.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Wednesday, August 31, 2005


Gender bending

The report to this month's Liberal Democrat conference from the party's Gender Balance Task Force includes this intriguing statement:

At close of nominations, 24% of new women candidates were women, an increase on last time - more than either other main party.
What I'd like to know about is the remaining 76%.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Up, up and away

Outrageous! Two European governments have dared to interfere in the free market, not only by banning certain airlines from their territory on safety grounds, but also by publishing their blacklists.

This is the nanny state gone mad.

As a consumer, I demand the right to fly on North Korea's Air Koryo and on that sterling Ghanaian outfit, Johnsons Air Ltd. Furthermore, I demand the right not to know that these airlines might be rather dodgy operators.

After all, what could possibly go wrong? The worst that might happen is that the in-flight catering is supplied by
Gate Gourmet.

Monday, August 29, 2005


A lunatic fringe

Right-wingers and other assorted establishment figures in the Liberal Democrats are very fond of stigmatising their party conference in terms of being dominated by a "lunatic fringe" or "wacky ideas". But one wonders who the real fringe elements are when one sees the motion titled "Future of Europe" submitted by the party's Federal Policy Committee to the forthcoming conference in Blackpool. Although submitted in the name of the FPC, the text turns out to be the work of the party's ' Treasury Team' of Westminster parliamentary spokesmen.

Whatever one's views on the EU, a conference motion, especially one from an 'official' source, ought to get its facts right. And such a motion should be drafted in consultation with the party's MEPs and councillors who are involved with these issues and know what they are talking about. However, it seems that the Liberal Democrats' so-called 'shadow cabinet' took the view that such precautions need not apply.

But don't take my word for it. Read what one senior party figure has to say.

The following article (quoted here in full) has been written by
Chris Davies MEP (group leader of the British Liberal Democrat MEPs, and a former MP and councillor) for publication in the ALDC's Grassroots Campaigner magazine. It deserves wider circulation.


A senior Liberal Democrat MP, who incidentally has never been a councillor, once told the weekly meeting of the parliamentary party: "What do these councillors know about it anyway? This is a matter for parliamentarians." I forget the exact subject under discussion but it related to a local government responsibility. I do remember the dismissive tone of the remark.

It's not only MPs who are tempted to believe that they know best. I know of county councillors who don't think much of their district brethren, and of others who have no time at all for the views of parish councillors. European parliamentarians are not immune from the same infliction. We MEPs have a tendency to assume that our Westminster colleagues are completely out of touch with all things European. In turn, many MPs assume that their colleagues in Brussels have gone completely 'native' and discarded all political judgement.

I draw two conclusions. First, that all Liberal Democrat representatives should make greater efforts to give the views of our colleagues the benefits of the doubt. Second, that we really must improve dialogue and enhance our consultation procedures.

Party conference in Blackpool will be debating a motion on the Future of Europe submitted by the Federal Policy Committee. It includes a call for the "maintenance of the cap of 1% on the EU budget until radical reforms in the budget have been achieved."

Let's leave aside the poor wording and the fact that most people will have no idea what the reference to a "cap of 1%" actually means. Let's leave aside also the fact that it does not exist and so cannot be "maintained". Instead, let's assume that the idea of limiting EU spending and making "radical" but unspecified reforms has a superficial political appeal. But what would it mean in practice?

The motion ignores the fact that the EU has grown from 15 to 25 nations, with two more waiting in the wings. With future spending programmes on agriculture already agreed by Britain and its partners, and much money already committed, the only way in which the EU budget can now be limited to 1% of national GNPs is to make deep cuts in other programmes.

That may mean slashing the research programmes needed to give Europe the chance to keep up with the economies of the Far East. It may mean cuts in spending on measures to combat terrorism, improve security and fight organised crime. It may lead to overseas aid programmes being abandoned and the EU being unable to intervene militarily in crisis situations. If this motion is passed Liberal Democrats will be accused by environment NGOs from Greenpeace to the RSPB of undermining efforts to protect Europe's most environmentally precious areas and halt the reduction in biodiversity.

There is one way around the slash and burn approach that would still keep EU spending within a 1% national ceiling. It is to follow the lead of Gordon Brown and demand the 'repatriation' of EU spending on regional aid so that it becomes an entirely national responsibility. Not surprisingly this would be an approach opposed by all the poorer nations; one object of the EU programme is, after all, to address the economic imbalances and raise every part of Europe to a minimum standard. It would also be opposed by just about every Liberal Democrat councillor involved in the campaign to secure for Britain a fair allocation of regional aid in the next spending programme.

Liverpool councillor Flo Clucas has led for the Liberal Democrats in many of the cross-party debates. When I asked her what would be the consequences were the FPC motion to be approved she told me it would "cut the ground from under us. The effect would be major."

EU structural fund programmes allow councils to plan ahead for a 7-year period without fear of political change. Put the Treasury in charge and there would be no guarantees or security, just uncertainty and year by year negotiations. The Brussels principle of 'additionality' would struggle to survive. National support for structural fund projects is supposed to be in addition to normal expenditure, but left to its own devices many suspect that the Government would claim to be funding projects while in fact cutting the cash from normal budgets. Councillors tend to have more confidence in the fairness of Brussels bureaucrats than in that of Whitehall mandarins.

Guarantees for continued funding for Objective One areas would go, councils receiving Objective Two funding would be left uncertain, every local authority involved in InterReg programmes in partnership with bodies elsewhere in Europe would see the projects end. The efforts of Liberal Democrat councillors to build a cross-party consensus would be blown apart and all for what?

The call for a 1% of national GNP cap on EU spending has come from the party's Treasury team at Westminster. I am not aware that either our LGA representatives or the ALDC have been consulted. I can say categorically that no attention whatsoever has been paid to the views of the European parliamentary party. If this is an early example of the way in which policies are now to be fashioned then we should all assume that rough waters lie ahead.
I am reliably informed that the sentence in the motion calling for the "1% cap" is there on the express demand of Vincent Cable MP, the party's Treasury spokesman.

It is hard to know which is worse; the MPs' arrogance or their ignorance. The contempt with which certain MPs have treated their party colleagues threatens to turn into a public row. I understand that, besides the party's MEPs, the ALDC and the party's
LGA group are ranged against this motion.

