Sunday, November 29, 2009

Why Tom Harris is wrong on Gary McKinnon

A couple of days ago, Tom Harris published this posting in which he basically took Alan Johnson's line that Asperger's Sufferer Gary McKinnon should be hung out to dry and be extradited to the United States for trial. I think he's wrong, as I have posted before for both humanitarian and legal reasons, and here's why.

Tom outlined what he saw as a series of myths in the debate about what should happen to Gary:

"MYTH #1: Computer hacking is not a serious crime.

Yes it is, and it causes millions of pounds of damage every year. People who hack into other people’s computers should be charged and tried. If convicted, the sentences should be severe.

The people supporting Gary acknowledge that what he did was wrong, and he admits it himself. I think that any punishment meted out should take into account the circumstances of the crime and the intent of the person who committed it. Gary McKinnon is not an international terrorist nor is he a threat to others. He suffers from a condition which gives him a tendency to obsessive behaviour combined with the brilliance to understand how to hack into seriously secure computers and deprives him of the ability to fully understand the consequences of his actions. These circumstances do not say to me "lock up and thow away the key."

MYTH #3: Asperger’s sufferers shouldn’t be extradited.

Why not? Would this argument be made in favour of an Asperger’s Syndrome sufferer who had committed a less “acceptable” crime, like murder or child abuse?

This is so completely irrelevant that it's almost not worth bothering with. Anyone committing these awful crimes would usually be brought to justice in the country where the offence was committed. Gary's offence was committed at home in London. One of the important points raised by Shami Chakrabarti on Andrew Marr this morning is that the extradidtion treaty is completely silent on what should happen when the criminal offence takes place here. What she says carries some weight because she is a barrister who understands these things. If the Treaty is silent, then Alan Johnson is talking nonsense about having to fulfil international obligations.

MYTH #4: The extradition treaty with the US is one-sided.

There is some truth in this, but because of the role of the US constitution, not the UK legislation itself. But are we saying that because of this, no British citizen should ever be extradited to America? If Gary Glitter’s extradition was demanded by the US authorities, would there be the same level of oposition on the grounds of a lack of reciprocity?

No, Tom, what we're saying is that someone in the UK Labour Government should have grown a backbone and told the Americans to get stuffed until they came up with a form of words which meant that the terms under which citizens could be extradited between tbe two countries were the same. Why did this craven Government fail to give us the same protection as an American would have? If we'd told George Bush that we weren't signing, would the Americans have let there be no provision for extradition? Of course not.

I tend to agree with what Liberty has to say about when a person should be extradited, taken from their website:

"# - A person should not be extradited to stand trial in a foreign country without evidence being presented in a British court to prove there is a basic (prima facie) case against them
# - If the crime is alleged to have occurred in whole or in part in the UK, then the person should not be extradited if a court here decides it is not in the interest of justice to extradite
# - A person in the UK should not be extradited for something that is not a crime in the UK. British justice should not be circumvented.

Fast-track extradition is justice denied."

What is not fair about that? And what would have been wrong with presenting that list on a take it or leave it basis to the US?

MYTH #5: McKinnon cannot expect a fair trial in America.

Nonsense. The US legal system is one of the fairest in the world and McKinnon will have his chance to plead his case in open court in exactly the same way as any US citizen. And the highest courts on this side of the Atlantic – including the Court of Appeal and the European Court of Human Rights – have already given McKinnon a fair hearing and have found against his request to remain in the UK.

Tom, you have got to be joking. The fairest in the world? I think not. Let me give you one example - Troy Davis, who has spent 18 years on death row for a crime for which the main witnesses for the prosecution have withdrawn their evidence.

Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, recently both visited Troy in prison in Georgia and hosted his family at the House of Commons last week. He has been to the scene of the crime and he is convinced that it would have been very unlikely that anyone would have been able to identify the perpetrator. If that's his judgement then that's good enough for me.

Alistair was also involved in the case of Kenny Richey, who was eventually released from prison in Ohio 10 years after evidence established an almost certainty that he was innocent.

I remember being horrified by the case of Louise Woodward who was convicted of murdering the baby in her care when she was working as an au pair. Even the prosecutor now admits that she would have been exonerated if tried today.

MYTH #6: McKinnon will receive an unduly harsh sentence.

Unlikely. This is from Corante Blog:

(Federal) sentencing guidelines are referred to in Lord Brown’s ruling, but they are rarely referred to in UK coverage. McKinnon was offered a plea agreement if he pleaded guilty to two of the seven charges.

From the ruling: “On this basis it was likely that a sentence of 3-4 years (more precisely 37-46 months), probably at the shorter end of that bracket, would be passed and that after serving 6-12 months in the US, the appellant would be repatriated to complete his sentence in the UK.”

That's irrelevant. The issue is whether he should be extradited, not how long he would serve. Even if that would be the case, 6-12 months plus the time leading up to a trial is a hell of a long time to subject a vulnerable man to detention in a foreign country, thousands of miles from his family. How can we be assured that he will be provided with the care that he needs? Familiarity is pretty much everything to an Asperger's sufferer and yet Alan Johnson thinks it's ok to send him to a foreign country where every single thing he smells, sees, hears, touches and tastes will be completely strange. It's an awful lot to put someone through when we have a judicial system in this country that's more than capable of dealing with them.

There's evidence from senior, credible psychologists that he's at risk of suicide if he is extradited and that his condition has significantly deteriorated since the start of this process. What sort of Government fails to protect a vulnerable citizen like Gary?

There are still two further points for the Government to answer: firstly, why has the Government not given Gary's legal team the usual three months to file their application for a judicial review?; secondly why did the US not ask for Gary to be extradited before the unbalanced extradition treaty was in place?

It's clear to me that there's certainly enough legal and medical evidence to drive a coach and horses through the Government's position on Gary McKinnon. It's also clear that any other Government would take a different view.

I just hope that in some way common sense prevails and that Gary is not extradited to the US. That would be a terrible injustice.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Scottish Parliament Committee to consider Equal Marriage Petition

When my husband and I met and fell in love 22 years ago, there was little doubt that we would eventually get married. It actually happened a lot sooner than we thought, just over a year later, and the only barrier that ever really got in the way of us establishing that legal and social partnership was my mother losing her lip gloss and me nearly being late for the ceremony. Thankfully, it miraculously appeared, order, and lip shine were restored and Bob and I were able to plight our troth.

