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Wednesday, 19 December 2012

BT's Ian Livingston, I presume

Reader(s) of this blog will know that I am never one to complain and that I am not in the least the sort of grumpy old blogger type with whom it would be very stupid for BT Chief Executive Ian Livingston ever to get into a personal email correspondence about a customer complaint - a customer complaint, indeed, that began in September, generating emails on which I have sometimes been so pompous as to copy in what I assume to be the correct address for Mr Livingston, in the hope that messages addressed to BT's Chief Exec might be seen by a customer services wallah of such sagacity and seniority as to realise that I am right about this complaint (as about all things), and who might thus resolve matters in my favour.

Some of the emails to Ian Livingston have actually elicited much-appreciated responses from an "Ian" who either actually is the BT Chief Exec or else is another BT employee of the same name; I recently CC'd Ian on this email to the communications ombudsman, Mr Lewis Shand-Smith, in which I wrote:

"Many weeks (if not months) ago, BT referred me to the ombudsman service that you run, in relation to a complaint that I have about BT. I filled in your online form and the screen told me that it had been filled in correctly and would now be processed. It did not give me a reference number and I did not receive an email to confirm that the form had been received.

"Having since heard nothing, I rang your offices today and was told that there is no record of my complaint about BT, which has not been received or processed by your organisation, despite your website having told me that I had entered the information correctly and that it would now be processed.

"Mr Livingston, in light of this, could I please ask for the name of someone at BT to whom I can escalate my complaint, as it has proven impossible to refer the complaint to the ombudsman?"

To which BT's Ian Livingston replied:

"I have never heard of such a problem in all the time that I have seen cases referred to the Ombudsman. If you have had a problem with case submission for whatever reason, then I would really suggest that you do submit it again. You were unhappy with BT's dealing with this case and that is why it was referred to the Ombudsman for independent review if that is what you are seeking. We have already explained our final position and will not re-review it internally."

To which I sent a reply to Mr Livingston, including:

"It surprises me that you would simply dismiss my account of what happened when I posted a complaint on the ombudsman's website, and that you are not concerned that this happened to at least one BT customer.

"Your 'never (having) heard of such a problem in all the time that (you) have seen cases referred to the Ombudsman' might not necessarily be because such a problem has never previously occurred, but might rather be because other customers have not informed BT of problems that they have experienced not with BT, but with an external body (i.e. the ombudsman).

"I am not surprised to see Ofcom reporting this week that complaints about BT land lines moved above the industry average level to 0.21 complaints per 1,000 customers in Q3 2012, increasing from 0.19 in the previous quarter. You might want to reflect on that statistic before dismissing my complaint (which I do not believe has been looked at in detail by the right people in your office).

"I had asked for my complaint to be escalated within BT, and was told that this was not possible (for reasons that were never explained to me) and that I must instead refer my complaint to the ombudsman - it was not my choice to go to the ombudsman."

I shall now let this tedious matter go before it takes up any more of my time or my money. The Data Protection Act bars BT from disclosing any further details of my initial customer complaint without my express permission, which I do not give - and if they don't like it, they can complain to the relevant ombudsman.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Hughes and Huhne at Lib Dem Friends of Israel AGM

Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel has issued the following press release:

HUGHES AND HUHNE AT LIB DEM FRIENDS OF ISRAEL AGM

Members of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (LDFI) were joined by senior Lib Dem MPs at LDFI's Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Parliament last week.

Attendees included Lib Dem Deputy Leader Simon Hughes MP, former Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne MP, Lord (Monroe) Palmer and Lord (Alex) Carlile.

Lord (Chris) Rennard, a former party Chief Executive and elections supremo, spoke to the meeting about his trip to Israel and the West Bank as part of an LDFI Parliamentary delegation.

Recalling a packed schedule of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and with grassroots citizens, Lord Rennard explained how the visit had informed his thinking on how best to achieve a two-state solution that would bring peace, justice and security to Israelis and Palestinians alike.

LDFI's honorary officers reported on a busy year that included the Parliamentary delegation, a successful party conference fringe meeting and regular briefings for Lib Dem leaders on issues affecting Israel and the Anglo-Jewish community.

Former Lib Dem Deputy Leader Sir Alan Beith MP was confirmed as LDFI's President, with Lord (Monroe) Palmer and London Lib Dem MEP Sarah Ludford continuing as Vice-Presidents.

Gavin Stollar, who was re-elected as Honorary Chairman, updated the meeting on the planned recruitment of LDFI's first-ever Executive Director, and said: "LDFI has had a year of great progress, as we took Parliamentarians to Israel and the West Bank, regularly briefed party leaders and continued to make the case for a just two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict."

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

UK aid to Gaza

As a supporter of the UK's overseas development programme, I am pleased to see the announcement of £1.25 million in new aid to Gaza (http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/93947/uk-pledges-%C2%A3125m-new-aid-gaza). If the UK is to spend such money in so many places across the globe, than why not in Gaza? It is possible to be both pro-Israeli (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/supporting-israels-gaza-war.html)and a supporter of UK Government aid to Gaza.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Supporting Israel's Gaza war

Haven't blogged much for ages, partly for the happy reason that I have been very busy professionally and personally, not least because I am delighted to say that I am engaged to be married to Jacqueline...And have been ill with a shocking cold for large parts of the past week.

So, to business: I supported Israel's military action in Gaza, and am very pleased that there is now a ceasefire and that both sides have stopped firing, not least because I have relatives living in Israel who could have been directly affected by this latest conflict. As a last resort, governments do sometimes need to undertake military action to protect their citizens from an intolerable threat, even at the risk of inadvertently causing civilian casualties on the other side, and I do not oppose Operation Pillar of Defence.

If you condemn Israel for killing civilians in the process of hitting legitimate military targets, then do you equally condemn NATO (of which we British are a part) for its (our) killing of so many civilians in drone strikes, etc, in Afghanistan? What is the difference? I write here in a personal capacity.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

JC article on "pro-Israeli lobby"

http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/comment/84661/ethical-lobbying-does-not-all-powerful-lobby-make is my comment piece about lobbying in last week's Jewish Chronicle. So, what do others think of the points that I made? Comments welcomed as usual below.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Holocaust and Munich massacre aren't funny

