Thursday, June 30, 2005

Henry Root meets Karl Popper

I do love the internet. A bit of searching reveals a 1985 article by Rafe Champion that uses the wisdom of Henry Root as a starting point for an examination of Karl Popper's philosophy.

Let me explain. After the success of his letters, Root was moved to publish Henry Root's World of Knowledge. Rafe Champion points out that many academic philosophers share his misunderstanding of Popper's philosophy.

Root wrote:
POPPER, Sir Karl (b 1902); Member of the Vienna Circle. "That which is unfalsifiable is meaningless." Did he solve the problem of induction? The argument still rages. See Swans.
As Champion says, Popper never saw falsifiability as a criterion of meaning. It was a way of differentiating what was science from what was not.

True scientific theories can be refuted by observation, whereas pseudo-scientific theories - Popper saw Marxism and Freudianism as the worst offenders - are compatible with any state of affairs and therefore explain nothing.

For more on Popper see this website or the excellent short book by Bryan Magee.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Around the Lib Dem blogs

A few highlights from the past couple of days...

John Hemming points out that Labour's identity card bill appears to make it an offence to shave off your beard without informing the government. The maximum penalty is a fine of £1,000.

As John says:

it is very clear that the legislation has been written for the convenience of the government and not the private individuals. Furthermore it will not be criminals who will first register for these cards hence it will be an expensive and unnecessary burden on private individuals whilst not making any difference to those breaking the law.
And if the government has no intention of enforcing this provision, why is it including it in the legislation?

Yesterday Peter Black declared a Be Nice to Lembit Öpik Day. I am sorry to have missed it, but perhaps we could celebrate it on 28 June every year.

Peter quotes with approval an article of Lembit's from the Western Mail. In it, the MP for Montgomery talks about the difficulties that someone with an unusual name might face if it were incorrectly entered on the national identity database.

He is right, of course. However, I would say that every time I have mentioned Lembit in print I have been careful to add those little dots over the Ö in his surname - which is more than the Western Mail's website is able to do.

Yet when my name was added to the list of those supporting Lembit when he stood for President of the Lib Dems, Jonathan was misspelt.

Finally, welcome back to Simon Titley, who writes about smoking bans on Liberal Dissenter. I share his unease about them, but what really fascinates me is what they reveal about the Liberal Democrat caste of mind.

If we Lib Dems are asked what we believe in - and what differentiates us from Labour in particular - we say that we stand for individual liberty. Yet whenever an issue like this emerges, the vast majority of Lib Dems seem unhesitatingly to take the side of those who want to ban from people doing things of which they disapprove.

I suppose the conclusion is that the Lib Dems do not believe in freedom as much as they like to think. This is a shame and has worrying implications for the coherence of the party's policies and philosophy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

"The Ladykillers" locations

A couple of people have linked to my recent post on the St Pancras area and commented in particular on the connection with the Ealing Comedy The Ladykillers.

I have now found a website full of photographs of those locations then and now - or at least then and before the works for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link started.

Disgusted of Market Harborough

They've gone too far this time:

Killjoy officials have said a town bakery can no longer use the famous title Harborough Cheesecake.

The delicacy has been made in the town since the 19th century but now Leicestershire Trading Standards has said the name is misleading and cannot be used.

Jim Knights (55), manager of Wesses Bakery in The Square, received a letter saying the title broke Food Labelling Regulations. The maximum fine for a breach is £5,000.

Read more in the excellent Harborough Mail while I take to the barricades. I wonder if they have this trouble with Bombay duck?

Monday, June 27, 2005

Introducing Professor Strange

In my role as columnist of last resort for Clinical Psychology Forum, I have now written three pieces in the guise of the elderly academic Professor Strange.

I have just added the third of them to Lord Bonkers' website, and they now have a page each. The columns are:

The secret that never was (October 2003)

Victorians, modesty and tablelegs (February 2004)

Trainspotting, autism and what it means to be normal (July 2005)

Headline of the Day

From the Leicester Mercury:

New-Born Baby Found Under Bush

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Henry Root RIP

William Donaldson, the creator of Henry Root Letters, died last week.

For those too young to remember, the Guardian obituary by Christopher Hawtree describes them well:
The Henry Root Letters (1980) was a collection of correspondence between the supposedly retired wet-fish merchant, Root, whose clever if unhinged jottings to the great and the good, often enclosing small sums of money, elicited some wonderfully revealing responses. They were, of course, penned by Donaldson.
From the obituary it is clear that there was a great deal more to Donaldson than Henry Root. He was joint producer of Beyond the Fringe, making much more out of it than the four performers, and enjoyed romances with the actress Sarah Miles and the singer Carly Simon.

And no writer could wish for a better epitaph than this, which comes from a note added to the obituary by Richard Milbank of his publishers Weidenfeld & Nicolson:
Willie's conduct as a writer, while always playful, somewhat belied his image of a chaotic and irregular life. He was respectful of deadlines, receptive to editorial suggestion and meticulously correct in matters of style and presentation.

The great, the good and Boris Johnson

Tim Worstall has posted this week's Britblog round up here.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

North of St Pancras

The area to the north of King's Cross and St Pancras stations is being changed out of all recognition. The developers' website declares that "King's Cross presents one of the most exciting and significant development and regeneration opportunities within London, the UK and Europe."

So it is no wonder that this profile of a nightclub owner says he has:
wasted no time in renting out the offices to the type of professionals who will change the landscape from the tapestry of hauliers, scaffolders and car mechanics redolent of a bygone era, when cheap rents were to be had in the Goods Yard and neighbouring arches.
Yet that landscape, which can be seen in the Ealing film The Ladykillers, contains - or contained - an extraordinary range of historic buildings. There is a list of what has been lost, saved or moved by the developers here.

One of those buildings is the German Gymnasium, which I have long known about but not consciously seen until last Wednesday. I had always imagined this 19th century institution as the haunt of Victorian men with striped combinations and waxed moustaches who lifted rounded dumbbells with ease. Perhaps weedy youths were sent there to toughen them up. ("A spell at the German Gymnasium would do that boy good.")

It turns out that the Gymnasium is next to the new station at St Pancras which Midland Mainline trains are using at the moment. It has been cleaned and restored (though I believe the original entrance has been demolished) and now houses the developers' exhibition. For a photograph of the place in a state of romantic decay click here, and for a more sober account of its history see the bottom of this page.

The history of the area goes back long before the 19th century. Iain Sinclair's visionary book Lights Out for the Territory leads on to an even more visionary work: the poem Vale Royal by Aidan Dun. (It was published, in Rutland naturally, in 1995.)

Dun mines this history to offer:
A song to explain the Golden Quatrain
and the mystical geography of Kings Cross,
a song for all navigators of the night-sea crossing...
Those without an interest in mystical geography or off-piste industrial archaeology can still find much to enjoy in the area. Not drugs and prostitution, but Old St Pancras Church, Camley Street Natural Park and the London Canal Museum.

