Saturday 29 November 2014

Plebgate et al: what is it about bikes?

When last Tuesday I went to the church in Leeds where we run classes of English for Speakers of other Languages (ESOL) for immigrants and asylum seekers, there was a bicycle chained to the rail by the South Door.  I thought little of it: it certainly didn't impede access.  But half an hour later the caretaker interrupted my class to demand if it belonged to anyone and a young Somali chap said it was his (given later events in the week I might have thought  "pleaded guilty.")  He was asked to move it and did so without any fuss, though for all I know he may have muttered a few Somalian imprecations under his breath.

Then last night I rode my own bicycle to the little  amateur theatre where the drama group to which I belong operates.  I was there to help with the bar rather than to watch the performance, so arrived early.  Normally I chain my bike to a drainpipe outside, but as there was a slight drizzle I took it inside and parked it in the lobby.  No-one complained, even though, with my glasses covered in rain-drops I couldn't see very clearly and, in manoeuvring the bike accidentally knocked the star from the top of the Christmas tree.  Indeed, people seemed to think this rather a joke, and the house manager for the evening,  a gifted young cartoonist, quite cheerfully climbed onto a chair to put it back again amid general merriment.

However, shortly before the performance began our president asked me to move the bike.  I explained that I'd brought it inside in order to avoid a wet saddle, which I believe can lead to piles, and was invited to store it back stage. This involved getting it through a door way with a heavy door, then wriggling it round a corner and down some steps.  It was difficult enough with the help of the gifted young cartoonist (who felt that the bike by the Christmas tree enhanced our lobby with the air of a John Lewis advert) and even more difficult getting it out again at the end of the performance when, after remaining behind fora bit of washing up, there was no one around to help.  However both operations were carried out without any ill feeling or bad language.

Not so poor Andrew Mitchell, ex-Tory minister, who some two years ago was prevented by a policeman from riding his bike through the main gate of Downing Street, which he claims he normally did, and ordered by a policeman to wheel it through a side gate.  Strangely enough it was not that in the resulting angry exchanges Mitchell used some very rude adjectives beginning with f. . .  that resulted in a court action, but that he allegedly called the policemen "a pleb."

A judge has ruled that he probably did, and he's probably right, since, although "pleb" is not used as a term of abuse by most of us, I'm told it is so used in some of our posher public (ie private and fee-paying) schools, and Mitchell went to Rugby, the one made famous by "Tom Brown's Schooldays."

In coming to his decision the judge claimed that the offended policeman" "would not have had the wit [or the] imagination. . . ." to invent the disputed term.  Frankly I'd find that rather more insulting than being called a pleb.

As another Tory MP has pointed out, had Mitchell left Downing Street in the official chauffeur-driven car to which he is entitled none of this would have happened, and he wouldn't be saddled with the loss of his reputation (he was quite a well respected  and effective  Secretary of State for Overseas Development) or saddled with a ludicrous £1.5 million legal bill.

Just what is it that make people "clothed in a little brief authority" want to take it out on cyclists? 

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Ukip euphoria

Those of us who have lived through the ecstasies of Torrington and Orpington can perhaps be forgiven an indulgent smile at UK's euphoria over its recent by-election successes.

In 1958 the Liberal Party achieved its first by-election success of the post war period when Mark Bonham Carter snatched Torrington form the Tories with 38% of the vote.  However this first of many "Liberal Revivals was short lived.  In the general election of the following year we were back to 5.9% of the vote and just six MPs,who could proverbially hold their party meetings in a telephone box.

Four years later, in 1962, Eric Lubbock thrashed the Tories with no less than 52.9% of the vote and gained Orpington. This did prompt the then prime minister Harold Macmillan  to sack a third of his cabinet in the "night of the long knives," but in the following general election, 1964, although we polled over 3 million votes, we still had only nine MPs, needing, perhaps, a Tardis rather than a phone box for their meetings.