As I am (for various happy reasons) not in Brighton for Lib Dem Conference, I was just with some friends in a J D Wetherspoon pub in New Barnet. Upon said friends' departure, I put 50p in a quiz machine in the pub, and, it must be said, won a pound back. On this quiz machine (which bore the logo Gamesnet, whoever they may be), I played a 'pub quiz' game in which two of the suggested answers to each question were possibly right, and one was deliberately silly. One question was: "Steven Spielberg did NOT direct the following film: Schindler's List; Munich; Jews 4: The Revenge". Jokes are supposed to be funny, and that one isn't - it plays on the stereotype of Jews being vengeful when people massacre them, which is not a proper subject for trivial humour on a pub quiz machine. It is simply a little bit nasty. Let's not make too much of this. These machines are intended to be laughed at raucously by drunk kids in pubs. I'd just rather that drunk kids were laughing at something other than Jews and their tragedies. And before you accuse me of being over-sensitive, I'd ask you to consider whether you'd like these pub quiz machines to make jokes about Moors Murder victims, 7/7 or Paralympic athletes? There is a line, and we do draw it somewhere, and I imagine that Wetherspoon's Tim Martin might agree with me on that.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Two-tier exams would end in tears

Reader(s) of this blog won't have missed tortured punning headlines such as the one above this piece, in the many days since last I blogged. Anyway, to business. Two-tier exams. I was in the last year that sat O-levels and CSEs (one of my exams was interrupted by a wireless broadcast in which Mr Chamberlain announced that this country was now at war with Germany). CSEs (of which I sat a few) were a complete fiasco. Although they may have been intended to be an exciting vocational alternative to O-levels for those less academic kids who were of a more practical bent, they were, in practice, sat by those pupils who were not good enough at a particular subject to sit an O-level in it (Geography being an example in my case - we learnt a lot about Glaciation, and I still don't know where that is).

I am very pleased, therefore that the Clegg-Gove English Bac does not involve a two-tier system. I support what is being proposed - well, I support anything that involves a joint article in the Standard by Nick Clegg and Michael Gove (http://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/michael-gove-and-nick-clegg-a-new-exam-will-get-the-best-out-of-all-our-children-8144696.html).

I note, incidentally, that today's Times was told by "a senior Lib Dem" that this Coalition exam plan "raises the bar but doesn't shut the door". I had never previously realised that the raising of a bar would, in and of itself, cause the shutting of a door. The Government's economy drive extends to the production of metaphors; it has been decreed that two metaphors must always be blended to produce one mixed metaphor, to avoid the wasteful cost of using two separate metaphors. The proof of the pudding lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

FW: Tell your MP that women seeking asylum must be protected from violence

I have no complaints about the Government’s strategy for helping refugees. Indeed, I strongly support many aspects of it. As the grandson of refugees, this issue cannot be emphasised strongly enough, even if the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition is generally getting it more than right, which I think it is. I am happy to forward this email from the Refugee Council and I have emailed my own local MP about it. The Government must be held to a very high standard on issues of conscience such as this – however much they do that is right, there will always be scope to do more, so I think that it is reasonable to keep up the pressure (even if, in my case, it is supportive pressure – I doubt any other government in my lifetime has handled refugee issues better than this current government has, and there is much that I applaud in the Coalition’s approach).

 


From: Refugee Council [mailto:news@noreply.refugeecouncil.org.uk]
Sent: 05 September 2012 12:31
To: matthew.harris2@orange.net
Subject: Tell your MP that women seeking asylum must be protected from violence

 

 

4 September 2012

No woman should be
missed out

 



Dear Matthew,

Around 7,000 women seek asylum in the UK each year. They are seeking protection from persecution, often fleeing violence and abuse. Yet the government's strategy for helping women who are victims of violence says nearly nothing about them.


We need your help to tell the government that
no woman should be missed out: women seeking asylum must be protected from violence.

 

The UN has acknowledged that refugee women are more affected by violence against women than any other women’s population in the world. Many have suffered sexual violence. Yet the UK asylum system leaves women vulnerable and isolated and often struggling to get the protection they need.

The UK government has shown a welcome commitment to tackling violence against women both at home and abroad. Yet only one of the 100 ‘actions’ in the Violence Against Women’s strategy commits the UK Border Agency to help women seeking asylum. In fact, harsh asylum policies in the UK place women at risk of experiencing further violence here, in the place they came in search of safety.

We see women like Yvette every week. Women who have fled violence and persecution who come to the UK in search of safety but instead face further violence and exploitation.

Yvette* was a political activist campaigning for women’s rights in a West African country. When she came to the attention of the authorities, she was detained for two weeks in a military camp. Kept in a dark room, she was deprived of food, beaten and raped – repeatedly. She needed months to get over her injuries.

Upon recovery, Yvette resumed her political campaigning. But when men raided her home in search of her, killing her sister, she fled.

Yvette arrived in the UK with poor mental health and complicated gynecological problems as a result of the repeated sexual assaults. Destitute, carrying her belongings in a blue plastic bag, she was taken in by a man who then forced her to exchange sexual favours in return for a roof over her head.

 

Now is the time to demand change

The government is reporting on its Violence Against Women and Girls strategy in November. So now is the time to write to your MP and ask them to tell the Home Secretary that women seeking asylum are treated fairly in the UK and are protected from violence. We aren't asking for special treatment, only that women seeking asylum have the same rights as everyone else.

Act now: Tell your MP that
women seeking asylum must be protected from violence


Thank you.

Anna

Anna Musgrave
Women’s Advocacy and Influencing Officer
Refugee Council

*Some details of Yvette’s story, including her name, have been changed to protect her identity.


 

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Thursday, 30 August 2012

Paralympics crashes Orange voicemail

If you dial 07973100123 from any phone in the UK, you can access your voicemail on your Orange phone (a Pay As You Go phone, in my case) - you enter your Orange mobile number and a PIN, and it takes you to your messages. This is how you 'remote-access' your Orange voicemail from another phone that is not your Orange phone, and it is a very important service. Today when I did it, it was "not available", so I could not check my voicemail. Orange then told me that it had stopped working on 28 August and will only be fixed on 9 September, the delay being due to the Olympics and Paralympics. No complaints against Orange, who handled my 'complaint' very well, but how interesting is this - a major telecoms facility not working as a consequence of London 2012! Those politicians who congratulated themselves on such a thing not having happened sadly spoke too soon.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Heathrow truths

Politically active people often assume that everybody else knows the things that politically active people know, but this can be a mistaken assumption.

For example, does everyone know that there is a swathe of marginal seats in west and south-west London in which opposition to a third runway at Heathrow is a huge vote-winner, as the people who live there are very concerned about the noise and other disruption that they associate with any expansion of the airport? That is one reason why Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were so clear in opposing the then Labour Government's plans for a third runway at the last General Election.

One of the seats in which this is a big issue is Putney, which the Conservative Justine Greening gained from Labour as recently as 2005. Now she is Transport Secretary, opposing a third runway - I do not see how she could face her Putney constituents if she did otherwise. It would be like George Galloway now coming out in favour of the Iraq War.

Also, with the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Aviation in the news for producing a report that calls for Heathrow's capacity to expand, it would be foolish to assume that everyone knows what an APPG actually is.

APPGs often arise when an industry's lobbyists think that it would be useful for their industry to have one. The lobbyists will then talk to MPs and peers about the need for such a group, which the MPs and peers will then set up, with the lobbyists "providing the secretariat".