The right-wing cabal in the Liberal Democrats' shadow cabinet has clearly got out of hand. It will be defeated and humiliated in Blackpool, and deservedly so.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


More Liberals in steam

Following my request for information about railway locomotives named after Liberal Party leaders, three more engines have come to light.

A fourth Lloyd George has been found - a
Great Central 4-6-0 built in 1920. The website tells us, intriguingly, that

No. 6167 Lloyd George lost its nameplates on the orders of Sir Frederick Banbury, during August 1923. The nameplates were lost until 1963 when Kings Cross Top Shed was being demolished, and they were found behind a partition.
This is presumably the same Banbury who was then a reactionary Conservative backbench MP (representing Peckham from 1892 to 1906, then the City of London from 1906 to 1924) and a prominent opponent of women's suffrage. It was Banbury who, following the general election of December 1923, when Britain's first-ever Labour government seemed a real possibility, offered to lead the Coldstream Guards into the House of Commons "to save the British Constitution".

Banbury, who was also a stockbroker, had been a fierce opponent of the Liberal government's financial reforms between 1906 and 1914, and Lloyd George was Chancellor of the Exchequer for most of that period. In January 1923, the Great Central Railway (owner of the locomotive Lloyd George) was absorbed into the new LNER (London & North Eastern Railway). Banbury had been Chairman of the Great Northern Railway, another of the companies absorbed into the LNER. One assumes that he thus became a big wheel in the LNER, and used his power to extract petty revenge on his old political foe. Either that, or Lloyd George had been rather too friendly with Lady Banbury.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the LBSCR (London Brighton & South Coast Railway) had not one but two steam locomotives named after the Earl of Rosebery, who was Prime Minister from 1894 to 1895.

The first Rosebery, a
Stroudley D1 0-4-2T (pictures of the type here), was built in 1877 and kept the name Rosebery until 1897, when it was renamed. This engine survived until 1936.

The second Rosebery, a
Billinton B2 4-4-0, was built in 1897, rebuilt in 1909 (when it lost its name) and survived until about 1930. (The locomotive's designer, Robert J Billinton, was succeeded at the LBSCR by his son, Lawson B Billinton, who inadvertently designed Thomas the Tank Engine, but that's another story).

Incidentally, I have a family connection with Lord Rosebery. My great-great-uncle, William Titley, was Rosebery's valet for 45 years, from 1884 until Rosebery's death in 1929. Uncle William was left some money in Rosebery's will, not a fortune but enough to enjoy a comfortable retirement in Brighton.

Friday, August 19, 2005


I believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Here's the best idea yet for fighting the religious fruitcakes who want to teach creationism in school science classes.

Parents in Kansas are combating the pressure for 'Intelligent Design' with this
open letter to the Kansas School Board. They are demanding that their belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster is given equal recognition.

They have some strong arguments.

You may be interested to know that global warming, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are a direct effect of the shrinking numbers of Pirates since the 1800s. For your interest, I have included a graph of the approximate number of pirates versus the average global temperature over the last 200 years. As you can see, there is a statistically significant inverse relationship between pirates and global temperature.
Who can resist their demands for a more balanced teaching of science?

I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; One third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence.
Well, what's wrong? Liberals believe in 'choice', don't they?

Meanwhile, read this latest news report from Kansas.


Situations vacant

The sad death of Mo Mowlam removes from British politics one of the few 'real' people among leading politicians. Most prominent politicians nowadays have contrived a stilted and pretentious public persona, dehumanised to the extent that one could never imagine going down the pub with them.

New Labour's front bench is media-trained and soundbitten to within an inch of its life. Among leading Tories, only Ken Clarke regularly displays any earthy qualities. Among leading Liberal Democrats, one's worry about Charles Kennedy would be getting out of the pub.

Which brings us to the question of funeral orations. Robin Cook's recent funeral was enlivened by the
"totally uncalled for" contribution of racing pundit John McCririck.

Mo Mowlam had an even more irreverent sense of humour than Cook. During the Northern Ireland peace negotiations, she regularly addressed Martin McGuinness as "babe" and once famously told Ian Paisley to "fuck off". She is hardly likely to have been concerned to spare anyone's blushes at her own funeral.

So I'm looking forward to some female equivalent of John McCririck (hard to imagine, I know), climbing into the pulpit next week to insult Tony Blair and generally steal the show. Any suggestions for likely candidates?


Trainspotters' Corner

The other day, I reported major repairs to the preserved steam locomotive Sir Archibald Sinclair, named after the Liberal Party's leader from 1935 to 1945.

This set me wondering whether any other Liberal leaders have been similarly honoured. Railway enthusiasts are not unknown in the Liberal Democrats, so perhaps someone out there could enlighten us?

In the meantime, I have done a quick Google search to find out which leading Liberals are in steam. To begin with, I am fairly certain that none of Sinclair's successors (from Clement Davies onwards) have had a railway locomotive named after them.

There have been at least three engines called David Lloyd George. One, a class 47 diesel
no.47409 (pictured here at Crewe Works), had its nameplate unveiled by David Penhaligon MP at London King's Cross station on 14th September 1985, an event I witnessed. This loco was about to haul a special train full of party conference delegates to the Liberal Assembly in Dundee (and if you can remember that notorious journey, you weren't there). The nameplates didn't last long, however; they were removed in August 1986 and the loco was scrapped in 1989.

A second diesel, a class 37 loco
no.37428 (pictured here at Crewe station), was named David Lloyd George in May 1987 at Pwllheli. In 1998, the engine was renamed Royal Scotsman but last year it was put into store, destined, one suspects, for the scrapyard.

(Collectors' Corner: One of the nameplates from these two diesels
fetched £5,100 at auction in 2002. And railway model fans may care to note that Lima once manufactured a limited edition model of no.37428).

The third
David Lloyd George is still in service. It is a narrow-gauge steam locomotive running on the Ffestiniog Railway in North Wales and is named bilingually (David Lloyd George on one side, Dafydd Lloyd George on the other). The loco looks old but was in fact built as recently as 1992. (If mp3 files of steam engines are your thing, you can listen to Lloyd George departing from Porthmadog here - click the 'sample' button for track 1).

