Saturday, 9 December 2017

Star status and sexual exploitation

This was written about opera and paedophilia, but, changing some of the terms, it could have been about the pop world, theatre or even politics and any variety of sexual abuse:

The cult of interpretive genius in which a single man can come to be seen as so gifted and important that institutions and systems will protect him for 40 years is connected to a view of sexual abuse that sees perpetrators as uniquely perverted predators rather than as the horribly predictable outcomes of the accumulation of power. In order to make and hear music in healthy ways, and think about sex in healthy ways, we must destroy and replace the insular star system and the dysfunctional and unjust accumulations of power it enables.

Friday, 8 December 2017

We are heading for permanent transition status with the EU

In other words, a messy typical British compromise which will please no one. The UK will be giving up its right to influence EU decisions, both in the Council and the European Parliament, which is what members of the European Movement (such as myself) have been fighting against. On the other hand, the UK will not be able to break free of the customs union so long as the Irish border problem remains, i.e., indefinitely. This will displease those who expected Cameron and May to keep their promises to take us out of the EU altogether.

It would be a Norway-style relationship in all but name. If I remember correctly, I predicted this outcome in a Web debate organised by the Evening Post during the general election campaign - I certainly remember saying that nobody would be happy with the outcome of the negotiations.

Of course, Vince Cable could be right in his assessment that her own party will tear Mrs May's accord with the DUP and the EU27 to shreds, in which case we will be back to square one.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Sack-Damian-Green-at-all-costs camp should beware of what they wish for

It is very tempting to use any pretext to drive a minister in a government you hate out of office and out of parliament. However, consider the precedent which would be set. Any member with iffy (including politically dubious as well as sexual material) images on his office computer could be scapegoated. It could lead to vigilante groups organised by opposing whips, barging into suspects' offices in the hope of seeing something they could feed to the media.

The history of the Green affair as laid out in this Guardian article.

Two senior police officers have now condemned the retired policemen and even suggested they could be prosecuted.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The protean Brian O'Nolan

It was good to hear celebrated the life of the wonderful Irish writer Flann O'Brien. The Great Lives programme on Radio 4 had time only to concentrate on the books and just touched on the other personae of a man who was brought up as an Irish speaker ("before it became fashionable") in Ulster - before the partition, of course - but made a living as a civil servant and writer in Dublin.

So there was no space for Myles na gCopaleen's (his identity as a columnist in the Irish Times) weakness for puns. A running gag comprised supposed dialogues between Keats and Chapman which concluded with a pun by Keats. This is the one I remember best: (There is a representative sample of Myles at'Brien)  Myles was an obvious influence on the late, great, Miles Kington and to a lesser extent on other writers of humorous newspaper columns.

The classic Brian O'Nolan pun was surely the one which terminated a brave piece contributed to the Guardian newspaper in the early 1960s, and the one which introduced me to Flann O'Brien. It was a history of episodes in his writing life and his ambiguous relationship with organised religion, relating how each public criticism he made of the latter was followed by some seemingly divine punishment. It was funny and touching at the same time, culminating in a description of the facial cancer which was to kill him. The pay-off was that he supposed that the article had been his "agony in the Guardian".

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The railway in Cardiff

There is news of developments in Cardiff, gleaned from Rail Wales, the magazine of Railfuture in Wales.

Approval has been given for the restoration of the building at Cardiff Bay (formerly Bute Street) station. It is rather more imposing than a mere station building and I suspect it may have housed the offices of one of the many local railway companies which were eventually absorbed by the Great Western. One cheer for preserving the existing structure (and hopefully what remains of the Victorian interior), but none for the unsympathetic extension which has also been given approval.

No cheers for Cardiff city council and its chosen developer for yet again postponing a decent replacement for the bus stands which used to be so convenient for travellers to the capital via Cardiff Central station. It now looks as if there will be no new Cardiff bus station before 2020.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Railfuture Cymru tweets

Tweets on topical news affecting rails in Wales, plus links to items of interest outside the nation, can be found @RailfutureWales.

Railfuture Wales is always looking to widen its membership. We have too few women (whereas our Scottish cousin has a woman in the chair!) and we could do with more members under retiring age. If you are a Welsh-speaker, you would be especially welcome; please click on the Railfuture logo in the side-bar to take yourself to the Web site.

Et in Arcadia ego

It should not have come as a surprise, but sexual harassment is as common in the orchestras playing the sublime music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms as it was back-stage in the Young Vic. Perhaps the situation is worse in orchestras because they have been virtually male preserves (apart from the occasional lady harpist) until the 1960s. It also took some time before the policy of integration which started in provincial orchestras like the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic reached the London orchestras, something which was not achieved until the 1980s. However, it seems that the worst excesses affect freelance players.

The Music Matters programme which exposed the extent is repeated this evening at 22:00.

[Later: Jessica Duchen has written an extensive piece about misuse of power in the world of music]

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Votes at 16 put off yet again

Conservatives objected to the Representation of the People (Young People's Enfranchisement and Education) Bill at the session devoted to Private Members' Bills last Friday. So the adjourned Second Reading is deferred to May 2018 when it may well be overtaken by another general election and therefore lost. The Bill has received only the initial 90 minutes debate of November 3rd, much of which was absorbed by a speech by Bernard Jenkin and spurious interventions and points of order from other Conservatives.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Wales at Work no more

The Radio Wales business programme, that is. Like so many good broadcasts these days, its content is now only on the Web, though presenter Brian Meechan remains as industrial correspondent. Considering that some of the most enterprising small businesses in Wales are in areas of zero or poor broadband and minimal mobile telephone coverage, the decision to take Wales at Work off-air seems very short-sighted.

Radio 4 has Inside Business, but this tends to centre on international and big UK businesses. At least we still have Country Focus.

Friday, 1 December 2017

I agree with Tim

Tim Farron spoke recently about the conjunction of Christianity and liberalism. As has been recommended in another place, his entire Theos speech is worth reading but I would pick out one of his conclusions:

I believe in pluralism, I am not a secularist but I believe in a secular society where there is no ‘state faith’. That in Britain we have a church trapped as part of the furniture of the state is a waste of a church. A boat in the water is good. Water in the boat, is bad. A church in the state is good, the state in the church is bad. Really bad. It pollutes the message of that church. It compromises it. Weakens its witness.

I am a secularist, but I agree with that. We are fortunate in Wales in that there is no established church.

