Thursday, February 27, 2014

The day Parliament burned down



Dr Caroline Shenton delivers a lecture about the fire that destroyed the Palace of Westminster in October 1834.

You can read the text of the lecture on the Parliament website and see more from Caroline Shenton on her blog.

Gerald Abrahams and Sheffield Hallam

Looking at historic election results in Sheffield Hallam for a post the other evening, I noted that the Liberal candidate in 1945 was called Gerald Abrahams.

Could it be? It was.

Gerald Abrahams was one of the better English chess players in the 1930s and 1940s, and you could still buy his books when I got keen on the game in the seventies. He was always an amateur, having a distinguished career in the law as a day job.

Two of his saying on chess (which may have wider application) are worth repeating:
  • "Good positions don’t win games, good moves do."
  • "The tactician knows what to do when there is something to do; whereas the strategian knows what to do when there is nothing to do."

Harriet Harman, the NCCL and PIE

People’s incredulity that Harriet Harman might have something to explain or apologise for over relations between the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) arose from hatred for the Daily Mail and a willingness to accept Harman at her own high estimation.

Another factor, though, was that some younger people did not realise just how different social attitudes were on the left in the 1970s.

It happened that I discussed this era in a book chapter that I published in 2005.
This is an era in which books with titles like Escape from Childhood were written. John Holt’s work contains chapters on, among other subjects, ‘The right to vote.’ ‘The right to work’ and ‘The right to drive’. Reading him today it is hard to resist the idea that Holt was not so much calling for a change in our attitude towards children as calling for the abolition of the very concept of childhood. See for evidence his rather stern chapter on ‘How children exploit cuteness’. 
The chapter that reads most strangely today is the one entitled ‘The law, the young, and sex’. One would not, I think, come across a passage like the following in any current book:
Some people have voiced to me the fear that if it were legal for an adult to have sex with a consulting child, many young people would be exploited by unscrupulous older ones. The image here is of the innocent young girl and the dirty old man; few worry about the young boy having sex with an older woman. Here, too, we are caught with the remains of old myths – in this case that only men were sexual, that women were pure and above it – from which it follows that any young girl having sex with an older man must necessarily be his victim.
This is not a simplistic call for the ‘sexual liberation’ of children; if anything, it is an anguished examination of Holt’s own internal conflicts on the idea. But such ideas were in the air in the 1970s. When I worked in Birmingham, which dates it as late as 1981 or 1982, pamphlets from the Paedophile Information Exchange [PIE] could still be found among a tableful of literature from other municipally approved good causes in the Central Library. 
There is some coverage of this period in Christian Wolmar’s book on childcare scandals, Forgotten Children, but he treats it largely as a plot by a few paedophiles to infiltrate more respectable movements. This approach tends to underestimate the extent to which a broader strand of educated opinion was prepared at least to entertain the idea of something like the sexual liberation of children.
Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman were the public face of the NCCL in the 1970s, but ultimately they were its employees , so it is not clear how far they were responsible for the organisation’s policies. (Jack Dromey flew beneath my political radar in those days.)

But I note that Patricia Hewitt has broken her silence and apologised for the NCCL’s stance in those days. I find this preferable to Harriet Harman’s self-righteousness - however much she hates the Daily Mail.

Times have moved on, thank goodness. As I concluded with something of a rhetorical flourish in that chapter, the problem with abolishing the concept of childhood is that you also abolish that of child abuse.

Not that everything has improved over the past 30 years or so. We have made parents nervous of photographing their own children at sports days, but the most vulnerable children of all - those in public care - do not seem to be much better protected.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

RBS - A clarification

This situation as I understand it is this.

Having announced losses of £8.2bn, RBS now says it must pay generous bonuses to its senior executives to avoid their being poached by other banks.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway 2



I posted part 1 the other day. This second part introduces the strange concept of Glastonbury as an industrial centre, and there is plenty about the flooding and drainage of the Somerset Levels.

The third and final part will appear soon.

Six of the Best 423

David Boyle introduces his new report on payday loan companies and their effect on the local economy for Liberal Democrat Voice. The comments are entertaining too.

"The problem is that a regime characterized by increasingly draconian job search requirements and increasingly punitive sanctions is denying people access to the support needed to keep them from destitution." Alex Marsh writes on Medium about David Cameron and the bishops' argument over welfare policy.

Property prices and rents in London are causing more people to try living on a boat on the Thames. It is not as pleasant as it sounds, says Sam Forbes in the Guardian.

"Reconnecting children with nature isn't some middle class pipe dream. It’s vital." Tom Seaward writes about Project Wild Thing for the British Science Association.

BuzzFeed has 15 extraordinary Victorian photographs showing the construction of the London Underground.

Remember Coca-Cola’s 1971 "I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke" television commercial? Well I do. And so does Tom Osbourne on The Rouse.

Woman fish slapped with large bream in Accrington Asda

Our Headline of the Day Award goes to the Lancashire Telegraph.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Tower of London in 1967



Another of Rank's short Look at Life films.

London commentators misunderstand Sheffield Hallam

First, Labour was going to target Nick Clegg's Sheffield Hallam constituency.

Now, according to The Blue Guerilla (which claims a 'WORLD EXCLUSIVE' for the story), Nigel Farage is planning to stand there.

Both these stories are nonsense, and we have heard the Farage one before.

Labour has no chance in Sheffield Hallam. I do not believe Farage will stand there, and if he does he will be soundly defeated.

But the fact they gain currency tells us something important about the British political press.

It is overwhelmingly London based, and because of that it knows little about life outside the capital. So it reasons that a seat in the North must be a wasteland of whippets and unmarried mothers where Labour or Ukip will prosper.

This is nonsense. Sheffield Hallam has one of the highest populations of graduates of any seat in the country. Labour has never come even close to winning there and Farage's fact-free populism will have little appeal either.

Before Richard Allan captured it for the Liberal Democrat in 1997 Hallam was a safe Conservative seat that had been held by the Conservatives for as long as anyone could remember. They won there even in 1945.

So there is not chance of either Labour or Ukip - Farage or no Farage - winning it. The only long term threat to Lib Dem hegemony in Sheffield Hallam is a Conservative revival. And of that there is little sign.

Leicester City Liberal Democrats European fundraising night, 21 March


Leicester Liberal Democrats are holding a fundraising quiz night at the Aylestonians rugby club on the evening of Friday 21 March.

There will be a prize quiz for teams, a light supper and speeches by our Euro candidates in the region.

Oh yes, and we are also promised "lighthearted entertainment at half time provided by Lord Bonkers".

Monday, February 24, 2014

The 1984 runners and riders - Liberator's finest hour


Mark Pack has reprinted this spread from the 1984 Liberal Assembly issue of Liberator.

It was probably the magazine's finest hour. Certainly, it was the only time we have provided the lead item for the BBC's six o'clock news.

The spread caused a huge row at the time but, as Mark points out, the pen portraits of the Liberal MPs (written by Ralph Bancroft, if I recall rightly) are remarkably kind - click on the picture and you should be able to read them.