When the Gang of Four formed the Social Democratic Party in 1981 our Alliance briefly led the "Old Parties" in the opinion polls, but in the next election,1983, although together our total vote nearly beat Labour's, we still had only 23 MPs compared to Labour's 209 and the Tories 392.  The "mould" was hardly cracked, never mind broken.

So from  the first green shoots of revival in 1958 to actually  forming a very minor part of the coalition government (57 Liberal Democrat MPs to 305 Conservatives) in 2010 took just over half a century.

Has UK the stamina for the struggle?

Actually, if they can keep it up  it may not take them quite so long.  Way back in the 1950s the two dominant largest parties between them took 96.1% of the vote.  Today things are much more fluid with that same two parties' share falling to only 65.1% of the vote in 2010 on, by coincidence, a  turnout of only 61.5%.  On the other hand, there are more mouths eagerly open to receive the protest vote: Nationalists, Greens, and perhaps the odd "save the NHS" independent.

My belief is that UKIP may poll well in the next election whilst the euphoria lasts, but is unlikely to win more than a handful if seats, if that, and them will fade away.  Its policies now seem to be reduced to two: withdrawal from Europe and halting immigration, maybe even sending some back  The arguments in favour of both are fallacious. and so, I fervently hope, unable to withstand the passage of time and serious scrutiny.

For lots of home truths about immigrants from the EU please see this very well informed post on a blog by Jon Danzig

Monday 24 November 2014

Flags and White Vans

Like it or not it is a fact that for many our two national flags have become symbols of some of the less attractive features of our society. The Union Jack tends to be associated with the British National Party (BNP) and other extremists on the xenophobic far-right, and the St George's flag with football hooligans.

Whereas the French and US flags have always been proud symbols of their countries, historically the British, at home at any rate, have not been great flag wavers.   Even during the war I can't remember much flag flying.  I think the Union Jack was supposed to be flown on public buildings on the King's birthday: maybe this was abandoned for fear of identifying useful targets for enemy aircraft.  And I can recall the flag being flown at my primary school only on one Empire Day (24th May: I know that because it was my Auntie Ada's birthday, a fact of which she was very proud), sometime in the late 1940s.  And the St George's flag was rarely flown at all until the churches started to display it at Easter and on "red letter" Saints' Days.

And unfairly or not, it is a fact that drivers of white vans are often regarded as doing so with less consideration  for the welfare of other users than the Highway Code might demand, and may well indulge in businesses in the "informal|" economy in which the payment of taxes is minimised, though perhaps with not quite the ruthless efficiency of some of the major international corporations.

So I have some sympathy for  Emily Thornberry and her tweet from the Rochester and Strood by-election campaign, and feel the Ed Miliband has grossly over-reacted in forcing her to resign as Shadow Attorney General.  Politics will never gain the respect it deserves if political  leaders jump through every hoop held up for them by the tabloids.

Poor Ed Miliband.  he and his party are being subjected to the same ridicule as scuppers Labour and  Neil Kinnock in 1992.  This is not grown up politics: we should be able to do better.

 Of course, it may well be that the owner of  the house with two St George's flags draped on its walls and a white van parked outside is an enthusiastic member of the Church of England whose business is all set to grow into the Marks and Spencer's of the 2060s.

Saturday 22 November 2014

Obama's amnesty for migrants highlights Liberal Democrat cowardice.

It was in the first of the Leaders' Debates before the 2010 general election that Nick Clegg's reputation reached heroic proportions and "I'm backing Nick" became a catchphrase.

The issue which made me proudest of Nick's performance was his  brave defence of the Liberal Democrat policy to grant an amnesty to long term migrants in Britain illegally.  This was by no means  a general amnesty: to be eligible for recognition as legally here the migrants had to have been in Britain for a minimum of ten years, had a job, paid taxes and have no criminal record.

