Saturday, February 24, 2007

Winston on Democracy

I was in Bolton today for the Conservative Party's North West conference, which was a positive and useful exercise.

On the way back I listened to a Radio 4 programme presented by John Cole about the 1945 General election.

One item from the broadcast which particularly impressed me was an account by a cabinet office official who had to take Winston Churchill some early results. (I didn't catch the name but checking against Martin Gilbert's biography of Churchill on my arrival at home I presume it must have been Captain Pim, the head of the Map Room staff.) Churchill was actually in the bath when the results came through. Ten Conservative seats had fallen to Labour. It was obvious from these early results that there was a massive swing against the Conservative/Liberal National government and that Churchill had lost the election.

According to tonight's Radio 4 broadcast, after having heard the results, Churchill pondered for a few moments and then stuck out his chin and said

"We have no right to feel hurt. This is democracy. This is what we've been fighting for."

(Gilbert's biography has a slightly different version of the same story: in this account, as in the broadcast, Captain Pim took the early results to Churchill in his bath on 26th July. Gilbert says that Captain Pim recalled later that Churchill made a very similar statement the following day:

"They are perfectly entitled to vote as they please. This is democracy. This is what we've been fighting for.")

Considering what it must have felt like to be voted out of office after all he had done, to be able to make such a statement shows considerable generosity of spirit.

Single Farm payment - will Labour be late again ?

It has been suggested on "Political Betting" that Ministers have asked the Treasury to set aside £ 305 million to pay fines which the EU is expected to impose for late payments to farmers of the Single Farm Payment money.

This is, of course, the money which was paid extremely late last year, causing many farmers in Cumbria and elsewhere considerable hardship. Apparently it is expected that for the second year running British farmers will fail to receive their payments by the legal deadline.

If this is true, what on earth does it say about the New Labour government's attitudes to farmers, the countryside, and taxpayers' money, that they find it easier to budget for fines to the EU for late payment than to pay the money to farmers on time ? It certainly helps explain why we have to pay such ridiculous amounts of tax without receiving a proportionate improvement in public services.

Nobody likes paying tax, but I mind paying taxes to support our local schools and hospitals, or for that matter to help farmers protect the environment of our local countryside, considerably less than I resent paying for fines to the European Union for Labour's incompetence.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

What a disgrace

Two shameful acts of desecration in Whitehaven over the past seven days. Last week some cretin threw paint over the door and steps of St James' church, Whitehaven.

This week we have an even more shameful act of vandalism. The cemetery in Low Road was attacked: headstones were knocked over, ornaments and lamps shattered, and a number of graves, including one belonging to a six-month old baby, were smashed.

We all have a responsibility to stop this kind of disgrace. Only people with no true sense of community could carry out such actions. And yet Whitehaven has one of the strongest feelings of community spirit which I have ever encountered. We must make sure that sense of community is passed on to the next generation..

Rail Freight Proposal refused.

Update on my last post - following a long and very thorough debate, the proposals for a massive freight terminal and distribution depot at Park Street were refused unanimously by the Planning Referrals Committee.

Interesting to compare the public attendance at this planning meeting - which had to be moved to a theater - with the budget meeting of the council two days later. The ratio of attendance by members of the public at the two meetings was about three hundred at the planning meeting compared with six people, two of them former councillors and one a councillor's spouse, to hear the budget and set. A ratio of fifty to one.

Why is it that hundreds of people will turn out to listen to speeches on planning applications, where the budget meeting which is normally regarded as the most important meeting of the year attracts an attendance in single figures?

Can't be the question of whether there are political speeches - there were plenty on both evenings. Can't be the fact that the government has the final say - this applied to both events as well. (The planning application may go to appeal where it will be heard by an inspector and then the final decision made by a minister: council budgets are heavily influenced by government grants and targets.)

I suspect the difference in attendance may indicate that the decision on a planning application can have more impact on the lives of those most affected than one year's council tax usually has on any individual.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Live Webcast of Rail Freight Terminal decision

There will be a live webcast at 7pm on Monday 19th February of the planning committee which is due to finally determine the planning application for a Strategic Rail Freight Interchange and distribution centre near Park Street.

