Monday, December 31, 2007

Aberfan has stopped killing people ; Chernobyl will go on and on...

This morning the Today programme (edited by a scientist) reminded me of the Liberal Conference's rejection of nuclear power twenty years ago. During the debate one of the defenders of nuclear power pointed out (rightly) that all forms of energy production involve risk and cited the Aberfan disaster. In my summing-up I contrasted the degree of risk with the above phrase. It was my first and probably my last soundbite. The clip was played on the early evening news on all four TV channels and Peter Snow interviewed me on Newsnight, thus providing my 15 minutes of fame, as promised by Andy Warhol.

Today interviewed two scientists who said that the effects of the Chernobyl disaster had been exaggerated and only about 3,000 people had died. I looked up the subject and found this summary. It turns out that a body called the Chernobyl Forum originally said that up to 4,000 people would die but they revised it to 9,000 and they were only looking at the three closest countries whereas an alternative report looking at the whole of Europe estimated 30,000 to 60,000 deaths. A Professor Mousseau concludes "We really won't have a good idea of the death toll from Chernobyl for at least another 20, 30 or even 40 years". So that's all right then.

144 people died in Aberfan and that number won't change however long we wait.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I vote for Nick Clegg

Not long ago, Chris Huhne spoke to our local South Somerset Climate Action Group as well as Yeovil Liberal Democrats and I told him that I regretted not voting for him in the last leadership election. However, this is a new contest with a new candidate. Seeking selection as a Euro-candidate I attended two regional conferences addressed by both candidates. I have to disagree with Jonathan Calder. It was clear to me that Nick Clegg was by far the better communicator. No-one should underestimate the importance of this talent when the two candidates are so close in policy terms.

I disagree with Nick about Trident of course, but I am not very impressed by Chris' position. We debated the issue at our Spring Conference in March in Harrogate and I invited Chris then to support my amendment to get rid of Trident . We only lost that amendment by 40 votes. If he had supported us, we could have won. Also, he actually proposes replacing Trident by a minimum nuclear deterrent. This does not answer many of the objections to Trident, would still be very costly and probably against the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

I have also been unhappy about Chris' attacks on Nick. He has repeatedly suggested that Nick supports education vouchers knowing full well that he doesn't.

The crux of my judgement to vote for Nick is based on instinct, not mine but the candidates' instincts. In choosing a leader, I don't just look at policy differences, since as members of a democratic party we all get a say in policy. I ask myself, how will this person react to an unforeseen crisis ? Which way will he jump ? Chris usually arrives at the right conclusion by a careful rational analysis but I think he lacks that great eighteenth century quality - bottom. Nick seems to me to be Liberal by instinct, from top to bottom.

Freedom of speech

Once again the world reels as the Oxford Union debates ! None of the reports tells us what the motion was nor the result of the vote upon it. There is so much confusion here. Of course Griffin and Irving have the same right to speak as anyone else, but that does not oblige the Oxford Union, a private members' debating society to provide them with a platform. As President of the older society, the Cambridge Union, I once invited a team from Cape Town University to debate, having first established that they were not touring to promote apartheid. I did this because whilst respecting the right of people to speak in support of apartheid, it was not our role as a private club to provide a platform for it. This is very different from the "no platform" policies of some students unions, publicly funded bodies which seek to deny the use of all academic facilities to people they disagree with.

Moreover, once the Oxford Union had decided to invite the racists, the students who rightly despise their views had every right to assemble and protest but NOT to stop them speaking. Why could the protestors not understand this ? Liberalism requires us all to resist our own illiberal tendencies as well as other people's.

I think we should be told

Has anyone noticed the amazing resemblance between Jeremy Hargreaves and Quentin Letts ?
Who is really running the Liberal Democrat FPC ?

Annapolis - the long view

Bush's Middle East conference is starting in Annapolis. So far Dubya has shown no inclination to learn from history but I suppose he has heard of the Annapolis Convention of September 1786, when 12 delegates from 5 states met "to remedy defects of the federal government" . Those delegates met for four days and decided that they could not achieve anything because four states had failed to send delegates and four more had failed to get there on time and because they had insufficient power to negotiate. They called for a wider conference in Philadelphia the following May, which drafted the US Constitution which endures to the present day.

I cannot help wondering if the present conference in Annapolis will be similarly hampered by the absence of parties, in particular Hamas, and a lack of powers to negotiate. Let us hope that the conference continues for more than four days and, like the ultimate success in Philadelphia, leads to the foundation of a new state, the state of Palestine.

Blog lag

Apologies to Tristan, who posted a comment which I did not moderate and was therefore not published. My ISP failed to send me an e-mail notifying me of the comment, but I should have checked the blog anyway. I have been told many times that a serious blogger should blog regularly, even every day. Well, I make no claim to be a serious blogger. Some days I am not even disgruntled and some days I just have other things to do.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Limiting EU competences - not a “superstate”

Constitutional Treaty in blue
Reform Treaty in red

15. It would guarantee that the Union will never be a centralised all-powerful ‘superstate’ by laying down:
(a) the obligation to “respect the national identities of member states, inherent in their fundamental structures, political and constitutional”;
(b) the principle of conferred powers (whereby the Union has only those competencies bestowed on it by the member states);
(c) the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, limiting EU action to the minimum necessary to achieve the objectives agreed by member states;
(d) the participation of member states themselves in the decision taking system of the Union;
(e) the principle of “unity with diversity”.


16. It would merge the confusingly overlapping “European Community” and “European Union” into a single legal entity and structure.


17. It would provide a clear definition of the field of competence of the EU, without conferring any new fields of responsibility upon it.

REINFORCED. In fact, an additional declaration has been added to emphasise the limitations on the EU’s competences.

18. It would replace the complex and overlapping set of EU treaties with a single document spelling out clearly the powers of the EU and their limits.

CHANGED. Scrapped in favour of an “amending treaty”, in the same format and style as previous treaties such as Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice.

19. It would simplify EU instruments and their terminology, replacing jargon with more easily understandable terms (EU regulations become “EU laws”, EU directives become “EU framework laws”, and so on).

CHANGED. The old terminology is retained.

20. It would maintain the EU’s tough and effective powers over competition policy.

UNCHANGED. A new protocol to the treaty makes clear that the change in the wording of the preamble does not affect the existing policies, case law nor operational methods of EU competition policy.

Increasing accountability and parliamentary scrutiny

Constitutional Treaty in blue

Reform Treaty in red

8. The adoption of all EU legislation would be subject to the prior scrutiny of national Parliaments and the double approval of both national governments (in the Council of Ministers) and directly elected MEPs – a level of scrutiny that exists in no other international structure.


9. National parliaments would receive all EU proposals in good time to mandate their ministers before Council meetings and would also gain the right to object directly to draft legislation if they feel it goes beyond the EU’s remit.

CHANGED National parliaments will be given more time to review legislative proposals – 8 weeks rather than 6.

10. The European Parliament would elect the President of the Commission, on the basis of a proposal from the European Council.


11. A new budget procedure would require the approval of all EU expenditure by both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.


12. Any EU law or any action taken by EU institutions could be struck down by the courts if it fails to comply with the Charter of Fundamental Rights that was approved by all Member States in 2000.