The Ffestiniog is also home to a steam engine called
Palmerston, built in 1864. Meanwhile, on the nearby Welsh Highland Railway, the pride of the locomotive fleet is named Russell but, since it was not built until 1906, it is moot whether it was named after the first Earl.

Then of course there is
Gladstone, built by the London Brighton and South Coast Railway in 1882 and preserved at the National Railway Museum in York.

So far, so Google. I can find no trace of any locomotives named after Sir Herbert Samuel, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman or Herbert Henry Asquith (if you wanted to be leader of the Liberal Party in the early twentieth century, it clearly helped if you were called Herbert or Henry, and Asquith took no chances). Going back further, there is no obvious record of a Harcourt, Rosebery or Hartington steaming through Evercreech Junction.

Nowadays, instead of railway locomotives named after army regiments, famous racehorses or Liberal prime ministers, one finds engines with names such as BP Gas Avonmouth, Crimestoppers, and Valhalla Blackpool Pleasure Beach. And they say the age of romance is dead.

PS: Update here.

Thursday, August 18, 2005


Stalinist fun for all the family

If your idea of a good time is subjecting yourself to Stalinist abuse from North Korean propagandists, then why not try the KCNA Random Insult Generator?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Essential holiday reading

Liberator 304 - out now! Posted by Picasa

The latest issue of Liberator magazine is landing on subscribers' doormats as I write.

Highlights in this issue include:

Liberator has been published regularly since 1970 and is now widely recognised as the leading journal for thought and comment among British Liberals.

If you are a member or supporter of the Liberal Democrats, you can't afford to miss it, so subscribe now! Send a cheque for £20 (payable to 'Liberator Publications'), together with your name and full postal address, to:

Liberator Publications
Flat 1
24 Alexandra Grove
London N4 2LF

(If you live outside the UK, details of how to subscribe can be found on the
home page of the Liberator website).

Monday, August 15, 2005


Something I can do without

Call me old-fashioned, but the current craze for iPods and other MP3 players leaves me cold. I could provide a number of rational reasons why I won't buy one (and will do so shortly), but Stephen Fry expressed the emotional case well in an unusually good This much I know column in Sunday's Observer Magazine.

Much of what has evolved for man to use - a pen, a piano - is beautiful to touch, to look at and hold. It is important that the tools we use to work are not just well designed, but vibrant enough to engage one emotionally.
This is why the biro has never supplanted the fountain pen; why the synthesiser has never fully replaced the grand piano; and why we like steam engines, sailing boats and analogue clocks. Technically more efficient tools are readily available, but lack soul.

When it comes to music, more recent formats have never satisfactorily replaced the vinyl disc. I began buying records in the early 1970s, when vinyl was still king. Cassette tapes had only recently become available but were shoddy by comparison. The only other format option at that time was the already doomed eight-track cartridge.

Buying and owning a vinyl LP was and remains a sensual experience. Along with the smell and touch of the record was the sleeve (ideally a double gatefold designed by Hipnosis or
Roger Dean), and the whole ritual of taking the disc out of its sleeve and placing it on the turntable.

When compact discs came along, they lacked the same tactile qualities as the vinyl record but there was still something to treasure. And, to compensate for their compactness, CDs had the added attraction of greater durability compared with a fragile LP.

But what is a download? It is virtual. It seems completely ethereal. You can't hold it or touch it. One computer crash and it's gone. One software upgrade and it's obsolete. There is neither the satisfaction nor the insurance of true ownership.

I still get a buzz from buying a record (vinyl or CD) and cannot imagine obtaining the same thrill from downloading a song from a website. But I also cannot imagine any practical use for downloads.

buying guide to MP3 players on the Amazon.co.uk website begins,

Gone are the days of lugging your entire CD collection around on trips, or scrabbling under your car seat for an old cassette that’s encrusted in mud. With an MP3 player (or Digital Audio Player to give it its correct name) you can store an arm's length of CDs in a device no bigger than your mobile phone and play them back in any order you so choose; you can even create custom playlists and compilations to suit your mood.
This presupposes that you were "lugging your entire CD collection around" in the first place. What's wrong with listening to music at home? That's listening, by the way, not having a mild distraction on in the background.

I don't know about you but, when I play CDs (or vinyl records), I usually sit down and listen to them. Like all forms of art, music repays concentration. Focusing enables one to lose oneself in the music and emerge refreshed. Otherwise music is nothing more than background noise.

I can understand listening to music in the car on a long journey (when "lugging" CDs ceases to be a problem), but why would anyone want to listen to their music collection while walking down the street? It strikes me as an essentially anti-social (not to say, potentially dangerous) activity. And since one cannot become completely absorbed in the music (at least not without the risk of being run over), wearing any portable music player in the street seems pointless.

Because I prefer to listen to music, I want good sound quality. Downloads can't deliver true hi-fi quality for two reasons. First, download files are compressed in size, so that some of the detail is lost. Second, no matter how much the quality of portable MP3 players is raised to hi-fi standards, the fact that a listener is typically using it in a noisy and distracting external environment means that any sound quality can never be fully appreciated.

As it is, the MP3 files currently on offer vary wildly in sound quality and levels. And the choice of downloads is restricted. Thousands of songs are available for download but the choice tends to the recent and the mainstream. The sort of obscure blues or world music I often buy is not always available in this format.

I find the internet useful for music but in different ways, in particular to listen to music I've not heard before. I can use the internet to preview song extracts on Amazon and other retail websites, to find out whether I like music before buying it. And I can listen to radio programmes online, in particular via the BBC's
radio player, which enables me to hear my favourite music programmes at any time of my choosing.

But downloaded music files I don't need. With CD sales rising, especially among forty-something men like me, it would seem that I am not alone.

Saturday, August 13, 2005


The armchair warriors of Fleet Street

As Iraq descends into an ever greater shambles, the American and British governments are making increasingly delusional claims about "remaining on track" and "improving security". And, of course, if they can claim to have "won", they can withdraw their troops (or "scale back our commitment", in the current jargon). Their euphemisms can barely disguise a decision to quit.

