Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What's Liberal about this coalition ?

Don't tell me the usual shopping list which begins with increasing the personal allowance. So far in government we have abandoned Keynesian economics, our opposition to nuclear power, our commitment to higher education available on merit not wealth, our historic identification with Beveridge's welfare state and our long-held support for a united Europe but we're still the party that loves liberty, aren't we ? Well, actually, no. Today the coalition government publishes its plan, the draft Brighton declaration, to "reform" the European Convention of Human Rights or rather to re-nationalise it and undermine its ability to protect human rights. The BBC says "There is also the question of the Liberal Democrats. Many are very reluctant to question the role of the Strasbourg court and some may find these proposals hard to stomach."

Let's measure the government's performance against the declaration on my membership card.

The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of
liberty (see ECHR above),
equality (err, really ?)
and community ( The Localism Bill perhaps, the Big Society maybe ?)
and in which none shall be enslaved
by poverty (welfare cuts, public service cuts),
ignorance (tuition fees)
or conformity (Any ideas ? Anybody ?)

I am a Liberal so where else should I go ?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The plank in our eye

Today William Hague again joins the American condemnation of Iran. The inconsistency of the western position is breathtaking. Iran claims it is developing civil nuclear power; the West says it is developing nuclear weapons. Israel, on the other hand, actually has nuclear weapons but refuses to admit it. When do I hear the demands for Israel to let the IAEA inspect ? "Ah", reply the Western politicians, "but Iran threatens its neighbours. An Iranian nuclear weapon would destabilise the region". So the Israeli nukes don't threaten anyone ??? After all, Israel would never invade other people's land, would it ?

The British position is not merely inconsistent. It is hypocritical. The last Labour government and the Conservatives in this government are determined that whatever else we cut, we must spend billions renewing Trident. We live in one of the most peaceful parts of the world. Nobody's nuclear weapons are pointed at us. Our neighbours in France were not recently invaded by the most powerful country in the world with our help, as Iran's neighbours in Iraq were. We are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the bargain that says non-nuclear powers will not develop nukes if nuclear powers will junk theirs. Yet we say Iran is the problem.

Friday, February 17, 2012

When the Sun goes down...

Today's lesson is taken from Exodus Chapter 16 beginning to read at verse 21.

"And they gathered it every morning, every man according to his eating: and when the sun waxed hot, it melted."

Murdoch, take note !

That's another fine mess you've got us into (2) !

Thanks to John Leston and Nigel Amor.

For Another Fine Mess no.1 see here.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Why is it so difficult to federate Europe ?

The following article written for a seminar in 2008 compares American and European experience in framing constitutions.

This seminar asks if there is a new model for a federal Europe but, as Prof Coombes has pointed out, we have the models; what we need is the strategy. When Douglas Hurd was British Foreign Secretary, he used to argue that the British didn’t like big visions, they preferred small steps. The problem with small steps is that if you don’t have a destination and a direction you go around in circles.

In Europe we have been taking both big and small steps for over fifty years. Our latest attempt to agree on a constitution was seven years in the drafting and two more years before ratification ran into a barrier in Ireland. By comparison it would appear that the eighteenth century Americans were more effective. The Philadelphia Convention met in the summer of 1787 and the constitution was ratified by 9 states by the following summer and by all 13 in 1790. This is a little misleading. Plans for an American Union go back to the Albany Plan of 1754. After the Declaration of Independence in 1776 it took five years to agree the Articles of Confederation and only when they proved inadequate was the famous constitution adopted in 1788. The drafting process was easier. In Philadelphia there were 54 delegates (of whom 30 regularly attended) representing a population of 3.5 million from 13 states. The European Convention and the Intergovernmental Conference involved hundreds of people representing a population one hundred times bigger than that, from 27 states. Also of course 2008 is not 1788.