For details of how to watch it see

Last November we had a three hour meeting in front of hundreds of people in order not to take a decision on this application. The decision was deferred last time because the government's Highways agency had not arrived at a view on the impact of the proposal on local trunk roads. They have now recommended refusal. So has the County Council as Highway authority for the non-trunk roads, and the council's professional planning officers.

I have to be careful what I write about the merit of the proposals in order to avoid creating any appearance of bias which could be used to seek a judicial review of the decision. However I trust nobody will object to me saying that I really hope that after months of analusis and debate I hope we will actually manage to take a decision on the application next week.

The venue for the meeting has been changed to the Alban Arena (in other words, a theatre which seats several hundred people) to accomodate the anticipated attendance.

This will be one of my last meetings as a St Albans Councillor: having moved to Copeland I will step down from the council in St Albans at the May elections. But my last few weeks as a St Albans councillor are certainly not proving uneventful, especially on the planning front. A month later we have another application, this time for a new cinema and 170 flats at the Bricket Road site in St Albans, which will in some ways be even more controversial.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A worm turns

Up until today I had absolutely no time for former “Europe” minister Denis MacShane. I thought he was the worst kind of new Labour robot, a man whose sycophancy for all the works of Tony Blair could not be called toadying without risking a class action from toads, who departed only from the gospel according to St Tony only to follow even more slavishly any and all proposals emanating from Brussels.

Well, I still disagree with him on many things, but he’s written an article today in the Telegraph, explaining why he will vote against the government over their latest botched House of Lords reform proposal, which for once makes a great deal of sense.

Now personally, I think the House of Lords as it was composed at the time Tony Blair was first elected worked much better as part of a system of checks and balances than its critics usually admit. The trouble with this government’s reforms is that they usually end up appearing modern or democratic but actually increase the power of the executive. The Blair government has started the process of change and made a mess of it. We need a functioning second chamber, and to command credibility it will have to be a modern reformed one. And that means one which is (at least) mostly elected. Using a proper democratic system, not party lists.

Replacing the descendants of Charles II’s mistresses with Tony’s cronies (and donors) made democracy less rather than more effective: but simply trying to put the clock back would be about as sensible as trying to unscramble an egg.

Denis MacShane points out that the manner in which the House of Commons is being asked to vote on the proposals – which he calls “the most grotesque proposal to emerge from a government in decades” is an absurdity. This is a worrying precedent for democracy in the Commons, never mind the lords.

Credit where credit is due, MacShane’s article is worth reading, so I quote it in full below.

“I will vote against my party and for democracy.

For the first time in my years as an MP I shall consciously vote against my Labour Government. I like being loyal. It is a much despised virtue in politics. The commentariat is always urging MPs to be independent, by which they mean break faith with their parties and colleagues and the manifesto on which they were elected.

As a new Labour MP elected in a by-election in 1994, I watched the serial disloyalty of the Tories as they sneered and chiselled at the Major government over Europe or any issue that seized their egos. Today, a new doctrine of cabinet collective irresponsibility has infected Labour. Ministers vie with one another to stand on picket lines against decisions taken by colleagues, to trash America, to criticise the behaviour of colleagues, and to brief anonymously against the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Chancellor.

My profession of loyalty is not some creepy desire to please the whips or suck up to a Prime Minister who removed me from office in a 20-second phone call. It is a deep political response to the supreme need of a party to have the confidence in itself that allows it to win and hold power.

So why, then, will I go into the opposition lobby next week? It is over the proposal to tear up more than seven centuries of history and require MPs to sit rather than stand to vote. The Government wants MPs to take a multiple-choice exam on its proposals to reform the House of Lords. Instead of MPs voting in lobbies for or against different proposals, scratch cards will be handed out, which we can take away to list in order of preference what the composition of the Lords might be.

