Sunday, 31 January 2010

Perhaps Britain needs a Tea Party too?

Britain’s economy stutters along in recession or near recession.

Our Government’s debt spirals out of control.

Our leaders argue over whether to spend more money we don’t have on one thing or another.

Our central bank prints billions in a frantic and desperate attempt to stem the collapse of our financial system.

Ordinary folk see more and more of their cash taken in taxes.

What little cash the Government lets us keep is eaten up by inflation

It really is a mess. And there’s precious little evidence of anyone campaigning to get things sorted out. What Britain needs is a party that believes in opposing excessive government spending and taxation. A Tea Party that believes in:

Fiscal Responsibility: Fiscal Responsibility by government honours and respects the freedom of the individual to spend the money that is the fruit of their own labour.

Constitutionally Limited Government: As the government is of the people, by the people and for the people, in all other matters we support the personal liberty of the individual, within the rule of law.

Free Markets: A free market is the economic consequence of personal liberty.

It seems we need to protest – to stand up and say to those lording themselves above us, squandering our cash on their personal prejudice and funding their petty squabbles: “that’s enough, can we have our country back now? Can we have more modest, more accountable government? Can we have our own money to spend? Can we make our own mistakes and live our own lives free from your interference?

I’ve never marched, never protested, seldom sign petitions. But I’ll protest for this. I’ll march. Might there be others?

Saturday, 30 January 2010

On quitting...

Today my wife and I (as the saying goes) discussed the future. We considered how her job might pan out and the stress – and risks – of commuting from Cullingworth to Manchester every day. My future came up – as did the subject of politics. We have only ourselves to look to. Our son is away an university studying what I like to call a “proper degree” – chemical engineering – with the prospect of a good career. Other than the cat and the fact we like the place, nothing ties us to Cullingworth.

There’s one other thing, of course. I am a local Councillor and the rules say that to continue in such a role not only do you have to be elected but you have to reside somewhere within spitting distance of the place you represent! Which of course brings us to the matter of quitting. Were we to move away – somewhere rather closer to Manchester, I guess – I would have to quit. To walk away from being a Councillor.

And I’ve always found quitting a difficult thing to do. Don’t take this as some kind of heroic statement – it isn’t meant that way. What I mean is that, most of the time, I don’t follow the advice to “quit while you’re ahead”. And despite all the crap, I’m definitely ahead. I can look at things in Bradford – the Impressions Gallery, a rescued Manningham Mills, the refurbished John Street Market, a new Keighley College are just a few – where I have had a significant part to play.

But is there a time to say; “enough’s enough”? To pack up your tools, put your pack on your back and walk off into the proverbial sunset. Perhaps arriving elsewhere, refreshed, renewed, rested – ready to face a new challenge, new things to do? Or maybe just to sit on the porch, jug of moonshine on the wicker table, and watch the parades go by – watch others kick, shout, agitate, campaign and scrabble. And maybe chuck in the occasional wise word!

I don’t know really – a little bit of me wants to quit tomorrow. To give up on the wasted life that is a political career. To spend time with family and friends. To watch bemused as self-seeking politicos scramble over each other to reach…to reach precisely what? Power? Preferment? Cash? Status? A gong? And in doing this to bully, do down, undermine and destroy others. Is that really the way is should be? For sure it’s the way it is.

Like people who give up blogging – is feeling no longer obliged a blessed relief? Or do they hanker still to dust off the old keyboard and rant away? For me politics was always a platform - a means to an end. And that end was to have people hear what I say, to have a chance, albeit small, to change one or two things for the better. The jobs and positions we get elected or appointed to must be about doing something or they are about nothing. Yet I look at others and see…well I see shallow people, people interested only in themselves, people who care not one jot for others and who have no sense of idea. I see the raising up of the bully and the triumph of the personal attack. There seems precious little thinking, consideration or ideal in the current General Election campaign. And that is sad - maybe I just never noticed before?

So maybe I shall quit. Maybe not. And if not, it will be because if I do quit the bastards will have won.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Why the National Secular Society should set up its own schools rather than just attack faith schools


The National Secular Society is frothing at the mouth over Conservative education proposals. Its boss, one Terry Sanderson said this:

The idea that an unlimited expansion in the number of religious schools will continue to drive up standards is illogical. If there are to be no community schools, where will all the unsupported and disadvantaged children from deprived homes — the ones that the Church doesn’t want to know about — go? It’s at that point that the myth of the “religious ethos” causing this success will come crashing down. It is fallacious to suggest so-called free schools will extend “choice”.

This is firstly a complete misrepresentation of the Conservative’s proposals on free schools and secondly a statement of monumental ignorance. Now I agree with the NSS on removing religious privileges but it is not achieved by the removal of choice.

So here’s a suggestion:

Why doesn’t the National Secular Society set up schools serving local communities in partnership with parents and teachers? After all that’s all those churches, mosques and temples propose to do isn’t it? There’s a real opportunity for organisations to set up schools specialising in working with children from troubled backgrounds and deprived communities.

More on the triumph of groupthink: diversity


Anyone involved in Government, public administration or the “third sector” (a term I loathe and hate – but that’s for another day) will have gotten pretty used to the concept of “diversity”. Or at least to the practical manifestations of that concept. Now, as those who know me are aware, I have a little bit of a problem with this concept and with the manner in which it is both exploited and also distorts decisions, policy and activity.

Sadly, the most common response of advocates for the idea of “diversity” is accusation – “that’s just racist”; “you’re a homophobe”; “don’t you care about the disabled”. So most of us simply accept the inevitable, bow our heads and carry on. This – another triumph of the bully – merely gives free rein to those who either make their careers in the identification of prejudice and discrimination or else seek advantage from exploitation of such allegations.

However, there is a fundamental objection to the idea of “diversity” as practiced and promoted – it depends on us being defined solely by the groups of which we are (by choice, by birth or by accident) a member – or worse still to which we are allocated by the merchants of diversity. Someone isn’t an individual – they are Afro-Caribbean, LGBT, over-50, working-class, disabled, Jewish – only given identity through the mediation of a group.

So “diversity” as we see it in practice is focused on there being diverse groups rather than diverse individuals. The reality of our thoughts, ideas, loves, prejudices, opinions and attitudes – real diversity – are as nothing beside the squeezing of everyone into a pre-determined set of boxes. As a general rule I don’t fill in ethnic monitoring forms – or, if forced, write “Other – human” – and I do not complete forms asking about my sexuality since that is absolutely none of their business.

As a liberal-minded sort, I find group diversity merely hides a deeper variety – the joy and pleasure of finding real human beings to engage with, enjoy the company of and have blazing rows with. Diversity groupthink blanks all this out by placing an artificial mediation of language, a marshalling of people into discrete blocs and the placing of barriers that would not otherwise have been there between different people.

For all the good intentions of some involved in “diversity” the reality is that it represents just another aspect of our corporate, controlling state. Another stick with which to beat – should the Government need to – the ordinary man or woman going about an ordinary life. Another way to slice and parse the people of our land – another “progressive” failure.

I am Simon Cooke. You may ask my age, my gender, my “ethnic group” (as if there were any such thing), my sexuality, my health status, my class, whether I’m employed, how much money I’ve got, my marital status, how many pets I have, whether I like cheese. And if you’re a mate, you’ll get an answer. If you’re the Government you won’t because it’s none of your bloody business.


