Sunday, January 30, 2011

Musical artists and their imperceptibly radical changes of direction

I'm starting to worry whether there is something wrong with my ears. Not that I am going deaf but merely that other people hear things I don't.

This is really to do with listening to music. I keep having this odd experience of critics announcing that the latest album by a band or artist I like is a radical new departure, but where I don't really spot much of a difference.

I have just bought the new offering from The Decemberists, of which the reviewer on AllMusic comments

Raised on a steady diet of Morrissey, Robyn Hitchcock, Shirley Collins, and Fairport Convention, The King Is Dead represents [Decemberists] frontman Colin Meloy's first foray into the musical traditions of his homeland, or more specifically, it proves that he really, really likes R.E.M

To me, however, the latest Decemberists album reminds me uncannily of other Decemberists albums. The singer has a distinctive voice, there still seems to be a lot of fiddle and accordian in there, and the influence of English folk music is apparent. Unlike on their last two efforts, there is no hint of Prog-style concept album or multi-part songs here, but the sound is much the same.

I found this last year when the album The courage of others by Midlake was hailed as a radical departure, sounding like Fairport Convention whereas their previous release The trials of Van Occupanther sounded like Fleetwood Mac. Again, the two sounded very similar to me.

But then I grew up liking Neil Young who in the first four years after I started listening to him realised successive records that switched from heavy rock to electronica to rockabilly to country and western. Spoonfed by such unmissable changes in style, perhaps I just don't appreciate other artists' more nuanced sonic evolutions.

Interested readers can compare this from the Decemberists 2009 album 'The Hazards of Love' with the embedded youtube link in this post to the opening track from their new one. See what you think!

Lib Dem case for a flat tax?

I had always assumed that a flat taxw was right-wing nonsense, but Dan Falchikov outlines how it can be progressive. Apparently 'The key is to have a sufficiently high tax rate and a sufficiently large tax free allowance'.

Is the Daily Mail demanding higher public spending?

Just occasionally I wonder whether right-wing tabloids might not be entirely ideologically consistent. This week the Daily Mail took to task two councils for limiting households to 80 rubbish sacks per year, or as the headline put it:
Despite ministers' vows, bin police are at it again: Families are rationed to 80 bags of rubbish a year

But hang on a second: Conservative-run Wokingham Council says it will save over £900,000 by this proposal(presumably by reducing landfill costs). Now if there's one thing I thought I understood about right-wing tabloids' attitudes towards local councils, it's that they opposed unnecessary spending of taxpayers' money and the increased council tax levels that inevitably follow. So to be consistent the Mail should be applauding the thrift of Wokingham in saving public money by avoiding unnecessary costs.

A variant on this sort of confusion was shown a few weeks ago in the Sunday Times (tabloid in tone if not format and certainly right-of-centre) attacking councils for introducing 'stealth taxes'. On closer inspection it turned out that in many cases councils were actually increasing the fees charges for loss-making services that are to a greater or lesser extent subsidised by taxpayers (allotments, burial plots, bus passes etc.). While a Lib Dem like me might defend the social benefits such subsidies and accept increased charges at best with great reluctance, the Sunday Times surely ought to approve of what is effectively a public spending cut.

But it would be too much to expect ideological consistency from newspapers when government ministers are so confused. Conservative housing and local government minister Grant Shapps is quoted in the Daily Mail as saying on the refuse sacks issue:
If councils think they can hammer residents with stealth taxes through this sneaky route, the Government is prepared to take whatever steps necessary to protect taxpayers’ interests.’

Now there are two points here. In the first place what Wokingham is doing isn't a tax it's if anything a way of keeping tax down. And secondly, I thought the government wants to devolve decisions to local level, which is why it has just published a Localism Bill, which purports to 'shift power from central government back into the hands of individuals, communities and councils'. Now Mr Shapps wants to micromanage how individual councils organise their refuse service, and indeed any other decisions they may make that, however inaccurately, he categorises as 'stealth taxes'.

I suspect that all this reflects the ideological confusion of our age with its wish for Scandinavian-levels of public services at American levels of taxation. Shapps, Daily Mail, Sunday Times want spending cuts, but object to the measures that public bodies actually have to take to deliver such cuts, and the reality that this does have an impact on services to the public.

