Friday, February 29, 2008

House Points: Mr Speaker Martin

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Mr Speaker Martin

It’s true. Much of the whispering campaign against the Speaker is based on nothing more than snobbery. ‘Gorbals Mick’ is a silly and insulting nickname, not least because Michael Martin comes from a quite different part of Glasgow.

But then you suspect that Britain north of Potters Bar is a foreign country to the sketchwriter of the Daily Mail. And if you had been forced to go through life called Quentin, you would have a deep bitterness about class too.

More than that, no civilised person thinks less of a man because he comes from a humble background. Quite the reverse. Someone from a poor family who gets on in Britain has probably had to be twice as good as the competition. Sad to say, that is more certain today than it was 40 years ago.

But hold on. Martin is not the first Speaker from such a background. And it was never an issue with George Thomas or Betty Boothroyd. Bernard Wetherall was positively loved for his humble beginnings in his father’s tailoring business. So Martin's problems go deeper than his origins.

The first of them is that Labour backbenchers broke the modern convention that the position should alternate between the Labour and Conservative parties to install him. In 2000 there was a strong feeling amongst them that a house with a large Labour majority should have a Labour Speaker. Such a partisan launch to his career was never going to make things easy for him when the time came to rule on contentious questions.

Then there is his background – not his class background but his political background. It is fair to say that the West of Scotland Labour Party rarely represents the intellectual flower of the Scottish nation. The skills that enable you to fight your way to the top of that particularly greasy pole may not have much wider appeal.

And Martin’s background as a shop steward, which did so much to endear him to his Labour colleagues, may not be helpful when MPs privileges and ingenuity with expense claims are coming under question.

Still, Michael Martin did show one deft touch this week. He managed to avoid being in the chair when Dangerous Ed Davey had himself thrown out of the chamber.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Earthquakes in Britain

With British earthquakes in the news again, I refer the interested reader to three earlier postings on this blog:
A piece by Ian Sample in today's Guardian looks at the fault lines along which they may occur:
The most famous fault line, the Great Glen fault, runs along the length of the Great Glen from south-west to north-east Scotland, cutting through Loch Ness. Another is the Church Stretton fault line in Shropshire.
I must admit I was disappointed that the epicentre of this week's quake was not under the Stiperstones. A couple of recent quakes have been centred there and it would have been handy for Calder's Comfort Farm.

Paul Holmes praises Castro

Tim Worstall reprints the text of a Commons Early Day Motion in praise of Fidel Castro and the list of its signatories. I had a glance at the list to see which Labour dinosaurs had signed it, only to find an unexpected name among them: Paul Holmes, the Lib Dem MP for Chesterfield.

To be as fair as possible, the second half of the motion is unexceptionable. It welcomes the EU statement that constructive engagement with Cuba is the most responsible course of action. In fact, it was probably the US blockade that kept Castrol in power for so long. And an orderly transition to democracy must be preferable to a US-backed coup.

But it's the first half:

That this House commends the achievements of Fidel Castro in securing first-class free healthcare and education provision for the people of Cuba despite the 44 year illegal US embargo of the Cuban economy; notes the great strides Cuba has taken during this period in many fields such as biotechnology and sport in both of which Cuba is a world leader; acknowledges the esteem in which Castro is held by the people and leaders of Africa, Asia and Latin America for leading the calls for emancipation of the world’s poorest people from slavery, hunger and the denial of human rights such as the right to life, the right to shelter, the right to healthcare and basic medicines and the right to education.
How can a Liberal put his name to something that makes no mention of Castro's repression of his people or of Cuba's lack of democracy? It's like a Liberal in the 1930s signing a motion praising Mussolini for his management of the Italian railways.

The people who sign motions like this one believe that a lack of democracy can be compensated for by prosperity (not that Cuba is all that prosperous) or good public services.

Paul should read the words of Bryan Mageee, writing about Karl Popper in his Confessions of a Philosopher:

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.

Now read Danny Finkelstein's Top ten reasons why Castro isn't a hero of the left.

Jersey's democratic deficit

From The Economist:

At the root of many of the island's problems is its halting democracy. Though politicians are elected, voters have no say in who forms a government, since assemblymen are voted into ministerial posts by their peers. That is true in Westminster too, of course—but in Jersey almost all parliamentarians are independents, making it hard to know what sort of coalition will emerge from elections.

Frank Walker, chosen as chief minister in 2005, had won fewer votes in the island-wide elections than Mr Syvret, who is now a backbencher. Voters are giving up: at the last election, in 2005, six deputies were elected unopposed, on a turnout of less than 40%. (On neighbouring Guernsey it was 63%.)

The arrival of dozens of journalists on Jersey is not welcomed by all, though it is good news for hoteliers and publicans. But there may be benefits to opening up the island to outside scrutiny. Links between government and the local media have caused many islanders unease before now.

Until 2005 Mr Walker was chairman of the company that owned the island's only newspaper, the Jersey Evening Post. (Its reporters deny any bias, but say that there were regular arguments with Mr Walker over content.) Disaffected readers can always tune into local radio, of course—where they may hear the news read by one Fiona Spurr, who also goes by the name of Mrs Frank Walker.

"It was impossible for Dr Kelly to have died like that"

Hagley Road to Ladywood has an interview with Norman Baker about his book The Strange Death of Dr Kelly:

What triggered your interest in the Dr Kelly controversy to the point of writing a book?

I think it was obviously a sensational death. Newspapers and tabloids were on about it all the time and it grabbed my attention like everyone else's. So I waited for Lord Hutton's inquiry to be completed. Rather naïvely of me, because when the report came out it became apparent it had completely failed to investigate his death, as it spent most of its time analysing the row between the BBC and the government. Then what happened was that letters from medical experts started appearing in the press saying it was impossible for Dr Kelly to have died like that. In July 2006 I published an article on The Mail on Sunday. I had the largest response to anything I've done since becoming an MP. Literally, hundreds of letters of support. In fact, all bar two were supportive. Some people sent me statements or pieces of evidence that Lord Hutton hadn’t used. So I thought that writing a book would be the most sensible way to go about it.

The same blog also has a review of Norman's book.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tim Farron and the badgers

Tim Farron has a press release on the Liberal Democrat site saying that "the culling of badgers in TB hotspots with 'hard' boundaries would be welcome".

Who says?

The natural supporters of the Lib Dems these days are not Lakeland farmers but town dwellers who feel rather warm towards badgers. I imagine they would find a cull very unwelcome indeed.

For arguments against a cull see The Badger Trust.

Tim also says that
Until Bovine TB can be eradicated, the Government must pay farmers a fair level of compensation for compulsorily slaughtered cattle.
Granted the state is playing a role by insisting on the slaughter, but why can't the farming industry insure itself against such risks? Other industries manage to do it without demanding public money.

Winwood, Clapton and North Korea

This week Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton are playing three concerts at Madison Square Gardens, New York. Two of them have now taken place and there is poor-quality footage of them all over Youtube. Try this snippet of the Clapton song Forever Man.

The Convictor attended the second gig last night and reviews it song by song. He also writes:
The warmth and respect between the two musical virtuosos was evident from the very first note of their blues-heavy set. Winwood hasn't had a hit in years, and Clapton is probably more of an oldies act these days. Nevertheless, the two men showed that their ability to tear through a crowd-pleasing set of blues rock classics is undiminished.
And they do go back a remarkably long way. Alan Clayson's biography of Winwood has a photograph of the pair of them on stage together with Sonny Boy Williamson at a concert at Birmingham Town Hall on 28 February 1964. Which means that Clapton was 18 and Winwood only 15.

