Sunday, 31 August 2008

The kindness of strangers

I was travelling through to Elgin last night on the A96 and had a puncture. And when I managed to stop in a lay-by, I then discovered that I had no credit left on my phone with which to call out my breakdown assistance.

I have been shown how to change a tyre, but I wouldn't be confident enough to do it myself at this stage. I was therefore in a somewhat sticky situation.

Thankfully, a few minutes later a couple stopped and offered to help. The guy changed the tyre for me and waited until I'd got going again before heading on his way himself. The couple even waved away my offer to give them something in return for their generosity and time.

I think it's highly unlikely the couple concerned will be reading this, but I wish to thank them both for the extreme kindness they showed. Don't ever let anyone tell you that there are not plenty of good people around.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

A terrific speech from Obama

I didn't stay up to watch it last night, but thanks to the excellent BBC Parliament (which is probably providing better coverage of the US conventions than it does of our domestic party conferences), I managed to catch Barack Obama's acceptance speech this evening.

And I agree with The Burbler that it was really first class. In contrast to some previous Obama speeches, in which the rhetorical flourishes have been a little overblown for my liking, this combined vision with solid political positioning and detail.

Obama praised John McCain's service to his country, but pointed out that he has supported George W Bush's position on nine out of 10 occasion when voting in the Senate. He fleshed out his vision of what change would actually involve and I think anyone watching would say that he does have a pretty clear idea about where he wants to take the country.

And his vision was also clearly liberal - I think it's probably fair to say that Obama is the most liberal Democratic presidential candidate since George McGovern in 1972. Whether that will ultimately play well in November is uncertain, but I think Obama did enough to show that he is a candidate who is capable of providing both vision and practical politics. That makes him one hell of a formidable opponent for McCain to beat.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Actually, Darling, you were warned

Alistair Darling's interview with The Guardian is fairly extraordinary for all sorts of reasons.

Firstly, by admitting that the economy is possibly in its worst state for 60 years, he is just illustrating the extent of Labour's failure in government. Worse even than the Tory recessions of the 1980s and 1990s? Worse even than the stagflation of the 1970s following the oil price shock? Blimey, fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a very bumpy ride.

But of course, it isn't really happening, as the era of boom and bust is over. Who was it who said that? Oh yes, a chap called Brown. I wonder what happened to him?

Darling also claims that the government had no inkling that they were heading for a financial crisis. You could almost feel sorry for the chap, at the mercy of such forces beyond his control.

Except the thing is that they were warned, repeatedly, that the government was presiding over an unsustainable boom in cheap credit which was artificially inflating the economy. Take, for instance this from Lib Dem Treasury spokesman Vince Cable all the way back in 2004. But rather than take action, the government did nothing to curb the credit boom and the whole house came crashing down when the sands shifted.

Darling is also very frank about the government's failings. Take the conversation he had with Brown when the government lost the personal details of 26 million people. It's worth quoting in full: "I phoned Gordon up. I said, We appear to have lost two disks containing the personal details of just about every family in the country. We knew it was bad." What did Brown say? "He said it was bad."

Really? You don't say! You've just lost personal data on 26 million people and it's a bad thing? Strewth, with such insight, I'm amazed that Darling hasn't been offered a Harvard professorship in public administration.

Darling also admits that others in the Cabinet are after his job. He says: "There's lots of people who'd like to do my job. And no doubt," he adds, half under his breath, "actively trying to do it." Sounds rather like ferrets fighting in a sack to me. Given the rumours about a possible reshuffle and demotion/sacking for Darling, it strikes me that he's done this interview to try and shore up his position.

If that was his intention, then maybe he should have been a bit more effusive about the qualities of his boss. This is what he has to say about Brown's abilities to communicate: "But we've got a hell of a lot to do. We patently have not been able to get across what we are for, and what we are about." Can Brown communicate it? "Yes, I do think he can. I do think he will." Then why hasn't he? "Er, well," Darling falters. "Well, it's always difficult, you know."

Yes, it is difficult, but that's what Brown's paid so well to do. If he hasn't been able to get across thus far what Labour is for, what on earth makes Darling think he'll be able to do so in future?

But if the economy really is in its worst shape for 60 years, I don't think that anything Brown could do or say would make the slightest bit of difference. Labour won three terms in office by building a reputation for economic competence. That's now been shattered and Labour are doomed as a result - with or without Brown in charge.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

What price culture?

There's a bit of a kerfuffle going about the proposal for the National Galleries of Scotland to buy a couple of Titian paintings from the Duke of Sutherland for a cool £100 million in total. The paintings are apparently worth £300m and have been on loan from the Duke's family since 1947.

I'm currently listening to a discussion on Radio Five Live about whether public money should be used to fund their purchase. And as you would expect, people are queuing up to say that it shouldn't and that money should instead be spent on nurses/social workers/transport/other public works of the callers' choice.

I'm not so sure. I think a society which never spends anything on culture would be a much poorer one and I dislike the narrow utilitarianism which states that culture is automatically a less worthy cause than hospitals or roads.

The question for me is whether this proposed deal is good value for money. Certainly, on the face of it, acquiring assets worth £300m for a third of that does seem a generous offer, although it is worth noting that the valuation depends on the current boom in the art market being sustained. If the bottom falls out of the art market in a few years, the National Galleries could have ended up paying vastly over the odds.

And it's worth pointing out that the total £100m price tag for the two pictures is the cost of just one 92nd of an Olympic Games or about one 180th of the government's wretched £18 billion ID cards scheme. Nor is it likely that money would be diverted away from hospitals to pay for the pictures - the bulk of the sum would probably come from things like the lottery.

