Monday, 30 June 2008

One in the eye for Gordon!

Disaster in Henley as just 1066 voters stay Labour

Serious doubts about Gordon Brown’s leadership must now be beginning to assail the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Before the Henley bye-election, there was some speculation that Labour might lose their deposit. Or they might even slip into fourth place. Henley was never going to be an easy ride for them.

On the night, the result was worse even than their worst nightmares. Labour came fifth! Behind the Green Party. Behind the BNP.

A mere 220 votes saved them from the ultimate ignominy of sixth place, trailing UKIP.

The question now must be not whether – but when the first challenge to Gordon Brown’s leadership arrives – and in what form. A stalking horse challenge at the annual conference in September is a distinct possibility. But the scale of defeat, following on from disastrous local government results and the loss of Crewe and Nantwich, make it not impossible that the “men in suits” will be calling even sooner.

In fact, insiders suggest, the man most likely to call could be young David Milliband. At odds of 9/4, David Milliband is also reckoned to be the favourite to succeed, just pipping John Denham and Alan Milburn at the post.

Is all doom and gloom? A YouGov poll in today’s Telegraph provides the tiniest crumb of comfort, as it suggests the Tory lead over Labour may have fallen to a “mere 18%”. However, that, too, must be a measure of the depths to which Labour have sunk: when trailing 18% in the polls can be considered to be an improvement.

Sadly, though, YouGov offer no further comfort to Gordon Brown. 61% of those polled now say that he is a liability – and 49% say he is doing a worse job than Tony Blair.

The result in full was:
• John Howell (Conservative): 19,796 (+3.2%)
• Stephen Kearney (Liberal Democrat): 9,680 (+1.7%)
• Mark Stevenson (Green Party): 1,321
• Timothy Rait (British National Party): 1,243
• Richard McKenzie (Labour): 1,066
• Chris Adams (UK Independence Party): 843
• Bananaman Owen (Official Monster Raving Loony Party): 242
• Derek Allpass (English Democrats Party): 157
• Amanda Harrington (Independent Candidate): 128
• Dick Rodgers (Common Good): 121
• Louise Cole (Independent Candidate): 91
• Harry Bear (Fur Play Party): 73

Turnout was 34,915 (50.5%).

Will Hazel Blears resign?

(And did a large pink porcine object just fly past the window?)

In another era, this might have been the case. Once upon a time, the UK had a doctrine known as “Ministerial Responsibility”. According to this, Ministers were responsible for the actions of civil servants within their departments – whether they
were aware of those actions or not.

In 1954, Sir Thomas Dugdale famously resigned over the actions of his Civil Servants in the Crichel Down case. There was no suggestion of personal complicity. In similar vein, in 1982, Lord Carrington resigned from his post as Foreign Secretary over the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands. A subsequent inquiry attached no direct blame attached to him.

But “Ministerial Responsibility” was always more pious aspiration than constitutional fact. Over the years it has been watered down even further.

First has been the hair-splitting attempt to divide it into “operational” and “policy” areas. This declares that failures due to policy are the responsibility of the Minister: those due to purely operational factars are not. Thus it was that the loss of Child Benefit Data in November 2007 may have resulted in the departure of a few civil servants – but left the Minister untouched.

Then there was the astonishing case of Stephen Byers, who appears quite clearly to have misled the House of Commons about the resignation of his Communications Director, Martin Sixsmith.

According to the Ministerial Code of Conduct, issued in 1997, "It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent errors at the earliest opportunity."

In this case, Stephen Byers appears to have misled the House of Commons and then, in an extraordinary reversal of accountability - excused himself on the grounds that he was misled by his civil servants.

Of course, it is not just Labour who don’t resign. A few weeks back, the Scottish Public Health Minister , Shona Robison presided over yet another security lapse. Sensitive details of former patients were discovered at Dundee’s Strathmartine Hospital three years after it closed, despite the fact that she appears to have had knowledge that it was there. She has not resigned.

In fact, the only significant acknowledgment of personal responsibility in recent months appears to come from Canada. There, the Foreign Minister, Maxim Bernier, resigned last month following revelations that he had left classified documents at the home of his former girlfriend.

So what of Hazel Blears? She appears to have held confidential information on a laptop, which was kept at her constituency office in Salford. At one level, there are a number of very good reasons for expecting a resignation. Cabinet Office guidelines suggest that the Data Controller for Government Departments is the relevant Secretary of State.

