Monday 25 September 2017

Getting "on yer bike" can be dangerous too

I write as an occasional cyclist who has been bounced off my bike by a careless pedestrian as I was coasting modestly downhill.  In this case nothing really serious resulted.  I hit the tarmac and suffered some nasty grazes (I was wearing shorts) but didn't break anything, and luckily there was no traffic immediately behind to run me over.  The pedestrian admitted she had stepped into the road without looking, apologised profusely, and presumably soon recovered from any bruises she'd received (she was well-upholstered.)

It is perhaps presumptuous to comment  on the case of Charlie Alliston without having actually witnessed the accident or heard the evidence at his trial, but I think a few  non-judgemental comments are in order.

In 2016 Alliston, riding in London, hit a pedestrian, Mrs Kim Briggs.who died as a result of the accident. I believe Mrs Briggs was talking on her  mobile phone at the time of the accident and had stepped into the road.   I've no idea whether Alliston was thrown off his bike or  injured in any way or not.

There is no doubt about the seriousness of the outcome but it does seem to me that the legal case on which Alliston was prosecuted is somewhat contrived.  Apparently the bicycle he was riding had no front brake and that is illegal.  I wonder how many people knew that?  I well remember the days when the only way to stop some bikes was to pedal backwards.  Then apparently there is no offence of "dangerous cycling" so someone unearthed the crime of "wanton and dangerous driving" which, as it is contained in an act of 1861 ,five years before even the Penny Farthing was invented, was presumably meant to apply to horses and carriages.

Alliston has been sentenced to 18 months in prison, (of which he will presumably served 9 months if he behaves himself)  This seems to me totally disproportionate.  Apart from the cost to the public (about £40 000 per head per year)  if he were barred from riding a bike Alliston would be no danger to the public, and if he were ordered to do some form of community service, that could do both him and the community some good.

Predictably the tabloids are crying out for new laws to punish reckless cyclists, and it is quite possible the government will oblige, (as the Major government did with their Dangerous Dogs Act, in 1991)  in order to distract us from the Brexit shambles, (or, in Major's case, from "the Bastards" of that ilk).

Cyclist organisations point out that the government has as yet done nothing on a promise made in 2014 to consider "a wider examination of road laws and their application" which would apply to all road users, including pedestrians.  They also point out that of the 400 or so pedestrians killed on Britain's roads each year fewer than half a per cent  are struck by cyclists.

Just to be even handed, on my few visits to London I have noted the appalling behaviour of many cyclists, and acknowledge that this is beginning to creep in here, out in the sticks.  I believe cyclists should obey the rules of the road, not jump traffic lights, show their own lights when it's dark, and have bells to warn of their approach (especially on bridle-ways, canal tow-paths and footpaths where I go walking.)

Friday 22 September 2017

Liberals have no defining philosophy? Woah!

A few days ago former Troy MP Matthew Parris wrote and article in The Times in which he argued that now there is a good opportunity for a Liberal Democrat revival because, whereas  both Conservatives and Labour are weighed down by ideological baggage, we Liberal Democrats, along with the bulk of the electorate, aren't. 

This provoked indignation from the faithful, best expressed by my friend Michael Meadowcroft, who wrote directly to Parris:

  Dear Matthew
There was much to take note of and to act on in your Times article last Saturday, “This is the moment for a Lib Dem revival”, but there was one sentence in the penultimate paragraph that astonished me, given your broad political experience and awareness:

And the defining defect of the Lib Dems? That they have no bold and simple ideology, no defining philosophy; that they’re stuck in the middle; neither one thing nor the other.

I am conscious that you then go on to suggest that this may well be an electoral advantage but the alternative is a more powerful case: that to develop a political party, and to recruit committed activists who have a determination to  go out and persuade others, one has to have a “defining philosophy”. Moreover, to create and promote policy a party has to have a “defining philosophy” on which to base it. For instance, the Liberal Democrats were the only party to have a 100% attendance of its MPs to vote against the Iraq invasion, not because of any pragmatic opinion on weapons of mass destruction but because the party rightly believed that it was against international law, and that was enough; we have been in favour of an united Europe since 1955 because the party is internationalist and sceptical about the relevance of borders; we are in favour of devolution because we are aware of the dangers of centralism and its predilection towards authoritarian government; we are in favour of land value taxation because we believe that it is immoral to exploit land ownership rather than looking towards the common good; and we favour co-operatives in industry because we believe that to set management against labour is counterproductive and deleterious to productivity and is unnecessarily divisive. One could go on but these will do for examples of issues on which the party has a distinctive position stemming from its philosophy.

