Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Honeymoon over. On with married life.

Of course it was foolish of Vince to talk about Murdoch to people he didn't know, but generally the Telegraph's exposures will have served the cause of grown-up politics. Tim Farron handled it beautifully on the Today programme this morning. It's about time Nick Clegg stopped pretending that the coalition is a love match. We want people to know that the Liberal Democrats are different from the Conservatives and to understand that a compromise is what it says, not our heart's desire to be defended to death. The honeymoon is over. Let's get on with married life (two beds, of course).

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Polar bears in Pimlico

Four days in London. Too much to eat and drink. Cold and sometimes damp. More languages heard than in four years in Chard. Marvellous, but gout continues. Criticism and mistrust of Liberal Democrats in all quarters. Do our great leaders understand the damage they have done ? The Independent describes Danny Alexander as an intellectual !!!!! On Monday night he won the coveted David Austick Memorial Tea Trolley award which is given annually to the person who has had greatness thrust upon them for no obvious merit of their own.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Are they related ?

I am enjoying the complete seven series of Rumpole on DVD (Guardian offer) and cannot help noticing the extraordinary resemblance between Claude Erskine-Brown and Sandy Walkington. I wonder if perhaps they are related. Perhaps we should be told.

Talk to your party first, Vince !

I have written to a number of Lib Dem MPs who voted for the rise in tuition fees, along these lines:

"I am disappointed that you didn’t feel able to vote against the rise in tuition fees. Surely the whips must have told the front bench the strength of opinion in the parliamentary party ? I’m guessing – and Vince’s comments on the Today Programme this morning confirm it – that the government developed this policy and THEN tried to sell it to the Lib Dem MPs. I am convinced that Lib Dem ministers need to discuss matters more carefully with their parliamentary colleagues BEFORE negotiating and announcing policies agreed with their Conservative colleagues in government.

I think the tuition fees policy is wrong and some of the arguments in its favour spurious but above all the mishandling of the issue has done damage to the party from which we will never entirely recover. No doubt we will rise above our current 8% but I believe that MPs who think it will all be forgotten by the time of the next election are whistling in the dark. Given the Labour Party’s current disarray, we have handed them an unnecessary victory as a reward for their opportunistic hypocrisy.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

"I believe it's time for promises to be kept" - Nick Clegg

It may or may not have been foolish for any MP to sign the pledge on tuition fees. Most did it fully believing in it. Our party had debated the issue and refused to downgrade our opposition to tuition fees to a mere "aspiration".

I am not so sure about the motives of at least two of our coalition negotiators, David Laws and Danny Alexander. David never liked the pledge and signed it very reluctantly. Danny Alexander had already concluded in March that we would not be able to honour the pledge if entering a coalition. Yet both campaigned in the election on the strength of the pledge. The coalition agreement recognised the difficulty by allowing for abstention, but then Vince Cable negotiated a deal which his colleagues could not accept. It's not the first time Vince has developed policy without much regard for his colleagues.

What I don't understand or accept is the argument that Shirley Williams made on WATO this lunchtime which is that we cannot afford to continue state funding of universities at the current level. Replacing this funding by loans and grants doesn't save a penny in the short to medium term. In the long run it may turn out expensive too not only for the graduates but for the government if the default rate is high or many graduates finds themselves unemployed or on low incomes.

So raising tuition fees will not save money in the short term in which the government insists on cutting the deficit. One can only conclude that the policy is for the long term, which means that Vince and those who support his policy have abandoned the party's stated policy, still on the party's website: "Liberal Democrats believe university education should be free and everyone who has the ability should be able to go to university and not be put off by the cost.". What are the chances that when the government sells off the banks, the proceeds will be used to abolish tuition fees or will they simply be applied to offering tax cuts at the next election ?

Finally, let's remember Nick Clegg's pitch on new politics at the General Election. Here's what he said in a PPB as he walked along a street strewn with broken promises by Labour and the Conservatives:

"I believe it's time for promises to be kept. We can say goodbye to broken promises"

Which minister is that then ?

Grauniad has odd choice of picture to illustrate rebellion by Lib Dem MPs.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Blast from the past: 1974 election

Whilst searching for something else I came across this great clip from coverage of the 1974 General Election. Anyone recognise who this is ? If you don't, check the video.

Tuition fees and Labour hypocrisy

I remain as vehemently opposed to tuition fees as ever but I am sick to death of Labour hypocrisy over the subject. (Here's an example from their demo outside our conference in Plymouth). We all know that if there were a Labour government today they would be increasing tuition fees as recommended by the Browne Report which they commissioned. Here's their duplicitous record.

July 1997
Education Secretary David Blunkett announces the introduction of means-tested tuition fees (to begin in September 1998). The student grant of £1,710 is abolished to be replaced by income-contingent student loans.

June 7 2001
Labour is re-elected with a manifesto pledge stating that it "will not introduce top-up fees and has legislated against them"

January 22 2003
Less than two years after pledging not to introduce top-up fees, Labour (Charles Clarke this time) publishes a white paper setting out proposals allowing universities to set their own tuition fees up to a cap of £3,000 a year.