CLARIFIED. The Charter of Fundamental Rights has been given legal force but will apply only to laws or actions by the EU institutions within the EU treaties. There is a specific exemption to say that it does not apply to the domestic law of the United Kingdom

13. The exercise of delegated powers by the Commission would be brought under a new system of joint supervision by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, enabling either of them to overturn Commission measures to which they object.


14. When acting on legislation, the Council of Ministers would meet in public.


Making the EU more efficient

Constitutional Treaty in blue
Reform Treaty in red
1. The EU’s foreign policy High Representative and the Commissioner for External Relations—two posts causing duplication and confusion—would be merged into a single EU ‘Foreign Minister’, able to speak for the Union on those subjects where EU countries agree a common line.

CHANGED. The merger of the two posts is retained, but the job title “Foreign Minister” is changed to “High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy” to make clearer what is actually involved in the post.

2. There would be a new voting system in the Council of Ministers, with a qualified majority requiring the support of a “double majority” of at least 55 per cent of countries who must also represent at least 65 per cent of the EU’s population.

CHANGED. The double majority voting system has been retained, but will be phased in from 2014 to meet Polish objections.

3. More decisions in the Council of Ministers would be by Qualified Majority Voting. Exceptions include subjects that are sensitive for national sovereignty, such as tax, social security, foreign policy and defence. These will continue to require unanimity.


4. More flexibility: where not all countries want to join in a new policy, arrangements can be made to allow groups of countries to do so and others not. Britain can opt-in or out of policies concerning frontiers, asylum and police and judicial cooperation.

REINFORCED. In fact, more flexibility/opt-out arrangements have now been introduced.

5. The European Commission will be reduced in size: fewer Commissioners, with member states taking it in turn to nominate Commissioners two times out of three.


6. The European Council (the three-monthly meetings of prime ministers) would choose a president to chair their meetings for 2½ years, replacing the current 6-monthly rotation


7. The size of the European Parliament would be capped.


The truth about those treaties

I fear that nobody is being very clear about the Constitutional Treaty and its replacement the Reform Treaty. Perhaps some of those who fear these treaties would like to know what they actually say. Perhaps they wouldn't and would prefer to rely upon the scare tactics of The Sun and it's American proprietor.

Firstly, the EU like the UK (and unlike the USA) does not have one document which can be called its constitution. Like the UK, the EU's constitution consists of several documents and conventions about working methods. In the case of the UK, the documents are individual Acts of Parliament. In the case of the EU, they are treaties. Whilst the new Reform Treaty is not a constitution in itself, it is one of the many documents which would make up the constitution of the EU. It would of course have been clearer to have the constitution embodied in just one treaty, but people were frightened of the word "constitution".

Secondly, the two treaties are very similar but neither of them do what their critics say they do. They pose no threat to the UK's supposed independence (unlike, I would suggest, our relationship with the USA). In fact, either treaty would make the EU more democratic and its institutions more accountable

The next three posts set out the effects of the two treaties and how the Reform Treaty varies from the Constitutional Treaty.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Chad Varah has died

Chad Varah, founder of the Samaritans has died at the age of 95 - see BBC report. I never met him and he never met me but he once described me as "The happiest man in the diocese of Ely". My first wife had made a famous televised speech on feminism in a Cambridge Union debate and he wrote a fan letter saying that her speech should be next to every man's shaving mirror and, of course, her husband must be "the happiest man in the diocese of Ely".


On Monday night I attended Liberty's comedy show at the wonderful Hackney Empire, "Bonfire of the Liberties". Bremner - brilliant as always. An excellent Iranian comedienne, a female ventriloquist with a monkey - an act full of Brechtian alienation - and, of course, Marcus Brigstocke as compere. It was Brigstocke who sent up the idea of a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty. See Jeremy Hargreaves blog and Jonathan Calder's reaction.

Referendums are poor instruments for deciding anything but are absurd for treaty ratification, which requires line-by-line scrutiny, which only parliament can give. Neither the North Atlantic Treaty nor any other treaty I can think of has been ratified by referendum in the UK. Liberal Democrats were wrong to give credence to the idea that a referendum was appropriate. Eurosceptics want a referendum precisely because they fear the decision of people who will actually have examined the treaty.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

...and while I'm on the subject of New Labour...

Oh yes ! One of the politburo, possibly one of the Millibanden, has now advised us to read to our children when putting them to bed. Good lord, I'd never have thought of that if he hadn't suggested it ! But then this is the government which thinks it's all right for me only to see my children once a fortnight.

(Sorry, Barry. Some readers may have noticed some (shall we say) mildly critical comments on my postings on shared parenting by someone called Barry Molyneaux (who by the way does not exist, having an empty profile, no blog and admitting to being a pseudonym).)

Is it just me or is the world mad (3) ?

Now, I admit that I may have dreamed this, as the Today programme does sometimes send me back to sleep. According to a government spokesman, they are planning to send a letter to parents to tell them if their children are fat and what to do about it ! A doctor responded that it was much better to reinforce positive behaviour. That's the plan, the spokesman said. The government will actually send a letter to all parents telling them whether or not their children are fat. Because, apparently, some parents don't notice.

Clearly the government has accepted its responsibility for people being fat (see previous posting). We can expect soon to receive our personal targets, which will then be published in a league table. Doesn't it make you all warm inside to know that we are all in the safe hands of a New Labour government ? Or perhaps just flaming furious that these patronising, paternalistic, bureaucratic fascists are wasting your taxes telling you and your children how to live !

Go on, please tell me I dreamed it. Then it's only me that needs help.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Is it just me or is the world mad ? (2)

A report out today tells me it's not my fault that I'm overweight. Apparently, it's the government's fault. Clearly I should immediately stop dieting (lost 16lbs so far) and sue the government for compensation.

Is it just me or is the world mad ?

The Metropolitan Police are being prosecuted for breaching health and safety regulations when they shot Menezes, not for murder or manslaughter. I wonder, does the Health and Safety Executive publish guidelines on the safe way to kill innocent dark-skinned foreigners on tube trains ?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Chris Huhne - young Turk !

...and just for balance, here's a young radical student called Huhne trying to bash in the door of the establishment with a bench. What an appropriate image for the position of leader of the Liberal Democrats in an archaic parliament whose procedure assumes only two parties.

Sorry there's no dog, Chris, but if you send me a picture of yourself with a dog, I will publish it.

I think we should be told !

Has anyone noticed the amazing resemblance between the Mountie Fraser in Due South and Nick Clegg. I wonder if they are related. I think we should be told, before we decide how to vote.

So farewell, Ming

What a strange, superficial world British politics has become ! Ming resigns because he is too old ? Or doesn't land punches in his two questions at the weekly Punch & Judy show known as PMQs ? How ridiculous.

I have been critical of Ming within the party because I disagreed with him about Trident and generally I felt his approach to policy was too cautious. The latter complaint applies not particularly to Ming but to the whole policy-making apparatus of the Liberal Democrats. As I think Simon Titley wrote in Liberator, just changing the leader won't solve that problem. It's a change of tactics that's necessary. Liberal Democrats don't need to win every vote in the country and should not be afraid to alienate some. We can and should speak for liberalism, not some curious melange called "Liberal Democracy". Incidentally, look at the loudest public critics of Ming who have fed the media desire for splits - Bill Rodgers, Dick Taverne, Chris Clarke. Guess what - all Social Democrats ! As Simon also commented on radio - the problem was not the so-called Young Turks (Chris Huhne is in his 50s) but the old gits !