Friday Fungus: Oyster mushroom and grape warm salad

I chanced to be at Mr Cohen’s grocery on Canal Road seeking shaving oil, red wine and bubble bath as one does. And there, languishing in one of the aisles, I found a tray of “mixed oyster mushrooms” (on examination they didn’t seem very mixed but never mind). And this is what I did to them once I had liberated them from the Cohen Emporium. I used:

8oz Oyster mushrooms (you don’t have to get them from Tesco)
3oz Regular* mushrooms (I had some in the fridge for emergencies)
A sweet red pepper
A tomato
2 shallots
Plain olive oil
Nudo Lemon infused olive oil (you could make a lemon and oil dressing if you prefer)
Salt & black pepper
Green dessert grapes – about 10

Slice the shallots nice and thinly and soften in the heated oil. Roughly chop the mushrooms (not too small, big chunks are best). Thinly slice the red pepper. Chop the tomato (don’t be tempted to slice – it’s not a sandwich you’re making).

Add the mushrooms, salt and black pepper to the softened shallots (I added a dash more oil at this point as mushrooms tend to slurp it up). Cover and leave to cook for 3-5 minutes. While you’re doing this slice each of the grapes in half.

Add the sliced pepper and tomato and cover again for about a minute – enough to warm the salad but not to cook it! Dump the whole lot in a big salad bowl, add the grapes and a generous amount of the lemon oil, and mix thoroughly.

Serve and eat. I had a nice glass of (from memory) Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc with this – seemed to work OK.

*Political note – some British MPs led by Greg Mulholland want to ban the word regular because we might get confused. They are stupid.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Apple iPad - carved from the living earth and powered by pixies

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C. Clarke, "Profiles of The Future", 1961 (Clarke's third law)

It seems that Steve Jobs has either taken the sage words of Arthur C Clarke to heart or else his Californian researchers really have discovered the practical application of sorcery. The iPad is says the advert:

“…a magical and revolutionary device.”

So forgive me if my mind glimpses a picture of cloaked and hooded men (and probably women too in this modern age of magical equality) gathered in secret cabal. Here, deep in some mystical crystal cave the spells are cast that create – from the living earth – this artifact of great power.

And elsewhere, in some sylvan glen a ritual takes place. Slender maidens and beautiful youths dance and sing. Noble gifts of food, drink and video games are laid on the soft, mossy forest floor. The little folk, the pixies, are contacted. And with these gifts the deal is struck. Oberon agrees to the project. The light from the will ‘o the wisp, the speed of the fairy herald, the strength of the gnome and the cheek of the brownie will be marshalled.

The iPad – that magical device – will live!!

Carved from the living Earth and powered by pixies!


Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Wednesday Whimsy: Woods, spirit and the god of England

England is a land of woods. Or perhaps a land of once-woods – where trees once were.
I like to think that, with the support of the Woodland Trust, The Tree Register and various local tree trusts, our land will once again be a place of woods. I recall visiting the Tamar Valley and, looking out across its woods, being told that in the heyday of arsenic mining just 100 years before there were no trees at all in that view.

England isn’t a land of forest or jungle – our woods are not wilderness, are not impenetrable. Our woods are not unkempt. Our woods are not places to fear. Men work in our woods – keeping them clear and growing, logging, copsing and cropping the trees. Woods shelter deer, badgers, martens and a host of birds. Woods provide jobs and incomes, pleasure, food and beauty. They sing to us and contain our story.

But there is still more. Woods – and wood – sit right in the soul of the Englishman. Not just Heart of Oak – a celebration more of ships than trees – but the spirit of the trees still moves us perhaps more than that of the moors or of the fields. Above all else, the Green Man is the god of England. Other places have lost their secret foliate face – it still peeps out from carvings in stone but no longer lives. Here in England the Green Man still lives, laughs and has space to wander.

The Green Man isn’t someone to fear but, as Mike Harding wrote, his roots go back a long way and his manifestations are many:

"His roots may go back to the shadow hunters who painted the caves of Lascaux and Altimira and may climb through history, in one of his manifestations through Robin Hood and the Morris Dances of Old England to be chiselled in wood and stone even to this day by men and women who no longer know his story but sense that something old and strong and tremendously important lies behind his leafy mask.
One of the earliest English epic poems Gawain and The Green Knight may refer to yet another manifestation of the Green Man as the God that dies and is reborn. He is the Green Man, Jack in the Green, the Old Man of the Woods, Green George and many other things to many other men but one common theme runs through all the disparate images and myths, death and rebirth and the Green that is all life."

Above all else, we know that if we leave things, the trees return. That those trees will break stone, turnover paving and cover over the vain constructions of man. As Ian Anderson put it:

Jack, do you never sleep ---does the green still run deep in your heart?
Or will these changing times,
motorways, powerlines,
keep us apart?
Well, I don't think so ---I saw some grass growing through the pavements today.

And the trees will follow!

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Election 2010: Seats to Watch #3: Will the Lib Dems break through in those Northern Cities?


I’ve looked at two sets of Conservative target seats – in the coalfields and in what I called “inner-outer” London. This set of seats is of Liberal Democrat targets in the North of England – where Labour is defending.

For a long while the Liberal Democrats have had a strong powerbase in Northern cities – at present they control Liverpool, Sheffield, Hull and Newcastle. However, this strength has never translated into success at General Elections. The old Liberal Party got David Alton elected in Liverpool and the party have won Manchester Withington, Sheffield Hallam and Leeds North West. A key test for the Liberal Democrats at the forthcoming election is whether they can translate their local success into the election of MPs.

Liverpool Wavertree will be a seat with a lot of attention – at least judging by the 500+ comments on the UK Polling Report thread on the seat! Labour’s Jane Kennedy held the seat in 2005 but is retiring. Labour’s candidate is from London and with boundary changes the nominal majority is just 3,038 requiring a swing of under 4.5% for the Lib Dems to make the gain. With 54% of the vote in the 2008 local elections they really ought to! Expect a campaign laden with scouse vitriol from all sides (plus a little borderline racism wrapped up as anti-Zionism directed at Labour’s Luciana Berger).

Oldham East & Saddleworth is held for Labour by Phil Woolas, the Immigration Minister – boundary changes favour labour and the nominal majority is 4,087 requiring a swing of 5%. The seat stretches from Oldham’s multiethnic inner suburbs out onto the attractive South Pennine moorlands – factors that meant the old Littleborough & Saddleworth seat was a Tory seat in the 1980s. Will be a close run thing with Lib Dem success depending on how much they can squeeze the substantial Tory vote – local elections suggest win with the Lib Dems on 52% and labour in 3rd with just 20%.

The City of Durham must be right at the top of Liberal Democrat expectations. Although held by labour since the 1930s (like most of the North’s mining seats) the majority is just 3,274 requiring a swing of just 3.7% for a Lib Dem gain). Local elections show the Lib Dems building powerful position with 41% of the vote and 15 of the 22 councillors but there’s no Tory vote to squeeze and Labour has a reliable bedrock of support.

With Nick Clegg looking pretty safe in Hallam, the Liberal Democrats can direct their efforts to Sheffield Central where they have an outside chance of winning especially since former Sports Minister, Richard Caborn is standing down. With boundary changes the notional result is 4,807 requiring an 8% swing. Local election results put the Lib Dems on 42% to Labour’s 30% but an active Green campaign may not do Paul Scriven the council leader any favours.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne North is the most marginal of the City’s seats (just ahead of Chief Whip, Nick Brown’s East) and is very much a long shot for the Liberal Democrats. The notional majority is some 6,744 and even with current MP Doug Henderson retiring it’s a tough call for the Lib Dems. However, their local government performances suggest a strong chance (52% of the vote in 2008 and all but two councillors). However, the Labour machine will be working hard here and it will not be the straightforward gain it seems like on paper.

With a weaker Labour Party and voters out to punish them this may be the year when the Liberal Democrats do break through in the urban North – these aren’t the only places there’s also Bradford East, Burnley and Hull West & Hessle where the party fancies its chances.


