Thursday, June 30, 2005

The BMA rejects cutting the abortion time limit

Doctors at the British Medical Association conference in Manchester have voted against reducing the upper limit for abortion. Hopefully this will lead to a diminution of calls in other areas for a reduction in the time limit.

Abortion is one of the most heated issues imaginable. We're lucky in this country that the right to have an abortion is set down by a law and can only be removed by Parliament, unlike the US where it seems that a mere five Supreme Court Justices could do it. But it's still worrying when proposals to restrict availability come along.

I don't doubt that there many who support a reduction are driven by a genuine belief that the scientific evidence calls for it. However this is an issue to which there are no easy answers - indeed the famous US case Roe v. Wade notably states:

We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.
Despite this there is a strong strand of opinion that is determined to seize upon anything that will support their case in order to move towards virtual abolition of legal abortion.

It's also important to dispel a few myths. No woman who goes for an abortion at twenty or more weeks does so lightly - this is not a "lifestyle choice". Those who do have very strong reasons and if they aren't able to get a legal abortion here then they will search for one by other means - and that takes longer. For evidence look at the number of women from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland who travel to Great Britain to obtain an abortion (and they're disproportionately amongst the later abortions because of the time involved). Currently provision in this country needs improving - the reliance on the whims of two doctors (let alone the lack of legal provision in Northern Ireland) is a scandal.

There are some who have called for various major political parties to adopt a formal position on this. Given how the issue cuts across many personally held religious and philosophical viewpoints I feel rather uneasy about this. Preserving a woman's right to choose is essential, but one need only look at the US to see the dangers of allowing it to become a partisan issue. Repeated in this country we could risk the danger of availability depending upon whichever party was in power at the time, whilst both parties have a very wide range of opinion on the matter and would almost certainly be subjected to bitter internal struggles over policy. For the time being a free vote seems a better way to keep the issue out of the dangers of the partisan sphere.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Double standards about parades

Sorry I haven't posted for a few days as a few things have occupied my time.

Proof that there is more hatred in Northern Ireland than mere sectarianism came today with the news that the Belfast Pride march scheduled for August has been objected to by a group of Evangelical Christians and referred to the Parades Commission.

Northern Ireland is not known for being the most open minded society on the planet, but many of those objecting are the same as those who insist on the right of the Orange Order to parade wherever they want. These double standards are unbelievable! Why should an Orange march be allowed to go wherever it likes and offend as many residents as it likes, whilst one of the few parades in Northern Ireland that is neither orange nor green and which instead promotes understanding and tolerance be objected to? Many of those who support the Orange parades argue about the "right to walk the Queen's highway" regardless of objections - why do they now reverse their stance?

Hopefully the Parades Commission will dismiss this objection with laughter.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

R.I.P. Richard Whiteley

Richard Whiteley has died. Like many I have long memories of Countdown which has long been essential teatime watching, especially his banter with Carol Vorderman. Does anyone else remember the 1997 Christmas Special which pitted them against each other? (She won, but by only 13 points.)

My condolences to his family.

Tony Banks, Baron Stratford?

Former West Ham MP Tony Banks is going to become a member of the House of Lords, becoming just the latest left-wing extremist to end up as a member of that bastion of privilege. He's also generating some interest over his choice of title.

Traditionally most peerage titles are named after places, but in recent years there has been a trend towards using surnames. There have been the bizarre combination of first and surnames such as "Lord Alanbrooke" and "Lord George-Brown" - one has to wonder if the latter was referred to casually as "George George-Brown". Indeed some actually changed their surname to overcome the opposition to this. (There are also those peers who insist on calling themselves Lord/Lady Firstname Surname - Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws, not Baroness Helena Kennedy, is one of the most prominent.)

Tony Banks has decided to go for a place name in his title instead. The obvious place would be his constituency, but "Lord West Ham" might be rather awkward for a Chelsea supporter. "Lord Newham" would have been appropriate since there is a distinct Newham identity. But he's chosen to be "Lord Stratford". I'm surprised he wants to be reminded of where his constituency office was - on announcing his retirement from the Commons he said he found constituency work "intellectually numbing, and tedious in the extreme". Given Banks' ability to draw attention to his latest rubbish outburts, no doubt the people of Stratford will too. I feel lucky that I live in Forest Gate (next door).

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Well the honeymoon didn't last!

Only a few hours into the job and already Reg Empey is facing his first party division. Whilst David Burnside has called for a "decent honeymoon period", signalling a period of support from the right of the party, already the liberal wing of the party is concerned about his absolute position of not sitting in government with Sinn Féin at all during the life of the current assembly. Soon he will need a meeting to get all his party fully onboard. For the Ulster Unionists to be divided on one of the fundamental questions facing them bears ill for the future of the party. But whether they'll do anything that's sufficent to be noticed is another matter.

Now to await the Conservative Party leadership election to get into higher gear.

Friday, June 24, 2005

And so it's Empey

Sir Reg Empey is the new Ulster Unionist leader. The result was much closer than expected. Now has choosing the favourite proven the right choice?

McNarry out

I've just noticed BBC News reporting David McNarry has been eliminated on the first round with 54 votes. Reg Empey has 295 and Alan McFarland 266. Whatever the result this is far from the "walkover for the favourite" people were predicting.

The favourite for another party's leadership election should take note.

A new political leader

Tonight the Ulster Unionist Council is meeting to decide the future leadership of the party. Once this would have been a major news item. Now it appears as a little sideshow, reflecting the way the UUP have been marginalised.

The party isn't at the point of extinction yet. It has one MP, one MEP, twenty-four members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and over a hundred councilors. But after the feuds and electoral setbacks of the last few years it seems as though the party is unsure where to go. All three candidates for the leadership have been supporters of the Good Friday Agreement (is a small number of candidates necessarily a good thing?) - indeed at one point the anti-Agreement right of the party was trying to get UK Unionist Party leader Robert McCartney to return and lead the UUP. All candidates have talked about the need to rebuild the party's organisation, put an end to the feuds that have decimated it in recent years, stand up to Ian Paisley's "Democratic" Unionists and so forth. None has the open backing of David Trimble - sadly that would be a kiss of death. About the only issue that seems like a big discussion point is whether or not the UUP should merge with another party - either the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland or the Conservatives. But it's unclear where the three stand on the latter, though the former looks doubtful.

