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Saturday, 31 December 2011

Beit Jala: Email from the Archbishop of Westminster

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, has replied to an email that I sent him about his Midnight Mass Homily. Both emails are below. In the homily (currently on the Archbishop's homepage at, the Archbishop said:

"That shadow falls particularly heavily on the town of Bethlehem tonight. At this moment the people of the parish of Beit Jala prepare for their legal battle to protect their land and homes from further expropriation by Israel. Over 50 families face losing their land and their homes as action is taken to complete the separation/security wall across the territory of the district of Bethlehem. We pray for them tonight."

I responded by sending the Archbishop this email (in which I repeatedly mis-spelt Beit Jala as Beit Jalal, but never mind):

Dear Archbishop

I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I have just read your Christmas 2011 Midnight Mass Homily, including the passage about Beit Jalal.

I have three thoughts to share with you.

One is that I am deeply hurt and disappointed by your failure to mention, alongside the plight of the Palestinians, the terrorist threat to Israelis.

Your criticisms of the route of the security barrier are well-reasoned, but surely, in making such criticisms, one should always include a line to acknowledge that the Israelis give, as their reason for building the barrier, the need to save the lives of innocent civilians?

To condemn only the barrier, without also condemning the murderous violence that arguably prompted the barrier's construction in the first place, is deeply upsetting and wrong.

Secondly, I am shocked and saddened that you would mention Beit Jalal as an instance of Christian suffering without also mentioning other instances of such suffering in the world today. Is one to infer from your only mentioning this one instance that the others are of no importance? I believe that such an inference must be mistaken, but you can presumably see how it might be drawn?

Might one not have included a line noting that, across the Middle East and the wider world, Christians face persecution and even murder on a scale that dwarfs the very serious situation of Beit Jalal?

If I was in your shoes and had been told that I had time to mention only one instance of Christian suffering today, I might have chosen the recent mass killings of Copts in Egypt, the shocking murders of Roman Catholics by the Boko Haram in Nigeria or the fearful situation faced by Christians in Syria, as they face the prospect of what might become a sectarian civil war. At least in Beit Jalal nobody is being killed.

However serious the situation is in Beit Jalal, does it really deserve to be singled out in such a way as to be the ONLY instance of Christian suffering to merit a mention, with other such suffering not mentioned at all?

Lastly, your homily says that a "shadow falls particularly heavily on the town of Bethlehem tonight". Yet the BBC ( today says: "Christian pilgrims and tourists from around the world have converged on Bethlehem for Christmas."

The BBC also today says: "About 120,000 visitors are in the Palestinian West Bank town, 30% up on last year, officials said." Is that a sign of a very heavy shadow? I rejoice at the fact that Christians in Bethlehem (and in Israel) enjoy a freedom of worship that is denied to them elsewhere in the Middle East.

Patriarch Twal, in his Midnight Mass Homily in Bethlehem itself, urged "the return of calm and reconciliation in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq and in North Africa" - rightly focusing on the whole region, and not only on Beit Jalal.

Indeed, he said: "O Child of Bethlehem, in this New Year, we place in your hands this troubled Middle East and, above all, our youth full of legitimate aspirations, who are frustrated by the economic and political situation, and in search of a better future."

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the points that I have raised.


Matthew Harris

To which I today received the following reply, and I assume that the Archbishop will not object to my reproducing it in full:

Dear Mr Harris,

Thank you for your email, sent on Christmas Day.

As you know my reference to Beit Jala was very brief and factual. I did not criticise the State of Israel, but simply stated that a court action was beginning, that very day, in which families were trying the defend the laqnd that they have farmed, some for 700 years. It was not a lengthy statement, simply a request for prayers.

I chose to mention that single event not only because is directly affects the district of Bethlehem but also because the court case was beginning on that day. That makes it a unique moment.

There are, of course, threats and actions against Christians in many parts of the world, and threats and actions against the State of Israel.

You will know that the position of the Holy See, and hence of the Catholic Church, is that of recognising the State of Israel and seeking a solution of two viable states. It is the pursuit of this which is most important.

Thank you for writing to me,

With good wishes,

+Vincent Nichols


Friday, 23 December 2011

Engrossing New Yorker piece on Guatemala

A friend recently alerted me to this utterly gripping New Yorker piece about events in Guatemala, by David Grann. It certainly puts London's "Occupy" protests in context. If you think that the word "gripping" and the word "Guatemala" might not be natural bedfellows, then I urge you to read this article and think again.

Monday, 19 December 2011

David Cameron's King James Bible Speech

I like the speech that the Prime Minister made at Oxford's Christ Church Cathedral the other day. I like it not only because I agree with it, but because I think that it is very well-written. Its references to Christian values have been most noted in the media, but it is fascinating also to see the Conservative Party's leader saying: 
Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism.  A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone.  It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them.
So it's a "genuinely liberal country" to which Mr Cameron aspires in this speech, with the word "conservative" (or conservatism) not meriting a single mention. I know, incidentally, that many Lib Dems will be uncomfortable with the notion that the Prime Minister has defined Britain as a Christian country; they would have wanted him to say something like: 
Let me be clear: I am not in any way saying that to have another faith - or no faith - is somehow wrong. I know and fully respect that many people in this country do not have a religion. And I am also incredibly proud that Britain is home to many different faith communities, who do so much to make our country stronger...Faith is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for morality. There are Christians who don’t live by a moral code. And there are atheists and agnostics who do.
Well, read the speech, because that's exactly what he did say, in those very words. I was struck also by the Prime Minister's saying: 
And when it comes to the great humanitarian crises - like the famine in Horn of Africa - again you can count on faith-based organisations like Christian Aid, Tearfund, CAFOD, Jewish Care, Islamic Relief, and Muslim Aid to be at the forefront of the action to save lives.
A terrific sentiment, but Jewish Care is actually an excellent domestic welfare charity; it would have no direct connection with action to save lives abroad and that is not what it is for. The Prime Minister perhaps rather had in mind World Jewish Relief, Tzedek or ORT

Also, Mr Cameron says that "one thing is clear: moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn’t going to cut it any more". "Isn't going to cut it any more"? That is to imply, that, hitherto, the British had decided that moral neutrality or passive tolerance did cut it and that we are now making a change. In which case - what is to change? What, in response to the Prime Minister's having said all of this, is he now proposing to do that is any way different to what he was already doing before? Is this speech merely a rhetorical exercise aimed at pleasing voters without making any new spending commitments? By making this speech in this cathedral in the bleak mid-winter, Mr Cameron chimes with those aspects of Christianity that most resonate with Middle England - Englishness, beautiful old buildings and Christmas - while ignoring those aspects of the Christian debate that are most challenging: abortion, marriage and gay rights. Where does this speech take us? I'm not sure. I'll have to see if Sainsbury's will sell me a moral compass.


Saturday, 17 December 2011

Charmless islamophobia - or maybe Arabophobia

Imagine the outrage if someone said that the British Government is "timid" in the face of pressure from the UK's "large Jewish population". How unpleasant, then, to read identical comments about the UK's "large Arab population" ( The UK doesn't actually even have a "large Arab population"; I assume that this person was referring in confusion to my country's Muslim communities, which largely have their origins not in the Arab world, but on the Indian sub-continent. To accuse the Government of lacking the "courage" to offend the country's "large Arab population" is as offensive as it would be to accuse the Government of lacking the "courage" to offend the Jewish community.

'No' to Thatcher film debate

Tory MP Rob Wilson is quite wrong to call for a Commons debate on the film The Iron Lady ( Such a debate would be a waste of Parliamentary time and money. The House of Commons makes our laws and is not a phone-in radio show. I have not seen The Iron Lady and I accept that some people don't like its portrayal of Baroness Thatcher's later years, but what is to be achieved by debating that in Parliament? What is intended to happen as a result of such a debate?

Are we now Thailand, where insulting the monarch (lese-majeste) is a criminal offence? Debating the artistic merits of a film in Parliament takes us dangerously towards censorship - and this from Rob Wilson, who is Parliamentary Private Secretary to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Ouch.

If Mr Wilson wishes to debate "respect, good manners and good taste" then I suggest that he goes to prop up the bar in his nearest saloon bar, where I'm sure he will find a ready audience. He wonders "why the film-makers had to go so heavily on the mental illness, the dementia side, when Baroness Thatcher has had a very important life in the politics of this country and the world". That's an interesting question for cinema-goers, but it has nothing to do with Parliament. It is ridiculous for an MP to second-guess the artistic decisions of film-makers, as if Parliament can debate how a film ought to have been made. Mr Wilson can make his own film if he wants to see a different one.

