Monday, December 31, 2007

On British Identity

There is an interesting piece on British identity, British values and the Prime Minister's views on the subject in the current issue of GQ.

The article does not directly quote Gordon Brown or claim to be based on a first account statement of his opinions. But on the basis of indirect accounts it ascribes to him the view that where, in the past, British identity was based largely on institutions (the Monarchy, Parliament, the BBC, the Church of England), in the 21st century it will become increasingly important to promote a British identity based on values. The article further suggests that the values which we associate with Britishness - e.g. democracy, fair play, decency - will need to be more clearly defined so they are not so vague that any country would say they have a tradition of supporting such ideas.

This article may or may not actually reflect GB's real views. Knowing the way that New Labour works I think it extremely likely that somebody in Number Ten is flying a kite, e.g. feeding this line to the magazine to see what reaction they get. If the reaction is negative it would be extremely easy to disavow it and truthfully state that at no point in the article is the Prime Minister quoted.

But however cynical one may be about the present government, articulating a positive idea of British identity and British values which is not so vague as to be meaningless is actually a good idea. That makes it all the more important not to let New Labour take over this agenda and push it in directions which will support their philosophy.

Let me give one example of a British traditional value which we should indeed be ready to clarify, define and promote.

As far back as Magna Carta, nearly 800 years ago, it has been a principle that free English people - and of course, since the United Kingdom has existed, free Scots, Welsh and Irish people too - should only give up our rights and liberties to the state in the face of clear evidence that there is good reason to do so. And free people should only be locked up when there is enough evidence to charge them with a crime. This principle has been suspended occasionally in our history but only when parliament has voted that there is a special emergency, usually in wartime, and passed special legislation.

So how might this principle be more clearly defined and applied in the 21st century?

I suggest that one example is how we should respond should siren voices within government ask parliament for the power to lock up British citizens without charge for 42 days when many experts, including both the Director of Public Prosecutions himself, and the previous attorney general in the present government, say that there is no clear evidence demonstrating a need to extend the power of detention without charge beyond present 28 days - and that indeed, the full period of 28 days has never yet been needed.

The British value of defending our liberties should mean that any government foolish enough to this request should be told by the House of Commons, or failing that the Lords, to go away until they can provide clear and specific evidence that such a massive erosion of the freedoms of the British people is essential.

If Gordon Brown were to show by his actions that he is really willing to consider promoting British values in this way, he might deserve some support for the idea. But I shall not be holding my breath.

Proposed move of Whitehaven Fire Station to be dropped?

A recommendation going to Cumbria County Council's cabinet on 8th January proposes to cancel plans to move Whitehaven Fire Station from the present site in Hensingham to Meadow Road.

My Conservative colleagues in Whitehaven have been raising concerns about the proposed move for some time, as have local firefighters. These included a flood risk on the site of the proposed new station and serious questions about the accessibility of the site.

It now appears to be recognised that there are serious problems with the proposals as they stand and the recommendation going to the county cabinet is to remove the Whitehaven proposal from a package of measures for the Cumbria fire service.

This is not necessarily the end of the story but it does appear likely that a proposal which would almost certainly have been a bad mistake has, for the time being, been taken off the table.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Proposals to extend detention without trial run into trouble

I wrote a few weeks ago that it would only take a small number of Labour MPs who had as much of amind of their own as the average supermarket trolley to kill the badly thought out proposals to extend detention without trial beyond 28 days.

Judging by reports in "The Independent" and other newspapers there are indeed more than the required 34 Labour MPs who are threatening to show that degree of independence. ("The Independent" says that there are at least 38 who say that they intend to vote against the proposals.)

The Director of Public Prosecutions is one of those who are arguing that there is no evidence to justify the need to increase the maximum period of detention without charge beyond 28 days. In his view the present 28 day limit is working and he described any risk that a longer limit might be needed as "theoretical."

No clear evidence has been produced by the government that demonstrates why either 42 days or any other period of extended detention beyond 28 days is a more appropriate figure.

The last time Britain responded to a terrorist threat by locking up for more than a month people against whom there was not yet sufficient evidence to bring a charge, was 30 years ago. That was "internment" in Northern Ireland. It was the best recruiting sergeant that the IRA ever had. Let's not make the same mistake again.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Book Review: Diary of an On-Call girl by WPC Bloggs

One of the books in my holiday reading has been the hysterically funny journal of a Woman Police Constable, "Diary of an on-call girl" written under the psuedonym of "WPC Ellie Bloggs."

It is the account of a few months in the life of a WPC in a town called "Blandmore" in the county of "Blandshire." Any politician with responsibility for the police ought to read it to wake them up: everyone else should read it because it is highly entertaining.

I suspect it is not impossible that "Blandshire" might actually be Cumbria and that "Blandford" may be somewhere like Penrith or Kendal. However, the fact that I thought I recognised the county where I live at a couple of points while reading the book may just be an indication of how horrifyingly plausible it is. Perhaps lots of other readers were thinking that "WPC Bloggs" must work in the local police force covering their own area.

I can't think of a better way to indicate the amusing and ironic style of this book than to quote from the foreword:

"Before you turn to page 1, the first thing you need to do is to forget everything you think you know about the police.

You know - the bits where they come out when you call 999, try to find out what's happened and arrest the guilty parties? Forget all that. While you're at it, forget about common sense, too.

Instead, try to imagine a world where the police are run by a group of paranoid, pedantic and politically-correct accountants. On acid. ...

Imagine that half the people who work for the police spend their lives phoning officers asking them to respond to emails asking why they forgot to tick a box on the fifth in a set of a dozen forms relating to an incident where ... [ a drunken four-year old] said a rude word ...

The modern British police is like all that, only much, much madder. ...

I wrote this book after realising ... that people outside the job have absolutely no idea what's going on in the police. ...

Modern policing is a bizarre, twilight zone: one part George Orwell, one part Franz Kafka and one part Trisha.

At times you may find it all a bit confusing. That's because it is. There are various references to police departments that sound unnecessary and pointless. That's because they are. ...

This book comes with a health warning; CONTAINS SATIRE, IRONY, AND TRACES OF SARCASM."

If you can read "Diary of an on-call girl" without laughing, you are Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and I claim my peerage.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Wishing you a very happy Christmas

A very happy Christmas to all readers of this blog, whether you are in Copeland or anywhere else and whatever your politics.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Chemists' Rota in Copeland over the holiday

The following is the emergency rota details of open pharmacies for the various areas of the Copeland constituency over the Christmas and New Year period.

Whitehaven and Egremont areas

Christmas Eve: All pharmacies open but some closing early.
Tesco’s open 8.30 am to 5pm

Christmas Day: Emergency Rota, 6pm to 7pm:
Boots the Chemist, King Street, Whitehaven

Boxing Day: Emergency Rota, 6pm to 7pm
J. N. Murray, Market Place, Egremont.

Wednesday 27th to Sunday 30th December – Normal hours

New Year’s Eve: All pharmacies open but some closing early.
Tesco’s open 8.30 am to 6pm
1st January 2008: Emergency Rota, 6pm to 7pm Alliance Pharmacy, Main Street, Egremont.

Millom and South Copeland areas

Christmas Eve: Boots the Chemist, Wellington St, Millom,
and L Rowland & Co, Wellington Street,
both open 9.00 am to 6.30pm

Christmas Day: No Pharmacy open in Millom:
Boots the Chemist, King Street, Whitehaven 6pm to 7pm.

Boxing Day: Emergency Rota, 1pm to 2pm
Boots the Chemist, Wellington St, Millom.

Wednesday 27th to Sunday 30th December – Normal hours

New Year’s Eve: Boots the Chemist, Wellington St, Millom,
and L Rowland & Co, Wellington Street,
both open 9.00 am to 6.30pm
1st January 2008: No Pharmacy open in Millom: Alliance Pharmacy, Main Street, Egremont open 6pm to 7pm.

Keswick area

Christmas Eve: Boots the Chemist, Main Street, Keswick open 9am to 6pm.
J. N. Murray, Station Road, Keswick
and United Co-OP, Market Street, Keswick
both open 9.00 am to 5.30pm

Christmas Day: No Pharmacy open in Keswick
Boots the Chemist, Graham Lane, Penrith open 2pm to 3pm

Boxing Day: Boots the Chemist, Main Street, Keswick open 9am to 5.30pm.

Wednesday 27th to Sunday 30th December – Normal hours

New Year’s Eve: As Christmas Eve above

1st January 2008: Boots the Chemist, Main Street, Keswick open 9am to 4pm.

The daftest statistics of 2007

Following on from yesterday's post about misleading averages there was an excellent article in The Times this week by Andrew Dilnot and Michael Blastland about the most ridiculous statistical errors of 2007.

You can read it online at

One example quoted concerns the AIDS/HIV statistics published by the United Nations. Despite the increasing spread of the disease they had to adjust down their estimates of the number of people infected, which had been too high.

The reason: the previous estimates of the number of HIV positive people had been based on samples at maternity clinics. But this is not a reliable way to make such an estimate. It eventually dawned on someone that in terms of exposure to AIDS, pregnant women are not representative of the overall population because, of course, they have all had unprotected sex. DOH!

Another example of a misleading statistic concerns prostate cancer survival rates in the USA and the UK. When Rudi Giuliani, aspiring US President, was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he said that his chance of surviving in the US, he said in August, was 82 per cent but that in the UK it would have been about about half as good.

The proportion of men in Britain and America who actually die of prostate cancer appears to be quite similar, although there is a degree of uncertainty about this because many men who appear to have died of completely unrelated conditions are found to have also had slow-developing cases of prostate cancer. (It is sometimes alleged of prostate cancer that "most men die with it but few men die of it.")

However, in the USA, many more cases of prostate cancer are diagnosed than in the UK. With a similar proportion of deaths, that gives you a massively higher survival rate for those who are actually diagnosed.

