Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Translation: what I would have said

At our Full Council meeting, I was down to make a statement as a portfolio holder on the subject of ‘translations’. Unfortunately, a previous meeting over-ran and so I did not get chance to regale the chamber with my prose. In case there is anyone feeling deprived as a result, here is what I would have said:

I stand now to make a statement which I can confidently predict will not receive unanimous support around this chamber. But, all the same, this administration feels it is necessary to mark out where we stand. On 10th June, the present Secretary of State for Communities had a Margaret Hodge moment. Ruth Kelly declared that the number of translations available from local authorities should be cut and, instead of providing translation, those needing them should be directed to English lessons.

We, on this side of the chamber, consider that not only hypocritical but also wrong in principle. Hypocritical because it is this government which has cut funding to ESOL service of English lessons. If Ms Kelly’s policy was to be followed, ESOL funding would need massively to be increased – a point recognised by the Commission on Integration – but there seems no appetite for practical support for English lessons from the government.

It is wrong in principle because, while we should be providing English lessons wherever possible, it should be obvious that that will not do away with the need for translation as well. I was recently talking to members of the committee of our excellent Asian Cultural Association and they pointed out a key issue: speaking a language, reading it and writing it are three different skills. There are first-generation immigrants who can speak English but that does not mean they are fluent in reading it. In that situation, translation still has its place. More widely, we should be facilitating not prescribing: we should be providing as many ways as possible to learn about our services, not telling people to learn English if they want to know about them.

This Council has a policy of translating on demand. The availability of translations is flagged up in our leaflets. We in this administration believe that is right. And as long as we are in administration it will remain the case, whatever Ms Kelly tries to dictate.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The end of the Greens?

After their failure to make any impression in the elections, the Greens are debating whether they should dissolve themselves. In France.

Who's out of the Cabinet?

After all the brouhaha over Mr Brown's attempts to create a government of all the talents (just some talent would be a bonus), it's surely time to turn to the key question: who is out as Gordon comes in? Which politicians are going to be clearing their pencils from their desk and bidding a final farwell to the ministry concierge? And who, it might be added, may even now be sitting by their phone, biting their fingernails away in expectation of that call which never comes?

Presumably Pope Benedict will lose his place as a photo on a ministerial desk as -- according to all sources -- his greatest fan and, indeed, Mr Blair's future co-religionist, Ms Ruth Kelly is shown the door. Few tears will be shed. Meanwhile, in the lower reaches of the government, junior ministers don't come more controversial than Lord Adonis, father of tuition fees (and, in the dim and distant past, an Oxford councillor -- for us). Some newspapers are predicting that he will stay around after Wednesday but that might come as news to him. At a function on Friday, Adonis was exuding all the insouciance of a man about to escape from the clutches of responsibility, ready to ride off into the sunset to meet his destiny -- writing a biography as weighty as its subject, Roy Jenkins.

What is equally interesting is who is not being tipped for office. From my Oxford perspective, there is one man who is notably absent from all reports -- a former Cabinet minister, a close ally of the next Prime Minister: Andrew Smith, MP for Oxford East. At the time of his appointment to the long table in No. 10, there were some cruel journalists who described him as the man who rose without trace. His only skilful act was his departure, resigning before he was pushed, to spend more time in his constituency in the run-up to the last election. And there he of course achieved the feat of becoming the MP with the amazingly shrinking majority. The limits of his influence on Downing Street were clear only a few months ago when he failed to ensure Oxford was on the list of possible unitary authorities. He was one of those who had been a contender. He was an insider who'd become an outsider -- and there, it seems, he will stay.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The definition of a local authority

I am trying to finish a book but writing has taken on the life of a half-life: the further I get, the more elusive the end seems to be. Perhaps this is a fear of heights: the further I get, the deeper I want to go. In wanting to delve beneath my own text, I just dig myself into a hole.

The present distraction, the excuse I have this week for not letting go, is Michel de Certeau. I have described him in conservation as a Catholic riposte to Foucault – where the latter, who lost God and found sado-masochism, saw all in terms of repression by the order – Certeau, the Jesuit, discovered human resilience, ways of living that the order can not order or control.

But enough of that. I wished to tell you of Certeau’s definition of a local authority. Here is what he says: ‘a local authority is a crack in the system.’ And: ‘a local authority reduces places so that is impossible to breathe in them.’ He goes on: ‘it is a symptomatic tendency of functionalist totalitarianism that it seeks precisely to eliminate these local authorities.’

OK, so Certeau isn’t providing a disquisition on district councils. Nothing could be further from his mind. He’s got nothing to say on local government. It’s just an accident of phrasing (or of translation). But I still like the idea of a council as a crack in the system (he meant it positively) – and we know that it’s not just totalitarians who go down the route towards crushing local authorities as we know them.

What Certeau actually meant by ‘local authority’ was a ‘discourse’ of identity within and in some ways undermining the order of a city. In other words, a method for the little man to make space for himself within the overwhelming structure of the modern metropolis. I mention this because it has set me asking a question to which we should return another time: is ‘place-shaping’ illiberal?

Monday, June 11, 2007

What sort of Liberal are you? A simple test

Committed as this blog is to encouraging the intellectual wanderlust of the discerning liberal, we present to you today a simple test. It comprises one question only and it's purpose is for you to consider how you would define yourself among the embarras de richesse which is the welter of liberal traditions.