Only one MP complained: Malcolm Bruce, who thought we had made him sound too worthy.

That BBC news item pictured David Steel and then "Liberal activists arriving in Bournemouth". Again if I recall rightly, that was Stewart Rayment and I walking along the seafront.

Vote, vote, vote for William Henry Bragg

Leicestershire County Council is going to honour another six people or places in the county with green plaques.

There is a shortlist of 12 on the council's website and you can vote via that site too.

I shall, of course, be voting for Market Harborough's own Nobel laureate William Henry Bragg - you can learn more about his work in this episode of In Our Time.

But you can vote for six different people or places, and there are some other deserving nominations such as the John Taylor Bellfoundry in Loughborough and Monty Python's Graham Chapman.

I shall also be voting for the Victorian social reformer Charles Booth. I knew he was buried at Thringstone in the county, but I did not realise he had lived there too.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sarah Teather criticises Nick Clegg over welfare

Huffington Post has a report on Sarah Teather's criticism of Nick Clegg on Newsnight on Friday.

The Liberal Democrat MP for Brent Central appeared as part of a debate on welfare and the church in politics more generally. You can watch the whole segment on the BBC iPlayer - that link should take you to the start of it.

One of the reasons for this item was the criticism by Vincent Nicholls, the Archbishop of Liverpool,  of the government's welfare policies last week. He said the welfare system had gone "seriously wrong" when thousands were relying on food handouts.

In reply Nick Clegg had said "I think to say that the safety net has been removed altogether is an exaggeration, is not right." He then went on to channel Tony Blair:
"So, look, we're trying to get the balance right. The country's gone through an incredibly difficult time; there are people who, of course, face very difficult circumstances, but I think the way to move forward is to make sure there's always an incentive for people to work when they can do so."
On Newsnight Sarah talked of "rather a patronising response from my leader" that was "not very helpful and not, in my view, very well informed either".

She went on to say:
"If I think about the experience of a lot of my constituents I'm afraid I'm seeing far too many people who are made destitute and put into severe poverty by the benefit changes. 
"For example I had a woman where the whole of the last trimester of her pregnancy she had no money whatsoever.
"I had another case where somebody was sanctioned for failing to turn up to an appointment when she was having surgery for cancer. 
"So I'm afraid the Archbishop's criticism this week really chimes with my own experience."
MPs with no political ambition left can be dangerous. They may speak the truth.

Pink Floyd: See Emily Play



This was Pink Floyd's second single and in 1967 it reached number six in the UK singles chart. The band has visited the top 20 of that chart only once since - that was with the remarkable success of Another Brick in the Wall (part II) in 1979.

Backwatersman once pointed out that:
Although this song was written and sung by Roger “Syd” Barrett, he is sadly absent from this clip, filmed in Belgium while he was incapacitated.
A sage observer of the game, he also had some stern things to say about the cricketing skills on show:
Some of Leicestershire’s younger batsmen (J. Cobb for instance) might like to observe the inevitable consequence of trying to play a lofted straight drive whilst gazing at the heavens. Nick Mason should also be made aware that the practice of taking a catch with a hat has been illegal since the nineteenth century, and results in the award of five runs to the batting side.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Southport (1958)



This film dates back to 1958 and features many Southport attractions - Pleasureland, Peter Pan's Playground, the sea bathing lake, the zoo, Lord Street and show jumping at the Flower Show.

It comes with a commentary by the famous BBC announcer Alvar Liddell.

Ian Jack on Ian Nairn

There are still five days left on the BBC iPlayer to watch this week's moving documentary on Ian Nairn.

Ian Jack, who appears in the documentary, remembers Nairn in his Guardian column today:
A documentary on the BBC this week by Kate Misrahi caught his troubled personality very well – the hurt eyes, the voice that always seemed about to crack with melancholy – as it slowly drowned in a sea of beer. 
I knew him a little. He was kind about things I'd written, and once or twice I stopped at his table in our office local, the Blue Lion, where he looked as though he was being reborn as a 17-stone glass of Guinness. Bulky figure, black suit, white face. The face was flecked with sweat, while a plump fist gripped a pint that, in shape and colour, might almost have been a model of its drinker. There's no point wondering why he drank so much that he was dead at 52, or about the origins of his depression. What's more important is the way he could find interest and beauty in the apparently ordinary, and so vehemently protest its neglect or destruction – a church in Bolton, an arcade in Northampton or Newcastle.
This is a chance to say that Ian Jack's column - wise and individualistic - is consistently one of the best in the British press.

Leicester Tigers feature in Trivial Fact of the Day

The injury to Dan Cole - like Martin Johnson, a product of my old school here in Market Harborough - means that Robert Kitson is obliged to write in the Guardian:
Remarkably, this will be the first time since March 1975 England have kicked off a championship game at Twickenham without a single Leicester player in their starting XV.
I foresee trouble.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway 1



This 1986 documentary looks at the remains of this much-mourned line. It contains footage from an earlier film by John Betjeman.

This appears to be the first part of three - you lucky people!

William Mayne's The Member for the Marsh and the draining of the Somerset Levels


A BBC News page gives the history of the draining of the Somerset levels:
In Roman times artificial flood defences were built to keep out the tides from the nearby Severn Estuary, and ditches were dug. This created a network of inland channels to drain large areas of floodplain marsh. 
During the Middle Ages the monasteries at Glastonbury, Athelney and Muchelney drained and looked after the land. 
Dutch engineers arrived to drain the Levels in the 17th Century. Farmers have managed the landscape ever since.
Except that there is more to it than that. A post on Tallbloke's Talkshop (written by the nicely named Corporal Jones' Ghost) tells the more recent story:
You have to go back to 1939, when the MOD decided that they needed a new Munitions factory for HDX explosives, HDX uses a lot of water, all munitions manufacture does, but HDX is greedy. 
The levels had too much water and so we built one on the Levels, ROF37 or ROF Bridgewater or ROF Woolavington, it’s all the same place. 
To ensure that there was enough water even on the waterlogged Levels, we built the Huntspill River, we then connected it to the River Brue to the North and the Kings Sedgemoor Drain via a pipe to the South, we also widened the River Sowy to get water to our factory.
This information has been taken by bloggers who are sceptical about climate change as proof that the current flooding of the Somerset Levels were caused, not by exceptional weather, but because the government did not spend enough on draining them.

Their assumption seems to be that, even though the munitions factory has gone, we must continue to drain the levels the way we did while it was open. This seems an odd argument to me, and not only because climate change sceptics tend to be opposed to government action in most other circumstances.

Large areas of the Fens are purposely flooded every winter, but no one thinks that is an outrage. And Environment Agency figures quoted  suggest only 40 houses on the Levels have actually been flooded. So it is by no means obvious that their assumption is right, even if the climate is not changing.

This winter's floods have also reminded me of a book I have long had on my shelves without reading: William Mayne's The Member for the Marsh.

Writing about Mayne will always be awkward, following his conviction for child abuse. My defence is that he was a superlatively good writer for children and that if you cannot separate artists from their work you are due for a life of disappointment.