Even if the Ulster Unionists were still the province's largest party this contest could bore for the province. In a few hours we'll know who's won.

Update on the plagarism

Since my previous post I've learnt that in the end no legal proceedings were ever instigated. It doesn't surprise me as the case came across as laughable and the idea was probably found on the internet!

The last result is in

And the Member of Parliament for South Staffordshire (and for the pedants, that is what is on display on the stage, not "Staffordshire South", despite what some of the media say) is Sir Patrick Cormack.

Oh and in the Commons today there was discussion about changing the law on this to prevent scenarios such as disrupting the Prime Minister. In the US, for instance, they just carry on - John Ashcroft, former Attorney General, once lost his sea to a dead man. I reckon this change is probably for the best .

The General Election is nearly over...

BBC News 24 has just given a fifteen minute or less warning for the declaration of the South Staffordshire election. For those who have missed this one, the original General Election poll was postponed by law following the death of the Liberal Democrat candidate after nominations closed.

One has to wonder what would have happened if this had occurred in Tony Blair's constituency. As this is legally a General Election poll and not a by-election the campaign spending limit is much lower, but the poll would have attracted numerous anti-Blair candidates. And in the interim, whilst there's nothing in the constitution that states the Prime Minister has to be an MP, it's difficult to see him exerting much authority whilst his own result was unclear.

Back to South Staffordshire and the turnout is reported as 37.7% - the lowest of anywhere in the General Election. It's pretty poor, but other than choosing the parliamentary representative for the area it's heard to define just what the election is for.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Just what value does a pledge have?

On Peter David's site there's a post about an eight year old US school kid being suspended for mocking the Pledge of Allegiance.

I'm not aware if we have anything similar anywhere in our schools in the UK, but the Pledge of Allegiance is often recited in US schools everyday (as well as in many other places) and is worded:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
There's even a set of rules (though not legally binding) from congress about how one should recite it:

by standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. When not in uniform men should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute.
One honestly has to wonder just what impact being made to recite this everyday actually has on schoolkids. For a pledge to have any real meaning it should be given willingly, not just churned out all the time regardless. Do the kids who recite this even have a clue what pledging alleigance to a flag means? Maybe it's a US thing - they seem to treat the flag as a religious symbol. That and the reference to one singular God makes me wonder if whoever devised all this read that bit about the US having no state religion. There's also nothing about equality in there - maybe the US might want to look again at the wording.

If I'd had to recite something like this every single day of my time at school, I would probably have come to see it as a mere chore, one that inevitably gets mocked. I certainly wouldn't have suddenly felt all inspired and enhanced and a model citizen just because I'd rattled this off. I doubt that at that age I'd have had a clue just what a "Republic" really means (and it's a darnsight more than a state which does not have a monarchy). The whole thing is just an invitation to be mocked as a way of proving one's rebellious credentials. And given the way that schools are by their very nature run in an authoritarian style, is it really such a good idea to spread notions of liberty for all? Kids have a very poor understanding of highly charged political terms and are likely to latch onto the simplest understanding of it - that they are free to do whatever they like.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Liberal Democrats call for proportional representation... again!

Charles Kennedy attacked the electoral system in Parliament today, showing that the Liberal Democrats always retreat to their self-interest whenever they get the chance. The BBC also reported rumours that Liberal Democrat members of the House of Lords are planning to break the "Salisbury Convention" - the longstanding agreement that the House of Lords will not block proposals that were in the manifesto of the party that won the general election.

It's not heard to see that these two points are clearly linked. Many have made a lot of the fact that at the last general election the Labour Party only won 35.2% of the vote (there's a slightly higher figure, but only using figures for Great Britain) and also of the fact that in England alone the Conservatives received more votes than Labour.

Neither of these is a novel situation. In the last 100 years ago the emergent government did not have the largest share of the vote in both 1910 elections, 1923, 1929, 1951 or February 1974. In most general elections no party or formal coalition has won over 50% of the votes cast. Figures for individual parts of the UK are harder to comeby, but in 1964-1966 and again in 1974-1979 Scottish MPs made the difference at Westminster. When the West Lothian Question was first coined amidst the 1970s proposals for devolution it was no academic theory but a very real possibility.

But that was on the basis of MPs at Westminster, not votes cast in the ballot box. Currently the way our political system works it is reliant on receiving the support of a majority in the Commons and the total numbers of votes cast across the country do not play a direct role in that. It is very easy to throw some figures together and claim that the majority of the country has voted against a particular policy, but very few people ever seem to produce some number crunching that creats a majority for any package of proposals. Under proportional representation, with the series of hung parliaments that are likely to ensue (and the almost perpetual holding of the balance of power by the Liberal Democrats - no wonder they're so keen for it) there would be many, many policies that would fail the very test that the PR lobby uses to discredit the current system.

The disparity on England is another fluke of the system. It is forgotten that Labour MPs tend to get elected with fewer votes than Conservative MPs, for a variety of reasons (including the continuing decline of the number of voters in inner cities, rotten turnouts in the same constituencies and traditional Labour voters in rock solid safe seats being so disillusioned with Not So New Labour that they decline to turn out and vote for it). Redistribution should reduce the problem, though even then there will be anomalies due to the way the rules work (in London in particular the Boundary Commission rules on not tying together any more than two boroughs means that parts of the capital will have more MPs than on a strict overall allocation). But also it's a built in safeguard against any one part of the country becoming too dominant. A parliament needs to represent the nation as a whole and a system that requires multiple individual victories is one way to do it. The comparison is with many sports where one side can score more goals/runs/points but still lose overall - yet no-one seems to object to such a state of affairs.

