Monday, 24 December 2007

"I. Am. Clegg."

I've had a hatful of lazy media speak this week. First it was Nick Robinson's analysis on Radio 4 of Nick Clegg's interview, sticking to the sad old two dimensional model. They're left, they're right, you must be in the middle. At least we're no longer being painted as being to the left of labour - basically because everybody is nowadays.

Then we have Rosie Millard's cheap sneers in the Sunday Times, and of course Simon Jenkins' habitual inability to connect to liberal democracy.

Politics is more complicated than that nowadays, but it will take an earthquake for the media ever to present it so. I think the best way to conceive of politics is to think in terms of a series of dimensions, but it's very diffcult to get that across in news media. You can get it across, but you need Newsnight or Andrew Marr. News as such doesn't do anything that can't be labelled in three words or less.

One phrase that got to me particularly about this weekend's coverage was the repeat in the Daily Telegraph of the horrible phrase "Cameron lite". That more than anything illustrated to me the vapidness of journalist speak. Look at Cameron. How is it possible for anything or anyone else to be Cameron lite? Cameron is Cameron lite. He is so insubstantial, he'd float away if it weren't for the dead lump of the Conservative party anchoring him to the seabed.

Unfortunately journalist speak has great power, so it's not possible just to wish it away. Cameron's biggest asset is that he knows this. He has the DT, for instance, saying that like Clegg, he has put the environment at the heart of his agenda. This is a man who habitually takes a private jet to go places. It's at the heart of what he's saying, but not of what he's doing.

So Nick Clegg needs to combat that attempt to paint him as light and frothy as Cameron. Maybe he needs to come out and say straight, "I am not Cameron lite. If I was Cameron anything I'd be Cameron weighty. But I'm not Cameron anything. I. Am. Clegg."

I'm pleased to say he's going about things the right way. The measured response to Dave's overtures - this from the Telegraph again " "At least Blair made these approaches with some skill and also with serious intent," said one official in Mr Clegg's office. "Cameron's offer was opportunism. They have not approached us privately in any serious way. It is inconceivable that we could go into a formalised arrangement with any other party without electoral reform." " The tone is excellent and the comparison to Tony Blair is deadly.

And I particularly like his response in the People, this via Stephen Tall on Libdemvoice.

"Rs 'What Christmas gifts would you buy Gordon Brown and David Cameron?'

Nc 'After Northern Rock, the PM needs basic lessons in finance, so I'd buy him Monopoly. Cameron needs a compass to help him work out what political direction he's going in.' "

Does the job nicely.

Sunday, 23 December 2007


Nick Clegg says education will be a priority for him. He was talking about schools, but he and Stephen Williams would do well to look at what the government is proposing to do to universities. John Denham, The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, has announced that they propose to withdraw funding from higher level students whose current studies are at a level equivalent to or lower than the qualification they already have. In shorthand, the ELQ (Equivalent or Lower Qualification) problem. I have to declare an interest here. I work for the Open University, and that institution will be disproportionately affected by this decision. There are various exemptions in place and some transitional arrangements, but these leave an awful lot of people out in the cold. They are also inconsistently drawn. Teaching, for instance, is exempted, but the subject qualification that lies behind the teaching qualification will not be (unless it falls into one of the exemption categories on its own merit).

The plan is to divert £100 million from supporting students retraining themselves with equivalent or lower qualifications in another discipline to students who have never been to university. At first glance that looks "equitable", but it is not an answer to our educational or economic problems. We need to maintain people's ability to move from one market sector to another, as well as encouraging more people to go to university.

In addition there is no clear evidence that people who want to go to university for the first time are being denied that opportunity.

This plan has a disproportionate effect on older (i.e. over 25) and part time students, and hence on the OU, which reckons it will lose some 29000 students. And in addition to the direct losses of students who cannot afford the full fees, the law of unintended consequences comes into play. The effect of losing those students means that a number of the courses they sustain will become unviable and will have to close, thus being denied to all the students who wish to study them.

Some might think that the students most likely to be affected are elderly and recreational, but the profile of OU students is not reflected in that prejudice. 85 per cent of Open University students affected are aged between 25 and 65, 74 per cent of them are working and paying taxes and 9 per cent of them are carers. (Figures given by Lord Haskins in the House of Lords debate on the subject, on 3rd December.)