Consider the differences between the two situations. The Americans were united by their common opposition to British rule and the war they fought to win independence. In 1787 they still faced the general threat of intervention by powerful European nations including the danger of war with Spain or renewed fighting with Britain. In 2008 Europe has forgotten the horror and destruction of the Second World War and the current threat of terrorism does not provoke a desire to unite. Look also at trade. The American states were still imposing tariffs on inter-state trade. Inland states paid customs duties to coastal states in order to export their goods to Europe. In Europe we have already achieved the single Market. Financially there are marked differences too. The American Confederation was saddled with unpaid war debts which nobody seemed inclined to repay. The European Union’s budgetary system does not allow it to have debts. The American Confederation had no taxes. Even when the Continental Congress agreed to impose fiscal demands on the states, there was no sanction if a state failed to pay as they usually did. Although there is continual argument about the European Union’s income from member-states, the “own resources” system is well-established.

Nevertheless, Europeans today confront the same problem as the newly independent Americans, the weakness of their union and its inability to respond to urgent needs of economy and security. The same confusion arises over identity and sovereignty. During the War of Independence, George Washington asked his soldiers to swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederation. At least one group refused, declaring “New Jersey is our country!”. At the end of the war, the state of Virginia signed the Treaty of Paris separately. In Philadelphia the credentials of the delegates from Georgia began “Georgia, by the Grace of God free, sovereign and independent...” The whole business of drafting and adopting constitutions was as familiar an activity to the Americans as it is to us today. Each American state had necessarily adopted a constitution since 1776. The former states of the Soviet Bloc have also adopted new constitutions since 1989. Spain, Portugal and Greece have new ones since the 1970s. Even France and Germany and other member-states have remodelled their constitutions since 1945. The Philadelphia delegates and the European member-state governments in their Intergovernmental Conferences have both felt the business of constitution-making to be so politically sensitive that it must be done in secret. The European Convention was an unusual and not altogether successful exception.

Drafting and agreeing constitutions is indeed difficult and always arouses deep-seated opposition. Comments from the American experience have an amazing resonance to our modern debates in Europe. Then as now much opposition arose from ignorance of the proposals. As Mr Davis of North Carolina noted at the time, “It is much easier to alarm people than to inform them.” Opponents would always appeal to fears of dominance and loss of freedom. The Virginian Patrick Henry warned that under the new constitution the President would enslave the United States. He likened the “tyranny of Philadelphia” to the tyranny of George III. The editors of the Pennsylvania Sentinel asked, “Were Pennsylvania freemen to let themselves be subject to the supremacy of the lordly and profligate few ?”. Farmer Amos Singleby of Massachusetts expressed his fears in biblical terms: “Lawyers and moneymen will rule and will swallow up us little fellows, yes, just as the whale swallowed up Jonah.” There was also the generalised apprehension of distance and difference. Virginians argued that the New Hampshire Congressmen would not understand Virginia. Less noble motives were adduced. As Joe Wilson of Pennsylvania observed, “Every person who either enjoys or expects to enjoy a place of profit under the present establishment will object to the proposed innovation – not in truth, because it is injurious to the liberties of his country, but because it affects his schemes of wealth and consequence.” On the other side of the debate were familiar suggestions that union would provide a “gravy train” or perhaps as it was later called a “pork barrel”. Francis Hopkinson employed a different metaphor, “No sooner will the chicken be hatched but everyone will be for plucking a feather.

Although the proponents of the American Constitution faced similar arguments to us in their search for union, they had or adopted a number of procedural advantages. Above all, they abandoned the requirement of unanimity. The Articles of Confederation required unanimity for amendment but the Philadelphia Convention decided that the new constitution would come into force when 9 out of the 13 states had ratified it. This was a revolution or as President Martin Van Buren later put it, “an heroic and lawless act.” The state of Rhode Island was so opposed to altering the Articles of Confederation let alone adopting a new constitution that it did not even send delegates to Philadelphia. Nathaniel Graham of Massachusetts demanded, “Were all states to suffer themselves to be ruined if Rhode Island should persist in her opposition ?” The answer was no and because unanimity was not required, it was eventually achieved. In the end, isolated and not wanting to be left out, even Rhode Island ratified the constitution in 1790. When the European Parliament adopted the Draft Treaty of Union under the leadership of Altiero Spinelli, it also wisely recommended that the Union should come into force when over half of member-states representing at least two-thirds of the population had ratified.