As Secretary of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government, the buck, for DPA issues, theoretically stops with Hazel Blears.

Then there is s.8 of the Official Secrets Act 1989. According to this, a Crown Servant commits an offence if they “fail(s) to take such care to prevent the unauthorised disclosure of the document”…as they “may reasonably be expected to take”.

This is not trivial stuff: it’s a criminal offence and, if Hazel Blears is guilty, she could expect a short spell in jail, as well as a fine.

But never fear: prosecutions of this type require the say-so of the Attorney General. So the chances of a Minister being prosecuted are slight.
Meanwhile the Conservative Party continues to dig. Shadow Home Secretary, Dominic Grieve has asked for urgent clarification of the facts in this matter – and is expected to do so until the full story comes to light.

Friday, 13 June 2008

By-election Perils

Oh dear. Has David Davis REALLY thought this through? Has anyone for that matter?

For those who haven’t caught up with the news since yesterday evening: Shadow Home Secretary and erstwhile contender for the Tory Party leadership, David Davis has resigned.

Not for reasons of scandal or out of any noble desire to spend more time with his family. But because he wished to take a personal principled stand against the extension of the period for which terrorist suspects may be held without trial .

He described the government’s 42-day law as a "monstrosity": part of the "slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms".

As a result, he is standing down from parliament and his seat in the constituency of Haltemprice and Howden – in order to restand at the subsequent bye-election for the same constituency.

One can see the logic. Six parties stood at the general election. The second placed Lib Dems have already said they will not oppose Mr Davis. Ditto the BNP. Which leaves UKIP, who MIGHT stand if they dislike what Mr Davis has to say on Europe. And Labour. The latter, with a poor third place and just under 13% of the vote, have about as much chance of winning any bye-election as a certain Mr Bin Laden has of becoming the next Pope.

Political analysts are already viewing this as either masterstroke or farce. It is masterstroke if you accept the logic that this impales Labour on an impossible choice. Fail to stand and they are, as Margaret Thatcher once famously desribed another Labour leader, “frit”: afraid to stand up in public and defend their principles. Stand and be routed – as seems likely – and their case for a public mandate for 42 days vanishes. Allegedly.

Against that, their spin merchants are already trying to characterise this action as pure farce. Comic Opera, according to one spokesperson.

Clearly, none of the above have heard of Murphy’s Law, which states that if anything can possibly go wrong, it will.

First, Mr David will not be re-elected unopposed. By-elections are famously the stomping grounds of self-publicists and the politically grumpy. It doesn’t matter who did or didn’t stand last time. Someone else will this time. Even if its only the Monster Raving Loony Party.

In one sense, by-elections matter very little. Stunning victories are often reversed at subsequent general elections, as the Lib Dems know to their cost. On the other hand, they can mark the opening of a new chapter in politics. It was Hamilton, in 1967, that turned the Scottish Nationalists into a serious political force, just as Carmarthen, the previous year, had heralded the arrival of Welsh Nationalism.
Orpington in 1962 revived a near dead Liberal Party. Lincoln, in 1973, foreshadowed the creation of the Social Democrats.

But there are two other places that today’s strategists ought to bear in mind. The Oxford bye-election of 1938 was fought on a single issue: appeasement. The failure of those opposed to appeasement to unseat the Tory candidate was arguably a significant factor in giving Hitler a green light for European expansion. The message, loud and clear, appeared to be that the British people had no stomach to take him on.

Last but by no means least in the bye-election Hall of infamy comes Bootle. In May 1990, the good Lord Sutch, of Monster Raving Loony fame stood – and smashed the SDP into seventh place. A day or so later, David Owen – not yet a Lord – acknowledged that the game was up: if the SDP could not even beat the Loonies, the time had come to call it a day.

No. By-elections are bizarre and unpredictable things. The only sure thing about them is that they have a nasty tendency to backfire and blow up in the faces of all who thought they could predict their outcome. Sometimes with hugely important consequences.

Friday, 6 June 2008

And whilst I'm in a mood...

...just what is it with the forelock tugging, knee bending, take my trousers down and insert-a-large-cucumber-up-my-backside Brits that they have such reverence for authority?

My father - God rest! - had a sensible respect for authority. He was born to relative affluence in between-the-wars Poland: had a nicely privileged upbringing; and saw at first hand what authority did to those who disagreed with it. When he was still young enough to do so, he went on marches. So he was able to witness how the Nationalist Police dealt with those who challenged governmental wisdom. Batons came into it somewhere.

