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Sunday, December 31, 2023

Failing Brexit

Opinion polls are ephemeral, unreliable creatures. On one day they are telling us that the British public are opposed to sin, on another they are showing overwhelming support for the devil and all his works. I exaggerate, of course, but you get the idea.

The latest is one of a long line of polls that shows the growing disillusionment amongst voters about the efficacy of Brexit. Of course, we know that this in no way guarantees a victory for rejoin in a fresh plebiscite, but it does at least provide some room for manoeuvre for over-cautious politicians.

The Guardian tells us that a poll by Opinium to mark the third anniversary of the UK leaving the EU single market and customs union has found that a clear majority of the British public now believes Brexit has been bad for the UK economy, has driven up prices in shops, and has hampered government attempts to control immigration.

They add that the survey of more than 2,000 UK voters also finds strikingly low numbers of people who believe that Brexit has benefited them or the country:

Just one in 10 believe leaving the EU has helped their personal financial situation, against 35% who say it has been bad for their finances, while just 9% say it has been good for the NHS, against 47% who say it has had a negative effect.

Ominously for prime minister Rishi Sunak, who backed Brexit and claimed it would be economically beneficial, only 7% of people think it has helped keep down prices in UK shops, against 63% who think Brexit has been a factor in fuelling inflation and the cost of living crisis.

The poll suggests that seven and a half years on from the referendum the British public now regards Brexit as a failure. Just 22% of voters believe it has been good for the UK in general.

The Vote Leave campaign led by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove had promised that Brexit would boost the economy and trade, as well as bring back £350m a week into the NHS and allow the government to take back control of the UK’s borders.

James Crouch, head of policy and public affairs at Opinium, said the perception of Brexit being handled badly and having had negative effects on various aspect of UK life appeared to be spreading: “Public discontent at how Brexit has been handled by the government continues, with perceived failings even in areas previously seen as a potential benefit from leaving the EU.

“More than half (53%) of leave voters now think that Brexit has been bad for the UK’s ability to control immigration, piling even more pressure on an issue the government is vulnerable on. Despite this, Brexit is likely to be a secondary issue at the next election compared to the state of the economy and the NHS, which are the clear priority for voters.”

Perhaps the likes of Ed Davey could now use this opportunity to promote the pro-European policies of the party he purports to lead.

Saturday, December 30, 2023


Despite harping back to a rather dodgy history of empire, the honours system does give the state the opportunity to recognise the often unheralded work of individuals in their community, for charities and for other organisations. What brings it down is when it is used to reward those whose main contribution has been in propping up their friends, in some cases gaining greater prominence for their views or business as a result.

The Guardian reveals that this year is no different. They say that Rishi Sunak is facing accusations of cronyism after at least seven Conservative donors were given honours in the new year list of awards, including knighthoods for the taxi firm founder John Griffin and the Wetherspoon’s boss Tim Martin:

Griffin, the founder of Addison Lee, has given £3m to the Conservatives and is knighted for services to industry and charity. Martin, who donated £400,000 to the Vote Leave campaign and £50,000 to the Tories in the 2019 election, is knighted for services to hospitality and culture. More recently, Martin has given £25,000 to Nigel Farage’s Reform party.

Other donors to get awards include Ron Dennis, the former McClaren boss, who has given £300,000 to the Tories and is knighted for services to industry and charity, and William Salomon, a financier who has donated £800,000 and gets an OBE for his education charity work.

Sunak had promised to bring ethics and integrity back to politics after the Boris Johnson era, and his political opponents questioned why honours had been given to party donors.

Griffin, who has also given £12m to a medical research institute, told the Guardian that he had never sought an honour for his political contribution and that politics was “not really my bag”.

He last donated in 2019 and said he would not be giving any more money before the next election despite being “pleased to be a Conservative”. He said: “I feel now that I’ve done what I’ve done. I may make the odd contribution but nothing really exceptional. They’ve got to fight it out between them.”

On his honour, he added: “I started a company and I was a minicab driver myself and I thought I could do a better job. I had a good training regime and no driver was found guilty of any serious offence during my stewardship. I was proud of that and I felt that overall I deserve some recognition if anybody did.”

And then there is the case of Liz Truss's resignation honours. As the Independent reports, Truss, who lasted just 49 days, the shortest reign by any Prime Minister, gave out an honour for every 4.5 days she served, doling out peerages to the men who played key roles in masterminding Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Remembered mostly for having decimated the UK economy, Truss nominated Matthew Elliott, the former chief executive of Vote Leave, and pro-Brexit Tory donor Jon Moynihan to sit in the House of Lords. 

Elliott helped found the TaxPayers’ Alliance, a small-state think tank committed to low taxes, and also founded the Conservative Friends of Russia group, while Moynihan donated £20,000 to Truss’s leadership campaign in 2021 and is the former chair of Vote Leave. Ruth Porter, her former deputy chief of staff at No 10, is also on the list for a peerage.

As well as the three peerages, Truss nominated eight people to receive honours including MBEs, OBEs and knighthoods. It is little wonder that people are calling for the system to be reformed.

Friday, December 29, 2023

Vive la difference - or not!

An indication of how little changes in politics, and how much common ground exists between Labour and the Tories, is evidenced by two articles in today's Guardian.

In the first, the paper reports that sending asylum seekers to holding camps on the Scottish island of Mull and removing them to “safe havens” in third-party countries such as Turkey, South Africa and Kenya, was among the “nuclear options” considered by Tony Blair’s government.

They add that twenty years before the Conservative government’s Rwanda plan, “big bang” solutions were discussed after Blair expressed frustration that “ever tougher controls” in northern France had failed, and demanded “we must search out even more radical measures” to tackle the growing number of asylum claims, which had reached 8,800 in October 2002.

In the second, the paper tells us that the current war between the Tory governnment and the BBC over impartiality and bias was a common feature back in the 2000s when Blair's government were equally as frustrated (as indeed were Thatcher's government before them).

They say that recently released papers show that the former No 10 spin doctor Alastair Campbell suggested setting lawyers on the BBC, while Tony Blair was warned to expect a “magisterial rebuke” from senior figures at the broadcaster, as the row over its coverage of the war in Iraq intensified in the early 2000s.

The pressures of government are the same, regardless of the party in charge, and so are the solutions, it seems, no matter how illiberal.

Thursday, December 28, 2023


The most bizarre revelation from the annual publication of previously classified governnment documents has to be this story in the Guardian that the former prime minister Tony Blair was keen on an idea to relocate the then Premier League football side Wimbledon FC to Belfast in the late 1990s.

The paper says that the state papers include a note from 1997 described as “following up earlier informal discussions about the possibility of an English Premier League football club relocating to Belfast”:

It was described as something that would be a “significant breakthrough if Belfast had a football team playing in the English Premier League”, and “should be able to build up strong cross-community support and provide a positive unifying force in a divided city”.

It was also mooted that it would come with a principally private sector-funded modern 40,000-seater sports stadium, and potentially an academy for sport, located on Queen’s Island in east Belfast or the North Foreshore site in the north of the city.

The note suggested that Wimbledon FC would undergo a name change to Belfast United.

It was leaked to the Belfast Telegraph, which published a story reporting that the secretary of state, Mo Mowlam, was throwing her weight behind the idea, to bring new investment to Northern Ireland and boost its image on the international stage.

However, the article also noted that football bosses in Northern Ireland were concerned it could “kill off the game in Northern Ireland”.

As well as Mowlam, Downing Street also took an interest in the proposal, with a note by chief press secretary, Alastair Campbell, urging that the Wimbledon’s owner, Sam Hammam, “had explored the possibility of moving Wimbledon to Dublin, but this seems to have come to naught”.

