Monday, February 28, 2005
Is there no end to the lunacy of the far-right fundamentalist bullies Christian Voice?
Today, the BBC reveals that Christian Voice has an alarming catalogue of obsessions. One of its more bizarre targets is the royal wedding.
There has been much comment about Charles and Camilla lately, but Christian Voice's leader Stephen Green has come up with a rather novel objection:
"We're saying to the Prince of Wales: 'You cannot have your brother's wife.'"I can only assume Green is confusing Camilla with Fergie.
Sunday, February 27, 2005
The Stupid Party
The Stupid Party is living up to its name. The latest Tory wheeze is to have another go at the BBC for 'left-wing bias'.
Today's Observer reports that the drama Faith, set in the 1984 miners' strike and due to be broadcast on BBC1 on Monday evening, is the focus of this attack. Tory spokesman John Whittingdale alleges that this play is "the latest in a long line of left-wing dramas screened by the BBC without any attempt to provide balance or the alternative view".
I would have thought that any drama depicting Arthur Scargill in a sympathetic light would work wonders for the Tories. Moreover, Whittingdale's idea that each play should be counterbalanced by its dramatic alter ego raises some intriguing possibilities. To balance Judge John Deed, we could have an historical drama depicting Judge Jeffries and the Bloody Assizes in a more sympathetic light. Or perhaps the Kenneth Branagh play Conspiracy, about the planning of the holocaust, should have been balanced by a visit to Berchtesgaden by the Ground Force team to give a makeover to Eva Braun's herbaceous borders.
Whittingdale has also again raised the ridiculous complaint about BBC jobs being advertised in the Guardian, when it is common knowledge that this is only because the Guardian's Monday media supplement has cornered the market in media job ads. One might just as well accuse the business world of bias for advertising executive positions in the Telegraph.
You may recall that it was Whittingdale who, in 2003, made the idiotic suggestion that all the BBC's websites should be shut down, a position he was quickly forced to retract.
It is easy to dismiss Whittingdale as an idiot but we should note that his technique has been borrowed from the successful strategy of the US Republicans, who repeatedly attacked America's three main TV networks' news programmes for alleged 'liberal' bias.
The objective of this technique is to create more fertile ground for one's views by moving the 'centre' and thus changing the terms of the debate. The BBC is very sensitive about its reputation for impartiality, especially in the run-up to a general election when every political party is watching it like a hawk. Specifically, the Tories' goal is to make the BBC so nervous of bias allegations that it will bend over backwards to accommodate right-wing opinion and subject it to less scrutiny.
It occurred to me that one could just as easily construct a case for right-wing bias at the BBC. Consider these examples:
- Jeremy Clarkson's assaults on environmentalism every week on Top Gear.
The tabloid agenda of BBC1's six o'clock news.
The materialistic ethic implicit in the numerous TV lifestyle shows.
Hollywood blockbusters that glorify violence, domestic conformity or both.
Brian Aldridge in The Archers.
Curiously, there is a bias at the BBC but it is cultural, not party political, and both the Tory and Labour criticisms are wide of the mark.
Jobs at the BBC are highly coveted and the BBC has its pick of graduate recruits. Furthermore, most BBC people either work in London or are 'doing time' in a provincial studio, hoping to earn a position in London. The consequence is that too many BBC staffers are Oxbridge-educated high-flyers with a tendency to exude a smug metropolitan air. In news coverage, this superior attitude can sometimes descend into a destructive cynicism about the motives of others. This is the BBC at its worst.
But there is also the BBC at its best. A BBC that treats its audience like adults, subjecting news events to analysis and providing explanation rather than mere description. A BBC that offers a nuanced view of the world rather than one of finger-stabbing certainties. A BBC that asks the questions its viewers would like answering, rather than give automatic deference to powerful people.
One suspects that it is these qualities that are the Tories' real target.
Wanted - a new strategy
Another day, another opinion poll.
This time, it's Communicate Research in the Independent on Sunday, where the headline figures are Labour 41%, Conservatives 34% and the Liberal Democrats 17%.
This poll confirms the trends indicated in the MORI and ICM polls a few days ago, of a Tory revival and a slippage in Lib Dem support.
Since the main movement in support lately has not been between the Tories and Lib Dems but between Labour and the Lib Dems, one assumes that what is happening here is that Labour is losing some support to the Tories over race-related issues such as immigration, while picking up Labour-Lib Dem waverers who are becoming scared of a Tory win.
The Liberal Democrats can at least console themselves with the thought that, at 17%, they are three points ahead of where they were at an equivalent stage four years ago. That, plus the party's famous ability to target and its tendency to advance during an election campaign, make the gloomy predictions of fewer than 40 seats somewhat far-fetched.
However, the point I made in my earlier posting remains valid. The Liberal Democrats can no longer credibly talk of being the "only effective opposition" when the Tories are setting the agenda.
The Tories are playing a long game. Their strategy in this election is not to win (much as they would like to) but to re-establish their credibility as the opposition. Many commentators have observed that the Tories' emphasis on saloon-bar populist issues has served only to consolidate the Tory base rather than win many converts. They ignore the fact that this Tory media blitz has also pushed the Lib Dems into the background.
The Liberal Democrat strategy of replacing the Tories was doomed from the start and it should now be obvious that it hasn't worked. So what are we left with? It has been clear in recent months that the party is torn between its liberal instincts and populist temptations. Look at how it has dithered on a string of civil liberties issues, for example, not certain whether to support its MP Evan Harris's brave stand against the incitement to religious hatred law or whether to cave in to religious bullies. Admittedly, Charles Kennedy went to the trouble of launching a five-point plan for civil liberties on 8th February, but he has since done nothing to follow this through.
If the party needs a new strategy, I wonder whether the leadership has ever considered Liberalism? It has a strong appeal to the educated, cosmopolitan and progressive-minded section of the electorate currently ill-served by the other two parties. Indeed, the decision by the Tories and Labour to fight it out on authoritarian right-wing territory has left a big space for Liberal Democrats to command.