"Providing the secretariat" means that all the office work is done by the lobbyists, while the MPs and peers chair the meetings and set the agenda - with the lobbyists suggesting what major policy issues the APPG might discuss.

This means that the APPG might publish reports on policy areas that the lobbyists and their clients are most interested in, thus generating useful news coverage of the issues concerned (with those lobbyists who "provide the secretariat" sometimes doing much of the administrative legwork when it comes to getting the report ready for publication).

This is all perfectly above board and open, and the reports themselves will fairly reflect the views of the Parliamentarians in whose names they are issued - and APPGs are often created at the behest of voluntary sector bodies, and not just corporate interests. There are APPGs on Human Trafficking, Antisemitism and Poverty; I once worked for a trade association that provided the secretariat to an APPG for one of the most important sectors of the UK economy. APPGs are a sensible way of enabling Parliamentarians to discuss and report on a range of issues of genuine public concern.

If one wishes to be an informed reader of news coverage of the Aviation APPG's report on airport capacity, then one might find it useful to know (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmallparty/register/aviation.htm) that MHP Communications (http://www.mhpc.com/) provides this APPG's secretariat. Pro-Heathrow campaigners will have known that Tim Yeo's article on Heathrow (published on the very eve of the APPG report) was in the offing; such campaigners (and lobbyists) wanted this to be this week's big political news story, and they have succeeded.

Nothing wrong with that, I might add. That is politics in a democracy and it's all perfectly above board and legitimate.







Tuesday, 28 August 2012

No "little local difficulty" today

Turning on the BBC, I was startled to see that the top television news story was about some sort of challenge to the authority of the Prime Minister. Complete with archive footage of Harold Macmillan talking about "a little local difficulty". What can have happened? Who has resigned? Who is in and who is out?

The story so far: in 1958, Macmillan, as Prime Minister, was hit by the resignation of all three Treasury ministers, including the Chancellor, and responded with a display of his trademark 'unflappability' by embarking as planned on a Commonwealth tour and saying that he wasn't going to be knocked off course by "a little local difficulty".

Then it turned out that the excitement on today's News was not the resignation of George Osborne. The Coalition is intact and the Queen is not warming the teapot ahead of an urgent Prime Ministerial visit. No, the story is that...Tim Yeo has said something! About aeroplanes. The same something about aeroplanes that he had already said this morning, if not yesterday.

Is it possible that it is not a crisis of authority for Mr Cameron after all?

Friday, 24 August 2012

Should we welcome Bahrain's king?

What do I think of Prime Minister David Cameron's meeting the King of Bahrain in Downing Street (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-19355337)? I don't know. I guess I am still of the view that it is useful for UK leaders to meet such people in pursuit of Middle East regional peace, an end to human rights abuses and other matters of mutual interest ("A Downing Street source told BBC correspondent Nick Childs the meeting would be focused primarily on trade, but the pair would also discuss the situation in Syria"). As I wrote in May 2011 (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/2011/05/is-anyone-surprised.html?m=1):

"David Cameron has been roundly attacked for recently hosting the Crown Prince of Bahrain at Downing Street, although Number 10 says that Mr Cameron used the meeting to press the Crown Prince to embrace "reform not repression", and I can guardedly respect that (by the way, Bahrain's Crown Prince does have a very positive record when it comes to supporting the Israeli/Palestinian peace process).

"The balance between engaging with unsavoury regimes and criticising them is always a difficult one to strike. That is a challenge with which the Liberal Democrats amply engaged in opposition, and, now that the party is in government, we find that, lo and behold, it is not a challenge that disappears or is easily met. This government, like any other British government, balances its concern for human rights with the UK's security needs and the preservation of British interests overseas. As a great supporter of the Coalition Government and its approach to foreign policy, I do not claim to have easy answers to the questions that I am raising in this post. Is it lame to say that, when it comes to human rights in this difficult context, the Foreign Office is doing the best it can to strike the right balance? Especially with a Lib Dem Minister, Jeremy Browne, responsible there for human rights, doing his impressive best to take a nuanced approach to these difficult, complicated issues.

"The situation in Bahrain stinks, of course. But again, why should this come as a surprise? It's been going on for years. One has to support all constructive efforts to improve the situation for the people who live there, while recognising that this is going to take a long time and might well get worse before it gets better, a stark assessment that will come as scant comfort for the people concerned. Crucially, the presence in Bahrain of Saudi troops (and troops from the United Arab Emirates) must be seen in the context of the increasingly complicated, evolving relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia."

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Liberals and Gambling

The Liberals used to be the party of the temperance movement. Brewers thus always used to be Tory, prompting a barrel-load of appointments to the House of Lords that was once collectively dubbed the beerage. Anti-gambling used to be a big part of the same movement.

With that in mind, I was interested to read a month-old BBC story about the Commons culture committee (do we no longer have Select Committees?) having urged what the BBC calls "further deregulation of the gaming and betting industries".

I am on the Right of my party (a party that Charles Kennedy once called not so much a broad church as a hexagonal cathedral, or words to that effect) and am a pro-business Liberal Democrat. That notwithstanding, I doubt that I will be the only Lib Dem who will not be disappointed if the Coalition Government fails to find the time to further deregulate the gaming and betting industries.

I quite like the idea of allowing those gambling dens that have the tightest entry rules to have the most lax gaming restrictions, so incentivising the imposition of tight entry rules. I understand that some past efforts to regulate gambling have had unintended consequences, including the opening of more (not fewer) betting shops. I appreciate that logic might dictate some further relaxation of the law.

But there is more to life than logic and the streets are not filled with indigent casino magnates begging for the price of a cup of tea. This need not be a priority for government. The gaming industry has done nothing to win my affection. This is an issue on which a lot of ordinary people have strong views, in a way that does not particularly favour the gambling industry.

Were senior Lib Dems in government to let it be known that gaming reform is a non-starter whatever the Tories and their donors may say, I think that they could generate a lot of support in unexpected quarters, including in some conservative parts of the media.

I write as someone who is in relative ignorance of this policy area.

"Good Times" at Drink Aware

I am a huge supporter of Drink Aware, and they have an excellent website and online tools. I am slightly intrigued by this one: http://www.drinkaware.co.uk/campaigns/2011/why-let-good-times-go-bad-2011/get-the-good-times-mobile-app. Really? We go out and mark anything that happens as either a Good Time or a Bad Time, on a Facebook page?!

"Your friend finally got chatting to the person they've been going on about for ages? Take a snap and upload it as a 'good time'. Later on one of your friends has ended up making a bit of a fool of themselves - you guessed it, snap it and upload it as a 'bad time'."

