Friday, 14 December 2007

Regent's Park saved from rubber crumb menace

Last night at a packed meeting Westminster City Council rejected the controversial planning application by a PLC for permission to cut down a copse of trees and construct five-a-side football pitches with rubber crumb surfacing for private hire in Regent's Park. I blogged about this on 13th July. Apparently only one councillor (Labour, Church Street Ward) voted in favour. A convincing victory for a coalition of local opposition.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Labour spin was unfair to Lord Drayson

Remember Lord (Paul) Drayson, who resigned on 7 November from his post as Minister of State for Defence Equipment and Support to spend more time motor racing? How did we ever fall for that improbable story? Drayson is a multi-millionaire businessman. According to Sunday Times correspondent Mick Smith, Drayson resigned after Defence Minister Des Browne refused to back him in rows with Bill Jeffrey, the Ministry of Defence’s top civil servant; the motor racing story was a cover-up put out to save Gordo from embarrassment. Gordo’s addiction to spin seems as bad as Tony Blair’s.

According to Smith, Chief of General Staff General Sir Richard Dannatt (among others) was calling for new armoured personnel carriers for the army, but the purchase was repeatedly postponed for lack of funding. Drayson got involved, announced a shortlist of three vehicles – a British, a French and a German-Dutch – and decided to speed things up by selecting the French one. This led to the rows with the top civil servant, who wanted the British one. So the Army has to wait longer for its armoured personnel carriers. The word “Afghanistan” comes to mind.

Thanks to the spin, Lord Drayson came in for quite a bit of press criticism last month for such apparently irresponsible behaviour, that now seems totally unfair. With friends like that....!

Lord Drayson devised the Defence Industrial Strategy published in December 2006 – see
- under which, put shortly, business acumen was used to come up with significant changes in Ministry of Defence equipment purchasing practices to increase the pace of the defence acquisition cycle, which was hailed as important for improving cost effectiveness, to the benefit of the Armed Forces as well as us, the taxpayers. Sounds like a good idea to me. A second document on the Defence Industrial Strategy – DIS 2 – was due to be published on 13 December but there is a funding problem, so, as predicted by industry-watchers, on 21 November Baroness Taylor, Drayson’s successor, announced that DIS 2’s publication was postponed.

All this makes the Government's commitment to pressing ahead with replacement of dangerous, expensive and useless Trident seem even more questionable.

Why so enthusiastic?

If you put a high priority on a certain policy outcome as a matter of ethics, it makes sense to vote for the leadership contender who favours that outcome, and since policy is about actions not thoughts, it does not matter whether his reasons for that policy position are pragmatic or ethical. For this reason, given my friend Linda Jack's principled support for unilateral nuclear disarmament, I am unable to understand her enthusiastic cheerleading for Nick Clegg's leadership campaign that endorses the policy of wait and see on Trident. The Trident issue is extremely important on numerous grounds: it is a symptom of how the United Kingdom sees its place in the world; it has the potential to divide Scotland from the United Kingdom; it could influence whether the future will bring nuclear disarmament or proliferation. It is the issue that started me blogging as a reaction to the Lib Dem parliamentary leadership's methods of influencing the conference's decision on Trident: I felt that the Lib Dems' policymaking process had been subverted and the wrong policy reached. I would not be able to support enthusiastically a candidate who was so uncritical of it.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Grosvenor Square in the rain

I joined the Campaign Against Climate Change march in London today, calling for action now – a far stronger Climate Change Bill, annual carbon emissions to start going down instead of up, annual not five-yearly reports, renewable not nuclear energy and no third runway at Heathrow. And we deplore US President Bush’s failure to attend the Bali talks. We marched past Downing Street to Grosvenor Square, and listened to rousing speeches in the rain. One of the speakers in the rain, getting a big cheer, was leadership contender Chris Huhne. If anyone is still undecided how to cast their vote and wants the Lib Dems to go places, they can rest assured that they won’t go wrong with him. This man’s ability, energy, commitment and radical edge are beyond question.
The rally was peaceful, and the marchers were a nice bunch, even including some people from the Eden Project, as well as some charming children who were very taken with the dog. My umbrella packed up though, in the gusty wind. On the whole too cold and wet to be fun, but who knows, we may have done some good. Fingers crossed.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Vince Cable - an absolute star (Part Two)

Ha! I am proven right again! I blogged in September that Vince Cable was an absolute star. Tonight on BBC Radio 4's Any Questions Vince shone like an absolute star (again). Eat your hearts out, you sad Tory and Labour supporters. And by the way, this proves that people of all ages can emerge as fine leaders.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Blasphemy claim refuted

Lots of cheers for District Judge Caroline Tubbs, the unsung heroine at the City of Westminster Magistrates' Court who refused to issue a summons against BBC Director-General Mark Thompson for blasphemy for allowing Jerry Springer- the Opera to be broadcast. Now Lord Justice Hughes and Mr Justice Collins have refused to overturn her decision. Lots of cheers for them, too! And lots of boos for Christian Voice, the pressure group that tried to prosecute. Christian Voice are a joke, but the threat of prosecution is not funny at all. The mock-opera featured Jesus as a guest on Jerry Springer's TV chat show. According to leading counsel for the Christian Voice group, the case was about “protecting the constitution of the nation which is built on the Christian faith." (???) But human rights pressure group Liberty has commented that the decision has "critically weakened outdated blasphemous libel laws". As their legal officer said, this ruling is a blow to bigotry, and the obvious next step is to repeal this outdated offence. Yesss!
The BBC News Front Page has filed this under Entertainment, which is probably what it deserves.

Help pioneering work become mainstream

No other issue weighs on my mind as heavily as the destructive impact our species is having on other life on this beautiful planet. Therefore I welcome the news that my former Federal Policy Committee colleague Adam Carew, Chair of the Green Lib Dems, is supporting Chris Huhne for leader. Adam said: "Chris is special… Chris is our green champion - his record on green issues is unrivalled.” See the full article at

I completely agree with Adam. Chris Huhne's contribution has been terrific during my years on the Federal Policy Committee. But I have learned that it goes back long before then – a fellow-supporter has confirmed that she was reading Huhne’s work on environmental economics eighteen years ago when she was doing her PhD. She writes: “What was pioneering back then is about to become mainstream. Vote Huhne!” Hear, hear.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Homage to Vince Cable

I learned on Sunday morning that Vince Cable thought up the "Stalin to Mr Bean" line himself, in the bath. Vince disclosed this significant snippet during a guest appearance on BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House. What creative genius! The man's awe-inspiring.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Nick Clegg's lecturing - when and where?

No one has contradicted the information I was given that Nick Clegg’s degree was a lower second (see my posting on 26 Nov). If that was the case, then here’s a puzzle. His constituency website states: “Nick stood down from the European Parliament in 2004 and lectured part time at Sheffield and Cambridge Universities.” That seems to mean that in 2004-5 Nick had part-time lecturing jobs at both of those prestigious universities. I find that surprising, if he only had a lower second, in view of the intense competition for academic jobs. However that may be, the Royal Society of Arts’ website, advertising a lecture given by him, states – presumably based on a briefing from his office - that he has been “a part-time lecturer at Sheffield University and a guest lecturer at Cambridge”, which is different. And the Independent, reporting the Clegg leadership campaign launch on 19 October 2007, stated that Clegg was a part-time lecturer at Sheffield University in 1996-99 but with no mention of lecturing there in 2004-5, nor any mention of lecturing at Cambridge at all. Spotting inconsistencies is a habit I've acquired from the day job. So: when was he a part-time lecturer at Sheffield University? Was he a part-time lecturer at Cambridge University or a guest lecturer, and when? How did part-time lecturing differ from guest lecturing? Can someone clarify the facts please?

Monday, 26 November 2007

I receive leaflets

The three leaflets I have had from the Clegg campaign devote a lot of space to listing his backers, who are his main asset. This listing resembles a medieval procedure (called compurgation) whereby a defendant would get a dozen freemen to swear he was a good bloke, as distinct from dealing with whether the allegation was in fact true. They are largely the same group as only 19 months ago backed Ming Campbell, none more vehemently than Clegg himself (see e.g. Guardian 20 Jan 06). By last month their support had melted away.

The other feature of Clegg’s leaflets that struck me as a bit of a waste of space was his denunciation of the Japanese WW2 prisoner of war camps. Surely this is motherhood and apple pie stuff. Who – in any party – would disagree?

In one of the leaflets Lord Ashdown was quoted praising Nick Clegg’s intellect. He may be right, but this claim makes me wonder whether it is true that, as I have been told, Clegg’s university degree was a lower second - which after such an excellent school education seems a bit disappointing - and if so, what is the explanation. Exams aren’t everything, but they are something, and I would like to know. (Brown, Cameron and Huhne all have firsts.)

