Sunday, June 29, 2008

Planning should be both quicker AND democratic

As usual, Labour MPs who criticised a cotroversial government policy have bottled out of actually voting it down.

The government has survived a Labour rebellion over plans to speed up the planning process for big projects such as airports and nuclear power stations. A bid to ensure ministers get the final say on decisions by an independent body was rejected by 303 votes to 260. More than 60 Labour MPs had signed a Commons motion warning that the new planning quango would be undemocratic, but only 17 Labour MPs actually put their votes where their signatures were.

Ministers say the bill will speed up the planning process. Hazel Blears argued that big projects which could boost the economy and Britain's energy security were being "clogged up" in "antiquated" planning processes.

It was "unacceptable" that major projects such as the upgrade of the North Yorkshire power grid had taken just over six years to get through planning, while some wind farm applications had taken, on average, two years, she said.

"Our current system takes too long. It's immensely costly. It's almost impenetrable in very many cases to members of the public. There's a lack of transparency and a lack of clarity," she said.


The government have correctly identified a problem but come up with entirely the wrong solution.

We DO need a faster system for planning infrastructure projects. Where they are wrong is the belief that this cannot be done while retaining an element of democractic accountability.

The reason that major planning inquiries and other aspects of the planning system take years and cost so many millions is NOT because they allow democratic testing of the arguments. Nor is the problem that every interest group with the money and/or enough committed people to do so can put forward their concerns and challenge the proposed scheme.

The problem is that present bureacratic procedures allow everyone to cross-examine everyone else, and require key planning documents to go through stage after stage of pre-consultation, consultation draft, deposit stage or equivalent, etc, etc, etc.

This allows the same points to be raised and debated ad nauseam again and again and again and again and again.

What we need is not the total abolition of democracy in decisions about major infrastucture. What we do need is to allow each group to have their say, and each point debated properly, ONCE - and not dozens of times.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Sauce for the goose ...

I have been unble to resist a wry smile at the bitter complaints by Wendy Alexander, who has just resigned as Labour leader on the Scottish Assembly, and other Labour spokespersons, accusing the SNP of a campaign of personal abuse and vilification against her.

Insofar as there is any truth in the Labour complaints that the SNP have seized any opportunity to portray their opponents as corrupt, the SNP have simply copied this practice straight out of the New Labour tactics manual.

The tactic which Labour is now complaining bitterly about when they find themselves on the receiving end from the SNP is precisely the tactic which New Labour deployed in the 1990's to shred the reputation of everyone in the then government. It is the same tactic which New Labour has continued to employ in office against anyone who disagrees with them, from nonagarian pensioners who express concern about the NHS to academics who express concern about the workability of ID cards to rail crash survivors/families who are investigated for anything which can be used against them politically. New Labour has never lost an opportunity to launch a personal attack on their opponents rather than engage with the issues.

We now have a political culture in which denoucing the integrity of your political opponents is a routine political tactic. What is worse is that with so much mud flying around, some of it sticks even to the innocent. However, since New Labour were the primary instigators of this culture it is a bit rich for them to squeal like a stuck pig when it is deployed against them. Particularly since a number of the Labour politicians who have come to grief did so by breaking rules which the present Labour government itself enacted and has boasted about.

The only way to deal with this situation is for all parties to work harder to comply with the rules, especially the ones they passed themselves. And MPs, MSPs, and all other politicians must expected to be treated the same as people in any other walk of life would be.

Full list of threatened telephone boxes

Re-reading my post on the Public telephones in Copeland council involved in a consultation on proposed closures, I noticed today that it appears to give 23 locations and there are in fact 25 boxes proposed for closure.

The explanation of this is that there are two phone boxes threatened in Silecroft, and the manner in which I worded my previous post may not have made clear that there are seperate proposals to close boxes in the Millom area at both The Green and The Hill. The full list of locations and postcodes for the Telephone boxes in Copeland which are currently the subject of a consultation on proposed closure is:

Bankend View, Bigrigg CA22 2TH
Bridge End, Broad Oak, Ravenglass CA18 1RR
Cliff Road, Whitehaven CA28 8SD
Corney LA19 5TW
Cross Gates, Lamplugh CA14 4TU
Dent View, Egremont CA22 2ET
Ennerdale CA23 3AR
The Green, near Millom, LA18 5HJ
The Hill, Millom LA18 5HB.
Haile, Egremont CA22 2PD
Hinnings Road, Distington CA14 5UR
Holmrook CA19 1YG
Lamplugh CA14 4SF
Main Street, Frizington CA26 3SB
Monk Moors, Eskmeals LA19 5TW
Overend Road, Whitehaven CA28 8SD
Parkside Road, Cleator Moor CA25 5HE
Scalegill Road, Moor Row CA24 3JN
Screel View, Whitehaven CA28 6NH
Silecroft LA18 4NT
Silecroft LA18 5LR
The Square, Parton CA28 6NZ
Wellington CA28 9EY
Winder, Frizington CA26 3UH
Ulpha LA20 6DX.