So why isn't the pro-war lobby protesting? As Matthew Parris
observes in today's Times, the journalists who cheered on the invasion of Iraq are curiously silent about the impending withdrawal.

... our own Government is talking about massive British troop reductions in southern Iraq, possibly for "redeployment" to Afghanistan ("or tsunami relief, or Oxfam, or anywhere", gulps Tony Blair into his shaving mirror).

The game is nearly up: not the military game, the psychological one. We can no longer take the strain in Iraq. We are going to make a bolt for it. You know that, don't you? I suspect most British people do. It's bearing down on us with a terrible inevitability.

Well? I am waiting. A number of us are waiting. We were expecting an angry chorus from a particular quarter. So why the silence? You could hear a pin drop. Why don't they sing out, the armchair warriors of Fleet Street? George W. Bush and his friends are preparing to scuttle Iraq, and nobody's complaining.

Where are they, those editorialisers whose confident "Tally-ho!" cheered our lads into Basra and Baghdad and whose cry was that we were "in this for the long haul", to "finish the job"? Finish the job indeed - do they really think, does anybody think, that the job is finished? Does anyone seriously suggest that a free and democratic Iraq is now heading into the home straight?

Of course not. The place is going to hell in a handcart. So where are those who urged our forces in, now that the political will to keep them there is faltering?
This military adventure has been a failure even on its own terms. It's time the pro-war lobby owned up and apologised.


"Totally uncalled for"

Was the decision to invite racing pundit John McCririck to deliver a tribute at Robin Cook's funeral service part of Cook's last will and testament?

If so, one can only say it was Cook's
final political master-stroke.

Friday, August 12, 2005


Mine's a large one

This week's moral panic is about alcohol. It has become a headline story again because judges and police chiefs have declared that the imminent change to Britain's licensing laws will increase violent crime.

In the wake of these claims,
both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have quickly leapt on the (band)wagon by demanding a halt to the implementation of the new law.

The law in question (the Licensing Act 2003, which applies only to England and Wales) will, from 24th November this year, allow licensed premises (both pubs/bars and off-sales) to apply to extend their opening hours beyond 11pm or possibly even for 24 hours. However, the current panic is odd, given that the government announced its intentions four years ago and that the Act passed into law two years ago.

Following the protests of the judges, police and opposition politicians comes the most ludicrous complaint of all. In the wake of last month's London bombings, a group of newly-elected Tory MPs has declared (in a letter to the Spectator) that
"Muslims who criticise the 'decadent' nature of British society are right". Among the things cited as evidence of Britain's lapse from "traditional values" is binge drinking. It is all the fault of "wooly-minded liberals", apparently.

This debate is taking place on a false premise. In fact, three completely false assumptions:

  1. That excessive drinking is a new problem;

  2. That excessive drinking is the preserve of the young, the working class, or more probably the young working class; and

  3. That excessive drinking is a function of the licensing hours.
Let's deal first with false assumption no.1.

Tory leader Michael Howard stated this week, "We have said that the [Licensing] Act should not be brought into effect until binge-drinking has been brought under control." Well if he wants to wait for the British to stop binge drinking, he'll have a bloody long wait.

The British have been binge drinking for centuries. Why else would the
Temperance Movement have been such a powerful force in Britain a century ago? Going back further, Hogarth's famous caricature Gin Lane depicted the widespread abuse of alcohol in the mid-eighteenth century. Before that, the problem was sufficiently bad for the Elizabethan scholar Thomas Nash to write about The Eight Kinds of Drunkennesse and, in 1606, parliament passed 'The Act to Repress the Odious and Loathsome Sin of Drunkenness'. Earlier still, throughout the medieval period, most English peasants spent much of their time pissed out of their skulls.

letter in today's Guardian notes that,

The English have been castigating each other for allegedly drinking too much since St Boniface in the 8th century compared our consumption unfavourably with the Franks, Gauls and Lombards.
So it would seem that the British passion for getting drunk predates somewhat the advent of the "wooly-minded liberal". Those moralistic Tory MPs need a history lesson; one of our most "traditional values" turns out to be an unhealthy passion for the sauce.

Over the centuries, drunkenness (and our attitudes towards it) may have taken different forms but excessive drinking has remained a popular pastime. Binge drinking is nowadays a common feature of Protestant Northern European cultures, where people tend to veer between abstinence and excess, unlike Catholic Southern Europe, where public drunkenness is almost unknown (except among young British and Scandinavian tourists).

Heavy drinking is deeply ingrained in our culture, and there are limits to what politicians and other moralists can achieve. We can warn people of the dangers and we can try to limit the social impact of public drunkenness, but that's about it. Just as authoritarian measures won't work, neither will well-meaning attempts to introduce a 'continental cafe culture'. As Judge Charles Harris QC said this week, "Continental-style drinking requires continental-style people".

The second myth is that this is a working class or youth problem.

If we middle-aged, middle class British people are honest, we are knocking back prodigious quantities of booze ourselves, even though we may not be fighting or vomiting in the High Street on a Saturday night.

Adam Nicolson, in an article titled
Mad dogs and drunken Englishmen in yesterday's Guardian G2 supplement, described "the huge English middle-class wine-drinking habit". He pointed out that, while the media and political focus is on the minority who become violent when drunk, little attention is paid to the less threatening comatose state of the rest of the nation.

It is a weird and scarcely acknowledged fact that very nearly the entire nation ends its days in an alcohol-induced fug. Most of us never see it because we are in it, too. The strangeness of it struck me last year when I had to catch a train late at night from King's Cross in London. I had not touched a drop that evening and I arrived at the station to find the inhabitants of the capital wandering in a soft and befuddled way between the ticket office and the platforms, WH Smith and Burger King. It was as if the place were full of half-beings, semi-aware, semi-articulate, half-asleep, clumsy and, on that occasion, totally unthreatening, even rather sweet, like an exhausted pack of bleary old dogs staggering from the bed to the water bowl and back again, deeply loved by their owners but really not much good for anything else.

