Saturday, 16 December 2017

Liberal Democrats: trying the same thing and hoping for a different outcome...

“My girlfriend,” the comedian we were watching told us, “is a Liberal Democrat. So she really is one in a million.”

We all laughed. In truth, though, it’s no laughing matter to see what’s become of the Liberal Democrat Party.

It was a while back now that the forerunner of that party, the Liberals, bestrode the British political scene. A while but hardly a time lost in the mists of history: my grandfather was two years into an apprenticeship as a lithographic artist and well into his teens – school leaving age was 14 at that time – when the Liberals won a landslide majority in parliament and opened ten years of apparently unassailable, and certainly unassailed, rule in the country.

That only ended in 1916 when the last Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, was forced out of office for his supposed mishandling of the First World War. He was replaced by his Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, whose political guile clearly outweighed his loyalty. However, Lloyd George headed not  a Liberal government, but a coalition with the Conservatives.

David Lloyd George
Led the Liberals into coalition with the Tories
and sealed their fate
This was the national government, intended to rise to the challenges of the war, though it continued to 1922, well into the peace. Then the Conservatives won a majority on their own. The Liberals, split between the followers of Lloyd George and Asquith, never formed another government. The legacy of coalition with the Tories wiped them out for decades. Instead, they were replaced as the main opposition to the Conservatives by the Labour party, then barely a generation old.

From the time I first became aware of politics, I’ve watched the Liberals struggling to re-emerge onto the political scene. They would win occasional by-elections to loud fanfare in the press, much of it orchestrated by themselves. But when a general election came round, they would be reduced to a handful once more, often losing the very seats they had won in the by-elections.

In my youth, we used to talk about the “taxi Liberal Party”, since all its MPs could have fitted into a single London cab.

Then came the eighties. Labour decided to try its luck under a leader from the Left and a manifesto with a radical bent to it. In 1983, it went down its worst defeat since the 1930s.

Out of this brief flirtation with the far Left came a breakaway group, the Social Democratic Party. It won a few seats and made a few waves. But essentially it was battling for the same voters as the Liberals; the two parties at first collaborated and then eventually merged into the Liberal Democrats. And prospered.

At the 2005 General Election, they peaked at 62 parliamentary seats. Small compared with Labour’s 418 that year, or the Liberals 397 in 1906, but a huge improvement over the taxi cab days – in 1970, they had just six seats.

And then, in 2010, they went into coalition with the Tories.

You’d have thought they’d have learned, wouldn’t you? They apparently thought they could go back into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 and come out with a different result from 1916.

Nick Clegg
Led the Liberal Democrats into coalition with the Tories
and sealed their fate
Well, they were wrong. In 2015 they were reduced once more to just eight seats. At the election this year, they won a few back and reached 12. They’d need two cabs rather than just one, or three if they wanted to be a little more comfortable. But anywhere near power? Not a chance.

It’s a loss. Often, particularly on matters of human rights, the Liberal Democrats were out to the left of Labour and acted as a useful antidote to the occasional illiberal inclinations of some in my party.

I remember at the time of the coalition getting into lively debates with Lib Dems on Twitter. One assured me that having a Lib Dem influence on government was worth even a price as high as a generation of irrelevance.

Well, they had their chance between 2010 and 2015. It’s not clear they exercised much influence, and today what influence they had has left little trace. Now we’re well into the period of irrelevance; I wonder if my adversaries from back then still feel the price was worth paying.

It seems to me the political landscape has been impoverished by the fate of the Lib Dem party. Especially in so far as it has benefited the Tories. Even if it occasionally provides some good one-liners for standup comics.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Outstanding standup

If you’re anything like me, what you need after some particularly drudge-ful drudgery is entertainment that doesn’t just pass muster but pushes the bar higher. 

The kind that can combat the effects of tasks as tiresome as completing expense reports. Oh, boy. What a task. To be fair, it’s been made a tad easier for me because I’ve been issue with a fine piece of software to deal with it. I won’t name it here, however, as a matter of discretion with which I’m sure you’ll concur. 