Actually, thinking about it, it took an age to sort out the legal practicalities due to my sister-in-law having a very long and complicated Italian address, but we got there in the end.

These wee hiccoughs, though, are nothing. If, however, I'd fallen in love with a woman, life would have been very different. There would simply have been no way for us to join and share our lives legally. I was horrified by experiences of friends who found that at times of crisis, such as death or illness, it was the family of their partner who had all the legal rights and made all the decisions. If they didn't approve of the relationship, they could simply exclude the person who shared their relative's life and there was nothing that the partner could do about it legally. How cruel and unjust is that?

If you read this blog regularly, you may have noticed the Equal Marriage button on my sidebar which is there to show my support for the idea that same sex couples should be allowed to enjoy exactly the same for of marriage as I am. To me it's a simple question of equality. I don't get a law which allows Bob and Caron to marry but not Iain and Stephen.

Civil partnerships were, I think, a step forward in at least they gave same sex couples a way of conferring similar rights to marriage on each other to ensure that they were able to be treated as next of kin, but why should their union be segregated and called something different? Love is universal, why shouldn't marriage be?

I was very moved by this speech given at Edinburgh Pride earlier this year by the Provost of St Mary's Catherdral, Kelvin Holdsworth, a great advocate for marriage equality.

For some months now, the Scottish Parliament Petitions Committee has been considering a petition for equal marriage filed by Nick Henderson. They've spent the last 8 months collecting information from various people and it comes up before them again on Tuesday.

If you feel strongly that all should have the freedom to marry the person they fall in love with, do contact the members of the Petitions Committee to let them know your views. Their contact details can be found at OUTfrontUK, here.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Twitter is marvellous because..........

Where else, before you've even got out of bed in the morning can you:

discover that the Lib Dems have won a by election in St Austell and Newquay, where Tory PPC Caroline Righton recently smeared Liberal Democrat candidate Stephen Gilbert;

give Nadine Dorries some advice on how to tweet pictures from her Blackberry (not in the same league as my friend Sarah (@soggous) who recently helped Jenson Button's girlfriend fix her Mac, mind you);

engage in intelligent discourse about the relative merits and demerits of Google Wave which included the phrase, from Charlotte Gore, "It's collaborative, rich media, non-linear communications!"?

I've also seen love blossom across the twitterverse, between two of the Formula 1 crowd I hang out with egged on by a couple of matchmakers whom I've now engaged to find a husband for a friend of mine (Andrew will know who I mean, although they are a bit doubtful they can find a pleasant Scottish based cowboy).

And twice this week, the combined wisdom of the hive mind has helped me out. Once when I needed some help to do a very urgent favour for Stephen and once today when I desperately needed inspiration for a caveman outfit for Anna tomorrow for her drama class. I may occasionally be able to string a sentence together, but don't ever ask me to do anything practically artistic because bad things will happen.

In many ways it's been my lifeline over the past few months when I've been ill. I literally haven't been anywhere. The Bloggers' Unconference was my first trip to Edinburgh on my own since January. Without Twitter and Facebook keeping me in touch with my friends on a daily basis, I think I would have been dealing with a major dose of Depression on top of everything else that's been going on. Twitter in particular has given me an easily available outlet for my random thoughts when I didn't have the energy for a blog posting.

So now you've had all the niceness and fluffiness from me, have a look at this hilarious and typically cynical post from Charlotte about how to have "the best Twitter feed eva." I'm glad to say there are some of these things I just don't do:-)

Government's Shame over Gary McKinnon

Once upon a time, you might have justifiably thought that a Labour Government, whatever faults it might have, would at least protect those most in need in our society.

Not any more, though.

Alan Johnson has decided that he is powerless to stop the extradition of Gary McKinnon. What nonsense. What he really means is that he considers the request of the United States to be more important than the health and well being of a vulnerable member of our society.

I argued earlier this year that the extradition of Gary McKinnon amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in terms of the US Constitution.

Familiarity and routine is key to helping an Asperger's sufferer to lead a full and independent life. That's not just me making it up, the National Autistic Society, who should have some credibility on this issue, says so on their website:

"Love of routines

"If I get anxious I get in a tizz. I have a timetable; it helps me to see what I have to do next, otherwise I get confused."

To try and make the world less confusing, people with Asperger syndrome may have rules and rituals (ways of doing things) which they insist upon. Young children, for example, may insist on always walking the same way to school. In class, they may get upset if there is a sudden change to the timetable. People with Asperger syndrome often prefer to order their day to a set pattern. For example, if they work set hours, an unexpected delay to their journey to or from work can make them anxious or upset."

So if an unexpected delay in a journey to work can cause anxiety, what on earth is handing someone over to prison in a foreign country going to do to Gary? This Telegraph report quotes a psychiatrist who warns that a suicide attempt is "an almost certain inevitability".

I'm not a doctor or a lawyer, but it's clear to me that Gary has very complex needs which it's difficult for even his close family to meet. How Alan Johnson can be assured that he will receive appropriate care as he states in his letter to Mr McKinnon's mother:

"Throughout this process there have been a number of assurances. Firstly due to legitimate concerns over Mr McKinnon's health, we have sought and received assurances from the United States authorities that his needs will be met. These were before the High Court in July"?

As a mother I feel nothing but sympathy for Gary McKinnon's mother, Janis Sharp. She has fought like a demon for her son and has never given up in her quest to protect him from a fate that she knows could threaten his life, not just his health. I can only imagine how heartbreaking it must be for her to have broken the news to him that the Home Secretary had let him down so badly.

Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary Chris Huhne has backed Gary McKinnon's case from the start. He had this to say about Alan Johnson's decision:

"The Home Secretary should stop being an American poodle and start being a British bulldog."

I hope that he'll be taking action in Parliament to question Alan Johnson on exactly why he is so sure that the US authorities would meet Gary's needs when there is no evidence that it's possible. It is unbelievable that the Home Secretary thinks that he is not breaching Gary's human rights by sending him to the States and he needs to be held to account. I also want to know why anyone else in Gary's position would have 3 months to seek a judicial review, yet he has allowed Gary only 7 days. It seems like he's actually twisting the knife even more, as he must know that this could mean that Gary is removed to the States before Christmas.

