Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Give us a sign , O Lord (no.2)

Better than all politicians put together

Jonathan Swift wrote "Whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass grow where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind than the whole race of politicians put together.". I was just watching one of my West Wing DVDs when they mentioned Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize winner whose semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties led to doubling yields in Pakistan and India between 1965 and 1970. Swift's words came to mind. I just found out that Matthew Parris had the same thought.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Israeli justice for Palestinian children

The Australian reports on the treatment of Palestinian children by Israeli soldiers and Israeli courts. This is a far cry from any system of justice we recognise. John Lyons, the reporter, was allowed to attend the court with an official Israeli guide but not allowed to photograph the Palestinian children walking in handcuffs and shackles.

An Australian lawyer, Gerard Horton, who defends Palestinian children, describes how arrests happen. "Once bound and blindfolded, the child will be led to a waiting military vehicle and in about one-third of cases will be thrown on the metal floor for transfer to an interrogation centre. Sometimes the children are kept on the floor face down with the soldiers putting their boots on the back of their necks, and the children are handcuffed, sometimes with plastic handcuffs which cut into their wrists. Many children arrive at the interrogation centres bruised and battered, sleep-deprived and scared."

Lyons details the differences between the treatment of Israeli and Palestinian children. "In Israel the maximum period of detention without charge is 40 days - for Palestinian children it is 188 days. In Israel the maximum period of detention without access to a lawyer is 48 hours - for Palestinian children it is 90 days. About 83 per cent of Palestinian children before military courts are sent to prison, while 6.5 per cent of Israeli children before regular courts go to prison."

Many Israeli groups are protesting about the treatment of these children, including soldiers who now regret the way the behaved, but the arrests and punishments continue. Justice and occupation do not go together.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Give us a sign , O Lord (no.1)

A sign of the times.

Apologies to Neil Sherlock but it's still a lot of guff

Like the press, I have mixed up two different stories. As Nick Clegg might put it, "Has the party retained external brand advisors ? Yes. Have I appointed Neil Sherlock as head of [something or other - press reports differ] ? Yes. Are these two events linked ? Er, don't know." That last bit's me. Always easier to answer your own questions than someone else's except when you don't know the answer.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Expensive and empty puff-balls

The Mail on Sunday story based on leaked documents claims that Liberal Democrats are spending large amounts hiring Neil Sherlock (and others ?) to re-brand the party. The graphic above was to illustrate that the party should copy Oxfam. The only thing in common between the two diagrams is the shape. The rather vacuous messages in the balls labelled Vision, Roots and Behaviour convey nothing essential about Liberalism and indeed nothing which would distinguish Liberal Democrats from other parties. I am not up to date with Marketing Management-speak (thank goodness) but perhaps these overpaid gurus will understand when I say NO USP !

Apparently the aim is to position the party as "centre-left". In so far as this phrase has any meaning, it is unhelpful. Voters who do not consider themselves "centre-left" will vote against us, while those who accept this empty nomenclature will vote Labour !

Can we please have a little Liberalism, expressed clearly and without shame or apology ?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Welsh Snuggery on the rocks

Remember the Rev Snuggs who cut down a tree for spurious health and safety reasons. Well, bach, he has a cousin in Gwynedd, isn't it ? Tywyn beach now has this sign saying "Don't climb on the rocks". It says it in Welsh too so no minorities will be offended (perhaps English is the minority language there ?). Reminds me of a sign I know in Cornwall which says "Warning. Cliff Edge" and another at Craven Arms, Shropshire "Warning, River". If councils are going to go around warning us of geographical features all over the place, they'll be very busy and soon run out of council tax receipts and have to close down schools and libraries, so no-one will learn to read their bloody stupid signs ! Self defeating, isn't boyo ? Yachi da !

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The church of the wholly undecided

For some time now I have proclaimed myself as an atheist but I prefer Les Barker's term "Agnostic Fundamentalist". Have a listen to his Shipping Forecast and then The Church of the Wholly Undecided. If you don't laugh even once, you're obviously deeply depressed.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Peace amidst chaos

Despite being a devout atheist, I find this image of Christians linking hands to protect Muslims praying in Tahrir profoundly hopeful.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Neologism No.25: Berlusconi

"Berlusconi", rare past tense form of Berluscere (cf. Burlesque) = to be absurd, thus "I have been absurd".

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Neologism no.24 : A Merkel

A "Merkel" is when you pretend to give up something in negotiation in return for what you want and thereby (a) get something for nothing and (b) save your opposite number's face.

