickles' criticism of 'parking fines, soaring parking charges and a lack of parking spaces'. These are things that can and do contribute towards making town centres work effectively. Without parking charges and regulation, spaces would be used by commuters that are needed by shoppers on whose custom town centres depend. Parking controls, pedestrianisation and the like can also help to create reasonably pleasant town centre environments that people want to visit: i.e. that are safe for children, aren't full of car fumes, and either traffic jams or fast-moving traffic. While Pickles claims to want to 'assist mums struggling with their family shop' his policies would make things worse for them: added congestion during their journey, supposedly free car parking spaces already taken up for the day by town centre workers and a feeling that this isn't a safe or environment to bring your children to.

I am not sure which is worse: the thought that Pickles can't and won't understand such arguments, or that he understands them perfectly well, knows his policies will make little practical difference, but is just playing to the gallery to give the impression that there are simple solutions to problems that are in fact rather complex.

(Later): I see my dear wife is advising me not to get wound up by Mr Pickles.

Jayhawks live at the HMV Forum, Kentish Town

To the HMV Forum last night to see The Jayhawks perform in their classic, mid-90s line up, for the first time in 16 years. They have a new album coming out in the autumn, and apparently the reunion is permanent rather than a one-off tour.

The last time I saw the Jayhawks in this incarnation they appeared set to make the commercial breakthrough with their single 'Blue'. They were supported by a little-known band called Wilco, who were less than memorable (in fairness their first album A.M. released that year gave little hint of the great things to come.) But it was Wilco who made it big, while the Jayhawks lost one of their two main songwriters and remained in obscurity.

This reunion would have once seemed very unlikely. But it is still very welcome. Last night they were in fine fettle, trademark sound intact and the harmony singing of their two leading lights Gary Louris and Mark Olson to the fore. The overwhelming majority of the set came from the two albums for which they are best known, Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, released before Olson left the group in 1995.

Much to enjoy and praise therefore. The only disappointment is the virtual absence of material from the three albums released after Olson's departure. Nor was there anything from last year's Ready for the Flood album by Olson and Louris without the Jayhawks. Perhaps it's a tact and diplomacy thing within the band, so they are pretending the years between 1995 and 2010 never happened. But those of us who have followed the Jayhawks through their career might have wanted a more representative set (or at least I did).

But it's a minor quibble. It was an excellent evening, they played many of my favourite songs, the new material sounds promising. Who knows, maybe this time around they will win the wide audience that their previous work deserved but never got.
I couldn't find a decent clip of their 2011 tour, so the above from 1995 introduced by a very young-looking Jon Stewart will have to do.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Cultural historian Richard Webster dies

I was sorry to read of the recent death of the cultural historian Richard Webster, who was the subject of a belated Guardian obituary a few days ago.

Although he wrote on a range of subjects, from Freud to the Salman Rushdie affair, he was best known in recent years for his work exposing injustices suffered by residential care workers arising from the 'trawling' methods used by the police when investigating cases of historic child abuse.

While Webster was very clear that abuse can and did happen ('some of those who are now in prison are there for no other reason than that they are guilty of the crimes alleged against them'), he argued in his compelling and thoroughly-researched book The secret of Bryn Estyn that there many innocent people had ended up accused and convicted, as a result of (in the words of the Guardian obituary) 'public hysteria, fuelled by credulous journalists and ratified through inefficient police investigative techniques'.

This was a brave stance to take, and one that was predictably often misrepresented by those he criticised. He was clear that the basis for paedophile (and other) panics was not the anger of the mob. Instead he argued that:

'Witch hunts don’t happen without an educated elite behind them. In the past, bishops and priests let panics loose. Today it is the police, social workers and broadsheet journalists.'

He used the phrase 'witch hunts' not as lazy journalese but as one who had studied the read phenomenon of medieval witch hunts.

Although an atheist himself, he believed that a modern, secular, rationalist society, confident that it had left religious superstition behind, was actually more rather than less susceptible to such collective fantasies than were those of previous eras:

The widespread belief that, belonging as we do to a rational scientific age, we are no longer vulnerable to such fantasies, is itself one of the most dangerous of all our delusions.

In many ways this was the unifying theme in his diverse body of work. His website, which collects the eclectic range of essays he wrote, remains available for the time being.

See also this review of The secret of Bryn Estyn by Edinburgh University academic Mark Smith, which is published on my father's Good Enough Caring website.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Glasman Staggers

The New Statesman has fallen over itself to come to the rescue of Maurice Glasman after his faux pas in calling for a total ban on immigration. There was a sympathetic editorial last week and an article by the great man this week.

All of which is fine - Glasman has interesting things to say and the Blue Labour concept is a sign of how all parties these days are to some extent embracing community politics.

Yet it is hard to imagine that if any Conservative or (God forbid) Lib Dem figure had made similar comments, the Staggers would have given them such an easy ride.

The message is clear: it's OK to make unacceptably right-wing comments, so long as you're Labour!

Obscure moments in Liberal history: How Lembit Opik deprived Dan Falchikov of a seat on the NUS national executive

I see that Dan Falchikov has a reservation or two about Lembit Opik's campaign to become Lib Dem candidate for Mayor of London.

What I suspect even Dan doesn't remember is that long ago Lembit effectively denied him a place on the prestigious and exalted National Executive of the National Union of Students.

As a student in the 1980s I developed the eccentric habit of standing for election for the Leicester University delegation to the NUS conference. A couple of times I even got elected, finding myself the lone Liberal among leftists of various stripes. This was also pretty much the balance of representation in the conference as a whole.