I feel so ashamed that we have a Government that is prepared to do this to a man who did wrong, for sure, but with no serious criminal intent. He has a condition that with one hand gives him the brilliance to hack into some seriously secure (or not) computers, but with the other deprives him of the ability to understand the consequences of his actions. It horrifies me that the Government can hang a man like this out to dry. If they can do that to Gary McKinnon, then the human rights of any one of the rest of us are similarly expendable. That's why Gary McKinnon's fight should be everybody's fight.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Jo Swinson Dropped from Question Time - Update

Since I wrote this post yesterday, a steady flow of people have let me know either via Twitter or Facebook or the group on the new Lib Dem social network Act that they have complained to the BBC about Jo being dropped from tonight's panel and there being no Liberal Democrat on for two weeks out of four. Hell, some people have even done the old fashioned thing and told me via using their own voices, face to face, or on the phone that they've done it! It's obviously an issue that's touching a nerve and not just amongst Liberal Democrats.

No doubt in the fullness of time, we'll get an anodyne standard response from the BBC, but John Abrams from Stockport advised on the ACT group that it's worth taking it further:

"If you are not happy with your response then rign up the duty manager and ask for complplaints which is what I did when I didn't get a reply to their factual error of saying that the Lib Dems shared power on Newcastle and Sheffield councils on Westminster Hour. They did an on air apology."

He went on to add that we should ask for more Liberal Democrat commentators on the programme:

"The other issue is why don't they put up a Lib Dem aligned intellectual? People like Charlotte Gore/Mark Littlewood or from the other wing James Graham would be excellent and it should be ADDITIONAL to a Lib Dem MP

Actually, I'd pay good money to see Charlotte and James debate the issues of the day for an hour on live tv! It would be quality stuff.

There's a fair proportion of those who have complained to the BBC who have never done anything like that before.

If anyone felt moved to comment during the programme tonight, here is the Question Time website and here is their Twitter feed.

And I know I'm going on about this ACT group, but I was amazed to find a thingy on it today which connected to anything anybody was saying on Twitter about Jo and Question Time. I certainly never put it there, because I'm not technically competent enough, but thanks to the person who did.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Labour and Tories Fail on Calman

I just don't get the Labour Party.

They have moved heaven and earth to get some horrendously illiberal legislation through - remember ID cards, control orders and 42 days' detention, anyone? They were stubborn, intransigent and draconian. The Government believed passionately (and I think wrongly, obviously) that these measures were necessary and that passion propelled them to keep trying to do what they believed in rather than give up.

Now, whether you think of the report of the Calman Commission goes far enough or not, if Labour were to implement the measures Jim Murphy announced today, there is enough of a consensus for them to get through all their Parliamentary stages and into law in the 70 days before they have to dissolve Parliament for the General Election.

Why in the name of goodness don't they just get on with it? Can't they cope with an open door or something?

It makes me wonder if they're really serious about further devolution. As we've seen before, if they want to do something, they will get on with it, even if the idea is completely bonkers. Their nature is to grasp everything and drag it kicking and screaming to the centre and in some ways setting up the Scottish Parliament went against the grain. Giving away more powers from Westminster to Scotland must be a hard thing for them.

I might be reading too much into this, but today's effort by Jim Murphy seems to be quite a cynical exercise. It takes a lot for me to feel sympathy with the SNP, but I found the way he tried to suggest that Nationalists weren't patriots quite unnecessary. It's almost like Labour have been taking lessons from the Republicans in the US. I don't doubt for a second that the Holyrood administration puts the interests of the SNP above everything else, but I felt that Murphy's language was unhelpful, aggressive and off-putting. I'm not above having a good go at the SNP myself from time to time but there are limits.

If you really believed in something, and thought it was important enough, wouldn't you implement it while you had the chance? There's no guarantee that Labour will be in power this time next year, and while a Lib Dem government would implement the proposals, the Tories are clearly trying to distance themselves as much as possible from Calman. Having helped to establish the Commission, they are now going back on its recommendations and are just going to make something else up themselves at some unspecified point in the future. It took them a good while to accept the idea of a Holyrood Parliament so it's hardly surprising that they're dragging their feet on this. How could we ever have thought it would be any different?

The Lib Dems are the only party with a clean slate on Calman - enthusiastic about it from start to end. The SNP had to be pretty much dragged into engaging with the process, refusing to recognise that there are valid alternatives to independence which as we've seen this week only a very small minority of people want.

I'm going to give the last word on this to the Lib Dem Shadow Scottish Secretary, the ever wise Alistair Carmichael, who said:

"What does the government's white paper really add to the process, apart from further delay in the implementation, where there is a consensus, and giving the Conservatives an opportunity for the sort of backsliding we have seen today.".

I was proud of the performance of the Scottish Liberal Democrat MPs today - they made a positive and constructive contribution to the proceedings, more so than anybody else. I'm reminded of a phrase that we used in a previous election campaign - while Labour and the SNP fight amongst themselves, the Lib Dems fight for the people of Scotland. It certainly looked like that in the Commons today.

Liberal Democrats get their ACT together

The Liberal Democrats have launched a new social network today called Lib Dem ACT. Its lovely jade and yellow colour scheme looks very fetching. You don't have to be a party member to join, so why not come along and see what it's like.

For some the attraction will be undoubtedly that, at the time of writing at least, it has no farms, cafes, fish tanks, mafia wars or vampires in sight. There are some people I expect now to immediately depart Facebook and set up on ACT for that reason alone.

In the words of the nice e-mail I got from the Party's Chief Executive Chris Fox:

"Act is a place where Lib Dem supporters can connect with one another, organise events and campaigns, share photos and videos, and talk about politics."

To be honest, although like a sheep I've gone and signed up, I'm not sure what it does that Facebook doesn't and it is a bit high maintenance in that I have to find all my friends and add them individually when I already have them all to hand on Facebook and Twitter. Having said that, this time last year I didn't really see the point of Twitter and now it's safe to say that it's an integral part of my life. Thing is, on Facebook, we interact with all our other friends as well which exposes Lib Dem ideas and campaigns to all sorts of people in an unobtrusive and often successful kind of way.

It's also good to see that it has its priorities right - already there is a Group for Lib Dem Real ale drinkers thanks to Jennie.