Thus, Angela Merkel pretends that the UK can repatriate some powers (stupid idea anyway) in return for which Cameron agrees that EU can have tighter fiscal policy.

See also the "reverse Merkel" in which A pretends to accept something (which A was going to accept anyway but pretended to oppose)in return for B accepting something which they were really going to oppose.

Thus (domestic example) the first time I went food shopping with a new partner I pretended that we shouldn't spend money on pasta (or whatever) but gave way when she withdrew her opposition to my chocolate biscuits, which I had anticipated.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Neologism no. 23 "To blatter"

The verb "to blatter" from the French "blatter" (rhymes with paté) means to say whatever is necessary to keep your job, even if you said the opposite yesterday.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

More students, fewer jobs

Today's shocking figures show over a million unemployed young people, that's 1 in 5. The two graphs above show how a spike in the birth rate 20 years ago has combined with a recession and rising unemployment to produce increased demand for university places despite the impact of tuition fees and the burden of paying back loans. A BIS research paper on the impact of university finance on participation rates, published in September 2010, concluded that a £1,000 upfront increase in tuition fees reduces participation in HE by 4.4% whereas a £1,000 increase in loans increases participation by 3.2%. The effects would not be evenly spread across socio-economic groups. In 1960 5% of the young population went to university. By 2001 it was 35% and today it's 42%. The research cannot of course predict the effect of the newest tuition fees on participation but if it continues to grow, the debt problem will not just be a personal one for students. An economy in which so many people start their working lives with nearly £30,000 debt (actually more taking into account maintenance) will be severely unbalanced. The savings ratio will fall. Of course if many of those people can't find jobs, then the debt will remain part of the government's problem instead.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Oh dear, I can't pay the school fees !

I came across this poster outside the Ritz on Saturday. I thought it was a demonstration which hit the nail on the head but it turned out to be a band filming a video.

Mark Steel, on the other hand, sums it all up beautifully in the Independent.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Peace in Hampstead (for nearly 2 minutes)

Sunday morning found me walking across Hampstead Heath as 11 o'clock approached. I sat on a log for the two minutes' silence, which was nearly perfect in the silvan sunshine but for the distant wail of a police siren. Long gone are the days when the traffic stopped and even the trains paused on their journeys.

Peace in Glastonbury and Wells

Thursday was a sunny, misty November day and I climbed Glastonbury Tor and attended the Wells Constituency Dinner (in Highbridge, NOT on the Tor). I always meet interesting people on the Tor and at the dinner. On the Tor there was a group with a peace banner planning a demonstration for the next day, the 11th of the 11th of the 11th. I wished them luck. Peace is the fundamental value of federalism. At dinner, Paddy did not use the "F" word but spoke of the need for countries to work together in Europe and characterised the independence chimera of the eurosceptics as "the perfect sovereignty of corks bobbing around in the wake of an ocean liner".

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

On measuring

Jo Swinson recently reported on a briefing by God (Gus O'Donnell, Cabinet Secretary) on measuring wellbeing. I retorted by quoting from David Boyle's book "The Tyranny of Numbers": "You can't make the pig bigger by weighing it more often". Jo pointed out that it might be useful to weigh the pig at least once. Thinking about this in the shower (measurement not Jo) I recalled the great Liberal promise that "None shall be enslaved by ... conformity". At my 50th birthday party (sadly a while ago now) at the National Liberal Club, I proclaimed that for Liberals the importance of freedom was the freedom to be different. "Look at you", I said to the company, "You're all different". "Ahem, I'm not" responded Liberal England.

My point is incommensurability, not a word you can utter in a soundbite or put in a focus but fundamental to liberalism. How can you measure one person's well-being against another's ? How can we choose between policies with different objectives and benefits ? How to decide between actions ? In 1789 Jeremy Bentham attempted it in his felicific calculus in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Recognising that his two great masters of mankind - pleasure and pain - do not actually explain all human behaviour, he redefines them at length until they become pseudonyms for good and evil and we are back to irreducible ethical concepts. The more complex the calculus becomes, the less convincing it is.