Almost 50 years later, my cousin was active in Solidarnosc (Solidarity). When General Jaruzelski decided to "save the country" by imposing martial law, we spent a few days in real fear for what might have happened to her.

The story is much the same across the rest of Europe. In the last few decades, it has really mattered what you thought and said.

The wrong word in the wrong ear could see you picked up in the middle of the night and removed to some anonymous prison for interrogation. Or worse. France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Italy. Not one of them escaped the viciousness of authoritarian tyranny.

As for Eastern Europe! Whatever the West suffered, they endured ten times over.

Which may be why, across most of Europe, people are rather wary of trusting their Governments. Because they know what they can do.

Unlike the UK. We have never quite seen authority in all its awful splendour. So we have no sense of self preservation in the face of New Labour encroachments.

Elsewhere, I have railed against New Labour as the puritan, nannying bossy-boots tendency that it is. But that is only half the story. The other half is that no matter what inane and half-baked scheme they come up with to make us even "safer", a large proportion of the British public will go along with it every time.

Because (see last post): if you've done nothing wrong, you've nothing to fear.


Let's all watch...

I am reminded tonight - courtesy of my partner - of one of those catchphrases that do so much to sum up all that is wrong with the present age.

"If you haven't done anything wrong, why would you mind...?"

The dots, of course, represent any one of a number of current government idiocies. ID Cards. National Databases. CCTV.

The theme, though, is always the same: if you haven't done anything wrong, why would you mind yet one more intrusion into your private life.

Well, just don't.

Don't use that phrase in front of me ever again.

Because if you do, I'll be round to your bedroom in a trice. I'll sit on the bottom of your bed and WATCH. I'll lurk in your bathroom and WATCH. Give me half a chance, I'll even hide in your fridge.


Because if you haven't done anything wrong, why on earth would you mind?

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Cake-eating and aubergine exclusion

“Let them eat cake”. If you remember little else about the French Revolution, you will probably recall those words as proof of regal insensitivity.

I have another theory.

Food, in the reciprocity household, is fast becoming a minefield. It starts with teenage daughter who, having watched avidly some TV chef revealing the grosser practises of the meat industry, now resolutely refuses to eat any meat.

This is in sharp contrast to son. He is of the firm opinion that the only proper diet for a growing three-year-old is meat and ice cream. Vegetables are an insult, fit only to be hurled in the general direction of his sisters.

Ah. Which brings us to sister number two/stepdaughter. She has renounced evil multinationals and all their works: not least, any pre-processed snacks with which formerly they tried to tempt her. So nothing from Tesco. Or Sainsbury. Or Morrisons.

Aside from bread. She still eats their bread.

For a brief moment, she wobbled over Waitrose. Then the stiff upper lip re-asserted itself, and the clear message is “no supermarkets”. Well, except maybe the co-op.

Then there’s the other half who “eats anything”. Apart from too many vegetables. Or fruit. Or salmon. Or…. You see where this is going?

And finally, yours truly. I, too, would like to say that I eat “anything”. This might once have been true. Sadly, a grumbling heart and a life-time ban on high cholesterol mean I must bid adieu to the days when I would perturb check-out girls with my purchase of disgustingly deep red offal. Brain omelette? With onion. A rare delicacy: but no more. Not even bacon sarnies.

Nope. Cooking is a nightmare. Devising menus requires a skill and level of negotiation that would put those running the Middle East Peace Talks to shame.

The closest we have got to common ground so far is the humble aubergine. Even there, the boy is demanding an exclusion zone.

“Let them eat cake”? Royal insensitivity, perhaps.

But in our household, its about the only substance that all concerned still agree on as a valid foodstuff. Perhaps Marie Antoinette – with a fussy husband and associated princelings to feed - was less insensitive than we think.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Those who live by the rules...

Those who manage by numbers all too often end up being managed by them.

Set anyone a target - and they will do their utmost to meet it. Just don't expect them to do it the way you intended them to. Punctuality targets on the railways? Certainly. Now watch, as the rail companies rejig their timetables to give their trains more time for each journey.

Shorter waiting lists on the NHS? Absolutely. So long as you don't count the waiting list you go on to, just to get on the waiting list.

Targets. They have been an obsession for this government. This week, two items on the news show how foolish this obsession has proven.