PS: I should say that Watford Borough Council has weekly waste collections, and uses wheelie bins not black sacks, so we are not planning to follow in Wokingham's footsteps.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Theology of guesthouse management reprised

It's always nice to find someone else saying the same things as oneself. I note that Independent columnist Christina Patterson wrote in yesterday's paper on the case of Cornwall guest house owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull:

if you have very strong feelings about other people's sexual behaviour, then you should probably choose a business that doesn't focus quite so heavily on beds.

This is pleasingly in line with my conclusion that

If Mr and Mrs Bull regard their guest house as an articulation of their theological outlook, rather than a service for which people pay money, then perhaps they are in the wrong trade.

Unfortunately, I very rarely read the Independent and only did so yesterday because friends I was visiting had a copy. So I know very little about Christina Patterson and whether or not it's a good thing to find oneself in agreement with her.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Gable Endies go down at East End Park

Despite an impressive three goals in the away replay at Dunfermline, Montrose went down 5-3 earlier in the week.

Worse than that, another of my teams, Dundee, have had their 25-point deduction confirmed, sending them in an instant from contending for promotion to fighting against relegation.

And Coventry City are off the boil just now.

But this is where supporting four teams comes in handy. Watford are doing rather well at the moment - as one might expect given that they are managed by a Scot.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Penny dreadful

Jonathan Calder has reaped a whirlwind of hostile comment by remarking on the case of left-wing writer Laurie Penny's attempts to recruit an researcher at below the minimum wage.

I don't have a problem with Penny's privileged background. Well and good if someone's views are not conditioned by their upbringing.

But her prose style, consisting largely of student union style rants, is certainly tiresome. So it would take a heart of stone not to feel a sense of schadenfreude at a member of the sanctimonious left being caught using a variation on the intern system, which is at once exploitative and likely to give the already privileged a further advantage.

Christian morality shouldn't mean refusing to allow gay couples to share a double bed

Peter and Hazelmary Bull, the guesthouse owners who have been found guilty of discrimination by turning away a gay couple, are the latest on the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph roll call of Christian martyrs. At the same time they present Christianity in an intolerant and petty-minded light.

Despite being a Christian (albeit with irregular church attendance and various heterodox beliefs), I think the judge made the right decision and have little sympathy for Mr and Mrs Bull. But then, mine is a liberal Christianity, and in common with a good proportion of my Roman Catholic co-religionists, I politely disagree with many of the Pope’s strictures on sexual morality. However, even if Mr and Mrs Bull belong to a stricter Christian tradition and accept the traditional teaching of the church (not necessarily that of Jesus Christ) on such matters, I don’t see that this requires them to refuse to let gay couples stay in a double bed at their guest house.

Their policy is described in news reports as allowing only married couples to stay in double-bedded rooms. To enforce this effectively they would have to check the marriage certificates of guests, together with other identification to confirm that the names tally with the certificate. Then there are awkward theological issues of second marriages following divorces, where guests may be legally married but in the eyes of some churches living in a state of adultery. Also, presumably it’s all right for guests of the same gender to share a twin-bedded room. But twin beds hardly preclude sexual activity (and for that matter a double bed isn’t necessarily confirmation of it). Unless Mr and Mrs Bull run their establishment more like a prison than a guest house, then all manner of sinfulness may be going on under their roof and they can’t really hope to prevent it. In which case banning same-sex couples is a selective display of mean spiritedness (at best) rather than a principled upholding of sincere beliefs.

Actually, anyone running a business providing a service to the public is not well advised to select their customers on the basis of approval or otherwise of their lifestyle and personal morality. It’s bound to lead to trouble.

If Mr and Mrs Bull regard their guest house as an articulation of their theological outlook, rather than a service for which people pay money, then perhaps they are in the wrong trade.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Progressivism yet once more

It's never to late to restart a quarrel, or rather engage in constructive debate.

I have only just noticed that back in November the Contrasting Sounds blog took me to task for defending the use of the term 'Progressive' (“Progressive”: Orwell himself thinks it’s Orwellian.)

