Thursday, November 30, 2006

Is Keith secretly in favour of a unitary Oxford?

For those beyond the confines of this city and its hinterland, Keith is Oxfordshire's Tory county councillor. Cllr Mitchell is single-handedly running County Hall (with a little help from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). But he doesn't, as I've explained before, get any help from the city, where 'Conservative' is a term rarely seen beyond the caption to an exhibit in the Natural History Museum, in the display cabinet just beyond the dodo.

Many see a logic to having a unitary council for Oxford. But up to now, Keith has shook his gory locks and suggested the gravediggers would be burying him before that happened. So, who is this appearing on the comments section of the Oxford Times website, where there are complaints about the fact that the Tory county council wants an above-inflation increase in the unfair council tax? A certain 'Keith' berates the people of Oxford for not electing Tory councillors (apparently that would help keep down our council tax -- go figure). And Keith also boldly announces his earnest hope that 'as soon as Oxford City Council becomes a unitary authority the better'. Apparently, we in the city are bloodsuckers, leeches on the wholesome countryside dwellers (forcing them to come to hospitals in the city and to gain employment in the county's capital; we're nasty like that). Might it be that Keith Mitchell has had a belated conversion to the cause of unitaries? As a fan of the Iron Mrs, one would assume that Mr Mitchell is not for turning. But, with a high-tax Tory Council, profligate with our money, perhaps we should revise all preconceptions. As they say, will the true Tory Keith stand up.

Berlusconi, once again

He doesn't really deserve all the attention he's getting. But at least I'm not alone in giving Sig. Berlusconi's little health difficulties space on the web. My favourite Italian newspaper*, Il Corriere, has collected references to his collapse from international websites. I particularly like the last of the five that they present -- great headline.

*My favourite, except I feel I should apologise if your eyes are diverted to other parts of the screen when checking this link. They do seem to feel high-class journalism and a fascination with a certain sort of calendar are entirely compatible. And they would find our distaste yet another symptom of Anglo-Saxon puritanical hypocrisy.

Monday, November 27, 2006

And now he's back from the dead

After the crisis (or excitement) of yesterday, we are reassured that Silvio Berlusconi is well again. He tells us so himself - and we know to believe him.

The mayor of Catania goes further and says that Berlusconi is immortal. He should hope so, as the mayor, who was the first to the stage to catch the collapsing Cavaliere, was once Berlusconi's personal doctor. Nepotism is a word which we inherit from the Latin language.

It took Jesus Christ three days to rise again. Does Berlusconi see that as a record to beat?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Is this the end of Berlusconi?

The news has just broken in the last half hour of Berlusconi collapsing while giving a speech to his youth movement. The video could not be more dramatic, as he slumps on the rostrum and his bodyguards try to lift him away shouting 'Let go' as he clutches to the podium as if his life depended on it.

Romano Prodi has wished the man they call the cavaliere a speedy recovery, which is perhaps a graciousness beyond the call of duty in the usual mud-garden of Italian politics. Presumably, Berlusconi will recover shortly -- his spokesman promises he'll be back by 2nd December (a long convalescence if it is just, as is claimed, a case of being overcome by heat and emotion).

But the immediate thought is that this is a politician who has always had the whiff of Dorian Gray about him. There's no silver hair on Silvio but he is 70 and older than his rival, Prodi, though he looks a decade younger. He has built his reputation on being the anti-politician's politician, the man who stood outside the murky cabal of aged, male Christian Democrats who dominated Italian politics before the Nineties and whose henchmen have their role to play in the engrossing film Romanzo Criminale (go see, not least for its implicit criticism of Berlusconi replacing a one-party regime with, effectively, a no-party state). The cavaliere's permatan may stay, but his aura of youthfulness has collapsed. No doubt, he will survive -- but survive politically?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Cemeteries open all hours?

Congratulations to my colleague, Altaf Khan, for his campaign to get Oxford City Council to recognise the needs of the city's diverse communities in the burial service it provides. It is an issue that was raised a year ago, in the bad old days -- now there'll be a change of policy to allow the possibility of weekend burials. And it doesn't matter whether the change is necessary in law: the point is that it's the right thing to do, anyway.