Local food - yes please. Agricultural protection - No thanks


P. J. O’Rourke in his attempt to explain the US Government, “Parliament of Whores”, took a look at agricultural policy. This was his conclusion:

“I spent two and a half years examining the American political process. All that time I was looking for a straightforward issue. But everything I investigated – election campaigns, the budget, lawmaking, the court system, bureaucracy, social policy – turned out to be more complicated than I had thought. There were always angles I hadn’t considered, aspects I hadn’t weighed, complexities I’d never dreamed of. Until I got to agriculture. Here at last is a simple problem with a simple solution. Drag the omnibus farm bill behind the barn, and kill it with an ax.”

We’re no better over here. In fact we’re worse. We’ve created a pseudo-moral stance to justify tariffs, import quotas, intervention prices and all the panoply of agricultural protection. A parallel “rural development” industry that talks of local food, area protection, origin protection, sustainable this, and low carbon the other. And this industry cuddles up to those of us who like good, fresh produce and pretend that the only way we (middle class foodies) can get this lovely local produce is to support anti-trade, anti-business measures that destroy value and jobs.

I’m no fan of supermarkets – that privileged bunch of businesses enjoying the largess of a lenient property tax system. And I think we should do more for town centres – like having free parking and lower business rates, for example. But I do not believe that extending the inefficient protectionist measures of the Common Agriculture Policy or having a further raft of protections for food processes will do anything to improve access to local food.

So no I don't want national "food security" strategies, bans on air freight, restrictions of lorry movements or all the various protectionist measures dreamed up by the "rural development" industry. I just want good fresh produce - and will have it because I'm prepared to pay more for it. Simples.

I’m with PJ on this – agricultural protection serves farmers poorly, provides no real security, is corrupt and leads to expensive food. Kill it. And while we’re about this we can kill the “rural development” industry too.


Barak Obama, Cincinnatus and the political career


Sometimes - perhaps cynically - politicians really do say the right thing. So when Barak Obama says:

"You know, there is a tendency in Washington to believe our job description, of elected officials, is to get reelected. That's not our job description. Our job description is to solve problems and to help people."

..I want to applaud.

After all there's no point geting elected unless you intend to do something now, is there?

Sadly for most politicians the "doing something" means getting preferment - means climbing up the pole of political power and influence. Not so as to change anything - all that rhetoric to get elected is just that, rhetoric. Or rather what we really want to change is the wealth and status of the politician. And we don't have to get all Ramsey Mac to realise this or even to quote the plot line of Howard Spring's "Fame is the Spur".

Since us politicians will not behave like Cincinnatus, we have to be made to do so.

I've been a local councillor* now since 1995 - I like to think a passing fair one. Today I have the good prospect of being re-elected in 2011 and continuing to receive the benighted taxpayers' £13,000 stipend for a further four years. For my colleagues (and in my honest moments, me) there is the further prospect of chasing other preferments - places on joint bodies, chairmanships of panels and so on - each paying a few thousand more.

Indeed in Bradford, if you chair a planning committee, have an executive position on a joint authority (police, fire, PTE) and maybe an LGA Board you can clear £50,000 in earnings. All for about five or six meetings a week. Local politics has become a career costing ever more money(we even get to play in the public sector pensions game) and having less and less relevence or significance to the public who elect us.

Surely the time has come for us to stop this gravy train? And the only way to make us go back to our ploughs is to introduce term limits - no more than three terms (12 years) for Councillors and no more than two terms (10 years) for MPs.

Involvement in public life shouldn't be a career - that just corrupts. Involvement in public life should be an act of service done for the right reasons not for power, glory or, as seems the preference these days, the cash.

*Important note for local government bureaucrats and fellow travellers: the word is COUNCILLOR not ELECTED MEMBER.

"...there's an infinite amount of money out there,"


Was rather tickled by this quote from Neal Stephenson's magnificent, "Anathem":

"I hadn't known that," I said. "I always tend to assume there's an infinite amount of money out there."

"There might as well be," Arsibalt said, "but most of it gets spent on pornography, sugar water and bombs. There is only so much that can be scraped together for particle accelerators."


Monday, 25 January 2010

The Red Mist descends....

…but it will pass. Have put on lots of twingly prog rock to calm me down. But in the meantime:

Universal average speed cameras on motorways – to “save carbon”

The happy fools who signed up for ID Cards can now get one

Labour MPs – plus Spanish commies – want to tell me my hours of work

We’re to be fined £1000 if we don’t fill in the census form

MPs are calling for the word "regular" to be banned

…and that’s just today.

Dear fascist bureaucrats, pseudo-liberals, greeny fascists, interfering so-called progressives and anyone else who thinks they can run our lives – please just leave us alone. We’re big, ugly and grown-up. And we can get along just fine without your help or guidance. GO AWAY.


Sunday, 24 January 2010

Class - you'll know it when you see it

I’m fed up with the politics of class – not only is it awful, divisive politics but it reinforces our gross misuse of the word.

Class is…

Writing a personal note of thanks to all the speakers in your group after every Council meeting

Walking out from a vote because you know someone on the opposition isn’t there because their child’s ill with cancer

Putting your child’s education ahead of a political party – even if it gets you the sack or results in ridicule

Trudging three miles through the snow to a meeting
because you’d said you’d be there – and not complaining

Handing back embarrassing papers to someone and
refusing the chance to exploit what those papers contain

Sticking anonymous allegations and complaints in the bin – the only place they deserve to go

Understanding the difference between personal insult and the rough and tumble of politics – and apologising if you get it wrong

Class isn’t about where you were born. It isn’t about your school. Or your university. Or the clothes you wear. Or how much money you’ve got. Or who your friends are. Class is doing the right thing – a matter of attitude not origin. Norman Tebbit has class; Cecil Parkinson doesn’t. Ernest Bevin had class: Aneurin Bevan didn’t. Bobby Moore had class; Vinnie Jones doesn’t.

Perhaps if we worried more about how we behaved. If we stood more on our own hind legs. If we looked to ourselves to solve our problems. If we looked out for others. Perhaps, if we tried not to find excuses or to blame…we mind finally find out what class means.


Saying the unmarried are "punished" by Tory tax plans is just stupid - a bit like those tax plans


The debate as to whether taxation’s purpose is to raise the money needed to deliver public services or to engineer social change is an important one. For the record I believe that the only moral purpose for taxation is to fund government services – any other reason for taxation is immoral.

However, the recent debate about the Conservative’s proposals on tax breaks for “marriage” has been marred by the persistent argument – used by Ed Balls, for example - that the proposals will “punish” unmarried parents.

This is nonsense – firstly taxation isn’t a zero-sum game. Your tax break doesn’t mean my tax rise. And “rewarding” you for some behaviour or other doesn’t “punish” me as I lose nothing. It may be the case that the tax break results in a revenue shortfall requiring either a tax increase or a spending reduction but this need not be a punishment.

And secondly the idea that rewards and punishments are balanced in some Manichaean deal is sloppy thinking, misleading and unhelpful. The marriage tax break proposals are wrong – just as the skewed support for single parents is wrong, just as so-called “green taxes” are wrong. But they are wrong on principle not because they reward, punish, prefer or discriminate.


Muslim leader calls for ethnic profiling.


You read that right - in today's Telegraph it is reported the Iqbal Wahhab a "leading Muslim businessman" and Government advisor...

"...urged the Government to introduce the controversial policy of 'passenger profiling' - singling out particular groups for security checks at airports or other transport hubs - in order to combat the threat posed from Islamist extremists.

"The stakes are too high to worry about my individual rights," he said. "What about the right not to be bombed?"

Now isn't that a good idea?


Saturday, 23 January 2010

Voting fraud - for heaven's sake don't over react!