The media and the public generally should not give Tim or any other declared Christian a harder time than they do Sadiq Khan, a practising Muslim, or Lord Winston, an observant Jew, or any of the prominent practitioners of other faiths. We should also recognise the liberal aspects of most other great faiths of the world.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Muslim "threat" to Europe

As justifiable anger against the demented president of the United States grows over his endorsement of a racist and anti-Muslim group in England, there is a timely report of a discussion under the ambit of the European Parliament about a book analysing the effects of Da'esh in Europe. Professor Olivier Roy asserts that "Isis" is no more threatening to Europe than other millenarian or terrorist organisations that preceded it, and that have since disappeared. One may demur over this reassuring opinion, but more to the point is the professor's hard research over a long period which shows that: 
young radicals are living at the margins of society of the Muslim population in Europe. The large majority of Muslims reject them and their actions.
Trump's demonisation of non-white and/or non Judaeo-Christian communities world-wide mirrors his atavistic attitude to the North American population. It is high time we on this side of the Atlantic by-passed the presidency and spoke to and gave more publicity to other pillars of United States democracy.

Dame Jenni Murray weeps over Brexit vote

One must admire Dame Jenni, who embodies all that is good about BBC Radio. I admit to personal bias in that she is one of the few BBC celebrities to reply to a personal email. Several years ago, I  criticised the way that Woman's Hour had reinforced the Western view of Thailand advanced in The King and I. She replied in person, patiently explaining that she and the programme team had been aware that there were other aspects to the story, but had been unable to secure an appropriate expert in time for the story.

So it was not surprising that she showed her passionate attachment to the European dream of lasting peace after two world wars which had their roots on the continent. In an extract from a book about the arguments for and against the European Union, reproduced in the Yorkshire Post and the i, she recalls her mother's bitter memories of World War Two and declares:

to my generation, the prospect of peace in Europe and an entente which would bring us together in a most cordial manner didn’t seem to be about trade and economics, but a way to break down barriers and end the ‘little England’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ mentality which encouraged the Brit to consider him or herself superior to ‘Johnny Foreigner’.

and tells the following story

My most vivid memory of feeling thankful for being European came about during a visit to the theatre with some friends. I must have been in my early 30s and my companions were David, now my husband, Nancy, a friend from New York who was living in London and Uwe, her German banker boyfriend.

The play we saw was Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, subtitled A Parable Play and written in 1941. It charts the rise of Hitler through the satirical story of an ambitious, fictional Chicago gangster who learns to speak effectively in public, goose step and make the notorious ‘Heil Hitler’ raised arm salute from a famous actor. He needs no training in how to use his ‘boys’ to bully his constituents into submission. The play ends with Ui on a high platform proclaiming his power to his public. The ‘Actor’ enters the stage to deliver the epilogue and speaks the chilling words: ‘The bitch that bore him is in heat again.’

After the play, the four of us went to a pub for a drink. These two young men looked at each other and said what we’d watched must be seen in a strictly historical context. Yes, some 40 years ago, they, an Englishman and a German, would have been trying to kill each other. “But now,” they agreed, “it simply couldn’t happen. We’re all Europeans now.” “No more war, Tommy,” said Uwe with a smile. “No more war, Jerry,” said David. And they hugged as if to underline the point.

I hadn’t thought about that incident for a long time and, as the years have passed, we’ve gone our separate ways – Nancy to America and Uwe to Germany and David and I have raised two sons. They were both brought up as Europeans. They’ve travelled freely throughout Europe, learned the languages, enjoyed the reciprocal free healthcare and neither has so much as a hint of racism or xenophobia. It was primarily for them that I wept when the result of the referendum was announced on June 23, 2016 and Brexit became the mot du jour.

I regret that the political, as opposed to the economic, aspects of our membership of the EU did not play a part in the 2016 referendum debate as they had in 1975 (people who tell a different story were either not alive, have a defective memory or are downright liars). I doubt that the result of the vote would have been different, but at least it would have led to a more rounded debate.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Michael Powell

No, not the Liberal Democrat councillor for Trallwn, but the English half of the Anglo-Hungarian film-makers, The Archers. American playwright and cultural critic Terry Teachout has an article about Powell, who is still apparently under-appreciated in the States, in spite of his being championed by Martin Scorsese.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Government support for IT

We became aware during the Bombardier/Boeing dispute that, though Bombardier did receive support from the Canadian government (and to a lesser extent from Northern Ireland), Boeing also benefits from grants and subsidies from federal, state and even local government. This is in addition to the virtually guaranteed contracts from the Department of Defense.

It was a pattern which is familiar to me from my time in government IT. In the 1960s, the US railed against European (including UK) government procurement policies which favoured native firms. The Americans eventually succeeded with Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine abandoning home preference for government IT contracts. It was even received wisdom that a key contract had been reserved for a US firm. IBM (in particular) supported by huge US defence and administration contracts cleaned up, against the relatively poorly capitalised British IT companies.

Also emasculated in the Keith Joseph-inspired "reforms" was the National Computing Centre, set up under Harold Wilson (one of the few practical results of his call for a "technological revolution") to stimulate the application of IT to business and government and to set standards. (My one and only post-secondary paper qualification is a Certificate in Systems Analysis issued by the NCC.)

As an article in the New European points out,

Silicon Valley [would not] be what it is today without extensive Government support. According to a study by Brookings Institution, 18 of the 25 biggest breakthroughs in computing tech between 1946 and 1965 were funded by the federal government. The US government began schemes to encourage venture capital (ie risky) investing as early as 1958.

 Games programming is all very well, we are good at it and it requires few non-market incentives, but we also need strategic thinking. The ability to analyse, plan, make sensible forecasts and marry the right technology to schemes has been lacking from many public projects over the last generation, a recent example being Universal Credit. There is also a need to fund research which will have no direct commercial benefit but could pay off in the long run, as the Americans have done.

I would urge the Chancellor and BIS to go beyond the narrow remit of providing specialist computer science teachers for the National Centre for Computing which was announced in the budget speech. It needs to provide strategic IT support for industry, especially SMEs, and for government as the former NCC did.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Prison overcrowding and suicide

Theresa May and her prisons minister no doubt cheered the recent news reports that "there is no direct link between prison suicides and overcrowding in prisons".

However, there is a coincidence in this country between high prison populations, higher turnover and suicides. The summary of this academic study, clearly one of those to which the latest news story relates, concludes that though there is no demonstrable link between overcrowding and suicide:

Questions remain about the causal mechanisms underlying variation in prison suicides and the impact of the lived experience of overcrowding. Further research is needed to examine the relative contribution of prison and prisoner characteristics to suicides.