But, having said all that, some people's comments in reaction are, to be blunt, dead depressing.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

LibDem News: grammar no object?

That's as in: grammar no object to LibDem News? Grammar may indeed feel aggrieved as that usually estimable organ slipped up last week.

The debate over Trident may become heated and, in the passion of it, the participants may stumble over their words, but when Prof. Paul Reynolds of the University of Westminster writes that 'it is anything but unclear how a vote would go in Parliament', it is anything but clear that that is what he meant to say. Is he so convinced of the outcome?

And can we take it that LibDem News concur with whatever his view is, considering they made that sentence the pull-down quote for the article? In good liberal circles, anything goes -- but must that extend to a grasp of the English language? I would suggest establishing a wing of the party devoted to pedantry, if it were not for the fact that in these times that might be a lynchable activity. After all, it sounds dangerously like a group of pediatricians.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

And, farewell, Donald Rumsfeld

There's a pleasing headline. One that even that prescient paper, LibDem News, failed to predict.

But as we toast the demise of the fixer for Nixon and for Reagan and for Bush (the less stupid and the more stupid), let's pay respects to his most famous quote -- you know, the one everyone remembers (alongside others).

It was a moment worthy of Carbaret, presenting the Iraqi War as a vaudeville turn: you wanna know what I don't know? Everything! It echoes the headline gag of David Niven's Bring on the Empty Horses.

But -- as we continue to celebrate the departure of an architect of mayhem, a fit man to shake Saddam's hand -- let's show a little generosity: Rumsfeld may have taken onanistic obfuscation to new heights but, really, what he meant rings true. When he talked of unknown unknowns, he was simply making a plea to recognise the enormity of our own ignorance. And quite right he was: we tend, as humans, to stake out our territory of knowledge rather than to appreciate the hinterland of what we don't know. Never more so, that may be said, than in the case of the most recent misguided war. How right Mr Rumsfeld was to pay testimony to the scale of our failure to know. Just a pity he didn't let the unknowns help him calibrate his ignorance.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

So farewell then, David Sainsbury

OK, so that sounds rather too apocalyptic -- it's only a resignation, after all. You'll still be able to see him around, probably stacking the shelves at the local store (well, he has said he's not going to take the top job again).

It's some time since I've seen him -- eighteen years, to be precise. It was in his SDP days, of course, when he came to speak at a meeting I'd arranged. Taking him to dinner was slightly bizarre: we undergraduates could stand him a meal at Pizza Express, and that let him regale us with tales of the chain's owner, his friend nice Mr Boizot.

He was pleasant enough then, and so I'm sure he has remained. But that, I thought, was that: he's nowhere near being a politician to set the pulse racing and get the juices oozing. That his resignation is such high-profile news is more a reflection of the paucity of other stories rather than a tribute to his intrinsic charisma. But something he's said has made me rethink my opinion.

In assessing his own achievements, he's highlighted the part he's played in the war on 'animal rights' extremists -- getting a change in the law and a police unit set up to help deal with this problem. And, yes, sitting here in Oxford, where those extremists want to stop scientific research and the laboratory needed for it, that certainly is an achievement. There's little good I would credit the Labour government with having done, but this would be in the short list. So, thank you, Mr Sainsbury. You deserved that pizza.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

So, hands up who likes democracy

The Germans, they say, don’t like it being up to them. At least, in a survey in the papers this weekend, it was announced that a majority of Germans have given up on democracy.

Actually, what the 51% surveyed said was that they were disillusioned with German democracy as it stood – which could mean a whole range of things. But let’s not spoil a good headline with facts; that’s not part of the game.

And, anyway, don’t they have a point? Germany has a more representative electoral system than Britain enjoys most of the time, but ended up with a grand coalition after last year’s elections. That hardly smacks of the strong leadership many crave for, apparently.

In Britain, we like democracy. We wouldn’t do without it. Just along as others make the decisions and we can blame them for it. In other words, we have the name without the substance. We have an electoral procedure, without the fundamental principle behind it – citizenship.

As liberals, we fight for people’s right to choose, but we also know that if they choose not to involve themselves in their community, their society and themselves will be the poorer.