Anyway, it's worth a try and the layout's fantastic. I'm also ecstatic that I managed to find the bit where you can determine what e-mails it sends you. It's in the settings menu in the top right. Unfortunately I had received 97 million e-mails telling me all sorts of stuff I didn't want to know, so if this posting helps just one person to avoid that, I'll be happy.

The other thing that distinctly unamused me was getting an e-mail after I'd cross posted my earier blog posting about Jo being dropped from Question Time telling me that "your blog posting has been approved." Do they think I'm some kind of trouble maker? And if there is really someone moderating everything that goes up, is that really the best use of staff time?

I am quite impressed that I'm becoming a real technological pioneer today. I must at least be an entry level geek by now! I tried Google Wave earlier. That really is something I can't see any usefulness for at all.

Despite a few reservations, I think ACT will be good for Lib Dems to hang out on if they don't want the added extras that go with other social networking sites. I'd really be interested to hear what others think.

Jo Swinson dropped from BBC Question Time Panel

Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs shadow minister Jo Swinson commented on Twitter this morning that she was a

"bit miffed at being dropped from #bbcqt panel at 48hrs notice: Iraq inquiry this week and no Lib Dem on panel!"

I may be wrong, but I have a vague recollection that this might not be the first time this has happened to her, either.

What is reprehensible on the part of the BBC is that it is choosing to run its main current affairs discussion programme without a Liberal Democrat on the week that the Iraq Inquiry starts. The Liberal Democrats were the only UK wide party to oppose the war from the very start so it's clear that we have a unique perspective on a question that's bound to come up.

Not only that, but this is also the week that the Government puts out its response to the Calman Commission report. Again the BBC are allowing the debate on Scotland's future to be represented as a simplistic choice between traditional unionism and independence when we offer a dynamic, fresh Federal perspective.

This is the second week in four that there has been no Liberal Democrat in the panel which in itself is cause for complaint. And talking of complaint, click here to tell the BBC that you want this decision reversed and for Jo to be on the panel tomorrow night.

UPDATE: There's now a group on new Lib Dem social network Act. Please join both.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Happy Birthday to Mark Reckons

Yet another November birthday today, but not one we can put down to a fun Valentine's Day. Mark Reckons is one year old today, although it feels like he's been round for ever. I mean that in a good way in that it's kind of hardwired into my DNA to read everything he writes because even when I don't agree with him he's good.

Mark's had an incredibly successful year and his post, which worked out that the safer an MP's seat, the more likely they were to be caught up in the expenses controversy is probably one of the most effective arguments for STV I've come across in my whole life time in politics.

He also made me cry on my own blog when we were reminiscing about our wonderful grannies.

Another thing I learned at the Unconference

If you are reading this it means that I understood the lovely Mark Pack's instructions about how to blog from my Blackberry.

You might think I must be really stupid not to have worked out what the wee envelope next to the blog title on the Blogger dashboard was for. You'd probably be right, but I've never claimed to be a geek.

Now, if I could only figure out how to put the darned Libdig widget in, life would be perfect!

Liberalism in Action - Jo Shaw and Jenny Willott MP help people remove DNA records

That's quite a scary headline. I must surely been writing about some horrendous totalitarian regime that's storing up people's genetic material for nefarious purposes.

Actually no. Stephen has today highlighted that our very own Police Force is arresting people for no real good reason just so they can nab their DNA for the database, and if you happen to be a black male, your chances of having that happen to you are much higher than those of a white female like me.

What's even more horrifying is that around a third of that figure is the DNA of children. This article shows how easily a child's DNA could be put on the database and the consequences of that.

The Government's own figures admit to the DNA of 980,000 innocent people being on the database. I wonder if they're going to offer some amazing prize to the looming millionth victim of such DNA harvesting.

I noticed on Twitter last week that Jo Shaw, Lib Dem PPC for Holborn and St Pancras in London was organising DNA Surgeries where she's been advising people, including children, how to get their DNA off the database. As a board member of Liberty, she feels very strongly about this unwarranted abuse of our personal information by the state. Liberal Democrat MP Jenny Willott has also held a similar event, as has Labour MP Diane Abbott.

I asked her how the surgery had gone and she replied:

Good thanks! Good few interested kids and was great to get the message out about the DNA database. Going to do it again!.

I asked her a bit more about the sort of advice and help she was able to give to people and she very kindly sent me a copy of the draft letters and advice she was able to give to people. You can find out more here. I wasn't surprised to discover that the Police guidance tells them to always refuse the first request so if you want to make sure that your records are destroyed, you will have to be persistent.

These surgeries are a really practical way of putting liberal values into action. They pioneer a practical way of empowering people, giving them the information and the tools that will help them right the injustice they've suffered. They let people no that it's not ok for the state to store your genetic material for no good reason and show them what they can do to challenge it.

The more people who join Liberty, the more people they'll be able to help with all sorts of injustice and abuse of their human rights. Here's how to join.

Iraq Enquiry - just better quality whitewash?

On February 15th 2003, Bob, Anna and I took the train to Glasgow, It was a beautiful, sunny, crisp and therefore absolutely totally freezing morning. We walked from Queen Street station to Glasgow Green along with huge crowds of people from across Scotland. The thing that struck me was that many of them were ordinary people, not the usual suspects who always go on these things, not just the sometimes scary hard left rabble rousers, not just political activists. The Police estimate at the time was that there were 30,000 people there.

The atmosphere was incredible. We seemed to be waiting there for hours and hours in the pouring rain. Anna, who was 3 at the time spent the time running around in a desperate attempt to keep warm, waving a cardboard dove on a stick. We'd told her, taking a tip from Sara at the time, that we were telling the Government that we didn't them to send our soldiers to hit the soldiere in Iraq. We wanted to give her an idea of what we were doing but not induce nightmares. Years later, she informed me, rather sadly, that she now knew that, it wasn't just about hitting.

This was the first time since we were students that Bob and I had felt moved to get out on the streets and protest. We were resplendent in our "We don't back this war with Iraq" badges and bright yellow Not in My Name Lib Dem t-shirts (worn over very many layers of woolly things.

After about 3 hours of waiting, we finally left Glasgow Green and processed round the centre of Glasgow. People had lots of Stop the War coalition and Daily Mirror anti war banners, but we really admired the work that had gone in to creating home made banners. The children who were there, too, were all so well behaved.