I don't go all the way with Dilnot and Blastland on this: the lower rate of diagnosis in the UK may be responsible for some unnecessary deaths, although it is also possible that the higher rate of diagnosis in the states may result in men undergoing highly unpleasant treatments (including castration) which do not give any real benefits in terms of quality of life or life expectancy. And we cannot be certain that prostate cancer is not a factor in some deaths in the UK which are ascribed to other causes.

However, Dilnot and Blastland are undoubtedly right to criticise the idea that the differential between quoted survival rates in the two countries is of any use whatsoever as a measure of whether we could save lives if the NHS adopted USA-style treatments.

A third example in the Times article concerns the impact on railway safety of the privatisation of the railways. It is almost universally believed that rail safety deteriorated after privatisation. But the statistics simply do not bear this out.

Railway inspectorate data shows clearly that railway accidents have not just continued to fall after privatisation, but fell faster after privatisation than before. More than 100 people survived who might otherwise have been expected to die had British Rail's rate of progress continued.

The problem the railways have is that although they are much safer than roads in terms of deaths per passenger mile, when people die on the railways it is usually as part of a major accident which gets lots of publicity. People die on the roads every week, but it just doesn't get the attention.

In Cumbria the current death rate on the roads is about 50 a year or one a week. I think I am right in saying that more people die on the roads of Cumbria alone every year than the combined death toll for every major accident on the whole of the UK railway network all the way back to privatisaion.

The fact that media coverage tends to give the impression that the risks on the railways are much greater than is actually the case, while road deaths get less attention, can be thoroughly pernicious as we saw with the reaction to the Hatfield crash.

Which do you think killed more people - the Hatfield crash, or the way the authorities and the media reacted to it?

I was a commuter into London at the time, and the ridiculous over-reaction of the railway authorities after the Hatfield crash made getting into London a nightmare. The Economist magazine also convincingly argued that this over-reaction killed more people in extra deaths on the roads than died in the crash itself.

The Economist obtained figures for the huge blip of extra road traffic during the months after Hatfield, which appears to have been caused by a combination of fears about the safety of rail travel and restrictions on rail travel after the crash. Then they multiplied the extra number of person miles on the roads by the differential between deaths per passenger miles on the railways and roads. The answer came out at six extra road deaths - slightly more than the number of fatalities in the actual Hatfield crash.

If anyone reading this would like a recommendation for a really good book about how to use, and how not to use, statistics, I can make three.

The first is "How to lie with Statistics" by Darrell Huff. First written in 1954, before I was born, this book is absolutely timeless and, given that it is a book about maths, incredibly easy to understand. (It is also a delight to read, which is even more unusual for a book about maths.)

The other two are "Damned lies and statistics" and "More Damned lies and statistics" both by Joel Best. These books are set at a slightly more challenging level that Huff's, but both are still more accessible, and easier to understand, than most maths books. They contain a wealth of recent examples of some of the problems people can have with misleading statistics.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The tyranny of misleading averages

A West country MP, Gerry Neale, used to tell the story that he was once making a speech to Cornish farmers and said that "on average, I do not think you are doing too badly."

"Look here, mister" replied one of the farmers, "Stand me with my left foot in a block of ice and my right foot in a bucket of boiling water and tell me on average I am all right and I'll tell you I'm not!"

I was reminded of this during a recent seminar on improving the economy of West Cumbria when one of the officers of Copeland Council referred to the area as having a high wage and high skill economy.

I pointed out to him that we have one industry employing a lot of people many of whom are highly skilled and many of whom, either because of those skills or because their work is at unsocial hours or hazardous, are fairly well paid, but that the statement was not true of the remainder of the local workforce.

It is not at all unusual for a group of people - the residents of a ward or constituency, the people who work in a broad field - to be divided into two or more sub-segments and for average statistics which describe the whole group to bear no relation to the circumstances of any given individual.

An example of an area where this can cause problems is with average statstics for measures of poverty. In both Cumbria and Hertfordshire I have seen policies to target disadvantaged areas based on average statistics for council wards. Unfortunately those averages may be very misleading where a council ward is large and diverse. For instance, both the areas I have had the privilege of being elected to represent, my current ward of Bransty in Copeland and my previous ward of Sandridge in St Albans, were disadvantaged by this analysis. Sandridge ward contained the relatively new Jersey Farm estate, many of whose residents commute into the City of London to work, and which substantially reduced the ward average figures for most measures of deprivation.

However, the ward also contains the village from which it gets its name, and in that village there is much more social and economic deprivation.

Bransty ward is similar in that the electoral division contains some very disparate areas, from Bransty Hill itself through the Sunny Hill and Bay vista areas through to two new estates at The Highlands in Whitehaven and in the village of Moresby Parks. Overall the degree of poverty and need in the ward is much greater than you would imagine from ward average statistics, and this sometimes has an impact on the distribution of resources.

The lesson from this is that authorities should take care when planning their economic strategies to be aware of the fact that some average statistics may be very misleading. Apologies for a bit of basic statistical jargon, but this is still true whether the average that you use is an arithmetic mean (add all the figures and divide by the number of people) the median (put the numbers in order from the lowest to the highest and take the number half way down the list) or the mode (the most common result.)

And when distributing resources it is necessary to bear in mind that an area which on average is affluent may contain pockets of considerable poverty.

Links to this post: the Daley half dozen at Iain Dale's Diary

Friday, December 21, 2007

Chief Constable's snub to Home Secretary

Christmas is meant to be the season of goodwill, and I usually try to avoid any kind of political criticism from Advent to Epiphany.

For example, residents of Bransty and Harbour wards who recieve the "Christmas card leaflet" which I and my colleagues are currently putting round with a Christmas message and some seasonal information will note that it doesn't contain a single word of criticism of our political opponents. That's because this just isn't the time for such criticism.

Consequently, the action of the chief constable of Cumbria in refusing to pass on the Home Secretary's Christmas message to his force, on the grounds that it might have a negative effect on their morale, is not the sort of tactic which I would want to see become routine.

But having said that, I really cannot blame him. If you are going to ban a group of workers from striking, and instead set up an independent review panel to set their pay, you are going to look mean, and petty if you fail to keep your side of the bargain by honouring the panel recommendations.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has shown disrespect which almost verges on contempt for the police by her handling of their pay review. The panel recommended a 2.5 per cent pay rise. But the Home Secretary has cut that to 1.9 per cent by not paying the increase for September, October or November.

Frankly, this is no way to treat the police force of this country.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Academy school site finally chosen

After many months of waiting the decision has finally been taken on the site for the new Academy school which will incorporate both Wyndham school in Egremont and Ehenside School in Cleator Moor.

The new school to be called "The West Lakes Academy" will be set up on the existing Wyndham site in Egremont.

This news will come as a relief to parents in Egremont and a disappointment to many in Cleator Moor. No possible decision could have pleased everyone but at least the prolonged and damaging period of uncertainty is now over.

At one stage the county council was planning to site the school in Cleator Moor because of fears that there might be some disruption to the education of pupils in the existing Wyndham buildings while a new school was being built alongside.

Special efforts need to be made to ensure that this fear does not become a reality and to help parents and pupils from Cleator Moor with travel arrangements.

I am sure we will all want to wish the new school and its pupils every success and I hope to see people at all levels of government working together to make sure it is.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

BBC1 censors Christmas Classic

Two members of my family, who on most issues have very different tastes, both love the Pogue's Christmas song, "Fairytale of New York"

It's a story of two lovers who trade insults on Christmas Eve. Some of the insults are somewhat rude and I'm not going to quote it, but the song has been broadcast regularly for 20 years and it is a serious contender for the number one Christmas slot.

However, BBC1 have now bleeped out one of the insults because one of about ten possible meanings of the word in question, which clearly does not apply in this instance, is as a mildly insulting term for a gay person. The BBC were concerned that some gay or lesbian listeners might be offended.

Among those who have complained about the decision to censor the song have been quite a number of gay men and women.

Their view was summed up by a lady called Heather Goodwin, who posted the following on the Telegraph website:

"I am a gay woman, with many male gay friends, and we've always loved this song. I think the BBC needs to stop being knee-jerk PC. It's not necessary to sanitise every instance of the word 'faggot' - only where it is obviously being directed at gay members of the listening audience as an insult. Thanks, for caring, BBC, but next time, why don't you ask us? The lovely people at Stonewall - or, indeed, your own Diversity team - will always advise!"

The things they say: Kennedy on Cable

Former Lib/Dem leader Charles Kennedy has a piece in the Guardian today about the leadership of the Lib/Dems which begins with the following comments about the current (for another hour or two) acting leader of his party:

"I was amused to read earlier this week that the soon to be former acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, had excused himself early from a recent meeting of the party's governing federal executive committee - in order to join the invited audience for the recording of an episode of television's Strictly Come Dancing. The move confirmed the eminently sensible sense of priorities which have characterised Cable's interim and much-applauded tenure of the top job in British Liberal Democracy over the course of recent weeks."

Ouch! With friends like that, who needs enemies?

And to think that the Lib/Dems used to have a reputation (though entirely undeserved) as the good guys of British politics who were nice to everyone.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Another argument to keep Border TV

I have just watched the BBC regional lunchtime news (For the "North East and Cumbria".) There was an item about the problems of hill farmers in Yorkshire. Practically every word also applied to the hill farmers in Cumbria - in same cases more so. Did it even occur to the journalistic team who put this report together to mention this?

No, because they are North East journalists who very occasionally remember that they are also supposed to cover Cumbria.