Suicide is only one symptom of a prison régime which is demonstrably not right. Intra-prison violence, drug-taking and recidivism rates are all too high. New prisons, replacing Dickensian gaols, are part of the answer - but only a partial one if they take convicts further away from their families, as super-prisons tend to do. Bringing staffing levels to the optimum, as the Howard League and Prison Reform Trust as well as the Prison Officers Association have called for, is another part, which in turn will contribute to the motivation of prison staff. Also, there are too many people in prison who should not be there.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Power of sex pests diminished

My first thought on reading the deputy party leader's open and honest piece relayed by Mark Pack was that she was too hard on herself. At the time of the initial complaints against Chris Rennard, the more just and humane mechanism for dealing with such sensitive matters which the Liberal Democrats now possess did not exist. Nor would recourse to law have been effective, as the Nigel Evans case was later to show. On reflection, there should have been more discussion with the wronged women after the initial decision had been made, and the defects in the complaints procedure should have been addressed straight away. However, Jo's position in the party was not quite as high then as it is now.

She says there are still things to be done, but at least one taboo has been broken. Breaking the Harvey Weinstein affair open has empowered women to say "no". Weinstein was only encouraged to persist in his behaviour because some of his targets felt powerless to resist (or, let's face it, driven by ambition to accede to) his sexual propositions. Now, because the climate of public opinion has clearly shifted, it will be more easy for sex pests from Hollywood producers down to local party bigwigs to be resisted.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Interest on student loans

The Treasury and Joe Johnson do not seem to have grasped the concept of lending money to students as a social act, not a commercial one. Recovery of the loan from the higher-paid is the equivalent of a graduate tax. This exchange took place in the Commons during a session on the subject of the Student Loans Company:

  • I welcome the Minister’s efforts to reform the SLC, and he will know that our Select Committee on Education is doing a value-for-money inquiry into universities. As well as looking at the management of the SLC, will the Minister use this opportunity to look at reducing the rate of interest for students, which is much higher than in many other countries in the developed world?
  • Joseph Johnson
  • We keep all aspects of our student finance system under review, to ensure that it is fair and effective as a system, and that it is meeting our core objectives of removing financial barriers to access, funding our university system fairly, and sharing the costs of doing so equitably between individual students and the general taxpayer. The rate of interest is heavily subsidised. This is to be compared with unsecured personal commercial borrowings. The Bank of England benchmark reference rate for unsecured personal commercial borrowing would be well over 7%, and this is a particularly unique product, which is written off entirely after 30 years with no recourse to a borrower’s other assets, and it only enters the repayment period when people are earning more than £25,000. So it is a unique product, and it is not easy to compare any element of it with loan offerings from elsewhere in the commercial sector.
It seems to me that the interest charged should be more in line with that paid by public sector bodies, not the commercial sector.

Friday, 24 November 2017

The new trains are back, but their drawbacks remain

This is an extract of evidence given by Roger Ford, a rail expert, to the Welsh Affairs Committee about the cancellation of the South Wales main line electrification:

This brief submission focuses on the current claims by Government that electro-diesel ‘bi-mode’ trains provide an acceptable alternative to full electrification of the line between Cardiff and Swansea .

These claims are not based on a detailed technical and commercial comparison of the alternatives. To be blunt, the claim that bi-mode trains will provide passengers with the same quality of service is a face-saving attempt to justify cancellation of the onward electrification from Cardiff to Swansea. The cancellation is the result of cost escalation and delayed completion of Network Rail’s Great Western Electrification Programme (GWEP).
2.0 Comparison of electric power versus diesel
2.1 In general, it is important to bear in mind that in both modes the bi-mode represents a sub-optimal solution.

With up to 10 tonnes of diesel power pack and fuel under 60% of its coaches, when running as an electric train a bi-mode is an overweight Electric Multiple Unit (EMU).

In diesel mode it is underpowered when compared with a conventional Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) DMUs have an engine for each vehicle while at least one bi-mode vehicle will be dedicated to the equipment for electric operation – a transformer and pantograph . Performance is thus degraded in both modes by either excessive weight or lack of power.

2.2 Electric traction equipment is simpler, lighter and offers more power for a given weight compared with diesel equipment. As a result electric trains are lighter. This is reflected in the capital and operating costs.

The average cost per vehicle of recent EMU orders in the UK has been around £1.2 million. The recent contract for 25 Hitachi bi-mode trains for TransePennine Express has an average cost of £2.36 million per vehicle.

This difference is reflected in the leasing costs of the trains.

2.3 Diesel train fleets have a lower availability – the percentage of trains in a fleet in service. This stems from a number of factors including the increased maintenance required by diesel engines and the requirement for time out for refuelling . This means that for a given service level a larger fleet of diesel trains is required, increasing the cost

2.4 Electric train maintenance costs are typically 33% lower than a comparable diesel train

2.5 Energy costs of electric traction are typically 45% lower than diesel. This is the result of a number of factors in addition to the relative costs of electricity and diesel fuel.

Electric trains are lighter and thus require less energy for a given performance. In addition, electric trains can employ regenerative braking which switches the train’s electric motors to generators to slow the train. The electricity generated is returned to the National Grid. Typical energy saving in intercity type operations is 15-20%. A further advantage of electrification is that the railway is able to use whatever source of energy supplies the Grid.

2.6 The lower weight of electric trains results in lower track wear. In the case of the Hitachi Intercity Expres Programme trains, the vehicles in the electric units weigh 41 tonnes. In the bi-mode version, the weight of the diesel engine and fuel increases the vehicle weight to 50 tonnes.

The lower track wear reduces track maintenance costs which are reflected in the Variable Track Access Charges paid by the operator to Network Rail. This benefits fares and subsidy payments

2.7 Because more power can be installed electric trains have a higher performance than diesel trains. This is reflected in the forecast 15 minute journey time saving claimed when the GWR electrified service is introduced, although some of this will be due to changes in stopping patterns.

2.8 With shorter journey times, fewer trains are required to cover the timetable. Note the similar benefit from greater availability already mentioned.

2.9 Electric trains are significantly more reliable than diesel trains. For example, Siemens three most reliable EMUs are currently averaging around 100,000 miles per 3 minute delay. The Company’s equivalent DMUs are recording a creditable, by DMU standards , 26,000 miles per 3 minute delay.

This disparity is also reflected in the specification for the Hitachi trains in the Intercity Express Programme contract. The electric versions are required to achieve 50,000 miles per 3 minute delay, the bi-modes 25,000 miles per 3 minutes delay.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Bryncoch South by-election

It was not to be for us in a contest which was seen as a two-horse race between Labour and Plaid Cymru. However, Sheila saw off UKIP and got close to the Conservative candidate, a big improvement on our performance in May. Labour cannot be happy that they made no impression on Plaid, given that Janice Dudley must have had a large personal vote. Perhaps the sudden insecurity of the leader in Cardiff Bay had an effect, but on the other hand Labour are doing well in their winnable by-elections in England.

