Thursday, March 31, 2005
Tory Tory Tory
Today's Guardian reports that the Tories have asked the media not to call them 'Tories'.
The party's head of broadcasting, Michael Salter, has written to television channels urging them to refrain from using the label in their election coverage, at least in their first reference to the party.The Tories have been called 'Tories' for the best part of 400 years, long before the Tories became known more formally as 'Conservatives'. 'Tory' is a term the Tories have happily used themselves until now.
"Just a quick thought," he wrote, "in the run-up to the general election is there any way people could call us Conservatives rather than Tories?
The fact that the Tories now regard the term 'Tory' as pejorative is indicative of a serious identity crisis among Tories, not to mention the utter desperation of the Tories.
So, 'Tories' it is, then.
Wednesday, March 30, 2005
Michael Howard Is Unwell
A liquid lunch today in that legendary Soho pub, The Coach and Horses. The pub is well known through its associations with both Private Eye and the late Jeffrey Bernard - the stage play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell was set in the bar of the Coach and Horses.
Bernard once placed this classified ad:
I have been commissioned to write an autobiography and I would be grateful to any of your readers who could tell me what I was doing between 1960 and 1974.The most remarkable thing about the Coach and Horses is that nothing has changed in at least thirty or forty years. Red leatherette chairs, Formica tables and simple ham or cheese sandwiches. It is the sort of basic boozer that was commonplace in the 60s and 70s but hardly exists anywhere nowadays, least of all in central London. Most guide books and online pub reviews are rude about it because old men's pubs like this are unfashionable. As far as I'm concerned, rather this than a branch of All Bar One any day of the week.
However, the main reason for this posting is a conversation I overheard in the pub. The notorious landlord Norman Balon was behind the bar, chatting with a couple of regulars about the forthcoming general election.
"The Tories will never win another election in my lifetime," said Norman.
"Mind you," he added, "I'm 76."
Tuesday, March 29, 2005
Name That Tune
I dread to think what pop tune the Liberal Democrats will choose as their campaign anthem in the forthcoming general election. If the previous election is anything to go by, it will probably be another crock of shit.
As John Harris reminds us in a witty article in today's Guardian G2, in 2001 the Liberal Democrats inflicted Boyzone's New Beginning on the British voters. Peter Black, in his posting earlier today, is too charitable about this choice. Personally, I would have had the party official responsible publicly horse-whipped from one end of Westminster to the other.
There are, to the best of my knowledge, only six people in the Liberal Democrats with impeccable pop taste. Besides me, of course, they are Gareth Epps, Roger Hayes, Ian Osborne, Mark Smulian and former record shop manager Norman Baker MP. I am not aware that any of us have been consulted by Cowley Street on this crucial matter.
The choice of record requires considerable expertise. There is no point trying to choose a recent hit. There are few things more desperate than middle-aged men trying to sound hip. Think Keith Fordyce on the BBC circa 1963 introducing the Beatles. Better still, remember that notorious footage from election night in 1997, of John Prescott, Neil Kinnock and Peter Mandelson bopping away to Things Can Only Get Better.
On the other hand, there is no point trying to choose something from the 70s or 80s. To find out why, read Mark Ellen's interview with Tony Blair in the April edition of Word magazine (Ellen, now a rock journalist, played bass in Blair's Oxford rock band Ugly Rumours). Blair's tastes are clearly stuck in a time warp; All Right Now and Jumping Jack Flash are all very well but, for younger punters, they just smack of 'dad rock'.
What does that leave us with, pop pickers? I'd recommend choosing an R&B classic from the post-war, pre-'British invasion' era. Apposite songs in the current political climate might include Howlin Wolf's How Many More Years?, Jimmy Reed's Shame, Shame, Shame or, if we're really honest, Willie Mabon's I Don't Know.
Or maybe we could get the party's latest supporter Brian Eno to write something?
Meanwhile, two questions for you.
First, there is bound to be someone reading this blog who has an inside track on Cowley Street's choice of tune for this election. If so, it is your solemn duty to reveal the truth. If the chosen song is exposed now and subjected to sufficient ridicule early on, we can persuade the party to drop it and spare us all any further embarrassment. Don't worry about confidentiality - there are marginal seats at stake.
Second, and only if you have impeccable pop taste, what should be the party's choice of song? If you can come up with a good enough nomination, I shall attempt to bribe Chris Rennard with a large box of Belgian chocolates into substituting this more tasteful choice.
Finally, I was amused to read, in John Harris's Guardian article, a criticism of Labour's choice of Eric Prydz's hit Call On Me for its party conference last September. It was "presumably picked on account of its intermittent refrain", muses Harris. No it wasn't. It was chosen because of the video. I don't know about you, but this steamy video made a happy man very old.
Monday, March 28, 2005
The radical sex?
I recall a few years ago the feminist writer Bea Campbell taking part in a discussion on BBC2's Newsnight and casually referring to women as "the radical sex".
Despite this claim, at each general election, a higher proportion of women than men vote Conservative.
An ICM survey of women aged over 55, commissioned by Age Concern and the Fawcett Society and published last week, produced vote shares of Conservative 42%, Labour 29% and Lib Dem 21%. This 13% Tory lead has been attributed to concerns about pensions and, more generally, the political neglect and alienation that older women feel.
Yet a rush to the Tories by older women seems an irrational response to concerns about pensions, when you consider that it was the Tories who were responsible for the pension mis-selling scandal of the 1980s and who cut the link between state pensions and earnings, and who are now the party most likely to slash public spending.
Just in case anyone thinks this conservatism is a generational issue, bear in mind that Germaine Greer's Female Eunuch was published in 1970, when today's 55-year old woman was just 20 and today's 80-year old only 45.
Sunday, March 27, 2005
No platitudes please, we're Liberals
There's an increasing din going on in the media regarding the forthcoming general election, but most of the comment focuses on the concerns of the 'Westminster Village'.
The most refreshing piece I've read in a long time is by John Kampfner in today's Observer, who points out that there are two national debates underway.
Politicians talk of tax and spend, of economic performance, of health and education. Outside their world, people have an overriding sense of insecurity that is not being addressed, as Kampfner notes:
A reliable flow of disposable income does not automatically translate into security or well-being. Look around your average British small town. By day, you see high streets denuded of character as the big retailers dominate and, at night, people out on benders staggering from pub to pub. This is not part of an audition for Grumpy Old Men. This is what people, who resent being valued only as consuming objects, told me.The Thatcher revolution led to what even I, as an atheist, see as a sort of spiritual emptiness, a world where we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Sure, Labour has helped those most in need, but ministerial talk of community appears little more than a New Labour add-on to a Thatcherite settlement they have never challenged. It is this emptiness, I would argue, that is being manifested now.
