Thursday, December 19, 2013

The horror of coleslaw

I don't like coleslaw. And it seems I'm not alone. Mark Evanier hates it with a passion and has even used comics as propaganda against it. News from ME: From the E-Mailbox...

And one of the things that's really offputting about it is the way it's often forced onto you. Luckily over here it doesn't come up on plates too often or maybe I've just been lucky in what I order. Mark has been less lucky in this regard. But when I was younger I was forced to eat the stuff week in, week out.

My first school had a rule that all plates had to be completely cleared before an entire table was allowed to get pudding or leave for the playground. It was aiming to encourage children what they could eat, but a terrible case of punishing an entire group for the faults of one individual. And the system broke down when the teachers serving deviated from the normal practice and refused to let the children decide what they did and didn't have, and instead chose to impose their own opinions on what the children were to eat.

Had this been a standard rule across the board it would have probably been less of a problem. Pupils would have accepted it as the norm and the school might have kept the menu under closer review to remove discomfort. But when it was one rogue element then it became an anomaly. And unsurprisingly this came up with coleslaw.

One day every week this teacher would force a large lump of this horror onto our plates whether we asked for it or not. Requests to have none were batted aside with an assertion of "It's good for you!" No attempt to explain why, either there or in the classroom, just an abuse of power to force it onto us.

What is it about coleslaw that makes people throw aside all the normal rules about choice, whether a teacher in that situation or restaurant staff who refuse to implement customers' requests for none? Why must it be thrust upon diners with no warning or say?

I don't normally believe in great world conspiracies but when it comes to coleslaw I'm prepared to make an exception. And I see I'm not alone with others fighting back. Mark's CB Bears comic story sounds hilarious. More of us need to stand up and declare our dislike.

(I have never heard of the CB Bears before - maybe they never made it over here or maybe I'm just oo young - though from the name it's easy to see what fad they were riding.)

Monday, December 09, 2013

Nelson Mandela - 15 - 12 - 43,000,000

It's taken me a while to compose this but here goes...

 For me there are three numbers that sum up Nelson Mandela's achievement more than anything else.




I can't actually remember Mandela coming out of jail. My parents used to watch the Antiques Road Show whenever we were in but I don't remember watching the edition that was interrupted to show him coming out jail. Maybe I have a rubbish memory or maybe we had gone out that day.

But there is one moment I will remember above all others.

Rugby is normally a game I have absolutely no interest in. I once had a Welsh flatmate who was normally a great bloke but utterly unbearable whenever Wales were playing and/or won. But I couldn't understand or give a damn. At school I almost never played it - at one school only some boys in each year were trained and I applied but was rejected within twenty minutes and despite letters that school made no effort to teach the game to use. At my next school I found we were supposed to have arrived with a comprehensive understanding of the game and I was soon dispatched to the sidelines and treated like an idiot who was sometimes given punishments whenever I dared to ask basic key questions about a game I had no real experience or understanding of and needed to know the basics that the teachers hadn't bothered to teach me. Luckily I soon left that pathetic excuse for an educational institution.

But one afternoon I saw one of the greatest ever moments in the history of rugby. And it had little to do with matchplay.

It was the final of the World Cup. New Zealand had assumed it would be walkover. They soon learnt it wasn't. They lost to the hosts, South Africa, 15-12.

And then came the presentation of the trophy by the host nation's head of state.

For a long time South Africa had been divided in sport as in much else. A footballer talks of how he could go into a restaurant and all the black staff would be demanding their autograph yet none of the white diners could even recognise them. A golfer could claim that the country was a small nation of just five million people - meaning just white South Africa.

But then came the fall of apartheid. The election of Mandela. And much changed. One day showed it more than any other.

The World Cup saw South Africans united as they never had done before. Not immediately but as the national team progressed through the stages it became ever more popular. Nelson Mandela invested a lot of time and credibility in supporting the rugby team. Once they had been the symbol of white South Africa and many opponents of apartheid, Mandela himself, had wished them bad and hoped for their defeat. Yet 1995 so much changed. Mandela even donned the Springboks' shirt and went into the changing rooms to wish the team well before the final match.

The Springboks won 15-12. New Zealand whinged to disguise their team's failings, but South Africa had triumphed. Mandela presented the trophy to the winning team's captain.