Go on Charlie, why not give it a try?
Saturday, February 26, 2005
Watching the watchers
The recent attempt by Muslim bigots to blackmail the Liberal Democrats (see my previous posting) should not blind us to the continuing efforts by militant far-right Christian bigots to poison our politics.
Emboldened by its attack on the BBC last month for screening Jerry Springer - The Opera (see my posting on January 11th), the odious Christian Voice is now blackmailing cancer charities and threatening abortion clinics.
Lib Dem blogger Nick Barlow has already stuck the boot in, so I'll not elaborate further. If you think he's intemperate, you should read this.
In the meantime, I have added a link to MediaWatchWatch to the list of 'watch' sites in the left-hand column. It was set up in January to keep an eye on various bigoted groups that threaten our freedom, such as Christian Voice and Media Watch UK. Keep watching.
The religious bigots are at it again, and this time it's closer to home. Iqbal Sacranie, leader of the Muslim Council of Britain, recently wrote to Charles Kennedy threatening to withdraw Muslim votes from the Liberal Democrats unless the party drops its opposition to the incitement to religious hatred law.
I posted last week about Kennedy's alarming concessions to the religious lobby. It is now clearer where the pressure is coming from.
Here is the National Secular Society report in full:
Recent reports of the Liberal Democrats apparently making a bid for the religious vote, especially the minority religious vote, have left many secularists in a political wilderness. Most [letters the NSS has recently received on this topic from its members] are from those who had abandoned New Labour and had been counting on the Liberal Democrats, or were disillusioned LibDem supporters.I sincerely hope that Charles Kennedy continues to back Evan Harris and that he has the balls to tell Mr. Sacranie where he can shove his Muslim votes.
Keith Porteous Wood [Executive Director of the NSS] has written to Charles Kennedy as Leader of the Liberal Democrats, urging him to resist the pressure being applied to the party by the Muslim Council of Britain, whose leader Iqbal Sacranie was reported last week to be threatening to withdraw Muslim votes from the party unless the Lib Dems came down more clearly in favour of the incitement to religious hatred law.
In a letter to Kennedy, Mr Sacranie attacked the "mixed messages" and "misinformation emanating from the party" over government legislative proposals to ban incitement to religious hatred. "All of this has the potential to not only undermine the very important dialogue your party is trying to engage with the Muslim community, but also seriously put at risk the support your party has undeniably gained from British Muslims due to your principled opposition to the Iraq war," he wrote.
It is thought that Mr Sacranie is referring to the activities of Lib Dem MP and NSS honorary associate Dr Evan Harris, who has been a leading figure in the campaign against the proposed incitement law.
The Lib Dem victory in the Leicester South by-election last year was contributed largely to Muslim voters switching from Labour after the war. The Government has since been trying hard to get the community support back by promising measures that included a law against inciting religious hatred. Sacranie claimed that the fate of at least 25 seats would depend on Muslim voters.
Keith Porteous Wood pointed out that the policies being advocated by the bloc’s leaders are generally those that they personally want and that these leaders are often not democratically elected and, we suspect in many cases, are not representative of those for whom they purport to speak. There was no evidence that Mr Sacranie can command the Muslim vote in the way he seems to imagine.
Keith suggested that the growing visibility of minority religious groups — and, indeed, Christian organisations such as the Evangelical Alliance and even Christian Voice — could lead politicians to over-estimate the importance to the electorate of religion, and hence religious stances. He drew Mr Kennedy’s attention to the Home Office’s Research Study 274 which "gives some useful objective guidance: it ranked religion as being only the ninth most important component of their self-identity for the population in England and Wales, albeit those in minority ethnic groups rank it rather higher".
He also urged Mr Kennedy to consider the small numbers involved of minority faiths. "The democratic process can be damaged if a religious bloc, particularly a relatively small one as in this case, is able to gain disproportionate influence by suggesting it has influence over voters and securing advantages from this, sometimes even from more than one party. According to the latest Census, at 15% there were three times as many 'no-religion' voters as all of the minority faiths combined. The true multiple is rather higher because many of those who comprised the 72% who identified themselves as 'Christian' are simply cultural Christians whose affiliation is purely nominal."
Keith concluded by hoping that "your party will continue to stand out to defend freedom of expression, which is so important to a healthily functioning democracy."
Friday, February 25, 2005
Read this and weep
I've tried hard not to succumb to temptation and attack Mark Oaten too often. But his dismal performance on Wednesday, in the Commons debate on the second reading of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, was the final straw.
Rather than prejudice you any further, I invite you simply to read the verbatim account in Hansard and then ask yourself these questions:
- Given that the defence of liberty and the separation of powers are fundamental to Liberalism, which MP showed a greater grasp of these principles? Mark Oaten or the preceding speaker, Labour backbencher Brian Sedgemore?
One MP argued for liberty with passion and fire in his belly, while the other spoke in desiccated terms, as if this were a matter of technical administrative detail. Which was which?
One MP needed interventions from Simon Hughes and Alan Beith, plus libertarians on the Tory and Labour backbenches, to make points he had forgotten to make himself. Which was it?
The government has briefed the media to the effect that it plans to pick off its opponents one by one with minor concessions. Which MP is more likely to maintain a principled stand against this Bill and which is more likely to be bought off by Charles Clarke?
- The job of Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson requires an instinctive commitment to liberal values and heavyweight political nous. On this showing, is Mark Oaten up to the job?
Christine Wheatley - or is it?
You may have seen this week's bizarre news about would-be Labour candidate Christine Wheatley, who has been kicked off the shortlist of candidates for the constituency of Copeland in Cumbria, after having revealed that she had "worked as a tart".
One can argue the morality of Ms Wheatley's career history. But have you noticed how she looks remarkably like John Reid in a wig? Are they by any chance related? I think we should be told.
The BBC's story concludes rather endearingly;
Ms Wheatley, who is now training to be a barrister, said she would not beWell, she couldn't do any worse than the present incumbent.
giving up on politics and that she had always wanted to be prime minister.
