Tuesday, February 28, 2006


And the One I Prefer Is...

With three to choose from and, you might think, each in some way to my taste, which do I like best? Well, slightly to my surprise I prefer the original Jaffa Cake. While the new ‘Lemon & Lime’ version is unexpectedly good, my high hopes for the other new flavour – ‘Blackcurrant’ – have been dashed. ‘Vile’ would be a slight exaggeration, but it’s really not a taste I want to repeat (must invite some guests round to offer them biscuits / cakes / whatever that court ruling called them, before they go soggy).

So ‘Orange’ they should stay, despite orange and chocolate often being too sickly sweet a combination for me*. It’s the plain chocolate that gives it a sharper edge and makes it palatable. The ‘Lemon & Lime’ is quite zingy, tasting rather like Rose’s Lime Marmalade (I’ve not had any for a long time, but my Dad likes it and it was instantly familiar). But though I love blackcurrant and love chocolate, but put two of my favourite things together and the result is only a shade away from revolting, perhaps because it’s already a quite sour taste and just doesn’t go. It doesn’t help that these Jaffa Cakes taste not such much of blackcurrant as blackcurrant flavouring, which I always scowl at anyway.

The blackcurrant flavouring seemed so thoroughly chemical that, unusually for me, I checked the ingredients. Astoundingly, it claims a “6% Blackcurrant Juice Equivalent”, and I suppose the taste has probably about a 6% resemblance to that of actual blackcurrant; I’d recommend D’arbo’s Blackcurrant Syrup instead, which is 80% juice and quite my favourite rich and glutinous drink. Incidentally, the ‘Lemon & Lime’ came in at 4% equivalent and the ‘Orange’ 8%. Why the juice fractions vary I don’t know, but it’s the sort of thing manufacturers affect these days, not to create an authentic taste – that would need more juice and, presumably, expense – but in the pretence that a chocolate confection should in fact count towards your five daily pieces of fruit. The thing that most irritated me about each variety of Jaffa Cake is the way they’re marketing themselves as ‘health foods’: “Only 1g Fat” in large letters on the front of the pack, and three-quarters of the back of it given over to guff about healthy eating and how they’re “recommended by sports nutritionists”. How curiously unappetising. If I’d seen that when I picked them off the shelf I might easily have left them there. Who goes for such a naked con anyway?

I’d still choose a sizeable block of simple chocolate on its own over a packet of any flavour Jaffa Cake – Richard likes them, though he’s wisely avoided the new versions – but it’s good to try something new, isn’t it?

*Obviously I’d still eat orange-flavoured chocolate if there was nothing else in our home, which obviously proves that the Independent on Sunday’s recent report that chocoholism strongly resembles alcoholism and so is now to be treated at the Priory was measured and sensible, and not a loopy old pile of tosh even for a middle-class health scare, as you may initially have thought.

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Nick ‘Mate of Dave Cameron’ Robinson Plugs David Cameron

No, I don’t think it’s news either, so why did the BBC? Last night’s BBC “News” had a particularly egregious example of Nick ‘Mate of Dave Cameron’ Robinson’s agenda, with the lead “news” a naked advert for, er, a forthcoming piece of Tory news. Apparently Dave’s to reveal his new “values” (as any fule kno, ‘To get elected, stupid’). But it’s unusual for the BBC to give such prominence to a story they don’t have yet, enabling zero useful questions and a hagiographic tone. As is traditional, Richard and I shouted at the screen, and a new blog comments on our reactions. Whose new blog, you ask? Well, our fluffy elephant has just started one, with a little help from Richard. Usually it’s been a not-entirely-serious diary, with a bias towards a certain British cultural icon (not Doctor Who for once, though of not dissimilar prominence). Last night’s entry, however, was a fair and balanced look at the new Conservative Leader, treating him with every scrap of seriousness he deserves.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006


The Final Hustings: An Opinionated Commentary

I’ll vote this weekend, but I’m ever-more convinced that it’ll be a tight and far from whole-hearted decision. After spending a night at the London hustings (with the most entertaining hair, from dashing between shops in heavy rain despite chronic impending water shortages) I was resolutely un-struck by the ‘blimey, he’s fantastic’ thunderbolt I yearned for. No surprises from the candidates: Simon the most charismatic but with dodgy material; Ming authoritative but with a nasty edge; Chris talking much sense but still boring. This is the most detailed report you’ll read. Yet I feel strangely hopeful – each was far better than on Question Time, so they’re all improving even after a month of slog. Despite my reservations, I can be enthusiastic about whichever of them wins.

I may have one more leadership piece to go (been up my sleeve to finish with for a while), but with several papers and the BBC covering the London hustings, why shouldn’t I, too? It was great to see so many people packing out a large hall, and gratifying to see the likes of Nick Robinson hanging about, or Michael White and his Guardian munchkins telling on the doorstep, and all hosted by the Independent. Yes, we all say the media aren’t important, but we like it when they pay attention, don’t we? Independent editor Simon Kelner usually comes across as rather pro-Lib Dem and gave a friendly introduction, making it rather a shame that he left the chairing to his apparatchik Steve Richards, a man who usually comes over a spiteful Labourite and, though you might think that would give him an edge, was one of the least useful ‘question time’ chairs I’ve seen.

But I’m getting ahead. Large tables outside the hall advertised each of the candidates; we got there early, which exaggerated the differences between them. Simon’s table had a couple of people on it and a close-written, FOCUS-type leaflet; Ming’s table looked impressive from a distance, with masses of coloured balloons and stickers, but no leaflets and no people; and Chris’ table had plenty of people to speak to and six different types of leaflet or pamphlet. Before the hustings started, all had been joined by more ‘team members’, mostly young, with Simon’s table supplemented by a nicely-printed A4 Manifesto and Ming’s by, finally, a single variety of leaflet, albeit London-specific and in glossy colour. All saw good business in handing out stickers, though no candidate was wildly ahead on that score (and the people wearing all three who presumably wanted to suggest party unity merely looked like traffic lights). In the absence of popcorn, I’d brought along a large bag of M & Ms…

Ming’s Speech

With each candidate given ten minutes to sell their message, Ming spoke first. His best points were on his own ‘story’, and on the attack: his tone of incisive moral rectitude really gives oomph to lines like “Who could have imagined that the opponents of apartheid should now become the apologists for rendition here in the UK?” and accusing Labour of providing “the most authoritarian government since 1945”. That magisterial line of criticism had me nodding, but rarely uplifted, and talking of how we were “unanimous on Iraq” called attention to the way he was the candidate now most apart from the others on that very subject; he was much less strong when being positive, and punctuated too many of his points with a finger stabbing downwards, as if on a firing button.

Chris’ Speech

Chris called everyone “friends” and started by making the audience feel good, with a joke about MPs helping out constituents with their tax credits and volunteering Willie Rennie to give advice to a Mr Brown of Dunfermline who’s got in a tangle over his, as well as promising that each of the three candidates will make a strong team with the members deciding the right mix. His own delivery was a strange mix of the most relaxed – mainly coming over in the chattier parts of his material – and the most nervous, with a few stumbles and noticeably reacting on the audience; when he was dry and there was no response, he just got drier, but he came alive when given applause. There were more ideas than in Ming’s speech, but less passion: when he talked about making the planet sustainable as “the pre-eminent issue,” or attacked the “Orwellian” Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill as “the Abolition of Parliament Bill,” I found myself swept along, but when he slipped into pieces of jargon such as “the social trends underpinning our growth” I’m not sure if my eyelids were fluttering or wincing.

Simon’s Speech

Simon pushed the lectern aside and took the mike in his hand with an aside about “being better without technology,” which got a Luddite laugh but not from me, and launched into what was easily the most charismatic speech, engaging with the audience in the manner of a revivalist preacher (though pretending to speak without notes meant it was much more obvious when, without a handy lectern, he had to peer fixedly down at the speech he’d stuck on the table. Write it on your hand, Simon). Like a preacher, his personal appeals came across as assuming we were all on his side anyway and merely needed to be roused rather than persuaded, with mixed results. His opening story about the Bermondsey journey was slightly thrown by Southwark-based protesters who shouted and, this being a Lib Dem gathering, were first listened to and then booed rather than arrested for terrorism. If anything, they got the audience more on Simon’s side by interrupting the smugger part of his speech and giving him the opportunity to suggest they ask questions in the Q&A stage with everyone else, which as they were clearly only interested in drowning Simon out and not in dialogue gave them nowhere to go except outside in a huff. Once back on track, Simon’s was the most uplifting speech and the most personal, constantly promising “If I am your Leader, I will…” He was clearly tilting at one section of the party, with some of his tacking to the ‘left’ hitting a persuasive moral tone – “We’re the fourth most successful country in the world, but I don’t think a lot of people notice it” – and others cheap shots, like the unsubtle “I promise you, there will be no move to the right if you elect me Leader of our party next week.”

Each of them, incidentally, found their own way to name-check Charles Kennedy.


I quite enjoyed each of the speeches, but the questions were a bit of a wash-out. I should declare an interest, in that before the hustings opened we were told to submit questions on pieces of paper and, having done so, none of mine were picked. The trouble is, given these, Steve Richards then took questions from the floor; given those, he decided he wasn’t interested in them either and tended to introduce his own half-way through a round instead, meaning we frequently heard answers to completely different questions for no apparent reason other than that the political commentator preferred to hear his own voice. With the first question from a UKIPper on which candidate would leave the EU (to laughter), we then got three questions put together from a Southwark councillor on trust, economic and social Liberalism, and coalitions. Bizarrely, having not stopped the guy for asking more than one question, Mr Richards went on to seek still more from the audience before letting the contenders start on the answers, and introduced his own on taxes after the first answer as well; no wonder there weren’t satisfactory answers to any of the six questions shoved together there in a lump. I have to admit, he may have gone on a bit, but the guy from Southwark put his finger on arguably the three most important questions and I was put out that they were lost in the mêlée.

