Tuesday, 29 June 2010


Here's a fascinating example of how the coalition's much touted 'big society' could look. It is a membership scheme in Southwark which encourages volunteering and allows older people to link up with neighbours and get help with a whole range of tasks. The scheme is predicted to break even in its third year, which is not something you can say of many public services.

A key aspect of this model is that it encourages participation by anyone interested and it removes the need for people with needs to jump through hoops to qualify for help, thus perhaps encouraging them to exaggerate any conditions which cause them to need care or support. The article also quotes Sir William Beveridge's concerns that the welfare state would stifle volunteering and innovation.

Perhaps the crucial point of the article is its acknowledgement that the approach of the Labour government was almost entirely top-down. People are children to be handed sweets produced in the state sweet factory and no alternatives are needed. I wonder what the Labour leadership candidates would say to that. No doubt much but in the end nothing. Labour - and British politics - desperately need a leader of imagination but the current candidates are so singularly lacking that it would be hard to imagine five less worthy people.

Anyway, I have mangled the article and I would recommend you read it if you are interested in society, cuts or the welfare state. This is the first pointer I have seen to a slightly more optimistic reading of where we currently are. We don't have to be passive victims in this supposed crisis, we can make things happen.

Whoops, apologies for the 'Obama-esque' call to arms there. I will ensure I am more English in my posts in future (i.e. not linking them up, not finishing them, not showing any flair, underachieving generally - oh, how it still hurts...).

Tuesday, 22 June 2010


It was very reassuring as a former candidate to hear clear Lib Dem manifesto commitments being announced in today's budget speech along with the necessary pain of higher taxes. If you remain dubious about the coalition (I do!) you may reassure yourself as follows:

1. From next year pensions will be linked to earnings, reversing a Tory decision from the 1980s which Labour avoided addressing for 13 years. That's a clear Lib Dem manifesto commitment. Our manifesto said we would increase pensions by the same rate as earnings, prices or 2.5%, whichever was bigger in any given year and that's exactly what Osborne said today.

2. From April 2011 the income tax threshold will be raised by £1000 to £7475, taking 880,000 people out of tax altogether. It's not quite the £10,000 we wanted but it is a huge step towards this goal and I am certain it would not have been introduced if there had not been Lib Dems around the Cabinet table.

3. Tax rises for public sector workers will be frozen but those on incomes below £21,000 will see increases of £250 a year. Our manifesto committed us to increases for lower paid public sector workers of around £400 so once again we have got pretty much what we asked for.

4. Capital Gains Tax will be increased to 28% from midnight. That's a surprisingly bold move from this Tory Chancellor but a very welcome one and another LD commitment delivered in large part. Tory right-wingers must be spitting blood.

5. From January 2011 a banking transactions levy will be introduced ahead of a much talked about global agreement over such a plan. That's another Lib Dem manifesto commitment which I doubt a majority Tory government would have introduced on its own.

6. A White Paper will be introduced in the autumn to propose changes to assist regional development, endorsing our manifesto commitments to focus on regional stock markets and local investment. By being in coalition, we have a great chance of getting these proposals adopted.

Like most people I remain deeply sceptical about the coalition but such announcements in a budget reassure me and I hope they reassure you. Lib Dems are delivering in government.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010


Worried about the global economic crisis? Concerned for the Euro? Doubtful about European markets for British goods? Don't be! The French government has announced plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

The good news is that we can expect the French to accept these necessary measures and to eschew the demonstrations and violence which have so damaged Greece in the name of defending the rights of Greek trombonists. I am sure that the moderate French unions will accept these plans with a workmanlike common sense. It will doubtless be a reassurance to the thousands of British visitors to France who will have to work until they are 67 to know that French people have accepted some of the pain which is spreading across Europe.

Can I finally say that anyone posting a comment suggesting that the French are in Europe for what they can get out of it and noting that half the EU budget goes on the Common Agricultural Policy - and half of that goes to poverty-stricken French farmers - will find their posts rejected as scurrilous slanders on our neighbours across the English Channel.

Monday, 14 June 2010


Here's a note of controversy for the World Cup. Despite having changed my website to reflect the national hysteria surrounding our bunch of overpaid hospital cases I can't get away from the thought that our national flag, colours and Patron Saint were all introduced by the Normans as they sought to change the traditions of this country root and branch.

Now that's not necessarily a bad thing and only a fool would declare that our country is timeless and that our traditions go back into the mists of time. They don't: somewhere along the line of our turbulent and often bloody history someone will have decided to have London as the capital, wear tartan, adopt the Indian rose as our national flower or impose Turkish knight St George as our patron saint.

That's the trouble with St George: his reputation is at best dodgy as he was apparently a bit of a murdering thug, he is the patron saint of half a dozen other countries, he never even visited England and, I have discovered just recently, he is actually the patron saint of England and Wales. That last bit's fine by me but the Welsh already have a patron saint of their own so why can't we?

Before St George was grafted onto the national psyche we had Edmund, a pukka (Indian word...) English (born in Germany) martyr murdered by the Vikings in Suffolk. Between Edmund and George we had Edward the Confessor, King of England, sponsor of the original Westminster Abbey and - unfortunately - promoter of one Guillaume the Bastard as a future ruler of our sceptr'd isle and the man who ushered in 200 years of brutal oppression of the rank and file of England - that's me and possibly you, in modern terms.

None of them is ideal but at least the 'Two Teds' actually spent some time here and one performed that fabulous trick of the truly iconic in getting himself killed in dramatic circumstances. If Athena had existed back in the 10th century there'd have been a poster of Edmund on the wall of every youth, sitting astride a horse looking troubled...

The key problem with either Edmund or Edward is that neither had a proper flag or standard so we haven't quite got the colours. I've seen one which is blue and yellow which would be quite nice. Just think, England football shirts could be sold by Ikea in future. I bet they'd be cheaper than the overpriced ones we have today. We could return to the ancient tradition of painting ourselves blue before going into contests. The tabloids could be full of terrible puns around the word 'woad' ('End of the Woad for Fabio', 'Woadful display from Green', etc, etc ad nauseaum).

I don't suppose it will catch on but it might be worth reflecting on precisely why we do what we do, if only so we don't take any of it too seriously. Anyway, roll on Friday and Algeria and Cry God for England, Wayne and St Edmund!

Friday, 11 June 2010


The Prime Minister has said he wants us all to 'revere and support' British forces for the work they do in Afghanistan. This is an interesting phrase and it is highly dangerous as only language, that most terrible of weapons, can be.

There are very few of us who do not strongly respect and support the work of British forces abroad. I couldn't do what they do and I can't imagine the stress it puts on them and their families so they deserve the highest respect and regard. However, we should not 'revere' an army.

One of the most striking moments in my life came when I was driving through London with a Syrian friend in the late 1980s. Coming along the Embankment in the other direction was a small, light tank on which sat a group of squaddies. My friend instantly froze and asked if there had been a coup. I laughed and reassured him that of course there hadn't been as I was absolutely certain that such things just don't happen in Britain. However, his fear was real and I stopped myself from ridiculing his question. He was scared and he understood the danger of such events because his country had seen the terror that they bring in his recent history.

Our armed forces are among the best in the world - in the words of a famous lager they probably are the best - but they should not be revered. Reverence puts them above and outside of society. They are one of the best and most reliable organs of our state because they are fully part of the state, not separate. We should support our troops wholeheartedly but revere only whatever gods we choose to worship.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010


I'm very keen to see the response from the Deputy Prime Minister to the reprehensible decision by the UN Security Council today to ratchet up sanctions against Iran because it has scurrilously and shamelessly continued to negotiate over its plans to enrich uranium with no evidence whatsoever of any hostile intentions so far.

This is same Iran which recently offered a region wide deal to oversee checks on nuclear technology - an offer which caused some unease in other capitals nearby as other countries not too far away to the west have singularly failed to engage with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

This is the same Iran which is at the negotiating table - or at least it was until today - and which has not launched any aggressive actions against its neighbours for quite some decades now (Iraq started the first Gulf War in 1980).

This is the same Iran which had offered to send its uranium to Turkey to be enriched, thus addressing one of the main issues of the latest round of sabre-rattling by the USA and Israel.

There are uncomfortable echoes of 2003 in all this for, lest we forget, the USA used the UN to try to win some legitimacy for its long planned invasion back then. I wonder what the UN's Middle East envoy and the man who shamed our country, T. Blair esq. will say about all this. What can a man seen across the Middle East as one of the main architects of the devastation of Iraq possibly do to encourage peace and dialogue when he is hated by almost everyone there?

If the British government joins in any military action against Iran I'll be a willing participant in any protests and if the Liberal Democrats do not come out foursquare against any such actions we might just find ourselves without a party. I don't envy Nick Clegg his dilemma over such issues but I do expect him to hold fast to the fundamental principles which drive our party, one of which is internationalism.

For the record, I have no illusions about Iran. It is a poor democracy which has quite abysmal human rights and its president is clearly deranged but it is not a threat to the region. It has an educated population and recent years have demonstrated the vibrancy of its brave opposition. The people of Iran are not our enemy and they don't have to be in future.

The era of gunboat diplomacy is past, or at least it should be.


The coalition's latest policy announcement to give councils more powers to stop developers from using gardens as 'brownfield' sites to build housing is a good one. The idea that gardens are somehow 'brownfield' was a Labour initiative to encourage more house building - a Good Thing - but once again New Labour had the right principles but the wrong ideas.

LD policy was all for giving more control over planning decisions to local councils so this is yet another victory for LD principles. However, the acid test of the move to remove imposed housing targets will be whether in five years' time new housing development has continued or stopped. My guess is that there will be numerous areas in the south east where we will see an almost complete halt in development as a result of such changes but other authorities should provide innovative leads on future plans. I would be willing to bet that those authorities will in the main be yellow in hue given the proud record of many LD authorities in pushing through new, high quality housing. Nay sayers might look at the Vale of White Horse in Oxfordshire and South Shropshire for two clear examples of such LD councils which have delivered hundreds of new affordable houses in recent years in the teeth of government indifference.

But oh dear, this morning on the Today programme, the architect of the 'brownfield' plan, John Prescott, went up against Tory millionaire Parliamentary seat buyer and [apparently former] non-dom Zac Goldsmith. Lest anyone think that LDs have gone soft in coalition can I express my total contempt for this example of David Cameron's new Conservative Party. I have always had a certain regard for John Prescott as you get what you pay for with him: overbearing, semi-literate, boorish but somehow normal in the weird world that is modern politics. As for Goldsmith, one syllable of that plummy voice is enough to have me reaching for the off switch but I held myself back. Alas, he did little to engage with rambling John Prescott and spoke rather antiseptically about various studies and statistics. This wasn't debate, it was a garden party.

My personal hatred of such Tory place people aside, my main concern with the changes announced to housing policy are that they are once again tinkering around the edges of what is a crucial element of our modern society: the need for high quality, affordable housing in places where people want to live and work. The planning system remains heavily weighted in favour of developers and people with the money to negotiate a way through it. I hope this new government will commit to looking at housing root and branch and provide the framework and incentives for local authorities to innovate and to give us the housing we need and deserve - not just lifeless estates with lines of Lego boxes on the edge of towns which encourage car use above all.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to see innovative new building styles after 200 years of the same old model? Wouldn't it be wonderful to see affordable housing built by popular local demand? Am I holding my breath?

What's the betting that in five years' time we will prety much be where we are now...

Tuesday, 8 June 2010


The papers are full of talk of cuts, be they 'progressive' or 'radical' but somehow I'm not convinced by the rhetoric.

There is no doubt that we are in a bind. There is no question that severe savings are going to be needed. There is also no question that the commentators are more excited than they ought to be by the amazing return of 'politics', that poor relation to celebrity in the modern world but an old friend that many of us welcome back with warm affection. However, my problem is that we have heard all this before.

Pick a Prime Minister - (almost) any Prime Minister - and I would put a significant bet on the fact that they have said when arriving in office that things are going to be tough. If they had any sense they will then have done all the really lousy stuff when they first arrived before rolling in the pork barrel as the next election looms.

The exception to this is of course Tony Blair who benefited from a strong economy in 1997 thanks in large part to Ken Clarke, everyone's favourite Tory. This was fortunate because his chancellor for ten years turns out to have been economically illiterate and to have done much to contribute to the depth of our current malaise by not thinking ahead, even if he didn't directly cause it.

'We have abolished boom and bust' shall surely be Gordon Brown's epitaph as much as 'Iraq' will be Blair's.

So here's the deal: yes there will be cuts; yes, they will be painful but I am not persuaded that things are as bad as they are being made out. I am of the view that we have been here before and that a lot of this is plain, old fashioned spin on the part of the shiny new coalition. Will all the cuts be necessary? Time for a pregnant pause.

If the coalition lasts for two years we should start to hit the upswing in time for the next election. New spending will begin, Dave's grin will return, the Tories will start to pull the duvet back onto their side and all bets will be off. As for the Lib Dems, I wouldn't want to be Nickers for all the vuvuzelas in Soccer City when the disengagement comes.

Monday, 7 June 2010


In a charming example of 'foot in mouth' syndrome, the BBC reported this afternoon that a new society of Daily Mail readers has been set up calling itself the 'Queen's English Society' and seeking to ape the woeful Academie Francaise in preserving our beautiful language in aspic so that it too can wither like the language of Moliere, rather than continuously evolving to become the force for unity that it has in the modern world - and in the process spreading its metaphorical wings to leave our shores for sunnier climes.

Rather than waving it off proudly like a successful child, the 'Chairman' of this new society of luddites - a woman who insisted on this arcane title - blathered on about how it is a rich language which must be defended - rather missing the point about how it became so beautiful. She then came out with the beautiful comment that she could think of 'a myriad of examples' of something or other.

Oh dear. As any fule kno, we don't use 'of' after 'myriad'. It seems our language is safe from interfering no hopers for a few more years. Chinglish here we come!


As the World Cup approaches and the flags come out across England, we face the niggling annoyance of a whole section of Britain actively demonstrating their antipathy towards us through their senseless opposition to our football team. This happens at every sporting event so it is no surprise and such sporting hostility can be a source of fun. The difference with regard to Scotland and England is that the cause of this antipathy is ancient history.

This overt hostility to England is simply out of date and ignores a range of straightforward truths which suggest a somewhat skewed relationship in favour of Scotland, rather than supporting the myth of the English somehow being responsible for the various ills which many people beyond Berwick are convinced afflict their country.

In a conversation today a Scottish acquaintance was asked if anything special would be happening today on what is the anniversary of the birth of Robert the Bruce? Their response was a jokey but still fervent hope that the border would be closed. That kind of comment just annoys me. Why should a Scot living in England with absolutely no demonstrable disadvantages to their position and in the light of many advantages have such hostility to my country? This is tantamount to casual racism.

Given the fact that Britain has had a Scottish dominated government for 13 years, that Scotland has more powers and democracy than England, that Scottish MPs get to tell the English how to live and that in return the English are expected to pay far over the odds for Scotland, and given the fact that Scotland's banks were rescued by primarily English taxpayers, this seems somewhat churlish and ignorant of quite how well Scotland does from the union.

The surprise for me is that we in England don't particularly care about any of this and we generally rub along quite happily with the situation without treating these various issues as problems. I suspect that that must really annoy the Scots.

I remain 100% committed to a binding referendum on Scottish independence but my one condition would be that it should be a nationwide referendum, from Penzance to Peebles. I remain convinced that our Scottish neighbours would be quite uncomfortably surprised at the outcome of such a referendum but they would almost certainly get what they wished for which, as anyone who knows the old saw will realise, may not be the best outcome for Scotland.

For the record, I am also fully supportive of the union and I believe it to be a good thing for all of us. England benefits from this union as much as the other participants but any such union requires active and positive participation from all its members. The long-standing Liberal Democrat policy of a federal Britain remains an ideal aspiration for our country which could reduce much of this resentment and even up the huge political imbalance which is currently skewed in favour of Scotland.

Here's my challenge then: if you are Scottish and reading this blog, feel free to post a message of support for the England team in South Africa. If you feel you are unable to, can I suggest that you reflect on whether that is a mature response to our ongoing, positive relationship which the union embodies in the 21st century.

However, if you do, my thanks and my very best wishes. And here's to a 'Great Britain' football team for 2012.

Friday, 4 June 2010


I would like to offer my congratulations and best wishes to Oxfordshire's newest Liberal Democrat councillor, John Griffin, who was elected to South Oxfordshire District Council last night. John is the chair of Crowmarsh Parish Council and he was a district councillor between 1995 and 2003 so he's active, able and experienced and he will doubtless be an asset to the local party.

To anyone concerned about coalition with the Conservatives or unhappy that your vote in the General Election did not count in Oxfordshire, I hope this result reassures you that Liberal Democrats are out there 52 weeks of the year working hard to secure your support and that we are willing partners to the Conservatives nationally but we remain completely independent and will be constructive and active critics of administrations locally.

Your vote always counts because it is a clear signal that there is an alternative.

Well done John and best wishes for your time on the Council.

Thursday, 3 June 2010


Life is full of blessings and curses.

