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Showing posts from 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.

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 ci…

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 Trid…

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…

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.

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…

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 http://chris2win.org/news/165.html

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.

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.

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 mentio…

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 s…

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.

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 t…

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 th…

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 na├»ve 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…

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…

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…

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.

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 …

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?

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.

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 gat…

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, a…

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.

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 debate…

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.

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, C…

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. Remain…

Postscript

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.

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 - willing…

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 …

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.

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. …

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…

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.

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…

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 indi…

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…

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.

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 …

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…

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.

Hiroshima

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.

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…

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 s…

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, expens…

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 wat…

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 iss…

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.

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 i…

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 i…

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…

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 Is…

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 recor…

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 …

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.

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.

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.

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 Fed…

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.

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!

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.

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 beyo…

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.

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.

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…

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.

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 anxi…

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 announci…

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 f…