The policy was ridiculed both be David Cameron and the then prime minister and Labour leader Gordon Brown, but Nick robustly and repeatedly defended it, not least by demanding of the other two how they expected to find those illegally here.

This was Liberal policy at its best: humane, rational and boldly unafraid of any adverse reaction in the chauvinist popular press.

Alas, this admirably liberal policy has now been quietly dropped from the Liberal Democrat lexicon as unrealistic and too far in advance of public opinion.

As the Rochester and Strood by-election demonstrates  we are badly in need of a party prepared to speak out for decency.  Yet both Tories and Labour now  compete to outdo UKIP in nastiness.

As Theresa May, home secretary and therefore minister responsible for immigration and migrant affairs was once brave enough to point out, the Conservative party is regarded by many as the nasty party.  Now we are rapidly degenerating  into nasty Britain.

I suppose it will be argued that President Obama can afford to be in advance of public opinion as America's rules forbid him from  standing for election again.  But it is my belief that a healthy democracy needs parties prepared to lead public opinion rather than cravenly follow the prejudices revealed in their focus groups.

Here's a wonderful opportunity for Liberal Democrats to resume the lead in restoring decency to our political debate.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Cameron gets the boot in first.

I've never studied the dark art of propaganda but I suspect one of the standard tenets it to get your story in first, and then stick to it. Thus while, after their defeat in 2010, the Labour Party occupied itself in electing a new leader, the Tories managed to convince the public  that the Britain's economic problems were the result of Gordon Brown's mismanagement rather than a global crash caused by the the their own  policies of financial deregulation. Beyond a circle of informed economists this distortion  is now generally accepted.

Now that George Osborne's "expansionary contraction" policy is seen to have failed on all counts (the government current deficit is not only not eliminated but close to £100bn and once again rising, and he has  lost his talismanic AAA rating). Cameron hastens to lay the blame, not on the ineptitude of his chancellor and policy of austerity, but on global events: recession in Japan, stagnation in the Eurozone, the Ebola epidemic and lack of progress in the Doha round of international trade negotiations (which has actually been failing to make progress for some 13 years.)

Presumably Cameron will hope that by getting in first with his claim that, by contrast with 2007/8, our present difficulties are all the fault of foreigners, he will pre-empt any counter-claims that the problem lies with the failures of his own government.  Perhaps he needn't bother, because it is hard to see in the present state of our politics who is in a position to make the counter-claims.  Labour's shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, is as committed to deficit cutting as Osborne, and, indeed, desperate to bolster his own credentials for toughness.

In his Guardian article Cameron is proud to point out the the UK economy is now growing at 3% per year whereas the Eurozone is flat-lining.  He goes on to flaunt the fact that the coalition government is: ". . .also making the biggest investment  in roads since the 1970s and the biggest in rail since Victorian times, connecting 4 000 premises to superfast broadband every week, and starting an energy revolution  with  the first new nuclear plant  in a generation, the world's first green investment bank and the largest production of offshore wind on the planet."

In other words, Keynesian pump-priming investment, much of it (including, alas, the new nuclear plant) at the instigation of Liberal Democrat ministers.

The truth is that Osborne long ago abandoned his Plan A, and the UK economy, after an unnecessary and damaging delay, is now growing once again as a result of  belated and over-modest Keynesian stimulation.  By contrast the Eurozone has adhered more  strictly to the mistaken policy of austerity and is therefore stagnating.

Cameron studied PPE (the E stands for economics) at Oxford.  One wonders what they teach them: or maybe he wasn't  paying attention..

Sunday 16 November 2014

The blunt end of the cuts

Cousins who have researched the paternal side of my family tree tell me that their enquiries come to a full stop in the mid 19th century with a Luke Wrigley, who appeared in our area apparently  from nowhere  and was a road-sweeper.