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Bleep, bleep...bleep, bleep

I was at primary school when Sputnik was launched and tried to make a model of it in a class when we played with building blocks. A visiting teacher of patriotic disposition said, "Why don't you make a model of the new British invention - Zeta ?" I asked her what it was, what it did and what it looked like but she couldn't tell me. Much, much later I found out that it was a very premature announcement of a fusion reactor which would produce "unlimited energy from sea-water". What happy, innocent days those were when my mother and I scanned the night sky for sputnik, Britain had its own space (or at least missile) programme and in all decent science fiction alien invasions were dealt with by the police force and the men from the ministry with a bit of help from Prof Quatermass !

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Feedback 2: Fathers

Barry's other comment was on my posting about Liberal Democrat policy towards fathers.

He wrote, "This makes disagreeable reading on a supposedly liberal blogsite, and it is difficult to know where to begin. You mix general comments with specific which you clearly are inviting your readers to believe matches your situation. Firstly, your statement "the [father] loses his property." This is not the 19th century - these days marital property is assumed to be jointly owned regardless of whose name is on the deeds(and presumably your [marital]"property" was registered in your sole name - am I right?) Wives have property rights too in case you hadn't noticed.

you appear to be demanding a regime in which there is "control" over how the "ex-wife spends the money" (the child support) Do you want a government quango to be demanding household accounts and scrutinising grocery bills, or do you want the non-resident parent[ in CSA jargon] to be able to enter his/her children's home to check on the pantry or audit bank accounts? Do you want your ex-wife to be providing receipts? Perhaps you want your ex-wife to draw up a "child support budgetary plan" for your scrutiny and agreement? Is it really true to say that your children are turning up at your house "inadequately clothed" and "ill-fed" and that you are forced to provide food and clothing for them? Or is this hyperbole to make your point?

You call for "shared parenting" This can work and many divorced couples arrive at mutually acceptable arangements but it all depends on the nature of the divorce. If you have not managed to agree a "shared parenting" regime with your ex-wife then it probably is because she does not want it. Perhaps - have you considered - she has good reason? Reading your blog, and the casual way you seem to want to control her life through control over her household finances and the way she is bringing up her children and the insinuation that she is starving her children and failing to clothe them adequately- I would say she had reason enough to reject a closer involvement with you over parenting. I note that you are standing for the European Parliament in my region (the south-east) I for one will not be supporting you. "

Barry, by all means take issue with things I say but don't attack me for things which I didn't say. My remarks were based on my experience in counselling fathers through Family need Fathers and not just my own experience. Your remarks about my attitude to my ex-wife are unjustified, insulting and absurd. For the record, I have not claimed and I do not claim that my ex-wife "is starving the children and failing to clothe them adequately" nor do I want to "control her life". Given your propensity to distort what I have said, I will confine any future posts on the subject to the general.

Firstly, property. As you rightly point out property is assumed to be jointly owned and not merely assumed but actually set out in the relevant deeds. Why then is it reasonable for the state through the courts to order that one partner's share in the property is taken away and given to the other partner, whom the state has decided should live with the children ? Of course, in some cases this may be the only solution for the sake of the children. However, in many cases it would be possible for the children to spend more time with both parents. In many cases, the value of the joint property would be sufficient to allow both partners to buy new but smaller properties if it were sold. The courts do not usually support such a solution, preferring to expropriate the share in the property which the parent now labelled by the state as "absent" has built up over years. The absent parent may as a result have insufficient accommodation for the children when contact happens.

Secondly, the question of what counts as child support. Of course, I am not demanding such an absurd regime as you suggest. I am simply pointing out the unfairness of a system where the resident parent is assumed to be benign and to spend child support on the children whereas the non-resident parent is assumed not to support the children even when such expenditure can be proved. Thus, if a non-resident parent buys clothes for a child, this will only count as child support if the resident parent agrees but, of course, the resident parent has every reason not to agree because that would reduce the money to be transferred to the resident parent. The law and the courts treat the non-resident parent as an occasional visitor and a source of funds, not as a equal parent with a share in bringing up children.

My point is simple. The interests of the child should be paramount as current law provides, but why can we not also say that shared parenting is presumed to be the best way to achieve this ? That is the policy that the Labour government and the Liberal Democrats have both rejected.

Finally, of course you must make up your own mind how to vote in the South-East Euro selection, but please decide about me on the basis of what I actually say and not what you wrongly attribute to me.

Feedback: 1. Water

Barry Molyneaux has left comments on two earlier posts, but I'm responding here because I want to make the discussion more visible. Firstly on water and Barbara Young.

Barry said, "Who is Barbara Young and why do you think she is in a position to know? And why do you not see that it is a disgrace to be making an excuse that the flooding was caused by climate change and hence was not in anyway something for which the EA was responsible. Well the rainfall was unexpectedly severe and this is due to climate change but the flooding was severe because of building in flood plains, inadequate flood defence, built in most cases to withstand nothing more than a 1 in 50 flood. There is no programme of flood prevention nor of sea defences. That is the responsibility of the Environment Agency and they have failed. And all we get is excuses from Barbara Young. The time is overdue, axe the EA, send Barbara Young off to do whatever it is that she is qualified to do, which is what exactly? and bring the functions of the EA under a directly elected Regional Assembly and fund it properly. If you want to be founder member of the Barbara Young society forget it."

Well, Barry, perhaps it is naive to think that the Head of the Environment Agency would know anything about flooding, but I don't think so. My point was to emphasise the need for politicians to take the opportunity to remind people about climate change, not to defend the shortcomings of the government or the agency. I have met Barbara Young when she ran RSPB. She seemed a professional and efficient manager with no special expertise in environment matters but quite close to the New Labour camp. My criticism of the EA wouldn't be to do with personalities but with the agency's dependence on central government. I like your idea of putting some of their functions under elected regional control, but we might need an independent, national voice that could scrutinise and recommend free from the control of those who run the relevant services.

A sense of loss

No. I'm not referring to what you all feel about my almost complete silence for two months. I'm just reflecting what a strange channel Radio 4 is. This morning "The Choice" told the story of a Pakistani women who still loved her country but had to flee it because of a brutal husband. Her courage and her sense of loss were palpable. Of course, the Home Office tried to send her back !

By way of contrast, this was followed by the family of Peter Brough saying how cut up they were to part with his ventriloquist's dummy, Archie. Of course, the Home Service (or was it the Light Programme ?) was quite strange in the 1950s. Where else would a radio programme feature a ventriloquist's dummy ? You couldn't see Peter Brough's lips moving, could you ?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

That Man Attlee

During party conferences some of us gather for dinner and some bring guests. About 20 years ago I found myself next to a man from the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. I told him all I knew about his party came from a Radio 4 play. He replied that he wrote it. He was Robin Glendinning. Today Radio 4 repeated his play about the 1945 General Election and Clement Attlee. Click on the link in the next seven days if you want to hear it.