Ming’s first block of answers was fairly nondescript, with “trust by example” and “read our preamble” to argue there’s no dichotomy between economic and social Liberalism, and repeating his formula from Question Time that we should never mention the words “Hung Parliament” (once again being the only person to use those words all evening). He then made rather a bad impression by looking ostentatiously bored while each of the others answered (while Chris politely clapped). Chris’ answer was largely on the tax question Mr Richards suddenly switched to, though he did manage to fight his way back to some of the questions from the floor; hearing him on possible ways better than the 50p rate to tax the wealthier, I have to admit that after years of Gordon Brown messing up pensions, saying we might scoop more out of them doesn’t inspire me. Still, on trust I think he’s right that we must be “absolutely honest on policy” – it’s the ‘costed manifesto’ approach that’s given us credibility in the last few elections. He was also strong on distinctiveness being vital for us, and it being “crucial we stay as an independent force,” rejecting the ‘project’ between Tony and Paddy. Simon led on trust, saying he didn’t deal well with his “most personal judgement” but that people can distinguish between that and his “political judgement” (it seems to have stopped being the ‘Leadership test’ he claimed just afterwards). He did make good points that we’re trusted on issues like the environment and civil liberties but not on those such as pensions, mortgages and security that people are more likely to vote on, and denied being in favour of “tax and spend”.

Student Fees

On top-up fees, all three were strongly committed to the party’s continuing opposition. Chris started and finished well, talking about the fall in university applications and ending with a rousing denunciation of the government, but in the middle went for an extended wander around ‘Crosslandite criticisms’ that rather lost me and, I suspect, everyone else. Simon answered succinctly and then popped in factoids on other aspects of education, which made sense, as well as appealing to the hall with a pledge that “party members decide policy and not the Leader”; this was such a shameless lunge for the audience’s g-spot that I feel bound to comment. I suspect both Simon and Chris are so committed to their own ideas that they’re likely to try and bounce the party (it’s certainly happened before with Simon). It’s just that Simon thinks we’d all agree with him anyway, and I wonder how he’d be if it turned out we didn’t vote the way he expects us to in Conference (compare “party members decide” with “I promise you, no move to the right”). Ming gave a textbook answer about Scotland, and how he – like the Cabinet – had enjoyed free education, wondering aloud where they’d all have got without it.

Swearing, Choice and Points of Contention

The next round asked for their reactions to the ludicrous fine for a teenager overheard swearing with friends, views on parental choice in education (from a former researcher for John Hemming, which got a laugh), economic and social Liberalism again, and what they disagreed on. Ming ignored the first question and leapt in on the last, identifying the “immensely complicated” issue of Iraq as the main difference. There must be no selection in education, he said, by Labour’s back door or the Conservatives’ front door. For me one of his most impressive answers was here as he dealt with Liberalism and public services with considerable passion and good soundbites: “I believe fervently in personal freedom… Local government must have the power to remain in provision of public services, not just commission. If a contract goes wrong, that means lots of money to expensive lawyers on the Strand. If local government goes wrong, you can kick them out.”

Simon agreed that Iraq was a difference, saying “We should honour what we said we’d do and leave after the elections.” Our reputation is soiled, he said, and I have to agree with him, with the evidence from Iraq pointing just that sorry way. However, his next argument was that we must “complete devolution properly” – which I heartily agree with – but through his utterly risible idea of ‘completing’ devolution by leaving it forever incomplete and turning Westminster into a two-tier Parliament. Sigh. He then got my back up further by saying he had a difference with Chris, that the £20 billion it would cost to take to lift minimum-wage earners out of income tax could be spent better – that bit’s perfectly arguable, keep reading – but after stating, properly, that this would be the equivalent of 4p on income tax, then directly stated that Chris would raise the money by increasing income tax by 4p and attacked him for proposing an income tax hike. Now, I know Simon’s not stupid, so as Chris has said throughout that he’d put the money on environmental taxes I can only conclude that this was a deliberate straw man. It was a lie, and I didn’t like it. Perhaps Simon didn’t want to weaken his own green credentials by attacking Chris’ actual position, but it was the single most off-putting thing any of the candidates said that night. Fortunately Simon then came back to attack the government for criminalising young people and said we should end summary justice on the streets, reminding me what’s good about him too.

Chris started off by referring back to his chairing of the Public Services Commission to show he wasn’t on one side or the other in the economic-social debate, which wasn’t very inspiring, and I got the feeling he was sticking to pre-prepared answers because he didn’t react to Simon’s distortion either. He got more into his stride by talking about giving local councils the power to experiment with ideas and providers and try new things, so they can be rewarded or booted out rather than just imposing the market on everything from above, and worried about ‘choice’ sometimes meaning the school chooses the pupil rather than the other way round, so the local authority must be “the ringmaster”. He too opposed summary fines. Things heated up when he turned to defence: if Chris is Simon’s main target, Ming and Chris are each other’s. His repeated phrase that in Iraq “we’re part of the problem, not part of the solution” may have become a cliché but I’m sure it’s right, and he went on to say that he agreed with the article Ming wrote last year that said we should set a deadline to pull out. Now, I heard Chris use this weeks ago, and I’m stunned that Ming’s still not got an answer to it other than pretty much ‘This man is dangerously imprudent and I’m going to hope you all forget I said exactly the same thing’. Perhaps encouraged by Ming’s apparent weakness here, Chris went further on defence by mocking the way British troops are still stationed in Germany to repel a Soviet invasion, leading Ming actually to come in again and bat him down, pointing out not just that unilaterally backing out of NATO decisions would be irresponsible but that they’re there to reinforce Bosnia and Kosovo. So on defence each of them is clearly better when on the attack :-)

How Not to Answer a Light-Hearted Question

Then the final, ‘light’ question, “You’ve spent lots of time in each other’s company. What have you learned?” Now, you’d expect something light and witty to make the audience go away thinking well of you, or something clever along the lines of “I’ve learnt that Ming is authoritative / Simon is charismatic / Chris is clever” – praise for some opponent’s quality that everyone already knows – “but that what I can bring to this job still more effectively is…” Instead, two were nasty and one was tedious. Give me strength. Simon Hughes, come on down: “Not a lot.” (audible gasps) “You’re asking for candid answers.” “Is that a compliment?” asks Steve Richards. “You can interpret it as you wish.” Realising this may not have gone down well, Simon then says he knows why they’re all in the same party, raising for a second the tantalising hope he’s about to say something feel-good, before praising himself as the candidate who can win people over in large numbers better. Ugh. As if for a bet, Ming tries to be even less appealing. The man whose ostentatious proclamations of humility ring as true as Uriah Heep’s gives a scornful whiplash of “I’ve learned modesty and humility. And I’ve also learned from Simon how not to answer the bloody question.” Followed by Chris talking about attendance, good heart, united more than divides us, not riven, most united in Parliament on votes… Fortunately at this point he didn’t produce a bar chart, but he could scarcely have been less exciting. All of them had done pretty well for most of the night, so what ever possessed them each to give by a long way their poorest answers at the end, so people would be talking about the bad bits at the door? Perhaps they were demob-happy.

Despite the ending, I enjoyed the night. I chatted to lots of lovely Lib Dems I’ve not seen for a while (and particular thanks to the one who remembered seeing The Curse of Fenric many years ago and enjoyed being reminded of it by my review). And though each of the candidates had their problems, each was much better than on their TV and radio appearances together earlier in the campaign, suggesting each improves with practice. Simon was more at ease and able to let his charisma flow, and fired off fewer – if not no – loose cannon shots, a relief after the Leaders’ Question Time where I thought he easily ‘won’ the first half but then messily self-destructed in the second. Ming sounded more incisive and really impressed on the attack, and has at least improved his answers on coalitions and Iraq, the two issues where his judgement seemed most wanting back on Question Time. And Chris is still intelligent and has the most ‘meat’, but has cured himself of smiling smugly every time he makes what he thinks is a good point, though he’s still the least exciting presence of the three. I remain a little sad that no one of them gave me a sudden epiphany, and a bit disturbed that our big unifying factor of Iraq has become the big row. Whoever wins, I hope the other two and their supporters will genuinely rally round and unite the party, rather than just looking to their own backers. The party needs uniting, and with each of the contenders so clearly in possession of qualities the others lack, I do hope each of them is going to be pushed to the front to take the fight out where it matters.

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Friday, February 24, 2006


Don’t Debar Ken, Defeat Him

Ken Livingstone is an unpleasant, bullying, hypocritical, lying, propagandist egomaniac. Just so you know, I don’t like him. That makes it all the more important not to give in to the temptation to rejoice in his suspension by the Standards Board. It’s tempting, but it’s wrong, and I was ashamed to hear Simon Hughes agreeing with the sentence when interviewed this afternoon. Liberal Democrats ought to say that Mr Livingstone was offensive and once again proved his lack of judgement, but that’s a reason to throw him out at the next election, and a politician who is unpleasant but not corrupt should be judged by the voters, not a quango. In today’s Britain there are a little over 20,000 elected local councillors, but 60,000 unelected, unaccountable (and usually better-paid) members of quangos. This is a scandal to stick on the Labour Party, and every time Liberal Democrats back the latter over the former we oppose democracy and shoot ourselves in the foot.

Labour MPs have been queuing up to say how outrageous this ruling is. Perhaps Labour have set up all these quangos so they can pretend the Tories are still running the country and they’re still the plucky underdogs (as if they ever were). Unfortunately, such organisations are agencies of Labour’s overwhelming centralised power and Labour are only complaining now because it’s happening to them, when the Standards Board was clearly only designed to do over ‘nasty’ people (ie the Tories), and now Labour’s been hoist by their own petard. One of Mr Livingstone’s least attractive qualities, shared by many of his party but in his case almost pathological, is that he orders other people about but doesn’t think rules apply to him, in everything from being offensive to Labour tribalism to, yes, writing for the “concentration camp” Evening Standard.

