Monday, October 31, 2005


This week we will learn whether some complex maternity services will be moved from West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven to Carlisle. If it is at all possible to provide these services safely in West Cumbria, the answer must be no, and for a whole host of reasons.

There has rightly been very strong opposition to the idea of moving these services with thousands of people signing the “Don’t move our mums” petition. Most people I know assume that it is unlikely that anything so damaging could possibly be allowed to happen, especially in the face of overwhelming public support for keeping maternity services local. A more cynical suggestion has been that this is a straw man put up so that we would be less horrified if something else moves instead. Unfortunately the pressures on the local NHS mean that, although moving services to Carlisle would have serious consequences, rejection of the idea is not as much of a foregone conclusion as we would all like to think.

Providing maternity services, like most other hospital services, requires the establishment of a wide range of specialist staff including training grades, for example all doctors below the level of consultant. The Royal Colleges who supervise the training of these staff require them to see a minimum number of medical procedures of various categories if the training is to be recognised. For example, a junior obstetrician needs to see a certain number of forceps deliveries, so many breech presentations, etc. Meeting these training requirements, without having posts which fail to comply with modern health and safety requirements on issues like hours worked, and then recruiting and retaining enough people to fill all the necessary posts, can be a huge headache for the health authorities. This especially applies in areas which are remote, largely rural, or both – like West Cumbria. The fact that the local NHS have asked themselves whether certain services could be provided more safely and effectively at what they would see as a more centralised location does not necessarily prove them to be, as the saying goes, nasty evil bastards.

However, it would be a disaster for West Cumbria if any further services were moved to Carlisle, and especially if that included anything as critical as complex maternity. A pregnant woman who suddenly develops complications absolutely does not need a forty to sixty mile trip over single carriageway roads.

And in addition to the purely maternity arguments, we need to maintain a critical mass of services in West Cumbria and show commitment to the future of a District General Hospital in the area if there is to be any chance of keeping one. Removal of any further services from WCH is likely to be perceived as a signal that district general hospital services in West Cumbria do not have a future. If this filters through into morale, recruitment and retention it may make the present models and plans untenable and become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Keep complex maternity services in West Cumbria – don’t move our mums !

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Immortal Memory

Today is the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar – one of the three most decisive and important naval battles of all time, and the most important in the past 2,000 years. Only the battle of Salamis in 480 BC, when Greek city states fought off an invasion by the Persian Empire and thereby ensured the survival both of earloy democracy and the ideas which would develop into science, and Actium in 32 BC which determined who would found the Roman Empire and what course it would take over the following 400 years, were as important.

So why is Trafalgar so important ? First, it ensured that Napoleon’s most deadly enemy, Britain, was beyond his power to defeat, and that his power and ambitions would always stop at the water’s edge. Ultimately this was to lead to his defeat – and it made certain that he would not be master of the world. Napoleon was a man of huge abilities and great ruthlessness, and without Trafalgar he might have established a centralised world empire dominated by one man. A history which included such a world empire is not one which any wise person would prefer to our own.

Second, Trafalgar ensured British domination of the seas for well over a hundred years. That power was used to abolish the slave trade, to establish a world economy, and to limit the ability of the old powers of Europe to crush emerging nationalist or independence movements in many parts of the world. I would not pretend that everything Britain did during the 19th century was good, but without the Royal Navy the abolition of slavery and the independence of Greece and most of Latin America would have been much harder to achieve.

Trafalgar was a victory for British sailors who lived, worked and fought in conditions which to us would have been dreadful hardship. Books, films and TV programmes like “Master and Commander” and the Hornblower series can give us some faint conception of what it was like for 600 to a thousand men to live crammed into a creaky, leaky, cold wooden ship about 200 feet long: visits to HMS Victory or the Endeavour replica which visited Whitehaven recently can give a slightly better one.

But I doubt if anyone except veterans of modern wars, and perhaps not even them, can fully appreciate what it was like when those confined spaces were filled with the deafening roar and blinding smoke from cannons, where cannonballs, musket shot and wood splinters cut men down by the dozen, and when agonising death or crippling wounds could come at any moment to anyone on board. Our generation, living relatively safe, secure and comfortable lives for reasons which are in no small way due to the sacrifice of the sailors who fought at Trafalgar and other battles, can only wonder at how much we owe to the Royal Navy.

The Navy drinks to Nelson and the heroes of Trafalgar with the words “The Immortal Memory.”

