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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 politics...like 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.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Ending the futures market in education

The old building of my old school, Christ's College
People are understandably cynical about statistical announcements from politicians, heavy as they often are with jargon, over-claiming and obfuscation. However, what such statistics often reveal (or conceal) is that some effort is being made to solve a particular problem - and is some effort not better than none? 

An example of that is the latest data on the Pupil Premium. The Pupil Premium is one of the better Liberal Democrat ideas being implemented by the Coalition Government. Under the Pupil Premium, for every pupil who is on free school meals, a state school gets an extra £488 for the school's overall budget. So the more pupils a school has living in poverty, the more money it gets. 

Why? So as to spend more money on the schools attended by the poorest pupils, to increase those pupils' chances of reaching their full potential academically. Is this a magic wand that will solve all problems? No. Is it a step towards giving all pupils (and not just those pupils who are lucky enough to have parents with spare cash) a better chance to do as well as they possibly can? Yes. In the London Borough of Barnet, our local state schools are getting £4,421,000 from the Pupil Premium in 2011/12, and this is entirely because the Liberal Democrats are in the Coalition Government and so implementing this policy. That has surely got to be better than nothing? To the cynics among you, I would say: if you don't like the Pupil Premium, what would you do instead?

If your parents have money and they don't like the state school you are at, they can pay to send you to a fee-paying school, or they can pay to move to a house in an area with good state schools. If they do one of those things, it is not because of any special virtue on your part, it is because of the lottery of who your parents happen to be. Had you been accidentally swapped at birth with another baby, then they (and not you) would have benefited from whatever money your parents were able to spend on your education. This is literally a futures market - buying a better future for one's children. It is one thing to have a free market in holidays, cinema tickets and washing machines. It is another thing to buy and sell children's ability to do well in life, based not on the children's qualities as individuals, but on the size of the parental purse. 

Of course, I support parents' right to choose fee-paying education and to move house. Many parents have no option but to do one of these things in pursuit of a good education for their children. We are never going to have a completely level playing field, but we do need a system which enables all pupils to achieve the most that they are capable of. I was educated by the state, and was helped to do well by my parents. They had moved to Barnet partly because it had excellent state schools. I had my own bedroom, and, when I started secondary school, I was bought a desk to do my homework at, and anything I needed for school was always paid for on cue. I had parents who had themselves been to university, and who therefore understood how to help me achieve things academically. They did not understood this because they had magic powers; they understood it because someone had explained it to them.

Had I not had all those things, would I have succeeded in getting into a good university? I don't know. My point is that, had I been exactly the same person but brought up by different parents in a different home with less money, I'd still have been me - and if the real me was able to get into Oxford, then this other me would presumably have been able to get in as well. Had he failed to get in, it would not have been because he was less academically able than I am, it would have been because his academic abilities had not been developed in the way that mine were. This would not have been because he was a less deserving person than I am, or because he was less able - it would have been because his parents (not him, but his parents) didn't have the money and experience that my parents happen to have had. 

If there is a kid out there who is going to find the cure for cancer, then I selfishly want that to happen - I don't want the kid concerned to fail to cure cancer because she has not been able to develop academically, while some less bright kid two streets away flourishes because her parents have the money to send her to a fee-paying school. That is why we need things like the Pupil Premium - to start to remove some of the obstacles that prevent some people from doing as well as they possibly can. It's not about helping less able pupils (that's a different issue); it's about helping able pupils to go as far as their abilities, hard work and individual qualities will carry them, so that we can all benefit from their achievements. Anything else is a waste of talent.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Jeremy Browne on Israel/Palestine


Jeremy Browne and LDFI Chair Gavin Stollar
As the 2011 party conference season recedes into history, you might be interested to know more about the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (LDFI) fringe meeting that took place at the Lib Dem Conference in September.

Jeremy Browne MP, Lib Dem Minister of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, was among the speakers. Picking up an LDFI leaflet, Mr Browne said: "It says 'The Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel are strongly committed to a two-state solution, with Israel living in secure borders, free from the threat of terrorism alongside an independent Palestinian state'. That articulates where the Liberal Democrats stand, and where the UK Government stands.

"Understandably, Israel is often viewed through the prism of security. I want to move the debate on from that, to issues such as Israel’s prosperity. We must think how we can use Israel as a strong example of a democratic and civil country in the Middle East."

