Sunday, June 26, 2005

Whitehaven Maritime Festival

The organisers of the Whitehaven "Marratime" festival should be congratulated on a really good event.

I took the family along and we had a really good day out. There were a wide range of stalls and rides, a couple of navy patrol boats and three tall ships in the harbour, and a ferris wheel which I'm told is hte tallest in Europe. Friends who went up the ferris wheel (we decided our three-year olds would never put up with the wait) tell me that it was a superb view from the top.

Policing by Cumbria Constabulary was well handled - visible without being over the top - but it was a well behaved crowd and they had little to do. Park and Ride arrangements worked really well.

Can't wait til the next time in two years.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Local hospitals and the Price of Freedom ...

What do local hospital services in Copeland have to do with the price of freedom ?

The price of both good public services in a democracy and the freedom which that democracy represents is the same - and it is the price which Ben Franklin identified more than 200 years ago.

During the American revolution he said that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance." He meant that no free society will survive unless the citizens are on guard to protect their liberties. His statement is true in another sense - once the members of society are given through the ballot box some measure of control over how that society is run, we can no longer leave the whole burden of responsiblity for what happens in our country to others, be it some King or Baron or our neighbours.

Our votes, words, and actions, including any decision not to act, will affect what happens to all the members of our society and those in the rest of the world with whom that society comes into contact. The vote does not make us all-powerful, but it gives us responsibility to use it as wisely as we can. One part of that is that, if we want good public services we need to exercise that eternal vigilance to make sure they stay that way.

This is about to come home to us again in West Cumbria. Following a huge public consultation last year and early this year, things have appeared quiet as the NHS Trusts absorb the results and work with their colleagues to refine a new model for health care in this area. Before long they will come back with proposals - which will have to be made workable in the face of financial shortfalls and continuing difficults with recruitment and retention.

Some of the proposals which emerge are likely to be highly controversial. Anyone who cares about the future of health services in Cumbria would be well advised to exercise some of that eternal vigilance in seeing what comes forward in the next few weeks and months.

Bringing the argument back full circle, Ben Franklin and his contemporaries were well aware of one particular threat to liberty which too many in our government seem to be forgetting. That is the danger they themselves may pose - the threat to a free society from its own guardians and leaders who may become so obsessed wiht a real or imagined external threat that they dismantle the rights and freedoms they were elected to protect. Some terrible legislation was brought forward just before the last election - some was abandoned, other parts were eventualy passed with a "sunset clause" so that it will lapse without further consideration. Some of these ideas are now coming back. The right of freedom from arbitrary arrest, which goes back in England nearly nine hundred years and survived the challenge of Nazi germany and Soviet Russia, has been compromised to a greater degree than under either of those threats.

During the general election in Copeland, local parliamentary candidates were asked at a debate what we thought about the bill to make incitement to religous hatred illegal. All of us responded, including Jamie Reed who is now the MP, that non-ethnic religous groups such as muslims should have the same protection from incitement to violence as ethnic groups such as Jews. However, we also expressed concern that this should not be allowed to extend to prosecuting those who express their disagreement with a religion, and Jamie said he was pleased that the incitement to religous hatred bill had been dropped. Well, now that the election is over the bill has been brough back. I hope Jamie has the courage of his convictions and votes against it.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Mayoral Service in St Bees

To St Bees Priory this afternoon for the Mayoral Service marking the start of the year of Norman and Yvonne Clarkson as Mayor and Mayoress of Copeland.

Unlike many parts of the country Copeland does not have a tradition of a majority party letting anyone else having a turn as Mayor. This year however, it has happened and Norman is the first Tory Mayor of Copeland for many years.

There was a procession through St Bees, and then the church was reasonably full for the service. It was an excellent service. I think the idea of de-politicising the mayoralty to some extent and letting each party have a turn if they have candidates of good quality is a sound principle so I hope this year is a great success. I have no doubt that Norman and Yvonne will be an excellent Mayor and Mayoress, and I think the presence of many members of the public to support them today bodes well for the year, as did the fact that some people had come from the more distant part of the borough - for example, there was a good contingent from Millom.

One straw in the wind was that, during both sessions of prayers and intercessions, the priests who were leading kicked off their prayers for public services by mentioning health provision. There is continuing concern about this issue, and rightly so. More on this subject tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Irish Peace process is in trouble ...

So what else is new, may well be your response to that header. Nevertheless, the problems in Ireland - not just Northern Ireland - are a lot worse than anyone who relies for information solely on the UK mainland media is likely to realise.

My in-laws were born in Ireland and subscribe to Irish newspapers. When we visit them, as someone who can rarely see any reading material without browsing it, I usually take a look. I am astonished that recent events on the other side of the Irish Sea have not received more attention on this side.