Further evidence that the proposed ITV news regional mergers are a bad idea and we need to keep more local regional news coverage. Another reason to support the campaign to keep Border TV

Take care on the roads in West Cumbria today

As the cold snap continues the roads in West Cumbria are quite icy today. So anyone local to the area who is reading this, please take care

Saturday, December 15, 2007

NHS Public meetings - 14 and 21 January

It was suggested at one stage that the public consultation meetings in Whitehaven and Millom on the "Closer to Home" NHS proposals might be postponed. This does not appear to have happened.

The Whitehaven meeting is still scheduled to take place at 7pm on Monday 14th January in Whitehaven Civic Hall, Lowther Street.

The Millom meeting is still scheduled to take place at 2pm in the Millom Network Centre (at Millom School) in Salthouse Street.

You can keep a check on the progress of the consultation, including these and other public meetings, by looking at the "Closer to Home" website at

Lady Warsi's speech to the "Diverse Britain" conference

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion, made a very important speech at the Guardian race equality conference in London this week. She made some immensely signifcant points about the distinction between culture and religion. To her as a British Muslim, a number of attitudes which are actually very dubious points of culture have been misrepresented as religious requirements. I felt the speech was worth quoting, and here it is.

"Last week I spent three extraordinary days in Khartoum. I went with my Labour colleague Lord Ahmed to try to get Gillian Gibbons out of jail - the primary school teacher who allowed her pupils to give the class teddy bear the name Mohammed.

It was extraordinary because we were dealing with a situation which, thankfully, could never happen in Britain.

And yet it had echoes of situations we do get in Britain.

First, although it was a crisis with national and international impact, it was sparked by a very local dispute - in this case between a school principal and a mischievous school secretary.

Second, the crisis developed because of cultural misunderstanding. They simply don't go in for teddy bears in Sudan and so some people wrongly thought Ms Gibbons was mocking the Prophet Mohammed.

And third, the crisis really took off because there were religious and political leaders in Sudan who were busting for a fight, and were prepared to exploit the issue for their own purposes.

Lessons for Sudan

These three factors - local disputes; cultural misunderstandings; and hardliners stirring up trouble - these are very familiar to us in Britain.

I am glad we were able to play a role in ending the crisis. And before I discuss the lessons I brought from Sudan, let me suggest that our mission also had a lesson for Sudan.

Nazir Ahmed and I were not an official delegation. We had no powers to offer anything to the Sudanese Government in exchange for leniency in this case.

We were there as members of the British Parliament, and as British Muslims.

And I hope that as Muslims and as Parliamentarians in a democracy, we helped represent to the Sudanese government and people a very simple and very important principle.

That you can be a Muslim and believe in democracy and the rule of law.

We wanted, in a small way, to show the people of Sudan that Muslim politicians can have different values to those responsible, for instance, for what is happening in Darfur.


But I have a hope closer to home too, which is what I want to talk about today.

I hope our mission to Sudan demonstrated to people in Britain, and in other western countries, that you can be a Muslim and hold firm to your country's values and interests - even if your country isn't Muslim in its constitution or its national religion.

I believe that diversity is a positive force - one of the great things about Britain. I am proud to be Muslim and British - and proud that Britain and Islam each accommodate the other.

This principle must be the basis of any attempt to build community cohesion in this country. None of the world's religions - not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, not Hinduism or Sikhism or Confucianism - none of the world's religions are incompatible with democracy, unless they choose to make themselves so.

A religion can make itself incompatible with democracy in two ways - either by demanding the exclusion of other cultures from the public space, or by voluntarily excluding itself from the public space.

Let me deal with these tendencies in turn.

Diversity within Britain

The first tendency - to demand the exclusion of other cultures - is almost as old as politics. Every religion on earth has tried at different times to have a monopoly in particular countries.

The Church of England enjoyed a virtual monopoly in 18th century England - we had laws restricting the rights of Catholics, Jews and even Protestant dissenters.

And out of the struggle of those years came: the principle of tolerance and religious freedom under the rule of law. This principle is one of our country's greatest gifts to the world.

And that is why it so distresses me when I hear extremist groups like the BNP, who say you cannot be Black and British or Muslim and British. And it distresses me when I see a minority of people who claim to represent my own faith, Islam, arguing that Britain should be an Islamic state, either wholly or partly, or those who support opting-out of British law rather than demanding equal treatment under the law.

When Nazir Ahmed and I went to Sudan last week we were proud to do so as members of a House of Parliament which has bishops and the Chief Rabbi as fellow members. We do not want to belong to a political system which only gives room to one faith - even if that faith is our own.

Diversity within communities

Let me turn to the other way in which a religion can make itself incompatible with democracy: by voluntarily excluding itself from the mainstream. Retreating into a theological corner of its own making. Telling people of the faith they must stay isolated in the corner if they want to be true believers.

Of course, this isn't just the fault of some religious leaders within the faith. Many believers now feel pushed into the corner - marginalised by legislation and language that creates a siege mentality.

Of course, the Government's security measures - whether we agree with them or not - are designed to protect all citizens, and are not part of some official campaign against Muslims. But proposals like 42 day detention - presented without evidence for its necessity - creates a victim culture which encourages rather than limits extremism.

In the same way, commentators who suggest that certain people's 'way of life' is incompatible with mainstream Britain, or the media stories like the Manchester United bomb plot that turn out simply to be wrong, are part of the problem.

That's why I say that politicians who want to engage with our minority faith or race communities have to do a lot more than the photocall outside the mosque or church or temple. You've got to go inside, sit down, talk and listen. You've got to understand the building you're posing in front of - and understand the extraordinary diversity within Britain's minority communities.

Culture and religion

But that diversity also needs to be preserved from within - preserved against those who want to control everything that believers do.

I believe that as a nation - and for reasons I'll explain, British Muslims have the foremost responsibility here - we need to make a vital distinction, and to act on it.

The distinction is between the cultural and the religious.

This distinction is vital because there is a growing tendency among some people to describe what are really social expectations - and often pretty dubious ones - as religious requirements.

There are people in Saudi Arabia who say women driving cars is unIslamic. In Somalia some say Muslim girls should be circumcised.

That's not the Islam I know.

But there are ideas we get here in Britain which are just as wrong.

Take forced marriages. Islam is unambiguous in its condemnation of forced marriage - it's not a religious requirement, it's a cultural outrage and Muslims reject it.

Or take honour killings, I even find this label offensive because there is nothing honourable about these murders and perpetrators of such crimes should not be allowed to hide behind any faith.

Or take the simple handshake between colleagues which stirred much debate last year, and yet when I was in Sudan last week, some of the most conservative religious leaders I met put out their hands for me to shake.


Confusing the cultural and the religious is wrong because it's divisive - it leads to separation as devout young people think it's their religious duty to cut themselves off from wider society.

If a woman wants to wear the face veil in her private life she should be free to do so. But she should be free to do so, as she is free to wear any other dress she feels appropriate. No one has a right to insist that she should wear the veil in her private life - just as no-one has a right to insist she should not.

And of course schools must be allowed to set their own rules on dress. And of course security or health and safety can mean it's necessary to ask a woman to remove a face veil, provided it's done sensitively - for example by a woman in a private space. And we shouldn't be scared to say this.

Cultural engagement

But there's another, deeper reason why it's important not to confuse the cultural with the religious.

If an issue is religious, it is less appropriate for society and the state to monitor, regulate or comment on it - so long as its doctrines and practises are legal, of course.

My point is that, within the constraints of the law and basic humanity, the freedom of conscience is a cornerstone of liberal democracy - one of the things that places like Sudan are crying out for and which Britain is so rightly proud of.

But culture is different. Culture is in the sphere of criticism and commentary and, if necessary, of interference by politicians. I don't often quote Labour politicians but I think Mike O'Brien was spot on when he said that cultural sensitivity is not a reason for moral blindness.

I want us to respect religious doctrine. But I want us to be able to engage robustly with cultural opinions, where those opinions threaten a real separation between the communities of the UK.

I said that British Muslims have the foremost responsibility here. As long as the Muslim community remains in a victim culture, a siege mentality, they allow others to control the debate.

When it comes to Islam, the majority of Muslims understand the difference between culture and religion. It's not for others to tell Muslims what is and isn't Islam. It's for the community, and in that I include myself, to expound the truth about our faith - not let others interpret it for us. It is for us to be the change - not let others impose it on us.

So I've got a clear message to the hardliners and hotheads who claim to speak for British Muslims.

When you say that voting is un-Islamic, you're wrong.

When you say that women should not have access to education or employment; that women's equality is un-Islamic; or that women should not adopt leadership positions like politics, you're wrong, wrong, wrong.

When you say these things, you're putting forward a cultural argument, not a religious one, and while we should always be tolerant of religious faith, we can and must be utterly intolerant of cultural arguments that try to divide our country and our communities.

Guiding principles

So let me set out what I believe the government's role should be: the priorities for ensuring cohesion in a diverse nation.

And I go back to the observations I made in Sudan.

First, cohesion must be local: problems and solutions are found in local circumstances, as much as in far-away national and international events.

Second, cohesion requires understanding: because what is perfectly innocent in one context - a teddy bear in a classroom, for instance - can cause offence in another. There can be no special pleading for different groups, and of course tolerance means learning to live with people and opinions you don't like - but for tolerance to work, there must be real sensitivity to how different groups see the world, and to how we use language.

And third, cohesion requires responsibility, and discernment: because there will always be hardliners or one sort or another, the sort of people for whom compromise and empathy and understanding are signs of weakness not signs of strength.

Let me take these principles in turn.


Cohesion is local. That means people learning to live alongside each other in neighbourhoods - not artificial national unity, achieved by buying off different groups with a bit of patronage here, a bit of money there.

I went with to Sudan with a Labour peer, and I was proud to be part of a bipartisan effort - party differences didn't matter on that mission.

But this is not to say that there are no differences between the parties when it comes to cohesion at home.