If you consider that any of these are needed as an emergency service, particularly if mobile phones do not work in the vicinity, then please respond to the consultation either by writing direct to BT or through Copeland Council.

Deadline for the consultation is 6th September. Any comments received by Copeland council before 22nd August will be included in the council response, or you can respond to the consultation directly by writing to BT.

Responses via the council should be sent to "Communications, Copeland Borough Council, The Copeland Centre, Catherine Street, Whitehaven CA28 7SJ" or via email to communications@copeland.gov.uk by Friday 22nd August.

Responses direct to BT should be sent to "BT payphones, PP05 A23, Delta Point, Wellesley Road, Croydon CR9 2YZ" or by email to btp.authorisation.team@bt.com

From "The Daily Mash" - Labour plan to lose last remaining votes

The following article which has just appeared online on "The Daily Mash" seems to sum up the ability of the hapless Labour government to get everything wrong at the moment:



LABOUR UNVEILS PLAN TO LOSE LAST REMAINING VOTES

Labour will today unveil a detailed plan to alienate its last remaining pockets of support.

The central plank of the party's strategy involves identifying the 10 most popular family cars in Britain and then making them a nightmare to own.

A Labour spokesman said: "We're going for the double whammy of making them too expensive to drive, but also impossible to sell.

"And if that doesn't work we'll just spray paint a big swastika onto the bonnet."

The party is also drawing up plans to spend £200 million of taxpayers' money on a vicious PR campaign against the country's 100 most decorated war veterans.

Meanwhile teams of party researchers will tour marginal constituencies, identifying Labour voters and then kneeing them in the groin or setting fire to their coat.

And later this week, in a carefully stage-managed event at Westminster, at least 10 Cabinet ministers will explain why they intend to vote Conservative.

The spokesman added: "We'll take stock during the summer and if, at that point, there are any Labour voters left, the prime minister will send them each a personal, hand-written letter calling them a c*nt."

You can read the full article online here ...

http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/politics/politics-headlines/labour-unveils-plan-to-lose-last-remaining-votes-20080527978/

Friday, June 27, 2008

Doublethink of the month

From the inquest/debate on "Lib/Dem voice“ into the disappointing result (from a Liberal perspective) of the Henley by-election. Lord Rennard, formerly the party's by-election strategist and now Chief Exec, wrote about their Henley candidate, who had been fighting (and losing) local elections in Plymouth a short while before being selected to fight Henley. The following must take a prize for one of the most extraordinary bits of doublethink I've ever read:

"In Henley we worked hard to promote Stephen’s local credentials and he moved in as soon as selected.”

Gordon Brown RIP

No, this is not a joke and I am not referring to the Prime Minister.

West Cumbrian freelance journalist Gordon Brown died last night at the age of 71.

He was a nice guy who was often to be seen at the back of council meetings in Cumbria taking copious notes. What I found particularly positive about his style of journalism is that if he wasn't sure he had a quote right he would collar you after a meeting and check it.

He was also one of those journalists who are willing to sit for hours through a long and boring meeting when most of the hacks have gone and a lot of the councillors wish they could do the same.

He wasn't the only journalist here or in St Albans to do this or to try to get his facts right, but the fact he did make the effort was obvious and appreciated.

We will miss him. Rest in Peace.

Congratulations to John Howell

For anyone who missed it,the votes cast for the candidates in Henley were;

John Howell (C) 19,796 (57%, +3.5%)
Stephen Kearney (LD) 9,680 (28%, +1.8%)
Mark Stevenson (Green) 1,321 (3.8%, +0.5%)
Timothy Rait (BNP) 1,243 (3.6%)
Richard McKenzie (Lab) 1,066 (3.1%, -11.7%)
Chris Adams (UKIP) 843 (2.4%, -0.1%)
Bananaman Owen (Loony) 242 (0.70%)
Derek Allpass (Eng Dem) 157 (0.45%)
Amanda Harrington (Beauties for Britain Party), 128 (0.37%)
Dick Rodgers (Common Good) 121 (0.35%)
Louise Cole (Beauties for Britain Party) 91 (0.26%)
Harry Bear (Fur Play Party) 73 (0.21%)

Conservative majority 10,116 (29.1%), 0.81% swing LD to Conservative

Congratulations to John Howell and his team on an excellent result.

Apart from the usual overblown predictions of victory from the Lib/Dems, I don't think anyone thought it very likely that the Conservatives would lose in Henley or that Labour had a chance there, so this is not quite the body blow for Labour that Crewe and Nantwich was. But the 12% collapse in the Labour share to just three percent, and coming in fifth, was not good for them and fits with the narrative of a government which has lost touch.