The play reminds us how admirable Attlee was and just how far the Labour Party has sunk since then in the hands of Tony Blair and people who invite Margaret Thatcher to tea.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The ode less travelled - Opik the poet

This morning Lembit Opik read out something described as an ode to caravaning. At least it didn't mention Margaret Beckett. For future composition, I do recommend Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled . Meanwhile keep the day job, Lembit.

Labour Government Housing Policy - wet !

"The government will continue to build houses on flood plains, as long as the "proper defences" are in place" according to Housing Minister Yvette Cooper. They just don't get it , do they ? Ask yourself who will buy a house that they cannot insure against floods that are bound to happen more and more often ? Building in flood plains also makes matters worse for existing houses, because there is less open space to soak up water.

Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink

In all the coverage of widespread flooding, I have only heard one person suggest the role of climate change - Barbara Young, Head of the Environment Agency. If the government or any politicians including Liberal Democrats want the public to be ready to accept taxes or controls on carbon emissions, we have to make the link with the consequences of carrying on as we are.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Peers, parliament and passes

The Times reveals something we've all known about for years. Some peers receive large sums of money to represent interest groups and provide their staff with passes as parliamentary researchers. Lord Berkeley (a Labour creation) argued that he needed someone to help him write his speeches. So I checked. On 18th June the noble lord asked, "Why there is a £10 charge for refunding rail tickets purchased online, but not for refunding tickets purchased at stations ?" What did he pay his researcher for that ? Nothing. On the contrary, the Rail Freight Group pay Lord Berkeley £37,000 a year.

We need that great Liberal MP, Hilaire Belloc, to do justice to the story.

After 10 years of New Labour

The gap between rich and poor is wider than ever. They don't even meet any more. Interviewed on the radio, a man (In the shower I didn't hear the name) commented, "Rich people in London don't think they're rich because they don't mix with any poor people". It's similar in Chard. Poor people here don't think they're poor, because they don't mix with any rich people.

For the Discerning Reader

The BBC reports that pagans are outraged by the appearance of Homer Simpson on the hillside next to the Cerne Abbas giant. They don't mention the adventures of Lord Scarman as a young man. On a walking holiday he and and his friends planted poppy seeds in the outline of the giant. Shortly after, the giant turned red so locals burnt out the poppies. The giant turned brown. Then more poppies grew. The giant turned red again. Then they tried weed-killer. The giant turned black.

Apparently, the rain will remove Homer.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Malplaquet or cooking ?

Why is it now thought that education should prepare us for real life ? Why should schools teach cooking and mortgages and, God help us, national identity ? Perhaps real life can prepare us for real life and schools teach us the things that our real lives cannot show us ?

Bertrand Russell, a progressive educationalist in his day running a relatively free school, nevertheless maintained that intellectual subjects require an unnatural degree of application which can only be an acquired habit, which our normal lives will not inculcate.

I quote freely from Prof Donald Trefusis, created by Stephen Fry:

"This new England we have invented for ourselves is not interested at all in education. It is only interested in training, both material and spiritual. Education means freedom, it means ideas, it means truth. Training is what you do to a pear tree when you pleach it and prune it to grow against a wall...Education is what you give children to enable them to be free from the prejudices and moral bankruptcies of their elders."

What would Russell and A S Neill and W B Curry of Dartington Hall and everyone else who has tried to do something different have made of a national curriculum ? Away with it and soon.

Battle of the Nile or Mortgages ?

The national curriculum is being reduced (but not enough). A man called Ken Boston (the national curriculum gauleiter, tsar or general LordHighEverythingElse) suggested on the radio that children should learn about mortgages instead of the Battle of the Nile and cooking instead of Malplaquet. Naturally several historians argued the contrary. The argument misses the point. There shouldn't be a national curriculum ! The root of the problem lies in Whitehall and its hangers-on. Originally they argued that it wasn't fair that children at schools learned different things. They should all learn the same ! Equality in the hands of politicians and civil servants always ends up as homogeneity, because if people are different nobody can tell if they're equal. Then they argued that the national curriculum would only be a core, but (surprise, surprise !) the core grew and engulfed the timetable. There shouldn't be a national curriculum. As Mao-Tse-Tung said but didn't really believe, "Let a thousand flowers bloom". As the eponymous hero said in Monty Python's Life of Brian, "You're all different". I say, "Vive la diffèrence". Some of us will learn about Malpalquet and some about mortgages.

Or maybe not. But, as Hillaire Belloc says in Lord Lundy, "I'm getting tired and so are you, let's cut this...[posting]...into two."

Kafka (and Munch) in Cyberspace

Here is a tale of woe that has (touch wood) ended.

This morning I attempted to log on to my blog. I got the following message:
Username and password do not match. "

I tried again. This time I got this message:
The email you provided does not exist.

I checked my spelling (several times). My e-mail address does exist and was working. I tried to find a contact or help address on blogger. All I found was a Help Forum, which specifically had a category on logging-in problems. Good. I tried to post my problem. I got this message:
You must sign in to Google to complete the previous action.”, which of course I would love to have done, but if I could have, I wouldn’t have needed to ! AAAArgh !

Aha, I thought. I will create a new Google account. That’s when I got this message:
A user with the email you specified already exists. Already have a google account? Try logging in.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh !

I then spent a fruitless half-an-hour trying to find out how to contact Google. All I found were various accounts of other people who had also found it almost impossible to contact them.

Finally, I pretended that I had forgotten my username. Blogger helpfully told me what it was, which I already knew. Then I pretended I had forgotten my password. Blogger let me set a new one (How kind !). So here I am again.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Feathers without hissing ?

"The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest amount of hissing."Jean Baptiste Colbert

Some of us have felt that Liberal Democrats have been too cautious in recent years, afraid to upset anyone who might vote for us. Vince Cable and Ming Campbell have cured this complaint with the new tax policy announced today. It shifts the burden from poorer to richer and from income to carbon. Three cheers (and no hissing, I hope).

Friday, July 06, 2007

W**ds we cannot say

I e-mailed a friend to draw his attention to the Sun story discovered by Craig Murray, but the NTL server rejected it because of unacceptable content. Perhaps it meant "Lord Levy" and not "...the p**n star".

When I worked at East Sussex County Council the geeks controlling the firewall banned the sequence of letters "s e x" which made it impossible to look up any of the county's official websites.

This World is not Enough

The Grace levee was rudely interrupted this morning by Mark Mardell on the Today programme. The jolly red-faced fellow was in Ljubljana, Slovenia expressing surprise that there were still federalists in Europe. He was at the International Summer University ("This World is not Enough") of Young European Federalists, over whom I presided back in the 14th century. We were, I fear, a very serious lot but we never made it to the Today Programme, although I was interviewed by the British Forces Network in Berlin. Either he edited out any serious discussion or there wasn't any to begin with. The item was hardly a bonus for the federalist cause as you will discover if you select the listen again portion covering 07.45 on Friday 6th July.

That is the land of lost content

Thank you Radio 4 for a big helping of Housman this afternoon. If you already know "A Shropshire Lad" go to Radio 4's listen again for the Thursday afternoon play. If you don't know it, rush there and listen for the first time.

