Monday, December 31, 2018

Pretensions of glory? Gavin Williamson turns the clock back to 1955...

I was, I admit, intrigued by this week’s suggestion by the Secretary of State for Defence that, post-Brexit, we could open military bases across the globe. Guyana, Singapore and Brunei are three of the possibilities floated by Gavin Williamson.

Putting aside the rather brutal truth that we currently can’t afford to put aircraft on our shiny new carriers, successfully recruit soldiers, or even maintain our current capability without sizeable additional investment, it does strike me that the obvious question is, why would we need such things? Of course, I’m not old enough to remember a time when we had a worldwide collection of bases, but the reason for having them was simple - we had a vast empire, obviously, and a need to control trade routes.

In the early twenty-first century, however, I find myself puzzled as to what the purpose would be now. Mr Williamson seems to suggest that we could supply moral leadership, which indicates a degree of obliviousness to the impact our Brexit debate has had on the view others have of us. I find myself wondering what a Trudeau-led Canada would think of such a ‘generous’ offer but suspect that the response might not be entirely positive. And, in any event, you don’t really need military forces to offer moral leadership - and I offer Norway as an example of a country which punches well above its weight in the moral sphere without the need to project its military power.

So, one must ask the question, what does he think Britain’s future role is to be, and what is a modern, liberal alternative?

As a nation, we already (just) meet the 2% of GDP NATO target for defence expenditure, which puts us within a surprisingly select European grouping - Estonia and Greece, from memory - and that doesn’t appear to be enough to maintain our current strength. Hardware and ammunition don’t come cheap, and having soldiers, sailors and pilots without equipment is a futile exercise. So, we need to have a clear set of goals, and an understanding of what is possible and necessary.

An obvious means of maximising our options is to pool resources, but NATO is a military alliance ill-suited to political intervention and is heavily dependent on its American pillar. Some sort of European Union might offer a better medium, but the Government is currently ruling that out - much to my personal regret. That leaves forming some sort of bilateral or multilateral arrangement beyond what currently exists but, for that to really work well, some pooling of sovereignty, apparently out of fashion for now, is required.

And what are the goals to be? Defence of democracy? Humanitarianism? Mutual defence against terrorism? Or simply to ensure a defensive capability against hostile forces?

That’s a difficult choice, if you intend to be consistent, and reflective of your preferred ‘will of the people’ - for all political parties are selective in that sense, consciously or unconsciously.

For me, military resources are, foremost, to defend and protect the citizenry but, when not needed for that, they should form part of a toolkit with diplomacy and development aid, to support administrations who share our values and to promote those values elsewhere. Admittedly, you probably wouldn’t use military force for the latter element.

So, what sort of military do you need for that? Flexible, obviously, with the ability to transfer troops and their support quickly and efficiently, key in delivering humanitarian objectives. And, for me, that doesn’t mean maintaining your own bases. In a world of terrorists who can simply melt back into the local population, permanent bases offer easy targets, aren’t necessarily convenient for where you need them to be, and tie up valuable resources. The ability to work co-operatively with like-minded friendly nations, using their bases as required, taking part in joint exercises to build trust, understanding and easy co-ordination seems to offer a more effective means of operation. In truth, if you can’t achieve that, you probably don’t have the ability to intervene effectively anyway.

Building friendships is easier, more flexible and cheaper than building new bases which give a perhaps unworthy sense of attempting to create Empire 2.0. A surprising number of people, not all ordinary members of the public, seem to think that the Empire is merely sleeping rather than dead, but that doesn’t make the concept anything less than utterly absurd.


Of course, Gavin Williamson may just be posturing for the support of the sort of people who vote in Conservative Party leadership contests, but he might really mean it. And whilst such a strategy offers some potential humour, liberals need to think more closely about what we want from our Armed Forces is we want the United Kingdom to play a key role in building a better world.

A gentle stroll in the Three Cities...

Malta is, perhaps surprisingly, a very densely populated place, with a higher population density than Bangladesh. And, when you arrive here, it is much less surprising, as Valletta is ringed by communities that climb the slopes around the capital, coat the surrounding peninsulas and cluster wherever building is even remotely possible.

We were meeting a historian friend of Ros, and his partner, who have been staying here for the past six months, and had offered to show us Valletta. And so, we caught another bus which hurtled along, around the Sliema peninsula and through Floriana to the Valletta bus station, which stands outside the city gates, next to the Triton Fountain.

United with our hosts, we set off to examine Valletta on foot, only to get a bit distracted by the view across the water to the south-east. That led us down a elevator to the shoreline and a small water taxi which took us to Birgu, which occupies a finger-like peninsula which protrudes into the Grand Harbour.

Refreshment was required, so we sat at a cafe in Victory Square, in the St Lawrence district, as something of Maltese life was explained to us. Each community has its own Saint, and there is a political edge to much of community life, with bands and fireworks and a bit of occasional ruckus. Our cafe was the Labour cafe, as opposed to the Nationalist one, although, as an outsider, I wasn’t overly aware of any political aspect.

The Maltese love their fireworks, to the extent of manufacturing their own at home, with the occasional unplanned explosion adding to the general buzz of urban life. Indeed, they don’t wait for darkness, as we were entertained by a firework launch at noon. I suspect we haven’t heard our last firework...

We walked along the shore, stopping for lunch and talk of Brexit, enjoying the opportunity to eat outside in December. The problem is that, the more you talk about it, the less rational it sounds, and you find yourself wondering if Britain hasn’t suffered a collective mental collapse. But I digress...

We resumed our stroll, crossing into Senglea, developed by the Order of Saint John in the sixteenth century. Senglea is another peninsula, and is all narrow streets and alleyways, designed I suspect to keep the streets shady during the hot summers, and to allow greater density. The architecture is interesting, and one of the main features is the gallarija, an enclosed shallow balcony with glass windows, painted in a different colour to the rest of the frontage.