In the past, when I met a socialist (hard nowadays, outside our party, that is), I have found this is a basic distinction: for them, the economic structure is fundamental, for us, the constitutional set-up. We now may be only party which even admits to the limitations of the free market, but that sense of the political, in its widest sense, remains crucial to our outlook. It’s a stance which is not shy to declare that Britain has yet to achieve a true democracy.

But for those who are proud that we’re not like Germany, there’s this thought left: will they be the only western European nation with a grand coalition, come our next general election? After all, if our antiquated system produced a hung parliament in 2008 or 2009, whenever Gordon the Gorgon chooses, who would make natural allies? A wise man’s bet would be on the two right-wing parties: that way, Gorg would stay in power, with Mr Cameron his home secretary. What fun that would be, if only you could watch from afar and not be a citizen of that poor, lost nation. Viva la democracia!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Would you vote Democrat?

While most people are tucking into their toffee-apples this Guy Fawkes Night, there's only a few who would care to think of the American mid-term elections. But, I suspect, you're among them.

I also suspect that you're inclined to want to see a change of control in the Senate (would the President even notice?). Quite so, but what we from the outside surely hope for is a real change of policy. And would that happen with someone like Harold Ford Jr? OK, so he has to sound rightwing
-- but is this really a standard-bearer for the downtrodden?

Democracy is too often a judgement that will be better than the other one. And in the case of Tennessee, that's so true. But it's hardly reassuring.

A solution to the problems in Iraq?

The 'Today' programme provided a gem of juxtaposition this week. They had a report on introducing on-the-spot fines to cut assaults on staff in Accident & Emergency at a Manchester hospital. The next item was about how American soldiers in Iraq were every day dealing with the intractable threat of assaults.

I can't have been the only one to be struck by the possibilities conjured up by this incidental linking. As wars, after all, are an opportunity for the arms industry to test-drive their latest hardware (not for them the ethical alternative of animal experimentation), why don't we do the same in our bid at crime reduction. Why don't we, in the spirit of partnership, share our latest assault-busting initiative with our American colleagues? How about it: on-the-spot fines for those uncouth enough to attempt to blow up military personnel stuck in Iraq. That would show them we're not going to take no nonsense. Just pity the poor blighter who has to collect the money.

The alternative, of course, is to import justice from the war-zone to here. And in New Labour Britain -- where John Reid makes David Blunkett look a liberal, who, in turn, made Jack Straw look a liberal, who, in turn, made Michael Howard (Howard??) look a liberal -- it's probably best not to joke. ASBOs which do more than cut the goolies off? Just you wait.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Kerry in disfavour

It's like something out of Wag the Dog. Or perhaps (a better film) Bob Roberts. A political party, on the ropes in the elections, has to come up with something awe-inspiring, not to say jaw-dropping, to effect an eleventh-hour miracle. A foreign war, perhaps, or an assassination attempt. In the States, where reality seems increasingly to shadow the silver screen, the latest rendition of this cinematic theme lacks both the hyperbole and the engaging humour of the previous renditions.

Senator John Kerry has, it is true, made one of the cardinal errors in modern politics: he told a joke. It wasn't a bad one and his meaning was absolutely clear but the danger with getting a laugh is that you too often find the last laugh is on you. The irony is that the reaction has in some ways proved his point: it would take a moron not to realise that his purpose was to mock the President -- and, sure enough, George W. Bush didn't get the joke, proved himself a moron, and may end up with more dimpled chads in the bag. There ain't never no votes in being clever.
That reminds me, by the way, of the old story from the late David Penhaligon. Constituents of his asked why there was not an intelligence test required for parliamentary candidates. He replied that the House of Commons is supposed to represent the whole country, that's why there are so many bloody fools in it.

And a fool with bloody hands the lame-duck American President may be. But his manufactured anger may be a Bob Roberts moment. What does not surprise me in this is the wilful misunderstanding the Republicans have perpetrated. On one level, you've got to admire their mastery of the dark arts. But what is more amazing -- and hugely disappointing -- is how the world's press reports the incident. The BBC this evening have repeatedly described it Kerry's 'gaffe'. Perhaps the story deserves air-time, but does it really need the British Broadcasting Corporation to be the American Republicans' mouthpiece?