Detailed results are here:

Witness to the WPA

By my reckoning, Norman Lloyd is now 103 not out. It was good to hear him, still sharp, contributing to the excellent mini-series on the artistic contribution to President Roosevelt's New Deal, Works Progress Administration's Federal Project Number One. I am surprised that BBC Radio did not give more publicity to the two programmes. Perhaps they are sensitive about what might be seen as support for social enterprises? In fact, the narrative was at times critical of the project and of some of the key players, though the impression one was left with was of USA's basic conservatism.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Decision day in Bryncoch, Caewern, the Rhyddings and Waunceirch

Tomorrow, Thursday, 23rd November is the date for a crucial by-election in Bryncoch South. If national trends are as significant as in regular elections, then Labour is likely to see its support fall away. How much can Liberal Democrats garner of that, and how much eat into Janice Dudley's personal vote? Certainly, our candidate Sheila Kingston-Jones is receiving a friendlier reception on the doorsteps than I did in May.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

German political stand-off

It seems that the economically liberal but socially conservative Free Democrat Party is banking on fresh elections in Germany to boost its representation in the Bundestag. How else to explain its decision to break off coalition talks with chancellor Merkel? The German electorate will not be happy at this blow to stable government, the worst since the federal republic was set up. The FDP has presumably calculated that anti-immigration feeling has increased since September's general election and that the CDU/CSU will lose more seats because of this.

Monday, 20 November 2017

The Battle of Cambrai

The first major tank battle started at 06:20 on the morning of 20th November 1917. Although the net result at the end of the following day was the status quo, with over 40,000 casualties on each side, according to Philippe Gorczynski:

The 1917 Battle of Cambrai changed the whole face of warfare for ever and restored the hopes of the Allies. The long held stalemate war had ended.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Indira Gandhi

Today is the centenary of India's third prime minister, and the world's second female head of government (after Mrs Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka).

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Jane Dodds' inspiring speech

Once again, thanks to our Welsh party leader - and a contingent from Flintshire! - for coming to Caewern on a cold winter's evening and giving a boost to Sheila Kingston-Jones' by-election campaign in Bryncoch South. Many photos were taken and one has found its way on to the Aberavon and Neath Liberal Democrats Facebook page already.

Jane spoke feelingly about her dedication to Wales, regretting the failure to provide the infrastructure to enable the whole of the nation to fulfil its potential. She was passionate about the environment.  She criticised the Conservative government, with the support of the Labour opposition, for embarking on the Article 50 process on the basis of what was, at bottom, a protest vote. Something had to be done about those people stuck in poorly-paid dead end jobs - which, thanks to zero-hours contracts, may not be permanent anyway. There had been a failure to inform them about what the European Union had done and could do for them, and the party had a duty to fill that gap.

There was much to chew over, but one of her ideas stuck out for me. One way of restoring hope and dignity, she said, would be a Universal Basic Income. She believed that the Canadian Mincome experiment had been a success. The Finns had just embarked on a similar venture and, one year in, it looks promising and she had similar hopes for the Scottish government's investigation of the idea in an area of Glasgow. I see from the wikipedia article that the Manitoba initiative of Mincome had been supported by a Liberal government in Ottawa and closed down by a succeeding Conservative one. (Now with a Trudeau back as Canadian prime minister, Ontario is reviving the idea.)

Those of us with long memories will know that under the banner "citizen's income" the idea has been around in UK politics for some time. Indeed, I seem to recall that it was once part of  SDP policy, and the SDP was a co-founder of the Liberal Democrat party. When Universal Credit was first announced, merging a number of disparate state benefits, it seemed as if civil service policy-makers were preparing the way for a vehicle for delivering a citizen's income in the UK. It soon became clear that the Conservatives were instead using UC as a means of increasing the numbers of working poor. I believe that it can still be rescued, but it needs the Chancellor immediately to eliminate the injustices of UC's current parameters and for a patient re-examination of the system design, delaying the present hurried national roll-out.

In order to fund UBI, Jane Dodds said that we should not be afraid to advocate an increase in tax for those most able to bear it and I agree with her.

Afghan hero dog wins Dickin Medal refers. Mali received five-star treatment, including TV spots, yesterday. He continues to serve by participating in training his successors and their handlers.

Now, how about giving refuge to those Afghan people whose lives are constantly under threat simply for acting as interpreters for Western forces?

Friday, 17 November 2017

New Welsh party leader to address local campaigners

The council by-election in Bryncoch South has attracted much interest in the Welsh Liberal Democrat party. It is many years since a Welsh local authority campaign has attracted so many activists from outside the local authority area, and I cannot remember it happening in my twenty-odd years of membership of the Aberavon and Neath party. So many volunteers have come forward that a mini-rally was scheduled for Caewern community centre at 17:30 today. Now Sheila Kingston-Jones' campaign has been given an extra boost by the news that Jane Dodds, the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats is making the Caewern meeting one of her first public appearances since her election last month.

Jane has already set down a marker:

My priorities are clear. Setting out our stall as a progressive and reforming party for Wales based on the values of liberalism, freedom, and equality. Creating an attractive narrative about our Party and Welsh liberalism to reconnect with voters.  We must train, support, develop and encourage our members and activists, creating the next generation of candidates and activists across Wales.  We must engage with our businesses, our farmers and our communities to listen to their ideas about what we need to do to make Wales a vibrant, outward looking country.  We must reach out to the disenfranchised in our society, seeking to be a voice for those who have been marginalised and left behind. 

I hope you will help me to turn our fortunes around.  We have amazing councillors all over Wales standing up for their communities, and we have Kirsty Williams in Government improving the education and life chances of our children. There is plenty enough to be motivated about, and plenty to be proud of. We may have been down, but we are not out.

There is lots to do. I’m going to get to work straight away, and I hope you will join me.
Rebuilding our party will need a team approach. It will need a Wales wide Liberal Democrat approach. Over the coming months I am planning to meet as many of you as possible to start shaping our agenda, and shaping our way back to start winning once again.

It is heartening that Jane sees Bryncoch South as a springboard for the restoration of Liberalism to its traditional place in Welsh politics.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Youngsters priced out of football

Former Liberal Democrat leader (and long-suffering Blackburn Rovers fan) Tim Farron has responded to this year's BBC report into football ticket pricing, which shows that two-thirds of young people say they are priced out of attending top flight matches.