In his interview on the PM programme, Simon said that these were the rules on which they stood and Mr Livingstone didn’t oppose them at the time, so he could hardly complain about them now. Well, up to a point. Of course he didn’t, so he’s a hypocrite. If this ruling had been made against a Tory, Labour would be gleefully playing on it for weeks. If it was a Lib Dem, every Labour leaflet in a Jewish area for the next thirty years would be screaming hysterically that the Lib Dems are ‘anti-Semitic’ (I don’t, as it happens, think Mr Livingstone’s comment fell into that category, but it’s for every London voter to judge. It was nasty and offensive and he should have said sorry anyway, though not been compelled to). We know the Labour Party are hypocrites. But we’re better than that, and the Standards Board are just plain wrong. If a politician’s a crook, then they should be removed, but if they’re a git, that’s only ammunition for their opponents at the ballot box.

The Daily Mail – in the same stable as the Evening Standard – is a vile, offensive rag that brings newspapers into disrepute. It might be amusing for a Standards Board For The Media to take it over and produce a blandly inoffensive version for a month. But it still wouldn’t be right.

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The Co-op: Ethical but Incompetent

Can anyone recommend a bank with branches in London and a good ethical stance that isn’t the Co-op? Having been with the Co-operative Bank for a decade, in the last six months they’ve made repeated and ludicrous errors with my account that – if I didn’t check it regularly and wasn’t fairly articulate and assertive – would have cost me an inordinate amount of money I can ill-afford. This morning I discovered yet more mismanagement, and though half an hour on the ‘phone (including being hung up on by mistake) sorted it, I’ve now lost all confidence in their competence.

I don’t want to open an account with a bank I disapprove of, but let’s face it, if a bank is incapable of doing the ‘banking’ part there’s little point staying with them either. Last year it took several weeks, three branch visits and seven phone calls to resolve an issue that no two Co-op employees could give me the same explanation over; this morning, fortunately, the problem appears to have been corrected much more quickly, though I’ll wait to see if all the charges are re-credited to me as agreed before I swear to it. Again, though, none of the three advisors I spoke to this morning were able to explain or even hazard a guess as to what had happened to my account. It’s as if random chance is going wild in their systems.

There isn’t a ‘make a complaint’ facility on their website, and I can’t say I’m surprised. If it was easy, presumably they must be flooded with them.

More Lib Demmery later, but at present I’m too cross.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Not In the Guardian...

...unlike many Lib Dem bloggers, but I am in the Radio Times.

Do I get half a point, your Lordship? ;-)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Ooh, Look, it’s Peter Jeffrey

Peter Jeffrey was a fantastic actor, and he’ll be on BBC4 shortly in two of his best roles. Look out for Our Friends in the North at 10 tonight, and The Avengers: The Joker at 7 tomorrow (repeated Friday). He’s superb both as a bemused police commissioner and a disturbing psychopath, and I also remember him with particular fondness as a wicked Count in Doctor Who: The Androids of Tara. With two of those memorable roles coming up in very memorable pieces of telly and having just recommended The Guardian’s latest ‘In praise of…’ I felt the urge to write one myself.

Peter Jeffrey was one of those actors who was in almost everything, so even if you don’t recognise the name you’ll probably know his face and voice. Frequently cast in the sort of roles on in the next couple of nights – police officers and psychopaths – he could be very funny, too, as with his Yes Minister leadership contender brought down by ‘horizontal jogging’ (good job that couldn’t happen today).

Our Friends in the North

Tonight’s episode is set in 1967, with Jeffrey’s bewildered Met Commissioner quite unable to understand new attitudes to sex. If you’ve never seen the series, I’d recommend it, as long as you can take a deep breath and get over the underlying assumption that socialism is wonderful and the Labour Party would be too if only it didn’t wander off the path. Having never shared either of those assumptions, sometimes it looks strangely self-defeating, and the final episode’s 1995 hopeful new Labour dawn has rapidly become the most dated of them all. It’s still a remarkable social and political drama of Britain over three decades and following four main characters – each of which are remarkable acting performances, with two of the four later ending up cast as the two most iconic continuing roles on the British screen. It’s more ‘compelling’ than ‘engaging’, though; the sour taste of Labour’s failure permeates much of it, and I have to admit I admire the acting of the four leads rather than like them. The only one who comes across as likeable is Geordie, and he becomes a gangster…

The Avengers – The Joker

This one’s not just set in 1967 but made back then; The Avengers excelled in featuring top British actors in perfect guest roles, with some coming back again and again to give particularly scene-stealing star turns: ‘Villainous Peter Bowles’, ‘Loveable Roy Kinnear’, ‘Villainous Julian Glover’, ‘Demented John Laurie’ and of course the equally reliable ‘Villainous Peter Jeffrey’. Having first appeared in the series as a staid, mildly comic official, his villainous credentials were assured by a strange trilogy of episodes (The Joker, Game and House of Cards)in each of which he plays a different old foe bent on revenge against an Avenger: each uses a playing card motif; each has a dubious continental connection; oh, yes – and each one is dead! It’s to his credit that each role is quite different and memorable in its own right, and tomorrow night’s The Joker is for my money the best of the lot.

Peter Jeffrey gives a performance of barely controlled hysteria as he cuts up pictures of Mrs Peel (Diana Rigg) and is first revealed in similarly disorientating ‘slices’ of close-up, completely stealing the show. Horror clichés are thrown around with wicked abandon as Mrs Peel finds herself not quite alone in a deserted house, her companions a pretended madman, a genuinely barking woman and Jeffrey’s thoroughly disturbing psychotic. They don’t stand a chance, do they? Steed’s breathtaking ‘view of four counties’ provides a welcome moment of light relief, but this one’s very much Rigg and Jeffrey’s show.

It’s a remake of Don’t Look Behind You, a black and white Honor Blackman Avengers, and though usually I prefer the originals this time the tougher, more menacing story combines perfectly with sharper production to give something stunning. While most Avengers fans seem to prefer the year Diana Rigg made in colour, I tend to go for the better mixes of the silly and the suspenseful made just before and afterwards (Mrs Peel in monochrome, or Tara King), but this is easily the most sinister episode of the colour Emma season, complete with an outstandingly beautiful score. I’m still never quite sure if it’s a real haunting German love song that plays in the background or if it was composed specially for the show…

Doctor Who – The Androids of Tara

Having praised a sprawling socialist epic, now I’m going to go overboard on a monarchist one. No, I didn’t wake up this morning feeling funny. You’d expect Doctor Who to be frightening and The Avengers to be light-hearted, but these two are the other way round, with Peter Jeffrey starring as double-dealing Count Grendel in an enormously engaging swashbuckler that, naturally, has to end with the ‘rightful king’ secure on his throne. It’s Mr Jeffrey’s second role in Doctor Who, and though it's tempting to hit 1967 again with his first appearance – in a terrific little tale long-since tossed on the BBC bonfire – it’s this 1978 Tom Baker caper that gives him a star part as exactly the sort of roguish villain that you love to hate, in one of the most purely entertaining stories ever made.

Though it’s a distant planet and most of the doppelgängers are robotic, this bears more than a passing resemblance to The Prisoner of Zenda. The key difference is not in the over-familiar incidents but in the feel of the thing; this adventure is done for fun, but Anthony Hope’s original is done for honour and passion (it’s like claiming the book, the film and the Kate Bush song Wuthering Heights are all exactly the same). It’s virtually a holiday story for the Doctor, while all the grand romantic motives that drove the 19th Century novel have vanished from the goodies, though there’s still a whiff of wicked sex about Grendel. I remember absolutely loving the villain when I was a boy, but at the time thinking he was ugly, having a big nose and a prominent wart which led, inevitably, to his later casting as Oliver Cromwell. These days I recognise the gallant Prince may be handsome but he’s got no charisma – when the charismatic Count tells the royal wet fish “Don’t be so tediously heroic,” you know which one the bosoms would be heaving for. He gives dashing Basil Rathbone a run for his money.

It’s beautifully shot in sun-dappled glades, brimming with humour about the clichés of swashbuckling and of Doctor Who (disposing of the obligatory rubbish monster with absurd ease). The Doctor’s companion is the coolly intelligent but rather naïve Romana, the actress given plenty to do in the form of one flesh-and-blood and two android doubles but the character still outrageously taken for a ride by both the Doctor and Grendel; both Tom Baker and Peter Jeffrey have buckets of charisma and fabulous voices, which helps when each of them make up the most shocking whoppers to get her to go along with them, each of which she of course believes. The sheer, outrageous fun of this is summed up when Grendel twirls his moustaches about his escape-proof castle while Romana radiates Mrs Peel-like disdain, all on horseback and to jolly harpsichord music. Sometimes Grendel doesn’t get his own way and sweeps into his castle in such a foul mood that it’s probably the first time he’s been told he can’t have something since nanny, but for most of the thing Jeffrey is so urbane and amusing that you can’t help cheering him on, whether he’s plotting marriage and murder, calling the android-fixing Doctor “Kingmaker extraordinary” or musing that “I think I shall reject the crown only once…” from the impressively-hatted Archimandrite. He turns rather more nasty toward the end after his mistress is killed (on his own orders, hoping to get the Doctor too), but I suspect that was a deliberate tactic of the writer in case we all wanted him to win. It ends, of course, with a duel with the Doctor – I wonder if ‘Duels and Duality’ was the pun in Anthony Hope’s mind? – which Grendel loses but escapes, hurling his foil with a cry of
“Next time, I shall not be so lenient!”
It’s one of the two Who stories I’m most likely to put on simply to cheer myself up, so naturally it’s often condemned by the more po-faced fans (notably Howe and Walker’s The Tedium Companion) as pointless, lightweight fluff that drives them into rage with its flippancy. You’ll have noticed that I don’t care, as it’s simply so engaging. For me, author David Fisher is vastly underrated, with clever plotting, wit and vivid characters, and also there’s swordfighting with electric swords. How cool is that? And Peter Jeffrey’s wickedly irresistible performance is central to it.