Let’s just say that, like most fine software, it works well when it works and drives me mad when it doesn’t.

To raise my spirits takes something out of the ordinary. What better than fine standup comedy? Especially standup by women. And specifically Jewish women.

I have two fine examples, one fictional, one real.

First the fiction. We watch quite a few shows, but this year none, I feel, has been as good the recent Amazon series, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. At times, I come across writing that simply makes my jaw drop, and this series was full of such  moments. “How did she think of that?” I kept asking myself, bowled over by the talent of the series creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino.
Rachel Brosnahan as the marvellous Mrs Maisel
Set in 1958, the series tells the story of a wealthy New York Jewish wife and mother, Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel, who finds herself increasingly drawn into making a career for herself in standup. The framing story is peopled with a range of highly distinctive but entirely Jewish characters each played by an excellent actor (Kevin Pollak is outstanding as the sweatshop-owning father-in-law), all of them endowed with their own skilfully comic lines.

Their story is chaotic, noisy and even subversive of its own genre (the severe paterfamilias, for instance, comes across as genuinely authoritarian until we discover he seldom gets his way). In powerful contrast, the standup sessions, and there is at least one per episode, while seeming even more anarchic than Midge’s life, are highly disciplined, tightly timed, and perfectly paced. Each is a jewel of the art.

The shows fairly bristled with great lines. Because it has no fear of being anachronistic, they frequently feel more like comedy from today than from 1958. I particularly liked “why don’t they serve drink here? I need a stiff drink. I need a drink so stiff I could blow it.”

How about the real comedian?

We saw her a few weeks ago at our local, council-run comedy venue, the Luton Comedy Bar. It charges a ridiculously low amount to get in, which means it must pay its artists a pittance. You wouldn’t tell from the quality, though, which was of the finest – the best value for money for entertainment I can think of.

The headline artist was Daphna Baram. She introduced herself by pointing out that we would all know from her accent (Israeli) that she wasn’t from around here.


She was from Walthamstow.

Daphne Baram: a remarkable background,
an irreverent approach and extremely funny
That was one of her least successful lines of the evening, not particularly appreciated by an audience of Lutonians who don’t sound that different from people from Walthamstow, only 35 miles away. But I enjoyed comparing the Walthamstow and Luton accents with hers, which was nothing like either.

Baram has an extraordinary background: a former human rights lawyer as well as a former soldier, she apparently took up standup when friends bought her a comedy course after she had a heart attack.

On the evening we saw her, she told the audience that she had just learned that she’d been successful in winning British citizenship (or is that subjecthood?) Taking the test meant learning a great deal more about Britain than most native Brits know. For instance, Jewish or not, she had to learn all about Christmas. And what gets her about that festival? Well, the serving of turkey, the dullest of meats.

“Where,” she asked us, “was Jesus born?”

Cautiously a few voices volunteered the answer “Bethlehem”.

It seems that Baram has been there several times, and not always with an Israeli Defence Force tank. And in that town she came to know an outstanding restaurant that served superb lamb dishes. Sadly, the restaurant has since been razed by the IDF, but its signature dish remains the main specialty of the town.

“Jesus would have been a lamb eater,” she assured us earnestly.


“Offer him turkey and he’d have climbed up the cross himself.”

A line as good as any of Maisel’s. And as good an antidote to hours of drudgery as any drink. However stiff it may be.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Doug Jones: a key victory. One to emulate in Britain

What a relief – an unexpected one, to me at least – to see Doug Jones beat the alleged sex abuser and paedophile Roy Moore for a Senate seat in Alabama.

A famous victory. We need more of them. Here too.
The state is solidly Republican, so for a Democrat to win is extraordinary in itself. But Doug Jones isn’t just any Democrat. He proclaimed on his campaign website that, “I will defend a woman’s right to choose and stand with Planned Parenthood”.

He adds, “I believe in science and will work to slow or reverse the impact of climate change” putting a gulf between himself and Donald Trump. And, again flying in the face of far right views including the President’s, he proclaims that, “discrimination cannot be tolerated or protected. America is best when it builds on diversity and is welcoming of the contributions of all.