I know this is not exactly the violent aspect of alcohol currently exercising judges and the government, but it is intimately related to it. Immoderation may turn some of us into comatose labradors, but in others it releases the urge to aggression and violence. The key is in the quantity. A few sips of Pernod would not change behaviour in the way a skinful of Stella or a magnum or two of Jacob's Creek does. This is not something limited to a particular class. It affects all of us, so the deep and underlying question about the English and alcohol is not why we are aggressive when we are drunk, because not all of us are, but why do we slug it back in such extraordinary quantities, which all of us do?
Last night's edition of BBC1's Should I Worry About... covered similar ground. Presenter Richard Hammond (solidly middle class, even if he does also present Top Gear), measured his own drinking habits to discover that he drank over 50 units a week, in common with one-third of British men.

Face it, we're all doing it. The fact that it's Australian Shiraz rather than lager or Bacardi Breezers doesn't necessarily make it any better. So let's stop pretending this is purely a problem with 'chavs'.

Finally, let us consider the third misapprehension, that excessive drinking is a function of the licensing hours.

The overall amount of alcohol drunk in British pubs and bars is actually in decline. The increased consumption is in alcohol drunk at home, where there is no statutory closing time. It is noteworthy that, of all the licensed premises that have so far applied for a 24-hour licence under the new law, the vast majority are supermarkets, not pubs or bars.

Regarding drinking in pubs and bars, there is a strong argument that the 11pm closing time encourages people to drink more quickly to beat a deadline. The pubs all empty at the same time, making it more likely that fights will break out. Meanwhile, the middle classes, drinking after 11pm legally in restaurants and private clubs (or at home), or illegally in rural pub 'lock-ins', face no such curfew.

More flexible licensing hours tend to work better (as the experience in Scotland has demonstrated). The British Beer and Pubs Association
points out,

Applications for extended hours are generally for an extra hour or so on a Friday and Saturday night, from community pubs, and not from city centre locations.

Scotland has recently reviewed its licensing hours which are much more flexible than in England and Wales. Neither the police nor the judges asked for a return to English hours, let alone something more draconian.

Every New Year's Eve, for the last three years, flexible hours have been tried and tested. The result has been less disorder, and fewer problems than on the average Friday night.
There is a serious problem in many British town centres on Friday and Saturday nights. The root cause, however, is not drinking but our attitude to the city. Unlike in every other European country, we choose to let teenagers occupy our city centres after 6pm. Maintaining the 11pm curfew won't solve this problem. Instead, creative policies that bring back mixed housing, civilised restaurants and entertainment, and other grown-up amenities into our city centres are the only way to end this occupation and take our city centres back.

If there is one major criticism of the new Licensing Act, it is that it is highly prescriptive. Local residents may object to a licence extension application only on the grounds of a specific applicant. The law rules out objections based on general arguments relating to issues in a particular area, such as the character of a neighbourhood.

In effect, the new law gives local authorities responsibility without power. They have been made responsible for policing the new licensing system but the law's prescriptiveness does not allow sufficient local discretion. A genuine devolution of power, which gives local people control over licensing, would be a significant improvement. But its benefit would be to give people the power to prevent night-time disturbances or to protect the character of their neighbourhoods. It can't stop heavy drinking per se.

No licensing system, no matter how well conceived, will end Britain's love affair with alcohol.

Thursday, August 11, 2005


Payback time

Remember the 1950s? Remember the era when people drove their brand new Ford Anglias along empty concrete roads, and when everybody on TV either smoked a pipe or wore a party frock and was called Muriel? Remember the time when they said nuclear power would be "too cheap to meter"?

Well it may have seemed cheap at the time but now
the bill has landed on the doormat.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


EU regulatory scandal

Normally I would yield to no-one among the Liberal Democrats in my support for European ideals.

But this time the EU has
gone too far.

(With thanks to
Guido Fawkes).


The Whatever Bill

In case you're one of those Liberal Democrats dithering over which of Charles Clarke's new anti-terrorism laws to support, Armando Iannucci, writing in the Daily Telegraph, has a few useful suggestions.

(Link via the excellent
David Blunkett is an arse).


Heavy repairs for Liberal leader

I was alarmed yesterday to read this headline in a magazine:

Cylinder liners fitted to Sir Archibald Sinclair
Was it not sufficient ignominy to be the last Liberal Party leader to lose his seat at a general election, without the world learning that "... further work on the lubrication pipework is being done" ?

Fortunately, this story appeared not in any political journal but in the new September edition of Railway Magazine. This
Sir Archibald is a 'Battle of Britain' class steam locomotive, named in honour of Sinclair's wartime role as air minister, and now preserved by enthusiasts.

I cannot, however, vouch for the lubrication pipework of the present leader.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


The unbearable lightness of Hazel Blears

On the principle that even a broken clock is right twice a day, the Prime Minister's office has done something sensible. It has shot down in flames Hazel Blears's ridiculous suggestion of an official 'ethnic rebrand', to create hyphenated British people.

The recent wave of terrorist attacks has sparked off a wild goose chase to find or rekindle some sort of 'British identity'. As I explained in a
recent post, this will get us nowhere. Politicians seem to be divided between those, such as Hazel Blears, who cannot see that multiculturalism is a busted flush, and more traditionalist elements, whose latest wheeze to unite the nation is 'Citizenship Days'.

Of these two approaches, the revival of flag-waving patriotism is the more obviously flawed strategy (read
Blood & Treasure's demolition job on "state mandated ceremonials", via Doctorvee). Multiculturalism, on the other hand, has not been subjected to the same degree of scrutiny.

Multicultural ideology first flourished in the right-on, politically correct 1980s. Following the victories of Thatcher and Reagan, the right was ascendant and was remaking the world. Confronted with this challenge, the left chose to disappear up its own fundament. Instead of refreshing communitarian values, it focused on asserting personal rights.

The left turned out to be as much a part of the 'me' generation as its counterparts on the right. The damage done to the social fabric in the 1980s was not just a product of newly unleashed 'free market' forces but also owed much to the self-obsession of the left, which failed to develop a fresh critique of what was going on in society.

Michael Fitzpatrick's
recent essay in Spiked provides a much-needed corrective. It is good that anti-racism has triumphed and is now embraced by the establishment. But the ideology of multiculturalism has politicised identity and created a cult of victimhood.