Also interesting that the Conservative share went up more than the Lib/Dem share - which suggests that those who are deserting Labour were more likely to come over to us than to the Liberal Democrats.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Telephone Box proposals

Further to my report on yesterday's meeting of Copeland council, the Telephone boxes in Copeland which are currently the subject of a consultation on proposed closure are:

Bankend View, Bigrigg
Bridge End, Broad Oak, Ravenglass
Cliff Road, Whitehaven
Corney
Cross Gates, Lamplugh
Dent View, Egremont
Ennerdale
The Green, The Hill, Millom
Haile, Egremont
Hinnings Road, Distington
Holmrook
Lamplugh
Main Street, Frizington
Monk Moors, Eskmeals
Overend Road, Whitehaven
Parkside Road, Cleator Moor
Scalegill Road, Moor Row
Screel View, Whitehaven
Silecroft
The Square, Parton
Wellington
Windex, Frizington
Ulpha.

Deadline for the consultation is 6th September. Any comments received by Copeland council before 22nd August will be included in the council response, or you can respond to the consultation directly by writing to BT payphones, PP05 A23, Delta Point, Wellesley Road, Croydon CR9 2YZ or by email to btp.authorisation.team@bt.com

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Feedback from today's Copeland Council meeting

The main item at Copeland Council today was the decision to talk to the government about future nuclear waste disposal.

Councillors from both sides of the chamber accepted that the council should register an interest in this. That does not mean that Copeland is committed to taking a new waste repository. It certainly does not mean that the government can regard any such proposal as a done deal. It does mean that we have accepted that Britain's stock of nuclear waste exists, that it will continue to exist for many years even if there isn't a new generation of nuclear plants, that 70-80% of that waste is currently in Copeland, and something has to be done with it. It would be irresponsible for Copeland Council not to talk to the government about what is the safest way to deal with the waste.

Interestingly, some Labour councillors appear to be coming closer to the view first expressed by the council's Conservative leader that the public should have a decisive voice in whether we agree to a new waste site. The suggestion is that we would have to have a local referendum before going ahead: and that we would only support a new waste repository if the evidence that it is safe and the rest of the terms on offer are sufficiently good that we can put the proposal to the residents of Copeland in a referendum and expect to win.

Also on the agenda was a report on the lamentable decision to close 8 Post offices in Copeland. As previously reported on this blog, Conservative and Labour councillors had worked together to put up a very strong case for reconsideration of these closure proposals, and we were furious that it was ignored. The council will be writing to our MP and the Secretary of State to ask for clarification of what "West Cumbria Proofing" means as it seems to have been ignored.

Several local members raised the issue of Telephone Box closures. There is currently a consultation about proposals to shut 25 public payphones in Copeland. Some of these are in areas where mobile reception is not good and local ward members were concerned at the loss of an emergency service. Anyone with concerns about this was encouraged to respond to the consultation.

The agenda had originally included a Conservative motion calling for a discussion about the recent Audit Commission report on Copeland's Housing policy.

The report concerned is the most damning audit report I have seen in 21 year's total service as a councillor on three different authorities. It does deserve extensive discussion and consideration.

However, we agreed to withdraw the motion for now on the basis that we were offered alternative arrangements for detailed public discussion of the report and the measures being taken to address the problems it identified. At first sight these alternatives appear to provide a more effective vehicle to address the serious concerns which the Audit report raises. Obviously we will be looking carefully to make sure there is progress. This is the second bad report on Copeland's housing service: it would be an utter disgrace if the same problems were found again in a year or two's time.

Monday, June 23, 2008

How to tell when Parliament is passing too many laws

A comment which was made in my hearing today struck me as a providing a perfect example of a test of whether the government is forcing too many laws through the creaking parliamentary machinery.

The test is this: if you regularly find that there are laws on the statute book which are almost impossible for the authorities to enforce or for anyone else to know how to obey, because the necessary supporting regulations have not get been published or agreed, it's a pretty clear sign that parliament is passing laws faster than they can properly be implemented.

I was at a private meeting and someone asked a question about whether a suggested course of action was legal, quoting a law passed within the past 12 months. It transpire that the necessary statutory instruments and regulations to implement the law have not been published yet ....

This is very far indeed from being the first time I have met this problem. At least the difficulty today was relatively minor. A few years ago when I was a council cabinet member for planning, I and the officers working for me were put into a similar and impossible position because the government was telling us with the one hand to proceed with urgency to update our local plan, but on the other hand they had not published all the proper guidance implementing laws they had just passed concerning how to consult the public on new style local plans.

When the guidance finally did come out I was put in the atrocious position of having to pull a massive £100,000 consultation exercise which had already been through full council.