New Labour could arrest itself
Charles Clarke's proposed anti-terror legislation contains such sweeping powers that New Labour could even arrest itself, according to The Register.
And to think that, back in 1997, some Liberal Democrats were seriously contemplating a merger with these people.
Thursday, February 24, 2005
Back from the dead?
Today's MORI poll in the Financial Times ought to worry the Liberal Democrats.
This poll puts Labour on 39%, the Conservatives on 37% and the Liberal Democrats on 18%. These figures are similar to those in the ICM poll in Tuesday's Guardian (37%/34%/21%). A YouGov poll in tomorrow's Daily Telegraph will confirm whether there is a trend.
The Lib Dem percentage figures in recent polls are not bad per se - it's the Tory recovery that should give cause for alarm.
The Lib Dems had written off the Tories as a spent force, as indeed had most other observers (including many Tories themselves). While it remains unlikely the Tories can win the next general election, their campaign over the past few weeks may be restoring their reputation as a credible opposition. That is the risk the Lib Dems should worry about.
The Tories have achieved a recovery by setting the agenda in recent weeks, focusing on a string of populist right-wing issues such as immigration, crime and Europe. The Tories risk using up all their ammunition early on, but at least it puts them back in contention by mobilising their core support. Whether they can maintain this momentum is another matter; Labour still holds the trump cards of the March budget and the choice of election date.
Meanwhile, one should not forget how much of the Tory campaign is going on 'under the radar'. They are doing a lot of work (such as phone-based 'push-polling') in target seats, aided by big donations from the likes of Lord Ashcroft, who is donating up to £21,000 per seat (as reported in yesterday's Guardian).
An important side-effect of a Tory recovery is that it may increase the turnout. A major factor behind recent low turnouts is Labour voters staying at home because they assume a Labour win is a foregone conclusion. The more the Tories look like a real threat, the more Labour can re-energise its own jaded support.
If this trend continues, the Liberal Democrat strategy of replacing the Tories will have proved disastrous. It is simply no longer credible to claim to be the "only effective opposition" when the Tories are so obviously making the running. More significantly, in recent polls and elections, the Lib Dems have been gaining most of their support at the expense of Labour. The idea that the Lib Dems could gain more support by trying to sound more "tough" is ludicrous. After all, if you're the sort of right-wing voter who places a premium on 'toughness', why vote Liberal Democrat when you can have the real McCoy?
The Liberal Democrats' natural support base is educated and cosmopolitan people with small 'l' liberal values. The party needs to consolidate that progressive-minded base and peel off votes from Labour on issues such as Iraq and ID cards, where it has made a distinctive stand.
If both Labour and the Tories choose to fight on right-wing authoritarian territory, the Liberal Democrats should leave them to it and stay well out of it. The Lib Dem opportunity is in the space this creates.
PS: Friday's YouGov poll in the Telegraph has been released and paints a conflicting picture. Anthony Wells has a convincing explanation.
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
The issues that really matter
Do you envy political pioneers? Do you ever wish you had been among the first to start a successful campaign? Well now's your chance.
If you possess even the tiniest spark of humanity in your soul, you will not need to be convinced of the vital importance of the good old-fashioned British greasy spoon. Invariably Italian-run yet quintessentially British. Caffs with 1950s Formica decor and matching sets of red and brown plastic sauce dispensers, where you half expect Tommy Steele to come through the door at any moment. A home-from-home, where you can order a large fry-up and a mug of tea and still get change from £4.
These cafes are indispensable and yet, sadly, the species is threatened. A pincer movement of fashion and redevelopment, in the form of trendy coffee bars and rising property rentals, is driving these cafes out of business.
We cannot allow the bacon sandwich to be drowned in a sea of 'latte grande'. Now is the time to act.
I am pleased to learn from the excellent eggbaconchipsandbeans and a good place for a cup of tea and a think blogs that there will be a meeting of the Cafe Preservation Society at 6.30pm on Friday 25th February to plan a campaign.
The venue could not be more appropriate: the New Piccadilly Cafe (8 Denman Street, near Piccadilly Circus, London W1). Formica and Pyrex heaven.
Election date clues
For those of you who like reading the runes, examining the tea leaves or poking around in the chicken entrails, today brings another clue about the date of the general election.
Gordon Brown has announced that the budget will be on Wednesday 16th March. That would rule out a snap election on Thursday 7th April (the day before the royal wedding) because parliament would have to be dissolved before the budget date.
The government then needs parliamentary time to pass its Finance Bill, if only a shortened bill, making an election on 14th, 21st or 28th April highly unlikely though theoretically possible.
If the election is on the widely predicted date of Thursday 5th May, the latest date that parliament could be dissolved is Monday 11th April, although the announcement is likely to be shortly before that, to allow the government time to tie up loose ends of parliamentary business.
Talking of the budget, I was amused to read in the BBC's report this stern warning:
As Mr Brown announced the Budget date in a short ministerial statement, accountancy firm Ernst & Young urged him to put politics aside and focus on the long-term requirements of the economy.Fat chance.
"In the Budgets that were given immediately before the last six elections, taxes were cut by the incumbent chancellor and, in many cases, taxes were increased soon after the election result," said Aidan O'Carroll, E&Y's UK head of tax.Surely not.
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
The risks of over-exposure
From the Sunday Times comes this heartwarming tale of everyday life in an Iraqi suburb.
One particular American soldier had an unfortunate habit of urinating into the street from the top of his Bradley armoured vehicle. This practice angered and offended local Sunni Muslim inhabitants, not because of the urinating as such, rather the way the soldier exposed himself regardless of whether any women were around to see him.
In a comical attempt to tackle the problem, local insurgents fired off first a rocket-propelled grenade and then a Russian C5K missile, but missed on both occasions. Finally, they called on the services of a former calligrapher. Read the full story to find out what happened.
