Saturday, October 31, 2009

Waiting for news from Huntingdon...

My newly-adopted Regional Party is holding its Annual Conference and General Meeting in Huntingdon today. And whilst being the best part of two thousand miles away means that I couldn't attend, I do have a personal interest. So, what happened?...

Liberal International - the Leaders speak

The session of keynote speeches by those defined as 'political leaders' took place this afternoon. Wolfgang Gerhardt, Chair of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung (FNS) and a Free Democrat MP in the German Bundestag, spoke about the importance of education if one is to built the 'knowledge economy' that must inevitably follow in those already developed economies in the global marketplace.

Of course, the FDP are key players in international Liberal circles, especially following their dramatic advance in the recent Bundestag elections, more than doubling their representation. The FNS has been a key element in supporting the cultivation of liberal forces worldwide and, given its direct link to the FDP, and the correlation between funding and political representation, its significance in supporting democratic, liberal voices across the globe will strengthened in coming years.

Next up was Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck, ELDR President and a former President of the Liberal International, whose video message provided an overview of global events, in particular the financial crisis. She notes that, contrary to those voices claiming that voters would turn away from liberalism at a time of recession, liberal parties performed well from a pan-European perspective, increasing their relative strength within the European Parliament.

We then heard from Ismail Jussa of the Civic United Front (Tanzania), who thanked, amongst others, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy for their support in building civic society structures in Tanzania, as well as other African nations. He spoke of the difficulties of providing vitally needed education in a country where freedom is vulnerable to attack from authoritarian forces, and much Government spending is derived from external donors. He condemned the concept of 'African democracy' as a disguise for increasingly undemocratic practices by would-be dictators. As he put it, there is only one form of democracy.

As a sign of genuine engagement by our Party, the next speaker was Party President, Ros Scott, who spoke about the failings of the UK education system, its over-centralisation and increasing regimentation. She reaffirmed our commitment to the abolition of student tuition fees, noting the barrier they place before the aspirations of those from less-advantaged backgrounds.

The final speaker was Lamine Ba, from PDS (Senegal), whose brief speech touched upon the role of liberalism in improving the situation of the African people. I might have said more, but my French is not what it might be...

Friday, October 30, 2009

A new Bureau for Liberal International

In today's election, a new team was 'elected' to take Liberal International into a new decade. And, I'm pleased to say, there is a familiar face amongst them.

The new President is Hans van Baalen MEP, from our Dutch sister party, VVD, and he will be supported by Juli Minoves-Triquell from the PLA, Andorra.

The two Treasurers are Josep Soler from LiD, Catalonia and Silver Meikar from ERP, Estonia, and the six Vice Presidents are Dzhevdet Chakarov (MRF, Bulgaria), Wolfgang Gerhardt (FDP, Germany), Bi-Khim Hsiao (DPP, Taiwan), Cristian David (PNL, Romania), Jelko Kacin (LDS, Slovenia) and Robert Woodthorpe-Browne, the Chair of the International Relations Committee of the Liberal Democrats.

Those standing down are Lord Alderdice, after serving three terms as President, Charles Kennedy (yes, that one) and Mamadou Lamine Ba of PDS, Senegal.

I should note that I use the word 'elected' because there wasn't a contest. It is regrettable that such a situation could occur, but without candidates, there can be no contest...

Late breaking news from Cairo...

Yes, you can add SLS, Kosovo to the list of new Observer Members...

As some doors open, others close...

Political parties die, some choose to opt out, others fail to pay their membership fee. And so we say goodbye to;

PLS , Switzerland
PND, Morocco
FDP, Switzerland
ALN, Nicaragua

all of whom have ceased to exist, and;

PLH, Honduras
ADL, Morocco
PLRA, Paraguay
SNP, Seychelles
UPND, Zambia

Consider yourself our mate, consider yourself one of the (Liberal) family...

The 56th Congress has spoken. The applications for membership have been considered, and we now have some new sister parties to work alongside.

The new Full Members are

Democratic Front Party, Egypt
Radicali Italiani
Democrat Party, Thailand
Partido Justicia Nacional, Peru

The new Observer Members are

Alliance Democratique pour le Renouveau, Burundi
The Singapore Democratic Party
The National League for Democracy (Liberated Areas), Burma
Civil Will Party, Mongolia
El Ghad Party, Egypt
Liberal Democratic Party, Bosnia and Herzegovina

In my day, we were delighted by the influx of new members from Eastern and Central Europe and from Latin America, and the notion that liberalism might put down roots in places such as Burundi, Egypt and Mongolia was but a fondly held dream.

Some of them have stories to tell of imprisonment, harassment and violence, all of them appear committed to the concept of a liberal, democratic community and they serve as a reminder of the freedom and liberty that we occasionally take for granted.

Live from the 56th Congress of Liberal International

Busy, busy, busy... Naturally, as the First Husband, I have a critical role, smiling and waving at people (apparently, the gin drinking is core too, but I prefer vodka as a rule...). There is some foreign travel too, and that is why this posting comes to you from the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel, in the Garden City area of Cairo.

And so I find myself in a large, windowless hall, listening to an rather worthy speech by the Minister of State for Legal and Parliamentary Councils. Of course, he is speaking in Arabic, although I am wearing one of those inexplicably uncomfortable translation gizmos, so I know what he is saying. In fairness, it is really rather impressive that a representative of the President has made the time to speak to our assembled throng.

Next up is Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the Opposition in Malaysia, the former Deputy Prime Minister and imprisoned by the Government on entirely trumped up charges for six years. He takes, for entirely obvious reasons, a strong line on the independence of the judiciary and the defence of human rights and freedoms.

He is, in himself, a fascinating personality. A liberal and a Muslim, his reputation was built as Minister of Finance, transforming the economy, building free market structures sympathetic to the cultural norms of his country, and guiding the nations through the squalls that characterised the world economy at that time.

His imprisonment on charges of sodomy was a deliberate attempt to destroy his political career and his personal reputation, an act which drew worldwide condemnation. A lesser man might have been destroyed, but he has fought the charges, been found not guilty, and gone on to be fully rehabilitated without a stain upon his character.

It is an honour and privilege to have him within the international liberal family.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Marking Gandhi's birthday - an award ceremony with a difference

Now I would be the first to admit that award ceremonies and Mahatma Gandhi are not two phrases that are easily associated. However, to mark the anniversary of the birth of the great man, we were honoured to attend the 'Bapu Awards', organised by the Gandhi National Memorial Society to recognise those who most exemplify the spirit of Gandhi.