Let us also remember that the navy which defended us 200 years ago may be needed at any time in the future. Our nation’s prosperity and our ability to feed our people depends on trade routes all over the world, to a greater degree than any other country. We need a strong navy now as much as we needed one 200 years ago. The history of our politicians in supporting the navy (or indeed the other services) is not as glorious as the history of our sailors, soldiers and airmen in defending our islands with whatever tools they have been given. Let all those who aspire to positions of authority in our country remember that.

I usually write in this blog about the present and the future, about current issues that affect ordinary people’s lives. Today I have made an exception and written about the past, and perhaps in terms which may seem a old-fashioned, even Blimpish to some people. Well, maybe, but anniversaries like today’s do not come around that often. And if we want to have the best possible future, we must not forget the lessons of our past.

Monday, October 17, 2005


As Conservative MPs vote tomorrow in the first ballot for a new Conservative leader, I commend to them some thoughts by Mark Shields, an American journalist, on the pattern followed by parties which lose elections. He was thinking of the American Democrats (who he usually supports) after George W Bush's re-election, but the comment is every bit as applicable to British Conservatives

His suggestion is that parties which lose elections go through four phases:

1) We woz robbed

2) Blame the communications

3) Blame the leader/candidate

4) Find a Winner

I've had a bellyful of phases one, two and three. Whether there is any justice in them or not, they don't work.

It's bad enough that we have already had eight years of Blair and Brown and face another four or five. The country cannot afford another five years after that of lies, spin, broken promises, wrecked pensions, excessive bureaucracy, bulldozing the North and concreting over the South, no dentists, stealth taxes, and threats to freedom in the name of security. We need someone who can persuade the sort of people who used to vote Conservative, but don't now, that he can be a good Prime Minister.

There is more than one candidate in this election who may be able to do that. The important thing is not that the person who emerges has to be my first choice (who would be Ken Clarke) but it is vital for the health of British Democracy that we have a strong opposition, and that means that the two names put to party members have to be people who can appeal to the whole of Britain.


A595 De-Trunking - a betrayal of West Cumbria

The government's decision to downgrade the A595 is as disgraceful as it is unfortunate. Only a few months ago - before the general election - government minister Patricia Hewitt promised that all government decisions would be "West Cumbria proofed." This fine sounding promise has fallen at the first hurdle. The most shocking thing about this betrayal is that it isn't really a surprise. Downgrading public services in West Cumbria, especially in the South of Copeland, seems increasingly to be the pattern.

De-trunking the A595 south of Calder Bridge may seem perfectly logical when you are applying national criteria while sitting in a government office in London. But if "West Cumbria proofing" meant anything, it should have meant listening to people who know the area. The proposal to de-trunk the A595 was opposed by both Copeland Borough council and Cumbria County council. (There were legitimate arguments about how strong that opposition was, but those of us who attended the public inquiry and heard the county's barrister in action concluded that he had not been briefed to pull his punches.)

De-trunking was opposed with varying degrees of active participation by all six candidates for the Copeland seat in this year's general election: I gave evidence against it at the inquiry, as did a former Lib/Dem parliamentary candidate. So did both Labour and Conservative County and Borough councillors. So did the Neighbourhood Forum, and every parish and town council in the affected area. So did representatives of local employers, from BNFL down to small businesses, and groups representing local residents. The government ignored every one of those views, including local councillors and representatives of their own party.

I entirely agree with the comment posted to this blog by Andrew from Millom, who made some good points about the problems with the road. He was, of course also right that there are also some huge advantages to living here - that's why I and my family decided to stay in Copeland after our disappointment in the election.

This week's announcement on De-Trunking must not be the end of the story. We must continue to campaign. Whether the A595 is a trunk road or not, it is vital to the economic health of West Cumbria, especially the South of Copeland Borough, that we fight to improve it. But that would have been easier to achieve if the road had retained trunk status. Labour's promises to West Cumbria have been weighed in the balance - and found wanting.

Blackpool Conference Diary

Some notes on the 2005 Conservative Party Conference ...

I arrive at the Blackpool conference determined to be on my best behaviour – I don’t want to get the Conservatives the kind of bad publicity that the Labour party got for throwing out 82-year old Walter Wolfgang.

I needn’t have worried. I don’t know how badly you would have had to behave to get thrown out of this year’s tory conference, but it would have been difficult. Walter Wolfgang was the constant spectre at the conference as every platform speaker found a reference to him irresistible, from Francis Maude’s opening remarks (“I don’t want to encourage heckling” … laughter … “but if you do we won’t throw you out.”) right through to Michael Howard at the end. For all the flak thrown at David Davis, he probably put this point best: “We do need laws to detail those who represent a genuine terrorist threat – we don’t need laws to detain an 82-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany who has the temerity to disagree with the Foreign Secretary.”