He added that Hammam had seen media reports of Northern Ireland’s interest and “was keen to know whether this was serious, or speculation, leading nowhere”.

A memo dated 16 July 1998 – just months after the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was signed – indicated Blair was keen on the idea.

It recorded Blair’s view was that “it would be excellent if Wimbledon were to move to Belfast and we should encourage this as much as possible”.

But another note, dated 17 August 1998, described the matter as being at a “delicate stage”, recording that the Irish football authorities “continue to resist the idea strongly”.

It said that the three local newspapers had welcomed it, and that the TV presenter Eamonn Holmes “has been active in collecting public support”.

“If the Irish football authorities are to adjust their position, it will have to be achieved by local pressure, probably with government remaining in the background,” the note records. It suggested that Hammam was encouraged to visit Belfast “in order to assess the seriousness of his interest”.

A letter to Mowlam in April 1999 by a member of the Bring Premier League Soccer to Northern Ireland group detailed discussions with the UK sports minister at the time, Lord Dubs, and Hammam, but noted continuing opposition by the football authorities in Northern Ireland.

They wrote that “difficult, intense, open, honest debate, discussion and negotiation is required”, but said the prize was “indeed great and potentially magnificent. A situation similar to the peace process”.

The idea is not mentioned again in the file, after which attention shifted to proposals to build a new national stadium for Northern Ireland for the millennium.

Of course, Wimbledon did eventually relocate, to Milton Keynes, and currently exist as Milton Keynes Dons in League Two. They didn't call them the 'crazy gang' for nothing.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

End government by WhatsApp

Some commonsense in today's Guardian, with the former head of GCHQ calling for an end to the government handling crises over WhatsApp, saying the platform might suit gossip and informal exchanges but is inappropriate for important decision-making.

The paper says that Sir David Omand, who ran the UK intelligence service before becoming the permanent secretary of the Home Office and the Cabinet Office, criticised the way government was conducted in the pandemic and said future crises should be handled with “proper process”:

Speaking in evidence to a new parliamentary inquiry and as the UK heads into a general election year, Omand said the complexities and nuances of “any decent strategic analysis … cannot be conveyed in a WhatsApp exchange”.

His intervention will put pressure on the government to ensure decisions are properly made and recorded in the future. It will also strengthen demands for Labour, which is ahead in the polls, to set out its plans.

Keir Starmer’s party has promised to overhaul the government ethics system and improve transparency but has not set out how it would rethink Whitehall’s decision-making process and the business of government.

The inquiry into strategic thinking in government was ordered after the pandemic by the liaison committee, which holds the prime minister to account.

Omand, who is also a professor of war studies and a senior adviser to a cyber-investment business, said in his evidence that ministers and officials often engaged in “gossip” and “informal exchanges” as they gathered for cabinet meetings, which helped let off steam when pressure had built up.

“It is understandable that WhatsApp messages might fulfil a comparable function during lockdowns that limited much face-to-face contact,” he said.

z “But to judge by the evidence now made public by the Covid-19 inquiry, such exchanges (leaving aside the vile misogyny) had become the foreground means of forcing outcomes not just sharing background mood music.

“That Covid rationale no longer applies, if it ever did. It is essential to have a proper decision-making process if we are to survive a crisis in good order.”

He added: “There is little point in devoting effort to identifying strategic opportunities and strategic threats and risks if, when the time for action comes, there is no proper process for weighing decisions against strategic goals and adjusting course accordingly.

“The complexities and important nuances of any decent strategic analysis … cannot be conveyed in a WhatsApp exchange.”

I would have thought that ending government by WhatsApp is an essential prerequisite to more accounntability and transparency, so if this can be done it would be a major step forward. We should not forget the devolved governments either, who have also slipped into bad habits with WhatsApp.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Communities endangered by inter-government squabbling

The Guardian highlights the danger posed to local communities by around 350 disused coal tips in the Welsh valleys, some of whom are showing signs of movement, amid fears that we might be facing another Aberfan.

The paper says that the issue of what to do about Wales’s 2,500 disused coal tips is back on the political agenda after the Labour-led Welsh government published maps pinpointing 350 situated close to homes and communities that it fears could put people at risk in the event of a landslip.

They add that of those more hazardous ones, 79 are in Rhondda Cynon Taf, 59 in Merthyr Tydfil, and 51 in Caerphilly, all areas of south Wales where the impact of the industry that fired the Industrial Revolution are still clearly seen and felt:

It was a mammoth task to identify, record and categorise all the tips on a central database for the first time but an even tougher job seems to be persuading the UK government to help pay for the inspections and, ultimately, make them safe. Westminster insists coal-tip safety is a devolved matter and so it is up to the Welsh administration to fund any work that is needed.

Welsh Labour and Plaid politicians can hardly contain their anger. Julie James, the Welsh climate change minister, told the Guardian: “It’s ridiculous to say the devolved government that has been here for 20 years is responsible for the legacy of hundreds of years of mining that enriched the whole of the UK. It seems extraordinary that the legacy of UK mining should fall on the not-very-broad shoulders of the communities that hosted those mines.”

The Guardian says that the cost of remediation is estimated at around £50m a year for 10 to 15 years, but the UK government remains unmoved. A spokesperson said: “The management of coal tips in Wales is one of the Welsh government’s devolved responsibilities and one it is more than adequately funded to meet after receiving the largest annual settlement in the history of devolution at spending review 2021.”

Julie James, the Welsh climate change minister, however disagrees: “It’s ridiculous to say the devolved government that has been here for 20 years is responsible for the legacy of hundreds of years of mining that enriched the whole of the UK. It seems extraordinary that the legacy of UK mining should fall on the not-very-broad shoulders of the communities that hosted those mines.”

Note that she does not deny that responsibility for these tips is devolved, just that morally the Welsh Government could do with some financial help dealing with them and she is prepared to pass the buck accordingly. The health and education services were also formed before the 1997 devolution referendum but that doesn't stop the Welsh government funding them. 

Meanwhile. the danger persists, very like Aberfan, where politicians ignored their responsibilities until it was too late.

Welsh Ministers are not shy in demanding additional devolved powers, but where they have them, as here, then they should use them. This having your cake and eating it approach to devolution is not a good look and does nothing to help communities threatened by these tips.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Merry Christmas Everyone


Sunday, December 24, 2023


The Guardian reports that Labour is considering scaling back ambitious plans to borrow £28bn a year to invest in green jobs and industry amid fears the Conservatives will use the policy as a central line of attack in the general election campaign.

The paper says that Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves will discuss the party’s flagship economic policy next month, with senior Labour figures pushing to drop the £28bn commitment entirely while others want to retain key elements of the plan:

Labour officials say they intend to keep central parts of their green policy, but want to recast them in a way that allows them to stop talking so much about what they cost, focusing instead on what the policies will achieve.

One insider said some were concerned about how a Labour government would grow the economy without the green plan, and whether it could be politically damaging for Starmer as it could leave him open to charges of “flip-flopping” by the Tories.

But they added: “There will be a pivot in the new year and the £28bn price tag as it exists now is unlikely to survive that. Whatever ultimately happens will be a further watering down of the position. This will be the Tories’ number one area of attack so they need to deal with it.”

It comes after Reeves delayed plans in June for the green fund to start in the first year of a Labour government, saying it would “ramp up” by the middle of a first parliament, as the party leadership looked to review its spending in an attempt to prove its fiscal credibility.

Many Labour officials are irritated that they have to defend the £28bn figure without being able to say how the money will be spent. Reeves has already been focusing on the outcomes of the investment, rather than its cost, which she did not mention in her Labour conference speech this autumn.

Even Ed Miliband, the shadow energy secretary, is said to appreciate the political risks of the £28bn figure. He has focused on talking about the benefits of the scheme such as lower household bills.