If you try to pass legislation faster than you can think everything through,the result is always a mess. Strange that after 11 years in office the Labour government still has not worked this one out.

Feedback from today's Valley Residents meeting

Attended the Valley Residents Association meeting in Whitehaven this evening.

Highlights of the meeting were

* The association is currently conducting a survey of its members and everyone who lives in the Valley Park area about the local one-way system and other traffic measures. The results will be fed to John Dell at Capita who is conducting a review on behalf of the County Council.

* If you have views on this please get your comments in by the end of this month. If you are a Valley Residents member you should already have a response form which can be returned to the addresses given on it. For obvious reasons I am not going to put the addresses of the people organising the survey on the internet, but if you are a local resident, would like your views considered, and do not have a survey form to hand, I suggest you write a letter with your views about traffic in Whitehaven and the one-way systems in Foxhouses Road and Calder Avenue in particular, address it to "Valley Residents Association Traffic Survey" and deliver it to St Gregory's & St Patrick's School, Esk Avenue. (The school is one of the collection points for the survey.

* I repeat, survey responses must be recieved by the end of this month (June 2008)

* One of the two local Police Community Support Officers, PCSO Annabel Crawford was also at the meeting and introduced herself.

* Alan Forster-Faircloth, who is a Community Involvement Officer for South Whitehaven, talked about the Neighbourhood Management Programme. His presentation covered a wide range of issues from smiley speed cameras (they frown at you for speeding instead of giving you penalty points and a fine) to grants available for community action. Following on from this, one of the four Commmunity wardens covering South Whitehaven introduced himself and gave a short description of their work.

* Finally, a local resident raised the issue of a notice which had been served on one of his near neighbours - no names, no pack-drill - who had been served a letter from Copeland Council, asking her not to sing in her own home. The person who raised the issue, and who was incensed that this letter had been sent, said that the lady concerned had not been singing at anti-social hours - the latest was 8pm - and that she was a serious singer whose voice was pleasant to listen to.

While I am aware that we were only hearing one side of the story, it did sound that whoever complained about this had gone a bit over the top. Provided you don't do it at full volume in the wee small hours, things have come to a pretty pass if you can't sing a song in your own house without someone calling down Environmental Health on you!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

What was Andy Burnham thinking?

The government seems to have a political "reverse midas touch" at the moment. After his gaffe about David Davis and the director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, I was interested to read that by New Labour standards Burnham is regarded as a "nice guy."

The following piece by Marina Hyde in yesterday's Guardian demonstrates what damage New Labour's authoritarian streak and their penchant for going for nasty remarks about individuals rather than engaging with arguments is doing to their traditional support. Am I the only person who felt a chill run down my spine at the use of the words "the state has a right to know who you are" ?

The trouble is that just as legal power which were passed into law on the basis of fighting terrorists have been used against people suspected of trying to manipulate school admission rules, the more power we give the state the greater the risk that those powers will be abused. Anyway, here is Marina Hyde's article.

In bed with the DUP? This is the really curious journey
(Andy Burnham's remarks about Shami Chakrabarti and David Davis were those of a man with a very New Labour talent)

Marina Hyde The Guardian, Saturday June 21, 2008

'The individual has no right to anonymity," Andy Burnham once explained during a robotic defence of identity cards. "The state has a right to know who you are." Yet despite his concerted efforts to draw attention to himself with dazzling feats of brown-nosery, the cloak of anonymity has hung heavy on the current culture secretary, with very few citizens of this state having the first clue who he is. Indeed, for most of the final years of Tony Blair's premiership, he was presumed to be lodged in the prime ministerial colon, only emerging blinking into the daylight the minute Gordon took over, whereupon he announced to the press: "I was a Blairite, and now I am a Brownite."

This week, however, Burnham gave people a better of idea of who he is, when he broke his silence on David Davis's endearingly misguided decision to trigger a byelection to campaign against the government's plan to detain terror suspects for up to 42 days without charge. Burnham found "something very curious", he told Progress magazine, in Davis's "late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls with Shami Chakrabarti".

Mmm ... Could you bring the sledgehammer down one more time, secretary of state? There's a chance that a couple of slightly backward 10-year-olds still haven't understood what you were on about. And yet Andy is now upset that his comments have been interpreted as anything other than the cogent engagement with the 42-days issue that they so obviously were, and cannot for the life of him work out why the Liberty director is taking offence - "if personal offence has been caused", as one of his flunkeys put it.

We shan't waste time deciding whether he is stupid or disingenuous, or both; nor indeed in answering a question put by the shadow justice minister, Eleanor Laing - "If the director of Liberty had been a man, would Andy Burnham have said this?" - which can be deemed rhetorical.