An intense, watchful cat

I enjoyed this comment in Saturday's Times piece on Huhne: “He would not fall for any of our tricks because he knows them all, and more: interviewing Mr Huhne is like circling an intense, watchful cat that seems perfectly friendly but is probably quite dangerous.” I liked the fact that the writers had - correctly, I believe - detected a quality that, very relevantly for this contest, would mean that Brown and Cameron wouldn't dare take their eyes off him in case they got a mauling.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Audit reveals Government business incompetence

The business incompetence of the Ministry of Defence and the Labour Government is put in the spotlight by a National Audit Office report on the 2003 privatisation of the defence technology business QinetiQ.
Initially there were seven bids for QinetiQ valuing the business at between £450 million and £600 million. The private equity firm Carlyle purchased a 37.5% stake for £42 million. That valued QinetiQ at only £374 million. That was in 2003. The value of the stake rose to £372 million.
How did this happen? The NAO press release states: “Carlyle were appointed as the preferred bidder in September 2003 despite price sensitive issues still being outstanding. This turned a competitive process into one of negotiation.” To rephrase that, once the other would-be buyers were ruled out, there was only one person left in the saleroom – a situation any self-respecting business person would exploit, and Carlyle did. The situation was made even more favourable to Carlyle by Treasury pressure for the sale to go ahead. Carlyle bargained the price down following negotiations concerning QinetiQ’s pension fund deficit and the Long Term Partnering Agreement (LTPA). The NAO states, “the commercial value of the LTPA was not fully understood”. The mind boggles.
(By the way, why was a UK defence technology business sold to a US firm?)
The report also reveals that the MoD made up to 20 per cent of the equity available to management and employees in an incentive scheme, but did not seek specialist advice on the scheme. Apparently the top ten managers (former civil servants) negotiated the incentive scheme with Carlyle while it was still bidding for the business. Sounds like a conflict of interest to me, but with no one on the Government's side properly safeguarding the taxpayers' interests, the managers seem to have run rings around the MoD, as they acquired shares worth £107 million by the time of flotation in 2006, from their initial investment of a paltry £540,000. That is over £200 for every £1 they invested. Chairman Sir John Chisholm got shares worth £26 million and Chief Executive Graham Love shares worth £21 million.
This Government will eventually sink by the weight of its own incompetence.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

This time, get it right

I do not hold Nick Clegg responsible as head of Ming Campbell’s leadership campaign in 2006 for the false, and damaging, claim made by telephone canvassers that none of Chris Huhne’s former colleagues in the European Parliament were supporting the 2006 Huhne leadership bid. (In fact, three Lib Dem MEPs were supporting Huhne.) Equally, I do not hold Huhne responsible for the “Calamity Clegg” tag used in a briefing document sent out by someone in his team.
So let’s back to what’s important, which is this: the Tories must crush the Lib Dem vote if they are to regain power. In order to do that, they must destroy the Lib Dem leader. And they will do their darnedest to. They thought, rightly or wrongly, that they could do that while Ming Campbell remained leader; they even regarded his leadership as a Tory asset. The Tories are a ruthless power machine.
Therefore, we now need a leader who avoids pitfalls, is steady under fire, is, in a word, tough.
Which of the contenders fulfils that need? In TV interviews and hustings during the last few weeks, time after time, Huhne has remained cool under fire, while Clegg has not. This is no nine days’ wonder. I have observed Huhne from the sidelines for many years. He is always well briefed, always clear, always focused. He doesn’t make mistakes. He can be charming and persuasive, but can be lethal in debate.
Clegg is intelligent, charming and able. But he is not yet tough, or not tough enough. He is only 40 and he has not faced adversity. He is not ready to be leader.
Huhne is the heir. He knows the Lib Dems through and through and is the right man to lead us at this time. He should have won in 2006. I was right then, and I’m sure I am right now. Mark my words.

Friday, 16 November 2007

European Parliament adopts climate change goals

I welcome the announcement that the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) MEPs are fully behind ambitious goals adopted by the European Parliament in yesterday’s resolution on the EU strategy for the forthcoming UN Climate Change Conference. The EU has a vital role here that overshadows all grumbles about the drawbacks of membership. And I am relieved, but not surprised, that naïve economic liberal opposition to any market intervention, even to correct market failures in respect of environmental damage, has lost the argument.
ALDE coordinator on the European Parliament’s Temporary Committee on Climate Change Lena Ek (Centerpartiet, Sweden) commented that the situation was “critical” and that “Ambitious goals are absolutely necessary.” She also stressed the importance of forests and the need for sustainable forest management.
ALDE-member Vittorio Prodi (Margherita, Italy), TCCC Vice-Chair, said that we would have to decrease our CO2 output drastically and in order to do that: “we may have to consider more radical suggestions that allocate a number of carbon emission rights per individual. A system like "One person, one emission right" may be necessary in the near future."

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Clegg on school vouchers - the evidence

Did Nick Clegg endorse school vouchers or didn't he? Well, the evidence that he did is rather strong. Not only Rachel Sylvester in the Telegraph on 29 October but also self-confessed Clegg fan Jasper Gerard, writing up an “exclusive interview” in the Observer on 21 October, state that he did.
Gerard writes, quoting Clegg: "'I want a sense of empowerment on a daily basis for people accessing health care and good education.' Well that's clear. But he differs from free marketeer Tories in that 'having lived in Europe and had children born in hospitals in Europe, they have a far greater sense of equity in health and education. It is not like a supermarket but the patient, pupil or parent has entitlements which the provider of services has to meet.' So according to his 'pupil premium', parents would be given a voucher to spend in their preferred school; but while a flaw in such schemes is often that the savvy middle class pack the best schools, Clegg would increase the value of the voucher for the needy - making the poorer child a more attractive proposition to good schools.”"
So there we have it. Unless Jasper Gerard and Rachel Sylvester were both wrong. which seems improbable, Nick Clegg expressed approval of school vouchers for parents. But the Lib Dem "pupil premium" concept is extra money that goes to schools for each pupil they take from a deprived background.
It seems pretty clear that Nick Clegg (1) did endorse school vouchers for parents and (2) either did not understand or did not like the "pupil premium" idea which is not Clegg's idea but that of the Federal Policy Committee's policy working party chaired by Baroness Barker. And a brilliant idea it was.
I find all this rather discouraging.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

If Cameron is Clegg lite...?

The comment that “Cameron is Clegg lite” troubles me a lot, especially because Nick Clegg said it himself.
Lite is a low-calorie, slimmer, weaker, more dilute, more basic, version of the original. The converse of lite is heavy, full strength, even “classic”. If Cameron is “Clegg lite”, what is the full-strength version?
With Nick Clegg, if you turn the sound off, you see someone who looks like Cameron, without a doubt. The similarities of age and physical characteristics between the two men are not something Nick Clegg can do anything about; but I wish he would give the way he dresses and his hairstyle a makeover, to make himself more distinct from Cameron. It would be a miscalculation to think that being easily mistaken for Cameron was an electoral asset. After all, Sir Winston Churchill deliberately cultivated an unmistakeable appearance; being short and bald didn’t matter at all.
More importantly than appearance, if you close your eyes, what do you hear? In January 2006 Matthew D’Ancona wrote in the Telegraph, apparently quoting from Nick Clegg: “He does not think that "clobbering middle England is the solution to our problems either economically or politically"”. D’Ancona added: “In an interview last September - long before Mr Cameron had said he would never endorse an insurance-based health service - Mr Clegg was warning that "it would be really, really daft to rule out any model from Europe or elsewhere" and that "breaking up the NHS is exactly what you do need to do"”. The implication that Clegg talked like Cameron was clear.
The Telegraph perceives Nick Clegg as like Cameron. In May 2007 the Telegraph comments page said that Clegg was: “a free marketeer with a commitment to localism. The Left-wing activists distrust him, but that perhaps is no bad thing.”
Last month, again in the Telegraph, Simon Heffer wrote: “Mr Clegg is felt to be more of a "Tory" than Mr Huhne. This is not just because he once worked for Leon Brittan, but because his belief in traditional liberal values of the sort adopted by Margaret Thatcher in her economic programme is thought to be rather strong.”
In January 2006 Nick Clegg told the Daily Telegraph that “slightly callow packaging and re-packaging” had been “the hallmark of David Cameron's leadership of the Conservatives” and that Cameron had been engaged in “rather hollow, presentational manoeuvres”. Absolutely; but if Clegg wins the leadership election, I hope his own style of leadership will not just be a heavier-gauge version of that.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Court will hear challenge to halting of BAE fraud inquiry

Three cheers for Lord Justice Moses and Mr Justice Irwin, who have given two pressure groups - Corner House Research and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade - permission to seek a judicial review of whether the Serious Fraud Office's decision to stop its inquiry into the BAE Al-Yamamah arms deal was lawful. The decision to be reviewed was taken last year when the Government made the SFO drop its investigation into the huge deal to provide military aircraft and equipment to Saudi Arabia in 1985. Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, said that the investigation was threatening the UK's national security. I understand it is not denied that huge sums of money were paid by the MOD to a member of the Saudi royal family in relation to the deal.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Sands, Huhne and Trident

In an article on the Guardian website on 5th November Philippe Sands states: “…the Liberal Democrat spring conference in Harrogate rejected a ballot effort calling for the abandonment of Trident. Instead, the conference narrowly voted in favour of a resolution calling for a delay on the Trident decision.” Oddly enough, in that debate in March (as well as in literature distributed beforehand), the Lib Dem leadership strenuously insisted that the amendment to the main motion (the “ballot effort”) did not call for the abandonment of Trident but for its retention until it rusted to bits. I thought at the time that this was not what the amendment, fairly and properly construed, meant, but the accusation that the amendment was “flawed” and “badly drafted” seems by repetition to have become the current wisdom. Who is right: Sands or the leadership?
Sands goes on, in his article, to claim that the “minimum deterrent” that leadership contender Chris Huhne favours as one of two alternative options after the 2010 talks under the 1968 Treaty on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (“NPT”) – the other option being no renewed system of nuclear weapons if there is a genuine improvement in the international environment - “raises serious problems with the NPT”. Huhne said that he did not intend to replace Trident, but if it were imperative to do so other delivery options would be considered with a smaller nuclear warhead than the UK’s current warheads. According to Sands, Huhne “appears to have adopted a policy in support of enhanced targeting that would bring the United Kingdom into conflict with its obligations under the NPT”.
The main problem I have with Sands’ criticism is that the NPT is not and has never been concerned with delivery systems (missiles and so forth): it is concerned with what they deliver – the nuclear warheads (the bombs). Hence the UK would not be a breach of the NPT if it acquired new delivery systems. Whether their targeting was better or worse than that of the present missiles would not be within the scope of the NPT.
Sands also writes: “Developing a new range of smaller nuclear weapons…would enhance the UK's nuclear deterrent, rather than diminish it” by tending to increase the prospects for the use of UK nuclear weapons, by establishing a tactical capability where none previously existed. He argues that this would be contrary to the “commitment to pursue a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies, as agreed by the parties to the NPT in 2000.” Thus according to him a proposal – such as Huhne’s – to replace the UK's existing numerous and enormously powerful nuclear warheads with a minimum number of less powerful ones would be a breach of the NPT. Leaving aside what the “commitment” in 2000 was and what effect it has, the conclusion seems startling, so is there a flaw in the argument? I think so. Sands slips in a tacit assumption that the Huhne proposal involved a shift in security policy towards greater willingness to use such weapons. But that is plainly not the case: certainly the Huhne manifesto says nothing of the sort.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

From bad to worse in Pakistan

President Musharraf has declared a state of emergency and fired the chief justice and other senior judges. Commentators say he has done so to prevent the Supreme Court from delivering a ruling that as a military officer he was ineligible to stand in the recent presidential election. Why is Pakistan such a mess, yet neighbouring India manages to keep its democracy together despite a population of over a billion?