The location of the event was in itself historic, as it was the building where Gandhi was interned by the British between 1942 and 1944, and now converted into a small museum. It is at moments like this that I find myself torn between my British and Indian heritages. On one side, one is slightly discomfited by the ability of the British to deny the flow of history, and on the other, one is proud that the liberal urge for self-determination was maintained in such a place.

Our presence was noted by the organisers, and we were given a front row seat for the musical performance that opened the event, and for the speeches and awards that followed.

To give you an idea of the sort of achievement that was recognised, the first award winner was from eastern Maharashtra, where he and his wife provide a medical service under very difficult circumstances. The villages they serve are remote, electricity and running water are not always available, and the Naxalites are active despite the best efforts of local police. It would undoubtedly be easier to work somewhere else, but they continue to serve those in greatest need.

Unexpectedly, our tour secretary re-introduced us all, and our glorious leader spoke movingly about the links between Gandhi and Martin Luther King, about the glory of a man who lived humbly but led a vast nation to freedom against an authoritarian imperial power (that would be the Indian in me...) and about his prescience in calling for a society where we tread more lightly upon the earth. It was a speech made all the more impressive by the fact that he hadn't been expecting to speak at all!

On reflection, one wonders what Gandhi would make of our world today. Doubtless, he would marvel at the advances we have made in medical science and in food production, enabling our planet to support more people and to ensure that they live longer. And yet, he would despair at our politics and at our ability to manufacture crisis and disharmony amongst nations, just because we can.

Perhaps the world needs a global Gandhi of our generation...

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer 2, Government 0

The Coroners and Justice Bill is still winding its merry way through the Lords, with Sue Miller leading for us there. The strategy is clearly to improve access and reduce delay, and her first victory was on amendment 1, which read

in clause 1, page 2, line 20, at end to insert:

“( ) A senior coroner shall inform the Chief Coroner if completion of an investigation is likely to take more than 12 months from the time that the coroner was notified of the death.

( ) The Chief Coroner shall maintain a register of prolonged investigations.”

For some reason, the Government weren't willing to accept such an obviously reasonable proposal, but after a 173-119 defeat, perhaps they will rethink. However, not content with that, she moved amendment 4,

after clause 5, to insert the new clause Information for inquests.

Again, another defeat for the Government, this time by 158 votes to 128.

It's good to see that we're still taking the fight to this increasingly hapless administration...

Is Mid Suffolk District Council willing to degrade my rural idyll?

I went back to Creeting St Peter yesterday to attend a Parish Meeting, called to discuss the proposals for a Business and Enterprise Park at the north-west end of the Parish, adjoining Stowmarket.

We don't do flaming torches and pitchforks as a rule, although Cllr Caroline Byles, our District Councillor, might have felt at home had we brought some - even more so had she decided to turn up. She had told the Parish Council that 'we should be grateful' that development was going to come to our village in the shape of a lorry park. Perhaps living fifteen miles away from the site lends enchantment... and it doesn't feel like that from a mile away.

In fairness, the council officers who came to place the proposals in context with the needs of the Stowmarket area, options for development and geography, did an excellent job of convincing us that they had our best interests at heart. I was personally intrigued by the notion that a regular bus service might be part of village life in the future - my efforts to encourage provision of a bus stop may yet bear fruit - but my concern is that, if development must go ahead, I want as much as possible for the villages of Stowupland and Creeting St Peter.

It was a very well attended meeting by Creeting standards, and a range of questions and concerns were raised. Hopefully, we have laid down a few markers for the future, although without a Parish Plan, it will be difficult to agree upon a principled approach for the village in the face of future development.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

An oestrogen pill for the blogosphere, with love from Amaranth

Ah, Mark, so reasonable, so fair-minded in his comments about women and blogging. He's so cute like that. Wrong, but cute nonetheless. Let's be honest, male bloggers are like dinosaurs - they claim to rule the world because they're big. And yet, they don't, and they aren't.

Here in the paradise that is Amaranth, we have taken some meaningful steps to ensure that women bloggers gain their fair share of sunlight. After all, as the only liberal empire in the world, we have standards to maintain. For example, we introduced a television programme called "And who made you God then?" in which bloggers are asked to justify some of their more outrageously hyperbolic postings before a jury made up of senior academics at the University of Feldkirch. In my experience, under withering scrutiny, male bloggers learn to be rather less dogmatic...

However, as merely an occasional drinker at the well of Liberal Democrat blogging, I notice that the
top Liberal Democrat blogger is a woman, the top Scottish Liberal Democrat blogger is a woman, and the top Welsh Liberal Democrat is Petra Black (Klaus, can you check that for me?). Indeed, some of the best non-women Liberal Democrats bloggers are animals (gender undefined) and gay men - in some cases both at the same time.

So, perhaps, it isn't that we need more women bloggers, but that we need less men. Now, whilst a cull might be a good thing (and it certainly works wonders with the occasional plague of Conservatives we get here), it is a bit illiberal. So, what could you do to raise the number of women bloggers? Indeed, do you even need to?

In truth, if women want to do something, they almost certainly will. Poison their lover, invade Hungary, suck the blood of a thousand slain enemy warriors, my predecessors as Empress have done all of these things and much more. On the other hand, they might have better things to do, like actually doing things whilst the boys just talk about them...

Rumours of Kelly - have they really thought this through?

This morning, The Times reports that the Kelly review on MP expenses is expected to recommend that those MPs whose nearest railway station is an hour or less from Westminster will no longer be able to claim a second home allowance. For example, from an East Anglian perspective, Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) will lose the right to claim, whilst Bob Russell (Colchester) will retain it.

In principle, it seems fair that MPs should experience the same lifestyle that many of their constituents experience, the daily commute being part of it. In the current environment, where hostility to politicians and their works is seemingly unlimited, there is a sense that MPs should be more like the rest of us.

And yet I have a little honest doubt, as someone who has commuted for most of his adult life. Yes, I grew used to losing two, sometimes three hours a day to the haul into and out of the city, but I was only working a thirty-six hour week. My hours, whilst flexible, roughly equate to a nine to five day. Is that true for MPs?

Last night, I flicked through the television channels and BBC Parliament was still broadcasting live coverage of the House of Commons at 10.25 p.m. (the House finally adjourned at 10.27 p.m.). So, if Crispin Blunt was going to head back to Reigate, he will have missed the last train home. He has been working, and is now expected to get home. Is that the sort of commute that most people would think of as reasonable? I think not.