But we ought to note that this is not the first time he has been accused of slander. A couple of years ago, the London School of Economics published its Identity Project, a report on ID cards that was the collective work of 60 LSE academics and 40 external experts. Burnham was one of several ministers who repeatedly dismissed it as the work of one man - a man who was eventually forced to seek legal advice and write to Blair to stop what he called a "systematic and malicious deception".

This time round, however, Burnham is not casting aspersions on the little guy, but on a former shadow minister and a civil liberties campaigner who is widely respected and admired by people across the political spectrum. In his clumsy attempts to smear them, Burnham reveals both the size of his ambitions and the shortfall in his capabilities, and it is a classic piece of New Labour doublethink to defend his actions as "byelection knockabout". That byelection being the one at which Labour is not even fielding a candidate.

Until midweek, alas, it was all going so well for Andy, with his department trumpeting a "new Olympic legacy package" he had negotiated. (You'll be thrilled to know that after we've forked out £9.3bn and rising for the 2012 games, over-60s will be getting free entry to Walthamstow baths.) Yet the real legacy he seems to have shored up is New Labour's rich tradition of ad hominem attacks, embodied in Alastair Campbell's famous insistence on playing the man - and in this case the woman - not the ball.

When the history of this unedifying period comes to be written, it will be these vignettes of Campbellesque bullying that will crystallise the age, and speak of a ruling elite that never engaged in debate where character assassination would do. I suppose we should be grateful that they're currently limiting the personal attacks to public figures like Chakrabarti, who are practised enough to take it, as opposed to the likes of David Kelly, who patently wasn't.

Yet if it's public knockabout that gets Burnham's juices flowing, you'd think a "committed moderniser" such as himself would be rather more distressed at the type of people his party had to hop into bed with in order to scrape through on 42 days. Certain members of the DUP hold views that we must in turn hold with tongs. At arm's length, then, let's examine some comments made in the very week of the 42-days vote by the Ulster MP Iris Robinson, after a violent homophobic attack in the province. Having dismissed homosexuality as "an abomination", "vile" and "shamefully wicked", Robinson explained that she had "a very lovely psychiatrist who works with me in my offices, and his Christian background is that he tries to help homosexuals trying to turn away from what they are engaged in". She went on to point out that "just as a murderer can be redeemed by the blood of Christ, so can a homosexual".

How intriguing that Burnham should stand unquestioningly shoulder to shoulder with this creature, and instead choose to devote his valuable time to besmirching the reputation of Chakrabarti and Davis. If it's "curious journeys" that fascinate him, his own is becoming quite the one to watch.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

From this week's Whitehaven News

Following on from the infamous "open bin" prosecution by Copeland Council, and as the same council prepares to make an expression of interest - not binding at this stage - in talking to the government about the possibility of a nuclear waste repository in the area, the following letter from Eric Walker (from Northampton) appeared in the local paper here:

"Sir

If, as recently reported, Copeland Council might apply to the government for financial reward for the local disposal of nuclear waste, it is hoped the council will ensure the waste bin lids are tightly closed?"

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

All 8 Copeland post office closures to go ahead

I am angry and disappointed, but sadly not surprised, to learn today that all eight proposed closures of Post Offices in Copeland are to go ahead.

Post Offices Ltd have announced that 34 out of 35 closures proposed in Cumbria will proceed, starting possibly as early as next month: the exception is the post office in the ward of the Labour leader on Carlisle council. For the avoidance of doubt, let me make clear that I am not criticising the decision to save Botcherby post office but livid that none of the others which also had very strong cases to stay open have been reconsidered.

These closures are the result of an instruction to Post Offices Ltd from Cumbria Labour MP and Cabinet minister John Hutton to close up to 2,000 post offices. Copeland's Labour MP Jamie Reed voted for the Post Office Closure programme.

The post offices to close are:

Beckermet
Bigrigg
Gosforth
Holborn Hill, Millom
Lowca
Moor Row
Parton
Tangier Street, Whitehaven


Councillors from both the Conservative and Labour parties, members of a wide range of community organisations, and other local residents, worked together to assemble a very strong case, which was submitted to the Post Office by Copeland Council, that the closure proposals for West Cumbria were badly thought through, undesirable, and harmful. Sadly this case has fallen on deaf ears.

I am particularly concerned that Post Offices Ltd and the government have ignored our arguments that

1) The proportion of post offices to be closed in West Cumbria in general, and Copeland in particular, is well above the national target: Post Offices ltd are aiming to close about 18% of Post Offices nationally and in Cumbria but are shutting 25% of offices in Copeland, precisedly the sort of dispersed and remote area where they are most needed. By allowing this the government is breaking the spirit of their promises on "West Cumbria Proofing"

2) An extraordinarily high proportion of those post offices in Copeland which have good disabled access have been targetted for closure. In several cases Post Office chiefs are closing branches where both they and the owners recently spent significant sums of money to make the sites compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).

