Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The state of the British blogosphere

Paul Berger, in an article for the Online Journalism Review, asks if British bloggers are lagging behind their American counterparts when in comes to number of readers and influence.

His broad conclusions are 1. yes and 2. no.

Why do British blogs have fewer readers? Well, there are fewer Britons than Americans, and our press is less opinionated. Berger quotes Neil McIntosh from Guardian Unlimited saying:
"In this country we have an enormously diverse media. You can be offended by Richard Littlejohn on the right and George Monbiot on the left. You can find [right wing] Max Hastings and [left wing] Polly Toynbee in the pages of the Guardian. So where is the ground into which blogs can successfully move?"
Ah, but we still have influence says Martin Stabe:

"What matters most is not reader numbers but who these readers are - the political analysts, the party activists, journalists looking for leads and story ideas. They are what marketing people call opinion leaders. So there is an argument that an elite readership is more important than a mass readership."

Education otherwise

The Guardian reports another of those sad cases where a mother is gaoled because her child is playing truant.

This is one is from Wolverhampton, and the most striking thing about the report are the comments by Christine Irvine, the city council's cabinet member for children and young people:
"It is a legal requirement for children to attend school."
This is, of course, nonsense.

As the government-supported ParentsCentre website says:
Parents are allowed to educate their children at home instead of school if they choose to do so. Under UK law it is education that is compulsory, not schooling, though the vast majority of parents do choose to send their children to school.
I am not suggesting that the mother in this case was engaged in an experiment in home education, but it is frightening that the council cabinet member for children and young people is ignorant of the law.

Those with an interest in home education should look at the Education Otherwise website.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Before the Child Support Agency

Tony Hatfield's Retired Ramblings remind us of how the Conservatives promoted the Child Support Agency. The white paper Children Come First (Cmnd. 1264), published in October 1990, noted in point 2 of its summary:
The present system of maintenance is unnecessarily fragmented, uncertain in its results, slow and ineffective. It is based largely on discretion. The system is operated through the High and County Courts, the Magistrates’ Courts and the offices of the Department of Social Security. The cumulative effect is uncertainty and inconsistent decisions about how much maintenance should be paid. In a great many instances, the maintenance awarded is not paid or the payments fall into arrears and take weeks to re-establish. Only 30% of lone mothers and 3% of lone fathers receive regular maintenance for their children. More than 750,000 lone parents depend on income support. Many lone mothers want to go to work but do not feel able to do so.
As Tony says, compared with the CSA the courts worked wonders.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Trivial relations

These relationships sound unlikely but appear to be true:
  • Lauren Bacall and the former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres are first cousins;
  • Daily Mirror agony aunt Miriam Stoppard is also the real aunt of former Labour MP Oona King.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Happy birthday to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal is 200 years old today, reports the BBC.

It is one of the wonders of the British canal system, and well worth going to see if you are in the area. It is even more spectacular if you sail across it.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Sit back to enjoy the fun

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. "You'll get letters," said the editor.

Teasing Tony

A Tory leader has finally worked out how to discomfort Tony Blair at prime minister’s questions. You agree with him.

For eight long years the Conservatives tried to persuade us that, deep down, Blair is a dangerous Bolshevik. Remember those Demon Eyes posters? They did not work for a simple reason. He isn’t.

Michael Gove gave the correct Tory estimation of Tony Blair when he was just a Times commentator. He wrote: “I can't fight my feelings any more: I love Tony ... as a rightwing polemicist, all I can say looking at Mr Blair now is, ‘What's not to like?’”

Which is why last Wednesday Michael Howard told Blair not to waste his time abusing those across the chamber who agree with him on education. He should worry about his own backbenches. They don’t.

The Independent’s Simon Carr has been urging this strategy on the Tory front bench for years. Praise Blair for enacting good Conservative measures and then sit back to enjoy the fun.

If they stick with it, we shall enter a new world. It won’t quite be Israel, where the prime minister is forming his own party. But Tony Blair’s education measures will probably go through with Tory support and in the teeth of much Labour opposition.

Which will leave the Liberal Democrats with some thinking to do. We shall walk through the No lobbies alongside the Labour rebels. Why not? We are not New Labour.

But we are not Old Labour either. And we should not sound like them.

A skilled and confident teaching profession must be central to our education policy. But too often the teachers’ voice, as heard through their unions, is the reverse. It is endlessly negative, opposing every government imitative – good, bad or lunatic. At its worst it is full of teenage nihilism. It’s not fair. I hate you. You’re not my dad.

This negativity has infected Old Labour with fatalism. There are good schools and bad schools, good students and bad students, and you can’t do much about it. Hence their interest in allocating school places by ballot.

We should be different. We need to talk about quality, innovation and choice, whatever the structures we favour to deliver them. In short, we need to sound more Liberal.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Anyone but the English

A letter from today's Guardian:
So the Archbishop of York thinks the English are embarrassed about their identity (Report, November 22). If I was English, I'd want to keep quiet about it.
Chris Henton
Cardiff
I wonder if this letter would have been published if it had referred in these terms to any other nationality but the English?