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Congratulations to Claire Kelley

We Lib Dems have been rightly criticised for not selecting more women for winnable seats. But today for a change some good news - I am delighted to learn that the membership of Lib Dem-held Harrogate and Knaresborough have selected Claire Kelley to contest the parliamentary seat when Phil Willis stands down. Hearty congratulations, Claire.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Chris Huhne's Trident Policy Stands Up

The Trident system has three parts: the missiles, which are American-owned, the 192 warheads, which are British-made and owned, and four British Vanguard-class submarines that carry and fire the missiles. Chris Huhne, if I understand him rightly, thinks there is no convincing case for replacing the Trident system with a system of equal capacity. So the preparatory work now being carried out on a new generation of submarines can be cancelled.
As I understand his views, Chris Huhne does not advocate scrapping Trident now because he is not a unilateralist. However, Trident has a finite life, and he thinks a replacement system of equivalent scale and performance to Trident is unnecessary in relation to the threat, its expense is unjustifiable and it would mean technical dependence on the United States which should be avoided. He thinks that we should decide in 2010 after the next round of disarmament talks between either having no renewed system, or having a minimum deterrent.
I gather it has been suggested that a minimum deterrent would be nearly as expensive as replacing Trident and would have to be land-based but from information I acquired as a member of the Trident Working Group I do not believe these criticisms are sustainable. In the event of failure of the 2010 disarmament talks, even if the UK’s current nuclear weapon stockpile were dismantled the UK could assemble small fission weapons quickly using plutonium from the stockpile of about 70 tonnes at Sellafield, much of which comes from reprocessing fuel from the Magnox reactors in operation since the 1950s. The UK would continue to operate nuclear powered submarines whether or not Trident was replaced so it would only need to purchase a delivery missile from the US or France or alternatively use aircraft.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

It's a no-brainer!

Well, nominations have closed and there are just two candidates. When deciding who has the necessary leadership skills, don't just listen to what they say, look at what they've done. Deciding whom to vote for is a no-brainer!
When I asked what Nick Clegg offered that could compete with Chris Huhne's vastly greater experience of the wider world, I got no answer. So I am backing the candidate who didn't go into the public sector but instead chose to get out there and cope with the wider world - not looking at the water but swimming in it. And I look forward to seeing Chris Huhne wipe the floor with Gordon Brown and David Cameron, because he is the man to do it.
Here are the reasons why:
Proven team builder with ability to best use the talents of others? Chris Huhne, definitely yes - look at his successful business record. Nick Clegg, not proven.
Proven formidable debater and media performer? Both candidates are good but Nick Clegg can be pushed on to the back foot, and then he tends to start talking too fast. Over many years I have never seen or heard Chris Huhne flustered; his intellect, coolness under attack and mastery of his brief make him a formidable debater. And his media knowhow is tremendous because he was a journalist for 19 years.
Proven grittiness of character to overcome adversity? Chris Huhne, proven - his first job after university was as an undercover foreign correspondent in India. Nick Clegg, not proven. He has not yet done anything that made such demands on his character or resourcefulness. But at 40 he has plenty of time.
Chris Huhne is passionate about the environment, and as the Lib Dems' environment spokesman has been highly praised. With his help, we are now the party with by far the best environmental policies of the main parties. I believe people will recognise how important that is, and our distinctive policies will prove to be winners.
During my years on the Federal Policy Committee, of the two candidates Chris Huhne has made by far the greater contribution to policy ideas. Specifically, he rejects the current procrastination and fudge that passes for Lib Dem policy on the UK nuclear deterrent. What would Nick Clegg do when the decision could not be delayed any longer? I have no idea. But Chris Huhne's stance is typically thoughtful, based on cost and benefit to the country. He cannot conceive of a justification for the huge cost of a replacement system as powerful as Trident, and he acknowledges the implications for UK foreign policy of being dependent technically on the United States. Therefore, for him, the choice is between a minimum nuclear deterrent and none.
That is the way we should make policy - with rational, open debate based on evidence.
We are fortunate that Chris Huhne has chosen to use his formidable talents in public life when he must have many alternative opportunities. This leadership election offers a great opportunity for the Lib Dems. This time I hope we take it.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Vince Cable boycotts Saudi state visit

I welcome the news that acting Lib Dem leader Vince Cable MP is to boycott this week's state visit to Britain by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, due to Lib Dem opposition to the Al Yamamah arms deal. It is reported that Vince has declined to meet King Abdullah or attend a banquet by the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

What troubles me

I resolved not to make up my mind on the leadership contest until after nominations close, because one shouldn't be hasty (as an Ent would say) but it is constantly on my mind because the politics of the future are not just going to be about party "positioning" (that ghastly word) but about averting disaster, and our party could be crucial in forcing through big changes. Today I was musing on the training I once received in good recruitment practice. First you define the qualities required for the job and then you look at the candidate's track record, which is the best evidence of those qualities. And the higher in the organisation the job is, the more important it is that he/she must have those qualities. Pretty obvious really.
So we should define what qualities to look for, and then look for them in our dynamic duo's CVs. I think we should be choosing a proven team builder, able to best use the talents of others, and himself or herself a formidable debater and media performer, with the grittiness of character to overcome adversity, the vision to see what needs to be done and the boldness, even daring, to go for it. And what troubles me about Nick Clegg is that his CV just doesn't measure up. He is too inexperienced, particularly of the world outside Parliament, and has never as far as I can see had to overcome adversity. I am looking to Nick's campaign team for an explanation of what he offers that can compete with Chris Huhne's vastly greater experience of the wider world, because at the moment, I just don't see it.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Not a herd animal

I have every sympathy with Cllr Peter Tyzack whose letter to last week's Lib Dem News pleaded: "This time can we not have a procession of party grandees telling us who we should be supporting". But some grandees are falling over themselves to do just that, as if trying to start a stampede. Judging from their track record in late 2005-early 2006, they do not have the monopoly on wisdom on this subject. The febrile atmosphere of the Palace of Westminster doesn't help. And who knows what deals have been done to secure their support? No, I am not a herd animal, and I find this procession irritating rather than anything else. I have been trained to base decisions on evidence, and that is what I will do - in due course.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Comparing Gordo, Dave, Nick & Chris

I've been collecting for comparison a few relevant facts about Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and the current Lib Dem leadership contestants. Here are the results so far.
Date of birth: Brown 20/2/51. Cameron 9/10/66. Clegg 7/1/67. Huhne 2/7/54.
First degree, university and year of graduation: Brown history Edinburgh 1972. Cameron PPE Oxford 1988. Clegg social anthropology Cambridge 1989. Huhne PPE Oxford 1975.
What they did between graduation and becoming MPs: Brown 1972-1982 postgrad student of history of Scottish Labour Party (PhD - eventually! - 1982), 1976-1980 politics lecturer, 1980-1983 journalist/editor, Scottish Television current affairs dept; elected as MP 1983. Cameron 1988-1992 Tory research dept; 1992-1993 special adviser to Tory Government ministers; 1994-2001 PR man at Carlton Communications; elected as MP 2001. Clegg 1989-1990 postgrad student of political theory, University of Minnesota; 1990 trainee journalist in New York; 1991-1992 trainee in European affairs, Collège d'Europe, Bruges; 1992-1993 political consultant in London; 1994-1996 worked at European Commission; 1996-1999 adviser to Sir Leon Brittan (vice-president of European Commission); 1999-2004 MEP for East Midlands; elected as MP 2005. Huhne 1975-1994 foreign correspondent (including a spell undercover in India), later financial/economics journalist on various newspapers including Guardian, Independent, Independent on Sunday; 1994-1999 founded then ran economics consultancy firm in London; 1999-2005 MEP for South East England; (dates unknown) wrote some books; elected as MP 2005.
My conclusions so far: (1) I have found no evidence to back the claim that Gordon Brown was a distinguished economist; (2) David Cameron's CV is the perfect CV for a shallow and glib careerist; (3) I want to know what strengths Nick and Chris respectively propose to bring to the job of wiping the floor with the other two leaders.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Impressions of Berlin

I have been away in Berlin at the ELDR (European Liberal, Democratic and Reform) Party Congress, where delegates of parties from all quarters of Europe met. 100 out of 270 Members of the European Parliament, and 10 of the 27 European Commissioners, belong to the ELDR's bloc (though ELDR's geographical scope is wider than that of the EU). This is new and important: previously in both Parliament and Commission there was a deadlock between socialist and conservative blocs, and I suspect those blocs are at a loss what to do about such a major rearrangement of the pieces on the chessboard. The future may be exciting.
This was my first visit to Berlin, and the city struck me as a particularly fitting place for the Congress because of its central position not only geographically but also historically: if we needed a reminder of the importance of keeping on fighting for liberal and democratic ideals in Europe, this place is one, for evidence of its dark past is everywhere. Remains exist of the concrete wall (torn down in 1989) erected by the communist East to keep in its own citizens from escaping, but I found earlier features still more chilling, such as underground torture chambers from the Nazi period which have been found near the base of a section of wall that remains standing. In 1945 the city was in ruins but not all government buildings fell: apparently what is now the tax office is where Himmler conducted the business of implementing the Third Reich's plans of conquest and genocide, which so nearly succeeded and were stopped at such huge cost. This grim place was created by imperialism, militarism, fascism and communism, and all of them ended in havoc and misery.
One oddity is the North Korean Embassy, well inside what was formerly East Berlin, near the building where I stayed. It is a huge oblong white building with high railings and many windows. Outside it are some rather dreadful photographs of their leader and grand parades of the masses in Pyongyang. Apart from them, it has a blank look. The place resembles some unfortunate water creature stranded when a lake dries up.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007


I gather my blog of a week ago was quoted on the TV and radio news. I have declined all offers to talk to the media because I did not wish to add to what was said in my blog. Moreover the cacophony was already deafening. But I write this to make it clear that to the best of my knowledge and belief, the Channel 4 News reporter's suggestion today of a conspiracy by Chris Huhne supporters was utter rubbish. Ming resigned the leadership for his own reasons and because he put the cause we are all working for above himself. That is the kind of man he is - the best kind.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Despite all the hot air

I attribute the phrase "idle chatter of the occasional dissident" used on Saturday last to an over-zealous speechwriter, but it troubles me for several reasons. First, it is a misdescription, because the concerns I expressed were of the utmost seriousness and purpose. Second, the term "dissident" is inaccurate because the current controversy is not over substantive issues. Third, "occasional" is unduly dismissive, as other activists have told me they agree with my last blog, although I only speak for myself. More importantly though, the phrase implies a mindset that perceives the leadership and "occasional dissidents" as on opposing sides. But as I see it, we are on the same side. And dealing with the various wings of the party is not like a forensic contest. Nor is it like maintaining military discipline: that is not possible, as we are not a conscript army, but volunteers. Most of us - the poor bloody infantry, one might say - willingly give time and effort and money and this goodwill is precious. An appropriate leadership style takes account of these factors.