Perhaps because I have inherited some of his genes I find our present day road-sweeper a very affable chap.  He's certainly very efficient, in spite of the challenges set up for him by my less considerate fellow townsmen and women.  Unfortunately, rumour has it that his job is to come to an end, along with the maintenance of all but the largest of our parks, because as part of expenditure cuts imposed by the central government our local authority is likely to reduce the road cleaning budget by some 75% and the park maintenance budget by some 30%.

When I enquired as what  if anything would avoid such devastation  I was told the major areas to be protected were for the  protection children and care of the elderly.  Well, that's the sharp end and it's hard to argue with it,  but it is nevertheless sad that our relatively smart and attractive civic environment is to become increasingly shabby and neglected.  It is the poorest of course, who have the greatest need for, and make the greatest use of, our parks, of which there are several very well  maintained ones in our area. 

And all this so the Tories can implement their ideologically motivated public spending cuts while the economy remains in recession and Keynesian policies indicate that the reverse is required:  more street cleaners,  better maintained parks, and park custodians with peaked caps to limit vandalism and maintain public lavatories in a state of fragrant cleanliness if not exactly beauty.

In the 1950s the great American economist James K Galbraith, in "The Affluent Society," predicted this  "private affluence and public squalor."  Our government seems, alas, to be pursuing it with enthusiasm. 

I suppose the privately affluent  don't rely so much as the rest of us on clean and tidy streets and well-kept parks. Even if they don't live in gated communities they drive in their 4x4s to take their kids to school and do their shopping, and have their own gardens so have no need of parks.

Thursday 13 November 2014

Microsoft indifferent at home.

Microsoft's home page opens with the words:

At Microsoft our mission and values are to help people and businesses throughout the world realise their full potential.

Well that's fine, and I'm a great admirer of the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which is doing great things  all over the world.  To counteract the grumpiness of the Daily Mail and  right wing Tories with regard to overseas aid  expenditure, the number of children under five dying from easily preventable diseases has,  according to Melinda Gates, fallen from 12.6 million in 1990 to 6.6 million now. That's still 6 million too many, but 16 438 fewer per day, which is something to shout about.

I wish however Microsoft would devote a tiny fraction of their concern for those of us who use their facilities at home.
The following letter speaks for itself.

                                                                                                29th October, 2014.

Dear Microsoft,

Over the last weekend my Hotmail account was blocked by you because you suspected that someone else was trying to use it.  I have filled in the form you provide for me to confirm my identity and so recover the account and each time the application has been rejected for giving insufficient information.  The final rejection said that you would consider no further applications.

I have given you all the information I have available.

I do not know what Text*******72 means, nor am I ware of a “Code” which I could send.

You will see from my date of birth (04/09/1937),for which you have asked several times, that I am not of the generation which is all that necessarily au fait with modern communications technology: hence this letter by snail mail.

I have no recollection of having told you or anyone else my favourite  fictional character, but it is nearly ten yours since I opened this Email account, so if I did I have certainly forgotten whom I chose.

I have only ever used one password with this account, so cannot complete the other three boxes.

I have given you the topics of four recent Emails, the names of four folders (though some of these may be wrong as I may have confused them with folders on Word) and the Email addresses of four recent correspondents.  (Incidentally one of my correspondents was reluctant for me to divulge his address as he suspected the form might be a scam – maybe it was).

Though incomplete the above provides ample verification that I am who I claim to be, and not a hacker.  Since my applications were rejected within minutes of being sent I suspect they were never looked at by a person, but simply rejected by a machine.

As you will appreciate, by losing access to this account I have lost my entire list of Email contact addresses along with much information which is important to me on Emails which have been saved.  In addition, many acquaintances who contact me by Email will presume I am ignoring them when I fail to respond, and I have no means of alerting them to any new Email address as I don’t know their addresses.  There are also several organisations which contact me by Email and on whose communications are important to me.

If you really feel that the above information is insufficient to verify my identity then to make certain you could phone me on the number which is given on all my Emails  and I shall be happy to assure you that I am who I claim to be.

Yours faithfully.

