Monday, June 30, 2008

Peter Tatchell and the case for local candidates

After writing my posting "A local candidate for local people" I remembered a story about Peter Tactchell and the Bermondsey by-election.

Tatchell's favourite spiel on the doorstep was:
"Hello, my name is Peter Tatchell and I am standing for Labour. I am a bit of a rebel, but you can trust me because I am from round here."
All went well until he met one old lady, who replied:
"Oh sorry, dear, no. I wouldn't trust anyone from round here."

Tunguska 100 years on

The BBC website has a long article on an immense explosion that took place in Siberia a century ago today:

The blast was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and generated a shock wave that knocked people to the ground 60km from the epicentre.

The cause was an asteroid or comet just a few tens of metres across which detonated 5-10km above the ground, 100 years ago today.

Eyewitnesses recalled a brilliant fireball resembling a "flying star" ploughing across the cloudless June sky at an oblique angle.
And:
The effects of Tunguska were not limited to Siberia. In London, it was possible to read newspapers and play cricket outdoors at midnight. This is now thought to have been due to sunlight scattered by dust from the fireball's plume.
I shall never make fun of Lembit again.

Welland Viaduct


If you are travelling from St Pancras to Leicester or somewhere further north on a Sunday, you will sometimes be told that your train is being diverted and will take longer to reach Leicester than usual.

This means that you will arrive into Kettering on one of the little-used slow platforms and that, a mile or so north of the station, your train will leave the Midland main line. Instead of passing through Market Harborough, your train will go through the 1930s steel town of Corby and then cross the broad Welland valley on a magnificent viaduct.

English Buildings has just visited it:

It’s imposing, this vast viaduct, but hardly beautiful. In her Shell Guide to Northamptonshire, Juliet Smith tells us how to look at it: ‘It is best seen in dull weather or at dusk, when the ugly materials used by its Victorian builders, an indiscriminate mixture of blue and red brick, cannot detract from the effect of the classical proportions of arch and pillar’. The artfulness of the proportions is enhanced by making every ninth pier (marked with a pilaster) slightly wider than the rest, setting up a rhythm that reduces the monotony.

Proportions are all very well, but what’s really impressive is the way the viaduct takes us on a mental journey back in time. To stumble across this structure is to be transported to the world of the Victorians, and to come face to face with their engineering flair, their determination, their ruthless ability to get big things done. All their major engineering projects – bridges, tunnels, sewers, and the rest – take the breath away with their sheer size and nerve.

Welland Viaduct was opened in 1878 as part of a line from Glendon Junction (just north of Kettering) to Manton Junction in Rutland, which was built to shorten the route from London to Nottingham. At three-quarters of a mile long, it is the longest masonry viaduct on a British railway.

North of the viaduct your train will pass Rutland Water then go through Oakham and Melton Mowbray before arriving at Leicester from the north. It is almost worth missing Market Harborough for.

A local candidate for local people

Gwyn Griffiths, a Lib Dem councillor from Crewe, has a good article on Lib Dem Voice questioning our current obsession with "local" candidates.

He says:
I can fully understand that ‘being local’ is a plus. As an agent I have enthusiastically produced Focus newsletters complete with maps highlighting the fact that our candidates live in the ward, with a great big X to mark the spot, and a sometimes vaguely-directed arrow to indicate that the Labour/Tory rival lives “somewhere, out there, far away”. And when our candidate doesn't live in the ward, well I've emphasised their other virtues. 
But I have never felt the need to claim a local residency where one doesn't exist, nor do I see the need or purpose to elevate ‘localness’ into the prime – and it sometimes seems the only – necessary qualification for elected office.
This obsession with "localness" - and the Liberal Democrats are by no means the only party it afflicts - is one of the factors that is leaching all meaningful content from British politics and thus disaffecting the voters.

Later. Now read a relevant Bermondsey by-election anecdote.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Traffic: 40,000 Headmen



Sorry. I had not intended to feature Traffic again so soon, but this clip has just turned up on Youtube. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore introduce "The Traffic", and you can't get much more sixties than that.

The clip comes from Peter and Dud's ITV show Goodbye Again. Four hour-long programmes were made under this title in 1968.

A mere 26 years later, Steve Winwood performed the song again on Later with Jools Holland.

BritBlog Roundup 176

This week's selection of the best in British blogging can be found at Suz Blog.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The St Pancras walrus

Thanks to Well Behaved Orphan (You can't beat a good education - Lord Bonkers) for his or her comment drawing this story from The Times to my attention:
Archaeologists exploring a graveyard at St Pancras stumbled across a coffin containing a mysterious set of bones. They were later identified as belonging to a walrus. An explanation for the animal's dignified burial has not yet surfaced.
The new St Pancras Church on the Euston Road, as I understand it, has a crypt but no graveyard. Which suggests that the report is talking about Old St Pancras.

Joke of the Day

Courtesy of The Mole on First Post:

There is a grim joke circulating among Labour MPs: "What is the difference between Robert Mugabe and Gordon Brown?"

Answer: "Mugabe was elected."

Thoughts after the Henley by-election

Sad as it has been to see the European Championship take place without England, it has been restful in a way. Because we have been spared the media overreaction that always accompanies such tournaments.

In the run up we are told that England are the greatest and are bound to win it. Then when we go out, after one of those epic defeats in which we specialise, we are told that English football - if not English society - needs a thorough overhaul if we are ever to hope to win anything again.

Media reaction to the Liberal Democrats is a little like that. If we are not winning by-elections and threatening to sweep to power at the next general election then we are in terminal decline and facing annihilation at that election.

The truth is more mundane. For a decade now the Liberal Democrats have held several dozen seats and enjoyed the support - in elections and opinion polls - of a something like a quarter of the electorate. We are unlikely to form the next government, but then we are not going to be wiped out either.

Henley does not add much to this picture. It is silly to read too much into the result, but we should be pleased that we held (even increased) our share of the vote against a resurgent Conservative Party but disappointed that we were less successful than the Tories in winning over disaffected Labour supporters.

So the outlook for the next general election remains what it was before Henley. We will do well to hold all the former Conservative seats we hold in the South, but there is no reason why we should not make gains from Labour elsewhere.

Two other points...

Am I alone in finding Lib Dem tactics overly negative these days? It was legitimate to question John Howell role as a lobbyist for a planning company, given that he presented himself as a champion of the green belt, but I was less convinced by the fuss we made about how much of a part he had played in the campaign to save a local hospital.

Given that out candidate was living in Plymouth at the time, it is unlikely that he played much of a part either.

Does this approach, which is more and more typical of Lib Dem campaigning, reflect our lack of a clear, positive message?

And - the second point - should we stop priding ourselves on how hard we work? I can remember local by-elections where the voters have commented favourably on it, but they soon come to take it for granted.

We would do better to ask ourselves why we find it so much harder to persuade people to vote for us than the other parties do.

For more discussion of the Henley result see Chris Rennard and Stephen Tall on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Daily Telegraph says Glasgow Labour MP will resign on Monday

The Torygraph says:

A Labour MP is set to resign forcing another potentially embarrassing by-election for Gordon Brown in the wake of his fifth place humiliation in Henley.

The Telegraph can reveal that David Marshall, the East Glasgow MP, will stand down because of ill-health on Monday.

The seat, with a 13,507 Labour majority, would normally be considered safe.

However, the Scottish National Party will target the seat and Labour sources told the Telegraph that they believed the seat was "vulnerable."

I wish Mr Marshall well, but this has to be the last thing Gordon Brown needs.