A stray humped cow points out that the Government’s latest wheeze to deal with “voting fraud” is – how do we say – obviously sub-optimal (that’s bureaucratic for really, really stupid). This is quite correct – as is the lack of confidence we have in any bureaucracy to keep records secure, to prevent misuse or to even get them accurate.

But – I hear the great cry – we have to do something to stop voting fraud. It undermines our democracy. It means we get the wrong results. It’s exploding. Action must be taken or we’re all doomed!

So let me explain:

*Voting fraud is rare. That’s right, it’s rare – it doesn’t happen very much. It isn’t really a problem

*There are not organised (doubtless hooded and secretive) gangs farming votes so as to get favoured and corrupt politicians into power. We already have these – without the hoods – they’re called political parties

*Most voting deception is preventable through effective polling station vigilance. The decline of telling by political parties makes abuse more easy, of course

*Registration is pretty accurate (more accurate that the census) and good administration is all that’s required to minimise abuse

When I trained as a party agent nearly 30 years ago we learnt the laws on fraud, personation and other electoral abuse. But in our practice we hardly ever – in my case, never – encountered real examples.

So what changed, you ask? Quite simply the Government – desperate to increase turn-out (for not good reason, in my view) allowed anyone to get a postal vote just by signing a form. We created a system where abuse was easy and, to all intents and purposes, undetectable. Today, because the Labour Party can’t admit to being wrong (and may, some naughty people suggest, be the main beneficiary of postal vote abuse) we have to put up with pointless, expensive, 'big brother' solutions to poll “security”.

Might I suggest we just go back to the system we had prior to 1997? That seemed to work pretty well.


This isn't security it's ritual magic


Yesterday the Government – in the form of Home Secretary Alan Johnson – raised the security level to “severe” which apparently means the public needs to be more “aware”. And Mr Johnson said:

“…I would urge the public to remain vigilant and carry on reporting suspicious events to the appropriate authorities and to support the police and security services in their continuing efforts to discover, track and disrupt terrorist activity."

All well and good but what exactly has changed? We should be more aware of what exactly? Blokes with beards (or with evidence of having had a beard once) carrying backpacks? Suspicious photographers snapping random architectural features? Opposition members of parliament?

This isn’t scaremongering says professional scaremonger Lord Carlile (competing with Dr Evan Harris for the prize as the world’s most illiberal liberal):

"The government has quite rightly decided that if you don't tell the public to be vigilant, they're not going to be vigilant. The message from the current change of assessment is not that we should be more afraid, but that we should be a little bit more vigilant than we have been. It is crucial that the public report to the police anything suspicious they see."

So what are you going to do? Let me describe the typical official response:

1. Gather together briefing notes from police and Home Office
2. Hold meeting with door staff, security, reception and "management"
3. Change little cardboard sign in window from ‘green’ to ‘amber’
4. Write briefing note for superiors, police, home office
5. Issue press release saying we’re more “alert”

This entire exercise is just mumbo jumbo – little different from waving incense over the altar and probably less effective. We have replaced sensible, targeted and effective security with ritual magic.


Friday, 22 January 2010

The Friday Fungus: Vegetarian? Don't eat mycoproteins, eat real mushrooms!

There’s always been one thing about vegetarianism I don’t understand – why some veggies seem dedicated to searching for something that, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, tastes almost, but not entirely, completely unlike meat. My advice – if you’re going to be a vegetarian for whatever reason – is to eat mushrooms instead. One’s like chicken-of-the-woods (pictured above) are substantial, protein-rich and so much tastier that artificial meat substitutes. And you can grow your own!

Which brings us to the vexed matter of mycoproteins – industrially-produced meat substitutes derived from the mold-like fungi fusarium venenatum. And, more or less, this is how it is turned into a meat substitute:

Fusarium venenatum A3/5 was first chosen for development as a myco-protein in the late 1960s. It was intended as a protein source for humans and after 12 years of intensive testing, F. venenatum A3/5 was approved for sale as food by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the United Kingdom in 1984. Today, myco-protein is produced in two 150,000 l pressure-cycle fermenters in a continuous process which outputs around 300 kg biomass/h. The continuous process is typically operated for around 1,000 h.” Wiebe, Applied Microbiology & Biotechnology, 58/4

What vegetarians also need to know is that the actual meat substitute is only possible through use of egg albumen – so you can’t feed mycoprotein-based products to your vegan mates. In the USA a vigorous campaign a few years ago against the leading mycoprotein product Quorn suggested that it can cause violent stomach disorders. This piece by science writer Charles Hirschberg in Vegetarian Times sums up the selective and partial nature of this campaign and concludes that there’s no evidence suggesting any health risks associated with mycoproteins – or at least none that compare, for example, to the risks linked to eating nuts for some people.

My beef with mycoprotein isn’t that it’s bad for you but that it makes boring meat-substitute products when there is a great choice of natural foods out there for the vegetarian.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Election 2010: Seats to Watch #2: Harrow and Hounslow


The ‘inner-outer’ London suburbs used to be pretty safe for the Conservatives but these days this is less true. Indeed, the change in racial demographics in these two boroughs has turned a once marginal place (Hounslow) into an increasingly safe labour area and a once safe Tory borough into an area of key marginals. Put simply, despite the economic success of the Asian communities in these places they retain a disproportionate allegiance to Labour. As with the ‘changing coalfields’ post much of the data comes from UK Polling Report.

Harrow East on the face of it ought to be a dead cert for Bob Blackman the Conservative candidate. A controversial MP in Tony McNulty defending a notional majority of just 2, 647 would seem to imply that Tory target number 56 is in the bag. However, it might not be so simple…not only did Bob Blackman lose the GLA seat to labour but the performance in 2008 was actually worse that the 2006 local council elections. Odds still on a Conservative gain but could be interesting indeed!

Brentford & Isleworth in the LB of Hounslow is a key Conservative target seat won in 2005 by Anne Keen (on expenses) for Labour by 4,411 in 2005. Boundary changes slightly favour the Conservatives and the seat is a fascinating contrast between the emerging yuppiedom of Chiswick and the declining inner suburbs and accompanying Asian population of Hounslow & Isleworth. Although the Conservatives did well in the 2006 local elections they only secured 31% of the poll to Labour’s 26%. The Party did better in the London Mayor and Assembly elections but still fell well short of 40%.

Harrow West was historically the more Conservative of the Borough’s two halves but boundary changes (with the safe Tory area of Pinner joining Rusilip to form a very safe outer London seat) have put an end to this – Gareth Thomas won here for Labour with a majority barely over 2000 but the notional majority for the new boundaries rises to over 7,000. In 2006 the Conservative lead in the local elections was just 4 points (39% Con, 35% Lab) and Labour lead marginally in the London Mayor and Assembly elections.

Feltham & Heston the other half of the LB of Hounslow is a long shot seat for the Conservatives in outer London. Hard up against Heathrow Airport and with a large Asian population this seat gave Alan Keen (on expenses) a majority of 7,760 in 2005. Here though Labour’s local election performance suggests they’ll hang on – in 2006 they got 34% to the Conservatives’ 30% but the Conservatives led very narrowly in the 2008 London Mayoral and Assembly elections.

What will strike you, of course, is how poorly the Conservatives have done in local elections here compared to the Party’s performance in those coalfield seats. For these ‘inner-outer’ London seats the demographic shift is away from the Conservatives making these key targets that much harder to win.


Election 2010 Seats to Watch #1: The Changing Coalfields


There will be a great deal of discussion and speculation about the next General Election not least in where the places to watch might be – Tom Finnegan on Mandate set out seven he’ll be watching, for example. In the first of a short series, I’m going to give my take on places to watch – starting with what I call the changing coalfields.

