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Showing posts from January, 2007

Political shifts

Opinion polls are faintly addictive- especially for those of us with far too much anorak in our DNA. However, generally I have not tended to comment on the gyrations that we see- there is too much random walk to draw hard and fast conclusions from any given poll. The latest opinion poll from Communicate Research seems to have some important change to the methodology- for it has catapulted the Liberal Democrats up by 50%. So CR now has the Lib Dems on 21%- roughly where we seem to be with other polls. While obviously comforting- particularly since Lib Dem support typically rises in General election campaigns- they interesting theme of this particular poll is the weakness of the Labour core vote and the increasing strength of the Lib Dem core vote. Its only a poll- so you have to take it with all the health warnings and caveats- but the message for Labour is beginning to look a bit bleak. For the Lib Dems, across the mass of the polls there is considerable encouragement. The feedback fro

Academic Stalinism

To those of us of a certain generation, Cristina Odone's piece in the Telegraph Notebook today will have raised a wry smile. Her comment that a middle class background may become a barrier, ceteris paribus, to University entry was intended to be a humorous dig against government imposed political correctness. In fact, and certainly at Aberdeen - fairly middle of the road in most ways- a substantial proportion of the faculty were unashamed Communists even in the 1980s. Class background was the primary issue and the source of their entire weltenschaung. Over the weekend, I attended a performance of Tom Stoppard's Play Rock and Roll . David Caldwell has taken over from Brian Cox the role of Max- the unrepentant Marxist academic, although both playwright and actor make the character sympathetic, my personal reaction was to remember those of my tutors who regarded anti-Marxists, like myself, as deluded trash. The relief I felt when I moved to study in Canada and did not have t

Information and Knowledge

"There's a difference between information and knowledge. It's the difference between Christy Turlington's phone number and Christy Turlington ." P.J. O'Rourke This week The BBC Radio "Today Programme" is examining the results of the large increase in Health expenditure that was initiated in 2000 when Tony Blair committed his government to match the average spend across the European Union. As they note, over the past seven years total health spending across the UK has increased by 2% of GDP ans is now approximately 9.3% of GDP, while cash spend by the NHS alone has more than doubled - by around £55 billion. Unfortunately, this has not resulted in a dramatic increase in the speed or quality of patient care. Examining how the money is spent: They show a detailed breakdown of the £19 billion cash increase in spending for the hospital and community health services part of the English NHS from 2004/5 to 2007/8. It is not possible to put together nati

Snow thoughts from Abroad

I am waiting in a snowy Tallinn Airport waiting for my flight back to London. As always, fun to spend time in the Estonian Capital, meeting with old friends and working on some interesting transactions. The construction boom is continuing apace, although more and more people are reporting a shortage of construction workers. Salaries are increasing, but clearly not fast enough to attract returnees from Finland, Norway or the UK in sufficient numbers to fill the gaps. In general , though the Estonians regard a period overseas as a necessary part of any career. Gaining experience overseas and speaking English are not seen as optional - even for tradespeople- in this highly educated country. The assumption persists here that the time spent overseas though is not indefinite. Certainly there has been a turnover of people- with the average stay away being about 3 years. With other countries, the flow has been a little less balanced, and in larger numbers too. However, even amongst the Pole

New European Vision

OK, first things first... The European Union needs to change. The question is, how? Last night the Estonian Prime Minister, Andrus Ansip, put forward a few ideas. Firstly, and unlike most British political leaders, he made the point that the European Union as it stands has had a generally beneficial effect- "as a peacemaker, the Union has been of central importance". Economically the single market and enlargement have had a terrifically positive effect. However, his vision of Europe is not one of mushy Federalism, what he called "the absorption of countries by the EU"; instead he spoke repeatedly of the integration of nation states. States working together in common interests, but not the creation of a National European identity, which he does not believe is possible anyway, still less desirable. Europe is a positive, but there are nevertheless limits to what Europe should try to do. Nevertheless, he also insisted that enlargement should still be pursued as a goal,

Dinner at 8...