Much of the discontent and insecurity is directed towards outsiders. It does not matter which point people start from - asylum seekers, immigrants, east European enlargement or gypsies - it ends in the same place. This sense of grievance might have been manipulated by the tabloid press and the Conservative party but it has not been invented by them. It is entirely legitimate to ask: what kind of Britain do we want to see? It requires a candid, but careful, response. The more leftist liberals dismiss these concerns as bigotry, the more alienated the voter will become.
Kampfner is right when he says politicians must engage in "an honest and complicated debate" rather than simplistic promises, otherwise popular disillusionment with democratic politics will continue to grow.
Liberals, above all, should know the truth of this. Liberalism is not an economistic philosophy and is at its best when it focuses on people's humanity rather than treating them as mere economic actors. The Liberal Democrats' internal ideological troubles stem from a failure to recognise this. A social democratic wing promotes the self-interest of the public sector institutions, while a laissez-faire wing seems happy to sacrifice the weaker members of society on the altar of the 'free market'. Both factions need a good slap.
If we do not connect with people's humanity and address "the deep-seated but still inchoate insecurity and disorientation of voters", darker political forces surely will.
ASBOs - the people's control orders
The Liberal Democrats were right to oppose ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) when they were first introduced by Jack Straw in 1998.
Since then, the party has panicked. Some Lib Dem-run local authorities, such as Liverpool, have seized on ASBOs with abandon. Then last year, the party's shadow home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten decided to change party policy unilaterally, with the face-saving formula of a 'Super-ASBO'.
Nick Cohen, writing in today's Observer, explains that the use of ASBOs is now out of control. They have proved a handy device for the police, as a bureaucratic short-cut to avoid due process and to avoid having to deal with minor offences.
But they are also being exploited by the petty-minded and vindictive sort of people who used to write poison-pen letters, as a means of penalising anyone of whom they disapprove. Unlike the government's new control orders, which only the Home Secretary may use, ASBOs are a game anyone can play.
The Liberal Democrats really must learn to hold their nerve with emotionally-charged issues. Genuine anti-social behaviour (as opposed to the trivial incidents where ASBOs are abused) blights many people's lives. It is illegal behaviour and, as such, should be prosecuted through the courts, just like more serious offences. At the same time, policing priorities need to change so that minor crime is nipped in the bud rather than ignored.
ASBOs are simply an authoritarian quick fix, which do nothing to tackle the underlying problems. Do the Liberal Democrats really believe that this sort of political sticking plaster is a lasting solution to a real problem? If so, they are being stupid. If not, they are guilty of rank populism.
A new campaign, ASBO Concern, will be launched in April. It is a shame that the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to support it.
Saturday, March 26, 2005
Ask a silly question...
Telewest has just published an interesting opinion poll on e-voting. Sadly, it consists largely of tendentious questions and helps perpetuate several myths, which the BBC's news report swallowed hook, line and sinker.
The first of these myths is the idea that e-voting is the answer to declining public interest in politics and low turnouts. To entertain this proposition, one has to believe that the 200-yard walk to the local polling station is a serious disincentive to vote. One also has to believe that the use of paper and pencils is another major factor turning off voters.
E-voting is an answer in search of a question. It is a technological solution, but popular disengagement from politics is not a technological problem. Further, we are learning the hard way that the indiscriminate extension of postal voting causes a catalogue of corruption. E-voting is likewise wide open to abuse. Despite this, there is even an absurd suggestion that people should be allowed to vote via their mobile phones.
The second myth is that politicians are 'out of touch'. This is a widely-held assumption that does not bear close scrutiny. Never in our political history have politicians been more in touch. I am old enough to remember the era thirty or forty years ago, when most Labour and Tory MPs represented safe seats and many of them rarely even visited their constituencies. Few held surgeries and the idea of doing 'casework' would have seemed ludicrous. E-mail and local radio did not exist, and campaigning took place only at election times.
Nowadays, the average MP works a 70-80 hour week. Most MPs hold regular surgeries and manage a mountain of casework. They appear frequently in the local media (of which there are many more outlets). They have websites and e-mail, and distribute leaflets all year round. Yet there is a perceived 'communication gap'. Clearly the problem is far deeper than MPs' use of e-mail.
The third myth is that disillusionment with politicians is a new problem. As I reported in a posting last month,
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.So what is really going on? Why is there a perception that politicians are 'out of touch' when they are actually more accessible than ever before? Why do people relate less to democratic politics and what is the underlying cause of this recent phase of disengagement?
The answer is fundamental social change. In an academic paper published two years ago, I suggested this explanation:
The most profound social change to occur in the past half century in Western societies has been a transformation in the way people perceive themselves. Until the 1960s, most people had their identities given to them by the traditional groups to which they belonged (family, geographical community, social class or church). Today, most people create their own identities and select their own peer groups. This individualism has been brought about by a combination of affluence, education, secularisation, technological advance and sexual liberation, which has released the majority of people from lives that are circumscribed by day-to-day subsistence and group dogma, and has popularised the concept of lifestyle choice.This is why we have moved from party-based politics to issue-based politics. It is good news for pressure groups but bad news for political parties. It explains why none of our political parties can now be considered a genuine popular mass movement, the way they were until the 1970s.
... the process of individual liberation has proved something of a double-edged sword, because, although it has enabled most people in Western societies to lead easier and more pleasant lives, it has also led people to forsake social cohesion for material individualism, and deferred pleasure for instant gratification.
When it comes to electoral behaviour, therefore, one can observe a concomitant shift from deferential/group attitudes to more assertive individualistic postures, with a growth in an infantile expectation of immediate gratification. The inability of politicians to satisfy these self-centred wants is at the root of popular dissatisfaction with the whole democratic process.
We are confronting a profound social shift. Whatever the answer is, it is not e-mail, e-voting or any other technological gimmick.
Bring back metal dustbins
Following tonight's first episode of Doctor Who, I trust that all Liberal Democrat-controlled councils will be reviewing their policy on plastic wheelie bins.
Friday, March 25, 2005
The Nanny State and the Billy State
Liberals presumably favour choice but what do we actually mean by 'choice'? Judging by recent debates within the Liberal Democrats, few have any coherent idea and the resulting internal debate has been, at best, at cross-purposes or, at worst, a complete irrelevance.
The webzine Spiked recently hosted a conference called Whose Choice is it Anyway? - it was clearly a fascinating debate and I wish I'd been there.
The conference discussed "why choice has become a ubiquitous buzzword in politics and public life, yet at the same time has become a degraded concept that accords us less and less capacity to make big decisions about society and everyday life."
Much of our increased choice is illusory. We are offered a plethora of trivial consumer choices but not a choice about the kind of society we wish to live in. We are invited to make 'informed choices', notably regarding 'healthy lifestyles', while being subjected to moral imperatives about how we exercise this choice. This 'New Conformism' is a recurrent theme in Spiked.