Let's not forget the Conservatives.
May 12 2003
Conservative party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, pledges that all university tuition fees would be abolished under a future Conservative government, condemning tuition fees as "a tax on learning".

I am not for a moment saying that Labour and Conservative behaviour excuses broken pledges by Liberals, but all those demonstrating now should think twice before blaming everything on us. When I pointed this out to the girl with the megaphone in Plymouth (see video) and asked who she would vote for, she replied, "I think I'll just hang myself."

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Whatever you do, don't abstain !

I should, of course, publish a long reply to Ed's well-informed remarks on tuition fees. For the moment, I content myself with saying that his view of higher education - and it's a common one today - is a commercial one in which education is regarded as a commodity and the student as a consumer. Many people in government share this view. It may explain why another feature of the settlement is a massive reduction in state support for arts degrees.

I don't share this view. Education, including higher education, remains for me not only a private good, but a public good because it is the silver bullet which makes a society happier and healthier and not merely wealthier. As the Liberal Democrat education policy Equity and Excellence says, "Liberal Democrats believe in freedom. A free society is one in which no person is enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity".

You can defend the university settlement as Nick Clegg does in today's Independent on Sunday and vote in favour of it.

You can stick to the oft and widely repeated pledges to the voters, of which this is but one sample: "Liberal Democrats believe tuition fees are wrong", an extract from "Why vote Liberal Democrat" edited by Danny Alexander and published on 1st March 2010 two weeks before he wrote in a confidential memo " On tuition fees we should seek agreement on part-time students and leave the rest. We will have clear yellow water with the other [parties] on raising the tuition fee cap, so let us not cause ourselves more headaches." and two months before he campaigned on a promise TO VOTE AGAINST ANY INCREASE IN FEES. This particular memo shows not only a willingness to deceive the voters but an appalling lack of political judgement concerning other parties' positions and the public reaction.

This isn't a question of a manifesto commitment which we can't fulfil because "we didn't win the election". This isn't about failing to do something because we can't. It's doing something we promised not to.

So I conclude: VOTE AGAINST. But above all, don't abstain. Abstention is a ridiculous option. It shows how the Westminster bubble focuses its occupants inwards and obscures the real world through a veneer of parliamentary procedure. Abstention would annoy the Tories but simultaneously do nothing to assuage the tide of hostile public opinion. It would confirm many people’s prejudices about Liberal Democrats.

Ustinov Films answer

The answer to the film quiz was "The Way Ahead" also featuring David Niven, Stanley Holloway, William Hartnell and many others. I suppose nowadays it would have been titled "Going Forward". The other film in which Ustinov was a North African innkeeper was "Hotel Sahara".

Congratulations to John Leston who got it first and to Hoonaloon who half got it later.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Friday Film Quiz - The Beveridge Report

In this film, British soldiers stationed in North Africa are not welcomed by the innkeeper(Peter Ustinov} and they wonder why.

"What's up with him ?"
"He hasn't read the Beveridge Report".
"Nor have I"

What's the name of the film ?

Bonus question: In which other film does Ustinov play a North African innkeeper ?

Is God determined to stop a deal in CancĂșn ?

George Monbiot reminds us that weather is NOT climate. Did you know that 2010 is likely to be one of the three warmest years on record ?

(the map is from NASA)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Ed comments on my modest proposals

My modest proposals sparked a rash of comments on Facebook. Here is a response by an old friend, Ed Maxfield, which was too long for FB, so I'm posting it here. Ed is Senior Communications Officer for Universities UK but his comments here are made entirely in a personal capacity.