That day there were no Blacks in South Africa. No Whites. No Coloureds. No Indians. There were just South Africans. 43,000,000 of them. One man and one game had brought them together as one like never before.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The men who created Doctor Who

Fifty years of Doctor Who

Who would have thought it? It's survived budget deficiencies. It's survived ratings downturns. It's survived egotistical actors. It's survived TV executives without a clue. It's survived sixteen years in the wilderness. It's come all this way.

Many hands went into the creation of the series and others came up with the ideas that made it last so long, but there were three people who devised the basics in a meeting in March 1963 and ultimately are the show's creators. One is well known in connection with the series, another for his wider television work and the third has now sadly been forgotten.

C.E. Webber is by far the most forgotten. A BBC staff writer who wrote up the discussions into the series's first format guide, he ultimately captured the essence of what the series would be and sketched out the basics that would be returned to time and time again. He wrote what was intended to be the first ever story but it was ultimately not used and his material was instead used as the basis for the first transmitted episode though his co-authorship was not cedited onscreen. Much forgotten for a long time, in recent years fan historians have rediscovered his role. There are few photos of him available - the one here is cropped from a group shot where he's sitting next to Enid Bignold (Samantha Cameron's great-grandmother).

Donald Wilson spent 1963 changing jobs as the BBC Drama Department was heavily reorganised, going from the Head of the Script Department to the Head of Serials. He contributed ideas to the creation of the series and then served as what would later be described as the show's "Executive Producer" for its first two years, though he curtailed his input after his reservations about the Daleks were proved wrong. Otherwise he had a long career writing and producing television, with his greatest work being the 1967 adaptation of The Forsyte Saga.

Sydney Newman is by far the best known of the three. He spent much of his career putting people's backs up and doing things differently; with longstanding results such as The Wednesday Play or The Avengers, as well as Doctor Who. But he sometimes opposed what turned out to be big successes with both the Daleks and The Forsyte Saga making it to the screens in spite of him, not because of it. A brash Canadian who had shaken up drama first at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation then at the Associated British Corporation (the ITV weekend franchise for the Midlands and the North) before coming to the BBC at the end of 1962 and shaking things up with a strong determiation on realism and the masses instead of just adapting elite classics. In later years he returned to Canada and served as chairman of the National Film Board, where he continued to outrage others and had to have armed guards patrolling the headquarters during the October Crisis.

These three between them came up with the basic ideas for the series, both the character types that the show has returned to time and again, and the core philosophy of storytelling. Unfortunately there has never been a "Created by" credit on the series (and there wasn't an official system for designating particular personnel as a "series creator") but they are not forgotten.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The legacy of John F. Kennedy

Fifty years ago John F. Kennedy was assassinated. And for many it was much more than just a President who died that day.

In many ways the best thing that happened to Kennedy's reputation was Lee Harvey Oswald. * A lot of the problems that exploded in the 1960s came after Kennedy's death. It became possible to believe he would have evaded full involvement in Vietnam and driven through civil rights with less pain than Lyndon Johnson. The facts that Kennedy had already shown he was prepared to go to the brink against Communism and whilst he'd talked the talk on civil rights he'd also pandered to Southern segregationists instead of standing up to them, to the disappointment of many civil rights leaders, just get overlooked.

But beyond his substantial record, or lack thereof, Kennedy's death also came to symbolise the passing of an age when the Presidency was shrouded in mystery and magic. His successor was forced out by a popular uprising that rode the primaries - indeed the Secret Service warned Johnson not to attend the 1968 Democrat convention because it was too dangerous. Then Richard Nixon, the man beaten by Kennedy, brought the office into disrepute. Never again could a US President be looked upon like some deity or superhero. Instead he was a mortal, easy to distrust and mock.

Indeed one can almost neatly illustrate the changes with depictions of contemporary Presidents in superhero comics. Here's a panel from Action Comics #309, which, due to the time lag in publishing, went on sale just weeks after Kennedy's death:

(Superman has just entrusted his identity to the President in order to hide it from Lois Lane and Lana Lang!) Superman's speech now seems ironic but at the time it reflected the awe in which the office was held.