Meanwhile, the poem that always gives me goosebumps.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows.
What are those blue remember'd hills ?
What spires, what farms are those ?

That is the land of lost content.
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Do the shuffle !

A sympathetic friend has drawn my attention to the unfortunate layout of the BBC's news about the Lib Dem reshuffle, which includes the following jolly juxtaposition:

In full: Lib Dem front bench
All belly and no brains

Monday, July 02, 2007

Hegel schmegel already (NB not Schlegel)

Barry Stocker commenting on my post on blogging, defends Hegel by reference to TH Green. Wikipaedia gives a good summary of the modern debate on Hegel, from which I learn than even neo-conservative thought owes some debt to Hegel.

I confess that as a student I gave up trying to read sentences like "The goal is that it come to be known that [Spirit] presses forward only to know itself as it is in and for itself, that it brings itself in its truth to appearance before itself..." Perhaps it loses something in translation. I dread to think what the original German sounds like. Jung said Hegel's language was "reminiscent of the megalomaniac language of schizophrenics".

However, sentences such as "In the state alone has man rational existence" were enough to persuade me that Hegel was no Liberal. I think it's reasonable to describe him as a state-appointed philosopher, given that Frederick William III appointed him rector of Berlin University in 1830 and decorated him for his service to the Prussian regime.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Where are the street parties ?

I had expected the entire country to get out the trestle tables and bunting and hold street parties to celebrate the departure of Tony Blair, but they haven't. Perhaps people realise that the rest of the ministers and Labour MPs who voted for war in Iraq and ever more restrictions on civil liberties are still in office.

Meanwhile I have sent this to the BBC:

"Please stop covering Blair's departure as if it was a royal wedding: "Here's the car leaving Downing ST", "Here's the car arriving at Buckingham Palace" etc. Just rejoice that he's going and give us some real news."

Monday, June 25, 2007

Europe - fat free !

The government's presentation of the summit negotiations for a European treaty mirrors the behaviour of food manufacturers who label food "fat free" when it never contained fat in the first place. See Paul Reynolds' article on the BBC website about European Foreign Policy. Incidentally Eurobarometer shows 50% of Brits want a European Foreign Policy and 34% don't.

Shock, horror ! Blogging threatens authority !

How entertaining to hear two journalists on the Today programme lamenting the influence of the internet. This was a producer perspective par excellence. They didn't seem to like the idea that anyone can post on the net. Clearly they thought that sort of broadcasting power should be confined to the elite of professional writers like themselves. I was reminded of T S Eliot's idea of a clerisy, a class of intellectuals who would take over the role of the clergy. Of course it was the Roman Catholic church in particular that disliked the spread of literacy at the end of the Middle Ages. After all, what would happen if everyone could read or, worse still, write. It would undermine the authority of the church.

Harriet Harperson

How refreshing to hear the Labour Party's new deputy leader saying that she was elected because she has always tried to be a champion for women. This must be a great comfort to the single mothers whose benefit she cut in 1997. For this miserly act, a gathering of Liberals in a London wine bar gave her the coveted Sh*t of the Year award. Two gentlemen in the bar applauded wildly when the award was announced. It transpired that one of them was her former Press Officer - sacked for not being on message. A few weeks later my son (then 8) met Paddy Ashdown and told him, "I've seen you on television. You were telling the Prime Minister off - about the mothers".

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The heart of Europe

I have recently been approved as a potential candidate for the European Parliament. Surprisingly I enjoyed the process. The party's assessment process can never be objective but the way assessors judge seems fair, thorough and transparent. By comparison, I was rejected in the 1970s without clear reasons by an ad hoc panel which included a woman who disliked me (and young people in general) and someone who had just joined the party whereas I was approved in the 1980s by another ad hoc panel made up of friends who shared a drink with me in the bar of the National Liberal Club.

By contrast, the Brussels summit which has just finished was longish but not thorough and spun to the opacity of grandma's stockings. The government's line is that the new draft treaty is just an amending treaty not a constitutional one. This is of course a distinction without a difference, as Eurosceptics will no doubt point out. The EU has always had a constitution as has the UK. In both cases the constitution is not embodied in one document (as in the USA for example). Instead the constitution is the combination of many treaties and conventions. I might prefer a simpler comprehensive single document but why are people so threatened by the word "constitution" ? There is a lot more to say about the undesirability of referendums for ratifying treaties, but for the moment I'll confine myself to one point. This government and any possible British government will never satisfy public concern about the EU until it spurns spin and engages with the real argument and starts to make the positive case for European Union.

So much more to say, but breakfast calls.

A moving story

I've been involved in, indeed preoccupied by, selling my house and buying a flat. Both sale and purchase are now agreed and the deals are now in the hands of the lawyers, so of course nothing is certain. They manage these things differently in other countries.

My house is not particularly expensive but although the estate agents promoted it as suitable for a first-time buyer, most young families would not be able to afford it. However, a businesswoman wanted to buy it to convert it into a hostel into which she would pack at least five people at £90 a week. No doubt she had in mind our local migrant workers from Portugal. Fortunately the council required so many changes to allow multiple occupancy that she made no bid. The actual prospective purchasers are in their twenties.

In my view, housing has become the pre-eminent problem for politicians to solve. The cost of the average house is now ten times average income. Don't blame the immigrants. The underlying cause is excessive demand arising from divorce and young people leaving home as soon as they can. There are no clever solutions, only a simple one - increase supply, build more houses.

To blog or not to blog

Once again, I have been off the air for a few weeks. To paraphrase the late great John Ebdon, if you have been, thanks for looking. And sorry there was nothing to look at. I've been busy.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Still disgruntled: Plus ca change.

One reason for my rush to London was to deliver some documents to LD HQ in Cowley Street. I well remember visiting the old Liberal HQ at Exchange Court off the Strand in 1974. I was in search of rosettes for an election meeting in the Albert Hall. I wandered through a labyrinth of small rooms until I found a staff member, a woman doing her nails. I asked for rosettes and without looking up she reprimanded me, "We don't have rosettes here. We've never had rosettes here. You should know that". I had just joined the party, but I stayed.

On Friday, I walked into the somewhat grander reception area at Cowley Street, where I was ignored by the man behind the desk who was reading his newspaper. When I tried to hand him documents, he looked up briefly, pointed me at the pidgeonholes and returned to his paper. Isn't it gratifying to know that after 33 years the party is now so professional that it can employ someone with the specific role of ignoring members ?


It may have been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone, but it's been hell in Chard. Friday was complicated. I caught an early train from Taunton to London for a business meeting. Unused to this line, I was not merely disgruntled but actually discombobulated (Don't bother, it's not in the OED but what do they know ?), yes discombobulated to be asked for £156 ! I could have gone to France, Scotland or even Italy. It was too late to make other plans so I had to pay. The train was fast but uncomfortable. It rocketed through Langport and Somerton, neither of which have stations any longer. The train was less than half full, not surprisingly given the price and the train's inability to stop where people live. We should extend the Liberal policy of taxing flights rather than air passengers to trains. In conclusion, bugger Beeching and murder Major, the combined architects of our mad transport system.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Northing of Harry*

So, they've finally decided that Prince Harry should not summon up the blood, stiffen the sinews nor imitate the action of a tiger, in short not go to Iraq.