We dropped out before the march got to the SECC to surround the Labour Conference. We felt we'd tried Anna's patience enough, but the day prompted us to all go as a family to other demonstrations. We've "died" on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh (also on Iraq), paid a few visits to the US Consulate in Regent Road, and marched against the renewal of Trident and against the awful Israeli attacks on Gaza earlier this year.

To be honest, I'm not much of a fan of military action as a way to solve problems at the best of times, but while I was uneasy from the start about our involvement in Afghanistan and what it would achieve, the invasion of Iraq just seemed plain wrong.
We didn't buy the idea that there was credible evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction threatening the UK and we felt that our involvement would do more harm than good. We were horrified that it was a Labour Government taking us into a probably illegal war, too. I'd never been a fan of the Labour Party, but I'd never have imagined them capable of such a destructive and ill advised step.

Yesterday on Twitter, I saw a tweet from the BBC Have your Say people asking for comments from people who had been on the protest marches about the Iraq enquiry. I tweeted back and ended up being interviewed last night. You can see the result here, along with a photo which was hastily taken on my Blackberry by Anna.

I would much rather see an enquiry with its remit set by Parliament, not the Government, with people being questioned on oath with the threat of being banged up for perjury if they didn't tell the truth. I want to see the witnesses, especially Tony Blair, cross examined on their actions. It's better that the majority of the hearings will be conducted in public, not as Gordon Brown wished, in private, but I'm just not convinced that this enquiry has either the remit or the power to really get to the bottom of what happened.

We have to give it a go, but to me it looks like the Government has invested in better quality whitewash than its given us before. We'll have to see how closely the witnesses are questioned and what access they are given to Government records. The Government has not actually been forthcoming about what it thinks it should hand over. The fact that Chilcott has been a senior civil servant means that he probably knows the practical detail of how people could cover things up information if they wanted to, so he may have an idea of what he should ask for so that's probably an advantage, but on the other hand, the Civil Service does not exactly have a culture of transparency and openness.

I would prefer this inquiry to be conducted by a Law Lord or a Judge appointed by Parliament. If I were being investigated, I wouldn't get to choose the person who carried out that probe. If you want to keep in detailed touch with what's going on, Ed Davey and Jo Swinson among many others, are listed as supporters of this website which aims to provide all the information we need in one place.

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's not just Doctor Who who has a birthday today

Jennie reminds us that it's the good Doctor's 46th birthday today. Strictly speaking, though, that's not quite true as we all know that he's over 900 years old. Come to mention it, I'm sure I remember Tom Baker's incarnation saying he was 749 in around 1974 so I've no idea how he's managed to gain over 150 years in less than 30.

My husband, who was 12 at the time, remembers watching the first episode live on that Saturday evening in 1963. Consequently, his favourite Doctor is William Hartnell. He loved his grandfatherly magic.

For me, I just fell in love with Tom Baker when I was 7 years old. The very first episode I ever watched, against my will, was Planet of the Spiders where Jon Pertwee regenerated. It was some sort of school holiday, I remember that, because I was with my cousins in my Granny and Grandad's tiny two roomed flat watching it on their black and white tv. I was hooked from that moment on and was really scared by the Robot in Baker's first full story. Watching that as an adult, I laugh that it made me tremble with fear. Sarah Jane Smith became my role model and I just wanted to be her. So far I've been a spectacular failure in that regard, having neither established a career in journalism nor battled one single alien. It is, however, no coincidence that my daughter's middle name is Elisabeth.

I remember being completely enraptured by Tom Baker's eccentric, enthusiastic, sometimes child like Doctor. Here, because I'm nice, is a clip from that first story, complete with Sarah Jane. She was wearing a hat, for goodness' sake!

I could go on to write about how I missed out on a lot of the Peter Davison years first time around because I was so scunnered that Tom Baker wasn't in it any more, but I really got back into it for Sylvester McCoy's second season. His was a wonderful, comic portrayal of the Doctor which got progressively darker. That season was an absolute corker - daleks and cyberman in separate stories for the 25th anniversary were incredibly exciting. It was, of course, that year that daleks first levitated for the first time.

I could also tell you about how fantastic it has been to share Doctor Who with my own daughter. David Tennant is "her" Doctor and she's totally dreading his departure next month. We've both thoroughly enjoyed the Sarah Jane Adventures, too and she's as captivated by K9 as I was at her age, although she sees him as very old fashioned looking and I thought he was cool and futuristic.

Celebrating his 9th birthday on the day Doctor Who was first transmitted was Formula One's resident strategic and technical genius Ross Brawn, whose eponymous team won the Constructors' Championship in its debut season this year which I may just have mentioned in passing once or twice. He's just given himself a nice birthday present by selling a majority shareholding in the team he bought for a few euros in March to Mercedes for many millions more. I hope, by the way, that Brawn GP doesn't mind me whipping his photo off their website.

So, Happy Birthay to everyone who's ever been responsible for the Doctor, and to Ross. I'm sure that both have a lot to give us in the future and as both move on to new eras with Matt Smith and the new Silver Arrows Team, I wish them good luck.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Cagoules, Coat Hangers and Cake - A taster of the Bloggers' Unconference

I can only give you a quick taster of what happened at yesterday's Lib Dem Voice organised Lib Dem Bloggers' Unconference as I have to vacate the laptop as my long suffering husband wishes to harvest his crops on Facebook's Farm Town. The sooner we have more than one thing in this house that connects to the internet the better. His desktop monitor has gone and while I think his time might be better spent getting a new one rather than harvesting imaginary crops, I have to be nice and share.

Anyway, it was an awesome day. It was lovely to meet Helen Duffett and Alex Foster from Lib Dem Voice for the first time as well as the Godfather of the Lib Dem Blogosphere.

The event was well worth doing. We had 2 MPs, John Barrett, whose anecdotal and often amusing blog has been praised. He hinted that he will continue it when he steps down at the election and may even get into Twitter, too.

A jet lagged but still jovial Jo Swinson came more or less straight from the UN where she'd been chairing an inter Parliamentary debate on the global economic crisis. I'll write more about that in a separate post.