The most interesting contribution to the conference seems to have been that of Dr Michael Fitzpatrick (I strongly recommend his book The Tyranny of Health, a corrective to the prevailing orthodoxy). In a session on 'Is Britain becoming a nanny state?',
...he examined the way in which distinctions between public and private life have been collapsed in recent years, leading to the increasing instrusion by the state into the most intimate aspects of people's private lives. In the past, a robust sense of the distinction between private and public life meant that the state was reluctant to interfere in individuals' personal behaviour, and attempts to do so - even for such clearly publicly spirited ends as mass vaccination against smallpox - were met with fierce resistance.In other words, we should reject the authoritarian content of the 'nanny state' while recognising that the term has become a useless cliché. As Liberals, we should support the fundamental principles of autonomy and self-determination, even if that means people make the 'wrong' choices. Instead, too many Liberal Democrats have been seduced by paternalism masquerading as 'choice'.
Now, however, the state passes up no opportunity to attempt to modify people's behaviour, and far from such endeavours being met with resistance, they tend to be embraced, by an atomised society that has become inwardly focused on its personal health. While extreme examples of official intrusion are sometimes met with the cry, 'Nanny state gone mad!', this merely indicates that the 'nanny state' in general has been generally accepted. 'Nanny state' is an inadequate term to describe the reach and authoritarian dynamic at play today; and while Dr Fitzpatrick suggested that the idea of a 'therapeutic state' might be a better description, he called upon the conference to start thinking of a term that could more accurately encapsulate it.
For example, a major part of the ideological argument going on within the Liberal Democrats has been about the role of choice in the public services.
The party's critics of choice are not necessarily opposed to choice per se but see it as a second order problem. Without raising expenditure and overall standards, they say, choice simply gives an advantage to the sharp elbows of the articulate middle classes and leaves everyone else with no choice but an inferior service.
The party's advocates of more choice believe that public services must match the heightened expectations of the savvy bourgeois consumer if they are to retain any value. Middle class people no longer tolerate being told by some bureaucrat which school or hospital they must use.
My problem with both these camps is that they have ended up making the same mistake as socialists and conservatives, making a fetish of a system (whether the traditional public sector or market forces) rather than considering the outcomes.
Liberals should be focusing on producing whatever outcomes enable each of us to be liberated rather than oppressed. Moreover, they should be advocating a real devolution of power rather than arguing the merits of New Labour's token consultations. Giving people 'agency', real control over their own lives, is what ought to distinguish the Liberal Democrats. And the outcomes this approach might produce, in terms of public services, would be a refreshing mixture that satisfies none of the old dogmatists.
Instead, here we are, divided over whether to steal Old Labour's clothes or New Labour's.
The Liberal Democrats of whom we should be most suspicious are those who claim to oppose the maternalist 'nanny state' while being only too ready to endorse its alter ego, the paternalist 'billy state'. They want to "set business free" while setting a premium on being "tough" on the individual. Like the so-called 'nanny state liberals', they are authoritarians at heart, but they have co-opted the language of freedom while losing sight of what Liberalism is about.
For every MP like Paul Burstow (who wants to stop us smoking, drinking and eating), the Liberal Democrats have a Mark Oaten (who wants to slap an ASBO on everyone).
The Liberal Democrats are planning a 'post-election policy review' chaired by Charles Kennedy himself. If it is to be of any use, this review should open up a genuine debate - it is overdue and the party needs it. Liberalism is a broad enough philosophy to contain considerable scope for interpretation and debate. But the forthcoming policy debate should be within this scope, not outside it as fans of the 'nanny state' and the 'billy state' seem to want.
Thursday, March 24, 2005
Amid the general election fever, everyone seems to have forgotten that there will also be county council elections on 5th May. With any luck, this election will spell the final end for Lincolnshire's corrupt Tory county council.
This political scandal simply beggars belief (for the story so far, see my posting of 29th November), the most notable event being the imprisonment of former Tory leader Jim Speechley for misconduct.
The latest development is the publication on 17th March of the report of the Audit Commission's corporate governance inspection, and the political aftermath.
To say that the Audit Commission's report is a damning indictment would be an understatement, as this extract from the executive summary shows:
The council’s leadership is inadequate at a political, managerial, and community level. Leadership of the ruling political group is weak, and fails to establish expected norms of behaviour, conduct, and commitment to council business and councillor training. There has been a lack of political priority given to the implementation of recommendations arising from work commissioned by the council to help improve its governance. In particular there has been a failure to adequately progress the recommendations of the ethical governance audit. The council’s political leadership underestimates the impact that recent events, and their handling of them, continue to have on the council’s effectiveness, the morale of staff and on public perceptions of the council. We are not confident about the prospects for improvement in the council’s arrangements for leadership, culture and standards of conduct in the next 12 months given the denial of the need to change amongst key members of the executive.Following the publication, the Tory leader Ian Croft and the rest of council's ruling executive resigned. Even then, Croft refused to accept responsibility for the council's failings in his resignation speech (see also national coverage from the BBC and Guardian but - surprise, surprise - nothing in the Tory press).
The local daily, the Lincolnshire Echo (whose editor is interviewed about the Echo's campaign against the council here) had this to say yesterday about the collapse of the corrupt Tory regime:
There was a certain inevitability about the eventual demise of Ian Croft and his county council cabinet.Apparently they can. The county council is now in a "constitutional crisis", according to the council's solicitor. The Labour opposition leader urged the creation of a cross-party caretaker administration until the elections in May but, incredibly, some of the Tory old guard were determined to cling on to power. Today they got their way, with the election of a new executive comprising only Tory councillors.
The council has, for several years now, been run by a lame-duck administration.
Councillor Croft and his cronies have lurched from one crisis to the next. Their credibility is in tatters.
Mistrusted, despised and cruelly ridiculed in roughly equal measure, they have led an authority which is demoralised and despondent.
Their crass ineptitude and bully-boy management style have made them unpopular among 15,000 council workers.
Their continual misuse of public funds has won them few friends among the county's long-suffering taxpayers.
Yesterday, at last, the county's ten most senior councillors decided to do the honourable thing. Even they realised that the game was finally up.
There is some suggestion that, astonishingly, clueless Coun Croft was keen to battle on. But facing fierce criticism from both independent inspectors and angry local Tory MPs - and with an election round the corner - even he realised it was time to go.
Now the people of Lincolnshire wait with bated breath to find out who will pick up the pieces after the disastrous reign of convicted criminal Jim Speechley and his stubbornly short-sighted sidekick Ian Croft. Surely things can't get any worse. Can they?