Of course, none of us should have gone to Iraq.

Also, (pace Bernard Bresslaw, Alfie Bass and other ITV stars from 1960) the army is not a game. Specifically it is not Royal Tennis. I am not a pacifist. We need armed forces but we should not use them for the wrong purpose. They are not there to invade other countries at the behest of George Bush nor to occupy young royals.

*By Mrs Malaprop out of William the Conqueror

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Oh mother, oh Ming !

Last week Ming Campbell called for a general election to allow the British public to choose the next Prime Minister. Both Liberal England ( Liberal England: Do we really need a general election?) and Hug a Hoodie thought this a bad move.

I have two problems with it, substantial and procedural. The substantial one is that we have a parliamentary democracy on to which Tony Blair has grafted a West Wing Presidential system, thereby depriving us of the checks and balances of Westminster and Washington. Calling for an election to determine the next Prime Minister just confirms the quasi-presidential model which we should reject.

Secondly, Ming said, "Today my colleagues and I have submitted a motion to trigger a general election." The only motion I know of that can do this is a motion of no confidence. I have searched the Parliament website in vain. There seems to be no record of such a motion. Nor is it an EDM. Nor an adjournment motion. What is this trigger that the mother of parliaments will be invited to pull and when ?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Happy Birthday me !

Today is the birthday of Salvador Dali, Irving Berlin and me.

This is a picture of a happy young three-toed sloth celebrating his birthday. Sadly I am not young (but I am alive unlike Salvador and Irving) and currently I have five toes on each foot and he's obviously quite cheerful unlike me as I prepare for another battle with the Gestapo (CSA to new readers).
Otherwise we have a lot in common.

Blair had no Willie

Margaret Thatcher famously said, "Everybody needs a Willie" referring of course to the Deputy Prime Minister, Willie Whitelaw. She meant someone to steady the troops and restrain her from excess.

What did Blair get ?

John Prescott.

I rest my case.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Rejoice, rejoice ! He's going. But get out the sick bags.

So, farewell then, Tony Blair.

I do rejoice that he's going. This is not just because of the invasion of Iraq, which was immoral, illegal and in the less elevated terms of realpolitik just bad for Britain's position in the world, in fact a disaster for international relations, the rule of law and relations between Christians, humanists and Moslems which will poison our world for decades to come. It's also because he has undermined our democracy, replacing the cabinet by the sofa, parliament by media barons and substance by surface. He was far worse than Margaret Thatcher. I opposed her policies as well but she was basically honest.

Here come the sick bags. Today as usual, he said, "I did what I thought was right for our country". Applying the usual test of meaningfulness ( see Saying nothing in Scotland). Can you imagine anyone saying, "I did what I thought was wrong for our country" ? The whole point of our democracy crafted over centuries has been to save us from autocracy, from the judgement or prejudices of one man ignoring the opinions of his colleagues and the advice of those with more experience.

For light relief from the Blairfest turn to this animation of My Way.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

You can't beat the old ones

Some years ago Ian Paisley MEP wanted to buy stamps from the European Parliament's post office but found to his disgust that the only ones available had pictures of Pope John Paul II, commemorating his visit to Strasbourg. Paisley reluctantly bought them but then returned complaining that they would not stick. The stamp seller explained, "Monsieur Paisley, you're spitting on the wrong side".

A quick response

Thanks to Liberal England.

To smoke or not to smoke ?

This man's job is to enforce the smoking ban in Edinburgh's pubs. In his job he is helped by informers. Nice to know that nanny has created more opportunities in law enforcement and neighborhood watch.

I have never accepted that the state should tell me not to smoke in the company of other voluntary smokers. The problem of passive smoking could have been solved easily but requiring all public premises to provide smoke-free areas. "Ah", says the health fascist, "but we have to consider the health of people working in bars". Can we not find enough smokers who want to work in bars ? Parliament actually went further and banned smoking in private clubs, again justified on grounds of health and safety at work. I suggested to one of the civil servants who drafted these regulations (a Liberal forsooth) that clubs could have rooms to be cleaned by club members, in which no staff could be required to work. His response was that we couldn't trust people to do that. There speaks the authentic voice of the nanny-state. What are we going to do in the Smoking Room of the National Liberal Club now ?

Captions please

Moore of the same

Patrick Moore is reported as disliking modern television, for which I have some sympathy, but he blames it all on women. This is not an uncommon view amongst UKIP supporters like Moore and the UKIP MEP who complained in the European Parliament that women don't clean behind the fridge.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Saying nothing in Scotland

Reports of negotiations between Liberal Democrats and the SNP show that empty political rhetoric can be found north of the border as well as south.


"The Scottish Liberal Democrats will work constructively to promote our positive policies in the new parliament." Nicol Stephen


"Scotland voted for a new government last Thursday and I think it is now incumbent on all parties to see if we can put together that new progressive coalition to take the country forward." Nicola Sturgeon, SNP

The simple test of whether any political pronouncement contains any useful meaning is to ask yourself if anyone could support the opposite.


"The Scottish Liberal Democrats will work destructively to promote our negative policies in the new parliament." Any takers for that ?


"Scotland voted for a new government last Thursday and I think it is now incumbent on all parties to see if we can put together that old reactionary coalition to take the country backward." Not attractive, I think, even to a diehard Tory.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Mark Higson: another honest man

Radio 4's Friday play tonight Buried was the story of another Foreign Office man who wouldn't lie and broke the story of the UK's arms sales to Iraq, thus ruining his own career. You can still hear the play for the next seven days.

Craig Murray: An honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country*

I have just finished reading Murder in Samarkand by Craig Murray, former British ambassador who refused to lie for or to his country. The author's account of torture and oppression in Uzbekistan , sustained and supported by the USA and his denunciation of the regime of President Karimov and the attempts of the FCO to silence him have moved me to rage and tears. I urge everyone to read it. The Uzbek government is terrible, the American connivance is awful and the attitude of the Blair government, of Jack Straw and of the mandarins who manage our country's foreign policy is despicable.

*Attributed to Sir Henry Wotton, British Ambassador to Venice in the reign of James I.

These are the times that try men's souls

As I expected Greene King has bowed to the inevitable and re-admitted Harveys beer to the Lewes Arms. Congratulations to the Lewesians for a successful boycott !

A telling point

I was telling at a polling station in the evening sunshine yesterday. I was struck once again by the sheer normality and casualness of voting in the UK. Ballot papers were there on time, presiding officers were relaxed, chatty and trustworthy and there were no crowds of armed thugs to intimidate voters. And of course no parties banned from standing by the government.

People actually thanked me for taking down their numbers.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Nippon Nipper for Brown backbenchers

Hiroshi Ishiguro has created the ideal Labour backbencher. Called Geminoid, this lifelike robot can be used as a mouthpiece for its master's voice. Sssh ! Don't tell Gordon Brown.

I will fight them on the beaches...