Here's a panel from Captain America #175, published in April 1974, as Cap has a showdown with the evil mastermind behind the Secret Empire, in none other than the Oval Office:

The art may tiptoe around showing the face but from the context there was no hiding who it was meant to be. Months before the final resignation it was possible to say "I knew it was you all along, Richard Nixon!"

But before November 22nd 1963 nobody would have depicted Kennedy as crooked or in the pocket of mobsters.

* Okay the inevitable "whodunit" question. The more I read on this, the more I think the evidence points to Oswald acting alone. Much of the evidence for a conspiracy hinges on dubious evidence, particularly a false seating plan of the limousine that makes the Single Bullet Theory look ludicrous. Yes there are areas where the Warren Commission and all the other enquiries were not as thorough as they could have been but every investigation and murder conviction has loose ends that a defence can build upon without making it so. The idea of a giant conspiracy involving hundreds of people that managed to hide itself from the world yet is known to all the conspiracy nuts just doesn't hold water. And Oliver Stone has a lot to answer for.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The unjust hatred of Pamela Nash

I wonder if the MP for Airdrie and Shotts ever receives misdirected hatred from Doctor Who fans. If so then I hope she's aware that she shares a name with probably the most unfortunate person in the story of the missing Doctor Who episodes.

The Pamela Nash in question is a former employee of BBC Enterprises (now BBC Worldwide), the section of the BBC devoted to commercial and international exploitation of the BBC's output. Amongst her tasks was ordering the creation of copies of programmes for overseas sales. At present out of the 253 episodes of Doctor Who made in the 1960s, only 147 survive (a number that may change very soon). However if the series had never been sold overseas at all then the number surviving would be just 7 - the seven unusually made as & transmitted from film copies that were then kept by the BBC Film Library. It is thanks to BBC Enterprises - and particularly Pamela Nash - that so many early Doctor Whos survive at all.

However that's not how Doctor Who fans traditionally regard Nash. For later on in the 1970s she oversaw the destruction of the BBC Enterprises stock of telerecordings - and not just Doctor Who was affected. She then had an encounter with a fan chasing rumours that some episodes still survived and wasn't the most sympathetic in the encounter.

Now the whole issue of lost television is actually quite complicated and it's easy to point fingers or talk about hindsight without considering the broader reasons. But it strikes me as somewhat ludicrous to focus on the destruction of the overseas sales stock without considering the consequences. The primary causes of the destruction of much material were the old attitude that television was an ephemeral medium with little interest in past performances (the view that the BBC was the "national theatre of the airwaves" applied in more ways than one), severe rights restrictions that limited the scope for repeats & overseas sales after so many years, changes in broadcast standards that saw the arrival of a higher resolution format and colour, and a general lack of belief or supporting money for maintaining a comprehensive archive.

It was primarily the cost of reusable transmission videotape that meant that many, many BBC shows were wiped over when they appeared to no longer be usable. A small number were made on and transmitted from film and some of these transmission prints survived but not all. However nobody ever seems to find a single name to blame in either the Engineering Department or the Film Library. But we have one in the sales division so the finger gets pointed.

Blaming Nash and BBC Enterprises for the holes in the Doctor Who collection is probably on the scale of blaming publishers and booksellers for the gaps in the British Library's holdings (and there are some items that have been lost or which were never held in the first place). At the end of the day Enterprises was focused on selling programmes it currently held the rights for and which were profitable. And it had limited storage space. It could no more be expected to hold onto rights expired old material any more than publishers maintain huge backlists on books either where they no longer hold the rights for or which just don't sell any more. Anyone who's ever browsed a remainder bookshop knows what gems can be found in them but publishers have to take a broader approach.

Nash's "crimes" seems to be:
  • Not recognising that Doctor Who (or for that matter any number of series that were either very popular, had a strong fan following and/or are important in the history of a particular genre) was a special case that should be preserved at all cost.
  • Not realising that it was BBC Enterprises' duty to do things it wasn't its duty to do.
  • Not having the available budget to hand and using it to create a special archive to retain the old shows.
  • Not giving the desired response to a stranger who didn't work at Enterprises who came charging into her office one day freaked out about old film prints being cleared out.
In the last case many of us have had experience of outsiders of one kind or another butting in and telling us how to do our jobs and what our priorities should be; and our reaction is rarely going to satisfy them.