And the Liberal Democrat proposals for PR contain some holes as well. They advocate the Single Transferable Vote. But it's telling that they propose a few exemptions for this. In the Highlands and Islands of Scotland they would retain single member constituencies. Currently most of the Highlands and Islands have Liberal Democrat MPs, including Charles Kennedy himself.

STV would also carry a lot of technical problems in allocating. The idea of constituencies with five or six MPs could be hard to implement on the ground. One example is my home county of Surrey.

Surrey has eleven local government districts. They are generally of equal size, and the current Westminster constituencies are all based on them, but with sufficient variations that make carving them up for even single member constituencies tricky. Trying to cut the county up into a five and a six member constituency would be a nightmare.

Basing the seats on the local government districts is a natural starting point, and breaching the boundaries of any would stir up a hornets nest, especially as on the numbers it isn't really necessary. (In theory STV would not require many boundary changes, but rather a change in the number of MPs each seat is allocated.)

Starting out is fairly straightforward. Because three of the districts in the east stretch from the London border to the Sussex border, whilst a fourth is completely contained within them, it's clear that one seat has to have as its nucleus Tandridge, Reigate & Banstead, Epsom & Ewell and Mole Valley. But after this things get complicated. Either one or two districts will have to be added. The only possible additions are Waverley, Waverley & Guildford, Elmbridge or Elmbridge and Spelthorne.

Adding Waverley and Guildford would result in a severe numerical imbalance in the county since Guilford especially has more than 1/11th of the electorate in the country. Furthermore it would detach Guildford from many of the north west districts that it has strong ties to. Adding just Waverley makes sense on the numbers game, but results in a seat that stretches from Farnham to Oxted, detaching a lot of the links between rural parts of Waverley and Guildford. (Indeed the village of Bramley has fought very hard to avoid being transferred from the Guildford constituency to South West Surrey in the current boundary review. The prospect of a greater detachment would severe many links in the area.) The alternative route could only feasibly go as far as Elmbridge - Spelthorne's connections are mainly with other districts, particularly Runnymede. Even then many of the ties would be weak and the seat would be undersized, again repeating the numerical imbalance. And this is just one county.

Another problem area would be Northern Ireland. The current legislation recommends the province has seventeen seats, though the Boundary Commission presently recommends eighteen as the only way to prevent a major restructuring of the province's electoral geography. But either way it becomes difficult to cut the province up into five or six member constituencies. The west of the province (the three counties of Londonderry, Tyrone and Fermanagh, or the nine districts of Fermanagh, Dungannon & South Tyrone, Cookstown, Omagh, Strabane, Magherafelt, Derry, Limavady and Coleraine) in the west make a natural unit for a five member constituency, but in the east the districts are not well spaced - Belfast City requires three MPs (the present four seats encorporate a lot of the suburbs). But then the rest of County Antrim (districts Moyle, Ballymoney, Ballymena, Larne, Carrickfergus, Antrim, Newtownabbey and Lisburn) requires four. Counties Armagh and Down (districts North Down, Ards, Castlereagh, Down, Banbridge, Newry & Mourne, Craigavon and Armagh) require five. Alternatively it would be natural to attach Belfast City to surrounding suburban districts such as Castlereagh, Lisburn, Newtonabbey and (perhaps) North Down - but this would leave the rump of County Antrim as a detached block of three MPs and Counties Armagh and Down would also be left floating. Trying to compensate by cutting up the west just doesn't work and in no way is a "natural" arrangement.

(Of course if the political process in Northern Ireland ever gets anywhere or the government ever decides to get on with thinks we could finally see the very long awaited review of local government in the province that will severely reduce the number of districts. How this will affect a notional set of STV constituencies is unclear at the moment.)

There is a lot in principle to recommend STV as a system for Westminster elections. But it falls down both on the difficulty of producing viable constituencies and also because it fails on some of the very points that current campaigners for proportional representation are making against the present system. All electoral systems have their deficits, but to make a sudden change to a system that doesn't seem to answer many of the problems and just generates some new ones is not the answer.

Thoughts on graduation

Although I go on and on, a good number of friends will in the next few months be graduating from university. Some will be returning, whether for further study or to work in one post or another, whilst others will be heading into the big wide world.

By a coincidence, today I obtained another comic for my collection, Amazing Spider-Man #185 which includes the story of his graduation ceremony. It is so true to the stereotype and reminds me just why I'm not the greatest fan of them at all.

Amazing Spider-Man #185The story contains the endless bureaucracy (made worse for Peter Parker as he finds he's not down on the lists and so goes in as an extra at the end, not even able to sit with his classmates). There's the incredibly boring ceremony in which a very boring speech is made by someone who has been of no direct importance to the graduands during their time at university. (The issue misses out the conferring of honorary degrees, but these help to prolong the ceremony as well.) Finally there is the endless procession of students to shake a hand and receive a piece of paper, along with a formal granting of the degree. The whole thing is meant to be a landmark celebrating the end of one's time in university but instead feels incredibly boring due to the sheer tedium of it. (Peter's is even worse as it's only at the end of the ceremony that he finds out that he won't be graduating just yet because he's one credit short due to having missed a gym class! Those not familiar with the US system may not appreciate just how many wild and minor courses a student has to take.)

I've been through two graduation ceremonies so far and neither of them was especially lively. Each seemed an extremely tedious experience and has made me strongly want to finish my university career by graduating for the final time by post. It makes no difference as to whether or not you have the degree as it's still formally conferred at the ceremony, though your name may not be read out. (At my MA ceremony there was one bizarre moment where there was only one person on a particular list who wasn't present and the Chancellor was formally asked to confer a degree upon "the person whose name is printed in the guide for this ceremony"!) In practice once you know your final result you can get on with applications, if you haven't started already. A party is a far better way to celebrate the end of your time at university than a long tedious ceremony.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Michael Grade admits he was wrong

As I mentioned earlier, current BBC Chairman and former Controller of BBC1 Michael Grade has been perhaps the most surprising new fan of the new Doctor Who series. As reported here he's sent an email to the BBC

This is not easy to write - as you will readily understand. But here goes å congratulations to all involved in Dr Who: to whoever commissioned it, those who executed it, the writers, the cast, the publicity folk that promoted it, the schedulers and of course the late Sydney Newman who invented the whole thing.