We are what we inwardly digest; we are what read. So, imagine that on your enforced sojourn marooned on a desert island, you have been allowed the company of only one political tract. You would choose, naturally, a work which reflected your own political make-up, even though in the sweltering heat and arid landscape, there is no chance of constructing a liberal society. Which book would it be? The poll to the right lists the main possibilities -- click away.

If there are alternatives that you think should be included, do begin a write-in campaign. Or, if there are works there are worthy only to kindle fire, tell me which one was not even worthy of this desert-island jaunt. Results next week.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Things can only get worse

So, the early signs are that Monsieur Sarkozy -- apologies, M. le President -- has swept the board. It's a remarkable achievement for the combative character who has turned from being a divisive, uncompromising candidate to the leader with a cross-party cabinet and with approval ratings which have left this orbit. How long can this last?

If you detect in that question a certain lust for Schadenfreude -- you'd be right. Whatever my learned colleague may say, Sarkozy is not one of us. When he talks of being liberal, the image he has in mind is Mrs T not Beveridge. He has the dubious honour of being able to claim personal responsibility for some of the unrest in Paris and elsewhere last year. And through his presidential campaign he did not budge from his rhetoric aimed at winning Le Pen votes. But for all my suspicion, I have to admit there is a buzz in the air around him.

There does seem to be among some usually left-leaning French people a sense that Sarkozy is the man for the moment and the moment spells change. They might not agree with their President on what shape the change should take, but that appears to be secondary for the moment. Give the man a chance. But could this honeymoon turn as frosty as the presidential marriage is said to be? There are danger signs for Sarko.

Having approval ratings around 70% in itself creates an obvious chance to stumble. But what is more striking is the abstention rate in the elections today: the turn-out was nearly British in its meagre percentage, at 61%. Is this because the Socialists, still smarting, stayed at home, leaving the field free for Sarkozy's UMP? That is surely part of the explanation. But it is probably not just that. Another likely element is that there are many who are still not sure about Sarkozy -- they expected his party to win, but they didn't want to give him a helping hand again. In other words, they might like Sarkozy, but they don't trust him. That should give the President pause to worry, but somehow I doubt it does.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Headington Matters -- it really does

This short post is unashamedly, unabashedly, unrepentantly about my ward, the great community of Headington in north east Oxford. Actually, historically, Oxford is more of an add-on to Headington rather than vice versa, but we're not going to harp on about that.

The attentive among you will notice that there is a new list just started on the right hand side of this blog. It's for Headington issues and, in particular, for petitions and other useful information. Much of it will come (I say ashamedly, abashedly, but not really repentantly) from my ward colleague's website, where more information can be found.

The first petition up there is Save our Subway. The Headington underpass is under attack: as part of the 'improvements' to London Road, the intention is to block in the underpass to widen the road. It is supposed to help buses -- but this idea (as I said in the local press) would simply make pedestrians suffer. So, if you are local to Headington or if you have ever used the underpass with its colourful murals locals painted five years ago, go on, sign the petition, you know it makes sense.

One final thought on Headington: it stands to the city down the hill as Arezzo does to Florence. The Aretines, you will remember, were the fathers of Petrarch, Leonardo Bruni, Giorgio Vasari and other 'greats' of the Italian Renaissance -- in short, it was the genius-factory for the city which ruled it. Without Arezzo, Florence would have been much lesser -- and so would Oxford without Headington.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Great blogs I've never written

I have to admit it: I’m an idle blogger. I wake up in the night with the text of a well-crafted posting half there in my mind. I have good intentions actually to sit and type it in the morning. But then there are e-mails to answer, there’s that report which has to be read before 9am or – heaven forfend – there’s actually some work to be done. And so, the posting is posted to the back of mind and becomes just one more which could have been a contender.

I can still remember some of them. There’s the one entitled ‘Is it RIP for the BBC?’ where I was going, for once, to agree with my ward colleague on a financial matter: he, you will remember, affects to imagine being an economic ‘liberal’ is compatible with being a true social liberal -- or is it that I affect to imagine the opposite? I can't quite recall. My humble submission on the larger issues of what it is to be a liberal was going to be the subject of further postings, in which I was to discourse on the nature of liberalism in the twenty-first century. And then there was the one that I actually began writing at 6:30 this morning asking ‘Where are the liberal Catholics?’ – a question to which many will think they have the answer but which was going to allow me to muse aloud on the conservative revanche to the feminist challenge to the liberal tradition of emphasising the private sphere, beyond the public gaze (got that?).

But they all remain in the capacious recycling bin that’s somewhere in my mind – and that gets emptied much less often than once a fortnight. But, somehow, I don’t imagine the blogosphere is lesser without them.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Cribbing no more

Following on from my posting of yesterday, there seems to have been a crisis-summit at Tory HQ. No longer in their news section do they have the plagiarised article I mentioned. Which leaves them with nothing to say about the defections or the Witney Wonder's bold visit into enemy territory, that is, Oxford. What have they got to hide?

Two final thoughts. First, it's encouraging to know that my blog can appeal beyond the happy band of brothers and sisters who are true Liberal Democrats and is apparently monitored by the Tories. Second, I wonder whether the royalties cheque is winging its way even now from the Conservative party to the journalist they cribbed.