At the moment the Doctor Who world is abuzz with reports that some missing episodes have been recovered but strangely the BBC is embargoing the precise information. But whilst we await it, let's stop the hated for somebody just because we have their name and they didn't meet up to the standards of an obsessed fan one day.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Bicameral deadlocks

As I write this, the US Congress is still in deadlock as the two chambers disagree over the budget, with the potential for the federal government to be shut down. Each chamber can claim a democratic mandate (although how an overall minority can veto an overwhelming majority's desire to even debate a measure is interesting - News from ME: Majority Rules, Minority Drools has more about the "the Hastert Rule") and add in the President's democratic mandate and there's not a great deal of progess.

Second chamber reformers here rarely want to give the Lords (or Senate or whatever they want to call it) budget powers but that doesn't mean there's any less of a risk of a deadlock between the two over some other key legislation. It's often forgotten that when the Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed there were no less than twenty-one pieces of legislation other than supply in formal dispute between the two houses, or that the previous year key legislation such as universal healthcare insurance had only been got onto the statute book through the nuclear option of a snap "double dissolution" election of the whole parliament. It may be budgets in one place and time and healthcare in another and doubtlessly a different issue in a third but the problem remains that when multiple elements in the system claim separate democratic mandates the result can be a recipe for gridlock and chaos.

Cutting the national debt

I'm amazed that common sense has made headlines. George Osborne has pledged to have budget surpluses in the next parliament. In other words he's aiming to cut not just the deficit but the debt. In the long run that would mean the country spends less on debt maintenance and a step towards living within our means.

Why on Earth is such a sensible proposal being taken as a surprise?

Saturday, August 31, 2013


I've not written or tweeted about Syria until now because I really don't know where I stand on this. The votes by Parliament this week seem pretty decisive so we probably won't get involved. Other countries may well do so.

People have asked if Syria is another Iraq or another Bosnia. But it's never wise to pick a conflict from the history books and arbitarily declare the current situation is that conflict mark 2. Nor can one simply caricature leaders as the key players from such conflicts.

What is clear is that atrocities are taking place in Syria. Whatever happens people will die. That is the sad reality and we cannot trivialise the decision making or focus on what this means for leaders or alliances. What matters is the future of the people of Syria.

Friday, July 26, 2013

School's out! - Or has it been for some time?

It's the last day of the school summer term.

Well that's true for state schools here. A quick google for the term dates of various independent schools in the area reveals... that many need to seriously improve their websites and search engine optimisation. I'm not stopping to dig through every single site that can't easily display links to such basic information but three I could find finished the term on the 19th, the 17th or even the 12th. And if that seems bad, one school from my parents' town has already been on holiday for nearly a month. That's a sign of the problems in this area, though in general from my brief searches it seems to be the end of the summer term where the independents most deviate from the state schools.

The modern arrangements seem to be a vast improvement from when I was a school pupil. Then there was much greater variance in the term dates and half-term in particular could change from school to school. Often I would find my half-term was different from my sister's, and/or a friend next door and/or the schools attended by a majority of the boys in Cubs and Scouts. This created some problems, and caused more in households where the adults were all working, but requests to the schools to standardise term dates generally fell on deaf ears or protests about it being too difficult. The fact that other schools did not seem to find it a problem (my sister seemed to always have the same half-term as most of the Cubs and Scouts and for that matter CBBC and CITV) never seemed to cross their minds.

(From memory I don't think this problem was exclusive to the independent sector. I can recall one Scout camp held in a half-term which was only attended by boys from one the main two primary & secondary combinations attended by the troop plus myself. I don't know if the boys at the other - from memory it was a pair of sister schools - were all having regular classes or the multiple years all had school trips or something else.)

The effects of this could be quite varied. Parents with children who have different term dates may have to take extra weeks off. Some won't be able to at all (I can't see a school allowing a teacher a different week off) and so they have to pay more for child care - and if there aren't many other schools off at that time then the pool of potential babysitters is limited. A workplace may be able to structure its programme to allow one chunk of parents to be off at the same time but having them coming and going in different weeks is going to be far more disruptive and inefficient. The available time for a family to go away is also restricted, especially if further days of leave have had to be used up needlessly on uneven holidays.