One point bears repeating. MPs do not work thirty-six or even forty-five hour weeks, not if they're doing it properly. If you expect them to be available during office hours, and I presume that you do, it's potentially more like a fifty hour week, plus weekends. So, if you expect MPs to commute, is it not fair that they get the downtime to recover too?

But no, you expect them to meet their constituents, to attend village fetes. You expect them to be seen around the constituency, campaigning, holding surgeries. There are limits and, if people are pushed too hard, and the job made almost entirely unattractive, many of the people that you would actually like to see representing you will take one look and say, "No, I think that I'll have a life instead."

So, fair enough, make MPs commute for up to an hour. In return, Parliament opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 7 p.m. Organise it so that there can be proper scrutiny, or leave that to a reformed professional House of Lords, as you will, but crucifying those who represent us on a cross made of our own anger and prejudices will only lead to worse government by an increasingly remote group of professional administrators.

And now for something completely different... Indian wine

Of course, delegations aren't all about meetings in air-conditioned offices. Occasionally, you get to do something unusual and on this trip, the most unexpected event was our visit to to Deccan Plateau Vineyards. This is the first vineyard in India to be owned and run by Indians, as other vineyards have either imported winemakers from overseas, or are owned by overseas purchasers.

Now I've travelled pretty widely in pursuit of wine. Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina have been my favourites, but I've found good wine in less obvious places - Bolivia produces at least one good riesling, for example. However, a winery in its second year was unlikely to produce wine of a decent quality, right?

Wrong. As the delegation discovered, the potential for decent wine is certainly there, and Nitin Shinde, the winemaker, is producing red wines with real potential. I bought three bottles myself as gifts for later in the trip, and I am confident that we will be hearing more about Indian wine in the future.

Damn it Jennie, just sit still and be revered, why don't you?

My friend Jennie is unhappy this morning, a fact which takes a little of the shine off of my day. Jennie is different. She appears to live her life in accordance to one of the key principles of liberalism, in that she refuses to be a slave to conformity, and I get a degree of vicarious pleasure out of that.

She is volatile and direct, and for those of us who have allowed ourselves to be boxed in by convention, by what those around us think, by our upbringing and by our community, she represents a breath of fresh air. Even when I don't wholly agree with her, I am made to think just a little. Best of all, she makes me smile even when she makes a serious point.

All in all, I think that she's a bit of a treasure, to be taken out of the wrapper of the blogosphere and savoured from time to time, to be celebrated and enjoyed.

So, wherever you are and whatever you're doing today, the sun is shining on you, my friend. The clouds that are in the way are someone else's problem...

Women and blogging - a view from the uncategorised

I have been drawn to the debate kicked off by Jennie about women bloggers and recognition/linking. And, whilst Jennie categorises me in a group all of its own (yay, I'm unique!), perhaps, as one of the small number of bloggers with an alter ego who occasionally blogs, I might make a small, rather humble, contribution.

Firstly, I am puzzled by the concept that feminism, and blogging about it, is not political. For one thing, the idea of campaigning for anything is in itself a political act, to be agreed with or disagreed with, to support or reject, in the same way that, for example, British involvement in Afghanistan might be. Indeed, I would argue that any debate on the role, or treatment, of women is really rather more important, given that it potentially directly impacts on the lives of half of the population and indirectly (and here there is genuine cause for debate) on the other half.

As I have noted in the past, I come from a background where a male was discouraged from taking an involved stance on issues of feminism. I apparently couldn't possibly understand the issues, and any attempt to address them was looked upon with suspicion, verging on hostility. Accordingly, I have tended to avoid the debate to some extent, preferring to support from the sidelines.

Jennie presents evidence to support the contention that blogging is not the province of one or other gender, information that is of interest to an old number cruncher like me. So, I thought that I would do some research myself. lists 375 male Liberal Democrat bloggers and 123 female ones, a 3:1 ratio. This is not that far out of line with the ratio of male councillors to female ones if memory serves, so does the imbalance simply reflect the relative dearth of women in politics?

Mark Pack did attempt, albeit in rather weak fashion, put a contradictory figure into the mix, but I'm going with Jennie on this one. So, one must assume that women blog on other things. Alternatively, they blog on subjects that are not perceived to be political.

The definition of 'political' is, I suspect, as wide as that of 'culture' and, having spent eighteen months at your expense trying (and failing) to define the latter, I am loathe to essay an attempt to do so. However, for the purposes of the exercise, I ought to try. So here goes...

A political blog posting is one that considers how society might or might not be changed to alter the lives of individuals or groups

I think that this is has a fairly wide embrace, and certainly includes topics that would probabaly be perceived as being outside of what the mainstream news media might cover using their political correspondents. Those topics might not impact on many people but might be critical to those who are affected.

It also opens a window to those who are working within their communities, doing volunteer work which might not be party political but might require interaction with politicians or government in order to be effective. They often see themselves as apolitical, but their choices do change their societies in a direct way. Given that many women are engaged in local community volunteering, and that some of them probably blog about it, how are they different from those of us who blog of our work as councillors or council candidates?

I suspect that one other factor is that women appear, from the perspective of this bureaucrat at least, to be more outcome focused and less prone to what I describe as a 'look at me' approach. They also tend to be more family orientated, and I suspect that a lot of 'family life' blogging comes from women.

Ah well, those are my thoughts, and if they encourage people to think outside of the box a little, all well and good...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

My role in Sir Michael Lord's downfall?

Meanwhile, in Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (or CSI: Mendlesham as I like to think of it), we'll be getting a new MP at the next election, following Sir Michael Lord's announcement that he will be retiring. Given that he ran to be Speaker earlier this year, one presumes that, at that time, he felt capable of seeing out another term, so the announcement came as a bit of a surprise.

Or not, as the case may be...

A few weeks ago, a colleague who shall remain nameless indicated that a Conservative councillor had told him that Michael Lord would be gone shortly, the expenses scandal providing the motive, and that Tim Passmore, Conservative leader of Mid Suffolk District Council, wanted to be selected. What they wanted to know was, how do you deselect a sitting MP? Luckily, I know how we do this, provided the information, and thought no more about it. And then, suddenly, he was gone.