Commons debate on electoral integrity

I suggested the other day that I might post something on last Wednesday's debate, so here are some highlights. The links below will take you to the relevant column in Hansard, but I shall reproduce the most relevant extracts here too. The whole debate is worth reading - it begins here - in a way that the great occasions in the Commons seldom are.

First an intervention from Eric Pickles and reply by Oliver Heald that, taken together, are both amusing and informative:

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that false entries on the electoral register are not made simply to influence membership here or on councils or to entertain tabloid journalists but that registration is a prerequisite of establishing a credit rating? The problem is on a much wider scale than electoral fraud.

Mr. Heald: That is true. Examples of individuals who were not entitled to vote came up during the election campaign, but they had tried to register not in order to vote but to apply for credit. I do not mind if they want a platinum card, but I mind that the risk exists. Recently, The People - that great organ - conducted an analysis of the electoral roll. It uncovered names such as Donald Duck and Jesus H. Christ. Perhaps they are genuine, but I suspect that the entries at a student address in Southampton, including Hooty McBoob and Gailord Focker, while not evidence of sinister malpractice, are not. One does suspect, however, that these people do not exist.

According to Heald the name Gus Troobev (an anagram of "bogus voter") also appears a worrying number of times around the country.

Next comes Roger Godsiff on the realities of polling day in an inner-city constituency:

What happens on election day in a constituency such as mine is not how elections used to be fought. Traditionally, at the polling station there would be a representative of each of the parties, the number taker, and there would be a great deal of conviviality and sharing of information.

That does not exist in areas such as mine. On election day groups of people congregate at the entrance to polling stations. They hand out leaflets and talk to people, particularly in areas where English is not the first language and where the number on the ballot paper is even more important than the name. They give out a great deal of misinformation. During the day the numbers at each polling station build up so that by early evening, as happened in my constituency at the recent election, there are 50 or 60 people at the gates.

The police are there and struggle to prevent violence breaking out. In the background there is the cacophony of cars parked outside the polling station with recorded messages from the candidates on a repetitive reel, so that goes on throughout the day. All the traditional conventions that most of us may remember, whereby a loudspeaker was not allowed anywhere near a polling station and there was no campaigning on polling day, have gone by the board. Somebody who wants to vote from the early evening onwards has to go through a cacophony of sound, intimidation, harassment and misinformation, and that is only to get into the polling station. It is no good turning round and saying, "Well, the police have powers to deal with that." As we have learned in the west midlands, the police do not have such powers. New legislation is needed to prevent campaigning within a certain area around a polling station, because the police do not have a hope at the moment.

I have a seen a little of this in Leicester elections, and the problem Godsiff identifies is a serious one. I have acquired from somewhere the idea that the returning officer has almost unlimited powers over "the precincts of the polling station" - and the power to define where those precincts begin - but it seems that this is not, or is no longer, the case.

Finally, a diatribe against the list system from Peter Bottomley:
If we want to start talking about electoral systems, let us have a proper debate on getting rid of the worst scandal in our system at the moment - the closed list system for the European Assembly elections. If the electorate cannot pick out someone they particularly want and get them elected or pick out someone they particularly do not want and get them disappointed, we shall have a system that is not democracy.
Bottomley is right, and the blame for the list system lies with Jack Straw. Obliged to introduce some form of Proportional Representation (PR) for the European elections, he chose the worst possible form in an attempt to discredit the whole concept and make it less likely that it will be used more widely.

The Conservatives today are torn between their hatred of PR and their outrage that they polled more votes than Labour in England but won many fewer seats - as a result, as Bridget Prentice pointed out, Oliver Heald's speech contained ringing denunciations of both PR and First Past the Post.

In the debate Tory MPs attempted to square this circle by blaming the unfair drawing of parliamentary constituencies for this odd result, but they did not convince. I do believe, however, that their sense of grievance may encourage them to explore English Nationalism. This idea which may well attract wider political interest in the near future as devolution to Scotland and Wales has given rise to all sorts of anomalies over the funding of services and the power of MPs, and there appears to be little enthusiasm for devolution to the English regions, which some present as a way of resolving these.

For the Liberal Democrats, David Heath made a good speech and is an impressive Commons performer these days. He is helped to sound authoritative on Home Office matters because he resembles the best sort of village policeman. It was also notable that John Hemming had not allowed is current travails to prevent him being in the House for this debate on one of his pet issues.

We cannot end without a reference to our old friend Siôn Simon. He still needs a haircut and he still compulsively strokes his chin. ("If you don't leave that alone," said Nanny, "it will drop off one of these days".) It was not possible to judge whether he still has that silly way of speaking as, though he jumped up and down throughout the more substantial speeches, no one would give way to him.

He did make one contribution, and I reproduce it in full here:

Mr. Simon: My city of Birmingham has been repeatedly traduced by Opposition Members borrowing cheap soundbites from a headline-hungry judge-

Hon. Members: Withdraw!

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that temperance and moderation in parliamentary language are important.

Peter Bottomley: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is there any way in which the remarks of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) can be struck from the record? They are in themselves publicity seeking.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I remind the hon. Gentleman that all Members take responsibility for anything that they say in the House.

Mr. Heald: Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is not it out of order to make an insulting remark about a judge?

Several hon. Members rose-

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman's point of order. Criticism of a judge during a debate is out of order; it would have to be done by means of a substantive motion.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Doris Snood from Pontefract

Today's House Points from Liberal Democrat News. I have used the Duke of Wellington quotation before and, though I do try hard to believe in government action, will no doubt use it again.

Keep it simple

The good news: if this government does bring in national identity cards it will do it so inefficiently that no one will be able to keep tabs on you. The bad news: you may well be sent a card saying you are Doris Snood from Pontefract and spend the rest of your life trying to prove you are not.

If you don’t believe me, look at Monday’s work and pensions questions.

Adam Afriyie said he was alarmed. He had been to an Age Concern lunch in his constituency and found that none of the people he spoke to were claiming their full pension credit.

He was right to be alarmed, but he should not have been surprised. David Amess reported that 1.5 million people who should take up the benefit don’t do so.

Then Tony Baldry said more than £1 billion of council tax benefit goes unclaimed. And Lindsay Hoyle said that though extra money is available to carers, many do not claim their entitlement.

But maybe the people who don’t claim benefit are the lucky ones. Danny Alexander raised the sufferings of nearly two million families who have been overpaid through the tax credit system and are now having the money clawed back.

This is a huge scandal, as reports later in the week from the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Citizens Advice Bureaux emphasised. HM Revenue & Customs has admitted that of £13.5bn paid in tax credits last year, £1.9bn consisted of overpayments.

Finally, a minister revealed a talent for understatement – “the problems with the Child Support Agency are well known to all of us in the chamber” – in reminding the House of an even worse problem.

We Liberal Democrats are not going to abandon our belief in government action, but the scale of the problems raised on Monday showed the mess results when grandiose schemes go wrong.