In New York the concerts are being advertised as "Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton", which may sound strange here in Britain where Clapton is God. But the balance of esteem was once that way round over here too.

The Fender Players Club quotes Clapton's introduction to Tom Wheeler's book The Stratocaster Chronicles. In it, he writes of hesitancy over playing with a Strat himself:
Hank Marvin was the first well known person over here in England who was using one, but that wasn't really my kind of music. Steve Winwood had so much credibility, and when he started playing one, I thought, oh, if he can do it, I can do it.
And remember that Winwood was three years Clapton's junior.

And North Korea?

The BBC reports that Clapton has been invited to play there following the New York Philharmonic's landmark concert in Pyongyang.

Jersey Quote of the Day

Holy Moly reports a comment from a Jersey resident asked by the BBC for his views on the child abuse scandal:
"I'm sure if there had been a cover-up, we would have heard about it."

Stuart Syvret has a blog

Stuart Syvret, the Jersey senator at the centre of the revelation of the island's child abuse scandal, has his own blog.

Thanks to John Hemming.

Earthquake latest

An expert calling the BBC from America has just said that our earthquake was 4.7 on the Richter scale and that the epicentre was 30 miles south of Hull, which places it somewhere in Lincolnshire.

Now they are interviewing David Rendell for some reason.

Was that an earthquake?

Well it certainly felt like one here in Market Harborough.

Ed Davey and the Great Lib Dem Walk Out

As I have never been keen on the idea of a referendum on British membership, I find it hard to get too excited by yesterday's events.

Peter Riddell, writing in this morning's Times, gets it about right:
we need a proper debate on how and when referendums should be held so that they are not just matters of short-term political convenience
That debate could being within the Liberal Democrats. The idea of a referendum on EU membership had hardly occurred to us before Ming Cambell announced that it was party policy. Now it is such a point of principle that our MPs cannot bear to stay in the House if they are denied a chance to vote for it. It is all very confusing.

And respect to Riddell for using the correct plural of "referendum".

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Former Iraqi employees of the British Government

Dan Hardie has been campaigning for Iraqi ex-employees of the British Government to be given asylum here because they face such dangers at home.

Back in October of last year it looked as though he had won. Gordon Brown announced "a new policy which more fully recognises the contribution made by our local Iraqi staff, who work for our armed forces and civilian missions in what we know are uniquely difficult circumstances."

But what has really happened? Dan writes:
A small number of Iraqis - fewer than a dozen, according to people close to the operation who are in contact with me - were removed from Iraq in the early autumn of 2007. Since the Prime Minister’s admirable declaration of October, how many Iraqi ex-employees have been evacuated from Iraq? According to all the Iraqis that I am in contact with: none.
Please visit Dan's latest posting and help him in his campaign.

The Dirty Dozen 2

My second Dirty Dozen - a selection of daft and interesting posts made on Labour and Tory blogs in February - can be found at Liberal Democrat Voice.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Jersey child abuse scandal


I still remember an article in the first ever issue of the New Statesman that I ever bought - it must have been in 1977 or even 1976.

It was headed "John Bull's Other Islands" and dealt with the cliquey and undemocratic nature of local politics in the Channel Islands. And I remember it because it reminded me so much of Market Harborough in those days. (Prophetically so: we were to have our own child abuse scandal years later.)

The poisonous nature of local politics in Jersey forms part of the background to the growing childcare scandal there. The dispute between Stuart Syvret and the Jersey establishment was played out on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning.

In view of this it is worth reading a personal statement Syvret made to the Jersey States Assembly on 15 January this year. He complained that he had been shouted down in an earlier speech and went on to say:

In the speech, I mentioned a child who committed suicide in 1966. The death of this boy was, movingly, still of deep concern to a man who had been his close friend when they were in Haut de la Garenne together as children.

During the evening of the day on which the speech was published, I received two messages on my answer phone from a man who was clearly emotional. He had read in the speech the name of the young boy who died in 1966. And it was this that prompted him to call me. For he is the brother of the deceased.

I called him back and spoke with him for some time. I met him a couple of days later and had a long conversation with him.

There was a time – recently - when I would have found his life-experiences shocking. Sadly – these days I no longer find any great surprise with the betrayals, and failures of the system and the way so many people harmed by their childhood experiences had their lives cast on the scrapheap by the rest of our society.

In some small way, as an elected member of the States, as someone in authority, as someone who listened and took his experiences seriously – I hope I was able to offer him some comfort, some recognition – and some understanding of the difficulties he has faced in his life

Syvert also complains of the attitude of the BBC on Jersey and the local press.

Elsewhere on the web, the Haut de la Garenne's own site (it is now a youth hostel) confirms the not terribly amusing irony that it was used as John Nettles's office during the filming of Begerac.

But perhaps we should not be so surprised by events there. The local history site That Was Jersey says:

The building now known as Haut de la Garenne started life in 1867 as the Industrial School, for "young people of the lower classes of society and neglected children". Good behaviour was rewarded by treats, like cricket on the common and tea and cakes. Poor behaviour led to deprivation of some sort, with flogging or solitary confinement for the worst offenders.

Total institutions have a way of carrying on with their own agenda whatever the law or wider society says.

Hitler's ban on home education still stands in Germany

Dare to Know points us to a story from Saturday's Guardian.

The newspaper reports that families are fleeing to the UK from Germany to escape a law introduced that could lead to their children being taken into care if educated at home:

One father, who arrived in Britain with his wife and five children last month, has told The Observer that his family had no choice after being warned that their children would be taken into foster care unless they enrolled them at local schools. Another, who fled in October, said he believed the 70-year-old law was creating hundreds of refugees and forcing families into hiding to protect their children.

Home-schooling has been illegal in Germany since it was outlawed in 1938. Hitler wanted the Nazi state to have complete control of young minds. Today there are rare exemptions, such as for children suffering serious illnesses or psychological problems. Legal attempts through the courts - including the European Court of Human Rights -have so far failed to overturn the ban.

Dare to Know has a good collection of links on home education.

BritBlog Roundup 158

A roundup of all that is best in British blogging from the last week can be found at Redemption Blues.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Vince Cable: The man they couldn't gag

The Cult of Cable continues to grow.

Today's Mail on Sunday reports:
Financial Services Authority chairman Sir Callum McCarthy telephoned Lib Dem deputy leader Vince Cable in September and accused him of "scaremongering."

He told Mr Cable Northern Rock was not caught up in the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in the US.

Hours later the bank admitted it had been hit by the cheap mortgage collapse there.

And it is now clear Mr Cable was right to argue the bank had offered too many cheap loans to people who could not repay them.

The La's - Timeless Melody



Lee Mavers, the lead singer and songwriter with the La's, is one of the lost talents of British pop. With his band, which released its first single in 1987, he invented Britpop years before anyone else had got there. Mavers even looked like the bastard love child of Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher.

The band's only LP appeared in 1990. Mavers has rarely been sighted since and a couple of come back attempts have been stillborn. He is variously rumoured to be a helpless drug victim or an eccentric working on a wonderful second album that will one day appear and astonish us all. You can read more about the band on La'zarus.

John Power, the bass player with the La's, must have tired of waiting for Mavers. He formed Cast and enjoyed some success in the 1990s.

Everyone knows "There She Goes", so this week's video is a live perfomance of another song from the album.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Nick Clegg is dreaming of gardens in the sky


No, it's not a metaphor for his ambitions of doubling the number of Lib Dem MPs. He means it literally.