The visiting Israeli speaker was Dr Alon Liel, a former Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Dr Liel, a key figure behind the (non-governmental) Israeli Peace Initiative (IPI), warned of the consequences of what he called an ongoing "freeze" in the peace process. He said: "If we fail to create two states, we will end up with one state – a nightmare for Israelis, Zionists and Jews. With the help of the world community, the two sides must enter a room and moderate their positions."

Speaking for his government, Israeli Deputy Ambassador Alon Roth-Snir reiterated Israel's strong support for a negotiated two-state solution, explaining why Israel opposes a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence at the UN. He praised the Coalition Government for pulling the UK out of Durban III and for reforming the law on universal jurisdiction, thanking the Liberal Democrats for their role in both.

LDFI President Sir Alan Beith MP also addressed the meeting, praising Israel's vibrancy as a democracy. He praised the Lib Dems' key role in reforming the law on universal jurisdiction, which was taken through the House of Lords by Lib Dem ministers. Sarah Ludford (Lib Dem MEP for London and Vice-President of LDFI) chaired the meeting, which was opened by LDFI Chair Gavin Stollar.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

David Cameron and the Illiberal Left

I liked David Cameron's Leader's Speech. It was well-written and he delivered it well. Oddly enough, the transcript is not the whole speech - chunks are missing from the transcript, including an extended comedy routine about audio books. Large parts of the speech reminded me of why I am a strong supporter of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition Government. I was struck by his reference to "a one-nation deficit reduction plan – from a one-nation party". Is he nailing his colours to the mast as a One Nation Conservative more firmly than hitherto? For all this speech's invocation of Margaret Thatcher (and Harold Macmillan), was this a pre-Thatcher Conservative speech? Some people of my age and younger don't know that the Tories moved strongly to the centre after their 1945 defeat before shifting rightwards again under Thatcher after 1975; Thatcherism in the 1980s was arguably an aberration in Conservative Party terms. A lot of Mr Cameron's speech today was resonant of an earlier, pre-Thatcher era.

Where I take issue with the Prime Minister is with his reference to "the age-old irony of the liberal left: they practice oppression and call it equality". Well, thank you, Prime Minister - that may be true of some parts of the Left, but those parts are decidedly not "liberal". By definition, a liberal is someone who prizes personal freedom above everything else, including "equality". That is the whole point of English liberalism, and is perhaps why Mr Cameron said last year: "I've always described myself as a Liberal Conservative. I'm Liberal because I believe in freedom and human rights, but Conservative - I'm sceptical of great schemes to remake the world." 

In calling the Illiberal Left the Liberal Left, the Prime Minister pays them a compliment that they do not deserve. I'm sure that the writers of today's speech know that Liberal Democrats share Mr Cameron's hatred of "oppression", including when it is practiced in the name of equality. That is one line in the speech that might have been phrased differently. 

Some simple arithmetic for the Tories

The Daily Politics on BBC2 is asking Tory activists at their conference who has gained the most from being in government, the Tories or the Lib Dems. Several of them are saying that the Lib Dems have done far too well given that "almost nobody voted for them". Give me strength. It is not rocket science. At the 2010 General Election, 10.7 million people voted Conservative, 8.6 million people voted Labour and 6.8 million people voted Liberal Democrat. How is 6.8 million people "almost nobody"? The Tories got a mere 36.1% of the vote, the Lib Dems a mere 23%. In other words, both of them got very substantial minorities of the vote, while neither of them came close to getting a majority. That is why we need to have a coalition...As I say, it's not rocket science.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Is Boris London's Willie?

Ignoring Ofcom's recent warning not to show frightening things before the watershed, the BBC is broadcasting the Conservative Party Conference during the day, and I just watched a bit. Greg Clark, a Tory minister whose  relatively sensible views were first developed in the SDP, just said that it is civic leadership that built all great cities - just look at what Boris Johnson has done for London. He timed that line in such a way that I honestly thought it was a gag and he was joking. What exactly has the affable, not-too-bad-really Boris Johnson actually done for London, apart from not being Ken Livingstone (which, it has to be said, is a step in the right direction)? Mr Clark then went on to say that just as Margaret Thatcher had said that every Prime Minister should have a Willie (for which he did not get a laugh), so every city should have a Boris. The microphones in the hall must be broken, as I didn't hear any applause for that remark. Baroness Thatcher's Willie was Willie Whitelaw, her highly dependable deputy, who was the sort of person that Boris would like to be when he grows up. Boris, you ain't no Willie, and you ain't no Julian Critchley either. Or something.