One way to refocus attention on the scheme, said one shadow minister, would be to wrap the existing plans into one bill with a title that could mimic the Inflation Reduction Act in the US. “We could call it the ‘Bringing Bills Down Act’,” the person said.

Others, however, believe rebadging the scheme will not be enough, and want the overall financial commitment to be scaled back, perhaps dramatically. Labour insiders said these included Pat McFadden, the shadow Cabinet Office minister; Morgan McSweeney, Labour’s campaign chief; and the shadow Treasury minister, Spencer Livermore.

The plan is already hampered by the fact that Reeves has said it will only be achieved if it fits with Labour’s promise to have debt falling as a share of gross domestic product at the end of a five-year period. Her team have stressed that the fiscal rules are paramount.

Up until now the commitment to this green investment has been one of the few policies that has distinguished Labour from the current government. Without it they are effectively just Tory-lite and policy-free,

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Surveillance State

I have been away for a couple of days so have not had a chance to comment on the proposed extension of the surveillance state currently being mooted by the Tories.

Facial recognition software has, of course, been controversial, with the court of appeal ruling in 2020 that South Wales police’s use of facial recognition technology had breached privacy rights, data protection laws and equality laws, given the risk the technology could have a race or gender bias. It means that every one of us is under suspicion and has a built in bias against ethnic minorities.

However, instead of withdrawing the technology until it can be refined and have safeguards and oversight put in place, the government and the police are doubling down with new legislation that will effectively put all UK drivers in a permanent police line-up.

The Guardian reports that once the new criminal justice bill becomes law, the police will be able to run facial recognition searches on a database containing images of all of Britain’s 50 million driving licence holders.

They say that should the police wish to put a name to an image collected on CCTV, or shared on social media, the legislation would provide them with the powers to search driving licence records for a match:

The move, contained in a single clause in a new criminal justice bill, could put every driver in the country in a permanent police line-up, according to privacy campaigners.

Facial recognition searches match the biometric measurements of an identified photograph, such as that contained on driving licences, to those of an image picked up elsewhere.

The intention to allow the police or the National Crime Agency (NCA) to exploit the UK’s driving licence records is not explicitly referenced in the bill or in its explanatory notes, raising criticism from leading academics that the government is “sneaking it under the radar”.

Once the criminal justice bill is enacted, the home secretary, James Cleverly, must establish “driver information regulations” to enable the searches, but he will need only to consult police bodies, according to the bill.

Critics claim facial recognition technology poses a threat to the rights of individuals to privacy, freedom of expression, non-discrimination and freedom of assembly and association.

Police are increasingly using live facial recognition, which compares a live camera feed of faces against a database of known identities, at major public events such as protests.

Prof Peter Fussey, a former independent reviewer of the Met’s use of facial recognition, said there was insufficient oversight of the use of facial recognition systems, with ministers worryingly silent over studies that showed the technology was prone to falsely identifying black and Asian faces.

He said: “This constitutes another example of how facial recognition surveillance is becoming extended without clear limits or independent oversight of its use. The minister highlights how such technologies are useful and convenient. That police find such technologies useful or convenient is not sufficient justification to override the legal human rights protections they are also obliged to uphold.”

No doubt those in favour of this law will say that if we have done nothing wrong, then we have nothing to fear. However, the implications are far wider than just finding wanted criminals in a crowd, that is when the technology works. 

This change will enable the state to use the technology for political purposes, tracking activists and single issue campaigners. It will even enable an unscrupulous government to use it against democratically elected political opponents.

This legislation is taking us one step closer to a police state. It must be opposed.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Not stopping the boats

Perhaps it's a recognition of how risible the promise is, or a recognition that not only is the objective unattainable but also tokenistic and ineffectual, but it seems that when the prime minister is put on the spot and asked the direct question of when exactly the flow of small boats over the channel will be stopped, he cannot give an answer.

The Independent reports that Rishi Sunak told a Parliamentary committee that he does not know when he will be able to “stop the boats”, insisting there is no “firm date” on the promise he made:

The PM made stopping migrant crossings in the English Channel one of his five key pledges in January, but has so far failed to deliver on it and three other promises.

Grilleds by parliament’s powerful liaison committee, Mr Sunak said he does not have “a precise date” for when the crossings will stop. “We will keep going until we do [stop the boats],” he insisted.

The Tory leader also refused to tell the senior MPs if any airline had agreed to Rwanda deportation flights, amid reports the government is struggling to find a partner.

This policy has already been declared unlawful, and even if it were to be implemented might relocate a few hundred of tens of thousands of asylum seekers. Instead, Sunak should concentrate on clearing the backlog of processing those here already.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Using the courts to silence criticism

One relatively unreported aspect of the MIchelle Mone PPE scandal is the way she used legal threats to try and keep the whole thing under wraps. It is possible that only when this approach broke down that she decided to come clean on the lies she had been telling in public.

The European documents the threats that were made to them to try and prevent the publication of reports on the how Mone and her billionaire husband, Doug Barrowman, had profiteered to the tune of more than £60m from the Covid pandemic.

They say that a significant number of journalists in the UK were on the receiving end of Mone’s attempts to shut them up by lying about their involvement with PPE Medpro and that lawyers acting for her targeted many journalists, not least the Guardian’s David Conn, who led the way with the story:

But the bizarre chain of legal threats she made to the New European of action for defamation over our front page headlined “Stop This Boat” gives an insight into the raw arrogance, duplicity and spectacular amateurism Mone has demonstrated.

After receiving her pre-action letter, it quickly became clear to us that either Mone was being given legal advice by an amateur or – incredibly – that the threats were in fact emanating from Mone herself, under the guise of her “in-house legal team”.

On August 23 this year, the day after we published our Stop This Boat front page, an email claiming to be “from the office of Baroness Mone” – but sent from what was very clearly her own personal email address – demanded we delete our stories about her online, withdraw all copies of the printed newspaper, apologise and pay damages to a charity of her choice.

Since the email address was “Michelle@…..” it was assumed it was Mone herself emailing. Yet when we replied telling her we would not comply with her demands, and demanding disclosure of documents demonstrating the true ownership of the Lady M yacht, the response (again from her “Michelle@…” email) insisted it was not Michelle Mone but “Baroness Mone’s family office”.

When asked if the entire office had access to her personal email, the author – who refused to be identified – insisted that replies were sent by Mone’s “in-house legal team”, who had access to her email.

Thinking this implausible, we asked for the “in-house legal team” to identify themselves. The “Michelle@….” email responded: “We don’t have to disclose the team in this office.”

After we again demanded evidence of the true ownership of the Lady M, the, ahem, “in-house legal team” replied with the kind of brevity alien to practising lawyers: “Your publication is 100% wrong about this and you will rectify.” We chose not to.

Certainly, it was telling that the threats had not come from an actual firm of solicitors (as other, earlier, legal threats including to the Guardian had). By that time, we suspected that the lies being told by Mone and Barrowman had become clear to anyone closely involved with the matter. Any solicitor continuing to knowingly represent them in intimidating the media with lies would face being struck off.

These tactics are used again and again by well-off public figures to try and control the way they are reported in the media. Fortunately, in this case, the journalists involved were not intimidated. 

The fact that many millionaires do get away with it indicates to me that there needs to be some legal protection for journalists in the future.

Monday, December 18, 2023


The satirist and now disgraced American politician, Al Franken once produced a book called 'Lies (and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them)', which title seemed at the time to be rather over-egging the pudding in stating its subject matter. Nevertheless, it provided an interesting perspective on the Bush administration and Fox News, though what he might think of Michelle Mone is, as yet, unrecorded.