For me, cohesion means that where there is local diversity, different races and religions get along. Cohesion should never mean multiculturalism, in the way that this concept has been translated by Labour: the doctrine of separate identity, with each group encouraged to feel that identity requires the expression of difference to the point of hostility.

Multiculturalism has been manipulated to entrench the right to difference, a divisive concept, at the expense of the right to equal treatment despite difference, a unifying concept.

And the fact that cohesion is local, means Labour get it wrong when they go in the other direction too. After years of promoting top-down multiculturalism, Gordon Brown is now promoting top-down unity.

Of course, localism has to be in the context of a national consciousness - and that's why I want us to reverse the failed state multicultural approach and ensure there is sufficient English language teaching for new arrivals, and proper teaching of English history for our children so that they have a deep understanding of our great institutions and how they came to be as they are.

But to me, Britishness means the opposite of what it means to Gordon. I was bought up to believe that being British meant you didn't go on about it! It's not about planting flags on lawns, or inventing a new Veterans Day - as if we should celebrate our country by importing traditions from America.

Gordon is even consulting far and wide on six words, a motto believe it or not, that encapsulates our nation. Well let me tell him: you're searching for something you won't find.

Britishness is not something that can be put in words. It is about institutions, and traditions, and the shared values which are often felt more than spoken.

Cultural understanding

Britishness is bottom-up. And that's vital for the second principle I mentioned: the importance of understanding.

Labour's use of patronage politics leads to reliance upon self appointed community leaders, mainly men. This has left many in our communities unheard.

Like the Asian women in Dewsbury who I met in the 2005 election, who told me I was the first politician to canvass their views. Women are the bedrock of our communities. But too often they have been forgotten and left behind.

I want to see far more real representation of Muslims and other communities in our country. Not because we need quotas on faith or race - but because to responsibly govern Britain we must encompass all of Britain in its governance.

I am pleased the Conservative Party is working so hard to engage with minority communities and I look forward to further discussions with many of the people here today.


Finally, there is the principle of responsibility, the need to resist the siren call of the hardliners.

We must accept that we're in all in this together - but Muslims have an added responsibility to defeat extremism, because extremism is claimed in the name of Islam. It's also more personal to us because it's in our community that any backlash is also felt.

So the government and wider society needs to empower communities to tackle extremism. We must inspire people to feel part of the British system, and help them make the changes that are necessary through engaging with democracy.

I have suggested a voluntary support network, a national foundation to provide support and guidance, somewhere families and individuals can turn when they pick up on the signs of disenchantment with our country and its democratic ways and institutions.

Something that comes from the community, with an understanding of its culture and beliefs but as professional and dedicated as any charity.

A key question is to what degree political parties should engage with people and organisations who have extremist or separatist views.

My view is clear. Of course we should be willing to engage with individuals and groups who don't share our philosophy - including disillusioned and alienated young men who are vulnerable to Al Qaeda.

But engagement doesn't mean partnership. This Government clearly believes in partnership with national organisations that claim to represent communities.

This is wrong - firstly because it's patronising to suggest that diverse communities can be represented by single homogenous groups. It suggests that individuals - particularly women - within those communities aren't capable of representing themselves.

And this approach is wrong because some such groups often hold ambiguous views on cohesion and integration. And as a responsible government, engagement must involve what diplomats call 'a robust exchange of views', in which the Government asserts without apology or concession, that the attitudes of certain groups are hindering a cohesive Britain.

The next Conservative Government will take instead a fresh, new and more localist approach - listening to individual voices and ideas, particularly from women and young people, and devolving power through local government to the grassroots.


The unfortunate fact is that this is a polarised debate. I saw that myself when I was appointed to my present job.

Some blogs described me as an Islamist jihadist. Others called me a Zionist sell-out.

And that illustrates how his debate often works. We have a tendency to deal with everything in terms of soundbites - and to pigeon-hole people into clear and hostile categories.

Well, I'm probably a square peg in a round pigeon-hole. I represent the diversity there is in Britain today. And I think we should have an honest, grown-up debate, with real depth and understanding - but a debate which is also prepared to tackle those difficult issues that need to be tackled.

I hope I've tackled some of them today. Thank you."

Friday, December 14, 2007

Brown plays McCavity once too often

When Gordon Brown was chancellor he used to make a habit of disappearing whenever Tony Blair was in trouble, which was sometimes called his "McCavity act" - a reference to a children's poem about a master criminal called McCavity who always managed to be elsewhere when a crime was discovered.

He's still trying this one on occasionally as Prime Minister but it doesn't work.

The attempt to avoid being photographed signing the constitutional treaty with other European heads of government is a case in point.

Has this in any way placated the Euro-sceptics who don't think he should be signing the treaty? Absolutely not, they're even more cross because they think they are being taken for suckers.

Has it pleased the pro-Europeans? Absolutely not, they think it shows lack of courage.

Has it pleased the leaders of other EU member countries? No, they think it makes Brown look indecisive and it starts off the summit by reducing Britain's prestige.

All three groups are right. Brown's behaviour is the worst of both worlds.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Guest Column - We Need A Vote

On the day Gordon Brown is due to sign the EU constitutional treaty, West Cumbrian businessman Mike Graham argues that the British people should be given a changce to vote on the treaty before parliament ratifies it.

We need a vote before giving the EU new powers. In my view, most Cumbrian voters already feel that the EU has a powerful and almost uncontrollable influence on our everyday lives.

Although many people are not aware, issues as varied as fortnightly bin collections,Home Information Packs and the number of hours we are allowed to work are all now decided in distant EU institutions.

It is estimated that four out of every five national laws now originate in Brussels. In 2005, the government promised a referendum on the EU constitution, deciding to let UK voters have the final say on whether they wanted even more decisions to be taken by the EU.

Despite this, Gordon Brown is now trying to go back on his word.

They are now trying to reintroduce the rejected constitution in the form of a new treaty. This is a deeply dishonest process.

British voters surely deserve better than this, and the revised constitution deserves a vote because it would grant the EU even more control over our daily lives on issues as fundamental as crime, immigration and public services like schools and hospitals.

The constitution gives remote EU bodies more scope to meddle in decisions which most people think should be made close to the people they affect. This is why voters must have a say before giving any more power to Brussels.

Gordon Brown has already made important U-turns on issues such as super-casinos and cannabis. If we are going to persuade him that he needs to do the same on the EU constitution, then we need to gather as much support as possible. If you want your voice to be heard, please sign up to support our campaign at

Mike Graham is a Whitehaven-based businessman and Cumbria spokesman for the national cross-party ‘I want a’ campaign

This article originally appeared in the "News and Star" and is re-published here with the author's permission

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A hammer blow for Whitehaven

The news that the Maritime Festival Committee has decided not to proceed with the 2009 Whitehaven Maritime Festival will have come like a punch in the stomach to many residents of the town.

I am sure the committee would not have taken this step without very good reasons, but it is still dire news. The Festival was a massive success in putting the town on the map, bringing in income, and boosting tourism. We will need to find a way to replace the Maritime Festival and it will not be easy.

Incidentally, the contrast between the negative way the news was reported by the BBC Regional News programme for the North East and Cumbria, and the rather more sympathetic and detailed coverage by the local Border TV news was a perfect illustration of the case against amalgamating Regional ITV companies into larger areas.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Copeland Council Report Back

There was a meeting of Copeland Council this afternoon.

Issues discussed included

* Digital Switchover: I asked a number of questions about this, including a request that Copeland Council keep up the pressure on the TV companies to consider offering a more complete range of services.

* Christmas Refuse Collection arrangements

There was a major debate on this subject. Conservative councillors, and some Labour colleagues, were concerned that the council should not take a heavy handed line over Christmas with residents who may be struggling to cope with the combination of reduced collection service and extra quantities of domestic rubbish (e.g. wrapping paper etc.)

* Energy Coast Masterplan

The Energy Coast Masterplan was unanimously agreed, with a number of additional comments made. We emphasised the need for all parties on Copeland and neighboring authorities to all work together to ensure that the policies in the plan actually happen and it isn't just a paper exercise. We also emphasised the need to ensure that there is action to improve employment opportunites in the whole of West Cumbria including South and Central Copeland as well as Workington and Whitehaven, and the need to link in to the policies in the recently approved "Sustainable Communities" document so as to look at a wider range of transport enhancements including sea transport and rail.

* Licencing Review

A review of licensing policy was presented. I asked about the highly successful "Pubwatch" scheme which has significantly reduced disorder in both Whitehaven and Millom and what the council is doing to use the licensing system to encourage those few landlords who are not members to join. I will be discussing the responses with the officers of Pubwatch.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Local hospital meetings may be postponed

I was told on Friday that the public meetings for the "Closer to Home" consultation in Whitehaven and Millom had just been scheduled for 14th January and 21st January respectively.

However, I have now been further advised that, that evening, during discussions between the NHS trusts, local consultants, and civic leaders, the suggestion was made that it would be a good idea to put these dates back a little.

The purpose of the delay is so that the PCT and the acute hospitals trust can hold further meetings with the Consultants at the West Cumberland to try to address their concerns and provide agreed answers to some of the questions the public are asking.

Watch this space for further news on the revised dates.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Dates for NHS proposal public meetings


The public meeting in Whitehaven to discuss the "Closer to Home" health proposals will be held on 14th January.

The Millom public meeting will be held on 21st January

Further details to follow.


I have now heard that these dates may be postponed - see next post

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Gillian Gibbons released

Like most other people in Britain I am relieved that Baroness Warsi and Lord Ahmed managed to persuade the Sudanese President to release Gillian Gibbons, the so-called "Teddy Teacher".

The idea that in the 21st century a teacher could be arrested, and threatened with a jail sentence or a flogging, because she allowed a class of six and seven year olds to name a teddy bear after one of the children in the class, who happened to share his name with the prophet of Islam.