Multiculturalism has encouraged the politicisation of identity in ethnic or religious terms. Earlier immigrant minorities, such as the Irish or the Jews, cleaved to their national and racial traditions in ways that were largely personal and private. They may have participated in public acts of worship but their ethnicity rarely took a political form. By contrast, the identity of being a Muslim has come to define many people in British society to the exclusion of all other characteristics.

The children of Irish or Jewish immigrants had some choice about whether to follow or reject their parents' allegiances, matters which undoubtedly caused much family strife, but did not become political issues. By contrast, the children of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent or the Middle East have little option but to adopt the label of Muslim, which is thrust upon them by British society as much as by their own parents. If young Muslim women have embraced the hijab as a badge of identity in a way their mothers never did, as a public political symbol, this is more a result of the demands of British multiculturalism than a spontaneous assertion of allegiance.

Furthermore, the distinctive character of the identity promoted by multiculturalism is the identity of victim. In the world of multiculturalism, claims of victimhood provide the basis for recognition and status. Thus British Muslims proclaim a litany of persecutions and humiliations of Muslims around the world - in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Israel, in Bosnia - as the justification for their sense of grievance and their claim to a privileged position in the hierarchy of victimhood. (As a veteran campaigner against imperialist oppression in various parts of the world, I have opposed British interference in all these instances, though also in many others, irrespective of the faith of the victims.) But the cult of victimhood in Britain has merely a vicarious relationship with the sufferings of people in Iraq or Palestine - its real origins are to be found in Britain.

In the competitive struggle for prestige (and state resources) unleashed by multiculturalism, every minority must justify its claim by elevating its sufferings. Even established minorities feel obliged to enter the fray: while Muslims inflate every personal slight into a manifestation of Islamophobia, Jews cite the desecration of graves with swastikas as proof of a new wave of anti-Semitism.

While the opportunism of community leaders is shameful, it is important to recognise the origin of this problem in the British establishment itself. If Tony Blair feels obliged to apologise for the Irish famine or for Britain's role in the slave trade, it is only to be expected that some individuals will take advantage. The elevation of victimhood has a corrupting and infantilising effect: it encourages members of ethnic minorities to exaggerate and parade their sufferings as a means towards personal and communal advancement. The result is to unleash a sense of grievance that is unlikely to be assuaged by the meagre offerings of the state to the local mosque or temple.
The mindset of British-born suicide bombers and the government's plans to outlaw 'religious hatred' spring from the same source. The answers aren't simple but can be found in neither flag-waving ceremony nor the narcissism of multiculturalism.

If we want to develop a Liberal strategy to foster a sense of belonging (which is what this debate is really about) - for the benefit of everyone in society, not just ethnic minorities - we should forget any search for a centrally-managed 'silver bullet'. Instead, we ought perhaps to focus more on encouraging multifarious local initiatives to rebuild informal social networks and assorted local amenities. (I was intending to cite as an example of such local initiatives community campaigns to save local pubs, then realised this might not be the best way to integrate young Muslims - but you get my drift).

In this, as in so many issues, the Liberal message is that we should trust people and empower them to run their own lives. After all, local people are more likely to find workable solutions than is Hazel Blears.

Monday, August 08, 2005


Thought for the day

Here's a question that comedian Ross Noble raised on TV last Friday night:

Have you ever wondered why it is that the Mr Universe contest is always won by humans?
And in Saturday's Guardian, a reader's letter reported a sign in a local theatre, which asks,

If all the world's a stage, where does the audience sit?

Saturday, August 06, 2005


Our way of life

One outcome of the recent terrorist attacks in London is a renewed debate about what it means to be British. Presumably the idea is that, if we expect Muslims living in Britain to be more British, we ought first to have some idea of what this obligation actually means.

This assumption was implicit in Tony Blair's
statement on Friday about terrorism, when he said:

If people want to come here, either fleeing persecution, or seeking a better life, they play by our rules and our way of life. If they don't, they are going to have to go because they are threatening our people and way of life.
This begs the question: just what exactly is "our way of life"?

One concept of Britishness we need to clear out of the way is the idea that British identity is all about recovering some imaginary golden age. This nostalgic approach was dealt with wittily at
The Sharpener. The question we should ask is what Britishness means now, not in the 1950s.

With this question in mind, the Daily Telegraph commissioned YouGov to conduct an opinion poll (published 27 July), reported under the headline "What does it mean to be British?". YouGov's figures are
here. The Telegraph's commentary on the results by Professor Anthony King is here. The Telegraph drew some conclusions in its leader (also 27 July), which suggested a list of ten "non-negotiable components of our identity".

The YouGov poll produced some interesting results but raised more questions than it answered. There was no historical comparison with similar polls at any earlier date, so we have no idea how opinion is moving. There was no breakdown of results by region or age group, so we have no idea how Scottish and Welsh perceptions vary from those in England, how views in cosmopolitan big cities vary from those in more rural areas, or whether there are any significant differences of opinion between the generations.

Look also at YouGov's list of phrases that respondents were asked to assess. Some are qualities one could find in any democratic country, such as the top-ranked phrase, "British people's right to say what they think". Regardless of the accuracy of this phrase, is free speech a distinctively 'British' quality? Some phrases (such as the second-ranked, "Britain's defiance of Nazi Germany in 1940"), though distinctive, are historical and will recede in people's consciousness over time. And what was going through the minds of the 12% who rated "the motorway network" as a "very important" element in Britain's identity?

Reading YouGov's list of criteria as a whole, there were many disparate elements but no obvious coherence. To be fair, though, this may be as much a reflection of YouGov's poll design as it is of the British people's views.

One result of the poll was particularly noteworthy - and reassuring. The individual Briton of whom respondents felt most proud is the black athlete Kelly Holmes, which must give scant consolation to any racists seeking to exploit the current turmoil.

The Telegraph leader's stab at defining British identity was curious in that its list of ten 'core values' focused very much on constitutional and legal criteria. We are left with some idea of the important features of Britain's governing structure but little idea of the life that goes on within the country. Hardly surprising, really, since looking at Britain's culture would have entailed the Telegraph coming to terms with the results of other recent opinion polls, which tell us that Britain's most popular meal is chicken tikka masala, and that a majority of British people would rather emigrate to a warmer climate.