Orwell is supposed to have said that some things are true even if they do appear in the Daily Telegraph, and equally some views be wrong even if they were held by George Orwell. The author of Contrasting Sounds objects to my definition of 'Progressive' as meaning 'those who, regardless of party, see their political outlook as being about championing the poor, the excluded and the disempowered against the established order'. He says that this can be paraphrased as “I care more than other people do”' and implies that non-Progressives are 'Nasty people, presumably, like the Conservative Party'.

But actually, that's not what I meant. The word 'Progressive' contrasts quite neatly with 'Conservative', and although I might say differently when sounding off in the heat of the moment, I accept that it's possible to hold Conservative views without being nasty or uncaring. An anti-Progressive argument might run something like this: 'Attempts to favour the poor have unintended consequences that hurt those they are meant to help, by stifling enterprise and initiative. They can lead to a culture of envy that is damaging to society as a whole. They can be socially and economically destabilising and most people will be happier and more prosperous through the preservation of the existing order.' A perfectly respectable outlook, one with which I sometimes have some sympathy, but with which in the end I don't agree.

So using the word 'Progressive' as a political description is not just a way of saying 'nice not nasty' but of reflecting a politican outlook.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

"Labour scourged you with inspection, I will scourge you with Pickles"

Lib Dem local government leaders have called for regime change at the Department of Communities and Local government (DCLG). It is hardly a secret that relations between the department and local government are at an all-time low.

This might be dismissed as simply councillors defending producer interests, but none of the Lib Dems quoted, Chris White, Gerald Vernon-Jackson and Richard Kemp are ones to romanticise local councils or deny their shortcomings. They just have a basic belief, which the government is supposed to share, that democratic local government has a part to play in representing and delivering services to people.

It is quite an achievement that when much of the government's localism agenda is welcomed by local government, relations between DCLG and councils are so bad. Even the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association admits that local government has a more civilised relationship with the health and education departments than with DCLG.

The problem is that in Eric Pickles the DCLG has a secretary of state who is not a serious person. He gives the impression of being more suited to sitting in a pub sounding off about how awful the council is than to running a government department. Despite the hands-off, localism agenda professed by the coalition, from the first he has been unable to stop himself trying to micromanage local government by soundbite (further example here). It is not the job of DCLG to be the uncritical champion of local government, but nor should the secretary of state hold it in unconcealed contempt. (Such attitudes may arise from his own period as leader of a council being abruptly terminated at the first opportunity by an ungrateful electorate.)

Richard Kemp may have a point when he suggests:

If [local government is] to be central to public sector delivery wouldn’t it be better to be part of the Cabinet Office which is central to public sector delivery?

Far better that than DCLG, a Mickey Mouse department, currently led by a cartoon character. There would be a delightful irony if Eric Pickles, the denouncer of 'non-jobs' in local government, found the biggest non-job of all was his own.

Progressive problems

Alert readers may have noticed my use of the word 'progressive' in inverted commas in the last post.

The usefulness of this term for Liberal Democrats seems to be the source of some debate, most recently in Lib Dem Voice, and which I have previously addressed here.

One can make a case for the use of the term 'Progressive'. It does have some historical validity, it is a suitable description for graduated taxation, and is a useful catch-all term for all those, of differing political traditions, whose goals are to improve the position of the less well off and less powerful in society.

But why say 'Progressive' when what we mean is 'Liberal'? Here, the problem lies in internal debates among Lib Dems, and particularly the tendency on the 'left' of the party to caricature 'economic liberalism' as crypto-Thatcherism.

I am more than happy to be considered Liberal in political, social and economic views alike. As Asquith said, I am a Liberal "without prefix or suffix" (except 'Democrat' in the party title but that's a different matter.) I don't see why the concept of 'economic liberalism' should be defined by those who aren't Liberals but right-wing Conservatives. And for Lib Dems to disavow liberal economics is to preclude any possibility of differentiating our approach to economics from that favoured by socialists.

