Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Another small blow for freedom

It's been somewhat overshadowed by the Trafigura affair, but it's good that Dutch MP Geert Wilders has managed to overturn the ban on him coming to the UK which was introduced by former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith (whatever happened to her?).

I am no apologist for his views, which as I blogged in February are based on falsehoods and distortions. But I don't believe he incites violence and so he should be free to come to this country to air his views. People like Wilders can best be tackled if their opinions are exposed and argued with, not given a false sense of martyrdom by being banned from coming in.

It's a remarkable achievement...

...to go from being a company known by relatively few people to becoming a symbol of global corporate evil within the space of 24 hours.

It's even more remarkable to do so without having much coverage in the mainstream media.

Today's events surrounding Trafigura and its doomed attempt to gag coverage of its toxic dumping in the Ivory Coast certainly show the ability of the internet/blogs/Twitter to make the running on a story like this, although Alix Mortimer is probably right that this would all have been in vain without political action also being taken. It certainly shows an ability for new media outlets to react in a more flexible way than traditional media, very few of whom took the decision to publish the parliamentary question at the centre of the storm.

Some might believe this demonstrates the inability of corporations to control and censor adverse information about themselves. Certainly, where information is in the public domain or easily accessible, it's stupid and futile for any company or government even to attempt to keep embarrassing information under wraps.

But let's not kid ourselves that this is anything other than a small victory for freedom. We all only found out about the Trafigura toxic dumping only as a result of them taking their blunderbus and aiming it squarely at their own feet by attempting to censor reporting of Parliament. The injunction had been in place for weeks until it was revealed in Paul Farrelly's question.

There are doubtless numerous corporations whose sins we haven't heard of, because they are able to use injunctions and gagging clauses to prevent the public from finding about their crimes and misdemeanours.

The main benefit of this whole affair has been to let sunshine in on the whole panoply of ways in which press freedom is limited in this country. Using injunctions to gag parliamentary reporting is only the most extreme example of the limitations placed upon the press. Whether it's our absurd libel laws, which even restrict legitimate scientific enquiry, or the increasing threat from rules governing breach of confidentiality, the reality is that the UK has some of the most restrictive laws governing freedom of expression and press freedom of any democratic country.

While we should celebrate that Trafigura and Carter-Ruck have been defeated in this instance, it's only a small step in the wider battle for freedom opf expression.

A question

Imagine you're a multinational firm facing the following question being asked in Parliament:

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.

Do you (a) realise that few people pay much attention to what happens in Parliament and that even if it is reported in the media, not too many people will actually read the reports, or (b) get a gagging order against a national newspaper which tries to report the story, thereby giving the story real legs and encouraging websites across the world to publish the details and thereby highlight the absurd lengths you're going to in order to suppress a story of legitimate public concern, in the process trampling on centuries of parliamentary freedom?

Answers on a used injunction to Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors, please.

I'm delighted that the Lib Dems have realised the importance of this issue and are tabling an urgent question about it.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Gnats face both ways on defence

More fantasy politics from our beloved Gnats, this time talking about defence.

Angus Robertson, the MP for RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth, has been outlining how he thinks Scotland could go it alone on defence when freed of the clutches of the Evil English.

To an extent that's fair enough: you wouldn't expect a Gnat MP to do anything else but bang on about how Scotland will be a land of milk and honey come the happy day when independence is achieved and all of Scotland's problems are solved instantly. The fact that Scotland would have to face the significant cost of shelling out for its own defences should it ever gain independence is largely irrelevant.

But what really got my attention was Robertson's statement that the remains of the UK could continue to use military bases in an independent Scotland.

Let me see if I've got this straight. Robertson wants the supposed benefits of Scotland going it alone on defence AND he wants England to continue to base its forces north of the border?

Why the hell should England do that? If Scotland did go it alone, why on earth would England continue to subsidise Scotland in that way? If Scotland did ever become independent, you can be certain that both RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth would see their squadrons withdrawn to RAF Lineham or RAF Brize Norton quicker than you can say 'massive blow to Moray's economy'.

Defence is one of those areas that Scotland would more or less have to build up from scratch if it ever became independent, with all the costs that would involve. And it's far too important a subject for people like Robertson to indulge in the sort of juvenile gesture politics he's been displaying today.

Even MPs deserve natural justice

People have rightly been angered over the behaviour of many MPs with regard to their expenses. It has been a tale of greed and, in some cases, of downright corruption.

But that doesn't mean that MPs have forfeited any right to natural justice. MPs have the same right as anyone else to know the nature of any charges against them and to know that they will be subject to a fair process in dealing with these.

It's not a principle that MPs have always applied when dealing with other people, particularly in some of the assaults on civil liberties which the Labour government has introduced, such as control orders.

But MPs have discovered today why such principles are important. Sir Thomas Legg's introduction of new standards relating to expenses claimed for cleaning and gardening means that MPs are being made subject to rules that are being applied retrospectively, which is an abominable principle. As a result, Gordon Brown is having to repay more than £12,000 and Nick Clegg over £900.

Legg's introduction of a £3,000 limit on cleaning and gardening seems to me to be a wholly arbitrary decision. He could have decided that having MPs claiming for cleaning and gardening was not 'wholly, exclusively and necessarily' related to their parliamentary duties and thus should be paid back in full. That would be a tough call for many MPs, but he would at least be applying the rule which applied at the time. Or he could have decided that gardening and cleaning were entirely legitimate expenses for MPs and that nobody should therefore pay back any of these costs.

But he's done neither - he decided to introduce a wholly arbitrary limit under which cleaning and gardening expenses are 'deemed' reasonable if they are under £3,000. Why £3k and not £2k or £5k? There doesn't seem any particular reason to have chosen that figure.

As it is, Legg's introduction of such a limit would seem to breach Article 11 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed." Those rights apply even to people we might not approve of, including MPs.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Michael Gove: An apology

I apologise that Michael Gove seems to have drawn his narrative of British history from my rather jokey suggestion a few weeks back. The main difference is that Gove appears to be serious.

If you want to know why Gove's proposed history curriculum is so absurd, just read these two terrific postings by the awesome President for Life of the People's Republic, as well as Mark Pack's posting.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Salmond, debates and the Gray man

Lib Dem Voice has published my views on the election debates controversy in the latest in the series of posts from Scottish Lib Dem bloggers, Haggis, Neeps and Liberalism. You can find it here.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Carol Thatcher should sue!

I'm not a fan of Strictly Come Dancing. Nor have I ever seen Hole in the Wall, which from the trailers seems like a prime argument for abolishing the licence fee.

Anton Du Beke has therefore rarely entered my consciousness. Even if you came up to me with his photo and told me: "This is Anton Du Beke, who has achieved minor celebrity through appearing on a TV dance show," I'd just have to take your word for it.

But I'm talking about him today because of the story about him apologising after calling his dance partner a 'Paki'.

The Beeb believes that his apology puts an end to the matter. This seems like astonishing double standards, given that Carol Thatcher was axed from The One Show for calling someone a 'golliwog'.

The corporation says the difference between Thatcher and Du Beke is that the latter apologised for his remarks whereas Thatcher didn't. But an apology wasn't enough to save Big Ron Atkinson from being sacked as a football pundit by ITV after calling Marcel Desailly a 'thick nigger'.

Now, there's certainly an argument for saying that using such racial epithets, unpleasant though they might be, shouldn't automatically lead to someone losing their job. I have some sympathy with that view - I think there's a big difference between Carol Thatcher referring to someone as a golliwog in a private conversation and, say, a policeman using the term when searching a young black man.

And you can certainly accuse the Beeb of having skewed priorities by getting rid of Carol Thatcher for her comment, but allowing the BNP on Question Time to peddle their filth.

But the point is, if the use of such terms is thought so unacceptable that people can lose their jobs over them, it shouldn't matter too much whether someone apologises or not - the damage has been done.

If Du Beke is not axed by the Beeb, I think Carol Thatcher should sue the corporation for sex discrimination, as she's certainly been treated differently from a man in the same situation. I think she'd stand an excellent chance of winning.

Sloppy talk from Cameron

I suspect it was just sloppy wording, but I was intrigued by the way David Cameron phrased his rather vacuous pledge of respecting Scotland should he become Prime Minister.