Coffee and cake was required by this time, as the sun began to set in the south-west, and it was, sadly, soon time to head back to San Giljan, catching a bus from outside the police station. Malta has adopted a two hour ticket, allowing you to transfer as necessary to get to your destination, which puts London’s recent introduction of a similar idea into perspective. And that allowed us to transfer through Valletta, making an easy connection to the San Giljan bus and getting us back to our hotel for some refreshment and a relatively early night...

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Broadening our horizons just a little bit in San Giljan...

Day 2, and a pleasant breakfast awaited. I enjoy breakfast, especially if it involves pork, and our hotel does this to a sufficiently high standard, with proper bacon and rather decent sausages. The service here is thorough, and friendly, which helps.

We weren’t in any hurry, as the morning was set aside for proper relaxation - I was booked in for a sea salt exfoliation and foam massage in the hammam. And yes, it is a proper hammam, with marble, and sinks with buckets, something I’m quite intrigued by, despite having never spent any serious time in Turkey.

It was, in truth, not entirely like a Turkish hammam - for one thing, my masseur was female, not male, as would be traditional - but the experience of having my skin salted and scrubbed was very satisfying, and little beats being pampered, as I’ve noted here in the past.

But it was time to get out of the hotel, so we found the bus terminus not far from the hotel and caught a bus to Sliema, following the shoreline for the most part, before finding a restaurant for lunch. I had a very nice risotto with prawns, whilst Ros had the octopus, this time in a tomato-based sauce. Maltese cuisine, as you might expect, does heavily feature fish and seafood, although there is more to it than that, and there’s also quite a strong Sicilian influence, it seems.

We walked back to the hotel, taking the less obviously scenic route, but one which allowed us to take in some of the traditional architecture, rather than the seafront property, much of which is fairly recent and not as interesting.

There was more afternoon tea to be had, before a dinner in a local grill just down the street. Some excellent steak was had by me, as well as a local handmade sausage which was very good too.

I have a nasty feeling that, if this keeps up, I’m going to need to go on a serious diet when we get home...

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Welcome to Malta - we have sunshine...

So, here I am in St Julian’s, or San Giljan, as I might more correctly call it, for I am on a smallish island in the Mediterranean, not far from Tunisia, but closer to Sicily. The Maltese sun is, if not warm, tolerably mild, and I am somewhere I haven’t been before, which is always good.

At the end of what has been, to some extent, a rather trying year, albeit not a personally trying one, it is nice to escape the horror that is British politics, and just relax and recuperate. Our hotel is very nice, with friendly, helpful staff, good food and some nice views across the rooftops to the sea.

We arrived yesterday, after one of those entirely uneventful, surprisingly efficient journeys that you often wish for but never get, despite having to make an early start from an airport hotel.

I have to admit that the words ‘airport hotel’ generally evoke a rather tired property with weary, slightly irritable people, all of whom know that they’ll only be there for one night (that goes for some of the staff, I suspect), but the Holiday Inn - Gatwick Airport was perfectly acceptable, with enthusiastic staff (most of whom were evidently EU nationals whose futures are doubtful given their likely salaries) and basic but comfortable rooms. And, in any event, we were going to be out before 6 a.m...

In the end, we were up early, on the airport shuttle by 5.15 a.m. and, courtesy of a lightning transit of check-in and security, we were in the lounge before 6 a.m. for our 8.05 a.m. flight. And yes, it was slightly delayed, but we still managed an on-time arrival. An equally efficient passage through immigration and baggage reclaim at the other end, a swift taxi ride in the sunshine to our hotel, where our room had been upgraded and was available on arrival, two hours prior to the normal check-in time, and by 2.30 p.m., we were unpacked and having a rather nice afternoon tea with dainty little sandwiches, some excellent baked stuff and even fruit scones with jam and cream.

Not bad in just over eight hours, if I say so myself...

A gentle explore of the neighbourhood was followed by happy hour in the hotel lounge and a rather good seafood dinner in the hotel’s restaurant down by the beach - the barbecued octopus was excellent, just chewy without being rubbery, and the stuffed calamari was better than I had hoped. Given that I’m not by nature an enthusiast for seafood (it always seems like hard work), it was all very nice.

I think that we’re going to be happy here...

Friday, November 23, 2018

Thoughts from a Parish Council... how green is our valley?

And so, my reign of terror first term as Chair of Creeting St Peter Parish Council continues into its first winter. Or rather, as I suggested to an old colleague, I rule with a rod of rhubarb, rather than of iron.

I took part in our first village litter pick, organised by the Village Wildlife Group, which became an opportunity to swap war stories with the Chair of the Parochial Church Council, Alice. And whilst some litter was picked - there wasn’t too much, I was pleased to see - it was a useful opportunity to gain a better idea of the issues faced by small parishes in terms of finance and organisation. The Church of England does remind me a bit of the Liberal Democrats, in that it isn’t always easy to keep the show on the road, but the rewards when things go well make it feel worthwhile.

And we have a planning issue, in that the Parish’s only ‘heavy industry’ - a concrete products plant - has applied for a temporary permission to park trucks on a part of its site. The problem is that it has traditionally taken a ‘relaxed’ view of planning conditions and tended to ‘create facts on the ground’, much to the irritation of nearby residents. Light pollution from its cranes, vehicle movements and production activities outside the hours permitted, all of this causes a disturbance to people who should otherwise have a reasonable expectaion of good neighbourliness.

Council considered the application thoughtfully, with the benefit of some wise advise from our District Councillor. We clearly can’t stop them from operating altogether, and some of our concerns are a matter for the County Highways Team, but we do feel that the District Council can, and should, do more in terms of enforcement of the planning conditions they themselves set.

The rest of the business ran with enviable smoothness, and we were done and dusted in just about an hour. You might fault aspects of my work as Chair, but by God do we get through the business efficiently.

I enjoy Parish Council. It isn’t big, or particularly innovative, or exciting, but my colleagues and I, ably supported by Jennie, our Clerk, have made some small, but positive changes, and we are staunch guardians of our village infrastructure. We watch over footpaths, we plan for the future, we engage with the world around us. It is rather satisfying, and the sense of putting something back into our community is important to us.