So we need to get away from Gordon Brown’s model of government – we should not aspire to be hunched over the ledgers in the small hours, trying to manage every aspect of national life. Instead, simplicity and modesty should be our goals.

And, just occasionally, we should remember the crustiest Tory of them all, the Duke of Wellington: “Reform, sir? Reform? Aren’t things bad enough already?”

Thursday, June 23, 2005

It's called irony, Tompkins

The other day I noted the ironies implicit in our current disapproval of youngsters who wear caps. Now an English schoolboy has got into trouble for wearing shorts.

O tempora, o mores.

Last Tsar found alive

I can exclusively reveal that Nicholas II, Tsar of all the Russias, was not murdered at Ekaterinburg in 1918.

His moustache and beard, as you would expect, now have a lot of grey in them, and he wears a lawyer's wig in an attempt at disguise. But it was definitely him sitting at the Clerk's Table in the Commons yesterday.

He is not the first famous person I have seen resurface in unlikely circumstances. Hitler ran a second-hand bookshop in Bedford during the 1980s while General Franco worked on Leicester railway station for many years.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

What goes on inside Harriet Harman's head?

I was in Westminster today and looked in at the Commons Press Gallery. There was an Opposition debate on "Electoral integrity and democratic accountability", and it was of a surprisingly high quality. I may write about it when I have the Hansard transcript in front of me.

There is one thing that probably won't appear in Hansard, though. It was something of a surprise to see Harriet Harman on the Government front bench. In fact it was something of a surprise to learn she was still alive, so dark is the eclipse of her career these days. She was once rated extraordinarily highly by the Guardian-reading classes.

Anyway, Harman is a good-natured woman and happy to engage in chat and banter across the floor of the House. When Clive Betts suggested that one way to ensure the electoral register is accurate would be to link it with the national identity database there were groans from the other side. At which she brightly suggested: "That's the best argument in favour of a national identity card."

In case you have forgotten, Harman was legal officer for the National Council for Civil Liberties (the organisation now called Liberty) between 1978 and 1982.

I often wonder how people who change their beliefs so fundamentally justify it to themselves. What goes on inside their heads? Don't we all try to construct a narrative that makes are decisions principled and consistent?

Maybe Harman now regards her NCCL years as a bit of youthful nonsense. Or maybe she tells herself that the she hasn't changed but the world around her has. I have never heard her - or Patricia Hewitt, for that matter - offer an explanation of their conversion to authoritarian government.

We condemn someone like Eric Hobsbawm for not giving up his Communism after the Soviet tanks went into Hungary in 1956. Yet this refusal to change your views when developments show you are wrong seems more understandable, more human, than changing them fundamentally and then pretending that nothing has happened.

The Beast of Bridgnorth

A Shropshire family enjoying the summer sunshine were stopped in their tracks when they saw a huge black cat prowling in the field behind their house.
It's in the Shropshire Star, so it must be true. More here.

The bitter taste of the CAP

It is worth looking at a couple of pieces in this morning's Independent before they disappear behind its firewall for ever.

The front page story by Maxine Frith and a comment piece by Penny Fowler from Oxfam both look at the EU sugar subsidy regime. Because this is the Independent, the comment piece is a lot less polemical than the front page.

From Maxine Frith's report:

John Fellowes, the fourth Lord de Ramsey, receives more than £500,000 a year in CAP subsidies for various crops grown on his three farms in Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire.

In addition, a minimum pricing system run by the CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] guarantees that sugar made from his beet is bought for at least three times more than world prices.

Thousands of miles away, Inacio Albano, 25, cuts sugar cane until his hands bleed at a mill in Marremeo, north-east Mozambique but is just thankful to have a job in a country where more than two-thirds of the population live on less than £1 a day.

This is great fun, but the policy would be just as wrong if John Fellowes were not the fourth Lord anything. I do hope the Indy recognises that.

Meanwhile, what is the EU doing for world poverty? The Expatica website reports:

As part of the global call to combat poverty, the European Commission's headquarters in Brussels - the Berlaymont building - was "wrapped" in a white band for Africa on Thursday ...

The effect of a large white band around the EC building was created by closing the shutters on the windows of floors five and six from 10.30 a.m. until 3 p.m.

I am sure that was a great help.

Fair-minded of Maputo writes: Isn't that a rather jejune juxtaposition? The European Commission is publishing proposals to reform EU sugar subsidy regime today, you know, after a World Trade Organisation ruling earlier this year that it is illegal.

True, but the Independent quotes Oxfam as saying that the proposals:
will not go far enough and will continue to benefit some of the richest farmers in the world at the expense of the poorest. Critics of the system, including the National Farmers' Union, say the system of inflated price guarantees, generous export refunds and high import tariffs surrounding sugar production is the most graphic example of how the ... CAP distorts trade and makes it impossible for African farmers to compete on the international stage.
I remember years ago hearing John Pardoe on Desert Island Discs saying that good Cornish radicals used to refuse to take tea in their sugar as a protest against the slave trade. Perhaps we should follow their example?

Monday, June 20, 2005

Spooky goings on in Wem

The Shropshire Star reports the death of an amateur photographer who "put Wem on the map when he took a sensational snap appearing to show a ghostly figure in a fire at the town hall".

A little research turns up a copy of the photograph on the BBC's Shropshire pages here.

Spooky.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

If...

I have posted a short review of the BFI Classics volume on this film to Lord Bonkers' site. It originally appeared in Liberator magazine.

Fans of If... may also be interested in my House Points column from 12 April 2002 (you will need to scroll down to find it):

The headmaster character continues to fascinate. Some of his lines are strangely familiar. Take: "Britain is a powerhouse of ideas, experiment, imagination. On everything from pop music to pig breeding, from atom power stations to mini skirts. That is the challenge we have got to meet." Or: "Changes are happening so fast that even as I speak these words are out of date."

That's right. New Labour and the Third Way were born here.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

More on Scarthin Books

A couple of reviews from this page of the Guardian site give the flavour of the place:

Scarthin Books, The Promenade, Scarthin, Cromford, Derbyshire DE4 3QF; Tel: 01629 823272.

Scarthin Books, in the old Arkwright village of Cromford, is for retrieving those rainy afternoons when visiting the Peak District. Advertising itself "for the majority of minorities", there is on first acquaintance no apparent order - yet the brilliant staff can pinpoint the book you are after. Stuffed with old and new books, I used to worry that the weight of the books stacked floor to ceiling would crash through to the floor below until I realised that the books below, stacked from ceiling to floor, would never let this happen. The tea is served in pots, the coffee is freshly ground and homemade homity pie can stretch the quick morning visit till late afternoon. Last week I watched a dog enter, unsuccessfully search the shop for its owner, and leave. It seemed quite natural and proper. While I know these things would never happen in Waterstone's, this is the perfect chaos of Scarthin books.