To an extent, it is gratifying that public bodies such as the Audit Commission can protect the public against corrupt councils. But the Liberal solution to such problems is ultimately public accountability rather than executive reports, otherwise we risk accepting the centralist logic that local people are unfit to run their own affairs.
Lincolnshire is a very Tory county (with six Conservatives out of seven MPs), but the ideal solution would be for the Tories to be swept out of the county council on 5th May on a popular vote.
Tariq Ali has just announced (in the magazine Red Pepper) that he'll be voting Liberal Democrat.
Apparently he lives in Lynne Featherstone's constituency of Hornsey & Wood Green, a target seat. Every little helps.
I trust that the ALDC will produce the appropriate Focus leaflet artwork in due course.
Wednesday, March 23, 2005
A sign of the times
I saw a CD-ROM on sale in a gift shop at London City airport today. It was titled:
Create and print your own Divorce PapersMaybe I'm being old-fashioned and you might consider this matter-of-fact treatment of divorce as a welcome example of 'empowerment'.
I still find it extraordinary that such a thing could be a casual last-minute purchase at an airport, on a par with a modem adaptor, a giant-size Toblerone or a souvenir tin of shortbread.
Tuesday, March 22, 2005
The United States is now routinely using torture against terrorist suspects. It circumvents its own laws, due process and the Geneva Convention by sending suspects to countries such as Egypt and Syria, which carry out torture on the USA's behalf under a policy called 'extraordinary rendition'.
Read this astonishing article by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker (and this interview with the author). Read also this recent Guardian report on torture in Afghanistan. These practices are being justified by the 'war on terrorism', which appears to supply the pretext for throwing any civilised standard out of the window.
The abandonment of human rights by the USA, with the apparent consent of its UK ally, is nauseating and demonstrates the depths of depravity to which New Labour has sunk in its unwavering support for George Bush. If your local MP voted for the war, press him or her hard on this issue. Unless such MPs publicly repudiate the use of torture, they are morally unfit to be re-elected.
Kofi Annan warned in a recent speech in Madrid:
"Compromising human rights cannot serve the struggle against terrorism. On the contrary, it facilitates the achievement of the terrorists' objectives by provoking tension, hatred, and mistrust of governments among precisely those parts of the population where he is most likely to find recruits."Such wisdom cuts little ice with the type of politician whose time horizon stretches no further than the next day's headlines and who prefers to play to the gallery with macho gestures.
New Labour is trying to outdo its opponents in terms of 'toughness'. The point Liberals must keep making is that our government's posturing isn't protecting us from terrorism but is making us more vulnerable.
Sunday, March 20, 2005
How low can they sink?
Today's Conservative assault on travellers is a sign of how low the Tories are prepared to sink. It is so illiberal that even New Labour and Mark Oaten have condemned it.
Michael Howard should reflect on the fact that, had his own prejudices been government policy in the 1930s, his refugee Romanian parents would not have been admitted to this country.
Meanwhile, Mary Reid reports on how the Tories may be hoist by their own petard.
A bizarre mix-up. Welsh First Minister Rhodri Morgan was mistaken by a BBC employee for one of Doctor Who's tree people.
An easy mistake to make.
If Peter Black posts in the next few days about Morgan turning up in the Welsh Assembly chamber wearing green make-up, you will know why.
Wednesday, March 16, 2005
Stopping the rot
An interesting article by Mark Seddon in today's Guardian, which describes how the New Labour leadership has rigged the Labour Party's parliamentary candidate selection process to ensure that only loyal Blairites get selected. Read this article very carefully.
At present, the Liberal Democrats can take some pride in knowing that their candidates are mostly people who know their own minds, selected through due process and fair play. Voters complain that politicians look and sound the same, so it's important the Lib Dems don't have a parliamentary party stuffed with cloned suits.
If we're not careful, this could change. There is some very dodgy right-wing plotting going on in the Liberal Democrats. Among the things these plotters might try after the next general election is an attempt to enforce a Blairite-style approval and selection process for the party's candidates.
There is a widespread conviction within the party that it will make a 'breakthrough' in the election after next (around 2009). Competition for seats will be fierce. What better way of getting your friends selected than to rig the system to ensure your enemies are purged?
Don't say you weren't warned.
At last someone has said something sensible on the topic of British identity and nationalism. Julian Baggini, writing in today's Guardian, argues for a minimal 'civic nationalism' as the only practical way to maintain a realistic sense of belonging without excluding people unnecessarily.
This topic is back on the agenda because of Labour's latest manoeuverings. Both David Blunkett (on Sunday's Breakfast with Frost, then Monday's Today (listen here; fast forward to 12:47) and Newsnight) and Gordon Brown (also on Monday's Newsnight) have argued for a revival of some sort of traditional patriotism. This is clearly yet another attempt to shut down any distinctive strand of policy that the Tories may come up with, but it carries numerous risks. You'd think the party that, only a few years ago, attempted to foist 'Cool Britannia' on us would have learnt its lesson by now.
That is not to say there is not a real problem lurking here. Madeleine Bunting examined the issue in Monday's Guardian and reported how many English people feel a sense of insecurity and loss. If this territory is captured by the right, it will be moulded to suit a racist and introverted agenda. But a revival of traditional nationalism is not the answer.
For a start, 'Britishness' is not really an option when it is being consciously rejected by the Scots and the Welsh. That leaves us with 'Englishness', a concept so elusive that no-one can agree what it is.
In any case, British identity is not as 'traditional' as most people imagine. The nation state is a relatively modern concept, which did not come into being until the French and American revolutions of the late eighteenth century. It would take another 100 years, culminating in the unification of both Germany and Italy in 1870, before nationalism was firmly established in Europe.
Before this era, the 'state', such as it existed, was simply an expression of royal power. It did little apart from fight wars and keep the aristocracy in the style to which it was accustomed.
Industrialisation provided the logic for the creation of the nation state. National identities were then moulded by the romantic nationalist movements prevalent in the nineteenth century. But the need to draw lines on maps through intermingled communities has been a never-ending source of strife and cannot resolve problems in ambiguous territories such as the Basque country, Northern Ireland or Bosnia.
In retrospect, it is possible to see that European nationalism reached its high-water mark between 1870 and 1945. Since then, globalisation has gradually removed the economic logic behind the nation state, and the other forms of social glue (such as religion and class) have also come unstuck, so that all we are left with is a set of redundant symbols. No wonder there has been a spontaneous revival of local and regional identities throughout Europe.
A sense of belonging and a shared sense of values are legitimate needs. But they cannot be recreated or sustained through an attempt to revive the symbols and loyalties of the VE-Day street party.
We need a more progressive sense of identity, but this not something anyone (not even David Blunkett or Gordon Brown) can confect artificially from the centre.
A Liberal solution, or rather the framework for a possible solution, is a serious devolution of power. Give people control of their communities and they are likely to develop an authentic identity of their own, without any help from the Labour Party.
