Showing posts from July, 2006

Down memory lane ...

I read economics at Bristol University between 1980 and 1983, was elected sabbatical treasurer of the union for 1983-4, and then did a Masters degree at the University of East Anglia. Consequently I managed to be involved in student politics during an exceptionally interesting period - and I am using the word 'interesting' in the same sense as the ancient Confucian curse, "May you live in interesting times." I started as a student shortly after the Federation of Conservative Students, FCS, was taken over by the hard right, and remained involved as a supporter of the moderate grouping within the organisation, almost up to the time the organisation was shut down by Norman Tebbit for being too right wing. Of course, the Conservative party was not the only one to have trouble with its youth and student wings - pretty well every mainstream party had difficulties of one sort or another. The Labour Party Young Socialists and National Organisation of Labour Students had probl

How to pay for politics

Almost every modern democracy has problems with the funding of political parties. Neither state nor private funding appears to guarantee that there is no risk of corruption - in some countries such as France, America, Italy and now Britain there have been problems with private funding of political parties, in other countries such as Germany there have been problems with misuse of the taxpayer's money provided for politics. By the standards of most modern democracies, the level of political corruption in Britain is fairly low, though we have never been so spotlessly clean that we could afford complacency on the subject. Insofar as there is less political corruption in this country than some others, the main reason is probably the limits on campaign spending which ensure that fighting an election is not as ridiculously expensive as it can be in some other nations. But the arrest of Lord Levy, and the guilty plea by Lib/Dem donor Michael Brown, have probably been the last straw which

TV Switchover

We already knew that Cumbria would be the trial region for the switchover to Digital TV. Now we learn that Whitehaven and the surrounding villages - basically the northern half of Copeland - will be the first part of Cumbria to be affected. There is an old joke that "nothing should ever be done for the first time." Even if it produces benefits in the long term, I am concerned that the authorities do not seem to have thought through or addressed some of the human cost which may come with this switchover, particularly in the area where it happens first. It has been rumoured that one of the reasons Cumbria had been chosen to be the first area for digital switchover is that there are only 6 MPs in the county so it won't bring the government down if it all goes wrong. I hope that the council and the TV authorities will work together to organise an effective publicity campaign, which needs to start soon, alerting everyone to the steps they need to take to ensure their televisio

While Prescott is supposedly running the country ...

A few weeks ago the media made something of a fuss about the fact that the discredited Deputy Prime Minister would be left "in charge" while the Prime Minister went on holiday. John Prescott actually does take over this week, yet this fuss has died down to a surprising degree. Of course, part of the reason for this is that the media know perfectly well that Tony Blair doesn't trust John Prescott to run the country, and he won't really be doing so. Ministers have been left in charge of their own departments - any minor issues affecting more than one department might well go to the Deputy PM but if anything important comes up we all know they'll be on the phone to Tony before you can say "Middle East Crisis." Does anyone imagine for 20 seconds that Prescott has been or will be allowed anywhere near Britain's response, such as it is, to the war which has broken out in the Lebanon? Mind you, if he had been responsible for dealing with the Middle East cri

The Full Lamonty

Norman Lamont once famously described the then Prime Minister as being “In office but not in power.” This week Tony Blair in turn moved closer to the situation where, while still in Number 10, he is less and less in sole control of the government’s destiny. The arrest of Lord Levy has clearly done immense harm to the Prime Minister – and the stage whispers from some Blairites complaining about the police action have made things worse rather than better. But Lord Levy’s trip to the police station, damaging though it was, is not the most powerful indicator in the past few days demonstrating the decay of the Prime Minister’s authority. On issues where Blair clearly has the agreement of his colleagues, particularly Gordon Brown, he is occasionally capable of pushing for brave or reforming decisions to be made. A rare example, and one that I personally welcome, is the fact that civil nuclear power appears to be included in the government’s energy strategy. But where, as so often, the Labour

Government Energy Review – Where’s the detail ?

After months of waiting, the government has finally published its review of Britain’s future energy needs. Alistair Darling presented the new policy in the House of Commons yesterday. This has been universally presented as the government coming down on the side of nuclear power, and the hints, nudges and winks have now been replaced by a statement that “The government has concluded that new nuclear power stations could make a significant contribution to meeting our energy policy goals.” Note that word “could”. Watching Alistair Darling’s speech I was struck, not by how much was said, but by how little. Some 24 centuries ago, an Egyptian ruler who was disappointed by the small size of a vaunted reinforcement from his Spartan allies, is supposed to have commented “Parturient montes, nascitur ridiculus mus.” Or “Behold, the mountain has laboured, and has given birth to a ridiculous mouse.” To call this energy review Blair’s “ridiculus mus” would be overstating the case, but it contains m

Madrid 2004: London 2005: Bombay 2006.

