January 7 2009

 

The F-word

 

My political views are informed by the theory that all ruling majorities have fascist tendencies.
You have to be careful when using the F-word because it can easily be translated as the defamatory "Nazi", though during my lifetime Europe has not been short of fascist regimes which, though undoubtedly unpleasant, didn't follow Hitler's Germany into the pit.
I can think of Franco's Spain; Salazar's Portugal; and even Mussolini's Italy as examples.
And that is by no means an exhaustive list.
Unfortunately, 'fascist' is difficult to define with any precision and has become a term of political abuse to be applied to any government of which we don't approve.
George Orwell said that the word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable" and settled, himself, for "bully" .
My own definition involves contempt for the rule of law and a determination to get their own way by whatever means.
Naturally, ruling majorities don't quite see it like this.
They rationalise their bullying behaviour by claiming that, as the democratically elected majority, they are carrying out the will of the people.
The arithmetic doesn't support this argument.
At the last general election Mr Blair won a 60 seat majority on the back of 33% of the votes, which means that, by a majority of 2:1, the people would have preferred someone else to be in charge.
If you take the electorate as a whole, as opposed to those who actually voted, the figures are 22% and 3.5:1.
The fact is that, in first past the post electoral systems with more than two parties, the government is almost always formed by the largest minority.
That is why we have constitutional checks such as judicial review and a second chamber with delaying powers.
Unfortunately, with the advent of the cabinet system, these checks and balances are absent from local government where we have, contrary to our democratic tradition, what can only be described as a Supreme Leader - Kim Il John as one contributor to the WT's website put it.
At a recent meeting of the corporate governance committee Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse explained that this system was designed "to streamline decision-making"
though it doesn't seem to have occurred to the deputy leader that "streamlined decision-making" and democracy are uneasy bedfellows.
For an example of streamlined decision making at its worst, google 'Wansee Conference'.
The whole point of democracy is that ideas are kicked around and debated with a view to arriving at the best decision.
Of course, there are occasions when streamlined decision making is the order of the day.
If you are lying on the operating table when something goes wrong, you don't expect the consultant to take his team off to a committee room for a two-hour debate on what to do next.
But that is a life and death situation where the consultant and his team; by virtue of their education, training and experience, have acquired the ability to quickly decide on the most appropriate course of action - you hope.
Local government rarely needs to act with that sort of urgency and, even if it did, it is difficult to see where the the likes of Cllr John Davies and his two deputies Cllrs Allen Mirehouse and Jamie Adams might have acquired the expertise to make the right decisions.
Not the education system, I would venture to suggest.


Not me guv

 

The Western Telegraph website reports that the county council's Cabinet has decided to go ahead with consultations on a proposal to close Hayscastle CP School.
The report quotes Councillor Tom Richards; chair of governors at Hayscastle School, as saying: “Obviously there is grave concern. We have to continue with the consultation but at this stage I am disappointed with the outcome."
What the newspaper failed to make clear is that this is a decision of the ruling Independent Political Group of which Cllr Richards (chairman of planning) is a leading member.
Meanwhile in Milford Haven there is widespread disquiet over the plans to move the town's library to Havens Head.
Again I would stress that this is a decision of the IPG of which Cllrs Danny Fellows (chairman of children and young persons scrutiny committee) and Anne Hughes (vice-chairman of council) are prominent members.
It always amazes me how these people can reap the benefits of membership of the ruling party without being held to account for the party's policies.
No doubt, when the school closure proposals come before the council for final approval, Cllr Richards will be up on his feet making an impassioned speech rubbishing his party's policies on small village school.
Having satisfied his constituents sitting in the public gallery that he has done his best for them, he will return quietly to the fold.
That is the advantage of belonging to a party that has no purpose outside the acquisition and retention of power.


False accounting

 

Just before Christmas, the WT reported that Grumpette's notice of motion calling for an independent audit committee had been rejected by the county council after the leader, Cllr John Davies told members that the proposal would cost £1.2 million.
They say you shouldn't believe what you read in the papers and that is certainly true in this case because the notice of motion was submitted by me and the leader said nothing about it costing £1.2 million.
My notice of motion was based on statutory guidance issued by the the Welsh Assembly which encourages local authorities to set up audit committees free of cabinet members and chaired by a member from outside the ruling group.
Presently, the audit function is carried out by the 12-member corporate governance committee which includes the Leader and three of his cabinet colleagues and the four (leader-endorsed) scrutiny committee chairmen.
As most of the things audited concern decisions taken by the cabinet, this seems to breach the principle of Natural Justice that a man shouldn't sit in judgement of his own cause, which is, presumably, why the Welsh Assembly recommended the change.
What the leader actually said in opposition to my proposal was that it wasn't a legal requirement.
Now this is an interesting ethical approach because there are all sorts of things that are perfectly legal yet not considered wholesome.
Take lying for instance which is not illegal except in certain defined circumstances.
I wonder if the two Baptist preachers in the cabinet tell their flocks on a Sunday morning that lying is perfectly acceptable provided you avoid doing it in the witness box (perjury) to the police during the course of an inquiry (perverting the course of justice) or for monetary gain (fraud).
Then there is the case of the police raid on the offices of Tory MP Damien Green which was found to be perfectly legal by an inquiry conducted.by the Head of British Transport Police, though he did conclude that it failed to match up to best practice.
Naturally, the Tories latched on to this last bit.
Why is that the two Tories in the cabinet (and that's only the card-carriers) don't take a similar stance where their own activities are concerned.
Do I feel the word "hypocrites" on the tip of my tongue.
But mustn't be disrespectful of my fellow councillors - Code of Conduct, and all that.