Unless The Iron Lady breaks the law in some way, then neither Mr Wilson nor Parliament is entitled to demand that it had been made as a different film - and such a demand is actually quite offensive. Mr Wilson also wonders "about the humanity of the film makers who are very subtly denigrating someone who was a great prime minister". How dare he question the "humanity" of artists who have produced a work of art that is not to his taste? By all means criticise the work, but without making spiteful personal attacks on the people who created it. Such attacks certainly have no place on the Parliamentary agenda. This debate would cost public money (do Tories think there is taxpayers' money to waste on debating a film?!) and take Parliamentary time when MPs surely have other, more urgent things to discuss at present?

Friday, 16 December 2011

Westminster Hall debate on Israel

The Conservative MP Guto Bebb secured a half-hour Parliamentary debate on Israel in Westminster Hall on Wednesday; it makes interesting reading if you want to know where the UK's Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition Government stands on the Israel/Palestine peace process, as a Foreign Office Minister (David Lidington) replied to Mr Bebb on behalf of the Government.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The other occupation

Interesting to see ( that the European Parliament has voted not to extend a fishing deal with Morocco because, say MEPs, "the deal was illegal as it did not benefit the people living in the disputed Western Sahara, off which most of the fishing took place".

According to the BBC: "Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1976 but its claims of sovereignty have not been internationally recognised. The separatist Polisario movement fought a guerrilla war against Moroccan troops until 1991 and still seeks to be recognised as an independent state."

Sounds familiar? And yet how often do we hear news of this territorial dispute (, or condemnation of Morocco for this occupation? Why is the plight of Saharawis any less significant than the plight of Palestinians? And yet while the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (or "the Middle East", as some people call it, when the Middle East is not a conflict, it's a region populated by hundreds of millions of people, of whom the Israelis and Palestinians are but a fraction) is discussed endlessly, I rarely hear anything about Western Sahara.

This habit of focusing on the few headline conflicts that we all know about, while ignoring all the others, is dangerous. It is dangerous because it means that wounds fester untended in large parts of the world, only for the conflicts concerned to suddenly explode as if from nowhere. It is dangerous because people who deserve our attention are being ignored. And it is dangerous because it means that we have only a self-reinforcingly partial world-view, as those conflicts that catch our eye remain the ones to which we constantly return in search of news, while other conflicts (in which equal or greater numbers of people are being killed) barely get reported. See also:,8599,2102098,00.html?xid=gonewsedit

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Christians in the Middle East

I have just read all of yesterday's insightful, fascinating and thoughtful House of Lords debate on the situation of Christians in the Middle East ( Initiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the debate comprised speeches by a wide range of peers of many faiths and of none. It also included practical suggestions of things that the British Government can actually do, as well as noting things that it is thankfully already doing.

While I do not 'agree' with some of the points that were made in some of the speeches, I overwhelmingly agree with the consensus that emerged on three principles in particular. One is that Christianity was born in the Middle East and has flourished there for centuries before and after the later birth of Islam, in contrast to suggestions that Christianity is an alien, Western import to the region. Another is that religious freedom (including being free to convert from one faith to another, and being free to have no faith) is a fundamental human right. The third is that a true democracy is one that accords as much importance to protecting minority rights as it accords to reflecting the democratically-expressed will of the majority.

These three principles are central to any consideration of the highly worrying situation of Christians across the Middle East and North Africa after the 'Arab Spring'. At stake are not the specific rights of Christians, but the rights of all people who live in the region, including Muslims. Many Christian Arabs are living in dire circumstances that reflect the plight of everyone who lives in the countries concerned; it is in the interest of all of those people (of all faiths and of none) for the region to become one in which there is equality before the law, pluralism and religious freedom.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Transaction tax question

If there was an EU-wide transactions tax, the money would be collected and retained by national governments, right? Calling it EU-wide, etc, leaves open the inference that money collected in France, the UK or Portugal would not go into the national coffers in Paris, London or Lisbon, but would instead go to Brussels, to be spent by the EU on straightening bananas, banning sausages and rigging the Eurovision Song Contest. And that inference is mistaken, right? The money raised on transactions in the City of London would actually go to the British Treasury? My perception of the issues at stake on this has been clouded by what I believe is a mistaken inference - a mistaken inference that has loomed large in much media coverage of the issue.

I don't know whether or not a Tobin tax or other transaction tax is a good idea. That is a technical area of taxation about which I know not much. I do know that I would not especially favour a transactions tax that was cobbled together in the middle of the night at a summit that's supposed to be about resolving the eurozone's sovereign debt crisis. In what other field is it considered sensible to sit up all night arguing in an atmosphere of crisis?

As a Liberal Democrat, I agree with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg ( that David Cameron had no choice but to use the veto, although I note that Mr Clegg has further developed his thoughts on this matter since I first wrote this post ( I think it was the right decision, given the political circumstances in which Mr Cameron appears to have found himself. Lord (Matthew) Oakeshott is mistaken to link this to the Conservatives' not being part of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP). I too opposed the Tories' decision to move from the EPP to another grouping that is to the EPP's right and which includes some highly dodgy right-wing parties. But that's got nothing to with this week's crisis. If Nick Clegg was Prime Minister, he wouldn't be in the EPP with Merkel and Sarkozy either - he'd instead be in the European Liberal group, just as Ed Miliband would be in the Socialist group. Mr Cameron's perfectly good relations with the French and German leaders has nothing to do with the Tories having left the EPP.

Also, if one of the things that we were reportedly seeking at this summit was the right for the UK Government "to strengthen UK banks' capital ratios in line with the Vickers commission report", then the UK is surely arguing for more (not less) regulation of British banks, so how can Chris Davies MEP accuse Mr Cameron of using the veto "to protect bankers from regulation"? What Mr Cameron was actually doing was maintaining the UK's ability to impose tough measures on banks.

Do some Lib Dems wrongly think that our party's pro-European history means that we are uncritical of all European institutions and would never sanction the use of Britain's veto? The Liberals called for the UK to join the Common Market before any other party. The SDP's founders included pro-European Labour rebels at a time when Labour wanted to pull Britain out of the EEC. We therefore have a proud history of believing that the UK gains a lot from being in the EU (which it does). That doesn't, however, mean that we will always agree with all of the other countries that are in the EU. It's not anti-European to say No sometimes, and if we're supposed never to use our veto, then why do we have a veto in the first place?

What Nick Clegg is saying today is consistent with what he was saying as long ago as July:

Thursday, 8 December 2011

If the roles were reversed...

Israel's Attorney General, Yehuda Weinstein, has reportedly said ( that the so-called NGO bill is unconstitutional and restricts freedom of expression.

This bill (which comes not from the government, but from a couple of backbenchers) has been much exercising the minds of those of my friends who still read the Guardian. It basically seeks to restrict foreign government funding for various Israeli NGOs, some of which receive a lot of their income from foreign governments - including the British Government. A just, peaceful resolution of the Israeli/Arab conflict is a key aim of UK foreign policy, so our government funds Israeli NGOs that it sees as working to bring such a resolution about. Some of this funding is given in concert with some British Jewish and pro-Israeli groups.

What's interesting is that many people (myself included) often take it for granted that it is reasonable for the UK to work towards ending other people's conflicts. Should we take it for granted? How would we feel if foreign governments were funding MigrationWatch? Or the Taxpayers Alliance? Or if Iran had a Department for International Development that funded the Stop the War Coalition? It is surely worth asking ourselves that question.

Monday, 5 December 2011

The Prime Minister's priorities

David Cameron's people allowed it to be said on the BBC today that the Prime Minister's top concern is to increase competitiveness in the eurozone. That is like suggesting that Ilsa's main concern at the end of Casablanca is whether or not the plane serves salted peanuts. I believe that the Prime Minister gets that the top concern re:- the eurozone is not increased competitiveness (nice though that would be) but the possibility of total and utter doom if the whole thing collapses. I say "I believe that the Prime Minister gets..." because Mr Cameron today said, re:- this other thing with the life sciences: "We get that the game has changed...We're going to be more flexible, more competitive, more hungry for business than ever before," so we clearly 'get' things today (with or without a mid-Atlantic Blairite glottal stop, as the PM actually said 'combedidive'). Grr! Hungry for business! Does he rehearse in front of the mirror like Gareth Cheeseman? Does he play Eye of the Tiger in his head? Were his comms today being handled by some kids who'd written in to Jim'll Fix It? Although actually I too am hungry for British business and I'm sure he's right about the life sciences.