While doing this, the government has just doubled the Train to Gain budget from £500 million to £1 billion within the next three years. That is a massive increase with little indication that employers have either the will or the capacity to absorb it. £400 million for them, and let the universities keep the £100 million sounds like a much better bet for spending the money effectively.

This is a piece of profoundly unjoined up thinking. We all know, and the government keep telling us anyway, that we need our workforce to become educated and flexible if we are to compete in the world market, and maintain, indeed improve, our prosperity. So, while desperately encouraging people to retrain in order to follow the market, they are taking away the means of them doing so.

They are doing this on the basis of a target driven piece of thinking, and another good example of why targets skew thinking. The target the government is committed to is to achieve 40% of the working population having a degree by 2020. It's an ambitious, laudable, and necessary target, but the government is allowing it to magnetise the focus of their thinking to the extent of ignoring the overall needs of the workforce. It should not be allowed to dominate to the extent of diverting attention from the need of UK plc for a diversity of provision to accommodate the increasingly diverse needs of the workforce.

Waitrose, cheese and Christmas

In my cheese blog yesterday I did Waitrose a disservice. I didn't spot their deli counter, hidden from me by a minor swarm of connoisseurs.

Today I found it and got several varieties of cow cheese and three different varieties of sheep cheese, including a really nice Iskara. Well done, Waitrose.

I was quite lucky to find it today as the shop was a scrum. The staff I chatted to said that today was the day the shoppers decided to go berserk. It's been interesting over the last few years watching the game of creditfest chicken between shoppers and retailers, as shoppers leave it as late as possible, and retailers try to decide whether to discount *now* or wait another day or two. It was yesterday that shoppers lost their nerve in Oxford Street, and today in Waitrose....

Saturday, 22 December 2007


After a long time of simmering, I feel the need finally to get this off my chest. What is the English obsession with Cheddar all about?

Cheese shops* will differ, of course, but most of us buy our cheese at supermarkets, and the choice we find at those remarkable emporia is - about 93 different kinds of Cheddar, and a few packs of other kinds (that's leaving aside Kraft, Philadelphia, etc, that don't deserve the name of cheese). Tesco, not my favourite at the moment, actually do better at this than some other supermarkets. They have the 93 varieties of Cheddar, but they do have a goodly selection of other cheeses too, enough to make a decent choise from. The local competition is Waitrose, who have about 75 versions of Cheddar, and then a shelf with Gouda and Edam on it. I exaggerate, but not by much.

Let me say straight away that it's not the fault of the supermarkets. They sell what we choose to buy, and the fact is most of us choose to buy Cheddar, Cheddar, Cheddar. Why???

Partly it's a labelling thing - if it's yellow and it comes in a lump, call it Cheddar. Trouble is I don't like it. What they call mature Cheddar is just too sharp, and what they call mild Cheddar is, well, tasteless and textureless. Real Cheddar is fine - it actually comes from somewhere vaguely near the Cheddar Gorge, and it goes really well with digestive biscuits. But everything tasteless while over sharp, lumpy, yellow and waxy has to be called Cheddar and produced in tons.

It's not the only English cheese - Lancashire, Wensleydale, Cheshire, Double Gloucester (and its beautiful variant Cotswold), Leicester, Shropshire, Monkland, Hereford, Stilton, and the piece de resistance, Stinking Bishop. To name but a few out of the almost endless variety. Why do we so limit ourselves to Cheddar?

*Click the link, then look under "C" for Cheese

Friday, 21 December 2007

I hate Tesco - just for now

Having been alerted by Bryan Appleyard to the fact that Julie Burchill loves Tesco, I feel driven to say that I hate Tesco at the moment. I shop at my local Tesco normally and loyally. I don't normally love it - it's convenient, it's good value, and it's reasonable to good quality. But at the moment I hate Tesco, as I did at the same point last year. The reason is that they insist on playing "Christmas" music for the last few days before the big credit fest, and it drives me bananas. It's impossible to shop udner such conditions. At leat it is for me; loads of other people just go round the aisles with a slightly more pained than usual expression. I complained. Of course I complained. And I was told, there's nothing we can do about it, it's company policy. Anyway all the stores do it.