Treasury chief on wombat leave

A hairy-nosed wombat yesterday
The BBC reports:

Australia's top treasury official is taking five weeks leave to look after endangered wombats...

Mr Henry will be looking after 115 hairy-nosed wombats in an isolated spot in northern Queensland, with no mobile phone coverage and two-and-a-half hours on a rough track from the nearest town.

Given the mess the UK Treasury has made of things recently, we could do worse than send our own chief official on a similar trip.

Steve Winwood interviewed in the Sun

It has been a good week for the Sun.

First, they helped me get a record day for visitors by putting the story about UFOs over Shropshire on their front page.

And then today they have published a substantial article about Steve Winwood:
Traffic’s peak was 1970’s John Barleycorn Must Die, a beautiful mix of folk and jazz that has remained one of the most influential British albums ever made. Paul Weller has based so much of his solo career on it, his album Wild Wood should have been called Winwood.

House Points: The RIPA and council spying

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

Serious snooping

Every month local councils launch over a thousand spying operations. They are so keen on the work that they will soon be carrying out more surveillance than the police. A Dorset family was followed for over a fortnight because the county council suspected them of lying on a school application form. Welcome to Labour Britain.

Everyone says such outrages are down to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. So I turned to Hansard and the debates that took place when it was passed in 2000.

If a week is a long time in politics, eight years is several lifetimes in computers. Here is Michael Fabricant speaking in the second reading debate:
"In the United States, 44 per cent. of families have access to the internet, whereas, in the United Kingdom, only 18 per cent. of families are connected. However, with today's announcement that Alta Vista will provide free internet access for only £10 annually … the UK percentage is likely to grow."
In that debate there was no mention of councils. Everyone talked about the importance of the police being able to decrypt the computers of terrorists and paedophiles. (And quite possibly terrorist paedophiles and paedophile terrorists too.)

Were MPs asleep on the job? No, because the extraordinary powers local authorities now enjoy stem not from the 2000 Act but David Blunkett’s decision in 2003 to increase its scope. When the Act was passed only nine organisations, such as the police and security services, were allowed to use it. By the time Blunkett had finished with it that number had risen to 792, including 474 councils.

Blunkett has resigned twice since then, but another Home Office minister implicated in the decision is very much with us. In 2003 critics -- quite rightly, it turned out -- complained the changes would make the Act "a snooper’s charter".

But Caroline Flint was having none of it: "We need to ensure that we strike the right balance between the privacy of the citizen and the need to investigate crime and protect the public. I believe that the new order achieves that balance."

Today Flint is in charge of the eco towns programme, aiming to do to the English countryside what she did to our liberties five years ago.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

David Davis will face 25 other candidates

The BBC reports that there will be 26 (count 'em) candidates on the ballot paper for the Haltemprice & Howden by-election.

Not quite what David Davis had in mind when he resigned to fight his crusade, I suspect.

Frank Furedi and Licensed to Hug

The report that Furedi has written for the think tank Civitas has received a lot of publicity today. There is a good article on it by Furedi and Jennie Bristow on the New Statesman site, and you can find links to other media coverage on the Civitas blog.

As that blog says:
The dramatic escalation of child protection measures has succeeded in poisoning the relationship between the generations and creating an atmosphere of suspicion that actually increases the risks to children, according to a new study released today by Civitas.

In Licensed to Hug Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, argues that children need to have contact with a range of adult members of the community for their education and socialisation, but 'this form of collaboration, which has traditionally underpinned intergenerational relationships, is now threatened by a regime that insists that adult/child encounters must be mediated through a security check' (p.xii).

The scope of child protection has become immense. Since its formation in 2002 the Criminal Records Bureau has issued 15 million disclosures, but the whole operation has now been ratcheted up several notches by the passage of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. This has led to the creation of the Independent Safeguarding Authority which, when it is rolled out in October 2009, will require CRB checks of 11.3 million people - over one quarter of the adult population of England.
This is an issue that the Spiked set - quite rightly - has been banging on about for some time. Their arguments inspired one of my House Points columns a couple of years ago.

Shropshire UFOs were Chinese wedding lanterns

Or so the Shropshire Star says:
Staff from the Tern Hill Hall Hotel, which is located a short distance from the barracks, say it is likely the lights the soldiers saw were Chinese wedding lanterns, which had been let off at the hotel by wedding guests the same night.

Hotel manager Stuart Willatt said the lanterns were let off on June 7 at about 11pm, just minutes before the soldiers claimed to have seen the lights.
Mind you, the paper also reports that:
Dozens of residents from all over the county say they have seen mysterious lights moving across the sky in recent weeks.
Now read about the Sun front page that started this story off.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Will Chris Huhne stand as Lib Dem President?

Linda Jack has heard rumours that Chris Huhne is considering standing for the Presidency of the Liberal Democrats when Simon Hughes stands down in the autumn. If nothing else, it would explain who paid for that opinion poll the other day.

I have been supporting Ros Scott's campaign on this blog since its launch at last year's Lib Dem Conference., because Ros is a good egg and would make a very good President.

At that time it seemed likely that her only competition would be from Lembit Opik. I am not exactly an "anyone but Lembit" man - I supported him against Simon Hughes last time - but I do believe that the career path he has chosen lately means he (how shall I put it?) lack the necessary gravitas to be Lib Dem President these days.

I supported Chris Huhne in the last two leadership elections (particularly enthusiastically the first time - and who's to say I was wrong?) But I shall not be supporting him as President because I believe that the role should not be filled by an MP.

The real question is not so much who should be President as what the President is for. As Simon Hughes's extraordinary decision to publicly support Nick Clegg in the last leadership election eloquently demonstrated, there is deep and abiding confusion about the role.

I believe Ros is the woman to sort this out.

Green Party names candidate for Haltemprice & Howden

Another Green World reports that, after some internal debate, the Green Party is to field a candidate in the Haltemprice & Howden by-election.

Her name is Shan Oakes and she writes on her blog:
I'm looking forward to highlighting the Tories' hypocrisy on civil liberties.
Isn't that what the Liberal Democrats should be doing?

Later. That is a bit glib. What we should be doing is pointing out that, while David Davis holds admirable views on liberty, there are many in his party who do not share them. We should also be exposing the way that Conservative taxation policies will favour the rich.

Strange days indeed

Photo by Sabine J Hutchinson
http://www.virtual-shropshire.co.uk/

Today is already comfortably the record day for visitors to Liberal England. The reason is not some sudden upsurge of interest in the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats, but my occasional references to sightings of UFOs over Shropshire.

Elsewhere:
Is this what the end of the world feels like?

Lord Bonkers' Diary: To St Asquith's

And so another week at Bonkers Hall draws to a close.

Sunday

To St Asquith’s for Divine Service. At my suggestion, the Revd Hughes leads us in prayers for the health of the Duke of Rutland and his ministers, for the return to robust health of Freddie Flintoff, and for Mark Oaten to remain as MP for Winchester until the next general election.






Sun front page reports UFOs over Shropshire

In the past this blog - via the good offices of the Shropshire Star - has shown interest in the possibility that aliens have been filmed in the county's skies.

Which makes the front page of this morning's Sun very interesting:

ARMY SPOT UFOs OVER SHROPSHIRE

Soldiers report new sightings of craft

WATCH VIDEO

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Iain Dale and Total Politics

I couldn't go to the Total Politics launch party last night as I had a column to write for another magazine. (I used to think that being a writer would involve going to lots of parties. Actually, it chiefly consists of staying at home and writing.)