3) The cumulative effect of several closures in the same area will be severe for some parts of Copeland. For example, the area north of Whitehaven from Bransty Hill onwards has already lost Bransty post office and is now also losing Lowca, Parton, and the nearest remaing post office in Whitehaven, Tangier Street.

Today is a sad day for Copeland and West Cumbria, and many vulnerable people in our communities will regret it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Time to suspend Lisbon ratification

It would be ludicrous for the UK to continue with the process of ratification following the Irish vote - which is not to say that this government won't do so.

The treaty as signed cannot come into effect until all countries have ratified it. The Irish electorate have voted not to ratify it.

In the unlikely event that the EU Council of Ministers manage to come up with a deal which persuades the Irish government that they can put the issue back to the Irish people, it would be the most obvious common sense that Britain should wait until we know what that deal is before we continue with ratification.

None of which changes my view that the manifesto commitment of all major UK parties to have a referendum on the EU constitution, which was virtually identical to the Lisbon treaty, should have been honoured.

The government appears to be all over the place on this: Brown and Milliband appear to be saying that ratification will continue, yet a government source has suggested that anyone who imagines that the treaty can continue as if nothing has happened is "living in cloud-cuckoo land".

Quite.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Quote of the year

The following was quoted on "Political Betting" by James Burdett yesterday.

‘Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty’ used to mean we watched the government — not the other way around

Is the internet giving us "Pond-skater" minds?

Andrew Sullivan has an interesting piece in today's Sunday Times News Review about the possibility that spending large amounts of time on the internet can have an impact on the way we think. It's called "Google is giving us pond skater minds."

The advantage is that we can get hold of vast amounts of data very quickly - at least, it's an advantage if we think to check that the data is actually accurate. (See my post a couple of weeks ago about the Red Arrows myth.)

Sullivan argues that the potential disadvantage is that we can find ourselves flitting from issue to issue without devoting serious thought to any one. He argues that this would be a probem if we become, for instance, to used to a rapid flow of a wide ranging stream of information that we cannot summon the concentration to read a book.

Certainly that is possible. So as a check of how vulnerable to this I've become I thought I would check my book consumption over the first six months of this year.

The total number of books I've acquired since January is not susceptible to a quick count because Whitehaven Library has for space reasons been selling off large numbers of books in excellent condition for 10p a time and I have bought large numbers of them which I have not yet had time to read. I have also bought books from local and national booksellers such as Michael Moon, WH Smith, and from the internet.

But a quick check of my internet purchases against what I've so far read, and a look round the shelves, suggest that I have managed to read at least 29 books so far this year - that's cover to cover, not counting the ones I have just dipped into. Judging by Amazon's sales figures and the number of people I see im bookshops, other people have not stopped reading books yet, either.

So I suspect Andrew Sullivan's prediction of the demise of our concentration span is a little premature. But he's undoubtedly right that for good or ill, a huge extra supply of quick information, some accurate, some rubbish, and all stations in between, is bound to change the way we think.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Quote of the day - a Bonkers week

A very amusing summary of the last week from "Political betting" on the past week from a chap using the pen-name Marquee Mark

The past bonkers week: a summary for those who missed it -

Most Labour MP’s go bonkers and vote to destroy civil liberty in the UK. (Some of them do say that in mitigation they have gotten themselves a canny deal from Gordon Brown as the price for their vote.)

In Parliament, Diane Abbot gives the speech of her life. She will do no deals as it would destroy civil liberty in the UK.

The Northern Irish Prods do a canny deal to enable the Labour MP’s to destroy civil liberty in the UK. What’s a civil liberty, they ask, bemused.

Gordon Brown goes bonkers and denies on TV that any of his MP’s or the Northern Irish Prods have done any canny deals to enable the Labour MP’s to destroy civil liberty in the UK.

Diane Abbot goes bonkers and confirms on TV that many of Gordon Brown’s MP’s and the Northern Irish Prods have done many canny deals to enable the Labour MP’s to destroy civil liberty in the UK.

David Davis goes bonkers, throws his toys out pram and then throws himself out the pram. He will call a by-election to ask his constituents whether he should get back in the pram.

Nick Clegg goes bonkers and days he will not stop anyone from helping David Davis back into the pram.

The main stream media goes bonkers and claims the Tory Party is Split! It’s a Shocker!” It is however unable to comprehend the idea that David Davis was acting as a hero of the people when he threw himself out of the pram.

David Cameron refuses to go bonkers. The main stream media goes bonkers over this refusal to go bonkers, saying it clearly shows how split the Tories are that Cameron has to keep his emotions so rigidly in check.

The Sun goes bonkers and annoints Kelvin McKenzie as the person who should really be in the pram.