A couple of days ago the Manchester Evening News reported:

Mr Clegg said he supported a scheme in Chicago to build green roofs on all buildings where it was feasible – and told the M.E.N. he wanted to see similar plans in Britain.

“I think if the people of Manchester or wherever were up for it, it should happen,” he said. “It doesn’t provide all the solutions but it is a visible expression of using space in a way that saves money and has an impact on the environment.”

All credit to Nick for calling for environmental measures that would make life more pleasant for people.

Too often the policies that greens favour - banning candescent light bulbs, bins for waste food - sound like the sort of indignities that were imposed on the masses in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Big cat sighted on Wenlock Edge

Be reassured: everyday life in Shropshire continues to astound.

The Shropshire Star has the story:
The mysterious black “panther-type” animal stalking residents in Shropshire has finally been spotted up close and personal.

David Strefford, of Donnington, near Wroxeter, was confronted by the animal while hedge-trimming in Kenley, near Shrewsbury.

The farmer got off his tractor to make an adjustment to the machine when a large black cat began bounding down the lane towards him.
I just hope Lucy is safe.

Labour government restores corporal punishment

I have just watched a Channel 4 News report alleging that painful restraint techniques are being used to punish teenagers held in Secure Training Centres in the UK. The story is now on the programme's website and it was also covered in today's issue of its e-mail bulletin Snowmail:

The Techniques of "Restraint"

"The "restraint techniques" which staff in secure training centres use to subdue out-of-control inmates can, following a government rule change, now be used to punish those inmates.

Restraint techniques are highly controversial. A teenager died under their application and another killed himself following their use. The Children's Commissioner wasn't consulted on the change and took the government to the high court, where Jack Straw has been roundly criticised by two judges.

Our award-winning (an RTS this week) home affairs correspondent Simon Israel has obtained a training manual which names some of these techniques; something the government, reticent to reveal anything about this, has even denied to a Commons select committee. Simon's exclusive report at 6.30.

I am under no illusions: the youngsters these Centres (which are run by commerical enterprises - didn't we used to be outraged by that?) house can be deeply troubled and difficult to deal with.

But it is nothing short of extraordinary that the government has restored corporal punishment to the judicial system and done it in a way that does not allow any outside scrutiny of the institutions that use it. It makes the 1950s look positively enlightened by contrast.

As a warning about what can happen when institutions for children are not properly scrutinised, see this BBC story: Child's body found at care home.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The return of The Zombies

A respite from this blog's obsession with the Spencer Davis Group: there is an article in today's Guardian on the 1960s British group The Zombies. They are reforming after 40 years in the face of the mythic status their album Odessey and Oracle has acquired. (I discovered it myself a couple of years ago.)

Chris White, the bass player who wrote the group's songs along with Rod Argent says:

Even till the late 70s we were seen as a curiosity - a band who never quite made it - and then slowly in the 80s and 90s you found young bands quoting it as an inspiration. [Fans include Alex Turner, Gruff Rhys, Badly Drawn Boy and Elijah Wood.] It's quite surprising to me to find that this album nobody wanted 40 years ago has become an icon. Some people have said it's their idea of the perfect album. It's all quite strange for us to be honest.
She's Not There was one of my first Sunday videos, but does not come from this album. So try this audio of the opening track Care of Cell 44 instead.

House Points: The nationalisation of everyday life

This is my House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Back to the Future

Remember Life on Mars? Sam Tyler had an accident and woke up in 1973. ‘Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like I've landed on a different planet.’

With the government rushing through a bill to nationalise Northern Rock, we have all been living on that planet this week. Turn on the television and you expect to see Z Cars, Crossroads or Nationwide. Turn on the radio and its Alvin Stardust or the Bay City Rollers. And for dinner? Let’s show our sophistication and enjoy a Vesta packet curry.

In our eagerness so crow “Vince Cable told you so,” we should not forget that many problems will remain with Northern Rock after it has been taken over by government. Vince himself has pointed out most of them.

No one knows how many bad loans the Rock has made, and it looks as though the safest of them have been hived off into a separate offshore company. It has been lending people more than the value of their houses, so some Northern Rock loans came with negative equity built in. And how will voters react when a government-owned bank starts laying off its staff and foreclosing mortgages?

Despite all this “back to the seventies” shtick, it’s not as if nationalisation ever really went away. Labour may have given up its belief that a centrally planned economy is more ethical and more efficient than the free market. But the socialists have not given up: they have simply transferred their interventionist ambitions to other fields. What we have seen is something close to the nationalisation of everyday life.

So we have seen government initiatives on a bewildering range of subjects. Everything from smoking and drinking to video games and children’s packed lunches. Individually there is something to be said for most of them, but taken en masse they tend to undermine our faith in our own autonomy, neighbourliness and parents’ authority over their children.

All of which, of course, makes the problems worse and necessitates more government intervention…

Let the government concentrate on running a medium-sized bank competently. Meanwhile the rest of us will get on with running own lives.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Antidisestablishmentarianism


It's the longest word in the English language and I think it describes the position I am about to take here,

There is a certain style of politics - common in Lib Dem circles but by no means confined to them - which I have come increasingly to reject. It involves speculating at an abstract theoretical level about what an ideal constitution would look like, how schools should be organised or the proper relations between church and state.

The thinker then looks at the real world, discovers that its institutions do not match the models that he has come up with and demands that the world be changed everywhere, all at once so that the world is brought into line.

Take the idea of an established church. If I were asked to design an ideal constitution from scratch then it ceratainly would not contain such an institution. But I have reached the age where you come reluctantly to accept that no country is going to ask you to design its constitution. (In case you do want me to, my e-mail is top right on this blog.)

So the question to ask is not what the ideal relation between church and state would be. Instead, as a good Popperian, I believe that we should ask what problem disestablishing the Church of England would solve. And a little reflection will tell us that it would makes things far worse.

I write this as an atheist, albeit one with a great love of church music and architecture. I suppose I could allow myself to enjoy these while adopting an intellectual faith (rather after the later Wittgenstein) and say that when Christians talk about everlasting life they are really saying something profound and poetic about this life, but that would be dishonest of me. Most Christians mean what they say about the afterlife, and it is not true.

As an atheist, then, I have to recognise that religion can be a hugely destructive force. What I value about the Church of England is that it largely keeps the Christians quiet. I saw a joke in one of Charles Masterman's books from the Edwardian era to the effect that the established church is the greatest bulwark against the coming of Christ's Kingdom. That has to be a point in its favour.

Disestablish the church and you will set free the evangelicals and their deeply conservative philosophy. That is the last thing I wish to see. If you doubt this, look at the USA. It has no established church, but the religion has a far greater role in national life.

Or as Andrew Brown puts it in the Guardian today:
we need an established church, precisely because it dampens zeal down. The undemocratic privileges of the Church of England are much better for everyone than democratically won privilege would be. Bishops in the Lords are infinitely preferable to priests who tell people how to vote.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that Henry VIII knew what he was doing.

I see the Church of England as a sort of National Religion Service, there when you want it for weddings and funerals, widely loved but not very efficient.

It gives us a language with which to talk about such deep matters, which few other elements of our culture do. But that doesn't mean it is true, of course.

A new job for Ming Campbell?

It seems that Ming Campbell is the new favourite to head the new commission looking into the possibility of extending the powers of the Scottish Parliament. This is a cross-party initiative involving Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories.