Costs can also be increased by various activities. Parents have to pay for themselves more than once to take all the children to various activities in different weeks. Being spread out they also may not qualify for the group discounts. And some activities are only available in particular weeks - this can be anything from a special day at a museum to extra children's sessions at a swimming pool to the half-term schedule of children's television (although the digital age seems to have made the broadcasters more flexible on that one). The advertising sometimes sells things as special "treats" and this can be unintentionally hurtful to other children who don't get the "treat" because it's unavailable to them. If one child gets a treat and another doesn't it's because either the first has done something especially good or the second has been bad. Nobody is setting out to "reward" and/or "punish" children for the decisions of their school, but to the child that's what it can feel like.

Weekly after-school activities sometimes break for "half-term" and don't run during the "holidays" - if the child in question has a significantly different set of term dates then they may be away during the activity's "term time" with the potential for disruption to the schedule or else they may feel tied down by it. Parents can feel resentful of being asked to pay for weeks their child isn't there and not getting the activity in other weeks, especially if other parents are not inconvenienced for the same reason (for them). Alternatively they could take the easiest solution and not have their child take part in that activity.

But if children are to mix with a broader spectrum than just their school contemporaries, it's useful for them to be able to mix at the same time. If the calendars are all over the place then that becomes hard to do that and instead increases the isolation and resentment - even if the children are taking part in such groups, the fact they're getting holidays when others aren't will spark resentment (and it's not going to be solved by claims about longer school hours).

I recently looked through the term dates of various schools attended by myself, my sister and the two boys next door, plus the local state school dates for the next year (it was the only one that all websites listed). I was amazed to see a much greater level of conformity between the six set of dates in the area (ignoring minor details about whether a half-term begins on a Friday, Saturday or Monday though this distinction generally only comes into play with homework) with two exceptions - the end of the summer term is quite varied across four weeks, and all the independent schools in the area now give their pupils a two week half-term in the autumn. I don't know if that's because of newer thinking about holiday lengths, or an attempt to ensure pupils have at least one week of half-term shared with siblings and other schools (and a massive case of all copying each other), but they do at least succeed in the latter case. I'm also not sure how much of the conformity at the start of the summer term is forced by a late Easter (April 20th) but the other signs are encouraging.

Some of the sillier divergences have been swept aside - one school in Epsom made a habit of setting the summer half-term as Derby Week (first Wednesday in June) instead of the late spring Bank Holiday (and in my time there the two were always different weeks), making silly claims that it would difficult to park around the school in that week despite one look at the walk to the race course showing how silly it is to park there for the races. Having the standard half-term (and thanks to the bank holiday that one has had standardisation longer than any other) should and now does take priority over such trivial details.

However one school I attended elsewhere in London hasn't yet caught up with what are a fairly standard set of term dates now (Newham's state schools will also be following them) - it has a single week in the autumn which may be a better arrangement but both that and the spring half-terms are in different weeks from the standard. So the problems are still there and presumably the ostrich approach of pretending conforming is too difficult still reigns. This is despite many local authorities now co-ordinating their term dates to ensure they are the same, and many independent schools signing onto at least the core of that calendar.

There have been proposals floating about to give state schools more "flexibility" and "independence" in this area and let them set their own term dates. Having experienced the mess this can create I think it's a bad idea. This is an area where the independent schools are seeking less independence, and the state sector would be better off with increased use of the current agreed system or even nationally set dates, thus helping parents and children more. That is more important than the dogma of "freeing schools".

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Frack baby, frack!

A dilemma.

What do you do when the country is facing a potential energy crisis that could lead to power cuts in the next few years?

Do you:

a) Hope it just won't happen?

b) Tell everyone they must get prepared to operate without electricity despite so many appliances and other equipment relying on it? Fancy being the one to raise people's food bills even higher by making it impossible to rely on refrigeration to make food last? Or the one to tell people they can't get to work to earn money because there's no electricity to run the trains?

c) Increase our dependency on energy supplies from some dubious regimes in potentially unstable parts of the world?

d) Invest more in renewable energy that doesn't yet have the reliability and output to ensure it can meet all our needs?

e) Tap what is potentially the largest supply of shale gas in the world that's sitting on the country's doorstep and which can be safely extracted and which will reduce carbon emissions?