BBC: 'Castro the libertarian'

On teletext (or whatever we're now calling it in the new millennium) and presumably also online, the BBC has an obituary of the Brazilian footballer Socrates that includes the following line: "But Socrates' heroes included famous libertarians Fidel Castro and Che Guevara...". A libertarian is "a person who believes that people should be free to think and behave as they want and should not have limits put on them by governments". In what conceivable sense are Castro or Che Guevara libertarians? They weren't 'libertarians', they were communist revolutionaries. Why this matters beyond mere semantics (not that I am anti-semantic) is that the Castro regime in Cuba is actually a grotesquely anti-democratic one. To call Castro a 'libertarian', when his family's regime is one which makes it illegal for Cubans to say "I'd like someone else to be my country's president", is not only stupid, but also genuinely offensive - offensive not only to me, but to all the Cuban people whose human rights are being abused by the disgusting Castro government (

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Leon Panetta on Israel and Iran

If I was an American and was active in politics, I think I'd be a Clinton Democrat. I still strongly admire President Clinton and his steadfast, near-miss attempts to broker an Israeli/Palestinian peace deal. Leon Panetta, who was Clinton's Chief of Staff and who is now President Obama's Defense Secretary, made this fascinating speech yesterday: If you want to know what the grown-ups are saying about Israel and Iran, then read this speech and read it carefully, including the Q&A at the end.

The BBC's reporting of the speech has focused on Mr Panetta's call for Israel to mend fences with Egypt and Turkey. Is that the most interesting bit of this speech? I would argue not. Read the whole thing. It's not very long. I was struck also by Mr Panetta saying that Israel and the Palestinians should:

"Just get to the damn table.  Just get to the table.  The problem right now is we can't get them to the damn table to at least sit down and begin to discuss their differences – you know, we all know what the pieces are here for a potential agreement.  We've talked it out, worked through, we understand the concerns, we understand the concerns of Israel, understand the concerns of the Palestinians.  If they sit at a table and work through those concerns, and the United States can be of assistance in that process, then I think you have the beginning of what could be a process that would lead to a peace agreement.  

"But if they aren't there – if they aren't at the table, this will never happen.  So first and foremost, get to the damn table."

I could point out that Israel keeps saying that it wants immediate direct talks with the Palestinians. Israel is arguably already at the table, looking at its watch and eating a bread stick while the waitress hovers with a menu.

The Palestinians say they won't come unless Israel resumes a 'settlement freeze' (even though when there WAS a settlement freeze, the Palestinians still refused to come to talks for most of the time that the freeze was on, even though that was supposedly their condition for coming. It's like if you invited me to dinner, and I said I'd come if you don't mind meeting me in Finchley, and you said yes you'd come to Finchley, and I said I still wasn't coming, even though you'd agreed to what I'd asked. So you then forget about Finchley and ask me if I will just please come to dinner anyway as we need to talk, and I say 'only if we can meet in Finchley' and we repeat the whole cycle and never get to dinner).

If you were the Palestinian President, would you not go into talks and discuss settlements there, instead of using settlements as an excuse for not talking?

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Welsh in Parliament

Was just representing Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel in a cross-party panel discussion at an event ( in Manchester called Big Tent for Israel. Guto Bebb, Conservative MP for Aberconwy, said something extraordinary. He said that, while Israel's Arab MPs quite rightly can stand up in Parliament and speak in Arabic (which is one of Israel's official languages), Welsh MPs can't address the British Parliament in Welsh! With Welsh being an officially recognised minority language of the United Kingdom, it's forbidden to speak Welsh in Parliament and that's outrageous. This is up there with not carrying an official ID card. As a liberal, I demand the right to be elected an MP (or be granted a dukedom) and to address Parliament in Lowland Scots.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Congratulations to President Assad

Congratulations go to Syria for securing election to not one, but two committees of UNESCO ( As the Arab League stands poised to finally act on Syrian human rights abuses (, UNESCO has just elected Syria to its human rights committee. At a time when Syria has never been condemned more by a range of NGOs, UNESCO has elected Assad's country to its committee for NGO relations.

You may say that all countries get to have a go on these committees and that it doesn't matter. In that case, I would say that we might as well stop pretending that such bodies stand for anything and are worth bothering with, and it is you, not me, who is being cynical - I have a wholly uncynical desire for UN bodies to stand for their self-proclaimed values and to not-elect brutal dictatorships to their human rights committees. Otherwise what is the point of such bodies?

UNESCO's own director-general has herself questioned the efficacy of now appointing Syria to these committees. But then that is the same director-general who recently summoned the Israeli Ambassador to complain about a cartoon in an Israeli newspaper ( - the equivalent of summoning the British Ambassador to complain about a cartoon in the Guardian. The one country in the Middle East that actually has a free press and not repressive state media, and she summons its ambassador because of a cartoon in an independent newspaper. Small wonder that, when the ambassador reported back on this, the Israeli Foreign Ministry cabled back: "It seems your work environment is getting more and more reminiscent of 'Animal Farm.'"

Animal Farm indeed, as there is something distinctly Orwellian about progressives' long blindness to the faults of such deeply repressive Middle Eastern regimes as Syria. A blindness that never extended to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, which was elevated from being one important issue (which it is) to being the issue that supposedly trumps all others, with "the Middle East" no longer referring to a region of many countries, but to the situation facing Israel and the Palestinians.

This focus on the Palestinians to the exclusion of all other Middle East issues (including issues that are of equal, if not greater importance) is delusional and helps no-one (including the Palestinians, whose just cause has been exploited by dictators keen to distract their populations from the problems of their own countries in the region). As a delusion, it stands comparison to the blindness of much past progressive opinion to the reality of Stalin's regime in the USSR.

It's a cliche to talk of a world turned upside down. If UNESCO's members can think that it is OK to put Syria on its human rights committee, then it is not the world that is upside down, but the world's way of looking at itself.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Not the Finkler Question

A correspondent to Friday's Jewish Chronicle writes: "...if the ideal of a liberal democracy in Israel is being subverted by the increasingly influential strictly-Othodox, then I have to ask myself the Finkler Question: how loyal should a diaspora Jew be to the state of Israel?". He wrote his letter after reading this piece ( by Jonathan Freedland in another edition of the same newspaper.

But that isn't "the Finkler Question". The Finkler Question, in the superb novel of that name by Howard Jacobson, is simply intended to be "the Jewish Question". Neither the novel nor any of its protagonists actually asks a question with a question mark at its end, least of all "How loyal should a diaspora Jew be to the state of Israel?".

Being pro-Israeli and pro-American has nothing to do with being 'loyal' to Israel or to the United States; it has to do with being supportive of those countries' stance on various geo-political issues, while also sometimes disagreeing with some policies of each country's government of the day.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Save the Oyster

Writing as myself, and not as a Liberal Democrat (I don't know what all other London Lib Dems think about this), I am strongly, instinctively opposed to any moves by Transport for London (TfL) to phase out Oyster cards. We've only had Oysters for five minutes anyway and it is already a modern, high-tech and convenient way to travel. I detect zero desire among passengers for it to be replaced. Unlike so many other big IT projects, it has actually been a great success and very popular, so why tinker with it unnecessarily?

The supposedly cash-strapped TfL has somehow managed to find £75 million to enable passengers to swipe their debit and credit cards instead of using an Oyster or paying cash; the London Assembly's Transport Committee (chaired by Lib Dem Caroline Pidgeon) has raised a number of concerns about this (

This follows TfL's recent proposal to eventually phase out Oyster cards entirely, in favour of swiping debit and credit cards (or paying cash, which means paying a higher fare). Why? Who wants this to happen? What was the point in spending millions on creating Oyster cards if we are now doing this five minutes later?

One in five people has no debit or credit card. Also, it is one thing for me to be over-charged on my Oyster card and get £6.50 re-funded to it some days later. It would be another thing for someone on a fixed income to be over-charged on their debit card, meaning that the £30 that they were about to withdraw from their current account before a night out is now £20.
Or, quite seriously, if someone had ensured that they'd left £700 in their current account so that the rent can be paid by standing order on Wednesday, before they get paid their salary on Thursday, and then an over-payment to TfL left them a quid or two short of £700 on the day in question, then the rent wouldn't be paid after all and that's disastrous for the person concerned.