I truly enjoyed it and watched it every week with my six and half year old son who is now a fan.

A classy, popular triumph for people of all ages and all backgrounds - real value for money for our licence fee payers.

PS never dreamed I would ever write this. I must be going soft!"
Grade was the most public face behind the cancellation or postponement (which is still debated to this day) of the series back in 1985 and has at times since revelled in expressing hatred for the series and its fans (who have returned the complements) on many occasions. He even at one point went on Room 101 and promptly nominated the series as the thing he most wanted eradicated from memory. Now he's been won over. At the same time ratings analysis has revealed that the series has won a "family audience" - a demographic that many television insiders had long claimed no longer existed. Is there anything the series can do wrong?

Religion Quiz

One of these quizes that do the rounds:

Which religion is the right one for you? (new version)

You scored as Christianity. Your views are most similar to those of Christianity. Do more research on Christianity and possibly consider being baptized and accepting Jesus, if you aren't already Christian.

Christianity is the second of the Abrahamic faiths; it follows Judaism and is followed by Islam. It differs in its belief of Jesus, as not a prophet nor historical figure, but as God in human form. The Holy Trinity is the concept that God takes three forms: the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Ghost (sometimes called Holy Spirit). Jesus taught the idea of instead of seeking revenge, one should love his or her neighbors and enemies. Christians believe that Jesus died on the cross to save humankind and forgive people's sins.



















Which religion is the right one for you? (new version)
created with

Well the headline's accurate but I've always thought the writers of these sorts of quizes don't quite grasp the relative importance of different matters within a faith (or whatever the quiz is trying to deduce) or the diversity of opinion.


Just over a year ago the academic media had a brief rumbling over reports that a student at my old university was sueing over failure to detect his plagarism. A Google search suggests that nothing much further was reported beyond the initial story, though there's an interesting interview with Jaswinder Gill of Gills Solicitors (the leading firm for educational law matters) on some of the issues involved.

One has to wonder why, in the age of Google, anyone would be stupid enough to plagarise of the internet. Especially at one of the leading universities for computing where they can easily track stuff down!

The case attracted a lot of attention across the internet, with several long discussions on many blogs, but very few seemed to be informed by anyone with direct experience of Kent - one honourable exception being paul haine (he prefers it capitalised that way). In general there was little sympathy for Gunn - few found the idea that the university had deliberately kept quiet while taking extra fees was in any way credible (even in the era of tuition fees undergraduate students still cost a university more than they bring in). Some of those without local knowledge wondered if the rules had never been made very clear, but from a combination of my own experience, the experience of other students (including direct contemporaries of Gunn in the same department) and even external examiners the universal view is that the guidelines are very clear and that it is repeatedly drummed home to students. About the only comments I saw in Gunn's favour were either an anonymous comment on one blog claiming he was the victim of prejudice but without substaniation and one blogger querying if giving students a rather dry handbook and expecting them to read it all is enough (well that is far from all he would have received, but even if it was I doubt a court would be swayed by the argument that the University should have made him read it out loud!).

A year on it seems nothing much happened that the media took any interest in. I suspect, given Jaswinder Gill's comments, that at that stage no legal proceedings had actually started, for whatever reason. More generally the problem of plagarism remains. I wonder if the Gunn case has had any effect on any current students.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

A real tear jerker

As I said before, I'm quite a fan of comics. And today I'd like to say a few words about one of my all time favourites.

It is far from original to nominate Amazing Spider-Man #248 as one of the best. Indeed on one fan's list of his ten best Spider-Man stories he feels almost embarrassed to include such an obvious one. But there is something about this issue that just touches everyone.

The comic originally came out in September 1983 (although the cover date is January 1984 - a hangover from the days when comics were dated months ahead to increase their shelf life) when Marvel Comics had the notorious "Assistant Editors' Month." The premise was that the Marvel editors had gone to a convention in San Diego, leading the Assistant Editors in charge of the books. The result was a collection of some of the most unusual issues Marvel has ever put out. For instance we saw The Avengers - or rather a team of Reserve Avengers - on the David Letterman show! Or the Fantastic Four on trial in an intergalactic court with their writer and artist John Byrne as a witness. Or the Marvel Team-Up between the Fantastic Four's kid Franklin Richards and Spider-Man's Aunt May where she became the Golden Oldie, Herald of Galactus, the eater of worlds. (But that was just a dream. Or rather a dream of a dream of a dream of a dream of a dream of a dream of...) Or the issue of Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man which was drawn by the cartoonist Fred Hembeck. And many more.

But amidst all this was an all time gem of an issue. Amazing Spider-Man #248 contains two stories, a break from the norm of a single one. The first, "And he strikes like a Thunderball" wrapped up Spider-Man's battle with the villain Thunderball. Like many Spider-Man stories it ends with a twist and the hero being down on his luck. After beating the villain he encounters a crowd and a television reporter. But rather than talk to him about defeating a villain, they want to know how he feels about causing "the worst traffic jam in the history of eastern Long Island"! Some of these days Spider-Man wonders why he bothers!