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Naked Rambling

No, not an admission that my blogging goes on a bit, but the glad tidings that Stephen Gough, ‘the Naked Rambler’, has at last completed his walk from Land's End to John O’Groats. Nudity’s one of the silliest things to get wound up about, and it’s heartening that several people in the news are making it a bit more acceptable: hikers Mr Gough and his partner Melanie Roberts, and Atlantic rowers Ben Fogle and James Cracknell, who were admittedly less likely to bump into people along their way but popped up more on TV, possibly because they’re the prettier pair.

Thanks to Femme de Resistance for alerting readers to the news I missed yesterday about the end of the ramblers’ 874-mile naked trek (which happily stretched from Lib Dem constituency to Lib Dem constituency and with Stephen Gough’s home in Eastleigh, to boot). Mr Gough and Ms Roberts were arrested numerous times along their journey, apparently more because different police forces felt they ought to than because of any great public outcry. Scottish police seem to have been more puritanical, with Mr Gough jailed four times and ‘admonished’ many more, as far as I can tot them up from the news reports; despite this, locals along the way seem largely to have been very friendly - apart from the obligatory “outraged Kirk minister” - suggesting that old-fashioned British traditions of freedom and tolerance are less out of fashion than the government would have us believe. I think there’s also something about both the ramblers and the rowers that recalls with a glow of amused nostalgia the age of old-fashioned British explorers. Well, I feel like that about them, anyway.

I find it difficult to credit that it’s anyone else’s business whether a person wears a hoodie, a hijab or nothing at all, let alone feel threatened by them. It’d be very dim to claim that nakedness never has anything to do with sex, but it’s also nonsense to argue that it’s always making some sort of aggressive sexual statement (as the old saying goes, if god had meant us to go about without clothes, we’d have been born naked). So there are few bigger wastes of everyone’s time than random officers of the law deciding to harass Mr Gough and Ms Roberts, and while I’m not remotely offended by their nudity I’m hugely offended that they should be chucked in the cells for four months as a result. Ms Roberts was understandably frightened by the experience, while Mr Gough more bolshily stood up for what he believes in, quite reasonably arguing that “I want to show people that nakedness is nothing to be ashamed about and they should not pass their shame on to their kids.” Even The Guardian had rather nice a leader In praise of... the naked rambler in yesterday’s edition.

As I pointed out that I’m no smoker when defending smoking, I should probably mention that I’m very comfortable swimming naked and going about the flat like that. Though according to my Grandma my first political act came at the age of four, naked on a beach, challenging a teenager who’d arbitrarily kicked over a sandcastle, thirty years later I tend to be naked in safely enclosed spaces. I’d be less comfortable in the nude out where everyone else is in clothes, or – and this is probably the killer – where there’s no heating. So if I’m a naturist, I’m on the ‘extreme wuss’ wing of naturism.

Good luck to the Goughs, Robertses, Fogles and Cracknells of this world for their greater bravado and (I imagine) better circulation. What I want to know is, has Mr Gough been congratulated by his local MP?

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Crown and Brown

Prince Charles appears to be embarrassed that it’s come out he’s been meddling in politics. Apparently he doesn’t expect to be held to account. Well, colour me stunned. According to tonight’s Channel 4 News, he bombards MPs and ministers with ‘advice’ (while never replying to anyone else’s letters, as if only his opinions count), seeing himself as a “dissident” there to fight the political consensus and, presumably, any views later than the Nineteenth Century. Here’s a thought – why not stop trying to order the government about in secret, stop loafing about waiting to be King and stand for election instead? Then he could see how his views would go down in a democracy… Assuming anyone would actually listen to him if he was Mr Charles Windsor (particularly without the billions his family have to hand).

Strangely, though several ex-ministers were quizzed about Prince Charles and several complained, not one was willing to go on the record. You’d imagine it was some residual respect for the monarchy, but one of the courtroom revelations from the Prince’s former munchkin today was that he’s struck up a cordial relationship in the waiting room of British politics with that other frustrated old seether, Gordon Brown. Suddenly all is explained. Criticising the monarchy’s one thing, but some forms of lese-majesty are just beyond the pale in the Labour Party.

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Arc of Infinity

From the sublime to… Oh, dear. Much of ’80s Who uses the past intelligently or fashions its own myths, often with considerable style. This, though, fails on almost every level. The Doctor returns again to his home planet but the ideas, the plot, the actors and design each seem drained of all life. The ancient founder of the Time Lords, who turned up in a story ten years earlier, comes back as the villain purely to have a villain come back, and wants to take over the Doctor’s body so he can live again. The plot doesn’t sound altogether bad, possibly because you can probably think of several better stories it’s already turned up in, but it’s done in such a lifeless way you wonder why they bothered.

Almost everything in the story has been done before, with conscious attempts to echo The Deadly Assassin – with the Time Lords’ planet no longer a techno-medieval cathedral but an airport lounge, and all the wit, satire and bitchiness replaced by actors taking it terribly, terribly seriously, never moving, never looking at each other and boring the pants off you. There’s a council chamber evidently based on the House of Commons but with only one side – because the other side’s where the cameras are – which means that people address the ‘Speaker’ at stiff right angles to him for no reason at all. When it’s not in a sci-fi café corridor, other bits take place in Amsterdam, for no very engaging reason. Even the music, often beautiful in early ’80s Who, is dreadful.

The story desperately tries a bit of The Quatermass Experiment / An American Werewolf in London-style horror, but has a fatal lack of atmosphere (and, assisted by the Amsterdam setting, in its early parts more resembles a gay porn film. No, do your own Googling to find out where I’ve explained that in detail). There’s barely a single good line in it, with everyone speaking sonorous clichés or spouting acres of tedious made-up science (Richard points out that some of the science is actually real, but would take half an hour to explain so it was any use, rather than throwing it away in a sentence and expecting anyone without a degree in theoretical physics to spot the difference from the other bits). Perhaps the most infamous moment is the man who, when the mysterious killer points a gun at him, looks faintly curious and tells the audience what kind of gun it is before being shot down, rather than any even faintly natural response – such as, say, screaming or ducking. The audience knows it’s a gun, and giving it a made-up name tells them nothing else of any use; you’d think even the most flat-footed whodunit might contrive to have the victim say something along the lines of “What are you doing here?” to unsubtly convey that the killer is, gasp, known to him. Having the victim recognise the made-up make of gun instead somehow lacks the same dramatic impact. As the type of gun is never mentioned again, it's not even relevant to the plot, unlike a dreadfully improbable ‘clue’ that turns up later on. The script confuses ‘ideas’ with ‘jargon’ and ‘complex’ with ‘pointlessly complicated’ (to the extent that even the hardened fans watching it last week wondered what was going on), and the way it’s presented on screen does nothing to save it. Despite ornate costumes – though the ‘monster’ is cruelly but not unfairly known as the ‘anti-matter chicken’ – and rare shooting abroad, it somehow also contrives to look especially cheap, when it's aiming to be epic.

It’s one of the few times when Doctor Who displays no imagination at all, and merely tries to ‘do Doctor Who’. That’s a fatal mistake, and fortunately one the series didn’t make very often; you’re far more likely to have Doctor Who make the ordinary world seem strange and unsettling than an alien world seem like the blandest of wine bars. If there’s an underlying theme, it’s that you can’t go back – but that would be so ironic for a story that gorges so much on nostalgia that no room’s left for anything else that it has to be accidental. It would certainly display greater wit than is available in the script.

It does have three saving graces, though, in its guest cast. While several good actors (and other bad ones) vanish almost entirely under the disposability of their dialogue – in theory, Leonard Sachs is playing the same politician left in charge at the end of Assassin, but the character’s so forgettably inoffensive here that it’s impossible to recognise him as a proto-Urquhart – at least Michael Gough is always diverting, even when he’s ‘in disguise’, his voice treated to sound like Perky and doing most of his acting with a pen. Ian Collier’s villain has a gruff rumble and some charisma, even genuine pathos towards the end, though his mostly rather stylish costume is undermined by its tendency to light up; when he gyrates, a light flashing above his groin, “Danger, danger, high voltage!” was the most printable of the comments made in Cambridge. And finally there’s Colin Baker, later cast as the Sixth Doctor, in the sort of ‘unfeasibly comic opera guard’ that’s forgettable in so many stories. Not here. When Colin was the Doctor, he was sometimes the only watchable thing on screen, and never more so than here, as he camps it up outstandingly in a scarlet uniform with an enormous plume. With most of the lines and most of the cast seemingly made of wood, it’s as if he’s acting for two, or perhaps twenty-two, and at least he doesn’t bore you.

Watching these two together showed Doctor Who at its most stunningly original, then at its most dully derivative. Unsurprisingly, one of these stories is strongly rumoured to be released on DVD soon. Considerably more surprisingly, it’s Arc of Infinity. Sigh.

If you’re a Lib Dem reader and have got this far, first, well done, have a chocolate button, and second, if you want to know what all the fuss is about for me and Doctor Who, look here. Conversely, if you like Doctor Who and want to get inside my head about Liberalism, click here. They’re nearly the same. But not quite.

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The Deadly Assassin

Nothing to do with the Lib Dem Leadership, OK? This is Doctor Who’s nearest stab at film noir, a political thriller that keeps you guessing not about who the villain’s going to turn out to be (he’s pretty obvious), but about where it’s going to go next. The Doctor returns to his home planet after many years away, only to become a hunted fugitive when fellow exile the Master frames him for the President’s death. The disturbing themes are that everything’s corrupt and nothing is real, and I can’t think of another Who story with so many surprises, brilliantly employing visual style to illustrate the twisted narrative.