I can also say that this blog carries the fullest discussion of Mayne and his offences that I have found anywhere. You can find that discussion in the comments on a post from 2010.

The Member for the Marsh is typical of Mayne in the way it brings together children of different ages in an easy companionship.

A group of boys discover what they suspect is the site of a prehistoric lake village in a marsh that the local farmer is about to flood. If this were a Malcolm Saville story the farmer would be a villain and the children would save the village site.

But the farmer is no villain. He is happy for the boys to enter the marsh, but stipulates there must be no schoolmasters allowed to visit - because he does not want them finding the site.

The boys have a bonfire and carry out a little amateur archaeology to prove the site really had been a lake village. Then it is lost beneath the water. But the farmer makes sure a causeway is left dry so one of the boys can use it to get to and from the school bus.

Running through the book is a sense that the draining of the levels is a work in progress. The munitions factory is not mentioned, but its effect is felt.

Six of the Best 422

"It seems very much to be the old Strathclyde’s way or no way at all. That’s a huge mistake. Policing needs in Glasgow are totally different from policing needs in the Highlands and Islands. What next? Tasers in Achiltibuie?" Caron's Musings dissects the paradoxical centralising tendencies of the SNP.

A debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage would be well worth watching, thinks Neil Monnery.

Politics for Novices is not pleased that a group of local businesses is creating a new CCTV system.

"Nairn floated gloriously free of the style wars that periodically consume British architecture, offering instead a passion for buildings and places." Icon Magazine reviews "Ian Nairn, Words in Place" by Gillian Darley and David McKie.

"I could sit occasionally with my pint in the Victoria Bar watching decay set in and wondering when the closure announcement was to be made, but we all know it didn't happen like that." Mike Horne on the transformation of Marylebone station.

IanVisits takes us to Victoria Street in London, where another five floors are being excavated beneath existing office buildings.

Horsham burrito stand forced to close early after table collapse

Our Headline of the Day Award turned out to be a triumph for the West Sussex County Times.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A window in Brampton Bryan


This Herefordshire village is also home to Aardvark Books.

Danny Brown walks out of Guardian interview after row over scotch egg

Although it is a Guardian story about the Guardian, our judges decided to award this effort Headline of the Day.

Popper: "The key Liberal philosopher of the past century"

I am pleased to see David Boyle picking up on the Karl Popper video I posted on Monday.

And I share his belief that Popper was "the key Liberal philosopher of the past century or so". Having written the entry on him in the Dictionary of Liberal Thought I have something of a proprietorial interest in the old boy. (Popper that is, not David Boyle.)

Certainly, Popper - and Isaiah Berlin - have far more to offer modern Liberals than to do L.T. Hobhouse or T.H. Green. I suspect those last two are more often mentioned than read. Anyone who has tried reading Green will know why.

And if you want a Liberal philosopher who speaks to our postmodern condition, try Richard Rorty.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to recommend two easy ways into Popper's philosophy (though his own works are notable for their readability).

The first is Bryan Magee's short book on Popper in the Fontana Modern Masters series, which I recommended the other day. This gives me the chance to repeat a remarkable discovery about Bryan Magee that I made a few years ago:
I knew from his Confessions of a Philosopher that Magee was evacuated to Market Harborough during the war. I now know - having bought his latest volume of memoirs Growing Up in a War - the he stayed with two families here. The first lived just around the corner from where I live now. The second lived just around the corner from where I lived as a schoolboy (and where my mother still lives). 
He even mentions the little carpet warehouse across the road from my mother's house. In 1940 it was a factory making parachutes. And he used to buy sweets in the same corner shop as me.
Since I wrote that the the warehouse has been demolished and the land used for housing.

The second is Roger James's 1980 book Return to Reason, which you can find on the web in its entirety.

His first paragraph describes its purpose:
This book is about departures from reason in the conduct of public affairs and the power of certain wrong ideas and unquestioned assumptions. In exploring this power I shall draw extensively on the philosophy of Sir Karl Popper and I shall show how the disregard of it has led to so much that has gone wrong in our time. Also, very tentatively, I suggest how ways out of some of our troubles might follow from attention to rational methods and Popper's neglected ideas.
Which leads us back to David Boyle's post.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Lisa Nandy is Frank Byers' granddaughter

Maybe I didn't get the memo, but this is news to me. It is revealed, amongst many better known family relationships, in a Daily Mail article.

For the benefit of my younger readers, who will know that Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan, I had better point out that Frank Byers was the Liberal MP for North Dorset between 1945 and 1950. As Lord Byers he remained an influential figure in the party until his death in 1984.

Anyway, this is a clear winner of Trivial Fact of the Day.

An angel in Leicester


Another monument in the city's Welford Road cemetery.

Why Lorely Burt lost the deputy leadership

Interviewed by the Huffington Post, Lorely Burt scoffs at the idea that she lost the Liberal Democrat deputy leadership election because her fellow MPs saw her as Nick Clegg's candidate.

But I wonder. As the Post explains, her defeat by Sir Malcolm Bruce was a bit of a mystery:
At the end of January Lib Dems chose veteran parliamentarian Sir Malcolm Bruce to replace Simon Hughes. The decision caught many observers off guard. The result was also not one Burt saw coming. 
"Yeah. I was surprised," she freely admits. ... "Malcolm came into the race quite late, so there was already an expectation that I was going to win even before he came in."
For a fuller version that the vote for Bruce was a vote against Clegg, see the article by Gareth Epps on Liberator's blog.
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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Six of the Best 421

Mark Pack reports that the police have been called in amid claims of “fabricated allegations” and a “smear campaign” over Haringey Labour candidate selections.

"Water cannon in London would be a 'big mistake,' warns pensioner blinded by them" - David Churchill's report in the Evening Standard.

"Remarkably unreported this month ... is that four of private work provider A4e’s staff who ripped off the taxpayer and lone parents have pleaded guilty to 30 acts of fraud and forgery." David Hencke has the story.

"Just as child porn is used to justify broader porn filters, beheading videos appear to be the magic bullet into scaring people into accepting filters that move well beyond porn. According to the BBC, government-funded operations within the counter-terrorism referral unit will soon order UK broadband ISPs like TalkTalk, Virgin Media and BSkyB to expand filters to include websites declared to be promoting terrorism." TechDirt on the  government's "futile and ham-fisted attempts to purge the Internet of all of its rough edges".

Mario Kaiser writes for Guernica on the power of silence, submission to force-feeding, and the first suicides in Guantánamo.

The Walbrook Discovery Programme studies one of London's lost rivers.

Colin Baker to star in film inspired by the discovery of Richard III




From the Leicester Mercury:
Doctor Who star Colin Baker is to play the lead in a film featuring the discovery of the remains of King Richard III. 
Finding Richard follows a boy who, on hearing the bones have been found under a Leicester car park, begins his own quest. 
Helping Gull on this journey is his grandad, himself a dreamer, who sees something of himself in the boy. 
What Gull finds is not quite what he or his grandad expected.
Colin Baker plays the grandfather and the short film will be shot on location in Leicestershire.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Karl Popper on human knowledge



I heard Karl Popper give a lecture at York while I was an undergraduate there. I think it was the inaugural lecture of a series sponsored by some variety of Rowntree money and I remember that Jo Grimond was present.