For the third time in three years a bunch of evil, sick and deluded extremists have murdered large numbers of innocent people, regardless of age, gender, colour or creed, by planting a wave of bombs on commuter trains. Nobody has claimed responsibility and as yet there is no proof of who is behind the barbaric murders of at least 183 people yesterday on trains around Bombay. The Indian security services suspect that the bombs may have been an attempt to derail peace talks with Kashmiri separatists. If the bombs were intended to worsen relations between India and Pakistan, it appears likely that they will fail: President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan has strongly condemned the latest attacks, and a statement released by the Pakistani foreign ministry called them a "despicable act of terrorism." "Terrorism is the bane of our times and it must be condemned, rejected and countered effectively and comprehensively," the statement said. In my opinion anyone who disagrees wi

Don't assume our local hospitals are safe

I'm sure most Cumbrians, and everyone else with a local cottage hospital which has been under threat, were very pleased to hear Patricia Hewitt's announcement of a fund with £750 million to support community hospitals. It certainly sounded as though the message that more support for these hospitals is needed was getting through to the government and that action is being taken. Alas, like many of New Labour's announcements, there is less to this than meets the eye. The problem is that this new fund is purely for CAPITAL projects - e.g. one-off spending such as building new wards, purchase of major new items of equipment, etc. The funding shortfalls which are threatening our Community hospitals are in CURRENT expenditure - ongoing costs like wages, gas water & electricity bills, rates, and so on. There may and probably will be some instances where investment such as putting decent insulation into, or replacing, old buildings may reduce their running costs. But local heath

Reflections on the Seventh of July

Yesterday is the first anniversary of the London bombings of 7 July 2005. Like many people I took two minute’s of silence to remember the innocent people who were murdered a year ago. It is right that we should commemorate their deaths and the work of all the people, both from the emergency services and passers by who helped, who ensured that the death toll was not much higher. I do not for a moment criticise the formal ceremonies which took place yesterday. But perhaps the most important commemoration of all was that that the tube yesterday morning was as busy as usual. It is inevitable that people should feed some fear of becoming victims of another such attack. It is right that we should redouble our vigilance and look at how to minimise the risks. I think it was wrong of the government to refuse the calls for a public inquiry into whether anything could have been done better. But it is also important to put the risks of terrorism into their proper context relative to the other risk

Here we go again ...

According to yesterday’s FT, “Gordon Brown will on Tuesday embark on a new drive to streamline Britain's cumbersome planning rules, seeking to speed up the time planners take to allow companies to develop land.” The article is headed “Brown in drive to streamline planning” – and apparently he will publish another piece of work by the UK’s leading advocate of putting concrete all over the South of England, economist Kate Barker. The cynical may assume from the fact that this is coming from Gordon Brown rather than the nominally responsible minister, Ruth Kelly, that this is just part of the Brown for PM campaign. If only I thought this were true – in fact the Treasury was the main driving force behind much of the pro-development pressure which came from the government while Prescott was in charge. But you have to ask, have these people learned absolutely nothing from the past few years ? Cut and paste the minister’s names and dates and this could easily be one of the press releases

Well done Andy Murray

After a week of fairly disappointing results on the sports field, including England's exit from the World Cup at the hands of Portugal, a country which is one of our oldest allies, many British spirits wer probably lifted by Andy Murray's superb performance at Wimbledon yesterday. It will be interesting to see how many of the politicians who were trying to climb on the England bandwagon now try to clamber onto Andy Murray's instead. Anyone who doesn't do tennis jargon should skip ahead two paragraphs for the translation, but for anyone who does follow tennis and was still drowning their sorrows after the England result, here is a recap of Murray's straight sets win against Roddick. I can't ever recall seeing a British tennis player take apart one of the best players in the world as comprehensively as Murray demolished Roddick yesterday. His victory in straight sets came against one of the most formidable servers in the history of tennis, and Roddick was not play

Farm Payments progress - and about time too !

I was pleased to learn this week that at least some farmers in Cumbria have had their Single Farm Payment money within the past fortnight. But why did it take so long ? Obviously it is very good news that the rural payments agency are belatedly pulling their finger out and the money is finally arriving. However, relief at the fact that this dire problem is at last being addressed should not blind us to the fact that it is disgracefully late. It should have been paid late last year. When other parts of the EU es ran into similar problems and their farmers were forced to scream for help, at least some member countries managed to pay the money by January. In Britain, for the first two months of this year, farming minister Lord Bach promised categorically that the money would be paid by the end of March. So the fact that it money was finally handed over in the latter part of June does not really constitute grounds for congratulation. It’s not as if the inland revenue and all the other peop

David Cameron's new approach to social problems

David Cameron’s tactic for addressing some of the problems facing society by using persuasion is interesting, not least because can be used in opposition rather than just in government. Over the past couple of decades, whenever it is suggested that there is a problem, we have far too often moved straight to proposing new laws about them. Media panic about rottweilers and pit bull terriers - pass the dangerous dogs act. We observe some marginal health risk from beef on the bone – so the government bans it. Smoking is a filthy habit which damages people’s health – so more and more laws are brought in to restrict it, to such an extent that we are rapidly approaching the situation where smoking is more tightly restricted than many “soft” drugs. It goes on. We pass laws designed to restrict terrorists – then find that they can be used to arrest an octogenarian refugee from nazi germany who shouts “nonsense” at the Foreign Secretary or convict a peace protester who turns out to be too near p

How do we get boys involved in things ?

There are two excellent dance schools in Whitehaven. One of them, the Cowper School of Dance, put on a wonderful display called “Hot Shoes” last weekend for the Whitehaven Lions. There were a large number of acts involving every age group from very small children, including my son and daughter, to adults. In the past dancing was largely a mixed activity: sadly it is one of a many activities which no longer seem to have much support from boys. My son was one of only three boys, all very small, who took part last weekend. Perhaps this is partly a matter of parental support: when parents were invited to the dress rehearsal for “Hot Shoes” I only saw about half a dozen other fathers who were there (compared with scores of mums.) It’s only fair to qualify this comment by saying it was not reflected in the audience at the actual performances – there were plenty of dads and other male relatives at these, including the Sunday afternoon which partly clashed with the England v Ecuador match. In