Thursday, 29 November 2007

This bear is illegal

I am publishing this picture in the full knowledge that apparently by doing so I am insulting Islam and inciting hatred. I think I should be prosecuted.

Money for nothing?

There's a few things I don't understand about the Labour Party's latest funding scandals, now to be the subject of yet another police investigation.

Apparently, David Abrahams offered money towards Gordon Brown's leadership campaign but was turned down. And Wendy Alexander, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has now admitted that she received an illegal donation towards her campaign to lead the Scottish party.

The common denominator with these two funding issues is that neither of them actually faced a contest to become leader of their respective bits of the Labour Party. Both were unopposed, so what the hell were they spending the money on?

I'm also intrigued by the fact that Mr Abrahams was so impressed by the quality of the candidates for Labour's deputy leadership election that he offered funding for two of them. I can understand someone giving money to help a particular candidate get elected, but giving money to more than one campaign looks suspiciously like a wealthy businessman trying to buy influence by being well in with whoever came out on top.

But this whole mess again indicates the need for reform of the way political parties are funded - although I'm not convinced of the case for direct state funding of parties. Firstly, I think there needs to be a cap on the amount any one individual or organisation can give to a political party of, say, £50,000 per year. Secondly, I would like to encourage smaller donations to parties by introducing some sort of voucher or tax credit which people can use to make donations of up to £100 per year for the campaigning organisation(s) of their choice, pressure groups as well as political parties. That would mean that parties would become more focused on getting supporters, rather than relying on a few big donors. It would not be compulsory for people to use such vouchers/credits, and any unused funds could be returned to the Treasury.

Until measures like this are introduced, the party funding scandals will continue with monotonous regularity.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Grin and bear it

Some people might react to the news that Gillian Gibbons has been charged in Sudan with insulting Islam and inciting hatred as a result of calling a teddy bear 'Mohamed' with either shock or anger. My reaction is rather different - puzzlement.

I am genuinely bewildered that anyone, anywhere, could possibly be offended by the naming of a teddy bear. Is there really anyone whose faith is so insecure that they think that calling a teddy bear Mohamed is meant as an insult? Unless there is some significance to teddy bears in either Islam or Sudan that I am unaware of, this seems an utterly trivial thing to get worked up about.

But apparently there must be people who are offended by this, as the BBC report quotes a group called the Sudanese Assembly of the Udemas as saying that it's part of a Western plot against Islam, which is just bizarre.

I am glad to see that the Muslim Council of Britain has come out strongly against this nonsense and I have to say that the Muslims I know are sufficiently secure in their faith not to be in any way concerned about such matters. However, I do note that the MCB adopted a rather different attitude on the Danish cartoons controversy. Is there really such a difference between the naming of a teddy bear and cartoons depicting Mohamed? I don't really see it myself.

However, one reaction which I think would be completely out of place would be to condemn Sudan for being completely backward in its laws. If it is, then so is the UK. Let us not forget that in 1977 the late and unlamented Mary Whitehouse successfully brought a prosecution for blasphemy against Gay News for publishing this poem by James Kirkup. And just last week, the producers of Jerry Springer - The Opera were taken to court by some Christian extremists who accused them of blasphemy.

I think it's high time in this country that we got rid of our blasphemy laws, which only protect Christian beliefs. All religions ought to be able to stand up for themselves, without relying on some legal crutch whenever they feel their sensibilities have been offended. Whether it's the naming of a teddy bear, cartoons, poems or inspired satire, those with religious beliefs really should just learn to grin and bear it.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

It's in the post

My vote for the Lib Dem leadership election, that is. And as I said earlier, it's gone to Chris Huhne.

My reason for plumping for Chris was that I think of the two candidates he is the most likely to be able to articulate a liberal vision which can attract people to us. He has also shown himself to be a tough campaigner who is also calm under pressure. His economic experience and insights will also be important for us, as economics is not an area in which Lib Dems have often been associated as having much to say. I think Chris is likely to change that.

However, none of this is not to say that Nick Clegg would not make a good leader if he wins the contest. I think he is probably still the favourite to win (my prediction would be Clegg by 54% to 46% for Huhne). However, I think overall Clegg's abilities as a communicator have been somewhat oversold - quite often it amounts to warm words but not much else. I also think that Clegg finds it more difficult to deal with pressure, getting rattled a bit too easily or engaging in bluster to deal with awkward questions.