Francis Maude made a very brave opening speech. He gave a painfully honest assessment of the way politicians in general and the Conservatives in particular are seen by the public and the reasons we did not manage to defeat a government which two thirds of the public detest – but a third of whom still prefer to us. Considering the amount of uncomfortable truth in the speech, it was well received – indicating an acceptance that “one more heave” will not enable us to be seen as an alternative government.

The most notable event of the first day was a very strong speech from Malcolm Rifkind. He was called in late afternoon to address a conference which seemed half asleep, but at the end everyone jumped to their feet enthusiastically to give him the first standing ovation of the conference. I said to my neighbour that if all five leadership contenders made speeches that good, it would be a very entertaining week.

On Monday evening I attended a reception given by the Indian High Commission which, to judge by the number of other people crowding in, was the place to be that evening. The speeches and presentations we were shown amounted to a very powerful demonstration of how far the world’s largest democracy has come over the past thirty years – reducing poverty, reforming their economy, and doing so in the context of a democratic system in which they have to win consensus for reform. It was very clear from the speeches of both British and Indian speakers that there is immense goodwill between Britain and India –and that co-operation between our two countries has enormous potential to benefit both. Although I would not suggest for an instant that the British Raj got everything right, we can be proud of the fact that sixty years after the end of colonial rule there is still great affection for Britain in India.

On Tuesday morning we had the health debate, during which I made a contribution about the current problems in Cumbria, including concerns about the actual and threatened changes at West Cumberland Hospital, and the impossibility of finding an NHS Dentist. Andrew Lansley, shadow health secretary, made a very positive speech about the need to address the real needs of patients, and mentioned his visit to Whitehaven during the speech.

Tuesday also saw probably the best two speeches by leadership contenders – Cameron in the morning and Clarke in the afternoon. Both were superb, and both were received with wild appreciation by the audience. The media have made much of Cameron’s performance and the momentum it gave him – and it really was as good as everyone made out – but actually Ken Clarke was every bit as good, and I personally think the warmth of his reception was significant. Not since Michael Heseltine’s speech to the 1991 conference have I had such a palpable sense, from the warm response to a platform speaker, that the Conservative party was determined to put internal faction-fighting aside and to do whatever it takes to win.

I had already come out in support of Ken Clarke before the conference and have seen no reason to change that view but David Cameron also impressed me. Both men clearly understand that we need to demonstrate that we care about and have policies which will help everyone in Britain, and a narrow appeal will not get us anywhere. And that however proud we are of the things we achieved when last in government – and if we hadn’t achieved anything Tony Blair would not have copied so many of our policies – we will not get back into government until we show that we also understand what we didn’t get right.

On Wednesday the remaining leadership candidates made their platform speeches. Both the Conservative party and the media love to trip up front runners, and both decided to savage David Davis. His speech was rather better than anyone who missed it might have presumed from the TV and newspaper headlines – but if he does come through and win after the flak he took, he will have demonstrated resilience and a capacity for comeback second only to that of George W Bush. I did regret that one of the reasons he was attacked was that he allegedly annoyed some right-wingers who had previously been minded to support him by reaching out to the centre. Whoever gave that line to the media, (I suspect one of the rival campaigns,) anyone who imagines that the Conservatives lost the last three elections because we were not perceived as right wing enough, needs to meet a wider range of ordinary voters. It is a mirror image of Tony Benn’s idea that Labour under Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock lost elections for not being left wing enough.

I read in the media that Liam Fox’s speech was regarded as successful. He was a good co-party chairman, and as a candidate I felt that he gave me strong support. If he should become leader, he too will need to reach out to the centre to have any chance of becoming prime minister.

After Liam Fox had spoken, William Hague made the best speech of the week. He was obviously aware of the risk of eclipsing the leadership contenders, and went out of his way to praise all five of them. This was a useful reminder to anyone in the hall who might have forgotten it that brilliant speeches are not enough to win. However, if we had not made the mistake of electing William as leader too early, he would have been an excellent candidate now.

The conference closed with Michael Howard’s valedictory. It will probably be remembered for his joke in which he pretended to be about to announce who he wanted to succeed him: the man he wanted to be leader of the opposition was – Gordon Brown. Hear hear !