The Good People of the UK go bonkers - and rush to help David Davis into the pram - and to buy him new toys for his pram. Even one Labour MP, we are told.

Kelvin McKenzie goes bonkers and says the pram is actually a shithole. “It’s a shocker!”

The Sun goes bonkers that Kelvin McKenzie is such a plonker - and (after reading thousands of posts on the net and letters to the press and watching Question Time and listening to Any Questions and Any Answers) cottons on to the notion that the Good People of the UK want to carry David Davis high aloft in his pram) quietly drop the whole Kelvin McKenzie thing.

Meanwhile, Ireland goes fabulously bonkers and throws off the chains of Euro-repression.

The main stream media goes bonkers and claims that they must have been just a load of thick paddies who can’t even spell YES.

The Eurocrats go bonkers and stick their fingers in their ears and go “La-la-la we’re not listening, we’re not listening”.

Pb.com posters go bonkers with 2000+ posts in one long day.

Gordon Brown goes bonkers.

Have I missed anything?

by Marquee Mark June 14th, 2008 at 6:19 pm

Whom the Gods wish to destroy ...

There is an ancient saying, "Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad."

I think this applies to the reported attitude of Gordon Brown in proceeding with ratification of the Lisbon treaty after the Irish people voted against it in Thursday's referendum.

That section of the British electorate which is interested in Europe and either sceptical in the proper sense of the word or downright hostile to Europe was incensed over the broken promise from Labour and the LibDems to support a referendum on the European constitution. They noted that everyone except the British government, including all the other EU governments and some of Labour's own backbenchers, regarded the Lisbon Treaty as 95% the same as the defeated constitution on which all parties had promised us a referendum.

The Irish vote against Lisbon gave both Labour and the LibDems an opportunity to reconnect with those voters by demonstrating that they can listen. Brown apparently is not going to take it. According to this morning’s news he is pressing ahead with ratification in the UK, even though the treaty cannot come into effect without all member states agreeing it, and Irish voters have turned it down.

This is exactly the sort of tactic, ignoring the votes of ordinary citizens, which so annoys that part of the electorate which cares about Europe.

It's not the wish to update how Europe works to meet the new challenges of the 20th century which annoys me, it's the ingrained habit of treating the electorates of Europe with contempt. And when the general election comes, the electorate of Britain will have the chance to return the favour.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Ireland says No!

The rejection of the Lisbon treaty by the voters of Ireland is a huge opportunity for the European Union to move forward in a positive way, and it could be a very good thing for Europe.

No, that isn't a typo.

Doubtless tonight many people who hate the European Union will be celebrating because they think the Irish vote is very bad for the EU, and most of those in positions of power in the EU and and European governments will be horrified for the same reason.

And if the EU responds in the same stupid and anti-democratic way that it reacted to previous referedum votes against the treaties of Maastricht, Nice, and the previous incarnation of the European constitution, both groups will be right. Rewording the constitution, claiming everywhere except the British Isles that the constitutional treaty was largely the same as the constitution that French and Dutch voters had already rejected, and trying to sneak it through by the back door was asking for trouble.

When voters in any EU country do something in domestic politics that the political class doesn't like, the government is forced to pay attention, or they rapidly cease to be the government. However, the linkages between voters and the European institutions are not as direct. In particular, it is fatally easy for people involved in European institutions who have well intentioned plans for the whole of Europe and see them opposed by voters in a country other than their own to assume that they, the politicians know what's best and the voters should be bypassed.

Continuing to fight for something you believe is right when a majority of voters are not yet persuaded is honorable, even commendable if you are clear and open about what you are doing and try to convince people of the merits of thinking. Trying to bypass voters by cynical tactics such as the arguments which Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg used to wriggle out of their promise to hold a referendum on the EU constitution is not honorable, commendable, or wise. People usually see through it.

If the EU governments, through the council of ministers, and the commission, were foolish enough to try to create yet a third draft of essentially the same treaty and try to force Ireland to accept it, or somehow impose it on everyone else without Ireland, the contempt for EU institutions among ordinary voters throughout Europe and not just in Britain, will become even greater.

But if the governments of the EU countries take this as a wake-up call to reconsider how Europe works, making the organisation more streamlined and more democratic, and considering the possibility that the concerns of ordinary voters might actually be worth listening to, it could actually be a very good thing for Europe.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Brave Man ...

David Davis's decision to resign over the erosion of liberties and specifically detention without charge for 42 days took me, like most people involved in politics, completely by surprise.

It is not entirely unprecedented for a politician to put his job on the line in this way, but it is extremely rare, and nobody ever does it unless they genuinely feel strongly on an issue. I doubt if he is in much danger of losing the by election but he may well have prejudiced his chances for a senior government office if Cameron becomes PM. So I don't accept the view that this is just a stunt.