This one’s my favourite story, broadcast in 1976 as Tom Baker’s Doctor was getting into his stride, though you might be surprised at how seriously he takes it; like Bride of Frankenstein, much of it’s a black comedy about death, but the lead is unusually sober. I suspect it’s stayed special for me because of its variety, from political thriller to action adventure, with mythology, satire, murder mystery, surrealism, horror, and the image that most upset Mary Whitehouse. The Doctor’s home is a mixture of the Vatican, Westminster and Oxbridge – appropriately enough for where we watched it this time – but with a feeling of the American big city, too, adding more than an touch of noir with its cynical police, innocent man framed and driven to the edge, sleazy city underbelly, literally nightmare images and a corrupt authority figure to blame (though if you want Doctor Who’s spin on the femme fatale, you’ll have to pick up the stunning and equally noirish novel The Also People). There’s homage to The Manchurian Candidate, before it suddenly flips over into The Most Dangerous Game as the Doctor goes from rejoining the aristocracy to being hunted like an animal; but if it sounds like just a melting pot of sources, it also seems to invent cyberpunk years before Neuromancer, eerily predicts (or is borrowed by) The Matrix and even news channels before CNN, and perhaps dozens of other Doctor Who stories have reused ideas created here.

The Doctor’s people had previously been introduced as ‘Time Lords’, terribly po-faced guardians of established history who never interfere except, er, covertly, and are accountable to no-one, which from an early age filled me with mistrust. This story gets a lot of stick for ‘changing’ them, but as I once wrote an article quoting Locke and classical Liberalism against them with the fair and balanced title ‘The Time Lords Are Gits, and Always Have Been’, you won’t be surprised that I don’t share that view. The Time Lords see themselves as gods who can live forever, and this story brings them down to earth – something many fans never forgave it for. It exposes their Olympian image as simply media manipulation, and the concept of death is reintroduced to them not just by the inevitable murders but by the once-suave Master returning as a rotting corpse held together by sheer willpower. In a period where the series used much darkly religious imagery, The Deadly Assassin is steeped in the myths of a people so old they’ve made legends of their own technology, and much of the story takes place in the dream world of ‘The Matrix’ where the Time Lords go when they die; the Master wants to sacrifice it all for his own life, blasphemously renouncing electronic heaven for physical immortality.

The story’s even more radical in its storytelling than in its approach to the Doctor’s people. It starts with much sleight of hand and things rarely being what they seem, echoed in plotting that turns things upside-down; initially a satirical horror story in dark, opulent studio sets and driven by non-stop dialogue, there are already terrible hallucinations prefiguring the series’ most strikingly ‘What’s going on?’ cliffhanger. When such a confined, conspiratorial story opens into being first trippy and then violently physical, suddenly in the open air with just two actors and almost no dialogue, the viewer is thrown daringly off-balance. With the Time Lords so studio-bound and witty, the shock and dislocation the audience feels at this gritty surrealism is a metaphor for the shock and dislocation the Time Lords feel at murder. The best fiction is where nobody knows what’s coming next but it fits perfectly when it does, and as the Master’s collaborator turns out to be the Chancellor, who – impossible to believe of a Chancellor, I know – got tired of waiting for his leader to hand over power and assassinated him, the point of the grubby violence is not just to show the Doctor when he can’t use technology or wise-cracks to get out of a situation, but also to show the scheming politician literally get his hands dirty. At the climax, another brutal fight takes place, this time between the Doctor and the Master… Not in the Matrix, but bringing that nightmare of mortality into the ‘reality’ of the Time Lords’ effete world.

The Time Lord who takes charge at the end prefigures Francis Urquhart as a political antihero; grandly camp, cynical and hugely entertaining, he wants to set up the dead Chancellor as a hero and banish the Doctor, the better for public morale:
“Now that’s much better. I can believe that.”
Perhaps I just don’t like journalists, but he also has the most magisterial put-down I’ve ever seen to a reporter (it might help if you think of Kenneth Williams at his most superior snubbing Charles Hawtrey at his most querulous). Images and media illustrate the fluidity of truth; the guardians of history turn out to change history by any means necessary, from intervention to propaganda and cover-ups, and there are unsubtle references to the CIA or, amongst many lines that I enjoyed as a boy and enjoy quite differently today, that
“Vaporisation without representation is against the constitution!”
Much of it still looks great, from the fast-moving nightmare images to gloomy, cavernous buildings of faded grandeur and stunning ceremonial costumes from a future Oscar winner, with none of the clichéd sci-fi silver lamé that aims for pomp but end up preposterous. I can even excuse the unfortunate use of an Action Man doll – well, nothing’s perfect, and though there are three absolutely superb cliffhanger endings to the episodes, there’s a definite tendency towards instant gratification on its dramatic threats when each of those is resolved just seconds into ‘next week’. And no, it’s not the best title in the world, either.

Many people think this period of Doctor Who is its high point, and for once I’m with the crowd in praising producer Philip Hinchcliffe and writer Robert Holmes, the creative forces behind it. There’s a story called The Talons of Weng-Chiang set in the Victoriana of fog and music hall that delights in the most enjoyable stereotypes of British fiction, rolling rich language round the tongue of every guest artiste. For me it’s one of the most thoroughly entertaining pieces of television ever made, and it’s often said to be the culmination of Hinchcliffe and Holmes’ work. I’d say that’s half-right; Talons is the embodiment of what you’d expect from them, but here is the culmination of their creativity. It’s not a typical or always comfortable story to watch. It wakes you up and makes you pay attention and ask questions (no wonder some people don’t like it). For me, it’s the greatest Who story of them all, not least because it tells so many stories and fires off so many ideas… Some of them are even original. It tells us all to grow up, as we see behind the propaganda of the Doctor’s god-like people. It has huge energy, and even huger self-belief. When you’re younger, gods and grown-ups look all-fair and all-powerful, but now the Doctor comes home and finds they’re no better than the rest of us. When he leaves this time, he leaves on his own terms.

For more on how The Deadly Assassin is the centrepiece of the brilliant Season 14

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Monday, February 20, 2006


The Curse of Fenric (Special Edition)

An even more intelligent tale from 1989, this complex and political horror story moves very quickly and definitely needs your brain in gear. It too has underlying themes, though they’re less obviously spelt out than in The Ice Warriors; religion, sex, environmental catastrophes and evolution jostle with masses of film references and the idea that no side is right in war, though – in a Cold War thriller before the Cold War – some Liberals may raise an eyebrow at its apparent friendliness to Stalinism, or at least Leninism. This one’s set during the Second World War (without Nazis, who would probably have derailed its moral equivalence), where… Well, there's a lot going on, but let’s just say that the British are trying to trap the Russians while the Doctor and an ancient, evil intelligence are trying to trap each other, the latter with the aid of some rubbery blue vampires from the future. But they’re not important right now. It’s Richard’s favourite story and one of mine, and the most striking prototype on screen for what to us is the only continuation of the series in print that really compels, the 1990s Virgin ‘New Adventures’ range that now reads like the missing link between the old series’ end and the hugely successful relaunch last year.

This was the only one of the stories we watched that’s out on DVD, and it’s a superb release. Added to impressive extras of the ‘documentary’ sort, there’s a ‘Special Edition’ cut, which isn’t quite the perfect version that exists in our heads but is well on the way there. A goodly number of new scenes significantly improve a story we loved to begin with, and most of the new effects and reworked score are successful, meaning it looks and sounds better than it's done before, but rather misses having cliffhangers in it. The trouble with editing together a feature-length version of something that was written and made to be episodic is that the pace is shot to hell, but you can’t have everything.

So what’s so good about it? Well, the multi-layered story intermixes the grimness of World War Two with Norse mythology, Dracula and a touch of The Arabian Nights, and makes clever use of the difference between a 1940s and 1980s mindset through the Doctor’s then-modern-day companion. There’s a lot on the good and bad sides of faith (it never really comes down on one side or the other), including a superb moment where a hammer and sickle badge wards off vampires when a Bible has failed, as it’s not the symbol but the belief that repels them; it’s probably fortunate that this went out a few weeks before the Berlin Wall fell. Several of the guest actors are rather good, too, especially Nicholas Parsons – yes, Nicholas Parsons – in his first ‘straight’ role for about 30 years, and Dinsdale Landen, who switches from waspish Turing-inspired scientist to being possessed by charismatic evil incarnate.

Now, there’s a reason why I skipped ahead to The Curse of Fenric here. It and The Deadly Assassin have a lot in common: both top-notch stories; both treating Doctor Who not just as sci-fi but as an attempt to fashion modern mythology; both highly intelligent; both borrowing from multiple sources but fizzing with ideas of their own; both inspiring huge numbers of other Who stories in either their themes or their detail; both highly controversial among fans, who tended either to love them or hate them. Unfortunately, there's a quite different variety of link between The Deadly Assassin and Arc of Infinity, so I’ll look at those now...

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The Ice Warriors

Broadcast – and some episodes burnt – by the BBC before we were born, I got to know this from the novelisation, which I was fond of particularly for the cover painting of the killer reptile-monster with lightning crackling round its clamp-like claws. These days I can make a slightly more grown-up appraisal, but the killer reptile-monsters are still a major part of its appeal. Set a thousand years in the future, there’s a new Ice Age (the ’60s scientific fear before evidence of global warming, with a scene setting out the ecological fable that’s still great despite four decades of hindsight proving the science is rubbish) and the plucky British fighting the ice are menaced by the discovery of an alien spacecraft, frozen long ago and swept along by the advancing glaciers. Obviously, the aliens inside are labelled ‘Ice Warriors’. They turn up several times in later Who, and it’s easy to see why; despite being obviously men in suits, they’re very big men in very big suits, and have real screen presence. For me, a successful monster needs to break up the human form – these have something of the crocodile and the turtle about them – and an interesting voice, and these have a very distinctive hiss.