Here is Popper speaking some years after that. He took part in three programmes under the title Uncertain Truth - you can find the others on Youtube if you search - but this one on knowledge gets to the heart of his philosophy. You can watch part 2 of it too.

If you want to know more about Popper and his philosophy - he has some claim to be the most important liberal thinker of the 20th century - then I recommend the short introduction by Bryan Magee.

The press misses a big story in Nick Clegg: The Liberal Who Came to Power

I have just listened to the second part of Steve Richards' Radio 4 documentary Nick Clegg: The Liberal Who Came to Power.

The press coverage beforehand concentrated on Jeremy Browne's opposition to the idea of selling ourselves as the party of the centre and on Shirley Williams observation that Nick likes to surround himself with young people, not all of whom are particularly competent - Simon Titley's belligerent youths.

I agree with both, but Shirley Williams said something else important that the pre-broadcast coverage missed.

She said that Nick Clegg has a low opinion of the House of Lords.

I was talking to a peer in London the other week - as one does - and was told that relations between Nick and the Lib Dem group in the Lords are not good. The peers feel they are required to do a lot of hard work to improve the poor (and often illiberal) legislation the Commons sends to them and do not get the recognition from Nick that they deserve.
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This poor feeling between Nick and the Lords, I was told, in part explains the poisonous progress of the Rennard affair. Many Lib Dem peers are inclined to stand by one of their own because of it.

Hanging Participle of the Day

The Independent has a heart-warming story about a seven-year-old boy from Tennessee who survived a night out of doors in sub-zero temperatures by cuddling up with his pet dog.

But it contains this remarkable piece of grammar:
Unable to climb out and only wearing a camouflage jacket and a fur hat, Dominic's dog kept him warm while he waited for help.

Toni Savage of Leicester


Agnes Guano is the proprietor of The Downstairs Lounge and scours charity shops for "chewy vinyl nuggets of the very choicest British comedy records" so you don't have to.

But what caught my attention here was not the thought of Bernard Bresslaw as a poet, but the publisher. Who was Toni Savage of Leicester?

The answer can be found in the Incline Press book A Paper Snowstorm: Toni Savage & the Leicester Broadsheets by Rigby Graham and Derek Deadman:
Rigby Graham, whose drew this evocative sketch of Toni Savage, describes Toni's broadsheet production as a 'paper snowstorm' -- his rate of production only matched by his inventiveness and sheer sense of fun. 
A former opera singer, and a folk-club enthusiast, Savage was at the heart of a revival of broadsheet printing in Leicester in the early 1960s. Transfixed by the creative possibilities of letterpress printing, he and his friends produced hundreds of letterpress-printed broadsheets and pamphlets for free distribution to friends and strangers alike in the clubs and streets of Leicestershire. 
Toni's story is a story of the energies and enthusiasms of the sixties, but it is also a case study in the transformation of letterpress printing from its commercial hegemony to its role as a tool of the artist/craftsman that it holds today.
Rigby Graham is a Leicestershire artist who is still active and is one of the people interviewed on An Empty Stage - a DVD about John Piper. (I suspect his own style owes something to Piper's influence.)

I met him when I was 17 or so because he used to come into the secondhand bookshop where I had my Saturday job. On one occasion the proprietor had poured me a tiny whisky, which Rigby Graham said was "just a dirty glass".

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Anytown: An LMS documentary from the 1930s



The BFI calls this a "social documentary showing the importance of the rail service to a typical northern industrial town in the 1930s".

Labour councillors send a Valentine to all their residents


Hmm. Thanks to Sundip Meghani, this appeared in the Leicester Mercury on Friday.

It's Pooky Bear and Panda Bear I feel sorry for.

Delmore Brothers: Trouble Ain't Nothin' but the Blues


Born the eighth and tenth children of tenant farmers, Alton on Christmas day, 1908, and Rabon on December 3, 1916, the Delmores grew up on various red dirt farms across Limestone County, Alabama, just south of the Tennessee line. Raised on hard work, hard times, and southern values, the Delmores spent what little spare time they had enjoying the wealth of string-band music and gospel singing that came with that particular territory.
Native Ground gives us the background to the Delmore Brothers, and Wikipedia tells us about their musical career:
The Brothers did their first recording session for Columbia in 1931, recording "I've Got the Kansas City Blues" and "Alabama Lullaby," which became their theme song. They signed a contract with Victor's budget label Bluebird in 1933 and became regulars on the Grand Ole Opry. Within three years, they had become the most popular act on the show. Disagreements with Opry management led to the brothers leaving the show in 1939. While they continued to play and record music throughout the 1940s, they never achieved the same level of success they had with the Grand Ole Opry.
If rock and roll was born out of White country music and Black rhythm and blues, the sound of the Delmore Brothers suggests that the two forms of music were already closely allied in the 1930s.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Six of the Best 420

Kiron Reid looks at how the experiment of elected police and crime commissioners is faring one year on.

The government's own figures show that the case for the badger cull was exaggerated, reports Peter Black.

"Sprawl has trapped many Americans in poverty: Unable to afford a car, maintenance, insurance, and gasoline, they cannot get from their suburban homes to jobs." Ben Adler on Grist argues that we can make cities greener and more equal at the same time.

"In 70s uncool Leicester, Silver Arcade with its arty/studenty clothes shops made me feel a bit more 'happening'."  Middle Aged of Middle England visits the reopened Silver Arcade in Leicester.

Retronaut takes us back to HMV's flagship Oxford Street store in the 1960s.

English Buildings goes to Dinton in Buckinghamshire and finds a set of stocks in the church.

Firefighters fight fire at fireplace showroom in Tunbridge Wells

The Kent and Sussex Courier wins our Headline of the Day Award.

Isabel Oakeshott to leave the Sunday Times


A tweet from Lord Ashcroft this evening reminds me of a picture I posted last month...


Friday, February 14, 2014

Bath and Norwich in 1968



Our latest Look at Life film is "The City's for Living".

David Owen: Tony Blair lied to me

In an interview with The Conversation Lord Owen - Dr David Owen, the former SDP leader - explains his support for the disastrous war in Iraq:
“This guy lied to me. I had two meetings with Blair in identical circumstances. It was in Downing Street, with our wives, the four of us. The second was in June 2002 and it was clear he had decided to go to war. 
I asked him whether in Iraq nuclear weapons were being built and he replied ‘yes’; Chemical weapons? – ‘Yes,’ he told me. No qualification or doubt. I now know what he had been told in intelligence reports in the weeks before he met me and that he should have told me that the intelligence was far from conclusive.”
Join the club, Doc.