The first thing to say is this is not an argument about whether politicians should stick to the promises they make/the pledges they sign. That is an entirely legitimate but different question.
Now, a parable. In the 1960s a large number of well meaning politicians on the left were staunch defenders of the grammar school system because, based on their own personal experience, they offered bright working class kids an opportunity for social mobility. Unfortunately the model suffered from three fatal weaknesses. The first was that it was predicated on a model of the economy that was rapidly becoming out of date: it trained a small number of people to do professional jobs and a large number people to do technical jobs at a time when manufacturing industry was declining and the service sector was growing.
The second weakness was that the system was structured horizontally. It worked fine if the world was based around an economy that kept people in their place and in return guaranteed them a job for life. But in truth the economy and the aspirations of people were changing. Business was increasingly becoming organised vertically – what was needed was more people equipped with the mental skills to add value to a business so that bright people could rise through the ranks however they entered the jobs market (increasingly, changing employer and sector numerous times).
The third weakness was how tightly rationed places among the elite schools were. The rich didn’t mind - they could pay for a solution by sending their children to private schools. What finally killed grammar schools was that the expanding middle class found that its kids couldn’t get into grammar schools because there weren’t enough places. The system failed to meet their aspirations and was running the risk of reversing social mobility.
Back to the present, then, and your proposals for higher education. There are three: that higher education should be free at the point of delivery for students and funded wholly from general taxation, through an increase in the basic rate of income tax and a change in the threshold for the higher rate; that there should be a programme of forced ‘mergers and even closures of some universities’; that there should be a training levy on firms over a certain size to part fund universities.
Let me deal with the third one first. I have no problem with the business community making a larger contribution to the cost of higher education. Indeed, Richard Lambert, outgoing DG of the CBI made exactly that point in a speech recently. But why fall back on generalised compulsion? Modern universities already have extensive links with businesses providing services that those businesses pay for: research, bespoke training etc. Some employers already provide bursaries to pay the costs of higher education for students they want to employ as graduates. And there is an extensive range of sandwich courses of course. If you compelled all businesses to pay, regardless of their graduate employment needs wouldn’t you risk removing some key incentives in the system? At the moment employers get what they judge they need for their business. It’s quite likely that businesses will respond to higher fees by increasing the number of bursaries available to ensure they have enough appropriately trained graduates coming into their business. It’s also quite possible that they will respond by increasing graduate salaries (I believe there is some evidence of this from the US but I haven’t been able to locate it). I don’t see what ‘ill’ you are trying to correct here by using state compulsion that would do better than the current system of freely entered into contracts. At worst it would remove an existing incentive for universities to make their courses relevant by giving them a pot of money with no strings attached. Or you would rely on government bureaucrats planning the future needs of the economy and directing money into courses selected by those bureaucrats on the basis of those projections.
Your second assertion is that there should be a forced merger and closure of universities, presumably to cut costs. Shall I overlook the fact that universities are independent institutions so you would be proposing to nationalise them first?
OK, I shall. But even then, the first question has to be: which universities would you close? Manchester, perhaps, that employs half the people in John Leech’s constituency and educates the other half? Or maybe Exeter which helps to fund the only higher education presence in Cornwall? Or do we really mean the new universities because, of course, they are not proper universities. Derby, for instance, which has a well defined mission to recruit students locally in an area with traditionally low levels of progression to HE and which has established fantastic links with local businesses to help graduates into employment.
There is a very good publication that you can find on the Universities UK website that sets out the impact of universities on regional economies. As well as educating thousands of people who go on to generally pay more taxes than the average (and be healthier and happier and live longer), they employ thousands of people (only about half of whom are academics), they provide research outputs and ‘knowledge transfer’ that benefits local employers, and they generate millions of pounds of income for local businesses from book binders to carpet fitters to late night corner shops.
Now, I suspect that what you really mean is that there are too many people doing ‘Mickey Mouse Degrees’ so we should restrict the number of places available. Let’s not overlook the fact that doing that will also result in bankruptcies and job losses at universities. But let’s take a slightly wider view. And here we begin come back to those grammar schools.
You could, indeed, decide that there are too many people going to university and that we would be better providing more apprenticeships. The problem is that the future economy is demanding more graduates not fewer. Recent research from the Commission for Education and Skills tells us that between 2007 and 2017 just under 2.2 million jobs in the three occupational groups most likely to require graduate level skills will be created in the UK – this is compared to a net loss of 220,000 jobs in other, less skilled groups. Furthermore, the skills that graduates acquire are highly transferable. They help graduates to progress upwards. An apprenticeship is fine but what if the skill you learn from it is redundant in 10 years time? And will it provide you with the skills to become the marketing director, the finance director or the CEO? It is no accident that our major economic competitors are all increasing the number of people they educate at university.
And there is another massive problem with restricting the number of places available at university: you risk restricting access to the better off and throwing social mobility into reverse. Simply put, the evidence shows that universities level out opportunity – the further you progress through higher education the less where you came from matters to what you achieve. But rich parents can afford to put dumb kids into the best schools. Either by paying directly for private education or by paying higher house prices to live in the right catchment area.
Would it not be better to remove government control of numbers at university altogether as Lord Browne in his original proposal suggested? That way students can make their own choices about the appropriate level and method of education for them. That would seem to me to be an altogether more liberal approach. I can do no better than to quote our own higher education minister, David Willetts:
“The attitude towards some so-called Mickey Mouse courses is a classic example of the information problem. There is an assumption that all of those courses must be useless, but when you look at the hard evidence, it’s just not the case.”
So we come to the crux of the matter. Education should be free. Free education is a noble aspiration. But what do we actually mean? We can’t mean ‘free for life for anyone who wants it and for as long as they like’ because then everyone would opt for 40 years of education and there would be no one working to pay for it.
We must mean that education is rationed. You are right to point out that education is provided by the state without charge up to the age of 18. But why stop at level 4? Why not fund everyone to do an MA or a PhD? Why not raise the education leaving age to 21 for all? And, remember, in answering those questions you cannot refer to the benefits that accrue to the individual, only to the benefits that accrue to society as a whole so you can justify funding them solely through general taxation.
The truth is that ‘the age of majority’ gives you a rough and ready guiding line about where the state should stop paying and the individual adult should start making their own decisions.
I went to university in 1985 along with about 70 or 80 thousand other people. Last year almost 400,000 people were given the opportunity to go to university. That is a fantastically good thing. But it also explains why it is so difficult for the state to fully fund a degree.
Under the government’s proposals students will not have to pay fees (unless they are from outside the EU or are engaged in part time study over a very long period). Instead, the government pays the fees and provides a loan to the students. Graduates will pay back the loan but only if they are earning over 21,000 and if they still owe money after 30 years it is written off. This is a very substantial subsidy from the state for higher education – so substantial in fact that some, like HEPI and the IFS, have questioned whether we can afford it.
That is a far better system than a graduate tax or even than funding it through general taxation because it retains the direct link between the institution and the graduate. The funding is hypothecated (so it cant be spent on Trident instead) and the institution is incentivised to maximise the value it offers to the student consumer.
There is also grant funding and universities will be compelled to take action on fair access if they want to charge a higher fee. The government could do more: it could offer ‘first year free’ deals for the less well off, for example if it chose to. You need to talk to Vince, Danny, George and Dave about what they plan to spend the money on as we come out of recession. It is a rough and ready method for recognising the public benefit of a degree and for ensuring that no one is barred from going to university because of what their family earns. But I dont believe that nationalising university funding will provide a better system.
And there is one final piece of the jigsaw that has not yet been revealed. Understandably the NUS (and the media) talk in terms of 9,000 a year fees being a given. But surely students would only agree to pay that if they thought they could make a profit on it? The government will publish a White Paper next year that will probably make some radical changes on the ‘supply side’ of higher education. If more places become available (rather than the fewer you suggest) through new suppliers that is likely to drive down the market price. And dont forget, too, that the changes to the system are likely to alter the way students demand their higher education is delivered. The ‘traditional’ image of a student who leaves home at 18 or 19 to study continuously for 3 years is already barely a majority of those in higher education. With the better package on offer to part time students far more will opt for that route, combining study with employment. With higher fees it is likely that students will demand other new modes of delivery. The private university of Buckingham, for instance, delivers its degrees over two years and has some of the highest student satisfaction rates among students of any UK university.
Modern universities are no longer finishing schools for the intellectual elite. They are engine rooms of the economy. We should celebrate the huge opportunities on offer, not restrict them. We should enable students to make their own choices not have politicians make them for them. We cant revisit Brideshead, and nor should we try.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gout takes over !