According to a report by Civitas, the Police are targeted on "clear-up". Unfortunately, little distinction is made between serious crime and trivial. So they achieve as much recognition for arresting a sweet stealer as a murderer.

More broadly, this creates a culture in which the police are going to focus on easy-to-clear crimes - and therefore target "soft criminals" (aka the Middle Classes). Short term success - and longer term undermining of support for the police from those whose whole-hearted support they need.


Meanwhile, midwives are leaving in droves. Not for the pay. But because they are sick of a culture that so ties their hands with petty rules, many no longer feel able to do the job they signed up for.


The worrying thought is that those that remain must, presumably, be those types who find petty hand-tying rules a pleasure to work with. Would you want a baby delivered by one of them?

So there you have it. Perhaps the most lasting New Labour legacy of all: the removal of initiative and goodwill from those who ought to be defined by those very qualities.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008


There is a serious point to this post. Honest. It isn't just an excuse to link to Lordi -

- who won the Eurovision contest in 2006. Much to the delight of a somewhat Goth stepdaughter.

Nor even to link to last year's Serbian winning entry (Molitva) -

- which was a perfectly respectable piece of music.

Though if doing either upsets some of the anglo-snobs, then it is a thing worth doing.

Each year, Wogan makes the same tired old points about "local voting". How countries with similar history and cultural background have a "surprising" tendency to vote for one another. This year - as the UK totted up yet another last place with a fairly mediocre entry - this was brought out yet again both as excuse and evidence of Johny Foreigner not playing fair. This year, too, a few more commentators have jumped on the bandwagon. Bruce Forsyth, for one.

You know: its true. There is some local voting. But rather less than our national apologists pretend.

Almost every vote was greeted by the sneermeister with a comment along the lines of "I could have told you that would happen".

Well, no, actually. There are plenty of countries in Central Europe - which means any one of them could have voted for half a dozen other countries and incurred the same barb, courtesy of Wogan.

Poland is in Eastern Europe. It borders Byelorussia, Ukraine, Lithuania. One might easily have predicted they would vote for Poland. Strangely, those three countries voted for a song that had something going for it. They voted for the Russian entry. Despite far stronger cultural ties to Poland, they did not send their votes westward. That result can't all be blamed on a desire for lower gas prices.

People not only like voting for neighbours. They like voting for songs they can understand.

The largest language bloc in Eurovision nowadays is the slavic one. Once upon a time, English was de rigueur for entrants. No more. Is it surprising if slavs vote for fellow slavs?

And is it not to be encouraged if old enemies, such as Bosnia and Serbia find the time to forget historic differences and support one another?

The performance of the BBC commentators was disgraceful. Far from uncovering some dread Euro-plot to do Britain down, they only highlight how out of touch the UK is with its nearest neighbours.

Azerbaijan did relatively well on Saturday. Wogan was incredulous. It was clear he didn't understand why. He said so several times.

Perhaps it is time to replace Wogan with a commentator who DOES understand Europe.

Perhaps, at a higher level, it is time we all stopped taking the piss, and attempted to understand our fellow Europeans.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Tough on crime...

Will they never learn? And just who is leading whom in the latest moral panic?

Yesterday morning, we woke to news of yet another unprovoked and senseless stabbing. This time, it is a budding actor and bit-part player in the next Harry Potter movie. No offense intended.

The news leads on it. Yet another young man has fallen victim to "knife crime". Like, there is this disease out there which just afflicts teenagers the moment they pick up a knife.

The problem with this point of view - as I tried rather unsuccessfully to argue in a radio interview last week - is that it exists in an almost evidence-free vacuum. There aren't any very good long-term statistics for the usage of knives. Many incidents claimed as "knife crime" are simply incidents involving a sharp instrument. Like a bottle.

Murders in which a knife were used actually fell over the last few years.

So, yes. The headlines are clear. The facts are far less so.

Of course, there has been some very good and recent research in this area. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has impeccable academic creds - and might actually have some idea what it is talking about.

So, naturally, when an MP - Margaret Moran - wishes to instigate law on the online sale of knives, she goes... not to the CCJS for insight, but to a rather tawdry sting set up by the Sunday People. (This involved journalists posing as children and showing how easy it is to purchase illegal items online).

Headlines all round!

In the same week, the newspapers all reached for a study by GB Group Ltd. The fact that this company is the UK's largest provider of online id systems and may have something to gain from a little panic in this area was quite overlooked.

So there you have it. There's a knife problem. Its official.