Wythenshawe and Sale East: Time for Nick Clegg to show his party some love

At the last general election, as Chris Mason points out on BBC News, the Liberal Democrats polled 22 per cent in Wythenshawe and Sale East - a share of the vote that almost mirrored our national performance.

So it was not encouraging to see the party lose its deposit by failing to reach even 5 per cent in yesterday's by-election.

And Stephen Tall's conclusion on Liberal Democrat Voice that the result is a reflection on the impact on joining the Coalition, "especially in northern areas like Greater Manchester," is more depressing when you recall that we hold two of the neighbouring constituencies.

And it's worse than that: as Tony Dawson points out in a comment on the same post:
The Liberal Democrats in Manchester, having been an effective and credible opposition to Labour in the City up till 2010, have lost ALL of their Councillors two years in a row. Following a ‘gap year’ they have just lost a deposit in a by-election.
But leaving the result aside, there was something odd about our team's reaction to the result.

Chris Mason goes on to say:
All the Lib Dem activists at the count, and the party's candidate, Mary Di Mauro, refused to talk to journalists. 
And after the votes had been counted, she still wouldn't talk.
At the very best, she was the victim of some very poor media advice. But maybe there is more to it than that.

Mason continues:
It's not unreasonable to say she wasn't exactly overwhelmed by support from the party nationally in this campaign. 
A few local MPs chipped in, but the big guns in London clearly concluded it wasn't worth the train ticket.
Fighting a parliamentary by-election when you have know chance of winning is a thankless task, but some - notably Zuffar Haq and Jill Hope, in neighbouring constituencies to Harborough - have done so with a good grace.

If Mary Di Mauro and her team were left feeling so unloved, it is a poor reflection on the party's leadership.

Part of David Cameron's problems with his own backbenches stem in part from his refusal to make any effort to woe them. I hope Nick Clegg is not making the same mistake.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Liberal Democrat rebellion over local government funding

George Eaton on the New Statesman's The Staggers blog picks up on the rebellion by several Liberal Democrat MPs last night:
Largely unnoticed, there was a small but significant Lib Dem rebellion over cuts to local government last night. Party president Tim Farron, former defence minister Nick Harvey, Andrew George, Stephen Gilbert and Adrian Sanders all voted against this year's funding settlement.
He goes on to quote Nick Harvey's speech in the debate:
The whole model of local Government funding is now so fundamentally broken that there needs to be a cross-party endeavour to rebuild something from scratch on a blank sheet of paper.
Nick went on to say:
Devon county council is now consulting about a programme of cuts that will end all its non-statutory obligations: ending the subsidy on meals on wheels; closing its day centres; getting rid of all its residential care homes; axing mobile libraries and the smaller local libraries; and doing away with the youth service, except for young offenders. This will cause absolute fury on the part of voters. I do not think that it is acceptable. 
We have people moving into our area who are aghast at the low level of public services that they find in comparison with other parts of the country that they have come from. This is just not acceptable. It cannot go on like this. I made a speech similar to this last year. I told Ministers that they needed to do something about it if they wanted my support in the Lobby. A year has gone by, they have done nothing about it and they will not have my support in the Lobby this evening.
You can read his whole speech on They Work for You - which is a much better site than the Hansard one, incidentally. As Nick says, there is an element of cynical calculation here. The government hopes that is local authorities who will be blamed for these cuts.

Blogging about the proposal for a unitary council for Leicestershire the other day, I made similar points:
In pursuing austerity the Coalition has tended to protect central government programmes while hitting local spending hard - there is money for HS2 while local bus services are cut. 
The danger is that local government services - and here the very structure of local government - will be damaged so severely that they will be impossible to repair when the public finances are healthy again.
I think this is a huge problem for the Lib Dems. For as long as anyone can remember, we have presented ourselves as the champions of local government. Yet when given a chance of power we embrace a policy that sees local government funding slashed.

There is plenty about localism in the Coalition agreement: it is just that it has been ignored ever since.

As I have said before, that agreement reads more and more like the portrait of a government that Britain needed but did not get. The blame for this lies largely with David Cameron - too weak to take on his own backbenchers - but it is the Lib Dems who are being punished for it by the voters.

Literary maps for a drowned England


When I heard that Shepperton - home of J.G. Ballard, the author of The Drowned World - was flooded, I realised that fantasy fiction provides the best map of our new landscape.

Richard Cowper published The Road to Corlay, the first volume of his trilogy The White Bird of Kinship, in 1978. It is set a thousand years in the future when Britain is a theocracy and low-lying areas of the country have been flooded.

The map on the endpapers - and ever since discovering Malcolm Saville I have believed that every book should have a map on its endpapers - shows that much of the West Country has become the Somersea. And some present-day characters who are in touch with this future by some form of clairvoyance finally make sense of it:
On the way they passed through the Outpatients' waiting room. One wall was decorated with a large scale relief map of the whole area surrounding Taunton. Ian walked over to it and contemplated it thoughtfully. "Look here," he said. "Just suppose this area was all flooded, the Quantocks would be an island and so would the Blackdown Hills."
Richard Cowper, incidentally, was the pen name of John Middleton Murray Jnr. His father - also called John Middleton Murray was the husband of Katherine Mansfield and a confederate of D.H. Lawrence.

As for the flooded Thames Valley, Richard Jefferies foresaw that as long ago as 1885. Here he is writing in After London:
Looking new eastwards, across the Lake, he saw a vast and beautiful expanse of water, without island or break of any kind, reaching to the horizon. 
And:
He knew the Lake was very wide, but it had never occurred to him that he might possibly sail out of sight of land.This, then, was why the mariners would not quit the islands; they feared the open water. He stood up and swept the horizon carefully, shading his eyes with his hand. He was alone with the sun, the sky, and the Lake.
My photograph shows Coate Water outside Swindon, which was Jefferies' home for part of his boyhood and surely the inspiration for the Lake.

Six of the Best 419

An independent Scotland would be better off using the pound without permission, argues the Adam Smith Institute.

Women You Should Know tells us that the little girl from this widely retweeted 1981 Lego advertisement has grown up and has something to say: "Doctor kits used to be for all children, but now they are on the boys’ aisle. I simply believe that they should be marketed to all children again, and the same with LEGOs and other toys."

Wembley Matters on how an Oxford college destroyed a pop-up library and dumped the books.

Two psychiatrists debate whether attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is best understood as a cultural construct in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

A Political Refugee from the Global Village has been reading Greenmantle by John Buchan.

"Nearly twenty years have passed since my first encounter with the brown hare but it was with those memories fresh in my mind that I returned to those very same fields to see if I could relive that experience. Sadly – as is the case with many of a farmland species – the hares appeared to be no more." Lee Connor calls for a close season for the shooting of hares.