It all involves Facebook "minimising the chances of the night turning bad, for example having too much to drink, losing your friends, getting into a fight or ending up without a ride home." Well, quite.

If only such an app had been available in the Colony Rooms circa 1979. Lewis and Tolkien could have done with it on many occasions, as could Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, the Shelley Circle and the Evelyn Waugh set. Had the good times not gone bad, Profumo would never have got in that swimming pool at Cliveden, and Lady Ottoline Morrell would now be remembered for throwing the most amazing whist drives.

There is nothing funny about alcohol abuse. I do support Drink Aware. If this app helps some people to stay safe, then I support it, although it does make me laugh a bit, sorry. I wish Simon Gray could have seen it. Ah well. I suppose danger seems less funny when you're actually in it and this is about helping people to stay safe.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Barnet Libraries Without a Prayer

Praise be to Barnet Council. On Wednesday 18 July, I took a copy of Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks' daily prayer book out of East Barnet Library. I needed three, so I ordered two more, as the Council's website says that there are several copies in libraries across the borough, according to the "Aqua Browser" (why "Aqua"? What does any of this jargon actually mean?). What I, as a secular Jewish agnostic, wanted with three Orthodox Jewish prayer books is a question that need not detain us until later.

A helpful librarian and I filled in the two forms for the two copies of the book, and I went merrily on my way, assured that it would be a mere day or three before the books had winged their way to East Barnet from their current homes upon the shelves of libraries in Hendon and (Finchley) Church End, at which point I would be able to pop in to East Barnet Library to collect them and willingly pay the tiny fee charged for ordering books in this way.

On Friday 3 August, I went to collect the two books (I needed them for that evening) and (in a narrative twist worthy of Steven Moffat, or possibly Ronnie Corbett) they had, of course, not arrived - more than a fortnight after they had been ordered.

Another very helpful librarian then told me that they had had to be ordered from stock or from stack and were therefore still waiting to be sent from a storage facility in Hackney, despite my having ordered them so many days before and been assured that they would arrive within days of my ordering them, and despite the Council's own website showing copies available at several libraries across the borough - I was able to show the librarian this on my Blackberry there and then.

Only one of my two order forms was on file - what had happened to the other one? - and neither book was there.

Leaving aside any feeble jokes about my offering up a prayer for the arrival of the prayer books, or an equally feeble joke about my reflecting at that moment upon Lord Sacks' own past writings about the difference between hope and optimism, I asked if I could go to Hackney myself, now, and get the books - to which the answer was No, of course.

However hard-working and committed to excellence Barnet's librarians surely are, they are clearly working with a system that is not fit for purpose, if one cannot simply order a couple of books from libraries across the borough.

A librarian helpfully phoned Hendon and Church End and ascertained that the two books did indeed appear to be there, on the shelves, although there was doubt in one case as to whether it actually was the same prayer book...Everyone was trying to be more than helpful. They just hadn't got me the books - that is, the system had not done the one simple thing that I had been reasonably assured that it would do.

I have always defended Barnet Council, and the Tories who sadly have been elected to run it, from suggestions that it is scandalously awful. I am not up in arms so much as down at heart, at the pointlessness of a vast local government infrastructure that cannot achieve something so simple as ordering some library books.

It is in those little ways that Barnet sometimes seems to let residents down, despite the best endeavours of the Council's employees. Most people are not in a state of uproar about our local council; rather most people take it for granted that there is little point in expecting the institution that is Barnet Council ever to do very much.

People therefore don't bother to think of using the Council when they need some little thing done. My little thing was for a dinner that my girlfriend was cooking on a Friday night, with a guest coming who is "religious", hence the need for prayer books, in case we decided to do the whole Jewish Friday night thing.

Since I had neither bought nor cooked the delicious food, and had provided nothing other than the challah (bread), some wine and my scintillating presence (the latter of which it is cheaper to buy wholesale), it really meant something to me to have been so thoughtful as to track down the prayer books and order them - but I might as well not have bothered, it transpired.

It's the principle. I do not say that nothing bad ever happens at councils controlled by Liberal Democrats, as opposed to those councils, like Barnet, that are controlled by Conservatives, although I believe that Barnet's Lib Dem councillors could surely deliver a vast improvement to the running of our council if the people elected them to do so.

I do not wish to start a blame game with the Tory Cllr Robert Rams, who runs Barnet's libraries and with whom I am on friendly nodding terms. These things (lack of delivery of ordered library books) happen. I just really wish they wouldn't.

Is Barnet's motto now "Most men (and women) lead lives of quiet desperation"? If this is the service at an unreformed council, then how could outsourcing possibly make it worse, given that we currently have a book-ordering service that orders no books? My experience of privatised utilities does not lead me to believe that the private sector is always the worst provider of public services. Or is this library "service" itself the result of the very same set of policies that itself includes outsourcing?

I don't know. I do know that there is clearly no point in relying upon Barnet Council to order two books that its own (supposedly accurate - otherwise what's the point?) website shows to be on the shelves of several of the council's own libraries.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Video: Nick Clegg speaks at Munich Memorial Service

I blogged previously about the International Olympic Committee's appalling refusal to include a minute's silence for the people murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics in the opening ceremony of subsequent games, including London 2012. London's opening ceremony quite rightly included sombre tributes to people killed fighting in two world wars, people murdered on 7/7 and also (as I understand it) the late fathers of Lord (Sebastian) Coe and the director Danny Boyle, but nothing - nothing - about the eleven Olympians murdered at the Olympic Games itself in 1972 (not to mention the West German policeman killed trying to rescue them, and not to mention the people murdered in a terrorist attack during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta).

Whatever some people may sometimes think about some of the actions and policies of the Government of Israel, it is unconscionable for the Olympic movement not to formally recognise the eleven Israeli Olympians murdered at the heart of the Olympic Games itself. In the disgraceful absence of such formal recognition, the Israelis and the British Jewish community had to do it themselves, organising a moving Munich Memorial Service at London's Guildhall last night

video
All three party leaders spoke, including Deputy Prime Minister (and Liberal Democrat Leader) Nick Clegg, and I recorded his speech on my Blackberry if you want to have a look. At least nobody can accuse the UK and its political leaders of not caring about the victims of terrorism, be those victims British, Israeli or anything else. It was a privilege to be there.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Nick Clegg meets Palestinian Prime Minister

Writing here in a personal capacity, I am very pleased (as a pro-Israeli Liberal Democrat) that UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg met Palestinian Prime Minister Dr Salam Fayyad on Friday (http://www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/deputy-prime-minister-meets-palestinian-prime-minister-fayyad).

