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.