The tale is both funny and sad, and illustrates how ordinary Iraqis who hated Saddam have nevertheless come to view the US military as occupiers who must be repelled.
Clarence Willcock - Liberal Hero
If you were asked to name the most influential Liberals of the post-war era, Clarence Willcock would be unlikely to feature on your list.
Yet it is thanks to Willcock that wartime ID cards were abolished. Today's edition of BBC Radio 4's The Long View recalled the occasion in 1950 when Clarence Willcock, who happened to be a member of the Liberal Party, was stopped by a policeman for speeding while driving through North Finchley. The policeman demanded to see Willcock's ID card and he refused to produce it on principle.
(The Long View will be repeated on Radio 4 at 9.30pm this evening, or you can listen to it online for the next seven days here or here).
ID cards had originally been introduced as a temporary wartime emergency measure, but survived the war because of 'mission creep', as more and more government departments found their use expedient.
Willcock's act of defiance became a test case at the High Court, where Lord Justice Goddard gave the opinion that for the police to demand ID cards from all and sundry was wholly unreasonable. ID cards were consequently abolished in 1952.
If New Labour succeeds in re-introducing ID cards, I trust that Liberal Democrat members will follow Clarence Willcock's example. He demonstrated what a principled stand by one ordinary citizen can achieve.
Friday, February 18, 2005
"Like head lice through a nursery"
Surprise, surprise. Britain has another food scare.
359 products have been removed from supermarket shelves today after it was discovered that they had been contaminated with an illegal food dye called 'Sudan 1'. The Food Standards Agency's official list reveals that most of the affected products are 'ready meals'.
'Sudan 1' is a red dye used for colouring solvents, oils and waxes, and is banned for use in foodstuffs throughout the EU.
Supermarket spin doctors will have been hard at work this evening stressing that everything is under control and that there's no need to worry. Technically speaking, they're right. The risk from eating the affected products is relatively low and we can be sure that the supermarkets acted promptly to clear their shelves.
Instead, we need to look more deeply at the basic problems this latest scare has revealed. Examine the FSA's list of affected products. It comprises mostly supermarket own-brand products, which are manufactured by contract suppliers.
This has not gone unnoticed. Food campaigner Joanna Blythman said there was no excuse for a substance like 'Sudan 1' finding its way into food and added,
"But because supermarkets now control 80% of the nation's food basket, ifIn other words, the monopoly position of the big supermarket chains means that any problem is a big problem.
there is a problem it spreads like head lice through a nursery."
Consider also the preponderance of 'ready meals'. We know why supermarkets sell them - the profit margins are enormous compared with fresh foods. But why do people buy this overpriced muck? Cue the clichés about "busy mums" with "no spare time" who "juggle their lifestyles". People do have the time but lack the motivation. Unlike other Europeans, it seems that, for many British people, eating is a chore.
And how can people eat these things? Do they ever read the list of ingredients? The illegal food dye was in a chilli powder used by Premier Foods to make a Worcester sauce used in other products. In other words, the quality of this food is such that it needs enhancing with an artificially-coloured synthetic version of Worcester sauce.
Look again at the FSA's list of withdrawn products. What on earth possesses people to buy processed foods with names such as these?
- Asda Cumberland sausage sandwich filling
- Asda Vegetarian Spaghetti Bolognese
- Asda Onion Gravy in a pouch
- Asda GFY 1000 Island Dressing
- Happy Shopper Seafood sauce
- Brakes Cooked Mexican Meat
- Co-op Thin and Crispy Hickory BBQ Chicken Pizza
- Morrisons Prawn Coleslaw
- Morrisons Bettabuy Minced Beef & Onion Pies (4 pack)
- Netto Farmer's Fayre Vegetable Soup
- Sainsbury Chicken & Bacon Caesar Style Pasta
- Somerfield Tex Mex Combo
- Tesco British Meatballs & Mashed Potato
- Tesco British Cottage Meal for One
- Waitrose Sandwich Filler Tuna Mayonnaise
- Pot Noodle: Hot Dog & Ketchup Flavour
The more middle class and health-conscious amongst you may care to note that many of the listed products are part of the supermarkets' various 'healthy eating' ranges. And you smug Marks & Spencer customers can wipe that grin off your faces. There are 15 M&S products on the list.
Good food isn't about expense or even 'organics'. It is about eating freshly-prepared, locally-sourced fresh foods that are in season. Anyone who cares about what they eat knows that. As long as most British people don't care, they'll continue to get the food they deserve.
PS: Read Joanna Blythman's article in Wednesday's Guardian. She points out that this scandal reveals how much of the supposed 'choice' in our supermarkets is illusory. Wednesday's Guardian also carried an investigation into how the contamination occured in the first place. Meanwhile, the list of contaminated foods and affected countries continues to grow.
Not in my back yard
Another day, another protest against airport expansion.
This time, it's local protesters in Essex who are making the headlines. They have won a High Court ruling giving them a say in expansion plans for Stansted Airport.
There is no doubt that airport expansion is disruptive, in terms of the land it takes, the temporary annoyance caused during construction work and the long-term effects of increased flights and the associated road traffic.
The fact that we have these endless protests merely illustrates that British transport policy is a mess. For example, had we developed a new high-speed rail network at the same time as France, Germany and Italy, we would not need so many internal flights. It is absurd that there is still any demand for flights between London and Manchester or Leeds.
But these protests also illustrate the hypocrisy of the British public. It is no use complaining about airport expansion if you also want to take regular flights on budget airlines. On Ryanair's website today, you can book tickets from Stansted to 43 destinations (including such far-flung places as Blackpool) for just 74p.
I wonder how many of the Stansted protesters can honestly say that they or their families would never use Ryanair on principle?
I also wonder how many politicians would be prepared to tell the great British public that they can't have their cake and eat it?
Thursday, February 17, 2005
A holy mess
The Liberal Democrats are sending out confusing messages about the proper relationship between religion and the state.