But it's the second story that everyone remembers. "The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man!" is presented in an interesting format, with extracts from a newspaper article that Spider-Man has read is run alongside his acting upon the consequences. The article is about a kid called Timothy Harrison, who is a big fan of Spider-Man and collects all kinds of items connected with his hero. We see Spider-Man visiting Tim and seeing his collection. During their time together Spider-Man tells Tim how he got his powers, how his webbing works and why he changed from being a television performer to a crime fighter. Throughout Tim comes across as a very likeable kid. At the end as Spider-Man prepares to leave he is asked by Tim if he will reveal his identity. Spider-Man explains that he needs to prevent people from finding out, otherwise his family and friends would be in danger. Tim replies "I know... but I'd never tell another soul that I knew... long as I lived... honest!" Spider-Man pauses and thinks for a moment, then removes his mask. They joke about how for years Spider-Man's nemesis J. Jonah Jameson has been paying him to take pictures of himself! Spider-Man hugs Tim and then he leaves, pausing for a moment on the wall in the grounds outside Tim's room. And then we get the twist in the tail.

The final extract from the newspaper article appears, next to a sign saying "Slocum Brewer Cancer Clinic." The article says:

When I asked him what he wanted, more than anything else, he looked me square in the eye and said, "Mr. Connover, I'd like to meet Spider-Man and talk to him... just for a few minutes.
Well, I hope Tim gets his wish. I hope that somewhere out there Spider-Man reads these words. I hope that my publisher is wrong about him, and that he takes the time to visit a very brave young man named Tim Harrison. And I hope he does it soon.
You see, Tim Harrison has leukemia, and the doctors only give him a few more weeks to live.
Many, many people have attested how this story made them cry. Roger Stern has a reputation as one of the best Spider-Man writers of all (some of his other work includes the original Hobgoblin saga or some of the best Vulture stories that showed there's life in the old man yet) whilst here Ron Frenz, who some became the new regular artist for the series, produces work that is highly reminiscent of Steve Ditko, the original Spider-Man artist. Together they produced a tale that is now invariably found in many of the "greatest" lists.

What's particularly striking is the way that this story is very true to life. Many real life singers, footballers, actors and so on receive requests to make visits to hospitals to meet fans, some of whom aren't going to leave. Many of these of celebrities come across in the media as living extravagant lifestyles and are routinely torn to shreds by one tabloid newspaper or another looking for a sensational story, but we often forget how some work hard for charity or make visits like this, which must be harrowing for them.

Anyway this issue is a classic and if any of you get a chance to buy a copy I thoroughly recommend it.

Doctor Who ends... for now.

Okay so I was completely wrong about that one.

Otherwise this was an interesting end to the series but I guess I'll have to reqatch it before sharing my thoughts. But in general this series has been beyond any fan's wildest dreams (relatively speaking - we do all have lives!). The series has been heavily promoted by the BBC, has received strong coverage in the media, has spawned good tie-ins and the result is one of the best ratings hits of the year. The BBC has regained a major advantage on Saturday nights and has slaughtered the ITV competition. Even Michael Grade - the public face of the 1985 postponement/cancellation decision that many feel crippled the series for the rest of its life - has had to eat his words. There's at least another two series and Christmas specials coming along so perhaps this is the dawn of another long era of the series, rather than the one-off tribute many fans feared.

Here's to the future!

Saturday, June 18, 2005

The new Archbishop of York

Yesterday I was in York, by coincidence at the same time that a new Archbishop of York was appointed.

As an alumni of a university in Canterbury there's a rabidly loyal part of me that would have preferred the Church to appoint no Archbishop of York at all, but that's just natural friednly rivalry! However the Rt Rev John Sentamu looks like he will be good for the Church in the north.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Government runs away from protesters

New legislation will ban protests around Parliament. Once again New Labour is scared. Combined with Tony Blair's plans to rebuild 10 Downing Street so that most deliveries do not come to the front door and "Blair Force One" it adds up to an arrogant individual who seems to think he's a President.

The right to protest in a democracy is fundamental. Polticians should not be allowed to run away from those they do not agree with. The pathetic attempt to hide behind concerns of security is absurd. Once again New Labour has shown itself to be even yellower than the Liberal Democrats.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Abolish formal leadership elections?!?!

On Boris Johnson's blog there's a Spectator editorial on the Conservative leadership election which ends with the comment:

Better still, it would be a fine thing if the Tory party could dispense with the agonies of a contest - in which faction is inevitably entrenched, and scars can take a long time to heal - and allow the leader to 'emerge'. The 182 cardinals don't seem to have any difficulty in Rome. Why should the 197 Tories? Bring back an enlarged Magic Circle.

For those who are wondering what an illusionist's society has ever had to do with a political poarty's leadership election, the "Magic Circle" was the description famously given to the way that before 1965 Conservative leaders would "emerge" from the Party after consultations to see who was acceptable (not necessarily the most popular) to the Party as a whole, including consulting the MPs, peers and the representatives of the voluntary wing of the Party (although some of all three have long asserted that they were never consulted in particular individual elections). Sometimes a single undisputed leader would emerge but on other occasions there would be several names in contention and no-one knew who had "emerged" until they received the summons to the Palace. The 1963 contest was especially bad as it took place at the Party Conference in Blackpool, with about four or five different candidates and supporters campaigning in one way or another. No-one was quite sure just how Lord Home had "emerged" when everyone seemed to be backing either Rab Butler, Quentin Hailsham/Hogg or Reginauld Maudling. This led to calls for leaders to be elected in a more transparant process, which allegedly began in 1965 when MPs only started electing the leader.

One of the key points that should be bourne in mind is that the system was not looking for the most popular candidate but for a leader who could unite the Party as a whole. In many of the contests there was one candidate who had very strong support in large parts of the Party but also a lot of opposition. The prospect of a leader who headed a divided Party from the start was not one that many found appealing.

Indeed if one goes righht back to the last time before 1965 when the Conservatives did arrange a formal election it was not a set of circumstances one would want to repeat. The Party had only just emerged from a series of destructive feuds over tariff reform - far surpassing Europe as a divisive issue and even worse as the position which won out was deeply unpopular in the country at large - and had also divided over reform of the House of Lords. Faced with a leadership candidate from each of the two wings of the Party it is unsurprising that there was widespread relieve when both sides agreed to stand down in favour of the compromise candidate, Andrew Bonar Law, who would have got very few votes in the poll of MPs that was planned. Ever since then Conservatives have tried to find a similar unifier.