Today's Scotsman elaborates:
A plan to appoint a former High Court judge has been all but ruled out as party leaders prefer the idea of someone with political experience. A Labour figure close to the decision said last night: "We need to have someone who is credible. Ming Campbell has that."

Another Labour source said: "We don't want somebody who could be construed as a Labour placeman."

A Lib Dem source added: "We are talking of someone of his type of standing. The commission will require that if it is going to work."

Spam Name of the Day: Tory Bird

Earlier today I received an e-mail designed to persuade me to sign up to an online "VIP Casino".

It came from a Tory Bird.

Well done, my dear.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Greg Mulholland: Save local pubs

The Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West is quoted in the Bradford Telegraph & Argus regretting the closure of community pubs and talking good sense:
"People, including Government Ministers, keep saying we need to move to some kind of continental cafe culture in this country when what we really need is to support traditional pub culture.

"Real community pubs, where people meet to socialise with friends and neighbours, provide an environment in which people can and do enjoy alcohol responsibly.

"If there was more emphasis on this genuine pub culture in this country, we would not have many of the problems associated with excessive drinking."
You will often find Greg in his local, the Minister and Aardvark.

Dancing with Vince Cable

Michael White reinforces The Cult of Cable in this morning's Guardian:

Vince remains a Big Story around Westminster and - more surprising - a presence on Facebook and rival sites, where the kids seem to like him.

When in December he noted "the prime minister's remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean, creating chaos out of order rather than order out of chaos," they laughed. They may not have heard of Mr Brown, but they know all about Mr Bean. It was his best quip since November, when he warned that the government was propping up Northern Rock to the tune of 30 Millennium domes, "without even the prospect of a decent pop concert at the end of it".

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Modern geometry

Clowns to the Left of Me flags up (but is not too impressed by) an American revolt against "trendy math teaching".

It puts me in mind of Punt and Dennis's take on a modern mathematics exam:
Triangle ABC is larger than triangle DEF. How do you think triangle DEF feels about this?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Mark Steel leaves the SWP

This sensational news comes to us from Harry's Blog:
Given that Mark Steel's comedy routine consists of reciting the editorials from last week's Socialist Worker in a "blokey" voice, I wonder what he'll do for material in the future.

Believe me, this is the most earth-shattering Trot-cum-light-entertainer scandal since Matthew Kelly left the Workers' Revolutionary Party.

The search for Steve Fossett

The millionaire businessman and adventurer Steve Fossett was declared legally dead by a Chicago court a few days ago. He had been missing for five months since his single-engine plane disappeared over the Nevada desert. (More from the BBC.)

But there was one striking outcome of the extensive search for Fossett. Back in September last year the San Francisco Chronicle reported:

The search for Fossett across a 17,000-square-mile swath of the Sierra Nevada has revealed the wreckage of eight other small planes that had never, until now, been discovered.

And each of those crash sites holds clues to the fates of other fliers who went missing in what is starting to look like the Bermuda Triangle of the western United States.

Lynne Featherstone and Baden Powell


Lynne Featherstone writes about a scheme to bring children from different backgrounds together:
Children from ethnic minorities are to be sent on adventure holidays with white youngsters in a scheme to break down racial and religious barriers.

Ministers want children from different backgrounds to mix at summer camps where they can enjoy extreme sports together. The Youth Hostel Association (YHA) centres also offer workshops in skills such as circus tricks and producing pop videos...

Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat youth and equality spokeswoman, said: “Breaking down barriers is a good idea. [But] we need to look at the long-term effects of these schemes: they have to be more than a holiday.”
It all sounds very laudable, but also oddly familiar.

Baden Powell held his first Scout camp on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour in August 1907. As Wikipedia tells it:

Baden-Powell invited 21 boys from different social backgrounds to the camp, a revolutionary idea in class-conscious Edwardian England. Ten came from the well-to-do public schools of Eton and Harrow, mostly sons of friends of Baden-Powell. Seven came from the Bournemouth Boys' Brigade, and three from the Poole Boys' Brigade. Baden-Powell's nine year old nephew Donald Baden-Powell also attended.

The camp fee was dependent on means: £1 for the public school boys, and three shillings and sixpence for the others.

As ever, there is nothing new under the sun. But is amusing to see the left finding virtue in a movement they have scoffed at for generations.

Of course, these days if you wanted to maroon yourself on an island with two dozen boys in short trousers you would have to contend with all sorts of red tape first.

Clegg: You may think I'm soft but I'm hard, damned hard

Oh dear.

Deborah Summers writes on the Guardian politics blog:

"There is no question of a free vote on this matter; there will definitely be a party whip and as a member of the frontbench David will be bound by the same collective responsibility as everyone else," a source close to Clegg says.

"If he feels he can't toe the party line then he will have no choice but to stand down."

Is Nick really prepared, within his first 100 days as leader, to lose one of his most respected front-bench spokemen? Surely he cannot be that silly?

I think Nick would do well to keep this particular souce a little further from him in future.

Thanks to Peter Welch. Our title is taken from Nigel Molesworth's "Know the Enemy or Masters at a Glance" in Down with Skool! See this video.

My second column for the New Statesman site

The second of my fortnightly columns can be found on the New Statesman site:

Westminster insiders told me last week that Darling was determined on two points.

The first was that he was not going to take Northern Rock into public ownership and give Vince Cable the chance to say “I told you so”. Well, that one has gone by the board.

The second was that he is determined to scotch Tory attempts to portray him as a ditherer. Those insiders also told me he has not made up his mind how he is going to do it yet.

The people at the Statesman has hit upon the title Calder's Comfort Farm for the column.

It is a tribute to Stella Gibbons' novel, which happens to be a great favourite me. And Calder's Comfort Farm also sounds like a lost concept album from the early 1970s, which fits well with this blog's current preoccupations.

BritBlog Roundup 157

This week it's at the house of Mr Eugenides.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Mark Ronson on Steve Winwood

You see? It's not just me.

Here is Mark Ronson, a Young Person who has just won a Grammy for his record production, writing in today's Sunday Times:
It was a good thing that I didn’t know much about Blind Faith. I was oblivious to the backlash and antihype that marred rock’n’roll’s first supergroup. All I knew was that when Eric Clapton’s finger-picked guitar line came in, with those heartbreakingly beautiful overdubbed fills, I was dazed. When Steve Winwood’s reverb-tinged falsetto entered, with that first line, “Come down off your throne and leave your body alone”, I could have cried. Maybe I did cry.
And:
It’s strange and surprising to me that only in the past year, while going through the earlier work of Traffic and the Spencer Davis Group, have I realised Steve Winwood might well be my favourite singer ever. But, 17 years ago, when I first heard that song, I didn’t need to know any of that. All I needed to know was that this was the most bittersweet, stunning piece of music I had ever heard. And it still is.
Steve Winwood wrote "Can't Find My Way Home".

The Proclaimers: Joyful Kilmarnock Blues



Following yesterday's concern with Englishness in music here is something quintessentially Scottish. It's a live perfromance of the best song from The Proclaimers' first LP.

I remember buying it along with The Housemartins' London 0 Hull 4 in Market Harborough Woolworth's and thinking myself pretty damned cool for a councillor.

Nick Clegg's novel

Many thanks to Paul Walter for flagging up this Pendennis item about the Lib Dem leader in today Observer:
After Cambridge, he wrote a novel. "It was a classic, late-adolescent outpouring of slightly maudlin, melancholy, pretentious thoughts," he says, "about an old man sitting in a room alone, once a powerful figure in the society, but now abandoned by everyone."
Unfortunately Paul had to spoil things by quoting the newspaper's wholly unfounded conclusion:
And they still claim he did not plan the demise of Ming Campbell...