Alex Foster told us how to make podcasts and made a comment about how Lib Dem activists could download them onto their ipods and listen to them while delivering leaflets. That led to the comment from Lord Bonkers that that would be "the most fun you could have with your cagoule on." My notes are unclear about exactly what it was Alex told us you could make with a coat hanger and a pair of tights, though. Maybe someone else understood it better.

One of the other major highlights of the day was the chance to interview Tavish Scott. It was good to get to see him in a relatively informal and relaxed manner and he talked a lot of good sense. I have a whole 14 pages of notes from that to make sense of, so I bet it'll be tomorrow before I manage to write that up.

The best bit, obviously, was the marvellous cakes provided by the lovely Andrew. Lemon cake, chocolate truffly things, chocolate cake, little tray bakes. Yum.

The huge disappointment was not getting to meet Charlotte, who couldn't make it due to an unfortunate problem with her internal body clock. Maybe next time.

That's it for now - hope it's given you a bit of a taster of a fabulous day. Now, off to let my husband sort out his basil.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Paul Clarke: Punished for doing the right thing?

I don't know where on earth I was last weekend but apparently there was a bit of a Twitterstorm about Paul Clarke. I'd never heard of him until loveandgarbage mentioned it last night. I thought at first he was an old Big Brother contestant - remember Paul and Helen, anyone?

Every so often we bloggers get all hot under the collar about stupid things happening, about authority being exercised excessively and unjustly, just for the sake of it. A while ago, I got very exercised about Government plans to register anyone who comes in contact with children and the ridiculous intervention of OFSTED into individual childcare arrangements. Then around the same time we had the completely nonsensical and offensive refusal of Morrisons supermarket to sell a bottle of booze to a woman in case she gave it to her seventeen year old daughter. I mean, where's Esther Rantzen and her Jobsworth award when you need her?

What these three things have in common is that they cause a bit of inconvenience to people. What's happened to Paul Clarke is much more sinister.

Basically, he found a sawn off shotgun that someone had dumped in his garden so he did the decent thing and took it to the police station to hand it in as reported here. It would not be unreasonable to expect the Police Officer on duty to take it off your hands and be a bit relieved that one less gun was on the streets. But, no. Instead, Paul Clarke was arrested and the book thrown at him because, apparently, just being in possession of a gun is an offence punishable with a minimum. Yes, that's s statutory minimum, although there is a chance that the sentencing judge could decide there are exceptional circumstances to allow a lesser penalty.

Jennie, whose head clearly wasn't full of mince like mine was at the weekend, wrote this post, reminding us of that sinister phrase Labour ministers are unnaturally fond of "if you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to fear." Paul Clarke is finding out that this is not the case.

The main reason for doing this post, however was to let you see this brilliant post by someone who really knows about legal matters, going through the entire legal process and making some very salient points about how things could have been different. He also pointed out the contribution of the Liberal Democrats in arguing against minimum sentencing for all sorts of reasons.

This is well worth a read, and puts some very complicated legalese into language that even I can understand.

I hope common sense prevails in this case because it would be a terrible injustice to imprison someone for five years for basically doing their civic duty. It hardly enocurages anyone else to do the same, does it?

I'm also assuming that Scots Law is more sensible and that something like this couldn't happen up here. Anyone care to correct me on that one?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Queen's Speech or Jenson Button?

I am a naughty Lib Dem blogger, of that there is no doubt. Yesterday I didn't write anything about the Queen's Speech, opting instead to say nice things about the lady herself rather than the tripe written for her by the Government.

I only had so much energy left after that and was faced with the choice of writing about the Speech, or Jenson Button's surprise and sensational (and in my view idiotic and ill-advised) move to McLaren and what was going on with the old Brawn team. It's interesting that the Brawn management share my view and you can sense their anger here and here.

Anyway, I wrote this, rather melodramatically entitled A Silver Arrow through Brawn's heart? for those nice Brits on Pole people and for once I think I didn't break anything. Although I did keep them out of the pub because when I tried to fit a photo into the article in Wordpress, bad things happened and they had to bail me out.

And as for the Queen's Speech, well, it rather brought to mind one of my long suffering husband's more annoying traits. There can be a rat sitting on the kitchen bin and 6 inches of dust in the lounge, but he'll choose to tidy a drawer that nobody ever goes in, or the glove box in the car. All very worthy jobs, but not the big thing.

Nick Clegg was right, so right that David Cameron even quoted him on Breakfast tv (nice to get the credit for once when the Tories try to hang on to Nick's shirt tails), when he said, basically, that the Government had failed to do anything about the Elephant in the Commons Chamber. Months ago, Nick set out a programme for cleaning up politics that could be easily introduced in the 70 or so sitting days in the coming Parliament before the election, giving voters more power and making MPs more accountable.

As a Lib Dem blogger, I might have got my priorities a bit out of kilter by concentrating on the Button story, but that's nothing compared to the failure of the Government to recognise what's most important to people at the moment.

Secrets, Cake and Lib Dem Bloggers in Edinburgh this Saturday

I can barely contain my excitement at the prospect of the inaugural Liberal Democrat Voice Bloggers' Unconference (a bit Winnie the Pooh, but so what) in Edinburth this Saturday.

Every so often an event comes along that is an I'll-do-it-if-it-kills-me must and this is it. It also marks the first time in a long time I will have attempted to be out for a whole day. It may yet end in tears, but I am not missing the chance to meet the Lib Dem Voice all-stars team of Mark Pack, Helen Duffett and Alex Foster, only one of which I have ever actually seen in the flesh, as well as the King of the Liberal Democrat blogosphere, Jonathan Calder.

If you haven't booked your place yet, let me know in the comments if you want to attend and I'll pass on to the important people. It's going to be a great day. Firstly, we'll get the chance to interview Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott as well as outgoing MP for Edinburgh West John Barrett and East Dunbartonshire MP Jo Swinson. Then, we'll we be discussing all sorts of secret things that I can't possibly say here in front of our political opponents. Finally, there will be cake, organised by Andrew, from this place that apparently has the best home baking in the whole of the city.

So, Lib Dem bloggers, if you haven't already booked your place, there is still a little bit of room - and even if there isn't we'll squeeze you in anyway. You can sit on my knee and I'm sure Andrew and Stephen will share their cake with you.

David Cameron's words don't match Tory actions.

I was slightly bemused to watch David Cameron talk on BBC Breakfast just now about the legislation that needs to be brought forward from the Kelly Report into MPs' Expenses.