Aside from the monsters, the two things that stand out are the actors and the themes. It’s got a particularly endearing Doctor and friends – Troughton has a comic edge and a terribly reassuring voice, along with Jamie the refugee from Culloden and Victoria the imaginatively-named Victorian lady – as well as guest stars Peter Barkworth, Peter Sallis and (in the green reptile plating) Bernard Bresslaw. I’ve always thought Bresslaw had just about the widest range of the Carry On actors, and he’s great here, but just as important to the story are the parts played by Barkworth and Sallis, both very well-characterised and who sum up the writer’s intended clash: a highly-strung bureaucrat versus a free-thinking scientist with a disdain for authority. It couches different freedoms against each other – Barkworth’s character is very New Labour. The ‘ooh, computers will order us about’ message is dated in the way it’s told, rather than all its implications (now we’re scared of databases rather than having to be slaves to logic, dressed in circuit-pattern outfits). In the end, a bit slow but with the unusual combination of great monsters and considerable intelligence.

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Doctor Who Fun in Cambridge

My back’s gradually getting better and I’m feeling less grumpy, so I’m getting up to date here; I’ve added an index to my posts so you don’t have to scroll through the lot, I’ve replied to a few more comments and, having had a go at one of last week’s big political events, I’d like to turn to something much more entertaining. A week ago visited friends in Cambridge (seat of the splendid David Howarth), watching a selection of Doctor Who stories – The Ice Warriors, The Deadly Assassin, Arc of Infinity and The Curse of Fenric – and eating lots of snack-sized Scotch eggs. Quite one of the best ways you can spend a Sunday, in other words.

It was the lovely Simon and Barry’s intention to fit in something from each Doctor – a bit tricky in a day, as there are ten of them – and so we arrived during something from the Second, and saw the Fourth, Fifth (and sort of the Sixth) and Seventh before we had to set off home. On the off-chance you don’t know, the Doctor’s an alien, a traveller in time and space who prefers to see the Universe and fight oppression than stay at home with his stodgy, dodgy people, the Time Lords. When fatally wounded, his body explodes into a new life, and a new actor. You might know these ones as Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, or the small one, the one with the scarf, the blond one, the shouty one and the other small one. Anyway, I’m very fond of them all, and fond of several of the stories we watched too, so for anyone tuning into this blog for more Doctor Who than politics – though still with a bit of politics – you’re about to get your wish…

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I Just Don’t Like Banning Things

I’d like to praise Colin Breed, Jeremy Browne, Ed Davey, David Howarth, Mark Oaten, Lembit Öpik, Adrian Sanders and John Thurso. I’m delighted to take this opportunity, as there are at least a couple of these Lib Dem MPs who you won’t catch me praising very often (though more amongst them are generally excellent). It’s because they were the ones who voted against the smoking ban last week, and I just don’t like banning things. Every time the sentence “Liberal Democrats today called for the banning of x…” is heard, I wince. It’s simply not what we’re there for.

Of course some dangerous things need to be banned. The trouble is, most of them already are, as are a lot of things that shouldn’t be. You’d expect to hear Lib Dems calling for the removal of bans far more often that piling on yet more restriction, but we don’t, do we? There’s such a culture of banning anything that might be dangerous or upsetting – providing it’s not embraced by a majority of people, like, say, the fumes and accidents associated with cars – that we seem fearful of standing up to it. Worse, a lot of kindly, well-meaning Lib Dems actually believe that the first response to anything a bit nasty should be to ban it, because surely no-one could really support nasty things and imposing nice things instead is really only for their own good (an approach referred to by several other splendid Lib Dem bloggers as Toynbeeism). The fact that people frequently disagree on what happens to be ‘nice’ or ‘nasty’ is usually glossed over by those who claim that they know best, when everyone’s ‘best’ is best decided by themselves.

This argument tends to boil down pretty much to the lines of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s On Liberty, that you should be able to give your informed consent to pretty much what you want, as long as you don’t directly harm other people. Obviously, the ‘harm’ argument is what Lib Dem defenders of the smoking ban have based their case on. There is a Liberal case for it, but I believe it’s a particularly flimsy one, and wrong. For a start, Mill and Taylor didn’t argue that as soon as something did any harm, it instantly had to be banned – merely that that was the only point at which ordering people about could be considered. They said that quite often prohibition would be disproportionate to the harm caused, or do additional harm in itself, and that there might often be other ways to reduce the harm done than legal sanction.

Most of the supporters of the ban – those who simply believe in ‘improving people’s lives’ by force, an arguable but plainly not a Liberal position – do it on the grounds of public health. There’s a big difference between, say, public action to improve health that private action can’t (such as, for example, building sewers), and intervening in people’s lifestyle choices when they don’t get in other people’s way, between enabling people to be healthy (thoroughly Liberal) and preventing them from being unhealthy. It’s clear that the ‘forcing people to be healthier’ approach was the main driver for the ban; just listen to all the statistics bandied around about the way rates of smoking have fallen in cities and countries where public bans have been introduced. These are the arguments of stealth prohibitionists, not people concerned with protecting non-smokers. A public smoking ban has the added advantage for Labour that it would disproportionately improve the health of people in ‘lower’ social classes; so much easier and cheaper to order people to have less fun than to do anything about those inconvenient and expensive causes of ill-health in poorer areas such as housing, pollution or income. Some have suggested that the only reason the Government was against a total ban to begin with was that, like many of their other law and order policies, they’d based their approach on Judge Dredd and wanted to introduce the Smokatorium.

The workers’ safety element was introduced quite late in the argument and seems particularly targeted at liberal-minded waverers once the ‘public health’ case had grabbed as many as it could. And, yes, it made me think more carefully too. But there are many other ways to tackle health at work, and it doesn’t explain why smoking rooms that don’t have to have workers present except for clearing up afterwards couldn’t be maintained in clubs, for example (it’s certainly unpleasant, but I’d much rather pick up fag ends than clean the loos of many of the pubs I’ve been in). It doesn’t consider the issue of workers who want to smoke at work, and I’ve worked with a lot. It doesn’t consider the possibility of higher wages (even through legislation) for those working in smoky environments, just as there are higher wages and stricter rules surrounding those working with far more hazardous materials than tobacco.

The Liberal Democrats as a party seem to have fallen hook, line and sinker for the argument that one group of workers need absolute safety (unless they work in the Palace of Westminster), whereas many other risky jobs are guarded by precaution and regulation rather than prohibition. But it’s a smokescreen for the wider issue of public health by diktat. Astoundingly, we trumpeted the fact that we were the only party to favour a complete ban even in private clubs. When the 2005 Lib Dem Manifesto was being written, I argued on the Federal Policy Committee that we should leave the ban out of it. I don’t think I was in a minority of one, but it wasn’t far off. Perhaps many are running scared of the hysterical, nonsensical socialist rants I’ve read that any Liberals who oppose the ban want to turn back the clock to the worker-slaughtering laissez-faire of the Victorian mill-owner. And some even believe in ordering people about ‘their own good’ and want to cover it up. Whatever the reason, I was impressed by those eight MPs willing to defy the party whip on this. None of the leadership contenders covered themselves in glory: Chris supports the ban; Ming argues loudly about too many Lib Dems wanting to ban things, then mumbles on this issue, backtracks and ends up voting for the ban; and Simon says the ban is wrong, but is mysteriously missing for the vote.

I find it difficult to believe that this will be the end of the argument, and I suspect the Liberal Democrats will end up unpleasantly boxed in when the next round of public health-based creeping prohibition comes in and we face either blatant illiberalism or accusations of u-turns. What about workers coming into people’s homes? Obviously they deserve the same protection as people in pubs, don’t they? So stub that fag out, or be sued by your plumber. And who deserves the greater protection – adults who can protect themselves and make their own decisions or poor, vulnerable, innocent children? Even without asking the question in the form of a push-poll, it’s a no-brainer. So how long before smoking should be banned in homes where children are present, or may be present, because after all children have no choice?

I also worry that the argument about doing harm to other people will soon be warped further out of shape by saying that, although you can do harm to yourself, if you’re manufacturing or supplying cigarettes you’re doing harm to other people and therefore those activities should be banned. This is essentially the position of those who call for cannabis to be decriminalised (or even those supporting the recent reclassification) rather than legalised, so I don’t see it as beyond the bounds of possibility. If you say an activity is not illegal, good heavens no, but you make it illegal to practise it anywhere or to supply the materials with which to practise it, claiming that you don’t support prohibition is just sophistry.

I’m sure many readers will have formed a view as they work down the page of me sitting at my PC, fag in hand, spluttering unhealthily as I type with yellow-stained fingers. Tragically for that stereotype, I’m not a smoker, just a Liberal. I do indeed cough as I type, but that’s due to asthma, which if it’s down to any airborne cause is thanks to the levels of car fumes in urban southern England. Even on the rare occasions I’ve taken cannabis my sweet tooth means I’ve much preferred hash brownies. I much prefer smoke-free bars, but even guaranteeing smoke-free spaces is not the same as banning all smoke-filled ones. People I’ve known and loved have died through smoking-related illnesses. And I strongly support discouraging smoking through, for example, the most blunt and scary health warnings, so that if people decide to smoke, it’s informed consent. But people must have the right to decide for themselves. I don’t oppose a ban through self-interest, though there may be a nagging fear that if tobacco goes it’ll be chocolate and sausages next, but after all, isn’t it a good starting point in politics to consider, ‘how would I feel if it was done to me?’