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Ming Campbell's memoirs to be published in March

So says the redoubtable Elspeth in this Sunday Times interview.

And I, for one, am not going to argue with her.

The interview also says Elspeth is pleased that Ming intends to stand at the next election.

Richard Jefferies and the Ecological Vision

I have a confession to make. I did a very vain thing and searched for "Jonathan Calder" on Google Books.

And I am glad I did, because I find that I have been quoted in Richard Jefferies and the Ecological Vision by Brian Morris.

As is the way with Google Books, you can't see everything. But I assume that what Morris quotes is an article I published in the Richard Jefferies Society's journal. This was a shortened version of the Society's Birthday Lecture, which I gave at Aldbourne in Wiltshire in the mid 1990s.

Previous lecturers have included Richard Church and Henry Williamson, so I was more than a little chuffed to be asked.

That lecture, in turn, was based on the dissertation for an MA in Victorian Studies which I completed at Leicester a year or so before that.

The only problem is that vanity now compels me to buy the book.

Traffic: Getting it together in the country

Paul Linford has a terrific posting inspired by a Guardian article that asked various musicians to name the songs that, for them, define Englishness. His link to the article does not work and I cannot find it on the Guardian website. (Later. It's here - thanks, Paul.)

But never mind, because Paul lists 30 songs that define Englishness for him. And it is a terrific list, very much in line with my own tastes.

If I were suggesting improvements I would want to include the Small Faces, Jethro Tull, Blur and, because I am going through a Steve Winwood thing at the moment, Traffic.

A 1994 article from Q magazine, which interviewed Winwood and the late Jim Capaldi, explains. Beside half a dozen great albums, Traffic's

other most notable achievement was pioneering the concept - which was to become the 70s rock cliché - of "getting it together in the country". They retreated to a cottage in Berkshire to write their first album in 1967 and operated from there for the next two years. It's a time that Winwood and Capaldi look back on with particular affection.

"The cottage thing came about for practical reasons really," Winwood reminisces. "We were staying in a house in London and whenever we wanted to play, the neighbors would be banging on the walls. We wanted somewhere where we could just play whenever we wanted. We found this cottage in the Berkshire Downs. It was a big estate with a sort of hovel for the gamekeeper, which was what we rented.

"Actually, it was a beautiful place and we set up a sort of mud stage where we could just play in the open air. It was very cut off with no road to it, just a track, and there were only about three weeks in the year when you could get a car up there. The rest of the time it was just a quagmire."

"I think we endeared ourselves to our contemporaries," adds Capaldi. "People would come and hang out with us - Bonzo, Leon Russell, Stephen Stills, Ginger Baker, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton - the hours would just drift into days. I suppose, looking back on it, they were all in cities in hotel rooms, going to the Bag O' Nails and all those clubs and getting out to the country was a nice break for them. You'd call it a hippy commune now, but at the time it was just a practical thing, but very inspirational.

"When I hear Traffic records and look back on those years, I don't really think of festivals and clubs and rock 'n' roll, I think of tracks on the Berkshire Downs, crows over a coppice. It was a very powerful experience."

There is even a Traffic song called "Berkshire Poppies", which could equally be the title of a John Betjeman poem.

Capaldi died in 2005, and I like Winwood's comment on those years quoted in his Guardian obituary:

"Camping out, cooking over an open fire: it was like William and the Outlaws."

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Ghost Goes Gear has arrived

My DVD of The Ghost Goes Gear has arrived. Better than that, it has a commentary by Spencer Davis.

A review will follow when I have had the unalloyed pleasure of watching it. In the mean time, there are three extracts from it on YouTube:

David Heath should stay on the Lib Dem front bench

Nich Starling, the Norfolk Blogger, is running a poll on whether or not David Heath should stay on the Lib Dem front bench if he votes in favour of a referendum on the Lisbon.

I have voted that he should stay.

The idea that Nick Clegg would be showing strength by forcing out one of the party's most respected Commons figures strikes me as barking mad. It would show a terrible lack of judgement.

Perhaps there are arguments in favour of Heath resigning as shadow secretary of state for justice, but to convince anyone they will have to better than those deployed by The Willow Man:

As Leader, Nick has made it very clear that he thinks the new Treaty is not the same as the old Constitution and there would be no need for a vote. Thats the party line and thats where it should have been left.
Whether or not the Lisbon treaty is substantially the same as the shelved Constiution is a question of fact. It is not something that can be settled by the pronouncement of one man. Nick Clegg is not the Pope nor is he Kim Il-Sung, and I am sure he has no ambition to be either.

And even if you think the Treaty is substantially different from the Constitution, it is still possible to come to a different conclusion from Nick. This is particularly the case when so little effort has been put into justifying this new party policy.

Still, the Willow Man is not all Kim Il-Sung. There is a little bit of David Brent in there too:
It's about time Mr Heath learnt "There is no 'I' in 'team'."
So please vote in Nich's poll.

House Points: Tales from Westminster Hall

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. (Thanks to Jonny Wright for the aardvark.)

Cricket, dolphins and road safety

With MPs away for a half-term holiday, it’s time for a round up from Westminster Hall. This secondary debating chamber is the Commons’ answer to the outside courts at Wimbledon.

It is also where our own Greg Mulholland was recently recorded in Hansard as calling a minister "an a*******". The general view is that he called him an aardvark.

Last week’s highlights included a debate on free-to-air sporting events initiated by John Grogan, the Labour MP for Selby. He spoke of the way the authorities had squandered the legacy of England’s 2005 Ashes victory by selling the rights to televise cricket to a satellite broadcaster.

And he quoted the Australian batsman Justin Langer: "After the impact of the Ashes I’m amazed that every kid in England isn’t able to watch cricket ... I have been in this country for four weeks now and I’ve seen maybe half an hour of cricket on TV."

Andrew George held a debate on cetacean mortality -- or dead dolphins. This is an important subject from a conservationist point of view. The figures suggest that the population of dolphins in the Irish Sea has fallen by two thirds since 1993, but that may just because those figures are more accurate these days.

But the debate also mattered to Andrew because he is concerned that fishermen from his Cornish constituency are being unfairly blamed for a decline in dolphin numbers. And he was granted the privilege of a reply from Jonathan Shaw, the new minister of fish.

Finally, in a debate on novice drivers, Gwyenth Dunwoody quoted some striking figures: "In 1998, drivers aged 17-21 accounted for 7 per cent. of the total driving population, but they comprised 13 per cent. of drivers involved in collisions; one in eight driving licence holders is aged under 25, yet one in three drivers who die in a collision is under 25, and almost one in two drivers killed at night is under 25; 27 per cent. of 17-19 year-old males are involved in a road collision as a driver in their first year of driving; 1,077 people died in 2005 in crashes involving a driver aged 17-25."

Cricket, dolphins and road safety: just another week in Westminster Hall. Oh yes, and aardvarks.

David Heath to vote for referendum on Lisbon treaty

The BBC reports:
A Liberal Democrat MP has said he will defy his party's leadership - and risk his frontbench job - by voting for a referendum on the EU treaty.

Justice spokesman David Heath said he had told the party's chief whip he planned to vote against the party line.

It is now up to leader Nick Clegg to decide his future, he added.