First, the good news. Last week (7th February), Liberal Democrat MPs led an attempt to amend the section of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill relating to religious hatred. I posted on this subject last week but now a Hansard transcript of the debate is online. Excellent performances by David Heath, Simon Hughes and Evan Harris. The Liberal Democrat amendment won cross-party backing (including 25 Labour members who defied their party whip) but was sadly defeated by the government. All is not lost as there will be a second reading of the Bill in the House of Lords, probably on 7th March.
Now for the bad news. The National Secular Society reports that Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said in a speech to a religious group that he is in favour of faith-based welfare and thinks that religious bodies should play a larger role in public life. He added, in an interview with Muslim News, that the Lib Dems would come up with a "package" of measures in which they would consider giving further privileges to religion. He also says that he would not oppose a growth in the number of state-funded Muslim schools.
Meanwhile, in a speech to the Catholic Association of Teachers, Schools and Colleges, the party's education spokesman Phil Willis assured his audience that,
"We have no proposals whatsoever to close Church schools or to prevent the establishment of others - indeed it is a Liberal Democrat Council in Islington that has jointly sponsored the St Mary Magdalene Academy, the first Church of England Academy in the country."These statements are obviously a pre-election pitch for the religious vote. But they are fundamentally illiberal.
Liberals, whatever their personal religious views, must accept the principle of the secular state because only individuals can have religious faith and the inanimate state cannot 'believe'. Religion must remain a personal matter because all religions have at their heart a dogma that necessarily precludes other beliefs; when religion is established within the body politic, it leaves little room for argument. In a Liberal society, no-one should suffer discrimination or oppression for their religious views but, equally, no religion should enjoy any statutory privilege.
The Liberal objection to religious schools is that, far from promoting 'diversity' as their defenders claim, they enforce sectarianism and pin religious labels on children too young to be capable of making any meaningful choice. Further, state funding for such schools is tantamount to spending taxpayers' money on religious proselytizing. The state should not ban religious schools but there is no reason why the state should subsidise them.
Each person should be free to pursue their religious beliefs but one's faith should be a matter of private conscience, not state policy. Kennedy and Willis have placed the party on a slippery slope, in what appears to be an ill thought-out piece of shabby populism.
Monday, February 14, 2005
The guessing game
Everyone seems to think that the general election will be on Thursday 5th May, but when would the election date be announced?
An interesting post on Anthony Wells's excellent UK Polling Report blog argues that the timing of the royal wedding, scheduled for Friday 8th April, places the government in a dilemma.
If the General Election is to be held on May 5th, Parliament must be dissolved and the writ for the General Election issued on Monday 11th April. Normally the Government will leave a day or two spare between announcing the election and the dissolution to tie up loose ends and push through bits of legislation. The date of the royal wedding means the government has a choice of announcing the General Election prior to the wedding and having the wedding during the campaign, announcing it immediately afterwards and losing all the legislation that is before the House or holding the election prior to April 8th.Speculation continues on the subsequent posting but I cannot believe that Tony Blair is a hapless victim of events.
It is inconceivable that Blair was not consulted by the royal family about the wedding date or that he could not have argued for a different date had he wished. It actually helps Blair to introduce new confusing factors that will keep the opposition guessing.
The significance of the wedding date is not any power it may have to change Blair's plans, but rather the clues it provides about what Blair has already planned.
Given that the wedding will, by royal standards, be a relatively low key affair, I doubt it will affect the date of the announcement or the election itself, assuming Blair has already opted for 5th May. The chief advantage of 5th May, that it would coincide with local elections that must happen in any case, is a compelling reason for Blair to stick to Plan A.
Sunday, February 13, 2005
Tetbury 1, Pyongyang 0
The announcement of the forthcoming royal wedding has demonstrated that nothing, not even a possible nuclear war, can keep the royals off the front pages.
The royal engagement has divided the media and individual commentators into two camps; those who devote pages to this topic because they believe it has real significance, and those who devote pages to this topic because they claim it has none. I disagree with the former camp but at least it has the merit of consistency.
Frankly, I couldn't give a toss about this wedding. But it does raise two more important issues.
First, the timing of the wedding (on 8th April) rules out the possibility of an early general election and makes it virtually certain that polling day will be on 5th May.
Second, the royal announcement obscured what is potentially the most significant piece of news this year. BBC1's News at Ten O'Clock on Thursday evening devoted the first 20 minutes of its 30-minute broadcast to news of the engagement. A very poor second billing was given to the news of North Korea's announcement that it has nuclear weapons.
I assumed this was an ill-judged populist move by the BBC and that some sense of proportion would be restored by the weekend, if only in the more left-wing press. But no. Both the Guardian and Observer have given far more prominence to the wedding than to the news from Pyongyang.
The one daily to hit the right note was the most downmarket tabloid of them all, the Daily Star. Its headline? "Boring old gits to wed".
Thursday, February 10, 2005
How strongly do you feel about self-assembly furniture? Strong enough to go to a midnight store opening? Strong enough to queue for six hours to get in? Strong enough to stab another customer?
Last night's riot at IKEA in Edmonton, north London, is one of those news stories that makes you wonder what sort of society we now live in.
No-one I know views a trip to IKEA with any enthusiasm and I've always regarded a visit as one of life's unpleasant necessities, not ameliorated by the cafeteria menu (will that be nine Swedish meatballs or fifteen Swedish meatballs?).
Not everyone shares this cynicism, apparently. The BBC reports:
One man was stabbed near Ikea's newest store and several people were hurt in the crush as thousands flocked to its midnight opening.Such was the enthusiasm that the store had to close after just 30 minutes.
Nine ambulances went to the Edmonton store, north London, after reports that up to 20 people were suffering from heat exhaustion and minor injuries.
Bargain-hunters even abandoned their cars on the A406 north circular causing "severe traffic" problems, police said.
An Ikea spokeswoman said its flagship store, the biggest in England, had to close because of an "unforeseen volume of customers".We live in a society with an unprecedented choice of social and cultural activities, so I am at a loss to understand this unbridled passion for flat-pack furniture. The violence, however, is easier to explain.