Over two weeks later there has been no response.

In addition, using I've found two telephone numbers for them:
020 3027 6039 and  0800 7318 457
Both are permanently engaged. 
My potential may be modest, but I'd be a lot nearer to reaching it if they'd have the courtesy to lift a telephone, verify that I am who I am, and restore to me my contacts and carefully saved records.  
Any advice on how to prod them into action would be gratefully received.

Monday 10 November 2014

Remembrance of things past - and present.

That yesterday's news bulletins first recorded that the Queen had laid a wreath to commemorate the sacrifices of those of Britain and the Commonwealth who had fought to end wars and then went on to tell us that the US had successfully bombed a convoy and perhaps killed a senior Islamic State leader is a sad reminder that, like the Bourbons, we have forgotten nothing and learned nothing.

One after another the commentators tell us that, because this is the hundredth anniversary of the start of the Great War, this year's ceremonies (and presumably the next four) have a special poignancy.  Sadly, however, in Britain they continue to be essentially exercises in a backward-looking nationalism which sentimentalise and sanitise the real nature of war, whilst ignoring  the cause of war, which is a failure of politics.

In  Jonathan Jones's opinion   the sea of 886 246 ceramic poppies, each representing a "British" death,  in the moat surrounding the Tower of London, "nurtures the world view of UKIP."  I find it difficult to avoid the view that the stereotypical ceremonies, with their marching bands, military commands, bugles and flaunted medals do something similar.

Surely this poignant anniversary should be used to broaden and deepen our understanding of wars,  their causes and their tragic consequences. Should we not also mourn  the losses of all the combatant nations? The numbers from the Great War tell a humbling story. The principal ones were, in round figures (apologies for that) at a minimum:

Germany:                            1 800 000
Russia:                                1 700 000
France:                               1 350 000
Austro-Hungary:                 1 300 000
Britain and Commonwealth:    900 000
Turkey:                                  325 000
United States:                        116 000

Figures for the Second World War are equally horrifying  and illustrate in particular, and again,  the massive sacrifice made by the Russians.

It was a noted improvement to see and hear a German youth take part in the British Legion's shockingly misnamed "Festival" of Remembrance in the Albert Hall on Saturday evening.  Surely there is cope for extending participation to create a truly international  event.

We could extend the flower symbolism to  include the remembrance flowers of other nations.  For France it is the cornflower (le bleuet),  for Germany I believe  the marguerite, or perhaps the forget-me-not (my Google researches have not been very productive: perhaps someone can adjudicate on that and add to the list).  Ubiquitous as the poppy is for "British" remembrance, I'm not so sure it conveys the appropriate  message.  The final stanza of  John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields" on which its use is based, begins:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.

which seems  to be a call for continued belligerence.

Redirecting  our remembrance in these significant centenary years to exploring ways of avoiding further wars, and resolving our difference through politics and diplomacy would better bring about the peace for the souls of the sacrificed which McCrae calls for in his final lines:

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Alas instead of making a positive contribution to the EU, founded to avert a future European catastrophe, our politicians use the vocabulary of war to seek "victory" over each petty dispute, and threaten, like petulant schoolboys, to take our bat home if the "the enemy" does not accede to our every whim. And our red-top press cheers them on.

If you want to make a gesture in a more constructive  direction, White Poppies are available from the Peace Pledge Union, I Peace Passage, London  N7 0BT, or

Saturday 8 November 2014

Cameron paints himself into a corner.

So far I've regarded the threats of an "In-Out" referendum on Britain's continued membership of the EU as so much sound and bluster signifying very little.  I have assumed that, if it were to take place, there would be some sham negotiations with he rest of the EU, tiny changes would be heralded as great victories (as per Harold Wilson's re-negotiation in 1975), the establishment, including the Tories, would close ranks, we'd vote overwhelmingly to remain in (again as per 1975, though probably by not so much as the two to one majority achieved then) and life would go on much as usual.

