20 July 2004

email: oldgrumpy@oldgrumpy.co.uk


This week's special competition- spot the difference

See Black boy


Minority rulers

A poll in this morning's Guardian indicates that 55% of the electorate believe that Tony Blair lied to them in the run up to the war in Iraq.
This lack of public confidence in the Prime Minister is disturbing enough, but even more worrying is that the same poll gave Mr Blair's Labour Party a 5% lead over their nearest rivals; the Conservatives.
It may of course be that the electorate are so impressed with Mr Blair's record on schoolsanhospitals that they are prepared to forgive him a couple of porkies, even over such an important matter as taking the country to war.
On the other hand, the polls might be a reflection of the voters' view of the general uselessness of the Tories.
Whatever the explanation, it is a bad day for democracy when the electorate neither trusts the government nor shows any willingness to vote for the opposition.
One thing that this opinion poll highlights is the simple but often overlooked truth about elections: that somebody is bound to win, even if only because they are the best of a bad lot.
Just as a high jump contest for people over 30 stone would produce an eventual winner, so it is with elections.
That is why the prevailing view that democracy = elections is so dangerous.
In fact, I would argue that the essence of democracy is to put in place rules and safeguards designed to limit the damage that elected politicians can do.
In short, to steer clear of an elective dictatorship.
This is especially so in a first past the post system such as we have in Britain where minority governments (in the terms of votes cast) are the norm.
Like almost every government since the war, New Labour polled less than half the votes cast at the last general election (44%).
The turnout was 59% which means that Mr Blair's huge Commons majority is based on the positive endorsement of just 25% of the electorate.
There is nothing particularly unfair about this - it's just how things are.
At least New Labour went to the electorate with a manifesto, unlike the Independent Political (sic) Group (IPG) which rules the County Council.
According to a letter from Mr John Hudson, published in the Mercury, the IPG's almost two thirds majority (38 out of 60) is based on just 20% of the vote (10% of the electorate given the 50% turnout).
And, of course, that includes an unknown, but probably significant, number of people who voted for candidates who promised they wouldn't join the IPG (see, Proud to be a Tory)

Any answers?

I had hoped to base this week's column on the answers to the questions I submitted to last Thursday's meeting of the County Council.
However, despite an assurance from the Leader, Cllr John Davies, that I would be provided with a written account of his replies, they are not yet forthcoming.
The council's explanation for this delay is that Cllr Davies is away this week, though I wasn't aware that his responsibilities included writing up the minutes of meetings.
On the bright side, Cllr Davies did answer most of my questions so I hope to be able to bring you up to date when he returns to the office next week.

The Sun done it

Researchers have discovered that the Sun is going through one of its brighter phases and there are suggestions that this, rather than greenhouse gas emissions, might be responsible for the slight warming we have experienced over the past 100 years.
And when you hear stories about swallows in February and outbreaks of Nile fever it is as well to remember that the warming over the past century amounts to about 0.5 degrees C - roughly the equivalent of moving from Birmingham to Cardiff.
Indeed, the most rapid period of warming occurred in the first half of the last century, followed by a cooling through the 50s, 60,s and early 70s.
So marked was this cooling phase that the eco-warriors of my youth (well, early thirties) were predicting the onset of the next ice-age.
Perhaps we humans just need something to worry about.
One of the environmental movement's most enduring myths is that trees take in polluting carbon dioxide and give off life-enhancing oxygen.
This is scientifically flawed on at least two counts.
Firstly, it is carbon dioxide, more precisely the carbon atoms it contains, that is the very stuff of life, while oxygen is one of the most corrosive substances on the planet.
So corrosive, in fact, that without the enzymes our bodies have evolved to counteract its damaging effects we would all perish fairly rapidly.
And secondly, if trees absorbed carbon dioxide, irreversibly, it would not be long before all the available carbon was locked up in wood and, as far as life on earth is concerned, that would be finito.

Growing wild

I read somewhere that tomatoes are a serious problem on the Galapagos Islands where Darwin made his important discoveries about variations in breeds of finches that were later to lead to his Theory of Evolution.
Apparently, the wild tomatoes on the island are choking other species and leading to a loss of biodiversity.
Anyone who has ever grown tomatoes will understand the problem.
They seem to have the ability to throw out new growth from any part of stem or leaf, overnight.
I have been in the tomato business for more than 20 years and this year is the first time that I have managed to keep them under some sort of control.
Usually by this stage my greenhouse, especially in the corners and other less accessible areas, resembles the Amazonian rain forest with tangled stems from rampant side shoots everywhere.
This present sense of order is the result of a strict routine which sees me down in the greenhouse with a cup of tea and a pair of scissors first thing every morning hunting for unwanted outgrowths.
But, no matter how diligently you attend to the pruning you always seem to miss the odd straggler.
Only this afternoon while mooching around in the greenhouse - displacement activity from writing this column - I discovered a two-foot long specimen growing out of the end of one of the fruiting trusses.
The mystery is how tomatoes made their way to the Galapagos Islands, which are several hundred miles from the South American mainland.
Perhaps a clue is to be found in the stories I used to hear in my childhood about people harvesting wild tomatoes from alongside the Wigton sewage outfall.
And mighty good they tasted, so I was told.

Grasping monopolists

At last Thursday's meeting of the County Council we approved the accounts for 2003/04.
One thing that has always interested me is the item "income" in the consolidated revenue account.
Included under this heading are government grants, rents and fees and charges for services.
Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing the size of the individual components that go to make up the gross figure.
In 2003/04 "income" amounted to £84 million compared to £74 million the previous year - an eye-watering 13.5% increase when looked at alongside inflation at 2.5%.
The ruling Independent Political Group's main boast is that it has the lowest Council Tax in Wales.
But what if that apparent fiscal prudence is founded on the imposition of charges on the consumers of the council's services?
It is not much consolation to pay a low level of Council Tax if the council is removing money from your pocket by charging for services that other authorities provide for free.
One area where the figures are out in the open is in the matter of property searches which, according to the budget, cost some £200,000 and brought in £390,000 - a surplus/profit of £190,000.
This means that sellers/purchasers of property are paying almost double the cost of the service.
I am generally in favour of the principle that those who can afford it should pay for the services they receive rather than let the cost fall on the general taxpayer.
Whether it is acceptable for the council to exploit its monopoly power, by making people pay double by means of a stealth tax on property transactions, is another matter altogether.

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