We’ve got a draft budget to dwell upon over the next two months, and with our newly trained Clerk, there are some organisational things to do that would be helpful. That probably means that I need to take some time off to clear my head... 

Saturday, November 10, 2018

ALDE Party Congress 2018 - “ne me quitte pas, ne me quitte pas, ne me quitte pas...”

Jacques Brel, one of the great Belgian performers, sang of his sense of despair and loss at the end of a relationship, of the desperation with which men would try to resuscitate a dying romance they had destroyed by their own failures. And, whilst our relationship with Europe is in danger of reaching a depressing end through the failures of others, the sense of despair and loss is not dissimilar for some of us.

And so, at the end of an ALDE Party Congress which saw the adoption of a manifesto for European Parliamentary elections we probably won’t be fighting, and the creation of a leadership team for a campaign that will pass us by, what have we learned?

  1. Europe, and even our liberal colleagues, are preparing to move on without us. Yes, they are sympathetic to our own desire to stay and engage, but there are some who, to be blunt, would rather have Brexit just happen than allow a protracted process and the resultant instability to distract from the serious business of reforming Europe, its economy and its institutions. We are pitied as much as we are respected for our history and our contribution in years past.
  2. ALDE is torn between those who are proud to be liberals and those who see the advantages of using words like “progressive” and “centrist”, the latter looking to build a bigger tent, a more effective (or powerful) political gathering, bringing in the likes of En Marche. That tension expresses itself as much through strategic considerations as opposed to policy ones - any pan-European manifesto is inevitably drafted as to allow a degree of designed flexibility of interpretation.
  3. The balance of power in the ALDE Party is shifting eastwards and southwards, with Bureau members now from Spain, Slovenia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. There are Liberal Prime Minsters in Estonia, Finland and Slovenia too, and Liberal Commissioners from Slovenia, Estonia and the Czech Republic. The new Europe means a new ALDE Party.
  4. The apparent current weakness of the two historically powerful blocs in European politics - the Socialists and the Christian Democrats - offers the potential to change the dynamics of the Parliament, as both blocs lose support to the extremes at one end and, in moving to retain those voters, to the Greens and Liberals from their more moderate supporters. That leads to the emergence of co-operation between groups whose policy platforms have sufficient overlap.

The potential, both for growth of influence, and for a blurring of philosophy, is there, and in years gone by, Liberal Democrat’s would have been at the heart of the debate. That, sadly, is no longer the case.

And, if Brexit goes ahead, we will lose our right to vote or speak on future manifestos, or to vote for Spitzenkandidaten, leaving us amongst the Moldovans and Armenians in terms of status if not, perhaps, in terms of influence. It will not be the same, and the transition may be an uncomfortable one.

Ne me quitte pas, ALDE Party, ne me quitte pas, ne me quitte pas...

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Goodbye Catalans, I never really knew you...

Today saw something historically unusual, the expulsion of a member party from one of the European political groupings, as PdeCAT (the Catalan European Democratic Party) were the subject of an extraordinary ALDE Party Council meeting in Brussels.

As I’m no longer one of the Party’s Council delegation due to not being Welsh (it’s a long story...), I wasn’t there, but there is an element of sadness to what was an overwhelming vote to expel them. There seems to be little suggestion that they have become anyone other than a liberal grouping, but the links to their discredited predecessor movement, accused of serious corruption in office, were seemingly too great to be ignored.

I’m not an expert on the politics of Spain, although there were always thought to be issues retaining Ciudadanos and any pro-Catalan independence group in the same organisation. And, if forced to choose, big picture politics would tend towards favouring the bigger of the two. I’m not suggesting that there was any pressure to choose a side, and suspect that, had there been any, the vote to expel would have been rather closer.

But the crossover between its predecessor, CDC, and the new grouping, with key figures in common, meant trouble as soon as accusations of corruptions became prosecutions. No wider political grouping wants to be tainted by association, and excision became the obvious outcome.

So, no more Catalans, and a marker sent out to any member parties who might have issues amongst their senior leadership. Let’s hope that ALDE doesn’t have to do such a thing again too soon...

Friday, October 26, 2018

Yes, Liam, international trade is much more complex than you thought...

The news that Russia has formally objected to United Kingdom proposals to divide the current quotas between the two according to the historical flows of trade in each product comes, sadly, as little surprise to anyone who has been paying attention all along.

In any negotiation where you seek to alter existing arrangements as a supplicant with a ticking clock, you start at a disadvantage. The other side can simply wait it out, knowing that, as your cliff edge gets closer, you’ll get more desperate, thus more likely to offer a good deal. Now under normal circumstances, that’s not a good place to be, but when you’ve put your entire economy on the line, it’s a pretty desperate affair.

Now, if you’ve got something great to offer, and demand is high, you might get away with it. Alternatively, if your negotiators are very good, and have a firm grasp of the potential options, the damage might be restricted.

We do make some pretty good stuff, but it isn’t unique, and it can for the most part be made elsewhere. As for negotiators, we have Liam Fox. You might suggest that we’re utterly screwed. I might not necessarily disagree with you.

Incompetence, combined with an astonishingly high level of ignorance and entitlement, has brought us to this state of affairs whereby, on 29 March, we will  possibly leave the European Union without any agreements on tariffs or access to markets. We have insulted some potential partners, i.e. Moldova, we’ve taken others for granted, such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and we’ve placed our faith in the likes of Donald Trump who will unhesitatingly shaft any potential trading partners for votes in Wisconsin or Indiana.

I take no joy in this, have no grim sense of “you get what you deserve”, for the worst affected will not be those whose idea this was, but too many of those who were persuaded to vote for it. Asking people simplistic questions on hugely complex subjects is seldom productive, but you should reasonably be able to assume that those asking the question, and particularly those espousing a particular answer, would have an understanding of the issues themselves.