Stiperstones post office is safe



More good news from the Shropshire Star:
Local councillor for Chirbury, Heather Kidd, had sought assurances from Post Offices bosses after the postmaster in Pontesbury, Brian Simmonds, announced his wish to retire. 
The outreach post offices in Marton, Stiperstones and Wentnor come under his jurisdiction and there were fears for their future should he leave. But, according to the Post Office, following a series of lengthy discussions, a new option has now been found – securing the outreach services for the time being.
The story also quotes her fellow Liberal Democrat councillor Charlotte Barnes. The photograph shows Stiperstones post office - I always knew it would come in useful one day.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Alan Bennett on Britten and Auden



Alan Bennett reads from and discusses The Habit of Art, his play on W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, at the London Review Bookshop.

The Three Tuns Brewery, Bishop's Castle


One of this blog's purposes is to bring you the news from Bishop's Castle - and good news it is.

The Shropshire Star reports the success of the Three Tuns Brewery:
The Three Tuns Brewery was lying empty and its home under threat of conversion into housing when John [Russell] and his business partner Bill Bainbridge stepped into save the business in 2003. Now it is set to achieve sales of £1million. 
The brewery has seen the growing popularity of real ale create additional demand for its unique range of beers taken from a secret recipe book, including XXX, 1642 Bitter and Cleric’s Cure. 
More than 500 pubs are now stocking the company’s cask conditioned ales, with the next stage of its expansion focusing on building its presence within the Black Country and Staffordshire.

Edinburgh recycling bin explodes with pizza dough

Our Headline of the Day contest sees a victory for the Edinburgh Evening News.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Musical Ruth in Dartmouth



What with the weather and the floods, we could all do with something to cheer us up. And what could be funnier than a man dressed as a nun at the controls of a motorised piano?

This is Musical Ruth, whom I saw at Market Harborough's Arts Fresco in 2009.

Westminster cat-of-the-year contest 'hit by vote-rigging'

BBC News wins our Headline of the Day Award.

The judges remarked that Sheryll Murray, the Conservative MP for South East Cornwall, has an odd sense of priorities when the weather is causing such problems in her constituency.

Write a guest post for Liberal England


This is a reminder that I welcome guest posts on Liberal England. So far 33 have appeared.

And as you can see from the list of the 10 most recent guest posts below, I am happy to consider a wide range of subjects.

If you would like to write a guest post for Liberal England yourself, please send me an email so we can discuss your idea.

  • How Liberal Democrats can help fight for privacy rights in Europe - Peter Bradwell
  • Political defections: Storms of protest or signs of political climate change? - Alan Wyburn-Powell
  • Transition Town Market Harborough - Darren Woodiwiss
  • Bullying on Leicester City Council - Ross Grant
  • Pubs must help themselves if they are to survive - Matt Wright
  • One woman’s view of being a senior citizen - Eileen Ward-Birch
  • The perfect Christmas gift for a carer - Jon Pollard
  • Politic360: Mending online political discussion - Jason Brown
  • A new hole in the safety net - Anonymous
  • Memories of Snailbeach in the 1950s - Christina Samson
  • Monday, February 10, 2014

    Network Rail to reopen inland route to Plymouth

    Last week I wrote about the possibility of reopening the old inland railway line from Exeter to Plymouth as an alternative to the vulnerable stretch along the seawall at Dawlish.

    Now BBC News is reporting that this line has indeed been chosen by Network Rail as "an additional alternative railway route". It goes on to say:
    There is no timescale for the plan, which Network Rail concluded in outline proposals last year would cost hundreds of millions of pounds.
    It seems this old L&SWR route via Okehampton and Tavistock has been chosen in preference to
    the Teign Valley route, via Christow and Heathfield - and the so-called Dawlish Avoiding Line, which was promoted in the 1930s but was never built. 
    The route would have passed inland behind Teignmouth and Dawlish rather than along the coast like the current line.
    Adrian Sanders will be pleased to read that
    Network Rail said abandoning the Dawlish route was "not an option".

    Flooding: Farage steps in

    Matt Cardy/Stringer / Getty Images

    Market Harborough’s Old Grammar School under restoration

    Leicestershire Tories back socialist policy

    The argument that large institutions are more efficient sounds a pretty socialist one to me, so it is surprising to find that Leicestershire Conservatives are so keen on abolishing the county's district councils and leaving one unitary authority.

    A post on their website welcoming a report from by consultants Ernst & Young tells us that having a unitary authority for Leicestershire would protect services, cut the council tax, be paid for within in a year.

    It even tells us that having one authority would bring "engage and empower" local areas - at the same time as reducing the number of elected councillors from 316 to around 100.

    The fact that reducing the number of councillors is seen as a good thing suggests that they are already too distant from their voters. The danger of reducing their number is that more of them will see being a local councillor as a full-time career, thus further distancing themselves yet further from their voters.

    The career of the Conservatives' previous leader, David Parsons, stands as an awful warning of what can happen even under the existing system.

    Still, you can read the consultants report on the county council website and judge for yourself.

    In pursuing austerity the Coalition has tended to protect central government programmes while hitting local spending hard - there is money for HS2 while local bus services are cut.

    The danger is that local government services - and here the very structure of local government - will be damaged so severely that they will be impossible to repair when the public finances are healthy again.

    Norman Lamb on banning smoking in cars carrying children

    In an article for Liberal Democrat Voice Norman Lamb says he will vote to make it a criminal offence to smoke when there is a child in the car.

    That does not outrage me: if you think the health consequences of passive smoking for children are serious enough then it is reasonable to support a ban.

    What I find really odd is what Norman goes on to say:
    There would be no new police resource allocated to enforcing the ban proactively. But this would send a clear message out that smoking in cars with children is unacceptable, and I support the measure wholeheartedly.
    So he thinks that a ban is necessary for the sake of children's health, but is comfortable that nothing is to be done to enforce it.

    To me that makes it a pointless law, but for Norman it is worthwhile because it will "send a clear message".

    I have never had any time for the idea that it is the job of legislators to send a message of give a clear signal.
    As I wrote long ago when discussing a proposal to ban smacking:
    Laws do not send messages: they involve people in worry and expense even if they are innocent or not eventually prosecuted.
    I tend to oppose legislation that impinges on everyday family life because it is likely to be implemented in an arbitrary way. By announcing that no police resources will be devoted to enforcing it, Norman Lamb and the government make it inevitable with their smoking law.

    Norman has also confirmed my suspicion that modern liberals only quote John Stuart Mill and On Liberty when they want to curtail our liberty. As everyone else does, he quotes the Mill's harm principle as though that trite little formula is what makes him worth reading.

    The truth, as I once wrote for Liberator, the harm principle is only a small part of On Liberty:
    The essence of that work is not concerned with curbing liberty at all but is a glorious hymn in favour of its expansion. 
    Writing in Prospect magazine last year, Richard Reeves put it well: 
    for Mill, liberty consists of much more than being left alone. It requires choice-making by the individual. "He who lets the world… choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation," he writes. "He who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties." For Mill, a good life must be a chosen life. 
    Or as The Levellers said more recently: "There's only one way of life, and that's your own, your own, your own."
    On the whole I found Reeves more impressive as a Mill scholar than as Nick Clegg's strategist.

    So if you want to ban smoking in cars when children are present - and as I have been writing this the news has come through that the Commons have supported the proposal - then do so.