Sorry, thoughts of tuition fees, coalitions,Trident and the meaning of life have all given way to an attack of gout. This famously funny ailment just drives everything else out. From Wikipedia, I learn that only humans and apes get it because we have lost the ability of other animals to produce uricase which breaks down uric acid. However, the Tyrannosaurus rex specimen known as "Sue" is believed to have suffered from gout. Also cold spells can trigger attacks as uric acid crystals form more easily, so the demise of my boiler in November may be responsible. Around 400 BC, Hippocrates noted the absence of gout in eunuchs and premenopausal women, which is no help to me.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Instead of tuition fees - modest proposals

People rightly ask opponents of tuition fees what would we do instead. My alternatives are actually very unlikely to happen. I cling to the old-fashioned view that education at all levels should be free and that society as a whole benefits from having well-educated citizens. We don't ask sixth-formers to contribute to the costs of their education just because they might earn higher incomes later. Nor should we ask undergraduates. I also regard a lot of current degree courses as pretty useless and meeting vocational purposes better served by apprenticeships or sandwich courses. I would therefore do the following:

1) At least 2p on basic rate of income tax;
2) lower the threshold for the 50% additional rate to £100,000;
3) force mergers and even closures of some universities;
4) re-introduce a training levy on firms over a certain size, which can be remitted if training is provided by the firms.

Tories would resist 1,2 and 4. Labour would be scared of 1 and 2 and oppose 3. Both subscribe to the childish notion that you can have high quality public services AND low taxation. It's time someone told the electorate the bleeding obvious - as a society, we get what we pay for.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tuition fees - is there a coalition crisis ?

William Cullerne Bown, journalist, has revealed a briefing by Universities UK to Vice-Chancellors which suggests a sizeable rebellion of Lib Dem MPs and even ministers over tuition fees. Of course, any chance of a rebellion stopping a rise in fees depends upon the hypocrisy of the Labour Party, who introduced fees and would put them up if in power. Given that there is no lack of hypocrisy in Labour, a rebellion could succeed.

The kindest cut of all - abolish the UKTI DSO

In September the Liberal Democrat Conference voted " shut UK Trade and Investment's Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO), without transferring its functions elsewhere, and to end export credit support for military goods." Our noble friends in the Lords are currently debating the Public Bodies Bill which empowers ministers to abolish quangos. What better body for quangocide than the DSO ? Strangely it isn't in the bill.

The Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) produced "Private Gain, Public Pain" a report on the DSO as symbolised by the elephant in the picture, in which you can also see Vince Cable speaking at a DSO symposium this month.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Western Liberals smoked out

Whilst smoking my pipe outside the Joint Regional Conference of Devon and Cornwall and Western Counties Liberal Democrats in Plymouth today, I came across this living proof of the social range of the party. Note that the wall ashtray holds a used Rizla packet from a roll-up user and the butt of a cigar from the more prosperous smoker who, I am reliably informed, was Chris Fox, party chief executive.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bread and Circuses

We live in an age of bread and circuses, as did Juvenal. Actually I have no objection to "circuses" including royal ones. We all need cheering up. What I object to is the coming rationing of "bread". Despite all the noise about the government's deficit, Britain remains a wealthy country, but the wealth is concentrated. At a recent local discussion a nice comfortably-off lady (Somerset has more than its share) commented on benefit cuts, "Anyone can manage on £10 a week less". She's right of course - about people like herself. Conclusion - cut less, tax more. If you still think drastic cuts are the solution, read Skidelsky and somebody lend George Osborne an economics A-level textbook as Keynes' own writings may be a bit technical for him.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Twisting the Tonge

Jenny Tonge spoke on conflict prevention in the Lords debate on the Strategic Security and Defence Review on Friday. She referred to Israel's treatment of Palestinians and, as ever, a well-organised media response condemned her. It is instructive to see how by slight textual changes her meaning was misrepresented. You may say that Jenny should choose her words more carefully but to what purpose if her actual words will always be twisted against her ?

She said:
"Prevention of conflict also means that we must start being honest about international law and UN resolutions. It is a disgrace to us all that problems such as Kashmir and Palestine are still alienating Muslims all over the world. The treatment of Palestinians by Israel is held up as an example of how the west treats Muslims and is at the root cause of terrorism worldwide." [My emphasis]

In the Jerusalem Post report, this became:
"Jenny Tonge claimed on Friday that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is the root cause of terrorism worldwide.".[My emphasis again]

and the headline was:
"British politician: ‘Israel is the root cause of terrorism'"[my emphasis]

Subtle but significant changes in emphasis so once again Jenny is attacked for what she did NOT say. Any British politician who dares to criticise the Israeli government's policies and conduct is immediately labelled anti-Israeli and often anti-semitic. Jenny herself went on to say:
"I feel sorry for the people of Israel sometimes. Their Government's policies have made that country the cause of a lot of the world's problems..."

Sunday, November 14, 2010

22 Days in May

From David Laws' insider account of coalition negotiations serialised in the Daily Mail (!) three points emerge.
1. Labour was divided with senior figures against a deal (we knew that anyway).
2. David Laws was much more comfortable negotiating with the Conservatives than he was dealing with his own party (suspicion confirmed by his own words).
3. We don't have "new politics" in Britain. Other European countries have established procedures for serious coalition negotiations. We have a mad scramble to reach agreement in a few days and, if possible, before the markets open. Even the Americans have a sensible transition period between administrations.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Good news and bad news

First, the good. Aung San Suu Kyi released. This must outweigh all the other news today. Tim Farron elected Lib Dem President: OK, not on the same scale, but good news nevertheless as we may now hear some Liberal Democrat policies being promoted for a change.

Now the bad. Chiefly and so depressingly the Guardian reports "Revealed: Lib Dems planned before election to abandon tuition fees pledge.". If this true, then we have all been lied to and I am not sure that I can remain in a party whose leadership shows such contempt for its members.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mr Gladstone travelling on a bus

A request from my old friend Jonathan sends me to the bookshelf to check "The Liberal Party" in the Britain in Pictures series. The link takes you to the whole book on-line but I cannot resist quoting Lord Woolton at Birmingham, in March 1947, who said, "There is a great liberal sentiment in this country. There is now no major issue between Liberalism and Conservatism. They are both expressions of the same political philosophy, and those old battles that used to enliven political life in the days gone by, between Liberals and Tories, are now just ancient and meaningless feuds."

How sad ! How, I declare, untrue. Perhaps some of our Liberal Democrat ministers should take a ride in a bus occasionally.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Votes for prisoners

Listening to the radio today is getting very bad for my blood pressure. Is there anyone left in the leadership of the Liberal Democrats who actually understands Liberalism ? I waited in vain for a Liberal view on this question on Any Questions. Stupid of me to expect it from Michael Moore. Shami Chakrabarti gave it on Question Time on Thursday, not Jeremy Browne. Even the callers on Any Answers expressed more Liberal views !

Voting is NOT a privilege but a fundamental right. Removing the vote is akin to the mediaeval practice of declaring a person an outlaw, someone who loses their legal rights. We want to reform criminals. It isn't easy but why stop someone from showing a modest degree of social responsibility by voting ?

Removing the vote has NO deterrent or punitive value whatever. Who is going to say, "Oh, I don't think I'll murder my wife, I might lose the vote if I do that".

Some panellists tried to argue that you shouldn't lose the vote for certain crimes, e.g."crimes of conscience". What the hell does that mean ? Protesting at a nuclear base may be seen as a crime of conscience. What about the girl who tried to kill an MP because he voted for the Iraq War ? The action was worse but the motive was a matter of conscience. Who would decide what counts ? You couldn't let that be decided by politicians.