The Guardian reports on the startling interview with the former Conservative peer over the weekend, in which she admitted that she lied when she denied repeatedly having been involved with a company that made millions of pounds in profits from UK government PPE deals during the pandemic.

The paper records that Mone said she “wasn’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes” and had not told the truth about her involvement to protect her family from press attention. The very definition of lying is that the perpetrator is trying to pull the wool over people's eyes.

They say that when it was put to her that she had admitted lying to the press, Mone replied: “That’s not a crime”:

Guardian investigations found Mone and her husband, Doug Barrowman, were involved with the company PPE Medpro, which was awarded contracts worth £203m in May and June 2020 after she approached ministers, including Michael Gove, with an offer to supply PPE.

The National Crime Agency is conducting an investigation into alleged criminal offences in the procurement of the contracts by the company.

Responding to Mone’s comments to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday, the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, said: “Our message to those people who sought to use the pandemic to get rich quick [is]: we want our money back.”

Labour has also called on Gove to appear before MPs to face questions over the scandal.

In a film uploaded to YouTube last week, paid for by PPE Medpro, which featured the first public interviews with Mone and her husband, Doug Barrowman, since the NCA began its investigation, the film’s presenter, Mark Williams-Thomas, said the couple were facing criminal allegations of conspiracy to defraud, fraud by false representation and bribery. They both deny wrongdoing.

In the Kuenssberg interview, Mone, who was involved with the lingerie company Ultimo before David Cameron appointed her to the House of Lords in 2015, admitted that she and Barrowman, through their lawyers, repeatedly falsely denied they had any connection to PPE Medpro.

She said she regretted having done so: “We’ve done a lot of good, but if we were to say anything that we have done that we are sorry for, and that’s … We should have told the press straight up, straight away, nothing to hide … I was just protecting my family. And again, I’m sorry for that, but I wasn’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. No one.”

Kuenssberg said: “You’ve admitted today that you lied to the press and you essentially lied to the public.” Mone replied: “Saying to the press, ‘I’m not involved’, to protect my family, can I just make this clear, it’s not a crime … I was protecting my family.”

In November 2022, the Guardian revealed that leaked documents produced by HSBC bank indicated that Barrowman was an investor in PPE Medpro, and that he was paid at least £65m from its profits. The documents indicated that he then transferred £29m to an offshore trust, the Keristal Trust, of which Mone and her three adult children were beneficiaries.

In their BBC interview, Barrowman acknowledged publicly for the first time that the company had made a profit on that scale, and that he had transferred money to the Keristal Trust. “Medpro made a return on its investment of about, realistically, about 30% [approximately £61m],” he said.

The couple acknowledged that Barrowman had transferred money into the trust, and in the interview, Mone referred to the figure of £29m.

On the basis of this interview alone, proceedings should be initiated to removed Mone from the House of Lords, but it also raises questions for government ministers and we can only hope that when Parliament reconvenes they will be summoned to the relevant committees to account for the way Mone was allowed to profit from the pandemic.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Helicopter perks

So, Sunak has done it again. The Prime Minister's obsession with the privileges and the perks of office really sets him apart from his predecessors, and that is saying something.

The Guardian reports that Rishi Sunak took a £16,000 one-way trip to Leeds on a helicopter courtesy of a firm owned by Frank Hester, the Tory megadonor, taking the total for the prime minister’s donor-funded air travel to more than £100,000 this year:

The prime minister once again showed his fondness for short-haul air travel as he took a helicopter from Battersea to Leeds Bradford airport last month – a journey of about 90 minutes. The quickest train from London to Leeds takes about 2 hours and 13 minutes, and costs in the region of £60 off-peak.

Sunak registered the trip as paid for by The Phoenix Partnership (TPP), which as a group has won more than £135m of NHS and government contracts to supply IT since April 2020.

Labour said it was the fourth helicopter ride taken by Sunak that was funded by wealthy Conservative party donors who have been paying tens of thousands of pounds to allow the prime minister to avoid public transport or long car journeys. His regular private air travel has also raised questions about the prime minister’s commitment to tackling the climate crisis.

Hester, who is sole owner of the company, made a £5m donation to the Conservatives earlier this year – the joint biggest gift by a living donor. TPP has previously said it was “unequivocally apolitical”.

The paper adds that Sunak has long been criticised for taking flights and helicopters for short trips, including an RAF chopper from London to Dover, despite the trip being just over an hour by train. But this is not the worst of it.

The Mirror tells us that the Prime Minister travelled to a political event in Teesside by train on Friday - meanwhile a taxpayer-funded RAF jet was flown up to wait overnight for him, before flying him to a far-right political conference in Rome, in apparent breach of the ministerial code.

They add that the Ministerial code bans the PM from diverting government planes for journeys “to or from party business or constituency visits.” Exceptions can only be made when the time factor is “critical” - and even then, only when the only additional cost is “the extra flying time needed to carry out the additional landing and take-off.”

Another incident is recorded, namely that on April 23 this year, Sunak used an Embraer 500 jet to attend the Scottish and Welsh Conservative Conferences, and later declared that the £36,500 cost of the plane for him and his aides had been paid for by Tory donor Akhil Tripathi.

It is little wonder that he is rowing back on his government's commitment to tackling climate change.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

The role of money in politics

Those who oppose state funding for political parties and who believe that the current system of elections being funded by big private donors is fit for purpose, will do well to consider this article in the Guardian, providing the back story to Labour's 2004 ban of hunting foxes with dogs.

The paper relies on claims from Lord Mandelson, that Tony Blair banned foxhunting in 2004 after coming under pressure from an animal rights group the Labour party had accepted a large donation from:

Peter Mandelson, the peer and former Labour MP, said the former prime minister included a commitment to hold a free vote on hunting with dogs in Labour’s 1997 manifesto after receiving money from an animal welfare fund.

Blair has said the foxhunting ban, which was finally enacted in 2004, was one of the policies he most regrets. Debate has since raged about whether the ban should be repealed, with the Conservative party previously having promised to hold a free vote on whether to do so while Labour say they will tighten loopholes in the ban.

Mandelson was speaking during a discussion on whether political donations can affect policy on the Times Radio podcast How to Win an Election.

He said: “I can offer you an example from 1997 where an organisation – it was a fund to do with the welfare of animals – got pretty transactional with us. It was the first and last time I remember this.

“They wanted a ban on hunting in return for a very sizeable amount of money. And Blair and co were sort of reluctant obviously to enter into some sort of trade over this policy.

“However, there were a lot of people in the party who wanted that ban – there were a lot of MPs coming and demanding it.

“And we got into a difficult situation where frankly we went a little bit too far – further than Blair wanted – in making this commitment in our manifesto. It was frankly under, not duress, but under some sort of pressure. It wasn’t attractive and it’s not been repeated.”

Mandelson did not name the group responsible. However, in 1996 Labour accepted £1m from Brian Davies, who founded the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Davies, who died last year, said in 2019: “This donation helped Labour win the election and go on to create the Hunting Act, which they had pledged to animal lovers across the UK.”

A spokesperson for Blair said: “This is a misinterpretation of what was said, there was no such agreement. [Mandelson] is clearly saying there were a lot of people who had passionate views on the subject.”

There are other examples as well of donors allegedly having undue influence, including this one from 2008, when it was reported that Whitehall documents had shown that Tony Blair personally intervened to secure an exemption for formula one from a tobacco advertising ban just hours after meeting the sport's boss and Labour donor, Bernie Ecclestone.

Whatever the truth, the ability of donors to give large sums of money to political parties and, as a result, gain access to important policy makers is a major weakness in our system and needs to be addressed.

Friday, December 15, 2023

Who is the front-runner for Welsh First Minister?