England’s former coalfields are, in the popular mind, the true heartlands of Labour support. Great bastions of socialism providing the core of Labour front benches. Having a mining heritage counts you in good stead in the Party still (maybe I should sign up) and no-one in the media is expecting any change to this, the natural order of things.

Let me tell you a different story by looking at five constituencies with a strong mining heritage where there’s a chance of electing a Conservative MP at the coming General Election.

The Yorkshire Constituency of Wakefield has been a Labour seat since a by-election in 1932 but was only held be the current MP, Mary Creagh with a majority slightly over 5,000 in 2005. Boundary changes favour Labour and UK Polling Report gives a notional 2005 majority of 6,526 requiring a swing of just under 8% for the Conservatives to win. A more recent form guide – the 2008 local election results saw the Conservatives a full 15 percentage points ahead of Labour (45% Con, 30% Lab).

Bassetlaw – in North Nottinghamshire - has, like Wakefield, been a Labour seat since the 1930s. In 2005 John Mann held it for Labour with a majority approaching 11,000. Here though boundary changes favour the Conservatives and the UK Polling Report notional majority is 8,126 – requiring a swing slightly over 8% for a Conservative gain. Again the most recent local election results – the 2009 Nottinghamshire County Council elections – suggest the Conservatives are doing well securing over 50% of the vote in this constituency over 10 points clear of Labour.

North West Leicestershire (where the sitting MP suddenly and sadly died on Boxing Day last year) is a genuine marginal having been Tory-held from 1983 up to 1997. There are no boundary changes and Labour held the seat in 2005 with a majority of just 4,477 – needing a swing well below 5% for a Conservative win. In last year's County Council elections Labour won no wards here and got barely 20% of the vote (just a little ahead of the BNP) with the Conservatives winning over 40%. This is the likeliest of these five seats to change hands especially since David Taylor’s sad death.

Rother Valley is classic South Yorkshire mining country and has returned Labour MPs since before the First World War. Kevin Barron, the sitting MP had a majority of 14,224 in 2005 over the Conservatives. The boundary changes here favour the Conservatives strongly and this is reflected in the last local election results with them pulling nearly 9 points clear of Labour (indeed 9 of Rotherham District’s 10 Conservative councillors are from this seat). That said, the swing needed is nearly 15% on the nominal figures from 2005 so a big call for the Conservatives to win. Expect it to be pretty close though.

Don Valley is in the Yorkshire district of Doncaster and is represented by former Labour cabinet minister, Caroline Flint (who had an 8000+ majority in 2005). Making predictions in Doncaster is always a tricky business these days but Labour got just 26% of the vote in winning a recent by-election in Rossington which should be their strongest area in the constituency. However, with competitive minor parties like the English Democrats and the BNP, it’s really anybody's guess. Certainly worth watching on election night!

The point of featuring these constituencies is to show how demographic change in these largely rural places is making them more Conservative-aligned. At the same time the mining heritage, while still very strong, plays less and less of a political role. The next five constituencies will be places where the opposite is true – where demographics are favouring Labour.


Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Wednesday Whimsy: Your Place, My Town, The Land

Beckenham Road (a long time a go)

Listening to the poignant evocation of Cornwall, “Cousin Jack”, I had something of an epiphany – recognition of why the spirit of place is so important to us. And why its emotion so often trumps rationality. I’m not from Cornwall, have no Cornish heritage and no Cornish connection of note – but the emotion of the song gets to me just as do the feelings in Springsteen’s “My Hometown” or even Billy Bragg’s take on Essex in “A13”.

If you write, speak or sing with passion about your town, your country, your hills or even your street, you will bring out those emotions – the associations with place, with roots, with where we belong. These are some of the most powerful ties and we never lose them even when thousands of miles from that place. The ties that make tough old New York cops stream with tears at “Kathleen” or “Danny Boy”. The ties that make me stop, catch my breath and think a little about the things that really matter.

For me Kipling is the great poet of this feeling and in “The Land” he summed it up about his native Sussex. Here are the last couple of stanzas:

“His dead are in the churchyard--thirty generations laid.
Their names went down in Domesday Book when Domesday Book was made.
And the passion and the piety and prowess of his line
Have seeded, rooted, fruited in some land the Law calls mine.

Not for any beast that burrows, not for any bird that flies,
Would I lose his large sound council, miss his keen amending eyes.
He is bailiff, woodman, wheelwright, field-surveyor, engineer,
And if flagrantly a poacher--'tain't for me to interfere.

'Hob, what about that River-bit?' I turn to him again
With Fabricius and Ogier and William of Warenne.
'Hev it jest as you've a mind to, _but_'--and so he takes command.
For whoever pays the taxes old Mus' Hobden owns the land.”


The Theory of Competitive Government


In one of his more that usually stupid comments our Prime Minister said this:

"We're the Government doing the most for the people of this country."

Unlike all the other Governments in the country who aren’t doing nearly as much.

However, this got me to thinking. Why not have competitive government – it works for everything else. Rather than just the one Government with all the power, we could have an open market – any group can set up a government, raise taxes and deliver services but they do so in competition with others.

Tricky I know and we’d end up with a new government to mediate the disputes between the various governments – and so on like the proverbial fleas on a dog’s back. We need some central authority to administer the laws and prevent arbitrary seizure of property. And that authority must be under popular control so as to prevent it become itself arbitrary.

However, the principle underlying the admirable “free schools” ideas could – and in my view should – be translated into the genuinely competitive delivery of government services. If it is right for schools to break free from bureaucracy, the same must apply to health, to waste management, to social services…to the police. The great reforms of the 1945 Labour government created a producer bureaucracy that is no longer suited to today.

A major change is possible in government – delivering through voluntary choice and the decisions of individuals the rapid improvements in service quality, care and cost-effectiveness that bureaucratic fiat can no longer deliver. A truly radical government will start the transformation by handing over power and control to neighbourhoods, to communities of interest and to the creators and innovators now stifled by the dead hand of our centralised state.


Monday, 18 January 2010

Swans at Mistley, railway bars and a little bit of Essex

If you've never seen the swans at Mistley on the Essex marshes, you've missed a treat. Indeed a treat that's fast disappearing. The basin at Mistley used to feature one of Europe's largest herds of swans - in the 1950s well over 1000 swans regularly gathered to enjoy the treat of a food rich location. The swans gathered at Mistley because of the maltings on the river - the water used in the works was rich in the residues from the malt making for a great feeding ground.

Today the swan numbers are down to a couple of hundred - when the picture above was taken a couple of years ago, there were only around 50 or 60 pairs in the basin. Some of this is down to the management of the river but it is mostly, I suspect, because the maltings have closed and the swans get get better pickings elsewhere. The sight of a sea of white birds from bank to bank that I saw on my first visit in 1980 is no more and will likely not return.

The Essex marshes are a pretty special area (although they get more workaday and less special as you head towards Harwich) with places like Mistley and Manningtree making for an attractive location - Manningtree used to have a great railway bar - privately run and serving maybe the best range of beers in the town. A bit like the maltings and the swans this is now gone - replaced by a plastic cafe.

Essex gets a bad name - one of the last places, the people of which can be bad-mouthed, made a joke of and ridiculed with seeming impunity. Not that they mind of course - after all they made up most of the jokes themselves. And what's wrong with 5-in stilettos and a soft-top motor anyway? At least Essex folk are honest about aspiring to these things! Anyway, the area around Mistley is lovely and worth a visit where the locals will, of course, remind you that Constable country is mostly in Essex rather than Suffolk. And that it's perfectly OK to shoot and eat ducks!


Idiots, Naomi Klein and the branding of political personality


The other day, Naomi Klein of “No Logo” fame, penned a long, rather impenetrable and certainly meandering think piece for the dearly loved Guardian. Now Ms Klein is nothing if not consistent and lays into her favorite target: “corporate branding”. And this time those bad old brands have taken over the government.