It seems unlikely, but have I inadvertently played a small part in getting a new MP for the constituency? If it's any consolation, Creeting St Peter was moved from Central Suffolk and North Ipswich to Bury St Edmunds in the last boundary changes, so whilst Sir Michael is my MP now, he wouldn't have been after the next election regardless...

The continuing perils of Cincinnati...

Whilst visiting the pharmaceutical plant, I received a message from home. Cincinnati had been rushed to the vet, and I needed to ring the practice to find out what was happening. Luckily, the vet was satisfied that he had had a good night and was recovering well. However, I would need to bring him in again on our return.

And so, a fortnight ago, I took Cincinnati back to the vet, with Katherine for company. There is no doubt that he is struggling, in that he is losing weight, his hind legs are weakened by muscle loss, and he is generally slower. The vet concluded that he was suffering from a hyperactive thyroid and early stage renal disease, and prescribed medication and a change of diet.

A fortnight later, not much has changed. He takes his medication every day, whether he likes it or not. The new cat food is not to his taste, even though it is low in phosphorus and fearfully expensive, so I treat him with expensive, nice-tasting cat food. Signs of recovery are, at this stage, few and far between, but he still enjoys a stroll around the garden, even if he wobbles a little from time to time.

Cinci has had a good run, and at sixteen years old, he has outlived average life expectancy for a house cat. In the meantime, we'll make him as comfortable as possible, keep him warm and safe, and give him as much attention as we can.

There is a corner of a foreign field that is forever Liberal Democrat

One of the more intriguing episodes of our trip to India was a visit to the headquarters of Emcure Pharmaceuticals on the outskirts of Pune. Now I'm not an expert in the production of generic drugs, but one could not help but be impressed by their enthusiasm and attention to detail.

One thing that did hit home though was the costs of production. It was claimed that they could produce a range of commonly prescribed drugs at less than a quarter of the cost currently paid by the NHS, a notion that, if true, could drastically reduce its running costs. At a time when all budgets are under pressure, such savings could prove to be extremely helpful.

The delegation were then led outside to an area of lawn with trees along one side. A small tree was waiting for us, ready to be planted alongside a sign listing the members. In years to come, visitors will know that Liberal Democrats were there, which is reassuring in a small way.

Next, we were taken to the new production facility, a state of the art plant, with an entirely sealed production line to protect staff from the component elements of the product. And yes, there was some dressing up to be done, with protective suits, boots and headgear. Your correspondent looked vaguely silly, but needs must, as they say. I asked about the financial viability of their investment in the plant, and was astonished to be told that it was profitable working at just 10% of capacity.

At the moment, India is focused on production rather than research and development. If that emphasis changed, prospects for the great pharmaceutical companies of the West must be grim. On the other hand, the potential financial benefits for health providers will be vast.

Finally, we were taken to lunch. I was slightly distracted by news from home, but that's another story...

Monday, October 26, 2009

Do sit down and keep quiet Lord Carey, there's a good chap...

And so, the Roman Catholic Church has finally offered a home to those Anglican priests who oppose the ordination of women and gay men. Let's be honest here, such an offer was always on the cards, and it will be interesting to see how many take up the opportunity and, for that matter, how many parishioners do the same.

What I find most astonishing though is Lord Carey's complaint over the lack of consultation before the Pope's offer. Pardon me but, aren't the two Churches in dispute over doctrine? This is religion, based on belief, not some sort of cosy cartel. Catholicism, like Protestantism, is a faith which seeks to expand its influence, and the notion that the Catholic Church might not take advantage of the growing fissures in the Church of England is laughable.

As a Catholic myself, I suppose that I ought to declare an interest. Admittedly, it would be a very broad definition of practising that encompassed my occasional guilty candle lighting, but I am a Catholic nonetheless.

There is the potential for difficulties, however. How will the Catholic Church in England and Wales in particular cope with a large number of married priests appearing in its midst? If you had had sworn your vow of celibacy, would you find it easy to stick to it when the priest in the neighbouring parish was living with his wife and children? What about transubstantiation? And presuming that you get the clergy, will the worshippers follow and, even if they do, is their faith strong enough? After all, they were followers of the Church of England without demur so what has changed? Where will they worship if the Church of England retains the estate?

From an Anglican perspective, there are advantages. A more united Church can only be a good thing, even if it a smaller one. There might also be a greater opportunity for Anglicanism to take a more visable role in our body politic, speaking as one on the great moral issues that face us.

There are other political implications. Does a shrunken Church of England merit twenty-six members of the House of Lords? Indeed, does it merit retaining its status as the state faith? Is this the opportunity for disestablishment, or for replacing some of the Bishops with representatives of other faiths? Given the current moves towards further reform of the House of Lords, could this be a useful coincidence of timing?

I was never wildly impressed by George Carey when he was Archbishop of Canterbury. If he had taken a firmer line when he was in charge, his successor might not have had half as many problems as he does now. And perhaps the Vatican wouldn't have parked its tanks on the lawns of Lambeth Palace...

Thoughts from the Train: look back in frustration - a lucky escape on Thursday night

There has been plenty written about Thursday night's 'Question Time', and I did wonder if I should add to that. However, given what happened, and the fact that I went to the trouble of watching it, it would be a pity not to.

Firstly, for all the protestation that the programme followed its normal tack, with questions springing spontaneously(ish) from the audience, I can't help feeling that the whole atmosphere was distorted by Nick Griffin's presence. I rarely recall an edition where so much of the debate was focussed on one member of the panel, on his ground. Yes, from a metropolitan liberal perspective, having a articulate, hostile audience was a good thing, but the panel were perhaps overeager in their attempts to pin one on him, so to speak.

Yet for all their complaints about the metropolitan audience, it almost certainly reflected public opinion. The BNP are the political equivalent of Marmite - either you like them or you don't. If you don't, you are likely to be hostile to them. And where they are unlikely to find a welcome, their presence is weak. In this year's county elections, they ran a full slate in Essex. Across the Stour in Suffolk, they only managed to find three candidates. Indeed, in Brent, we don't tend to see much of them.

Luckily, the BNP leader performed really rather badly. Given that he must have prepared for a televisual lynching, it was astonishing to see him blunder his way from ridiculous statement to ridiculous statement. A 'non-violent Ku Klux Klan' indeed - one presumes that they only strung up marinated carrots from trees. Given that he has been under intense scrutiny for years, one wonders how he thought that he could issue blanket denials of his past statements and retain any credibility.