If anyone in this whole bizarre saga has brought Islam into disrepute it is the demonstrators who called for her to receive a severe punishment for what was at worst an unfortunate cultural misunderstanding.

The overwhelming majority of Muslims in this country were horrified at the arrest of Gillian Gibbons, not least because they knew what enormous damage such a grossly disproportionate action would do to the reputation of Islam among people of other religions and none.

The most effective expression of what our muslim neighbours really think about the whole absurd business was presented by the muslim lady, complete with headscarf, who stood outside the Sudanese embassy with a poster of a teddy bear wearing a ribbon with the slogan "Not in my name!"

A big thank you to that lady for proving that there are plenty of Muslims who do have a sense of humour and a sense of proportion.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Bryan Appleyard on Science Fiction

Bryan Appleyard is one of the most interesting science journalists and he has a good piece in "The Culture" section of today's Sunday Times about how illogical it is that people in Britian look down on the Science Fiction genre.

I do think he has a point, although it isn't actually everyone in Britain who has a down on SF - it tends to be the so-called "intelligentsia" and other self-appointed arbiters of good taste.

My wife recalls reading an interview with Terry Pratchett, who writes comedy fantasy books, in which the interviewer refused to believe that Pratchett was Britain's best selling author. (Which at the time he was - this was a few years before J.K. Rowling's sales really took off.) "You can't be - if you were I would know it." said the journalist, or words to that effect. SF just is not on some people's radar.

And it should be. I don't claim to know which of the various threats which have actually been foreseen for the next hundred years will actually materialise, but it is very probable indeed that many of the most difficult challenges which hit mankind in the 21st century will be among those which have been written about by science fiction writers, and those people who have read the books concerned will have a head start on thinking about solutions.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Petion for missing TV channels

Two weeks after the Digital Switchover was completed for viewers who get terrestial television services from the Bigrigg, Gosforth, and Eskdale transmitters, a petition complaining about the fact that we are not getting a full service has quickly secured 150 signatures.

The enormous disruption and cost of the switchover was sold to local residents on the basis that we would finally be able to see services for which we have been paying through the licence fee for years but have not been able to get. The fact that Copeland residents are still missing out on many of these services is causing a great deal of irritation.

Ronald Harrison, who lives in the Hensingham area of Whitehaven, was so incensed he started a petition calling for Copeland residents to be able to see all 40 Freeview channels. More than 150 people quickly called into The Whitehaven News office to sign it and others have taken copies to circulate around their villages or workplaces.

Copeland is not the only area to be short changed - it is estimated that about 10% per cent of the country will miss out on the complete Freeview package. But it is particularly galling when we have had to go through the disruption of being the first area to lose the analogue signal.

Some areas of the borough, partiularly in some of the rural areas of South and Central Copeland, have an even less complete service than Whitehaven. For example, parts of Eskdale cannot get Channel Five.

Whitehaven is missing out on 20 channels including:

UK Gold
Setanta Sports
UKTV Style
TopUp Anytime
Sky News
Sky Three
Sky Sports News
Five US
and Five Live.

John Askew, regional manager for Digital UK, told the Whitehaven News that said: “Commercial services, including shopping, quiz and music channels, which are not funded by the BBC licence fee, are available to those who receive their television signal from a main transmitter rather than local masts, such as those serving Copeland. The level of coverage achieved by these services is a commercial decision for the operators and is regulated by Ofcom.”

One of those who signed the petition is Betty Baldwin of Warrington who regularly stays at St Bees caravan site. She receives all 40 channels at Warrington but only half of those at St Bees.

She said: “We can’t get the full contents of Freeview from our caravan at St Bees. Why not put the other channels on the transmitter?”

She echoed the views of many others who contacted The Whitehaven News by saying that packaging on Freeview boxes gleefully display logos for all 40 channels – even though they’re not all available in this area.

To sign the petition, or obtain master sheets to take away, call into The Whitehaven News office at 148 Queen Street, Whitehaven. Please note the office is not open on Saturdays.

It has also become clear following switchover that Copeland residents are no longer able to receive the full Teletext service. Missing pages include the popular Holidays text pages.

A significant proportion of the information in this post came from the Whitehaven News.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

From Stalin to Mr Bean ...

David Cameron gave a strong performance today at Prime Minister's question time - if things go on this way it will have to be renamed Prime Minister's humiliation time.

However the best line of the afternoon came from acting Lib/Dem leader Vince Cable, who suggested that the perception of the Prime minister had changed from Stalin to Mr Bean - creating chaos out of order.

If a reputation for incompetence comes to stick to this government - and heaven knows, they truly deserve it - they will be finished, however long drawn out the death throes may be.

Four sites for new nuclear build - but none in Cumbria

The Independent has a report today with a statement from British Energy which lists the four most likely sites for new Nuclear build

All are existing power station sites, but none are in West Cumbria

This is potentially disastrous news for Copeland and we need to work together to sell the unique advantages of West Cumbria as a possible site for a new reactor.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

On boosting local employment

Last week I and a number of other councillors spent some hours in the council offices debating how we could bring more jobs to Copeland.

One of them subsequently pointed out an irony to me. While we were having that debate, and for several weeks previously, the labour party offices have been redone by visting workmen from Birmingham, who have been staying in a hotel.

Whoever the work was organised by, was any attempt made to see if a local firm was able to do this work?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Millom Neighbourhood Forum

I went to the Neighbourhood Forum serving Millom and Haverigg this evening.

Apart from grant applications the main items on the agenda were


Consultation about the future of hospitals in West, North, and East Cumbria. See separate post on my hospitals blog (link at right)


An initiative to lend scooters to young people who need help with transport to get jobs.

One very interesting thing which came out of this - the organiser, who is very concerned about road safety, won't let anyone have a scooter to get from Millom to Barrow because he doesn't consider that section of the A595 to be safe.

I entirely agree with him - but what does this say about our local road infrastructure?


There were presentations from the County officers responsible for community transport, buses and rail respectively.

The interesting thing which came out of this one was that there will be extra trains from Whitehaven to Carlisle on the Sundays in December this year. I am sure that this will be welcome news in the Whitehaven area and North Copeland. I do not mean any criticism of the officers concerned when I say that I find it ironic that I should hear this at the other end of the district - where people have been offered no such inprovement in service.

Tackling the problem of underage drinking

It was suggested tonight on local TV that West Cumbria has the worse problems with underage drinking in the country. Local police were shown testing an alcohol detector pack, and appearing outside the West Cumberland Hospital to discuss the problems of excessive drinking.

One thing which will help get this problem under control is the excellent "pubwatch" scheme under which landlords are co-operating to ensure that people who are banned from one pub are banned from them all.

It would be a good thing if it was made easier for licensing authorities such as Copeland to use the licensing system to encourage pubwatch membership. The government should clarify the law so that it is clear that councils can do this.

I disagree with what you say, but ...

The phrase usually attributed to Voltaire, "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" represents a principle which is one of the touchstones of a functioning democracy.

I have no time for David Irving, and never have had. Twenty-five years ago, when I was an undergraduate, some idiot supplied him with a list of the names and addresses of Conservative students on which my details appeared. Irving sent out two mailings: I returned unopened the first one with a covering note indicating my disdain for what he represented, which sufficiently annoyed him that to the best of my knowledge I was the only person on the list to whom he didn't send a subsequent mailing a few weeks later.

Nor have I any time for the BNP, or their leader.

And nor do I consider that these gentlemen hae anything constructive to add to British political debate, let alone anything to say which would justify inviting them to speak to the Oxford Union.

Those who attempted to organised a non-violent protest indicating their disagreement with the invitation were fully entitled to do so.

But although I disgree with Irving, Griffin, and the decision to invite them, those who went beyond peaceful protest by actively disrupting the debate at the Oxford Union this evening were acting as enemies, not friends, of Democracy. If there is one thing which the far right love even more than publicity, it is being able to pose as martyrs and defenders of free speech. They are not, and we should not play into their hands by letting them pretend to be.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

If you want proof that Labour are desperate ...

In today's papers the government's spinners were reduced to the suggestion that however disastrous the last week was for the labour government (and incidentally, for the country) it was not as bad as the week the pound was ejected from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992.

This forlorn line came from both Olympics minister Tessa Jowell and from Tony Lloyd, the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party, who said that it was a bad week but it wasn't Black Wednesday.

If the dwindling band of loyalists who are still willing to put their heads above the parapet and defend the government in public are reduced to arguments like that one, tbey really must be desperate.

Update - Egremont Christmas Fireworks display

Having attended the excellent Christmas Fayre in Egremont earlier today we went back at the start of the evening for the torchlit procession and firework display.

It all went very smoothly, and I would like to congratulate Egremont Town Council, the Special Events committee, and everyone involved in putting on such a successful event.

Egremont Christmas Fayre

We have spent part of this afternoon with the family at the excellent Egremont Christmas Fayre.

For anyone who is interested and reads this in time to be able to get there, a torchlit procession will form up at the Methodist Hall in the centre of Egremont at about 5.30 pm and go through the town to where a firework display will be held at 6pm

Friday, November 23, 2007


The first "Stand-Up, Speak-Up" event in this constituency will be held at Keswick Conservative Club from 7pm to 8.30 pm on the evening of Wednesday 28th November. It is open to all residents of the new Copeland constituency (including the four Allerdale wards of Keswick, Dalton, Crummock, and Derwent Valley.)

David Cameron launched the "Stand up, Speak up" campaign to give every interested person a platform to say what problems you think politicians should do more to tackle and to influence the Conservative election manifesto.

You can take part in this campaign online at

The meeting in Keswick will particularly focus on hospital services, plus Housing and Planning. This is your opportunity to tell me, and other local Conservatives, what your views and concerns are on these issues and how we should address them in the next Conservative manifesto.