Those who have looked at the problem closely reckon that it is not knives that are the problem - but something deeper. Something about a culture in which young people no longer feel safe UNLESS they carry knives.

If they are right - then focussing on knives is just so much waste of time. Ban knives, and they will sharpen screwdrivers. Ban screwdrivers and the hyper-lethal umbrella will make an appearance. And so on.

Unfortunately, tackling underlying problems is difficult and unglamorous. So expect more headlines. More panic. More politicians making irrelevant speeches.

But don't expect anything that contributes to a solution any time soon.

Friday, 16 May 2008

The impossibility of being good

As someone brought up in the catholic tradition, I find it almost axiomatic that no good deed is possible unless there is free will on the part of the "doer". Or if that is too theological: the same principle holds in most systems of Law.

You cannot be held responsible for an act that you were co-erced into doing.

For that reason, it always used to irk me that British Rail - or whichever company was selling me my train tickets at the time - would refuse to sell me a saver ticket before a certain appointed hour. Their own rationale, of course, was that if they sold me such a ticket, I might just hop on a train reserved to non-saver tickets, thereby depriving them of their due income.

I disliked this approach. It was impractical. A mere 12 minutes separated the time at which my local station would sell saver tickets and the departure of the first saver train for London. So there was always the possibility that you would end up missing the train.

More than that, I hated the moral abdication it forced upon me. I never had any intention of fare dodging. But I like to feel that were it an option, I would have chosen the righteous path. Cue metaphor linking "the straight and narrow" to Railtrack.

Now fast forward to Thursday when a man is refused alcohol in Tesco. Was he acting strangely? Was he breaking any laws? Was he, perchance, being abusive to staff?

Why, no. His crime was simply to be accompanied by his 15-year-old daughter. Yes. As a Tesco prig explained carefully to the errant shopper, we won't sell you alcohol "because you're with your daughter and she's not over 21".

As I noted today, in my local Tesco: there are plenty of notices reminding me that I may not buy alcohol unless I appear to be over 21. There is also a notice warning me not to supply alcohol to under 18-year-olds.

But this finger-wagging is a step further. A step too far.

The man was doing absolutely nothing illegal. Nonetheless, he was penalised because it was possible that he might. Not content with obeying the law, Tesco appear to have taken it upon themselves to be our moral guardians as well.

Which fits so perfectly with New Labour. Once upon a time, a certain Gladstone accused Conservativism of being "distrust of the people tempered by fear".

That ethos is still alive and kicking today. Its just that its no longer the Conservatives who own it.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

MP's looking silly

Perish the thought!

No sooner do I wonder aloud about what you might read if Hansard were a precise record of what was said in Parliament, then I am reminded that Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson is trying to overturn a ban on the wider availability of parliamentary material.

In an early day motion on 2 April, Ms Swinson noted "that there is currently a ban on the posting of parliamentary video clips on websites described by the relevant authorities as `third party hosting websites'". That's Youtube, in case you hadn't guessed.

Her fond hope is that by allowing wider dissemination of such material, there would be greater public involvement in the political process.

Of course, some MP's argue that the end result of such a policy could be episodes like this:

But mostly, the argument seems to boil down to the simple self-interest one. The public right to view should be restricted in case MP's decide to make utter tits of themselves.

"Hear! Hear!"

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Cunning Stunts?

Another small item for the "internet accuracy" bin.

Following my observation that even Hansard self-censors when the language turns blue, my brother sends over a reminder of a funny story from New Zealand.

To quote directly:

"A National MP was attacking Labour (which as well as a female PM has lots of other women on the front bench). What he meant to say was “the country will not be taken in by your party’s cunning stunts…I sure you can figure out he actually said to a shocked house!

"The Speaker ruled that Hansard should reflect what the MP intended to say."

Vouching for its veracity, he adds that it was on all news media and he spoke to a couple of cabinet members who were present at the time. (Yes: little bro has also had his turn at political activism, standing, once upon a time, as a Labour candidate for the New Zealand parliament).

Well. I do remember finding links to this before. But buggered if I can now.

Perhaps I am just no good at googling.

Or maybe the internet is slowly eating itself.

Do, please, forward a link if you can find one.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Accuracy on the internet

It’s a very small point. But it illustrates perfectly the dangers of relying on the internet as any sort of record of note.

Over the last couple of weeks, I appear to have turned into UK numero uno writer on the subject of extreme porn (at least, according to Google). Accident: I’d much rather be writing about Data Security!