Mr Clegg will order his MPs to vote against having a referendum on the treaty or to abstain - depending on the wording of a Conservative amendment.
On his own website David writes:
“I have for 30 years argued that the British people should have a clearer say on how the European Union is run, sometimes getting myself into trouble with my own party in the process.

"I argued for a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty when it was refused by the then Conservative government, and I was one of the leaders of the Vote 2004 campaign for a referendum on the proposed European Constitution. I haven’t changed my view.

“The best thing would be for a proper informed debate and a referendum on the real issue - whether Britain stays in or leaves the European Union. It’s staggering that no-one under the age of 50 in this country has had the opportunity to vote on such an important matter.

"A vote on the narrower issue of the Lisbon Treaty would be very much second best, but I intend to vote for it, as I promised, and I have warned my whips I will do so.
My own view, as I have argued here often enough, is that an "in or out" referendum would do nothing to give the British people "a clearer say on how the European Union is run". In fact it seems calculated to prevent what I suspect is the majority view in Britain - in favour of European co-operation but sceptical of "ever close union" - being expressed at all.

On a happier note, the photograps shows David with Dolly Parton, who was keen to discuss using her Imagination Library project to help Somerset children to read. Honest.

Shrewsbury: Britain's UFO hotspot

Another important story from the Shropshire Star:
Shrewsbury was the top town in the country last year for UFO sightings according to official figures released by the Ministry of Defence.

According to the data, which was released following a Freedom of Information Act request, the county town notched up three sightings in 2007 making it the UK hotspot ahead of cities such as Cardiff and Liverpool.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Jam Generation

In tomorrow's Spectator Anne McElvoy tries an ingenious piece of cultural analysis:

What do David Cameron, David Miliband, Nick Clegg, Yvette Cooper, Michael Gove and (just about) George Osborne have in common? They are part of the Jam Generation: a powerful cross-party phenomenon laying the foundations of our political futures. The soundtrack to their formative years is Paul Weller’s tuneful, raucous songs of the 1980s.
The trouble with this theory is that Cameron's closest connection with The Jam is that he used to be one of the Eton Rifles.

Goose of the Day

Heart-warming news from the Shropshire Star:
Love is in the air for Colin the Shropshire goose who has found his sweetheart in time for Valentines Day.

Colin, the friendly gander of Whispering Trees Stables in Highley, has finally found his perfect partner - Lucy, from Stretton Westwood, Much Wenlock.
Well done, Colin.

All of which brings to mind the old joke:
My goose comes from Shropshire.

Much Wenlock?

There is now she's met Colin.

Graham Harvey's blog

Graham Harvey, my favourite environmental writer, has a blog: News from the Grassroots.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The 58th Carnival of the Liberals

Welcome to Liberal England for a round up in the best in liberal blogging over the past fortnight.

The Carnival is an American initiative, so almost all the nominations are for postings on American blogs - though I did see one from Sweden this time. For that reason, as I did when I hosted the Carnival before, I have added a second list of 10 postings from blogs from this side of the Atlantic.

If you visit the home page of Carnival of the Liberals you will see that they are looking for people to host future editions. Why not volunteer yourself?

Carnival of the Liberal 58

To no one's great surprise, the nominations for this Carnival were dominated by the efforts of the Democrats and the Republicans to choose their Presidential candidates.

Prepare Yourselves for a Settlement writes an open letter to Barack Obama:
On the off-chance my daughter remembers last night, I want it to be as a precursor to a better country. I don't want her to smirk at the idea of people chanting "Yes, we can" because the world may later teach her otherwise. If you win, you'll be the first President she remembers. Don't screw that up.
Change Any1thing explains why he is supporting Obama too:
I’m with Obama, because he can win over moderates and he can win over progressives. I don’t know how sincere he really is, but he can sure spin phrases to warm the heart of this progressive.
Alexander the Athiest takes a look at Hillary Clinton and Obama and asks if the Democrats are choosing a loser whichever of them wins.

It seems that an "unusually somber and introspective President George W. Bush" doesn't think so. Avant News ("Tomorrow's News Today") portrays him addressing the American Plutocrats Union and lamenting that:
the budget proposal represents his “last chance to shaft the poor.” He urged the assembled audience to do “everything in their powers” to convince their elected representatives that the budget proposal represented an historic opportunity that may not return for a decade or more.
And then, this being the USA, there is the religion of the candidates. Greta Christina gets it right:
I don't care about the specific religious group that Romney or Carter, Mike Huckabee or Barack Obama, or any other current or former Presidential candidate, belongs to. But I damn well reserve the right to judge them for the content of their character.
Now we stay with religion but leave the Primaries behind.

Seth Pickens answers those who say "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" with some theological facts:
  • Adam and Steve are humans created in God’s image.
  • Adam and Steve receive unconditional love from God and deserve the same from people.
  • Adam and Steve have unique God-given gifts that, when exercised, make the world a better place.
  • Adam and Steve are doing their best right now.
  • God, the all-knowing creator of the universe, made Adam and Steve.
Meanwhile Bay of Fundie celebrates the moderate Baptist leader J. Brent Walker and asks why there aren't more like him.

Moving on again, Marion Politics writes about the attempts of the Ohio Department of Agriculture to ban dairy companies from labeling milk as “rBST free” or “hormone free”.

And The Mystical Atheist asks if it is time for the USA to look for a new national anthem.

Finally in this half, flipnautick's Xanga offers "a mixture of commentaries on different issues and causes using text and images". And music, he might have added.

So that is Carnival 58. Now I'll have a cup of tea - we all have our cultural stereoypes to live up to - and then add another 10 posts on and about Britain.

See you soon...


10 Posts from Britain

Mmm, tea.

First of all, I am not sure if European Tribune really qualifies as a blog, but it is running a petition against Tony Blair becoming the first President of the European Union. That has to be a good cause.

Then Meral Hussein Ece writes about an event celebrating the 90th anniversary of (some) women being granted the vote in Britain.

MKNE Political information tells us about government and local council attempts to censor films in Britain, adding some intersting snippets of history on the way.

One dilemma for liberal and socialist parties is whether to select candidates from women-only or ethnic minority-only shortlists to improve the political representation of such groups. Liberal Polemic is firmly against the idea.

Cicero's Songs is impressed by the new Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and by his approach to the banking sector in particular.

Eaten by Missionaries looks at the familiar problem of "liberals calling for individual freedom in the abstract, but in practice calling for more regulation of people’s lives" and suggests some principles that will help us avoid it.

Lynne Featherstone, a Liberal Democrat MP, calls for the reform of prime minister's questions in the House of Commons and quotes a journalist on one of the Labour government's brighter young ministers:
Ed Miliband seems to have a new job. He now sits next to Brown making theatrical grimaces and facial expressions of mock astonishment when Tories speak. Quite fun to watch. Oxford, LSE, Harvard – and he ends up as the highest-paid mime artist in Britain.
Sid, writing on the group blog Pickled Politics, takes a sceptical look at the Australian prime minister's apology to the Aboriginal people for the “indignity and degradation” they have suffered:
Will there be any real policies to back up the formal apology? Unfortunately not. The federal government has ruled out the possibility of any financial compensation for the Stolen Generations, in spite of widespread anger and resentment, for which Rudd will, most certainly, not be saying sorry.

Writing on another group blog, Liberal Conspiracy, Dave Osler - who is very much a socialist and not a liberal in the British sense - writes an honest piece exploring liberal reactions to youth crime.

And let me be cheeky and end with a posting from this blog. Was Britain more tolerant than the USA in the 1960s and does that explain the extraordinary explosion of popular music here during that decade?