2005 Blogged again

Yesterday I wrote about Tim Worstall's book and said how useful the index of blogs will be.

It turns out you can find that index on the web. But don't let that stop you buying the book.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

2005 Blogged

My complimentary copy of this book, which is edited by Tim Worstall, arrived in the post this morning.

In the Guardian Jane Perrone describes it as "an accessible introduction to the breadth and quality of writing on offer from some British blogs". She goes on to say:

For me, what lets the book down is its typography. I'd thought gimmicky use of a typeface that looks like it was ripped straight off a dot matrix printer circa 1982 had been deemed unfashionable long ago. And it seems a bit pointless to employ a fake html to indicate when the editor is writing for a book targeted at people not acquainted with the lingua franca of blogs.

If you can get beyond these stylistic quibbles, this is a book that provides proof positive that the British blogosphere is full of great writers.

All this is fair comment. Chicken Yoghurt adds:

The variety of bloggers represented is pretty impressive. The temptation for Tim could have been to go with what he knows. As a narrative of the past year it works as well. Structuring the book chronologically means that people will be inclined to read it from beginning to end rather than if the book had been arranged by, say, subject area.
I was impatient too see which of my postings Tim had included. To my surprise it was a short comment on the government's plans to extend the legislation on incitement to religious hatred to protect Satanists. I'm not convinced that is the best thing I have written this year, and I now see that the first sentence does not even make sense.

But there is a lot of good stuff in 2005 Blogged and I recommend it.

There is also a useful index of the blogs quoted, complete with their addresses on the web. I shall work through it and freshen up my blogroll.

Bombing television stations

This morning's Guardian led on the story that:

The attorney general last night threatened newspapers with the Official Secrets Act if they revealed the contents of a document allegedly relating to a dispute between Tony Blair and George Bush over the conduct of military operations in Iraq ...

The attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, last night referred editors to newspaper reports yesterday that described the contents of a memo purporting to be at the centre of charges against two men under the secrets act.

Under the front-page headline "Bush plot to bomb his ally", the Daily Mirror reported that the US president last year planned to attack the Arabic television station al-Jazeera, which has its headquarters in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where US and British bombers were based.

Writing more about this clearly risks a knock from Inspector Knacker at 3 a.m. But it would not be surprising if Bush were planning to bomb al-Jazeera. In April 1999 NATO forces bombed the Serbian state television station in Belgrade, killing several civilian workers.

As the Guardian reported at the time,
Tony Blair, in Washington for Nato's 50th anniversary summit, insisted that bombing television stations was "entirely justified" since they were part of the "apparatus of dictatorship and power of Milosevic".
And guess which minister told "a heated press briefing at the Ministry of Defence":
"This is a war, this is a serious conflict, untold horrors are being done. The propaganda machine is prolonging the war and it's a legitimate target."
That great pacifist Clare Short, that's who.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Lord Drayson: An injection of funds

Last night the BBC's Money Programme offered an investigation of the career of Lord Drayson - millionaire, major Labour donor and, by a remarkable coincidence, government minister.

Tonight the BBC website reports:

Defence Minister Lord Drayson is being investigated by Commons officials over claims he broke an embargo on a watchdog's report on defence projects.

The Tories say a Ministry of Defence briefing to journalists on Tuesday was a "naked attempt" to pre-empt the National Audit Office report.

Commons Speaker Michael Martin said he would be "very angry" if reporters were given information before Parliament.

Sportsblog roundup

The Militant Moderate hosts a selection of the best in British blogging on the subject of sport. It promises to be the second in a fortnightly series. This one includes two of my posts.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Respect members rebel over gay rights

Respect, the bizarre Trot, Tankie 'n' Taliban coalition put together by George Galloway, is already displaying its inherent contradictions. Harry's Place reports:

Grassroots members of George Galloway’s left-wing Respect party have condemned as “unacceptable” the decision of the party leadership to exclude lesbian and gay rights from their manifesto for the general election earlier this year.

Respect MP George Galloway is now being asked to explain why his party dumped gay rights from its manifesto. Allegations abound that Respect’s right-wing Islamist backers demanded the exclusion of gay rights as a condition of their electoral support for the party.

At Respect’s annual conference on Sunday (20 November), delegates rebelled against party leaders who vetoed the inclusion of gay equality in the party’s manifesto for the 2005 general election.

Sporting quote of the day

The jury's decision is in. Today's winner is an anonymous Daily Telegraph journalist for this comment on the ref's decision not to give a penalty for a foul on Lee Bowyer by John Terry:
Kicking Bowyer is still an offence technically, if not morally.

Friday, November 18, 2005

If your horse got a stone in its hoof

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Knives are out

A late entrant in the Conservative leadership stakes emerged at defence questions. He was quoted by Sir Peter Tapsell as saying “it is easy to get into Kabul, but much more difficult to get out”.