The most depressing thing about the contest to succeed Mark Drakeford is that all the likely contenders announced so far share collective responsibility for his nanny-state, semi-authoritarian style of politics that saw him:

* try to ban vaping in public and now proposes that vapes are only made available on prescription, even though there is no evidence of harm from second-hand vapours;
* waste millions of pounds of public money in purchasing the regularly flooded Gilestone Farm as a new home for the privately run Green Man Festival:
* invest over £120m in the black hole that is Cardiff Airport;
* seek to ban meal deals and multi-buy offers in a move to tackle obesity, a proposal that will hit the poorest, the hardest;
* introduce a minimum price for alcohol despite the lack of evidence for its effectiveess;
* bring in a 20mph default speed limit that is now opposed by over 70% of the Welsh public;
* reduce voter choice by reinforcing party control over elections through a closed list system for future Senedd elections, alongside an overlarge membership of 96 that cannot be justified by the workload of MSs and will cost voters tens of millions of pounds, which would be better spent on public services.

So far there are two possible candidates: the yet to announce Education Minister, Jeremy Miles, who cannot be held wholly responsible for the appalling Welsh PISA scores, but who has not really made any mark at all as a minister so far, and the current Economy Minister, Vaughan Gething, who specialises in arrogant media interviews like this one, presided over the Welsh Government's response to covid as health and social services minister and the near collapse of our health service, while admitting to not having read key documents, and who is currently responsible for the dreadful economic mess that Wales is in after 24 years of Labour management.

The Tories may well be derided for holding up Wales as an example of what Labour Britain could look like, but you have to admit, they do have a point.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Woke history?

Is it me or is Kemi Badenoch turning into a rent-a-quote MP? The so-called Equalities Minister has launched into an attack on a perfectly valid historical study into the black death, purely on the grounds that it is examining whether ethnicity was a risk factor in its spread.

The Guardian says that Badenoch has condemned the study after an MP described it as “woke archaeology”. It is not clear what qualifications either the MP or Badenoch have to pass judgement in this way or how  they are qualified to propose the dumbing down of academia which is suggested by their criticism.:

Badenoch said the research into 14th-century London risked damaging trust in modern health services and that she had written to the Museum of London, where the lead author of the study in question works.

During equalities questions in the Commons, Philip Hollobone, a Conservative MP cited the study, asking Badenoch, who is also business secretary, to “ensure that such sensationalist research findings and woke archaeology have no impact at all on current health and pandemic policy”.

“I do agree,” Badenoch replied. “I am not even sure whether we can call it just sensationalist or woke.”

She added: “I agree with my honourable friend that this type of research is damaging to trust, to social cohesion and even to trust in health services. I have written to the director of the Museum of London to express my concern.”

It was the first recorded use of the term “woke archaeology” in more than 200 years of Commons transcripts.

The paper, published in the journal Bioarchaeology International, examined the remains of 145 people buried at London plague cemeteries, 49 of whom died from the plague.

By examining five features of the skulls and comparing these with a forensic databank covering modern and historical global populations, it estimated the likely heritage of people who died and found that those of African heritage were disproportionately more likely to have died from plague than people of European or Asian ancestry, compared with non-plague deaths.

While stressing the need for caution given the sample size, the authors said the results suggested there was value in considering structural racism in such research, likening this to the higher death rates for people from some minority ethnic groups during Covid.

When politicians start to interfere in legitimate academic research in this way, then we are on a very slippery slope to censorship and repression.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

MPs in trouble over social media?

It is difficult to know whether it is the higher profile that social media affords, a general disillusionment with politics or just politcians being obnoxious, but the Mirror reports that Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, Daniel Greenberg has received a thousand complaints about MPs’ comments on social media and hundreds over their language in the Commons.

The paper says that Greenberg has told how his office was contacted by people upset about words spoken in Parliament and posted online by elected politicians, telling the Commons Standards Committee: “Up to date in this calendar year, just over 1,200 complaints were received about language or actions taken in the Chamber. That’s an example of something which I never investigate … that is absolutely outside my remit”:

Rulings on MPs’ behaviour and comments inside the Chamber are matters for Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle and his deputies Dame Eleanor Lang, Nigel Evans and Dame Rosie Winterton. Mr Greenberg, who investigates complaints and allegations on issues such as declarations of financial interests and some misconduct claims, said when he receives complaints about remarks made in the Commons, he sends a letter telling the complainant: “Not for me.”

He added: “But they will get a letter back that doesn’t just say, ‘Go away’. We’ve looked very hard at the correspondence we send to members of the public when they send in complaints that are outside our remit, which is a lot. We will give them our reason very carefully. We will also, where relevant, tell them where they ought to be going.

“But we will also sometimes draw their attention to some of the wider, more general work that is going on in relation to what they’re talking about. For example, I will draw their attention, if they're complaining about views and opinions including social media - that's another thousand of the complaints - saying, ‘Yep, we’re not going to investigate because the Commissioner should not generally interfere in how Members of Parliament deal with their constituents, handle their complaints and express their views’.

“It will then say, ‘But this is something I’ve discussed with the Committee, it’s something I've explored in my annual report and it’s something Mr Speaker has discussed. We try to give them as much help as possible.”

Let nobody say that the great British public are apathetic when it comes to politics.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Welsh Labour have a public falling out

The BBC report on a major, public falling out between two senior Labour politicians that may well have greater consequences for the Welsh Government and the wider Welsh Labour Party.

The broadcaster tells us that Gower MP, Tonia Antoniazzi has called on Labour's sport minister to consider resigning over how she handled the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) sexism scandal.

Tonia has accused Dawn Bowden of a "cynical attempt to rewrite history" in a BBC interview where the minister defended her actions by saying that she did not have details of complaints, even though Antoniazzi said she had passed on details of the women affected to the minister:

The WRU apologised earlier this year after a report found sexism and racism was not properly challenged.

It was produced in the wake of a BBC Wales documentary said that a former boss at Welsh women's rugby said she considered suicide because of the organisation's culture.

Ms Antoniazzi, Labour's Gower MP, had raised concerns about issues within the WRU in March of the previous year both in the House of Commons and directly with the deputy minister, Dawn Bowden.

In a strong-worded statement posted to her website, Ms Antoniazzi said she had given contact details of women affected prior to the BBC Wales documentary's broadcast, but claimed Ms Bowden did not contact them.

She asked Ms Bowden to "withdraw her recent remarks about me, to apologise to the women whose outreach she ignored, and to seriously consider her position".

The deputy minister for arts, sport and tourism did not meet WRU bosses to discuss culture issues until after a BBC Wales Investigates documentary highlighting a "toxic culture" of sexism and homophobia was broadcast in January 2023.

The minister, a Member of the Senedd (MS) for Merthyr Tydfil, told the BBC's Politics Wales programme she could not intervene sooner because she needed "details of their complaints" to give her "assurances that what was being said was actually real".

Ms Bowden told Politics Wales that what her Labour colleague said in the House of Commons and the concerns she had raised with her in meetings and in official letters was not enough for her to act.

"What I had said and I made it very clear is that I needed something more than just a kind of sense that there was a problem that couldn't be pinned down," she said.

"What I did offer Tonia was for her to let me have the details of who it was, what the details of their complaints were, that they could provide that to me in confidence.

"I would not be divulging that to anybody but it would give me the assurance that what was being said was actually real.

"That didn't materialise. I never got those. Those individuals subsequently went to the BBC but had they come to me a year earlier, and said to me 'this is me, this is my story, this is what happened', I would have been in a very different situation."

She added she did use her influence as a minister with the WRU, and said "that influence I think has brought us to the place where we are now".

I fully expect to hear more about this row during First Minister's questions today. This could rumble on for some time. 