Sorry. No posts for nearly a month. I've been busy fighting the Gestapo (otherwise known as the CSA). Never in the history of human finance, has so much been owed so unfairly... Although this organisation was created by the last Tory government, it really is the embodiment of Blairism. Take a noble and popular idea (in this case, responsible parenting) and create a mindless, centralised, unfair and inefficient bureaucracy which undermines and damages its own raison d'etre.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Ripeness is all

This morning in the bath I reluctantly put down (on a chair, not literally down) the highly amusing "A Campus Conspiracy" written by a very old and close friend, because I thought it time to catch up on the real world or at least the Today programme. As I switched on, I heard the interviewer say, "We have to stop there. Thank you Lord Falconer." Now that's what I call timing.

Wittgenstein in Ambridge

If you missed it the first time, listen to the repeat of Radio 4's "The Write Stuff" at 12.00 noon on Sunday, 1st April and wait for the end of the show, when you will hear an episode of the Archers as written by Tom Stoppard involving conversation in the Bull between the Grundies, Roooth et al and Ludwig Wittgenstein and Edward Munch.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Snuggery 3

Yet again it's a headteacher. Pupils at Bramhall High, Stockport have been forbidden to wear ordinary ties because they might get caught in something or set alight. They have to wear clip-on ties. Presumably detachable heads will also be provided to avoid the chance of anything as dangerous as knowledge getting into them by mistake.

The Lewes Arms - centre of civilisation

Thanks to Liberal England for alerting me to the plight of the Lewes Arms, which used to be my local. This excellent pub is now being boycotted by its regulars because the owners, Greene King, have withdrawn Harvey's bitter from sale, because it outsold their own brew.

Harvey's is based in Lewes and produces one of the best bitters in England. They also produce special brews for different seasons and events. When Lewes was flooded a few years ago, the brewery also suffered but they rescued some unbreached barrels from the river and sold the contents as Ouse booze.

The Lewes Arms was established in 1789, a good year for friends of liberty, including Tom Paine who lived in Lewes a few years earlier. The first time I went in there, I overheard a conversation at the bar about the relative merits of Herodotus and Livy as historians. I assumed that the people discussing this were academics from Sussex University down the road. When I got to know them, it turned out that one was a part-time barman and the other a former District Commissioner from Kenya and owner of a small and idiosyncratic restaurant in the town.

On another occasion, I was commenting that some chap had just won a Nobel Prize for discovering a new form of carbon called Buckminster-Fullerine. "That's Margaret's husband" responded my companion pointing to Margaret sitting behind me.

Such things do not happen in Chard.

Oh mother again ! Parliamentary priorities

Another triumph for the mother of parliaments ! On Friday the Commons debates Private Members' Bills, selected by the time-honoured method of a lottery (which is known bizarrely as a ballot !). Yesterday, they managed to agree to give more time to a bill liberalising the trade in number-plates but they didn't have time to finish debating the removal of prescription charges for cystic fibrosis sufferers. It is sometimes tempting to say with Cromwell "Take away this bauble". Why can't we have an assembly with reasonable procedures ?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Oh mother ! Abuse of parliamentary democracy ?

On the Today programme this morning the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster complained that the lack of a full debate in the Commons on the Equality Act and adoption services (see Nonsense on Stilts :devout vs out) was "an abuse of parliamentary democracy". Only a little acquaintance with our archaic and executive-dominated "Mother of parliaments" would show that it is the Commons itself which is an abuse of democracy.

To give but one example, the Trident debate. Firstly, opinion polls show that around half the country would be happy not to replace Trident (figures vary above and below 50%) yet not one MP tabled an amendment putting that position. If such an amendment had been tabled, the Speaker would probably not have called it for debate because he alone determines what is debated.

Finally, there are two reasonable ways to organise debate in legislatures. The traditional way is for debates to begin and end with speakers for and against the motion or amendment under discussion. The European Parliament way is to allot time to each party group according to their strength in numbers. The House of Commons conducts its debates on the basis of opening and closing speeches by the government and the "official opposition" thus ignoring or diminishing the role of any other parties. In the Trident debate where Labour and Conservative agreed on the motion, this meant two speeches in favour of Trident at the beginning and two more at the end.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

If at first you don't succeed, try, try, Trident again

As I suspected, the world's media was considerably less than overwhelmed by the Lib Dems' debate on Trident. The Independent on Sunday doesn't appear to know that we are in Harrogate. Well, I know their budget is tight and they probably couldn't afford to send someone to Yorkshire when their staff were all busy writing about fashion, Liz Hurley and Jade Goody. Still, we'll all go together when we go.

For months now I have been trying to ensure that my party, alone among the major parties, would have the courage to say, as most leading military and diplomatic authorities know, that Trident is useless, expensive and dangerous. Well, we nearly did. Only the last minute intervention of Ming himself swung the vote against rejecting Trident. Yet even with a powerful speech from Ming and another (less powerful) from Simon Hughes, they only won by 40 votes.
Our drafting could have been a little tighter, but in the end the politics of fear beat the politics of hope again.

Fear of an uncertain future was the argument for not renouncing Trident yet. Bruce Kent dealt with this argument in a fringe meeting on Friday night. You have to imagine an enemy so mad that they would use nuclear weapons but so sane that they would be deterred by ours. To this I would add: and then you have to imagine that this enemy wants to attack the UK and no-one else.

Fear of the media and other parties attacking us underlay the caution which now means that Lib Dems want to keep Trident for a few years more and then have another think about it. As one person who voted against our amendment said, "Can you imagine the headlines if you'd won ?" . Well, I can imagine the small paragraphs on the second or third page. I can also imagine how British politics could look if politicians stopped running scared and started showing leadership, but then what do I know ? After all, I opposed the Iraq war.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Chatham House Rules OK !

Hush, hush ! Whisper who dares. A political party is having a real debate about a life and death issue. I am, of course, referring to the Liberal Democrats who are discussing the future of Trident. Of course, we don't really want anyone to know, which may explain why all previous publicity about the Spring Conference in Harrogate talks about the major debate on Crime and one or two other matters. Oh and yes, there's also a debate on Trident. It does get a mention in the small print.

In an attempt to raise both the level and volume of debate, I have published some articles. In one of these, I quoted some of the very thin arguments advanced by members of the party's Federal Policy Committee. So far, so good. But I committed the unforgivable sin of identifying the mouths from which such wisdom gushed. If you don't know, the Chatham House Rule permits the repetition of what is spoken but forbids the identification of the speaker. If you don't know, and I didn't, this rule applies to that committee. It is perfectably understandable why anyone uttering such mindswill* as I heard at the committee would not want it repeated. What I cannot understand is the degree of indignation not to say bile, not to stay baseless slander which has bubbled, transpired and seeped from the committee.

The Chatham House Rule is a good rule and when I know it applies (e.g. at Chatham House) I respect it. I am sorry that I broke a rule which I didn't know applied. But I am much, much sorrier that there are still people in the Liberal Democrats who think that Britain still needs to waste a fortune threatening the rest of the world with weapons of mass destruction.

*"Mindswill : an unintentional neologism coined by misprint and describing arguments of no value.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Snuggery snugged

Remember snuggery - the bureaucratic brandishing of health-and-safety to banish all risk. Well here's a healthy dose of schadenfreude. A professional snugger has been snugged.