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
A sordid spectacle
It seems that all three main party leaders have got it into their heads that the way to success in the general election is to win over the religious vote (whatever that is). Michael Howard is trying to corner the Catholic vote, Tony Blair is wooing evangelical Christians and Charles Kennedy is sucking up to extremist Muslims. Frankly, it is a sordid spectacle, as Nick Cohen pointed out in Sunday's Observer.
But whatever the morality of this tactic, there is no logical reason for it. The majority of British people no longer practice a religion. Most of those who do regard it as a private matter. The small minority of religious fanatics whose devotion leads them to bully anyone who disagrees should not be touched with a bargepole.
Where is the party leader able and willing to stand up for a secular society? I would have thought that this is electorally a far more popular position than kowtowing to vocal minorities of religious fanatics.
In a posting yesterday, I puzzled over Michael Howard's attempt to make abortion an election issue. All is now clear.
Howard's announcement has been quickly followed by a statement from the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, calling on Catholics to support the Tories in the forthcoming election.
That's not all. From Ekklesia (a radical Christian webzine), we learn that the Catholic bishops will be issuing a comprehensive election guide, encouraging Catholics to question parliamentary candidates on a number of 'key issues' before deciding how to cast their vote in the General Election.
Here's my advice to any Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate on the receiving end of this unpleasant bullying. Your reply should be a Biblical quote, to "go forth and multiply".
PS: Pundits are debating the potential impact of the Cardinal's statement on the Political Betting site.
More teachers and less priests
If Charles Kennedy does only one thing today, it should be to read Salman Rushdie's article in yesterday's Guardian G2 supplement. He might then be better equipped to stand up to religious bullies such Iqbal Sacranie, who appear successfully to have persuaded Kennedy to back-pedal on the government's proposed incitement to religious hatred law (inserted in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill).
Some choice quotes from Rushdie:
...the simple truth is that wherever religions get into society's driving seat, tyranny results. The Inquisition results. Or the Taliban. And yet religions continue to insist that they provide special access to ethical truths, and consequently deserve special treatment and protection. And they continue to emerge from the world of private life, where they belong, like so many other things that are acceptable when done in private between consenting adults but unacceptable in the town square, and to bid for power.The incitement to religious hatred proposal was debated in the Lords yesterday, where Liberal Democrat peers remained firm in their opposition. The government is running out of parliamentary time and its Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill is vulnerable. When this Bill returns to the Commons, I shall watch Charles Kennedy's progress with interest.
Journalists, lawyers and a long list of public figures have warned that this [incitement to religious hatred] law will dramatically hinder free speech and fail to meet its objective - that religious disturbances will increase rather than diminish. Blair's government seems to view the whole subject of civil liberties with disdain - what do freedoms matter, hard-won and long-cherished though they may be, when set against the requirements of a government facing re-election?
Victor Hugo wrote: "There is in every village a torch: the schoolmaster - and an extinguisher: the parson." We need more teachers and less priests in our lives; because, as James Joyce once said, "There is no heresy or no philosophy which is so abhorrent to the church as a human being."
Monday, March 14, 2005
I'm out of here, get me a celebrity
I have been giving much thought lately to the subject of euroscepticism in Britain. I've come to the conclusion that a major cause is a factor ignored by the political pundits. It is that many British people, especially younger people, regard Europe as somewhere rather naff.
Mention Europe to the chattering classes and they think of the Tuscan hills. Mention Europe to many young people and they think of the Cheeky Girls. This view of Europe was captured expertly in the Fast Show's pastiche of a Mediterranean TV station, Chanel 9 ("Buono estente!").
These prejudices will be reinforced as another edition of the Eurovision Song Contest comes round. The final (in Kiev on 19th and 21st May) must now be held on two nights to accommodate a record 40 entrants.
Just as Western Europe was getting bored with this contest and began to turn it into an irony-fest, the Berlin Wall came down and all the former communist countries clamoured to take part. One suspects this was not quite what Mikhail Gorbachev had in mind. Last night, for example, the people of Hungary exercised their new democratic rights by choosing their country's Eurovision entrant from twelve dismal hopefuls.
In Britain, one senses that, since the nul points awarded to our embarrassing entry Jemini in 2003, we've finally given up. This view is confirmed by a look at the recent heats to determine this year's British entry.
The winner is some nonentity called Javine with a song called Touch My Fire, a strange melange of R&B-lite and Arabic-sounding rhythms, which sounds like a rejected idea for one of Geri Halliwell's B-sides. The lyrics are banal beyond belief. Read them and weep.
Javine, however, is more than just a permatanned face. Following her victory, she offered this wisdom:
"Music can be what ever you want it to be and to see all these different countries coming together on one night and hearing all their different influences is a great experience. Ultimately one country will win which brings intensity to the whole show. For my performance I will be singing and dancing to the best of my ability, I will be taking the audience on a fantastic ride!"What is she on about? When I watch Eurovision, I expect an orgy of kitsch, not a profound statement on the human condition.
The only surprise of the British heats was that Javine narrowly beat the favourite Katie Price into second place. Price is better known as 'Jordan', a topless model with artificially enhanced assets who was last seen stranded in the Australian jungle in the tacky 'reality TV' show I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. A pity Jordan lost, since her singing voice sounds like a Spice Girl on helium.
Despite this, will I still waste another evening watching the Eurovision finals and wallowing in schlock? You bet.
Guide to election websites
As a special service to readers of this blog, here is your handy cut-out-and-keep guide to election websites.
The forthcoming general election is already generating a torrent of web content. In practice, and unless you like reading self-serving propaganda, there are few sites of any real value.
If you bookmark only one election website, it should be Election 2005, a portal recently set up by Richard Kimber at my Alma Mater, the University of Keele. Here in one place are links to all the sites you're likely to need during the campaign. Some of you may already be familiar with Kimber's well-established Political Science Resources portal, so this new election portal comes with a strong pedigree.
My second recommendation is the Political Betting site. This is run by Mike Smithson (who happens to be a Lib Dem) as a non-partisan service for those who like a flutter on the election result. But it is more than this, and has proved over the past year to be by far the best source of intelligence on political trends, with supporters of all parties chipping in with comments. You may have to wade through some political anorak stuff and a lot of off-topic banter, nevertheless there are some real nuggets in here.
Third is UK Polling Report, which will keep you updated on each opinion poll as it appears. This site is run by Anthony Wells, who happens to be a Tory but is also an expert on opinion polls. Read this site in conjunction with Anthony's blog - his insights on the rival polling companies' methodologies will help you untangle the truth behind each poll.