Where can a consensus about British identity be found? How can the integration of immigrants be achieved?
Jonathan Freedland, writing in Wednesday's Guardian, suggested the answer could be found in the USA. He examined both the French and American models of integration, and opted for the American system of diversity (the 'hyphenated American') as more appropriate to Britain than the French system, which expects people to shed their differences.

There are two obvious flaws in this argument. First, there has been sufficient ethnic strife in both France and the USA to suggest that neither country is a model of harmonious integration. Contrary to Freedland's claims, the USA is not immune to terrorist attacks committed by its own citizens, most notably in Oklahoma City. And the creation of the 'hyphenated American' has encouraged a corrosive culture of whining, rights-obsessed special-pleading.

But more significantly, both countries, unlike Britain, were consciously conceived as projects. Both were effectively invented by revolutionary movements in the late eighteenth century and are perceived as not just a nation, more of an ideology.

In contrast, Britain has evolved without any single great founding moment or blueprint. If forced, which seminal event would we choose? 1066? The Magna Carta? The Glorious Revolution of 1688? The Act of Union of 1707 or that of 1800? The Reform Act of 1832? The establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 (when the UK assumed its present borders)? They are all significant events in British history but is the anniversary of any of them today worth organising fireworks and a military parade, like Independence Day or Bastille Day?

Britain's identity, such as it exists, is not static but dynamic. Over the past thirty years, there has been a marked decline in respect for the Royal Family, once regarded as the fulcrum of British identity. A majority of the Scots and Welsh now professes a stronger affinity to Scotland or Wales than to Britain. In Northern Ireland, there is no consensus about national identity, for obvious reasons. The people in the biggest muddle, though, are the English, who for many years subsumed their identity within Britishness and, now that the Scots and Welsh have made their preferences clear, are no longer quite sure who they are.

If the British can't agree about their identity, they are hardly in a position to define a consensus policy for cultural integration beyond some strictures on the rule of law and respect for democracy, which would apply equally in any other democratic country. All we can do is say that certain things, such as shariah law or suicide bombs, are so outrageous as to be beyond the pale.

There are no easy answers, but we can begin by recognising that a national identity cannot now be contrived from the centre, either by the government or anyone else. The fiasco of New Labour's 'Cool Britannia' branding exercise should have taught everyone that. And since there is no consensus about British identity, it cannot form the basis of a strategy for anti-terrorism or race relations.


More generational theft

A few days ago, I posted on the topic of generational theft, the process whereby the baby boomers are enjoying life at the expense of those under 35.

Another way this process is happening is in the present generations' profligate use of oil. My attention has just been drawn to this
article. Although it was published nine years ago, nothing has occurred since to diminish its relevance; if anything, current events are bearing out the author's thesis.

However, the article is also deeply pessimistic and, in case you're into solar panels and windmills, it suggests that none of the so-called 'alternative' energy sources are viable replacements for oil. Not only that, but we are reminded that it would be politically suicidal for any political party seriously to propose weaning people off their cars, so you probably won't want to read it.

Friday, August 05, 2005


Passing by on the other side

A few months ago, an acquaintance of mine, a young Japanese woman, was attacked while travelling on the tube in London. A group of white youths shouted racist insults and pelted her with screwed-up pieces of paper. It was not a serious physical assault yet, when I happened to meet her shortly afterwards, she was shaken and in tears.

It turned out that the main reason for her distress was not so much the assault itself; it was that none of the other passengers in the tube car had come to her aid.

It would seem that Good Samaritans are in short supply these days. A much more serious example of 'passing by on the other side' was
reported in Thursday's Guardian (G2 supplement). A young man was stabbed to death on a London bus for no apparent reason. Despite his girlfriend's pleas for help, most of the other passengers made themselves scarce when the bus stopped and only five passengers plus the bus driver have so far provided the police with witness statements.

Crimes like these elicit a predictable response from politicians and the media: we must have more police. Yet Britain already has more police officers per capita than at any time in its history. The Liberal Democrats, in this year's general election manifesto, promised to create 10,000 more police officers, as if it were some sort of crude trade-off to reduce crime.

Yet the vast majority of crime is detected by the public. Liberals should focus more on building a higher level of public confidence in the police, which makes police work more effective, and on rekindling a sense of active citizenship, which creates a genuinely safer society.

In the forthcoming August edition of Liberator, an article by Liberal Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone contains a lot of good advice on how to campaign locally on crime. Further, she argues that fighting crime is something all of us have to do. She writes,

One of Sir Robert Peel's nine founding principles of policing, laid out when he created our country's modern police force, talks of the relationship between the public and the police, "the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen, in the interests of community welfare and existence."

Fighting crime isn't just something you can pay for through your taxes and then ignore. It's something all of society has to do. Unless we want a police state with policemen and cameras on every street corner, there will always be a role for the eyes and ears of non-policemen. And unless we have every room, phone line and open space bugged and filmed, there will always be a need for evidence seen or heard by members of the public.
Lynne has succeeded in re-opening local police stations in her constituency, the front desks staffed by local volunteers. She has this advice for objectors who expect to pay their taxes and then do nothing.

Of course, a few dye-in-the-wool Tories in the area said, "It's outrageous. I pay my taxes. Why on earth should I now have to do anything else?"

The answer is simple: "Sorry, we believe in a community where everyone works together. If you want just to leave some money out and then hide yourself away, we're not the party for you."

Getting volunteers isn't about finding a way of making the sums add up to reopen a public service; it's about having a public service that is closely connected to the community.
Unlike Lynne, most Liberal Democrat activists have got themselves in a bind, committing themselves to ever-growing amounts of 'casework' without achieving the original goal of community politics, which was genuinely to empower local people.

David Boyle, writing in last month's Liberator (
issue 303), argued for

... a radical new offer from politicians to the public. Not any more 'ask and you shall receive' – nobody believes that any more, least of all the voters. It says: we can achieve these things, but not without your help.

As politicians we can assist, we can provide leadership and some resources, but – they must say to the public – we can't do it without you.
Lynne Featherstone and David Boyle are both right. We have to devolve responsibility as well as power and encourage active citizenship. The alternative is a vicious circle and no longer viable; futile attempts by politicians to meet inflationary demands for public services, leading to increasing popular contempt for politicians who can't deliver, and more Liberal Democrat activists burnt out by being unpaid social workers.