One could debate ad infinitum the strong criticisms of some Israeli policies expressed by Mr Clegg on this occasion; my point, rather, is that it's simply great that Mr Clegg is meeting the person who is surely the best leader that the Palestinians have (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/2011/06/listen-to-palestinian-people.html?m=1). It is people like Mr Fayyad who will lead the Palestinians to the sort of peace that will benefit Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Mr Clegg's support for Israeli/Palestinian peace includes his oft-stated belief that: "No Israeli should have to live in fear of terrorism. I want to see a prosperous and confident Israel, able to live in peace." I am more than happy with the UK Government's policies on Iran and on UK-Israeli economic co-operation, and I am also pleased to read that Nick Clegg and David Cameron will reportedly be attending Monday's memorial event for the Israelis murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972 (http://www.thejc.com/node/70774).

The importance of talking to leaders like Salam Fayyad is underlined by the latest grotesque behaviour of Hamas (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19091147). Hamas has condemned the visit to Auschwitz of Ziad al-Bandak, an adviser to Palestinian President Abbas, as "unjustified and unhelpful", and called the Holocaust "an alleged tragedy".

Referring to Mr al-Bandak's Auschwitz visit (during which he laid flowers), Hamas' newspaper says: "What is the wisdom in such a simple step that supports the Jews and their crimes?...Neither the Jews nor we believe that Hitler killed six millions (sic) Jews."

When you defend Hamas, you defend views such as this. How would you feel if someone accused the British of fabricating the events of 7/7? Hamas is to Palestinian politics what the Ku Klux Klan is to American politics. Until it changes quite radically, it will have nothing to contribute towards the Israel/Palestine peace process (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/2012/06/life-in-palestine-under-ismael-haniyeh.html?m=1).

And just how pathetic is it that Egypt's embassy in Israel sent Israeli President Shimon Peres a letter from Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi wishing peace to the whole Middle East (including Israel), only for Egypt to deny that the letter had been meant?! President Morsi's letter was in reply to President Peres' Ramadan greeting to the Muslim world. http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/egypt-denies-morsi-sent-letter-to-israeli-president-shimon-peres-1.455053

Friday, 27 July 2012

A Minute for Munich

I am pleased that several Liberal Democrat MPs joined MPs from other parties to sign this Early Day Motion calling for an official minute's silence in memory of the eleven Israeli coaches and athletes murdered by terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972 (a terrorist being "someone who uses violent action, or threats of violent action, for political purposes"). 


During this minute's silence (I was not myself in Trafalgar Square), I thought of the eleven people who were murdered, and the West German policeman who was killed during the failed rescue attempt. I also thought of the people killed in the terrorist attack during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and of the people murdered by terrorists in London on 7 July 2005, a mere day after we had heard that London had won the 2012 Olympics.

By the way, the terrorist group at Munich called itself Black September, named after King Hussein's disgusting massacre of thousands of Palestinians in Jordan in September 1970. Had Black September used that Jordanian massacre of Palestinians as some warped justification for attacking Jordanian (not Israeli) Olympians in Munich in 1972, it would still have been an appalling terrorist atrocity, and one that could never be justified. Surely it is possible to be pro-Palestinian, and perhaps to be harshly critical of some Israeli policies and actions, without opposing a minute's silence for the Israelis murdered at Munich in 1972? Yet, according to the head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, a minute's silence for the Israelis murdered in Munich would contribute towards "divisiveness and the spread of racism". 

So, if a dislike of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians is to be a motive for not memorialising murdered Israelis, should a dislike of the the UK's war in Iraq be a motive for not memorialising the victims of 7/7? If Kurdish terrorists murdered Turkish athletes in the Olympic village, would we see Turkey's appalling treatment of the Kurds as a reason not to observe a minute's silence for those Turkish Olympians who had been murdered? What about if it was Kashmiri separatists murdering Indian athletes? Or Chechen terrorists murdering Russian athletes? 

The International Olympic Committee really should institute a minute's silence every four years for everyone murdered by terrorists in or around the Olympic Games.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Marble Arch fountains

As part of the rather lovely restoration of Marble Arch and its green space, the London-ocracy came together in committee, and I was on it as I was then working as Thames Water's Local and Regional Government Liaison for central London.

Thames Water was involved in restoring the fountains, which are switched off today for cleaning - two nice chaps from the maintenance company Conway kindly pointed me towards the plaque commemorating Marble Arch's re-opening, replete with a Thames Water logo (https://www.westminster.gov.uk/press-releases/2009-06/marble-arch-lights-up-the-west-end/ - I didn't go, although invited).

Even with the fountains switched off for a little while today, it all looks rather beautiful.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Boris on the buses

Oh dear God. Just now on my bus in the leafy Outer London/Herts hinterland that is the border between New Barnet and its counterpart to the East, I heard, competing with the noise of the engine and so only semi-audible, the voice of Boris Johnson saying words to the effect: "Hi, this is the Mayor of London. The Olympics starts in a few days time, blah blah, blather blather, so there will be transport changes across Greater London, yawn chortle snort. So don't get caught out! Check before you travel..."

All well and good, but in the wonderfully soporific atmosphere that is the norm on a bus in my part of the world at this time of the day in such utterly lovely weather, the excitement of hearing the Mayor's voice in this way was so great as to almost wake the driver.

It did seem a little incongruous, as, to those of us who live in my deeply urban local area (pictured), it does feel as if the Games are happening in a far-away place of which we know nothing (with all Londoners being privileged to pay an extra chunk of Council Tax specifically for the Olympics - a specific extra surcharge, marked separately on the bill - it's great that so many events are happening in Dorset, Scotland and Hertfordshire, whose residents were denied the opportunity to pay this extra bit of Council Tax, while not a single bit of the Olympics is happening in the London borough that has paid more for the Games in extra Council Tax than any other, that borough being, of course, Barnet).

But enough of my humbuggery. It's Christmas! Or at least, it's about to be the sort of event that will give many people the sort of pleasure and enjoyment that I get from Christmas, an exciting election night and a trip to the cinema to see the latest great new film, all rolled into one. Many, many people across the worlds of sport, culture and public service will now work very hard and deliver a huge amount that is memorable, excellent and entertaining for millions of people all over London.

Who cares if I'm not very interested in it? Many other people are, and many of those people are not very interested in some things that I am interested in, and those things get promoted some of the time, so it's quid pro quo. I hope and expect that the Games and the surrounding stuff will be a great success.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Angie Bray's Freudian "great things"

Angie Bray, Conservative MP for Ealing Central, was yesterday sacked as Francis Maude's Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) after rebelling on Lords reform (a PPS is an MP who, for no extra salary, acts as a minister's "eyes and ears" among backbench MPs, keeping the minister in touch with backbench opinion). Today's Standard has Ms Bray saying: "The whips tell me there's no way back, but historically there are cases of MPs who rebel on an issue being able to go on to great things later on." Don't hold back, Ms Bray. This is no time for false modesty. If you think that, in historical terms, you are destined for great things, then you just come right out and say so...