But there is an article by Dominic Ponsford on the UK Press Gazette site which will tells you all about the magazine and Iain Dale's hopes for it:
Total Politics will be available free online, at least initially, as a virtual e-magazine. And more than 30 political insiders – ranging from Hazel Blears MP to Tony Travers from the LSE – have been signed up as unpaid bloggers. 
Dale also has ambitions to make the Total Politics website the ultimate online resource for information about UK politics. 
As well as the controlled circulation, Total Politics will be available on newsstands throughout the country at £3.99, and via subscriptions. 
Advertising for the launch issue has already been selling well, says Dale. The commercial proposition is a mixture of display advertising, aimed at the public affairs budgets of companies or organisations with a particular political message to get across, and smaller adverts from those who provide services to politicians – such as speechwriters, conference organisers and book publishers. 
The editorial mission statement is, says Dale, to be “unremittingly positive about politics”.
Given that Total Politics has been set up to compete with the House Magazine, and given that the House Magazine is so dull, it may do very well.

Good luck, Iain.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: With Clegg in Afghanistan

Saturday

To Afghanistan with our new leader Clegg for a flying visit. We are there to visit the troops at an airbase, and young Clegg takes a keen interest in their welfare, asking if they find their equipment outdated. The fellow cleaning the harquebus replies that, while it would be nice to have more modern weapons, it is the Army’s way to make the best of things.
All this is very commendable, but hellishly tame; what the accompanying journalists want is a bit of pizzazz, a bit of danger. I steal away from the crowd and into the Afghan foothills to call upon an old friend with whom I have enjoyed many a loya jirga and game of goat polo.

I take tea in his tent and ask if he could possibly liven things up at the aerodrome. He obligingly has some of his young bucks launch a rocket or two in its general direction, with the result that Fleet Street’s finest will have some sparkling copy for tomorrow’s haddock sheets.

Incidentally, this is not the first time I have had foreign insurgents fire at a Liberal leader, but on the last occasion it was little Steel and they missed.





Calder's Comfort Farm

My latest column for the New Statesman can be found on the magazine's website:
Levy’s recent memoirs are disappointingly sketchy on the subject, but it is known that Jack Straw, Patricia Hewitt and Dr John Reid all appeared as Wombles at one time or another.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Valerie Singleton and The Lavender Hill Mob

The Mail on Sunday's interview with Valerie Singleton is largely concerned with her love life, and in particular the fact that she never had an affair with Joan Armatrading.

But for the lover of British films there is a little nugget of gold hidden in there:

Despairing of my academic future, my parents enrolled me in the Arts Educational School, which was near Oxford Street at the time, studying every kind of dance and drama.

This was a revelation and I was soon in no doubt about what I wished to do with my life.

I danced in pantos at the Finsbury Park Empire and the Kings Theatre in Edinburgh. I sang with the Ovaltineys, advertising the drink on Radio Luxembourg. I even had a tiny part in The Lavender Hill Mob which starred Alec Guinness.

Valerie Singleton in The Lavender Hill Mob? Almost too good to be true. I shall have to watch it again, looking out for her.

Perhaps she is the schoolgirl who refuses to sell her model of the Eiffel Tower?

David Icke to stand in Haltemprice & Howden by-election

Last week I reported that Icke was thinking of standing in David Davis's by-election.

Now his website is saying that David Icke will definitely stand.

Time, perhaps, to remember Terry Wogan's finest hour...

Trivial Musical Fact of the Day

According to Wikipedia - the whole school will stay in until the boy who laughed owns up - Richard Thompson and Hugh Cornwell were in a band together at school. It was called Emil and the Detectives.

Great fun as the Stranglers were, this confirms my view that they were a pub band that got lucky rather than real punk rockers. Cornwell and his bandmates were part of the sixties generation, not a reaction to it.

Similarly, when Steve Winwood's first solo album came out in 1977 he was dismissed as a rock dinosaur. But despite having been a star for more than a decade, he was hardly older than many of his critics in the punk movement.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Feeding Ruttie

Friday

To the Bonkers Home for Well-Behaved Orphans, where the little mites plead to be taken to feed the Rutland Water Monster this afternoon. Call me an old sentimentalist, but I am in the mood for an outing myself and it has to be admitted that the modern chimney can be remarkably narrow. So on condition that they are All Good, I agree to return this afternoon with a few scraps for the old girl.

After enjoying my own luncheon, I round up a couple of sheep, a bullock, two ramblers who wandered off a public right of way last summer and a Tory council candidate whom I have had knocking about for some time. I drive them all to the orphanage and then take the little mites down to the Water’s edge.

Ruttie is in fine form and thoroughly enjoys her repast – and how the little ones cheer as she swallows the Tory in one gulp!

This evening, I read a book which speculates upon the mysterious disappearance of the Labour MP Victor Grayson in the 1920s. These author types don’t know the half of it, do they?

Thursday: The first Lady Bonkers' tits

Wednesday: Remembering Sugar Ray Michie

Tuesday: Brian Paddick's campaign song

Monday: Lembit in the fountain

BritBlog Roundup 175

Woke up this morning with the Redemption Blues.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Truly, Madly, Cheaply

Blognor Regis chides me for not having watched Matthew Sweet's documentary on the British B movie last night.

I don't have any of these new-fangled digital channels, but I have now watched it thanks to the BBC iPlayer and I can recommend it too.

If you are sceptical of the virtues of these films, read an earlier posting of mine which will direct you to an article by Sweet.

And, if nothing else, you have to admit it's a great title.

Joni Mitchell: Carey



I don't know what it is about Canadian singers of the 1960s, but it was when I found I had bought CDs by both Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell that I decided I must be a grown up.

In particular it was when I had bought Mitchell's masterpiece, the album Blue, from which this song comes.

And if you are a real Joni Mitchell fan you will also want to see this clip of her singing as Joni Anderson on TV in 1965.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: The first Lady Bonkers' tits

Thursday

Each spring, birdwatchers assemble on the shores of Rutland Water. As a whimbrel remarked to me the other day, it is remarkable how they find their way back to the same spot every year. Closer to the Hall, I have always done my bit with bird tables, nesting boxes and the like to encourage our feathered friends.

The first Lady Bonkers always took a particular interest in this side of things. Someone as fair-minded as she can hardly be said to have had a favourite species, but it is fair to say that she always prided herself on her great tits.



Saturday, June 21, 2008

Sunday Telegraph alleges clash between Nick Clegg and Chris Rennard

For what it's worth - and with the Henley by-election about to take place, it may not be worth very much - the Portcullis column in the Sunday Telegraph has the following story:

Has there been a big falling-out between Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems' chief strategist and legendary by-election guru, Lord Rennard?

Westminster is awash with rumours that the pair have clashed damagingly about the future direction of the party.

Furthermore, Clegg's deal with David Davis in which he pledged there would be no Lib Dem by-election challenger to the former shadow home secretary, seems to have been hastily taken without much consultation among senior colleagues.

Did Unity Mitford bear Hitler's love child?

I have been busy watching the football, but I gather that Channel 4 repeated their documentary on Unity Mitford and her infatuation with Adolf Hitler this evening.

As I recall, the answer to the question in my headline is "almost certainly not". But the programme does suggest that the Mitford family may have exaggerated how ill Unity was after her suicide attempt so that they could brush off awkward questions when she returned to England.