CATS proposals rise from the grave

Last week's announcement by the Health Secretary appeared to have killed off the CATS proposals for Cumbria and Lancashire. It now seems that they are not as dead as we thought. More details on my hospitals campaign blog - see link at right.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Time for a U Turn

The events of the last few days demonstrate very clearly that two of Gordon Brown's most cherished policies ought to be dead in the water.

The first is ID cards. The more information you put on a system, the more attractive it is to criminals to hack into it, and the more disastrous it will be if they succeed. If the government cannot prevent a data security fiaso like the missing HM Revenue fiasco with the existing systems, how can they guarantee that criminals or terrorists will not get hold of the ID card sytem data, potentialy with even more serious results.

The second is the idea of extending the limit for detaining terrorist suspects without charge.

Sir Ken Macdonald, the current Director of Public Prosecutions, and Lord Goldsmith, who was Blair's Attorney General, both gave evidence that there is no evidence of a need to extend the current 28 day limit. This follows the Admiral West fiasco, when the minister who was brought in by Gordon Brown to take charge of anti-terrorism said the same thing first thing in the morning, until he was called in to see the Prime minister and persuaded to a few hours later to change his mind.

Fighting terrorism is important, but doing so at too great a cost in civil liberties does not just lose one of the things we are fighting to defend, it is counter-productive. Taking a tough line against the I.R.A. seemed like a good idea to the government and many people thirty years ago when they introduced internment. But in fact the result was that a lot of innocent people were locked up, and the anger this generated acted as a recuiting sergeant for the I.R.A. and made the problem worse.

Making it easier to lock up people who may well be innocent should only be considered when there is strong evidence that this is necessary, and it is inconceivable that such evidence could exist without the DPP being aware of it.

Unfortunately it cannot be taken for granted that the government will do the obvious thing and drop these two policies. But if that at leas thirty Labour MPs have the independence of mind which God gave the average supermarket trolley, there must be a good chance that the House of Commons will vote them down.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Health Consultation - important new information

At a meeting with Copeland Councillors today, representatives of the North Cumbria Acute Hospitals Trust and the PCT made a number of very important announcements.

These include

* The consultation period on the "Closer to Home" proposals has been extended to 1st February 2008 - there will be a public consultation meeting on an evening in January, details to be announced

* Marie Burnham has reshuffled the Executive Directors and senior leadership of the Acute Trust

* The PCT has had a meeting with consultants about the "Closer to Home" proposals. This appears to have been a full and frank exchange of views, and discussions are continuing in several areas. Councillors were told there was a consensus that the number of extra transfers of patients from Whitehaven to Carlisle or other hospitals as a result of "Closer to Home" is likely to be of the order of one or two out-ot-hours emergency surgery cases per week.

More details on my hospitals blog - see link at right

Digital Switchover plus one week

Over the past 36 hours I have receieved a LOT of feedback from people who have been unhappy about how Digital TV Switchover has worked.

One particularly sore point is the fact that the full set of Digital services are not being provided, particularly in some parts of the Gosforth and Eskdale areas.

This does vary according to who I talk to, but some people also appear to have had problems with their set-top-boxes. We also have the Copeland Homes issue.

I am looking into a number of these points and hope to post more about them within a week or so.

Monday, November 19, 2007

CATS proposals abandoned

I welcome the news that the CATS proposals for diagnostic and treatment centres in Cumbria and Lancashire have been abandoned. The problem with the national CATS contract as it stood was that the transfer of NHS resources to the new centres could have posed a threat to existing hospitals including the West Cumberland Hospital, Millom Community Hospital, and Keswick hospital. More details on my hospitals blog - link at right

Betwen Northern Rock and a hard place

Northern Rock plays an important role in the communities of many parts of Northern England, and I fully understand why the government was concerned to ensure that their depositors were not in danger of losing all their money.

However, the situation brought about by the Chancellor, whereby all of us as taxpayers are effectivly now lending £900 to Northern Rock does present problems.

As someone asked on Political Betting this evening, will Darling explain how many schools and hospitals might have to close to finance his commitment to Northern Rock ? Or does that equation only apply to Conservative proposals?

The government must be very careful that their guarantees to Northern Rock do not create a situation where potential purchasers of the company may make a major killing at the taxpayer's expense.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Plus ca change

While clearing the house today I found a book of cartoons. It includes one showing a Scots Prime Minister of the UK, with two of his most senior lieutenants, also Scots, and all wearing full traditional Scottish dress.

The chairman of the governing party is reading a letter, and saying

"Goodness, Prime Minister! Now it's the English demanding independence and the right to run their own affairs ..."

Not an unfamiliar situation to those who want either an English parliament, or as the Conservatives are proposing, an English Grand committee to take those decisions for England which in Scotland and Wales are delegated to the devolved bodies.

But in fact, this cartoon was published in 1961, and it showed the Scots leaders, not of the present Labour government, but of the early 1960's Conservative government. This cartoon was drawn at a time when nobody would have imagined that the Conservatives might lose out in Scotland by being seen as the English party, nor that there might be a significant demand for devolution in either Scotland or England.

Depicted in the caroon were Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, Foreign Secretary Lord Home, and Conservative party chairman Iain MacLeod.

But apart from the political role reversal it seems quite apposite today.

And the winner is ...

Having watched the TV debate on the Politics show today between the two candidates to be leader of the Lib/Dems I thought there was a very clear winner -

David Cameron

(I imagine that Gordon Brown may also have enjoyed watching the debate.)

The exchanges between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne looked more like something which would have disgraced a school debating society than a discussion between two members of parliament, of whom the winner is likely to be presented to voters within the next two or three years as a potential Prime Minister.

Friday, November 16, 2007

FT article on what the Mandarins think of Brown

An interesting article this week in the Financial Times - a paper that has backed Labour in some recent General Elections - about how senior civil servants allegedly view the Brown government.

Brown bunker traps Sir Gus

By Sue Cameron

Oh dear! No one in Whitehall expected Gordon Brown to revert to type so quickly. He has been in Number 10 less than six months but, to the horror of civil servants, he has already hunkered down and cut most communication with the rest of government. Insiders say that no papers, no ideas and no decisions are getting through the barbed wire – only announcements from the leader that have been discussed with no one outside Mr Brown’s inner circle.

As a result, the corridors of power have become the corridors of impotence. Whitehall teems with unhappy cabinet ministers who have not been consulted or even informed about proposals that concern them – little details such as the date of the Budget, troop withdrawals in Iraq or the cancelling of the general election.

Equally significant yet unnoticed by outsiders is the impact on officials who find they are as much out of the loop as ever they were in the days of Tony Blair. With their ministers sidelined, their own expertise – and sometimes months of work on new proposals – is being ignored.

Their mood has shifted markedly from the welcome they gave Mr Brown in the summer. They feel he has reneged on his promises of a return to a more open, listening government. Criticism among the permanent secretaries, Whitehall’s college of cardinals, is swelling.

“It’s nonsense to think of Brown as a principled man who wants a new constitutional settlement,” snorted one Whitehall knight. Over a light Italian lunch he revealed that there are even murmurings against the popular Sir Gus O’Donnell, cabinet secretary and head of the home civil service.

“There’s a lot of anti-Gus feeling about,” he said, tucking into his veal chop. “People are saying he is too close to Brown, that he’s been seduced by the fact that he is inside the big tent. He’s not looking after other cabinet ministers and their departments. He should be telling Brown that he needs more people in the tent and that he should let them make some of the announcements.”

Some senior figures are more sympathetic to Sir Gus. “I wouldn’t have his job for the world,” confided one. “Gus knows about the bunker mentality and he’s probably doing his best to improve things but Brown is ruthless. If Gus tries to distance himself, Brown will cut him loose – he’d be completely finished.”

Which puts Sir Gus between a rock and a hard place. My lunch guest’s parting shot as he sipped the last of his wine was that Sir Gus risked being seen as just part of the ruling clique. “The danger then is that when the clique falls, he’ll go too. Especially,” he added, “when the ruling clique is not very good.”

Young pretenders

Of course, one of the things getting up the nostrils of Whitehall’s dissidents is Mr Brown’s reliance on what they call the “teenagers”: the two Eds – Balls and Miliband – plus Douglas Alexander. Whitehall has its doubts about all three.

Everyone agrees that Mr Balls has brains but they worry that he is naive about practicalities. “Ed doesn’t do delivery,” sighed one official. Mr Alexander is unpopular in part because of shortcomings in the social skills department. According to rumour control, civil servants have actually had to sit him down and tell him that he would do better if he looked people in the eye and thanked them for coming in. (The approved method for telling politicians unpleasant home truths is for a senior official to breeze in and say: “Now, minister, you’ll want some feedback on how you are doing...” )

Then there is young Mr Miliband. Not young David Miliband, the foreign secretary, aka Miliband Minor, said to be on a sharp learning curve and not that close to Mr Brown. (Perhaps because he considered standing against Mr Brown for the Labour leadership.) No, the Miliband with a pass to the bunker is Ed, his younger brother – Miliband Minimus.

He is in charge of ideas on public service reform but has not yet said whether the government should rein in the Blair agenda – diversity, choice, private sector provision – or follow it. Frustrated Whitehall officials say that until Miliband Minimus pronounces, other ministers are afraid to put their heads above the parapet lest they see black smoke signals belching from the Brown bunker.


The government seeks a motto. What about that of the late, great Sir Alec Clegg, West Riding chief education officer, who said of bad teachers – and of bad government, no doubt: “While there’s death there’s hope.”

Digital Switchover + two days

Two days after the analogue terrestial TV signal was switched off for most of Copeland, it appears that several hundred people have been left without TV service.

It has been estimated that 96% of households in the affected area have converted but that 4% were unable to convert or did not do so in time. It is alleged that about 2% of households "did not want to convert" even though this meant they would be left without TV service: another 2%, or about 424 homes, have run into problems.