The reason for this absurdity is that the Government is willing to do away with the way the Commons has always voted on legislation, but is unwilling to show any leadership on the legislation needed to modernise the House of Lords. The Lords has more members than the Commons. While the US Senate manages with 100 members, and the German and French second chambers have fewer than half the number of the Bundestag or Assemblée Nationale, the British second chamber grows like Topsy.

Moreover, the system chosen to select Lords after the cull of some hereditaries has become an embarrassment. The appointment of Lords by party leaders, even if sifted through a committee of the great and the good, is now one of the more grotesque and undignified aspects of the British constitutional system. Had Labour opted for an elected Lords, the Prime Minister would have been spared the police investigation that is doing such damage to his last months in office. If Labour has its Lord Cashpoint, David Cameron has his Lord ATM. When the present police investigation touching Downing Street is over, there will be new inquiries and media ferocity on how other parties have raised their money in recent years.

All my political life, I have argued that a smaller, elected chamber is the only way forward. If that means more power over the executive because the Commons does not know how to hold government to account, well, so be it. As a minister, I responded courteously to the musings of the retired generals, diplomats and functionaries who sat on the Lords committees with which I had to deal. But there was never any sense that they influenced government policy, any more than attending an agreeable dinner at high table in Oxford to hear clever men and women declare what should be done alters the direction of what the state does.

In January 2003, Tony Blair, Jack Straw, Charles Clarke and I all shared a tiny RAF plane flying back from France. We had been attending a Franco-British summit with our opposite numbers, and were heading back to vote on reforming the House of Lords. Robin Cook had been unable to persuade his cabinet colleagues to support his own preference for a largely elected second chamber. In the plane, Tony Blair kept his counsel, though it was an open secret he had ordered the whips to mobilise votes to stop any reform that reduced his power of patronage by nominating Lords. Charles Clarke and I made clear we would vote for the maximum number of elected peers. Jack Straw joked that he would get the pilot to tip us into the Channel, as he was a strong supporter of an all-appointed Lords.

Now Straw has changed his mind. This is to his credit, but he only will go so far as to support a 50 per cent elected House of Lords. The Prime Minister, it must be assumed, has not altered his view. As a result, there is no government leadership of any sort on this issue. Nor is there any definition of what the Lords should do, or what its powers should be. Still less is there any challenge to the patently anti-democratic idea that representatives of just one British religion should have legislative power. If the Cabinet does not know what it wants, how on earth are MPs going to make up their minds? If the Government shows no lead, how can the nation follow?

So, in the most grotesque proposal to emerge from a government in decades, Labour MPs are told they are on a three-line whip to destroy the way the Commons has always done business, but they are on a free vote on the question that will then follow which, because of the single transferable vote, will have to finish in a definite proposal.

The metaphor used by Jack Straw is that he wants to avoid the "train crash" of 2003. Yet the failure of MPs then to support a given option was a rational response to the failure of Straw and the Cabinet to support Robin Cook's elected House of Lords. The Commons votes that led to no decision being taken gave rise to a profoundly important, and wholly democratic, outcome. It was the failure of the executive to lead that made the Commons say that if cabinet members cannot agree, then don't ask us to make up their minds for them.

For 700 years, the Commons has been a parliament - a place of talking. Presence and talking in the chamber, in the lobbies, in the tea and dining rooms is the sine qua non of British democracy. The votes are taken by men and women standing up and walking through lobbies, talking one to another as they move to vote. It is a physical act of propinquity that amazes politicians from other countries who do not have the intimate access to ministers and party bigwigs that lies at the heart of our parliamentary system.

I do not doubt Jack Straw's sincerity in wanting a decision, any decision, to show that Lords reform is possible. The only one that makes sense to me is an elected chamber. I wish the Government had confidence in this plain, radical and democratic concept. But if the Cabinet will not show leadership, it cannot expect to demand loyalty on how the vote is taken.

It is wrong to remove from the Commons its right to vote in the way it has always done. Parliament should vote to keep voting as usual. And then the Cabinet should offer leadership in favour of an elected House of Lords."