As for being “stuck in the middle”, that is an entirely illusory geographical point! Left and Right come down to us from the French Revolution and are predicated on the level of economic determinism or laissez faire, whereas Liberals see the spectrum as being between diffusion and centralisation - on which we are extremists!

I am always delighted to have the philosophy analysed, criticised and even attacked but at note that it exists. In recent decades we have prepared and published:

“Our Aim and Purpose”, 1962

“Liberals look ahead”, 1971

            “Liberal Values for a New Decade”, 1980

“2002 Agenda” published as “Freedom, Liberty and Fairness”, 2002 and 2011

“Agenda 2020" currently in preparation.

These are all philosophical statements rather than detailed policy. I enclose a copy of the most recent publication for your delectation!

Best regards

And so say all of us.

Monday 18 September 2017

Boris's bid for Brexit (or the Tory Leaadership)

I don't buy the Telegraph so have not actually read Boris Johnson's 4 000 word article on the joys to come if the UK  leaves the EU.

Most commentators seem to regard the article as either encouraging gung-ho optimism to cheer the  troops, or gung-ho nonsense, high on enthusiasm and light on facts.

Two phrases which to me stand out, and I assume they are in the original, are that the post-Brexit UK that Johnson envisages will be "low tax" and "low regulation."

I find it frankly amazing, and deeply distressing, that any serious politician can offer these as a future for Britain so recently after the Grenfell fire, which has so tragically illustrated the dangers of both.

Of course, we must wait until the official enquiry issues its findings to gain a reasoned account of all  the failings that led to the disaster.  But it would be naive indeed to suppose that both penny-pinching to keep taxes low and insufficient, or inadequately enforced, regulation, did not play some part.

Grenfell is, sadly, only one, though most recent and most serious,  of the many  consequences  of  the misguided neo-liberal  agenda and its emphasis on deregulation and low taxation which has done so much to lower the quality of our environment and reduce our protection as workers and citizens

I have no idea whether the former Grenfell residents voted  to Leave or Remain, or whether many of them were even allowed, or even registered, to vote, but it is the poorest and weakest in our community who are most reliant on public expenditure financed by taxes to to provided decent public services, including social housing, and adequate and strictly enforced regulations to protect  their welfare and safety as workers and citizens.

Wednesday 13 September 2017

The shameles Right

One of the problems of being on the side of the angels and supporting truth, justice and traditional British values (modesty, understated patriotism, level playing-fields, a penchant for the underdog," my word is my bond, "etc) is that we have a sense of proportion and a sense of shame.  Therefore, since the case for disregarding the Brexit referendum vote has been made  by umpteen of us, from the great and good Professor A C Grayling down to this humble blog, we're embarrassed about going on about it.

The case has been made, those concerned have presumably noted it, and the argument must move on.

Unfortunately the right in general and Brexiteers in particular, have no such reservations.  Remember how the Tories managed, by constant repetition, to convince too many of the electorate that the financial crash of 2007/8 was al the fault of Labour's overspending and it was George Osborne's sad but necessary duty to clear up the mess they'd left behind?  Or the constant banging-on about the Tory "long-term economic plan" which was neither long term ( it seemed to change every six months) - nor successful  (the internal deficit which it promised to eradicate by the end of that parliaments is still there and not now  due to be achieved until the end of this one.)

So in reference to Monday's great debate on the EU Withdrawal Bill  (the chutzpah of calling it the Great Repeal Bill seems to have been abandoned) we were told again and again that "the people had spoken,"  that the purpose of the bill was to implement the "will of the people," and those who voted against it were defying democracy.

Therefore, without apology, once again let me rehearse that:

 In the actual referendum 

  • just over a third voted to leave;
  • another third voted to remain;
  •  and just a bit less than a third didn’t vote.  
  •  This is nowhere near the two-thirds majority which the humblest club or society would require for a change in its constitution.
  •  Add to that the fact the that 16 and 17-year-olds, thought to be overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU, and the citizens most affected, in terms of years, by the result, were not allowed to vote.    
It is therefore nonsense for MPs or anybody else to claim that the referendum result is the will of the people: just the view of a good third or so of us on a particular day,  No self-respecting democrat in a representative democracy need feel bound by it.

It is shameful that so few MPs, elected to use their judgement on our behalf,  have the guts to do what they know is "best for Britain," and put a stop to this nonsense. Instead  the majority  continue to vote for national self harm on the basis of a falsity.