One of the specific things he mentioned was that MPs shouldn't be members of two Parliaments, which smacks of breathtaking hypocrisy given that John Lamont, MSP for Roxburgh and Berwickshire is the Conservative candidate for the Westminster seat of Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk.

If Cameron accepts Kelly's recommendation, surely he should insist that Lamont either steps down as an MSP now or before the election or resigns as a candidate. You shouldn't need a law to guide you to doing the right thing - if it's wrong, it's wrong, end of story. The tales of MPs making clearly preposterous claims - duck islands, second home maintenance for a home miles away from the constituency, flipping for maximum financial gain, that sort of thing - and justifying it because it was within the rules comes to mind.

Alternatively, privately he maybe thinks that Lamont doesn't have a chance of winning against hard working local MP Michael Moore so the issue of him actually being in two parliaments isn't actually going to become a reality.

Either way, it's a mess for the Tories.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Queen: Respect from a republican

As I watch the Queen arrive at the Palace of Westminster for the pompfest that marks the State Opening of Parliament, I just wanted to put on record my feelings about our 80 year old Head of State who has sacrificed much in her own life to carry out the duty that was thrust upon her.

I'm as republican as they come. I think that our Head of State should be elected and that a system whereby such an important role is filled by the next in line in a family whether they like it or not is outdated and should change. I'd like to think that in my daughter's lifetime, the institution of the monarchy would be abandoned as an anachronism and that we'd move on to having a more modern and accountable constitution.

Having said that, I was as appalled as Andrew to see that a Labour candidate had dismissed her as a "parasite" and "vermin". On a personal level, I have nothing but respect for the Queen.

When she was the same age as my daughter is now, her uncle, King Edward VIII abdicated and she was propelled into the spotlight as Heir Presumptive when her father became King. Until then, she could have expected to have a relatively carefree childhood, be sent off to boarding school and then be married off to some member of the aristocracy and live out her family life in some country pile. Instead, her education had to be geared towards the duties she'd be expected to fulfil as Queen. That must have been quite a burden for such a young girl to carry.

During the war, she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, and got stuck in doing such jobs as driving vans and ambulances round London. She could have taken herself off to some quieter and safer billet in the country, but she chose to stay in London and get involved.

Even then, her father was still in his 30s and she could have expected to have quite a while before she would actually have to take that role. As it happened, after the stresses of the war took their toll on her father's fragile health, she succeeded to the throne when she was 25 years old with 2 toddlers to bring up.

Because of what the family saw as her uncle's abandonment of the role, the need for her to do her duty was drilled into her and she has never let anything interfere with what she felt was her calling. When duty demanded that she disappear off to the far flung parts of the Commonwealth, leaving her children at home for months on end, she made that sacrifice. On a personal level, it must have been awful for her. Even today, with the internet and instant communications, it would be hard for any parent to do but it was much more difficult then.

There's absolutely no way I would have made that sort of sacrifice of my family life and I don't think that the Queen should have been put in the position where she had to. I guess we have to look at the realities of her life and not the life we think we should have had. A young woman alone amongst a plethora of much older, male advisers from both the Palace and Government, would have been put firmly in her place if she had even suggested doing things differently. It wasn't for another 30 years that Princess Diana was able to put her foot down and dispense with some of the more ridiculous aspects of stifling royal protocol.

She's seen huge social, industrial and technological change in her lifetime. When she became Queen, few ordinary people had things we take for granted today - inside toilets, cars, televisions and things like video recorders and microwaves hadn't been invented. While she hasn't always reacted as quickly as we would have liked to change things, she has been prepared to listen on issues like the Royal Family paying tax and in that emotionally charged week after Diana died.

As she approaches her mid 80s, she is still carrying out hundreds of royal visits and duties every year. Last year she and her 88 year old husband carried out 771 between them. She also spends significant amounts of time working on Red Boxes from the Government doing such things as giving her assent to Liberal Democrat MP Willie Rennie's Driving Instruction (Suspension and Exemption Powers) ACT 2009 last week.

The Queen deserves respect and admiration for the stable and committed way she's fulfilled her role. In 2012, I'll be there paying tribute to her when she celebrates her Diamond Jubilee.

T Mobile Data Scandal - why I'm not surprised

I was horrified to discover yesterday that thousands of T-Mobile customers had had their personal information sold on to third parties by some of the company's staff.

I might have been more sympathetic towards T-Mobile if it hadn't been for this incident I blogged about last year which to me showed that their attitude to personal data was at best nonchalant.

I wrote then:

"Anyway, I opened my mobile phone bill yesterday to find a letter from them saying they were switching me to online billing. All well and good, until I got to the bottom of the sheaf of paper they'd sent me and found another letter, addressed to somebody else, giving the same information. This letter contained this person's name, address, mobile phone number and log-in details for their account on T-Mobile's website. Had I been of criminal mind, I could probably have done quite a bit of mischief with that information."

I phoned them to let them know what the problem was and the person I spoke to in their call centre was downright rude. They didn't apologise, nor did they give any indication that they recognised that this was a serious breach of confidentiality.

I'm glad to see that Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary Chris Huhne has recognised both the shortcomings in the law and the potential for further misuse with the sheer amount of data that these companies are required to hold:

“This shameful incident shows the disdain with which some companies treat sensitive personal data.

“Stiffer penalties for those involved in serious data breaches, whether in the public or private sector, cannot be introduced soon enough.

“This sorry episode questions the Government’s wisdom in getting communications providers to hoard increasing amounts of information about us.”

This, after all, is a Government that wants to require ISPs to keep records of e-mails and every website their customers visit which is a gross invasion of privacy to start with. What's happened with T-Mobile shows how that very personal information could be mis-used.

I think I did get some calls from people around the time I was due my upgrade last year. I couldn't rightly say because, to be honest, when people ring up to sell me stuff, they usually get a flea in their ear. If they are charities, or the Liberal Democrats, or telephone canvassers, fair enough, but I just won't buy anything over the phone from any company because I have no way of verifying that the call is genuine.

I want to know from T-Mobile whether my information was involved, and exactly what these people stole about me and I expect definitive answers from them.

Andrew has helpfully commented on the statements given by the company and found them wanting as he is with them too.

My problem is that whatever T-Mobile says, they have a bit of a credibility problem with me. I want to see evidence before I believe a word they say.