... trouble flared when queue-jumpers got into the store past some customers who had been waiting outside since about 1800 GMT.
The news that some people were prepared to defend to the death their place in a queue is reassuring. It shows that there are still some standards of which we British can be proud. After all, look at how the foreigners behave.
Last September three men were trampled to death in a rush to claim vouchers when IKEA opened its first store in Saudi Arabia.
The land where time stood still
BBC2's dramatisation of Jonathan Coe's novel The Rotters' Club ended last night but the mysteries were not confined to the plot.
The series was sympathetically written and acted, and it made poignant viewing for anyone like me belonging to more or less the same generation as the schoolboy protagonists. To make it believable, however, the main challenge for the producers was to get the 1970s setting right.
We now live in a knowing and self-referential age, with memories of the decade warped by TV nostalgia-fests such as I Love the 70s and repeats of contemporary editions of Top of the Pops. The era is also being given an ironic makeover by the TV pastiche Look Around You and movie remakes of 70s TV series like Starsky and Hutch.
It would have been tempting for the producers of The Rotters' Club to go for a riot of 70s kitsch, with tank tops, space hoppers and cheese-and-pineapple on a stick in every shot. As it was, the level of authenticity was pitched just right, with a near-perfect attention to detail that managed not to intrude on the drama.
The big mystery was where the producers had found suburban locations with no satellite dishes but plenty of Austin Allegros. The answer was in the end credits: "Filmed on location on the Isle of Man".
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Hurrah for freedom of information!
Tonight's News at 10 O'Clock on BBC1 led with the story of the release of secret Treasury papers about Black Wednesday. John Major has attempted to put a spin on this revelation, by claiming that the cost of £3.3bn was much less than had been estimated.
Politically, the precise cost is no longer relevant. What matters is that everyone has just been reminded of the day when everything went pear-shaped for the Tories.
Ignorance is bliss
Ignorance is a wonderful thing. It alone can supply the power to defy reality.
The consensus among most Tory and Labour politicians, and the braying tabloid-reading masses, is that there is too much immigration. It turns out that there is probably nowhere near enough.
Vladimir Spidla, the EU's employment and social affairs commissioner, said in an interview with Reuters that the EU's active labour force will be 20 million short of the levels required to sustain growth and pay for an ageing population by 2030, even with substantial inflows of migrant workers. By 2030, there would be almost 40 million more EU citizens in their 80s or older, which alone would require 80 million new jobs to help pay for their pensions and healthcare.
Apart from the Guardian, no British media appear to have covered this story - not unless you count Personnel Today. But then it's not what people want to hear.
Still, the poverty-stricken pensioners of 25 years hence can at least console themselves with the thought of a racially pure dotage.
Tuesday, February 08, 2005
Actions speak louder than words
Good news this morning. Charles Kennedy has launched a five-point plan for protecting Britain's civil liberties. (You can listen here to his interview on this morning's Radio 4 Today programme - he did waffle somewhat but then it was 7.50am).
What is particularly good about this plan is its coherence. It is coherent both in its analysis of what is wrong and its prescription for what needs to be done.
Civil liberties is not an easy issue to pursue, for two reasons. First, most people simply don't regard it as a priority. This is why Liberals need to argue that excessive concentration of power and lack of accountability lead to bad decisions in the areas people do care about, such as health and education.
The second difficulty is that, each time there is a terrorist scare, it is very easy for unscrupulous politicians to exploit the climate of fear and demand more authoritarian measures. Liberals need to hold their nerve in this climate. Tough talk is cheap. Most of these allegedly 'tough' measures are intended to play to the gallery and do little practical to make us safer. But Liberals also need to argue that a free society is what we should be protecting in the first place, and that dismantling it is doing the terrorists' work for them.
The real test of this five-point plan is whether the Liberal Democrats will see it through, by reiterating these messages at every available opportunity - consistently, reliably and with gusto. On a string of recent civil liberties issues (the Sikh theatre protest, the broadcast of Jerry Springer - The Opera, house arrest, immigration and the proposed 'incitement to religious hatred' law), where the party could have made a distinctive Liberal stand, it has been mute or mealy-mouthed. On the rare occasions when the party has eventually taken a stand, it's been a sad case of too little, too late. In more than one instance, only the freelance actions of Evan Harris MP salvaged the party's honour.
Civil liberties ought to be one of the Liberal Democrats' flagship issues and the party should take a lead, not sit on the fence and leave the field clear to pressure groups or the odd Labour backbencher. Let's hope this five-point plan represents a genuine fresh start.
Monday, February 07, 2005
Always look on the bright side of life?
Another blow for freedom of speech. The government has defeated a Liberal Democrat amendment to the Serious and Organised Crime Bill.
The government's bill includes a provision to outlaw 'incitement to religious hatred' but its broad definition of racial and religious hatred risks criminalising honest debate. The Lib Dem amendment, supported by comedian Rowan Atkinson, would have tightened this definition.
Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme on Monday morning, Atkinson said,
"...the only safety valve that they have put in the legislation is the fact that the attorney general will have the final say. A safety valve operated by a politician subject to the political agendas of the day is not to me a good enough safety valve.The government insists its new law will not threaten our right to criticise or lampoon religions or religious beliefs. I wish I could share its faith. A more likely scenario is that, the minute this bill becomes law, there will be a rash of court cases brought by an assortment of religious bigots.
"The incitement of religious hatred doesn't even have to be intended, it is just if it offends any person.
"This is undoubtedly a politically motivated move on the government's part because they think it will give them some advantage among certain religious groups in the imminent general election."
In the meantime, congratulations to Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris for pursuing this issue. He recognises a good Liberal cause when he sees one, unlike one of his colleagues I could name.
Why we need immigrants
If ever there were a case for less heat and more light, it is the current controversy over immigration.