He makes more sense than David Cameron, who would say: “entering and leaving Kabul are both hugely important to many of the people whose support we need to return to government, but it would be unwise to make any specific commitments at this stage”.

And David Davis would say: “The seats we need to win lie outside our southern comfort zone. I know how to win them. And you can't get much further outside the comfort zone than Kabul.”

But I prefer the wisdom of the man quoted by Sir Peter. He was, of course, the Duke of Wellington. The Tory grassroots would really like to Bring Back Maggie. But if they can’t have her, I commend the Iron Duke to them as the next best thing.

* * *

Monday also saw the third reading of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill. While schools drew up plans to confiscate pencil sharpeners, Humfrey Malins, the Tory MP for Woking, was woking himself up about knives.

He calculated that 60,000 children carry knives in school. He claimed the Government should be deeply ashamed that the numbers have risen dramatically over the past few years. And he said “carrying a knife in school is a serious matter that should result in prosecution of the child”.

I sense you nodding in agreement, but hold on. I had a penknife on my key ring throughout my school career. You don’t have to go back very far to arrive at a time when every schoolboy expected to carry a penknife. And every Boy Scout had a more serious knife than that.

In fact the young Humfrey Malins was probably just the sort of chap you were pleased to meet if your horse got a stone in its hoof.

If something has gone wrong with society and is manifesting itself in a spate of violent attacks in schools, it has nothing to do with the availability of knives. And it won’t be put right by turning our schools into a cross between a secure hospital and an airport after 9/11.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

18 Stone of Dickens

I have just watched Johnny Vegas spontaneously combust on Bleak House. As far as I am concerned, it was an accident waiting to happen.

The erosion of liberty

Those are the four words that sum up the years since 9/11, according to Timothy Garton Ash in this morning's Guardian. He writes:
If he's still alive, Osama bin Laden must be laughing into his beard. For this is exactly what al-Qaida-type terrorists want: that democracies should overreact, reveal their "true" oppressive face, and therefore win more recruits to the suicide bombers' cause. We should not play his game. In the always difficult trade-off between liberty and security, we are erring too much on the side of security. Worse still: we are becoming less safe as a result.
He goes on to describe the British government's reaction to the terrorist threat at home:
At home, we have seen successive tightenings of the anti-terrorism legislation - or, to put it another way, successive erosions of the Human Rights Act, and of other, older individual freedoms secured by common law, such as habeas corpus. This culminated in the proposal that terrorist suspects should be held for 90 days without charge. Legislation to outlaw the "glorification" of terrorism and a misguided attempt to protect Muslims by criminalising an ill-defined "incitement to religious hatred" both threaten free speech. And so we find ourselves in the surreal position of depending on unelected lords, and the Conservatives, for the defence of our liberties.
All this is good stuff, but he seem too surprised that our attachment to liberty has proved so weak. After all, Conservatism was traditionally wary of liberty, putting a higher value on the established social order. They took up the cause of individual liberty as a response to Socialism and because the left abandoned that cause too easily.

For themselves, Socialists - once Marx's influence kicked in - were suspicious of liberty and more interested in economic equality. Latterly New Labour has seen its role as reducing the liberties of the citizens in order to save them from themselves.

The Liberal Democrats have been staunch defenders of the civil liberties of the sort Garton Ash mentions, but in many ways we no longer speak up for liberty either. As Iain Sharpe says about the party's new policy consultation exercise, in a comment on Quaequam blog:

There is lots in this about political freedoms (civil liberties). What I think is missing is our attitude to ordinary bog-standard run-of-the mill freedom.

As I think you (and others) have pointed out we have ended up on the illiberal side of the licensing debate. We are also the most gung-ho of the parties for a smoking ban. These are not isolated incidents, but fairly typical of the Lib Dem stance. If there is a public campaign to ban something for health or safety reasons, the Lib Dems are likely to be at the forefront of the campaign.

Does it matter - these are marginal issues after all? I think it does. The political centre-left often comes across as worthy, earnest and a little bit controlling. The Lib Dems are at least as guilty of this as New Labour.

I think the party should position itself as a party of the libertarian left - committed to improving public services and supporting the poor and marginalised over the wealthy and privileged, but not trying to impose the lifestyle choices of the average Guardian-reader on the whole of society.

Amen to that. As Garton Ash writes:
It wasn't any of the CIA's covert assassinations or dirty tricks that won the cold war. It was the magnetic example of free, prosperous and law-abiding societies. That was worth a thousand nuclear bombs or stealth bombers. No weapon known to man is more powerful than liberty in law.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The next President of the United States?

Mike Smithson at politicalbetting.com is talking up Mark Warner's chances of winning the Democratic nomination in 2008. He recommends backing the outgoing Governor of Virginia at 8/1 for the Democrat nomination and 40/1 to be President.