No, no, no. Nobody wants this to happen. It's a stupid idea and a waste of money. Maybe people should be allowed to swipe debit or credit cards instead of Oyster if they want to (although is it really worth spending £75 million to enable them to do so?), but only if the existence of the Oyster is absolutely guaranteed for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Media Alert: Islam Channel tonight on Israel/Palestine

For those of you who are interested, I am today recording an appearance (discussing issues to do with Israel and the Palestinians) on The World This Week on the Islam Channel, a channel that can be watched in the UK on Sky channel 813, Freesat channel 693 and live on the internet. This is presumably for the edition of the programme that goes out at 22.00 tonight (Thursday) and again at 07.00 on Saturday. If it is available online afterwards, I'll post a link to that. The Islam Channel is not beyond criticism, but I believe in appearing (unpaid, in this instance) on any British TV channel that is lawful and regulated by Ofcom, if given an opportunity to put across a point of view that I consider to be important.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

A quizzical examination

After my mildly caustic comments about Barnet Liberal Democrats' Quiz Supper, the whole thing was a great success. Two colleagues arrived to find a hall filled with joyful people tucking into the caviar canapes before the main course of venison, all washed down by the finest wines in all of christendom. Then (seriously) they realised that they'd gone to last year's venue, in Mill Hill, and were at another local body's quiz supper. They realised their error in time to join us in Whetstone for the fish and chips and questions including: In the British Cabinet, who is the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? (it's Owen Paterson); In the Carry On films, which actor played Dr Tinkle, WC Boggs and Stuart Farquar? (it was Kenneth Williams) and Which former Prime Minister said "Every Prime Minister needs a Willie?" (it was Margaret Thatcher, advising all PM's to get a deputy as dependable as her own Willie Whitelaw). It was good fun, actually. Great fish and chips and money raised for the Local Party. Small voluntary groups in church halls are the backbone of the country.

No South Sudan Solidarity Campaign?

One of the sillier things that people like me sometimes say is: "Why can't people bang on as much about other conflicts as they do about Israel/Palestine?" It is silly because I myself often bang on about Israel/Palestine, so I can't blame others for also doing so. However, I can't help saying what I'm now about to say. When Israel and Hamas fought their Gaza War in 2008/9, the world and its media treated it as the number-one crisis of the day, with saturation news coverage, student sit-ins and emergency motions in support of the Palestinians. Now I look at what's happening right now in South Sudan (, and I see that the response is minimal, to say the least. Why is that? Who gets to decide which people's suffering is most important? I missed the meeting where we all decided that one.

Friday, 11 November 2011

UK cash for Israeli Arab projects

As a British taxpayer, a Liberal Democrat and a friend of Israel, I am pleased to read reports ( and that the UK's Coalition Government "is to put £40,000 into a programme to promote better ties between Jews and Arabs in Israel". Through the UK Task Force on Issues Facing Arab Citizens of Israel (, this has been established as a key priority for a range of British Jewish and pro-Israeli organisations. The UK has a tradition of an activist foreign policy, which means giving money to NGOs in other countries; other countries are equally entitled to give money to NGOs in this country. Says Jewish News:
The UK's ambassador to Israel has criticised some of the legislation going through the Knesset as discriminatory and warned that it is corroding the country's image.
Addressing the New Israel Fund's annual human rights award dinner, Matthew Gould said: "I find the widening gaps in Israel, between Jew and Arab, the centre and periphery, rich and poor, upsetting."
Gould, who declared himself a "life-long supporter" of the NIF, added: "Israel's image is corroded when legislation goes through the Knesset that appears to be discriminatory. This contradicts the vision of Israel's founders, who believed in Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people, but where all citizens are equal."
He added: "This worries me. It affects the peace process. When the talks started, at Madrid 20 years ago, Israel's Arabs were seen as a bridge between the Jewish state and its neighbours. Now, however, they are alienated and feel second class."
Gould announced that the Foreign Office was providing 40,000 pounds in funding to two NIF-supported organisations, Shatil and the Israel-Arab Task Force in Akko and Lod.
The awards dinner raised 140,000 pounds, an almost 30 percent increase on last year's ceremony.
Also addressing the event was outspoken Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua. He urged diaspora Jews to take part in helping Israelis work towards peace and social justice.
The danger Israel faced today, he said, was "not military. It's existential and what kind of Israel it will be; whether it's a liberal democracy or a binational state that will slide towards apartheid or religious extremism. We and you are brothers and sisters and you must help us".
The recipient of the human rights award was Barbara Epstein, the director of Community Advocacy, for her outstanding work in the area of social and economic justice.
New York-born Epstein said: "It is a great honour for me to receive this award after 18 years in the field of Social and Economic rights."
Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, in a video address, praised Epstein. "Barbara's work...has made an impact throughout the entire city. Usually quiet and behind the scenes, Barbara's influence can be felt wherever there are those in need.

"Barbara chose to help those in need fulfil their rights, that sometimes they are not even aware of, and help people resolve problems they cannot manage on their own."

Thursday, 10 November 2011

JC's Martin Bright on Nick Clegg

I was very interested to read this typically candid piece ( by Jewish Chronicle Political Editor Martin Bright, about Nick Clegg's recent comments on how best to counter extremism (

Martin Bright writes: "It may come as a surprise...that...Nick Clegg has taken such a strong stance on...the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis). The decision by ministers to cancel a civil service recruitment fair organised by Fosis because the organisation had "failed to challenge sufficiently terrorist and extremist ideologies" was a bold one. Mr Clegg's comments to the Community Security Trust in Manchester last week were intended to illustrate his "muscular liberalism"...(It) is important that he has sent a signal that the government will not endorse or fund Fosis events...Mr Clegg has always argued for a policy of engagement with radical Islam but he and others within the party have been keen to dismiss the idea that the Liberal Democrats are anti-Israel. Exactly a year ago, he gave a speech to Lib Dem Friends of Israel which emphasised his party's support for a change in the law of universal jurisdiction."

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Cuba's Castro clan out-tweeted

I hate Cuba's communist dictatorship. My hatred is intensified by the hypocrisy of all those on the British Left who have ever defended Castro and his regime. How is a communist boot in the face any different from a fascist boot in the face? How is Castro's suppression of free speech any different from Pinochet's? How is holidaying in Castro's Cuba any different from holidaying in apartheid-era South Africa?

To those who would say "Yes, but Cuba has a marvellous health service", I would say "Yes, but mad monetarists used to say that Pinochet's Chile had a marvellous economy - you can't use either a brilliant health service or a brilliant economy to justify making it illegal to say 'I'd like someone else to be my country's president'". If you spent your student days campaigning for left-wing anti-democrats in Cuba, Nicaragua or Venezuela, then that is your problem and not mine - even in my youth, I was never that stupid, and my conscience is clear on that score.

Which brings me to the wonderful story of Yoani Sanchez ( President Castro's daughter went on Twitter to spout drivel for the regime, and Ms Sanchez, a prominent Cuban blogger, went straight back at her with an argument for free speech. To which the junta's First Daughter responded with: "Your focus on tolerance reproduces the old structures of power." That's Cuban socialism for you - tough on tolerance and tough on the causes of tolerance.

As the BBC explains: "The public exchange of views between President Raul Castro's daughter and one of his most outspoken critics is very unusual in communist Cuba, where political opposition is banned and the media is controlled by the state." The BBC also says: "(Internet access) is restricted and available only with government permission - although since 2009 Cubans have been able to use internet cafes, mostly in hotels, and there is a strong black market for internet connections."

A ban on political opposition, state control of the media and restrictions on internet access - and yet, until there is a row involving a Twitter feed and the President's daughter, nobody appears to care. To which my very simple question is: why not?

Monday, 7 November 2011

Barnet Liberal Democrats' Quiz Supper on Saturday 12 November

June is unavailable for comment
Do you enjoy sitting in draughty church halls, eating fried food and answering trivia questions while people shout "We can't hear!" at the quizmaster in a tone that implies that he's talking too quietly on purpose? If so, then Barnet Liberal Democrats' Quiz Supper this Saturday could be the event for you. Because, this week on Terry and June, Terry (played as ever by Matthew Harris) is again setting and asking the questions at this annual event, with the usual hilarious consequences. Questions that I posed at last year's event included: "In the British Cabinet, who is the Secretary of State for Wales?" (it's Cheryl Gillan), "What is a Worcester Pearmain?" (it's an apple) and "Could my life get any more like an episode of Ever Decreasing Circles?" (that question remains unanswered).