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The public and Lords reform

Sam Coates writes in The Times: "Yet this week [some Tory MPs] have put their careers on the line for a piece of legislation few members of the public care about." I would argue, rather, that members of the public do care about Lords reform, and do understand why it matters. It is not that they do not care, it is that they often do not find it very interesting. That is an important distinction. A lot of things that we care about (because we know that they matter) are also things that we can sometimes find boring. Some of the most important things in life are also the most boring, so the public has little interest in reading much about them. But that's not the same as not caring, and it's not the same as not having an opinion. I think most ordinary people do know why Parliament matters and so do care about Lords reform. They just don't often care very actively, unless prompted to do so. In most pubs, you could get people going on this subject quite easily, I reckon. Everybody gets what it is about, as with Scottish independence and Europe.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Yasir Arafat radio clip

The London-based radio station Voice of Russia rang me up yesterday and asked me to comment (as someone who blogs about the Middle East) on this news story: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18695634. So I did, at: http://m.ruvr.ru/data/2012/07/06/1297773270/05072012_PollyBoiko_YasserArafat.mp3.

I also said, when asked if I thought that the Palestinians might use this story as a reason not to talk peace with Israel, that I hoped that President Abbas and his entourage are really not that stupid.

I personally see no mystery as to how Yasir Arafat died; as the BBC says, Mr Arafat's medical records: "showed he died of a massive haemorrhagic stroke that resulted from a bleeding disorder caused by an unknown infection. Independent experts who reviewed the records told the paper that it was highly unlikely that he had died of Aids or had been poisoned."

I am, of course, not responsible for the views of any of the other people commenting in this clip.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Timbuktu's Islamophobic Islamists (and don't forget Tunisia)

Tragic to read that historic Muslim shrines in Timbuktu, in Mali, are being destroyed by Islamists. Yes, Islamists destroying Islamic shrines. Yet more proof that being a political Islamist and being a pious Muslim are not one and the same thing. As one British former Islamist, Maajid Nawaz, put it recently (following his recent trip to the Middle East on a Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel fact-finding trip): 
I became an Islamist without ever having read the Koran...People may not know but Islamists often come from educated, liberal backgrounds, in fact many of them are irreligious. Disillusionment with what they see around them, coupled with a powerful ideological narrative, leads to their political conversion. The ritual aspect of Islam, things like praying and fasting, I have noticed, comes as an afterthought.
Meanwhile, given that the Arab Spring began in Tunisia, is anyone paying attention to what has happened there in recent weeks? I appreciate that we've been all been busy watching urgent sport, but it would be nice if somebody cared. Apart from some genuinely commendable anti-terror co-operation, I am ignorant of what the UK is doing re:- Tunisia, and our embassy's website leaves me little the wiser. 

I don't mean to sound cynical or critical of individuals, as there is doubtless lots of great work being done - besides, when did it become our job to solve all the problems of the world? Having said that, I blogged previously about the UK's tremendous efforts to bolster good governance, free media and the open society across the Middle East and North Africa, as highlighted in an excellent speech by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

As a British taxpayer, I am genuinely very pleased that the UK is spending £40 million on the Arab Partnership Participation Fund "for political reform, supporting free and fair elections, stronger parliaments, media and judiciaries". In Tunisia in 2011/12, this UK fund paid for projects with such titles as "Supporting the media to develop a code of conduct for reporting on elections", "Transforming National Tunisian Television into a Public Service Broadcaster" and "Protection of freedom of expression" - and I'm all for that. 

But it is highly dispiriting, particularly in light of these great British endeavours, to read today on the BBC that: 
The Tunisian commission tasked with reforming the country's media has resigned, citing government censorship.
Kamel Labidi, head of The National Authority for the Reform of Information and Communication, said it "does not see the point in continuing its work"..."The body warns of the gravity of the situation in the realm of information and accuses the government of reverting to forms of censorship and disinformation," Mr Labidi said.
What is there to say?  

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Kaddish in Homeland

Please don't read this if you have not yet watched Homeland and if you therefore don't want to know what happens. I'm watching it on my PVR, a Humax that my friends and I call the Hoover.

Anyway, back in April, the Jewish Chronicle (JC) ran a diary piece (http://www.thejc.com/news/the-diary/66188/kaddish-a-tv-terrorist) about how, in Homeland, the Mandy Patinkin character (Saul Berenson - with a name like that, and played by Mandy Patinkin, we're presumably meant to assume that he's Scottish, or perhaps Korean) says kaddish (a Jewish mourner's prayer) for a dead terrorist. As I was then looking forward to eventually watching Homeland on the Hoover, and as I do like Mandy Patinkin (I loved Chicago Hope), this fairly piqued my interest.

Then, some time later, a friend was praising Homeland, and he said in passing that there's this great bit where this guy's just died, and Mandy Patinkin shows his respect for him by muttering something in Arabic. Are you sure, I said - I saw this JC thing about Patinkin saying kaddish?

Then another friend was talking about Homeland and I said, oh yes, what's this thing about how the guy dies, and Patinkin says a prayer that the JC said was kaddish, but was it kaddish, or was it something in Arabic? Kaddish being mostly in Aramaic, rather than Hebrew, incidentally. And this second friend said that it wouldn't have made sense for it to be kaddish, and it must have been a Muslim prayer, and, besides, we don't know that Saul is even Jewish.

Just watched it, and yes it's kaddish - I listened carefully, in case it was a prayer in Arabic (or Urdu - the dead character was surely Pakistani?), but no, it's kaddish, including the lines "uvḥaye dekhol bet yisrael/beʻagala uvizman qariv veʼimru amen". "Bet yisrael" is the House of Israel, and do Muslims say "amen" at the end of prayers? I don't know. One ought to know, but I don't know.

Leaving aside my enjoyment of my own pompous pedantry - or is it pedantic pomposity? - I am fascinated: what did the Homeland team intend viewers to think when Saul uttered this prayer? Were viewers supposed to get it, or was it deliberate misdirection, especially as (at this stage on the Hoover) I am thinking that we are possibly supposed to see Saul as a potential red herring in terms of who is the traitor (if anyone is)?

Although my two friends took it as being that Saul was showing respect for the dead man by reciting a Muslim prayer. And it turns out that it was kaddish - in other words, a Jew showing Jewish respect for the death of a Muslim. Which makes perfect sense to me, because as soon as I saw Saul in Episode One, I knew that he was The West Wing's Toby Ziegler (only older and less cross) and David from Rubicon all over again - I got the shorthand telegraphy of his being a wise old American Jew whose conscience troubles him like indigestion.

Would Homeland's American audience (a tiny two million, in a country of 300 million, so this is niche American viewing that we're talking about here - in a country with six million Jews, many of whom surely fit the 'urban intellectual' demographic that might exemplify Homeland's audience) be expected to recognise kaddish, or was it done in the full knowledge that most people wouldn't get it, and that this would thus only add to the mystery for most viewers, and add further to online debate about what is going on (http://mobile.avclub.com/articles/blind-spot,64132/?mobile=true)?