I am just about to go and watch Andrus Ansip, the Estonian Prime Minister, deliver a lecture at the London School of Economics. The title of his speech: "The European Union: a Positive View" should be a bit of a wake-up call to those, like the paleo-Conservative Anti-European faction, who believe that the UK will have friends if it continues its dog-in the-manger anti Europeanism. When even the Uber-Liberal Estonians believe that the EU has some qualified success to report, then surely it is time to speak up for Reform within the EU. It is certainly a lot less negative than the isolationist wackiness that the Tory Primitives and their UKIP allies put forward as the centre of their half-baked policy "platform" I look forward to hearing more of the PMs views over dinner later...

Makes you proud...

So we are all supposed to be environmentally aware? After all what kind of person would deliberately pollute and litter a heritage coast? Errr.... Brits would . Personally the police should be allowed to arrest the lot of them for theft- for, despite the history of wreckers and smugglers in the South West, this brazen display is pretty disgusting. Makes all the sanctimonious drivel about Jade Goody seem rather hypocritical really. Still, at least they are cleaning up Rat Boy's housing scheme at the Byker wall: it is even being listed, which will obviously transform the lives of those living there.

Minority Report

I made a comment on the putatively Scottish antecedents of Lech Walesa. I see Lepidus suggest that Walesa is another version of the proto-Indo European word for stranger that gives English the word Welsh and the Germans the word Wendisch- and indeed is the root of the name Wallace, from which (it is suggested) the Walesa actually derives. I don't think- short of DNA evidence- that we can truly check to what degree Lech Walesa is actually Scottish- after all there were so many Scots who settled in Royal Prussia, and in particular the City of Gdansk (then, of course, Danzig), so there is every chance that the former President has at least some Scottish blood- if not from the first bearer of his surname. The area around Gdansk has a distinct identity- and, unusually for Poland, quite a strong accent. Indeed the Slavic population of that formerly most German of Provinzen, Prussia has not always regarded itself as Polish, but rather Kashub- or Kaszub, in its Polish spelling. The Kaszuby

Blue Monday

No Not the New Order Song - Apparantly it is Today- the most depressing day of the year- Official! Well, I don't feel too bad- the exercise programme continues, I have not taken up smoking, and although things political are a bit dull at the moment, I have little doubt that normal service will be resumed. Admittedly my work colleague has been quoting Julian and Sandy from Round the Horne , but I am sure that he can get treatment at the Marine Commando Club, Paddington- if required.


I have become more irritated in recent days with the ignorance with which the " Meedja " are approaching the debate about the future of the UK. They base their ideas upon a simple but utterly flawed premise. That the choice for Scotland and the wider UK is between the current partial and unfair system and outright independence. Simon Heffer in the Telegraph displayed all the sensitivity for which he is renowned in his analysis: basically "the Scots have changed the rules of the Union and I don't want to play any more". Well, tough! As always the Labour government has managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by turning a basically good thing: the advent of a Scottish Parliament, and turn it into a fiasco. However the fact is that the choice is not the dogs breakfast of the current system or the end of Britain. The fact that the Meedja insist that it is, is an insult to the intelligence . All along the Liberal Democrats have said that the only way to c

More things in Heaven and Earth

The implications of Quanta have always intrigued me: the idea of an infinitely repeating number of observable Universes creates a fantastically baroque cosmology. I see Marcus Chown shows up the effects of an infinite quantum Universe in a piece for the Telegraph. Not only is Elvis alive, but in an infinite number of Observable Universes you, dear reader, are the Prime Minister, in an infinite number of different of Observable Universes you have green hair, in an infinite number more you are Stalin, or Mother Teresa or an international playboy and jet setter. Don't get too excited though- Cicero is all of these things in another reality too.

Wi' Wallace bled

Two quotes from "Scots Wha Hae" in a single day- what can be the meaning of this? Lepidus pointed out a story in The Economist about Poles coming to the Highlands in significant numbers, many of whom have names that were originally Scottish. I think that the story might have come from a comment I made to Edward Lucas about Lech Walesa , whose name has been said, without any confirmation, to be a corruption of Wallace. Certainly the family is very much part of the area- and may be Kaszub - and of course the City of Gdansk does have two districts: Stare and Nowe Szkoty .