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Friday, February 17, 2006


Nanny Knows Worst

Coming soon: grumpy arguments about smoking, banning things and the nanny state. In the meantime, if you’re suspicious of those who want to nanny you, or want to stiffen your resolve against being tempted to nanny yourself, tonight’s episode of The Avengers may help. Tune in to BBC4 at 11.40pm for Something Nasty in the Nursery, a rather jolly adventure in which leading figures of the British establishment are reduced to infantile idiocy by a dastardly nanny-related plot. Featuring a particularly slippery villain called Goat, and a remarkable set of pre-sit-com stars: Paul Eddington, Yootha Joyce, Clive Dunn, Trevor Bannister (even Penelope Keith, on the cutting room floor), all before they became household names of the ‘70s.

Normal opinionatedness will be resumed as soon as possible. But first I want a fry-up (as yet not banned).

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Ming the Merciless – The Proof

"And from now on, you'll take your orders from the Imperial Ming!" The 1938 film serial ‘Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars’ features Emperor Ming – exiled from his native Mongo by Flash-fomented revolution in the previous serial – as deputy to the too-trusting Azura, Witch-Queen of Mars. In Chapter Twelve, ‘Ming the Merciless’, she crosses him and he exploits her hidden weakness to destroy her power. He then underhandedly inveigles her own soldiers into blowing her up, after which he takes her place. How very unlike the home life of our own dear Liberal Democrats…

I’ll let you know if my extensive TV and film collection yields any entertaining parallels with Simon or Chris. However, as my Liberator colleagues somehow omitted to mention in the latest issue’s account of Charles’ downfall the ‘round robin’ reported by more than one Parliamentarian as organised by Archy Kirkwood on Ming’s behalf at the end of last year, this seemed only fair.


Galloway a Pain in the Neck – the Proof

On my way back from the doctor’s this morning I passed a rack of today’s newspapers. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of what appeared to be George Galloway in a giant love heart with Sarah Teather on the front of this morning’s Sun. My head whipped round, and I uttered a very manly squeak of agony (my neck currently being in some pain). Fortunately, the party is spared its most punishing sexual revelation so far: looked at straight on, the undercover Sun reporter the hapless Mr Galloway ‘dated’ yesterday looks very little like Sarah. Phew.

Neither my PC nor I have been in the best of health for the last few days, so I’ve a fair bit to catch up on. After we had a day out visiting friends on Sunday (more of that, perhaps, later), Monday morning saw my computer greeting me with the Blue Screen of Death. The moral of the story is that I should follow the advice I frequently gave when teaching people basic computer skills – to regularly run scandisk and defrag, and make regular backups. Eventually I was able to so, and by yesterday I’d nursed it back to health. It was at that point, naturally, that I did something horrible to my upper back – no, not in a Valentine’s Day sort of way – to put me in excruciating pain when, say, dancing the fandango. Or nodding slightly.

So that’s what brought me trotting out to the doctor this morning after very little sleep (particular thanks go both to the pain between the shoulder blades and the neighbour’s alarm going off at 5am), wincing at each jarring step. I now have two different types of painkiller, so I’m no longer creaking painfully as I type. One of them must be taken with food, so I interpret that as a medical instruction to eat an unfeasible amount of chocolate, which always makes me feel better.

Saturday, February 11, 2006


Colin, Calls and a Question of Research

One of my favourite Liberal Democrats, top trainer, agent, candidate and all-round lovely person Colin Ross rang yesterday to warn me he was going to republish my ‘leadership profiles’ on his site, along with one of his own. On me. This morning I found he’s been much shorter and kinder than I was (and perhaps deserve). Though backing Ming, he also provides the best round-up of each of the Leadership candidates’ campaigns in one place (I prefer Colin’s site to the ‘official’ Lib Dem one for titbits of party news, as he tends to cut out the more tedious stories). Colin’s a good friend of mine, too; I trust his Liberal instincts and his sense of humour, and am always happy to hold him upright after he’s had a busy day at conference…

At the risk of being critical after he’s been terribly nice to me, I’m flattered that he’s printed my pieces (other than the mood-setting ‘I Wouldn’t Start From Here’) but you’re probably better off reading them here. Even I found the word count a bit forbidding without a bit of formatting to break it up! I’m still very glad to be featured on one of the best all-in-one sources for Lib Dem info. Thanks also to the other bloggers who’ve quoted odd pieces of me, especially those who found my ‘funny bits’ funny (I rarely manage to raise a chuckle in conference speeches). I’ve been a bit of a hermit recently and it’s nice to feel I’m part of Lib Dem gossip again.

Perhaps because he’d read my pieces, the lovely Colin didn’t try to persuade me to vote for Ming (he was too busy trying to make me laugh). Though I’ve not been canvassed directly by any of the campaigns, in the last week I’ve had two lengthy calls from other very dear friends, each of whom I happened to know were significant backers of particular contenders and who hadn’t, at the time, read my profiles. Despite allegations from some that I’m a deep-cover agent for the ‘Winnie Rennie as unity candidate’ campaign, I yearn to be enthused by one of the leadership hopefuls, and I asked each of my friends why they were backing their chosen candidate. As a result I’ve had some very persuasive chats – not hard sell – about Simon and Chris that in each case made me feel rather positive about them. If another of my friends (backing Ming, say) wants to call me up, please do. I just wish I had as much confidence in the contenders themselves as I do in the supporters I’ve spoken to.

After seeing the lovely Colin’s piece, I spent some time this morning making home-made DVDs. The hard disk on our DVD recorder always seems to be near-full, so after yesterday editing down news of Dunfermline to stick on a DVD (yes, I am that sad) and delete, this morning I did the same with the last couple of weeks’ Dave Allen shows to clear space before tonight’s. I’m glad I did, as there are few things to start your Saturday off better than whizzing through a sketch show with lots of Catholic jokes. Go on, watch it tonight. Add to that a lovely phone call from an old friend – one of those mentioned above – and even an edition of Any Questions that I shouted at a bit less than usual. Millionaire Lib Dem backer Paul Marshall did reasonably well, though I didn’t agree with everything he said, but he spoke far better than he writes. If you recognise the name, he was co-editor of The Orange Book and if you’ve read it rather than just hissed at it, remember the dreariest, stodgiest chapter that sent you to sleep? That was his. Perhaps I should revisit it and pop a review up here at some point.

Incidentally, on the energy question that came up, I was reminded of a never-mentioned line of technological research that would be just about the most useful for our energy needs. I wonder why I’ve never heard of anyone trying to come up with what Rob Fenwick calls “a ‘buffer’ to store the energy created by renewables”. Though I can’t agree with him in backing the enormous cost and danger of nuclear energy, it seems to me that the moral of his piece is not about generation – commit to renewable energy and that’s unlimited – but about consistency. We need investment in energy efficiency and in putting renewables into operation, but if there’s one problem that needs some serious R&D funding even if it doesn’t sound ‘sexy’, it’s how to make our energy supply both green and continuous. I may be ill-informed, but I’ve yet to hear that it’s certainly impossible, so why don’t we try it?

Friday, February 10, 2006


Another Labour Bung to Big Business

While everyone is naturally watching Labour’s electoral disaster this morning, it’s worth keeping an eye on the markets too. A Labour privatisation has just floated, and the real question isn’t ‘why has it been privatised’ but ‘why is a Labour privatisation so much more of a bung to big business than a Tory one?’ The Conservatives famously undervalued many public companies they sold off (getting taxpayers to subsidise private trading), but at least they attempted to get a few more people to buy shares. With Qinetiq, Labour only offered shares to ordinary people at the last minute, under protest.

It’s difficult not to conclude that New Labour’s starry-eyed attachment to big business is responsible for their intention to pass off these shares just to the few, not the many (to coin a phrase). First they sold off part of the military research group Qinetiq to the private equity firm Carlyle, famously good for John Major and the Bin Laden family (as seen in Fahrenheit 911). According to the BBC this morning, they stand to make a 780% profit, and astoundingly John Reid thinks the National Audit Office shouldn’t be concerned that taxpayers may not necessarily have got the best deal. I’m all in favour of competition – but subsidised knock-down prices to assist large companies are surely the opposite of that.

I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if a private company did more impressive and innovative things with Qinetiq than the Ministry of Defence managed, though the government has glossed over any issues of putting defence into extragovernmental hands. But it’s simply laughable when Dr Reid talks up the ‘high risk’ of this sort of defence company in a post 9/11 world. It’s difficult to think of better bets from government sell-offs in a time of war and paranoia. That makes the fact that Labour attempted to restrict the flotation to big institutions and only allowed the stockbrokers for small investors a look in about a week before the deadline all the more shocking. Wouldn’t it have been simpler to just say to big business, “Please have some money,” and cut out all the fuss of running a privatisation?


Positively Lib Dem

It’s great so many people in Dunfermline and West Fife positively chose the Liberal Democrats. We’re in government in Scotland. The SNP was just 1% behind us in that seat and every Scottish Labour by-election loss in my lifetime has been to the SNP. The Conservatives have had non-stop press adulation since David Cameron was elected. Yes, Labour took the area for granted. But with two big alternatives in opposition and the SNP particularly being talked up as challengers, why vote Lib Dem if people just wanted a random protest? It wasn’t just a protest vote, but a positive choice.

The vile and tacky Sky News kept trying to tell Willie Rennie a little earlier that our party was all about scandals, and laughably saying we were ‘split three ways’ (apparently Liberal Democrats aren’t allowed democracy). The Sky munchkin was just the most egregious of all the clichéd journos who this morning appear genuinely bewildered that the 'Lib Dems in chaos' story they've been peddling for weeks hasn't come true. That's because it was just a story, and sorry, Mr Murdoch; it appears no-one believes you.

It’s very simple: people aren’t interested in politicians’ personal lives. They’re interested in which politicians will make a difference to their own lives, and that’s why they voted Lib Dem. Well done, Willie, for giving such a good performance, and blimey, you looked lively in that cold. I’ve never seen so much steam coming out of a man’s mouth. And why did I have Sky on? Well, because I wanted to see their big excitingly coloured bar charts of the swing. The BBC’s graphics department appears to be on holiday.