According to an article in the News and Star, it is believed that 178 people who applied for help with the change have been hit because of late applications, 82 people have yet to arrange for an appointment to have their homes and televisions converted and a further 164 are households who are Copeland Homes tenants living in flats and who have not been provided with digital service.

I am disturbed and surprised at the suggestion that there is a problem with this latter category. We were assured at the last two Full Council meetings that Copeland Council was working with various bodies including Copeland Homes for a smooth transition to Digital TV. In response to a question from myself we were advised last week that there had been some issues with Digital service and aerials but that they were being put right. We certainly were not given the least hint that television service for as many as 164 tenant households might not be ready for switchover. If this is true, it is disgraceful.

Neither do I buy into the view that it doesn't matter that 2% of homes have chosen not to go Digital. In the majority of cases, this will mean one of two things: either

1) They are not eligible for the help scheme and cannot afford to go Digital: in this case Switchover has priced them out of the TV market.

2) They are confused by the whole business and would rather lose TV service than put themselves through the hassle of dealing with it.

It is a good thing that most residents of Copeland can finally now enjoy the extra channels to which our license fees have been contributing for years. However, this has come at a considerable price in terms of money and disruption. The fact that hundreds of residents have been left without service makes matters worse.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Labour speak for "Oops, I got the line wrong"

This morning security minister, Admiral Lord West said on the radio that he was not yet "fully convinced" of the need to extend the 28 day limit for holding suspects without trial.

By this lunchtime, after a personal interview with the Prime minister, he was insisting that he did believe that a longer time was necessary.

He was a simple sailor not a politician, he said, and perhaps had not chosen his words carefully enough.

E.g. New Labour speak for "Oops, I got the line wrong."

One has to ask what is the point of bringing in outside experts to provide a wider range of knowledge to Mr Brown's "Big Tent" when you then transparently over-ride their views, and force them to go on television and say things they clearly don't believe?

EU Auditors refuse to sign the books again

For the thirteenth consecutive year the auditors have refused to approve the accounts of the European Union.

I cannot think of another organisation to which this could happen. Any commercial business which could not get its books approved in such a timescale would almost certainly be forced into bankruptcy or be taken over as a result of a collapse in public confidence and the directors would be in grave danger of going to jail.

Any elected government or council administration which could not sort out the books in such a period would almost certainly have been voted out of office long since. If the electors failed to remove a council administration the Audit Commission or the government would undoubtedly have taken legal action in the same way that the Thatcher government suspended Liverpool Council and sent in commissioners when Militant refused to set a budget.

Indeed, the failure to get the books audited was one of the factors which did result in the resignation of an entire EU Commission a few years ago, but why has the successor commission not sorted things out?

Digital Switchover completes

All the remaining analogue TV signals were turned off this morning at the Bigrigg, Gosforth, and Eskdale transmitters.

Digital UK has suggested that about 20,000 homes and families in the affected area are now Digital compatible but that there may be 500 homes which are not: they will now be without television service.

It is ironic that the comparatively small change of turning off the BBC2 analogue channel attracted considerable attention from all the world's media, but I have not seen more than the slightest reference in the national press of the much more significant switchover today when everything else went over.

If you know of anyone who is having trouble, please refer them to one of the following.

Help centres running today until 7pm and tomorrow from 10 am to 6pm are available at

Whitehaven Harbour: Age Concern, Old Customs House

Cleator Moor: Cleator Moor CIvic Hall

Egremont: Age Concern Shop, Market Place

Seascale: Methodist Church Hall.

Alternatively you can call Digital UK on 0845 6 505050

If you know someone who is having trouble with the switchover, their first port of call is Digital UK on

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

David Cameron's speech on Council Tax

David Cameron was due to make an important speech today at the Young Foundation, which was set up in memory of the late Lord Young.

There have been a number of comments made for and against this speech, usually on the basis of selectively quoting soundbites, but I thought the whole speech was interesting enough to be worth quoting in full.

“I am honoured to speak at the Young Foundation. Michael Young stood for so much of what is great about our country: the spirit of enterprise, and enterprise for social progress. It is entirely right that there is a foundation to promote his legacy. Because Lord Young was that essentially English thing – an institution-builder. He recognised that we live, not as isolated individuals, nor as undifferentiated members of the mass – but as friends, neighbours, colleagues, families: …we exist in our particular and personal relationships.

Institutions – whether churches or schools or businesses or charities – are the means by which we formalise our relationships for social purposes. That’s why I can say – without daring to hijack Michael Young’s memory for my purpose – that institutions are central to the Conservative vision for the 21st century.


Let me try and prove that. Last week in Manchester I made a speech in which I launched a small institution myself: the Conservative Co-operative Movement. Co-ops offer a really positive answer to one of the great questions of public service reform – how to inject dynamism and consumer focus without losing public ethos and accountability? Co-ops can do this because they are independent but democratic public bodies. They also offer a real alternative or complement to commercial firms – food co-ops, for instance, are one great way to challenge the domination of the big supermarkets. Of course the co-op is a very old idea. But I believe that its time has come, just as it has come for a range of related ideas about the institutions of local democracy.

(The bureaucratic age)

I have described the 20th century as the ‘bureaucratic age’. With huge advances in communications and travel, it became possible to concentrate power in the central state. Wise men in Whitehall had a monopoly of both information and capability – they knew the most about what was happening, and they had the most resources at their disposal to make things change.

At the same time, our national culture emphasised conformity and knowing your place. There was a sense that top-down control was not only practical and efficient, but that it was also fair and moral.

So even after the denationalisation of the economy, the apparatus of civic and social organisation remains firmly under central control. Schools, hospitals, police forces, town councils… all are remotely controlled by central government.

(The post-bureaucratic age)

I believe that it’s time to abandon that model once and for all. It is not fair and moral, just as it is not practical and efficient, for the state to control society. And I feel confident in saying that because the culture which justified the old way has changed. Society no longer emphasises conformity and knowing your place. Instead our culture reflects the extraordinary liberation, the huge growth in the horizon, which has taken place in the way we live.

In our private lives and in business we are living in the post-bureaucratic age. It’s no longer true that the state has all the information and all the capability. Technology has done the most amazing thing: it has put the facts, and the power to use them, at the disposal of everyone. Satellite imagery used to be the preserve of governments – now anyone can get on Google Earth. In parts of America you can see online crime maps of your area, showing where crimes have been committed and what the state of the investigation is.

People don’t have to accept a top-down offer anymore: they can drive their own choices. It’s most obvious in the world of leisure and commerce. You can control so many aspects of your life – from financial services that are tailored to your needs to trainers that are customised to your tastes. You can be your own music producer, your own video shop, your own publisher, your own travel agent. I want to see a similar opening-up in our democracy. That is what I mean when I talk about the post-bureaucratic age. I want to see us move from an age of bureaucratic control to an age of democratic control.

(Democratic control)

Why? Two reasons. First, because local democratic control works, well – locally: it allows communities to tailor customised solutions to local problems, rather than having to fit into a national template.

And second – perhaps paradoxically – local control works nationally too. Diversity strengthens the country as a whole. From diversity and competition and picking up tips from each other and making mistakes and learning from them – …out of local innovation comes rising standards across the board. You might say e pluribus unum: from many, one. There are hundreds of councils in England and Wales . Imagine the social progress we could see if each of them were free to experiment, to compare their results with next door, to adapt and cherry-pick the best ideas from around the country? As my latest favourite quote from Edmund Burke has it, “the reciprocal struggle of discordant powers, draws out the harmony of the universe”.

(Our localist policies)

Let me descend from the lofty to the practical. Over the last few months we have been setting out in more detail the precise plans that we have for government. Among these are a range of policies that are aimed directly at the invigoration of local democracy – both in the town hall and beyond, in local civil society.

In education, we will allow new providers to come in to the state system – including schools run by groups of local people. We want schools to be independent, locally-accountable, free institutions – not outposts of the Department of Schools and Young People, or whatever Ed Balls’ empire is called.

In healthcare, we will abolish central targets, leaving doctors free to treat their patients according to their own clinical judgement. We will give patients greater choice over their GP and empower GPs to control more of their patients’ budgets.

We will give local private and voluntary bodies contracts to get people off welfare and into work, rather than relying on central government agencies. We will allow local people to elect the man or woman to whom their police force is accountable, making the police answer to local people rather than to the Home Secretary. We will give local communities greater power over planning and licensing decisions. And we will give local people the right to decide on what sort of local government they want. In our major cities, we will give people the choice of electing their own Mayor – a single individual with responsibility for the city. I know the Young Foundation is concerned with the issue of civic leadership and I believe that this is a real concrete step we can take in that direction.

These plans to empower local people and local institutions will be accompanied by greater powers for local government. We will introduce a radical programme of decentralisation and deregulation, to relieve councils of unfunded burdens, regulations, inspections and red tape. We will reduce the ring-fencing of money so that councils can spend their funding as they see fit. We will abolish the regional assemblies and return their powers to local councils – not to the unelected Regional Development Agencies as the Government plans to do. We will cut back the bloated inspection regime – typified by Best Value and the Comprehensive Area Assessment – which just gets in the way of councils trying to do their job. And we will look seriously at the proposal from Michael Heseltine to transfer the powers from the Government’s quangos – like the Learning and Skills Council, English Partnerships, the Housing Corporation and Regional Development Agencies – to transfer their powers to local councils too.

(Council tax)

All politicians in opposition talk about giving more power to local councils. But all governments seem to end up centralising power. I want to prove that we will be different. That we really mean it when we talk about localisation. That’s why I am announcing today a significant new element in our policy platform: the democratisation of council tax.