For more on Warner see the profile in last Sunday's Observer.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Heidi low

The school-bans-conkers stories may have failed to appear this autumn, but here is an early sighting of a Santa-warned-over-abuse-fears one. The Daily Telegraph reports that:
Swiss Santa Clauses have been banned from sitting children on their laps because of the risk that they might be accused of paedophilia.
At least the story introduces us to the world's most unlikely trade union, The Society of St Nicholases, which "has 100 professional members".

Choice and privatisation in Wales

Peter Black has some fun with Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for Rhondda, who is calling on the Welsh Assembly to embrace the choice agenda being advanced by the government in England.

Peter's blog is one of the most valuable in the Lib Dem blogosphere, but two things worry me about this posting.

First, he slides too easily from talking about choice to talking about privatisation. Chris Bryant must speak for himself, but Liberals, with our long interest in mutualist and cooperative organisations, no there is more to it than that. And, where the state is running things badly, is it really so terrible to suggest that other people might have a try?

Second, Peter says:
Given that the privatising agenda that Chris Bryant wants the Welsh Assembly to adopt is only being championed here by the Welsh Conservative Group, then the solution seems obvious. At the next Assembly elections he should vote with his conscience and put his cross next to the name of his local Tory candidate.
All very amusing, but if I were a Tory strategist I would be delighted to see my opponents toying with a slogan like: "If you want choice in public services, vote Conservative." We should not make things that easy for them.

Monday, November 14, 2005

More on social mobility

Today's Guardian reports a study that suggests that working-class children from many ethnic minorities are more successful than their white peers at gaining professional and managerial jobs. It says:

People from Indian working class families are the most successful, said Lucinda Platt, from the University of Essex, who tracked the employment of 140,000 people in England and Wales over 30 years from the 1960s.

Using data from the Office for National Statistics, she found that 56% of people from Indian working class families took up professional or managerial roles in adulthood, while only 43% of those from white, non-immigrant families went into such jobs. Among youngsters from Caribbean families, the figure was 45%.

Ms Platt suggested it was the tendency of migrant parents to encourage and expect their children to do well at school that lay behind the success of these groups when
it came to getting jobs.

This research confirms my own anecdotal experience, and it suggests that a crude class analysis of educational outcomes will not do. Attitudes towards education in individual communities, and within society as a whole, are also immensely important.

Interesting too are the reactions to this research reported on the ePolitix site.

Linda Platt herself, billed as speaking on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Trust which funded the research, is quoted as saying:
"There is good news to the extent that a disproportionate number of the young people who are upwardly mobile are the children of parents who came to this country as migrants."
Is it good news that a disproportionate number of children of migrants are upwardly mobile? In an ideal world wouldn't we want all groups do be doing about as well as each other?

Platt goes on to say of the children of migrants:
"Their welcome progress is no cause for complacency - especially when it appears to be so much harder for young people from Pakistani or Bangladeshi families to get ahead. We need to do much more to understand why this is happening and the extent to which factors such as racial discrimination are involved."
All that is true, but shouldn't we be worried that white working class children are doing badly too? Perhaps this short comment from Platt was edited down from something more substantial, but the invisibility of the white working class in her comments mirrors its individuality in much liberal discourse. I suspect that invisibility is one of the reasons that the children of that class do so badly in school.

The second reaction given to Platt's research is also interesting. Deng Yai, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers policy adviser on equalities, says:

"We believe policymakers and schools must do more to match resources to need as the class and cultural maps of Britain become more complex.

"In particular, we recommend the ethnic minority achievement grant is reformed to better serve its purpose.

"ATL believes that education provides a key means of tackling inequality and building a cohesive society.

"Educational achievement can help promote social inclusion and upward social mobility, so it is vital that schools and policymakers tackle under-achievement.

"We must ensure all ethnic minority pupils in our schools achieve their potential. In so doing everybody wins - our ethnic minority communities, our society, and our economy."

Again, don't we want pupils from the ethnic majority to fulfill there potential too? Her statement seems particularly odd as a reaction to a report that suggests that many of them do not.

More fundamentally, you still sense behind her remarks that we are being urged to see ethnic diversity as a problem. Whereas the report seems to be saying that in many cases it is precisely the opposite.

There is also a sense that children from ethnic minorities have problems which schools can solve. The truth seems to be the reverse. The attitudes which children from ethnic minorities learn from their parents may constitute a solution to the problems of our education system.

"Liberal view on sex"

An hour ago someone in Evansville, Indiana, reached this blog by searching for "Liberal view on sex" on MSN. Apparently Liberal England comes up first if you do that.

I am not sure I am the best person to ask, but I would say that, broadly speaking, we are in favour of it.

Bumper BritBlog Round Up

While I was away for the weekend Tim Worstall posted his latest selection of the best in British blogging. He promises "something of a bumper crop".

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Declining social mobility

A recent study by researchers from the London School of Economics provides some important background to the education debate - and many other debates:

Jo Blanden, Paul Gregg and Steve Machin found that social mobility in Britain - the way in which someone's adult outcomes are related to their circumstances as a child - is lower than in Canada, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland. And while the gap in opportunities between the rich and poor is similar in Britain and the US, in the US it is at least static, while in Britain it is getting wider.