Now leave aside the fact that respect has to be a two-way process. I doubt that Alex Salmond is going to do anything other than continually provoke fights between the Scottish Government and Westminster, in the way he's done over the past few years.

And ignore also the fact that respect can't hide the fact that there will be difficult decisions that have to be made about budgets and priorities, even without any manufactured disputes.

Let's look at how Cameron actually worded his pledge of respect. He said: "I would govern with respect because I know that even if we do well, we are unlikely to get a majority of Scottish seats and so we have to govern and work with the Scottish administration."

I'm sure it's unintentional, but that implies that if somehow the Tories did get a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster, they wouldn't feel the need to work with the Scottish Government, even though it's a completely separate Parliament elected by a different system and so is not responsible to Westminster.

In itself this probably doesn't matter much, but if Prime Minister Cameron is this sloppy when he's negotiating with the Scottish Government, I'm afraid Alex Salmond is going to run rings round him.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Brown's Labour conference speech: first draft

And so today, in the midst of events that are transforming our world, we meet united (apart from those idiots Purnell and Blears, obviously) and determined to fight for the future.

Our country confronts the biggest choice for a generation. It’s a choice between two parties, yes. But more importantly a choice between two directions for our country. (You can tell I was a crap Chancellor, as I can't count beyond two).

In the last eighteen months we have had to confront the biggest economic choices the world has faced since the 1930s, as a result of my stunning incompetence in regulating the financial system and failure to stop the unsustainable debt-led boom.

And times of great challenge mean choices of great consequence, so let me share with you a little about the choices we are making. Our first choice is to blame anyone but ourselves for the economic chaos. And our second choice is to splurge even more dosh on our ballooning deficit between now and the election, to really screw things up for the next government. And our third choice is to make ineffective gestures which might get a headline or two, such as our VAT cut last year. We also made the choice to introduce a mortgage rescue scheme which has benefited only a
handful of homeowners.

And although we're hopeless, the Tories would be even worse. Did you know they eat babies and indulge in Satanic rituals under the guise of Bullingdon Club drinking sessions?

As for the bankers, I guarantee that they will all be whipped three times daily and survive in future on a of bread and a glass of water. The fact that I have no real ability to enforce this is irrelevant, as is my own failure to regulate the banking system properly.

Now it's time for some buzzwords about fairness, ignoring the fact that the gap between rich and poor has widened under 12 years of Labour rule. The word values should also be used a lot.

I grew up in an ordinary family in an ordinary town (unlike those toffs Cameron and Osborne). Like most families on middle and modest incomes we believed in making the most of our talents.
But we knew that no matter how hard we worked free education was our only pathway to being the best we could be, but despite that I'm proud of saddling students with tuition fees and record levels of debt.

And I come from a family which, independent and self reliant as it was, could not have kept going without the compassion and caring of the NHS which has not been a sixty year mistake but a sixty year liberation. Take that, you swivel-eyed loon Hannan.

And it has been those experiences, and that background, that has taught me that yes, too much government can make people powerless, but that won't stop me from leading the bossiest and most authoritarian government of modern times, which wants to make 11 million people prove they are not paedophiles before taking the neighbours' kids to swimming lessons.

We will not allow those on middle and modest incomes to be buffeted about in a storm not of their making. We'll just create the most complicated tax system anywhere in the western world, so that people won't realise that when we give them a minimum wage and tax credits (pause for cheers), we're just going to take it back by other means.

And so this is our choice – to make rules about how to toughen the rules on those who break the rules, as the more rules we have, the better. That's why we'll introduce new rules on bankers’ bonuses (pause for boos). And any director of any of our banks who is negligent will be disqualified from holding any such post, although such rules won't apply to Prime Ministers or former Chancellors of the Exchequers, obviously.

In the uncharted waters we sail, the challenge of change demands nothing less than a new model for our economy, a new model for a more responsible society and a new model for a more accountable politics. Do you think if I say the word 'new' enough, people will forget we've been in power for 12 years?

Staying with the status quo is not an option. The issue is not whether to change, but how, although there can't possibly be any change which involves me leaving Downing Street.

It's now time for some guff about the economic principles which underlie my approach, although obviously I don't want people to remember any of my previous principles like the 'Golden Rule' on borrowing. I probably also ought to mention the Post Office somewhere in here, despite my government's record of closing thousands of post offices. And I also ought to say some green buzzwords as well.

Next I'm going to announce all sorts of spending pledges on education, jobs and care for the elderly, even though we won't be able to afford a single one of them due to the government deficit. But I'm absolutely not going to announce any spending cuts anywhere to pay for them.

However, I do have to say something about the deficit, so I'll pretend that by passing a new law, the problem can somehow be tackled. It's nonsense, but I'm hoping no-one will notice that. I'll also mention a rise in National Insurance to help tackle the deficit, even though it's a tax on jobs.

By the way, did I mention the Tories want to burn down every hospital and school in the country? In contrast, under Labour the UK is a land of milk and honey (insert all the buzzwords here about the minimum wage etc to get the delegates cheering).

Now it's time for some more authoritarian stuff. I think teenage mums should be locked up. We also need to boss parents around a bit more. And all our teenagers are drunken yobs who must be given ASBOs. We're also going to backtrack on 24-hour drinking which was introduced by the evil previous government (Tony Blair's, obviously).

I'm also going to continue the fear-mongering over terrorism and immigration. Bloody foreigners must continue to have ID cards, but I'm not going to make them compulsory for British citizens, even though we're going to keep the massive ID database which underlies them.

I love Britain, I do.

Time for a name-check for President Obama, in the hope that people will think I'm just like him. I probably also ought to mention some guff about all the problems the world faces, even though I don't have a clue how to deal with most of them. Overseas aid (pause for cheers).

Did I mention I love the NHS and will guarantee unlimited funding for it, so that we can get rid of all diseases? Unlike the Tories, who want to leave everyone to die horribly on a hospital trolley.

But a fair and responsible Britain must be an accountable Britain. Tory MPs who fiddled their expenses should be drowned in their moats. I'm aware that some Labour MPs were also on the take (yes, Blears and Morley and Moran, I'm looking at you).

And so where there is proven financial corruption by an MP and in cases where wrong-doing has been demonstrated but Parliament fails to act we will give constituents the right to recall their Member of Parliament. But we're not going to legislate on this before the election, even though we could.

I'm also going to announce a referendum on the unproportional Alternative Vote system, even though we promised a referendum on electoral reform in 1997 and never delivered. I'm also going to end the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, even though I've had 12 years to do something about it and not done it. Who knows, both these pledges could be enough to get one or two Lib Dems into voting for us, the fools.

I’ve been honest with you about where we’ve got it right, which is actually not very much, if I were actually being honest. And where we’ve fallen short and have to do more, which is in just about every area.

Did I mention the Tories are evil toffs?

And so I say to the British people the election to come will not be about my future, as we all know I'm doomed.

And I say to you now: Insert peroration here, not that anyone will actually believe a word I've said.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Lib Dem Federal Conference: Vince Cable

The Sage of Twickenham, Vince Cable, also addressed conference yesterday and it was as usual very good stuff. It's absolutely no reflection on Vince that following his speech I took to my sickbed for the rest of the day.

You can see his speech here.

Lib Dem Federal Conference: Tim Farron

Tim Farron, the excellent MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, gave a terrific and passionate speech to the conference yesterday.

Annoyingly, I can't actually find a video of it to put up, but you can read his speech here.

Lib Dem Federal Conference: Real Women

My amendment on Real Women was accepted for debate on Saturday afternoon.

I knew even before starting that it was a battle I was never likely to win, and so it proved. Speaker after speaker lined up to oppose me and the result was that the policy was passed without my amendment.

This means that we now have policy on airbrushing of images which I think is essentially unworkable, but I can't say I'm too downhearted. It was good to have the debate and it would have been an amazingly dull session without my amendment being discussed.

One point that was made during the debate which I meant to address, but forgot to do so in my summing up. A parallel had been drawn with the laws on drink driving, saying that these had preceded a cultural change in the way we now see drink driving as unacceptable. However, I'd point out that the cultural change started to happen long before the drink driving laws were toughened up. I'd also point out that you can easily define a certain level of alcohol in the bloodstream which is unacceptable and that it's far more difficult to define what is and isn't an unrealistic portrayal of women (and men for that matter).