As it turned out, neither of those assumptions could be relied upon. The Brexiteers have demonstrated that they really didn’t understand how the European Union worked, possibly because that might have caused them to think a bit harder, but worse still they had, and seem to still have, an astonishingly naive sense of Britain’s place in the world and a complete disregard for how Britain’s reputation abroad has become degraded since June 2016.

You can hardly blame the Great British Voter for what happened next.

And now we see the rush from accountability. An EEA option has emerged, already ruled out by Theresa May’s red lines, lines drawn to keep the Brexiteers onside and her in power. Ruling out a role for the European Court of Justice, ruling out freedom of movement, even with the provisions available for use, disregarding the Good Friday Agreement as an issue, despite it being a binding international treaty.

Alternatively, it’s the fault of those pesky Remainers, despite the fact that the European Union is negotiating with the United Kingdom Government, and nobody else.

There’s an irony here. I’d taken the view after the referendum that, whilst hating the outcome, you couldn’t really tell how bad it was going to be. Sensible people start off with a negotiating position which evolves as facts emerge and compromises become necessary. And, whilst the Brexiteers were wrong, they weren’t stupid.

Unfortunately, as time passed and the likes of Boris Johnson and David Davis exposed their lack of skill and knowledge, as the significance of the red lines became more and more apparent, as Theresa May painted herself, and the country, into a smaller and smaller corner, it dawned on me that they believed their own hype and that, unless they were stopped, we were screwed.

It’s going to take an series of acts of astonishing altruism on the part of our trading partners to salvage something. And that ain’t going to happen, because such things only happen in fairy tales, or in Liam Fox’s dreams...

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Keeping myself busy, and vaguely useful too...

Ah yes, constitutions. Wonderful things, in the right hands. Admittedly, in the wrong hands, a thing of peril, but they are at least reasonably certain. And, for someone like me, used to working in a rules-based, legislative system, a cause of work within a party political environment.

People do not join political parties to enforce rules - they generally join to make rules, or change them. And thus, anyone willing to be the arbiter of them is likely not to be stampeded in the rush to do so. My Party “career” is a fairly good example of that - seldom opposed and often left to get on with it unmolested by interference.

At the moment, I’m reminded of that. I’m on Returning Officer duty at the moment, for a decent seat on the East of England, and having to reacquaint myself with the Selection Rules. Who knew about candidate compacts? And who do you have to talk to in order to get things done? But it all seems to be coming together, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed.

We’re in a constitutional review phase too, seeing what was missed in the recent Governance Review and what has been “shaken out of the tree” as a result. Personally, I find myself wondering why the Federal Board nominates members to its various subordinate committees. Each of the committees is represented on Federal Board, so can report upwards and convey the wishes of Federal Board back down again. It implies an effective lack of trust and places people in position without an adequately defined role. What is the Federal Board representative on, say, Federal International Relations Committee, for? What is their intended role?

I’m not a believer in form over function, so I tend to the viewpoint that every Committee member must be there for a clearly defined reason to carry out a broadly defined role. Otherwise, what are they for, and how much value do they add?

I’m also of the view that a member of Federal International Relations Committee should sit on Federal Policy Committee, instead of the other way round as at present. FIRC advises the Party on international policy, not the other way round, yet there is no official representative - the Chair attends in an invited, advisory capacity.

I often think that the Party bureaucracy is designed to reflect a cynical but widely held view that nobody is to be wholly trusted with authority, and that the more people you have supervising any particular body or activity, the better. We talk a good game about proportionate supervision and regulation, yet seldom demonstrate it in our Party’s organisation. I guess that that’s ironic (don’t you think?).

So, having been asked to consider the question of possible constitutional amendments by our Committee Chair, Robert Woodthorpe-Browne, I have the slight advantage of having already given the matter some thought.

And, finally, I’ve got an English Appeals Panel “gig”, tasked with interpreting an element of the Party’s Constitution. Luckily, it’s a paper hearing, saving me a journey to London, but nonetheless it has to be done right.

I guess that all that Constitution Reading is paying off...

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Brexit - the land border that nobody seems to be talking about...

There’s only one land border for the United Kingdom to consider in its negotiations with the European Union, right? And, admittedly, it’s a serious problem, courtesy of the Good Friday Agreement.

Ah, but what about Gibraltar? Yes, it’s a very short border, with only one crossing point, but for the Gibraltarians, dependent on 10,000 Spanish workers to fulfil a whole range of economic activity, anything that adds grit to the carefully oiled machine is of serious concern.

There is, however, one more rather more complicated land border, that of the Sovereign Bases in Cyprus. Akrotiri is relatively simple, in that it is an enclave with the Republic of Cyprus to the north, the Mediterranean Sea to the south. Dhekelia is more complex, as it cuts the Republic in half, and you have to cross it if you’re travelling from Larnaca or Nicosia to, say, Ayia Napa.

And, even more interestingly, Dhekelia has a border with the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, which has a status all of its own, inside the European Union but not really. And there’s a border crossing there, effectively an external land border of the European Union, and the only one that the United Kingdom has responsibility for.

It struck me that we’ve heard very little about this, despite the fact that it’s a pretty serious business for the Cypriots, and I asked Ros if it had come up at all. She hadn’t heard anything, so said that she would ask her noble friend, John Sharkey, who knows a fair bit about Cyprus. It turned out that he didn’t know either, which led to a Written Question;
To ask Her Majesty's Government what changes they anticipate will be needed to the arrangements for crossing the border between the Cypriot UK Sovereign Bases and the Republic of Cyprus after the UK leaves the EU; what preparations are being made to make any such changes; and what discussions they have had with the EU and the Republic of Cyprus on the issue.
The answer, from Lord Callanan, was not entirely reassuring...
The UK and the Republic of Cyprus are engaged in ongoing constructive discussions on the future of the SBAs. We aim to ensure that those living and working in the SBAs, in particular the 11,000 Cypriot residents, are not adversely impacted by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. We are confident that an agreement can be reached which respects the Treaty of Establishment, and safeguards both the lives of citizens, and the effective military functioning of the bases.
It appears not to consider the impact on Cypriots living at the eastern end of the Republic, and you can’t help but wonder if their Government might not want to extract some concessions in return for support for whatever deal emerges. If I was in their shoes, I probably would...