These are bold statements of a liberal outlook. Just the kind of views that sink most candidates in the US, especially in the Bible Belt. But despite all that, Jones was elected.

Of course, he was helped by the fact that his opponent was mired in shocking, disgraceful scandal. But then, Trump had made claims to have engaged in much of the same behaviour in his past, and that didn’t stop him getting to the White House. It seems that the mood has changed in the United States, and when moral bankrupts like Moore run, it takes only courage and decency to beat them.

That’s great news. Congratulations to the US for a step back towards a more civilised polity. But also a comfort for the rest of us, who still have to strike out along that road.

Because in Britain we too face a government that is weak and indefensible. Not because it has been engaging in shameful sexual behaviour – some Members of Parliament have but most MPs seem not to have been caught up in that scandal, including the current Ministers, with one exception (Damian Green, deputy Prime Minister in all but name, is having a torrid time at the moment).

No, in Britain, the tribulations of the government are down to the ineptitude with which it’s handling the biggest question of our time for this country: Brexit. Again and again, Ministers and not least the Prime Minister, Theresa May, find themselves ill-prepared, inconsistent in their approach, incapable of presenting an argument effectively.

As a result, the other EU nations – the EU 27 – constantly out-negotiate the government and leave it having to make concessions.

I’m not particularly upset about that. The concessions seem to take us towards softening Brexit. They may in the end leave us able still to enjoy many of the benefits of EU membership (at the cost of having to comply with some of its obligations), making Brexit a somewhat less damaging prospect.

On the other hand, it leaves the government looking like damaged goods. Weak. Adrift. Inept. Bereft of leadership.

In other words, for different reasons, the British government looks like a target easy to strike. Ripe for an effective campaign from its adversaries. An open goal, virtually.

If that puts the government in the role of Roy Moore, who do we have to play Doug Jones? That, sadly, is where the analogy breaks down.

Up against the British government we have an excellent shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, putting up a powerful, coherent narrative and, frankly, running rings around the incumbent Brexit secretary, David Davis.

However, this is an issue of such importance that the Prime Minister, rightly, has taken a directing role in the negotiations. Her Brexit Secretary handles the detail, but the broad thrust is in her hands. What we need in front of her is a figure capable of running rings round her like Starmer does round Davis.

And what do we have? Jeremy Corbyn. Who seems to have taken a Trappist vow of silence on Brexit. He has nothing to say. Even when journalists pressure him to take a stance, he refuses to do so. Doug Jones proclaiming his commitment to a woman’s right to choose? Sadly, nothing that bold, radical or powerful is coming from Corbyn.

A friend and Corbyn supporter tells me he’s “keeping his powder dry”. The words “put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry” is often attributed to Oliver Cromwell, as an exhortation to his soldiers.

If they’d kept their powder dry by never using it, Cromwell would have died on the scaffold instead of Charles I.

Trust me. If the powder is ever going to help, you have to keep it dry, certainly. But then you actually have to open fire with it.

Doug Jones did. Look at the result. When will Jeremy?

Monday, 11 December 2017

A tale of four seasons

A few minutes’ walk from where we live is Luton’s People’s Park. The name’s a pleasant reminder of a time when popular ownership of certain assets was thought of as a good thing, as it will, I hope, some time again when the present craze with rampant individualism passes. In the meantime, it’s a place many go for simple pleasure, and among them various members of our household, human and canine.

At the top of a park is a tree-lined avenue. It is strikingly beautiful at any time of year. The fact that it is comes as a celebration of the cycle of the seasons, of the way that even when things are as cold and as dark as they can be, sunlight and warmth aren’t that far away.

It’s never short of charm, however. For instance, since its a snowy December now, here’s the walk in winter.

A little earlier, in autumn, it can look like this.

Does that feel too cold and dismal? Don’t worry, it too shall pass. Before long the trees will be racing again to clothe themselves for spring – on this occasion with the left hand side wildly outstripping the right.