I would be interested to hear your views.

This Carnival was compiled while listening to Traffic and Richard Thompson.

The Curse of Calder

4 February 2008: I begin writing a fortnightly column for the New Statesman website.

13 February 2008: New Statesman editor John Kampfner resigns.

Bangladeshi youth unemployment and the curry crisis

The BBC reports:

The Home Office is being urged to ease restrictions on migrant workers entering Britain from Bangladesh, to avert a crisis in the curry industry.

Curry houses are struggling to fill thousands of kitchen staff vacancies, says the Immigration Advisory Service.

For years, many staff in the UK's 9,000 curry restaurants have been recruited directly from Bangladesh.

But restrictions on the workers have been tighter since eastern Europeans were given employment rights.

Wait a minute. Britain's Bangladeshi community is known to have one of the highest unemployment rates of any ethnic community. Last year, in an article in the New Statesman, Ayum Korob Ali wrote:
Unemployment and educational underachievement are widespread among British Bangladeshi youth. Although things are improving, the dominant picture is one of failure: even those who achieve educationally often find themselves on the dole. In Tower Hamlets, the London borough with the largest concentration of Bangladeshis, 32 per cent of 18- to 25-year-olds are unemployed.
So if there is such a need for new staff in curry houses, shouldn't we be looking to recruit and train them from the Bangladeshi community in Britain?

Senior Lib Dem MPs may back referendum on Lisbon treaty


Today's Daily Telegraph reports that a significant number of Liberal Democrat MPs may be planning to support a Conservative amendment calling for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty:
Mr Clegg signalled last month that he would help Labour block a Tory amendment to force a referendum, saying: "We would vote against a referendum on the treaty."

But members of Mr Clegg's shadow cabinet are among a significant number of MPs who are understood to be unhappy with the decision.

David Heath, the constitutional affairs spokesman, and Nick Harvey, the defence spokesman, are both understood to have told their constituency parties that they want to see a popular vote.

Neither man has been disciplined for their stance by party whips, which other MPs have seen as a green light to rebel.

Of the Lib Dems' 63 MPs, as many as 16 may be prepared to defy Mr Clegg, either by voting directly for the Tory amendment or by abstaining.
Having called for a referendum on the European constitution at the last election, the party needs a pretty good explanation of why it is not supporting a referendum now. That explanation has not been forthcoming.

The decision to support Labour and block a referendum was announced by Nick Clegg on the Today programme last month.

As I recall it, it took the interviewer three goes to get Clegg to spell out exactly what he was saying. This gave the impression that he had been forced into saying more than he intended. No doubt this was not the case, but there really should have been more thought into how the leader was going to explain such a substantial change of policy.

Meanwhile, I remained convinced that the idea of the Liberal Democrats calling a referendum on our membership of the EU is a nonsense. It time for the party to stop refighting the 1975 referendum campaign and to start explaining how and why we want the European project to develop.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

David Davis: Lock up all teenagers

A press release from the Conservatives is so stupid that it is worth reproducing in full:

Figures unearthed by the Conservatives reveal that under-age children who try to buy alcohol illegally are going unpunished.

Over a million youths are refused alcohol in pubs every month, and there were a further 300,000 refusals from one off-licence chain alone last year.

But fewer than a hundred individuals a year are punished for trying to buy alcohol illegally, meaning there is less than a 1 in 100,000 chance of under-age youths receiving any sanction whatsoever.

Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, said:

"The government's basic failure to enforce the law sends totally the wrong message about under-age drinking and puts the public at risk from the spiralling violence it generates."

Where to begin? If "over a million youths are refused alcohol in pubs every month, and there were a further 300,000 refusals from one off-licence chain alone last year," then it is pretty clear that something close to the entire population of under-age youths is trying to buy alcohol. How does David Davis propose to punish them all? Build a borstal in every town? Employ another half million probation workers?

The truth is that teenagers will always try to buy drink before the law allows them to. Indeed it very arguable that there was less trouble when this law was not enforced as strictly as it is now.

And I do feel sorry for the shopkeepers and bar staff who have to enforce the law. In every other way we are encouraged to treat 16-year-olds as adults and in many ways the teenagers themselves are encouraged to hold adult authority in contempt. But it someone selling alcohol is flouting the licensing laws ultimately it is they who must be held responsible.

Note too Davis's adoption of the absurd idea that the purpose of the law is to "send a message".

Monday, February 11, 2008

Rowan Willams latest

Stephen Pollard writes on his Spectator blog:
The best comment I've heard on the Rowan Williams affair is from a chap who just called in to Radio Five.

After saying he was a proper Christian, unlike Rowan Williams, he said: "Jesus Christ will be turning in his grave."

BritBlog Roundup 156

A rich selection balances on The Wardman Wire.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Cheeky Girls bare all for a good cause

Blimey!

Steve Winwood: Dear Mr Fantasy



The other day I wrote that I am coming round to the idea that Steve Winwood is the greatest genius British pop has produced.

A strong claim, but is there anyone left from the British Invasion generation of the 1960s - albeit that Winwood was its youngest member - who can still produce music like this? There is even an element of self-parody about the Rolling Stones these days.

The video is taken from the concert put on by Eric Clapton last year to raise funds for his Crossroads charity. As one review of the day put it:

Then, oceans parted and bad politicians resigned from office worldwide: Steve Winwood, formerly of the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, and Blind Faith (the last with Eric Clapton), took to the Hammond organ, its rich tones filling Toyota Park.

This was the real Stevie Winwood, not the source of lustrous yuppie pop like "Higher Love" but the musician's musician. With Clapton's band, Winwood sang Blind Faith songs "Had To Cry Today" (thunderous) and "Presence of the Lord", but the highlight, perhaps of the whole day, was "Dear Mr. Fantasy," with Winwood switching to guitar.

That song reminded all those in attendance what many in The World of Music seem to have forgotten: what a fine guitarist he is. A lengthy bliss-out on "Fantasy", a song I've never been all that crazy about before tonight, wiped the place out. We went to Rock Music Heaven and came back.

You can find all Winwood's numbers with Clapton on Youtube. For some reason I have always been rather resisant to the Clapton mystique, but they all sound good here. Try Had to Cry Today, Can't Find My Way Home and Presence of the Lord. All are songs they sang together in 1969 as part of Blind Faith, the short-lived and original super group.

Incidentally, this was not the first time Clapton and Winwood had appeared together for 25 years as was widely reported. They had played together at an event organised by the Countryside Alliance a few weeks before. Very rock n' roll.

Finally, and inevitably, a glimpse of Winwood 42 years ago - Keep on Running by the Spencer Davis Group.

Respecting the old and the fall of Ming Campbell

Sir John Mortimer, no spring chicken himself, has an article in today's Observer. He writes that a new activity has been added to those forbidden by our government, like hunting, smoking, driving large cars and failing to eat green vegetables. It is growing old.

He goes on:

This is not altogether true of America where Republicans are (somewhat) enthusiastically embracing John McCain in his hope to become President and where a 66-year-old Julie Christie has received a nomination for an Oscar. The old dad or granddad in American movies is always a respected figure seated in the corner clutching a glass of whiskey and making sometimes comic but also determinedly wise judgments on life. The foolish behaviour of the young is usually his material, along with informed speculation on the Super Bowl.

In Britain, it is a different story. One of the few figures who acted like a statesman was Sir Ming Campbell. A life at the Scottish Bar had trained him in the art of asking apparently simple questions which could pierce and deflate pomposity.