    But if you do, then have the courage to enforce the law and don't talk about "sending a message".

    And please don't blame John Stuart Mill for your lack of courage.

    Sunday, February 09, 2014

    Trains and storms at Dawlish in 1993



    Adrian Sanders MP makes the case for retaining this coastal route as the mainline to Plymouth and Cornwall in a comment on another post.

    Ian Liddell-Grainger opposed a £20m flood alleviation scheme for Somerset

    From the Bath Chronicle in November 2010:
    West MP Ian Liddell-Grainger has called for a flood scheme planned for Somerset to be scrapped as part of spending cuts. 
    He says the Environment Agency should immediately abandon plans to spend £20 million on buying and flooding farmland to create a new wetland in Steart, near Bridgwater, to comply with an EU directive. 
    Revelations about the scheme have infuriated local people who claim it will leave properties more, rather than less, prone to flooding. 
    Now Mr Liddell-Grainger, the Tory MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, says it should be consigned to the bin as part of Defra's £110 million cut in its flood defence capital budget. 
    The MP says the Steart project was one example where the Environment Agency had been allowed to go "its own sweet way" without any public accountability. 
    "Like Natural England, the agency has run totally out of control in recent years with its only mission, apparently, to spend more and more of taxpayers' money," he said.
    It is hard to square these views with the Ian Liddell-Grainger, tribune of the people of the Somerset Levels, who has been on show in recent days.

    No doubt you can argue over how the money is best spent, but it seems odd that he was so opposed to such a vulnerable part of his constituency being helped.

    You suspect that for Liddell-Grainger flood defence means macho things like embankments and concrete. Well, they don't come cheap either - and why should we single out his constituency for special treatment in a country with such a long coastline?

    As to Liddell-Grainger's language - the head of the Environment Agency is a "little git" and the MP has threatened to "stick his head down the loo" - let's just take it as proof that you can be high in the line of succession to the throne and still have no class.

    Thanks to @spike_humphrey and @PeteOnTheA419 on Twitter.

    The Jam: David Watts



    Last summer I discovered that the Kinks' David Watts was a real person and came from Rutland.

    Psychobabble has a good version of the story:
    The Kinks first encountered Major David Watts while playing a gig in the tiny English county of Rutland. Ex-military man Watts was the promoter of the show, and after the Kinks finished performing in the humid open air, Watts invited the boys back to his cottage to change into clean clothes. It was at this moment that Mick Avory’s gaydar began flashing, and he proved his point by dropping his drawers in the major’s presence. When Ray asked Watts if Mick was his cup of afternoon tea, Watts responded, “Oh God, no, not that slut. I’m more interested in that little whore.” 
    The “little whore” in question was Ray’s little brother, Dave. Ray then spent the rest of the evening attempting to trade his brother to Major Watts for his country cottage. Sadly for the major, the negotiations collapsed, but as consolation, Ray composed a song in his honor. 
    The deliciously envious “David Watts” is one of the Kinks’ most beloved songs, and inspired a fierce cover by the Jam on their excellent All Mod Cons album. Still, one has to wonder what Watts thought of lyrics like “And all the girls in the neighborhood try to go out with David Watts/ They try their best but can’t succeed, for he is of pure and noble breed.”
    Here is that fierce cover by the Jam.

    Saturday, February 08, 2014

    Nick Clegg: We need to rethink the drugs war

    An encouraging article from the deputy prime minister in tomorrow's Observer:
    I want to end the tradition where politicians only talk about drugs reform when they have left office because they fear the political consequences. This has stifled debate and inhibited a proper examination of our approach. 
    We need to bring this issue out into the open and to be led by the evidence of what works. We owe it to our young people, to the families torn apart by addiction and to the states that look to us for leadership and advice. We can help countries such as Colombia break the stranglehold of the drug lords once and for all. 
    The choice we have to make now is how we do things differently. Repeating the mistakes of the past is not the way to solve this problem in the future. Put simply, if you are anti-drugs, you should be pro-reform.

    Vic Marks on the sacking of Kevin Pietersen

    Good sense, as ever, from the sage of Somerset. Here he is writing in tomorrow's Observer:
    There is a very loose parallel here with Somerset's decision to dispense with Viv Richards all those years ago. Richards was probably far easier to play along side than Pietersen but back then there were players who said that they were somehow stifled and reduced by Richards' presence in the dressing room. The implication was that they would be transformed as cricketers once Richards had gone. One year on they were just the same.

    No trains across the flooded Somerset Levels



    Yesterday it was picturesque but passable. Today the line looks like this.

    A train ride across the flooded Somerset Levels



    A First Great Western HST edges across the flooded Somerset Levels on its way from Bridgwater to Taunton yesterday.

    Like many of my railway videos, this comes via BritishRailway.tv.

    Later. But now watch this.

    Kevin Pietersen in The Turn of the Screw

    Kevin Pietersen's expulsion for nameless and unnameable offences is strangely reminiscent of Henry James's famous ghost story The Turn of the Screw:
    "What does it mean? The child's dismissed his school." 
    She gave me a look that I remarked at the moment; then, visibly, with a quick blankness, seemed to try to take it back. "But aren't they all—?" 
    "Sent home—yes. But only for the holidays. Miles may never go back at all." 
    Consciously, under my attention, she reddened. "They won't take him?" 
    "They absolutely decline." 
    At this she raised her eyes, which she had turned from me; I saw them fill with good tears. "What has he done?" 
    I hesitated; then I judged best simply to hand her my letter—which, however, had the effect of making her, without taking it, simply put her hands behind her. She shook her head sadly. "Such things are not for me, miss." 
    My counselor couldn't read! I winced at my mistake, which I attenuated as I could, and opened my letter again to repeat it to her; then, faltering in the act and folding it up once more, I put it back in my pocket. "Is he really BAD?" 
    The tears were still in her eyes. "Do the gentlemen say so?" 
    "They go into no particulars. They simply express their regret that it should be impossible to keep him. That can have only one meaning." Mrs. Grose listened with dumb emotion; she forbore to ask me what this meaning might be; so that, presently, to put the thing with some coherence and with the mere aid of her presence to my own mind, I went on: "That he's an injury to the others."

    Friday, February 07, 2014

    Northampton Past and Present 6



    Here is a treat for those of you who have been with me through part 1, part 2, part 3part 4 and part 5.

    It is part 6 - the final part of this video from 1992.

    Mike Hancock is in hospital

    From BBC News:
    An MP suspended by the Lib Dems amid claims of sexual misconduct is in hospital, his office has confirmed. 
    A statement on Portsmouth South MP Mike Hancock's website said he had been "in hospital since the end of last week and will remain so for some time". 
    His offices in London and Portsmouth remain open, the statement added. 
    Mr Hancock, who stepped down from his seat on the cabinet of the city council earlier this month, underwent a number of major heart operations in 2012.

