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 This excellent pub is now being boycotted by its regulars because the owners, Greene King, have withdrawn Harvey's bitter from sale, because it outsold their own brew.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.