Friday, December 18, 2009

Thanks, Nick, for the Christmas card

My Christmas is made: I've received my copy of Nick Clegg's festive card. And it's clear that we now know how he likes to relax after the stressful rigours of day leading our great party. The picture is home-made, drawing a Santa leaning over like a weeping willow, next to the whole Clegg family. A touching image but, Nick, just a tip: keep the day job (please), you are no Van Gogh.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

CPRE tilting at windmills

Headline from the latest local Bulletin of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, in response to the project to build wind turbines in and near Oxford:

Don't sacrifice landscape for the environment
That say's it all, really.

Friday, November 13, 2009

How long an academic in politics?

The question came to me as I read of David Howarth's sad departure from the Commons -- a good liberal representing a city that deserves nothing less. I note that he commented that after '22 years of elected public office, the time has come for me to concentrate on my other life, as an academic'.

22 years? Is that how long I have to stay around? Next May it will be eight years, leaving another fourteen to go. And, if this career were to follow his, it would mean that Banbury would have to wait another nine years to return a Liberal MP -- but they've been waiting long enough!

And, to those Tories, rubbing their hands at the chance of finally winning a seat in Oxford and both realising their only chance in this LibDem / Labour marginal, is my ward of Headington, and planning therefore to make sure I do not have another 14 years ago: thank you, that's kind and well-meaning, I'm sure, but save yourselves the effort. You'll only be disappointed.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

James Murdoch and the New Social Darwinism

Oh dear. Murdoch Junior has made rather a fool of himself. Silly chump.

He must of thought he was being so clever. 'Please, sir, please, sir, there's this man called Darwin'.

'Yes, Murdoch. He's rather well-known. You should have come across him before'.

But, sir, sir, isn't support of state intervention in the media an exact parallel to creationist rejections of theories of natural evolution?'

'Oh, dear, Murdoch. You really aren't the brightest button in the box, are you?'

My interest is not in the mechanisms of improving the quality of our media, which is, it must be said, woefully low-brow, lowest-common-denominator stuff that could make an orang-utan weep with boredom. What fascinates me is James Murdoch's rhetoric and the thinking (yes, I use the term lightly) that lies behind it.

Certain events in the middle of the twentieth century put pay to most concepts of social Darwinism. But, admirably swimming against that tide, Mr Murdoch would like to re-introduce such ideas into our parlance. And, to those who would suggest that the exportation of evolutionary theories into the workings of the market place is no more than a dodgy comparison, he's happy to trump it with yet another: those who don't agree with him are 'creationists'. Clever rhetorical move, for what liberal would want to be on their side?

Yet, this all seems to forget that liberalism has happened. Liberals both decreased the size of government and also re-directed it so that it could do the essential work of helping people to the starting-block of equality of opportunity. Liberals created the welfare state precisely because individual interventions were not enough to offset the malevolent side-effects of the market.

In reality, of course, Mr Murdoch doesn't want to get rid of the state. After all, his money wouldn't be worth much if there was nobody to honour it. His speech implicitly accepts the need for regulation in his small area of the world (is he a creationist in disguise?). As long, it seems, as if the regulation does not upsets him.

We all, then, work within the parameters of recognising the need for state intervention, but wanting to minimise it when its harm could outweigh its benefit. But Mr Murdoch's rhetoric takes us in another, more dangerous direction, making a specious parallel between the theory of the evolution of spieces and the reality of markets. There is something in this which is terribly Panglossian: in the best of all possible worlds (that is, one in which governments keep their hands off whatever Mr Murdoch wants to have his hands on), all will be for the best. But, of course, markets are incorrigibly benign, born with an instinct for good on which we can all rely. Unlike evolution, then.

Ever thought what dodo meat would have tasted like?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Plane daft

So, the shack in Kidlington is re-branding as 'London Oxford Airport'. In the season of silliness, this has excited some well-deserved derision and mirth.

But, let's be honest: who can blame Londoners for wanting to associate themselves with Oxford? It provides a soupçon of élan where it usually fears to tread. Perhaps it even gives them hope that they can get away from their Bad Decision and hide from Barmy Boris.

We shouldn't begrudge London wanting to get in on the act. It's not as if they want to re-name some significant element of our city. Kidlington Airport is, after all, hardly the transport hub of choice for most Oxonians. It is the case that, whether we like it or not, an international city which is an educational centre creates the need for air travel. So, as Cambridge has Stansed, we have Heathrow.

A proposal, then: if Kidlington is to get London's name, surely Heathrow should own up and admit it's 'Oxford Heathrow Airport.'

Monday, April 20, 2009

Hands on the Green Belt!

I read that some people wish to rally around the banner entitled 'Hands off Oxford's Green Belt'. I would respectfully suggest that what it needs is, in fact, a very hands-on approach.

You know my view: a Green Belt is needed but its worst friends are its soi-disant defenders. To dig the trenches to protect the Belt precisely where it is right now, without any possible incursion, is a way of securing defeat.

'Green Belt' conjures up images of sylvan countryside where only tractors should penetrate. But some land designated as 'Green Belt' is hardly that: car-parks, or disused quarry, or poor quality land scarred by pylons.

The dirigiste position would insist that if it was once called 'Green Belt' so it should remain in perpetuity. But that is both impracticable and missing an opportunity.

Cnut had more luck with the sea than the knights of the Belt will have with their campaign to stop change. Whoever is in government is not going to give up the opportunity to lessen Oxfordshire's housing crisis with some building south of Oxford around Grenoble Road. Nor is the argument for better public transport into Oxford going to be halted by protesters railing against the growth of Park & Ride.

By making the previous boundaries immutable, those who think of themselves as the Belt's defenders are actually selling it short. Some change is inevitable: what is critical is that those incidents are not taken as precedents allowing deeper and deeper encroachments.

The way to avoid that is to accept that the Belt, like the city it surrounds, is living and can change. Not, I stress, that it should necessarily decrease: the opportunity that is being ignored is for the possibility of land-swaps, negotiating to bring land into the Belt as other sections are moved out from it. But negotiation seems not be on some people's agenda at the moment.

In short, the Green Belt is too important to be left to is supposed defenders. If it stayed in their hands, the Belt would have to brace itself for buckling under the weight of expectations.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Pirates and Alexander the Great

Hearing the news over the last few days, the tale narrated in Book IV of the City of God by St Augustine came to mind. You might know it:

That was an apt reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate he had captured. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he replied boldly: And what do you mean by seizing the whole earth? Because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.