Monday, December 11, 2023

Tories no longer the party for the family

As long as I have been in politics the Tory Party has promoted itself as the champions of family values, however if they wish to maintain that pretence then they have to stop splitting families up.

The Guardian reports that there is growing anger over the government’s “love only for the rich” plans that will force thousands of British families to choose whether to split or go into exile:

James Cleverly, the home secretary, announced last week that a British citizen who wants to sponsor their foreign spouse to live with them in the UK will need to earn at least £38,700 a year to qualify for a family visa application.

The changes are expected to cut the number of family visas by about 10,000, according to reports of government briefings, adding to the thousands of “Skype families” who have already been separated by the previous rules where the British partner needed to earn an £18,600 salary.

Campaign group Reunite Families UK said that hundreds of people joined it last week after the announcement that would mean only about a quarter of British people would earn enough to sponsor a spouse.

“Everyone feels the rug has been pulled from under their feet,” said Jane Yilmaz, co-founder of the group. “They’ve dropped this bombshell just before Christmas, and it’s devastating for our families.

“We’ve got people who are separated because they couldn’t reach the £18,600 threshold. There’s no way those families are going to reach the new target,” Yilmaz said. “And we’ve got loads of members who are exiled who have always lived in hope they might be able to come back to their own country. The government harps on about family values and how important the family unit is, then they do this.”

Andreea Dumitrache, co-CEO at the3million, representing EU citizens in the UK, said the rise was “a blatant attack on families across the country”, and that ministers should scrap it. “Our British friends living in the EU will struggle to come back to the UK, with many having to choose between their own families abroad and a parent needing care in the UK.”

Conservative commentators and politicians have also voiced concerns, including Lord Barwell, Theresa May’s former chief of staff, who said it was “morally wrong and unconservative to say that only the wealthiest can fall in love, marry someone and then bring them to the UK”.

And in a piece for Conservative Home, the website’s deputy editor, Henry Hill, said the £38,700 figure “potentially stands to bar an awful lot of Brits from marrying a foreigner”. “It’s hard to imagine this was ever actually a priority,” he added.

This ideological obsession with immigration is destroying family life for thousands of people, and is crippling the economy and public services. Is that really what the modern day Tory Party wants?

Update: It seems Labour supports the increased salary threshold. They may never have pretended to support the family, but as a party of opposition surely they can see the damage this change and its associated policies are doing to our country and our international standing.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Highland Tigers

When I hear the term 'Highland Tigers' the last thing I think about is the Scottish economy, which is just as well as it has nothing to do with prosperity (or the lack of it) north of the border. 

The Observer reports that scientists are preparing plans to restore the fortunes of Scotland’s threatened Highland wildcats – by identifying and removing DNA they have acquired from domestic cats.

The paper says that researchers have warned that the Highland tiger, as the wildcat is also known, is critically endangered because it has bred so much with domestic moggies. All animals now bear evidence of interbreeding, and many have little “wild” left in them. They say that by using modern genomics, scientists hope to reverse this process:

Precise DNA maps of individual animals would be created to pinpoint those with high levels of wildcat genes. These will be bred with similarly endowed felines to create a new population, unaffected by domestic cat hybridisation, that can then be returned to the Scottish countryside.

“The process is known as de-introgression and it is the scientific equivalent of trying to unscramble an egg,” said Dan Lawson of Bristol University, who is the genomics leader for the project.

“We have animals with a mix of two sets of genes. Now we want to separate those sets and recreate Scotland’s original wildcat population.

““It won’t be easy but the benefits will be considerable, not just for wildcats but for other endangered species that are being swamped, genetically, by similar animals.”

British moggies are derived from the African wildcat Felix lybica and tend to be smaller – and friendlier - than Felis silvestris, the European wildcat, from which the Scottish version is descended. Domestic cats moved into Europe as agriculture spread to the continent from the Middle East, and by Roman times they were established in Britain.

The two species kept apart with little interbreeding for centuries, research has indicated. Wildcats have an aversion to humans while domestic cats find us moderately tolerable and occasionally useful. But that separation was eroded as the effects of loss of habitat, road accidents and spreading domestic cat populations accumulated, leading to a slump in wildcat numbers in the 20th century.

“There were few places for the wildcat to hide, and survivors began to interbreed with domestic cats that had gone feral, producing hybrid offspring,” said Jo Howard-McCombe, a conservation geneticist at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland in Edinburgh.

“However, that interbreeding only happened in earnest in the 1960s, after we’d established captive populations of wildcats in Scotland. So animals that had been taken to zoos and sanctuaries were not too badly affected by hybridisation. Conservationists got there just in time.”

Using the descendants of these animals, a wildcat restoration programme, Saving Wildcats, was set up and this summer arranged for the release of 19 animals into a 600 sq km section of the Cairngorms national park known as Cairngorms Connect.

Fitted with GPS collars, each animal is tracked to study how it copes with life in the wild, and the onset of winter in Scotland. A further 40 animals are set to be released over the next three years.

“Wildcats survive on rabbits, mice, voles and occasional birds and hares. So far, our cats are doing well, though one has died from an abdominal infection,” said Helena Parsons, a manager for Saving Wildcats.

It will be interesting to see if this experiment works.

Friday, December 08, 2023

Benjamin Zephaniah and the Poets on the Hill

The premature death of Benjamin Zephaniah has reminded me of the fantastic Poets on the Hill initiative he was involved in back in 2014 which led to the publication of the fabulous 'No Apologie Anfologie *Contains working class intellect*'. I think it is worth reminding people of that endeavour.

My only involvement with this project was to turn up to the packed book launch, which was facilitated by University of Wales Trinity Saint David, who provided support and advice to the poets, all of whom lived in Townhill and Mayhill.

The book contains such diverse offerings as 'Peeing on a Stick', 'Champagne Charline', 'Ode To A Townhill Lamp-post', 'Crimson Tights', 'Headlock', 'Speeding on the M4' and 'iPhone Dame'.

Benjamin Zephaniah's introduction to the anthology takes up the story:

'In 2014 I was asked to work on a television programme for the BBC called 'A Poet On The Estate'. The idea was to rework the play 'Under Milkwood' by the great Dylan Thomas, with a group of people from the Townhill estate in Swansea. I was nervous. I had been to Townhill before, I knew it had a troubled history, and my worry was that the BBC crew would come in and make their programme without really considering the needs and sensitivities of the people of the area. In the past I had seen other broadcasters go into an area and leave, having set neighbour against neighbour. So, I talked with the producers of the programme and they assured me that they were not out to simply exploit the people of the estate; they wanted to create a piece of work that really came from the people, and they would listen to any concerns of mine or the locals. I said I would do the programme, but what really convinced me that it was the right decision was the welcome I received on the first night of filming.'

He goes on to say that Swansea has always been one of his favourite places on the planet and that any time he performed there he was really well received, but this time it was special as the people were expressing excitement and pleasure at the idea of working with him.

Once the programme was completed the group that was formed to make Poets on the Hill decided to carry on. They started to meet and share each other's work, and they started to perform as a group. And then they published their anthology. Benjamin Zephaniah concludes:

'The great thing about these poets is that they are everyday people, with everyday concerns, and everyday struggles. They love poetry, they love the arts, but they are not the cultural elite. When we were working on the TV programme they were struggling with child care, work, unemployment, water leaks, family arguments, and even sleep apnoea. This really is the poetry of the people, It comes from the heart, it is direct, it is honest. These poets are not trying to impress the establishment in London, they are not trying to win votes, they are just expressing their hopes, fears, loves, and they are being creative at the same time. This is where real poetry comes from; this is really where it's at.'