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Voters think Blair should resign

Interested to see the opinion poll in today's Sunday Times and read that 55% of respondents, including 24% of Labour voters, think Tony Blair should step down now.

We've been conducting a survey canvass in marginal areas of Copeland, and we threw in the question "Do you think it would be in Britain's interests if Tony Blair were to resign now as Prime Minister?"

So far the "Yes" responses outnumber the "Don't knows" by three to two and we've hardly had any "No" responses. Not a large enough sample yet to prove anything - I shall post results here when we have rather more - but the complacent idea of some New Labour commentators that only the "Westminster Village" is bothered about the scandals surrounding Tony Blair does not match the impression I'm getting on the doorstep. People are saying that it's time for a change.

Quote of the Day

During a discussion on the "Political Betting", a new Labour poster operating under the name "Snowflake" has been trying to make something of the story of Cameron taking pot at Eton twenty-five years ago.

Her attempt to suggest from this that he might still be taking rather harder drugs drew the following response from Sean T:

"230. Let’s face it, Snowflake, your leader Tony Blair doesn’t need crack to frazzle his brains. He already gets down on his knees to pray with George Bush, for guidance in his holy war on Iraq. Your leader thinks God Speaks To Him, and tells him when to Bomb People.

Compared to that, Cameron could be doing methamphetamines every night and still have a more balanced mind."

by seanT February 11th, 2007 at 6:04 pm

Friday, February 09, 2007

Quote of the Day: Blair v. Thatcher

David Cameron on Blair's habit of comparing himself to Mrs T:

"There's a difference between a conviction politician and one who's about to get a conviction."

Monday, February 05, 2007

A film review to commemorate the end of the slave trade

This year, 2007, sees the 200th anniversary of the vote in the House of Commons to abolish the slave trade. This vote was a huge moral victory for anti-slavery campaigners such as William Wilberforce.

And despite the impression which Gordon Brown and John Prescott may have given, the campaigners against slavery represented a wide range of British opinion - Wilberforce was an independent MP but had strong support from Tory prime minister William Pitt (the younger). The 1807 act was pushed through by the "Ministry of All the Talents" coalition government in which Tories and Whigs of various factions took part.

Following on from the 1807 vote, Britain pushed at the Vienna peace conference for all the major powers to agree to support the end of the slave trade. And then the Royal Navy forced them to stand by their word. It was our navy who hunted down and arrested slavers all over the world. It took a 30-year naval campaign to do it, but by the end of that time the slave trade had been turned from from an open, legal and highly profitable industry operating on a massive scale to a covert, despised, criminal activity.

To commemorate this anniversary, many organisations including the government, the Church of England, the Borough council in Copeland (which includes the port of Whitehaven), and the Conservative party are organising or taking part in ceremonies to celebrate the vote against slavery or to apologise for their role in the slave trade.

It's easy to get cynical about this, especially while we have a Prime Minister who is constantly apologising for things which Britain did centuries ago but who has never once apologised for any of the things for which he is actually responsible. However, anyone with the least doubt that we should express our regrets and apology for the fact that our ancestors were once involved in the slave trade - and on the positive side, that we can also be proud of what our country eventually did to stop the slave trade - would be well advised to see a film called "CSA" (The Confederate States of America) which appears superficially to be a work of "alternative history" fiction but is really a devastating indictment of slavery. So here is a review of the film CSA which I have not seen in cinemas but is faily easy to buy or rent over the internet on DVD.

This film sets out to make the viewer realise how much evil was caused by slavery, presenting itself as a documentary being made in an "alternative history" world in which the South won the American civil war and slavery continues to this day.

This isn't the sort of alternative history fiction beloved of fans of authors such as Harry Turtledove. The mechanics of how history came to follow an alternative track are deliberately downplayed: this film is not really about how any specific change in the timeline could have produced particular consequences. In a few instances the alternate history timeline presented is very implausible, which does not matter so much to this film, but might have ruined a different type of film in which the history was the story.