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

@ALDEParty - I’m still helpful after all these years...

I’ve spent the day mostly in Brussels, in my capacity as a member of the ALDE Party’s Financial Advisory Committee, fulfilling a slightly different role to the one I’ve traditionally filled, that of institutional memory and provider of context.

The Committee is undergoing a process of transition at the moment, with the five original members (including myself) on our way out - two this year, three next - and six new members coming in. And that means that they have a bit of a learning curve, just as we did when we started.

Questions of why we do what we do, and how we do it aren’t entirely written down, as our role has evolved somewhat, and whilst the minutes record faithfully our decisions, it isn’t always obvious why. Given that our role, whilst low profile, has significance for both the Bureau and the Secretariat, who we advise and scrutinise to some extent, we also act to ensure that member parties are protected from reputational risk by association.

Admittedly, the Secretariat has been equally zealous in ensuring compliance with both the legal and organisational frameworks of the European Parliament, and has explored ways of raising funds without cutting ethical corners. They take this very seriously, which should be a reassurance to us all.

We make suggestions, examine proposed actions, probe expenditure patterns, and act, I suppose, as an audit and compliance board would. It is an important function, and an enjoyable one at the same time, as it allows me an opportunity to work with the management team and the staff, and to get a better grasp of what they are doing.

But the end is drawing near, as my final term ends next year, and I’ll pass the baton onto Birshen, Mats, Claus, GaĆ«lle, Adrian and Iztok. They’ll do just fine...

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Cabaret night - Needham Market style...

Three times a year, the Barrandov Opera holds a short series of gala evenings and Ros and I usually attend one of them. Now I’d be the first to admit that opera is not entirely my first musical choice, but the opportunity to hear emerging talent from around the world in little old Needham Market is not one that can be missed.

And so, last night, with friends, we were there for a night of culture, with a Serb soprano, Polish mezzo-soprano, Korean tenor and Polish baritone, singing a selection of arias, accompanied at the piano by Peter Bailey, the one constant over the years.

I’d also admit that the image of opera as consisting of robust, slightly immobile people singing about absurdly ludicrous plot twists is one that has stuck with me - opera can feel like it’s being done to you from a distance. But, at the Barrandov, set out dinner style, with the performers moving amongst you, gives a completely different feel to the thing. And, as was the case last night, when the performers actively engage with the audience, and give the impression that they are utterly relaxed and enjoying themselves, it brings home to you that music is as much about context as it is content.

Our guests had heard of the Barrandov Opera, but how one gets tickets is not entirely obvious - there is a website but numbers are very limited (about 150 per evening), and regulars like ourselves tend to book more than a year in advance. They were, quite reasonably, expecting a stage, so when, during the opening number, the soprano wandered down a flight of stairs into the audience, laid her hand on our friend’s shoulder and lingered for a few moments whilst she sang, it was clear that this wasn’t your normal concert experience.

The performance is broken into three parts, between each of which part of a buffet supper is served - nothing overtly complex, salads, quiche, salmon and local ham carved from the bone, plus lots of dessert and a cheese board should one be so inclined.

There’s a bar, so you can ensure that you’re suitably refreshed, with quite reasonable bar prices none of your Royal Opera House “how much!” sort of thing.

And there’s no sound system, what they sing is what you get, but as you’re never more than twenty yards away from the action, and opera singers can really project, it is opera in the raw.

So, if you happen to be free in mid-April, mid-September, or the weekend before Christmas next year, and you’re in the area, you might want to sort out your tickets now...

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The practice of supreme power and how it doesn’t apply on a good Parish Council

So, I’m four months or so into my reign of terror term as Chair of Creeting St Peter Parish Council. No-one has died yet, the Council is still at full strength, and our Clerk is still talking to me. So far, so good.

In those four months, we’ve seen the introduction of a 20 mph speed limit, the erection of a new noticeboard and the installation of a defibrillator. I take no particular credit for any of this, as what we do is entirely a team effort, with decisions made by consensus, trust placed in our Clerk, and a willingness amongst councillors to roll up their sleeves and do things as required.

Meetings have been briskly efficient, and whilst I’m not a dictatorial Chair, I don’t like to allow meetings to drift - people have homes to go to, and families to enjoy, after all - so I tend to move the business along.

The July meeting lasted fifty minutes, including an impromptu site visit to the location of a planning application. I take the view that a look at the physical space is more useful than poring over diagrams, and we were able to reach an agreed position quickly and efficiently, with the assistance of our esteemed District Councillor, whose expertise in planning issues is greatly appreciated.

This month’s meeting ran to just forty-six minutes, although I could probably have trimmed that to half an hour had I really wanted to. However, Council meetings are pleasantly chilled, with no sense of internal dissent or ill feeling, and a little bit of “anecdotage” puts people at their ease.


In short, it all seems to be working, I’m enjoying myself, and stuff is getting done. Perhaps I should be advising the Prime Minister...

Friday, September 21, 2018

Drifting through the voids of British politics...

It’s been a long time since I ventured into the blog. Yes, I’ve written a few things for Liberal Democrat Voice as the mood, or a sense of vague obligation, has inspired. It hasn’t been easy though.

I had begun to wonder if I wasn’t beginning to drift into mild depression but, whilst there is much “out there” to despair over, it is, to a great degree, one step removed from my day to day existence. After all, Ros and I are happy together, work is alright (and does not dominate my life in any sense), and life in the village continues on its quietly satisfying way. I have much to be grateful for.

Beyond that though, it is hard to feel inspired. Our politics is not unsatisfying, it is broken, our nation led by the inept and incompetent, the Official Opposition equally uninspiring, the loudest voices being those who would be better silent. Closer to home, local government appears to be a desperate battle to preserve even a semblance of the services that our communities have taken for granted until now.