Congratulations to Willie and all those who worked in such an outstanding campaign. I’m still ecstatic. Thanks must be due to two more people for helping, though. Gordon Brown – what a star. Trying to run his home seat entirely from Westminster, ordering Labour in Scotland about as if devolution never happened and generally proving what a popular Labour Leader he’ll be. Thanks to David Cameron, too; the Tory Leader telling people how good it is to be a Liberal seems to have its effect. Cheers, Dave!

On the other hand, BBC Breakfast News has just revealed they’re going to be talking to Joe Pasquale about his new Musical version of Rentaghost, so I can’t rule out the possibility that I’m still asleep and dreaming.



You know what I'm talking about.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


Chris: Fill in the Person, Not the Policy

Chris Huhne for Leader? He appears to have the big mo, and creating momentum out of nowhere is a very useful trick for a third party, as is forcing the other two to fight on his territory. He’s very bright, writes very persuasively, and was effective in reaching a policy consensus on public services without making it simply bland. I agree with much of his policy ‘vision’, and he seems the most capable of giving a succinct and effective answer. He’s also putting across an impressive set of non-Westminster experience. So what’s my problem with him? ‘Dull’, in a very unkind word.

Like almost everyone else, Chris is the one I know least about. So my main view of him boils down to ‘relatively sensible policy wonk, but zero charisma’. It’s unfair to call someone dull when his policy programme has shaken up the campaign, but politics is an unfair business. He looks all right (as purely presentational issues go, he has the advantage of hair), but when he opens his mouth I’m reminded of Tom Baker’s withering assessment of Jeremy Irons: that he’d have been a great silent movie actor, but his voice is just so boring. Chris has got quite a nice voice, actually, but he seems unable to modulate it. He looks and sounds stiff. Don’t worry; I’ll have some ‘policy wonk vs policy wonk’ stuff in a minute, but I’m sorry to say that politics is shallow, and how you come across to people is important. Ming, at his best, has statesmanlike gravitas. Simon, at his best, can be passionate, or friendly and at ease. Chris, at his best, is… succinct. Unfortunately, he writes much better than his spoken delivery, and the election will be settled on television rather than through pamphleteering. Who is he going to appeal to? Yes, he can seem solid and serious, but does anyone really think he’ll come across as more solid and more serious than Gordon Brown? He really needs to work on sounding human, and I suspect hardwiring his massive brain to a virtual Charles Kennedy is as yet beyond the party’s budget for CGI.

Another issue for me is his seat. After Jackie in '99, I vowed to myself I wouldn't back another first-time MP with a tiny majority. After the European Parliament I can just about let him off the one, but a 500 majority? What is he thinking? Though he’ll probably hold it, there'll be no other story than 'Will the Lib Dem Leader lose his seat?' for us in the run-up to the election. So I worry. My other half is more sanguine, I should point out: “If the Tories want to make the issue of the election whether they can manage to knock down the tiniest of Lib Dem majorities, let them,” he said earlier. “The last election was about the Lib Dems trying to fight it out with the Tories for second place. If the Tories want to make the next one about fighting it out with the Lib Dems for third place, I doubt it’ll help them.”

His lack of Westminster experience isn’t necessarily a disadvantage; ‘the outsider coming in to clean up town’ is a powerful message. Unfortunately, that goes right back to the presentational issue: he doesn’t look or sound like an outsider. ‘The outsider from Brussels’ is a less helpful narrative, while ‘journalist’ probably beats even ‘MEP’ as a job description to go down like a lead balloon. On the other hand, the other two are lawyers, so it’s probably evens. Still, it makes the appeal that ‘As far as I know he doesn’t have the baggage of the other two’ (which some unkind observers might say makes him sound like the Liberal Democrats all over) weaker than it might otherwise be. And how did we come up with two out of three whose names sound like “Who”?

In fairness, his work on the Public Services Commission (or as it modestly became known, the Huhne Commission) was certainly impressive at bringing people together, and though he seemed a little high and mighty when he presented it to the FPC, he did the best job of promoting his policy paper round the party and media of any policy group chair I’ve seen. Obviously that meant self-promotion too, but he promoted the policies so well I was still impressed. The other side of his dealing with people, however, is his obvious ruthlessness, which is unattractive; perhaps he needed to from third place, but he’s been much more ruthless in person to the other two leadership candidates than they’ve been (their entourages are a different matter). He was quite open about being one of those to bring Charles down, too; I didn’t like it. Though it’s more attractive than plotting without holding the knife. And if he’s such a good team-builder, I do wonder that his team and following is mostly made up of people on whom he’s made a good first impression, rather than known him for a while. It’s striking that there are so many more MSPs, for example – as far away from him as possible – than MEPs who he worked with for years on his list of supporters.

I’m interested in the minutiae of policy. Even for a Liberal Democrat, this makes me unusual and strange. Chris is a policy wonk too, and not with just the first wild and wacky things that come into his head. I’ve read his manifesto, and I’ll not bore you with an in-depth analysis (that might be another post). However, as Chris’ campaign is the only one that is more clearly policy-driven than it is personality-driven, there are some I want to engage with. If you’re a policy wonk, people will pay more attention to your policies than to the others’, and some of them may come unstuck.

There’s good and bad here, and I have to declare an interest; I proposed pretty much exactly what Chris is saying about environmental taxation before the last election and got nowhere, so I wish at least that part of his programme well. However, where I disagree is on strict fiscal neutrality, something he appeared to endorse earlier on but seems to have backed away from in later answers. It’s because I do think income tax is the best we've got, but allowances are the key things to cut if we're going to. That leaves me wary that less tax altogether will be raised through progressive sources if we follow the apparent Chris plan to drop the 50p rate. Dropping road pricing, too, and only going with one eco-tax, also seems a mistake. Easy for someone else to nick; over-prescriptive; inflexible; and most of all, as with other fiscally neutral policies it doesn't bring in any extra money. I've sat through three General Election Manifesto costings rounds, and a wholly fiscally neutral platform would be a disaster. Things like the ‘50p’ and the ‘1p’ weren't about clobbering people, nor even just about bringing in cash; the hypothecation gave us a financial credibility nothing else ever will. Basically, say "We'll cut bureaucracy" and no-one will ever believe you. Say, "We want this so much here is one specific tax that will pay for it," and people reckon it's true because they all know it’s brave.

Skip the italics if you’re not interested in my thoughts on environmental taxes, presented for the final and most strongly argued time (after earlier unsuccessful attempts) to the FPC for to a discussion of our finances in October 2004:

There is one issue in particular that I am concerned we must resolve. Our attitude that, aside from the 50% rate on earnings over £100,000, our tax changes are revenue-neutral, should make us relatively flameproof, but there is one area where that message is not as clear as it must be. The derision the Tories have faced for claiming “We’ll give you tax cuts, but we won't tell you what they are” means we must not hoist ourselves on the same petard...

There is one issue on which we must press for clarity. At present, we envisage a range of environmental taxes which will all be offset by corresponding tax reductions elsewhere, leaving the whole package fiscally neutral. This is a well-established and effective policy direction, but as yet we have not identified the taxes we would cut. This “We'll tell you the pain, but not the gain” approach is missing an open goal, and is increasingly reckless as the election approaches. In the past, this has always been a contentious issue, but tended to be resolved in favour of reducing NICs. With our policy now to earmark National Insurance for the NHS*, we have firmly denied ourselves that option.

My preference instead would be to resurrect a '90s policy that has fallen by the wayside purely for lack of funds: sharply increasing allowances, to benefit all ordinary taxpayers and take the lowest earners out of tax altogether. It is an obvious complement to our 50% top rate policy, in defence of which we point out that the highest-paid 20% have a tax rate of 35% to the lowest-earning 20%'s effective marginal rate of 40%.

However, whatever tax reductions we call for, we must decide on them - or press Vince to decide them - very swiftly in order to establish the message with our campaigners. We would be deluding ourselves, and ignoring attacks which have already been already circulated, if we believe that “We'll cut some taxes too, but, um, er, we're not sure which ones” is going to be a sufficient answer on either the doorstep or Newsnight.

We never did decide which taxes to cut, of course, which was an opportunity thrown away in the last General Election. Even if I don’t end up voting for Chris, I’m grateful he’s made a start.

*That reminds me. Earmarking National Insurance was a brilliant wheeze from something called the Huhne Commission, of which you may have heard. It resembles several other brilliant wheezes being widely trailed at the moment, and was adopted by the FPC because the Campaigns Department begged us to, saying how sexy and saleable it was. You may not remember that ‘headline’ policy now, as it was later dumped by order of the Campaigns Department, because it was impossible to sell. Hmm…

The other policy issue for me is that it feels very individual – which reads well, but makes me worry that it’s just one person wanting to write the party’s entire programme. Both Paddy and Charles had their advantages for policy as Leader (a crude characterisation would be King Stork and King Log), but Chris’ attention to the minutiae comes across as a bit too prescriptive. Paddy was brilliant in many ways, but I remember him treating every policy issue as a fight to the death, which wasn't a healthy way to run the Policy Committee. Unlike Ming’s, Chris' is a campaign that would benefit from having more of a team to it, and from making lots of moves about consulting the party.

So after all that, what would make me likely to support Chris? Keep plugging your policies – they got you there in the first place. But do more of the ‘vision thing’ than tying yourself to every specific, or you’ll carry on sounding mechanical and potentially dictatorial. Relax a bit more. Move your face. Sad to say, the time I got the most positive feel from you on TV was launching your campaign at the National Liberal Club, surrounded by women wearing very vivid colours. Vivid colour is what you’re missing. Instead of promoting yourself as ‘the man’, make it more of a team – if you aren’t charismatic, borrow it. If you’re going to win, lighten up. Get people to tickle you under the table during Question Time if you have to, but show you’re human, for goodness’ sake.

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