But Martin Bright's New Statesman article on the story from last year is funny and informative:
Val was a little nervous as she explained that her aunt Betty Norton had run a maternity home to the gentry in Oxfordshire during the war and that Unity Mitford had been one of her clients. Her aunt's business, in the tiny village of Wigginton, had depended on discretion and she had told no one except her sister that Unity had had a baby. Her sister had passed the story on to her daughter Val.

I casually asked who she thought the father might be and there was a short silence on the other end of the line before she said: "Well, she always said it was Hitler's."

I must say I was tempted at this point to put down the phone. Christmas was coming and I was very busy. But for some reason I decided to carry on listening to this bizarre tale. Val didn't sound mad, and she said she was merely passing on a family story.

The child was a boy, she believed, and he had been given up for adoption. She didn't want any money; she just wanted me to look into it. So here was the prospect of Adolf Hitler's love child alive somewhere in Britain - it was either the scoop of the century or completely bonkers. But it had to be worth a few hours of my time, even if it turned out to be a dead end.
Incidentally, Unity Mitford was the granddaughter of Thomas Gibson Bowles. This blog isn't just thrown together, you know.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Remembering Sugar Ray Michie

Wednesday

Boxing News arrives and with it the sad news that Sugar Ray Michie has died. Anyone old enough to recall rising in the small hours to warm up the wireless and listen to one of her title fights live from Madison Square Gardens will be immensely moved.

If, in all honesty, she took a couple more fights than was strictly good her, the ‘boozer’ she took over when she eventually retired was immaculately run and widely considered to serve the finest pint of Smithson & Greaves north of the Bonkers’ Arms.

Sugar Ray’s greatest virtue is that she was as honest as the day is long in the clear Argyll summer. At one time, The Mob took a close interest in rural Scottish politics and it was widely known that more than one by-election candidate had “taken a dive” after being threatened by powerful gambling interests.

There can be no better epitaph for Sugar Ray than to say that not a breath of this scandal ever attached itself to her name.

Tuesday: Brian Paddick's campaign song

Monday: Lembit in the fountain

Friday, June 20, 2008

House Points: Press barons, by-elections and David Davis

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

Incidentally, if Bowles was the grandfather of the Mitford sisters then he must be a kinsman of our own Rupert Redesdale.

The Yellow Press

The prospect of Kelvin Mackenzie standing in Haltemprice and Howden on behalf of Rupert Murdoch reminds Leicestershire historians of the Harborough by-election of 1916. There, though there was a wartime truce between the main parties, the Liberal candidate Percy Harris (now best remembered as Matthew Taylor’s great-grandfather) faced a formidable opponent financed by the press baron Lord Northcliffe.

Thomas Gibson Bowles was the illegitimate son of a cabinet minister, the founder of Vanity Fair and The Lady, and the grandfather of the Mitford sisters. He had sat for King’s Lynn as both a Liberal and a Conservative. He stood in Harborough to protest against the Asquith government’s conduct of the war.

Percy Harris wrote in his memoirs: "The hoardings were covered with Daily Mail posters, ‘Buy Daily Mail and vote for Bowles,’ and a special issue of the Daily Mirror, then in Northcliffe’s hands, was published and delivered free to the voters."

Many thought Harris had no chance, "But I was young and energetic and kept to the front the query: ‘Were the electors to select their own MP or have one dictated to them by the Yellow Press?’ and a very effective question it was." So effective that Harris won by 4000 votes.

Now Kelvin Mackenzie is backing away from the contest and David Davis may find himself fighting just the Miss Great Britain Party. But should he be facing a Liberal Democrat?

David Cameron's strategy since becoming Tory leader has been to convince the world you can be a reasonable person - concerned about the environment and civil liberties - and still vote Conservative.

You may say amounts to little more than being in favour of motherhood and apple pie. But as Danny Finkelstein has pointed out, the Tories spent a decade giving every impression of being against motherhood and apple pie. So this marks considerable progress for them.

Now David Davis has taken it into his head to resign and fight a by-election on civil liberties. And the Lib Dems have stood aside to let him make the issue entirely his own. It is hard to see how that will help us win or keep the support of the liberally minded people Cameron is wooing. We should be standing in the by-election.

Great Tory By-election Threats of Legal Action of the Past

On July 14 last year, under the headline "Tories to Sue LibDems Over Ealing Leaflet", Iain Dale quoted an unnamed Tory spokesman as follows:

For years we've turned the other cheek as the LibDems have wilfully broken copyright in order to gain political advantage by misrepresenting our material. Now the time has come to say enough is enough.

Yesterday we provided formal notice that we required the copyright infringement to cease, but were disappointed to note that despite an acknowledgement of our request, they actually continued to distribute their copyright infringed material. We have therefore had no alternative but to ask solicitors to draft proceedings which will be presented when the Court opens on Monday morning.

Under the circumstances we will be seeking an injunction and damages. It's quite wrong that the LibDems don't seem to feel that they should be bound by the same copyright laws as everyone else.

This case has gone rather quiet lately, hasn't it?

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Brian Paddick's campaign song

Tuesday

One of the most important elements in any political campaign is a rousing song and I flatter myself that I have a good ear for finding the right song for any particular candidate. It was I, for instance, who chose ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’ for Paddy Ashplant at Yeovil in 1983.

When urged to perform a similar service for Brian Paddick in the recent London Mayoral election, I naturally asked around to find out more about the fellow and was successful in gleaning two important pieces of information.

The first was that he used to be a policeman – which is a definite plus for his campaign as our “boys in blue” are a fine body of men, even if they can be a little overenthusiastic in carrying out their duties (I recall Boat Race night one year…). The second was that he was gay, which is also promising – we can do with all the jolly politicians we can get!

Putting these two pieces of gen together, I soon came up with the perfect song. So those of you who rode on an open-top bus with Paddick through Southall or along Brick Lane as the gramophone played ‘The Laughing Policeman’ now know whom to thank.

David Icke to stand in Haltemprice & Howden?

Well he's thinking about it.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bonkers Hall and the London Olympics

Talking of Lord Bonkers, I see that Boris Johnson has appointed David Ross, the founder of Carphone Warehouse, to the board of the London 2012 organising committee.

Ross is the owner of Nevill Holt, which most scholars now regard as the model for Bonkers Hall.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Lembit in the fountain

Liberator 326 arrives, which means it is time to start posting Lord Bonkers' latest diary. This involves starting with Monday on Thursday, but I am sure we can all cope with that.

Monday

There is something about the great European capitals that makes the heart beat a little faster. London. Paris. Oakham. The very sound of them is exciting.

I have spent the past few days in another of those cities: Rome. While I am enjoying an espresso at a pavement café beside the Trevi Fountain, a familiar trio hoves into view: I hide myself behind the Gazzetta dello Sport and observe what ensues.

Lembit Öpik, for it is he, has a Cheeky Girl on each arm – much as a condemned man has a warder on each arm. “Mr Lembit, you marry us now,” one Girl carols. When he does not reply, the other cries: “You get lucky coin for us now, Mr Lembit,” and between them they tip the poor fellow head first into the water.

This goes on a few times until their engagement is announced. I can confirm the press reports that the Member for Montgomery is in tears when the episode is at an end.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Those possible Haltemprice & Howden candidates in full

Labour and the Liberal Democrats may not be standing, but there could still be a colourful list of candidates on the ballot paper at Haltemprice & Howden.

The Birmingham Post reports:

Earlier this week, stallholder Eamonn Fitzpatrick, 58, from Northampton, said he would show rival candidates “what politics is all about” by contesting the seat.