    Hands Across the Border

    The independence debate in Scotland seems from aside to be largely a matter of heart vs head. There may be strong economic arguments against independence, but the danger is - as I wrote last month - they will prove counterproductive:
    Were I Scottish, if anything could convince me to vote for independence it would be being told that I could not afford it. I would be strongly tempted to vote Yes just to spite such a foolish argument.
    Besides, as  I wrote more recently, as far as Scottish independence would cause economic problems, they would be problems for the rest of the UK as much as problems for Scotland.

    So it is interesting to see someone attempting to make a case for maintaining the Union that appeals to the heart.

    As BBC News tells it:
    A Cumbrian MP is urging people to hold hands along Hadrian's Wall to prevent Scotland voting for independence. 
    Rory Stewart is calling for an event on 19 July to "show the love that exists between the four nations of the union".
    You can sign up to be part of this event at Hands Across the Border.

    It is a sign of how much the Conservative Party has changed that it has taken a maverick like Stewart to come out as an unashamed Unionist - though we are promised a major pro-union speech by David Cameron today.

    Much of his party is either afraid of antagonising the Scots further or grinning at the prospect of a permanent majority in a rump UK.

    Thursday, February 06, 2014

    James Whitaker reveals the profound thinking of England's cricket management



    Or you can read the transcript of another Whitaker interview, which the Guardian bills thus:
    A humiliating week for English cricket hit a new low on Thursday lunchtime as James Whitaker, the new national selector, gave a toe-curling interview to Sky Sports News.

    Look at Life: The Car has Wings



    Time for another Look at Life. This one from June 1963 shows how it was possible to travel aboard in your car via train, plane or boat.

    Now read more about flying your car abroad in the sixties: Malcolm Saville and Lydd Airport.

    Why David Laws is right and Michael Gove is wrong

    Yesterday I wrote about the dispute between David Laws and Michael Gove over whether Ofsted should inspect chains of free schools as well as individual free schools.

    It should, of course. And I say that as a supporter of free schools.

    A little of the philosophical basis of my views was given in a review of the social liberal collection Reinventing the State that I wrote for the Guardian website when the book came out in 2007.

    There I wrote:
    Chris Huhne offers a more promising approach, arguing that the British state fails to deliver because it is so centralised. People who fear that localism will increase inequality are wrong, he says, precisely because the current set-up is so bad at delivering social justice. 
    Lib Dem activists will hope he is right. They like localism in theory, but fears of postcode lotteries and two-tier systems have launched a thousand local press releases. 
    And they will appreciate the way Huhne's vision of a rich diversity of local provision contrasts with the Tory idea of popular schools taking over the rest: "It's been a good half for the school: the match with Harrow was won, and St Custard's was purchased through a leveraged buy out."
    And I fear that a buy out of St Custard's is just what Michael Gove wants. So he does not want Ofsted getting in the way of it by pointing out that the chain doing the buying does not provide its pupils with a good education.

    Alpaca catches Baschurch college staff off guard

    The judges liked this gentle effort from the Shropshire Star and gave it their Headline of the Day Award.

    Six of the Best 418

    Thinking Liberal discusses the remarkable political success of Michael Gove: "Another good thing, though largely unremarked, is that Mr Gove’s Academy programme is putting private schools under real pressure. Many private schools outside the South East are now signing up to be state schools, run as academies."

    "A tweet and an innocuous cartoon have exposed a battle that has been waging in Britain Muslim communities for the past six years and is set to continue for many more." Harry's Place gives its take on Maajid Nawaz's recent difficulties.

    Racial inequality is  a key factor in structural youth unemployment for some ethnic minorities says John Philpott.

    Alex Thomson writes on the floods and the Severn bore for Channel 4 News.

    "The scholarly craft of gathering scattered sources and weaving them into a coherent whole is transformed here into something beautiful and unsettling, elevated into an art of the uncanny—an art that was, in the end, Sebald’s strange and inscrutable gift." Mark O'Connell reviews a collection of essays by W.G. Sebald for Slate.

    Unmitigated England visits a ridge above Little Brington.

    Why are you IN Europe?



    Last night's Liberal Democrat party political broadcast.

    Wednesday, February 05, 2014

    Pennsylvania case shows the dangers of private enterprise in the prison system



    Back in 2009 I blogged several times about the scandal in the Pennsylvania juvenile justice system.

    Judges in the state's juvenile courts were revealed to be taking payments amounting to $26m from the operators of juvenile detention facilities in return for ensuring that a steady supply of youngsters were given custodial sentences -even if their offences did not warrant them.

    Eventually one of the judges involved, Mark Ciavarella Jnr, was sentenced to 28 years for his part in the affair.

    This video from Democracy Now tells the full story of the Pennsylvania scandal and sounds a serious warning about the involvement of private enterprise in the prison system.

    I can also recommend Niles Christie's book Crime Control as Industry.

    David Laws goes to war over Ofsted and academies

    In an interview with the Independent, the Liberal Democrat education minister (and much esle) David Laws has demanded reform of the system for making key public appointments to prevent cabinet ministers installing political allies.

    David wants to stop Michael Gove imposing Theodore Agnew, a Tory donor whose Inspiration Trust runs seven academies and free schools, as Baroness Morgan’s successor as head of Ofsted.

    There should be no question of such an appointment: it would represent a clear conflict of interest. But, incredibly, while Ofsted has the power to inspect individual academies, it has no power to inspect chains of schools like those run by Mr Agnew's trust.

    David Laws told the Independent:
    “When the academies programme started, it had a lot of enemies and was regarded as a precious flower that needed protection. But this flower has now grown strong enough to survive in the full heat of the sun. 
    “There are some really good local authorities and there are still some terrible ones. In the same way, there are some good academy groups doing an absolutely fantastic job – like Ark and Harris – and some not doing so well. ...
    “Ofsted must be able to shine a spotlight wherever it wants to. I don’t want there are to be any constraints. It ought to be able to inspect the chains.”
    And he is right.
    Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

    Dawlish and the case for a new rail route to Plymouth

    Photograph by Martin Bodman
    The loss of the sea wall at Dawlish, and with the Great Western mainline to Plymouth and Cornwall, should not come as a surprise.

    It has long been known that this stretch of track is vulnerable to storms and that climate change will only make the situation worse.

    As a result there has been interest in the idea of reopening the old London & South Western route from Exeter to Plymouth via Okehampton and Tavistock. Stretches of the line is still in use at either end.

    In 2010 Andrew George, the Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives in Cornwall, said:
    "If the assessment is the problems on the line [through Dawlish] are overwhelming then it would be sensible to plan for the future," he said. 
    "When you contrast the amount of money – the billions – spent on major improvements to services in the north to south, it would be quite wrong to leave Plymouth and Cornwall cut off if that were to happen in the next century."
    The same newspaper report quotes a Network Rail spokesman as saying that any thoughts of a re-routing of trains around Dawlish were "wishful thinking". Perhaps the idea does not seem so foolish today.

    Still, the spokesman was on the ball in one respect:
    Funding to improve the line through the Somerset Levels, which is also prone to flooding, was a more attractive option, he said.
    Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice