Monday, 24 October 2011


What a huge number of issues the planned Tory revolt throws up today. First it demonstrates that there is only a sticking plaster over the deep division within their party over Europe - and remember, dear reader, which party signed us up to Europe, signed us up to the Single European Act and signed us up to the Maastricht Treaty and, of course, which party has NEVER offered voters a say in a referendum on any aspect of our relationship with Europe. Aha, it was the Tories (harmonica riff here if you're a fan of Manfred Mann).

Second, it shows how foolish the Tories still are, offering their leader no support when he is arguing with other European leaders over the whole future of the continental system. If ever there was a time for closing ranks, this is it but Tories like Bill Cash and John Redwood, egged on by a new crop of petty grandstanders, cannot see beyond this issue. Third, it highlights the irrelevance of Labour as they are just as split over Europe as the Tories. Just look at the disarray on both sides over the Lisbon Treaty. Fourth, it shows that Parliament matters - a categorically good thing.

Perhaps most importantly for this utterly biased blog, it demonstrates that, whether you like the Lib Dems' views on Europe we are the only party which is consistent, clear and honest about our support for the union and for co-operation between European countries. It is, however, a disappointment that our leadership decided to 'whip' our MPs today.

Rising above the petty politics of today's debate and vote is a much larger issue, one which is considered in a very 'black and white' way. Almost all the commentaries raise the spectre of possible two- or three-speed Europes, with an inner core of Eurozone countries, an outer group of less economically committed countries and a periphery of sceptics, one of which would inevitably be Britain, since British governments have shown unfailing stupidity over Europe ever since the 1940s when the smaller countries urged us to join to counterbalance France and provide a more practical, less corrupt model for the continent than les Grenouilles managed to introduce. The notion of a multi-speed system is seen as A Bad Thing by almost everyone and a road to ruin for Britain and for Europe. Why? What evidence is there that flexibility leads to failure?

Putting aside the record of 70 years of crass stupidity and failure to lead when leadership was needed by Britain, what is wrong with a multi-speed Europe? Why should some countries not share a currency while others don't? Why shouldn't some countries retain their currencies until such time - if such time arrives - that they decide that their interests lie within a currency union? I favour membership of the EU but not on any terms so why not look at working with others to develop differently. Isn't that the gift Britain can bring to Europe? Not the narrow-minded 'in or out' argument but a more nuanced one about shared interests. Forcing countries together, as the French favour, causes discord, dissonance and a lack of buy-in by citizens of European countries. Isn't that old devil, democracy, meant to be about winning popular support for progress and competing ideas fighting for acceptance?

That's the trouble with the European debate in Britain: it isn't a debate, it's a shouting match. We're either in or out, we either have to love Europe or hate it. Can't we be mature and accept the pluses of European membership while decrying and seeking to improve on the problems, like the CAP and the farce of the Strasbourg Parliament?

Coo, with all this favouring debate, dialogue and flexibility, I'll never get anywhere in politics, will I?

Thursday, 20 October 2011


The debate on Europe palls a bit when contrasted with the momentous news that the Libyan dictator has been captured and may even have spluttered his last on this earth but it is still important for this country.

It's difficult as a Lib Dem to hide one's glee at the abject stupidity of Tories for reviving this particular corpse, not a failed dictator but a pointless, childish argument which never fails to put the Tories at each others' throats. Keep fighting, chaps and let's hope the political casualty rate in this spat is high.

While they bicker between themselves, it would be nice if we could have a clear, unequivocal statement from the Lib Dem leadership that:
1. we are 100% pro European
2. we are also highly critical of the mess that Europe is and want it reformed root and branch
3. we are the only party - yes, the only one - which supported a referendum on European membership at the last election
4. Lib Dem MPs will be given the freedom to vote as they choose in next week's debate

We're sitting pretty on this issue as the only party with a clear view and a commitment to giving voters a proper choice on membership and this is a golden opportunity to show people why we're different. I hope Nickers makes some political capital out of it rather than just being Mr Nice Guy. They stuffed you earlier this year, Nick. It's payback time now.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011


Well, phew. I have just heard on the radio that, fresh from stopping all dangerous driving and near misses with cyclists across the county and having reduced road deaths in Oxfordshire to zero, Thames Valley Police are going to be clamping down on cyclists in Oxford without lights.

At least the police have their priorities right.

I tend to go out with more lights than a well-stocked Christmas tree, as well as a jacket visible from nearby planets it is so bright so I have no sympathy with these miscreants. Of course, I go to such lengths to avoid finding myself crushed beneath a car which thinks if it accelerates it can just get round me before the oncoming vehicle gets to us. My glowing presence may also help to reduce the incidences of car drivers finding it easier to skim past my handlebar rather than obeying those troublesome rules about giving cyclists at least a car's width when overtaking.

But it's the cyclists who are at fault! Oh yes. Good old Thames Valley Police and well done on getting your priorities right, lads and lasses.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011


I've become a zealot for cycling as I have discovered that it convenient, enjoyable and manageable by even the unfittest of people, i.e. me. What continues to amaze me is the apartheid which exists on our roads which forces cyclists to brave potholes, idiots and zero provision to participate in a healthy activity which could benefit everyone - yes, everyone, from car drivers with more space to pollute to future generations with a healthier population relying on less of their tax money.

I recently undertook a fundraising cycle ride, aiming to get from my part of Oxfordshire to Stoke-on-Trent for the recent - and ever excellent - beer festival there. As I cycle around 20 miles a few times a week to and from work I thought it would be a reasonable scaling up and if I gave myself enough time it would be possible to do in a day.

The journey itself was fantastic and filled with fabulous pleasures like the countryside of Warwickshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, the overwhelming friendliness of Birmingham and its environs and the boyish delight of a Vulcan bomber flying so low over me that I waved to the pilot. I got as far as Walsall, where time and my tired legs forced me to jump on a train for the last part of the journey, which allowed me to contrast the delights of cycling with the misery of an overcrowded Virgin Train - which I managed to board with my bike even though I was told I could not reserve one of the four places for bikes, putting the trip into doubt even though I had paid. Idiocy. The only pleasure on the train ride was the shared experience of others as we all protested in the English way, by sighing and raising our eyes to Heaven.

The ride gave me ample time to ponder the vagaries of cycle provision and to compare what is available around the country. For much of my journey I was able to enjoy country lanes, with few cars beyond the occasional oaf in an overlarge car offended by my presence. However, these country lanes tend to meander and thus to take longer. I was running behind schedule at one point so I turned onto the A3400 below Henley in Arden. For about twenty minutes I covered far more ground than I could have by more circuitous routes and the first realisation struck me: that cars have to go by 'route one' yet bikes are expected to go round the houses. I was fortunate that the road in question was quite lightly used and the journey wasn't too bad and, in consequence, I made up some time.

I then tried a canal path outside Stratford on Avon and this started well, with a good, flat path which was lovely. Then, about five miles outside Stratford, this 'national cycle route' (seriously) became a thin muddy strip next to the canal, good only for mountain bikes. Imagine if the M6 became a muddy track just beyond Coventry.

When I reached Birmingham I was in for a shock. I'm a former London cyclist so I'm comfortable in city traffic but apparently Birmingham hates bikes. Now Brummies, I rediscovered, tend to be extremely friendly and generally I was left alone on my bike by all but the occasional dunderhead. The problems I had were the traffic - fair play, it was approaching rush hour and there was an accident - and the complete lack of any cycle paths. I spent much of my time in Birmingham either walking to get around solid traffic or haring along dual carriageways, which were the only option available to me - not an enjoyable experience.

What I did discover was that the area does seem to have a lot of wide pavements and pedestrians and cycles do seem to share them quite happily but as a commuter route, for those times when you want to motor a bit, this would not do and would be dangerous for walkers.

I came across a new development below Birmingham with shiny new houses, shiny street furniture, a nwly manufactured village centre and lots of roundabouts in strange shaps with brick roads to slow cars down - and, of course, to make cycling that bit more uncomfortable. Not a hint of a cycle path anywhere.

I started to tire around Smethwick and decided to get a train a little further on but even this far outside Birmingham the only choices of roads for me were busy ones, including one major roundabout with roadworks with zero provision for pedestrians or cycles. That one was fun...

Cycling remains a wonderful pleasure for me and I would do the journey again - when I can feel my thighs again - but I would have to make different plans, such as steeling myself for main roads and hassle from cars, vans and lorries or I would need to give myself a couple of days to meander down lanes an along canal paths, which would be nice but not when you need to get somewhere.

It's almost laughable that the provision for cycling across the country is so woeful. What would be wrong with a few main routes to connect the main cities and towns? Sustrans is doing its best and I love to look at the pretty blue signs next to throbbing roads before I turn off to a more sensible route but seriously, is this the answer?

It would not be rocket science to start the process of adding cycle routes to new roads now or, to use some of the billions which are going to be paid to some lousy contractor to botch the HS2 over decades and charge the taxpayer many billions more than it should have cost, to install a path next to this new route.

The qustion forming in my mind is, what would the Lib Dems do and what plans has the coalition got to encourage cycling and make it a real, practical option for most people. Would any government dare, for example, to close some roads to make it safe for people to ride? Would any government promise to invest what would be a relatively small amount when compared to cost of the rescue of the banking system or the questionable cost of HS2, which will at least double by the time it is completed?

It wouldn't take much to change things and the benefits could be huge. It could also mean that I get to the beer festival in Stoke earlier. And that's got to be a reason to do it, surely.

Sunday, 2 October 2011


Fresh from this vital decision over our bins, David Cameron might usefully be asked a few interesting questions about a long discussed plan to build a new road in Witney which would devastate a local flood plain and park and which would brilliantly divert traffic from one bottleneck to another within the town, shifting a problem down the road rather than resolving it.

I had a rare day off work on Friday and I drove into Witney. The good weather had caused a bit of a glut of cars as everyone bought stuff for the weekend. On this particular day - at 12pm on a Friday - the roundabout onto which the new 'Cogges Link Road' would deposit hundreds of cars every hour was absolutely solid with traffic, as were most of the roads around the town. Despite the unseasonably good weather, this was a fairly average occurrence and, not surprisingly, around rush hours this road is even more congested.

David Cameron has previously declared his full support for the proposed new bottleneck - it made the front page of the local paper, the Witney Gazette. If his government is going to be 'the greenest ever' and if he is serious about both addressing pollution and the interests of his local residents, perhaps this is the time for a sharp turn about while there is still time. If the diggers are sent in to concrete over the Windrush and surrounding land our Prime Minister might find more local difficulties to range against the financial storm developing across the world.

Someone might remind the Prime Minister of the old truth that all politics is local.


So the Tories' latest gimmick for their conference is Eric Pickles's wheeze to bribe councils to re-introduce weekly bin collections. In fairness, this does honour one of their pre-election pledges but in practice it's as daft as John Redwood after a litre of scrumpy.

Here in Tory West Oxfordshire, we have had fortnightly collections for about a year now and its all going fine. Our waste is collected every two weeks, our green waste the other week and our food waste every week and all is fine. In my village we have no overflowing bins, there is no evidence of fly-tipping and I have seen no signs of open rebellion on the streets of Witney on Chipping Norton. What is happening is that recycling is going through the roof and I for one am thinking a lot harder about what I throw away, perhaps using up that food in the fridge which is on the way out instead of simply chucking it out without a thought. I suspect others are doing similar.

As I cycle around the area I have seen no evidence of any problems anywhere. I don't get to every village hereabouts but I would guess that my neighbours are comfortable with the new scheme, including one D. Cameron esq. Now, he is different because I understand he now spends a lot of time in London but the challenge for him and for the normally sensible Eric Pickles is to say whether Mr Pickles is right or whether the local Tory Council is right. A clue might be gleaned from the response of the Tory Council leader wheeled out on the Today programme last week to dismiss the Pickles Bribe as nonsense.

So here's a challenge for the Prime Minister. Who is wrong on this issue: West Oxfordshire Tories or Eric Pickles? If he can't answer this one, god help him when it comes to the Palestine vote.