For instance, it is one thing to suggest that the Confederate States of America might have won independence if they had gained British and French support, which was the objective for which they fought. It is an entirely different matter to suggest that the rebels could have actually conquered and annexed the North, or that they would even have wanted to. If the main message of the film had been that this could have happened it would have completely destroyed the credibility of the story.

However, as the main purpose of the story is to make the evil of slavery real to us by showing how it would have worked in a modern context, the makers of the film can plausibly argue that they more effectively make that point by showing slavery in action throughout the area which in our world is the United States of America and in the film is the Confederate States of America.

The opening sequence starts with a disclaimer that this is a "foreign" documentary made by the "British Broadcasting Service" (which doesn't exist) - this is part of the scene setting. The film is interspersed with adverts for various services and products set in a world in which slavery is normal and both racism and sexism are much more overt and direct than we think we are are used to seeing. At the very end of the film there is an explanation of how much of this advertising is lifted from real adverts for real products, which will shock many people.

Part of the film is presented as a history programme about the "Confederate States" and part as an expose of the supposed current social and political situation.

The film loves taking real events and reversing them: for example the real painting of the surrender at the end of the civil war is described as Grant's surrender to Lee, we see film of the TV debate in the US presidential election of 1960, and it is described as being between Democrat candidate Richard Nixon and Republican candidate John F Kennedy. (It would have been quite plausible in the context of a Southern victory that the Republicans, as the party who wanted to free the slaves, would never have become the establishment party if they had not won.)

Not easy viewing, but if you want to understand the history of slavery in a modern context, I can recommend it. And then think about all the young women from eastern Europe who have been tricked into coming to this country and are currently being coerced into working in the sex industry. The problem is not over.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Quote of the day - time for the men in white coats

Comment by a Labour backbench MP on the Prime Minister's speech on Friday, quoted in today's Sunday Times.

"The man has lost it. If he genuinely believes that this is not doing serious and lasting damage, we don't need the 'men in grey suits' to tell him to quit - we need the men in white coats."

There have been a lot of comments and speculation on one side about how much information the police have unearthed in the "Loans for Honours" inquiry. One group of journalists and politicians are speculating and spinning about whether any close colleagues of the Prime Minister are likely to be charged, while the few remaining friends of Tony Blair are engaged in attacking the police, suggesting the whole thing is a storm in a teacup, etc, etc.

There are two things about which we can be absolutely certain - the first is that the interview by the police of a serving Prime Minister and the arrest of some of his close colleagues is almost unprecedented in British politics and looks terrible. The second is that either the people making the wilder speculations about what might happen, or the people who are openly criticising the police and suggesting that this is all smoke without fire, are going to look very silly.

If I was assessing matters purely as a Conservative, I now think that the longer Blair hangs on the more damage he does to his party, and the greater the party advantage for us. But I am also concerned as a British citizen that while Blair stays in office we have a paralysed government and he is discrediting not just the Labour party but the whole political system.

Another quote for today comes from Cromwell.

"You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, Go!"

Richard Dawkins and the Loch Ness Monster

A slightly modified version of a joke told at the start of this morning's sermon by the Team Vicar of St James's Whitehaven ...

Professor Richard Dawkins has hired a boat to go fishing on Loch Ness. Suddenly, to his astonishment, he's attacked by the monster. It tosses both Dawkins and his boat up in the air, and prepares to grab him in his jaws when he falls back to the lake.

As he flies through the air, Professor Dawkins calls out "God help me." Suddenly the monster freezes, and a sudden breeze lifts him, carries him to shore, and then dies away, depositing him gently on the ground. Then a voice speaks inside his head -

"My child, I didn't think you believed in me."

"Give me a break, God" says Dawkins. "Two minutes ago I didn't believe in the Loch Ness Monster either."

In case Richard Dawkin's lawyers are preparing to go after the team vicar, I should explain that he told the joke about "an atheist" - as I thought I had previously heard it told with Professor Dawkins as the protagonist I reinserted his name.

Of course, a more intriguing question might be whether anyone still believes that Tony Blair is running the country ...