But that's now in the past and I was delighted that the rest of the Real Women proposals were passed.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

A complete history of England

Ancient Britons felt blue. Romans came, saw and conquered, built a wall and left. Alfred burned some cakes. 1066 and all that. Magna Carta died in vain. Agincourt and Crecy*. Henry VIII had six mothers-in-law. Frankie and Betty bowled out the Armada. Charles I lost his head. George III went mad and lost America. Nelson was armless. At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender. Victoria invents sponge cakes and waterfalls and Prince Albert invents the Prince Albert. Two World Wars and one World Cup. Extra-time with the Argies.

Is that all OK for the officially recognised patriotic version, Melanie?

* But don't mention who actually won the Hundred Years' War, natch.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Will we myth history if it's left in the past?

I saw Stephen's posting the other day about the way history is taught in schools and thought about posting a response then.

But I'm glad I didn't, as today I read another couple of articles which touch on this debate, from the appalling Melanie Philips and the mercurial Yasmin Alibhai-Brown respectively. Both bemoan the lack of historical knowledge among so many young people today, as shown by a survey that showed some people think Winston Churchill was the first man on the moon or that the vast majority of people couldn't name a single 19th century British Prime Minister. But they do so from radically different standpoints: Philips because a lack of historical knowledge undermines patriotism and Alibhai-Brown because it undermines our ability to think critically about our society.

These two articles highlight the two contrasting approaches to teaching the subject that Stephen highlighted: history as myth and history as a means of examing the truth about our society.

Like Stephen, I wasn't educated in Scotland, so I can't comment directly on the way history is taught here. But like him, I would be surprised if field trips to Culloden or Bannockburn just promoted a narrow nationalistic outlook. I recall my own schooldays when we had trips up to the Imperial War Museum in London: they didn't turn me into a raving Teutonophobe or a flag-waving British patriot; if anything just the reverse. That's why I think Alibhai-Brown's approach is rather more rooted in reality than Melanie Philips.

But there is one sense in which Philips is correct, which is that any society does have to have some idea of where it has come from if it is to have shared values that keep people from being constantly at one another's throats. Whether we think of ourselves as Scottish, British, English, Jamaican, British Asian or whatever, there does have to be some understanding of what that means and where that identity comes from.

However, one question I do wish to ask is whether the English have an unusual lack of interest in their own history. In Scotland, the vast majority of people will have at least some awareness of the Highland Clearances, and almost every TV programme on Scotland's history will say something about it - as Peter Capaldi's excellent A Portrait Of Scotland did last week. But in England, knowledge of the Enclosure Acts - which had similar aims of creating larger agricultural units and had the effect of driving a lot of people away from land they had previously claimed ownership of - is more or less confined to specialist academic historians.

Now, maybe this doesn't matter too much. Perhaps Scotland is held back by focusing too much on its history and England benefits from its amnesia about its past. And to take a more extreme example, the conflict in Northern Ireland has been fuelled by a striking obsession with past wrongs, with both sides commemorating ancient battles and rivalries which are perhaps better left to decay gently within the pages of dusty history books.

But history IS important. Maybe it doesn't matter too much if students don't know who Lord Liverpool or Lord Rosebery were. Maybe it doesn't particularly matter that the English tend to think of an anti-Semitic rapist and probable murderer who barely visited his kingdom and bled it dry to fund his military adventures in the Middle East as a 'good king' (Richard I). Or that a well-regarded military commander, able administrator and literate Renaissance prince is popularly viewed as a deformed hunchbacked tyrannical monster who committed infanticide (Richard III).

However, a lack of historical understanding of our society and how we got to where we are now will affect us. Alibhai-Brown is absolutely correct that understanding our history is a key part of thinking about where we're going as a society. Our colonial past does have an impact on the sort of society we are now, for instance. And to take one important recent example, Tony Blair's lack of historical understanding certainly contributed to getting us entangled in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But, as Philips shows, if we don't have a critical understanding of how our past affects the way we are now, there are all too many people willing to fill the gap with myths. Philips seems to want to cultivate an uncritical patriotism which somehow blames 'multiculturalism' for the lack of understanding of our past. That's the same sort of myth-making territory that people like the BNP occupy with their dream of a country which is exclusively white and Christian, rather than recognising that Britain has been shaped by and benefited from successive waves of immigration.

The same myth-making tradition is also present among some strands of Scottish nationalism. To listen to some people, you might get the impression that the next significant date in Scottish history after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 (in my view a necessary defeat for the Jacobite dreams of a revived absolutist monarchy) was 1967, when Scotland's football team beat England 3-2 to become 'World Champions'. I exaggerate, but not by much. It's the same myth-making which has resulted in Braveheart becoming such a popular film among nationalists, despite it being a complete historical travesty.

So, where does all this leave us now? Well, one thing I can definitely say is that Henry Ford got it completely wrong: history is NOT more or less bunk. Sure, historical parallels are never exact and history is always written by the victors (the popular view of Richard III referred to above was largely created by Tudor writers seeking to justify the victory of the usurper known to history as Henry VII). But without it, we will be prey to being dominated more by myths than reality - and that could lead us to some very nasty places indeed. It's in our own interests to ensure that hsitory has a future.

I agree with Brendan Barber

Brendan Barber is absolutely right.

I'm so glad we've moved on from the days when the governing party's economic incompetence led to recession which left 3 million people on the dole.

I'm delighted we no longer have a government which attacks some of the poorest people in scoiety, taking away their benefits and even turning them out of their homes if they can't work.

It makes a refreshing change not to have a government which blindly supports right-wing Republican presidents in their military escapades.

It's terrific not to have a government which panders to the right-wing tabloid press on issues like immigration.

And I'm sure I'm not alone in welcoming the fact that we no longer have a government which doesn't care about the gap between rich and poor.

Yep, Brendan Barber's totally correct. If we had all those things happening, there would undoubtedly be riots in the streets.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Delight for Michael Shields

Having blogged a while back about Jack Straw's disgraceful decision to deny a pardon for jailed Liverpool fan Michael Shields, I'm delighted that Straw has now reversed that stance and released Mr Shields.

While this is a very welcome decision, we should not forget that Mr Shields spent four years in jail for a crime he didn't commit. And Straw unnecessarily prolonged that hell by first of all denying he had the right to issue a pardon and then refusing to accept the clear evidence that anyone with even the slightest awareness of this case could see: that Michael Shields was innocent. I don't see what new evidence could have appeared in the last couple of months which Straw would not have been aware of when he made his original decision.

But having said that, today is more about celebrating that Mr Shields is a free and innocent man once more.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

This is what health fascism looks like

The British Medical Association is a threat to to our freedom.

That's the only conclusion I can come to with the news today that they're seeking a total ban on alcohol advertising. This is an outrageously over the top response to the problems we have in the UK with regard to booze abuse.

Let's be clear about this: the doctors want to ban the promotion of a perfectly legal product, enjoyed by millions every day, on the grounds that doing so will somehow reduce the problems of binge drinking and the health problems which result. This is nonsense.

If such a ban were introduced, I doubt it would make any real difference to the levels of binge drinking in this country. People don't over-indulge in booze because they've seen an ad on the telly promoting a particular brand of wine or beer - they get drunk because they want to, because of problems in their lives, because they don't know their limits, because they're having too much fun to stop, because of peer pressure, because of 100 different reasons. Indeed, I don't recall seeing too many ads for Buckfast on the telly, but that doesn't stop it being a favourite tipple among teen binge drinkers.

As well as being ineffective, such a ban would also be wrong in principle. This isn't the same as banning tobacco advertising. That's a product which has absolutely positive side, whereas there are numerous health benefits claimed for moderate consumption of alcohol. So we've got the strange situation that doctors' leaders are wanting to ban the promotion of a product which, in moderation, can have significant health benefits - crazy or what?

And a booze ad ban would also have other effects. It's estimated it would cost the media industry somewhere in the region of £180m in advertising revenue, at a time when many companies are suffering significantly as a result of the recession. And according to this story in The Times, drink companies are the second biggest sponsors (behind the financial services sector) of sport in this country, supplying a total of £487 million last year. I wonder how the BMA would propose to fill that £1.4 billion gap between now and the London Olympics if alcohol sponsorship were withdrawn tomorrow?