Correction. All the stores don't do it. Waitrose, about four hundred yards away from Tesco, doesn't. So Waitrose has had the benefit of my custom for the last few days. Even though the range is not so wide and the prices not so good, at least I can think there.

What a bone headed policy. I doubt very much that they have any evidence that people are spending more in their stores because of the music, and they do have evidence from people like me that we are spending less in their stores because of the music.

And what is worse is that in this Tesco at least, I have heard from the staff, there is no respite from it on their breaks. The music, for want of a better word, is being piped into their canteena nd locker room. No matter how long their shift they cannot get away from it. That's just cruel.

I'll go back to Tesco in the new year. Next year I'll ask them to let me know, if they persist in this cloth eared policy, to let me know when it's going to start so I can avoid it again.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

This is just cheap, Mr Brown

I mean our treatment of our Iraqi interpreters.

The Times runs the latest situation, calling it a breach of honour. Fair language in my opinion.

People put their lives and their families' lives in danger to help us. When it comes time to repay them, we weasel out of it. This is the conduct of empire. This is what we did to get India to fight for us in the First World War. "Fight for us now, and we'll use a form of words which will make you think we'll give you independence, but we'll weasel out of it when we don't need you any more."

It's cheap, it's mean. David Miliband is in danger of joining David Cameron in the box of politicians who have no moral compass.

More details at Dan Hardie's blog.

Lynne Featherstone highlights her Early Day Motion on the issue. My MP has signed it. Has yours?

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Is the government about to do A Good Thing?

It is according to the Independent. "The Independent on Sunday has learnt that, in an astonishing U-turn, the Secretary of State for Business, John Hutton, will announce that he is opening up the seas around Britain to wind farms in the biggest ever renewable energy initiative... enough wind farms to produce 25 gigawatts (GW) of electricity by 2020, in addition to the 8GW already planned – enough to meet the needs of all the country's homes."

Furthermore it was Brown himself wot dunnit, they say. "In a confidential memorandum, Gordon Brown was advised that the target was expensive and faced "severe practical difficulties". It went on to warn how it would reduce "the incentives to invest in other technologies like nuclear power". But the Prime Minister overruled Mr Hutton and insisted in his first green speech as PM last month that the target would be maintained and met."

Now clearly we detect a bit of spin here; how to refurbish the new PM's very tarnished reputation - give him a bit of green cred. But who cares, if he's made the right decision. I await tomorrow's news with bated breath.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007


I am slightly bemused but not really surprised that there has been a debate in Parliament on the subject of Christianophobia. Apparently the word exists. It's no surprise to find that it was an invention of right wing American Christians in books with titles like "Is Europe Dying? Notes on a Crisis of Civilizational Morale". Check this summary, read the comments, and be angered/scared in equal proportions. But enough of America's starey eyed over articulate fundamentalists. I wonder what Christianophobia means in Britain. And I wonder what the LibDem response was in the debate - haven't had a chance to look it up yet.

I am a Christian, though not a model one. I rarely go to church because I do not find God there; I preach occasionally, on behalf of Christian Aid. I must be in a minority as far as Mark Pritchard is concerned because I do not feel discriminated against in the slightest. I do wonder what people mean when they talk about the UK's (or is it "England's" - that's another debate entirely) Christian traditions, heritage, culture, all that stuff. The current fact is that I am in a minority as far as being a practising Christian is concerned, and I do not see that I have any more right than any other religionist to determine the social and legal mores of the country I live in. As a Christian I find it laughable that people call this country "Christian". It isn't any more, and hasn't been for a long time. OK, fellow Christians, get over it. There's nothing to prevent Christmas being Christ-mas if we want it to be so for ourselves, but we need to face the fact that for the vast majority of the country, it's a retail festival. People are free to make of Christmas what they will, and what the majority choose to make of it is a credit card debt. Let them.