Ming's negative approval ratings are a fact that must be dealt with, and if I am wrong in thinking they cannot be improved, that would be excellent but despite all the hot air expended over the issue in the last few days no one has come up with a solution. So it is necessary either that someone comes up with a solution, or that our MPs take appropriate action. With an excellent leader all of us win. With a less than excellent leader we all lose.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Time to take stock

I think it is time for our MPs to take stock - to take a good hard look at the situation in which we find ourselves. It is up to them, in particular, for at least three reasons.

First, under article 10.5 of the Federal Party constitution, no one can stand for leader unless proposed by at least ten per cent of our MPs.

Second, it was a group of our MPs who forced Charles to resign, which under Article 10.2 triggered the leadership election back in the winter of 2005-2006.

Third, a good proportion of our MPs proposed Ming, and when other candidates entered the contest, argued in Ming's favour that he would be a "safe pair of hands", and persuaded the membership to choose Ming, though not by an overwhelming majority.

In short, a heavy responsibility lies on our MPs.

I am just an activist with no real say in all this - just as I had no say in whether Charles ought to go, and had limited information on which to cast my leadership vote (though I had more information than average, because I had sat on the Federal Policy Committee for so long: at least I knew the candidates a little). But if I have any influence at all, I want to use it now to say this.

The truth is that in the hard world of national politics Ming has had 18 months to gain acceptance as a potential Prime Minister by the general public, but he has not gained it. And I do not believe he is going to gain it by doing a bit of work on his approval ratings. We can argue until we are blue in the face that it is ageist to criticise Ming, but it is not a question of his age. It is a question of his energy levels, of his charisma or lack of it, of whether people are at ease with him, whether they feel he understands the country's problems and their own problems, above all whether he has the mix of qualities to run the country well, the toughness to withstand the sustained stress and pressure of the job, to be good in a crisis or in the series of crises that it is part of the job to cope with. It is a question of the whole man, the whole image, whole myth, even, of a human being considered by others as their potential leader.

I was among the loyal activists who wondered why, if Charles was unsuitable, the Parliamentary Party had not said or done anything to prevent him from being re-elected unopposed earlier in 2005. And I wondered why, if Ming was more suitable, he had not stood for the leadership either earlier in 2005, or in earlier leadership contests.

To go on indefinitely working for our success I need to be sustained by the belief that we have a leader who is a potential Prime Minister.

Is it not time that our MPs moved to propose someone new?

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Free Burma

My thoughts are with Aung San Suu Kyi who, 17 years after being duly elected as the rightful leader of Burma, is still under house arrest, and with her long-suffering people who have since 1962 been living an Orwellian nightmare, tyrannised by a bandit usurper regime that continues to plunder the nation's wealth and enjoy a luxury lifestyle while the people starve. The regime could not survive without support and protection from neighbouring governments, who have blocked UN action. Those governments have the blood of Burmese victims on their hands. Self-interest rules while the innocent and powerless suffer.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Don't forget the Tory gerrymandering

I am caught up in the general frenzy about the general election Gordo could be about to call: besides attending last weekend's special Federal Policy Committee meeting to draft a general election manifesto (my fourth, I think), just in case, I have two constituencies to look after. In one of them - Cities of London & Westminster - the electorate has in the past repeatedly delivered a mountain of Tory votes. The other constituency is Labour-held and with redrawn boundaries 75th on the list of Tory target seats. In both seats the legacy of England's greatest gerrymandering scandal, carried out in the late 1980s by Shirley Porter and her allies, is as permanent as the housing stock that they socially engineered. In a nutshell, they moved as many poor people out of Westminster as they could in order to ensure Westminster Council remained under Tory control. The result is wards extraordinarily sharply divided into rich and poor. The Tories don't deserve either seat. Labour doesn't deserve them either: the gerrymandering plot was devised and implemented in reaction to the activities of the hard left London Labour Party.

Does the electorate care? Does it even remember? There has been precious little sign of it in past elections even after the gerrymandering scandal had been exposed. And in Cities of London & Westminster the Tory association for the constituency alone gave the central party over £40,000. If the electorate wanted to deliver a message that the parties must clean up British politics, rather than the usual moan of "You're all the same," etc, which I am sick of hearing, it could start by not delivering that mountain of votes to the Tory next time. Now that would be an interesting election.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Today at the Burmese Embassy

Today, wearing my red polo-neck sweater that was the nearest thing I could find to a red shirt, and holding up an umbrella as rain began to fall, I joined the daily noon-till-one demonstration outside the Burmese Embassy at 19A Charles Street, Mayfair, London. It seemed the least that a decent person could do to protest against the bandits whose servants are inside the Embassy whilst the lawfully elected leader is languishing in custody back in Burma.
I arrived a little after midday and found quite a large crowd already. There was a big group from Amnesty International, some people from Unison, some others from ITF, which apparently is the International Transport Workers Federation, and a few rather sweet, geeky bespectacled student types trying to sell copies of Socialist Worker newspaper, but I didn't see anyone wanting to buy one. And there were lots of people of no particular affiliation. There were hundreds of people and quite a few joined after I did. The rain got heavier, and there were not enough umbrellas to go round, but no one left.
After a few minutes a group of monks in saffron robes and people wearing the red and gold logo of the opposition party arrived. We stood quietly while some of them made speeches in Burmese to applause, followed by chanting which, a young Burmese man explained to me, were prayers for the safety of the people inside Burma.
After one o'clock some people started to drift away but the majority stayed put as they were going to march to the Prime Minister's house at Downing Street. I was glad to see several TV teams busy interviewing participants. I could have sworn I saw an incredibly good-looking woman who looked just like Virginia McKenna, or her identical twin, go by... and was gratified to learn afterwards from the BBC that it was indeed the film actress and star of that gripping film A Town Like Alice.
On my way back to work I picked up an abandoned Daily Mail on the bus. Their skewed priorities put a story about immigration on the front page in huge letters, and Burma only made it to page 9. But on page 9 were the still photos of the moments before and after the murder by a single gunshot of Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai by a Burmese soldier. This is what politics can become if the brutes get control of power. The rest of us have to keep working to prevent it.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

A heroine - the true leader of Burma

While I was Chair of Women Liberal Democrats we elected Aung San Suu Kyi (in her absence, as she was under house arrest in Burma at the time) as an honorary vice-president of our organisation. I do not know whether she ever heard about her election. If not, perhaps someone will read this and tell her. This wonderful woman is the legitimate leader of Burma, having been elected in 1990 with an overwhelming democratic mandate. My thoughts are with her and all her supporters as they protest peacefully against the thuggish military dictatorship that rules by terror and brutality.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Vince Cable - an absolute star

Vince Cable MP's self-effacing character is such that I expect he'd be the last person to want celeb status, but his sheer quality shone through here at Brighton on Tuesday morning when he summed up the debate on taxation. His understanding of financial and economic issues is a deep well from which he draws apparently effortlessly the clear, easy language with which he is able to explain complexities and take a diverse lay audience with him. He explained, in his nice way, that although the leadership feels now is not the time to propose a new land tax, and although the council tax is too unfair to be reformable and must be binned, in the long term he is in favour of shifting the tax base from income on to land. I am for that too, so I was glad to hear him say that. And thus reassurance was given on what could have been a major bone of contention to many of us. Despite the heavy content, his speech was never dull, and was at times extremely funny. But we don't listen to Vince to be entertained: we listen because we have learned to greatly value what he has to say, and he is very well liked. If Vince became Chancellor of the Exchequer tomorrow, the country would be in very good hands, and he is a fine deputy leader of the party, too.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Greenery and smoked fish

I am at the Lib Dems' Federal Conference in Brighton where my hotel thoughtfully provides free broadband access. Having lugged a laptop here I was gratified. Yesterday after playing my small part in successfully seeing off an attempt to reverse our admirable anti-nuclear power policy (hurray!) I celebrated by returning to a favourite haunt, where a delicious, great value and arguably the healthiest, lunchtime bite is to be found: chez Jack & Linda's smoked fish emporium at 197 King's Road Arches. Go ye there in droves! Jack is clearly a great guy. For one thing he serves very nice fish, for another he likes my dog, and for a third, he likes things that grow, as I spotted him watering some plants with recycled grey water. This led to a conversation in which he pointed out a tree stump close by that is all that is left of a palm tree that got vandalised by some moron. Speaking for myself, I would be prepared to make an exception to human rights in the case of individuals who vandalise trees, even after making every allowance for the fact that such persons are deeply sick and sad.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