It's time to stop this health fascism nonsense in its tracks. The mad medical zealots can't be allowed to erode our freedom any further.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Farewell to Keith Waterhouse 1929-2009

Today is a sad day for all of us who care about the English language, as Keith Waterhouse has died.

Most of the tributes to him are likely to focus on Billy Liar and Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, which is fair enough, as both are modern classics.

But as someone who works as a journalist, I wish to highlight Waterhouse's contribution in that area. His book Waterhouse on Newspaper Style should be required reading for all journalists as it is a lively and thought-provoking look at the way we use language. I would also recommend it to non-journalists who have a passion for using words correctly and with flair.

Waterhouse's columns for the Daily Mirror and latterly the Daily Mail were among the best bits in both papers. I rarely read the Mail, but if I did and it had one of Waterhouse's columns in, I would savour every word, as there would always be some turn of phrase which surprised or delighted. He always wrote with elegance and wit, so you could appreciate what he was saying even if you disagreed with every word.

And Waterhouse will always be a hero for his relentless campaign to improve standards of English in this country. I support the aims of his Association for the Abolition of the Aberrant Apostrophe. He also delighted in pricking official jargon and pomposity.

I hope you will all join me in raising a glass to one of the finest writers of his generation.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

In (partial) defence of Lembit Opik

I don't normally read Lembit Opik's column in the Daily Sport - it's not really my preferred sort of reading.

But when someone (in this case Jane Watkinson - hello again Jane!) uses one of his articles to make a call for him to be chucked out the party, I'll make it my business to have a look at what he's written to decide if he deserves the suggested punishment.

And in this case, not in a million years. I'm not Lembit's biggest fan - I didn't vote for him in either party presidential election - but there is nothing there that would justify a charge of bringing the party into disrepute or withdrawing the party whip from him. Yes, he does sometimes make slightly risque and somewhat sexist jokes in his column, but he also uses it to make some good political points in a way his readership can engage with. Although I'm not keen on the occasional sexism, is it enough to justify chucking him out the party?

Even though his column appears in the porn-heavy Daily Sport, I don't think that is sufficient justification for chucking him out either. Let's face it, Nick Clegg has written for the Mail and the Sun, but that doesn't mean he shares those papers' views towards foreigners. Appearing in a paper does not equal approving of everything in that paper.

I've known Lembit for several years - I seem to recall getting some public speaking training from him at a youth and student conference at least 15 years ago - and he is somebody who is usually charming and able to engage with people on their own level.

I would also say his views are liberal. Although I would disagree with Lembit on the detail of quite a few policies, I am in no doubt that his views are derived from a liberal viewpoint.

I also think that the sort of individuality, even eccentricity, that Lembit displays is exactly what our party should be about. Chucking him out the party would send a signal that we're a pretty humourless bunch who want everyone to act and think exactly the same. Is that really the image you want people to have of the party, Jane?

That's not to say that everything that Jane says is wrong or over the top. With the talents Lembit has, he should have been challenging for the party leadership by now. Jane is correct to talk about Lembit's fundamental lack of seriousness, which I believe has held him back from achieving all he could have done in politics. Instead, he seems content to revel in the world of being a C-list celebrity.

Lembit's done nothing sufficiently bad to justify throwing him out of the party. But this little spat is indicative of his failure as a politician. He's allowed an element of frivolity to become the dominant part of his public persona. If he wants to be thought of as a serious politician rather than just a celeb, he will have to become more serious. I wonder if he's capable of that?

Friday, 28 August 2009

Stop trolling, Irfan!

I'm not going to link to Irfan Ahmed's latest idiotic posting, in which he regurgitates a lie from Tory Bear that the Lib Dems are set to drop their policy of abolishing tuition fees.

Not only did Irfan not check his facts (the Lib Dems reaffirmed our opposition to tuition fees as recently as our last conference), he chose to headline his posting 'Fib Dems?'

If you look at the post, you'll find Irfan's struck through the text after comments from myself and others which demolished his argument.

But this is only the latest instalment of idiocy from Mr Ahmed, following his accusation recently that our party president is a crook. He has had posts in the past which have verged on the anti-semitic and homophobic, as well as one which said women were incapable of taking political decisions and should leave it to men. He has also claimed that there was a moral equivalence between a Tory MP who tried to stop youths from playing football where they shouldn't and the youths who then beat him up.

A word of advice, Irfan: stop being such a bloody fool. I'm not the only person who's concluded that you're nothing more than a troll.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

The Future of Devolution - draft amendment

Another motion on the agenda at Bournemouth next month is The Future Of Devolution, proposed by the Scottish and Welsh Liberal Democrats.

This is OK as far as it goes, but there is one glaring hole in it, which is that the motion focuses only on Scotland and Wales. There's absolutely no mention of that big bit directly below Scotland and to the right of Wales - what's it called again? Oh yes, England.

To have a motion about devolution which doesn't mention the single biggest bit of the UK seems somewhat naive, and possibly a little dangerous given the views sometimes expressed south of the border about the way Scotland and Wales can control their domestic affairs but England can't.

Now, it's not really for me to suggest how England ought to govern itself, although I have some ideas on that score. But the issue does need to be discussed at some point.

That's why I've drafted the following amendment:

Add at end:
Conference also believes that government in England is far too centralised and unaccountable and instructs the Federal Policy Committee to bring forward proposals to Federal Conference within the next 18 months on how this can be tackled.

As with the Real Women one, if you support this amendment and are a Lib Dem federal conference voting rep, email me at bernardsalmon[at]cix.co.uk with your name, membership number and local party.

Real Women - draft amendment

I've finally got around to reading the new Lib Dem policy paper Real Women today.

On the whole, I think it's pretty good stuff. It tackles issues that affect women, without making me as a man feel I'm engaged in a massive conspiracy against the entire female population. It proposes lots of sensible, practical ways in which to enable women to improve their own lives.

But there are flaws in the motion that Lib Dem federal conference will be discussing next month when we get together in Bournemouth. There are parts of it which assume that some of the problems it seeks to address can be solved by state regulation, rather than through cultural change, which I think is a wrong-headed approach.

In particular, I'm thinking of the proposals relating to how women are portrayed in the media. These are either utterly impractical and unenforceable (eg the proposals governing how pictures can be modified) or involve the sort of petty state regulation that Lib Dems should be opposing. The proposals on lessons on body-image involve the sort of centralised control of education that I thought we were against. And the idea to introduce 'name blanking' for job applications is just silly bureaucratic nonsense.

That's why I've drafted this amendment, which I'm seeking support for. It's only a draft at the moment, so this may not be quite the final version, but if you're a Lib Dem federal conference voting rep and wish to support it, email me at bernardsalmon[at]cix.co.uk (replace the [at] with an @). I'll need your name, Lib Dem membership number and your local party.

This is the amendment:

Delete sections 3 and 4 (lines 39-52) and replace with:

3. Proposals to challenge the often narrow portrayal of gender roles within the media, but recognising that this can best be done through a process of cultural change rather than by regulation by the state.

4. Proposals to empower young girls (and boys) to challenge conformity and to decrease their chances of developing eating disorders by encouraging schools and local authorities to develop age-appropriate lessons on body-image and media literacy as part of Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) in schools.

Delete section 6(d) (lines 65-66).

These are the relevant sections of the motion as they currently stand:

3. Proposals to challenge the narrow and overly sexualised aesthetic presented in the media and popular culture by:

a) Requiring OFCOM and the ASA to mainstream gender equality into their regulation of the media.
b) Requiring all advertisements to declare the extent to which digital retouching technology has been used to create overly perfected and unrealistic images of women (and men).

4. Proposals to allow young girls (and boys) the space to challenge conformity and to decrease their chances of developing eating disorders by:

a) Banning the use of digital retouching technology in advertisements aimed at under 16s, which creates overly perfected and unrealistic images of women (and men); we would work with industry professionals to ensure that legislation was appropriately worded to reflect these aims.
b) Providing age-appropriate lessons on body-image and media literacy as part of Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) in schools.

6. Plans to tackle discrimination at work and in pay by:
d) Introducing a 'name blanking' policy so that job applicants apply with National Insurance numbers.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

A few additions to my blogroll

Partly following on from my last post, I've now updated my blogroll. As well as Mark Reckons and Himmelgarten Cafe whom I've already referred to, the Honourable Lady Mark, Fraser MacPherson, that elephant in the room, the Social Liberal Forum (whose two recent posts on the health debate I'd recommend that people read), Norfolk Blogger and the excellent Welsh Lib Dem site Freedom Central all make it for the first time. I've also got round to updating the often infuriating, frequently plain wrong but always interesting Charlotte Gore from her old site to her new one.