We need a diverse set of energy supplies to cover our needs and we have to plan for the short and the long run. We have a resource that has already done wonders for other countries' energy needs and economies. It's time to step forward and make use of it.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Still alive

As you may have noticed, I've been blogging rarely these days. I guess Twitter absorbs my instant reactions these days. But don't worry, I'm still here and will post as and when I feel the mood.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

When Thatcher met the Iron Lady

Margaret Thatcher wasn't always nicknamed "the Iron Lady". That term was originally used for another female Prime Minister, Golda Meir of Israel.

Here are the two meeting in 1976:

Monday, April 08, 2013

Margaret Thatcher 1925-2013

Can Britain be governed?

Nearly forty years ago this country faced a succession of crises that left many asking the above question. A large part of the political class lost its nerve.

But one leader did not. She firmly believe that the country could be governed and set out to prove it. By the mid 1980s few asked the question again.

Margaret Thatcher transformed her party, her country and the world like few others. Her legacy is all around us.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

My brief thoughts on climate change

It is reportedly the coldest Easter on record. It seems an odd time to be thinking about global warming.

Yet that's what many a sceptic is doing, pouncing on the current cold spell as "proof" (sic) that there is in act no global warming and using it to argue we shouldn't bother trying to cut carbon emissions. It just shows how sterile the debate is.

In fact climate change is more complicated than temperatures rising all the time, and prolonged cold spells are a part of the effect due to changing pressures. I don't pretend to understand all the details of the science behind it but I'm more convinced by those who do than by those who simply point at the thermometer in complacency.

And quite apart from anything to do with the climate or to do with improving air quality, in the long run this country (and indeed the world) needs supplies of energy that are cheap, sustainable and secure. We cannot risk being in a situation where our energy supply is ever dependent on a rogue state, nor can we predict which those states will be. We cannot use fossil fuels forever; we may find additional sources and more efficient extraction methods but one day they will invariably run out. And by then energy bills will have spiralled out of control.

The more done now, the safer we will be in the long run. And developing alternate sources is also a way of providing more jobs.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Farewell Benedict XVI

And so the Pope has formally resigned. Just a month ago that statement was unbelievable. How many more once unbelievable statements will we hear in the years to come?

Will Prince Charles be dropping even more hints now?

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

UKIP splits

Last night saw the UK Independence Party sack the chair of their youth wing, Olly Neville. His crime? To publicly take a different position from the party policy to oppose equal marriage. He sets out his side of the story at The Independent: Exclusive: So much for the libertarians! How Ukip sacked me after I said I support equal marriage. Others in the youth wing have resigned in protest.

Yet UKIP has not sacked others who've spoken out controversially in recent times, most notably Winston McKenzie, their candidate in the recent Croydon North by-election and spokesperson on the Commonwealth, in spite of his public homophobia. And then there's the party leader who openly disagrees with his party's policy on drugs. It seems there's one rule for Nigel Farage and bigots, another for libertarians.

This exposes the fundamental contradictions at the heart of UKIP as Farage has tried to construct it. On the one hand it pretends to be a libertarian party and has attracted members as such. On the other hand it has also accumulated social authoritarians. Inevitably the two were going to clash at some point.

And this just adds to the long history of vicious splits in UKIP. Let's not forget the long list of others who've fallen out, including:
  • Alan Sked, founder and first leader
  • Michael Holmes, the leader under whom they first won election to the European Parliament
  • Roger Knapman, the only leader to serve even a single full term and under whom the party was put on the map with help from...
  • Robert Kilroy-Silk and His Ego, who drew huge publicity
  • David Campbell-Bannerman, former deputy leader
  • Nikki Sinclaire, former leadership contender
And that's just some of the highest profile. Quite a number of MEPs have dropped aside as well. For a party that's only been around twenty years that's quite a legacy of viciousness.

Relatively little has been written on UKIP's history, especially on the pre-Kilroy era, and many of the splits passed the wider political world by. In the case of Holmes, relations between the party leader and the national executive got so bitter that eventually the membership forced them all to stand down. It truly is the case that the smaller a party, the more vicious the internal feuds. There have been several other parties formed as splinters of UKIP, including Veritas, We Demand a Referendum, and no doubt others formed by even more obscure people.

I suspect Olly Neville's sacking in itself will soon be forgotten. But once again it has exposed the mess that is UKIP and why it is all anger and no delivery.