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Quote of the day - time for MPs to lose their seats

Comment made last night at the Keswick NHS consultation meeting by a local resident who admitted that he had voted Labour in the past.

The government isn't listening and it's time for some MPs to lose their seats or they won't listen. We keep electing Labour MPs and they do nothing for us. Our hospitals always seem to be under threat.

Both at Whitehaven on Thursday night and at Keswick on Friday night there were serious concerns expressed by local residents about the government's latest NHS proposals and the people who were supposed to be presenting the proposals made little attempt to hide that they share a lot of those concerns.

At the Whitehaven meeting there was of course a lot of concern focussed on the impact of CATS on acute hospital services and particularly West Cumberland Hospital. At the Keswick meeting more of the concern was about Cumbria's Community Hospital and particularly the Keswick Hospital (Mary Hewitson Cottage Hospital.) At both meetings residents thought the travel time assumptions in the document were ridiculous, and at the Keswick meeting platform speakers from the Chairman of the PCT down completely agreed.

More detailed reports of both Keswick and Whitehaven meetings are given on my hospitals campaign blog - see link at right.

There were issues raised at both meetings which involved political leadership. It is therefore a great pity that neither Jamie Reed MP nor Tony Cunningham MP were able to attend either meeting.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Venue for tonight's consultation meeting changed

The venue for tonight's NHS consultation meeting in Keswick has been moved to Keswick School, Vicarage Hill, at 7pm.

If you want to tell the Primary Care Trust how much you value Mary Hewitson Cottage Hospital in Keswick, come along and have your say.

If you want to send a similar message about West Cumberland Hospital, or Millom Community Hospital and you couldn't get to last night's meeting in Whitehaven, or indeed if you want to say anything about any of the other hospitals in Cumbria which are under threat, come along and have your say.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

CATS proposals torn to shreds at public meeting

Hundreds of local residents expressed serious concern about the CATS proposals at tonight's meeting in Whitehaven Civic Hall.

These proposals from central government have been criticised by doctors and it was very apparent tonight that even the people who were on the panel to discuss them with the public have serious concerns that the proposals on the table may damage the viablity of local hospitals, if implemented in their present form.

Local residents made very clear that our first priority on health in this area is to fight for our local hospitals. Speaker after speaker from the floor expressed concern about or attacked the CTS proposals and expressed frustration that the government appears determined to push the CATS concept through when the national model does not seem right for our area. It would not be too strong a statement to say that the proposals were torn to shreds by the public.

A more detailed report is on my Hospitals campaign blog - see link at right.

Reminder - NHS public meeting this evening

If you have concerns about health services in Cumbria, come and have your say at the public meeting in Whitehaven Civic Hall, 7pm this evening (1st February).

This is your chance to let Marie Burnham and Sue Page know how strongly you want to keep hospital services in West Cumbria.

Do you want to Save West Cumberland Hospital ?

Do you want to Save Millom Community Hospital ?

Do you want to Save Keswick Hospital ?

Do you want to Save Our Services ?

Then come along and say so !!!

Quote of the day ...

From a discussion on the "political betting" website about the news that the Prime Minister has been interviewed for a second time by police ...

"This just gets more and more delicious, er, sorry, I mean serious.

If revenge is a dish best served cold then this gloriously prolonged humiliation of Blair and New Labour is like swimming in a lagoon of mango sorbet."

(posted by "SeanT").

Since all this is undoubtedly doing great damage to the reputation of politics in general and interfering with the government of our country I am trying very hard not to enjoy the humiliation of the present government.

Had it not been for the way New Labour treated the previous government when they were in opposition, I would find it much easier to resist the temptation to enjoy watching them on the receiving end. But after all the sanctimonious insults that they threw at John Major's government about the need to be whiter than white, I cannot help thinking that Blair and his cronies deserve everything they're getting.

All political parties contain a majority of decent people. All political parties contain some scoundrels. It's becoming increasingly obvious which category most of the New Labour leadership fall into.