Thursday, August 04, 2005


There isn't a tavern in the town

"And if you're in London," (as Valerie Singleton was wont to say, to the irritation of millions of provincial Blue Peter viewers), you could do a lot worse than visit this year's Great British Beer Festival (2nd-6th August at the London Olympia).

Despite the continuing threats from the corporate brewing behemoths, and continuing brewery closures, craft brewing of traditional ales continues to thrive in Britain. These ales, besides being pleasant to drink, are an important part of our
local distinctiveness.

The greater threat nowadays is to our traditional pubs. Yesterday's
Guardian usefully reminded us that,

Dr Samuel Johnson once noted that "there is nothing yet which has been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern".
But the same report also noted the closure of local pubs throughout the UK.

A Camra-commissioned study showed that 26 pubs close down in Britain each month, largely due to developers and publicans cashing in on residential investments. Every time that happens, the pro-pub groups argue, a little piece of the community dies.

"The temptation at the moment is, because of the uncertainty in planning laws and experience, that any pub is probably worth 50% more if you change its use for residential or commercial," said John Longden, coordinator of The Pub is the Hub.

"I know of developers buying a rural pub, putting up a sign saying 'Bikers Welcome' and losing all the local trade, then saying the pub is not viable. This is a wake-up call for the community."
An earlier report in the Guardian on 23 July explored this problem in more depth. We learn of the corporate 'PubCos', turning once distinctive local pubs into branded clones, and using the 'beer tie' to impoverish landlords. We are also reminded of the words of one-time Liberal MP Hilaire Belloc.

The traditional pub has long been the cornerstone of British culture. If you think this is an exaggeration, then hear it from a Frenchman. Hilaire Belloc, the poet who made England his home in the early 20th century, spent much of his time quaffing flagons of ale in various taverns. Among all the guff about empire, cricket and the playing fields of Eton, Belloc thought he had pinned down where the heart of his adopted nation really lay. "When you have lost your inns," he said, "drown your empty selves. For you will have lost the last of England."
And losing them we are.

The Countryside Agency laid out the scale of the problem in 2001 when it reported that, for the first time since the Norman Conquest, more than half the villages in England had no pub. The 7,000 rural pubs that remain are closing at the rate of six a week.
This is not simply a matter of nostalgic sentiment. As CAMRA's Chief Executive noted in a recent press release,

"The pub provides a place for local groups to meet and a safe environment for friends and family to relax and enjoy each others company. The loss of a valued community pub will have a negative impact on the local economy, community and tourism. 69% of people recognise the important role pubs play in community life."
Politically, we have a choice. We can either support community action to save local pubs (as the Pub is the Hub and CAMRA's new campaign are now doing). Or we can take the view that we must not 'interfere' in the activities of corporate PubCos and property developers because 'market forces' are sacrosanct.


Policy-lite? No thanks

A debate has been raging about taxation policy at, of all places, 'LDO Talk' (a mailing list of Liberal Democrats Online, where the 'talk' is more usually about nerdy computer issues).

I have no problem with this; political debate is a healthy sign. What I have found revealing, though, is the assumption implicit in some participants' comments that controversial policy is not an option. Presumably they think the party should seek some kind of 'policy-lite' whose chief attribute is that it causes no offence. Anyone who has been around in the party for any length of time will know that this belief is not a new problem.

Taxation is always an important political issue but it is particularly sensitive for Liberal Democrats at the moment because of the controversy over the party's flagship policy of local income tax (LIT). This policy caused some
embarrassment for the party leader during the general election campaign. Then, immediately following the election, there was an internal row over whether LIT had been an electoral liability.

The party has now appointed a tax commission to make comprehensive policy recommendations. However, the waters have been muddied by some
premature spinning to the effect that the party will ditch its policy of a higher rate tax band for people earning more than £100,000.

I'll repeat here more or less what I said earlier today on 'LDO Talk'.

The political problem for the Liberal Democrats is broader than local income tax, broader even than taxation, and it is this. Whatever one's views on local taxation, most party members agree that the present system is unfair and presumably believe it must be reformed. If the party proposes to reform any taxation system in whatever way, it will create winners and losers. LIT or not, the party would therefore face a similar political challenge, which is how to sell its proposed reform to the electorate.

Until this year's general election, the Liberal Democrats used to complain that no-one knew what any of their policies were. For the first time at this general election, people did know what some of the party's policies were. And guess what? Some people didn't like them and the party's opponents criticised them. This is simply evidence that the party is playing in the big league now and it had better get used to it. The post-election panic within the party over LIT suggests that some of its members have not yet made the necessary adjustment.

There's an old saying, "If you try to please everybody, you'll end up pleasing nobody." If the party is to express any policies that are bold and meaningful, rather than bland and anodyne, it will attract some people and repel others. The party needs not just good policies but also the courage of its convictions.


Generational theft

Britain's post-war generation was the first to enjoy the full fruits of the welfare state and the last to be able to buy houses before prices rose sky-high.

Succeeding generations, especially those now under 35, are not so fortunate. By the time they retire (which may not be until they're 70), the state pension will be derisory. Already half of the tax they pay is being spent on pensions, healthcare and social services for the elderly, and this burden will increase with demographic change. Much of their remaining income goes in rent - paid to older property owners.

Younger generations are beginning to perceive this as generational theft on a massive scale. From their perspective, the 'baby boomers' enjoyed the good times but failed to make adequate provision for their old age, expecting succeeding generations of taxpayers to pick up the tab, while profiting from over-inflated property values.

Ed Vickers has started a blog titled
Out With The Old, inspired by the German pressure group and think tank, The Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations. Look out, too, for an article by Gareth Epps in the forthcoming issue of Liberator, where he argues that this year's Liberal Democrat election manifesto was skewed to the demands of retired people and baby boomers.

Take note of these views. Whatever you think of them, I predict you'll be hearing a lot more of such arguments. Indeed, a generational war, as opposed to the class divide, may become the defining feature of our politics over the next ten or twenty years.

PS: Read this BBC report.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?