Charles Monkhouse

Only choice for me. Tucked between stone houses and an old chapel, it's more like a home than a shop (it doubled as the owner's home for years). It houses the most wonderfully and quirkily eclectic books - new and second-hand - anyone could want, it's the local forum for alternative thought, and the cafe serves brilliant organic meals, coffee and cakes. And the staff are great! I can never return from a day in the Peak District without calling in at Scarthin to recharge the batteries.

Andrew Cooper

A day out in Derbyshire

I did a little research in Derby this morning and then went to Cromford for the afternoon.

The village is well worth a visit: Arkwright's Mill, the Cromford Canal and the excellent Scarthin Books complete with teashop. All highly recommended.

I won't say my mother-in-law's fat

The Equalities Board of Newcastle City Council, says the Guardian, has recommended that the authority bans from its venues "acts contrary to the council's visions, values and social inclusion agenda, and which conflict with its community leadership role".

Typical Labour PC nonsense you say with a shrug and turn over the page. Except that Newcastle upon Tyne is not a Labour council. It was won by the Liberal Democrats last May. You may remember Charles Kennedy hurrying there to be filmed congratulating the new council leader.

The recommendation arises from a call by Unison for Roy "Chubby" Brown to be banned from playing the City Hall. The Guardian says he has been appearing their for 20 years.

What I find objectionable here is the idea that every performance that takes place on council premises must be in accord with the authority's visions, values, social inclusion agenda and community leadership role. That sounds like the sort of policy that obtained in Eastern Europe before the Berlin Wall came down.

It is even suggested by the Guardian that the council may require comedians to sign contracts agreeing not to tell jokes that might offend minorities.

The paper quotes a Conservative MEP criticising the proposal. And he is right.

Some of the brighter young Tories have worked out that Blair's illiberalism is an area of vulnerability that opposition parties can exploit. We should not leave the field clear for a Conservative revival by apeing Labour's most authoritarian tendencies where we get into power.

Nothing to see here, sir

The Guardian reports:
Allegations that African boys were being trafficked into Britain for slaughter during macabre church services were largely discredited by Scotland Yard last night.
I told you it was nonsense.

I don't blame the police: I blame the BBC and its overexcited report on Radio 4's Today programme. I think it was the idea that this was a "leaked" report that affected their judgement.

Friday, June 17, 2005

House Points: Shivering on the wing

Today's column from Liberal Democrat News. Incidentally, Kurmanbek Bakiyev sounds a nasty piece of work when you learn more about him.

Fit for office

House Points has spent years complaining about culture, media and sport questions. All those MPs getting up to demand more school sport when the real reason children are less fit is that they don’t play out any more. Blame a noxious combination of panic about strangers and the dominance of the car. With ASBOs, curfews and now Kelly hours, it’s a wonder they can walk at all.

But we have a new hero. On Monday Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the acting president of Kyrgyzstan, single-handedly stopped MPs mentioning school sport. How did he manage it?

Easy. Bakiyev recently announced a policy of “mass cultivation of sports and healthy living”. Just what a British politician might come out with.

But then he said: “From now on all the regional leaders and MPs are going to have to do running, jumping and weight lifting tests before they take office. We will only appoint those who pass successfully.”

What?! That isn’t what our MPs have in mind at all.

With a few notable exceptions like Ming Campbell and Derek Wyatt, politicians believe sport is good for other people. And even Wyatt played his rugby in the days when being in the England back division rarely involved receiving a pass.

Most MPs spent their schooldays shivering on the wing, praying the ball did not come near them. As they did so, they promised themselves that one day they would be powerful and get back at all the people who mocked them for being no good at games.

So on Monday, scared of a Kyrgyzstani policy being enacted here, they steered clear of school sports. Only Madeleine Moon from Bridgend risked the wrath of Bakiyev. She must have been a whiz at netball.

She claimed a London Olympics would be an inspiration to young people. Then she suggested they would “give us a future generation of capable athletics and sports students who will be able to take us forward into the next century”.

Unless sport is even better for you than politicians think, that generation won’t be doing anything in the next century.

If Moon going to compete at the top level, she will need better clichés than that. If Kurmanbek Bakiyev were in charge here, she would be for the high jump. Literally.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Out of Africa

Fifteen years ago there was a panic in Britain about the "ritual abuse" of children. An idea which began on the wackier fringes of American Evangelical Christianity found its way to the heart of our social work establishment. As a result there were many raids on families and children were taken into care, most famously in Rochdale and the Orkneys.

There were no successful prosecutions and it was generally accepted afterwards that the whole episode was an example of mass hysteria amongst people one hoped would know better. There seemed to be a process at work whereby our society's darkest fears and fantasies were projected upon marginal groups. For a brief account of the period read this article from 1998 by Donald Rooum.

Yet the idea of ritual abuse never went away. It has been smouldering within the caring professions ever since and can still burst into life from time to time.

It has happened again this week. The BBC website reports:
Children are being trafficked into the UK from Africa and used for human sacrifices, a confidential report for the Metropolitan Police suggests.
This report goes on to say:

It said that people who are desperate seek out churches to cast spells for them.

"Members of the workshop said for spells to be powerful it required a sacrifice of a male child unblemished by circumcision," the report said.

Blimey. I suspect that tells us little about Africa but a great deal about the Western psyche.

And is there any evidence for this claim, which sounds remarkably like the charges that were made against Jews in Medieval Britain?
Contributors said boys were being trafficked into the UK for this purpose, but did not give details because they said they feared they would be "dead meat" if they told any more.
That will be why then.

The BBC report does quote a sceptical voice. Unfortunately it is that of a sociology lecturer who confirms all our prejudices about the breed by coming out with something incomprehensible:
"The model that they're based on, they always seem to base their models on the fact that Africans are less civilized, less rational, so their whole systems of rationality are irrational."
Er, right.

Fortunately there is a well-written discussion of the lunacy of this view of African culture from Josie Appleton on the Spiked website. It was written in the light of the recent "witchcraft" court case and before the Metropolitan Police report was leaked, but its conclusions hold good:
there is little hard evidence to justify these wild claims. It seems to be the accusers who are possessed with ideas of mass, ritualised child abuse - not London's immigrant communities.

Paul Holmes 36 Matthew Taylor 23

Paul Holmes, the East Midlands' only Lib Dem MP, has been elected as the new chairman of the Parliamentary party, reports The Scotsman. He beat the previous chair Matthew Taylor by 36 votes to 23.

Holmes was one of the founders of the Beveridge Group within the party, which was set up to "promote Beveridge's message of civic responsibility and public accountability in public services". In practice this means that they want more spending on public services but are not so keen on structural reforms. Which makes the group rather conservative, though its members probably see themselves as radicals.

The Beveridge Group has a website but has not otherwise not been noticeably active. Nevertheless, there are some Liberal Democrat Kremlinologists who will see Holmes' victory as a snub to the Orange Book tendency, even though Matthew Taylor was not one of the contributors to the book.