Two factors are influencing Tory and Labour policy and neither of them has any validity. One is a right-wing tabloid campaign, inspired by a desire to cash-in on racism. The other is a tactical calculation of electoral advantage, inspired by the forthcoming general election.
Before any more politicians or journalists add their two cents, they would be well-advised to read this new article, Why Europe needs to open its doors for labour migration, written by Nigel Harris for the European Policy Centre think-tank.
Harris argues that a sustainable immigration policy is both essential for Europe’s economic development and a potentially important tool in the fight against global poverty. His thesis is that excessively restrictive immigration controls in many EU Member States disrupt circular patterns of migration and discourage immigrants from returning to their homes, thus denying remittances and labour to developing countries while aggravating social tensions within European societies.
Towards the end of his article, Harris makes a telling point:
The problems lie in the transition from a world of national economic enclaves of protected labour markets to a global economy which dissolves national economies while retaining a political order of national administrations (dependent upon national electorates and competitive politics).In other words, national governments are increasingly impotent in a globalised world. This impotence is a major reason for popular disillusionment with democratic politics. It is also a major reason for supporting the European Union, as a political framework with the scale to deal effectively with global economic issues.
Ignoring this reality only leads to more trouble. Xenophobia encourages national politicians to make promises on immigration, but globalisation makes these promises impossible to keep.
It takes courage to express such views in public, but Liberals must do so if they are to engage in a grown-up debate with the electorate. The alternative - "blame the darkies" - is a cheap shot that, quite apart from being immoral, is divorced from reality.
Sunday, February 06, 2005
Serious about power
Is anyone in the Liberal Democrats thinking seriously about the possibility of a hung parliament?
A debate was sparked off today on the Political Betting website by an article in today's Independent on Sunday by Alan Watkins - one of the very few pundits who entertains the idea.
A comfortable Labour majority remains the likeliest outcome, as predicted by Peter Kellner in today's Sunday Times. But a hung parliament is not so far fetched.
If you want to delve into the number-crunching, look at the Political Betting site. The politics of such a situation is more interesting. The Liberal Democrats would hold the balance of power - how would they handle it?
First, Charles Kennedy is right not to keep banging on about hung parliaments. If David Steel or Paddy Ashdown were still in charge, the issue would have been turned into a major plank in the Liberal Democrat platform. Far better that, instead of perpetually raising the issue of pacts and deals, the party campaigns on its own merits and talks openly about a hung parliament only when it happens.
Second, the Liberal Democrats are far better equipped in terms of negotiating skills. In David Steel's day, making concessions ahead of negotiations was portrayed as realism and a sign that one was "serious about power". There is less danger of that with Andrew Stunell MP, the party's leading expert in NOC councils, as chief whip, or with the experience of the Scottish and Welsh coalitions.
Conrad Russell, having spoken to many of the Liberal Democrat councillors with experience of deals, once noted,
"It is absolutely fatal to attempt to negotiate by appeasement. You cannot persuade people to do things for you merely by being nice to them. If you do what they want without real hard concessions in return, they lose all incentive to give you anything you want. Never trade hard substance for a promise: it destroys any incentive to keep a promise when it is made."Third, however, the Liberal Democrats need to decide what they would want to get out of such negotiations. Some of the party's younger MPs seem so hungry for power that there is a risk of accepting a deal at any price just to get bums on the back seats of ministerial Daimlers.
Conrad Russell again:
"The trouble with wanting anything at any price is, that is the price you will end up paying. The other trouble is that if you want something at any price, you will probably not get it at all."
A source of shame
Why is it always someone else who expresses what the Liberal Democrats should be saying?
A leader in today's Observer castigates the Tories and Labour for their "ugly auction" on the issue of immigration. This article says what we all know but are afraid to say - that 'immigration' is code for racism.
Both the Tories and Labour justify their stance in terms of "legitimate concerns". Why doesn't our party have the guts to say that these are illegitimate concerns?
Saturday, February 05, 2005
The Full Monty
This morning's Guardian reports on yesterday's visit to London by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice:
She arrived at Downing Street at 8am to meet Mr Straw, who took her to the Terracotta Room, where she joined Mr Blair and his officials for a full English breakfast. Ms Rice hails from Alabama in the Deep South, where breakfasts bear a strong family resemblance to the British/Irish fry-up. Even so, she doesn't strike me as the sort of person who would tuck-in to the full monty. Neither, for that matter, does Tony Blair. Both seem more the type who'd prefer a fruit smoothie next to their exercise machines.
Last month, Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb used the Freedom of Information Act to find out who Tony Blair has entertained at Chequers (Geri Halliwell and Des O'Connor, it turns out). So come on Norman, exercise your citizen's rights again and let's see just how "full" this English breakfast was.
This is not mere idle curiosity. You can tell a lot about a person by their attitude to fried breakfasts. Did this gathering of world leaders order the works, or did they manage only a girly portion of poached egg? Was Tony Benn's collection of ministerial enamel mugs dusted down for the occasion, or was it Earl Grey in dainty china cups? Two sausages or just the one, thank you? I think we should be told.
Incidentally, my printed copy of this morning's Guardian contained a bizarre typo, referring to this breakfast has having taken place at 8pm rather than 8am. I like a fry-up as much as the next bloke, but 8pm? In the unlikely event it was 8pm, I take back everything I've said about New Labour.
Friday, February 04, 2005
Al Qaeda places bounty on Kofi Annan's head
Thursday, February 03, 2005
Out, damned spot
Oh dear. I spoke too soon in my previous posting.
It turns out that three Liberal Democrat members of the Scottish Parliament have now signed the Tory motion in favour of rehabilitating Macbeth.
The guilty MSPs are Donald Gorrie, Nora Radcliffe and Jamie Stone. The three of them are probably standing around a cauldron as I write.
In a wonderful advertisement for devolution, a Tory member of the Scottish parliament has registered a formal complaint to the effect that Shakespeare "misportrayed" Macbeth.
Alex Johnstone MSP has tabled a motion, which "regrets that Macbeth is misportrayed when he was a successful Scottish king."