Before long, the sides fall into line with each other. Then we get glorious summer. The walk goes quiet and warm and green.

We wander through in shirtsleeves or, in the dogs’ case, panting, soaking in the warmth. What they dont know, but we do, is that this too is transient and soon we’ll be back to something much more austere. But no less striking.

Who cares if it turns cold again? It’s still stunning. And – who knows? – we might get snow again. 

Followed, once more, by the leaves unfurling.

In People’s Park. Where beauty awaits the people. And, of course, any dogs that come along with them to enjoy it.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

A first glimmer of hope in the Brexit tunnel

Since the morning of 23 June 2016, when the British electorate demonstrated to the world that a referendum is a poor way of reaching good sense in politics, I’ve never felt so encouraged about Brexit as today.

A fine day in Winter. A good moment for a glint of hope on Brexit
Much can still go wrong. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove remain senior ministers in the British government. They were leading figures in an anti-EU campaign that took political mendacity to levels not often achieved in pre-Trump democratic nations. Leaving the EU would free £350m a week for the NHS, they claimed; the reality is that leaving the EU will cost huge sums and the NHS crisis worsens by the day.

Instead of being driven from power as such dishonesty deserves, they continue to exert great authority at the highest level of government. It would be unwise to write them off. They will counterattack and it would be sensible to expect them to be highly effective.

Nevertheless, we can still enjoy, at least for now, an outline agreement between the UK and the EU in which Theresa May in effect conceded that we might not actually leave. In order not to create a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, she accepted the principle that the whole of the UK might remain aligned on regulatory standards with the EU, at least for some aspects of trade.

That means that she has opened the door to the possibility of our staying in the EU Single Market in effect, if not in name. If we can hold off the wild men of Brexit, such as Gove and Johnson, and make sure this happens, we shall at least have limited the damage that Brexit could do to our economy. That’s both in maintaining easy reciprocal access with our major trading partners in Europe, but also in fending a threatened dependency on an arrangement with the US. Such dependency, it has already made clear, would mean our abandoning standards that matter to us.

We would, if all this happens, have limited the worst of the damage to us. We will have maintained values and standards that protect our way of life. What we will have given up is merely the right to have any say in defining those standards: we will no longer have a vote in the deliberations that decide the regulations we adopt.

In other words, we shall have cut off our noses to spite our faces, but at lest we won’t have completely shot our foot off.

For that small mercy, on this fine winter’s days, let’s at least be thankful.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Might it be a soft Brexit after all?

So Theresa May surprised me after all. At the eleventh hour. As all seemed set to fall apart around her ears, burying her under the ruins.

Theresa May and the EU negotiator Michel Barnier
She’d claimed at the beginning of the week that she had a solution. Specifically, a means of keeping the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – the only land border between the EU and the UK – open. In other words, a way of allowing trade between the two parts of the island to continue unimpeded, without duties to pay or customs posts at which to wait.

But then it emerged she’d only achieved that by offering to maintain parity in regulations between Northern Ireland and the Republic. In effect creating a border in the Irish Sea, between the whole of Ireland and the UK, instead of within the island. To her astonishment – apparently – the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, on whose votes at Westminster she depends to keep her government in office, went ballistic. Arlene Foster, its leader, made it clear that her party’s continued support would be jeopardised by any such arrangement.

I say “apparently” because it’s actually hard to believe that anyone could have been surprised. The Democratic Unionists emerged in opposition to the mainstream Ulster Unionists because they felt the latter weren’t unionist enough. In other words, the DUP was first, last and forever a party committed to the union between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Nothing, but nothing, mattered more.

It’s practically unimaginable that Theresa May has read so little Irish history but, hey, I never cease to be amazed by the sheer extent of her ineptitude, so maybe she really doesn’t know what tradition the DUP embodies.

On Monday of this week, therefore, the whole deal looked set to unravel. And, since agreement on Ireland, was an absolute condition of allowing the Brexit negotiations to move on to discuss trade, it looked as though May was facing a sticky future indeed. Defy the DUP: how could she let her government fall? Allow the talks to collapse and make a hard Brexit certain: how could she allow the economy to suffer that level of damage?