But I see this as a missed opportunity. I for one would have been interested to see how he would have responded to the Royal Mail dispute, or President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize. Having seen how badly he performed on those subjects where he would have prepared most, how much of a train wreck would it have been on other topics?

At the end of the day though, it was political theatre, and most of those who have voted BNP in recent elections are unlikely to have been watching. On the other hand, if it inspires a few people to get involved in politics in order to offer a positive, alternative message to the BNP's hatred and division, it may prove to have been worth the effort...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Unexpectedly in Winchester...

Due to a slight mix-up in terms of train bookings, I had been scheduled to head back to Suffolk last night whilst Ros went to Winchester. However, the equivalent of impulse buying kicked in and, as a result, I found myself on a South West Trains service to the capital of Wessex.

Luckily, our hosts were able to accommodate me, and we sat down to dinner at the Royal Hotel at 7.30. Or not, as the case may be. Whilst the schedule had been agreed in advance, the message hadn't necessarily got through to the kitchen so, for a change, the after dinner speeches took place... before dinner. Luckily, it seemed to go rather well, and the dinner that followed was a pretty good one. It would be fair to say that the steak and ale pie went down particularly well...

I'm particularly pleased to see how well Martin Tod is getting on. It wasn't going to be easy taking up such a challenge after the 'Oaten Affair', and morale was pretty low after 1997. However, two good years at local government level have made the picture much brighter, and I suspect the Tories have their eyes set on next door Meon Valley - certainly their previous candidate thought it was the better option...

Monday, October 19, 2009

Just one week into the new Parliamentary term and another defeat for the Government

Yes, the Lords are back, and whilst there isn't much voting going on at the moment, one long-running argument appears to be bubbling away. On two occasions already, the Government has been told to go away and do something about the retrospective revaluation of non-domestic rates for port-side operators. So far, they've done nothing. And so, it was time for a Motion of Regret...

Non-Domestic Rating (Collection and Enforcement) (Local Lists) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2009

Lord Bates moved to resolve that this House regrets that the Non-Domestic Rating (Deferred Payments) (England) Regulations 2009 (SI 2009/1597) do not remove the retrospective application of a revaluation of non-domestic rates for port-side operators.

And sure enough, the Government were defeated again, by 72 votes to 66. At some point, they may get the message, although Lord Greaves was unimpressed.

Interesting to note that, whilst some MPs are complaining about retrospective treatment of their expenses, they are happy to apply it to a key sector of British industry. Ah, irony, don't you love it?

Succession planning in Suffolk Coastal might be a bit of a Gummer...

John Gummer has been around a long time. One of the survivors of the last Conservative government, he continues to represent Suffolk Coastal in Parliament and, despite his problems with expenses, is unlikely to struggle to be re-elected. However, he will be 70 next month, and clearly can't go on forever.

So, some succession planning is called for. Luckily, his son Ben is of the right age and is judged to be fit and able to be a Parliamentary candidate. You shouldn't presume anything in politics, however, and a seat like Suffolk Coastal is an attractive opportunity for an ambitious young politico, so a bit of CV building is called for.

And so, Ben has become the Conservative candidate for Ipswich. Admittedly, he doesn't want to draw attention to what his father does, even if a look at photographs of the two make the link a bit of a giveaway. When he was selected in August 2007, in the aftermath of a change of Labour leader, it didn't look that promising, with the likely swing looking to be away from the Conservatives at that time.

Two years later, with Labour languishing in the opinion polls, and having been virtually wiped out in this year's county elections, Electoral Calculus is predicting that he will win. Good news for Ben, one might think. Well, yes and no. If he wins, he can hardly do the chicken run to Suffolk Coastal in 2014/15, and will be forced to defend what will always be a swing seat.

It is hard to imagine that Labour will remain as unpopular as they are at the moment, and with the Conservatives possibly controlling every level of government for the area (albeit with Liberal Democrat support on Ipswich Borough Council), he wouldn't have anything to run against when the Labour comeback begins.

Ah well, succession planning doesn't always run smoothly. Perhaps Cordelia might be persuaded to take up politics?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

There is nothing like a Regional Conference to stir the blood...

...except perhaps two on the same day...

So, what was I doing in the North West? Naturally, I was in Widnes to attend a Regional Conference (I get everywhere eventually). However, the life of the First Husband is nothing if not glamorous, and I was only able to stay for about an hour before heading off for another engagement. However, I did get a chance to catch up with a number of people, including Mark Alcock from ALDC, Stan Collins, former Chair of the English Party, and Vera Roberts, whose graciousness in hosting a slightly battered bureaucrat was so appreciated last year.

Everything seemed to be running smoothly there, but then, with a female President, Flo Clucas, a female Chair, Sue McGuire, with Vera on registration and the formidable Jeanette Crosland as Regional Conference Chair, it was unlikely to be otherwise.

Off then to Solihull by train, using the London Midland service. We've had problems with London Midland in the past but, on this occasion, everything ran smoothly. Their staff were efficient and friendly, the trolley service was delivered well, and if only their management weren't so utterly useless, they might yet be an adornment to our national transport system.

Apparently, things weren't going as well in Solihull, although it was hard to find out exactly why. However, the question and answer session went well, and it was nice to catch up with Martin Turner and Lorely Burt, whose skills as a dancer were noted with approval. But again, it was time to go. The day wasn't over yet, and there were still miles to go before I slept...

Game on for leadership of the English Liberal Democrats...

Arriving early in the North West yesterday gave me a chance to catch up on English Party politics, and it seems that there will be a contest for Chair of the English Party this year. As Brian Orrell is term-limited after three years in the job, there will be a new Chair regardless, and the two candidates are Paul Clark, currently Chair of the East of England Liberal Democrats, and Jonathan Davies, formerly Treasurer of the English Party.

In truth, many people will know little about the two candidates, although I consider both of them to be friends. And as I am no longer a voting member of English Council, I won't be called upon to cast my ballot one way or the other. However, this is important. Why? Because the winner will have tremendous amounts of influence on the organisational direction of the Party.

In amongst the constitutional structure of the Liberal Democrats, the English Party has a key role. Naturally, most of the members of the Party live in England, so financial considerations are important. Also, in a federal structure, the State Parties have the ability to delay structural change. Perhaps of more relevance to the wider membership, the English Party is responsible for all issues related to membership and candidate approval and selection in England. That's right, not the Federal Party, the English Party (the same situation applies in Scotland and Wales). Despite this, questions of accountability and transparency have always lingered.