Changing my vote to Tim Farron

Tim Farron has made it clear that he will keep his pledge to vote against increasing tuition fees, despite no doubt pressure from the leadership and the whips to support Vince's terrible compromise. Susan Kramer, under no such pressure, made clear on the Week in Westminster this morning that she will support Vince. I nominated Susan because I have long believed that an MP should not represent the party membership as conflicts between party and parliamentary loyalty will inevitably arise. Both are good candidates but Tim has shown his independence and Susan her establishment credentials.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tuition Fees

Nick Clegg met the Chilean President Sebastian Pinera today, presumably to ask him how to get out of the deep hole Vince Cable has buried the party in.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

All you need is love

It's been an emotional morning. I watched the rescue of Chilean miners. Here was Archimedes' fulcrum - "Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the world", images instantly around the globe. I thought of the first time we saw live video from inside a warzone, CNN in Baghdad during the 1st Gulf War and then of that first live global television link, Our World,on 25th June 1967, when 400 million people in 26 countries watched the Beatles sing All you need is love. I remembered the hippy hopes and joy of the late 1960s and all that has happened since.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Now is the time for all good men (and women) to come to the aid of the party

“Liberal Democrats are the only party which believes university education should be free and everyone who has the ability should be able to go to university and not be put off by the cost.”
LibDem manifesto 2010.

Did we mean it ? If we give way on this issue, we will not only lose the votes of a generation, we will signal to the Conservatives that we are a pushover.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Coalition and the real alternative

Critical indeed fanatical opponents of the coalition implicitly compare it with their imagined ideal of government, usually some mythical version of Labour government which never existed. In the real world the choice was between the coalition and a Tory minority government followed by a general election and a majority Tory government. I put this to choice to a Labour supporter and virulent critic of the coalition and she replied she would have preferred the Tory minority government and the risk of their subsequent majority.

Paul Walters has drawn attention to one of the small but important effects of having a coalition - Nick Clegg's influence on the child benefit decision. It's an example of the Liberal Democrats' power to stop or mitigate bad things. We also need to be able to promote good ones.

Fairness ?

The Today programme discussed the Equality and Human Rights Commission's report How fair is Britain ? Humphries asked Trevor Philips what fairness means and Philips demonstrated the vagueness of the idea. Such discussion often ignores two issues.

Firstly, outcomes are often measured in monetary terms which take no account of personal life choices. Some people seek other things than wealth.

Secondly, discussion of ethnic issues is often taboo. Interesting that there is no gap in educational achievement between rich and poor Chinese children but a 20% gap for Indian children. I can't find the figures for white or Caribbean British children (forgive me if these are not the currently politically correct terms). Some people have attempted to identify racial differences in intelligence relying on notoriously vague and unscientific definitions of both race and intelligence. However, it would be equally prejudicial to deny cultural differences between groups which, for example, have enormous impact on children's performance at school.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

So farewell then, Norman Wisdom

Albania's favourite filmstar has died. Did you know he was popular in France too ? At a meeting in Rouen a few years ago I noticed the puzzled faces of British civil servants. Charged with negotiating with the French, they of course only spoke English and were listening on headphones to the English interpreter as the Prefect of Upper Normandy reminded us of the need for la sagesse Normande. Naturally they were surprised to hear a French official insisting "What we need is Norman wisdom".

Friday, October 01, 2010

Federalisms - East and West

Just returned from an excellent conference on Federalisms organised by the Europaeum at St Anthony's College, Oxford. As well as the usual suspects, there were academics, politicians and journalists from India, USA and Europe. I found myself next to the complacent turncoat Roger Liddle at dinner but this was more than compensated for by the wonderful Bridget Kendall, whom I have always wanted to meet and didn't know was going to be there.
My visit was crowned by an hour in Blackwell's where I found that Iain Dale had included this blog in Total Politic's Guide to Political Blogging in the UK. Of course I had to buy a copy - it's only polite. It's a sort of vicarious vanity publishing.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Trident and the Marquess of Salisbury

On Wednesday morning, the Liberal Democrat Conference unanimously passed a motion calling for Trident to be included in the Strategic Security and Defence Review. For a few days the debate can be found on BBC I-Player. The Financial Times decided that Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge, looked like an anarchist and I looked like the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. Actually the Marquess looks more like Kropotkin than any of us. The Grauniad called me David Grave.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Try, try, Trident again !

The Liberal Democrat Conference Committee has allowed very little time for emergency motions proposed by members. There are two slots, one of which they have given to a motion on floods in Pakistan which nobody will oppose and will not really require debate. Six perfectly good motions are left to compete for the remaining slot. The ballot between these motions is also so arranged to limit participation. Ballot forms will be handed out on Sunday morning to be returned by 1.00 pm on Sunday. Why such a short period when the chosen debate won't be until Wednesday morning ?

If you agree that now is the time to push on Trident, vote for this motion:

Emergency Motion No.6

Conference notes that:

In July the Chancellor announced that the Ministry of Defence will have to fund the £20-£30bn capital costs of a ‘like for like’ replacement for Trident. The Defence Secretary has warned that this means severe restrictions in the way Britain operates militarily, regiments could be axed or the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy amalgamated. The exclusion of Trident from the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) is now untenable. It should be included and receive the scrutiny which strategic, political and financial circumstances demand.