Kaddish is one of the more famous Jewish prayers, and those Jews and non-Jews who have seen many plays or films about Jews will perhaps have heard of it, with its opening words ("Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba") not being wholly unfamiliar in context, particularly to an American audience. Wikipedia even tells me that Rocky recites it when someone dies in Rocky III.

But in Homeland it is not in context, not least because Saul says it quietly. Had I not been forewarned by the JC, would I have heard it and gone "Eh, what? Was that kaddish?", or would I simply have got it? I think I would have got it.

And as for Saul more generally, I do sometimes have an over-active J-dar, but to me he is obviously playing a Jewish archetype that is familiar from American TV, not least with a name like Saul Berenson. The Hoover yesterday showed me Episode Two, in which Saul goes to get a warrant from a judge in a gentlemen's club. Saul admires a painting that the club has just acquired, and says sonorously that it is by "an artist who, it turns out, was not only Dutch, but also Jewish". "In a club with no Jewish members," responds the judge (whose club it is). "That's your point, isn't it Saul?"

Now, as I say, I do sometimes have an over-active J-dar, but hello, a character played by Mandy Patinkin (who rivals Maureen Lipman in the known-to-be-Jewish stakes), called Saul Berenson, looking and sounding like every rumpled Jewish intellectual we've ever seen in the movies? He gets into a discussion about the fact that he's in a Washington gentlemen's club that doesn't accept Jews as members - is it not conceivable that this character might be Jewish, and that the writers intend us to pick up on this?

I love also that he is not wearing a tie and puts his coffee cup, minus a saucer, on the arm of his antique leather armchair, having ignored his host's question about how he takes his coffee, and having added his own artificial sweetener - it's a power play. He's exactly the sort of bearded university type that this sort of gentlemen's club wants to exclude. That's why he acts like that when he's there.

To me, he's clearly supposed to be Jewish from the off, just as Carrie is clearly supposed to be attractive, and just as Brody is clearly supposed to be an educated Brit, given that he is played by Damian Lewis - oh alright, my theory isn't foolproof. It is called acting and there's more to it than just casting types; Patinkin can play non-Jews, just as Lewis is playing a non-Brit.

And if you like these things less quietly telegraphed, then nothing beats the oh-so-subtle 'outing' of The West Wing's two Jewish regulars in this great scene from the very first episode: http://youtube.com/watch?desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D8unqrdurxyg&v=8unqrdurxyg&gl=US#watch_actions. When I see Homeland, and when I see that even Saul's Jewishness is not immediately obvious, then I can see why Aaron Sorkin decided to make it obvious from the off in The West Wing.

Fw: Urgent: Lords Reform

As that throaty-voiced American-sounding man who does the voiceovers for movie trailers at the cinema might put it: "From the people who brought you the Yes to AV Campaign..."
------------------

From: "Peter Facey, Unlock Democracy" <peter@unlockdemocracy.org.uk>
Date: Wed, 4 Jul 2012 11:16:10 +0000
To: Matthew Harris<matthew.harris@hotmail.co.uk>
Subject: Urgent: Lords Reform

Unlock Democracy

Lords Reform Bill - click here to write to your MPHi Matthew,

Let’s cut to the chase. Over 1,300 people have written to their MPs following the publication of the Lords Reform Bill, but we need to get that figure to at least 2,000 before the House of Commons debates it on Monday. We just need you to ask them a single question and our tool makes it easy for you. Will you write to them today?

Write to your MP right now

The debate around House of Lords reform is hotting up. Last Saturday, the Telegraph published some original Unlock Democracy research showing how dozens of peers claim tens of thousands in expenses despite only occasionally bothering to vote - or not voting at all[1]. This includes: the Earl of Rosslyn, a Metropolitan Police Commander who claimed £15,750 in 2011 despite not voting or speaking once or sitting on any committees; Lord Truscott, who claimed £44,100 tax free in 2011 two years after being suspended for offering to change legislation for a paying client, despite only voting 19 times; and Lord Hanningfield, who claimed £9,310 in the nine months running up to being imprisoned for expenses fraud in July last year - despite not voting or speaking once during that period.

The House of Lords has repeatedly proven itself to be incapable of reforming itself. It is only considering taking action on peers working as lobbyists now - 3 years after the “cash for influence” scandal and 19 years after the “cash for questions” scandal which forced the House of Commons into cleaning up its act. Lords wouldn’t even be grudgingly talking about reform now if the government wasn’t looking like it is going to get serious about introducing elections to the second chamber. If the government is forced into abandoning the House of Lords Reform Bill, it will be back to business as usual in the Lords.

At Unlock Democracy, we’re working hard to persuade MPs on both sides of the chamber to vote the right way when the Bill is debated in the Commons next week. But we need your help. We need to get as many people as possible to write to their MPs and send us the response.

This achieves two things. Firstly, it helps us to keep track of where the MPs stand - and put pressure on the ones who we think are open to persuasion. Secondly, it shows your MP that their constituents care about the issue. One letter from you is worth five letters from a pressure group like us.

Please write to your MP today, using our simple tool

Thank you so much!

Best wishes,

Peter Facey
Director, Unlock Democracy

Notes:

[1] See our press release here: http://action.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/media/news/entry/lords-reform-new-research-reveals-the-price-of-patronage



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Thursday, 28 June 2012

What are Treasury ministers for?

As the BBC tells me that Tony Blair wants to come back (did he ever really leave? Actually, it's been blindingly obvious for ages that he'd like to come back, and if I was the Labour Party...), a video of Tory Treasury minister Chloe Smith is floating around the Internet.

On Newsnight, Ms Smith says repeatedly that decisions about tax are made by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor (and, I seriously imagine, by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and sometimes also the Deputy Prime Minister). If the PM, Chancellor, Chief Secretary, etc, are making the decisions, and the civil servants are doing all the admin, then what do junior Treasury ministers like Ms Smith actually do? Given that they are, I believe, paid a ministerial salary on top of the salary that they get for being an MP, what are these ministers for?

http://youtube.com/watch?gl=US&hl=en-GB&client=mv-google&v=bddWaHuxTzc is Ms Smith on Newsnight, if you go in by around six minutes. And before anyone objects to Jeremy Paxman grilling a minister like this, come on - this is the government of the country that we're talking about here, so it is reasonable to have some tough, forensic questions about what is going on.

It's only television, and the minister is a volunteer, not a conscript - much harder things than this Newsnight interview happen in many ordinary people's lives every day. Incidentally, if you think the way Mr Paxman questions Ms Smith is very tough, then you've clearly never delivered an essay, and been questioned on it afterwards, at a one-on-one tutorial at university.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

From petrol to pints?