The American federalists also managed to avoid a damaging or delaying debate in the Continental Congress, which was not asked to approve the draft but merely to receive and transmit it to the states. The federalists who drove forward the new constitution built a “staircase of agreement” ensuring that sympathetic states ratified early, making it harder for the slower and more doubtful states to say no. There was moreover one other fundamental difference in the process of ratification which we do not enjoy today.

In any dispute, conflict or negotiation one psychological element is crucial to success. If any party to the question is to accept its resolution, they must feel that their views have been expressed, listened to and taken into account. No-one can expect that the outcome will represent 100% of their opinions but, if they want agreement at all, they will accept it if they have their place in the discussion. With a constitution, this means the opportunity to amend. Many of the ratifying conventions in the American states attached amendments to their votes of approval. At the Convention, Edmund Randolph had suggested that there should be a second general convention to consider all such amendments. Massachusetts offered amendments first, then Maryland suggested 13; Virginia wanted a Bill of Rights and 20 amendments, New York 32. Crucially, their ratifications were not conditional on the acceptance of their amendments, although some were subsequently agreed without the need for a second Convention. Contrast the absurd procedure of adopting a new constitution for the European Union, which like the Latin num presupposes a question expecting the answer “No”.

What can we learn from the experience of the extraordinary men of 1787 ? Jefferson wrote of Washington and Franklin “They lent their shoulders to the great points, knowing that the little ones would follow of themselves.” Firstly, the project of a federal Europe, which has to overcome the ingrained opposition born of fear, ignorance and love of office, needs a vanguard of committed federalists. Of course it helps if some of those federalists already hold national office themselves. Secondly, federalists must seize the agenda as they did in Philadelphia. Thirdly, as the Andrews Sisters sang, we have to “accentuate the positive”. Our present procedure for making treaties between member-states accentuates the negative. Ministers and officials meet in secret and produce a draft which neither parliaments nor people can amend, only ratify or not. National governments have the obligation to present the draft to their national parliaments or to popular referendums which can only vote yes or no. Is it any surprise that so many choose the latter ? Our procedure forces anyone who objects to one article in a document of hundreds of pages to vote no. We push those who are merely critical or have some small difficulty with the text into the same camp as those who want no agreement at all. Thus where there may be support for over 90% of a treaty, those who object to 10% can defeat it. They don’t even have to object to the same 10% ! If the European Union would adopt a suggestion like Edmund Randolph’s, the Intergovernmental Conference could transmit the draft to national parliaments to discuss AND amend. The results of these debates could then be considered by the Intergovernmental Conference before a final text is agreed. This approach would stimulate popular debate and end secrecy. We would have a clear record of how much is agreed and how little disliked and by how many. In this way we could show how small the level of dissent is and separate those who want no agreement at all from those who merely want amendments. Governments may object that they already hold these debates in their closed meetings with each other, but how different is an open debate in each country ! We could explore the grounds of dissent and meet them with argument and compromise and avoid the inevitable veto of the dissatisfied few. The American constitution expressly forbids referendums on constitutional amendments. Some European countries would still insist on referendums but in a different climate and with more chance of success.

Finally perhaps we could take the advice of Benjamin Franklin writing to friends in Europe in 1788, “I send you the proposed new federal constitution for these states. I was engaged four months of the last summer in the Convention that formed it. If it succeeds, I do not see why you might not in Europe carry the project of good King Henry IV into execution, by forming a Federal Union and one grand republic of all its different states and kingdoms; by means of a like Convention; for we had many interests to reconcile.

Daniel Hannan praises a federal system

Lev Eakins has drawn my attention to a speech by the eurosceptic Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, speaking to the gathering of American Conservatives known as CPAC.

Hannan's thesis is that the American Constitution is wonderful and he warns Americans not to follow what he regards as the European example of centralisation and too much government. The speech is a tour-de-force which flatters his audience and plays to their deepest prejudices. It is also disingenuous and dishonest. This man is not stupid. He's wrong.