Unfortunately the term 'economic liberal' is tainted even among many Lib Dems. If I say I support the government's economic policy because it is 'liberal', what I mean is that with some reservations and caveats I believe it to be aimed at protecting the poor and less powerful. But in this context support for 'liberal' policy can easily be misrepresented as meaning that the government is engaged on an ideological Thatcherite project to slash public spending that I endorse. Hence one resorts to describing policy as 'Progressive'.

The answer is for Liberals to champion a consistent Liberal ethic not hedge their Liberalism with qualifying adjectives.

Keynes would back the coalition says Cable

Vince Cable has an essay in this week's New Statesman arguing that modern Keynesian economists are wrong to cite Keynes to justify opposition to the government's public spending reductions. The whole article doesn't appear to be available to non-subscribers but there is a summary here.

The essay is a riposte to an article by Keynes's biographer Robert Skidelsky in October. Vince Cable comments:

... we should be sceptical about Keynsian economists, however distinguished, who conspicuously failed to anticipate the financial critis and now blithely ignore its consequences. Skidelsky's essay does not even make passing reference to the banking crisis, like someone dispensing advice on earthquake relief without any refernce to past or future earthquakes.

The article is to be welcomed for a number of reasons. First it is a good thing that Vince is making the 'progressive' argument for the government's measures - this is necessary if the debate is not simply to be polarised as Tory measures facing Labour opposition. Second it is a sign of identying a clear Lib Dem identity within the government - many Tories would not be pleased at the thought of Keynes being on their side. Third it is a hint of some degree of pluralism remaining at the New Statesman.

Incidentally, I can't help puzzling over the political trajectory of Lord Skidelsky, Vince Cable's intellectual sparring partner in this debate. A Labour supporter who joined the SDP, he was among the Owenites who stood out against merger (presumably finding the Lib Dems too lefty and irresponsible). For a time he took the Conservative whip in the House of Lords. During this period I remember him addressing a Liberal Democrat History Group meeting on Keynes and telling us all 'Keynes was right, but he can't be used'. Now it seems Keynes can be used and Skidelsky is criticising the Lib Dems ostensibly from the left.

Friday, January 14, 2011

On the frustrations of deluxe, expanded, legacy editions of favourite albums

Next week two CDs by one of my favourite bands, alt-country pioneers The Jayhawks, are re-released in 'legacy' or 'expanded' editions. This gives me mixed feelings. I already own both CDs and in order to obtain the additional material included in the deluxe model have to buy them both all over again. Looking at the new material, a significant amount appears to be alternative versions of songs already released in some shape or form. So to obtain about 10 songs that I don't already have in my collection, I have to buy two separate CDs at a cost even via Amazon of over £20. I suppose I could see if I can download individual tracks, but that won't quite be the same as owning the CD, complete with packaging, liner notes etc.

No doubt I shall give in - The Jayhawks never enjoyed the commercial success they deserve and I should be glad to give them my patronage. But the whole idea of deluxe expanded legacy editions still rankles.

(On the other hand for those who like music in the Neil Young, Gram Parsons, Wilco vein, but who don't own either Hollywood Town Hall or Tomorrow The Green Grass by The Jayhawks then the new editions released next week look like a good buy.)

Are the Lib Dems jinxed in Oldham East and Saddleworth?

The latest chapter in this seat's electoral history makes me wonder if there isn't something in the stars that stops it falling into Liberal Democrat hands.

In 1992 a strong performance by Chris Davies in the former Littleborough and Saddleworth constituency made this look made this a prime candidate for a gain from the Tories at the next general election. The Lib Dems were in a close second place with a considerable Labour vote to squeeze.

Then came the by-election following the death of Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens. Although Chris Davies's victory was an important boost to the party when it was struggling to appear relevant at the height or Blair's popularity, it also showed that Labour could win the seat, which they duly did on revised boundaries in 1997.

But the longer-term prospects still looked good - it would surely fall into Lib Dem hands as soon as Labour's national success waned, with now a big Tory vote to squeeze. It was even one of just three seats where the Lib Dems topped the poll in the 1999 European elections (helped of course by Davies heading the Lib Dem list in that election).