I thought David Davis's arguments about the cumulative impact of current and proposed laws and measures was very powerful. Personally I'm with DD in opposing ID cards and detention without charge for longer than 28 days, disagree with him on CCTV systems, and have an open mind on biometric data provided there are much stronger safeguards. But you don't have to agree with all his individual points to recognise that when added together all the measures to increase state and police powers amount to a serious shift in the balance.

I think it was Franklin who said "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance" and we are due a payment. I hope DD us re-elected because we need more senior figures in parliament who are willing to pay a price for freedom.

Monday, June 09, 2008

42 days would hinder, not help, the fight against terror

If the government had convincing evidence that that detaining people without charge for up to 42 days could help the war on terror, they would have been able to point to far more statements of support from police chiefs and experts.

One or two Chief constables do support the government on this. Others have kept a deafening silence. However, the Director of Public Prosecutions, very bravely in the circumstances, has openly advised parliament that in his opinion the 28 days for which terrorist suspects can currently be help is long enough. And senior law officers in Blair's government have made clear that they will oppose the proposal for 42 day detention if it reaches the House of Lords.

Ironically, the "concessions" which the government has offered to try to get the measure through appear to have done more harm than good: medium rank police officers have privately indicated that the concessions make the legislation too complicated and unworkable.

Let's not forget that anti-terrorist measures which make it too easy to lock up innocent people, even with the best of intentions, often make the problem worse. That was certainly our experience with internment in Northern Ireland.

National security is too important to play political games. Any MP of any party who really believes that 42 day detention will make the British people safer should vote for it. But anyone who thinks this will make matters worse should vote against. In my opinion it will help restore the battered reputation of the House of Commons if this foolish proposal is voted down.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Book Review: "7-7 The London Bombs, what went wrong"

As we approach the vote on Wednesday about whether to give the police the power to hold terrorist suspects for up to 42 days without charge, I have been reading "7-7 The London Bombs, what went wrong" by Crispin Black.

I thought it would be interesting to see if there was the least hint in the book that greater powers to lock up suspects without trial might have helped prevent the bombings. The subject is not even mentioned.

However, the book does give, from the viewpoint of an intelligence specialist, a number of insights into the mistakes that were made and how we could make them less likely in the future.

Issues discussed in the book include

* Black argues that too much weight was placed on the lack of any specific intelligence: there were a number of reasons why July 2005 was a particularly likely time for Islamic extremists to attack Britain and the decision to downgrade the "alert state" threat level a few weeks before the 7/7 attacks was a mistake.

* The division of Britain's intelligence services into SIS/MI6, responsible for analysing external threats, and MI5/Security Service responsible for domestic ones, reflects a previous world situation and does not appear as appropriate to the current situation: in America the "Homeland Security" legislation after 9/11 brought both the CIA and FBI under the Director of National Intelligence and perhaps Britain should consider a similar move.

* Black argues that we have been too tolerant of London-based Islamic terror groups in the belief that they will not attack the country they are using as a base, a policy which he quotes the French as describing as "Londonistan."

He makes a number of other suggestions for better intelligence gathering, working with moderate Muslim leaders, and for deporting non-British citizens who we have evidence to believe may have terrorist links.

You don't have to agree with everything Black writes in this little book to find it an informative and thought-provoking read. In my opinion most of his suggestions are much more likely to help protect the British people from terrorism than giving the police the power to detain terrorist suspects for 42 days without charge.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Anglican Church criticises government

It is a very long time since the Church of England was nicknamed "The Tory party at prayer" and for the whole of my adult life the fact that it had once had that nickname seemed ludicrously inappropriate.

Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, whatever else one may say about them, appear to be more serious about their religious faith than the majority of British politicians. (Indeed, how two men who seem to be fairly devout christians could reconcile that faith with some of their actions has often struck me as quite remarkable, but that is another story.)

So it is deeply ironic that, assuming reports in today's Times are accurate, the Anglican church is about to publish a report which criticises the government in the strongest terms since "Faith in the City" in 1985. But this reflects the reality that, despite the personal faith of Messrs Blair, Brown and one or two other ministers, this government has broadly supported strongly secular policies.

Obviously I have not yet seen the full report. However, it appears to make some very good recommendations. These include the need to treat different faiths on an even-handed basis, and particularly to create a "level playing field" for faith-based charities; an international UK and Commonwealth conference on public service reform: a review of the commissioning of public services designed to strengthen the contribution which charities can make. On first reading it seems that there is a strong case for many of the church's proposals.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Queen visits Whitehaven

HM the Queen and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh came to Whitehaven this morning as part of a visit marking the 300th anniverary of Royal Assent for the act which set up the Harbour and Town.

It was a magnificent ceremony and the elements also smiled on us: I would like to congratulate everyone who was involved in organising the event.