Matthew Taylor's response was to say:
"The Parliamentary party had a clear choice to make. They have decided to follow the route of the Conservative and Labour parties in choosing a backbench representative to chair their meetings."
I am sure it was kindly meant, as an Alan Bennett character might say, but that quotation becomes a little more patronising and self-aggrandising every time you read them.

Thanks to Will Howells for the tip.

Alastair Sim

The Inveresk Street Ingrate points us towards a Sight & Sound article on the incomparable Alastair Sim.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

On Wednesdays he goes shopping and has buttered scones for tea

I have been slowly overhauling my blogroll (as the young people call it). One link I have added recently is to The Reaction, written by Michael Stickings. It bills itself as:
An independent, non-partisan, and mostly liberal-to-moderate blog on politics, philosophy, and culture -- sustained by Socratic pretentions, Straussian undertones, and an Arnoldian dedication to human excellence.
All that and it comes from Canada too.

Freedom of expression goes down the tubes

Don't get me wrong. I'm no fan of Melanie Phillips. But she's got the right idea when it comes to the government's bill to outlaw incitement to religious hatred.

On her blog she has been reporting the case of a journalist who is being prosecuted in Italy after writing a book critical of Islam. Now the man who prompted that action has himself been convicted of defaming the Catholic church.

She writes:
This is precisely what happens when a country introduces laws banning debate about religion - every religious believer becomes a potential criminal, faith group is set against faith group, group hatred does not diminish but grows, and freedom of expression goes down the tubes.

You might as well call them "Herod hours"

An editorial in the Guardian yesterday on the government's plan for a 10-hour school day finished by saying:
Ms Kelly's spin doctor believes the scheme should be known as "Kelly hours". If it has to have a label, let it be "Hodge hours" after Margaret Hodge, the minister who fought tooth and nail for it last year.
Anyone familiar with Hodge's abysmal record on education and social services when she was running Islington council will know what bad taste this is in. You might as well call them "Herod hours".

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Whoever you vote for, the Dimblebys still get in

Paul Robinson at Iconoplex has been watching the Parliament Channel's rerun of the BBC's coverage of the night of the 1955 general election.

From his account it sounds rather like reading an old newspaper. You are struck partly by how similar things are and partly by how different they are.

In the former category, there was a Dimbleby in charge of proceedings even then. Robinson writes:
Through the grainy black and white, a rather fat Richard Dimbleby can be made out delivering his patter and fighting his analysts in much the same way as his sons do today.
In the latter category, Manchester Withington - the Lib Dems' shock gain from Labour in this year's election - was held by the Tories with a majority of 10,000.

Incidentally:
Iconoplex is built on one premise: political parties and cliques are destroying democracy around the World. Iconoplex is a site that champions independent representation and for democratic power being genuinely placed into the electorate's hands. The long-term goal is to remove political parties from power, particularly in the UK.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Open all hours

The news of the day is that Ruth Kelly has announced plans for schools to open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

They are being sold as a way of increasing the freedom of women to choose whether or not they want to work full time. But I wonder if this really describes what is going on.

One of the great changes in British society in the past 30 years, though it is rarely commented upon, is that it now takes two full-time incomes to maintain a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. This explains, amongst other things, why divorce is now financially ruinous for all concerned.

Where once women fought for the right to work, they now have to work. So this policy is not about extending women's choice so much as a recognition that - single, married or divorced - they no longer have any.

Another powerful motive for this policy is Labour's belief that parental care is inferior to professional care. Socialists have generally seen progress as consisting in more and more of the functions of parents being taken over by agents of the state.

So it is that Ruth Kelly (as quoted in the Guardian) can write in the document which announces the scheme:
From my visits to schools, I know that the best are delivering extended services already. They know that children will be better placed to achieve their full potential if they are in childcare that allows them to complete their homework, keep fit and healthy and have fun.
The implication here seems to be that parental care does none of these things and denies children the possibility of reaching their full potential.

And it was hard to be enthused by the response of Ed Davey, the new Lib Dem shadow education secretary. The useful summary on the ePolitix site quotes him as follows:

After eight years in government, Labour has finally woken up to the needs of pupils and parents.

These plans sound promising but Ruth Kelly will need to answer questions on whether this is real new money or whether schools will be forced to find these resources from other areas of their budgets.

The extended school opening hours must not result in additional paperwork for head teachers.

In other words, there is nothing in terms of philosophy or policy to differentiate us from New Labour here, and if the party speaks for anyone it is not children or parents but the teaching profession.

Davey was one of the contributors to The Orange Book, which leads some regard him as part of a sinister libertarian conspiracy within the party. If only.

David Steel says what we are all thinking

It doesn't often happen, but...

The former Liberal leader, reports the BBC, has described Bob Geldof's call for one million people to gather in Edinburgh as "slightly crackers" and his call for a Sail 8 flotilla of boats to cross the English Channel as "odd".

However, Lord Steel sounds rather too old fogeyish in a letter in this morning's edition of The Times:
He is something of an icon to the younger generation and as such should take greater care over not just what he says, but how he says it. Deliberately peppering his utterances with swear words and appearing in public carefully dishevelled is not setting a good example of behaviour.
Lord Bonkers writes: I once wrote to The Times about those awful coloured shirts with white collars that little Steel wears, but they declined to publish.

Great name, shame about the porn

I have just received an e-mail from one Infallibility G. Pinion headed "Young Rumanian Girls!"

The name reminds me of the song from Lil' Abner:
When it seemed like our brave boys would keep on fighting for months,
Who took pity on them and ca-pit-u-lated at once?
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone;
Unshaven and shorn - pone.
Jubilation T. Cornpone, he weren't nobody's dunce!

The impact of the new Parliamentary boundaries

There is some interesting discussion of this over at UK Polling Report.

Altogether this means that the notional House of Commons on the new boundaries will look like this:

Conservative - 212 (plus 14)
Labour - 345 (minus 11)
Liberal Democrat - 64 (plus 2)
Others - 29 (minus 1)
Labour Majority - 40

The two forecast gains for the Lib Dems are both in Yorkshire: Sheffield Central and the bizarrely drawn and named York Outer seat.

Cherie ripe

The Guardian reports that Cherie Blair is to defy "sexist" criticism and continue with her public appearances. The paper says she has
defended her appearances, telling her Washington audience last week that the attacks on her were sexist. Denis Thatcher, she said, had never received such criticism.
Well, it may be that Denis Thatcher escaped criticism because he was a man. But I think it is more likely to be because he never, in an extraordinary blend of greed and crass judgement, accepted £30,000 to appear in a question and answer session about life in Downing Street, as Cherie Blair did last week in Washington.

Mind you, I bet Denis would have provided better value than Cherie if he had ever done that.

Why aren't you wearing your cap, Tompkins?

There is an ironic aspect of the current panic about youths wearing hoodies and caps that I have not seen noted anywhere else.

I am just old enough to be able to say that in my day you got into trouble if you didn't wear a cap.