During a recent attempted armed robbery in the Irish republic two of the attackers were shot dead by Irish Police. The Gardai gave warning before opening fire. One of the dead men was armed, his gun was loaded but it was not fired. Each of the dead men was killed by a single bullet through the heart.

I have no reason to believe that the police officers involved in this tragic incident acted other than correctly, and I have far more sympathy with the officers who will have to live with having killed in the line of duty than with the criminals who died as a result of their own actions.

If such an event had occurred North of the Border before the cease fire there would probably have been a torrent of "Shoot to kill" accusations against the RUC. This time, if anything, much of the commentary appears to have gone over the top in the opposite direction. Some politicians and journalists seem to have almost implied that the killings were a good thing to "send a message". It has also been alleged that one of the dead men had carried out "robberies to order" for the IRA.

Meanwhile the independent commission on disarmament in Northern Ireland has reported that the IRA has continued to recruit and train paramilitaries and buy new weapons since the cease-fire.

While the British government fails to take effective action about this, it is as unsurprising as it is unfortunate that brave moderates like David Trimble and the SDLP have been sidelined in both communities by hardliners like Paisley. If firm measures are not taken soon against extremists on both sides, the present ceasefire may prove merely to have been an opportunity for the paramilitaries to regroup and rearm. I hope I am wrong but I have a terrible fear that we are sleepwalking back to tragedy.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Nons and Nees have it ....

I have been following with interest the results of the rejection by French and Dutch voters of the proposed European Union constitution.

One question which surfaced in this country even before the French and Dutch votes is whether it is worth having a vote in this country given the rejection of the constitutional treaty by one or more other EU members. It is interesting that the more intelligent pro-Europeans, at least in this country, were the first people to answer "No" to that question, while the more hardline Eurosceptics have been the ones calling for a referendum in Britain to go ahead.

Surprisingly, some of the most prominent pro-Europeans on the continent do not appear to realise that ploughing on as if nothing had happened is almost guaranteed to produce more "no" votes by increasingly large majorities.

The "Non" voters in France and "Nee" voters in the Netherlands may have different views from Brit and Danish Eurosceptics on many issues, but one thing which really gets up the noses of all four groups is the propensity of the European establishment for ignoring the existence of any views they do not agree with. Even after the French 55% "Non" vote, some Brussels officials were trying to "spin" it as really being a "Yes". As one Eurosceptic MEP said, they just don't get it.

As far as I'm concerned, whether we still need a referendum in Britain depends entirely on whether the result of the votes in France and Holland will be respected. If it is accepted that the treaty is dead, then it would be a waste of time and money having a pretend vote on a dead treaty. But if there is any possibility that voters in France and Holland will be treated the way the Danes and Irish were over Maastricht and Nice, and told to vote again until they vote the way the establishment wants, then we should vote on the constitution too, and throw it out too.

In the unlikely but not impossible event that the governments of Europe are stupid enough to continue trying to force the constitution through, we should, of course, be asked to vote on the amended version with any concessions made to the French or Dutch, not on the original draft.

Both pro-European commentators trying to save something from the wreckage, and left-wing Eurosceptics, have been making great play with the differences between the "No" campaigns in France and Holland and the views of most eurosceptics in Britain. There is some truth in many of the points they make - if we did have a referendum in Britain you can guarantee that our "No" campaign would quote extensively from the French "Yes" campaign and vice versa.

But the idea that the "no" votes were a left wing protest against liberal (small "l") economic policies is too simplistic, and the idea that those who oppose the constitution in different countries have nothing in common is just plain wrong. There are both left wing and right wing opponents of the constitution in all EU member countries, including some pro-Europeans who happen to think that this particular draft constitution is very badly written. Constitutions should not prescribe economic policy, and it is perfectly possible to support liberal and pro-market economic policies without wanting them written into a constitution. Constitutions should be clear and succinct, and this one is neither.

The other aspect of this situation which is so-wrong headed as to be downright funny is the suggestion from people who ought to know better that the "no" votes are some kind of victory for Tony Blair. The truth is that they have released him from a difficult position which was entirely his own fault. If all the rest of Europe had voted "Yes" he would have tried to bully Britain into doing the same, at best using up every ounce of political capital he had left, more likely losing the vote and leaving office with a failure so obvious that even his spin machine could not have disguised it.

Now instead he will have to spend his six months as head of the council of ministers knocking heads together in an attempt to persuade his european colleages to see the writing on the wall. As so many British Prime Ministers before him, the would-be positive European will be seen on the continent as the arch sceptic.