The officers of the English Party are elected by, and from, English Council, a body whose membership is usually made up of a very small number of people (one member for every 500 members of the Regional Party, rounded up). Often, those people are elected without a contest and a minority are found by a process of arm-twisting and persuasion.

After all, English Council is seldom exciting, or even interesting, it meets but twice a year (in London), and is mostly a talking shop. The 'interesting' bit is what membership of English Council opens up. There are places on the Federal Executive and Federal Policy and Conference Committees, the committee that decides on G8 grants for local election campaigns and five places on the English Candidates Committee. But it's the Chair which intrigues...

Oh yes, the Chair. Of course, being Chair of the English Party gets you a seat on the Federal Executive, and the Constitution of the English Party specifies that you become one of the three Vice Presidents of the Federal Party. It also gets you a seat on the Chief Officers Group which, under the current arrangements, is a very big deal indeed.

So, whilst Jonathan Davies versus Paul Clark might not sound like a contest to spark the imagination, there is an awful lot riding on the outcome. Let's just hope that the seventy or so people likely to cast a ballot choose wisely...

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Why I won't be on English Candidates Committee next year...

Yes, you probably heard it here first, the faceless bureaucrat won't be on ECC next year.

It's funny really, as one of the things this blog has hung on is 'candidate stuff', and I rather enjoyed using it as a means of floating ideas before taking them to ECC or, on occasion, to London Region. However, problems relating to the position of my spouse have recently made that a bit awkward, so that's done for.

Also, ECC has introduced a new approval system, and is in the latter phases of developing a new set of Selection Rules, so that there isn't a huge amount to do for a while.

Those are the justifications, and present a perfectly acceptable rationale for standing down. Except that those aren't the reasons...

In truth, I simply didn't get around to getting a nomination paper signed. It seems that I wasn't motivated enough to do anything about it, which is probably a subliminal message that it was time to go anyway. So, I'll be on the sidelines of the 'candidate debate' for a time. I'll still be a Returning Officer, I may even apply to become a Parliamentary candidate assessor under the new system, but I won't be on ECC.

Turn the page, and move on...

Goodbye to all this - breaking the bonds that tie

Twenty-five years in the Party, pretty much all of them in London, and it is finally time to move on. So, I've resigned my seat on English Council in favour of someone else, and transferred my membership to my new Local Party, Bury St Edmunds, in a new Region, East of England.

Of course, I haven't been active for all of that time. I tend towards bursts of enthusiasm which gradually fade. I have (effectively) retired from political activity twice, and returned on both occasions to loyally serve the Party in a bureaucratic capacity. It's been fun and I've been happy to do what I could to help others get elected - the 'going to meetings so that you don't have to' model.

I've even managed to avoid getting elected, in Southwark by dint of making myself Returning Officer for the selection in a target ward, in Brent by volunteering to chair the Approval Panel (and ultimately by moving house!).

I'll miss London politics - a bit - but, I have to confess, I won't miss London Regional Party politics. There are some really good people, doing really good things, but the sense of a strategic direction has always seemed to be somewhere over the horizon. And, in the end, I like so many of my predecessors, lost the will to fight.

However, London isn't the only thing I'm giving up...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

MP expenses: the descent to farce continues...

Now call me old fashioned (and it appears that I have Stephen Tall for company here), but I'm beginning to get the impression that there is no level of self-abasement out of reach of our politicians. The expenses scandal was just that, with a regime for expenses which lacked any credibility, either in itself or in terms of its administration. Fine, change it. Make it transparent, punish those who transgress, whether as claimants or administrators.

However, we are now going beyond retribution even, to a point where the laws of natural justice and common sense are placed in suspended animation. The notion that it can be right to retrospectively impose limits on the level of claims is a nonsense, the sort of nonsense that any sensible person would protest about if applied to them. Indeed, such legislation, if enacted in Parliament, would undoubtedly be shot down in flames by any self-respecting lawyer.

But in the rush to closure, it seems that a sufficient number of politicians are willing to do anything to 'make it go away'. Well, I've got news for them. The only way to make it go away is to live up to the standards expected of our lawmakers. And of course, most of our lawmakers do just that, not that you would believe it from the buzz in the blogosphere and in the 'dead tree media', as Guido Fawkes loves to describe the newspapers.

You see, I don't get the impression that paying the money back will actually change that many minds. The damage has been done by the announcements of perceived wrongdoing, and nobody is going to be paying attention to the trickle of announcements that MP X has repaid £Y, especially if MP X submitted perfectly valid claims, approved by the Fees Office. Indeed, MP X gets the worst of both worlds, condemned by the public for alleged greed, regardless of the merits of his or her claim, just because someone has retrospectively imposed his own judgement of what is 'right and proper', and is then expected to make a repayment based on (currently) provisional and arbitrary guidelines.

A sense of retribution and a sense of justice are not mutually inclusive, and in our rush to punish MPs, we risk debasing the currency of our democracy to a point where anyone with any sense of self-respect and self-preservation will avoid public service to the detriment of our society as a whole. Just as being a Muslim doesn't make you a terrorist, being a politician doesn't make you a crook. Whilst most of us seem perfectly willing to accept the former, the latter appears to be more difficult to comprehend.

Friday, October 09, 2009

A visit to the Indian Parliament and a reminder of the first Indian MP at home

We had to move on, and our next stop was the Rajya Sabha, where we were to meet with the Deputy Chairman, K Rahman Khan. There was a pleasant talk about differences and similarities in procedure, and I took the opportunity to ask whether there was a problem with a comparative lack of coverage of events in the Rajya Sabha (upper house) as opposed to the Lok Sabha. His impression was that this wasn't a particular issue and, given that the Prime Minister sits there, this makes sense.

Interaction over, we were taken for a tour of the parliament building

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Tea with the Minister

It was time to meet a real live politician, and so off to the Transport Bhawan to meet the Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways. We didn't have long, but there was time to find out what his priorities are.

Curiously, there is a division between road and railways, at least as far as the Indian Government is concerned, and perhaps that might have something to do with the importance of railways in the Indian psyche. The three million employees might be another factor...

Unfortunately, the delegation strayed into talking about trains, and the Minister was, in fairness, happy to talk about them as part of an integrated transport system.