Sorry. I am only joking. These events are great fun and raise a lot of money for the Local Party. The fish and chips are coming from a really good place that's actually a restaurant as well as a takeaway joint and will be very good. And the church hall won't really be draughty. So, the event starts (with fish and chips followed by a quiz, with a break later on for coffee and dessert) at 7pm on Saturday 12 November, at St Johns Church Hall, Friern Barnet Lane, N20 0LW in Whetstone in North London. Very near the Tube Station and on lots of bus routes. It's £15 per person including supper (fish and chips or a vegetarian alternative). You're welcome to bring a bottle of wine to drink; beer will be available in return for a donation. Please also bring things to go into the raffle as prizes. 

There'll be no politics, so this is an event for everyone - you can either come as part of a team (we're aiming for teams of eight to nine people), or if you come on your own, we'll allocate you to a team. So that we know about numbers (and people's dietary requirements - my dietary requirement is a three-course meal ordered from the a la carte menu at the Hotel de la Matelote in Boulogne), you must please email Geoff Jacobs on Any friends of mine reading this who fancy coming along, please give me a shout and we can sort that out. Hope to see lots of people there.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Nick Clegg on extremism

Very interesting to see the Jewish Chronicle's (JC) report of Nick Clegg's commendable comments on how best to counter extremism (, in a speech the other night. "Engage to change, yes, endorse and fund, no" about sums it up.

JC quotes him as saying in the speech:

"...when individuals and groups express attitudes that are hostile to Jews - Muslim and non-Muslim alike, that cannot be tolerated.

"And we need to be tough and smart in our approach. I've always believed (in) the general principle that you don't win the fight by leaving the ring, you don't walk away from the battlefield and let bigots spread hate unchallenged. You engage, confident in the power of argument, confident in the power of liberal values to defeat prejudice. Liberalism is muscular, it's not passive.

"I will always defend the right of ministers to take the fight to those who wish to divide our society.

"But of course there are limits. Some organisations we have no choice but to shut down. If we (are) concerned enough about their activities we will, as a last resort, consider proscribing them. We won't provide funding for groups who advocate intolerance, and engaging to change is not the same as endorsing.

"To give you an example, we recently cancelled a recruitment fair aimed at increasing applications by Muslims to the civil service. The proposed partner organisation was the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis), an umbrella organisation which has failed to challenge sufficiently terrorist and extremist ideologies.

"If ministers want to meet that organisation, setting out strongly the standards we expect, I'm all for it, but am I willing for Her Majesty's Government to treat them as a credible partner? Absolutely not. Engage to change, yes, endorse and fund, no."

The background to this story about Fosis is at: Obviously, one supports measures to encourage black and minority ethnic people (Muslims very much included) to apply to join the civil service - that's not the issue. The issue, as Mr Clegg says, is that government will not spend our taxes funding and endorsing "an umbrella organisation which has failed to challenge sufficiently terrorist and extremist ideologies," be that organisation Jewish, Muslim, Christian or anything else.

Steve Williams' apology

I know nothing about Steve Williams, Tiger Woods' former caddie. He said something (what, I don't know) about Woods that caused a row. He has now said: "I now realise how my comments could be construed as racist. That was not my intent. I apologise to Tiger and anyone else I have offended." Oh, if only everyone who is ever accused of racism could just do the same...Especially as Williams has avoided the weasel words "I apologise if anyone was offended" or "I apologise to anyone who may have been offended" - people always say that when they know full well that people have been offended, so why the element of doubt? The supposed "right to offend" is actually balanced, in an adult society, by a duty to try to be polite and to consider the sensitivities of others. It doesn't seem a lot to ask.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Nick Clegg's comments on Iran

Fascinating to read Nick Clegg's comments on Iran and its nuclear programme, as reported by the BBC ( and the Jewish Chronicle (JC - Of course, he is simply re-stating the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition Government's well-established position, but it is fascinating nonetheless. According to the JC (under the headline "Clegg won't rule out strike on Iran"), Mr Clegg said: "...we want to see a negotiated solution. But as for other outcomes, clearly, you don't rule anything out in a situation as grave as this."

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Nick Clegg speech to CST

On my way to Manchester for Nick Clegg's speech to the Northern Dinner of a charity called the Community Security Trust (CST - According to the Jewish Chronicle ( and Jewish News (

"The deputy prime minister will tell the CST's Manchester dinner that it's "profoundly disturbing" that some wish to harm the community with vandalism and physical attacks. "Not everyone outside the community understands that it is normal for small children to be perfectly comfortable with men on walkie-talkies guarding their Hebrew classes. Or synagogues having CCTV, or major events involving airport style security," he will tell the gathering hours after visiting a Jewish school in the region.

"If I'm honest, I would like to put the CST out of business. We all crave a time when none of this is needed. But, for now, you provide a hugely important service. Not just for the Jewish community - I know you do a lot of work to help other faith groups tackle hate crime too."

"During his address, the Liberal Democrat leader will also say that he "never fails to be inspired by the Jewish community" from the "depth of your religious traditions" and "rich cultural heritage" to its contribution to life in this country. "Indeed the history of Jews in Britain is, itself, a history of some of the greatest figures in British arts, education, business and politics. And when you look at the Jewish community today it is difficult not to be impressedby your pride in being part of a community that generates so much warmth, kindness and generosity. Your charitable work. Your volunteer networks, people who work tirelessly towards the goal of tikkun olam."

"And referring to the community's "phenomenal capacity to work in coalition: Orthodox, Reform, Liberal, Masorti", he joked: "I'd be grateful for any tips."

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Carry on Parking

This great parking row in the West End...I have, in my past professional life, had a great many meetings with the parking and transport teams at Westminster City Council. No, wait come back, this is actually interesting. Let me tell you a secret. Boris Johnson does not run London. Westminster City Council runs London - the parts of London that most tourists think of as London, in any case. Westminster itself, the West End, Soho, Chinatown, Covent Garden - it is a world-class operation, managing the built environment, transport and public safety in the world's greatest metropolis. Some of these people are giants among their peers in other world cities.

So what's up with this parking row? I don't know. I haven't read the council papers detailing the proposed new charges. It does seem an awful shame that the West End's varied business leaders are up in arms against the City Council, when Westminster is normally the West End's greatest champion.

If a utility company was imposing these charges while undertaking West End streetworks, the City Council would be livid. Surely there is some way of reaching a compromise? Could people working in the West End not be given parking permits for parts of the City of Westminster? Has the City Council mislaid the carrot that normally goes with its stick? I hope that Westminster soon recovers the negotiating skill that has always been its hallmark.

Some stories speak for themselves

At Prime Minister's Questions, David Cameron just referred to the former tax arrangements of someone hired to advise Labour on its next General Election campaign. I had missed that story, so I just looked it up. Here it is. There is no need for me to say anything. It speaks for itself. This looks like another mess that the Labour Party is choosing to get itself into. Not my problem!

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Seagulls in coastal towns

Turning on my television set, I just caught part of a sensible-seeming Westminster Hall debate on fuel poverty. Joyously, it has been followed by a debate on seagulls in coastal towns, introduced by Peter Aldous, the Tory MP for Waveney in Suffolk. This is actually a serious problem. Gulls' habits have changed, so they do now attack people quite nastily. It isn't funny. Except, it does show that England is still England, that we can have such a debate in our Parliament. "We do have to look at ourselves, as a race, as a people...", Mr Aldous just said. Apparently, things are not so bad in Norway and Sweden. Another MP just said that gulls are a menace in Barrow and Furness and asked about gull contraception.

It isn't funny, as an issue. It does merit debate. I do, however, half expect ARP Warden Hodges to burst in and tell the platoon that it's not their night to use the hall.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Germany's historic debt to Greece

Prior to my grandparents' enforced departure in the 1930s, my mother's family had lived in Germany for many generations. I therefore yield to no-one in my fondness for (in descending order of importance) German beer, food and culture (and let's not forget the wine). I see Germany as having responded commendably well to the legacy of the Holocaust and the other evils committed by Germans in the Nazi period.
I get why hard-working Germans would resent being asked to stump up for Greece's debts. But, in the good years, hard-working Germans did very well out of a European economy of which Greece was a part.