Fourth is Vote 2005, a forum for election predictions for each individual constituency. Many of the comments have been posted by eager Young Tories and generate more heat than light, but anyone with any critical faculties should be able to read between the lines. I suspect many journalists will go here for some 'informed comment' so, if you feel your constituency is being misrepresented, it may be worth adding your own comments.
Finally, the BBC is gathering together its pre-election political coverage in its Road to the Election news portal. This is likely to be superseded by a proper election news portal once the election is formally called.
So the Tories have decided to raise the issue of abortion.
Peter Black posted on this topic yesterday, and correctly identified this as part and parcel of the Tory appeal to its own core vote. While the Tories' overall strategy is producing results, this particular tactic is unlikely to work.
Abortion seems a curious topic to emphasise, even if one were aiming only at the hardline Tory core vote, since (unlike in the USA) the issue is largely settled in Britain. And, as the BBC reports, Howard has chosen to unveil his policy in Cosmopolitan, not one suspects the magazine of choice for his ageing target audience.
Apart from that, two things struck me about this Tory tactic. First, while Michael Howard has "pledged" to cut the time limit from 24 to 20 weeks, in practice he is in no position to do so, since the issue of abortion has always been subject to a free vote in the Commons. The most he could deliver is to make debating time available for a Private Member's Bill.
Second, if you strip away the hype, Howard's position is actually not that controversial. Most British politicians take a pragmatic view of abortion but there is also a consensus that, if advances in medical science make it possible for premature babies to survive outside the womb for longer periods, it is logical for the abortion laws to reflect that reality. In any event, only a tiny percentage of abortions in Britain are late, with only 0.6% carried out between 22 and 24 weeks.
The real significance of Howard's statement is not his precise point of view but that he has decided to try and make abortion an election issue. His objective is to create a general impression rather than to change anything in practice. But unless Howard can also demonstrate to his elderly Daily Express-reading supporters that late abortions are being carried out by asylum-seekers, he's unlikely to succeed.
Sunday, March 13, 2005
An important part of Labour's election strategy will be to avoid any media exposure it cannot control.
The first clue came with Labour's decision not to use a battlebus or hold any traditional morning press conferences during the campaign.
Tony Blair has also made a point of seeking out 'soft' interview opportunities, preferring an afternoon on the sofa with Richard & Judy to a grilling from John Humphrys on Today or Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight.
Final confirmation of this strategy came with John Reid's manufactured outrage on BBC2 Newsnight last Tuesday. Jeremy Paxman referred to Reid as "Labour's attack dog", prompting Reid to claim that he was "insulted" (you can watch the clash online here).
Reid's absurd posturing is demolished effectively in an essay in today's Scotsman. Anyone genuinely insulted or offended would look shocked and taken aback; they would not say "I am insulted" or "I am offended".
Following the Paxman-Reid clash, anonymous "allies of the Health Secretary" weighed in with an attack on "West London wankers". One of these allies said,
"Why should we bother with them [Newsnight] when they have an audience of less than 200,000?"
Asked if Labour was considering boycotting the programme, he said: "We'll have to see what they want to talk about. You can't call a Cabinet minister a dog."
(Although it's apparently OK for a cabinet minister to call the leader of the opposition an "attack mongrel").
The implication is clear. New Labour resents the existence of a public forum in which its leading spokespeople are subjected to tough questioning. This manufactured crisis provides a pretext to intimidate Newsnight into taking a softer line in the forthcoming campaign, or even to freeze out the programme completely.
You can expect similar tactics at a local level. Don't be surprised if your local Labour candidate refuses to take part in three-way debates but instead functions exclusively through stage managed 'media opportunities'.
I propose a simple technique to thwart this strategy. In each constituency, local Lib Dems should allocate a team of two or three LDYS members to follow the Labour candidate around all day and keep shouting out the same embarrassing question about Iraq over and over again. Most candidates eventually snap when subjected to this kind of relentless bugging.
I also suggest that your codename for this cruel tactic should be 'Operation Attack Dog'.
"I'm not racist, but..."
Just when you thought Michael Howard's powerful assault on Tony Blair at last Wednesday's Prime Minister's Questions meant that maybe the Tories weren't so bad after all, comes more news of what they're up to in their election campaigning.
Saturday's Guardian carries a report on the Tories' anti-immigration campaign. The original print version of this article (but not the online version) includes a photo of a new Tory billboard. It reads:
"It's not racist to impose limits on immigration."Underneath is the strapline,
"Are you thinking what we're thinking?"This is part of the Tory strategy of 'dog whistle' politics, messages that are heard only by those for whom they are intended. If the turnout is as low as it was in 2001 (59%) or even lower, then much will hinge on differential turnout. The Tory objective is to mobilise the party's core support. This narrow appeal makes little sense until you realise that New Labour built a coalition of support in 1997 and 2001 that was wide but not deep. There is increasing disillusionment among erstwhile Labour voters, particularly women (see the ICM poll in today's News of the World). The Tories don't need disillusioned Labour voters to vote Tory; they just need them to abstain.
There is a general tendency to underestimate the Tories. Most of their campaigning is going on 'under the radar', through techniques such as phone-polling and targeted letters. They're unlikely to win, but will do much better than most people think.
Max Hastings does not pull his punches in his piece in Saturday's Guardian, on the subject of New Labour's recent conduct over the so-called Prevention of Terrorism Bill.
"Heaven knows what we are supposed to make of the bleating sheep that pass for backbench Labour MPs, who have voted for this rotten measure at the whips' behest every time it has been sent back to them from the Lords. Their only credible excuse is that they know they possess no possibility of alternative employment which pays half as well, if they are cut off from the gusher of public largesse by falling out with Tony."And...
"The men and women in whom we have been invited to place our confidence have shown themselves quite unworthy of it. No matter how successfully Labour has managed the economy, massaged public service statistics, indulged interest groups and guided the British people into a coma of mindless contentment which should secure the party's re-election with a handy majority seven weeks hence, its moral bankruptcy is plain. The stench from Hutton and Butler, Mandelson and Campbell, a hundred dirty deals and shoddy compromises, seeps relentlessly upward from the drains below Downing Street. Blair's moral conceit suffices to sustain his own will to rule, but does nothing to make the rest of us believe a word he says."And...
"When [Blair] appointed as director of SIS John Scarlett, the intelligence officer most conspicuously involved in the WMD fiasco, he inflicted a crippling blow upon the credibility of Britain's intelligence community. How can any of us trust the judgment of those who will implement Blair's new anti-terrorist law, when these are the same people who brought us the last cartload of horse manure, which took this country to war under false pretences?"Trenchant stuff from a Tory sympathiser, which further underlines my view that the formal boundaries between political parties reflect less and less the true divisions between our politicians. The best libertarian speeches in recent weeks have come from Tories such as Ken Clarke and Douglas Hogg, Labour MPs such as Clare Short and Brian Sedgemore, and Liberal Democrat peers such as the Lords Goodhart and Thomas. Sadly, the Lib Dem 'Shadow Home Secretary' has been unable to match their moral clarity and passion, preferring to take the credit for a deal with the real Home Secretary.