Obviously, as a Vice-President of the Liberal Democrat Friends of the Conservative Party, I welcome the fuel tax freeze (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring/news/9356947/Freezing-fuel-tax-must-be-just-the-start.html). I gather that this is something to do with motor cars - I don't actually drive. But I do get buses and I do depend, presumably, on the overall health of the British economy, not to mention deliveries to supermarkets and any other leisure emporia that I might occasionally patronise, so I am happy to assume that this thing with the fuel tax is the right decision. As I applaud vigorously from the sidelines, my mind wonders towards beer (stop it) - if we can freeze the fuel tax, what about CAMRA's petition (http://www.camra.org.uk/page.php?id=122) on freezing beer duty? I don't like freezing beer, I like bitter to be served at room temperature, but if it is true that the beer and pub industry supports around a million British jobs and contributes £21 billion to UK GDP, then it's got to be worth thinking about.

Nick Harvey on Strait of Hormuz

Thanks to Lib Dem Voice for alerting me to this speech (http://nickharveymp.com/en/article/2012/594944/maritime-security-in-the-middle-east-uk-political-will-and-military-capacity) from the other day by UK Defence Minister Nick Harvey, at this conference (http://m.rand.org/randeurope/about/news/rights-of-passage.html) on "Threats to Shipping in the Middle East". Very interesting re:- a possible British and international response to any possible Iranian closure of the Strait of Hormuz, with Mr Harvey (who is a Liberal Democrat) saying:

"Threats or attempts to block the Strait of Hormuz show a contempt for international law as it is seen by the majority of the states in the region, if not the world...Any attempt by Iran to do this would be illegal and [ultimately] unsuccessful..."

before outlining the British military capability that could be deployed in the Gulf. He goes on to say:

"[The] maritime security role the UK plays in the Gulf...is not the gunboat diplomacy of the 19th century.

"But we can, and will, use all our unique assets - economic, diplomatic, military, political, legal, and cultural - to ensure that our citizens are secure and prosperous in this new era."

Friday, 22 June 2012

The Chief Rabbi and gay marriage

Over on my Jewish Chronicle blog, I have written:
I hope that there will be a measured, decent and respectful reaction to Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks' views on marriage equality (gay marriage), both inside and outside the Anglo-Jewish community. The views have been expressed in a statement from the London Beth Din and the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, with Lord Sacks' office having said that the statement encompasses the Chief Rabbi's views.
OK, so I and other liberals support the Government's proposed change to the law, to enable same-sex couples to have civil marriages (not civil partnerships, but civil marriages) - but a lot of people don't. That has to be allowable, in a mature liberal democracy, especially as we (the people who support gay marriage) are advocating a view that, not long ago, was only held by a small minority.
Twenty or thirty years ago, it would have have been hard to imagine a UK government changing the law to allow same-sex marriage, at a time when such a change would only have been supported by a small number of people representing 'advanced liberal opinion'. It would never be right to stigmatise people for reasonably expressing views that, until very recently, were held by an overwhelming majority of British people.
While some British faith leaders have been accused of using highly unpleasant and inflammatory language to express their opposition to same-sex marriage, the Chief Rabbi has not done that. It is eminently reasonable for the holder of Lord Sacks' office to state what he considers to be the Jewish religious view on issues such as this. I really hope that cynical sixth-form point-scorers of all ages, inside and outside the Jewish community, will not now jump up and down shouting about what Lord Sacks has said, given the perfectly reasonable way in which he has said it. After all, by way of analogy, if an Orthodox rabbi stood up (or sat down) and said that, actually, Jewish (bibical) law forbids unmarried couples to sleep together, he'd be expressing an ancient Jewish view, and if he expressed it reasonably and constructively, then what would be so terrible about his expressing it?
Of course, I disagree with Lords Sacks on this issue of marriage equality, as I personally think that Orthodox Judaism could allow for non-Jews having same-sex civil marriages that have nothing to do with Judaism, in the same way that it allows for non-Jews having opposite-sex civil marriages that have nothing to do with Judaism.
If a non-Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman in a non-religious civil ceremony in an English register office, Jews will recognise the couple as being married under the secular law of the land; why not extend the same recognition to a non-Jewish man marrying another non-Jewish man in the same non-religious civil ceremony in the same English register office?
Also, as a Jew (I am halachically Jewish - that is, Jewish according to the Orthodox Jewish definition of who-is-a-Jew), I could already go into an English register office and marry a non-Jewish woman in a non-religious civil ceremony. In Jewish religious terms, the marriage would obviously not be recognised as being a Jewish marriage, as I'd be marrying a non-Jew, but Orthodox Jews would still accept that I was married under the secular law of the land - why extend that acceptance to my marrying a woman, but not to my marrying a man? Neither marriage is halachically acceptable, as both involve my marrying a non-Jew, so what difference does it make whether I marry a man or marry a woman? I am not gay and I therefore don't actually want to marry a man, but, in principle, what's the halachic problem with secular, same-sex civil marriages that have nothing to do with Judaism?
I respect the Chief Rabbi's view that Jewish (biblical) law defines marriage as the union of a male and a female. A great many people will agree with him on that interpretation of what the Bible says. I appreciate also that Jewish law does not always only define things for Jewish people, but can also sometimes define a vision of things that are done by the whole of humanity, of which marriage is clearly one. So my argument, advanced previously here, that Orthodox-Jewish-marriage (which can only be between a Jewish man and a Jewish woman) is one thing, while marriage in general and civil-marriage in particular are two other things, is obviously not foolproof.
It is, however, an argument that I advance quite seriously - I believe that Orthodox Jews could retain their beliefs about who they are allowed to marry, and about who can marry in their synagogues, without opposing non-religious, civil marriage for same-sex couples in entirely secular register offices.
The Chief Rabbi is obviously sincere in arguing that: "If the government were to introduce same-sex marriage through a civil ceremony, any attempt to exclude the possibility of a religious ceremony for such couples would be subject to challenge to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds of discrimination."
I would obviously never support a situation in which ministers of religion were compelled to marry any two people who the ministers do not consider eligible for a religious marriage under their auspices, and the government maintains that such compulsion will never occur. My bank balance sadly confirms that I am not a lawyer, but were we not told previously that employment legislation would compel faith schools to employ religious studies teachers from outside the faith - and that never happened. Were we not previously told that equalities legislation would compel all faith groups to ordain women - never happened. Were we not previously told that race equality laws could be used by civil courts to overturn Jewish religious teachings about who-is-a-Jew - oh, OK, yes, that one did happen. Oops.
Civil marriage equality will therefore have to be implemented in such a way that it never leads to ministers of religion or places of worship being compelled to give a religious wedding to people that they don't want to give a religious wedding to. But I still support civil marriage equality.