Unfortunately the 2001 Oldham riots seemed to work against the Lib Dems, possibly pushing moderate voters towards Labour as the surest way of fighting off the BNP. One might have expected a seat with a high Muslim population to swing to the Lib Dems in 2005 in the wake of the Iraq war. Yet amid controversy about where the Lib Dem candidate lived and other such things, the national swing from Labour to the Lib Dems failed to materialise in the seat.

And last year Elwyn Watkins missed out by just 103 with a frustrating increase in the third-placed Conservative vote. Now the seat has been the scene of the first by-election to take place after the party entered coalition government with all its attendant difficult decisions. So the seat has eluded us once again.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

State schools, private schools, universities: here we go again

Here I go on a familiar hobby horse.

Ed Long has a very good article on Liberal Democrat Voice, much of his analysis being persuasive, even if I don't really agree with his conclusions. He rightly takes Simon Hughes to task for suggesting that universities should operate quotas for the number of students from private schools that they admit.

Ed correctly points out that universities have to select the students who appear most likely to succeed at their courses, that the problems start further back in the education process and that university admissions departments aren't to blame if a disproportionate number of students with top A Level grades in prestigious academic subjects come from private schools.

However, I'm not so sure about the suggestion that state schools encourage students to take softer subjects in which they are more likely to do well and boost league table scores, but which are less impressive to universities. I can well see the perverse incentive to schools, but my dear wife who taught in comprehensive schools for many years says she has never known this happen. I can believe that there are more opportunities to study classics at private schools and that this helps students to win places on classics courses at Oxbridge. On the other hand it really wouldn't be a kindness for a state school to encourage someone to study a notoriously difficult subject like maths at A level if they may not be up to it. The result wouldn't be an A grade in a prestigious subject, but one fewer A level.

I also have my doubts about Ed's alternative to Simon's prescription, namely that we need:

gifted state pupils being supported to achieve 3 As at A Level if it is within their grasp, through mentoring schemes, after-school clubs and so on; Modern Languages, Classics and hard science subjects being pushed harder in state sixth forms and colleges; and more high-achieving state pupils being encouraged to apply to Oxford and Cambridge – especially to under-represented degree subjects

Of course I am all for state school students being encouraged and helped to fulfil their potential, including gaining a place on their preferred course at their preferred university. But Ed's argument (and the universal voices in support on the comments thread) seems to take it as read that if schools have spare resources their top priority should be to make sure their best students earn places at Oxbridge (rather than ensuring that the merely able, or even the less able, fulfil their potential.)

Which brings me on to the hobby horse. Let us hypothesise two equally bright and able 'A level' students, one at a private school that prides itself on getting students into Oxbridge, one at a state school with less of a track record in that department. With the help of vast support and experience from their school (what to write on the application form, what to say at interview) the first student gets into Oxbridge. The second (despite getting the same or similar grades) wins a place at Hull or Keele or wherever. Why is this a big deal? Both are at respected universities, both can take a degree and advantage of all the academic and other opportunities higher education provides, both can use this as a springboard for whatever career they wish to pursue. What is the problem?

Of course! Going to Oxford or Cambridge or a couple of other elite institutions marks the student for life as among the brightest and the best. Going anywhere else relegates them to the also rans, even if they have comparable A level grades to their Oxbridge counterparts. I believe that some employers only recruit from Oxbridge - so better a lower second from Christ Church, Oxford than a high first from Oxford Brookes.

During these periodic bouts of public agonising about this topic, just perhaps we should consider whether the national culture of snobbery about academic institutions, and the apparent belief that a small number of universities are not just top of the league, but in a different league altogether, is part of the problem.

Obligatory declaration of interest required when discussing such issues: My secondary education was partly in the private and partly in the state sector. I studied as an undergraduate at Leicester University. But just possibly my views are the result of attempts at rational thought rather than conditioned by my educational background.

The world of Naff revisited

In reorganising bookshelves at home I have been reunited with one or two comfort books that I occasionally turn to over the years. Among these is The Complete Naff Guide, published as a Christmas stocking filler type thing in 1983. Credited to Dr Kit Bryson, Jean-Luc Legris and Selina Fitzherbert, it was actually written by Willie Donaldson of Henry Root Letters fame.