The mounting anger among grassroots Liberal Democrats over the pusillanimous stand taken by certain Lib Dem MPs can be the only logical explanation for an extraordinary e-mail sent to party members on Friday by the party's Chief Executive Chris Rennard, in which he stresses,
"We can be very proud of the stance we have taken and the results we have achieved in altering Labour's plans."Not such good results as would have been achieved if more Liberal Democrat MPs had voted on 28th February.
Call me an old cynic, but I'd say someone's trying to head-off an internal revolt.
Saturday, March 12, 2005
Lib Dem Bloggers - The First XI
Chris Black (Liberal Democrat group leader on Rochford District Council) has been busy producing his fantasy team of Lib Dem Bloggers.
Apparently I'm one of the forwards. What can one say, except "I'm over the moon, Brian" (as opposed to "sick as a parrot").
Wednesday, March 09, 2005
The thin veneer of civilisation
The Soham murders in 2002 were depressing, not just because of the tragic deaths of two children, but also because of the appalling vigilante bloodlust unleashed by the tabloids. It turns out that lynch mobs are not the only evidence these murders provided of how thin a veneer our civilisation is.
On Monday's Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4, Kevin Wells, father of one of the murdered girls, was interviewed following the publication of his book Goodbye, Dearest Holly. (You can listen to the broadcast online here).
Three things struck me about this interview. The first, a notable trend in media interviews with 'ordinary people', was that Kevin Wells felt compelled to express his experiences in psychoanalytical terms. It is a common fallacy that important subjects demand jargon-laden language. The widespread use of such hand-me-down terminology is indicative of the extent to which our lives have been colonised by the professionals and our self-confidence diminished in the process. Plain everyday language would have had more force and would also have helped claim back human experience from the therapists.
The second factor was more alarming. Wells claimed that the police investigation was getting nowhere until he and his wife consulted various psychics, with one medium allegedly identifying the culprit. The interviewer did not have the guts to challenge this superstitious tosh but treated it with undue solemnity. If such beliefs can be taken seriously, and given New Labour's unashamed attempts to abolish first jury trials and then due process altogether, how long before ducking stools are brought back to our judicial system?
Third, and most nauseating, was the revelation that Wells and his wife had received a torrent of hate-mail following the murder of their daughter. Amongst these were claims by religious fundamentalists that the children deserved to die because they were out playing on the sabbath. Not much evidence of Christian love there, but plenty to demonstrate yet again the bile-fuelled intolerance that motivates the lunatic fringe of religious bullies.
Meanwhile, this evening's TV news shows that we are now unable to debate the NHS without resorting to anecdotal tear-jerking, so I suppose we must abandon all hope of any rational discussion of the prevention of child abuse. The degradation of our political discourse is an inevitable consequence of following popular opinion rather than leading it.
Tuesday, March 08, 2005
Thank the Lords?
The House of Lords has defeated the government on the control orders proposed in the so-called Prevention of Terrorism Bill. And it is good to see the Liberal Democrat peers acting with more gusto then their colleagues in the Commons. If finally accepted by the Commons, the Lords' amendments would ensure that only the courts and not ministers could impose control orders.
We are not home and dry yet. First, we can be sure that the government will continue to attempt to divide and rule its critics. The BBC's Mark Mardell observed;
"I am just beginning to wonder whether [the government] will accept this, because that would mollify all of the Liberal Democrat and most of the Labour rebels on this, and then sharpen their divisions with the Conservatives and attack what the Conservatives want to do."There is also the more fundamental point of whether we need control orders at all. The Liberal Democrats got into a mess because their home affairs spokesman, Mark Oaten MP, accepted the government's basic premise that control orders were justified and assumed that the only remaining argument lay in the detail.
Comparatively few critics seem to be querying whether control orders are necessary at all - or whether, with the best will in the world, they would actually work.
Even if imposed by the courts rather than ministers, control orders still represent a dangerous threat to our liberties. One can be imprisoned indefinitely without trial, and without knowing what the charges are - a predicament straight out of Kafka's 'The Trial'. Control orders assume the infallibility of the security services, on whose say so people would be detained - not a wise assumption given the innocence of many of those detained in Bellmarsh or Guantanamo.
Indeed, the idea that control orders would secure us against terrorist acts is ludicrous. We are asked to believe that every potential terrorist would be scooped up and no innocent people detained. We are asked to believe this despite the experience of internment in Northern Ireland, which, far from preventing terrorism, boosted IRA recruitment and made the situation worse.
Andrew Rawnsley made a good assessment of the situation in last Sunday's Observer. Quite apart from the intrinsic faults in the government's position, he noted;
"There is only one thing worse than making complex, sensitive and unprecedented law in a rush of fear. That is doing it in a pre-election panic as well." Meanwhile, the inquest within the Liberal Democrats over last Monday's vote in the Commons (in which 17 Lib Dem MPs failed to vote, and the government won by 14 votes) continues. Three of the missing MPs had legitimate reasons not to be present. Most of the remainder had been instructed to stay in their constituencies for a week of local campaigning.
The official version of events is that the narrowness of the vote had taken all three party whips' offices by surprise. Besides the 17 Liberal Democrat absentees, there were also 24 Tory MPs absent plus further Labour rebels. This may be true, but the gravity of the issue was well known in advance, as The Observer's leader pointed out.
The main reason Liberal Democrat MPs failed to turn out last Monday was that, in the absence of Chief Whip Andrew Stunell, the parliamentary party was advised by Mark Oaten that only a two-line whip was necessary. He just doesn't get it, does he?
Next time the Prevention of Terrorism Bill returns to the Commons, there can be no more excuses.
Friday, March 04, 2005
And now a word from our sponsors...
- An analysis of last year's Euro elections by Professor Michael Steed, which suggests that the Lib Dems need to put more effort into urban areas.
A first-hand report by Peta Bies of the Dutch radical liberal party D66, of the political fallout from the last year's murder of controversial film-maker Theo van Gogh.
An attack by Andrew Toye on Lib Dem right-wingers' elevation of 'choice' above all other considerations in the public services, and the consequences for Britain's poor.
All the regular features, including the latest party gossip in Radical Bulletin, and not forgetting the inestimable Lord Bonkers.
Oh, and another rant by yours truly.
Subscribers can pick up their copy from the Liberator stall. If you're not yet a subscriber, you can visit the stall and sign up for a year's magazines (only £20) or buy a single copy (£2.50).
If you're not in Harrogate, subscribe by mail - full details on the Liberator website, where you can also look at the archive of back issues and see what you've been missing.