Benjamin Zephaniah was a true people's poet who, as I was reminded last night, refused all honours as he wasn't going to accept anything that had 'Empire' in the title. He left his mark on Townhill and Mayhill and on everybody who met him or saw him perform.

Thursday, December 07, 2023

A split or a chasm?

News that the former immigration minister, Robert Jenrick quit on Wednesday because Sunak's emergency Rwanda legislation did not go far enough, is firmly in the how many angels can dance on the head of a pin territory. 

His reasoning is nonsense simply because the bill itself is unworkable, breaches human rights conventions and international law, and has zero chance of making any difference to irregular migration. To think that going further would work better is sheer fantasy.

What is interesting of course is where this leaves the Tory party. The Independent says that Tory MPs  are ‘deeply worried’ by Robert Jenrick’s resignation, while Tory former attorney general Dominic Grieve says that the party is now “seriously split ideologically in a way that I have never seen before”.

The one thing I can agree with Jenrick on, is that the legislation, designed to salvage the government’s Rwanda deportation plan, will not work. Instead, we are firmly in Tory leadership succession territory centred on the most fundamental of differences, best summed up by Dominic Grieve:

“What we’re now watching is a split between people who believe in the rule of law, and people who don’t actually believe in the rule of law at all.”

Where does Sunak stand in that division? I would suggest that he is out on a limb with very few options. The Independent agrees:

Mr Jenrick’s resignation letter made clear he wanted to bypass the ECHR – revealing that he had been “pushing for the strongest possible” bill that would put “national interests above highly contested interpretations of international law”.

It leaves Mr Sunak facing the near-impossible task of winning votes from both the Tory right, who wanted a “full fat” crackdown on the ECHR, and moderate MPs in the “One Nation” group who warn they cannot back legislation that flouts human rights law.

We really do need a general election now.

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Double standards

Byline Times reports on the latest Tory Government double standards as they do everything they can to gerrymander the electoral system in their favour.

They say that the government has been accused of “corrupting democracy” as it pushes through legislation that will allow Brits living overseas to have their identity confirmed by an existing UK voter – while rejecting calls for the same rules to apply to in-person voters who lack photo ID:

A little-known piece of legislation – the Draft Representation of the People (Overseas Electors etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2023 – is currently sitting in Parliament after being drawn up by ministers, and does not require a parliamentary vote to pass.

It will allow overseas voters to have their identity vouched for by a currently-registered voter, when they sign up to vote abroad. Voters living here can already register this way, though the process is rarely used, and there are fears that relaxed rules for overseas voters could open the UK up to foreign interference and a flood of opaque donations.

Ministers have just raised the spending limit by 80% for general elections for political parties – again without a parliamentary vote – while separate legislation has scrapped the previous 15-year limit that people could live abroad and continue to be able to vote.

In theory, someone could have lived abroad for 50 years, with little evidence of where they used to vote – and a friend living in the UK could vouch that they were telling the truth about their eligibility to cast their ballot in a key swing seat.

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Chris Rennard is sounding the alarm about the plans, arguing that the so-called ‘attestation’ rules letting overseas citizens register to vote without firm documentation showing they used to live in the UK will enable Brits overseas to donate unlimited sums to political causes.

It comes after the Government controversially rejected calls from the Electoral Commission watchdog and democracy campaigners to let voters bring alternative forms of voter identification following May’s elections or to allow others to ‘attest’ to the identity of those who lack ID.

At least 14,000 voters were turned away from polling stations and denied a vote in England in May. There are fears as many as 100,000 people could be turned away in next year’s general election.

Even Jacob Rees-Mogg has admitted that the strict voter ID rules were a form of ‘gerrymandering’. The government is now taking that to a new level.

Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Join the Euro and save the pine marten


Watching University Challenge last night I learnt that, as of January 2023, Croatia became the twentieth country to join the Euro, effectively condemning one of the most colourful European currencies to the trash can, and no doubt doubling the price of what used to be very economical holidays in that beautiful country

Prior to January 2023, the main currency was the Luna, which is a pine marten in the local language. This is because in medieval times the pelts of these lovely animals were the main curency and they kept the name when they graduated to base metal and paper coinage. A Croatian tourist site explains more:

The idea of the kuna as a currency appeared as early as the Middle Ages. At the time, valuable marten (called kuna in Croatian) pelts were used as a form of payment for taxes called kunovina or marturina in medieval Slavonia, Primorje and Dalmatia regions. Not long after that, the kuna became a currency of the autonomous province of Banovina of Croatia (Banovina Hrvatska). The image of this animal was used on the Croatian coin called banovac from the first half of the 13th century to the late 14th century.

The kuna consisted of one hundred Lipa, which is a Linden tree:

Lipa, as the hundredth part of the kuna, was not traditionally used as currency, but this tall, strong and elegant tree was considered sacred by the ancient Slavic people, who wove numerous legends and folk tales around its symbolism. Lipa coins came in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50, and they all exhibited motifs of Croatian plants, such as Degenia velebitica (Velebitska degenija), olive, tobacco, common oak, common grape vine and corn. With their motifs, kuna notes and lipa coins enabled you to travel through the most beautiful parts of Croatia and discover some of the representatives of the flora and fauna that inhabit its turquoise blue sea and mighty green forests.

Progress clearly has a price, though we are assured that the marten will still appear on the new Croatian Euro coins.

Keir Starmer's wishful thinking

Fresh from expressing his admiration for Margaret Thatcher, the Labour leader has now abandoned his party's traditional commitment to properly funded public services, with a categorical refusal to rule out reversing planned cuts to government departments if he won power.

The Guardian reports that Keir Starmer told journalists that a Labour government must shed the assumption that public spending is “the only lever that can ever be pulled” to improve people’s lives, presumably overlooking the fact that the Tories have been trying that one for thirteen years.

He believes that significant barriers to growth can be tackled without extra spending, such as changes to the planning system and more efficient public services. So, exactly like the Tories, then:

Answering questions following a speech on Labour’s plans for the economy, Starmer said his party had a record of investing in public services, but twice declined to confirm he would reverse significant cuts set out in Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement.

Asked how his economic strategy differed materially from that of the Conservative chancellor, Starmer gave no policy specifics, saying instead that the Conservatives had “a plausibility problem” over the economy, and that a government led by him would have defined missions.

In essence then voters are being asked to cast their ballot for a blank canvass led by a man who admires the most notorious Tory leader in recent history and who is offering only more of the same. Why should they bother?

Monday, December 04, 2023

Wrong priorities for Welsh public transport

The BBC report on comments by transport expert, Professor Stuart Cole, that the Welsh government has got its priorities wrong over public transport.

Professor Cole believes that Ministers should have improved bus and train services before reducing speeds from 30mph to 20mph on many Welsh roads. He said public transport facilities should have been "put in before any other anti-motorist legislation".

Despite this, it is estimated that almost 10% of bus routes have been axed this summer in Wales over funding issues.:

The Welsh government said current arrangements were complex across Wales.

But Prof Cole said the Welsh government had "gone about it the wrong way round" although "what they've done is not in itself a bad idea".

He said he wanted to see Wales emulate the Netherlands, where there's been massive investment in trains and buses to entice motorists out of their cars.

The country has a "rover" travel card - in place since 2007 - which allows people to use buses, trams and trains on the same ticket.

Prof Cole said Wales' over 60s bus pass could provide the basis for creating such a travel card for wider use here.

"It could be a stored value ticket, so you charge it up every so often... so no different to the London Transport scheme," he told BBC Politics Wales.

"You can do it also on your phone but just make that bit of it easy.

"And then make sure the timetables integrate so that you can, in fact, come by bus to the railway station."

Llanelli, in Carmarthenshire, which happens to be Transport Minister Lee Waters' constituency, is a good example of how buses and trains are not integrated.