That’s where she surprised me. She came up with a different option. She made a full, unqualified and binding commitment to enter into a full, unqualified and binding commitment at some time in the future, and on terms yet to be agreed.

It was splendid! And so EU. Fudge has always been the preferred mode of operation of the Union, as is hardly surprising when you’re trying to maintain consensus between 28 nations each intent on defending its own interest. May even came up with this agreement to agree as we entered the final 72 hours to the deadline, and the only difference from previous EU negotiations is that they generally end after a final night of intense arguing just before the decision is formalised.

Perhaps May knew well that the fudge was inevitable and felt she could do with a weekend. Why not agree on Friday rather than wait for Sunday? She’s had a torrid few months since losing her majority in an election she called injudiciously and fought incompetently. I expect she could do with a kip.

Meanwhile, on the far right, its most outspoken figure, Nigel Farage, is furious. Although the final terms haven’t been defined, the fudge makes it clear that Britain will have to accept the need to keep its regulatory standards aligned with Europe’s, at least on any matter that might affect the Good Friday peace agreement in Ireland. In other words, Britain after leaving the EU will still have to obey many of its regulations – it will merely have given up having any say on them.

The most encouraging aspect of this concession is that it might lead to something far more like a soft Brexit, where Britain remains closely aligned with the EU, in spite of the Brexiters. It will be a pity to have no say in making the rules, but even without that say, Britain will be far stronger for maintaining such a close relationship with its major trading partners.

On the other two substantive points of the deal, Britain has agreed to pay a lot more money than Brexiters throught we’d ever have to, and has even had to accept that the European Court of Justice would have some jurisdiction in Britain, over the way we treat EU citizens living here. That was enough to make Farage apoplectic, which in itself is enough to make me like the terms. On the other hand, I can see his point.

On all these terms, May has had to abandon her “red lines” and compromise with the EU. The EU has negotiated effectively and forced Britain to move further towards its positions than it has moved towards Britain’s. If these commitments to commit turn into real commitments the impact could be massive.

First of all, the US has made it clear that the trade deal that Brexiters have been relying on as their get-out-of-Brexit-free card will require Britain to align its regulations with American ones. Well, that wouldn’t happen.

Secondly, Britain has had to accept, explicitly at last, that it isn’t a lion roaring on the global stage, harkened to by everyone. If it’s a lion at all, it’s a much reduced one, its teeth and claws gone, having to supplicate rather than dictate. Britain has had to bow to EU demands, not the other way around.

That’s an invaluable lesson for Britons to learn, and long overdue.

In any case, anything that wipes the self-satisfied smile from Nigel Farage’s face, however temporarily, has to be deeply satisfying.

A fine way to start the weekend.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Progress always progress. Even when it's backwards

I’m really keen on the device on a new window in our place. It’s a sort of elongated round-bar at the top of the window. At first, I had no idea what it was for, except that it looked a little like a vent.

Curious device
It turns out that’s exactly what it is.

Why is this interesting?

Well, the history of window technology – there must be a PhD thesis or two out there on the subject – has, I humbly submit, been one of increasing impenetrability. The aim is to keep the weather out. Above all else, that means eliminating draughts.

But it seems that progress has gone too far. Or had unintended consequences. Proving that you really have to be careful what you wish for.

Because windows are so good these days, so airtight, that houses are simply not getting enough air. But the problem engineering created engineering can solve. So we now have a smart little vent to let air back in.

An artificial draught creator, in fact.

Having gone to great lengths to eliminate them, we have gone a little further to reintroduce them.

This all reminds me of A song of reproduction, made famous by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. It’s about the evolution of music reproduction, and starts:

I had a little gramophone, 
I'd wind it round and round. 
And with a sharpish needle, 
It made a cheerful sound.

And then they amplified it,
It was much louder then.
And used sharpened fibre needles, 
To make it soft again.

We make it loud, we make it soft again. We make it airtight, we make it draughty again. I love technology. 

Oh, and progress too, of course.