Leadership elections are indeed divisive - one has to ask how much of a mandate a candidate who gets less than 25% of support in a first round ballot or who only escapes elimination by a single vote can unite the Party on Day One. There is much to be said for the Magic Circle - it also took into account the opinions of those outside the Commons. But ultimately it was too secretive and difficult to trust. Nowadays politics comes under much greater scrutiny and there is far more openess, whilst deference has declined heavily. No-one would have confidence in such a system today.

Locking up all the MPs and keeping them there until they can agree a leader, as happens with the Pope, is a tempting prospect. But again would people have confidence in the system? What about those outside the Commons? And would the candidates get the opportunity to prove themselves in the storms that always erupt in leadership elections?

Ultimately there seems no way back. If a single candidate emerges so clearly that there is no point in anyone else standing, as happened in 2003, then it is possible to avoid the endless rounds of voting and feuding - but this is a rare exception to the normal trend. Normally there are going to be several candidates and a formal election is the only real way to choose between them.

The real problem lies not in how the leader is choosen but how the Party is willing to get behind them and trust them. The Labour Party has a long history of fiercely disagreeing with the leader of the day but has never deposed a leader - instead if the Party wants to change the policy it uses the Party processes to change the policy. By contrast the Conservative leader is set up on a pedastal and for many the only way to change the policy is to change the leader. The media do not help, providing free megaphones to critics and always trying to find a story about divisions and unstable leaderships, and there are too many Conservatives who are too willing to help them. Whoever becomes leader must have the full support of all the Party at all times, otherwise the next four years will be like Groundhog Day as yet again an attempt to take the Party in the sensible direction is derailed in order to appease diehard nutcases. Let's hope that 2005 sees changes not just in who leads the Party but also in how it is willing to be led.

Yet another party leadership election

In case anyone missed it - and it seems most, even the media did - the Liberal Democrats have had a leadership election. Charles Kennedy has been returned unopposed.

When Michael Howard was the sole candidate for the Conservative leadership in 2003 there were many Labour and Liberal Democrat members who tried to proclaim this was "undemocratic" and asserting that it was wrong to have unopposed leadership elections and that there should be a "Re-Open Nominations" option to allow the leader to be rejected. Do any Liberal Democrats believe that this week?

By the way has anyone actually spotted the last Labour leadership election? The last I can recall was way back in 1996 when Tony Blair was re-elected - unopposed. Do any Labour members want to stand by their comments from 2003?

Helen Symons' retirement from student representation

As some of you may know I've been a student officer representing students for some years now. Student politics can at times seem absurd to those looking from outside, but it has its many ups and downs. There are many people involved from across the political spectrum.

Today Helen Symons, the current National Union of Students' national Welfare officer, has posted her last blog upon her retirement.

Helen's blog can currently be found at but I've followed Jo Salmon's lead in reproducing it here so that everyone can read and comment on it. (My comments are at the bottom.)

Well, a final blog. I'm actually finding it quite hard deciding what to say. I wrote a six page essay on how saddened I am by the decline of politics in NUS the other day, but then decided no-one would read to the end!

I was never the biggest fan of blogging in the first place, in my view it takes up NEC time that would be better spent doing our jobs. When people moan about not getting replies to emails from NEC, remember, they're probably blogging or writing a report and plan or some other document that nobody will ever read….

I think I'm just going to make a few observations on NUS at the moment, and then say a few thank-yous, then shut up.

Firstly, NUS is not a nice place to work. If you're not in the leadership's pocket, you can forget it. NEC find out about virtually everything last, and debate and opposition are stifled. This year the NEC have been told again and again that we have to show some leadership and make difficult decisions about the future of NUS. Well, if we had ever been given the financial information we needed to do that, we'd have done it a lot quicker.

I've seen NUS from both sides, from being very close to Mandy to being distinctly less close to Kat, and I have to say it's difficult to tell the difference in presidential style from different viewpoints. But my instinct is that it has become more centralised, and that it has become harder for NEC to make their voices heard. Mandy certainly didn't have an inbuilt majority on the NEC, and lost lots of votes, but I never saw her so terrified of not getting her own way that she resorted to political threats. At least Labour Students acknowledge that NUS is a democratic organisation and you can't win everything.

Secondly, I'm sure many of the people reading this will have an instinctive mistrust of Labour Students and factions. Let me just say, that not once has there been a conflict of interest between my role as VP Welfare and my politics. I was happy to oppose the parts of the Housing Act that left students unprotected, and more than happy to criticise prescription charges that leave students without access to healthcare, and under investment in sexual healthcare that means some people have to wait 6 weeks for an appointment.

The reason there was no conflict was because it is my principles that make me a socialist and a member of the Labour Party, and those same principles that make me care about student welfare. I would not have done one thing differently if I had stood as an independent instead of a Labour Student.

I'm not going to go on any more about politics, but please ask yourselves if it's better to have NEC members who are honest about their principles, and honest about organising together. I was in the same smoke-filled rooms as those independent NEC members who got elected on a platform of faction-bashing, and I know for a fact that they did deals for votes. There's no such thing as a true independent, and at least some of us are honest about it.

Enough of all that, anyway. I want to say a few thank-yous before I head off...

First, to the staff of NUS. You are amazing and NUS would not exist without you and your dedication. I want to say a special thank-you to the Welfare Unit and the other staff who have supported me professionally and personally this year – I wouldn't have got through it without you.

To my comrades in Labour Students, a huge thank you.

Ben – I love you to bits, and you have made me so proud this year. You have put up with so much. Whatever you did or didn't say in your leaving speech, I would like to put on record that I am disgusted by the lies that were told about you, and disgusted by the year-long campaign of bullying that you've put up with.