Conference calls on the Liberal Democrat ministers to:

Press for the extension of the SDSR to allow a full review of the alternatives to ‘like-for-like’ replacement of Trident;

Ensure the SDSR considers cost-saving options such as ending continuous at-sea patrols and extending the life of Vanguard submarines;

Ensure the SDSR makes explicit the opportunity cost of Trident replacement – in terms of cuts to troop numbers and equipment programmes.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Trident replacement to be postponed ?

The BBC reports that the government is considering putting off the key decision on replacing Trident (known as "main gate")until after the next election. As so often, this decision not to decide is driven by saving money not by any principled discussion of the role and usefulness or lack of usefulness of Trident. That discussion would only happen if the government stopped ringfencing Trident and put it into the Strategic Security and Defence Review. At least a postponement will provide more time to press for that discussion to take place. The writer and former naval officer interviewed on the Today programme revealed that all three armed services don't want Trident and feel it has been imposed upon them by politicians.

Things you don't hear every day

"Pandas always find their way into politics" were the words with which the Today programme woke me this morning.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bankers or borrowers ???

As, I think, Terry-Thomas (or possibly Snoopy) might have said, "It matters not who wins or loses, but how you place the blame".
So who do we blame for the financial mess - the bankers or the borrowers ?

Peter Black quotes an interview with former Cabinet Secretary, Andew Turnbull, which firmly blames the Labour Government's borrowing.

On the other hand, Keynesian Liberal quotes an unpublished letter to the Guardian, which equally firmly blames the bankers.

It remains a political truth that the government of the day will always get the blame, even if the causes were before they came to power.

Monday, September 13, 2010

"One can survive everything, nowadays, except death."

In Paris recently I visited Pere Lachaise cemetery. It is a vast necropolis with Oscar Wilde buried furthest from the entrance. This has not stopped a continuous flow of visitors since he was moved there in 1909 from his original resting place outside Paris. As you can see many of them pay their tributes in writing with marker pens or on post-it notes. Thus defacing the tomb does seem a strange way to honour someone you admire.

Wikipaedia tells me the tomb was commissioned by Robert Ross and designed by Sir Jacob Epstein, adding "The modernist angel depicted as a relief on the tomb was originally complete with male genitalia which have since been vandalised; their current whereabouts are unknown." Taken by a fan or a critic ? Who knows ? After my trek to Oscar, my feet hurt and I decided to leave Sartre, Jim Morrison et al to rest in peace.

David Rogers and the Rome restaurant

Is David Rogers secretly running a restaurant in Trastavere ? Here's my snatched shot of the restaurant owner. You decide. Incidentally the food was excellent.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Burning books: Thank God, I'm an atheist.

Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, plans to burn the Quran on Saturday (9/11 in the backward American usage). Many have quoted Heinrich Heine, who in 1821 was referring to the burning of the Qur'an during the Spanish Inquisition: "Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings." The Nazis proved him right, burning his books in Berlin's Opernplatz a century later before they moved on to burn people.

I searched for a biblical injunction against burning books but found this:
"Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together and burned them before all men ... So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed." Acts 19:19-20. This was quoted by this bunch of Baptist nutters, who proclaim proudly:
"The burning of books is nothing new to True Christians®. We invented the practice over two-thousand years ago as a way to promote our faith in the Lord Jesus. In the early days of Christianity, when new believers in Christ were converted, they were naturally moved by the Holy Spirit to grab as many books as they could and pitch them into a fire. Unlike the sissy "Jesus is Love" fake-Christians (whom both the Lord Jesus and we loathe) we have running around today, the early followers of Christ were never ashamed to burn books. In fact, if you ever find yourself being grateful for the destruction of most of the works of pagan nincompoops like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, you have a Christian to thank! ".

At first I though this was some kind of spoof, a parody, but no, it's real. They go on to announce: "As most Christians already know, the Harry Potter book series is the most evil and dangerous set of books to be released this century.".

They are perhaps marginally less nutty than Marc Grizzard of the Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina who maintains that the first King James translation of the Bible is the only true declaration of God’s word, and that all others are “satanic”. On Halloween, he's going to burn the following “perversions of scripture" : The New Revised Version Bible, the American Standard Version Bible, and even the New King James Version.

Let's not forget Sarah Palin's old church, the Assembly of God, which has burnt Harry Potter books, music by Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam and that ungodly tale, Pinocchio.

Sometimes I thank God I'm an atheist.

Season of mists

Sue McGuire has published Keats' Ode to Autumn. Strange that Keats did not mention the smell of woodsmoke and burning leaves in Autumn's bonfires. I looked up how he came to write it. He was in Winchester. Surely they had woodsmoke ?