Miss Great Britain Gemma Garrett has also announced her interest, asking whether Mr Davis was “a little crazy” to give up his seat for something she described as “a little bit trivial”.

Another potential candidate is the political writer Neil Glass, who has promised to donate half his MP’s salary to charity if elected.

Blackpool pub landlord Hamish Howitt, 55, who is an anti-smoking ban campaigner, is promising to stand up for working class smokers, while the Cleethorpes-based Generalist Party and The Official Monster Raving Loony Party have also announced their intention to field candidates.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The blogger who invaded Rockall

Well, not quite, but The Skipper does record his part in strengthening Britain's hold over the rock by setting up a navigation beacon on top of it:

I'm pleased to say the expedition went swimmingly and the beacon was erected courtesy of heroic Royal Marines lowered from a Sea-King helicopter. The next morning, still swelled with pride having watched the event as first item on the BBC six o'clock news, the DTI lighthouse department rang to ask me the date of the expedition to be run the following year. Knowing how the navy chiefs had grumbled like mad, even to do this job, I replied with cries of laughter before asking why such a fantasy event was needed in any case? The beacon, was, after all, established.

'Yes' said the DTI man, 'but how else are you going to change the batteries?

'Batteries?' I yelped, what's all this about batteries?'

'Well, Rockall is a bit too far away to be joined up to the National Grid, you know.'

'Oh I see, yes, well, I'll get back to you on this one.'

The above conversation was repeated several times, complete with pauses and yelps, at various levels in the MOD before it was time for me to leave and work in another section. I later heard that a form of words had been concocted to 'deal with the situation' but I never did find out if those batteries are changed regularly.

I had intended to illustrate this posting with the dustwrapper from T. H. White's The Master which was set on Rockall. I could not find it on the web, but I did find something far better.

It turns out that in 1966 the book was turned into a serial and broadcast by Southern Television. It starred John Laurie, George Baker and Adrienne Posta.

According to Television Heaven:

it was the first venture for the company into the world of children's drama and kick-started a hugely successful 15-year run of tea-time adventure serials. Southern had so much confidence in the series that they invested a huge £6,000 per episode and introduced it with a full colour feature in the TV Times.

It paid off, and proved a pivotal moment in children's television, mixing elements of standard adventure with James Bond type villains and science fiction.

Nick Clegg backs badger cull

Relying on the Shropshire Star for the bulk of my news has its compensations. One of them is coming across fascinating stories like this.

When he was in the county the other day, Nick Clegg met the Star's rural affairs editor. His contributions are not among my favourite on the paper's website. They are a milder version of the absurd Muckspreader column in Private Eye, where anyone who questions the right of the farming interest to be given huge amounts of public money is ridiculed.

Anyway, this piece is reasonably supportive of Nick and the Liberal Democrats. What struck me was this section:
And then came TB, with the farmers pushing for trials to see whether a pilot badger cull would prevent the crisis.

“Everyone seems to be up in arms about a badger being culled but what they don’t realise is that we are culling cows all the time,” Arthur added.

Mr Clegg agreed, despite admitting that it wouldn’t go down well with a lot of people in his party.

“We are completely open to these trials. You are right - Britain’s fascination with animals is curious to say the least. But this issue needs to go forward, even though plenty of people in the Liberal Democrats do not like this position.”
I do not know if culling badgers to prevent bovine TB is good science, but I am sure that it is bad politics. It may play well go down well in a few rural constituencies, but it will go down very badly in many more urban and suburban seats. Like Sheffield Hallam, for instance.

This feels very much like a return to the 1970s, when the old Liberal Party's fortunes depended on clinging on to a handful of seats where the farming interest was strong. I thought we had all moved on since then.

And why is "Britain’s fascination with animals ... curious to say the least"? I should say that it is a settled part of our national character and one of the more appealing parts at that. What does Nick propose to put in its place and how does he intend to go about it?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Trivial Philosophical Fact of the Day

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Friedrich Hayek were distant cousins.

According to the Friesian School website, "Wittgenstein's maternal grandmother was the sister of Hayek's maternal great-grandfather".

Dominic Grieve joins the Bullingdon Club

One result of David Davis's decision to gallop off madly in all directions has been Dominic Grieve's promotion to shadow home secretary.

He is an effective, courteous performer in the Commons and has always struck me as a lawyerly, even scholarly, figure. But in Sunday's Observer Pendennis showed another side to him:
One person who will perhaps be a little anxious at the news that David Davis has been replaced as shadow Home Secretary by Dominic Grieve is Conservative MP Damian Green, who has the immigration brief in Grieve's new department.

The two men were at Oxford together in the 1970s, when Green (educated at Reading grammar school) was an undergraduate at Balliol College and his new boss (educated at Westminster public school) was at Magdalen. Green, who a contemporary remembers as an earnest sort of chap, was invited to a black-tie dinner at Magdalen and polished his shoes accordingly, but after dinner - and, sadly, history does not record the reason for this - Green found himself picked up in a display of high spirits and deposited in the Cherwell by a group of Magdalen hearties, including Dominic Grieve.
It is clear that Grieve will fit in well with David Cameron's circle. Meanwhile the parallels between Damian Green and John Mortimer's Leslie Titmuss should be explored by the nation's literary critics.

Britblog Roundup 174

Knock three times and ask for Mr Eugenides.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Michael Nyman Band: Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds



Something a little different this week: a live performance of Nyman's tune from Peter Greenaway's film The Draughtsman's Contract. The sleeve notes to one of my CDs tell me that it is derived from an instrumental interlude from Henry Purcell's opera The Fairy Queen.

The Draughtsman's Contract is a sort of Restoration Blowup - it has a mystery at its heart that is never resolved, yet you feel that if you watch the film just once more all will become clear.

The slightly manic tone of this music matches the film perfectly. Indeed at its best - here and in Drowning by Numbers - the collaboration between Nyman and Greenaway is something rarely equalled in British cinema.

Returning to the pop world, Nyman clearly had a strong influence on The Divine Comedy - think "Tonight We Fly" - both directly and via the band's arranger Joby Talbot, who was his protege.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A day around St Pancras


It was my mother's birthday today, and being a dutiful son I took her for lunch at the champagne bar at St Pancras.

I have used the new station several times now. It has undergone an extraordinary transformation - quite how extraordinary, only those of us who remember the dirty, neglected station it used to be. It was magnificent even then, and a wonderful secret confined to those of us who caught trains to prosaic places like Wellingborough, Loughborough and Long Eaton.

So there is a small, nostalgic part of me that regrets the transformation, but the larger and more sensible part celebrates it. Because of the dominating presence of the EuroStar trains, it has to be admitted that St Pancras is now something of a cross between a railway station and an airport. But it is far more attractive than any airport I have ever used, and the architecture is magnificent enough to carry this off.

I have also made up my mind about the two statues inside the train shed. The one of John Betjeman is witty and human, and actually quite moving in that it marks the victory of a certain literary, oppositional sort of Englishness over the self-proclaimed forces of progress that would have seen the station demolished in the sixties or seventies.

Meanwhile, "Meeting Place" by Paul Day, which was intended to be the centrepiece of the transformed station, is an embarrassing monstrosity and should be donated to another country far, far away.

We also visited two favourite location of mine which are close to the station.

St Pancras Old Church is reputed to be the oldest Christian site in England - although it is unlikely (as once discussed on this blog) that Christ is buried there. The Victorian Web has the its history and some atmospheric photographs. The church has a remarkably rural feel for such an urban site.