But Sir Ming had committed a serious crime; nothing to do with alcohol or dangerous drugs or rent boys, he had knowingly achieved the age of 66.

I think it has to be said that being 66 was not exhaust Ming's difficulties. His real problem was that he was not a particularly good leader. As one one of those shortlisted for Lib Dem Blog of the Year, I was invited to interview Ming at last year's party conference. I never wrote the event up properly because I found it impossible to be too positive about the experience. And I am enough of a loyalist not to enjoy attacking my own leader in public.

Yet I think Sir John is on to something. The idea of respect for experience or the idea that years bring wisdom is now alien to our way of thinking. You can try putting it down to the speed of technological change nowadays - Grandad can't tell you how to use a computer - but I am not convinced that such change is any faster than it was in the 19th century.

Charles Dickens writes: good point.

And you can go further. Our society does not just despise age, it barely acknowledges the concept of adulthood.

Our concern for children's rights - and surely children have needs rather than rights? - arises not out of any great love or concern for children: it arises from out lack of confidence in ourselves as adults. It is a way of saying that we have no advice to offer you because our experience of life has taught us nothing of value. You are on your own.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Rowan Williams and Spencer Davis

This has to be our Trivial Fact of the Day.

According to UK Commentators, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Spencer Davis (as in this blog's favourite band, the Spencer Davis Group) attended the same school - Dynevor in Swansea.

Friday, February 08, 2008

House Points: Lose your job, lose your council house

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

I wrote this on Tuesday evening. On Wednesday the Guardian published the first instalment of a new weekly blog by Bridget Fox, the prospective Lib Dem candidate for Islington South and Finsbury. She wrote in stikingly similar terms.

It was nice to see that a) we Lib Dems sometimes agree and b) that some of what I learnt about housing 20 years ago is still relevant.

Ruler law

What is council housing for? For Liberals it exists because the private sector cannot fully satisfy the need for rented accommodation. It’s hard to reconcile the tenant’s desire for security with the landlord’s right to reclaim his property. And owning lots of houses allows councils to offer new property at affordable rents.

But there has always been a strand in Labour thinking that likes council housing because it gives the state control over tenants. Caroline Flint, for instance, is outraged that people are simply given the keys and allowed to get on with their lives. So her threat to evict unemployed tenants deemed not to be seeking work hard enough come as no surprise.

The figures she quotes to support this bizarre policy are that there are 2.6 million people of working age living in social housing and about 1.4 million of them are unemployed. But the problem is that, as our American cousins would put it, she is looking at things backasswards.

Take Market Harborough. The last council houses to be completed here are in Jubilee Gardens. The street got its name because they were finished in 1977 -- the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

When I chaired Harborough District Council’s housing management subcommittee a decade later (and public life offers few greater prizes), the lack of new building and long waiting list meant that anyone given a council house was likely to have social or health problems.

So it’s not that council accommodation makes people unemployed: it’s that unemployed people are more likely to be given council accommodation.

It is hard to believe the government will take Flint’s idea further, but it does emphasise how the relationship between citizen and state has changed. Once we assumed that the state was there to protect us: today its role seems to be more to keep us up to scratch.

Unemployment is now seen as a matter of individual delinquency, caused by a refusal to acquire the right skills. Keynesian ideas of demand management have long been forgotten and what regional policy we have, thanks to the 2012 Olympics, concentrates spending in the prosperous South East.

The state is no longer a benign landlord. It acts more like a housemaster in a progressive borstal.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The end of Grange Hill

In this morning's Guardian Lucy Mangan mourns the demise of Grange Hill:
You watched it in the same way that you read Bernard Ashley's books - similarly popular at the time - not so much for entertainment as for reassurance that the maelstrom of cliquery, bullying, aggression, adolescent angst into which you plunged at ten to nine every morning and from which you emerged tattered and bleeding at half past three was everybody's everyday experience. You were not the unlucky victim of a particularly malevolent god. You were simply a comprehensive school pupil.
All of which makes you wonder why that paper is quite so convinced that comprehensive education is the way forward.

I'm with Patrick West:
How on earth is Grange Hill meant to stand as an exemplar of responsible children’s television? This was the show that reflected the woeful shortcomings of the comprehensive school system in the 1970s, and simultaneously perpetuated it in the 1980s by glamorising insubordination and rudeness in the classroom.

Greg Mulholland on unparliamentary language

The Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West has an article on the New Statesman website about his place at the centre of the latest Westminster row. You may recall that he was heard to call Ivan Lewis, the health minister, an "arsehole".

Greg writes:
I may now have ruined my slim chances of getting into the cabinet, and whether using a rude word is quite up there with swinging the historic mace, I doubt. But it has been interesting to be at the centre of the latest furore about unparliamentary language.

Hansard actually records that I called care minister [Ivan Lewis] an a******* in a debate on hospice funding in Westminster Hall last week. It has been suggested that I called him an aardvark, an abattoir or perhaps even an american.

But unlike defence minister Bob Ainsworth, who was reported (literally) as talking “bollocks” in the chamber, before he claimed it 'wasn’t him guv' and it was deleted - I will accept what was said and that it was me. I cannot, to use an unparliamentary term, tell a lie.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

British tolerance and the 1960s pop scene

A year ago I pointed out that some British films of the 1940s had to be censored before they could be shown in America. This puts in question the common view that the Britain of the period was hopelessly genteel and insular.

Equally, my recent reading has suggested that one of the reasons for the extraordinary flowering of music in Britain in the 1960s is that we were a very tolerant country, at least when compared with the USA.

In his memoir White Bicycles, the record producer Joe Boyd ("I was there, and I do remember") writes:

By the mid-sixties, America was experiencing the "generation gap". Parents whose kids returned from school or college with long hair and a rebellious attitude often went into shock. Children were disowned, "grounded", locked up, beaten, shorn, lectured, or sent to psychiatrists, military school or mental institutions.

In Britain I visited pubs where earringed boys with long hair stood drinking a Sunday pint next to their dads in cloth caps. Neither seemed the least bit concerned.

Attitudes on race were just as different on either side of the Atlantic. Boyd describes a concert at the Hammersmith Odeon:
This was middle America's worst nightmare: white teenage girls screaming ecstatically at Chuck Berry.
Boyd noticed a familiar figure looking on:
I blurted out "That's John Lee Hooker." The girls around me started yelling, "John Lee? John Lee? Where? Where?" I pointed towards the wings. They started chanting, "We want John Lee, we want John Lee" and were quickly joined by half the hall - hundreds of kids.
Boyd goes on:

In that moment, I decided I would live in England and produce music for this audience. America seemed a desert in comparison. These weren't the privileged elite, they were just kids, Animals fans. And they knew who John Lee Hooker was!

No white person in America in 1964 - with the exception of me and my friends, of course - knew who John Lee Hooker was.

This racial divide in American music can be seen - to continue this blog's recent preoccupation with the Spencer Davis Group - in Alan Clayson's biography of Steve Winwood:

Before the next single, "I'm a Man", barged its way up the Hot Hundred, many US radio listeners were uncertain of the group's skin pigmentation, so exact were Steve's soulful Negroid intonations. Europeans may have been similarly mystified when "I Can't Stand It" had wavered from the Duchy of Luxembourg nearly three years earlier.

In North America, where race was a touchier subject, there were difficulties over airplay until the Group's Caucasian ancestry was comfirmed by a promotional film shown on television.

So let's hear it for dear old tolerant Britain.