Mel Ward and Jenny Duncan – You two are fantastic and will both do wonderful things. It's been a privilege to work with such strong women, and Scotland should be proud of you both.

JK and 'Woo' – You two have put up with a hell of lot in Wales this year. In case anyone at Swansea, Cardiff or Aber reads this, believe you me, JK is as anti-fees as they come. If you didn't like the result of the Presidential election in NUS Wales this year, then tough luck. Attempting to bully JK out of the job is not going to do it. Thank you both for all your support.

Smith and Jones – Thank you for being my boys on the Block this year, believe me, I know how crappy it is. Jones, you will be marvellous at everything you do, and Smith, you'd better be bloody brilliant as Chair of NOLS next year, cuz we really need you.

Wesley – Big hugs, you are so talented and you’ve been a wee star this year.

Jude and Jimmy – You are going to be fabulous next year too, I hope you enjoy it.

To all my comrades – I look forward to white wine together while you sit and tell me all the NUS gossip next year! The NOLS Office also deserve a huge thank you. You’ve had to put up with me and a General Election, which is quite a feat! Hug – what can I say? Bless you! Claire and Ollie – thank you for calming me down at regular intervals. I promise to sign up to Friends of NOLS asap!!!

A few thank-yous to the people who were NOLSies before me and have helped me get through this year. Mandy, Douglas and Karim – you have all been amazing and I can't say thank you enough.

There have been some people I've enjoyed working with this year, and others I really haven’t (don’t worry, I don't plan on naming them…).

Jo Salmon and Antonia Bance – You’re two of the only people with politics left. You are true comrades and true feminists and it’s been wonderful working with you.

Alan – You have put up with more crap and more bad luck than anyone else this year! I hope you enjoy your life outside NUS. Good luck to Daniel Randall, the NEC needs AWL people to keep it political.

Pav – You are wonderful and always keep me entertained. Best of luck next year and please work with the NOLSies to keep NUS a socialist organisation and a campaigning organisation.

Finally I want to say a few words about UJS. I am genuinely ashamed about what has happened this year. Anti-Semitism has gone ignored and unchecked, and you should be proud of the stand you took. Danny, Luc, Mitch and Jonny, it's been a real honour to work with you all, and I want to say thank you from me and from Labour Students for opening our eyes and our hearts to Israel and to your faith. I hope we can keep working together.

Well, I guess that's farewell then from me. Best of luck to the new NEC, and I hope you remember what NUS is for, because I think some people have forgotten. Don't let it take another step to the right, because that's not the NUS we all know and love. If anyone wants to stay in touch, my email will be and once I've sorted a new mobile out I'll be happy to distribute the number (to some of you!).

Byeeeeeee. X x x

The NUS and students' unions in general can be an extremely bitchy place at times, so it may surprise some to learn that there is a lot of genuine respect for many. Almost everyone who stands for the NUS National Executive Committee knows that they are putting themselves up for a nightmare.

There's quite a bit of Helen's blog that I don't agree with, but it wouldn't be fair to post a point by point response when she has already said this is her last posting. However whilst I agree that there is nothing wrong with a student officer holding political opinions and acting on them - indeed to the contrary this often makes for many of the best - I do think that Labour Students are now experiencing a deserved backlash that has been building up for years. Maybe it's my age, but I know people who can remember the years when NUS was run by people like Jim Murphy, Lorna Fitsimmons and Stephen Twigg - until recently all three were Labour MPs - when NUS often seemed to be acting against the student interest. The abandonment of the opposition to abolishing student grants (the justification given was that this would fill the funding gap in Higher Education and so tuition fees would never be introduced!!!), the welcoming of the introduction of tuition fees and, more recently, the weak fight against top-up fees (on the day of the crucial vote some actions by the NUS leadership were close to surrender when they could have swayed the three MPs necessary) have all sewn a lot of distrust of Labour Students. It is a pity that Helen was the one holding the baby at the point when the backlash came in force.

More widely a culture has developed that "political" is bad - I remember one person who was a students' union President (Alix Wolverson at Kent 2001-2002) who was very proud to proclaim they "didn't do politics" despite holding the most political post of an organisation that is by its nature political. It is a worrying sign when some of the most educated people in the country are turning their back on "politics" as being able to solve the problems that affect ordinary students. Apathy is a worrying disease that is sapping credibility and somehow something needs to be done to turn it around. Those who have the ideas might want to try them in the sudent movement and see if they can harness the energies there as a first step...

Monday, June 13, 2005

The dangers of having too little choice

Anyone who thinks that a leadership election is at its best has only a few candidates might want to take a look at the Ulster Unionist Party leadership election for this in practice.

So far the leadership is being contested by:

David McNarry, a Member of the Legislative Assembly from Strangford.
Sir Reg Empey, a former minister in the power sharing Executive and a Member of the Legislative Assembly from East Belfast.
Alan McFarland, a Member of the Legislative Assembly from North Down.

One of the key issues the new UUP leader has to address is how is the party going to avoid being relegated to a tiny fringe concentrated in the area to the east and south of Belfast - i.e. East Belfast, Strangford and North Down!

There was also the bizarre spectacle of former deputy leader Lord Kilclooney (formerly John Taylor) first offering himself as an interim leader and then promoting Colonel Tim Collins as an outside candidate! However Collins declined.

Sadly both Sylvia Hermon (the only UUP MP) and David Burnside (the former South Antrim MP and one of the few UUP members with anything approaching a profile in the UK as a whole) have declined to run, removing the prospect of a real firey battle between different wings of the party.

We should know the outcome on June 24th. Is there anyone who cannot stand the wait?

Too many leadership candidates?

Tim Yeo says he thinks that there are too many people seeking the Conservative Party leadership at the moment. But the Conservatives are a party of choice!

If Yeo does really feel the field must narrow then why doesn't he make a clear declaration on his own intentions?