No excuses - buy Liberator!
Thursday, March 03, 2005
The latest (5th March) issue of the Spectator has an interview with Charles Kennedy (to read it online, you have to register but it's free).
Two interesting things emerge. The first is that, if there were a hung parliament, Kennedy says he would not work with the Tories.
The second is that, while Kennedy claims that "in all policies, the presumption must be the maximisation of the individual's rights of expression", it is not clear that this is what he actually believes. The Spectator comments:
This hardly sits easily with his support for outlawing 'incitement to religious hatred'. When I mention that the writer Salman Rushdie has warned that such legislation would undermine freedom of thought, Kennedy prefers to equivocate rather than make a robust defence of free speech. "I should not be able to go out into the street and incite people to religious hatred. That is wrong. But I should be able to argue openly why one aspect of one religion is perhaps preferable to another aspect of another one. We have to leave it to the courts to judge these things."The Liberal Democrats rightly opposed the incitement to religious hatred laws in the Commons debate on 7th February. Is Kennedy's back-pedalling since that vote the result of religious bullying? Or is it due to a cynical calculation about the Muslim vote? Either way, it stinks.
AWOL part 2
It turns out that it wasn't just Charles Kennedy who missed Monday night's Commons vote on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill.
Altogether 17 Liberal Democrat MPs were absent for the vote. Had they all been present and voted against the government, the government would have lost by three votes.
A missed opportunity and an utter disgrace.
PS: The guilty 17 are:
Oh I do like to be beside the seaside
While we're on the subject of the Liberal Democrat party conference, I see that one of the exhibition stands in Harrogate next weekend will be hosted by a body called the Blackpool Conference Bureau.
The party had the misfortune to be forced to relocate its September 2005 conference venue to Blackpool after a 15-year hiatus, when plans to hold the conference in Gateshead fell through.
In the conference agenda booklet (pdf download here), the Blackpool Conference Bureau's blurb is upbeat:
Your opportunity to get your first taste of Blackpool.Unfortunately it isn't, as there are still many of us with long and bitter memories of conferences in this windswept shit-hole.
Come and meet the team to discuss accommodation requirements.I'll tell them my "accommodation requirements". I want a hotel with amenities considered standard elsewhere in the civilised world, such as central heating, soft toilet paper, and showers that deliver more than a dribble of tepid water. I do not want tatty pink candlewick bedspreads with nylon sheets, towels so worn-out that they feel like sandpaper, petty rules on handwritten notices pinned to every wall, or greasy breakfasts made from cheap ingredients that should have been condemned as unfit for human consumption. When I pay for a service, I do not wish to be confronted with a "take it or leave it", "don't you know there's a war on", "breakfast finished five minutes ago" attitude.
Blackpool just doesn't get it and, as a consequence, its tourist economy is falling through the floor. Its annual visitor numbers have declined from 16.8 million in 1989 to 11.1 million in 1999, a drop of 5.7 million over ten years, or 0.57 million per year. At that rate, the number of visitors will reach zero by the year 2018.
I am not always in favour of unleashing the harsher forces of the free market, but sometimes you have to be cruel to be cruel.
Chard at the edges
There's a treat in store for anyone attending next weekend's Liberal Democrat conference in Harrogate.
The Chard Group is hosting a fringe meeting at lunchtime on Saturday. This group, you may remember, was established in 1992 to support Paddy Ashdown's strategy of closer relationships with New Labour.
It was a controversial and unpopular strategy even at the time. I can't imagine there are many takers for it now.
Wednesday, March 02, 2005
Oh dear. I thought Charlie had cleaned up his act. Not according to today's Scotsman.
How much longer, Oh Lord?
Monday's House of Commons debate on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill was one of the most crucial in our constitutional history. Furthermore, our historic liberties are a topic on which no Liberal should have any difficulty making a proud stand.
And what do the Liberal Democrats offer? Another piss-poor performance from Mark Oaten.
We needed a heart-stirring speech. What we got was a dreary discourse on legislative procedure. In one intervention, Labour MP Mark Fisher queried whether Oaten was being "too meek and modest". (See my earlier posting regarding last Wednesday's dismal performance).
It is obvious that the poor man's heart just isn't in it.
It's official - the Daily Express talks bollocks
Here's a handy factoid with which to silence any saloon bar bigots you may encounter while out canvassing:
Of the 91,000 eastern Europeans who arrived in Britain to work in the five months after EU enlargement, fewer than 15 have claimed benefits.(Reported in the Spectator, 29 January, via the March 2005 edition of Prospect).
You may recall that the Daily Express had warned us in a front page headline early last year, "1.6 million gypsies ready to flood in". Only in small print on an inside page was the reader informed that 1.6 million is actually the combined total number of Roma in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.
An Express editorial on 24th February 2004 (the day after David Blunkett had announced restrictions on immigration from the new EU member states) said,
"The work-shy of Europe will not be deterred from abusing our welfare state by the confused and last-minute proposals announced by the government yesterday."On 25th February, the Express was warning its credulous readers, "How health tourists will bleed our system dry".
As EU enlargement on 1st May came nearer, the Express's tone became more apocalyptic. David Aaronovitch (Guardian, 4th May 2004) reported on the mounting hysteria:
On April 28 the Express warned: "Only three days to go before thousands of eastern European migrants head to Britain." And, "Gypsies say they can't wait to arrive in land of dole and benefits." Twenty-four hours later it was: "TWO DAYS TO GO ... AND STRAIN STARTS TO SHOW ON EUROPE'S FLIMSY BORDERS ... THOUSANDS of migrants are massing at Europe's eastern frontier hoping to use former Iron Curtain countries as a springboard to Britain."The delusional world of the Daily Express is depressing to behold. However, its readers are so old that, by any standard actuarial calculation, in ten years' time they will all be dead.
Then, last Friday, chillingly: "ONE DAY TO GO: WE EXPOSE SHOCKING LACK OF SECURITY AT NEW FRONTIER ... We discovered how easy it can be for a terrorist, people-smuggler or drug-runner to sneak into Europe undetected across its new southern border."
Tuesday, March 01, 2005
A couple of questions for your local Labour candidate
Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector and former US Marine, has made a couple of interesting revelations about American foreign policy, according to this report:
Scott Ritter, appearing with journalist Dahr Jamail yesterday [18 February] in Washington State, dropped two shocking bombshells in a talk delivered to a packed house in Olympia’s Capitol Theater. The ex-Marine turned UNSCOM weapons inspector said that George W. Bush has "signed off" on plans to bomb Iran in June 2005, and claimed the U.S. manipulated the results of the recent Jan. 30 elections in Iraq.One assumes Tony Blair is both aware of this policy and unlikely to say "no".
I'd say Ritter's two interesting allegations equal two interesting questions for your local Labour candidate.