That economy was structured on a model that the Germans (through the EU) played a pivotal role in creating. Sure, the Greeks chose to spend and borrow the money, but they did so as part of a process of integration into first the EU, and then the eurozone - Germany was a key engine of that process of integration, and a key beneficiary of it (thanks in no small part to the hard work of many Germans).

As part of the process of integration, Greeks arguably ditched aspects of their quality of life in pursuit of a higher, market-driven standard of living (built, it now appears, on a mound of debt). Now, thanks (with hindsight) to the foolishness of those who spent and borrowed the money, the Greek economy is facing enormous problems - problems that Germany may now be asked to pay to put right.

As I say, the eurozone's problems stem partly from a system (built on debts and deficits) which Germany not only tolerated, but also benefited from. That is one reason why the Germans, if they can afford it, might bear a particular responsibility for helping Greece out. Germany, of all nations, understands the need for Europe to avoid hyper-inflation, a Depression or a breakdown in law and order.

There is another reason why Germany could decide to be magnanimous towards their Greek allies. It is that it is only a few decades since Greece was subjected to a murderous German occupation. There are people alive who suffered under that occupation, some of whom are presumably very elderly Greeks who are dependent on the very services that the Greek government must now cut back.

That obviously has nothing directly to do with today's Greek economy. But it is perhaps another reason why it wouldn't be the end of the world if Germany chose to be generous in its approach to how it helps the Greeks get back on track. Forgive me, but I think Germany might owe Greece a favour.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Camp Cuba on Finsbury Square

Down among the Finsbury Square campers, the Standard quotes "student journalist Lucy McKay, 19, on her "amazing" experience, as she says: "We got lectures on the Cuban economy and free sandwiches from Pret a Manger. The workers seemed to be delivering them without their managers knowing. At night there is a cinema."

It all sounds too groovy for words. A cinema in which to watch Fight Club, V for Vendetta and that West Wing episode where Toby meets the anti-globalisation protesters. A contraband sandwich lunch! And lectures on Cuba. Yes, Cuba.

Lucy, if you're reading this, you may want to go to the website of Amnesty International and see what it says about human rights in Cuba. Cuba being a country in which people are imprisoned for the crime of saying: "Hey everybody, I've just had a great idea - why don't we allow people to say things that are critical of the govenment?"

Lucy, you may have some great ideals, but I very much doubt that the Cuban regime shares them, as I'm guessing that you (unlike them) believe in personal freedom. Please don't let anyone tell you that Cuba is a role model for anything.

Demo outside HMRC

Attempting as I just was to catch a bus from Whitehall to that barber in Soho that charges a fiver (and they do haircuts as well), I chanced upon a demo calling for Dave Hartnett to resign as head of HMRC. Despite good policing, they (many of them kids) were blocking the pavement something rotten and I had to glare at one of them to get her to move.

The bus stop was allegedly still operating but it was practically impossible to get a bus there, so I went to the next stop a few yards down. There was at least one Free Palestine badge (I wasn't aware that Palestine was Mr Hartnett's fault), and a man with a megaphone complaining that the police had blocked the entrance to HMRC itself (I mean, really, how very unreasonable of them not to allow a crowd of demonstrators to run around inside a major government building). He wanted a show of hands on whether to stay there until Mr Hartnett resigns. I think half his crowd were foreign tourists.

It turned out to be about Vodafone and its tax bill (real or alleged). I took a photo and am therefore now a citizen journalist. A citizen journalist who now doesn't have time after all to get a haircut before his next appointment - it gives a whole new meaning to UK Uncut. When, as a candidate, I emailed Dave Hartnett about older people paying too much tax, I got a prompt and helpful reply; I have not heard anything that makes me want him to resign. Right now I care more about spoilt Trot kids who sit on the pavement and show zero awareness of people trying to get by.

Parliament Week sure to go with a bang

I'm all for the UK having a Parliament Week, to encourage people (including schoolchildren) to celebrate Parliament as an institution. Is it a coincidence that the first Parliament Week coincides with Bonfire Night, when we commemorate the foiling of a plot to blow Parliament up? I guess there are worse ways to interest kids in Parliamentary history. By the way, if any kids are being taught that there is now a general consensus that Guy Fawkes didn't do it - no, he did it. And he very nearly succeeded, as well.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Binge-advice on binge drinking?

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) has been dispensing medical advice since the sixteenth century. It has even been advising government on alcohol since the gin epidemic of 1725. I'm guessing that it might know a thing or two about the medical aspects of booze.

It has just issued sensible-sounding advice to lay off the sauce for two or three or days after a heavy session. The RCP is saying that, while drinking a little every day is unlikely to do anyone any harm, it matters not only how much you drink, but how often you drink.

By saying that men should drink no more than twenty-one units a week and no more than three units a day, government is implying that it can be a good idea to drink every day, which (says the RCP) is not necessarily true (it also creates a second weekly limit of twenty-eight units rather than twenty-one, which is confusing and contradictory).

Hence the RCP saying that, if anyone wants its opinion, its advice is to have two or three days a week on which you might not drink very much or might not drink at all. Nor is this the nanny state, as the RCP is nothing to do with the state; this is a doctors' body giving advice that people are free to ignore.

It sounds like good advice to me. Department of Health (DH) says that it has no plans to update its advice (for which we are paying with our taxes) on alcohol consumption, despite the new advice from the RCP. This is a turf war between DH, the RCP and certain government agencies that (in a classic example of mission-creep, or maybe remit-creep) were never intended to handle issues like alcohol consumption in the first place.

The drinks industry funds Drinkaware and the Portman Trust (as well as paying billions of pounds in taxes, and employing and training thousands of people). So we are not short of bodies offering opinions on this stuff, much of it funded by the taxpayer.

In government-ese, alcohol comes under 'public health', which I believe is being devolved (presumably with a budget) from central government to local councils. Even before this devolutionary measure, many councils have been devoting time and money to campaigns to get people to drink less and stop smoking.

The Prime Minister's Big Society is partly about government not having to itself do everything that is required for the public good. This strikes me as a good example of that. If the RCP is willing and able to spend its money on advising me about alcohol, do I need government (in its many and varied forms) to advise me on it as well? Could government not pay RCP to do the work more cheaply than it does it itself? Could government-owned advertising space (local and national) not be given free to the RCP for alcohol-related campaigning?

At the moment, there is too much jargon-heavy advice from too many bodies, at great public cost, and that is part of the reason that a lot of the advice is ignored. What people want is simple advice from people who are medically qualified.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The iniquities of potted shrimp

I cannot work out how to paste into a Blogger page on my blackberry. I copy text from elsewhere and then there is no paste option on the drop-down bar. I tell you this because I was just looking to see if Chris Leslie is a Shadow Minister, when I found a Wikipedia page about a DC superhero comic called the Shadow Cabinet, which is unintentionally funny and I was going to paste from it here to hilarious effect, but it won't let me.

Chris Leslie is a Labour MP (and a graduate of Leeds University, which will become tangentially relevant later on). According to Wiki, he ran Gordon Brown's Labour leadership campaign in 2007, when his efforts secured Mr Brown a whopping 100% of the vote, as there were no other candidates. Mr Leslie is in the news today with precisely the sort of soft news story that gets MPs in the papers at the weekend. Indeed, purely hypothetically and without reference to Mr Leslie, it is the sort of soft news story that might be recommended to an MP if s/he sought professional advice on how to get in the papers more.

The story in question is about Mr Leslie calling for somebody (but who?) to end the practice of Oxford and Cambridge giving out MA degrees for a tenner. I didn't know Cambridge charged and I paid not £10 but £40 for my Oxford MA, although that included the cost of hiring the gowns and a truly disgusting lunch (which was not hired, as I was allowed to keep it), one feature of which of which was tiny frozen prawns in a block of frozen butter. Is that what is known as potted shrimp? Other highlights of the day included being temporarily locked in a pub's lavatory while still wearing an MA gown, and, before lunch, an elderly Australian man bursting in to shout "They've voted to keep the Sheila!". This was not in the lavatory, this was in an anteroom (I know, I agree, some of my best friends are rooms, and we must stamp out anteroom attitudes) at my college, of which the Australian gentleman was a member. The Sheila in question is Her Majesty the Queen, whose personage the Australians had that day very sensibly voted to retain as their head of state. There could be few more appropriate settings in which to hear such news. Did any of this happen as I remember it? Or did someone in the pre-prandial anteroom tell me that the Australian had shouted that when the news had come through a few days before? I am now genuinely uncertain.