Banning MPs' outside jobs would be bad for democracy

Mark Thompson's Mark Reckons blog is always thoughtful, well-written and interesting. He's certainly been one of the stars of the Lib Dem blogosphere over the past year. I really must get around some time to adding him to my blogroll, as well as one or two others like the cafe owner.

But (you knew there was a but coming, didn't you?) I think his posting today about stopping MPs from having outside interests is wrong. In a battle of the Marks, Mr Bureaucracy also takes issue with Mr Reckons. I largely agree with Mark V that it's none of our business, but I also have other concerns.

I want our parliaments to be composed of as wide a range of people as possible. If MPs were banned from having second jobs, I suspect the sort of people who get elected would become even narrower than they are already.

Mark Reckons does allow some exceptions, for people who have been directors of their own businesses who might wish to keep involved in the running of their firms. But if that's OK, why should a GP not be allowed to practise at least part-time? Given the vagaries of politics, they could be out of a job in a few years and face the prospect of either getting a new profession or having to undergo retraining to update their skills. Indeed, we've already had GP Howard Stoate deciding to stand down as an MP, as he feared new rules about second jobs would not allow him to continue to practise.

Or what about a journalist? Part of the job of a politician is to debate ideas and policies, which can be done through writing articles for the media. It seems rather unfair that a journalist who becomes an MP could continue to get paid for writing articles, but a GP couldn't continue to practise.

And if being a doctor or a journalist is also OK, why not a lawyer or a forex trader or an astrophysicist? By denying those people the right to continue to have paid outside interests, you're more likely to find they'll decide that standing for Parliament just isn't worth it in terms of the career sacrifice.

We already have a problem with politicians being drawn from an increasingly narrow section of the population, with student politics being followed by a job with an MP or a think tank, followed by election as a local councillor and then on into Parliament, and so on up the greasy pole. I want people in politics who have a wider experience of life than just politics. Stopping MPs from having paid outside interests would only make that problem much worse.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Porkie pies on ham sandwich risk?

Blimey, it's easy to get out of the habit of this blogging lark, isn't it?

But I've been prompted to get back into things by today's story about a cancer charity's call for ham sandwiches to be no longer part of kids' lunchboxes due to an apparent increased risk of bowel cancer from processed meats.

My first reaction on hearing this story this morning was to think it wasn't anything new - and indeed it isn't, as a quick Google search comes up with these items from March 2008, November 2007 and June 2005, amongst others.

But the evidence behind this claim is not quite what it seems. Yes, there almost certainly is a link between consumption of red meat and increased risk of bowel cancer, but it's not as hard and fast as the call to stop giving kids ham sandwiches might suggest.

For a start, the World Cancer Research Fund, which made the call, acknowledges that little research has been done on red meat consumption in kids. Many of the studies which make up the research are like this one, which focuses on elderly people in the USA. It's certainly plausible to speculate that elderly people might be more prone to developing cancers linked to red meat consumption or that there is something about the way food is processed in the USA which might lead to the results. This study also notes that increased red meat consumption was linked to colorectal cancer when adjusting for age and energy intake, but when additional factors such as obesity or smoking were taken into account, the link is less clear.

It's also important to put the increased risk, such as it is, in context. As the American Institute for Cancer Research notes, the increased risk of bowel cancer from eating red meat is somewhere in the region of 20-25 per cent, which compares with an increased risk of lung cancer from smoking of up to 2000%. The rate of colorectal cancer in the UK is 55 per 100,000 people for men and 34.1 for women. A 25% increase in the risk of getting bowel cancer from excessive consumption of red meat would therefore mean a rate of about 68 per 100,000 for men and 42 for women. It's also worth noting that mortality rates for bowel cancer are falling, although more young people are developing the condition.

Even putting these issues aside, it's not easy to isolate the exact impact which red and processed meat has when compared to other aspects of diet. For instance, it seems that a diet with plenty of fibre is associated with a reduced risk of bowel cancer. Would a diet which is high in both red meat and fibre be good or bad? The evidence is unclear.

There are also questions about exactly what the figures show. In this study of 500,000 elderly Americans, it appears that those in the top 20 per cent for red meat consumption had a 25 per cent greater likelihood of developing various cancers than those in the lowest 20 per cent (although their incidence of leukaemia and melanoma were reduced). That indicates that eating A LOT of red or processed may be bad for you. But it certainly doesn't indicate that moderate consumption of red meat will give you cancer - and I can't find any evidence that it does.

Indeed, some experts question to what extent diet generally is an important factor in combating or causing cancer. This article, for instance, claims that regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight are most important and that eating fruit and veg to prevent cancer is more significant in preventing cancer than eating red meat is in causing it.

So, should you give your kids ham sandwiches for lunch? I don't see any great reason not to, especially if you also slip an apple and a cereal bar into their lunchboxes. If they then run around the playground a bit after having it, so much the better.

Anyone who tells you that ham sandwiches will give your kids cancer is being unduly alarmist and is not giving you all the facts.

Right, I'm off to get a bacon sandwich for my tea.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Michael Shields: the injustice continues

Very disappointing news yesterday, with Justice Secretary Jack Straw denying a pardon to jailed Liverpool fan Michael Shields.

For those who don't know, Shields was jailed for 10 years in Bulgaria following an attack on a barman there in 2005. But he has always maintained his innocence.

Despite the fact that another man has admitted carrying out the attack, but won't testify to that effect, Straw has concluded that he has to be sure that Shields is both morally and technically innocent before granting a pardon and that he can't give one where he doesn't have that certainty.

This is a disgrace. When someone else has confessed to a crime, the morally and technically correct course of action is to make redress to anyone wrongly convicted of involvement in that crime.

With this decision, Jack Straw is colluding in a miscarriage of justice. He would be more correct to call himself the Injustice Secretary.

UPDATE: If you wish to show your support for Michael Shields, you can do so here.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

A superb portrait of Hockney

Last night's Imagine on BBC1 provided a fascinating picture of one of Britain's greatest artists, David Hockney.

It followed him over a three-year period, covering his move back from Los Angeles to his native Yorkshire. It also showed him at work for the first time and provided a real insight into his creative process.

The programme showed enough of his work for us to be able to see what a truly exceptional artist Hockney is. From the sun-drenched pictures in LA, through his experiments with photo collage and on to his excellent Yorkshire landscapes, Hockney has been a real artistic star for a long time. I can think of few artists who have produced such quality of work in such a range of styles over such a long time.

The only jarring note came when Damien Hirst was asked to comment on a monumental series of canvases which Hockney had created for the Royal Academy. Hirst's response was: "Well, I wouldn't have it on my wall."

Of course you wouldn't, Damien. That's because you're an artistic charlatan who hasn't let a fundamental lack of talent stop you from becoming very rich from your mediocre art. You're not fit even to clean Hockney's brushes. In a few hundred years time, people will still be looking at and admiring Hockney's work, whereas Hirst will just be a footnote in art history - "He made HOW MUCH from selling that stuff?"

But Hirst's yawn-worthy opinions aside, I recommend that anyone with a love of art watch this programme. It's an excellent portrayal of a master artist.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Who needs nuclear?

The official opening yesterday of the £160 million Glendoe hydro power station in the hills above Loch Ness coincided with an announcement from Scottish and Southern Energy that it intends to create two new hydro schemes in the Great Glen.

This is excellent news for those of us who believe that real effort should be made to ensure much more use of renewable sources of energy are used. Although we don't yet know any of the details of the proposed Great Glen schemes, projects like this are important if we are to make a real switch to greener energy.

These new hydro schemes should be seen alongside the development of other forms of greener energy. I have blogged before (here, here and here) about the potential contribution which renewable sources can make to Britain's energy requirements.

The development of wave and tidal power (still in their infancy, but with potential to deliver very significant amounts of energy), together with contributions from solar power, offshore wind farms and geothermal, between them have the capacity to deliver a huge amount of Britain's energy requirements within the next few decades.