Jonathan Calder (Hemel Hempstead School 1971-3)

Frank Furedi on the new populism

There is a characteristically stimulating new essay by Furedi on the Spiked website:

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the populist rejection of the EU treaty, the manner in which the 'No' campaign is disparaged by professional politicians betrays a powerful anti-democratic temper. It appears that professional politicians attempt to account for their isolation from the electorate by pointing their finger at the incompetence of the public.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the political class has drawn the conclusion that the problem with the people is that they do not know what's in their best interest. This sentiment is particularly widespread among liberal and left-wing activists and thinkers.

Read more here.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Britblog Round up

Tim Worstall has posted his latest selection of the best things in the British blogosphere here.

Friday, June 10, 2005

This year’s educational panacea

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. Although it covers the teaching of reading I managed to avoid mentioning Ladybird Books, but it can only be a matter of time before Lassie appears.

Later note: As the blogosphere has higher ethical standards than print journalism, I should thank Tim Hicks and Tim Worstall for postings that helped inspire this column.

Home Counties voice: Come on Tim!


Not so phonic

The Tories have decided what it is they object to most about Tony Blair’s government. There’s not enough micromanagement. The trouble with New Labour, they believe, is that it does not centralise things enough.

You don’t believe me? Look at the way they’ve taken up this year’s educational panacea: synthetic phonics. Here is Tim Collins (whatever happened to him?) during the election campaign: “We won’t waste time commissioning more reports and pilot projects – the evidence is there and we will act upon it.”

Now Nick Gibb is inveighing against “the education establishment, who have known about this research for some time, have not adapted the national literacy strategy to put synthetic phonics at its core."

Yes, something about phonics appeals to the Tory mind. The Daily Mail thinks “Phonics is taught through discipline and repetition.” Which fits with its belief that education is impossible without “discipline, authority, order, tradition, learning by heart, rigorous examinations, selection”. (If space had permitted it would undoubtedly have added cold showers and swishy canes to the list.)

Maybe synthetic phonics is a better way of teaching reading, even though many of those pushing it have a commercial interest in doing so. And it has its unattractive side. There are stories of children being denied books and its proponents are no keener on illustrations than your average Puritan clergymen was.

But if synthetic phonics is best, how have we found that out? Will someone help Collins please? Thank you, Widdecombe. It’s because of an experiment. And how will we make the next breakthrough in teaching reading if the government imposes synthetic phonics everywhere and allow no more experiments? No, Gibb, I don’t know either.

Excuse me for coming over all headmasterly. Think of it as a tribute to Phil Willis. During the election campaign he said: “We need to free teachers from endless central government diktats, testing and targets and allow them to practise the methods that are best for their pupils.”

He was right, but we need to go further. A maintained education sector with a wider variety of providers and more freedom to choose between them would not be kind to schools which didn’t teach children to read. And the best methods, be they synthetic phonics or anything else, would flourish.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

More thoughts on Nick Cohen and Amnesty International

Nick Cohen, in a column I have already discussed here and here, complained about Amnesty International's use of the term "gulag" to describe Guananamo Bay and the USA's other facilities for detaining suspected terrorists around the world.

He wrote:

ever since [Irene] Khan took over, I've had an uneasy feeling that it is losing universal principles and treating the abuse of rights by the United States as worse than similar or more grotesque abuses by others. That feeling transformed into a certainty last week when Amnesty described Guantanamo Bay as the 'gulag of our times'.

By all means, Amnesty and everyone else should loudly deplore America's failure to treat prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. But when they've finished, they should check the figures. If they exclude the millions who died of starvation, disease and exhaustion, they will find that 776,098 prisoners were murdered in summary executions in the gulag between 1930 and 1953. At Guantanamo Bay, no one has died of starvation, disease or exhaustion and no prisoners have been executed. Not one. If Amnesty's American obsession prevents it from seeing the worst crimes of the 20th century for what they are, how will it sound the alarm about the worst of the 21st?

It is hard to disagree with any of this, but two points are worth making in reply.

The first is made by Ted Barlow in his open letter to New Republic magazine on the Crooked Timber blog. In the PS he writes:
You can imagine a world in which the term “gulag” had not been used in that speech. In that world, do you imagine that the Amnesty report would have set off a serious effort on the part of the Bush Administration to correct its abuses? Or do you think that they would find another excuse- any excuse- to belittle and ignore the report? The question answers itself, doesn’t it?
The second was made by Cohen himself. In a posting made in January this year I quoted him as saying:
A few months ago, I shared a platform with Sion Simon, a new Labour cheerleader. I had a go at the government's assault on trial by jury, and his instant response was: "Nick Cohen thinks Blair's Hitler." I pointed out that I thought nothing of the sort, and asked if all criticism of new Labour's record would be illegitimate until the day the Cabinet dressed in black leather and invaded Poland.
Equally, Bush's America does not have to be as bad as Stalin's USSR for criticism of it to be legitimate.

The real idiocy in Irene Khan's comments (quoted by Cohen and included in my first posting on the subject) was her failure to understand that extending liberty is key to fighting poverty and ignorance, not a destraction from it.

Which brings us back to my favourite quotation about Karl Popper from Bryan Magee.

Sympathy for the Devil

Paul Goggins (silly name, silly man) has announced that under his new incitement to religious hatred bill will protect Satanists.

I wonder how an outburst like this would fare under his new law?
Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.
Our caller, of course, is Jesus from Nazareth (John 8 :34), addressing the scribes and Pharisees. Which raises the intriguing prospect that, should Christ return to Earth, he will be prosecuted by New Labour.

No wonder the Evangelical Alliance has come out against Mr Goggins' bill.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Meanwhile in Melton Mowbray

It's not just Shropshire that produces great news stories. Here in Leicestershire the BBC reports that:

Engineers are trying to find out what has caused a giant hole that opened up in a Melton Mowbray car park.

The 10ft wide gap appeared outside the town's railway station last week and the area remains cordoned off, while investigations continue.

The story goes on to say:
Station staff are intrigued by what is below and ask for people who know about the area's history to come forward and see if they can provide answers.
Lord Bonkers writes: For centuries the Bonkers family fortunes were boosted by our ownership of a number of Stilton mines in the north of Leicestershire. Unfortunately their location has been quite lost, and I have spent many fruitless hours searching my Library for a map.

Peter O'Toole's socks

It had to happen. News of the remake of Lassie Come Home has reached the Shropshire Star:

Costumes made at a south Shropshire wool shop will be making an appearance on the silver screen later this year in the remake of the classic film Lassie.

The Wool Shop, in Ludlow's Broad Street, has been commissioned to produce a number of costumes for the film, including a pair of Argyle socks to be worn by legendary actor Peter O'Toole.

Read more here if you can stand the excitement.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Amnesty, liberty and poverty

I have been thinking some more about the column by Nick Cohen which I recommended here a couple of days ago.