Update: Nikki Sinclaire confirms that of the 18 UKIP MEPs there have been to date, Nigel Farage has fallen out with no less than 9 of them.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Are Eurosceptics prepared to lose?

Another question to which there isn't a clear answer. Because far too many are assuming that if they can secure a referendum on EU membership, the vote itself will be a formality.

It's rather similar to the optimism of the pro AV camp about two and a half years ago. And we know how that turned out.

I suspect that whilst a "Stay" vote would be a severe shock, it would not lead to the disappearance of UKIP and the like. Some would refuse to accept the result as valid, arguing it had been tainted by unwelcome interests financing the stay campaign, or declare their own leadership traitors to the cause. Others would find it difficult to accept that the country could have made such a choice.

But it's a very real possibility. Polls that drill down into the detail show that voters do not prioritise the EU as a top issue. When the third option of reclaiming powers and a free trade agreement is offered in polls, the majority to leave evaporates. That suggests a potentially strong swing vote that could go either way depending on the effectiveness of the actual campaign. And anyone can stick up a post saying "Vote My Way or the baby gets it".

The result would be that whilst the referendum itself had been won by one side - and I strongly suspect that would be the Stay side - the other would be back at the first opportunity. There would be few wider political benefits beyond a Stay vote giving the EU more drive for federalism.

The idea that a referendum will make UKIP go away is fanciful, even before we get onto the less EU focused side of their support.

If we leave the EU just where do we go?

We've been members of the EEC/EC/EU for forty years now and yet Euroscepticism is rampant in this country. I suspect we will get a referendum on membership sooner rather than later. But if we do then withdrawalists need a clear and consistent answer to the following question:

Which European institutions should the United Kingdom be a member of?

(Thanks to Wikipedia: File:Supranational European Bodies.png.)

The above diagram shows the various European bodies and the precise combinations of memberships. Several points stand out but the big one is that Norway, Switzerland, Turkey and Russia all have different arrangements and the differences between them could be a splintering point.

Daniel Hannan addresses some of this in Switzerland is a more attractive model than Norway, but Britain could do better than either, but Hannan is not the sole voice of Euroscepticism. He claims "Our preferred model – with some adjustments – is Switzerland", but I'm not convinced all Eurosceptics have delved so deeply into this issue. Many just say "Get out of Europe".

Nor is it clear that the UK would automatically become a member of the European Free Trade Association upon leaving the EU. I'm not even sure if our memberships of the European Economic Area or the EU Customs Union are separately applied for or part & parcel of EU membership and would have to be negotiated anew from outside.

And this is crucial in the debate about access to markets and regulations, and ultimately about jobs. If there isn't a firm answer as to just what the state of things would be the day after the UK left the EU then there will be fear, uncertainty and doubt - the very ingredients that boost the status quo in referendums. And membership of the EU is the status quo...

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Who should be in the election debates?

Having been reading UK Polling Report: Well, SOMEBODY has to win there's one point that's sprung out a bit:
I do also ponder exactly how the Parliamentary Conservative party will react if UKIP come top in the European election next year and the inevitable spike in normal opinion polls that will follow a strong European election performance… especially if the election debates are being negotiated at the time. Having lost an election to Cleggmania David Cameron probably won’t want to risk Faragemania, but in the event that UKIP are ahead of the Liberal Democrats in the polls it may be difficult to argue that Farage should not be included in the debates.
If leader debates are to become a permanent feature of British elections then there will need to be some firm rules about which parties are and aren't represented in the debates, and perhaps also who they are allowed to send. And it's better that they're worked out in a quiet period rather than in the heat of a run-up to the election with loud voices insisting that the line should be conveniently drawn just below their preferred party.

At the last election ten parties, one independent and one Speaker were elected. Over forty parties in total stood, though some of the smaller ones may have had pacts and alliances that nobody noticed. A ten-way debate is utterly unworkable. A forty-way affair would have no time for actual debate. Clearly there has to be a reasonable restriction to viable parties.