The church is usually locked, but the surrounding churchyard is well worth exploring, notably for the Soane Mausoleum, which is said to have inspired Giles Gilbert Scott's classic K2 design for the GPO's telephone boxes.
Go down the steps beside the charming little gothic building that houses the St Pancras Coroner's Court and under the long bridge that carries the lines out of the station and you arrive at Camley Street Natural Park.

This is a wonderfully unexpected oasis in the unlovely heart of King's Cross. A BBC video lets you enjoy it too.

The more I think about the decision not to stand against David Davis, the worse it gets

David Cameron's strategy since he became Tory leader has been to convince us all that it is possible to be a reasonable person - concerned about the environment and civil liberties - and still vote Conservative.

You may say that this has amounted to little more than being in favour of motherhood and apple pie. But as (I think) Danny Finkelstein once pointed out, the Tories spent a decade giving every impression of being against motherhood and apple pie, so this marks considerable progress for them.

All of which presents the Liberal Democrats with a problem. We are no longer the only possible home for liberally minded, non-Labour voters.

So when David Davis takes it into his head to resign and attempt to fight a by-election on civil liberties, what do we do? Incredibly, we decide to stand aside and let him make this issue entirely his own.

No doubt David Cameron was shocked by Davis's stunt and cursed him for of it. But if anything can reconcile him to what David Davis has done, it is the thought that voters in a key Tory/Lib Dem marginal and nationally are being given the message: "If you care about civil liberties, vote Conservative."

It would be fascinating to know whom Nick Clegg consulted before taking the decision not to fight the by-election.

Valerie Singleton and Peter Purves!?

I return from an enjoyable day in London to find that many people have been reaching this blog after googling "Valerie Singleton".

I visit Google News to see what she has been up to, only to find this in the Daily Mail:

For decades they have helped define a more innocent era of children's TV.

But last night it emerged that two of the most popular presenters on Blue Peter - Valerie Singleton and Peter Purves - may have been more than simply colleagues.

During a special edition of The Weakest Link quiz show both appeared to suggest a romantic encounter in the 1970s.

The apparent disclosure was caused by host Anne Robinson asking Miss Singleton about her relationship with Purves and fellow presenter John Noakes.

During an interlude between quiz questions, she recalled that she and Purves had fallen out once during filming in Mexico and did not speak for three weeks.

Turning to Purves, Miss Robinson asked him: 'It wasn't because you were trying to have your way with her was it?'

The 69-year-old laughed it off by saying: 'It might have been but I don't think it was.'

Miss Singleton, 71, then intrigued the audience by countering: 'That was another time.'

When Miss Robinson asked her what country this had happened in, she replied, with a smirk: 'I think we were in England.'

As someone lucky enough to have grown up in Blue Peter's Golden Age, I am left speechless. But it least it explains why they were so keen to get rid of John Noakes by sending him off on all those dangerous stunts.

Alan Beith knighted

And not before time.

From the Press Association:

Senior Liberal Democrats MP Alan Beith has spoken of his delight at becoming a Knight.

The long-serving Berwick-upon-Tweed MP becomes Sir Alan in recognition of his services to Parliament.

A former deputy leader of the Lib Dems and its predecessor, the Liberal Party, Sir Alan, 65, was first elected to represent the Northumberland constituency in a by-election in 1973.

Friday, June 13, 2008

House Points: Lord Bonkers looks back over the last 20 years

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News. It turns out that it is the 1000th issue rather than the 20th birthday, but the thought was there.

Incidentally, the joke about masonry bees, which first appeared in an early Lord Bonkers' Diary, occurred to me when I came across them at the house in Shropshire where Malcolm Saville wrote Mystery at Witchend.

You see how it all fits together?

Completely Bonkers

What could I do this week but give over this column to Lord Bonkers? I have been editing the diaries of Rutland’s most celebrated peer for Liberator magazine for almost as long as the Liberal Democrats have existed. So here are his thoughts on the 20th birthday of Liberal Democrat News.

I sit in front of my hearth with a tumbler of Auld Johnston, that most celebrated of Highland malts, at my elbow, wondering that the last 20 years have passed so quickly. Let me share with you the pictures I see in the flames.

People say that Dr David Owen - or ‘Dr Death‘, as he is affectionately known by his many friends in politics - was so demoralised when his "Continuing SDP finished behind the Monster Raving Loony Party at the first Bootle by-election of 1990 that he closed the party down.

That is true, but it is equally the case that David Sutch never recovered from his disappointment at beating Owen by such a narrow margin. The poor fellow was to take his own life only a few years later.

In those days I had my own problems with masonry bees here at Bonkers Hall. (They burrowed into the mortar and exchanged peculiar handshakes.)

Time moved on, and the New Party and it philosophy of Newism was swept to power. I remember asking one newly appointed minister why he had not undone more of the mischief wrought by the Tories. "It's very simple," he replied. "Privatisation, for instance, is Government policy, so now that we are the Government it automatically becomes our policy."

Not that the Conservative Party took their defeat well. It appointed William Hague as its new leader. As a six-year-old he had wowed the party‘s conference. Three years later, now aged 74, he thought he would become prime minister. It was not to be.

The fire has burned low and I see I must draw my remarks to a conclusion. There is no time for me to tell you about the Bonkers Patent Exploding Focus (for use in marginal wards) and its important role in the Leicester South by-election.

Instead let me finish by wishing you the best of good fortune and raising my glass. Here’s to the next twenty years.

When parties ignore elections, press barons move in

The talk of Kelvin MacKenzie (or Kelvin Calder MacKenzie as he would be known to the acting returning officer) standing against David Davis in his by-election reminds me of an earlier posting on this blog.

When the story broke that Matthew Taylor is the great-grandson of Sir Percy Harris, a long-serving Liberal MP, I wrote:

Sir Percy was first elected to the Commons for Harborough at a 1916 by-election. There was an official truce between the parties, but he had to overcome strong opposition from Thomas Gibson Bowles, an Independent candidate backed by Lord Northcliffe and the Daily Mail.
Bowles's campaign seems to have been concerned with criticism of the way the war was being fought. But the moral is clear.

When parties refuse to fight elections, press barons are only to happy to fill the vacuum. The Lib Dems should have put up a candidate in Haltemprice & Howden.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The parsley seeds of Cheswardine

Pity the poor souls who edit the Shropshire pages of the BBC website. They are up against the mighty news machine that is the Shropshire Star.

Nevertheless, they do manage the occasional scoop. Try this for size:

A shopkeeper who found a packet of seeds from the 1960s in a drawer said he was amazed when they germinated.

Denis Moore had had the seeds since he moved into the village shop in Cheswardine, Shropshire, 31 years ago.

There's more:

He initially planted the parsley on cotton wool, but nothing happened so he put them in a tray of compost and left them for another three weeks, but still nothing happened.

Mr Moore said: "My paperboy said 'Have you ever heard the saying about parsley seeds, that they go down to the devil and back nine times before they grow'.

"So I gave them another three weeks and they came up."

You see why I like Shropshire. You get village names like Cheswardine. And, while paperboys are supposed to be an endangered species, not only does the county still have them: they come versed in local folklore too.

We should put up a candidate against David Davis

Those tensions in the Conservative Party have become public far more quickly than I expected.

David Davis is certainly sincere in his support for civil liberties. It is equally certain that someone like Michael Gove would much rather be supporting 42 days. Meanwhile the likes of David Cameron and George Osborne have no strong opinion on the matter: they just want to see a Conservative government elected.