Anyway, I went to get my MA because it is a way of remaining a member of the university, and because it was a fun day out, if your idea of fun is eating disgusting food and being trapped in a public convenience while wearing fancy dress. I would never claim to actually have an MA, and I get why it is offensive to people who have slogged their guts out to get an MA, that Oxbridge people get one for nothing (or for ten pounds). Because, yes, if you graduate from Oxford with a BA honours degree, then, a few years later, you are automatically eligible to graduate MA, without doing any further work - you get an MA without studying for one. That is clearly daft, especially as it means that, legally, I can claim, all over the world, to have an MA, when I don't really have one. 

Centuries ago, if you had got your BA so many years before, then it made sense to assume that you had since been studying long enough to now be eligible for your MA. It's a hangover from the Middle Ages (many an Oxford man still wakes up with a hangover from the Middle Ages, passed down the generations from father to son). It could arguably be updated so that graduates don't get MAs but simply become members of convocation and so elect the university's chancellor, as happens at some other universities. Indeed, when Lord (Roy) Jenkins died and we had to elect his successor as chancellor, I believe that graduates were allowed to vote even if they were not MA, and we were not required to wear MA gowns to vote, as had previously been the case.

I voted very firmly for Chris Patten, and not for Sandi Toksvig, who some Lib Dem kids in Westminster had idiotically put up as an anti-tuition fees candidate, confusing as they were the role of chancellor with that of rector at a Scottish university, the latter being a role that is indeed often filled by a comedian and which is elected by the undergraduates, who get no say in electing the Chancellor of Oxford University. Harold Macmillan was chancellor at the same time as he was Prime Minister. Roy Jenkins defeated Edward Heath to fill the role, amid some suggestions that even Jenkins (a former President of the European Commission) might not be a big enough international statesman to fill Macmillan's shoes. And yet these kids thought that Sandi Toksvig was a suitable candidate to succeed Lord Jenkins, the greatest Liberal Democrat who had ever lived, as the titular head of a great and ancient university, in what is, in any case, a strictly non-party-political election. There were four candidates, and I gave Ms Toksvig my fifth preference out of the four. 

My point (you mean there actually is one?) is: who cares? Does it really matter that Oxbridge has this nonsense and that I get to be an MA and elect the Professor of Poetry? Changing the MA system will do nothing to get more state school pupils into Oxbridge. It is a side issue. Everyone knows that an Oxbridge MA is meaningless (a worked-for post-grad degree at Oxford would be an MPhil or whatever). Nobody with an Oxbridge MA is wandering around falsely claiming to have worked for it. Doesn't the world have bigger things to worry about this weekend? 

Friday, 21 October 2011

The last war in Europe?

Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and others deserve credit for their role in negotiating Eta's 'indefinite cessation of violence'. On TV last night, Mr Blair said that Eta's terrorist campaign was the last war in Europe. I know what he means, but what about Chechnya? What about Dagestan? What about South Ossetia and Abkhazia? All conflict zones that have rarely caught the attention of British public opinion, but conflict zones nonetheless, and let's not overlook them. 

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Nick Clegg visits Egypt - and talks human rights

Nick Clegg is today visiting Egypt, to announce a package of British grants and aid to support the democratic process and economic reform. In a speech to young Egyptian political activists, the Deputy Prime Minister is expected to say:
I know many of you are worried that the momentum for change in Egypt is being lost. So I want to make it crystal clear that the UK will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you as we work together to help Egypt complete this journey. The hopes and dreams that drove the revolution must be turned into a fair and plural you, we want to see a clear and credible timetable for transition, along with a lifting of the harsh and outdated Emergency Law. Security must be restored to the streets. And Egyptians deserve clear guarantees on human rights including women's rights. Citizens of all backgrounds and faiths must be assured of their place in Egypt’s future, and all minorities must be given proper protections under the law. Anyone who wants more democracy and less extremism in the world must see that Egypt is the best place to start. Where you lead, others will follow, and the UK is with you every step of the way.
In today's Independent, Mr Clegg reinforces that message, writing: 
It isn't just Egypt's future at stake. The Arab Spring has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for peace, prosperity and democracy on Europe's southern shores. But uncertainty in Egypt puts that prospect at risk. In different ways, in Yemen, in Syria, and across North Africa, the Near East and the Gulf, citizens are demanding greater freedoms. Failure in the region's biggest state would puncture their spirit, emboldening regimes who still believe they can sidestep reform. Continued instability would create fertile ground for extremists. And it would make it even harder for Israel and the Palestinians to find lasting peace.
Note that he does not say that the Israel/Palestine conflict is an obstacle to solving the the region's problems; rather, he says that the region's problems are an obstacle to resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict - I could not agree with him more. 

I strongly commend Mr Clegg and the Coalition Government for this latest effort to bolster moves towards democracy and good governance in countries affected by the recent wave of change across the Middle East and North Africa. The alternative, as Mr Clegg writes, is "continued instability (that) would create fertile ground for extremists." This is especially urgent in the light of the predicament of Egypt's Christians, and the problems faced by Jewish communities across the region. This visit to Egypt follows Mr Clegg's previous strong speeches on the Arab Spring, including his saying:
Successful revolutions may change the world overnight. But, in many ways, it's the morning after that the real work begins...(We) will support a range of political projects, from assisting fledgling movements as they turn into organised political parties, to setting up parliamentary procedures for new legislatures, putting in place processes to prevent corruption, staffing projects to engage women and other marginalised groups, giving technical assistance to help replace state media monopolies with a plural press and helping register huge numbers of people who have never voted before...We've committed resources to this - £110m over the next four years with £20m now set aside specifically for Libya...(Don't) ever underestimate this stage of reform. This is when you lock in a revolution. This is when you turn the hopes and dreams of millions of citizens into the institutions and practices of a well-functioning state. 
As I wrote previously: "Clegg is here clearly leading the Liberal Democrats away from any notion that the UK could be 'neutral' on the relative merits of democracy and other systems. He is saying that democracy works best and that the UK will take practical steps to foster its development across the Middle East and North Africa."

Nick Clegg is today announcing measures that deserve the support of anyone (including friends of Israel) who wants Egypt to avoid the path of extremism and conflict. I wrote previously about five Egyptian liberal parties uniting to create the Democratic Front Party, which will be a crucial opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood's new Freedom and Justice Party. It is parties like Democratic Front that will defeat the Muslim Brotherhood, if it is indeed to be defeated; the Brotherhood will not be defeated unless decent, democratic political parties stand strongly against it in Egypt's upcoming elections. The Democratic Front Party is a member of Liberal International and the party's International Officer, Mohammed Nosseir, was a welcome presence at the UK Liberal Democrats' recent party conference, demonstrating Egypt's progress towards democracy - although there is a long way to go, hence the need for international help of the sort that Nick Clegg is pledging today.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Surely that's a promotion?

The official in charge of the London Labour Party has been removed after saying that Ken Livingstone, Labour’s candidate for the mayoralty, "cannot win" next year’s election if he continues as now. Hilary Perrin, Labour’s London regional director, has been moved back to her previous role overseeing all the regional directors after Ken and his chief of staff, Simon Fletcher, appealed to Ed Miliband’s office.
"Moved back to her role overseeing all the regional directors"? That sounds to me like a promotion. In other words, for her insight in realising that Mr Livingstone cannot win, Ms Perrin has been put in charge of all the other directors - congratulations to her for that. She's right, of course, and more importantly, it is the case not only that he cannot win, but that he does not deserve to win. Who really wants to go back to the blend of tedium, uproar and mediocrity that was the Livingstone mayoralty? The mayoralty that was so bad that, in comparison, it makes Boris Johnson's three years of nothing look not-too-bad-really-I-suppose-if-that's-really-the-best-we-can-do? "Forward, not back," as Labour so memorably put it in their inspiring slogan for the 2005 General Election (and hey, they won, which has to tell us something, just don't ask me what). 

Mr Johnson is obviously not the best that London can do, and the thought of going back to the living hell of Livingstone is too depressing to contemplate. I honestly believe that Liberal Democrat candidate Brian Paddick will get an excellent reception from the voting public of Greater London once the campaign gets into its swing. "Get an excellent reception" is politician-speak for "No, I'm yet saying that he's actually going to win, but he's the best candidate and I think people will really warm to what he has to offer, meaning that he could get a higher-than-expected level of support, and who knows what that might lead to by the time we get to polling day?" That is, admittedly, a less snappy slogan than "Forward, not back." 