The coming crisis in the British Public Sector

Once upon a time there was an Island country that had an independent civil service. This civil service attracted many good brains and so was a finely honed tool of administration. Senior leaders of the civil service were not extravagantly paid- indeed they usually earned less than their equivalent in the private sector, but there were regular perks: Knighthoods for the big bosses and good gongs for the rest that help to recompense the lack. In addition there was a pension that was non contributory and index linked, so overall the civil service was not that badly off. There was a certain "flexibility" too- since decision making was private mistakes could occasionally be overlooked and therefore not blight the careers of those involved: Ministers were responsible for their departments, and if the mistakes that were made were serious enough, then the Minister would have to carry the can and resign. As The Economist points out , this week , much has changed Over time the public

Scots Wha Hae

The last few weeks, since the publication of a poll in November suggesting that the majority of both Scots and English support independence , have seen the debate on the issue grow much hotter. This is very far from the first time, in recent years, that the majority of Scots have supported independence- indeed it was the usual state of affairs for much of the last ten years of the last Conservative period in government. Perhaps then that we should not be surprised to see that Iain Dale has been running a poll about whether Scottish "Devolution" has strengthened the Union , and even less surprised to see that 92% of the readers of Iain's blog think that it has not. I beg to differ. I passionately believe in the "claim of right" of the Scottish people to control their own affairs. I do not believe in Devolution- that implies power has been handed down to the Scottish people from on high. I believe in Home Rule- the free decision of Scotland to share its sovere

Another Europe...

The latest release of public documents throws up the interesting story that Guy Mollet , the French Prime Minister of the time, suggested in 1956 that France and Britain form a Union . The idea of France joining the Commonwealth- then an organisation of far more substance than it has today- was taken seriously at the time in London. France under the Fourth Republic was yet to develop the robust nationalism that has been the hallmark of the Fifth Republic. It is interesting to speculate what kind of Europe we would see today, had France moved so decisively into the British camp, rather than, as it turned out, building the bridges to Germany that ultimately became the Franco-German motor. Arguably, a Franco-British deal would have simply reinforced the continuing bitterness against Germany, and perpetuated the divisions that caused the First and Second World Wars, Perhaps Germany would have quietly slipped into the Soviet orbit- a state of affairs that would have made a third world war

The power of symbols

I meant to comment earlier on the decision in Estonia to equate the symbolism of the Soviets with that of the Nazis and ban both . The reaction from Russia- the usual offensive bluster- just reminds us that they still do not understand the scale of evil that these symbols represent. All the Estonians I know- and I know many- had family members who were taken. Many never returned. Those that did were often broken in health and spirit. These were innocent victims of an inhuman ideology. Of course the Estonians take it personally. Russia still does not acknowledge that the occupation of the Baltic was a crime. It is not like the Balts intend to change borders or demand financial restitution. All they ask is an acknowledgment. The silence from Putin's Russia is deafening- and it speaks in libraries of what the Kremlin still believes.

"I may not have succeeded.."

I met Robin Cook, the former British Foreign Secretary, a few times over the course of his life. The first time was while I was campaigning with Malcolm Bruce, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats in the 1992 election. During that campaign there were several set piece debates involving the four leaders, Malcolm, Ian Lang- the then Conservative Secretary of State- Donald Dewar for Labour and Alex Salmond of the SNP. Over the course of the campaign we grew quite friendly with "the opposition". Occasionally one or another of the leaders might be substituted, depending on commitments elsewhere, and indeed in Lanark, for a BBC hustings, Robin Cook turned up in place of Donald Dewar. Where Dewar was gregarious and warm, Cook was watchful, suspicious even. He sat alone in the green room checking out the "Racing Post" and gathering his thoughts. He struck me then as a solitary figure- quite unlike the cheerful and joke-cracking Dewar. Through the years that passed,

Educashun Educashon Education

I am not going to get at Ruth Kelly- her own side will do that for her. For me it just underlines the tangled web that Labour have created for themselves when talking about Education. It strikes me that we should now start thinking more Liberally about education- and that means from the consumer interest and not just the producer, which has been something that we have done too much of in the past. In recent months there has been a renewed interest and debate about selection at secondary level. Personally I am not in favour of the abolition of selection where it still exists- basically Bucks and Kent in England- and neither is my party. The real question though is about choice. The problem I have with Bucks is that the choice available is quite poor. Firstly, the Grammar schools are nowhere near as good as they think: when you look at the Key Stage levels, the school that does best in Wycombe is actually: Great Marlow- a "secondary modern". So despite getting the pick of the p