Now I don’t wish to rehearse the legion reasons why Ms Klein is massively and dangerously wrong – why she fails to realise that it is better for corporations to invest in your and my minds than in the pockets of decision-makers. Why the rejection of the trademarked brand gives power to producer cartels. And why we are rich because of brands rather than the other way round. Ms Klein crawled from out the pseudo-liberal American left with its hypocritical and selective take on freedom and its hatred of the ordinary and everyday. What she says displays a deep misunderstanding of marketing.

However, Ms Klein sparked another interest of mine – the idea of the personal brand (or even the anti-brand as she likes to position herself which is really cute). Naomi, ever glib, slipped out this little opinion:

“So, it seemed that the United States government could solve its reputation problems with branding – it's just that it needed a branding campaign and product spokesperson sufficiently hip, young and exciting to compete in today's tough market. The nation found that in Obama, a man who clearly has a natural feel for branding and who has surrounded himself with a team of top-flight marketers.”

Well leaving aside the rapid falling to earth of this Icarus of politics, I was struck by the significance of the political leader as a brand and the importance of that brand to the success or otherwise of a government. However, I suspect that a few moments glimpse at history (and fiction - Liberty Valance springs to mind straight away) will show that, far from Obama – Man as Brand – being as new phenomenon, he is a continuation of a great American tradition.

We have only to think of Theodore Roosevelt with his “action man” positioning, the “Camelot” of JFK and Reagan’s “Sunrise in America” to appreciate that the ‘personality brand’ is central to American politics. It could be said that the “backwoodsman” image of Davy Crockett – even of Abe Lincoln – was central to positioning and the political brand.

As we stumble towards another British General Election, the ‘personal brand’ is taking centre stage. This isn’t new – right back to Disraeli the individual personality of a politician has been significant – but this will be the first British General Election where that fact has been placed centre stage. The campaign is being drawn as a battle between leaders – a war of champions – rather than a contest between competing party organisations. And the brand positioning of those leaders will be central to the outcome.

I’ve said before than this is a retrograde step – I do not get a choice between leaders but a choice between ciphers who may or may not reflect what those leaders want to do (or even what they say they want to do). And the idea that the careful wrapping up of politics into a nice parcel represents an effective approach to branding and positioning shows yet again that our politicians don’t get marketing strategy either. In truth Naomi Klein is right about branding. It isn’t the salvation its advocates say and it is but one element of one part of an overall marketing strategy.

There is a problem. There really is. But it’s not branding. It’s not that corporations are trying to capture government – nothing new there government has always been corrupt. It’s that we, the everyday idiots, don’t care. One day we’ll wake up, realise our mistake and pull the whole house down. Until then I’m going to carry on drinking Nescafe, wearing Levis and all the other bad consumer stuff that Naomi doesn’t like!


Sunday, 17 January 2010

Humpty Dumpty and the word police


“…There's glory for you!'

`I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master -- that's all.”

It may seem a little trite to start a discussion about the serious issue of language by quoting from a children’s book – even one as famous as “Alice Through the Looking Glass” – but it seems to me that Humpty Dumpty’s point is important to this discussion.

I’ve always been with Humpty on the matter of words – at least in so far as we manage to get our meaning across. But it does concern me that an order of lexical understanding has grown up from a belief that words inevitably carry a cultural loading. That there must be a list - and ever expanding list - of words that we cannot use, words that might offend some protected group or other.

The proper use of words is compromised. People write badly by using the plural to denote the singular or through the soul-destroying use of passive language. All so as to avoid the possibility that we use a masculine singular to refer to someone who could be of either gender. As if this really matters in the order of things – in the desire to see women’s equality.

But all this is just annoying, limiting and slightly dispiriting rather than something to die in the ditch over. What should really concern us is the manner in which language has become a tool by which the powerful destroy the weak – unguarded comments be they about women, a polemical comparison of someone’s speech to that of a past fascist regime or innocently alluding to black people by reference to their skin colour.

The recent example of Greg Stone, Lib Dem candidate in Newcastle East, is a case in point. Under a pseudonym, Mr Stone posted some choice comments on the Guido Fawkes blog – perhaps ill-advised but not a hanging offence surely? However, to hear Nick Brown the Labour MP for the constituency, you’d have thought Mr Stone had been caught in bed with a goat, murdered his mum and run off to Morocco with a stack of charitable funds.

Or the endless resort of many MPs, campaigners and media hacks to accusations of racism, sexism or some other kind of dread discrimination. One slightly bufferish comment and the word police are down on you like a ton (or do we have to say tonne these days) of bricks. No-one’s actually been offended. No-one’s been prevented from doing anything. But the word police – motivated more often by power and spite than any semblance of genuine concern – are there and are not interested in what the accused has done beyond the instant condemnation for using the “wrong words”.

The existence of this word police presents a gift to the bully. Good men and women are destroyed by powerful men like Nick Brown because it suits them and their search for power. Local standards boards for Councillors do not raise standards but provide instead a platform for the bully. Allegations of discrimination are automatically introduced into employment disputes because the lawyers know they are treated differently and are more likely to secure a settlement. And the media loves a good: “Councillor in racist abuse” story – even when it’s nothing of the sort.

My words mean precisely what I want them to mean, nothing more, nothing less. If you think they are racist, sexist, ageist or homophobic, that's your problem because I'm not any of those things.


Friday, 15 January 2010

Some reasons why Michael Heseltine is the wrong man to lead on regeneration


“Former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine is set to take a key role in forming Conservative party regeneration policy, it was revealed today.”

This was the quote that popped up in my e-mail in-box courtesy of Regeneration & Renewal Magazine (which, of course, being a Haymarket publication has a Hezza connection). Suffice it to say this caught my breath. Why, given the failure of all Heseltine’s prior efforts at regeneration, are we bringing him back to advise the Party on a “green paper”?

“Failure”, I hear you exclaim, “but surely Hezza’s a regeneration superstar?” Followed I guess by talking about intervening every verse end, clearing vast swathes of industrial land in Northern cities and cutting through the “red tape” by handing planning powers to development corporations. Plus Docklands of course.

Well I don’t know where to start with the reasons why Michael Heseltine is the wrong man to lead on regeneration but here’s a few good reasons:

Regeneration isn’t about buildings, land, property development or big business. It’s about people and the barriers to people succeeding in life – remove those barriers and there’s a chance of regeneration. Keep them there and all the land deals in the world won’t make things any better.

Regeneration isn’t about being “business-led”. Especially when the businessmen doing the leading are those with the vested interests in using the public money poured into regeneration to generate profits.

Regeneration isn’t about big , grand, landmark schemes. You can spit from the wonders of the Victoria Dock development in Newham onto the depressing sadness that is Silvertown and North Woolwich. Those grand schemes haven’t transformed those communities – worse than that, they have made them more isolated

Regeneration isn’t about knocking down the stuff you don’t like and handing over the cleared remnants to developers. Sometimes that’s right but mostly it destroys neighbourhoods and merely relocates the community’s problems

Above all regeneration is about people. Not people with nice cars, good suits and expensive haircuts. Not men who think the way to regenerate is to push out all the poor people. Regeneration is about transforming the lives of people who live in poor places – places where the schools are crap, where the only available careers appear to be drug dealer, prostitute or benefits cheat and where having a job is the exception not the rule. All the planning rules, red lines, area-based initiatives, urban development corporations, property forums and assorted paraphernalia of regeneration amount to nothing if we ignore the basics – education, skills, housing and, first and foremost, the aspiration and confidence of people in poor communities.