It became a particular favourite because a friend of mine at the time used it as a basis for a (rather unsuccessful) parlour game which seemed to involve people memorising and then reciting whole chunks of the book. Although just a succession of lists of naff things, people, activities etc. without any further explanation, the entries did seem to have their own resonance. So the list of 'Naff hairstyles' includes: 'Telly Savalas (paradoxically not Yul Brynner)'. Other entries include: 'Naff positions in the batting order: 7', 'Naff dead pop stars: Sid Vicious, Bing Crosby'; 'Naff cats: There are no naff cats, however it is extremely naff to keep a leopard'.

But the best entry in the book is the list of 'Naff remarks by Peregrine Worsthorne', which includes the following:

It should be obvious, except perhaps to a Guardian reader, that Peter Reeve, the escaped Broadmoor killer, will be more dangerous to the public, rather than less, as a result of having studied sociology at the Open University.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

History: the underdogs can be wrong sometimes, too

History Today launches a new 'Contrarian' column with an article by Royal Holloway academic Tim Stanley arguing against 'romanticising the powerless' in history to the extent of excusing atrocities committed by perceived underdogs. He writes:

whenever someone at the bottom of a power structure does or says something objectively evil, many historians legitimise it by calling it ‘resistance’. No one denies that tyrants and conquerors are oppressive, or that those who seek liberation have just cause. But that doesn’t mean inverse prejudice or terrorism should get a free pass.

This struck a particular chord with me as I have been reading Hemingway's classic novel of the Spanish Civil War For whom the bell tolls. Both the novel and the war itself raise questions of how far a noble cause may be compromised by the moral failings of its protagonists. Hemingway can hardly be accused of ignoring the barbarities committed by the Republican side that he supported. One of the novel's most powerful scenes is an account of the massacre at Ronda, where Republicans killed Nationalist prisoners by forcing them over a cliff. Yet Hemingway fell out with his friend and fellow novelist John Dos Passos over the former's apparent indifference to the killing by Republicans of the left-wing intelletual José Robles, allegedly for spying for the fascists. Even now the moral failings of both sides in the Spanish Civil War, and any number of other topics, provokes fierce debate.

Plainly, anyone studying or writing about historical topics will bring their own values and political sympathies to issues they are studying and their historical judgements will be influenced accordingly. But Dr Stanley's point is important and right. Good and honest historical writing should confront rather than gloss over or glibly excuse the moral failings of those with whom the author's sympathies lie.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The King's Speech - with added Churchill (and rather less Chamberlain)

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that for any public figure of the 1930s to be seen as a good egg they must have been on the same side as the Greatest Briton Ever, Winston Churchill. So in Tom Hooper's newly-released and much acclaimed film The King's Speech, when the Duke of York reluctantly ascends to the throne after his brother's abdication, who does he turn to for advice but dear old Winston?

But did this really happen? Churchill was a supporter of Edward VIII in the abdication crisis in 1936. Indeed during it he suffered one of the greatest humiliations of his wildnerness years, being howled down in the House of Commons while asking a question that was seen as sympathetic to the King (i.e. Edward VIII). Churchill was suspected of trying to lead a rebellion against Baldwin, the prime minister. (Hansard reference here).

So Churchill would seem an unlikely confidant for the new king, and I wonder whether this scene really happened or whether it was just a way of getting Winston into the action. Likewise, I would be surprised if the arch-appeaser Baldwin, when he resigned in 1937, would have been warning the king in 1937 that Hitler meant war all along. His government had, after all, just turned a blind eye to the destruction of Guernica by the German bombers and to Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia. So this may just be a way of linking the hero of the film to the anti-appeasement side in the 1930s.

In fact, George VI's sympathies were with Neville Chamberlain and the appeasers not Churchill. Indeed a biographer of George VI in the 1950s, Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, remarked on the difficulty of writing while Churchill was still alive because the late king had

disliked Churchill's attitude at Munich and doubtless Churchill's championing of the Duke of Windsor at the time of the abdication did not commend itself to George VI and his Queen...