Recent events however, make me less sanguine.

First the Scottish Referendum has demonstrated quite clearly that we're no longer as dutiful and deferential to the will of the establishment as we were forty years ago. All three major parties, the banks, industry and, I think, the trades unions, all ganged up together to insist that the Kingdom was better off United and that a "Yes" vote for Scotland's independence would pitch them so far into economic outer darkness that they'd have to exist on gruel for the rest of their days.

True the majority voted "No," but the margin, though not as narrow as some of the opinion polls predicted, was narrow enough to have frightened the living daylights out of the powers that be. We may not be so lucky in a referendum on Europe.

Secondly, although Cameron is a skilful negotiator (he certainly stitched up we Liberal Democrats in the negotiations for the formation of the coalition, in particular on reforms of the electoral system and the second chamber) it is difficult to see how he can wriggle out of his commitment to end the free movement of labour,  - or else, against the determined opposition of Angela Merkel and most of the other members,

 Admittedly, the Tory PR machine is adept at turning a non-event (eg Osborne's claim that he has halved the surcharge  on Britain's contribution when we should have received that amount as a rebate in any case)   as a glorious victory, but there is a real possibility of  Cameron's being forced to eat his words and campaign for a British exit.

So if we are to avoid Britain's' being cast into outer darkness economically, politically and probably culturally, it is more important than ever that the Tories should play no part in the next government.

Monday 3 November 2014

Spending the 0.7%

In an earlier post I've welcomed David Cameron's tenacity in making sure that the Coalition stuck to its promise to reach the target of earmarking  0.7% of GDP for aid to poorer countries.  A few weeks ago I was dismayed, to put it mildly, to hear a couple of relatively senior Liberal Democrats say  they felt that keeping this pledge was foolish and unnecessary.  Their argument seemed to be that the the Department for International Development (DFID) is now awash with cash that it doesn't know what to do with.

Well, if that is the case, then DFID needs to think a bit more proactively.

The rich world's tardy response to the Ebola epidemic is a classic example of a need that could have been met promptly but wasn't.  This disease has been around since the 1970s but the rich world has done little if anything about it.  Only when the developed world, and particularly the US, felt itself threatened have the alarm bells rung and preventative measure and the search for a suitable vaccine put into top gear.

Let's hope they are successful, but we must ask ourselves how many  lives would have been saved and how much fear avoided if the rich world, with our vast resources, had been ready.

The current Ebola outbreak as so far killed some 5 000 people out of about  some14 000 infected. Remaining within the sphere of health, tuberculosis kills some 1.7 million a year, and malaria 800 000.  About one in ten of the world's population lacks access to safe water and over one in three lack adequate sanitation, which leads  leads to approximately 14 000 deaths, mostly children, per day.

So there's plenty of scope for research and development in the medical area.  The neo-liberals' beloved market forces won't prompt the private  pharmaceutical companies to do the work, as the potential beneficiaries  don't have the money to buy the products.  In economics "demand," in the famous "demand and supply" paradigm, means not just wanting something, but "effective demand",  is desire for something backed by the ability and willingness to pay for it.  So Big Pharma  concentrates instead  on treatments  for such as erectile dysfunction and depilation, for which there's a demand backed by money.  The world's most prevalent diseases therefore present an area wide open for states with the money to step in and fill the gap.

Much the same could be argued in the spheres of education and social, physical and civic infrastructure.

To say "we" can't afford it is nonsense.  Africa, with its population of 1.111 billion, has a total  total GDP of $2.263 billion.  The UK's total GDP is sightly larger at $2.663bn and our population is just under 64 million.

Yes, I know that more than just money is needed to solve the problems of world poverty, but lack of money  is in most spheres a serious hindrance.

So still three cheers for Cameron, and Liberal Democrats in high places need to remember that it is a great principal of Liberalism that our concern for the poor and needy does not stop at the shores of this county.