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Doctor Who last night

I've just caught up with last night's Doctor Who episode Bad Wolf. For many years I've been a fan of the series, being (until this year) one of the last viewers who started watching it on Saturday evenings many years ago. (And before anyone asks, Colin Baker is my favourite Doctor.)

Bad Wolf was perhaps the most surreal entry into the series but surprisingly also one of the strongest. The preview and the teaser at the start of the episode initially filled me with uncertainty - the Doctor on Big Brother? And the reports of Rose on the Weakest Link and android versions of Anne Robinson and Trinny & Susannah filled many fans with a sense of horror. But instead we got something quite good.

(Obligatory spoiler warning.)

Of course it's by no means original. The idea of a spacestation which broadcasts a series of tacky gameshows in which the contestants don't get out alive has been done before, even in one of the Doctor Who novels from Virgin Publishing, Time of Your Life. But then the episode Dalek is openly a rehash of the audio play Jubilee and ultimately virtually all fiction conforms to one of only a handful of story structures. And Doctor Who has long been shameless in copying and parodying.

Nevertheless the episode was a great deal of fun to watch. However it reinforced the somewhat traditional view that the Doctor should only have one companion - there was little that Captain Jack contributed to the plot that could not have been performed by either the Doctor or one-off characters. Otherwise we were faced with a strong surreal mystery, tension when it was revealed that everything was more than a game and drama towards the end. The appearance of the Daleks could have been a real surprise, had it not been for leaks by the press (and the BBC including them in the trailer last week!). As for the identity of the mystery entity whom they survived in - well for those with large collections the voice is clearly the Emperor Dalek from The Evil of the Daleks. I guess that Adam (from the episode Dalek) is too obvious - maybe Mickey (Rose's boyfriend) or the Face of Boo (from the episode The End of the World - whom I don't think we've actually heard speak yet) for complete random guesses. In a week's time you can all laugh at what a silly guess this has turned out to be.

Anyway it was a good one and the climax next week looks like the current series is going out on a high. At some point I'll post my comments on the run as a whole.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

A much maligned medium

Whilst surfing the net I came across this comment today:

In the UK, collecting comics is nowhere near as respected a hobby as it is in more civilized countries. It ranks just above "train-spotting".

(You can read the relevant page at:

Comic collecting is something that I've done in one way or another since the 1980s and this attitude is sadly all too common towards collectors. Another view I've encountered is more critical, viewing mainly American style comics as a somewhat sinister influence!

But for many comic collecting is a fun pursuit. Many comics offer a mix of well drawn art, intricate plotting, strong characters that make you want to come back for more and ongoing storylines.

The medium is mainly associated, for better or worse, with superheroes - perhaps because they're one of the few genres that does not easily translate to television. (Okay how many of you are thinking of the 1960s Batman television series? Looking at it you can see why few comic fans are willing to push for new projects - or why networks are not quick to commission them!)

Some of the best series are those that build up an intricate supporting cast and tell well constructed stories that add new angles if you read the whole thing in one go. One of the best in my humble opinion is Spider-Man. Then there are the cosmic stories like the Silver Surfer series, or the guns blazing series like The Punisher. There are many more that I've enjoyed over the years and I may on occasion make postings about some of them, both good and bad.

The Conservative leadership contest

Since I was inspired by a friend's political blog and as a party member it was inevitable I would write something at some point, so let's get it over with now.

In many ways a leadership contest is the most exciting period for any political party. On the one hand it offers the party the opportunity to reassess how it implements its core values, to address its structural problems, to identify where it needs to improve and to look to the future. On the other it offers the opportunity for all the old divisions within the party to be taken into the public arena with no-one even pretending to call for a show of public unity, whilst every personal vendetta going gets wheeled out in an almighty bloodbath.

The Conservative Party has until this week proceeded at an almost leisurely pace, with much of the attention taken up by discussion over rule changes with the media trying to identify the frontrunner. It astounds me that so many people seem to be taking it for granted that David Davis will be the next leader. What's that I hear people cry? He's the frontrunner? True. But so were Portillo and then Clarke in 2001, Clarke in 1997, Heseltine and Thatcher in 1990 (at least at the outset), Heath then Whitelaw in 1975, Maudling in 1965, Hailsham (Hogg) in 1963, Butler in 1957, Halifax in 1940, Curzon in 1923, Austen Chamberlain in 1911, Northcote in 1881-1885... the list goes on. In not one of the serious contests (1989 and 1995 were frankly exercises in pressure relief) has a frontrunner become leader.

Some have called for a formal contest to be avoided and it's easy to see why this option is attractive to Davis supporters. The only times when a frontrunner has become leader has been when they have been the only candidate. That list includes Michael Howard, but also Anthony Eden (1955), Neville Chamberlain (1937), Austen Chamberlain (1921) and Arthur Balfour (1902). Howard aside, and some would also argue for Neville, this is not an encouraging list.

In any case it seems a formal one horse race is no longer an option. Malcolm Rifkind has all but declared and gained the start of a campaign team. Alan Duncan has gone further. The momentum has already started and if other candidates don't make their intentions publicly clear soon then they could find themselves as never-beens in this contest.
Of Rifkind and Duncan I have to say that I feel this is a choice between yesterday's man and tomorrow's man. Rifkind has many admirable qualities and would have been a very good choice for leader in 1997, had not the voter of Edinburgh Pentlands decided he deserved some time out of Parliament. But now it is nearly twenty years since he first entered the Cabinet and he is heavily associated with those years. He is an essential part of the Shadow Cabinet but sadly isn't leadership material in a time when the party needs to look forward. Alan Duncan is younger, more dynamic and comes with less baggage. He is also well aware of where the party has been going wrong and may be the one to find the direction it needs to go to get things right again.

Friday, June 10, 2005

And so it begins...

I suppose it had to happen as everyone else seems to be getting a blog these days! This is my attempt to start one.

I'd like to promise that this will cover anything I happen to feel like writing about, but I suspect it will go unupdated for months on end!

Let's see...


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