A careful comparison reveals that the USA and Britain are at the bottom with the lowest social mobility. Norway has the greatest social mobility, followed by Denmark, Sweden and Finland. Germany is around the middle of the two extremes, and Canada was found to be much more mobile than the UK.

Comparing surveys of children born in the 1950s and the 1970s, the researchers went on to examine the reason for Britain's low, and declining, mobility. They found that it is in part due to the strong and increasing relationship between family income and educational attainment.

The page I have linked to offers a .pdf of the full report and links to copious press coverage.

Friday, November 11, 2005

"Vote Yes Twice"

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News, written in the expectation that the Commons would agree to 90 days' detention for questioning.

Charles Clarke's dodgy poll was all over the blogosphere earlier this week - thanks to whichever blogger it was who first put me on to it. You can read more about the wonderful Orange Alternative in an article from the Situationist magazine Here & Now.

Labour astroturfing

At Home Office questions on Monday we heard complaints that the police are hampered by red tape. Instead of catching villains they are filling in forms.

One distinguished constable found something else to keep him off the streets that evening. Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman attended a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Satirists tore their hair out. Alistair Carmichael issued a press release: "The job of the police is to enforce the laws, not to make them." And the Daily Telegraph asked: "If we are simply to contract out public policy to the boys in blue, what is the point of having elections? A polity driven wholly by what the police want is a police state - literally."

Maybe a police state is what Charles Clarke wants. He has the look of a man who spent his teenage years reading Soviet coal production figures under the blankets.

But Clarke will tell you that not only do the police support him, the public does too.

I wonder. American commentators have developed the concept of "astroturfing" - the production of an illusion of broad grass roots support by top-down actions. A good example occurs when national party workers pretend to be local residents and have letters published in local newspapers.

Go to the Labour Party's website and you find blatant astroturfing. In a poll Charles Clarke seeks your views on terrorism and the law. You are asked to answer Yes, No or Not Sure to the following questions:

  • Do you think that our laws should be updated to cope with the current security threat?
  • Do you think police should have the time and opportunity to complete their investigations into suspected terrorists?
  • Do you think the government should make sure there are new safeguards to protect innocent people?
  • Have you stopped beating... [Sorry, I can't read my notes here].

Faced with this totalitarian approach, satirists should leave their hair alone and seek inspiration from the Orange Alternative, a group that flourished in Poland under the Communists.

In November 1987 they demonstrated for Wroclaw to be the only city with a 200 per cent turnout in a rigged referendum. Their slogan was "Vote Yes Twice". We should take Charles Clarke and his phoney poll no more seriously than that.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

David Cameron wins Spectator award

The 2005 Threadneedle/Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year awards were held at Claridges hotel this evening, reports the BBC.

The full list of winners:
  • Politician of the Year - David Cameron
  • Parliamentarian of the Year - Dominic Grieve
  • Newcomer of the Year - Sadiq Khan
  • Inquisitor of the Year - John Denham
  • Peer of the Year - Baroness Scotland of Asthal
  • Speech of the Year - Barbara Follett
  • Minister to Watch - John Reid

Correction of the day

From, inevitably, the Guardian:
A photograph accompanying an article about circumcision, Sore point, Weekend magazine, October 29, page 39, was not of the surgical instrument used to carry out the operation, as we said in the caption. It showed a nasal rasp used for nose-reshaping operations.

Wings over Shropshire

It's not just rare apple varieties that turn up in Shropshire from time to time.

Today's Shropshire Star reports that a frigatebird was found on a farm near Whitchurch. These tropical seabirds, which can have a seven-foot wingspan, are also known as man of war birds or pirate birds.

This one was the first to be recorded in Britain. It was taken to Chester Zoo but later died of its injuries.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Those Labour rebels in full

The Whiskey Priest has the full list of Labour MPs who voted against giving police the power to hold terrorist suspects without charge for 90 days.

Local government standards: Latest nonsense

Ministers may still think they can get away with not declaring all their financial interests, but concern for standards is biting ever deeper in local government. Take the saga of the Clun bus shelter.

Friday's Shropshire Star reported:

A south Shropshire parish councillor has resigned in a “weird” row over the design of a bus shelter which she claimed was unsuitable for her village.

Susan Dowell was brought before a watchdog committee amid allegations that she had already made her mind up about the shelter in Church Street, Clun, before it was debated by her councillors.

The South Shropshire District Council standards committee found she had pre-determined the result of the application and suspended her from Clun and Chapel Parish Council for three months and told her to make an apology.

It gets worse. The paper goes on to say:

In March this year Councillor Nicholas Appleton-Fox was cleared by the Standards Board for England following a heated discussion about the bus shelter.

The board said he did not bring his office or authority into disrepute.

Susan Dowell has resigned from Clun Parish Council. I don't blame her.

Against continuous assessment

Yesterday Peter at The Apollo Project wrote approvingly of an Independent article by Johann Hari. He said the article questioned the role that continuous assessment now plays in the awarding of educational qualifications in schools.