Looking at how other countries handle this question, the most familiar debates come from the United States. In the Presidential elections nearly all debates since 1960 have seen just the Democrat and Republican candidates debate, though note that no debates were held between 1960 & 1976 so nobody had to decide about George Wallace in 1968. But two years were exceptions - 1980 when the debates initially included independent John Anderson (& would have included running mate Patrick Lucey), and 1992 when they included Ross Perot (& James Stockdale). In 1980 the question of Anderson's inclusion was highly divisive, with Jimmy Carter refusing to attend debates that included him and Ronald Reagan refusing to attend debates that excluded him. This resulted in Carter boycotting the first debate, which saw Reagan & Anderson get low viewing figures, and the scheduled second debate and Vice-Presidential debate were both cancelled. In the end Reagan conceded the exclusion of Anderson and a single Carter-Reagan debate was held. In 1992 Perot & Stockdale managed to get into the debates but four years later Perot was kept out with various thresholds set - if I remember correctly these were largely at the insistence of the two big parties. Since then no third party candidate has made it into a major debate though there have been some "Other candidates" debates held for Libertarians, Greens and the like.

But the US also have the lengthy primary process in which multiple candidates for a nomination regularly square off against each other and where there are few firm markers as to a candidate's viability beyond opinion polls. The primaries have often seen spectacular rises and falls of various candidates so the case for having as many as ten (or even more) is harder to dispute.

However the US is far from the only country to have such debates. Other countries also have them and they have very different approaches. In the past I've posted clips of such debates from Australia, Canada and New Zealand and from Poland, Spain and Germany. In all but the Canadian debate, participation was limited to the leader/prime ministerial candidate (in some countries the two posts are not always the same) of the two biggest parties. Doubtlessly there were no end of third parties demanding they get a spot there, but the relevant decision makers chose the top two.

A bigger field comes from Canada which has had debates since 1968. In nearly all cases the admission criteria for federal debates appears to have been that a party hold at least one seat in the House of Commons, even when that seat has been gained by a defection - hence the Greens were included in 2008 but not in 2011. The only exclusion I can spot was Social Credit in 1968, although the breakaway Ralliement Créditiste was included. Parties that only run in one part of Canada have been included, hence the Bloc Québécois have participated in every debate since 1993. (One issue has been inclusion in the French language debates as some parties have had leaders who didn't speak the language. The solution has been to allow them to appear on the programme to read a prepared statement but not actually debate.) However the formula has resulted in recent elections seeing four and five way debates that have attracted criticism for turning into the sitting PM vs Everyone Else. A solitary seat out of over 300 is perhaps too low a threshold though any amendment beyond requiring the party to have actually won the seat in its own right is possibly too controversial to implement.

The UK precedent so far is for three parties to be included - and in 2010 they were the big three in all of opinion polls, seats at the last election, seats at the dissolution and votes at the last election. However which particular criteria should be selected if there's another party on at least one of those lists?

Since the election is a general election for the Westminster Parliament, performance in elections for other bodies should not be a factor in the calculations. Equally as it will be an election, a party should not qualify on a seats held rule if it has only gained representation in the Commons through defection. If two parties merge then they should inherit their predecessors' performance. In the event of a split the legal continuation should carry forward previous performance. But what about new parties surging in the opinion polls? Should they be dismissed with a reminder of what a "surge" means in politics? (Clue: It's an old Spitting Image joke.) Or should there be some opinion poll criteria for inclusion?

Invariably the closer the election comes, the more such a discussion on rules will turn into a debate about whether or not UKIP should be included. No doubt we will hear kippers deploying a list of reasons why they should be included, and ignoring an endless list of why they shouldn't. But it's not just UKIP - the Lib Dems' poll ratings in this parliament have at times reached the point where their own viability can be seriously questioned. And the Greens made a breakthrough at the last election. There will be many voices clamouring for inclusion and exclusion.

But the media are used to taking such decisions when deciding which parties get party political broadcasts, appear on Question Time, get slots in other election programmes and so forth. It should not be hard to come up with a robust formula for inclusion that can be easily explained and which can resist a clamour by excluded parties at the election itself. A points system could allow for multiple factors to be taken into consideration so it need not be based solely on seats.

But most importantly it needs to be set down well in advance and not be a point of argument as the election looms.

New year, new layout

Happy New Year everyone!

As you can see I've changed the template for this blog for the first time in many years. The old template was getting too narrow for some images and videos and also is harder to adjust these days.

I'm going to experiment a bit further with other ways to enhance the look of the blog so if you have any suggestions please feel free to leave them in the comments.


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