The question thus arises as to why we should bother investing in new nuclear fission power stations. As I've highlighted before, nuclear power is not renewable, it still produces significant amounts of waste to which the only 'solution' is burial for a few thousand years until we've worked out what to do with it, it's quite an expensive way of generating power and it's not even that good at reducing carbon emissions.

In answer to my own question, with the big energy firms investing ever more sums in renewable energy schemes, I don't see that we do need nuclear fission power. I have no problem with research continuing into nuclear fusion power, but at the moment that's very far from being a viable source of power. And until that happens, our focus should be on developing renewable sources of energy - not going down the failed route of nuclear fission power.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Yes to more powers, yes to a referendum, no to independence

If the poll commissioned by BBC Scotland is accurate, most people in Scotland back more powers for the Scottish Parliament, most people want to see a referendum on the issue, and most people oppose outright independence.

The detail of the poll is quite interesting, with a majority seemingly wanting to go beyond what the Calman Commission proposed, with about two-thirds wanting control of pensions devolved to Scotland.

There is reason for caution about that figure, as it's not clear whether people would support that idea if it meant greater running costs with Scotland and the rest of the UK operating different systems. I'm also not sure how it would impact on people and companies operating on both sides of the border. It's also not clear whether it would be just the pensions system, or whether the whole of the social security system would be devolved.

Nevertheless, that question does indicate that there is a real demand for the Scottish Parliament to have greater powers. The overall figures are pretty clear: 47% back a Scottish Parliament with increased powers but remaining part of the UK, while just 28% want complete independence. A referendum is backed by 56% of those polled, compared with 37% who don't want a referendum.

That means there's a real opportunity here for those who believe in increased powers for the Scottish Parliament but don't want independence - the position of all three parties who backed the Calman Commission. A referendum on the issue should be held as soon as is practical, with independence also on the ballot. I believe a more powerful Scottish Parliament within the UK would win a substantial majority and the issue would be settled for at least a generation. Let the argument begin!

Monday, 22 June 2009

Gnats go cap in hand to Westminster

Funny how the Gnats continually insist that Scotland can survive on its own - but then moan about wanting more dosh from Westminster when it suits them.

That appears to be the case with Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon's call for £100m to vaccinate everyone in Scotland against swine flu.

There are two reasons why Westminster should tell Nicola to take a running jump. Firstly, I don't see why everyone in Scotland needs vaccinating against a disease which has killed precisely one person in this country, someone who appears to have also had complicating health issues. From what I can gather, swine flu seems little different to 'normal' flu, so why is vaccination for everyone thought necessary when it isn't done for the flu outbreaks we get every single year?

The other reason is that Scotland is responsible for health spending. If Sturgeon thinks that mass vaccination is necessary in Scotland, then it's up to the Scottish Government to find the money to do it. That's what devolution's all about.

It seems that the Gnats prefer to go cap in hand to Westminster than to do something for which they have direct responsibility.

Anyone but Beckett

Like my colleague Stephen Glenn, I think Margaret Beckett is eminently unsuitable to be the next Speaker of the House of Commons.

There are two basic reasons why she shouldn't be Speaker. Firstly, she's always been first and foremost a partisan Labour figure - always has been, always will be. She's always been slavishly loyal to whatever the prevailing orthodoxy has been in the Labour Party. She was a Bennite when that was fashionable, before evolving into a loyal deputy to John Smith, then becoming a Blairite and eventually serving willingly under Gordon Brown. What makes anyone think she'd be any different if elected Speaker?

And secondly, can anyone really see Beckett standing up for Parliament against the executive? Nope, me neither. She would be a tool of the Government, not of the Commons. That's the last thing the Commons needs at the moment.

There are several decent candidates to succeed the execrable Michael Martin: Richard Shepherd, Alan Beith and George Young would all be very good Speakers. I just hope MPs have the sense to elect one of them, rather than Margaret Beckett, who would be an appallingly bad choice.

Friday, 19 June 2009

How not to respond to expenses questions

A quite extraordinary performance from Falkirk West Labour MP Eric Joyce on Newsnight Scotland last night.

He is the biggest expenses claimant among the MPs and he quite clearly doesn't get the anger there is across the country about the issue.

In the interview by Gordon Brewer, he sees no problem in hiring as a consultant a man to whom he'd acted as best man at his wedding. When asked why he charged the taxpayer for buying three oil paintings for his constituency office, Joyce's answer was: "Because they look nice".

And the most toe-curlingly embarrassing moment was when he was asked whether he'd paid capital gains tax when he'd sold his second home and responded that Brewer was trying to delve into his personal life. My jaw was hanging open at that point. He really just doesn't get it at all.

If you want to see Joyce's spectacularly misjudged and arrogant performance for yourself, here it is.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Beware of technical fixes

The Scottish Government yesterday outlined its new road safety strategy, with the laudable aim of cutting road deaths by 40% and halving the number of serious injuries within 10 years.

Some of it does seem sensible, such as an approach to driver training which emphasises lifelong learning and improvement. Far too many people consider that passing a test gives them an automatic expert status when it comes to motoring. Only a tiny proportion of drivers will take part in schemes such as Pass Plus, which provide additional training after someone's passed their test.

But there are other proposals which are far more questionable, such as the idea to fit cars with speed limiters. Preventing drivers from exceeding the speed limit initially sounds like a sensible idea, but I think it's a gimmick which is unlikely to make much difference to the accident rate.

For a start, such devices would obviously do nothing to prevent accidents where speed is not a factor, whether that's poor overtaking, tailgating, lack of observation at junctions, lack of lane discipline or drink and drug driving.

But even where speed is a factor in causing an accident, speed limiters won't make much difference. In many cases, the problem isn't necessarily illegal speeding, but driving too fast for the road or the conditions.

For instance, near to where I live there are a couple of stretches of single-track road with several blind bends. The speed limit on those is actually 60mph, but anyone who goes much above 30mph on those is almost certainly a crazy driver. But a speed limiter wouldn't stop someone from going at a potentially suicidal 50mph.

And nor would speed limiters do anything to stop someone going too fast in fog or ice or snow, even if they're not exceeding the legal limit.

In my view, speed limiters sound like the sort of technical fix beloved of governments looking for a gimmick to pretend they're taking action to deal with a problem. Indeed, it could be argued that speed limiters would actually make the problem worse, as they could lull people into thinking they're driving at a safe speed when they're not.

There are other aspects of the strategy which I'm not too keen on either. Curfews for newly qualified drivers? Let's discriminate against people doing a night shift, shall we?

Or a limit on the number of passengers newly-qualified drivers can carry? Some young drivers have a partner and a couple of kids, so that's them screwed.

I'm a bit more ambivalent about limiting the size of engine which young drivers can drive. I can see the logic of this, as many young drivers do like to get behind the wheel of cars which are too powerful for them which they then lose control of and crash. But it strikes me there would be a significant problem with this, as police are not to know how powerful a car really is just by looking at it, so how are they possibly able to enforce such a provision? And is a 40-year-old in a Ferrari really less dangerous than a 20-year-old in a Subaru Impreza?

Although many of these proposals do have their heart in the right place, I think few if any will make much difference to road safety. The main things which will are the improved driver training referred to above, combined with an encouragement for drivers to adopt an attitude where safety is paramount. We should beware of both technical fixes and ineffective legal measures.

Iraq inquiry: let the light shine in

I was going to do a posting about Gordon Brown's disgraceful decision to hold an inquiry into the Iraq war behind closed doors, but I don't think I have anything to say which has not already been said by, amongst others, David Watts, Caron, Costigan Quist, Paul Reynolds and Willie Rennie. Public scrutiny is the best way to ensure something like this never happens again. Light must be shone on the murky workings of government which led us into this disaster.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Calman: the next steps

Today's final report from the Calman Commission is designed to plot a way forward for devolution in Scotland.

The report itself is OK as far as it goes: it recognises that Scotland needs to be responsible for deciding a greater share of its own finances and it sets out a case for additional powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

The down side is that there are proposals for certain fairly minor responsibilities to be handed back to Westminster. I haven't yet read the full report, only the executive summary, so I don't know the Commission's thinking behind these, but I have to say I am inherently suspicious of any proposal to exercise power further away from the people and I suspect these might be an area of controversy.