I therefore think that of the two, Chris Huhne would make the better leader.

Thanks Jonathan!

My prize for being one of the winners of Liberal England's DVD competition arrived on Friday. I haven't yet had a chance to see Taking Liberties, but I'm certainly looking forward to it. For those of you who don't know the film, it examines Labour's shocking record on taking away our civil liberties since 1997.

My thanks to Jonathan Calder for running the competition and to Lord Bonkers for drawing my name out of his top hat.

And never let it be said that Keith Chegwin does not have his uses.

Into Eden

On Thursday, I was at the newly-refurbished Eden Court Theatre in Inverness to see Blazin' Fiddles. This was my first visit to the theatre since it reopened a few weeks ago after being closed for more than two years for a refit which in the end cost £22m. This has been somewhat controversial locally and even cost the chairman of Highland Council's ecucation, culture and sport committee his job earlier this year after he called it "a bit of a waste of money".

However, just like the Scottish Parliament, if you go to the theatre, you can see just where the money has been spent. The box office is now a bright and welcoming area, extra bars and restaurants have been added, a smaller second auditoriun introduced, new lifts installed (there weren't any in the previous theatre) and new facilities added. The project has also involved the refurbishment of the former Bishop's Palace, which forms part of the complex and was in very poor condition. Overall, the investment has given Inverness a top-class arts and entertainment facility of which the area can be very proud.

The Blazin' Fiddles concert itself was very good, and if you're a fan of traditional Scottish music, I can certainly recommend seeing them.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

A load of balls

I'm sure I speak for everyone in Scotland in wishing the England football team the best of luck this evening. Don't I?

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Reaction to the data fiasco

Nich Starling is on good form with his posting on the data fiasco, pointing that the problems caused by this immense cock-up could last for generations.

Mary Reid was as shocked as everyone else and rightly asks why this has taken a whole month to become public.

Caron asks to what extent the staffing cuts made at HMRC have contributed to this disaster.

A number of people including David Nikel and Rob Knight point out that the loss of such personal data must mean an end to ID cards.

Charlotte Gore and Jonathan Calder both point out the government's hopeless record when it comes to IT projects and databases.

Goodnight Darling?

The news that the personal data of more than 25 million people has been lost is a blunder of such monumental proportions that it really does beggar belief.

According to the reports, the discs involved were sent just through an ordinary internal mail service, using a courier. This seems an almost unbelievably cavalier way to treat such sensitive date.

The first serious issue it raises is just how secure our personal data would be under the Labour government's proposed national ID database, which lies behind their appalling ID cards scheme. Why the hell should we trust the state to keep data about every aspect of our lives secure, if they can't do it for those claiming child benefit? Given that the ID database is going to be even more massive than the child benefit one, it seems very unlikely that the government is going to be able to keep everything on it completely secure. No system is perfect, and even if the national ID database were 99% secure (a very dubious assumption), that's still a helluva lot of personal data leaking from the system. This farce gives another reason why the Labour ID cards scheme must be ditched as soon as possible and resisted if it continues to proceed.

But on the child benefit data itself, there are some very real concerns about the way the government, particularly Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, has dealt with this matter. Darling has already been dismally unimpressive in his handling of the Northern Rock fiasco and he needs to come up with some answers fast if he wishes to survive. If he can't, then it defnitiely will be Goodnight Darling.

For example, what was the reason for the data needing to be transferred? Has this sort of large-scale data transfer taken place before? What security arrangements, if any, were in place to protect this data? Why was the decision taken to transfer the data on computer discs using an internal mail service? Was this normal practice?

And the two most important that I want answers to are why the hell it took the Chancellor 10 whole days to condescend to let us know that this data had gone missing and what compensation arrangements are going to be put in place for those millions of people who may now need to shift bank accounts and maybe get new National Insurance numbers?

Am I angry about this? You bet. And I'm not even one of the ones who is personally affected by this.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

A question of culture

One thing that I've not yet seen discussed in the Lib Dem leadership election is the whole issue of culture. I think that's a shame, as I believe it is something on which we could have a fair amount to say. I think that as a party, we quite rightly stress that quality of life is at least as important as material wealth, although I don't know whether we always discuss what that means in practice.