Everyday of his political life he has resisted a federal Europe but here he is praising the federal system of the United States, which is one of the main sources of inspiration for European federalists. This sleight of hand is accomplished by never describing the American constitution as federal, only as republican. The magic is concealed by rhetorical misdirection. In one sentence he applauds the institutions created by the Philadelphia Convention and in the next he warns against the European example of "more government". When the American founding fathers set up a Presidency and a Congress and a Supreme Court, it was an example to mankind, "which would work everywhere". When the European Union's founding fathers set up the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers and the European Court of Justice, it's just "more government".

Hannan compared the ratification of the US Constitution favourably to the rejection of the EU Constitutional Treaty in referendums in three countries. No surprise of course that he failed to mention that the American founding fathers wisely specified that the new constitution would come into effect when 9 out of 13 states had ratified. The EU was saddled with the need for unanimity. (I have written elsewhere about this and will copy the full text in a separate post).

Hannan proceeded to quote Jefferson's criticisms of George III as apposite to his view of the EU, talking of far away government. Never mind that the American colonies were held by force whereas EU Member-States have all chosen freely to belong. The EU is NOT an empire, it is a union of separate states like....erm...oh yes, the USA !

Hannan also contrasted the famous text of the Declaration of Independence, "These truths we hold to be self-evident..."etc with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which he did not quote, being content to refer contemptuously to the right to strike. I'll grant that eighteenth century prose was better, not being filtered through fifteen or more foreign offices, but he could have cited the preamble thus:
"The peoples of Europe, in creating an ever closer union among them, are resolved to share a peaceful future based on common values. Conscious of its spiritual and moral heritage, the Union is founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity; it is based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law. It places the individual at the heart of its activities, by establishing the citizenship of the Union and by creating an area of freedom, security and justice."

He repeatedly warned against moving power to Washington, saying this was the European example. "We are at the end of the road you are set upon", he told his American audience. Hannan is not stupid. Presumably he knows that the US Federal Government already accounts for something like 60% of all US government spending and over 20% of GDP whereas the EU's expenditure is a tiny fraction of public spending across the 27 member-states and between 1 and 2% GDP.(More figures here). The EU has limited power in defined sectors whereas Washington has enormous power. His warning is nonsensical.

Hannan said the US was suffering from "Europeanisation" mentioning health-care and carbon taxes particularly. This went down well with his conservative audience who must be oblivious to the fact that US spending on health-care has outstripped Europe's as a proportion of national income yet fails unlike most European systems to provide health-care for all citizens. I suppose to an audience of climate-change-deniers carbon taxes sound unnecessary.

Hannan is a lively and engaging speaker. So was Hitler. In his own pernicious way Hannan is dangerous too, he distorts truth with a mix of humour and flattery for his audience. We should not admire his rhetorical skill when it conceals the lies he peddles.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Toy Story

Russian authorities in Siberia have banned a demonstration by toys, arguing that toys are not citizens and therefore have no right to demonstrate. Interesting that the real citizens are so scared to demonstrate that they have to use their toys as avatars.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Abu Qatada and the tabloid myths

I blame Radio 4's News Quiz for the fact that every time I hear the name Abu Qatada, this song passes through my brain. Once I have dispelled those catchy lyrics, I reflect on the sheer nonsense talked by Tory backbenchers, the tabloids and Labour spokespersons.

The Daily Mail runs with "...even his own mother wants him deported to Jordan". She says, "I don’t know why the British keep him. There is no good reason. I can’t see why they would want him" which of course contradicts the rest of the Mail's article which says the British don't want him. Perhaps too much to ask the Daily Mail to distinguish between Britain cannot deport Abu Qatada but can allow him to go if he wants.

The Daily Telegraph leads with former Security Minister, Lady Neville-Jones, who said that possible avenues included ignoring the ruling from the European Court of Human Rights and facing the consequences. They also report that Downing Street has not ruled out the possibility of a deportation in defiance of the European Court. A spokesman said “We are committed to removing him from the country...