Edward Hutcheson, a health and safety expert, has been banned from driving after he was caught shaving as he overtook a line of rush hour traffic at 70mph on the A9 near Auchterarder. He was seen leaning forward to look in his rear view mirror as he used an electric shaver. He had two excuses. (1) He was late for a first aid course. (2) He had been leaning across the car at an awkward angle so he could see past a dozen mannequins he had stored in the back of his car. But Perth Sheriff Court is cut from harder granite and they banned him for six months and fined him £300. As Fife Robertson would undoubtedly have said, the people of Auchterarder will sleep safe in their beds tonight.

Normal service will be resumed...

I have had some messages complaining that I'm not blogging enough. No, really. I have two excuses, no three, no... Amongst my excuses are: tax return, gout and trying to persuade the Liberal Democrats to make up their minds about Trident. Blair says we need it (presumably to continue with our role as Deputy Dawg to Marshall Bush), Cameron says he agrees (just to show that he's also a tough guy and doesn't just go around on a bike hugging hoodies) and Ming and the Liberal Democrats respond with a resounding, "Er...wait and see". I say decide NOW not to replace Trident. Despite the fact that it is very difficult to find speakers who actually want to defend Trident, it is turning out to be very hard work to push the party off the fence. A few short arguments follow in the next post. If you want more, go to :

Trident: Seven arguments and a comment or two

The ethical argument

"What is this ethical argument that everyone talks about ?"
Michael Moore, LD Foreign Affairs Spokesman

No ethical basis exists for the use of nuclear weapons which would kill millions of innocent civilians. The ethical argument for keeping nukes is the belief that their existence deters others from using theirs. This argument depends upon a radical contradiction: we would never use nukes but our enemies must believe that we might.

The environmental argument

Protection of our environment is a cause which should be close to every Liberal Democrat heart. Urgent action on climate change is about the human rights of future generations; it is about their right to live in a habitable planet. We must not fail them.” Ming Campbell, 16/06/06

The use of nukes would have disastrous and persistent consequences for the environment, well beyond the lifetimes of the antagonists and over a wider area than their own part of the planet. By the way, nukes are not the answer to climate change or its consequences.(This may seem self-evident but the Liberal Democrat background paper includes the following statement as part of the argument for not deciding about Trident yet: "We can be fairly certain that climate change will have serious consequences, possibly leading to greater potential for conflict, as expanding populations have to manage with shrinking fertile territory.")

The non-proliferation argument
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is a bargain between Nuclear-Weapon States (NWS), who promise to negotiate in good faith to get rid of nukes, and Non-Nuclear Weapon States, who promise in return not to develop them. Hans Blix and Kofi Annan have warned that NWS, like the UK and USA, are not keeping their side of the bargain. If safe countries like the UK keep nukes, what can we say to unsafe ones, like Iran, who want them ? It’s time to end the hypocritical stance “Do as I say, not as I do”.

The military/strategic argument
Trident cannot be used for war-fighting. Nukes have not kept UK and its territories free from attack nor has lack of nukes exposed others to attack. Many senior soldiers and diplomats now oppose Trident. One retired general summarised Trident as: “useless, expensive and dangerous”. The defence of the UK actually requires more and better equipped infantry and air and naval transport. Trident is a bad use of scarce resources.

The independence argument
Trident is dependent on US co-operation; the US provides us with nuclear weapon designs and the missiles are stored and serviced in the US. This dependence influences UK governments to follow US foreign policy to the detriment of our country’s true interests and our relationships with the rest of Europe and the Middle East.

The insurance argument
Britain is more secure from direct threat from foreign states than at any time in history. If Trident is insurance against unantici­pated threats to national survival, we are paying a high premium against a highly unlikely risk. That the future is always uncertain can be used to justify the development of any weapons system (nuclear, biological or chemical or anything else) by any country.

The financial argument
New submarines would cost £20bn (capital), £75bn (capital and running costs). Instead, we should use the money to strengthen our overstretched forces and equip them properly. Taking a wider look at our country’s security we could spend more fighting against famine, disease, poverty and environmental disaster.

Nonsense on stilts: Devout vs Out

Finally it’s happened – an actual debate in the cabinet. Just when I was certain that the British Cabinet had finally joined what Bagehot was pleased to call “the dignified part of the constitution” , they sit down and have a full-scale argument. What was the issue that provoked genuine debate and a short return to the habits of democracy amongst our lords and masters, ladies and mistresses ? Was it perhaps Trident ? Was it the National Health Service ? No, of course not. This unexpected resurgence of rhetoric and reason was reserved for that vital issue of our times: “Should Roman Catholic Adoption Agencies be forced to provide services to gay couples ?”

Sorry, did I say “rhetoric and reason” ? Just rhetoric and at the heart of it, the rigmarole of rights, the rights of gay people not to suffer discrimination and the rights of religious people to have their beliefs respected. Jeremy Bentham held that all talk of rights is nonsense, but that talk of natural rights was nonsense upon stilts. I will not go so far, but I agree with him about natural rights. Rights do not come from nature or God or DNA. Rights are created by man, sitting in assemblies and congresses, conventions and courts. They are legal matters and nothing is less natural than the law. When we add the word “human” to rights, we are only asserting that we think that all human beings should have the legal protection that some of us enjoy.

No declaration or statute that I am aware of gives any human being the right to adopt a child, nor should it. Adopting a child is a privilege, not a right. The child has rights under British law, which parents and anyone acting in loco parentis must respect. To protect those rights, it is sensible to legislate for minimum standards in the conduct of adoption agencies. It is not sensible to regard the activity of adoption agencies as a consumer service like catering or interior decorating, to be regulated in the same way. If we must use the commercial metaphor, the agency’s client is the child not the parent.

On the other side of the argument, why should we treat religious beliefs as in any way superior to other beliefs ? If I as an atheist think that bringing up children to believe in supernatural entities without evidence of their existence (and indeed in the face of the evidence of pain in the world) is wrong and if I decide to set up an adoption agency which will not help religious parents, should I be stopped ? The beliefs of some Christians that lead them to oppose gay parenting are of no greater significance than my non-religious beliefs.

By escalating differences of opinion about parenting and sexual orientation into a conflict of rights, we are only making matters worse. As long as adoption agencies protect children, they should be free to apply their beliefs (religious or not) in selecting parents. So why has the Blair government got its knickers in such a twist ? Money. Money and Law. Apparently the Roman Catholic Agencies receive state funding. The deep-seated authoritarianism that lurks only just below the surface of New Labour has erupted again. The state pays so the state will decide the rules. Not completely unreasonable, but why as always reach for the statute book ? If the government feels the need, as it undoubtedly does, to micro-manage all public expenditure including grants to adoption agencies, they can attach compliance conditions to the grants. Is this different from changing the law ? Yes. It respects the vital difference between public and private, vital to any Liberal that is. Change the law and you change how every agency, private or public, can operate. Change compliance conditions on state grants and you leave private agencies without state funding free to have a different approach.

And wouldn’t it be nice if this oh-so-self-righteous cabal of ministers, who parade their concern for gay would-be fathers and mothers, would do something for actual divorced fathers who get to see their children once a fortnight if they are lucky and sometimes not at all ?