The bus station is a mile away from the train station, and there are no buses linking the two.

In fact there are no buses at all from the railway station.

These are issues that need to be raised with ministers in the Senedd on a regular basis. Taking a constructive opposition line to the 20mph default limit as outlined by Professor Cole, would have been far preferable approach for the Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, instead of just rolling over and accepting the policy, appareently without question.

Sunday, December 03, 2023

Delivering on promises

This news in today's Independent illustrates a stark political fact: you can make all the promises you like but if the infrastructure is not there to deliver on them then you will be found out.

In this case the pledge to expand free childcare for British families has been earmarked as being doomed for failure because thousands of nurseries have shut their doors amid a staffing crisis. 

The paper says that new figures from school inspectors Ofsted show that 3,320 of the 62,300 nurseries and childminders for under-fives in England have shut their doors in the past year alone, leaving 17,800 fewer childcare places available.

The Independent adds that: 

  * The number of nurseries and early years services for under fives has plummeted from 84,970 in 2015/2016 to 63,207 in 2022/2023

* Almost 100,000 extra workers are needed to fulfil Mr Hunt’s pledge, according to research by The University of Leeds and the Early Education and Childcare Coalition

* 180,000 additional places will be needed by the end of 2025 for the rollout to work.

A similar scenario is being played out in Wales where ministers are anxious to get more people onto buses, but all the incentives of reducing costs for passengers and providing free travel at weekends are not going to cut it if there are no buses for people to catch.

Perhaps, when manifestos are published at the next General Election, we should have a reality check on all the promises in them.

Saturday, December 02, 2023

Whither the Welsh Liberal Democrats

This is my article in the latest edition of Liberator - Number 420:

When I was elected to Swansea Council in 1984, I was the only Welsh Liberal Councillor, sandwiched between a dominant Labour group and a substantial group of Tories. My response was to find some distinctive issues, to raise the party’s profile and work to get more councillors elected to sit with me.

I understand, therefore, how hard it can be as the only Lib Dem on the Welsh Senedd, and as a member of that body myself for seventeen years, I know how difficult it can be to get our message across.

Despite this, it is possible to establish a clear and distinctive presence if approached in the right way.

No party has a clear majority in the Senedd. That means that the Labour administration is reliant on other parties to get their budgets and their legislation through. At present they have an understanding with Plaid Cymru, but that does not always stand up, and so there is an opportunity for the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ leader to obtain concessions which we can campaign on.

My beef is that when that situation has arisen, negotiations have apparently been cursory, and we have sold our support cheaply. If we have got anything for the Welsh Liberal Democrat vote, it has not been broadcast to the rest of the world, nor has the wider party been given any background briefing as to what happened and why through the private social media and other communication channels available to us.

And then there is the legislation to introduce a default 20mph speed limit on all Welsh roads. The general view is that this is fine in urban areas by schools and hospitals, but that the speed limit on a large number of roads has been wrongly downgraded.

That is an opinion supported by many Welsh Liberal Democrat activists and members as well as a record-breaking petition which, at the time of writing, has attracted over 461,400 signatures. It is a subject many of us want to campaign on, but we can’t because the new speed limit was supported in the Senedd by our sole Welsh Lib Dem MS, without any communication with members as to why, or any consultation on her approach to this issue.

There are, of course campaigning opportunities available to us on this issue in the way councils implemented the change and the way they introduced exemptions, but it always comes back to the fact that we supported this unpopular and frankly ludicrous measure, imposing changes from the top down rather than allowing them to develop locally according to the individual circumstances. That would have been a more liberal approach.

The other issue is the expansion of the Senedd from sixty members to ninety-six. Current party policy is that we should increase the number of MSs to eighty or ninety, with the accepted wisdom being eighty because the chamber has been designed to be easily expanded to accommodate that number. There is in fact a good case to do that.

The case for ninety-six however, is less clear. It is an arbitrary number put in place to enable a closed list system based on the thirty-two Westminster constituencies. The idea is to group these into sixteen Welsh Senedd constituencies, each electing six MSs by the D’hondt system from closed party lists.

The instincts of many Welsh Liberal Democrats is to oppose this proposal on the basis that there is no justification for so many members. It is too expensive at a time when key budgets are being cut, while the proposed voting system puts too much power into the hands of party apparatchiks at the expense of voters.

Although our party leader is rightly continuing to argue for STV as the required voting system, she has thrown her hat in with the idea of ninety-six members, and when members question why, her office tells them that this is party policy. It is not. Once more there is no communication or interaction with members to justify this stance.

All of this matters because our capacity for local campaigning has been curtailed. We currently only have sixty-four principal councillors on thirteen of Wales’ twenty-two authorities, having been effectively wiped out in South East Wales and the south Wales valleys at the 2022 council elections. Our membership is also near rock bottom as well.

We need effective leadership from the Senedd on issues that matter to voters, and we need proper engagement with members, including the awkward buggers like me. If we don’t take members with us in what our representatives are doing at any level then we will lose them, and we will fall back further.

I understand that the main enemy at the moment is the Tories and that they hold Brecon and Radnorshire, the one constituency where we are competitive for the next general election, but there needs to be a recognition that many of us are up against Labour in our own areas.

When our sole national representative is seen to be cosying up to Labour over and over again, instead of effectively opposing them on key issues, when we are not using what leverage we have to get concessions that will benefit our constituents, and when we are left in the dark as to what exactly is happening in the Senedd, with our queries being unanswered, then we will continue to struggle to motivate activists.

That must change.

Friday, December 01, 2023

Time for the Liberal Democrats to wake up and smell the coffee

Perhaps the heady successes of the 1990s and the 2000s spoilt us and led us into a false sense of our own destiny. Perhaps we take ourselves too seriously. But I am a Liberal Democrat because of my belief in liberty and social justice, and I expect those who lead the party to be expounding the distinctive and radical messages associated with that philosophy at every opportunity.

Instead we have settled for a sort of bland mediocrity, a quest for the vanilla centre ground that is neither distinctive nor radical. That is why I would happily have signed the letter from thirty senior Liberal Democrats in the Guardian this week calling on Ed Davey to seize the day.

The letter hits the nail on the head when it says that there is a massive opportunity for a liberal alternative based on internationalism, environmental awareness and modernising Britain, but the authors believe the Liberal Democrats are swerving this opportunity. They add that it is crucial that we are brave and honest about the challenges a new government will face, with distinctive positions the Tories would never take and Labour dare not adopt:

Only a “single-market dividend” will allow the next government to achieve net zero with new rail links and clean power, bring the NHS and social care off their knees, and fund schools so that today’s children can flourish and become tomorrow’s leaders.

The Lib Dems must be fearless in highlighting this – and other differences. We have bolder policies than Labour on the environment, fair votes and human rights, but we are not communicating them. At a general election, echoing Labour’s general antipathy to the Tories through local campaigns is part of the battle but insufficient on its own.

Only a statement of confident liberalism – on Europe, the environment, political reform and public services – will show people that the Lib Dems are a national force worth supporting. We do well when we have a principled message that cuts through, such as our current one on Gaza.

Yes, the leadership are talking about the key issues that are important to voters, the NHS and the economy, but so are everybody else. Emphasising our distinctiveness does not mean that we have to stop talking about those issues, but we can do so in the context of the advantages to our prosperity and our public services of rejoining the single market, and the way Brexit has left us economically bereft.

And we should be extolling the benefits of migration, about how our humanity means that we should be helping asylum seekers not ostracising them, and how our commitment to the environment and clean energy can help us regain control of our own destiny and be less dependent on others and on scarce resources in the future.

Ed Davey once told us to wake up and smell the coffee. It's time for him and his team to do the same.

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