Tory MP Robert Halfon fulminated on the radio that Britain (he meant the UK) is a sovereign country and shouldn't be told what to do by foreigners. I imagine he exempts Rupert Murdoch from this restriction. The Sun is running a petition calling on Cameron " ignore the Strasbourg judges and send Qatada back to his home country Jordan."

Nor is Labour exempt from playing to the gallery as usual. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said, “The Government has not done all it can to stop this man being released from a high security prison." Well we know Labour's dismal record on human rights.

Apparently Abu Qatada is a very dangerous man, in which case, as Shami Chakrabarti has repeatedly asked, why don't we prosecute him ?

Here are three facts the foaming zenophobes might like to consider, facts not opinions.

1) The right to a fair trial is not an invention of any European institution. In the UK it goes back to Magna Carta. Naturally the British lawyer who drafted the European Convention of Human Rights included it.
2) The jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights (By the way, I suppose it's expecting too much to ask the europhobes to understand and explain that this is nothing to do with the European Union) is established not by invasion nor foreign dictat but by treaty freely entered into by a British government.
3) The Human Rights Act gave British courts the power to apply the European Convention of Human Rights. The option of "defying Strasbourg" is nonsense. Deporting Abu Qatada without the required guarantees could be challenged in British courts.

Monday, February 13, 2012

"Reform! Reform! Aren't things bad enough already ?"

These are the words of Lord Eldon, Lord Chancellor in the 1820s. Of course it is hard to tell what he would have thought of the new Liberal Democrat faction, "Liberal Reform" launched today (see Lib Dem Voice). It is very hard to tell what anyone will think of it since its mission statement begins:

"Liberal Reform exists to promote four-cornered freedom in the Liberal Democrats – personal, political, social and economic liberalism. We are an organisation founded and run by members and activists, to both propose policy in keeping with the party’s liberal heritage and to continue arguments for free people and free trade in the future political direction of the Liberal Democrats. We seek, through active debate, policy initiatives, and broad campaigning, to foster an understanding of the party’s heritage and philosophy."

Plenty of room for interpretation there.

The word "reform" is usually judged to be positive by the public, which is why the BBC was banned from using it during the AV referendum campaign. A further perspective on this group's likely tendency may be gained from the websites of its founders,Mike Bird, Zadok Day, Nick Thornsby, Nicole Sykes,
Simon McGrath and Charlotte Henry (Sorry, no links - you'll have to search).

Another clue might be found in the strange inflation of the bird of liberty in their logo. I've heard of fat cats but fat birds ? (except when mentioned in another context by Nobby Shuttleworth).

Friday, February 10, 2012

The church of the wholly undecided

Today's news about the court decision on prayers at Bideford Council has provoked much discussion. Eric Pickles says it's illiberal but I'll take no lessons in liberalism from Pickles. I do think the secularist councillor who sued the council has wasted a lot of time and money when he could have just absented himself from the prayers. The court's decision is an interpretation of s111 of the Local Government Act 1972 which is about to be replaced. It is NOT, I say again NOT, based on Human Rights legislation. Got that, Daily Mail, Tory and Labour backbenchers who harp on and on about the ECHR ? It probably won't stop you lying about it.

Personally, I've decided to stop saying "I'm an atheist" and instead to adopt the description "Fundamentalist agnostic". I recommend Les Barker's "Church of the wholly undecided", which I blogged about on 24th November last year and which you can hear here or watch here at 3 minutes in.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

For those that like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.

Thus spake Miss Jean Brodie, talking about the Girl Guides (6 minutes 25 seconds in). For me, it's soccer. There is of course one thing more boring than soccer and that is people talking about soccer endlessly. Today has been particularly bad. I turned off Radio 4 at 7.30 when the sports news was on, but found that they were still on about football at 8 o'clock. By 9 o'clock David Cameron was talking about it. What the hell had it to do with the PM ? Just turned the 1 o'clock news on and they're at it again. Other big news story ? Prince Harry to go to Afganistan. So important to let the Taliban know, isn't it ? Oh yes, something happening in Syria and Greece. So kind of the BBC to let us know.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Render unto Caesar...