Discussing Independent articles is difficult because it insists on charging you for reading more than the first couple of paragraphs. But Hari has his own website and you can find the full article there free, gratis and for nothing. Like Peter, I find its arguments convincing.

But then I have long been sceptical of continuous assessment. The demand that it should replace conventional exams was one of the central tenets of educational radicalism for decades. Now the radicals have largely won, but their victory seems to have helped the offspring of what Hari calls "middling Middle England parents" more than anybody.

This is not so surprising. When I was in the early years of secondary school, geography lessons seemed to be dominated by middle-class girls whose families encouraged them to write to foreign embassies for information about the countries we were discussing. Being male and coming from a one-parent family with a busy working mother, I was never going to compete with them. (And if you want real street cred, I got free school dinners.)

Yet a few years later, in the examination hall, I had every chance of putting my hand up and asking for extra paper before those girls did. In this way the conventional examination was a great leveller. If home background had been allowed to dominate the examination process too, I do not think I would have had such an equal chance.

Given the number of children who now spend one weekend with one parent and the next with the other, it seems perverse to put such a premium on a settled home background. I also suspect that the move from examinations to continuous assessment is one of the factors which explain why girls are now doing so much better than boys in school.

In many ways Hari's views on assessment echo Nick Cohen's exasperation with supposedly anti-elitist middle class parents who use their wealth to move into the catchment areas of exclusive comprehensives and then campaign against selection. In both cases what was supposed to be an egalitarian reform has had the effect of penalising the children of the poor. Yet if you say so you are in danger of being branded a hopeless reactionary.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Miserable bastards round up

Hampshire: A nursery school has been threatened with a noise abatement order after a neighbour complained that children playing in the garden were too noisy. The Jigsaw Nursery on Locks Heath Park Road, Hampshire, must reduce its noise. Fareham Borough Council has suggested to the school the children should play outside in the garden - landscaped with parents' money - for one hour per day.

Leicestershire: Youngsters in part of a Leicestershire town are being stopped from buying ice creams - because the local van has been banned from the streets. Wesley Wilkinson can no longer trade in the Meadow Lane area in Coalville. It followed claims the van was attracting youngsters who were causing trouble outside residents' homes and dropping litter in the area. North West Leicestershire District Council introduced a street trading ban after the complaints.

Ludlow: The clock bites back

I knew that no good would come of Ludlow School's decision to reduce the lunch hour to 50 minutes.

The Shropshire Star reports that dinner ladies, parents and councillors are all up in arms.

New Lib Dem Lords

This morning's Times has an authoritative leak of the forthcoming list of new peers:
Two ex-Lib Dem MPs are to become peers, John Burnett and Brian Cotter, plus former MEP Robin Teverson, and John Lee, a one-time Tory minister who defected to the Lib Dems four years ago.
Given the number of major donors to the Conservative and Labour Parties who are getting a peerage this time, it was a little churlish of us to leave Michael Brown out.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Hazel Blears movie star

From the BBC's Manchester pages:
Earlier in the day Home Office Minister and Salford MP, Hazel Blears, revealed that she appears in kitchen sink classic, A Taste of Honey, shown at the Festival. "They filmed it at the bottom of our road" she recalled "And I was in one scene wearing bunches and a little kilt. My brother sang `The Big Ship Sails On The Ally Ally O'..."
A scene in which the young Blears pressed Harold Macmillan to give police the power to hold terrorist suspects without charge for 90 days was left on the cutting room floor.

Protests against surveillance cameras

The irreplaceable Surveillance Camera Players have a new page on their website detailing protests against the spread of CCTV cameras from around the world.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Tony Blair's own goal

Tony Blair is back in "man of the people" mode. A few weeks ago he turned up to meet a crowd auditioning for The X Factor. On Saturday morning he was on the Football Focus sofa.

Writing in the Observer, Euan Ferguson says:
We learnt that Blair is, undoubtedly, a fan of the programme. Ten past 12, every Saturday he can, he's watching Football Focus, and we know this because on a number of topics - ticket prices, the FA/Premiership fallouts - he referred back, with mention of "as you guys were saying last week", "that discussion you guys had a while back".
Except that it proves nothing of the sort. It is entirely possible that someone at Downing Street made a point of watching the last few editions of Football Focus and prepared a briefing for the prime minister. Indeed, it is easier to believe that than to credit that Blair makes the time every Saturday to take in the programme's bland chatter.

This picture of Tony Blair as a great soccer fan has never really convinced. Football may be classless today, but when the young Blair was at prep school and public school it was less common for someone of his background to follow the game.

Certainly, thanks to this Peter Oborne article in the Spectator (you can see enough of it without subscribing - thanks, Boris), we know that as a young man Blair's enthusiasm was for cricket:

I used to play for the same cricket club as Tony Blair, though not at the same time. It was called the Cricket Pistols, named after the punk rock band which is still indelibly associated in the public mind with the names Johnny Rotten and the late Sid Vicious. My own association with the Pistols was comparatively brief. They were affable, faintly druggie types, many of whom had attended Cambridge university, and in some cases completed their degrees. At least one had spent time in borstal. The Pistols were fairly down at heel then, but have since made good and tend to live in large houses in Notting Hill Gate.