Second-rated

 

One the more attractive human traits is our concern for the underdog.
This can be seen in our delight whenever some team from the lower divisions knocks a bunch of highly-paid Premiership stars out of the FA Cup.
And it probably explains why, despite his record of failure, Tim Henman was more popular than Andy Murray is ever likely to be.
For all I know, there may be Welshmen out there who are hoping that England will win the forthcoming clash at the Millennium Stadium.
After all, it wouldn't be healthy for the game if Wales won the Grand Slam all the time.
Or am I taking too rosy a view of human nature?
One underdog who certainly didn't get the credit he deserved was Alfred Russel Wallace who co-authored the paper on the Theory of Evolution presented to the Linnean Society 1n 1858.
Most people outside the world of biology will never have heard of Wallace, though they will almost certainly have heard of his co-author: Charles Darwin.
It appears that, at the time, Wallace was given full credit for his contribution, but, as the years have gone by, Darwin has been awarded sole proprietorship.
Interestingly, some authorities believe that Darwin was so concerned about the theological repercussions of his theory that, had it not been for Wallace's intervention, he might have postponed publication until after his death.
As it was, when Wallace wrote to Darwin in 1855 outlining his version of the theory:

"An antelope with shorter or weaker legs must necessarily suffer more from the attacks of the feline carnivora; the passenger pigeon with less powerful wings would sooner or later be affected in its powers of procuring a regular supply of food . . . If, on the other hand, any species should produce a variety having slightly increased powers of preserving existence, that variety must inevitably in time acquire a superiority in numbers. . . . Now, let some alteration of physical conditions occur in the district — a long period of drought, a destruction of vegetation by locusts, the irruption of some new carnivorous animal seeking "pastures new" . . . it is evident that, of all the individuals composing the species, those forming the least numerous and most feebly organized variety would suffer first, and, were the pressure severe, must soon become extinct."

Darwin realised that he either had to publish, or risk being scooped.
As the biologist Elaine Morgan said: “If Darwin had not survived his Beagle voyage, the most influential scientific idea of the last two centuries would have been credited to the Welshman from Usk.”
Old Grumpy is always surprised that Wales doesn't make more of one of its most distinguished sons.
Now, had he worn a Number 10 shirt and dropped the last minute goal that beat England, the bookshop shelves would be groaning under the weight of his biographies.


Political scientist

 

Interestingly, Darwin's mother was a Wedgwood and he married a Wedgwood - so a bit of inbreeding can't be all that harmful.
His cousin was Francis Galton, who is often referred to as the father of eugenics - the improvement of the human species by selective breeding.
And we all know where that perfectly respectable study eventually led.
It is interesting to note where the politicisation of science can lead.
Pre Wallace/Darwin the predominant evolutionary theory was that of the Frenchman Lamark, who believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics.
Thus the giraffe got its long neck through successive generations stretching to reach leaves on low-hanging branches - these minute acquired elongations being passed on to he next generation.
The last serious Lamarkist was the Russian Lysenko who was the Soviet Union's leading biologist during Stalin's reign.
Lysenko claimed that it was possible to train (vernalise was the technical term) wheat to grow in Siberia by cultivating successive generations in ever decreasing temperatures - the offspring of such plants acquiring an increasing ability to withstand the cold.
When I went to university to study biology in 1958, Lysenko was a hate figure among the scientific community.
Not only was he accused of peddling false theories about inheritance and evolution to curry favour with his political master(s) but there was an idea about that Stalin had concluded that Lysenko's research could be used to vernalise the Russian people.
The theory was that the Russian people, as presently constituted, were not fit to live in in a socialist state, but with a with a bit of forced labour, starvation and vacations in the gulags, they could gradually be vernalised into become model citizens.


Missing masterpiece

 

Talking of the Wedgwoods, when we were first married Grumpette and I lived in Basford; less than a mile from Josiah's original factory in Etruria Stoke-on-Trent.
The building firm I worked for, Axon and Brown, had its offices and yard just across the road.
In 1965, all that remained of the works were two magnificent bottle ovens alongside that Trent and Mersey canal.
Even in those days of real nappies and no washing machine, Grumpette found the time to paint and I well remember her impressive oil of Wedgwood's two fat ladies.
Now the firm has closed, this work of art must be worth a fortune - even if only for sentimental reasons.
Unfortunately, a thorough search of the attic has failed to reveal this masterpiece and we have concluded that professional art thieves have been at work.
As for me, I am fast losing faith in the prospect that Grumpette's artistic genius will eventually allow me to live in the manner to which I would like to grow accustomed.

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