It does mean, however, that I keep an eye on who is saying what about the subject. Like the BBC. On 8 May the Criminal Justice Bill received the royal assent. The BBC ran a short piece that was written very much from the perspective of those celebrating the Bill’s passage. Fair enough. There are two sides to every argument, and both should be heard.

What was not so fair were a number of inaccuracies. The article stated that the new provisions on extreme porn became law on that day. (Nope: they await a “commencement date” in Parliament). It also suggested no significant opposition. Equally untrue – unless you dismiss peers, lawyers and public demonstrators as “insignificant”.

So far, so ordinary. What follows is seriously Orwellian. A thread (on the BBC messageboards) pointed out these inaccuracies. Debate followed. And if you re-visit the BBC link today – there is no sign of these inaccuracies. The page also carries a “last update” stamp – but this has not been updated. Yet.

Perhaps this is all in the spirit of modern exams: if you make a mistake, you put it right again and again and again. But it did set me thinking.

There are swathes of recent history that I have experienced personally that just aren’t recorded accurately – or at all – on the internet. We all know how unreliable it is.

But you might expect the BBC to be more accurate. Or if they get it wrong, you might expect an edit trail to show what they have changed.

This sort of thing happens ALL the time. It even afflicts Hansard – the supposedly comprehensive record of all that is said in Parliament - most usually when the recorder “doesn’t quite hear” decidedly unparliamentary language.

Can anything be done? This is not really a Press Complaints issue. It is corrosive. Perhaps the time has come for readers to be more active in recording and objecting to this sort of re-writing. Because if it happens for the little things, you can be pretty sure that one day it will be happening for the big stuff as well.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Horses in the news

Is it my imagination - or is there a surfeit of horsy stories around right now?

At the weekend, the Daily Mail announced that a "stalking horse" might now stand against Gordon Brown. This was a story about how disgruntled Labout MP's might put up a candidate to run against our Dear Leader in the autumn.

Unfortunately, the dramatic effect was quite ruined by a combination of my poor eyesight and a tendency to skim read. What, for a moment, I thought it said was "Talking Horse" to stand, etc.

Which is an altogether far more interesting image. Gordon Brown vs. Mr Ed! Now THERE's a contest I'd like to see.

Meanwhile, various candidate sculptures are advanced for the "Angel of the South". One of these is a gigantic statue of a white horse.

Ah, dear! Has classical education completely died in this country?

Don't do it! For no sooner will the horse have been put up and the admiring crowds gone home for the night, then... a little trapdoor will open underneath, and a marauding army of Greeks - and maybe, nowadays, a few Albanians - will leap out to ravage the Kent countryside.

Well, it MIGHT happen.

Since we are so risk-averse in every other aspect of our lives, I wonder that no-one else has pointed out this danger to those deciding on the appropriate statuary with which to grace our fair land.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Protecting the Children

Its a sunny day. Gloriously sunny. The first truly sunny day of the nursery year.

So what more natural than the following conversation, overheard as I dropped off our youngest at nursery this morning.

Mum: "What time are your breaks?"

Supervisor: "45 minutes in the morning, 45 minutes in the afternoon"

"OK: he's got sun block on now. But could you put some on later?"

"Sorry - we're not allowed."


"You'd have to come in and apply it yourself."

Good to see that our children are being kept 100% safe from all possible harm! Er, apart from skin cancer.

Monday, 5 May 2008

History according to the internet

The joy of working on a new book is that research will often take you back into territory long forgotten.

If I want to look at social mores today, a swift canter through earlier periods seems a fair way to start. The '60's, for instance, which threw up such amazingly odd movements as the Situationist International. According to Guy Lebord, one of their leading lights, they were an “artistic avant-garde, {…} an experimental investigation of possible ways for freely constructing everyday life, and as a contribution to the theoretical and practical development of a new revolutionary contestation” .

Make sense of that, if you can.

Sadly, they suffered a truly "Life of Brian-esque" tendency to split. Eventually, the movement wound up in the 1970's after the last 2 members decided to call it a day. Or split.

Meanwhile, I was desperately trying to remember who tipped a load of ink over Prime Minister Ted Heath in the '70's. I know it happened. I can still see the pictures.

I have a suspicion that it might have been Peter Hain's sister.

Perhaps my googling skills aren't up to the task. Or maybe it is like other things that I remember - and the internet has never heard of. Search for Al Stewart on youtube - and you'll find next to nothing before Year of the Cat!