He has an interesting background too, as a former Minister for Environment & Forests and as Minister for Industry & Commerce from 2005 until earlier this year. In the latter role, there are many who saw him as key to India's tough stance at the Doha Round of trade negotiations. As a member of the Lok Sabha, he has represented the same seat for twenty-nine years, excepting a two-year period when his wife appears to have stood in for him.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Indian security policy - not fixated on Pakistan, really we aren't...

The first engagement on the second day was a visit to meet with the Deputy National Security Advisor and her team. You'll have noted the use of the phrase 'her team' here, and I was impressed that former Ambassador to Thailand, Leela Ponappa, had been willing to met with us.

Naturally, issues related to infiltration across the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir were high on the agenda and, whilst we were repeatedly told that Pakistan was not the be all and end all of security policy, the question of Indo-Pak relations kept coming back again and again. Indian security policy requires that the Pakistani authorities prosecute those behind last year's attack on Mumbai, and take real action against Lashkar-e-Toiba, the terrorist organisation and formentor of cross-border attacks.

Of course, there are issues relating to China too. The unresolved border deliniation, and the increasing links between China and India's neighbours, particularly in Nepal and Myanmar, are of genuine concern, especially when linked to internal destabilisation caused by the Maoist Naxalites.

However, there is an increasing inbalance between military aid to Pakistan and that given to India. Prior to the end of the Cold War, Pakistan received support from the United States, roughly balanced by that given to India by the Soviet Union. Then, with the collapse of communism, that aid dried up. The war on terror changed that, and the recent $7.5 billion military aid package agreed between the United States and Pakistan risks heightening that imbalance yet further. To be blunt, it is broadly felt here that much of that money will end up in the hands of groups hostile to India or, worse still, in the hands of those forces in Afghanistan fighting the NATO alliance there.

The Congress administration in New Delhi will doubtless target some additional funding towards defence spending, and today's 'Times of India' reports the announced purchase of three hundred light tanks for deployment in mountainous regions of Jammu & Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, as well as 29 new MiG-29K aircraft for the Indian Navy. However, the fight against poverty, and the need to overhaul aging infrastructure, are competing for those funds.

India is seen to be a bastion of stability in the region, and ironically, this probably contributes to a sense that it can be neglected. And yet, it is surrounded by mostly small states who accept a degree of hegemony because, like the dinosaurs were, it is big. That cannot be said of either Pakistan and China, and perhaps we need to be more alert to the problems faced by a country far more recognisable in terms of structure, far more akin in terms of culture, then either of the other two. One day, we might be sheltering under the wing of an Indian superpower rather than an American one.

But where was the guy with the chicken on his head?*

Of course, as an official delegation to a foreign country, a briefing from your diplomats is always welcome, and so we paid a visit to our High Commission in New Delhi, not that far from our base. Our host was the Deputy High Commissioner, who graciously laid on tea in the company of some of his fiercely bright team. Naturally, we talked about two key elements of their role, aid and trade.

Of course, India is not the basket case it once was thought to be, a land of famine and starvation, as the Green Revolution helped it move into food surplus in most years. Indeed, most smaller donor nations are no longer active there, as the amounts of money involved were apparently thought to be fairly irrelevant. DFiD only operates in five states, including Bihar and Orissa (see, we can do plot development here at 'Liberal Bureaucracy'!). On the other hand, with increasing inward investment in the United Kingdom coming from India, and trade between the two nations being pretty much in balance in financial terms, our trade mission is working harder than ever.

I have to admit that I've often had grave doubts about the ability of our missions abroad to deal with those who apply for the right to enter the United Kingdom. Issues related to access to visas, the insistence that applicants travel vast distances without any guarantee of even a consistent outcome let alone an equitable one, and some personal evidence of racism, have left me suspicious that justice and even the interests of our nation are uppermost in the minds of those making decisions.

However, this wasn't really a day to ask another 'difficult' question, having lobbed a live grenade in the direction of the National Human Rights Commission, so I asked questions about aid to Emma, a Jo Swinson soundalike, who gave a very impressive overview of the work done with our money.

* Yes, I know that the guy with the chicken on his head is the Governor General, and that we don't have one in India, but it was just too good a title to give up...

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Thinking about thinking with the Centre for Policy Research

Delegations aren't just about meeting politicians, there is as much to learn from meeting thinktanks whom, after all, contribute many of the ideas that politicians then adopt. And so, as a board member of a thinktank myself, I was interested to see whether Indian thinktanks operate in a similar fashion. The Centre for Policy Research, which describes itself as the premier think tank shaping policy debates since 1973.

Unlike most thinktanks I am familiar with, CPR has a faculty, headed by K C Sivaramakrishnan, former Secretary at the Ministry of Urban Development. And that, perhaps, gives you a sense of the calibre and influence of the group. Many of them have been senior bureaucrats in a country where bureaucrats carry real clout, and politicians come and go.

One of the issues we discussed was the question of internal revolt by the Naxalites, a Maoist group that I had only heard of in passing, but whose activities now extend across Bihar and Orissa, into Madhya Pradesh and across parts of the North East. In a number of areas, they have effectively replaced formal government, eliminating every trace of regular public services, all the way down to post offices.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Bihar and Orissa have, for some time, been claimed to be some of the worst governed of the Indian states, and I was intrigued by the potential link between distance from the great trading cities. Certainly, whilst Bihar was once known as being an industrial hub, Orissa has given an impression of poverty for some time.

As the first formal event, it was an excellent way to start, and set the tone for much that followed.

Does India have a Liberal Vision?

There is no evidence that any of the major political parties in India see themselves as liberal in any sense that we might recognise. However, there are signs emerging that liberalism is becoming more relevant in terms of the political debate.

In that vein, a breakfast meeting was held with the Director of the Liberty Institute, Barun Mitra, to see if there was potential for future collaboration. I admit that he came across as more of an academic than a politician, but there is no doubt that their agenda is well within the ballpark of modern liberalism.

I was more interested in one of their core projects, Empowering India, which aims to improve access to information about the democratic process in India. Given the size and scale of Indian democracy, it is a vast task to keep the website up to date, and I am particularly impressed by their effort.

This is an organisation which might benefit from further contact, and whilst it has already has a list of partners that reflects well upon it, if anyone feels that they might be able to offer a good fit, they should get in touch.

Baked to a crisp - the Princess Diana memorial visit

You'll all remember the classic picture of Princess Diana in Agra, posed on a marble bench with the Taj Mahal itself as the backdrop. Indeed, you'll all know the story of the Taj Mahal - ruler meets girl, falls in love, swears undying love, builds enormous and magnificent tomb to mark her passing.