Johnstone's attempt to overturn Macbeth's image as a murderous villain is being supported by 19 other MSPs from the SNP, Green and Socialist parties. I am relieved to see that the Liberal Democrats have so far resisted the temptation to leap on this dubious bandwagon.
The authority that Johnstone cites as evidence for his claim is none other than "an American professor who has visited north east Scotland." So that settles it.
In case you were wondering why a Tory should be launching a campaign of the sort more usually associated with the left, Johnstone explains:
"The Conservative Party has been the victim of revisionists in the past and we will try and revise the Macbeth story."I'm not sure I see the connection but, given the dire straits the Tories are in, it's worth a go. And if this campaign takes off, no doubt we will soon be invited to wear tartan wristbands, to show our solidarity.
In the meantime, I don't see why the English should be left out. I am considering demanding an apology from whoever depicted King Alfred as a burner of cakes. I have not yet decided the type of ribbon or wristband sympathisers should wear, and fear that all the available colours may have already been taken. If so, I suppose I could always demand a ten-minute silence.
Ever fancied yourself as Kirsty Wark interviewing Tony Blair?
The Dead Ringers game Newsfighter enables you to do just that.
More joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth...
At last the Liberal Democrats have climbed down off the fence on the issue of house arrests.
One doesn't wish to sound ungrateful but, for maximum political impact, the party should have come out and said this a week ago, when Charles Clarke first mooted these plans.
Also, if you want to take a lead on this issue, you need to do it with vim and vigour (rather like Lord Hoffman or Frederick Forsyth). Sounding mealy-mouthed neither challenges your opponents nor rallies your supporters.
Mark Oaten still talks in terms of striking "a balance between the civil liberties implications and the very serious concerns about suspected terrorists". As I argued in Saturday's posting, Oaten has accepted the false premise of authoritarianism, that civil liberty and security exist in inverse proportion to one another. As long as he persists in this view, his argument with the government will remain a matter of degree rather than a principled disagreement.
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
A wobbling edifice
Rowan Atkinson delivered an excellent speech to members of the House of Lords last week, in opposition to the proposed law against incitement of religious hatred (which the government has bolted on to its Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill). Some extracts:
"To criticise people for their race is manifestly irrational but to criticise their religion, that is a right. That is a freedom. The freedom to criticise ideas - any ideas - even if they are sincerely held beliefs - is one of the fundamental freedoms of society and a law which attempts to say you can criticise or ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed. It promotes the idea that there should be a right not to be offended, when in my view, the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended, simply because one represents openness, the other represents oppression."And...
"I don’t doubt the sincerity of those who are seeking this legislation but I do question the government’s enthusiasm for it so close to a general election, an enthusiasm that must be rooted in their belief that this measure could help their cause in some marginal constituencies with large religious populations, many of whom are critical of the government’s prosecution of the war in Iraq. It seems a shame we have to be robbed permanently of one of the pillars of freedom of expression because it’s needed temporarily to shore up a wobbling edifice elsewhere."I do hope the silence of Charles Kennedy and Mark Oaten on this issue is not due to opportunistic concerns about any wobbling edifice of their own.
Tuesday, February 01, 2005
Not dead, just sleeping
Everyone assumes that voter apathy and low trust in politicians are recent phenomena. A new study of polling evidence by the BBC suggests that this is not so.
In August 1944, after five years of the Second World War and on the verge of final victory, 35% of people told Gallup they thought politicians were just out for themselves.The real problems are a lack of differentiation between parties and a poverty of ambition among politicians.
The problem could lie with the parties themselves - and the perceived lack of difference between their policies.
The solution is not a moral panic about apathy. The BBC's head of political research David Cowling observes that,
In a September 2004 poll for ICM/UKTV Endemol, 81% of respondents said there was no real important difference between the parties and they were all "much of a muchness".
"Politics in Britain is not dead, just sleeping.
Politicians from all three major parties have consciously chosen to make themselves indistinguishable. This is partly due to a fear of the press and an obsession with media management. But it is also a product of a cynical culture that derides all talk of ideals and values as 'purism' and instead regards tactical opportunism as a political virility symbol. As a result, our political discourse has degenerated to the point where most politicians can talk only in terms of administrative efficiency and incremental change.
"As Professor Anthony King wrote in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 election: 'Just provide the voters with a closely fought election at which a great deal is at stake and, make no mistake, they will again turn out in their droves'."
Gimmicks intended to revive popular interest, such as e-voting, are an irrelevance. Politicians can neither hope nor deserve to overcome popular cynicism unless they make their values explicit.
No leadership contest this year, then
You read it here first.
In a posting on October 20th, I forecast that Charles Kennedy would defy predictions of his resignation as party leader soon after the next general election and surprise everyone by deciding to stay on.
A story in this Monday's Times supports my thesis.
His insistence on chairing the post-election policy review himself surprised his MPs, who see it as a clear sign that he wants to remain as leader for another Parliament. Although he has announced that he will carry on, some senior Lib Dems thought that he may quit.This article eventually dissolves into trivia by suggesting Kennedy's future hinges on his attempts to lose weight. I would have thought that the election result and its aftermath are more decisive factors, but there you go.
The Times piece does at least hint at what is in store after the election.
The policy revamp may also be a way to absorb a debate triggered by last year’s publication of The Orange Book, a series of essays by leading Lib Dems advocating free-market economic liberalism which was attacked by the party’s Left. The debate was suppressed at the Lib Dem autumn conference but is likely to flare up after the election.I doubt Kennedy's 'post-election policy review' will be sufficient to "absorb" the ideological splits opening up in the Liberal Democrats. The slaughter of some holy cows, such as English regional government, will find few mourners. But if, as seems likely, right-wing MPs persist in their attempts to turn the party into vehicle for their Eurosceptic and laissez-faire views, things will turn nasty.
There will be much blood on the carpet after polling day. Kennedy's leadership will face its severest test then, not in the election campaign. I shall watch his progress with interest.