(Thanks to Giancarlo Conti)

Harry Potter and the dream of fairness

"I think, if you make a lot more money than most people - like I do - you should pay more tax and subsidise people who work just as hard as you, but don't earn as much."
Daniel Radcliffe

Now find a political party that's not afraid of a return to progressive taxation !

(By the way, voting Labour won't do it).

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Nationalism (2):EU funds: a little more sophisticated than cries of "our own money"

The struggle continues.

My friend Simon, whom I think would not reject the epithet "right-wing Liberal" has asked how I, as a Liberal, can "... argue that the decision as how to spend our own money in the UK should be taken in Brussels rather than locally". His question is approved by another friend, Peter, who I think would still welcome the description attached to him as a student - "left wing". I should perhaps add that both have spent some years working in the City of London.

Simon's characterisation of EU spending is typically crude. The spending under the structural funds actually works like this.
1)Member-states agree to share resources in principle in pursuit of common policies. They do this in treaties which each member-state signs voluntarily.
2) The European Commission drafts specific legislation giving effect to the common policies and setting up the rules for spending programmes. The legislation is discussed, amended and approved by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
3) Each year the European Commission proposes the draft budget of the EU which is then discussed, amended and approved by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
4)Member-states and local authorities propose spending programmes which meet the criteria set out in the legislation. The European Commission checks that the programmes conform to the legislation and agrees any changes with the member-state concerned.
5) Individuals, local authorities, businesses and NGOs propose individual projects which fit into the programmes. National or regional committees running the spending programme assess the proposals and decide whether to make grants. No European institution is involved. In other words the actual spending decisions are already devolved.

Like Mrs Thatcher Simon uses the term "our own money". When discussing the British national budget he would not talk of taxes paid by the people of Wimbledon or London as their "own money". This is because he is a nationalist and opposes the idea of any collective policies or budgets at a level above the nation-state. I imagine he does not object to the existence of multi-national companies, but only to supranational government. His nationalism only applies to the public sector not to the instruments of global capitalism.

Neither Simon nor Peter explains how you can have regional policy in a single market without supranational rules agreed democratically, enforced uniformly and operated locally, which is what we have now.

Once again I note how nationalism unites left and right. This was first noted by Altiero Spinelli and his colleagues exiled by Mussolini to the island of Ventotene. In the Ventotene Manifesto for a united Europe they wrote in 1941:
"The dividing line between progressive and reactionary parties no longer follows the formal line of greater or lesser democracy, or of more or less socialism to be instituted; rather the division falls along the line, very new and substantial, that separates the party members into two groups. The first is made up of those who conceive the essential purpose and goal of struggle as the ancient one, that is, the conquest of national political power – and who, although involuntarily, play into the hands of reactionary forces, letting the incandescent lava of popular passions set in the old moulds, and thus allowing old absurdities to arise once again. The second are those who see the creation of a solid international State as the main purpose; they will direct popular forces toward this goal, and, having won national power, will use it first and foremost as an instrument for achieving international unity."

The nationalist myopia of Left and Right

On Facebook Simon McGrath has drawn attention to a letter to the Guardian from Labour MPs, already circulated by the Open Europe blog. The Labour MPs concerned include Gisela Stuart who has a long history of euroscepticism and Dennis Skinner who proudly proclaims the fact that he has never been abroad. How delighted these soi-disant left wingers must be that their ideas are shared by the businessmen behind Open Europe, the same people who campaigned against the Euro and the European Constitution. It takes me back to the days of the referendum on British membership when Enoch Powell and Tony Benn united to keep us out.

The letter proposes repatriating structural funds for the richer member-states leaving only the poorer ones to receive support from the EU. I assume that neither Simon nor Open Europe will be affected by any arguments about solidarity or cohesion within the EU but the Labour MPs might like to reflect on the idea that the richer members of a community should help the poorer ones. Simon and Open Europe will no doubt proclaim their mantra that they believe in free trade and a single market but oppose "all this unnecessary integration and legislation". Has it occurred to them what effect nationally operated regional policies would have on competition ? The richer countries would be able to subsidise their poorer regions far more than the poorer ones. They would even be competing with each other, thus German regional policy would outbid British regional policy. The Open Europe British businessmen are probably quite happy to accept subsidies from the British government. The Labour MPs are probably quite happy to give them if it brings jobs to their constituents. The Liberal and free market Simon McGrath should logically oppose all regional policy subsidies. The only thing uniting all three is their nationalism.