London keeps moving

Yesterday I walked from Liverpool Street to Westminster for the Federal Policy Committee meeting. The meeting was less interesting than the journey. The vicinity of Liverpool Street was packed with walkers, many of whom obviously did not normally do much walking, as they were not very good at it. I chose a route via quiet back streets and gardens along the river, which was also the shortest route. On reaching the Palace of Westminster I found the security guys had been busy (again): now the road in front is closed to vehicle traffic by massive barriers. I walked through marvelling at how quiet it was - just the footsteps of dozens of pedestrians. It cannot have been this quiet on a workday afternoon since before the internal combustion engine. Good riddance to cars, say I.
Claims that the RMT union can bring London to a standstill are tosh. There are buses and bikes. Failing these, it is not hard to walk across Central London from one mainline station to another. I routinely walk from Victoria to Paddington, or to Euston or to Liverpool Street, and vice versa. No special equipment required - just comfortable shoes, and time.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Real food

I have picking raspberries every day recently. They have a delicious aroma and tang. Not only that but I have just found out they are a great source of vitamin C, minerals, antioxidants and ellagic acid which research indicates is a powerful anti-cancer agent. The plants are also tough - I have seen them growing wild near a fjord in Norway. They also grow like weeds on my allotment. The autumn-fruiting kinds are productive from now until the frosts. It is well worth while to grow some, if you have room.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Musings on litter

As part of my ongoing microcampaign against ugliness I turned the first dogwalk of the day into a litterpicking exercise. Yield from what is normally a 30-minute round trip through Colchester Lower Castle Park, crossing Bull Meadow and back skirting the County cricket ground: three carrierbags full of litter plus three full cans of beer (yes really!) and one soiled blanket.
About 25% of the litter was packaging generated by a single business - MacDonalds - a fact which I have added to my already long list of reasons to detest that company. Disgusting food, exploitation of children and hellish cruelty to newborn chicks are among the others. (MacDonalds are welcome to sue - is this the start of MacLibel The Sequel?) The rest was mostly assorted junk food containers, dirty tissues and lots and lots of beer cans.
Most of the empty beer cans were from Fosters lager, as indeed were the three full cans, which were under a hedge, for reasons that can only be guessed at, but the fact gives rise to certain questions, I feel, about the brain state of customers of that brand.
I have a theory that the ratio of those such as myself who are made grumpy by litter to those who don't care is probably at least three to one, so if the grumpies each picked up a few bits of litter on each outing, the uglification of our public spaces by litter would be brought under control. The place looks a lot better afterwards and it makes a change from ineffectually sighing "O Tempora, O Mores". You do have to abandon pride though.
I do sometimes wonder, assuming there are any archaeologists alive at all in a thousand years' time (a big assumption I know), what they will dig up. Layers and layers of expanded polystyrene burger cartons? I hope not. It doesn't bear thinking about, really.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Ethical investment angst

Took time off from my holiday, during which I am trying to leave my brain idling in neutral, to complete a questionnaire (sent annually, I am told, by an investment manager to a random 3,000 investors in its "Ethical" fund) about my investment priorities. The questions were difficult. For example: is the climate change issue my top priority, or only one of my top three, or not even in the top three? (Answer after much angst but, after recalling all I have seen and read about this, especially Al Gore's film, unhesitatingly: my top priority.) Am I against all investment in the generally carbon-guzzling electricity, mining, oil and gas, and water sectors? (Answer: no, but only because I support investment in renewable technologies and the question lumped renewables and non-renewables together, as I explained in the section for further comments.) How important is avoiding investment in the nuclear power industry? (Answer: of highest importance - no available space to explain why.)
It is all futile of course, since the market machine will pour capital into these sectors anyway, and my small preferences will make no difference. So it goes.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

My new pets

As part of my ongoing sustainable lifestyle experiment I have made a wormery (using the blueprint in Chris Catton and James Gray's masterwork "The Incredible Heap"). It is a sort of luxury hotel for relatives of earthworms that prefer living in compost heaps. The grand plan is that these intriguing little critters will chew through vegetable waste from the kitchen and turn it into crumbly compost which is excellent for plants, instead of it ending up in landfill. Cost only £4.40, which is not bad.

Monday, 6 August 2007


Today is the 62nd anniversary of the annihilation of of the city of Hiroshima by the first nuclear bomb, which was dropped on the city without warning at 0815 local time on the orders of United States President Truman.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

An efficient market, please

Markets work more efficiently if participants are well informed. If the process for selecting a leader of the Parliamentary Party of the Lib Dems was a market, it was inefficient. The decision-maker was the entire membership, relatively few of whom were personally acquainted with the candidates, let alone had worked with them. Election rules restricted the information flow between candidates and members, notably by preventing candidates from getting members' contact details from HQ. In this information deficit a pre-existing high media profile gave a decisive advantage.
From this perspective it is extremely unhelpful and in the long run unwise to reprimand party activists who are in a position to make useful contributions from personal knowledge if they publicly comment on individual parliamentarians' leadership qualities or performance. After all, if military generals were elected by popular vote - not that far fetched an idea, there has been historical precedent - it would hardly be helpful to have a clampdown on informed discussion of whether they were running the war brilliantly, or on the contrary making a complete hash of it.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

A lesson from King Canute

As various government members make promises about funding for flood defences, while wavelets lap gently against the interior walls of thousands of dwellings, my thoughts naturally turn to King Canute. I gather he was a real king (Cnut, Knutr, reign 1016-1035, Danelaw zone only). He seems to have been a very competent leader, so if it is true that he sat on his throne on the seashore and commanded the waves not to advance, I feel sure he did so to make a point to his courtiers about the futility of claiming power over nature, rather than because he actually expected the waves to take any notice.
Perhaps there is a lesson for us here. I would guess that a modern King Canute would not trust entirely on grand engineering projects in a costly and perhaps futile effort to cope with forces whose scale was simply too great.
I am no expert, but I have consulted people who are, and I am convinced that the key is prevention, or at least mitigation: to plant belts of trees on hilltops and slopes to absorb rainfall and anchor topsoil in place. King Canute would not recognize England today: in his time there were vast tracts of forest. I think he would be aghast. The terrible mudslides in the Philippines of late were a more extreme result of essentially the same human activity - cutting down trees.
As for the endless miles of built-up areas in modern Britain, while we wait for government measures to replace impermeable surfaces with permeable ones which allow rainwater to soak away slowly, we can help at the individual level by installing water-butts, not concreting over our yards and gardens, and if we have to make a roadway or hard standing, using gravel, or pavers laid on sand, as I noticed they do in Amsterdam.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

On not going by car

I volunteered to deliver a round of Lib Dem leaflets in Berechurch Ward, Colchester, calling for a by-election. So on Sunday morning the leaflets, the dog and I set out from the town centre to the ward.
It is a good thing that the dog and I like walking, because cycling being ruled out (the dog would not fit in), I had planned to go by bus, but none came, and later I found out there was only one per hour. So we walked there. It was quite a long way. We delivered the leaflets. We walked back. It took about four hours, all told. This is what Sundays are like for people without cars.
The majority of houses on my round were semi-detached with open plan front gardens, a garage, and one, two or three cars and vans parked on the front area, some with a motor bike or three. This meant walking up one garden path, then hopping across to the other semi, then back to the street. So I went round a fair number of vehicles. They were of all kinds, including big, new gas-guzzlers, expensive both to buy and run. Yet these houses were modest and many were poorly maintained. That is my main impression of the visit - cars, cars, cars.
What would life be like without cars here? How are households going to manage when having a car has become too costly (which I think will be quite soon)? Their lives will be more like those of teenagers, the elderly, the blind and others who for whatever reason cannot drive. They will have to co-operate a lot more. The bus and the bicycle are lifelines, but travel by those those methods takes time. I think they will demand local shops, cafes, entertainments.
We need to prepare for when lots more people are without cars. We have hardly begun. Cars are such a habit. We are constantly told that cars mean freedom and control over our lives. It is a myth. In only a few decades cars have made suburbia possible, ruined our towns, cities and countryside, consumed our wealth, made the streets lethal to our children, enabled others to demand that we commute ridiculous distances to make a living. What sort of freedom is that?

Monday, 23 July 2007

Unwise about water

Last Friday, as I walked through the new shopping mall at Cardinal Place, Victoria with its vast area of glass roof, I said to myself: "The runoff from this place must be phenomenal." Less than an hour later the exceptional rainstorm arrived. Later that day photos on the BBC news website showed Victoria Street, Westminster transformed into a lake. Which proves my point, I think.
During the deluge itself I was in Embankment Gardens East, below the Savoy Hotel. I took refuge at the cafe there (a London treasure, but that's another blog). The waterfall gushing off the balcony roof was as if someone was pouring from a limitless bucket. When the storm passed, the tarmac path through the gardens was flooded, so I had to go along the Embankment, half of which had turned into a lake as well.
A pint of water weighs a pound and a quarter, as the rhyme goes (I don't know a metric version but I expect there is one - it probably should be in French). A large volume of water is, therefore, amazingly heavy, and destructive. Glass, concrete and tarmac everywhere: no wonder the runoff of water we are getting is so violent. We know that impermeable surfaces make it worse, yet we go on adding more. Practical wisdom, not. Truly we are a crazy species.
Another barmy thing we people do is deforestation. I first started worrying about this when I learned at school about the tragic flooding of Lynmouth in the 1950's in Devon, generally thought to have been caused by earlier deforestation. Yet loss of woodlands has carried on apace and still is. Crazy.
I'd vote for an urgent national policy of replanting deciduous woodland on all our high ground, to help soak up rain and prevent topsoil being washed away. I support the Woodland Trust, but a charity doesn't have the powers or resources to do much when private landowners won't and government is failing to act.
And I would never, ever buy a home on a flood plain, or advise anyone else to. No way. Gordo and property developers please note.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