Of course, Diana was there very early in the morning, when the public are excluded, and when the temperature was at its most bearable. They probably didn't mention the drive - she was probably flown - the fact that, in late September the temperatures are in the mid-nineties Fahrenheit, or the extent of the crowds trying to get a closer look. All of which rather strips the place of its sense of romance.

However, it did seem like an opportunity to recover from the jet lag in a cultural way, and so, after an awfully early start, I found myself in an air-conditioned people carrier headed down National Highway 2. You, like most people, probably imagine a fairly decent road. Let me tell you, NH-2 is hardly that, passing through large towns amidst chaotic traffic, with everything from mopeds to auto-rickshaws to oxcarts occupying the two lanes in each direction. If ever you needed a demonstration that building roads attracts traffic way beyond what justified the building of them in the first place, this is it. The heroic driver took all of this in his stride, however, and we made it without incident.

Now you might think that, from my comments thus far, I consider the Taj Mahal to be overrated. Far from it, the story is one of the most romantic, the building itself is still magnificent, and the setting is amazing. No wonder that so many want to see it...

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Human rights, but not necessarily as we know them...

The visit to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) got off to a poor start when our host bounded past the two female members of the delegation to shake my hand. Now I would be the first to accept that there is a generational issue here, in that women are often overlooked in a formal setting. However, in a organisation that is focussed on human rights, I was somewhat taken aback.

Alright, a bad first impression should not colour one's perception. So, second perception. The reception committee is wholly male, not a woman in sight. They're all middle-aged and beyond. So, some probing is done in terms of responsibilities and powers. They are a statutory body with the powers of a civil court. They can investigate complaints and, in some cases, act. They do not initiate extensions of rights, as that is a job for Parliament, and they do not campaign for change, merely implementation. They don't handle questions of equality, although the National Commission for Equality is allied to them, and the Chair of the latter is a member of the NCHR.

So, how many women are on the NCHR? None, or some, depending on who answers, before one member complains that the suggestion that there are no women on the Commission is a false one. This is not going particularly well...

Next, questions about rights for the disabled. The contrast between the approach in the United Kingdom, where groups campaign, lobby government and propose changes to the law, and India, where the NHRC seek reparation for those impacted by compliance failures, became apparent. Whilst the reasons for this are fairly obvious - mass lobbying for a small group is less likely when there are people starving - there are some elements of the work of the NCHR which might be applicable in the United Kingdom.

The delegation have been very kind in including me in their activities, so I took the opportunity to ask one of those 'difficult' questions, that of the human rights linked to sexual orientation. Given that homosexual acts are illegal in India, and that most of the legislation in the field dates from pre-Independence, I wasn't expecting much of an answer. In fact, I didn't get an answer at all, and for an organisation that purports to study international conventions for compliance by the Indian government, I was rather disappointed.

So, all in all, a bit of a disappointment, and I would feel forced to conclude that the NCHR is a body fixated with the mechanics of rights, rather than an organisation that fights for them.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

So, what does a delegation do?

The impression given by 'Dispatches', which so lovingly covered the Parliamentary delegation to the South Pacific last week, is that most of these trips are just a bit of a jolly, with no real work involved and an opportunity to finish off their tan.

And, sadly, sometimes it is true. Sometimes, it isn't. It is hard to imagine that a trip to Rwanda is going to offer much in the way of 'touristical activities', and even those aspects that look like tourism are often designed to expose a delegation to something new. You can, if you wish, ask 'difficult' questions - although diplomacy insists that you pose such questions with discretion and courtesy. Indeed, such probing oftens allows both sides to get a better grasp of the issues that unite and divide.

The delegation has already met with a Union Minister (the equivalent of a Cabinet Minister at home), the Deputy National Security Advisor, the Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha (roughly equivalent to the House of Lords), think tanks and statutory bodies. These sessions require some preparation, the ability to drink copious amounts of tea, and a sense of perspective.

Sometimes, you have to accept that there is a gulf between our approach to problems and that of an Indian politician or bureaucrat. When you talk about human rights, you have to balance that with the fact that 750 million Indians live on less than two dollars per day. Are questions of access for the disabled a matter of primary importance if the rural poor in Bihar or Orissa are starving for lack of irrigation? Is unequal access to services relevant if 450 million people have no access to reliable electricity?

Those things that we take for granted, the political and organisational models that we apply, risk being out of place here, and if we insist in viewing a foreign country through the prism of those concepts, there is every chance that you leave frustrated.

This delegation has also offered an opportunity for those present to get a better idea of how India really works. We have, on one hand, a romanticised vision of India, all colonial Raj, and on the other, talk of call centres and IT. India is a mass of contradictions, a man on his oxcart talking on his mobile phone. However, with so much attention being lavished on China, the other potential superpower of the future, with one-sixth of the world's population within its borders, is in danger of becoming overlooked. Hopefully, this trip will serve to counterbalance that to some small extent.

A Turkish detour on the path to enlightenment

There might be a few of you wondering where I've been, the silence having been unusually deafening. The answer is India, where I am attached to a Liberal Democrat delegation hosted by the Government.

Before anyone gets terribly excited, or considers a report to the 'Friends of Iain Dale' (*** irony alert ***), or the Daily Vile as I prefer to call it, I am paying my own way here, including the internal flight that the delegation made yesterday. And, equally importantly, the cost to the United Kingdom taxpayer is... zero, as this is part of an effort by the Government of India to reach out to Parliamentarians from each of the three major parties.

Due to scheduling issues, I flew in via the pretty route, with a stop in Istanbul on the way. Now I must admit that the initial reason for that choice was curiosity, but the realisation that I could have lunch with an old friend, cross from Europe to Asia and back by boat and add a new country to my list gave the flying visit some meaning.

And so, what about Istanbul? I was entranced. Mosques that resemble vast turtles with their own missile defence systems, ancient fortifications, some exceptional shopping and an easy to use transport system make the city easy to explore. There are ferries across the Bosphorus connecting Europe and Asia, on which you can drink tea whilst you pass Heyderpasa station, the rail gateway to the near East.

Lunch with the 'Axis of Evil' was extremely pleasant, and we drank a bottle of local red wine with our meal, talking about politics and life in general, before I headed off to my hotel for some skin peeling and soap massage. For a few hours, at least, I had nicely buffed and polished skin...

And then to the airport, for the second leg of my journey, where I would meet up with the delegation.