One important area of quality of life is cultural activities. I am fortunate in that I am able to take part in quite a range of activities, such as going to museums and art galleries and to the theatre and concerts. Other people are not so fortunate, because of a lack of facilities, money, transport or education, or some combination of all of these.

I think we as a party need to do some serious thinking about culture and what we could or should do to support it. What role should the state (at a local or a national level) have in supporting cultural activities? How do we avoid cultural funding becoming a 'middle class subsidy'? Should funding for things like the arts just be left to commercial funding or the National Lottery, and if so, how can potentially controversial or unpopular cultural activities be supported - should they just be left to wither and die? How far does artistic freedom of expression extend? Should cultural funding support big institutions such as the Royal Opera House or the BBC or should it be more focused on grassroots activity? What should we do to encourage cultural activity in schools, especially considering the pressures on time and resources which the national curriculum entails? What role does culture have in social justice and tackling inequality?

I'd welcome any views on these subjects and I'll be interested to see whether either of the leadership candidates expresses any opinions on these issues.

Jock and awe

Jock Coats' latest in his 'Revolutionary Liberalism' series can be found here. Well worth a read.

Cut it out, Chris!

I made up my mind to vote for Chris Huhne as the next Lib Dem leader after watching Thursday's Question Time debate in which I thought he was clearly the better performer, relaxed and confident, able to articulate a clear liberal vision while having an obvious mastery of detail. Although today's Politics Show debate did not change my mind, I thought Chris did himself absolutely no favours whatsoever.

The problem is that although there are legitimate questions to be asked about some quotes which Nick Clegg has come out with in the past, there are ways and means of doing that. Talking over Nick and preventing him from answering, which is what Chris was doing in the programme, is not only silly, it's unnecessary. Nick was visibly riled by the end, and quite rightly so.

Also, Chris has to get a grip on his campaign workers. If people in his campaign are putting out briefings without his approval entitled "Calamity Clegg", then he needs to give them a swift kick up the backside and tell them that if that's how they work, their services are no longer required on his campaign. That sort of briefing is unacceptable and I think heads should roll as a result.

UPDATE: I see similar things are being said by Charlotte Gore, Linda Jack (twice), Jeremy Hargreaves, "Harold Muckle", Colin Ross, Joe Taylor, and Julian H. Doubtless there will be plenty of others.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

It's make my mind up time

Tonight's Question Time debate between Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg is probably the only chance I'll have of seeing the two Lib Dem leadership candidates in action together and it's certainly helped me decide who I'm going to vote for. I decided to give the candidates marks out of 10 in each of 5 categories - vision, charisma, passion/forcefulness, grasp of detail and ability to deal with pressure to see if a clear winner emerged, which I think it has.

But first a review of the programme. On the first question, about the previous leaders, both gave very good answers, stressing the need for unity, with Clegg possibly the more passionate in his answer. However, I thought he struggled a bit with the supplementary question from Dimblebore, initially asking "Did I say that?", which is never a good thing to say as the answer is invariably: "Yes, you did." He then claimed that either it was a completely different context or he had forgotten the quote, which left me with the impression he was squirming. Huhne, meanwhile, was utterly solid.

Both answered the question about hung parliaments very well and I don't think there was an awful lot to choose between them. On Trident, which is clearly a point of difference between them, I thought Clegg came perilously close to distorting Huhne's position, seeming to say he wanted to spend lots of money on a new generation of nuclear weapons, whereas, as Huhne himself said, he is questioning whether a minimum deterrent is necessary and, if so, what form that deterrent should take. Personally I would like Huhne to come right out and say that nuclear weapons are utterly useless in today's world and that, with just 1% of the world's nuclear missiles, there is no way the UK can play any meaningful role in multilateral disarmament, so we might as well get rid of them anyway. I thought he gave a very good answer about Pakistan, while Nick gave a good analysis on Russia. Overall, though, I thought Chris had a slightly better grasp of world affairs than Nick.

On the tax cuts question, Huhne got the chance to set out the party's tax plans succinctly, whereas Nick didn't really get the chance to answer that one due to Dimblebore's intervention. The more interesting question was the next one, about which one was which. Clegg at first stressed how similar they were, which I thought was a slight mistake, as it gave Chris the chance to stress his background and the way he'll be able to take on Gordon Brown in the economic field. Nick responded about the passions that brought him into politics, which was very effective, but in the follow-up on education I thought Chris gave a very good answer, stressing the need for people to be enthused by learning.