In the long run

I was a mere spectator of the kerfuffle in Ealing Southall, what with having had far too much to do in my own patch, plus a hectic time with the day job, plus a strained Achilles tendon, plus a belief that winning Haverstock Ward, Camden (where inspired Lib Dem environmental policies are going down extremely well with local people) mattered more in the long run than not winning in Southall.
Was the blizzard of paper whizzing through those Ealing letterboxes really a good idea? I got reports that electors were fed up with the quantity of it, and obviously they were not enthused by it, because the turnout was low. And I empathised with them: I was not enthused, either, by the large number of texts and emails I received, urging various reasons why I should go and help. I fear it is counterproductive. And was it really a good idea for our MPs to cancel masses of other engagements for the duration? They have so much important work to do.
Not much media time was spent on what the issues in the contest were. And now it's all over, the abrupt halt to the effort leaving the population of Southall to their own devices again is bound to encourage them to feel cynical.
The failure of the Tory campaign in Southall seems untypical to me, because Southall itself seems untypical - at any rate, it seems that politicians changed parties for odd reasons there - at the drop of a hat, even. Maybe I'm old-fashioned but I think it is the done thing, when leaving one political party and joining another, to give some sensible reason of principle or policy for it. If that happened in Southall, the publicity has not reached me. I can't keep up with the game of musical chairs that was being played there. But I don't think it teaches us much about the bigger picture.
Even if we had won the seat, its effect on the distribution of power in the House of Commons would have been insignificant.
So I don't think the huge amounts of resources expended by us - paper delivered, shoe leather worn out and so on - on the streets of Southall were worthwhile. It was wasteful, and it was not environmentally friendly.
The satisfaction of coming second is temporary. A week is not a long time in politics: it is a short time, very short. I don't think we will get anywhere by short-term positioning. And in the long run this level of effort cannot be maintained even by the two main parties, and especially by us. In the long run, the two main parties are uncertain about their direction for big reasons: big changes in the country and the world. Maybe those changes mean our values and beliefs are due for a breakthrough, but we will not make it happen this way. It just won't, until big reasons exist for people to look to our party and when they do they see in it the statesmanship to lead.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Regent's Park rubber crumb menace

City of Westminster Lib Dems are campaigning to stop current proposals to permit a company to install five-a-side football pitches for private hire in Regent's Park, sacrificing trees, wildlife habitat and the popular tennis school for something that I have never heard anyone say they want. So we are having a picnic this Sunday afternoon (weather permitting, and bring your own refreshments) at the tennis school site to enjoy it while we still can. It's the thought of the rubber crumb surface and wire netting where scores of established trees and acres of wildlife habitat used to be that motivates me. To me, without the precious green space that remains, life in this city would be intolerable.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Thoughts on the Glasgow jeep bombers

Any doubts about whether the Glasgow Airport attack was by Islamist ideologues or not were dispelled by the witness who reported that he heard one of the terrorists, his clothes on fire, shouting "Allah! Allah!" as he fought off the ambulance man who was trying to help him.
This reminds me of something that happened to my father in World War Two. As he was an outstanding pilot, he served with Air Sea Rescue. One night he went out and rescued from the sea a Nazi who had been shot down. The Nazi then tried to shoot him.
Islamists and Nazis seem to have a lot of things in common: loathing of Jews, baseless belief in their own superiority, a degree of reckless hate of which Tolkien's orcs would have been proud, are just three of them. It is not insanity because they are not delusional, in the sense of out of touch with reality. But it is something like insanity.
I don't know what Gordo means by evil, but it seems to me that those who choose to destroy and harm instead of to build and help, are, in some profound sense, defective. (Which is the opposite of what people who have been ruled by dictators seem to think: that kindness is weakness. A big mistake.) Is it that they have failed to develop the ability to empathise? Is that what was wrong with Saddam Hussein and his horrible sons?
It must be terrible for families who have to try to comprehend how their children have turned into fanatics.

Friday, 29 June 2007

Thoughts on the Haymarket car bomb

It was good to hear Ricky Gervais on BBC Radio 4 this morning say that he’d been an atheist since the age of 10. So have I actually. I worked out that what the “God Squad” said was unlikely to be true, and that was that. Anyone who wants a rational discussion about it is most welcome, but don’t use the “f” word, please. (I refer to “faith”.)
Just before that the news was reporting that last night the ideologues had been making another attempt to blast hundreds of us into oblivion. (Great isn’t it – I’d never been to the Tiger Tiger nightclub in Haymarket in my entire life until this week, and suddenly it’s all over the news as the place where the car bomb was left.)
As Ed Husain has shown in his book The Islamist, these ideologues are a load of know-nothings who forbid intellectual questioning and seek to impose by force an empire based on a medieval mentality. This regime will, according to the ideologues, be based on divine will, and they will be the only people entitled to interpret the divine will. Very handy for them, isn’t it.
If I recall rightly, I have heard of this sort of thing before - in English History lessons, where they called it the Divine Right of Kings, which got its come-uppance with the deposing of Charles I. My impression is that he was a bit of a twit.
Sorry if you think I should have been blogging about Gordo and his new cabinet. I can’t work up any interest. They just aren’t that important.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Deforestation - the cruel reality

On 27th June I saw a private pre-screening of a BBC programme about orangutans, to be screened on TV on 6 July at 7 pm in the Saving Planet Earth series. The BBC isn't allowed to be political, but this is a political issue. Watch the programme! See what the word deforestation really means.
I came close to despair watching the programme. There is a lot of evidence about the importance of rainforests not just for the creatures that live in them but for the world's climate systems. The trees absorb rainwater and carbon dioxide and put water vapour and oxygen into the atmosphere. It is not just Borneo rainforest but all rainforest that performs this vital role. Once the trees are gone, that process stops. Fertile topsoil is washed away, the land becomes sterile desert and the atmosphere is affected.
What the BBC didn't talk about, but we ought to talk about, is how to get the authorities in Borneo, where orangutans live, to stop the deforestation. If anyone has ideas on how to do that, please get in touch. Even if you don't like animals, it is in all our interests to save the rainforests and indirectly to save the orangutans that live in them.
The programme was about an orphanage for young orangutans which looks after them and reintroduces them to the wild. See or call 08456 521528. They are being orphaned because each orangutan (they are vegetarians) needs the equivalent of about 10 football pitches of rainforest to live. The rainforests are being bulldozed at a rate of 3 football pitches per minute to make way for palm oil plantations. To avoid starvation, the mothers forage for food in the plantations and are macheted to death by local people.
The long-term solution is to find a way for the local people to benefit from the rainforests staying, but since that involves politics, the BBC didn't talk about it much.
The scale of the destruction is vast. About 80% of the apes' habitat has been destroyed in the last 20 years. At this rate it is predicted that they will be extinct in the wild in 10 years' time. But if the Borneo rainforests are saved, so will be the orangutans.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

A book we should all read

The Lib Dems' core principles include opposition to conformity and ignorance. I suggest we had better all read Ed Husain's new book The Islamist published by Penguin last month. It is his story - at times a deeply personal memoir - and much more besides.
The early chapters of the book centre on places I know quite well: Limehouse and Whitechapel. The author was born in Mile End, east London, in the mid-1970s. His childhood was spent in Limehouse. It was happy at first, but his parents believed in single-sex schooling, and so sent him to Stepney Green, the nearest boys-only secondary school. He describes his first year there as the worst year of his life. "Here everyone was Bangladeshi, Muslim, and male," he writes.
He read avidly, and in one of his schoolbooks - Gulam Sarwar's Islam: Beliefs and Teachings - he first encountered the notion of Islam not as a religion but as an ideology. The textbook stated that there was no state in existence in which Islam was a system of government, and commended various organisations dedicated to the creation of 'truly Islamic states'. One such organisation was called Jamat-e-Islami. It had been founded in British India in 1941 by a journalist called Abul Ala Mawdudi, who, says Husain, was first to rebrand Islam as an ideology.
Through a friend from school, the author joined the Young Muslim Organisation UK (YMO) and, whereas his family worshipped at Brick Lane mosque, he started to attend the East London Mosque. He calls it a "strategically placed institution, at the heart of the densest population of Muslims in Britain". It is a building I have often passed by in my travels over the years. It is, as he describes, custom built with minarets and a dome. Often as I passed I would see crowds of unsmiling young men outside. I was unaware that it had received donations from Saudi Arabia and employed Saudi-trained imams. I was unaware that throughout the late 1980s the mosque had been the site of a bitter power struggle between rival factions of the Jamat-e-Islami.
By 1991 the author, then aged 16, had no white friends and his time was filled with YMO activities instead of revising for his GCSEs. Mawdudi's writings encouraged him to distinguish between 'true Muslims' - not partial ones like his own parents - and kafirs, a derogatory term for everyone who was not a 'true Muslim'. By the summer of 1992 his involvement was deep. When his father found Jamat-e-Islami leaflets at home, he gave his son an ultimatum to leave Mawdudi's Islamism or leave home. Husain left home.
Husain writes that he and his associates at that time "knew that the world we espoused was underpinned by the writings of Mawdudi and another, more crucial, character: Syed Qutb." Qutb "declared that a total jihad was the only way to remove the disbelieving presidents and princes of the Arab world", in order to abolish all systems that fell short of the true Islamist state. Nasser's government imprisoned Qutb and executed him in 1966, but not before he had smuggled his book, Milestones, "the Communist Manifesto of Islamism", out of Egypt.
Husain became an activist at Tower Hamlets College where among their activities his associates put up posters bearing the slogan: "Islam: The Final Solution". They despised Jews and gays: they agreed that "faggots would go to hell". Determined to be confrontational, they engineered a showdown with the liberal, secular college management about prayer facilities and were exultant when the management backed down. Among their oher activities they put pressure on women students to wear the hijab.
From Qutb's teachings Husain progressed to Hizb ut-Tahrir. An adherent told him: "The world today suffers from the malignant cancers of freedom and democracy... we will deliver the Islamic state through a military coup... The flag of Islam will rise above Downing Street..." Heady stuff for an 18-year-old.
Hizb was dedicated to the re-establishment of the caliphate. It was founded in 1952 by Tazi Nabhani (born in 1909 in what became Palestine). It was banned from the outset by the Jordanian monarchy and subsequently in other countries of operation. Hizb leaders targeted Tower Hamlets as the UK's most densely populated 'Muslim area'. The key to its progress was the dubious premise that the Islamic state was a religious duty or wajib.
The author attended a conference at LSE where, impassioned by the conflict in Bosnia, the audience soaked up Omar Bakri's advocacy of an Islamic state with a powerful army. Husain writes: "At one stage Omar Bakri was delivering as many as twenty-nine lectures a week... While the British state fed Omar, he sowed the seeds of terror in British Muslim minds." (Omar Bakri was banned from the UK in 2005. The BBC programme Real Story of 5 April 2004 states: "Omar Bakri's version of Islam is disputed by most Muslims.")
In passages suffused with irony, Husain explains some of the unshakeable and preposterous beliefs held by his zealot associates. For instance they "knew" that the prevention of escalation of the Bosnian conflict was only a pretext for the international community's refusal to arm Bosnian Muslims: the real reason was "a conspiracy to reduce the numbers of Muslims in Europe".
Thus the author was sinking into a quicksand of ignorance, arrogance and intolerance which led to some of his associates being convicted of serious crimes. He, however, got a wake-up call when an African Christian student was murdered outside the library where Husain was studying. He saw the body and the blood on the pavement. The victim had been involved in a dispute over use of a pool table. The author's Islamist associates were convinced of their own superiority over everyone else, and one of them knifed the student for having offended them. The killer was later convicted of murder. The author drew back from militancy from that day onwards.
Husain warns that trained members of the Hizb organisation "knew how to deny, lie, and deflect"... lying and deception were simply strategies of war. Besides, our enemies were kafir, not deserving of our honesty or integrity..."
In his later chapters, Husain describes how he was helped to "regain my sanity" by Sufi scholars, all of whom, ironically, were American citizens. He has acute observations on life in Syria. His comments on Wahhabism and his impressions of Saudi Arabia as a sick, sexist (as well as sex-starved) and deeply racist society policed by arrogant bigots, both fascinated and dismayed me, especially against the background of the BAE bribery scandal and the recent new arms deal between UK interests and the Saudi regime which I believe is extremely unwise.
Husain concludes with much to say that is relevant to security policy. He has trenchant criticisms of some prominent British Muslims such as Iqbal Sacrani, who supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. (Now both of them are knights.) He tells of the activities of George Galloway's Respect party in Tower Hamlets, accusing them of using colour, religion and language as if they were political beliefs in their own right. He is critical of the open sale of books such as Milestones in bookshops here. And he calls for a ban on the Hizb organisation. He asks how much longer we will tolerate the hypocrisy of Islamists enjoying British life while calling for its destruction.
An important question, indeed.
You can watch Ed Husain on
When watching, you can decide whether you think Husain or the Hizb spokesman is telling the truth. One of them isn't.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Thoughts on the Hitchens brothers