Monday, 3 October 2011

HuffPo: New Wets and Faltering Thatcherites

Over at Huffington Post, I am washing the Conservatives' clean linen in public - click here if you want to have a read of that and join in the debate over there.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

How to become a Top Tory

What amuses me about Andrew Tyrie's comments on the economy is that while, as Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, he is undoubtedly a sensible and substantial figure, he has been elevated to the status of a "Top Tory" by the headline writers, to make the story sound exciting. When this happens, it is always for the following three reasons: 
  1. The person's name is not well enough known to itself be recognisable in a headline, so Top Tory is used as a cipher
  2. Top Tory is short enough to fit easily into a headline
  3. The story only has legs if it is about someone so senior as to be noteworthy, so they are labelled a Top Tory to disguise the fact that most people have never heard of them. 
Whether Andrew Tyrie is a Top Tory, rather than a senior and respected backbencher who chairs an important Commons committee, is a moot point. Still, the media wanted a story about Tory splits on which to peg their coverage of the Conservative Party Conference, and this is the best that they have found for such a purpose. I don't think it's so much a split as a reasoned contribution to a sensible debate, and it's certainly not a "crisis for Cameron as top Tory questions economic strategy". But the media loves reporting splits, so there you have it.

Gyles Brandreth and the truth about beer

I was outraged to hear Gyles Brandreth say on Just A Minute: "The one thing I could not stand about being an MP were my constituents." Mr Brandreth knows perfectly well that he should have said: "The one thing I could not stand about about being an MP was my constituents." A thing was, not a thing were. If you have not already read Mr Brandreth's book Breaking the Code, then please do - it is the best (and most entertaining) book that I have ever read about Parliamentary life. Incidentally, in contrast to Mr Brandreth's comments about his Chester constituents, I have never had anything but the highest regard for the good burghers of Hendon, with the best of the burghers not being a burger at all but a sort-of kebab thing that I ate in an Afghan cafe on West Hendon Broadway before addressing the Barnet Muslim Forum. 

But I digress. Just A Minute was followed by The Food Programme. I normally switch off The Food Programme with a rapidity that is exceeded only by the speed with which I switch off Moneybox or Gardeners' Question Time, and the faster-than-light sub-atomic velocity that is my response to You and Yours. But then the BBC announcer said that today's Food Programme was about beer. This, I thought, is why I pay my licence fee, as I kept the wireless switched on after all. Then it was actually about behavioural psychology, and in particular, Mr Cameron's 'nudge' theory, and I came to the conclusion that a pretense of beer had been used to nudge me into listening to the radio equivalent of an acorn cordial - slightly beige, a bit nutty and allegedly good for me. 

Actually, I quite like nudge theory, and the programme did eventually succeed in degenerating into a good discussion about beer. It would appear to be April the First, as it included the news that (as of today) it is now legal to enter a public house and order not just a pint of beer, not just half a pint of beer, but two thirds of a pint of beer, the idea being that one can ask for small, medium or large. This is too ridiculous to be true, as I find it impossible to believe that anyone in government would be wasting time (and money, for civil servants' time is money) on such a nonsensical and pointless change to the rules when there is so much else to be getting on with at present. 

Incidentally, I'm sure that everybody reading this is aware of the truth about alcohol consumption in this country? That, between 2004 and 2010, average weekly consumption of alcohol in the UK fell by 11%? That the number of men binge-drinking fell by 3% between 2006 and 2009? That the proportion of men drinking more than the recommended amount fell from 31% to 26%? That the proportion of young people who drink under-age has dropped from 26% to 13%? And that, in Europe, we rank 14th out of 31 in terms of which countries drink the most, and 15th out of 28 for deaths from liver disease? Anyone who tells you anything else is not telling the truth. But then, when did we ever let the truth get in the way of a good moral panic? It is not to be denied that alcohol consumption has public health implications; the pubs near me are full of bitter men with real ailments (an appalling gag that I once lent a friend for inclusion in his novel, and which I am now borrowing back).