Tony Blair used to turn out occasionally about 25 years ago, when he was establishing himself as a barrister but before he became an MP.

Of course one can follow both sports, but Blair the cricketer rings truer than Blair the football fan.

There is another reason for doubting soccer Blair's credentials. In his early years as prime minister he was interviewed on local radio in the North East. He was talking about what a great Newcastle United fan he was and how he used to watch the team with his father in the 1960s. Naturally, the interviewer asked who his heroes were in those days.

There was a horrible pause before Blair managed to dredge from somewhere the names of Jackie Milburn and Malcolm Macdonald. The only trouble with that was that Milburn played in the 1950s and Macdonald played in the 1970s.

This embarrassing incident has grown in the telling. For instance, in 2000 Francis Wheen described it as follows:
he told an interviewer that his "teenage hero" was the footballer Jackie Milburn, whom he would watch from the seats behind the goal at St James's Park. In fact, Milburn played his last game for Newcastle United when Blair was just four years old, and there were no seats behind the goal at the time.
This must have rankled with Blair, for yesterday morning the original recording was played on Football Focus. And it can hardly have been the programme's editorial team who suggested exhuming it.

Euan Ferguson writes:
The BBC had helpfully dug out the original Radio Five interview, which quite unequivocally had the PM saying he'd arrived after Jackie's time.
But hearing the interview again did nothing to dispel the doubts. Here was someone who claimed to be a big Newcastle fan in the 1960s, yet was unable when asked to name a single of the team's players from that era.

If you want to know what a real football fan turned politician sounds like, you should have heard Jenny Tonge on Adrian Chiles' programme on Radio Five Live. She talked rhapsodically about obscure Baggies cloggers from the 1950s. For if you are a football fan as a child, the trivia from that era stays with you for life. I am still an expert on minor Chelsea stars from the late 60s and early 70s. (Derek Smethurst, anyone? Barry Lloyd? Bill Garner?)

I conclude from this that when Blair said he was a Newcastle fan in the 1960s he was not telling the truth.

Remember that a year or two before Blair became prime minister, Newcastle - with Kevin Keegan as manager - was briefly the most fashionable team in the country. Given Blair's wish to be down with the kids it is not surprising that this was the team he suddenly developed a life-long affection for. It also fits with his tendency to be just behind the beat. He embraced Oasis just as everyone else was realising how thinly the group's talent was spread.

All of this makes you wonder about another of Blair's soccer-related outings as Labour leader. He appeared with Keegan, played head tennis and proved very proficient at it.

It may be that he was a keen footballer all along. But I have a horrible suspicion that Alistair Campbell had him out practising every evening for months, like a crazed American determined to make his young daughter a tennis champion.

Tim Worstall's BritBlog Roundup

The latest one can now be found in the usual place.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Campbell-Bannermania

Martin Kettle has a column in this morning's Guardian in praise of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. He is the forgotten prime minister - the man who led the Liberals to their 1906 landslide.

Kettle quotes from a speech of 1898 where CB answered the question "What is Liberalism?":
"I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life."
Next time someone asks me why I am a Liberal I shall quote this.

Friday, November 04, 2005

A right bollocking from Blunkett

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. It was written before David Blunkett resigned and before everyone started comparing Tony Blair's current predicament to the last years of John Major.

Remember, remember

It feels as though we did not put the clocks back an hour last weekend. It feels like ten years. A tired government about to be faced with a squeaky clean new leader who is vague on policy and plays down his privileged background.

Just as Tony Blair went to Fettes (the Eton of Scotland), David Cameron went to Eton (the Fettes of England).

Add to that daft policies (the cones hotline, banning drinking on trains), ministers leaking to newspapers and the rebirth of sleaze, and the parallels with the end of John Major’s government start to look uncanny.

Of course there are differences of scale. Labour has David Blunkett and the Tories, amongst others, had Steven Norris, Tim Yeo, David Ashby, Graham Riddick, David Treddinick, Tim Smith, Neil Hamilton, Jonathan Aitken, Richard Spring, Rod Richards, Jerry Hayes and Piers Merchant.

But when David Blunkett came to the House on Monday for work and pensions questions there was only one worth asking. How much longer will you cling on to office?

First up was Lynne Featherstone, and she had the courage to ask something close to it. “Given that the Minister's judgment has been so publicly brought into question in recent times, does he believe that he remains in a position to secure the consensus that he mentioned in a divided Cabinet over the urgent need radically to reform the pensions system?”

Blunkett put her down with monstrous condescension. Or, as Lynne put it more earthily on her blog, he gave her a “right bollocking for daring to ask and for not understanding that it is impolite to use questions to the Minister to ask a question to the Minister.”