To make matters worse, the combined impact of social media, the mainstream media and of a public prone to believe in short sentences delivered with passion regardless of the facts has served to increasingly drive out the rational, the genuinely doubtful, those inclined to listen to the argument before reaching a conclusion.

Government, under such circumstances, whilst not impossible, is difficult and constrained, especially given the ease with which the underpinnings of our democracy - an independent judiciary, the rule of law and a neutral Civil Service - have been discredited by the extremists and fanatics.

The question one asks oneself is, “Why bother?”. The answer should be easy - if democracy and civil society matter so much, someone needs to fight for them. The motivation to act on that urge is, however, hard to find. If the British public want to try out cliff-jumping to see if it might be enjoyable, is it for me to stop them, or should I work on the basis that people, and perhaps a nation, should bear the consequences of their actions?

What causes me to hesitate before I quietly amble away into the sunset is those people I know who are vulnerable, or different (which can sometimes amount to the same thing). If Brexit happens, and it goes as wrong as some people suggest it might, the great British public may well look for someone to blame. And yes, that may include politicians, but more likely it will include those who are different, those who stand out.

And, of course, if it does end badly, what will become of those who rely on support from the State? There’s hardly likely to be funds spare to fund the welfare system we currently have, and I doubt that the NHS will be sufficiently funded to keep pace with demand.

But I am not really a campaigner. I’m the person that enables campaigning by freeing up the rather more passionate to focus on that. I’ve always rather seen myself as the political equivalent to a village telephone switchboard operator, connecting people who should be connected, directing people with questions towards people with answers.

So, perhaps the solution is to focus on the stuff that I understand and can make a useful contribution towards. And, stop worrying about the other stuff...

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Do Liberal Reform really want Manhattan on the Gipping?

I suppose that I ought to be wary when I see Liberal Reform pushing something supported by the Adam Smith Institute, but the suggestion that individual streets should be allowed to come together to build up to six stories high ranks as one of the more challenging ones.

In theory, building taller buildings for people to live in would increase housing density in areas of high demand. It would also create, if successful, a collection of ‘concrete canyons’ which would be pretty unfriendly and dark.

But, let’s take a look at this more closely, and I’ll take as an example my old stomping ground of East Dulwich. Made up of long terraces, occasionally broken up with small paths along the sides, with small, 30 feet long gardens and a minute front garden, the footprints of each home are rather small, and not really designed for anything much more than three stories.

And yes, you could extend them all, but if we’re talking about a whole street, or even part of one, the disruption caused by building work on a large scale, or even as a series of individual projects, would be highly disruptive.

The suggestion is that the street would decide for itself, which leads one to question how that decision would be taken, what would be done in the case of conservation areas (and it never ceases to amaze me how many of those there are), and what compensation would be paid to those negatively impacted by the development, and by whom.

Yes, you can devolve power down to quite small units, but in cities, the inter-relationship between streets and the impact on shared infrastructure, means that the level of sovereignty that this implies is to some extent limited. Increased housing density, unless matched by enhanced provision for schools, surgeries and the like, not to mention roads, public transport and drainage, actually causes more problems than it solves. And don’t start me on parking, unless you believe that having a car is unnecessary (which it could be, but feels like an effective restriction on choice).

Of course, the inference is that my street, here in the Gipping Valley, could do likewise. The notion of a clutch of six storey buildings in my quiet country village is risible, but I can’t imagine that anyone would seriously suggest the idea.

I note, however, that the article linked to by Liberal Vision suggests that parishes could develop their green belt. I welcome their suggestions as to how a parish like mine, with a population of 270 and an annual precept of about £5,000 could credibly carry out such a scheme.

Housing policy should be holistic, not hot air, it should take into account the needs of a wider community, not narrow self-interest, and I’m afraid that the only people likely to benefit from this are those who already own property and would benefit from the benefits of planning gain. As for everyone else, I wouldn’t get too excited...

Saturday, August 18, 2018

I’ve been a little tied up...

It’s funny how you collect stuff over time. And it’s not as if I’m some out of control collector of “stuff”. I shop occasionally, if a little haphazardly, an occupational hazard of putting on weight gradually but significantly over a period of time, I guess.

So, I’ve started what promises to be a vaguely painful, but valuable exercise of going through my wardrobes to see what I’ve got and to reestablish some sense of order. And I started with something easy, just to gently lower myself into the water, so to speak - my tie collection. I don’t wear ties that often, so I couldn’t imagine that it would be a major task.

Fifty-two rolled ties later (plus another one which needs cleaning), I was slightly shell-shocked. Where did all of these ties come from, and why haven’t I worn a number of them in living memory? And there are bow-ties too, eleven of them. In other words, I could wear a different tie every day for more than two months and never repeat.

That’s a lot of ties.

There’s nothing for it, some of them are going to have to go to a good home, i.e. somebody else’s. Luckily, they’re all in good condition, so will be of use to someone, I hope...

Thursday, June 21, 2018

An evening at the Suffolk Association of Local Councils Area Meeting

To Claydon this evening, for the quarterly meeting of the Mid Suffolk South Area of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils, the gathering of Town and Parish Councillors from the borders of Ipswich to a line south of the railway line to Bury St Edmunds.

I’ve been attending these for a while, in my former capacity as Creeting St Peter’s “Foreign Minister” (if it’s outside the Parish, Mark’s happy to go). It’s a useful opportunity to find out what’s happening across the District, and to get a heads-up on emerging issues. There is usually much talk about planning, highways and infrastructure, and whilst we don’t have much of those dots of things, we are impacted by decisions affecting our neighbours.

You also get to learn a bit about local representation and the responsibilities of a councillor, which can prove most useful.

I was slightly late due to a delayed bus, and the meeting was already underway, but there were some familiar faces, and a free seat, so I made myself comfortable and eased myself into the flow of discussion.

SALC has a new(ish) Chief Executive, who is immersing herself into the role and is developing a sense of what needs doing and how it might get done - there will be technology involved. She reported back on some of the developmental opportunities that are available to local councils, and we talked about how councillors might take advantage.