In 1987 the Liberals were hoping to retain their single seat on the national executive. Dan was our candidate. His best chance of election was for one of the 12 part-time posts, which were elected by STV in blocks of 3, 4 and 5. As STV afficionados will realise, our best hope was in the block of 5, which needed a lower quota to be elected. There should have been enough committed Liberal or SDP delegates, together with non-aligned non-socialists to scrape a seat.

Unfortunately, Lembit, standing as an independent, spoiled everything by contesting a seat in this block. He had enjoyed positive national coverage as president of Bristol University Students Union during the on-campus demonstrations over Professor John Vincent's Sun column. He then garnered an impressive number of votes in losing to Labour for NUS President. So he could have won a seat in the more difficult elections for the blocks of three or four. But by standing in the block of five he siphoned off the floating votes that we needed to get Dan elected and left the NUS national executive without Liberal representation for the first time in many years.

I am slightly ashamed of remembering all this - it marks me out as a true political anorak. But it was Lembit's first venture onto the national stage. Had things gone only slightly differently, it might have been Dan who ended up as an MP in rural Wales with semi-celebrity status, and Lembit as a "plain-speaking" blogger and party activist. But I suspect Dan wouldn't have blown a 7,000+ majority. And he's certainly right about the folly of Lembit's mayoral campaign.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Who's to blame for the lack of a core Lib Dem vote?

Via Iain Roberts on Lib Dem Voice, I spotted Simon Titley’s article in the latest issue of liberator about the failure of the Liberal Democrats to build a larger core vote. Unfortunately, Simon does his usual trick of spoiling some interesting arguments by descending into Pythonesque ranting:

If you have ever held back from proclaiming liberal values because you were afraid it might offend someone, it’s your fault. If your Focus leaflets are a politics-free zone, full of hackneyed slogans that haven’t changed for thirty years, it’s your fault. If you think “we can win everywhere” is a satisfactory strategy, it’s your fault. If you think the party can advance solely by a ‘ground war’, it’s your fault. If you think the party can advance solely by an ‘air war', it’s your fault. If you are an anti-intellectual who rejects political thought and debate because it gets in the way of leafleting, it’s your fault…[etc. etc., you get the picture.]
I don’t suppose anyone would answer to the full pantomime villain description conjured up – ‘Yes, I’m an anti-intellectual who rejects political thought’. But, as one who has spent much of the last quarter-of-a-century writing leaflets, helping to organise local and parliamentary election campaigns, while making the political and intellectual compromises that go with such territory, I can’t really avoid considering myself among the accused. The party’s present plight is in a sense all my fault!

But before I book myself into a political re-education camp to be reprogrammed in the ways of Liberalism, let me put in a plea of mitigation on behalf of myself and fellow defendants.

For most of the last century the main political discourse in Britain, the core choice for voters, has been between a small state/capitalist/middle class party and a social democratic/big state/working class party. Voters choose their government from these two options. The Liberal Democrats (and their predecessors) haven’t neatly fitted into this battle and emphasise values that are outside the main debate. We are asking people to opt out of the big decision about who governs and vote for us instead. Which isn't easy, because when it comes down to it most people are likely to have a preference for Labour or Conservative government and a temptation to vote for one to keep the other out of office.

This wouldn’t matter if we had proportional representation. Under a fairer electoral system we could market ourselves as a niche party, drawing support from voters who care about distinctively Liberal issues: civil liberties, workplace democracy, environmentalism, a humane criminal justice policy, constitutional reform and the like. By emphasising such matters in our campaigns, we could build up a small but loyal core support. Perhaps around 10% of the electorate would vote for such an agenda, much less than the Lib Dem vote share in recent elections. But it wouldn’t matter because we could be confident of regularly winning 50 or so parliamentary seats, with reasonable hope of regular participation in government as a junior coalition partner, and exercising a distinctively liberal influence when we do.

But we don’t have proportional representation. Even the largest imaginable core Liberal vote would win us few councillors or MPs. To be politically relevant we need to win council and parliamentary seats under first-past-the-post. Usually this means winning at least 40 per cent of the vote in any given electoral area, more than any core Liberal vote we could dream of. And that militates against taking very controversial positions on major issues, or going on about things that are distinctively Liberal, but which the average voter regards as cranky. To broaden our support, we have gained success through community politics, in particular as adapted by Chris Rennard for parliamentary elections, tactical voting and the idea of Lib Dem MP as local hero. This has meant talking about the issues that matter to voters in ways that make sense to them. As we now have 57 MPs, something that many of us could have barely imagined when we joined the party, our campaigning methods have had some success. They are also not so very different from what the other parties do. Thatcher, Blair and Cameron have in their own way taken their core vote for granted and aimed at winning the support of the uncommitted.

Yet there is a problem here. Perhaps because of the party’s reliance on the genius of Chris Rennard, we have ended up with an over-mighty campaigns department always focused on getting votes in the next election, not in campaigning for distinctively Liberal causes or values. It can be a cause for mockery if someone mentions constitutional reform Europe or civil liberties in a Focus leaflet. The lack of willingness to campaign in a distinctively Liberal manner does get noticed. The drug law reform charity Transform pointed out at the last election that:

Whilst the Lib Dems appear to have made the intellectual journey on drug policy reform… it remains an issue on which they have generally been defensive, (choosing to avoid - sometimes even deny) rather than one they actively campaign on.
Which is fair comment, except that Transform don’t have to fight elections while being vilified by opponents for being ‘soft on drugs’.

There is a difficult balance to be struck between winning enough votes and seats to keep us in the political game versus promoting a distinctive Liberal identity. Those of us charged with campaigning for the party, whether at local or national level have not always got the balance right. But, just perhaps, the problem is a little bit more complicated than Simon Titley suggests, and is deserving of reasoned discussion rather than abuse and blame.