Cohen was, quite rightly, taking issue with Irene Khan, the new secretary general of Amnesty International, and her claim that:

"If you look globally today and want to talk about human rights, for the vast majority of the world's population they don't mean very much. To talk about freedom of expression to a man who can't read the newspaper, to talk about the right to work to someone who has no job; human rights means nothing to them unless it brings some change on these particular issues."

I realised that I have already posted the best answer to this sort of argument to my other blog Serendib - an anthology of favourite bits and pieces from my reading.

In November 2003 I added an extract from Brian Magee's autobiography Confessions of a Philosopher where he discusses the importance of Karl Popper's work. It ran:

Before Popper it was believed by almost everyone that democracy was bound to be inefficient and slow, even if to be preferred in spite of that because of the advantages of freedom and the other moral benefits; and the most efficient government in theory would be some form of enlightened dictatorship.

Popper showed that this is not so; and he provides us with an altogether new and deeper understanding of how it comes about that most of the materially successful societies in the world are liberal democracies.

It is not - as, again, had been believed by most people before - because their prosperity has enabled them to afford that costly luxury called democracy; it is because democracy has played a crucial role in raising them out of a situation in which most of their members were poor, which had been the case in almost all of them when democracy began.

That is all that needs to be said. You can read more about Popper's work here.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Making and Breaking Children's Lives

The fact that many children were sent from British institutions to live in Australia and other far-flung parts of the Empire is often referred to as a shameful "secret".

As I argued in a paper I on the history of child abuse that I gave at the Tavistock last year, it was nothing of the sort. It was public policy and widely discussed.

As a follower of Karl Popper I know that I should look for facts that refute my theories rather than ones that confirm them, but I was pleased to see this report in the Guardian the other day:
The files show Whitehall officials as early as 1955 had particular concerns over the St John Bosco Boys' Town in Glenorchy, Tasmania, run by the Salesian Brotherhood. A Home Office inspector who visited the home in 1951 was concerned there were no women involved, and recommended it should not be approved without a matron.
It is a little odd to say "as early as 1955" because the fate of children sent to Canada had been controversial decades before that.

Incidentally, a revised version of my Tavistock Clinic paper is included as a chapter in the book Making and Breaking Children's Lives, which is about to be published by PCCS Books. Full details here.

How We Fell for Europe

Don't despair if you missed Michael Cockerell's excellent film on Saturday. The BBC has a page devoted to it here.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

David Dimbleby’s bladder

Some broadcasters are so bland and inoffensive that it’s offensive. Nick Ross is one such. I remember a magazine article that featured photographs of celebrities as children and invited you to guess who they grew up to become. It was somehow inevitable that the young Nick Ross should look exactly like the older Nick Ross.

Two more such creatures are the Dimblebys. The first part of David Dimbleby’s new series A Picture of Britain, which looks at British landscape and its effect on British painting and other arts, was shown on BBC1 this evening.

Inevitably the pictures were beautiful, though when you see clouds racing over an otherwise still landscape for the tenth time it ceases to impress. And there was someone with a terribly literal mind at work too. When Dimbleby mentioned Wuthering Heights, Kate Bush swelled up on the soundtrack at once. Yorkshire as a whole was introduced by a brass band. Playing “On Ilkley Moor Baht ’At”. On Ilkley Moor.

What was most striking, though, was an extract from David Dimbleby’s first television film. He made it with his younger brother Jonathan. At the age of 17.

No doubt it does your career little harm if your father is the most famous broadcaster in the land,* but this film crystallised what is objectionable about David Dimbleby. He is a public school boy of no great imagination or ability, projected on to the national stage by television fame and family connections.

Though his performance on election night this year was not his worst, his occasional misunderstanding of the statistics or miscalling of results reveal someone with no great passion for psephology. You feel he would be just as happy covering ballroom dancing or show jumping.

It has been suggested to me that Dimbleby has made election night his own because he possesses a bladder of iron and has no need to nip away from the camera in the small hours. If so, this lucky heredity may be the real reason the Dimbleby family has made our state occasions its own.

It’s not talent. It’s not nepotism. It’s urology.

* In his latest diary Lord Bonkers suggests that Richard Dimbleby “commentated upon every state occasion from the launch of the Queen Mary to the conception of Princess Anne”.

Nick Cohen on Amnesty International

Nick Cohen is controversial and right in today's Observer:

"If you look globally today and want to talk about human rights, for the vast majority of the world's population they don't mean very much. To talk about freedom of expression to a man who can't read the newspaper, to talk about the right to work to someone who has no job; human rights means nothing to them unless it brings some change on these particular issues.'

This clunking and faintly sinister statement did not come from a colonial administrator explaining that liberty was all well and good for freeborn Englishmen but the half-savage natives needed order. Nor was it a communist apparatchik saying that there was no need for bourgeois freedoms in the proletarian paradise of the Soviet Union. Nor was it Edward Heath or Henry Kissinger announcing that the Chinese liked autocracy or Abu Musab Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden denouncing democracy as a Greek heresy.

Rather, it fell from the lips of Irene Khan, the new secretary general of Amnesty International, an organisation which used to believe that human rights meant everything.


Read the full article here.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Lassie: Latest news

Following my posting the other day I have made some more discoveries.

First, Lassie Comes Home is being remade at the moment, starring Peter O'Toole. (He is not playing the title role but the Duke of Rudling.) It is being shot in Ireland and the Isle of Man, and other cast members include Steve Pemberton from the League of Gentlemen, John Lynch, Jemma Redgrave and Gregor Fisher. The press coverage suggests the script is true to Eric Knight's original story.

Second, I have come across a substantial academic analysis of the meaning of the Lassie films and the later American TV series. It is Henry Jenkins' essay: "Her suffering aristocratic majesty": The sentimental value of Lassie.

Here is just a taste:

Neither the Duke nor Joe, neither Jeff nor Timmy, nor any of the others who were blessed to own Lassie through the years, needed a microchip to identify her. I recognize that the microchip is an act of love, a response to a changed society, a harsh reality we have to live with. But reality falls far short of our cherished myths. Lassie was unique, priceless, without possible imitation or counterfeit. Her spiritual qualities, her moral authority, her "suffering aristocratic majesty" was possessed by no other dog, and only those who understand that distinction were allowed to possess a dog like Lassie. And, even if her human owners were confused, Lassie would have known and would have made her wishes known.

Something has broken down in the relations between dogs and their masters. The myth of the faithful dog no longer offer us condolences in the face of a feckless world. If the myths of canine fidelity and childhood innocence were central tropes through which our culture dealt with the threats of modernity, such myths of authenticity and of natural social relations have no place in a postmodern world.

Finally, let us not forget the pioneer of the canine heroics mocked in the Guardian article which started me off on this Lassie kick. In my review of Matthew Sweet's book Shepperton Babylon here I wrote:

Mention should also be made of the eponymous hero of Rescued by Rover who, in a later film

pounds off in hot pursuit, jumps into the driving seat of the abductor's car and, paws on the steering wheel, chugs his charge back to safety along the road from Shepperton to Walton.