I think it is also fair to say that Calman is not a particularly bold vision for the future of devolution. The Scottish Lib Dems, for instance, wish to go far further than is proposed by Calman, with the Scottish Parliament having control over a whole range of taxes, not just the 10p income tax rate and a few minor taxes proposed by Calman. We would also give a much wider range of powers to the Scottish Parliament than Calman envisages. You can find more details of our proposals here.

However, Calman was almost certainly constrained by the need to achieve consensus among all the parties to the commission, with neither the Tories or Labour as keen as the Scottish Lib Dems on an enhaned home rule settlement. It is a tribute to Calman that the final report was unanimous and it is an important landmark that both the Tories and Labour have now agreed to an enhanced role for the Scottish Parliament, including over its own finances.

The question now arises of where we go from here. In my view, there now needs to be a much wider debate about the future of Scottish devolution. Although Calman did make an effort to take evidence from a range of groups, there now needs to be much more public involvement in deciding how we proceed.

And the best way that can happen is if we have a referendum on the proposals, with independence being the other option. I have in the past argued (here and here) that a referendum should wait until we have fully worked out proposals for both an enhanced devolution settlement and for independence. Well, we now have the former. What we need now is for the Gnats to come up with a proposal for independence which is more than just a slogan.

And when they do that, we can have a big argument about it all and then vote on it. Over to you, Mr Salmond.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

PR to aid the BNP? That's a lie, Mr Cameron

Of all the arguments against proportional representation, the laziest one is that it benefits extremist parties such as the hateful BNP. David Cameron rolled out this canard once again today at Prime Minister's Questions, saying that it was a PR system which allowed the BNP to get people elected to the European Parliament.

And in one sense, he does have a point. The party list system used in the European elections is probably the easiest one in which smaller parties can prosper, among them extremists like the BNP.

But there's certainly no easy relationship between even a party list PR system and success for extremist parties like the BNP. If there were, why did the BNP not get anyone elected in 1999 and 2004, when exactly the same system was used for the European elections? The truth is that then not enough people voted for them to be able to win any seats in the European Parliament, whereas this time they did.

And that isn't even the whole story. In Yorkshire and the Humber, this time round the BNP secured fewer votes in total than they did in 2004. But because turnout had dropped significantly and the Labour vote in particular collapsed, this was enough to get them one of the seats on offer.

But the thing is, I am not aware of anybody who thinks we should introduce party list systems for Westminster elections. They are not a great system, as they give far too much power to party machines to determine who is elected. If you look at the systems which are in place across the UK, it doesn't seem to be the case that any of them particularly help parties like the BNP get elected - just the reverse.

For the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, the system used is the additional member system, with first past the post constituencies supplemented by regional list top-ups. Both parliaments have now had three elections using this system and not one fascist has ever been elected to them.

It's the same story if you look at STV, the system used for the Scottish local elections. Across the whole of Scotland, not a single BNP councillor was elected in 2007. Compare that to the London Borough of Barking, when the BNP picked up 12 seats in 2006 - under first past the post. And look at the Republic of Ireland - they have NEVER had a fascist party elected to the Dail and I've looked at all their election results back to 1937.

Indeed, because there is no relationship between votes and seats under first past the post, the BNP often find it quite easy to win seats on quite low percentages of the vote, especially in areas which have low turnout and/or have a history of being run by a single party for a long time (eg Burnley and Barking).

At a national level, the only reason the BNP has never had someone elected to the Westminster parliament is because its vote is not sufficiently concentrated to allow it to win such seats. If the BNP all piled in to just a few seats, they could easily get people elected to Westminster - and probably on a lower percentage of the national vote than they would require to win seats in a PR election.

And the basic point is that there is no electoral system which can guarantee that extremist parties are excluded. Under any system, if people vote for them in enough numbers, they will win seats. The key thing is not to try and rig electoral systems to stop them, but to address the reasons why people are voting for fascists in the first place. And that has far more to do with a sense of alienation and frustration than it has to do with the electoral system used.

Indeed, the fact that first past the post is associated with single party majority government, - often the same for decades at a time, especially at a local level - is, I would suggest, far more likely to create the conditions under which fascist parties can thrive than a system where people know their votes will count.

I would say the evidence contradicts Mr Cameron's claim: fascist parties are more likely to get a foothold under first past the post, rather than under the various PR systems used in the UK. But it's unlikely to stop Cameron from repeatedly trotting out the lie that PR benefits the BNP. And that lie must be repeatedly exposed for the nonsense it is.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Brown the Reformer is fiction

The expected announcement tomorrow by Gordon Brown that there will be a look at electoral reform is another sign that he just doesn't have a clue about what he's doing.

For a start, the issue's only going to be looked at by his 'Democratic Renewal Committee', an Orwellian sounding body which is just a fancy name for a ministerial committee. Does Brown not understand the anger there is about the failures of our political system? Does he really believe that just having the issue looked at by a group of his hand-picked cronies is the way forward, rather than giving people more of a sense of ownership and involvement in their own political system?

I could also ask why Labour's even bothering to have a review of the electoral system. Didn't they have one 10 years ago, the Jenkins Commission, which recommended introducing AV+ (the alternative vote supplemented by a regional top-up party list system)? Wasn't it Labour Party policy to have a referendum on these proposals, a pledge which they conveniently dropped (due in no small part to the opposition within the Cabinet of one G Brown)?

And according to the Beeb, Brown's apparently wanting his review to come up with a recommendation for plain AV, with no top-up. Nothing like prejudging your own review, is there?

But if that is Brown's conclusion, it shows why he just doesn't have a clue about electoral reform, and the wider constitutional agenda. AV is often LESS proportional than first past the post, is MORE likely to exaggerate swings between parties, DOES NOT allow voters to choose between candidates from the same party and does ALMOST NOTHING to solve the problem of MPs with safe seats. In 1997, for instance, it's very likely that had the election been held under AV, it would have produced a LARGER Labour majority, with the Tories suffering a near wipeout.

I have to say, in any referendum on electoral reform, I would vote to retain first past the post rather than have a switch to pure AV. I could just about live with AV+, although I wouldn't have any enthusiasm for it.

But I believe there's only one system which really empowers voters and that's the single transferable vote, as used in Ireland (north and south) and in local elections in Scotland. STV allows voters to choose between candidates from the same party, or from different parties, is roughly proportional and retains and enhances a link between a geographical area and its representatives, by allowing voters a choice of representatives they can approach with a problem.

If Brown were serious about electoral reform, this would be the system he would propose. But of course, he isn't. He just wants to be seen as making noises about reform, but without a timetable or even a firm commitment actually to do anything. Brown the Reformer is a fictitious character.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Calm down, dears

It's just an opinion poll.

A lot of the Lib Dem blogosphere is cock-a-hoop at the Lib Dems being ahead of Labour in an opinion poll for the first time in years.

I'm going to inject a note of caution and say that it looks like a rogue to me. Also, other polls have been all over the place in the last few weeks - some showing us fourth behind UKIP - so I wonder to what extent any poll can really be trusted in the current climate.

But if this poll is confirmed by others in weeks to come, it's a welcome boost and is a just reward for the way Nick Clegg has led the party in recent weeks.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Good stuff from Shirley Williams

There's an excellent article in The Independent today from Shirley Williams, arguing against an early election and putting forward a very good case for further constitutional reform. You can read it here.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Praise where it's due

It's not often that I praise Tory MPs on this blog, but I think Harwich and Clacton MP Douglas Carswell has played a blinder over the past few days on the whole issue of the Speaker.

It took significant courage to be the first MP to raise his head above the parapet and demand that Michael Martin should go.

And what's important is that he hasn't called on the Speaker to go because of a personal vendetta against him - far from it. Contrary to what some of the Speaker's supporters have been saying, the issue is not about Michael Martin's background, but about his ability to do the job.

If you read Carswell's blog, you'll see that he views the removal of the Speaker as the first, necessary, step in a wider programme of political reform and constitutional change designed to make Parliament more transparent, more accountable and more important. Hell, he even favours switching to the single transferable vote for elections to the House of Commons, to give voters a choice between candidates from the same party and to avoid having too many safe seats.

Although I'm a political geek, I have to say that Douglas Carswell had barely registered on my radar until now. But I am impressed with what I've heard from him over the past week or so.

If he keeps this up, I'll be sending him a Lib Dem membership form.

Tell Michael Martin his time's up

The following is the text of an email I have just sent to Michael Martin, urging him to stand down as Speaker of the House of Commons.