Tuesday 12 September 2017

Tories favour the police - again!

When Margaret Thatcher's government came to power in 1979 one of the first things it did was approve a 45%  pay rise for the police.  As a consequence, as the police marched in to quell the miners' strike, the Wapping printers' dispute and the poll-tax riots, many felt that the propose of this Tory  generosity was to ensure that the police were on their side to oppose what Thatcher regarded as " the enemy within."  The left dubbed the police "Mrs Thatcher's boot boys."

The release  of the police and prison offices from the  public elector pay cap with an extra 1% is small beer by comparison. but it does show us where the Tories' priorities still lie:  teachers, nurses, care workers (if there are any left in the public sector) all remain behind in the queue.

Maybe government is gearing up for public reaction in the streets as a result of the continued failure of their policies.

Friday 8 September 2017

Immigrants: Canada-style or UK-style?

In a pungent post Ian Dent describes the UK government's apparent plans to control immigration once we've left the EU as "a programme for comprehensive economic self-harm in order to satisfy the most mean-spirited elements of the national personality."

That  "another world is possible" is revealed in an article on the Canadian approach to immigration in the September issue of Prospect.

According to the article, by a Steve Bloomfield, Canada's policy of welcoming immigrants goes back a long way.  Novelist John Ralston Saul is quoted as saying that when his family first arrived in the 1840s "they were given 100 acres each, some horses, cows, seed for two years and some cash."  They had the"advantage" of being white as did most of the 50 000 Loyalists who had fled from the American Revolution.  Canada's welcome was, like Australia's, racist until the 1960s, when a Conservative (!) government introduced a more liberal approach and accepted, even promoted, a multicultural Canada.

Canada now takes in a target of 300 000 immigrants per year, just short of 1% of the existing population, and a proportion similar to the 588 000 who arrived in Britain last year.  All parties in Canada, and, crucially, the press, support this level of immigration; provinces and cities compete to host them; overseas diplomatic missions actually help would-be citizens to apply; a government minister even visited China last August to persuade more people to come.  A committee set up by the finance ministry has recommended that the annual total should be increased to 450 000.

The rationale behind this recommendation is that, even with 300 000 migrants annually, Canada's population growth will stall.  The committee estimates that, without the increase, Canada will slip from being the 11th largest economy in the world to the 29th,  more or less equivalent in world influence to Romania today.

The most obvious objection to Britain's adopting a similarly welcoming policy to immigrants is that we are a "crowded little island" whereas Canada, with a geographical area 40 times the UK's , has plenty of vast open spaces.  The objection does not, however, hold water.  Most of Canada is uninhabitable, most Canadians, including the immigrants,  live in the large cities  along the southern border with the US.  Toronto has a higher population per square kilometre than Birmingham, Montreal's density is more or less equal to Manchester's and, at 5 492 per, Vancouver has just 1 more than London's 5 491.

Nor is Britain's culture more in danger of being "crowded out."  About one in five  people living in Canada were born elsewhere: one in seven in the UK.  These proportions rise to around 50% in  in Toronto and Vancouver, compared with 41 % in inner London.

The key difference between our two countries is not one of size or economics, but of acceptance of multiculturalism, which both the political parties and press support in Canada, but which is  vilified by much of Britain's press, to which the right wing of the Tories is vigorously opposed and to which the Labour Party, which at one time promoted the international brotherhood of man, is at best ambivalent.

It's the politics which make us the "nasty country," not the economic limitations.


After sheer xenophobia, much of the popular opposition to immigration in Britain, and particularly that of many Labour supporters, is justified  the idea that immigration has a depressing effect on the wages of the native workers.  Vince Cable claims that, while he was Business Secretary,  no fewer than nine studies crossed his desk,  all of which found that the impact was "very little" and that "overseas workers have been complementary rather than competitive to British workers."    According to Sir Vince, the publication of these studies was suppressed by the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, because she was not happy with the message they would send out.

Wednesday 6 September 2017

Britain's ailing economy: the truth.

The think tank Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) has produced a damning report on the present state of the British economy.  It must be true because the Archbishop of Canterbury is a member, but just to balance any wishy-washy "do-goodery" the Institute also contains hard-headed businessmen as well.  Actually His Grace, before changing careers, was a pretty hard-headed and successful businessman himself.