I fear that modern attempts to calculate well-being may deteriorate into governance by Top Trumps. It is widely accepted that natural science developed by measurement, replacing vague notions of force by measurable quantities. Social scientists from Bentham onwards have longed to emulate such precision. It cannot be done. Not for us the illusion of scientific socialism as promoted by Marx and Engels and parroted by Tony Benn and his ilk. People have motives which are not only different but incommensurable as well. The myth of the objectively correct policy shatters on this hard fact. We, humans, politicians, Liberals especially, are condemned to choose.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Golden Age of canals

Just watching "The Golden Age of Canals" on BBC 4. Apparently it's a series which has been on since May but fortunately it's all available on the BBC website here. Tonight we heard of rows between Tom Rolt and Robert Aikman, founders of the Inland Waterways Association. We also heard about the great festival and rally at Market Harborough in 1950 (not, I expect, news to Liberal England).

Amazing resemblance No. 325

Has anyone noticed the amazing resemblance between Liberal Democrat Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael and Rab C Nesbitt alias Gregor Fisher. I wonder if perhaps they are related.

On being ineffable

Just read Julian Baggini's interesting piece in the Guardian on religion and ineffability. I particularly liked:

"Too often I find that faith is mysterious only selectively. Believers constantly attribute all sorts of qualities to their gods and have a list of doctrines as long as your arm. It is only when the questions get tough that, suddenly, their God disappears in a puff of mystery. Ineffability becomes a kind of invisibility cloak, only worn when there is a need to get out of a bit of philosophical bother."

Thursday, November 03, 2011

When did you last see your father ?

Shame on David Norgrove and the Family Justice Review which has rejected the right of children to a meaningful relationship with BOTH parents.

As Ken Sanderson, chief executive of Families Need Fathers said, the review's failure to recommend shared parenting legislation or a statement on the importance of both parents in law represents "an abdication of their responsibilities to children and their families". "The core failing of the current family justice system is that the rights of children to maintain meaningful relationships with both parents, as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, are not adequately supported or enforced".

The review sets out the key principle of private family law that both parents have a responsibility to ensure their child has the emotional, financial and practical support to thrive (para 4.5) but fails to address how a non-resident parent can fulfil his or her responsibility if they have little or no contact with the child. The review declares (para 4.20) that “...courts start from the principle that contact with both parents will be in the interests of the child, unless there are very good reasons to the contrary” and quotes an assertion that the courts “… make great efforts to secure this; and in most cases they are successful. Nor are the amounts of contact that non-resident parents end up with negligible...”. I suppose this depends upon whether you think once a fortnight is negligible or not.

Children’s rights NOT parents’
The panel also make the empty claim that “...we of course believe strongly that most children benefit from a relationship with both parents post separation.” but much of the language in the report reveals that the panel saw shared parenting as a parental right NOT as a right for the child. For example, David Norgoves’ own foreword recognises the distress of parents who do not see their children but does not even mention the distress felt by the children who don’t see one parent. The panel think (para 4.27) that legislation might risk creating an impression of a parental ‘right’ to a particular amount of time with a child. This is a gross misconception of the nature of a legal presumption, one not shared by the promoters of shared parenting.

Who did they listen to ?
The panel has disregarded support for a shared parenting presumption from the Law Society and the British Association of Social Workers. They have ignored 49% of respondents who supported legislation to recognise more formally the importance of children having a meaningful relationship with both parents, as against 18% who opposed it. They have preferred the advice of one judge, one Australian academic and Gingerbread.

Why the change of heart ?
They have stepped back from recommendations on shared parenting in their own interim report. They say, “The law cannot state a presumption of any kind without incurring unacceptable risk of damage to children.” This bizarre conclusion rests mainly upon the evidence of Associate Professor Helen Rhoades of the Melbourne Law School, whose submission is set out in full (Annex G) unlike other contributors'. I do not find her arguments persuasive, particularly as the one legal case she cites was overturned on appeal.

The abuse argument
Both the panel and their favoured academic suggest that a presumption of shared parenting would expose children to abuse from a non-resident parent. Leaving aside the statistic that more abuse occurs with resident parents, the presumption would not and could not override the courts’ duty to protect children. This argument is not worthy of the panel.

Leaflets and encouragement ? You cannot be serious
So what did the panel call for instead of a presumption of shared parenting ? “Parental education and information”. They suggest that parents should be given a leaflet when they register a birth and should be encouraged to have a parenting agreement when separating. They have clearly never listened as I have to crying fathers who have been denied contact with their children for years on end. Their best hope that “Progress depends on a general social expectation of the full involvement of both parents in the lives of their children before separation, not on changes in the law” displays astonishing naivety. Non-resident parents do not see their children because resident parents don’t want them to and the law offers no effective remedy. Do they really believe that leaflets and encouragement and changes in social expectation will provide that remedy ? As some might say, “They’re having a laugh” but it’s not funny, is it ?