PS Did David Cameron say "willy-nilly" at Prime Minister's Questions today because someone had bet him that he wouldn't be able to work it in?

V for Vendetta

Can it be true that protesters are inspired to wear Guy Fawkes masks by the truly awful film of V for Vendetta? How can that film inspire anyone to do anything other than go to the cinema less often? I adore the original graphic novel, which could have made a brilliant film - but the film that was made was diabolically bad. Much nonsense online about the story ending with thousands of protesters converging on Parliament dressed as V - that surely only happens in the film, and not in the original? I have read it several times since 1988. It is a masterpiece.

Are the protesters dressing as V, or are they (like V himself) dressing as Guy Fawkes? Is V really supposed to be "an anarchist", given what a very precise meaning that term actually has in philosophical terms? I know he talks about anarchy in the original, but then a lot of people in it talk about a lot of things - that's why it's brilliant. There are even people online saying that Guy Fawkes himself was an anarchist - oh dear. 

Alan Moore regularly has his name taken off adaptations of his work; perhaps he'll take his name off these protests.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Chris Davies MEP on Gilad Shalit

I often strongly disagree with my Lib Dem colleague Chris Davies MEP on issues relating to Israel/Palestine (in my party we are allowed to disagree in the process of debating policy), but I was very interested in this piece quoting Mr Davies on the release of Gilad Shalit. This itself includes comments that I strongly disagree with, but it is interesting to read about Mr Davies having met Gilad Shalit's father, and Mr Davies' belief that Israel has handled this correctly - worth a read.

Chatham House and the prospect of peace talks

Went yesterday to an excellent event organised by OneVoice and Chatham House - an event that was so popular that I had to watch it on TV in the overflow room (that's a good thing, as it's great that so many people are prepared to turn up for a serious discussion about the Israeli/Palestinian peace process).

The discussion was between former Foreign Secretary David Miliband and former US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell; you can hear the whole thing here and watch a six-minute video clip here. At the event, Senator Mitchell said:
I said this to both Chairman Arafat and President Abbas - there is not a single piece of evidence you can show me that indicates the longer you wait, the offers are going to get better...They need to get in a room, sit down now, and negotiate an agreement.
He is right - Israel and the Palestinian Authority should get in a room and negotiate without preconditions, as Israel has agreed to do. The PA say they won't talk unless their preconditions regarding settlements are met first - no, they should go into talks and discuss settlements there. The Quartet (the UN, the EU, the US and Russia) is holding separate talks with Israel and the PA next week. That's got to be better than nothing - what is the alternative to talks? Tony Blair is right that we can't just say that just because it hasn't worked so far, there's no point trying. What is the alternative to trying? 

Also, what role is there for Jordan in the peace process, given that it has just had a change of government? Is it a hopeful sign that the new Prime Minister was a legal adviser to Jordan when it negotiated its peace treaty with Israel in 1994? He has said that he is open to participation in his government by Islamists, and one has to be very cautious about what that might mean in practice. Some people say that Jordan's Islamic Action Front is more 'liberal' than are other parts of the Muslim Brotherhood, but let's see what actually happens.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Obama and the Lord's Resistance Army

Why do we tolerate Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA)? By 'tolerate', I mean: why are we not so much more angry? Why have most people barely, if ever, even heard of them? Why is this not much higher up the priority list of people who care about foreign policy? Why is Kony's name not as notorious as that of Osama Bin Laden? If Kony was a Muslim, his evils would constantly (and spuriously) be reported in the context of Islamist radicalism. Here we have a man raised as a Christian who has waged a brutal war to impose his take on the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments - and yet how often is this reported? At least President Obama has now taken some new action, although whether this is any more than too little, too late remains to be seen.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Joanna Lumley and the Garrick Club

If Joanna Lumley wishes to join the Garrick Club (which does not admit women), then can I apply to join the Townswomen's Guild? Can I go to women-only networking sessions? If I had a son, could he join the Girl Guides? Is it the end of the world if men or women sometimes club together socially in groups that are separated by gender? Instinctively, it feels to me that such gender-based separation is different from separation based on ethnicity, which I would never attempt to justify. Right, having thus further endeared myself to my fellow Liberal Democrats by justifying men-only clubs, I'm off on a short-haul flight to the annual Foie Gras Luncheon of the Lib Dem Friends of the Conservative Party, at which all the waiters will be unpaid interns. Actually, the truth is even worse: I'm sat in East Barnet Library reading a Conservative-inclined newspaper. One that is published by Rupert Murdoch. I'll never be Party President at this rate.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Is there "No Place for the Jew in Libya"?

A friend alerted me to the news about David Gerbi, a Libyan refugee who recently returned to his homeland. AP reports that:
When Gerbi entered a derelict synagogue in Tripoli and attempted to clean it he was warned off by authorities who said that if he did not leave, a mob would kill him. On the eve of Yom Kippur last week, a demonstration against Gerbi was held; protestors brandished placards that read, "There is no place for the Jew in Libya".
You have to remember that there have been Jewish Libyans for thousands of years; these are not recent immigrants or Western interlopers - these are Libyans, as entitled to live there as anybody else. I was interested to read this analysis, in which Shiraz Maher writes:
While the radicals begin to rampage in Egypt and elsewhere, the West needs now - more than ever - to identify its liberal partners in those countries and support them with the political and intellectual capital they will need to succeed. Failing to do so could turn our fears of a more intolerant and insular Middle East into a self-fulfilling prophecy. 
That ties in nicely with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg having said in a recent speech:
Successful revolutions may change the world overnight. But, in many ways, it's the morning after that the real work begins...(We) will support a range of political projects, from assisting fledgling movements as they turn into organised political parties, to setting up parliamentary procedures for new legislatures, putting in place processes to prevent corruption, staffing projects to engage women and other marginalised groups, giving technical assistance to help replace state media monopolies with a plural press and helping register huge numbers of people who have never voted before...We've committed resources to this - £110m over the next four years with £20m now set aside specifically for Libya...(Don't) ever underestimate this stage of reform. This is when you lock in a revolution. This is when you turn the hopes and dreams of millions of citizens into the institutions and practices of a well-functioning state.
The news about about David Gerbi makes such work all the more urgent.

Letwin in dustbin sin bin

Just what is it with politicians and parks?

This is the first post that I have attempted from my blackberry. I am also waiting for a bus. Should I therefore succeed in putting this online, boarding the bus and not leaving my briefcase on the pavement, then this will be an exciting technological breakthrough. I am now in fact on the bus (which arrived on time, although the road ahead is now blocked by a dustcart) and shall endeavour to duly get off it (still with the briefcase) at the appropriate juncture, especially as the dustcart has now moved, and we are on our way again.

Turning now to the affairs of the nation, I see that Oliver Letwin has been told off by the grown-ups (and the Daily Mirror) for putting pieces of paper in the waste-paper baskets in St James's Park. Where else was Mr Letwin supposed to put correspondence from Sir Malcolm Rifkind if he was minded to dispose of it after reading it in a royal park?

There is a pleasing insouciance to Mr Letwin's going to the park before work, reading some letters and then throwing them away after he has finished with them. We need such insouciance in our national life; it is part of who we English are. I would rather be governed by ministers like Mr Letwin, who might actually understand some of the documents that he reads before throwing them away, than be governed by some of the yawn-inducing prigs who served in the last Labour Government, many of whom reminded me of those occasional people in the workplace who are always on time, always well-preened and always devoid of original thought. Not that punctuality and imagination are mutually exclusive qualities (I often strive to be achieve both, sometimes even simultaneously), but you know what I mean.

I do understand the security issues involved; of course, there is often a need for proper filing. Mr Letwin has perhaps been a bit silly. I like people who appear to be very clever and a bit silly sometimes, in contrast to people who are simply boring. That is why I find Tories like Oliver Letwin and Boris Johnson appealing as personalities, however much I disagree with them politically.

Besides, it's not as if the documents concerned were 'sensitive', we are told. I would hate to read an 'insensitive' letter sent by Sir Malcolm Rifkind to Oliver Letwin. What would it say - "I didn't like the trousers that you wore last Wednesday"? So Mr Letwin is right to have apologised and Downing Street is right to have made a statement in which it mildly frowns upon him, I suppose. 

I secretly suspect that Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude are re-enacting Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and that this was intended to be a dead-letter drop for Mr Maude. It is only a matter of time before David Cameron and Nick Clegg are spotted bumping into each other and 'accidentally' swapping identical briefcases.