I should declare an interest: I'm a frequent visitor to the National Galleries. I know the paintings concerned and think they are among the greatest Renaissance paintings ever produced. I am therefore one of the people who would benefit if the pictures were retained in this country.

But I do have some concerns about the proposed deal. For a start, although I think that pictures like these should continue to be on public display, there is the obvious point that the UK does not have a divine right to have the pictures remain in this country. Would it really be so bad to have them go to a museum in Italy, Germany or the USA? And if it's argued that these two pictures are of such importance to our own culture that they should remain here, then why does exactly the same argument not apply to the Elgin Marbles? And if they are that important, should they be allowed to leave the country anyway? Should we not instead tighten up export controls, which in the UK are apparently much laxer than in several other European countries?

There is also the question of to what extent public funds should contribute to the deal. Although I do think that government funding has a role to play in funding culture and the arts, are the National Galleries expecting the public purse to pick up the whole £100m tab? And if not, what proportion are they expecting to get from public funds - 50m? 20m? 10m? What limit should be placed on public support for the purchase?

Ultimately, public bodies will have to decide what extent this is actually a good deal for them, or whether the money could be better spent elsewhere in the arts. I also think the National Galleries should be trying to raise as much of the £100m from private sources as possible and should also consider selling some of their surplus stock to fund the deal if it's thought necessary to keep the pictures. I suspect I might well contribute a small amount to such an appeal if asked.

Overall, I'd be quite happy for public money to contribute towards the purchase of these pictures if it's thought necessary to keep them in this country. I think the bulk of the funding should come from private sources. Arts bodies should not automatically expect that government will come to their aid, but should rely on their own initiative as much as possible. But we would all be poorer without some government support for culture. Culture does have its place in society, but that comes at a price.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Tavish Scott hasn't won yet

At least, according to the home page of the Scottish Lib Dems, which is still saying that the result of the leadership election will be announced on Tuesday.

I must say, not updating the site for 24 hours after the result has been declared looks a tad unprofessional. It's not exactly difficult to update a website, is it?

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Clan is Tim. Do we?

While I was staying in north Wales, I visited the village of Llanystumdwy (the headline on this posting is the closest phonetic spelling I can provide.

In many respects it's a typical Welsh village, fairly pretty but not especially noteworthy, apart from one thing: it was the boyhood home of David Lloyd George.

This makes it a special place for anyone with an interest in Liberal history. Lloyd George is one of the greatest Liberals of all time and still an inspiration for many of us today.

The Lloyd George museum in the village is a fascinating place. It has friendly, knowledgeable staff who go out of their way to make you feel welcome. And even if you think you know a lot about the Welsh Wizard, you're sure to find out things you didn't know about him: for instance, I was unaware of the extent of his support for a Jewish homeland. I was also ignorant of his calls for agricultural innovation, based on his own experiences of farming during the 1930s.

It's also fairly interesting to see inside the cottage where Lloyd George spent his formative years. And to complete the experience, his grave is situated just behind the museum. This is in a peaceful spot overlooking the river, fairly modest but somehow moving.

This is a good time for anyone with a interest in Lloyd George or in the achievements of the Liberal government of a century ago to visit. This year is the centenary of Lloyd George's introduction of old age pensions, next year the centenary of the People's Budget and 2011 is the hundredth anniversary of the National Insurance Act. A visit to the museum should act as an inspiration for liberals to try and emulate some of those great achievements.

And while I'm apologising...

I should also say sorry to all my fans (both of you) for the recent blogging hiatus, which was caused by my being away for a couple of weeks with no internet access.

The occasion was a family wedding in Shropshire which was an excellent occasion. And I decided to take the chance to visit a number of places which I'd wanted to go to for some time, so I stayed in Berwick and the Yorkshire Dales on the way down, and then headed over to north Wales.

Weather was absolutely lousy throughout - out of my fortnight away, I only had two days without any rain. Even by the standards of a British summer, that wasn't great.

Mike Rumbles: an apology

I wish to express my sincerest apologies to Mike Rumbles, as I continued my record of jinxing candidates in leadership elections by voting for them.

The only time I have ever voted for a successful leadership election candidate is now more than 20 years ago when I supported Paddy Ashdown. Since then, I have voted for Malcolm Bruce, Chris Huhne (twice) and Mike Rumbles (twice).

I have to say that I found my decision in this leadership election to be very difficult. In the end, I went for Mike as I felt he was the candidate most open to new ideas and to involving the grassroots of the party in taking the Scottish Lib Dems forward. I think he was the only candidate who really understood the way in which Scottish politics has been transformed since the Gnats have been in government.

However, I'm not certain that he really had a clear vision of where he wanted the party to go, and I thought his answers to the questions which I asked to all three leadership candidates were probably the worst overall.

In contrast, I thought Ross Finnie answered my questions the best and also had a reasonably clear idea of where he wanted to take the party. That was enough to earn him my second preference. My doubts about Ross were about whether he had the personality to be an effective leader rather than a second in command.

Tavish Scott's victory is certainly impressive - taking 59% of the vote in a three-cornered contest is a notable triumph. I like and respect Tavish, and think he's a formidable political operator. The reason I didn't vote for him was that in this election I think he was the safe 'no change' candidate and I need to be convinced that he really understands the scale of the challenges which lie ahead for the Scottish Lib Dems.

But I congratulate Tavish on his success and hope that he is able to set out a clear vision for a liberal Scotland and that he will make a real effort to build up the grassroots of the party and really involve us in taking the party forward.

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