He writes: “The expense of tickets is clearly deterring young fans from accessing elite level football. With all Premier League and Champions League games being broadcast on a pay to view basis, this is a real shame. It also has an impact on those who take up the sport. Playing football improves health and well-being, yet these prices are alienating a generation of people from the game. But for those priced out of watching premier league games, there are plenty of great clubs in the lower divisions to follow including a team from Lancashire in league 1..."

I am pleased to pass on BBC-Wales' observation that the dearest season ticket for the Swans costs less than the cheapest season ticket at no less than seven other Premier League teams.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The political aspect of the EU

There is a key debate this morning in the European Parliament about the Polish government's attempt to dictate to their judiciary, a clear breach of the separation of powers which Poland signed up to when joining the EU. Typically, UKIP - the heirs to the appeasers of the 1930s - forcefully argued that the Union should be oblivious to anti-democratic and discriminatory trends in member states.

I hope there will be at least a summary on an EU web site which I can link to later in the week.

There are excellent replacements for the Foreign Secretary

Most of us who are agitating for Boris Johnson to be sacked are not using the issue as a means of unsettling the May government, as the Conservative-supporting sections of the media have alleged. We are genuinely concerned that the UK should be represented abroad by a responsible statesman who commands respect.

For me, the ideal Conservative replacement would be Alistair Burt who regularly displays his diplomatic qualities at the despatch box, and who has built up international respect through his work as a junior minister in the FO. However, one understands the obsession which party managers have with which way ministers voted in the EU referendum and Burt was a Remainer. Last night's re-showing of Middleland reminded us of the qualities of Rory Stewart, a Leaver and a strong defender of the military, but one who is attuned to the plight of oppressed people in the world.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Advance fee fraud has a long history

Thanks to last month's Digital Human on Radio 4, I now know that the spam-checker-avoiding emails which occasionally hit my in-box and which are clearly a prelude to a breach of clause 419 of Nigeria's criminal code , have their origin in the days of the penny-post and the telegraph. The classic scam was known as the Spanish prisoner swindle, and is described here. The example letter quoted is remarkably similar in terms to those emails purporting to come from Africans wanting to smuggle hot money out of their country.

Castle-fort of Barcelona
22nd December 1893
Mr. W. _____
Dear Sir - Notwithstanding having not the pleasure of being aquainted with you, I taken the liberty of writing you this letter in order to trust you with a secret that I never had thought to be obliged to entrust nobody with, but the sufferings that I am induring in this prison and my love for a young daughter of 16 years old who is in the actuality in a collge in Badajoz to make you my revelation, in the hope that you will be good enough as to help me recover a sum of 840,000 pesetas (33,600l) in gold money and french bank-notes that I was one day constrained to hide in the neighbourhood of your locality.

- and so on.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Iran's Revolutionary Guard will not succeed in forcing concessions from UK government

 - and they would not benefit it they gained them anyway

It has long been surmised that the detention on trumped-up charges of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was driven by a desire to extract concessions from the UK government. In addition to those suggested by Mr Ratcliffe, it seems that the extremists want the BBC Persian service to be closed down or to be subject to censorship. BBC has successfully resisted any attempt at direction by government in the past and one can confidently predict that it will continue to do so.

Besides, if the BBC were forced to give in on this, the Saudis would surely demand that objective commentary on the desert kingdom's visceral hatred of Shi'a Islam, manifested in brutal proxy wars, would also cease and probably succeed in those demands. Nor, when the US presidency has turned against them, do Iran's rulers need to antagonise the UK.

Infestation by special advisor

Peter Black's blog post today indicates that rule by SpAd has now infected Wales. Extra-parliamentary advisers have always been part of the Westminster scene and, while they have not always been acknowledged, neither have they been allowed to decide policy which was always down to the elected ministers guided by an experienced civil service. The latter may be charged with being resistant to change but they are also the repository of expertise and experience. They also know their responsibilities within the constitutional scheme of things.

The wedge may have been inserted by Mrs Thatcher who openly distrusted the civil service, bringing in her own advisers on economic policy, but it was New Labour who threw open the doors to special advisors. Two groups of them grew up around the offices of prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer. It was these two factions, seemingly more concerned about doing the other down than applying what little knowledge they had to the process of government, which aggravated the split between former friends Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and distorted government policy during the Blair-Brown years.

Now it seems that a good minister has been lost because the same disease has spread to Wales.

Saturday, 11 November 2017


The first of the big climate change conferences took place twenty years ago and agreed the Kyoto Protocol.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Sexual predation: no secret adjudications, but no trial by media either

Leighton Andrews, commenting on the sad demise of Carl Sargeant, said the other day that the charges of improper behaviour should have been dealt with "behind closed doors". However, it was just that initial treatment of complaints about Chris Rennard that landed the Liberal Democrat administration in hot water and caused a complete overhaul of the party's complaints procedure. It seems that the Labour protocol prevents the accused knowing of the precise nature of the charges against him until some legal niceties have been observed, but does allow summary dismissal and suspension from the party accompanied by a media blitz.

Personally, I believe in public judgments arrived at by an independent arbiter in camera, preserving the rights of all parties and preventing damaging (for either side) publicity. The main concern in the Rennard case was that action was taken against him but that was not made known nor the reasons for taking it until a later inquiry exposed it.

As to Lord Rennard himself, he no longer has any power to misuse and I trust that will remain so. I see no reason why as an ordinary member of the party he should be prevented from pounding the streets in support of his local candidate.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Renovations the Ecology Building Society can fund

It's time to put in a word for the EBS again. It so happens that I had a letter from the mortgage manager recently observing that people are not generally aware of the extensive range of building and community projects and activities which come within the Society's remit to support. This is an extract from the current leaflet on renovation mortgages:

Renovation mortgage 

We are specialists in lending for home renovations, including property extensions, conversions and refurbishments that improve the energy efficiency of a property and consider:

  • Uninhabitable houses, including old/derelict buildings 
  • Thatched, historic and listed buildings 
  • Non-standard construction types, such as timber, straw bale, cob and earth shelter 
  • Barns for conversion 

Our C-Change retrofit discount: 

  • Helps you reduce your mortgage payments when applied to the Standard Variable Rate (currently 4.65%) 
  • Applies to the whole of the mortgage from the date you confirm that your renovation works are complete and provide us with an updated Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) 
  • Offers a 0.25% reduction from our Standard Variable Rate for every grade improvement in your home’s EPC rating. 

The energy efficiency rating is a measure of the overall efficiency of a home. The higher the rating the more energy efficient the home is and the lower the fuel bills will be. 