No wonder Sweet calls The Dog Outwits the Kidnapper "a minor masterpiece of British surrealism".

South Staffordshire election

From the latest LDYS mailing:

Jo Crotty's Liberal Democrat campaign team have now set up their HQ at Unit 9 on the Wombourne Enterprise Park, Bridgnorth Road, Wombourne, Wolverhampton WV5 0AL. They are now open and ready for action! We need your help now, the first sets of leaflets are ready and waiting for you!

Come by car if you can - other than about 5000 homes in Wombourne itself, the rest of the seat can only be easily got at by car as buses and trains need lengthy trips into and out of Wolverhampton. Wombourne is a large village typical of the South Staffordshire constituency. Pubs are plentiful and stocks of Black Country-sourced real ales easy to find, as are restaurants of every hue.

If you are looking for accommodation please contact us in the first instance at info@southstaffslibdems.org.uk.

Comments added to Liberal England

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog. I am not entirely clear how they work - or what "trackback" is, to be honest - but let's see how we get on with them.

To be given the option of leaving a comment it seems you need to have an individual posting open, rather than the blog as whole. To get an individual posting open, click on the orange # sign at the bottom lefthand corner of each of them. I hope that makes sense. If it doesn't you can leave me a comment - or maybe you can't.

I don't intend to reply to every comment, and will delete any that are obscene or too tedious to live.

----

Later: Thanks to advice in a comment left by one of those nice people at Haloscan, comments now appear on the main page and the archive pages. So you can ignore the text I have greyed out.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Even more exciting, they had proportional representation

Attentive readers may spot some similarities between today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News and an earlier posting on this blog.

Different tunes

Parliament is in recess, so we begin with a quiz. Which is the only constituency where the sitting member has been defeated at each of the last three general elections?

While you are thinking about that, we will discuss what the Eurovision Song Contest says about the difficulties facing the European project. You may remember that Britain’s representative was Javine. She sang “Touch my Fire” but got her fingers burnt.

For Spain, the United Kingdom, France and Germany – the largest contributors to the European Broadcasting Union – occupied the bottom four places in the voting.

In our case it’s tempting to blame Blair’s foreign policy. As Terry Wogan put it: ''We've invaded too many countries and nobody likes us anymore.” But something more profound was at work. Something not even the ruthless block voting of the Baltic and Balkan states can explain.

It is that the heart of Europe has moved east. You could tell that from the Eurovision entries. When Britain’s was chosen we probably thought we were daring to pick a song with a Bollywood sound. There turned out to be nothing daring about it. Poor Javine was lost in a crowd of eastern sounds, led by that Moldovan granny and her drum.

Which means we are going to have to reconsider what Europe means to us. For a couple of generations it represented a more civilised way of life. They had subsidised public transport, sane labour relations and adventurous sex lives. Even more exciting, they had proportional representation.

This Europe to which Liberals owed allegiance, which convinced them that, despite appearances, they were the party of the future, was the Europe of the six original Common Market members. That Europe no longer exists.

What we see instead is a more diverse and interesting Europe. Yet it scares some, as the prominence of Turkey in the French referendum campaign shows. You also wonder how long Western voters will be happy to go on funding it – or the song contest, for that matter.

And the quiz? The answer is Taunton, where David Nicholson lost in 1997, Jackie Ballard in 2001 and Adrian Flook in 2005. The new MP for Taunton is our own Jeremy Browne, and House Points has every confidence that history will not repeat itself.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Lord Bonkers' Diary

I have posted his lordship's latest diary to his website:

Speaking in a purely personal capacity, I view the prospect of house arrest with equanimity – particularly if no one spills the beans about the secret passage that comes out in the cellar of the Bonkers Arms.

To Scotland to enjoy that blissful period after it stops raining for the winter and before the midgies appear for the summer. Why, in a good year it can last as long as three days!

When such dirty business is afoot, we would all do well to remember the sage counsel of my agent in ’06: “If it votes Liberal, offer it a poster. If it doesn’t, hit it with your orchard doughty.”

You can also find an archive of the old brute's thoughts and adventures on his site.

In defence of Lassie

The trouble with the Guardian is that nothing - with the possible exceptions of Tony Benn and comprehensive education - is sacred to it. Take today's parody of Lassie Come Home by David Ward:

Scene 1

Enter friendly collie dog, barking.

Well-scrubbed child: "What Lassie? Granny has fallen down the mine shaft again? We'd better get help!"

Scene 2

Lassie in phone box dials 999.

Well-scrubbed police officer: Hi Lassie. Granny in the mine shaft? We'll be right there.

Scene 3

Enter Lassie with Granny in mouth. All pat Lassie.

We are not talking about Flipper or Skippy here, but Lassie Come Home - one of the greatest family films ever made.

It was shot in 1943, based on the book by Eric Knight. Knight was born in England but settled in the United States as a teenager. By the time the film had made him famous he was already dead. A Major in the US Army, he perished in a wartime aircrash.

Lassie Comes Home is one of those films, like Mrs Miniver and Suspicion, that was set in Britain but made in Hollywood. The result is that every detail is slightly wrong but the whole is immensely interesting. The cast is also terrific: Nigel Bruce, Dame May Whitty and Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor as children.

There is nothing sugary about the film: poverty is at its heart. Lassie is sold because a rich man coverts her and the poor family that owns her cannot turn his offer down. If Roddy McDowall is "well scrubbed", it is his mother's attempt to retain her family's dignity in the face of that poverty.

After that the film becomes a hymn to unfashionable virtues like loyalty and steadfastness. You can see why the Guardian hates it, but I love it.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The new Liberator is out

Issue 302 of Liberator is being mailed to subscribers tonight, and the magazine's website has been updated to include some articles from it.

See also this story in today's Guardian, which quotes extensively from the issue.

A new Liberal blog

Welcome to Jane Leaper's Mira, which comes to you from the beautiful Churnet valley in Staffordshire.

I shall be having a revamp of my links shortly, and will also allow people to add comments. (The worry when you launch a new blog is that no one will bother to leave any.)

The Week's Good Cause

Spare a thought for the MPs defeated at the recent general election. Joe Ashton does, reports the Guardian.

The former MP for Bassetlaw, latterly famous for discovering the hitherto overlooked Thai quarter of Northampton, was:

especially struck by the plight of some of the Tories defeated in 1997, when 160 lost their seats in the New Labour landslide. "One drank himself to death, two or three more suffered from alcohol problems and depression, another was so broke he had to take his kids out of school," he says. His response was to form an association of ex-MPs, a support group that aims to help members once their 15 minutes of fame - or perhaps their eight and a half years of infamy - is over.

Ashton paints a grim picture for those who have been defeated at the polls. "The shock of losing is traumatic," he says. "You learn that you've lost at midnight, your opponents are singing and chortling, it's a cruel, ruthless arena."