I also think the year starts in Autumn when the academic year begins and woodsmoke used to hang around Cambridge. It was the right time to start eating crumpets, which should have a closed season in the spring and summer like game birds. I particularly remember toasting them on a gas fire while the girls who invited me to tea sang, "When all those endearing young charms...". I promise you this was 1971 not 1871.

Autumn also means Last Night of the Proms and Liberal Conference, sometimes at the same time, but not this year.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Two Beds

The Guardian: “So what is it like to end up in bed with the Tories?
Shirley Williams: "Not one bed, two beds."

The coalition is a great experiment in grown-up government for Britain but it must also be a launch pad for Liberalism, not a slippery slide into decline.

We must maintain our separate identity, develop, promote, deliver and proclaim Liberal Democrat policies or the media will scorn and the electorate desert us.

Develop: We remain a separate party and must not be afraid to propose ideas which Conservatives oppose or the coalition agreement ignores. Our conferences should be fresh and exciting, a hotbed of new ideas, not a coalition rally.

Promote: Coalition is about compromise but after negotiation NOT before. We must argue from our clear vision, not some fuzzy consensus, and we must be seen to argue. Liberal Democrat Ministers defending government policies which we have always opposed will appear dishonest and weak unless they can demonstrate tough negotiation and the necessary virtue of constructive difference.

Deliver: Liberal Democrats in the coalition government cannot implement all our policies but they must deliver some and be seen to do so. Liberal Democrats in coalition must have real value for the voters, not just ministerial bums on seats.

Proclaim: Our identity and our political future are on the table. The future of Liberalism in Britain is in play. We must shout our achievements from the rooftops just as Labour and the Tory press will bellow out our failures. We have to win local elections over the next few years and European elections in 2014 on the Liberal Democrat record and Liberal Democrat policies. We are not all in coalition. In five years’ time we have to fight a general election as Liberal Democrats and emerge stronger.

Friday, August 06, 2010

So, farewell then Jack Straw !

Hoorah ! Jack Straw is quitting front bench politics. What a pity he didn't quit public life at birth ! He says, "But now I want the freedom to range more widely over foreign and economic policy." No, no, no ! Go and waste years writing the memoirs no-one wants to read.

Perhaps we could amend the Reform Bill to add ex-Presidents of the NUS to the list of people ineligible to stand for parliament along with lords, lunatics and felons. The degree of guile and utter lack of principle required to win that post should disqualify anyone.

Hiroshima Day

Hiroshima Day. Do we really want to spend billions on a Trident replacement so that we can do this again ? I couldn't bear to post most of the images I found.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Labour Gerrymandering

My friend Simon McGrath has reminded us of Jim Callaghan's defiance of Boundary Commission recommendations in 1969 which would have cost Labour at least 10 seats. Actually it was worse than that. Callaghan failed to lay Orders in Council before parliament as the law required. Instead he introduced a bill to give effect to local government changes in London which he liked but also to absolve himself from the duty to lay the orders for parliamentary boundary changes which he didn't. The Lords passed the bill but with wrecking amendments. Ross McWhirter started a court action for a writ of Mandamus to order Callaghan to carry out his statutory duty as Home Secretary. In the end Callaghan laid the required orders before parliament but made sure the Labour MPs were whipped to vote against them. Consequently the 1970 election was fought on 1954 boundaries. Labour lost anyway.

Labour had form for gerrymandering. They didn't like the first ever Boundary Commission recommendations in 1948, so they simply added 17 new urban constituencies. They now have the gall to suggest that reforming parliament to make constituencies more equal in size is gerrymandering. They would know, of course.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Microcosmographica Academica

I am delighted that F.M.Cornford's guide to academic politics Microcosmographica Academica is out of copyright and available on-line. It also applies to national politics. It explains the principle of the thin end of the wedge and the difference between Conservative-Liberals and Liberal-Conservatives.

A Conservative Liberal is a broad-minded man, who thinks that something ought to be done, only not anything that anyone now desires, but something which was not done in 1881-82.

A Liberal Conservative is a broad-minded man, who thinks that something ought to be done, only not anything that anyone now desires; and that most things which were done in 1881-82 ought to be undone.

The men of both of these parties are alike in being open to conviction; but so many convictions have already got inside, that it is very difficult to find the openings. They dwell in the Valley of Indecision.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Where do you stand on squirrels ?

Jonathan Calder has posted a defence of eating squirrels. It turns out that Jenny Seagrove is against it. Just an excuse for posting her picture as she appeared in Local Hero but with a pirate squirrel as company.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Call Labour's bluff - split the bill !

The opportunistic self-serving hypocrites who lead the Parliamentary Labour Party are going to vote against a referendum on AV despite their own commitment to the idea a few weeks ago. The arch-hypocrite (and sadly typical ex-NUS President) Jack Straw explains that the bill also provides for redrawing boundaries and reducing the number of constituencies. Of course the real motive is to join with Tory anti-referendum backwoodsmen rebels and defeat the government. So, the obvious solution - split the bill in two. Will Labour have the unashamed gall to vote against a bill only for a referendum on AV ? I doubt it, but if they did we would see their essential and deep-seated conservatism revealed. Simples !