Call our expert Mortgage Team on 01535 650 770 or visit

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Conservatives do not care about citizens abroad

Peter Black is right. Boris Johnson should resign or be fired after his misstatement to a Commons committee has increased the danger to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, currently held in Iran on what appear to be specious charges.

The Conservatives have dismal form in this area. In 1990, Mrs Thatcher did not lift a finger to save Farzad Bazoft from execution by the Saddam regime in Iraq. His friend, expatriate Scottish nurse Daphne Parish, narrowly escaped the same fate. Of course, the ex-CIA agent Saddam was "one of us" in those days.

[Later] In the Commons this afternoon, the Foreign Secretary belatedly stated the true position of the FO. He did not apologise nor admit that in his evidence to the committee he had taken the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's accusations on trust without checking the facts.

Another revolution is born

Today may be the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution, but it is also the 150th anniversary of Marie Curie who some would say ushered in a more significant revolution.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Looked-after children - yet another perception of danger

BBC Wales reports this morning that children in care in Bridgend are being placed miles from where they live as courts do not trust the council's homes.

Earlier this year, another report into the county's provision warned children in care could be at risk of sexual exploitation.

Will lessons ever be learned?

Gurkha appeals

The Gurkha Welfare Trust, as we approach Remembrance Sunday, launches its biggest appeal of the year. The Trust's Chairman Lieutenant General Nick Pope CBE expresses his hope that people will join him in remembering the thousands of Gurkhas who served with British soldiers over the past 200 years. It's a well-known fact that Gurkha soldiers have been incredibly loyal to the British Army. In this appeal, the Chairman reflects "at this time of Remembrance, we can all take the opportunity to honour and commemorate that extraordinary loyalty."

Serving Gurkha Lieutenant Scott Sears will soon be setting off on his trek in aid of The Gurkha Welfare Trust. Scott is heading to Antarctica where he'll attempt to be the youngest person ever to reach The South Pole. He leaves for Chile on 8th November where he'll prepare himself for the gruelling challenge ahead. You can support him in his efforts by visiting his JustGiving page.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Front men advertisers would prefer to forget

It began with a quiz question about the origin of the catchphrase "Nice one, Cyril". I am not going to reveal the answer, because the quiz is still live, but my research turned up an intriguing third use (after the original and then Spurs' adoption of it as a chant to recognise defender Cyril Knowles). Some bright spark in an advertising agency (probably Geers Gross) decided in 1988 to revive the slogan using Cyril Smith to promote the Access credit card's "flexibility". This was after the Rochdale MP had been revealed in Private Eye as behaving inappropriately towards boys in the council's care when he had been a Labour councillor in Rochdale*.

Round about the same time, this poster featuring Gary Glitter appeared on railway platforms. It was part of a long-running campaign, seemingly devised by British Rail's own Central Advertising Services, using the former glam-rocker's image to promote the Young Person's Railcard. A few years later he was to be exposed as a paedophile.

What is certain is that it was Allen Brady Marsh who were responsible for the TV campaign fronted by Jimmy Savile for Intercity, because Peter Marsh bragged about it in a TV documentary about Intercity. The campaign was only terminated when rumours about Savile's sexual misconduct at Stoke Mandeville hospital came to BR's attention.

I began this posting with the aim of discovering a link between the campaigns. I found none. The only common factor seems to be the ignorance of the average advertising man (and it usually is a man) of the world outside his glitzy bubble, and his susceptibility to the attractions of gross self-publicists.

* Incidentally, the transcripts of the Rochdale sexual abuse hearings just released tend to confirm my belief that at least one other Labour councillor (unnamed) was involved in sexual abuse at Knowl View. Questions put to Paul Rowen are relevant.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Poles discover a long-lost British submarine

The Sun yesterday and the i today relate a diving story which is dramatic in any circumstances, but in today's xenophobic atmosphere has extra resonance. A theme currently popular with militant Brexiteers on social media is a demand that the UK charge the continent of Europe for delivering it from fascism. That confirms for me that these are the kind of people who would have been on the side of the appeasers and against Churchill in the 1930s. We went to war over Hitler's invasion of Poland, but the Poles amply repaid us when Hitler turned his attention to Britain. One of the Polish squadrons in the RAF, 303 Squadron, recorded the highest number of kills of any squadron in the Battle of Britain. Polish soldiers fought alongside Britons. The first cipher crackers to break Germany's Enigma code were not based in Bletchley Park but Warsaw. The Poles realised that mathematics held the key and made a vital disclosure of their working methods to the Allies at the start of the war.

The latest assistance to Britain came about accidentally. A Polish diving company had sought the wreckage of a famous Polish submarine, the Orzel. This had been one of two subs ordered from Dutch shipyards by Poland as part of an effort to create a navy strong enough to defend the nation’s 90-mile northern coastline, and paid for by public subscription. Orzel had been trapped by the Nazi Blitzkrieg in September 1939, but made a dramatic breakout barely a week later and went on to a number of successful missions against the Nazis before being lost. The Poles have been trying to find the totemic boat for the last decade.

It was while searching for the Orzel that Santi Diving located another boat which they believe to be Narwhal, a British mine-laying submarine which was sunk by the Luftwaffe in 1940. The Sun reports:

Tomasz Stachura, one of the divers behind the expedition, said: "We are very interested in any contact with HMS Narwhal staff relatives as it would be good to hear their stories."

Sexminster: another benefit of the single transferable vote

Revelations of sexual misbehaviour in Westminster continue. A case involving a member of the Welsh Parliament (elected by a mixture of first-past-the-post and top-up party lists) has also come to our attention. Anthony Tuffin of the STV bulletin remarks:

Sexual misconduct & MPs’ expenses

Electoral reform could help to mitigate both problems.

Clearly, an MP who goes to prison for breaking the law should cease being an MP but what about lesser actions which, although not illegal, some voters may find unacceptable?  The standard response to that question is that they should vote against the MP at the next election and, if enough do that, the MP will be out of Parliament.

But we know it doesn’t work like that with FPTP if the constituency party continues to support the MP.  First, party supporters cannot vote against the MP without also voting against their own party.  Secondly, it would take an enormous number of switched votes to replace the sitting MP in a safe seat.

Most PR systems wouldn’t solve the problem if the party continued to put the MP near the top of the party list.