Labour’s obsession with sleaze during the Major years was a way of disguising how similar the two parties’ policies were. If David Cameron wins the Conservative leadership he may try the same tactic. There was no sign of it on Monday, but that may just be because the Tories are still so bad at opposing.

Monday’s questions covered pension reform, Jobseekers Allowance and the Child Support Agency – all subjects that may soon be of personal interest to Mr Blunkett. But they matter to the rest of us too, and Lynne’s question deserves an answer.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Ham for tea?

An article by Felicity Lawrence in today's Guardian makes grim reading:

Most supermarket ham sold today, including premium ham, is formed or reformed ham. Formed ham is muscle meat from the leg bones. It is chopped and passed under needles which inject it with a solution of water, sugars, preservatives, flavourings and other additives, or put into a giant machine resembling a cement mixer and mixed with a similar solution. The process dissolves an amino acid called myosin so the meat becomes sticky and, when put into moulds, comes out looking like a whole piece of meat.

If the ham is to be presented as a traditional cut, a layer of fat is stuck round the edge of the mould to make it look as though it has been cut off a whole leg.

Reformed ham is made from chopped or emulsified meat which is not necessarily all muscle meat. Scraps left over from making formed ham may be used in reformed ham.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Paddy's coming home

Today's Guardian has an interview by Ed Vulliamy with Paddy Ashdown. The former Lib Dem leader is about to end his term as High Representative to Bosnia Herzegovina:
"Bosnia is under my skin, and still is. It's the place you cannot leave behind. I was obsessed by the nightmare of it all; there was this sense of guilt, and an anger that has become something much deeper over these last years. I love this country, I love these people, though I can't say I love their politicians. People are always nicer than politicians, but here, you can mark that difference up a hundredfold."

Quote of the Day

The winner is Phil Poulton, headteacher of Ludlow School, who told the Shropshire Star:
"We’ve shortened the lunch hour to 50 minutes."

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

School choice in Sweden

There is a tendency on the left in Britain to praise all things Scandinavian and demand that their social policies be adopted here. Polly Toynbee is the most prominent practitioner of this approach, which I once characterised as "pining for the fjords".

The introduction to this article from the New Statesman last year puts it more kindly: "There is a law of the Labour back benches: if they do it in Sweden, it must be all right."

That article looks at the Swedish experience of school vouchers. This policy was introduced by one of the country's short-lived right-wing administrations, but has been maintained by later social democrat governments.

It suggests that encouraging more independent providers of schools within the state system in Britain need not be the disaster that some Liberal Democrats fear:

Up to the late 1980s, Swedish education was highly centralised. Central government controlled finance, overall educational goals and the curriculum. Yet over the next few years, the school system became one of the most decentralised in the EU. In 1992, education vouchers were introduced, allowing parents a free choice of schools. The vouchers represent up to 75 per cent of the per-student cost of the local state school and can be taken to any approved private school, whether profit-making or not, denominational or not. The Stockholm-based Research Institute of Industrial Economics has found that the competition has led to improved standards in state schools and that vouchers have not led to greater advantages for the more affluent: on the contrary, poor Swedes choose independent schools in greater numbers than rich Swedes.

The reforms were set up by a conservative-led government, but were sustained and amplified under succeeding social-democratic administrations. The number of private schools - privately operated rather than fully privatised: they get state funding according to the numbers enrolled - has grown rapidly. In some urban areas as many as 30 per cent of all children attend them.

I hold no brief for the voucher mechanism, but I do believe that choice and diversity are Liberal virtues and find a system like the Swedish one attractive.

Select committee looks at cricket rights

The Keep Cricket Free site points us to the page announcing the culture, media and sport select committee's inquiry into broadcasting rights for cricket:

The Culture, Media and Sport Committee has decided to inquire into the acquisition of broadcasting rights for cricket, including Test Matches played in England.

The Committee is particularly interested in receiving evidence on the following:

  • The availability of cricket coverage to television and radio audiences throughout the United Kingdom;
  • The commercial procedures governing the acquisition of broadcasting rights, and constraints imposed by the statutory framework within which they operate;
  • The importance of the income and exposure associated with broadcasting rights in fostering excellence and participation in cricket.

Written submissions are invited from any interested organisation or individual by Friday 11 November 2005. Please forward written submissions by email to cmscom@parliament.uk.

Fear entrepreneurship on campus

Frank Furedi's website reproduces an article he published in the Times Higher Education Supplement on 16 September 2005. He looks at the role of academics in spreading scare stories in order to increase their influence and gain access to public funds.

He writes:
In a study on the social construction of the US "hate-crime epidemic", James Jacobs, director of the New York University Center for Research in Crime and Justice, and co-author Jessica Henry, point out that "proponents of social problems, believing that the more serious their problem, the more serious their demand for action, have appropriated the term 'epidemic' to mobilise public attention and government resources". Alarmist research has made a crucial contribution to the recent invention of "hate crime". And once a new crime has been invented and given a name, it is only a matter of time before it will appear to be on the rise.