David Davis's decision to resign and fight a by-election is eccentric, but the announcement that the Liberal Democrats will not be putting up a candidate is bizarre too. If Labour has any sense it will not put up a candidate either, with the result that the only uncertainty over the Haltemprice & Howden by-election will be whether it is UKIP or the BNP that comes second.

The irony is that we would probably have done David Davis more of a favour if we had stood against him. The outside possibility of a Lib Dem victory would have meant more media interest and our presence would have but pressure on Labour to stand too - and suffer inevitable humiliation.

There would also have been more chance of the by-election embarrassing the Conservatives as the press obsessed about which of his shadow cabinet colleagues were or were not supporting Davis.

Of course we agree with Davis on civil liberties, but it is not in his gift to decide what the election will be fought on. If we had stood we could have tried to make sure that it was fought on things like the way that Tory economic policy is so skewed towards benefiting the already wealthy. We have missed a chance to do it - and there may not be many more of them before the next general election.

It may be argued that if we had not agreed to stand down then Davis would not have resigned. This is probably true, but that eventually would just have left the tensions in the Tory leadership and they would have broken out in a different direction sooner or later.

Is there something more behind this? David Davis was the Thatcherite candidate in the last Tory leadership election, so it is hard to imagine that we have serious hopes of recruiting him. Are we short of money? Perhaps, but a third party has to seize opportunities when they arise.

Simon Hughes's statement - "Don't worry your pretty little heads about this - just go to Henley" (I paraphrase) - does not cast much more light on the decision.

So, while I rather admire Davis' actions, we should be doing our best to beat him at the by-election he has caused.

Nick Clegg in Shropshire

And in the Shropshire Star:
Mr Clegg is on fact-finding trip to the county and Herefordshire to find out more about the problems facing rural schools and businesses. 
After visiting Lydbury North Primary School near Bishop’s Castle, which Shropshire County Council is proposing should be amalgamated with Clunbury school, Mr Clegg was due to meet with farmers at Much Wenlock.
Or as the old joke goes...
My leader's gone to Shropshire.
Much Wenlock?
I wish you wouldn't keep dragging up that GQ interview just to get a cheap laugh.
Later: Nick Clegg has just been interviewed on Channel 4 News with Lydbury North Primary School and protesting pupils in the background.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Scolari to be new Chelsea manager

From the Guardian website:

The Portugal manager Luiz Felipe Scolari is to become Chelsea manager following the conclusion of Euro 2008.

The Brazilian was one of the favourites for the job, but was not expected to make a decision about his future until after the tournament.

"He was the outstanding choice," said Chelsea in a statement. "Felipe has great qualities. He is one of the world's top coaches with a record of success at country and club level, he gets the best out of a talented squad of players and his ambitions and expectations match ours."

"Out of respect for his current role as head coach of the Portuguese national team, and to ensure minimum disruption to this work, there will be no further comment from Chelsea FC nor from Felipe about his new role until his employment with us commences."

ConservativeHome embarrasses David Cameron

The other day I endorsed the suggestion that we should be terribly nice about David Cameron while pointing out that, sadly, he does not speak for the bulk of the Conservative Party.

A good example of this is an editorial posted on the ConservativeHome website this morning - the site known to its detractors as "The Continuity IDS":

We know this isn't going to be popular among a great many ConservativeHome readers and 92% of adopted Tory candidates but we ought to publicly nail our colours to the mast and stand up with Ann Widdecombe, Norman Tebbit, Matthew d'Ancona, Melanie Phillips and Frank Field as supporters of the Government's attempts to introduce a period of 42 days' pre-charge detention.
Leaving aside the fact that if you find yourself in that company it is probably a good idea to re-examine your conclusions, this tells you a lot about the psychology of Tory activists. They see themselves as the pro-police party, and cannot stand the idea that Labour can be keener to give the police wider powers than they are.

Similarly, this kind of Tory is so Atlanticist that they believe the only possible foreign policy for a Conservative government is to be more pro-American than even New Labour has been. This is the position of Dr Liam Fox, for instance.

It is all a long way from traditional Toryism, but it is the strange area that many Conservative activists now inhabit.

Gordon Brown tried to embarrass David Cameron with this editorial at prime minister's questions today, but let himself down by seeming to imply that the site had some official endorsement from the Conservative Party.

Nevertheless, it did emphasise that there is profit to be gained from exploring the differences between David Cameron and the bulk of the active members of his party.

But there is a difference in the Liberal Democrat and Labour approach to these differences. We Liberal Democrats would say that while David Cameron is right on many things, his membership consists largely of far-right headbangers. Gordon Brown wants to emphasise that the far-right headbangers agree with him.

Gordon Brown: Part Jim Callaghan, part Bob Hoskins

Writing on the Guardian website, Michael White draws a parallel that has been occurring to me all day:
what the past few days has reminded me of was Jim Callaghan's rearguard action in the turbulent late 1970s, no majority at all and often dependent on what could be squeezed from the then-dominant Ulster Unionists to get his legislation through.
And the suggestion that the government will pay to compensation to anyone detained past 28 days but not subsequently charged puts me in of a scene from the 1980 British gangster film The Long Good Friday.

Bob Hoskins is trying to find out who is attacking his criminal empire and has a number of suspects trussed up on meat hooks in an abbatoir. Later he has learns that they are not to blame and orders their release with the words: "Give them a grand each. Expenses."

Later: I love YouTube. The scene is in this clip just after the two-minute mark. And, yes, that is Charlie from Casualty.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Lab/Con coalition made a mess of running Derby

Or so the Lib Dems have told the Derby Evening Telegraph:

The new leaders of Derby City Council claim to have uncovered a £5m budget black hole created by the previous Labour/Conservative administration.

The Liberal Democrat group, which took control after last month's election victory, says the council went hugely over budget in some areas, including £2.7m in adult care.

It claims there is a £120m backlog in the maintenance and repair of council buildings and that the council is in danger of losing £500,000 of funding to expand the city's cycling route network because not enough has been done to increase the number of cycle paths to date.

The Lib Dems also believe that the council has lost about £1m in parking income.

Exciting news from Market Harborough

The Harborough Mail reports:

A discarded cigarette caused a small fire on grassland in Harborough yesterday (June 8).

It is thought that a motorist may have thrown a cigarette out of their car window in Leicester Road near to the Forest Gate Vauxhall garage.

Harborough firefighters were informed but a passer-by had already put the fire out with a bucket of water.

Makes the Shropsire Star look a bit tame, doesn't it?

Calder's Comfort Farm

My latest New Statesman column - in which, as ever, I view the world from this imaginary establishment atop the Stiperstones in Shropshire - can be found on the magazine's website:

Ann Widdecombe rings, urging me to draw your attention to her website and the section for younger readers in particular. When I investigate it I find the Widdy Web Junior to be mostly about the cats Ann has known through her life.

The first of these was Jimmy, who:

"Used to go and meet my father every night when he came home on the bus from his work and he missed my brother when he went off to boarding school."

A sad tale, redolent of middle-class life of the period. But we can be consoled by the thought that Jimmy will undoubtedly have received a first-rate education.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Bjork: Human Behaviour



Looking back, the 1990s were a good decade. The Soviet regime collapsed, Apartheid ended and, whatever John Major's faults, he was less keen on going to war than his successor proved. And the worst thing we had to worry about was the Millennium Bug.