Recently, my somewhat superannuated car had a fault which I needed to get sorted out at work. I didn't have roadside breakdown cover so I had to sign up there and then, resulting in a considerable premium being charged by the RAC. However the man who turned up was cheerful and resolved the problem quickly and got me on my way so it was money reasonably well spent. He also advised me what the problem was and said I would need to get it sorted at my local garage. This I duly did and drove the car to work yesterday satisfied of a problem resolved.

But alas! After work my brand new starter motor decided to burn itself out rather dramatically, making me one of those cursing fools standing at the side of the road as my car smoked alarmingly. Luckily I was deep in the Oxfordshire countryside rather than next to a motorway so at least my surroundings were nice.

And here's where the blessing comes in. Another very helpful RAC recovery man came to sort out my problem and to get me home - or at least to my local garage - which meant that I went from being in deficit to the breakdown firm to being in profit. One more breakdown this year and I will be winning hands down.

The other blessing was that as I had to return my car to the garage I was able to get my beloved bike out of the shed to cycle to Witney for the bus to work. It is difficult to overstate the delight I feel when I ride my bike, which I bought new all of 18 years ago and which still inspires me as few things do. Today is a glorious day so my ride was made even better, despite my apparent lack of fitness and the fact that I live in one of the highest places in the county, which means hills. Gently rolling down some of these hills as all manner of wildlife tries to fly into my throat, run in front of me, dive bomb me or otherwise kill me is one of those 'God is in his heaven' moments in life and today was no exception. Cycling really does get your blood pumping in the nicest way.

The final blessing was that, once in Witney, I bought a bus! Or at least I think I did since the fare was so unbelievably astronomical that I must have. I chose the bus over the train as I thought the train fare was too high but then I discovered that the bus fare was even more. I will write to the bus company (rhymes with 'beige poach') to discuss delivery of my bus and henceforth all my travel woes will be at an end. I will be able to hurtle around the Oxfordshire countryside threatening my fellow cyclists with impunity while my car does its best to support local business in Oxfordshire by breaking down with a regularity unknown outside of a Swiss clockmaker's emporium.

So you see, life is good even when it appears to have done something unpleasant in your coffee cup. There is probably a moral I could link to the coalition but I don't think I can manage that level of cheesiness. This is a 100% apolitical post.

Still, I wonder what Nick would have done...

Wednesday, 2 June 2010


How many people in the new coalition does it take to change a lightbulb?

Three: One to make the change, one from the other party to shadow them and one Daily Telegraph journalist to write an expose about the Liberal Democrat


There is a fascinating article in the Guardian concerning the true cost of nuclear power stations. The new Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, has announced that the country faces an unavoidable cost for cleaning up old nuclear waste and decommissioning facilities of around £4bn over coming years. This is equivalent to one-sixth of the overall planned cuts to reduce the budget deficit and completely puts the lie to the notion that nuclear power is affordable or practical.

Huhne has pointed out that the huge cost to his department of this necessary cleanup means that in effect it will be able to do nothing else, least of all invest in sustainable new technologies for energy generation.

The outcome of this horrendous expense is likely to be the final death knell for any plans for new nuclear power stations, which the coalition has agreed can only go ahead if they are built with no public subsidy and clear plans for their full costs over their whole lifetime. It is simply not possible for any private company to provide such guarantees, even the French government-subsidised EDF, which is the main outfit proposing this at the moment.

Finally, may I respond in advance to any scientists who tell me nuclear is the only option for our energy future. It isn't: it is an expensive white elephant which produces as much carbon as a conventional power station over its lifetime and the product of these facilities is some of the most dangerous materials the world has ever seen, materials which will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years - long after EDF, Britain and France have ceased to exist. What happens then? The argument over nuclear fission has been had and comprehensively lost. The first nuclear power stations were only built because the figures were massaged to significantly understate the risks.

Anyone with an interest in developing nuclear technology needs to devote themselves to fusion. After all, a billion stars can't be wrong, can they? They might also address the shameful question of where wave power is? If ever there was an obvious source of energy for this, er, island, it is wave power.

So thank you nuclear industry for hobbling all our futures.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010


If armed Somalis stopped and boarded a vessel in international waters, they would be considered pirates. If the people on board that vessel sought to defend themselves with any weapons they could lay their hands on they would be considered heroes. If the Somalis killed 10 people on board that vessel that would be considered a vile act of murder. If they then took the people on that ship to Somalia they would be considered to be hostages.

Somalis are involved regularly in acts of piracy in international waters and their country is considered a lawless, rogue state.

Isn't international diplomacy a curious thing...