I don’t doubt Michael Heseltine’s business acumen. I’m sure there are good tactical reasons for the Party involving him in developing policy. But regeneration needs new thinking. Thinking that focuses on the people who live in the places being regenerated. People whose aspirations are low, who see little prospect of opportunity and who get the raw deal when it comes to many services. Rounding up a few businessmen to sit on some grand board so as to hand out some cash didn’t solve the problem in the 1970s. Or the 1980s. Or the 1990s. Or from 2000 to today. Perhaps we’ll learn now and put money and effort into regenerating the people rather than in trying to hide them under shiny new buildings.


Dave, stop shooting the messenger...


Here we go again...shoot the bloody messenger. The only reason we consumer "excessively" is because of evil advertising. Now not only is this complete tosh (the fact that we like having all that stuff has quite a lot to do with us buying it you know) but I'm getting royally fed up with the pig ignorance of our political classes.

Here's Dave holding forth....

"In a speech at an event hosted by the Demos think tank, Mr Cameron said that children were being "sold the idea that the path to happiness lies through excessive consumption". He said that it was "high time" advertisers curbed their practises, although he added that the Conservatives did not want to resort to regulation. "But we will make it clear that if business doesn't exercise some corporate responsibility, we will not be afraid to impose it," he added"

Sorry Dave but you're wrong. Children are not being encouraged towards excessive consumptions - most of them (and their parents) would like half a chance to have a quarter of the goodies you're able to give your kids.

Instead of protecting children from advertising you should be protecting them from the brainwashing they're getting at school.


Friday Fungus: Morels

As the Autumn months slip away our thoughts of mushrooms tend to fade – after all mushrooms are characteristic of those damp, misty times not of the clear, fresh bright days of Spring! But here’s a thought – look out for morels.

Although many gourmets extol the virtue of the morel, it does have something of an acquired taste – earthy is the phrase most often associated with these mushrooms. But they are great fresh and, like ceps, are readily and easily dried. Even if you’re buying them rather than collecting them yourself, take care to clean the morels well (or else the earthiness might be literal as well as invocative).

As ever Wild About Mushrooms is a great guide to these fungi and include a series of recipes for using the fresh morels (such as a selection of stuffed morel ideas – great for finger food if you have the patience). However, for a celebration of the morel this is the place to go – The Great Morel. The Wood Family Favorite on this site looks the business and it would work for any large mushrooms I suspect.

However I suggest (seeing as I’m lazy that way) morels sliced and sauteed with butter and served in a salad of spring onions, lamb’s lettuce and cucumber with a simple dressing or even just some good olive oil.

"Vote for me or my demon eats you."


The witch candidate for Cambridge, self-styled King 0f all Witches, Magus Lynius Shadee has a secret weapon up his sleeve (or possibly on one or other of hell's planes):

"A witch who plans to open an occult centre in Cambridge says he has conjured up a demon - in the city's Catholic Church. Magus Lynius Shadee says the demon could possess parishioners and drive them to suicide.He claims to have instructed the evil spirit to "dwell" in the famous church to "cleanse it". The occultist, who calls himself the King of All Witches, says he let loose the entity to prey on worshippers at the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs in Hills Road."

Our Mage also plan to use his powers to assist his election campaign and he:

"...hopes to cast a spell on voters and steer them away from the traditional parties."

So what with demonic assistance, magic spells and doubtless assorted sprites and shades to assist him, will our Mage be Cambridge's next MP? Or will the collected "traditional parties" conspire to do him down by underhand methods like leaflets, canvassing and the application of election law? A mighty battle in prospect between these occult forces and a lone witch helped only by a mere demon!


Thursday, 14 January 2010

Thanks for the snow...can we have spring now?


Snowdrops, dafodils, tulips, birds shouting a lot about sex, trees coming alive again, frog spawn...Spring is great.
And at the end of this Spring we get to kick out Gordon Brown. Bring it on!!

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Wednesday Whimsy: Reasons to be Cheerful (plus a cool cat)!

It’s all pretty drear I know. Not only have we the “worst winter” but we also the longest election campaign since records began now underway. On top of that there is next to nothing worth watching on the telly, the newspapers are full of the usual half-truth and West Ham are languishing at the wrong end of the table. Nothing to cheer about. Nothing.

And it’s worse. The usual cheery sources of vulgarity, lewdness and good humour have fallen foul of election fever and got all serious. Satire is all well and good but the world needs more light-hearted cheer for these gloomy days in the depths of a British winter.

This is the best I can do for now! In the tradition of Ian Dury – Reasons to be Cheerful!!

Graham Onions: Somosas from Bingley market: the little telescope I got for Christmas from my brother: Redwings feeding on the holly berries: Goat curry: Ellison’s Pork Pies: Lark Rise to Candleford: Carlos Tevez: Pecorino with truffles: Raspberry Yum Yums: Hudson the Labrador Puppy: mulled cider: shiny helium balloons: big American pick-ups: George Galloway getting deported: family trees: snowdrops: jazz at the pub: home-made lemonade: hot toddies: knitted hats: lamb taratarkatan at Moghuls: the cat chasing and killing a Christmas tree bauble: White Christmas: lambing season: stew and dumplings: finding stuff in the cellar: girls laughing on the train: birthday cake: Freddie Sears….

…above all we should be grateful for tomorrow is another day to savour our liberty while we still have it. For one day just think of the good stuff!

PS The cat picture was just too good to waste!


Tuesday, 12 January 2010

How Labour failed working people (the short version)


For years I’ve argued that our approach to regeneration and social change amounts to little more than sending middle class folk into poor communities to say: “there, there” and to give them a big hug. Nothing about the underlying dysfunction, the depression, the dreary inevitability of poverty.

To me this was the promise of the Labour Party and their acolytes in the social work industry. They would promote governments founded on high levels of taxation and these taxes would be used to “alleviate poverty”. But sadly the only poverty alleviated by this process was that of middle-class lefty graduates too right-on to get a real job earning money that might really alleviate poverty.

So when Tracey Cheetham (that rare thing, a nice socialist) talks about poverty my ears prick, my eyes glisten and I see the true advocate of the left-wing myth. Poverty isn’t eliminated by taxing rich folk. It really isn’t. And it’s worse when those tax pounds are, in reality, merely transferred from the moderately well-off to the averagely well-off. Two thirds of that “investment” in defeating poverty goes in wages. Wages mostly paid to people who don’t live in the deprived communities that those folk are employed to hug.

I am (as merits a good conservative) sceptical about the magic bullet of family policy. But I can read the evidence. I can see that when we give perverse incentives that encourage single parenthood we are doing something wrong. And I can see that working class communities don’t want collegiate guff about engagement and participation. They want the government to pay up on its side of the bargain – that the working class do all the shit jobs, the one’s you lot are all too precious to do. And you – the government – will make sure our kids don’t have to go through all that by providing a half way decent education, some good health care and a chance at reaching those Elysian uplands.

Dear Labour Party, this was your deal, your offer, your Faustian pact with the ordinary worker. And you reneged on that deal. You bottled it. You failed. Instead of hard work leading to opportunity it led to the benefit trap, to the dole queue, to sink schools, to a depressed and depressing world of drugs, booze and fast food. And your response was to feed the articulate middle class social workers who claimed a solution. And that solution wasn’t jobs. Or education. Or opportunity. It was a lecture about drinking, smoking, fatty foods and slapping kids. At best it was a hug.

Were I one of these victims of Labour’s arrogance, I would be hoping – with every sinew – that things will change and the nanny state is replaced with real opportunity, choice and the fulfilment of that promise of a better future. And they won’t get that from a Labour Government.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Welcome to Will Hutton's cuddly fascism - his Brave New World


Will Hutton wrote an article in last Sunday’s Observer arguing in his inimitable, terribly reasonable way that “class” still matters. And what a piece!