The report points out among other things, that:

  • Britain  has the most geographically unbalanced economy in Europe, with 40% of our output now from London and the South East, and average incomes 30% lower in much of the rest of the country:
  • jobs are increasingly casualised with 3% of workers now on zero hours contracts:
  • over half of those of us defined as poor actually live in working households, and nearly a third of our children are living in poverty:
  • our productivity is 13% below the average for the G7, and 20% below that of Germany and, France (ouch!):
  • our investment (on which future growth and prosperity depend) is 5% below the OECD average:
  • our current account balance of overseas payments deficit (the one that really matters and really will be a burden on future generations) continues to be massive.
In response a Treasury spokesman, on behalf of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, says that employment is at a record high, the public finances are in better shape and the Gini coefficient is at a 30 year low.

You pays your many and you takes your choice.

To remedy our  predicament the IPPR suggests:

  • a simpler tax system, taxing "bads," such as pollution rather than "goods," such as employment:
  • a better distribution of wealth through new taxes (wealth taxes?)
  • more devolution to the nations and regions:
  • stronger trade unions to protect workers in the gig economy:
  • better regulation and taxation of monopoly digital companies.
Well, we Liberal Democrats would go along with most of that, and we've been banging on about it for years,  though we might have said "effective employee representation and profit sharing" along with stronger trade unions.

Sadly, instead discussing these, and other, solutions to our predicament,  our politicians are wasting  time  squabbling over the arrangements for making  the UK an even less comfortable place to live in by leaving the EU.

Saturday 2 September 2017

The case for disregarding the Brexit vote

"Anonymous," who comment regularly on this blog, concludes his contribution to the previous post  with:

What if  [the Leave voters] did understand? What if they aren't stupid, or brainwashed? What if they just disagree with you on a fundamental level?

This is a serious, and politically delicate, point which deserves more than a comment in reply.
Here it is.

Unlike Michael Gove, and I suspect most of the public when they pause to think seriously about it, I have not "had enough of experts."  Indeed, I tend to trust them in many aspects of my daily life.  In many cases there's not a lot of option:  who else can drill your teeth but a dentist?  So an expert  hand surgeon operates on my fingers to straighten them   ( this needs to be done about every ten years as I have Dupuytren's Contracture), expert mechanics service my car, an expert musician conducts the choral society, an expert and astonishingly talented pianist accompanies us at rehearsals: etc etc etc.  Sometimes experts let you down  - I've not had good experiences of lawyers - but on the whole they do a better job than the untrained and uninitiated.

So when the overwhelming majority of economists  and trade experts say that leaving the EU will  have a damaging effect on our economy (and this happens to coincide with my view as a humble teacher of economics) then I'm inclined to believe them.  I agree that the views are not 100%, but they rarely are, not just in economics but in many other fields (eg climate change.)  But when the main "expert" wheeled out to refute the majority and put  the case for fabulous  prosperity following Brexit is Patrick Minford, whom I believe to have been misguided  on most things during my career, my faith in the majority is not shaken.

The political effect of Brexit  is admittedly more difficult to quantify.  I believe that, although Britain's contribution to civilisation ever that past 400 years or so has not been as perfect and flawless as the history I was taught tended to indicate,  I do feel we have made a considerable, and positive, contribution to the world -  in science, art, literature, music, philosophy and, yes, politics. We have been one of the leading powers in creating the world as it is today.

Whilst not adopting the Whig view of history, that things irresistibly get better, I do believe we have been on the side of progress and operated in the "big league."  We have developed out own democracy (a work still in progress) and helped others to do so.  We have fought against tyranny and for the rule of law and human rights.  We have tried to introduce the rule of law into international affairs and been key founder members of both the League of Nations and the United Nations.  We have worked  for international co-operation in trade, the search for stable foreign exchange systems and economic development.

I freely admit that if we leave the EU some  Britons  will still write good books and decent plays and tunes.  (I'm quite sure our "pop" culture will continue to flourish under any circumstances).  But if we leave the EU we shall be turning our backs on much of the progress we have helped to make.  Our voice will not be silenced but its effect will be diminished. Boris Johnson-type boastings about a "global Britain" released from the shackles of a restrictive EU and triumphantly engaging with the rest of the world do not convince me.  I accpt that this is hard to prove, but Johnson gives every appearance of being a showman rather than a statesman

So politically I believe our influence, which by and large is for the good, will be greater and more effective working co-operatively with our European partners than as an off-shore island with diminishing significance in an ever changing (and, for the moment, increasingly dangerous) world.

Given that we are a representative democracy it is the duty of our MPs to take these matters into consideration and do what they genuinely think is right and best for the people they were elected to represent, and for the country and, indeed, the world.