Much useful material is available via the website, but is password protected, limiting access to those who are given (and can remember) the means to access it. I suggested that we might move more of that information into the public domain, an idea that seemed to meet with some approval. At the moment, most information flows via the Parish Clerk, and whilst they usually pass that information on efficiently, not all Clerks are as enthusiastic or, worst still, competent in doing so. Whilst we’re lucky like that in Creeting St Peter, it isn’t so everywhere.

We discussed neighbourhood plans, which have run into difficulties due to the general unhelpfulness of Mid Suffolk’s chronically underresourced planning department - my fellow councillors are pretty scathing about their failings, it appears.

There was a brief discussion about possible motions to the County AGM, and I suggested two things, firstly for a SALC campaign to encourage younger people to come forward as potential Parish Councillors, the second to call for meetings to take place at more accessible times and in easier to reach places. By holding meetings during the working day, you exclude potentially good people, and send out a message that younger people aren’t really welcome.

We ended with a discussion of future guests/speakers. I suggested either one of the new Suffolk Constabulary Community Engagement Officers, or someone to talk about Suffolk Highways proposals to devolve some minor works to Parish and Town Councils. The other popular suggestion was to have someone explain what would be happening as a result of the merger of Ipswich and Colchester Hospitals, a matter of grave concern in some quarters.

It was a surprisingly good meeting, well chaired by Josephine Lea from Needham Market, and we were done pretty much on time, so I’d have to mark down the evening as a success.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Giving away surplus food is sensible, not radical. It isn’t original, either...

I was, I admit, somewhat disappointed when I saw the final shortlist for the Ashdown Prize. Yes, they were all terribly sensible, but radical? No, not really, unless you consider sensible to be the equivalent of radical. And, given that I am probably one of the least obvious to be described as a radical - I have some seemingly radical views on the importance of process, but radical bureaucracy is probably an oxymoron - if I don’t think that something is radical, it probably isn’t.

And of the three proposals, probably the least radical was to oblige supermarkets and the like to give surplus usable food to charities for distribution.

I therefore wasn’t terribly surprised to see it win.

It’s not a new idea, the French already do it, although I haven't seen anything that indicates how successful it has been. And yes, I understand that radical and original are not the same thing.

But I had heard the idea somewhere before. So, I dredged my memory and rediscovered this;
148. Another fiscal option already operated in some countries is to offer tax deductions for redistribution schemes. In the US, which has extensive networks for food redistribution on a far larger scale than European operations, Section 170(e)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code allows certain businesses to earn a tax deduction for donating food and can claim tax breaks on shipments of food if donated food is transported using spare capacity in delivery vehicles. Feeding the 5,000 noted that government incentives for diverting surplus food for human consumption are rare in EU countries, although France is reportedly moving towards tax breaks for businesses that donate their food for charitable redistribution. The idea of exercising such fiscal options was described by FareShare as potentially “transformational” if it succeeded in creating an economic incentive for private operators to redistribute food, beyond the current moral incentive.
Good, eh? And where did this come from?

The answer is, a House of Lords report called “Counting the Cost of Food Waste: EU Food Waste Prevention”, published by the European Union Committee, Sub-Committee D. Their conclusion was that;
there are fiscal tools available to support the redistribution of surplus edible food, ranging from value added tax (VAT) exemptions to tax deductions and tax breaks.
The report was published in 2014, and moved in the House of Lords by none other than the Chair of the Sub-Committee, one Baroness Scott of Needham Market, a name which seems strangely familiar. That’s right, the person I am astoundingly blessed to be married to.

And whilst I would be delighted to see the idea come into practice, and it will help some people who need help badly, it isn’t radical. Finding a way of helping people to reach a level where they don’t need food banks, now that would be radical...

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Is Western democracy a nut to be squeezed between Trump and Putin?

It has been obvious for some time that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is no friend of the western democracies, enthusiastically supporting political forces determined to undermine the existing consensus, as a means of weakening our political structures and our economies.

Such a strategy is so much cheaper, and more effective, than military action, and whilst Russia has a nuclear arsenal, its conventional military is less of a threat then it theoretically was during the Cold War. And so, if you can level the playing fields by using the strengths of western democracies against themselves, why not? Vlad does enjoy his judo, after all.

What is more shocking though is that Donald Trump appears to have the same strategy, blatantly misrepresenting events across Europe so as to strengthen the nationalist and populist forces that undermine the open, tolerant societies of Europe. His intervention in German politics, so soon after the open confession of his newly appointed Ambassador that he would seek to support groups such as Alternative fur Deutschland, has been an unwelcome blow to Angela Merkel’s attempt to stabilise German politics after an inconclusive election.

We know that he is happier dealing with dictators rather than democratic leaders - a dictator can make a deal knowing that he isn’t accountable to anyone, whereas a democratically elected leader knows that he or she has to secure enough support to seal any bilateral arrangement. We also know that he doesn’t play by the conventional rules.

His working assumption seems to be that, for America and Trump to win, somebody else has to lose, and the currently preferred losers are America’s traditional allies. From our perspective, that’s deeply worrying. Europe is too dependent on America for its security to be anything other than fretful about the possibility of an isolationist Administration.

And yes, Europe does need to step up to the plate in terms of defence spending, but it also needs to be smarter, more collaborative, more disciplined than in the past. Multinational brigades, greater purchasing co-ordination to ensure that allied forces use similar equipment for ease of combined strike capacity, that sort of thing. Taking advantage of national specialisations, rather than each country attempting to cover the entire range of threats independently.

That means a European defence strategy, linked to that of the EU External Action Service, which would stray into territory that the British, Liberal Democrats included, have staunchly opposed over the years. Ironically, Brexit offers an opportunity for the rest of Europe to develop such a strategy, isolating Britain yet further from the core of European defence infrastructure.