Shirley Williams was undaunted by three boors plus Tony McNulty on Question Time. Boris Johnson, whom incidentally I often spot cycling in Westminster, did his usual buffoon act which is likeable enough I suppose. The two Hitchens brothers were another matter.
Peter's angular features and humourless glare reminded me somehow of Cully in T H White's The Sword in the Stone (look it up boy, look it up). With perfect public-school diction and authoritative delivery, out rolled some absolutely barking mad sentiments, particularly on the sovereignty of states which for some reason he regards as an unalloyed good, hence his intemperate rant against the European Union.
Christopher sat glowering, sweating and red-faced. Almost every time Shirley spoke, he interrupted. When she objected to this, did I really hear him telling her not to be so self-important? Excuse me, Christopher, even if Shirley were not brilliant and especially qualified to speak on public affairs by her record of electoral success (unlike you), she is a fellow panellist on Question Time so you shut up and let her have her say.
Christopher's style reminded me of Ed Husain's description in The Islamist of debates between the Hizb ut-Tahrir leader Farid Kasim and the president of the National Secular Society, Barbara Smoker. The latter was "constantly jeered, mocked and patronized by a travelling crowd of Hizb apparatchiks... Farid's lack of grace in those debates was notorious. And we loved it. Our style of debate and discussion was confrontational, designed to provoke outrage, to "destroy concepts", as we called it..."
Christopher and Peter Hitchens, I learn via Google, are sons of a Naval officer and products of a Cambridge public school. Christopher is a Balliol man, graduating with a Third (to demonstrate his contempt for the system perhaps?) It is the prerogative of such people, because they were born to lead and trained to have total self-belief, to spout forth fluently, and often in published print, ideas which, if the hoi polloi were to express them, would be quickly branded complete tosh. But Christopher and Peter say it so confidently! So that's all right then. And Christopher being abominably rude is fine. Carry on, gentlemen.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Campaigning in Westminster - the other side of the tracks

On Saturday we were at Church Street market, collecting signatures on a petition to save local shops from a proposed new supermarket, which would be Tesco's tenth within a square mile. Times have changed since I used to shop in Church Street: now it looks rather like Cairo as far as attire goes, many of the women being entirely covered from head to toe. I would estimate that at least half the people could understand English poorly or not at all. Some dealt with the situation by ignoring us completely, as if we were invisible and they deaf. I saw a similar technique used in downtown Marrakech where it is a useful defence against constant pestering. Here, however, it ensured that communication on an issue that actually affects them, because many of their community have market stalls, was made impossible. I stood like a prow of a boat as the stream of shoppers divided and flowed past.
Of those who were prepared to talk, quite a number needed no persuasion and readily signed up - in fact we quickly gathered several sheets of signatures. Of the rest, few displayed understanding of, or curiosity about, the implications for them or the local economy - a microcosm of the enormous difficulty of mass political communication.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Baroness Miller defends Manor Garden allotments

Baroness Miller has taken up the cause of the Manor Garden allotment site which is under threat from the Olympic quangos. (I wrote about them on 10th April.) She commented last week: "The London Development Agency seems determined to use the slash and concrete approach to these allotments. They... plan to bulldoze the lot, including 100-year old apple trees, concrete it over and call it sustainable.
"It is ironic that the thriving community at the heart of these allotments are just the sort the Government talks of creating." It is indeed.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Those BAE payments

I find it odd that when the BBC today reported that armaments company BAE with UK Ministry of Defence co-operation secretly paid Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia more than £1bn in connection with Britain's biggest ever weapons contract, various opinion-formers commented that such payments were outlawed in 2002. A cursory glance at section 1 of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906, which is very widely expressed and still in force, suggests that such payments were outlawed a great deal earlier than that - over a century ago, in fact. I look forward to being told the legal arguments to the contrary.
So much for the criminal law. As for civil law, it could be that the State of Saudi Arabia has a heck of a claim against Prince Bandar for repayment of secret profits.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

More films to see before you die

A couple more films to add to that all-important list. Babette's Feast - based on the story by Karen Blixen. Is it about food? Art? Life? You decide. It Happened Here (dir. Kevin Brownlow) - a vision of England after a hypothetical Nazi invasion and occupation in 1940. And if you don't think it could have happened here, remember Oswald Moseley and the Brownshirts really happened here. Pauline, a nice Englishwoman who is a nurse, is not allowed to work unless she joins the Party. She is drawn into well-intentioned collaboration until the point when (not to spoil the plot) she realises that she has been an unwitting accomplice to murder. She joins the Resistance. What would I have done if I had been in her shoes? What would you have done? The budget was a shoestring, almost all the actors were amateurs, the film took eight years to complete and it is a masterpiece.

Thursday, 31 May 2007

Will Mr Lugovoi come to court?

I wonder why the Kremlin is so vocal on the question whether Mr Lugovoi may be extradited to London. The Russian Federation’s Constitution (adopted in 1993), Article 10, provides (unless this translation is inaccurate): “State power in the Russian Federation is exercised on the basis of the separation of the legislative, executive and judiciary branches. The bodies of legislative, executive and judiciary powers are independent.” So the extradition decision ought to be up to the courts, not the Kremlin.
As for the substantive question, Article 61(1) of the Russian Federation's Constitution provides: “The citizen of the Russian Federation may not be deported out of Russia or extradited to another state.” But it does not end there because Article 15(4) provides: "The commonly recognized principles and norms of the international law and the international treaties of the Russian Federation are a component part of its legal system. If an international treaty of the Russian Federation stipulates other rules than those stipulated by the law, the rules of the international treaty apply.” Which seems to imply that if Russia is party to an international treaty that permits extradition, the treaty overrides Article 61.
According to the BBC Mr Lugovoi himself held a press conference today and said (amid a good deal else): “I will hire serious lawyers in London in order to defend my honest name in the British law-enforcement agencies. If the British authorities refuse to conduct a fair trial, I will be prepared to appeal to the international court in The Hague." By "British authorities" does he mean the judiciary? And what trial does he have in mind? Does he think that he might be extradited? I take it that he does not intend to come to London voluntarily to be tried on the poisoning charge. Perhaps he envisages a different kind of trial - bringing a claim himself in the civil courts for defamation? I wonder who the defendant(s) would be, and how Mr Lugovoi would give evidence: not by personally attending court in London, presumably. We must wait to find out.
To bring such a claim would imply, interestingly, a degree of trust in the impartiality of the judiciary of England and Wales. He does, it seems, have time for lawyers, at least the "serious" variety, which is a nice bit of good press for them, for a change.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

We are wasting time

I am greatly troubled by information from a trusted grassroots source that voters were unenthusiastic about turning out in support earlier this month because they were unenthusiastic about Ming. Whatever was intended by those who forced Charles Kennedy to resign, this is the result.
In March 2006 the membership made what they thought was, on the limited information available to them, the safe choice, but I thought then and have thought ever since - a period of nearly 15 months now - that it was not the best choice.
Now what? We are waiting, but what for? From every quarter we are getting signals that environmental catastrophe is approaching. Valuable time is being lost while the two main parties, with their half-baked responses, hog the stage. We need to influence decisions - on energy, transport and the rest. We need leadership that will inspire, and we need it now.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Films to see before you die

Channel 4's list of the 50 films to see before you die was pretty idiosyncratic so here are a few they missed: Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray); L'Enfant Sauvage (Truffaut); Solaris, Mirror, Andrei Rublev and Stalker (Tarkovsky); Rashomon and Ikiru (Kurosawa); Fargo (Coen Brothers); Manon des Sources (Berri); La Grande Illusion and Le Regle du Jeu (Renoir); Three Colours Red (Kieslowski); Blade Runner (Scott); with an honourable mention for Groundhog Day, American Beauty, Fitzcarraldo, All or Nothing, Night of the Hunter, Once Upon a Time in the West (not in America, which was same director, later film, correction!) and Un Homme Echappe. Forgot to mention La Dolce Vita. No Eisenstein - some great moments but his grandiosity toppled into absurdity. I agree with C4 about including The Searchers and Erin Brockovich. Happy viewing!