If anyone wishes to do likewise, his email address is martinm@parliament.uk

Dear Mr Martin,

I have never before written to a public official urging them to step down from their post and it is with great reluctance that I do so now.

I believe you have proven that you're simply not up to the job of being the Speaker of the House of Commons.

You have sought to block the publication of MPs' expenses and have generally acted as an obstacle to sensible reforms to the system.

I also believe your failure even to seek a warrant when police wished to search the office of Damian Green MP was an appalling error of judgement on your part.

And I believe your personal attacks last week on Kate Hoey and Norman Baker on the subject of MPs expenses mean that you have forfeited the impartiality which is the foundation of a Speaker's authority. You compounded this with your dismissive reaction to David Winnick's point of order the following day.

I therefore urge you, in the interests of both Parliament and the country, to resign your position as Speaker of the House of Commons with immediate effect.

Yours sincerely,
Bernard Salmon

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Who should be the next Speaker?

With Nick Clegg and my local MP Danny Alexander joining in the chorus of calls for Speaker Michael Martin to quit, his days must be numbered.

So who should take over when he either quits or is forced out? One possibility would obviously be one of the current Deputy Speakers - Sir Alan Haselhurst, Sylvia Heal or Sir Michael Lord. Unfortunately, Sir Alan is one of those who have been named by the Daily Telegraph as being involved in the expenses scandal. Sir Michael, meanwhile, is 70. Although I don't think he's yet announced his retirement, the chances are that he'll be standing down at the next election.

That leaves just Sylvia Heal as the only Deputy Speaker who might realistically be in a position to take over. However, it's questionable to what extent just appointing one of the deputies would represent the sort of change that Parliament needs if it's to regain public confidence.

Another more telling reason why Sylvia Heal might not get it is that she would then be the third Speaker in a row to come from the Labour benches and I'm not sure that would be a great idea. Unfortunately, that is an argument that can be made against other possible candidates for the Speakership, such as Frank Field or Kate Hoey, both of whom would have the reforming credentials needed to take over as Speaker at this point.

If a non-Labour Speaker is to be appointed, some people in the past have suggested that Ming Campbell might be an appropriate choice. However, his involvement in the expenses row and the fact that he is a former party leader I think count against him. I would suggest the only likely Lib Dem candidate would be Sir Alan Beith - a man who is well respected throughout the House of Commons.

I have to say that I struggled to think of a Tory MP of sufficient seniority who hasn't been implicated in the expenses scandal, but then a name suddenly came to me: Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Again, he is well thought of throughout the House and would, I am sure, do the job very well. He has also indicated that he is standing for re-election next time.

But all this assumes that the House of Commons does what is necessary and removes Speaker Michael Martin as soon as possible. Any statement from the Speaker that he intends to stay in the job until the next election will be unacceptable. He must go now.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

A snap poll now is not the answer

In a typically elegant argument, Paul Walter sums up the current demand for a snap general election to sort out the current mess over MPs' expenses. It's a thoughtful and passionate piece, but I'm going to argue it's dead wrong.

Firstly, I don't see how a general election now would actually solve the problem, namely the lax system for MPs expenses. Would it not be better to get a new system in place and then allow the electorate to have their say? A poll now would run the risk of having a botched reform rushed into place simply for the sake of having something to put before the voters in order to claim that the problem had been 'solved'. That's no way to make policy on an issue as sensitive as MPs' expenses. It's better to take time to get the system right.

Even if reform to the system is delayed beyond such a poll, there is then the danger that with at least four years before the next election, reform could be shelved as the anger among the electorate dissipates.

And, although I understand the anger that many people feel, is the issue of MPs' expenses really one which merits a whole general election dedicated solely to it? In my adult lifetime, the two issues I've been most angry about have been the poll tax and the decision to invade Iraq, even though millions of people marched against it. I don't recall a general election being held on either of those issues, despite the public anger involved.

There's also the question about whether a general election should be dedicated to just one issue. At a time of such economic crisis, I want to hear what the various parties propose to do to sort out that mess. There is a very real danger that those issues could be completely drowned out by an electorate wanting to express their anger over the expenses scandal.

In addition, is a general election really the most appropriate way to ensure that those guilty in the expenses row are punished? Doesn't natural justice demand that parties or Parliament should be able to take appropriate disciplinary action against those who have abused the rules, including deselection and forced resignations to cause by-elections in the most serious cases?

A general election now would almost certainly result in a move to 'throw the bums out'. Unfortunately, such an anti-incumbency mood might well sweep up many people who've done nothing wrong and who may even have been advocates of reform.

I would ask people like Paul Walters who is more likely to lose their seats in a 'throw the bums out election' - proponents of reform like Sarah Teather and Adrian Sanders, with majorities of around 2,000, or someone like Hazel Blears, sitting on a majority of 8,000 in Salford or Elliot Morley who has a 9,000 majority in Scunthorpe? Maybe the electorate will be able to distinguish all the rogues from the honest MPs and vote accordingly, but I'm not confident that would necessarily be the case.

Indeed, as Mark Reckons points out that there does seem to be some sort of correlation between the safeness of an MP's seat and the likelihood of them being involved in the expenses scandal, it may be that the rogues would be more likely to be rewarded with an extra four years in Parliament which might be thoroughly undeserved in some cases.

No, in this case, revenge is definitely a dish best served cold. Give local parties a chance to deselect MPs where they think that appropriate and allow campaigns to be built up against MPs who have abused the system but who haven't been forced out by their parties. A general election now won't allow that to happen and would be completely wrong.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Morley's 'defence' doesn't stand up

The BBC News website reports that Elliot Morley says the reason he was claiming money for his mortgage even though he'd paid it off was that he did his accounting in 'yearly bundles'.

Yet, somehow, he managed to claim the cash for 18 months. To be fair to him, if he's sufficiently bad at maths not to realise that 18 months is longer than a year, it's no wonder he got into such a muddle over his mortgage claims.

But among people I spoke to today, there was utter incomprehension that anyone could miss something as significant as finally paying off a mortgage.

I also find it rather odd that he alerted Labour's chief whip to the problem a few weeks ago - but according to the Beeb he didn't provide full details. This whole thing stinks.

Even Betty Boothroyd slams Speaker

I see both The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph are calling on Speaker Michael Martin to quit.

And even Michael Martin's predecessor, Betty Boothroyd, has expressed her disapproval over his conduct. The Daily Mail quotes an MP friend of hers as saying:

"I have spoken to Betty and she is just appalled at the way Michael Martin has behaved. She sees it as a failure of leadership. If Betty had been in charge she would have called the three party leaders in and banged their heads together like little boys until they agreed to reform the system.
'She would instantly have seen how damaging it is to Parliament to have this issue festering. Michael Martin has done none of that."

It comes to something when even a former Speaker is so appalled at the way her successor is doing the job that she makes her views known in public.

If Michael Martin had a shred of dignity, he would go now. Unfortunately, it looks as though he'll have to be dragged kicking and screaming from the Speaker's chair.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Churchill, Europe and the idiots of UKIP

Got home this afternoon to find the first election communications on my doormat from parties ahead of the forthcoming European elections.

One of them was from UKIP (United Kingdom Idiots Party) and contained a big headline saying: "Say NO to European Union", illustrated with a picture of Winston Churchill giving a V for victory sign.

That'll be the same Winston Churchill who famously said: "We must build a kind of United States of Europe," will it?

Indeed, it's worth quoting several passages from Churchill's speech in Zurich in 1946 to show how wrong it is that UKIP are trying to associate him with an anti-European stance:

If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance, there would be no limit to the happiness, to the prosperity and the glory which its three or four hundred million people would enjoy...

It is to re-create the European Family, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living...

And why should there not be a European group which could give a sense of enlarged patriotism and common citizenship to the distracted peoples of this turbulent and mighty continent? And why should it not take its rightful place with other great groupings and help to shape the onward destinies of men?...

The structure of the United States of Europe, if well and truly built, will be such as to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honor by their contribution to the common cause..

If we are to form the United States of Europe, or whatever name it may take, we must begin now...

...we must re-create the European Family in a regional structure called, it may be, the United States of Europe...

Great Britain, the British Commonwealth of Nations, mighty America and I trust Soviet Russia-for then indeed all would be well-must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe and must champion its right to live and shine. Therefore I say to you, let Europe arise!

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