At the high noon of appeasement when Chamberlain arrived home from Munich, the King invited the prime minister to join him in waving to the crowds from the balcony at Buckingham Palace (see picture) - which was an outrageous display of political partisanship.

Therefore I would be also surprised if Churchill in 1939, while only Lord of the Admiralty in Neville Chamberlain's wartime government, would have been chatting to the King like an old chum as portrayed in the film.

Perhaps I am wrong and all these things did indeed happen as portrayed in The King's Speech. But I suspect not!

NOTE: The Wheeler-Bennett quote is taken from the Diaries of Sir Robert Bruce-Lockhart, as cited by Andrew Roberts in his book Emininent Churchilians (Chapter 1 - The House of Windsor and the politics of appeasement, since you ask). I am not a big fan of Roberts, but some things are true even if they are written by historians with Thatcherite views. I may go and check the published volume of the diaries in the library tomorrow, though, just to be sure.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Heroic draw for Gable Endies

We exiled Montrose supporters don't get much chance to see our heroes. So I am savouring the highlights on the BBC website of yesterday's 2-2 draw in the Scottish Cup against high-flying Dunfermline, who are two divisions above Montrose and currently at the top of Scottish Division 1. Goalscorer Paul Tosh's tentative dive onto to snow-covered artificial pitch after his injury-team equaliser is amusing to watch.

There is a full match report on the club's website. Here's hoping for similar (indeed even greater) heroics in the replay.

With both Watford and Coventry City winning yesterday, it was an uncharacteristically good day for my favoured football teams.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Conservative minister's skin-deep localism

Old habits die hard it seems, perhaps especially so for Conservative ministers. Despite the localism bill supposedly signifying the government's intentions to get off local councils' backs, local government minister Bob Neill has still apparently found time to write to council leaders demanding to know how they will provide better refuse collection services over the Easter bank holidays, compared with the recent Christmas period.

The lesser likelihood of heavy snow across the country in late April than in December might help, and I'm not aware that there has been any great problem with Easter refuse services that warrants the time Mr Neill spent writing his email or that council leaders will have to spend replying.

My understanding is that it is a small number of councils that have a refuse backlog, despite the sustained bad weather in December. Far from regarding refuse collection as 'a favour, not a right', councils hate disruption to the bin collection - mainly because councillors and officers alike do realise how important it is to the public. But, leaving the public service ethic argument to one side for a second, no one likes receiving large numbers of complaints about uncollected bins nor having to deal with a large backlog once the bad weather is over. It's far simpler if at all possible just to stick to the schedule.

Where there is disruption, it will be down to combination of just how bad the snow is and for how long combined with the specific challenges of local topography (large refuse trucks in narrow terraced streets covered with ice being a specific problem). Fortunately, here in Watford, we were hit less badly by the weather than other areas, and although the bad weather did pose problems the council managed to maintain a virtually normal service. But last year refuse collectors were injured trying to carry out collections and large trucks pose a real danger in bad weather to pedestrians and other motor vehicles that is more than just 'health and safety gone mad'.

Even if the (Labour) leader of Exeter City Council's comments, which provoked Bob Neill's response, were insensitive, I have no reason to doubt his assertion that: 'Every day the bin lorries could have been out they have been out'. Of course I haven't been down to Exeter, or any of the other councils where there is a backlog, to find out if they could and should have done more, but neither I suspect has Bob Neill. If he did I expect he would find in almost every local authority, councillors, managers and staff alike wanted to maintain as good a service as possible in the face of very difficult circumstances caused by the weather.

None of which is simply to be a councillor defending 'producer interests'. The public depend on our services. All councils should be trying to learn lessons from the recent cold spell and work out what might be done better next time. No doubt some have made mistakes and have much learning and improvement to do. Maybe there are one or two that are complacent and letting their residents down. But localism means that this should be addressed by residents making their views known and holding councillors to account and by councillors speaking up for their residents and making sure they get a decent standard of service. It shouldn't be done by ministers having nothing better to do and sounding off from a position of ignorance.

PS: Nick Barlow is ahead of me on this one and posted earlier in similar vein.