The question about young people they both answered very well. On the Cameron question, I thought Clegg gave a very good answer, stressing the gulf of difference between his approach and Cameron's. Huhne, meanwhile, had his one weak moment of the night, giving us the Reagan quote on experience which was so beloved by Ming - I swear if I hear it again, I'll scream. And finally, the question on the other candidate's good qualities was a fitting note to finish on.

Overall, then, what is my verdict? Firstly, I'll be happy with whichever of them becomes leader, as both demonstrated that they have very considerable talent. However, I felt there was one of them who had the edge, who showed he can provide a liberal vision with passion, who is calm under pressure, has a solip grasp of detail and will be a feisty campaigner against our opponents.

My scores on the doors were: Vision - Clegg 7, Huhne 8; Detail - Clegg 8, Huhne 9; Charisma - Clegg 8, Huhne 7; Passion/forcefulness - Clegg 7, Huhne 8; Pressure - Clegg 6, Huhne 9. Totals: Clegg 36, Huhne 41.

I shall therefore be voting for Chris Huhne in the leadership election.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Aren't staff meant to be neutral?

I was looking at the list of supporters of both leadership candidates last night and on both of them I recognised a number of names of people whom I believe to be party or parliamentary staff. I was under the impression that such staff were meant to remain publicly neutral - can anyone tell me if this is the case? If it is, shouldn't both campaigns remove the names of such people from their supporters list?

This comes on top of allegations that staff resources have been used to promote one side of the argument on policy debates at recent federal party conferences. I suspect there might have to be a question to the Federal Executive at the next federal conference in Liverpool asking them to clarify just what the roles of staff should be in internal party matters, especially where such staff are funded by public money.

Lessons from Canada

When I was in Ottawa, I went for a tour round the Canadian parliament. Although it's clearly based on the British model, there are some interesting differences.

For a start, it appears that there's the dangerous innovation of allowing every MP in the Canadian House of Commons their own desk within the chamber, meaning that MPs are more likely to attend debates as they can actually get some work done while listening to their colleagues speak. I suspect the British House of Commons is probably too small to allow that to happen at the moment, which is another good argument for having a slimmed down HoC with substantial power devolved to the nations and regions of the UK.

On the subject of devolved power, the debate I attended in the Canadian HoC was on education and it was interesting to hear a speaker from the Parti Quebecois making many of the same arguments beloved of our own dear SNP, to the effect that all the province's problems would be solved if it had full national sovereignty. In a world where national boundaries are becoming increasingly irrelevant, I find such arguments rather quaint. What matters is not so much national sovereignty but how well political power is used and to what extent shared problems can be tackled. Separatist arguments, whether in Scotland or in Quebec, always seem to ignore these issues.
However, it was a reminder that even if the UK were to move in a more federalist direction, along similar lines to Canada, it would not mean that questions about independence would magically disappear, as some people appear to believe. Although I think federalism is the best answer to nationalism, the latter would still continue to exist and we must recognise that.

Allegory of good government

While I was in Siena, I took the opportunity

of climbing up the campanile of the Palazzo Pubblico, which is the town hall in the city. Siena is one of the few Italian cities to have a civic rather than a religious building as its main focus and the views from the top of the campanile are certainly worthwhile. Afterwards, it's worth popping in to the Museo Civico in the building, to see the fresco paintings by Lorenzetti entitled Allegories of Good and Bad Government, which I thought were excellent. Appropriately enough, the fresco devoted to Good Government has survived rather better than the Bad Government one, which has deteriorated rather badly over the centuries.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Normal service will now be resumed

Hello again. The reason there haven't been any postings to this site for a couple of weeks is that I've been away on holiday in Canada and Italy. I was touring round Ontario and Quebec and then had a long weekend in Siena, all of which I can thoroughly recommend. Did all the usual touristy things, such as Niagara Falls, the Olympic Stadium in Montreal and the CN Tower in Toronto. One of the biggest disappointments, though, was discovering that the Skydome stadium in Toronto no longer exists - it's now very boringly called the Rogers Centre after a takeover by a telecoms firm a few years ago.

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