And maybe there is a serious point here. Which is that the internet is really history with holes in it. Although you may have difficulty explaining that to a generation that now seems to think that all knowledge resides on the web.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

"New Labour: New Puritanism"

That's the working title. Of course, titles can change.

The ambition is a book that examines two questions. Have we, as a nation, become more puritan over the last ten years? And how far can that be attributed directly to New Labour?

The obvious answers seem to recede as the questions come into focus. So it feels as though I have a happy few months of research ahead of me.

At the same time, any thoughts, angles, intuitions or perceptions on this issue would be exceedingly welcome.

Bin there (haven't done that)

I know. I really should get back to my local Council (South Kesteven).

About a year ago I asked them whether micro-chipping bins was not a matter covered by the Data Protection Act (2001).

Their legal department responded in three stages. First: they had only been in post for a couple of days - so couldn't possibly comment. Then, a day or so later, they grew more confident and categorically stated that this was not a matter to which the DPA applied. But they'd consider it further.

Finally, they told me to go away. Or, in council-speak: "we have addressed this question in our previous e-mails and there is nothing more to add".

Oh dear. The only problem with this response is that the DPA is something I know a lot about. So does the Information Commissioner - whose Office wrote back to me wondering why the Council should think this was NOT a matter covered by the DPA.

So I really need to follow up.

Of course, this illustrates a sad trend in modern Councildom. Were I acting as a consultant on their behalf, I would have given much the same advice. (I would, of course, have taken a suitable fee for same!).

I would have identified chipping as an "active risk". The amber lights would have started flashing. They might have had the chance to avert a possible future derailment of their scheme.

But mere ratepayers are of no consequence. So the Council carries on regardless.

And if their scheme turns to ashes, it will be I, as ratepayer, who picks up the tab.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Leading AND Listening

Now there's a good trick. If you can manage it.

Trouble is: even if you think Gordon is going to attempt it, you just know it feels like he's going to fall short of both.

And in the news next week:
  • Jacqui Smith will be standing and sitting
  • Jack Straw will be talking and spitting
  • Alastair Darling will be taking money off the poor and giving it back again
  • John Prescott is eating and vomiting (so no change there)

The road to Hell... paved with micromanagement.

To put it another way: if you wish to know where this government is going wrong, you have only to look at their shiny new Criminal Justice Bill. Take, for instance, the bit about "extreme porn".

Now is not the place to re-rehash the many arguments against it. For that, look here, here and here.

But the devil is in the detail. Once this Bill is Law, you could go to jail for up to three years for possessing an image of an action that is not itself illegal.

Imagine, for argument, that your significant other gets a kick out of "playing dead". No - not just their bored response to your usual Saturday night ritual. Its a kink!

It is not against the law. Although having a picture of it soon might be.

Mindful of the silliness of this result, the government introduced an amendment. Now, if you have a picture of yourself and sig other and you knew they were not really dead...well, that's OK. Same for any other participant - if ménage à trois is what floats your boat.

Although the photographer would still go to jail.

Oh. But if numero trois just couldn't make it that night and you mailed them a copy of the pic... they could go to jail for three years. Er: but you'd still be OK.

And if you happen to look at a picture that falls into what the government claim to be extreme and pornographic categories, then even if you know that no humans or animals were harmed in the making of it, you could go to jail.

Unless its part of a BBFC rated film.

Unless its a part of a BBFC film rated taken out of context and viewed for the purposes of sexual arousal.

Where - oh, where - is the sense in all this? Its clearly not protecting anyone from exploitation. Its not drawing a line under any particular type of picture. Its a nightmare jumble of edict and counter-edict that will give barristers indigestion. Not to mention some very large fees. How then is the ordinary pc user meant to understand what is going on?

Meanwhile, the one category of porn that is now protected by law - the odd couple realistically staging their fantasies and committing them to film for their private delectation - is now specifically exempt from any penalties under it. That is, if you believe the government's own rhetoric: the thing most permitted will be the thing closest to the criminal act.

Its a mess. In the Lords, even peers basically in favour of the principle suggested, politely, that the government might wish to take these clauses away to a Select Committee where they could be considered at greater length.

But no. This government must be seen to be "doing something". Sending a message. So in place of coherent law, we will end up with a bullet point guide to what we may or may look at.

They have been warned - by lawyers, Lords, experts alike - that it won't work.

But are they listening?

Are they, Hell!