If we want to be taken seriously, then maybe we should take ourselves more seriously. The main choices I have at the moment are:
- an international brand many of whose adherents worship Mary more than Jesus, and whose hierarchy has only just given up (if in fact it has given up) protecting for life any priest that has been found abusing children, and has still to come clean about its role in the persecution of Jews during the Nazi era
- my own brand, also international, who seem to believe that the three desirable qualities are faith, hope and niceness, and the greatest of these is niceness, except when it comes to either gay priests or women as bishops, depending on which flavour you're with at the time, but who in fact seem to spend far too much of their time wringing their hands over the cost of running their huge cathedrals. But we're led by a man with a nice beard.
- the silliest lot by far who indulge in the most extraordinary intellectual gymnastics to insist that every word of the bible is literally true, and that all the bits about homosexuals have to be obeyed, while all the bits about living simply are to be interpreted. (Short pause while I wait for a thunderbolt to strike.... Nope. Still hasn't.)

Don't get me wrong. I know, as well as anyone, that a lot of good work is done by Christians, and a lot of valid prayer is prayed by Christians. But we don't half spend a lot of time messing about as well.

There is a paradox or two at the heart of this, which I'm not sure I have the capacity to explain, but I'll try. One part of it is that any rational observer looking at this country would say that Christianity is by far the most powerful religion in it (with the possible exception of shopping). Yet there are Christians who genuinely feel put upon. It's not a majority, as Mr Pritchard would like to claim. Mr Pritchard said apparently that we should claim "full minority rights". It would be helpful if first we admitted that we *are* a minority, and stopped expecting to be treated differently just because the majority of the country "used to be" Christians. Perhaps some individual Christians do have a hard time if they try to put their faith into practice, but, despite all the press about political correctness, I doubt if it's any harder than it is for the average Muslim, Hindu, Jainist, etc.

I'm not sure if this is good blog etiquette but I'm going to end this post here in this unfinished form. I have more thoughts coming, but they're in too complex a form to express yet, and I'd like to see what reactions this post gets while it's still fresh.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Iraqi interpreters

This is a direct link to Lynne Featherstone's blog item Iraqi interpreters: new EDM. My excuse is that not all my readers are LibDems.

Keep up the pressure, Lynne.

Profile, favourites and films

Having recently been mistaken for Craig Murray, I thought I'd better put something in my profile, which has been completely bare up till now. So I've done that - you can go and look at it if you want.

But I was stymied by the questions about favourite books and favourite films. I've never had favourites in books - or, perhaps I have at various periods, but they've been different ones. Nowadays, there aren't many books that I would happily go back to. That's largely because I have so little time for reading that I'd rather read something I haven't read before.

I do revisit films, however. Trouble is I still can't choose favourites. The favourites folder got a random selection of those I could think of on the spur of the moment. Here's a fuller list - I really couldn't put them in any sort of order. Maybe one day I'll come up with some kind of internal categorisation. If you can spot patterns in it, let me know.

Lawrence of Arabia
Ghost Dog
The Ipcress File
The Godfather
Killing of a Chinese Bookie
Life of Brian
Fahrenheit 451
The Deerhunter
Dirty Harry
Cool Hand Luke
Mostly Martha
Italian for Beginners
The Odd Angry Shot
The Thomas Crown Affair (either version, but preferably the first)
Apocalypse Now
Grosse Point Blank
October Sky
Local Hero
The Warriors
Carry on Cleo
8 Mile
Cross of Iron
Paths of Glory
To Kill A Mockingbird
The Shawshank Redemption
The Limey
Groundhog Day
Y Tu Mama Tambien
Belle de Jour
High Noon
On The Waterfront
Nikita (the original, don't even mention the remake)
Midnight Run
The Long Run
Goodbye Charlie Bright
The Adventures of Robin Hood
The Crying Game
Anatomy of a Murder
Blade Runner (director's cut)
The Big Sleep
Pulp Fiction
Seven Samurai
The Conversation
Scent of a Woman
Desert Blue
The Outlaw Josey Wales
The Manchurian Candidate (the original; didn't take to the remake.)
Repo Man
The Story of the Weeping Camel
The Claim
The Dirty Dozen

Films that are favourites, though I wouldn't want to see them again:
Downfall (too intense)
Million Dollar baby (too sad)
The Pledge (too sad)
American Beauty (too intense)
The Silence of the Lambs (too bloody)
Saving Private Ryan (too long)
Salvador (the portrayal of American sleaze is too good)

I've probably missed a few...

No2ID certificate

This is brilliant. Everyone should do it.