Political Tactics in 2007

Once again "Lepidus" issues a challenge for this blog to respond to. His basic point is that: "Manchester Withington [was] probably the most extraordinary Lib Dem result of all time. Bigger swings have been achieved, but really only in By-Elections. Tory vote drops by a third, John Leech elected. Take two: Islington South close marginal, Lib Dem vote rises but so does the Tory vote! Result: Emily Thornberry MP. That is is why Withington was won and I(slington)S(outh) not. There are scores of seats up the Country where Labour's machine has atrophied, with decent Tory votes but with the Lib Dems having surged into second. The Tory votes in such seats will indisputably be key as to your seat count. I bet Lord Rennard thinks so. Agree do you not......." But actually it seems self evident that I do agree, and we need to ensure that we can get votes from both Labour and the Conservatives. The point I am making in my rant is what we need these votes for . The battle fo

The 27 times table

The enlargement of The European Union to include Bulgaria and Romania has not quite been the celebration that the previous enlargement to ten other countries was a couple of years ago. Perhaps this is because to some degree this is an enlargement of the also- rans : the countries that could not make enough changes to get entry in 2004. Perhaps too, by every estimation, there is still considerable work for the acceding states to complete, even after entry. Bulgaria and Romania are a third as wealthy as the EU average, which itself is diluted, since the 2004 entries were themselves only half as wealthy as the EU of 15 states. Bulgaria and Romania are still poor, with weak institutions and considerable problems with corruption and crime. The UK, having opened the door to the 2004 applicants has retained work restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians (albeit that these restrictions are more cosmetic than real). So this enlargement has been a subdued affair- in keeping with the air of gloom

Statistical Error

Following on from yesterday's story on the basic failings in literacy, even of graduate job applications . It occurred to me to check the literacy rates across different countries. The list is interesting, for the UK comes out as a highly literate country . Only one problem, despite claiming full adult literacy, even the UK statistics agencies point out that over 7 million people in Britain are functionally illiterate. Perhaps under the circumstances, we should not be surprised that numeracy is even worse: The Department for Education's own figures suggest that 47% of the adult population understand percentages so little that they would not be able to understand the proposed new food labelling system . Despite rising pass rates at national exams, despite constant tinkering with the education system, the UK labour force has a large number of dramatically under-skilled workers. This is a crisis that remains unresolved, despite the "education, education, education" best

New Year- same old, same old

Although I was back in the office yesterday, it was something of a quiet day- few people around. As I arrived at my local tube station the joy of the latest tube fare increases was fully apparent: a zone one journey has gone from an extortionate £3 to an eye popping £4- a 33% increase. As usual Ken "sobersides" Livingstone came out with some tosh to justify this disgraceful state of affairs. London tube fares are not just higher than any other major city in the world- they are a multiple of the fares in any other major city in the world. This, together with the near doubling of bus fares and the likely further increase in the congestion charge beyond £8 a day, is just another example of the punishment that the incompetent administration in City Hall visits upon Londoners. I might feel less aggrieved, were it not for the constant drip of Mayoral propaganda on posters across the tube network: the latest being an anti-nuclear poster campaign. Frankly, the cost/benefits of nuclea

"So farewell then" 2006

It is pretty hard to avoid sounding demi E.J Thribb when saying goodbye to a year. Politically it has been slightly inconclusive- although the Conservatives have advanced, it does not, as yet, seem enough to give them the chance to win outright, come the next election. Labour seem more becalmed than in actually stormy water, and while the Lib Dems have had a generally poor year, the party is at least becoming more coherent and although polls have been generally down, in local government by-elections, the Lib Dems have achieved considerable success. However, I think no party can look at 2006 with unalloyed satisfaction. So from the perspective of Liberalism, some progress inside the party, but a generally poor press and falling polls have clearly hurt. Many of our political enemies would like to write off the chances of the Lib Dems- well, the world is littered with the bones of predictions that never happened. The only thing that I can do is to campaign for the core principles that th