Under other circumstances, one would seek to renew links to the United States leadership, overcoming the scepticism of an unenthusiastic American President. I’m not convinced that this is a credible option at the moment, given the stances that Donald Trump is taking, and the historical perspective of those from whom he takes advice.

And so, we British isolate ourselves further in a world of regional blocs. Depressing, really...

Monday, June 18, 2018

An unexpected encounter at dusk...

I have walked around the village quite a lot over the past two and a half years. My laps get longer in the summer, and cleave closer to the village core in winter, especially during the week.

But, as a result, the village is very familiar, and anything unusual tends to catch my attention. I ought to be our Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator, I guess.

This evening, my evening constitutional was delayed somewhat by the England game - and wasn’t that a nerve-shredding affair? - so the light was beginning to fade as I wandered down Pound Road towards the bridge over the A14. And then I noticed something black, sitting on the gravel outside 7 Peterhouse. It wasn’t very big, but it seemed out of place.

Suddenly, it moved, and to my surprise, a small rabbit was heading onto the road towards me. It stopped in front of me, and clearly wasn’t a wild one. So, I scooped it up.

I knocked on the door of number 7, small, cute rabbit held tightly against my chest. It wasn’t theirs. But I had someone to help, as we knocked on doors to see if anyone had lost a rabbit. At number 11, we had our first lead, and I headed down the street. And yes, a rabbit had been lost, the rabbit in my arms.

I handed it over to a happy owner.

Job done.

It’s never dull in Creeting St Peter...

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils to pilot pioneering developer contributions database

I don’t normally reproduce Council press releases, but this one might be of wider interest...

Residents and those in the development industry will be able to see how money collected from developers as part of planning agreements is being spent on providing infrastructure for local communities when a new database goes online. 

Both Babergh and Mid Suffolk are working with the software provider Exacom as part of a pilot exercise involving two other local authorities to hone this innovative, new database which will transform the way that information is held for developer contributions paid for by legal agreements and the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL).

Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils Section 106 and CIL data will be used by the software provider in the launch of the Planning Obligations Public Facing Module across the country. This will be hosted on the Councils’ websites later in the summer and will enable people to search for information by district, ward, parish or infrastructure type with details of where monies are collected, allocated and spent. It will also allow people to see legal agreements secured as part of the planning process. The information will be updated daily.

Babergh and Mid Suffolk expect to be able to host this database on their websites in the summer. Today, their data was used as part of the national launch of the database by Exacom. 

The Public Facing Module, comprising of information on infrastructure funding in Babergh and Mid Suffolk can be viewed online at: http://pfm.exacom.co.uk/midsuffolkbabergh/index.php

Ralph Taylor and Geoff Kirby, Directors of Exacom, said:

We believe that this is a revolution in planning obligation transparency and will set the future standard in planning obligation transparency for the rest of the UK. We would like to thank Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Council for their assistance in launching this project with their planning obligation data.

Babergh District Council’s Cabinet Member for Planning, Councillor Nick Ridley, said:

This is ground breaking technology and we are sure that residents across the district will be interested to see how contributions secured from developers as part of planning applications are benefiting their local communities. We are proud to be the first local authorities in the country to demonstrate this database.

Mid Suffolk District Council’s Cabinet Member for Assets and Investment, Councillor Nick Gowrley, said:

This exciting project is the culmination of two and a half years’ work which will bring together a range of detailed data on our website in the summer for the benefit of residents, people in the development industry, our Parish Councils, Councillors and community groups. This speaks to the Council’s agenda of openness and transparency and the database will provide information in real time in that it will update every 24 hours.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Pedalling frantically towards the cliff edge?

It may be because I am, at heart, someone who believes that you can affect real change only by building coalitions of interest, that I find myself increased perplexed by what this country has become in the past two years.

Winning a referendum by a relatively small proportion was hardly a staggering endorsement for leaving the European Union, but I did expect there to follow an inkling of the strategy that might lead us to a stable outcome. I was to be disappointed it seemed.

I then assumed that those tasked with guiding the country through the negotiations with the European Union would understand the issues, plus the implications of a range of choices. And, when negotiating with an institution that is extremely rule-bound, understanding what their red lines were likely to be. Again, I was to be disappointed, as minister after minister demonstrated an apparent absence of any knowledge of how the modern, interdependent world operates, where production lines cross and recross national borders, and where standards are increasingly set by multinational groupings or institutions.

It was all rather depressing.

I reassured myself with the thought that, regardless of any lack of knowledge or understanding, no government would be insane enough to drive the country off of a cliff by leaving the European Union without a pretty conclusive deal. After all, when 80% of your exports are financial or other services, and you’ve made your way in the world by encouraging international investment to your country as a gateway to the wider European market, wilfully cutting yourself off seems like the height of madness.

And I still don’t believe that the government intend to do that. The problem is that, as is so often the case in British politics, they seem to think that the European Union has;
  1. More to lose than we do, and;
  2. The ability to be almost infinitely flexible in pursuit of a deal.
The first argument has been pretty conclusively trashed - yes, the amount of trade at risk is weighted in cash terms in our favour, but in terms of relative proportions of each economy, we are much worse off.

But the second argument is undermined by the very different approaches to politics, which brings us back to the rules-based nature of the European Union. Yes, the European Union is often involved on last-minute bargaining amongst itself. The catch is, there is a status quo to revert to if a deal can’t be cut. That’s not true here, especially as any deal must be at least acceptable enough to all. That limits the European Union’s room for manoeuvre - there are a whole slew of things that simply aren’t negotiable.

Our negotiators seem to disregard that, which appears to demonstrate a terrifying naivety. Not only that, but our view of politics as a game is positively toxic in an environment where, if a government says it intends to do something, then there is a working assumption on the other side of the table that it will do exactly that, and that it understands and accepts the consequences.

The European Union will shake its head sadly, and walk away, having been given little alternative by a group of people will think that their opponents will blink first.

And then we’ll find out whether or not the whole “Global Britain” thing is credible or just fantasy. I hope, for our sake, they have a plan for that phase which doesn’t just evaporate in the face of reality...