Friday, February 03, 2012

John Stuart Mill proved right ! (but not Right)

The Mail Online carries a story that Canadian academics have shown that right-wingers are less intelligent than left wingers,thus proving John Stuart Mill right.

"I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it."
John Stuart Mill, in a Parliamentary debate with the Conservative MP, John Pakington (May 31, 1866);

Speedy Gonzales: Why don't you come home ?

If the Crown Prosecution Service announces today that Chris Huhne will NOT be charged, it will struggle hard to convince the public of the case. Maybe that's why Keir Starmer has called a press conference - that was Portillo's view last night. It may well be the right decision. As Uncle James in the Forsyte Saga repeatedly said, "I don't know. I can't tell." It is important that the public is not left thinking that a minister of the crown is above the law.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Betjeman's "Bill Newton Dunn"

Liberal England's advert for a meeting with Bill Newton Dunn reminds me of the late Sir John Betjeman's great poem about the MEP:

A Prodigal’s Love Song

It’s Bill Newton Dunn, it’s Bill Newton Dunn
Banished and vanished from Lincolnshire sun,
What marvellous motions put in committee,
He in the Parliament, our MEP.

First Tory, then Liberal, oh weakness of joy,
Crossing the floor with the grace of a boy,
With cheerfullest seriousness, upping by one
the ELD Group, it’s Bill Newton Dunn.

It’s Bill Newton Dunn, it’s Bill Newton Dunn,
How mad we are, glad we are now that it’s done.
The old Tory party, it’s back to the wall,
But Bill isn’t part of their d. and fall.

The plenary is voting, the votes are all cast,
The day of the Tories is well in the past,
Our Bill we all welcome to the home of the free,
That’s Liberals and radicals like you, Bill, and me.

It’s Bill Newton Dunn, it’s Bill Newton Dunn,
I can hear from the tribune, his speech has begun.
Oh ! full Brussels hemicycle ! headphones on tight,
in twelve different languages, thinking him right.

Around us are Frenchmen, Germans and Greeks,
Above us the galleries watch as he speaks,
And here on the floor is the man of our choice,
With the lilt of his prose and the chime of his voice,

And the drift of his thought and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous voting ahead.
He came to the conference in 2001
And now he’s a Liberal, is Bill Newton Dunn.
(Lines written after looking into Lord Bonkers’ column in June 2003)

Bright College Days: What to do about tuition fees and all that jazz

A debate has started up on Liberal Democrat Voice on what Lib Dem policy should now be on tuition fees. Personally I would prefer a return to genuinely progressive taxation where all higher earners, not just graduates but footballers, models, rock stars, foreign exchange dealers, anyone with a higher income makes a greater contribution. However, I see that no political party is going to embrace the idea seriously but could we at least re-brand the tuition fees as a graduate tax. We're almost there anyway. What about imposing the graduate tax or a version of it on existing graduates ? After all, we had the best experience and many older graduates now have the income to support paying a tax and drinking a little less wine. That might help solve the inter-generational problem.

We do need a wider discussion on HE than just the finance. It's not simply a question of lectures. The enormous expansion of HE has impoverished the experience of students and, of course, the value of degrees. How little contact students now have with their teachers. I met a lecturer recently who said his contracted contact time with students was 12 hours a year ! At most universities, academics are no longer allowed to interview students and at many nor do they even assess the application forms. That box-ticking exercise is contracted out. So the teacher doesn't choose the student or even meet the student very often. So much for the exposure to great minds. Not exactly "Bright College Days" ?

Lines that made me laugh out loud (1)

"Obesity is the elephant in the room"
Thanks to Clare in the Community, Radio 4 Extra