When it comes to music one of the highlights was Bjork, with her inventive songs and that wonderful elfin face.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Bert Hazell: The oldest surviving former MP

Bert Hazell, who was Labour MP for North Norfolk between 1964 and 1970, is still alive at the age of 101. According to the Daily Telegraph, "On November 8 this year he will take over the late Lord Shinwell's mantle as the country's longest living former MP."

A Labour MP for North Norfolk? An article by Malcolm Redfellow will give you the constituency's fascinating history of political radicalism. And that excellent newspaper the Diss Mercury will tell you more about Mr Hazell.

Should the Lib Dems love bomb David Cameron?

There was an important article on politicalbetting.com this week, written by Mike Smithson. He discussed the problems the Liberal Democrats have had campaigning against the Conservatives ever since David Cameron became leader and suggested a way forward for the party.

He writes:
in the two and a half years since Cameron became Tory leader the Lib Dems have gone through three leaders themselves and still do not have effective rhetoric for dealing with NuCon. What do they say about a party that has surged in the polls and now looks as though it will form the next government?
Smithson suggests that the rhetoric used in the "We're Off to a Great Start" e-mail we all received from Nick Clegg a few days ago does not cut the mustard:
Our message of building a fairer society through lower taxes and a better deal for hard-working families is being very well received. Many people are already telling us that we have more substantial policies for local people than David Cameron's Conservatives, who aren't even bothering to spell out what they stand for.
As Smithson says, "It just appears so limp." And the need for us to find an answer to Cameron is all the stronger in Henley, as we are in a clear second place to the Conservatives there.

When looking at Cameron there are two important things to bear in mind. The first is that, particularly after a decade of Labour government when it is becoming increasingly hard to persuade people they should pay more tax, an environmentally aware, socially liberal Conservative Party would be attractive to many people, perhaps in particular the sort of people who vote Liberal Democrat. The Polly Toynbee argument that all we need is more public money spent on the the things of which she approves will no longer do.

The second is that the commitment to these policies among the Conservatives is shallow even amongst Cameron's circle, and large parts of the Conservative Party hate them.

So what is Smithson's alternative? He writes:

My view, which I have argued here before, is for for Clegg and others in the leadership to go with the grain of public opinion and accept that Cameron is sincere in his desire to change his party. The big question then to raise repeatedly whether the wider Conservative party would allow the leadership to follow the path it is setting out. Attack the Tory party not its leader.

When Cameron does something that is broadly “liberal”, like say the stance on gay partnerships, then Clegg ought to be praising him - a move that could accentuate divisions between the leadership and the wider Tory party.

This makes sense to me. Nick Clegg's current Mr Angry, plague on both your houses act in the Commons will soon pale and there is a need for more light and shade in his performance.

So he could welcome Cameron's husky hugging trip but express regret that Conservative taxation policies pay no attention to the environment. He can welcome Carmeron's opposition to the scrapping of the 10p tax band and then point out that the Tories have no policies in place to help the lower paid. He can welcome the fresh thinking from the Tories in education, and then point out that every time Michael Gove opens his mouth he call for more state intervention.

I recall Simon Carr, the Independent sketchwriter, urging this strategy upon the Tories when Tony Blair was prime minister. Simply say how much they agree with the reforms he is pushing through and then sit back and enjoy the fury on the Labour back-benches.

It is harder to implement such a strategy when you are the third party worrying about the second party, and it is hard to see quite how it would translate into a by-election campaign in Henley.

But we Lib Dems badly need some new ideas when it comes to tackling the Tories, and Smithson's idea offers an interesting avenue to explore.

Jacquie Bell chosen to fight Stockton South

From the Darlington & Stockton Times:

The Liberal Democrats have picked a social worker to challenge Labour MP Dari Taylor for the Stockton South seat at the next general election.

The party selected Jacquie Bell as their prospective parliamentary candidate at a meeting at the weekend.

Mrs Bell, who is from Sheffield, has previously challenged William Hague for the Richmond constituency.

Later: It looks as though this is old news. Suzanne Fletcher had the story a month ago.

Children's books: No to age banding

Philip Pullman had a column in this morning's Guardian protesting about a move by publishers to print age guidance figures on all books:

A month or so ago I had a letter from each of my publishers telling me that they had commissioned some research and that, as a result of the findings, they were going to place an age-guidance figure on all their books, saying that this one was for children of 9+, that one for 7+, and so on.

My immediate response was to say, as vigorously as I could, "Not on my books, you're not." And, to their credit, each of my publishers behaved impeccably - they said, in effect: "We wouldn't do anything without your consent, and if you'd rather not have them there, you don't have to."

However, it soon became clear that other writers hadn't had that sort of understanding, and had been told that it was going to happen, like it or not. Not only writers: one editor was told that she had to put such a figure on all her books in the future, because it was now "an industry standard".

Pullman links to the website set up to protest against the move: No to Age Banding.

This list of reasons they give for opposing the list appears pretty conclusive:
    • Each child is unique, and so is each book. Accurate judgments about age suitability are impossible, and approximate ones are worse than useless.

    • Children easily feel stigmatized, and many will put aside books they might love because of the fear of being called babyish. Other children will feel dismayed that books of their ‘correct’ age-group are too challenging, and will be put off reading even more firmly than before.

    • Age-banding seeks to help adults choose books for children, and we're all in favour of that; but it does so by giving them the wrong information. It’s also likely to encourage over-prescriptive or anxious adults to limit a child's reading in ways that are unnecessary and even damaging.

    • Everything about a book is already rich with clues about the sort of reader it hopes to find – jacket design, typography, cover copy, prose style, illustrations. These are genuine connections with potential readers, because they appeal to individual preference. An age-guidance figure is a false one, because it implies that all children of that age are the same.

    • Children are now taught to look closely at book covers for all the information they convey. The hope that they will not notice the age-guidance figure, or think it unimportant, is unfounded.

    • Writers take great care not to limit their readership unnecessarily. To tell a story as well and inclusively as possible, and then find someone at the door turning readers away, is contrary to everything we value about books, and reading, and literature itself.
Only one thing puzzles me: the claim that "Children are now taught to look closely at book covers for all the information they convey." Surely, children always have done this without needing to be taught?

Rodney and Aaron Redmond

Long, long ago in the summer of 1973 - Life on Mars year - the first side to tour England was New Zealand. We cricket fans looked forward in particular to seeing their aggressive new opening batsman Rodney Redmond. He had played his first test against Pakistan the previous winter and scored 107 and 56 in his two innings.

As it turned out, Redmond had trouble adjusting to his new contact lenses, played poorly and did not feature in any of the tests. The result was the New Zealand opened with the far less aggressive Glenn Turner and John Parker.

Redmond did, however, play in two one-day internationals (an exciting new development in those days) at Swansea and Manchester after the test series was over. (Have England played at Swansea since?)

The result is that Rodney Redmond holds a rather undesirable record: the second highest score by a player to have played in only one test. His 107 has been beaten only by Andy Ganteaume, who made 112 in his only test innings (against England at Port of Spain in 1948).

I mention this because I have discovered that the Aaron Redmond who is opening for New Zealand in this series is Rodney's son.

STOP PRESS: Redmond c Ambrose b Broad 2.

Commentators speculate that we shall not see him in a test again.

Boris reveals design for new Routemaster bus



In fact this is a Dundee Corporation bus, pictured in 1957.

And according to Bridget Fox, Boris is already backpedalling: he has decalred that bringing in a new generation of routemasters is now an aspiration not a commitment.

So we must dream on.

Thanks to Fraser Macpherson for the picture.