Since Labour came to power council tax bills have doubled – largely thanks to unfunded burdens and extra bureaucracy from central government. The new powers we will give local councils will reduce the pressure to increase council tax bills. But I don’t propose to hand over power to councils without strengthening the accountability of councillors to the people they serve.

Today, that accountability is enforced through capping – an old-fashioned idea straight out of the bureaucratic age. I want to replace bureaucratic accountability with democratic accountability. Capping will be scrapped - and I want to allow local people themselves to have a say over local taxation.

So the next Conservative government will require councils that want to introduce high council tax rises to submit their plans to a local referendum. They must explain to local taxpayers why they want to raise taxes by so much and they must show what they would do – a shadow budget – in the event of their plans being rejected. Council tax referendum ballots would be sent out with the annual council tax bill – and if people voted against the rise, a rebate would be credited to the next year’s bill.


In the 1980s the Conservatives devolved power and responsibility to individuals – reductions in tax, sale of council houses, an extensions of share ownership. The challenge for us today is to devolve power to communities, to institutions – both to independent institutions and local councils. That’s triple devolution, if you like – individuals, local government, community organisations all receiving more trust and more power.

From state control to social responsibility. From bureaucratic accountability to democratic accountability. From government to people. That’s the direction of travel in the 21st century and that’s the way I want to take our country.”

One Day to go until Digital Switchover completes

In the early hours of tomorrow morning, Wednesday 14th November, all the remaining analogue Terrestial TV signals will be switched off for most of Copeland, those who get their signal from the Bigrigg, Gosforth, or Eskdale transmitters.

If you live in Copeland and have lost BBC2 this affects you: you will lose all other TV services the day after tomorrow unless you are digital ready. You will need a set-top box for each analogue TV you wish to continue to use from tomorrow onwards.

If you have gone digital, you will need to re-adjust your equipment on Wednesday. If you have a Matsui, Daiwoo, or Ferguson set-top box which has had a problem locking on to the right channels but is currently working, remember to try "Add Channel" first rather than do a complete re-tune.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Three days to go until Digital Switchover completes

Just three days to go now until the remaining analogue signals for terrestial TV services are turned off from the Bigrigg, Gosforth, and Eskdale transmitters, in the early hours of Wednesday 14th November.

Lest We Forget

Today is both Armistice Day (the 89th anniversary of the armistice which ended the fighting in the First World War) and Remembrance Sunday.

I find as I grow older that the annual commemoration of those who were killed in the two great wars of the 20th century and all the other wars since grows more, not less, poignant.

My grandfather was one of the lucky ones who went off to serve in the Great War and came back. His brother, Robert Whiteside, who served with the Lancashire Fusiliers, was less fortunate. He was killed on 1st October 1918, just six weeks before the end of the war, aged 18.

So at 11 am this morning I will think of my great-uncle Robert and all the millions of other men and women who have been killed in war, and of those who were mained, widowed, or orphaned.

I am not, and never will be, a pacifist. Hitler's belief that Britain and France no longer had the will to fight was one of the contributory factors which led to the second world war a generation later. But there are two reasons why we should always remember the sacrificies of those who died for our country.

The first is that we owe them so much, and perhaps we will value more what they fought for - for instance, democracy and the rule of law - if we remember the price in lives and treasure which our country has paid to keep those things. And secondly, if we remember the human cost of war we are likely to have fewer people killed in future ones.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Digital Switchover: Who will pay for multiple visits?

I have referred below to the problem with some set-top boxes in Copeland.

One of the many good points made to me by the local trade is that they have had to make more than one visit to a large number of households as the set-top boxes re-set themselves and looked for the wrong channels.

The government's help scheme for elderly and disabled residents includes support for one set-top box on the viewer's main TV.

I have been asked whether the help scheme will pay for multiple call out charges if an elderly or disabled resident has to call the engineers out more than once. I presume the answer is yes: it would be extremely unfair if that were not the case. I will check the point and post the answer here on Monday.

Matthew Parris on the fire in the Opposition's belly.

Matthew Parris writes today in The Times of his "unmistakable feeling that British politics has just changed."

His article, "Synthetic rage has gone. This is real fury." continues as follows:

"Look at the high clouds. Something is changing in the upper atmosphere of British politics. Westminster senses it. The Tories sniff the wind and paw the ground. Liberal Democrats shift uneasily, excited yet a little bit scared.

And Labour shivers. Government's troubles multiply. But one could write that of this week, many that have passed, and scores yet to come.

Labour's troubles are not what is new. Its Government has been in deep trouble before. I have lost count of the weeks we called “Tony Blair's worst week yet” and we were not wrong. Mr Blair would laugh that every week was his worst yet ? until the next one ? yet the Earth continued in its orbit; and he was not wrong either. If the intended jigsaw being assembled was an epic classical tragedy, The Fall of Labour, there was always a missing piece.

A gaping hole, in fact, and we all sensed it, opponents and supporters of the Government alike. Mr Blair sensed it, hence the cocky grin that no upset could shift. That 2005 Conservative poster featuring a grinning Blair, “Wipe the smile off his face on May 5”, betrayed a secret pessimism among his challengers.

The truth was, and until now has remained, that no fire was lit in the Opposition's belly. Where there needed to be anger, there was irritation. Where there needed to be outrage, there was peevishness. Where there needed to be impatience for office, there was doubt about those Tories who might assume it. And where there needed to be a full-hearted certainty that Britain was being led in directions that were dangerous and wrong, there was instead a kind of grumpiness.

Grumpiness is not enough. Only fury spurs revolt. Dissatisfactions were, of course, legion. Tories were jealous of Mr Blair's charm, his ability to tune in to popular feeling; but for all their niggles they knew he had come to trespass on their legacy rather than destroy it. Maddened by spin, they half wished he were on their side of the House.

Liberal Democrats, cross that some of their ideals had leaked into new Labour's manifesto, complained about implementation; but for all their complaint they missed the familiar enemy: trade-union-style Labour. Devolution? Gay equality? Human rights? Overseas aid? The personality of new Labour in office presented few obvious targets.

And, as the years passed, and most could see that standards of public administration were slipping, that trust in the honesty of ministers was ebbing, and that there was a worrying sense of drift, still British politics lacked what alone transfigures opposition: rage.

This autumn, that changed. As David Cameron challenged Gordon Brown over the Queen's Speech this week, and as David Davis and Nick Clegg rounded on a wittering Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, the hairs on the back of my neck told me that the change is permanent and deep. Opposition has found fire. Something is lit. This is good. I do not disagree lightly with my colleague Peter Riddell, but I think his dismay (“Slow down and offer some governing alternatives” ? November 7) at what he called “electioneering overdrive” is misplaced.

The opposition leader's “look me in the eye” confrontation with the Prime Minister on Tuesday made for magnificent theatre, of course, and Peter rightly distrusts theatre. But this was more than theatre.

William Hague used to shout too. Iain Duncan Smith tried to. Michael Howard railed instinctively. Paddy Ashdown affected high indignation.

Little rang true. These men led their parties during an era when there was no wind of real anger to fill their sails. Synthetic anger is ? Peter is right ? simply tiresome.

But this week was not synthetic, and the anger that broke through can be creative for oppositions. All at once there is a real up-and-at-'em spirit on the Tory benches, and (as front-runner for the Liberal Democrat leadership) Nick Clegg too seems to have learnt to snarl.

Only Boris Johnson, in London, still needs to catch the mood. To succeed against the wily Ken Livingstone in next May's contest he must bare his teeth. As the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police teeters close to the edge, Mr Johnson's apparent disappearance is weird.

Otherwise the mood is spreading. Why? I would cite three reasons. The first is the credibility of individuals. As older figures step back, opposition personalities are emerging who look and feel like part of the future. This year in particular has been an intensive initiation. Mr Cameron looked commanding on Tuesday. There no longer seems any instinctive reason to doubt that George Osborne could replace Alistair Darling as Chancellor, or William Hague David Miliband at the Foreign Office. In Education I can imagine Michael Gove at Ed Balls's desk. And Des Browne does not strike me as obviously more believable than Liam Fox at Defence. In a hung parliament, meanwhile, it is easy to picture Nick Clegg driving home Lib Dem demands.

As important as whether we can picture these politicians in office is that they can picture themselves there. Otherwise there will be (and has been) an element of bluff in opposition attacks. But self-belief on the opposition front benches of 2007 is growing.

This leads me to the other two reasons for fire in opposition bellies. The first is the character of the Prime Minister they face. His opponents suspect they have found him out. To be at the same time bullying in manner and weak in action is a standing provocation to attack. Once one dog goes in, draws blood and lives to tell the tale, other dogs circle. The spectacle this week of the Prime Minister, badly bitten by Mr Cameron, ferreting around for documents purporting to show he thought of an idea first, was pitiful.

The final reason for fire should never be overlooked in politics: sincerity. The Government is lurching in directions that opposition politicians genuinely hate. Mr Osborne's contempt for Mr Darling's emergency Budget is palpable. Mr Davis's loathing for the identity card project and his (and Mr Clegg's) determination to block a 56-day detention-without-charge period is taking world-weary parliamentary sketchwriters by surprise. And if Mr Cameron is only pretending to despise Mr Brown, he is making a convincing job of it. Authenticity shows. Wounded by these attacks, Mr Brown's burning rage is equally real.

The House, and with it our politics, is catching fire. It's easy to conclude that big questions of principle hardly now divide mainstream parties in Britain. Differences on many issues have indeed narrowed. But there is one ? liberty ? with which the Labour Party has always had difficulty, and still does. It may be at the heart of coming battles.

I hope so. Hope, wrote Richard Sheridan in The Rivals, paints many a gaudy scene, but “let us deny its pencil colours too bright to be lasting”. I suspect that Peter Riddell thinks this week's political crayons have been of that kind. But I think this picture, though gaudy, will endure.