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Rubbish bag horror

Was it really fortnightly rubbish collecting that led to the defeat of a number of Lib Dems in Godalming, Surrey on 3rd May? Do improvements in recycling rates and savings in council expenditure count for nothing in comparison with the horror of foxes ripping open rubbish bags? Apparently so if Radio 4's Today has reported accurately. Good grief! Things have come to a pretty pass if the people of Godalming do not have the wit to go out and buy a metal dustbin.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

The rule of law - or not

In November 2006 the Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales and the Deputy Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation signed a Memorandum of Understanding on co-operation between their respective Offices. Article 3 states: “The Participants will co-operate in the sphere of extradition and in other issues of mutual legal assistance.”

This makes a nonsense of a report today that a spokesman for the Kremlin claimed Russia's constitution did not allow its nationals to be extradited.

The reported Kremlin response was to today’s announcement that the Crown Prosecution Service is to seek the early extradition of a suspect from Russia, so that he may be charged with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and prosecuted in a court in London.

The Director of Public Prosecutions called the murder “this extraordinarily grave crime." Indeed it was: a more premeditated case could not be imagined, and it was also a reckless environmental crime against the people of and beyond London, as it left a trail of potentially lethal radioactive contamination. Such criminality is absolutely intolerable to any civilised people.

I trust that the Russian legal system will deal with this extradition request justly, according to the evidence. If it is prevented, what are we to conclude about the true nature of the present regime in Moscow?

Thursday, 17 May 2007

The leadership stitch-up

I detest a stitch-up, so I was angry at the attempt to stitch up the leadership contest by getting other MPs not to stand, thus depriving the ordinary membership of a say. Profoundly undemocratic. I refer of course to the Lib Dem leadership contest last year. The attempt succeeded only partially, in that it kept some contenders out of the ring but not all. Fortunately there are robust, independent-minded MPs in the Lib Dem ranks: just the sort of people this country needs in Parliament.
Not so the Parliamentary Labour Party. The current Labour MPs must be seriously lacking in spines, as not even 45 were prepared to nominate a leadership challenger to Gordon Brown. Pathetic.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Some questions about Scotland

A nagging question in my mind is: why was the late swing in Scotland earlier this month to the SNP and not to the Lib Dems? Following yesterday's FPC meeting I am none the wiser.
But I vividly recall the speaker from Scotland in the Trident debate in March who told the Federal Conference that the Scottish Lib Dems really, really did not want to retain Trident.
And I have been told that a balloon shaped like a Trident missile was being towed round Edinburgh's streets during the election. A very effective campaigning tool, I am sure: if someone installed a nuclear missile facility near my home, I would have pretty strong feelings about it.
I suspect that the Scottish Lib Dems' disappointed hopes are a first instalment of the price we will pay for that narrow majority to sit on the fence on whether to replace Trident.

Friday, 11 May 2007

Nice but hopeless, Simon Jenkins should call it a day

This lamentable commentator cannot even master the electoral system to which he has hitched his comments. Surely it's time to fold up his tent.
What is Simon Jenkins for? He is the flotsam of 20th-century journalism drifting on into the 21st, coagulated from ancient clubs, cabals, splits and defections from other newspapers. Not since the 20th century has he cohered round any great interest. He represents no mass movement, no breaking of the political mould. Ask Simon Jenkins what he is for and you get only a susurration of platitudes. Yet thanks to the newspaper industry this commentator gets to influence the ruling classes. It is Grima for a day.
Westminster commentators have always given each other a free pass, as over cash for articles, because they are both hopeless and nice. Most commentators that have been writing for what feels like a century and are a political subsidiary of the two-party system would stop writing. But Britain's patronage media industry keeps Simon Jenkins going, that and the hope that his one distinctive policy, getting his column into print, might give him blocking power at his newspaper.
Simon Jenkins claims a bizarre interpretation of democracy, that the share of votes should not be reflected in a share in power. This confuses quite different concepts: executive government and assembly representation. The first requires a coherent team, a declared programme and some mechanism to account for its delivery to the electorate. They are checked by a second concept, that of a separately elected assembly, in which PR is both fair and just.
Forcing executive power to be shared with political rivals in a coalition makes it diluted, more representative and accountable. Indeed, the purer the proportionality the more representative it tends to be, as in Israel. (This is not necessarily a pretty sight, but that is down to the opinions of the electorate, not the system!) First past the post rarely engenders harmony. The invocation of "history" to hallow yesterday's fourth attempt at power sharing in Northern Ireland was prudent. It could last. It defuses opposition and favours consensus. The new Stormont regime, its mouth stuffed with money, could withstand a real delegation of political and fiscal power. Such coalitions seem to work when, as with the governance of Switzerland, there is genuine devolution of power.
It is a relief that in Scotland and Wales the executive is chosen from the parliament, as at Westminster, but from one composed by PR, thus virtually ensuring rolling coalitions. This was instead of the London option of a separate executive and assembly. Scotland and Wales should not have had directly elected first ministers, with proportionately elected assemblies to check them. This would not have met the requirement for fair representation in Edinburgh and Cardiff except for proportional representation in the balancing parliament/assembly.
Instead we have commentators flying about like £10 notes thrown into the wind. They carry no content, no programme, no sense of direction. They merely confer on the holder a false sense of having a valuable contribution to make to the political debate.
There is no perfect form of journalism. But since power without responsibility is its besetting sin, a journalism that empowers a thoughtful commentator subject to an external check – an Internet that permits separately empowered expression of different but as valid points of view - is preferable to one that internalises that check within the newspaper industry, where it is vulnerable to the whim of editors with an axe to grind.
The commentators are proving that they cannot work a system to which they have hitched their wagon for half a century. There is much talk that the next general election may yield a quirk rare under the first-past-the-post system of a hung parliament, with the Lib Dems again as king-makers. On the basis of 1977, 1997 and now 2007, it will mean not elective dictatorship but democracy. It is surely time for Simon Jenkins to fold his tent and go.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Back to the Land

What bliss - no leaflets to deliver! I celebrated by constructing a mini-greenhouse on my allotment (a triumph of recycling, and the price was right - nothing so far) with room for nine tomato plants. In case you thought tomatoes only come in one colour, namely tomato red, I have news. They range from white through all the warm colours to black. And stripy. This season I'm trying Black Russian (black, obviously), Yellow Pear and Golden Sunrise (yellow, obviously), Sungold (orange), plus some red ones: St. Pierre, and a beefsteak type whose name I forget, and the glorious Gardener's Delight.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Labour Light Fiction

Yesterday St John's Wood tube station was littered with Good Morning leaflets resembling the Lib Dem design but produced by Labour: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. They featured a "doorstep survey" stating that the by-election "is a straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives", with a bar graph showing Labour just behind the Tories, with support for the Lib Dems as minuscule.
The actual result in both of yesterday's City of Westminster by-elections was that the Tories held the seats (not a surprise on past figures), the Lib Dems were second and Labour were a clear third. The Lib Dem share of the vote increased: the Labour and Tory shares fell.
The Labour Good Morning leaflets also repeated that Lib Dems propose to "get rid of free travel for over 60s", which is, as is well documented, rubbish. This story is deliberately targeted at pensioners on low incomes - among society's most vulnerable members. To cause them anxiety by such means is not only deceit but also heartless, whether the aim is to win or, as here, merely to prevent meltdown in a seat where Labour never had any serious expectation of success.
To me, tactics like these are unacceptable from any quarter.

Monday, 30 April 2007

Pelargoniums - that's the spirit

On Friday night water began leaking into my flat from the one above - not a good start to the weekend. At least the smell of wet ceiling plaster encouraged me to escape to Abbey Road for more leaflet-delivering.
St John's Wood was a wood a long time ago. Now it is housing, much of it large family houses but (typical of London) council estates are never far away. Many affluent households have concreted over their front gardens to park their cars on. Some council flat households green over the stained concrete approaches to their front doors with pelargoniums. I disapprove of the garden-wrecking and I like the pelargoniums. They prove that all the surrounding shabbiness cannot discourage the occupiers from trying to live.
One thing the inhabitants have in common is fear of crime. In the affluent places this manifests itself by sharp railings, locked gates, entryphones and, instead of doorbells, gatebells; but the Townshend Estate council tenants have only stickers announcing that the property within is security-marked and callers will be asked for identification. Westminster Council, despite requests, has failed to install security doors in the Townshend Estate. (When it comes to tackling crime, never mind what the ruling Tories say: look at what they do.) Our candidate has vowed to press for security improvements there.
Democracy is a great leveller. The council tenant's vote is worth as much as the mansion owner's. The Tory majority here in 2006 was achieved on a very low turnout. If only folk in places like this would start to use their own power to take control of their lives, the Tories would be out of power for good.
On Sunday evening some charming children patted the dog.

Friday, 27 April 2007

More treasured campaigning moments.

Yesterday was, shall we say, interesting. I was out delivering at what passes locally for the Final Frontier (the boundary between Westminster and Camden). You can tell a lot about a place by people's front doors. I feel particular sympathy with the elector who had put a notice above his doorbell stating simply: "This is not a brothel!"
Further up the same street a distinctly worse for wear and far from clean individual asked me whether there was an off licence down the road. I said I didn't know, but that there was a pub. This aggrieved him somewhat (perhaps he'd been evicted from it?) but he was persuaded that there might be an off licence in that direction, so off he went. With a sense of relief I managed to gain entry to a block of flats and was delivering my leaflets there, but my sense of security was shortlived. I inadvertently rattled someone's letter box, the door opened and the occupier emerged to ask whether I wanted to come in. That was fine in itself except that he was minus his trousers and underpants at the time. I told him no thank you, I was just delivering letters, and beat an orderly but fairly swift retreat.
Just as well that the dog and I are champion walkers, because the buses were at a standstill. The reason for this became clear when I spotted a pall of smoke above Oxford Circus and police cars blocking the road. We walked most of the way home.
A campaigning tip: wear comfortable shoes.