Dear old Uncle Will starts with the usual left-liberal stuff about private education – all of which is, of course, just like Eton (not only an exceptionally good school but an exceptionally unusual one even for the private sector). But Will says:

“Britain is a chronically unfair and increasingly closed society and private education plays a central role.”

And he’s clever and important so must be right (and can afford to move to the posh places that have good schools – even grammar schools - as well). But all OK so far, just the usual left wing, politics of envy stuff, nothing new or momentous.

But Will goes further he wants to pull down those who have had the luck to be born into families with engaged parents, rich parents or just plain bloody-minded parents who insist their kids get a good education. Why? Because it’s not fair! We have to chop down all the oak trees so the maples can get more light.

The truth about Will’s article is that there is only one way to achieve the levelling he desires – to abolish parenthood. To declare that only the state has the power to make life fair – and to do this by ensuring that all children are brought up in the same environment, unaffected by the positive or negative influence of biological parents. Here’s Will:

“We owe it to them to create social structures that deliver that (fairness), not structures that manufacture good luck for those who can pay for it and close down opportunity and openness for everyone else.”

There are the words – “create social structures” – the social engineering that the left loves. What Will Hutton seems to want is little different from the frightening social control of “Brave New World”, where parenthood is either wholly constrained or de facto abolished, where Government defined “fairness” is enforced by social services, the police and schools. Where a tiny elite – dominated by the likes of Will Hutton – believe they are bettering mankind.

Well Will, I don’t want your 21st Century social model, your cuddly fascism – I don’t want private provision and initiative emasculated because the state has failed. I want a free society where people stand or fall on their own. And I will not allow my choice and my freedom to be removed for the sake of your misplaced idea of fairness.

As I said earlier Will – life’s not fair.


Life's not fair...


Can I just explain something to Will Hutton, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and all the other hand-wringing pundits and politicians?

Life's not fair.

Sorry to disappoint you all but some folk are brainier, taller, faster, sexier and have better hair. It just happens that way. It’s a bugger. But there you go.

Life’s not fair.

And you know it’s always been the case that some folk have richer or better connected daddies. Some people have better health. Some people are unfortunate to get permanently disabling injuries in accidents. Some people just seem to be bloody lucky. I hate it, it stinks. But you know Nick, Will and Ed?

Life’s not fair.

Now shut up and leave me alone to get on with my life. Thanks.


Sunday, 10 January 2010

Why "food security" is just protectionism rebadged.


This exploration of so-called “food security” starts with an article in the Sunday Telegraph by Bee Wilson.

“Will we soon be stockpiling canned mandarin segments and clawing one another’s eyes out over powdered milk in Tesco?”

Apparently “food campaigners” have been begging us to face up to this dark future for some time now. According to the doyen of such food campaigners, Tim Lang, Professor of Scaring the Pants Off Us About Food at City University suggests (according to Bee) that we are “sleepwalking”:

“…into a future where our food security was likely to be undermined, whether by natural disasters, rising fuel costs, climate change or the massive pressures placed on the global food system by a rising population.”

Be afraid, be very afraid…we are all doomed unless…unless we buy into the food security deal. Which takes us to the prosaic little document entitled “Food 2030” that the former Department for Agriculture has produced. Littered with words like “resilience”, “sustainable” and “healthy” this is where it’s at when it comes to the future strategy for our supply, consumption and attitude towards food. And the big deal is another producer-driven protectionist ramp – “food security”.

“Food 2030” starts (after the sick-making foreword from Gordon Brown) with the usual lecture and an assumption that the “challenges” are solvable through a “more joined up food policy”. Once it has settled down a bit it takes us to a strange, Stalinist world where markets, the creativity and innovation of individual farmers and the choices of consumers are as nothing besides the issue of “food security”.

Suffice it to say I don’t agree. I don’t believe the world is in imminent danger of running short of food and the “food security” argument is about protecting already wealthy farmers, powerful food distributors (aka supermarkets) and the role of bureaucrats in the food and agriculture sector.

In essence “Food 2030” for all its greenery, self-righteous smugness and “consultation” is a proposal to reduce free trade in food, to build protectionist barriers and to direct money to the food industry at the expense of us consumers and those who grow the basic raw produce. Nothing new in any of this, of course, but now it is wrapped in the language of greenery, of sustainability and the saving of the planet. It’s no longer about ensuring our farmers can afford a new Range Rover but about reducing carbon footprints and making us all more healthy (and I’m sure the Range Rover will be a hybrid).

I will be writing about protection in agriculture, the wrongness of geographic designations and the continued capture of food policy by food producers and distributors – mostly to the cost of us consumers. I might even throw in a recipe or two!


Saturday, 9 January 2010

Friday, 8 January 2010

Friday Fungus:The Great Mushroom Clean-Up! How fungi are helping clear up our mess!

Fungi have many uses – not only are they great food and essential to the production of bread and beer but they have applications in the “bioremediation” of oil spills.

The problem with oil spills is that the detergents used to clean up the shoreline and shallows following these disasters can be as damaging as the oil itself. Indeed there is some evidence that the recovery of untreated shoreline is as rapid as the recovery of treated shoreline. This is where mushrooms – with a little help from matted hair – come into play:

“In the aftermath of the Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay last November, woven mats of human hair were used to absorb the oil from the beaches. Oyster mushrooms were layered between the oil-soaked mats and allowed to work their magic.

In just 12 weeks, the mushrooms consumed the oil and the hair, turning the whole mess into soil. When you think about the fact that the hair waste from salons usually goes into landfill and that oil from oil spills is generally incinerated after it’s cleaned up, this is an improvement on a massive scale”

Pretty impressive stuff – both as an example of recycling and also as a use for mushrooms. The search for applications for this mycological marvel continued and in Fort Bragg, California an experiment got under way to see if mushrooms could be used to remove dioxins and other contaminants from the soil. The project is led by Paul E. Stamets (pictured above), author of “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.” The mushrooms used were local and applied naturally:

“Quick to caution against easy remedies — “I am not a panacea for all their problems” — he said he had hope for cleaning up dioxin and other hazardous substances on the site. “The less recalcitrant toxins could be broken down within 10 years.”
At least two dioxin-degrading species of mushroom indigenous to the Northern California coast could work, he said: turkey tail and oyster mushrooms. Turkey tails have ruffled edges and are made into medicinal tea. Oyster mushrooms have domed tops and are frequently found in Asian food.”

Now there are some problems – this mushroom-based bioremediation is slow and many of the possible benefits remain unproven. However, given the amount of contaminated land and the environmental cost of current remediation methods (chiefly the removal of contaminated soil from the site and its dumping elsewhere), this mycological bioremediation represents real progress.

And Paul Stamets continues to make the case for the importance of fungi to the planet from his Fungi Perfecti business:

Covering most all landmasses on the planet are huge masses of fine filaments of living cells from a kingdom barely explored. More than 8 miles of these cells, called mycelia, can permeate a cubic inch of soil. Fungal mats are now known as the largest biological entities on the planet, with some individuals covering more than 20,000 acres. Growing outwards at one quarter to two inches per day, the momentum of mycelial mass from a single mushroom species staggers the imagination. These silent mycelial tsunamis affect all biological systems upon which they are dependent. As they mature and die back, panoply of other fungi quickly come into play. Every ounce of soil does not host just one species, but literally thousands of species of fungi. Of the estimated 1–2 million species of fungi—about 150,000 species being mushrooms—we have catalogued only about 50,000, of which 14,000 have been identified with a species name. The genetic diversity of fungi is vast by design, and apparently crucial for life to continue.”

Put simply mushrooms are essential to the creation and maintenance of soil – we should cherish and encourage fungi. Without them the world would be a barren – and less tasty – place.