STV and open list systems would allow constituents to vote against an individual candidate without voting against their own party.  Voters, as a whole, could decide whether an MP’s conduct warranted dismissal or re-election.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Public rights of way

Anyone who is concerned as I am that the county borough and community councils must look after and not lose any of the public footpaths and bridleways in Neath and Port Talbot should complete this survey:

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Drug deaths in Neath

In a news item which must have strayed from a spike of earlier this year, BBC Wales reported some grisly figures from Neath Port Talbot. In 2016, this area recorded the second-highest death toll in England and Wales from misuse of drugs. This confirms the anecdotal evidence from the Ferret and the Neath Facebook pages that the effects of illegal drug-taking - victims on the streets and paraphernalia found in alleys and children's play areas - are more evident here than in any other place in Wales.

A further bit of ferreting on my part confirmed a suspicion that Blackburn and Burnley (numbers one and three on the drug mortality league table) were, like Neath and Port Talbot, high on the list of Leave-voting towns also. At the root of both sets of statistics is a sense of despair.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Brexit a make-work scheme for civil servants

According to a BBC News report yesterday, 3,000 civil servant posts have been created in London to deal with an orderly exit from the European Union. A similar number will be required by HM Revenue and Customs. If there is a complete break, this could rise to 5,000 additional posts.

The average salary for civil servants in London is just over £34, 000. So the government's decision to trigger Article 50 is already costing us a minimum of £10,200,000 a year. A "clean break" will cost at least a further £17m each year from 2018 on. But there are additional costs to be taken into account - accommodation, supplies and other support costs. A rule of thumb is to double the figure for salaries to produce a realistic total figure.

At the same time, the tax base to support the administration is likely to wither as high-paid financial service workers depart to New York or to other financial centres within the EU.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

PR debate in Westminster Hall

The record of the debate sparked by a petition to parliament is here.

The case for PR was well summed up my local MP, Labour's Stephen Kinnock:
 I thank the Petitions Committee for enabling this debate. I rise to argue that the central purpose of the campaign for proportional representation must be to shine a light on the clear, strong and manifold causal links between the state of our broken politics and the state of our discredited voting system.
The simple fact is that the British people deserve an electoral system in which every vote counts. Why do the vast majority of developed nations use proportional representation, while our electorate are forced to accept second best? Why should our people be forced to accept the fundamentally flawed logic of a system whereby seats in Parliament do not reflect vote share? Why should we have to tolerate tactical voting? Polling found that on 8 June 20% to 30% of the electorate voted tactically. Why should we have to put up with a system whereby almost 7 million people felt that they had to hold their nose while voting?
What does it say about our democracy when millions of people are going to the ballot box to vote for the “least worst option,” as opposed to voting for the party or individual they feel will best represent their values, beliefs and interests in this place? Can we really sit here today, in the building that is sometimes referred to as the cradle of modern democracy, and defend a system that fails to pass the most basic principle of democracy—namely, the right of voters to vote for the party or candidate that they actually support? Perhaps most importantly of all, why should the British people have to accept a system that delivers the winner-takes-all political culture that is the root cause of the deeply divided, polarised and fragmented country that we have become?
Decades of research from around the world shows that proportional representation correlates with positive societal outcomes: greater income equality, less corporate control, better long-term planning and political stability, fairer representation of women and minorities, higher voter turnout, better environmental laws and a significantly lower likelihood of going to war. This is the real prize of electoral reform: building a better politics. It is the means of shaping a more inclusive society in which resources are allocated on the basis of real needs and opportunities rather than cynical swing-seat electoral calculations. It should therefore come as no surprise that polls consistently show that a majority of the public want PR. The latest poll shows that 67% want to make seats match votes, and those people are joined by a growing alliance of parties, MPs and public figures who want real democracy.
There are those who argue that the great advantage of first past the post is that it delivers “strong and stable” government—I think the less said about that, the better. We are also told that the great danger of PR is that it will mean back-room stitch-ups. What, like the £1 billion bung for the DUP?
There were also contributions from Liberal Democrats Wera Hobhouse and Tom Brake. Indeed, Labour's John Spellar apart, all the opposition representatives spoke in favour of PR while Conservatives defended the existing system. It was disappointing that the debate should be split on party political lines, as I know that there are Conservatives who favour PR, while Spellar is not the only conservative on the Labour benches.

It was also disappointing that no new arguments were deployed against the body of evidence, which continues to be augmented, supporting the case for fair votes. We heard again the tired old assertion that first-past-the-post delivers strong government, even in the face of the experience of two out of the last three general elections in this country.

The pro-PR cause clearly had the upper hand yesterday evening, but a Westminster Hall debate cannot directly change the law. It was another case of winning a battle, but not the war.

Monday, 30 October 2017

They furrin bank accounts

Our xenophobes are more sophisticated these days. "'Eave 'arf a brick at 'im" has been replaced by "stop his money". Helen Byrne on Liberal Democrat Voice draws attention to an increasing threat to innocent bank account holders who have the misfortune to be different from the conservative norm.

If persons born outside the UK become automatically suspect, then some notable parliamentarians would be subject to Home Office attention. Baron Hain (born in Kenya, brought up in South Africa) and (Baroness) Floella Benjamin (born in Trinidad) come to mind. This Conservative government might also be happy to see the following MPs under financial pressure:

  • Margaret Hodge (Labour) — born Cairo, Egypt
  • Rushanara Ali (Labour) — Bishwanath, Bangladesh
  • Wera Hobhouse (Liberal Democrat) – Hannover, Germany
  • Khalid Mahmood (Labour) — Azad Kashmir, Pakistan
  • Yasmin Qureshi (Labour) — Gujrat, Pakistan
  • Virendra Sharma (Labour) — India
  • Deidre Brock (SNP) — Perth, Australia
  • Catherine West (Labour) — Sydney, Australia
  • Keith Vaz (Labour) — Aden Colony, present day Yemen
  • Valarie Vaz (Labour) — Aden Colony, present day Yemen
  • Jim Dowd (Labour) — Bad Eilsen, Germany
  • Nia Griffith (Labour) — Dublin, Republic of Ireland
  • Natascha Engel (Labour) — Berlin, Germany
- but they should also be aware of:

  • Boris Johnson (Conservative) — born New York, United States of America
  • Tobias Ellwood (Conservative) — New York, United States of America
  • Greg Hands (Conservative) — New York, United States of America
  • Mark Field (Conservative) — Hannover, Germany
  • Rehman Chishti (Conservative) — Muzaffarabad, Pakistan
  • Edward Garnier (Conservative) — Wuppertal, Germany
  • Paul Beresford (Conservative) — Levin, New Zealand
  • Shailesh Vara (Conservative) — Uganda
  • Rory Stewart (Conservative) — Hong Kong
  • Flick Drummond (Conservative) — Aden, South Yemen
  • Alok Sharma (Conservative) — Agra, India
  • Crispin Blunt (Conservative) — Germany
  • Daniel Kawczynski (Conservative) — Warsaw, Poland
  • Nadhim Zahawi (Conservative) — Baghdad, Iraq
  • Marcus Fysh (Conservative) — Australia

and Bob Seely, MP for Isle of Wight, will not disclose even to the Parliament web site where he was born.

Fair votes will be debated in Westminster today

It will be in Westminster Hall, rather than the main chamber, but it is a sign that the desire for proportional representation in general elections has not been killed off. The debate is scheduled to start at 16:30.

Stephen Kinnock, MP for Aberavon, expects to speak in favour of reform.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Browning inspires MacNeice - and prefigures Kafka?

"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came" is one of Robert Browning's darkest and most mystical poems. I can think of only one other poem of his where the ultimate meaning is left to the reader's imagination, the more upbeat "How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix". There is only one reference to God in "Childe Roland" and none to Christianity or its philosophy, unlike Browning's dramatic monologues. With its theme of an unspecified quest which will almost certainly result in the demise of the quester, to me it prefigures Kafka's "The Castle". The poem has generated a remarkable amount of commentary on the Web, which speaks to its power.

It clearly gripped the imagination of Louis MacNeice, the Ulster-born member of the group of socialist-orientated writers which included Spender, Auden and Day-Lewis. His radio play inspired by the poem retains some of the mysticism and, aided by Britten's music, is equally gripping in its conclusion, but takes off into a critique of current social trends and, in the aftermath of the second world war, questions about the nature of aggression. I am not old enough to remember the first transmission but I do recall the impact which the 1950 broadcast had on me.

It will be interesting to hear whether a new production (on Radio 3 tonight at 9:30) with a contemporary cast  but retaining Britten's music will have the same effect.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Undead Hammer script rises again

In a trend which seems to have started with the reinvigoration of a Dylan Thomas adaptation, Mark Gatiss is breathing new life into The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula, a Hammer horror screenplay which never made it into production. One can see the attraction of setting the action in India, taking advantage of the blocked rupees which served Merchant-Ivory so well and one wonders why it did not go ahead. 

I might just give the regular shock/horror of Matthew Sweet's Sound of Cinema a miss today. A stellar cast has been assembled for this afternoon's presentation - but it won't be quite the same without Michael Ripper.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Andrej Babiš not a Donald Trump, nor a Czech Farage

The Czech ANO party is part of the ALDE group in the European Parliament. That in itself should have indicated to Her Majesty's Press* that this was no rabid anti-EU band like UKIP intent on breaking up the Union. Nor does a party which argues for strengthening NATO and the putative EU defence force look like a pro-Russian fifth column, as some have suggested. As to accusations of tax-dodging, it should be noted that these were made by an administration which Babiš had already accused of being riddled with corruption. The worst one can say about ANO (at present - we shall have to see what happens when a government forms in Czechia) is that it tends to be on the economic end of the liberal spectrum. However, Babiš promises many social reforms in his election manifesto also.

* I must admit that I missed the fact of ALDE membership when making my earlier post - also that ANO might join a reformed euro - but then I am only a citizen blogger, not a writer on a journal of record.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Both liberal parties represented in Netherlands government

ALDE's take on the recently-formed Netherlands government is here.

Holes, digging and research into pro-EU studies

The Conservative party machine has come up with a benign explanation for a Tory MP's letter to universities over European studies. Chris Heaton-Harris, the MP for Daventry, was not after all launching a McCarthyite witch-hunt of academics who have a positive attitude to Europe. He was, in fact, researching a book, according to a Conservative Party whip.

Let us put aside the uncharitable thought that if this was his true intention he would have been open about it in the first paragraph of his letter. He was merely using his status as a parliamentarian to obtain information for private gain, par for the course in this post-Thatcher age. However, there are still awkward little restrictions on the use of House Of Commons stationery and postage. In particular, MPs "must not exploit the system for personal financial advantage". One trusts that Mr Heaton-Harris has made the appropriate payment to the House authorities.

Mrs May at the EU summit

Last Tuesday, Mrs May's report back from the EU Council was interesting for two reasons. One was what she did say about immigration, and the other was what she did not say about free movement.

She reported that:

On migration, the UK is playing its full part. The Royal Navy has intercepted 172 smuggling boats and saved more than 12,000 lives since Operation Sophia began. Our National Crime Agency is working with Libyan law enforcement, enhancing its capability to tackle the people-smuggling and trafficking networks. At the Council, we welcomed the reduction in migrant crossings and the renewed momentum behind the Libyan political process; but we must also continue to address the root causes driving people across the Sahara and the Mediterranean, so the UK is also continuing to invest for the long term in education, jobs and services, both in countries of origin and countries of transit.

If all 28 nations follow up these fine words with action, there is hope for the desperate in Africa and Asia. However, one recalls the promises of support for North African nations in the wake of terrorist trouble there. The funds which several rich nations, including France, had pledged have proved to be illusory. I would like to see the UK holding the other 27 to account over this resolution.

The answer to the difficulties caused to Italy, Spain and Greece by immigrants can only be solved by providing facilities closer to home, on the African continent. Or will we continue to deal only with those migrants who survive the vicious people-traffickers and the perilous Mediterranean sea-crossing in a some sort of Darwinian exercise, as a character in the recent Swedish thriller Black Lake remarked?

The item which appeared to have slipped Mrs May's mind was reported by France24:

Most European Union states agreed on Monday on reforming the bloc's labour rules that poorer countries value for giving them a competitive edge but French President Emmanuel Macron criticises for undercutting his workers.

The issue of the so-called posted workers pits wealthier countries against poorer peers keen to preserve current rules that allow their citizens to work elsewhere in the bloc for salaries higher than they would get at home but still lower than the local labour force.
Macron has put reforming the so-called posting of workers directive high on the EU's agenda and is backed by Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, among others.
After some 12 hours of negotiations among labour ministers in Luxembourg, most of the EU's 28 members backed a compromise that would cap posting workers abroad at 18 months and introduce a four-year transition between reaching a final agreement on the reform and its taking effect.
But Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland said they could not back the proposal, while Ireland, Britain and Croatia abstained over concerns that the new rules would hurt their transport industries.
[my emphasis] So the UK government did not support one of the main demands of the Leavers in last year's referendum, that people from the other 27 should not come into Britain to undercut earnings here. One suspects that it was also horticulture and the NHS which the government wanted to protect. It was a sensible stance, in my opinion, but it was a pity that Mrs May could not have been open about it.