Happy Birthday to lots of people

I was quite amazed this morning on logging into Facebook to find that so many of my friends have birthdays today. Some I knew about, others, like Charlotte, I didn't. I'm sure that they will all be delighted to know that they share their birthday with Ant from Ant and Dec.

This week has been quite busy for birthdays, too. I was trying to work out why this might be but my friend Jane got there first - we're more or less nine months from Valentine's Day!

As a breastfeeding helper, I always found that my busiest times were April (right in the middle of election campaigns which made sure I had even less time for things like eating and sleeping) and September/October which are 9 months after the Summer holidays and Christmas respectively. I'd not really noticed a peak in mid November before. It's interesting that almost all my friends who have birthdays this week seem to have been born in a 7 year period between 1973 and 1980.

Anyway, I hope that anyone who has a birthday this week has a wonderful day and a bright and happy year ahead.

Friday, November 13, 2009

American boy stands up for gay equality

I was quite taken by this story of how a 10 year old boy, Will Phillips, had refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in his school classroom until the LGBT community has equal rights.

I can see why he sees a contradiction between the wording of the Pledge:

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands: one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

and the fact that his gay friends aren't treated equally and aren't free to marry. I think it was great that he had the gumption to speak up and voice his reservations.

I was totally with him, and this is where I start to sound like an old fuddy duddy, I know, until I read that he'd said to his teacher:

"Respectfully.....go and jump off a bridge".

I'm not sure if he actually said that, or whether he was paraphrasing for effect, but I do know that if my 10 year old spoke to an adult like that, she would be in pretty serious trouble. However, if she calmly advanced her case in a respectful manner, I'd be very proud of her.

SNP fail in Glasgow North East

I had for some time thought it was likely that Labour would win the Glasgow North East by-election. The biggest sign that they thought they were on to a dead cert was the fact that they were quite happy for Glasgow Labour MP, Tom Harris, to spend polling day evening tweeting from the Will Young concert at the SECC. I did cruelly joke that maybe they wanted him out of the way, but if you think the result is going to be close, you'll get every single pair of legs out there knocking on doors.

You would think, wouldn't you, that if the SNP were as good as their hype suggests, they would have given Labour a closer run for their money. After all, this was just a few miles from the seat where, last year, they snatched a memorable victory from Labour. It would have been a challenge for them to win as safe a Labour seat as you can get, but you would have expected them to come at least within 1000 votes. Instead they languished on barely a third of Labour's vote. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the Holyrood Government.

Since John Mason's victory in Glasgow East, however, things haven't gone well for them. They failed to win Glenrothes just over a year ago, something which again should have been easy for them especially as they hold the Scottish Parliament seat of Central Fife. They threw the kitchen sink at that campaign only to have their hopes dashed.

In a Council by-election in Inverness earlier this year, they got their backsides well and truly whipped by Liberal Democrat Alasdair Christie, barely getting a third of his vote. They made no impact whatever in an Aberdeenshire Council by-election won by Liberal Democrat Rosemary Bruce on the same day.

The Glasgow North East result, declared at just before 2am, was very disappointing for the SNP, signalling that the juggernaut which came to a standstill in Glenrothes is still in dire need of spark plugs. Westminster governments don't come much more unpopular than Labour at the moment, yet the SNP, who had actually contested the seat in 2005 unlike anyone else, so they had a bit of a base there,couldn't even get the same number of people to get out and vote for them. Their percentage did increase but not significantly. I expect they will privately be extremely disappointed with their performance.

They'll try and make themselves feel better by having a go at the Liberal Democrats for coming behind the BNP. That, I admit, was not a great result for us. We had a candidate who had just the right experience in social work and community regeneration that the community needed. She worked tirelessly during the campaign, getting out there and knocking on doors. Looking at our campaign from the outside, it seems to me that it was not as well resourced as other by-elections had been. We'll see when the election expenses are submitted, but I'd be surprised if we'd spent a tenth of the £100,000 limit. Labour and the SNP will have spent much, much more and I expect the Tories will have put in a lot more than we did too. You don't get such marked disparity of expenditure in a normal election where the limit is about an eighth of that. I wonder if they think that their money was well spent. They didn't stand in 2005, but the Scottish Unionist Party did, and got almost 5%. I suspect that people who made that choice 4 years ago would be more likely to vote Tory. The Tories got just over 5% yesterday. It's hardly progress.

We weren't able to establish ourselves quickly as the main challengers and so consequently found ourselves slugging it out in the midfield. It's not great, but it's not a result that causes me a huge amount of concern. It's not as if we were isolated at the bottom of the heap. There were only around 700 votes between the Tories in 3rd and the Greens in 7th. In 2005 just under 1000 were prepared to vote for the fascist BNP. This time it was just over 1000. While I don't like the fact that people choose to support their message of hate, there's no evidence of a great drift towards them. The contest took place in Tommy Sheridan's natural stomping ground yet he and the Scottish Socialist combined couldn't get 1000 votes where they had nearly 5,500 votes 4 years ago.

The SNP is not going to be able to hide behind the performance of others in this by-election for long. Their performance on every level was shocking and they will have to ask themselves some very searching questions. The whole campaign, from their botched selection onwards, was not of the required standard.

And as for Labour, a comfortable result in one of their safest seats is hardly indicative of a ringing endorsement of the Government. You would expect them to hang on convincingly in their stronghold, but at some time in the next 6 months, they'll be tested in the marginals, places like Edinburgh South, where Fred Mackintosh is just over 400 votes behind Labour, like Edinburth North and Leith, where Kevin Lang is mounting a strong challenge to Labour from a strong second place.

You can't extrapolate much from a by-election in a seat like Glasgow North East, especially after a campaign which failed to engage over 2/3 of the electorate. Labour were lucky to come up against a fairly incompetent SNP campaign in one of their strongholds and would be foolish to think that all is well in their world. The General Election with its wider media scrutiny and exposure will bring better fortune for the Liberal Democrats. It's the SNP who will be seriously worried at their failure to persuade people to vote for them.

Monday, November 09, 2009

20 Years since the Berlin Wall came down? Really?

I think the resounding thing I feel from the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down (as predicted by my friend, the author of Cicero's Songs, when I first knew him in 1985, by the way)is old.

Some of you may know that my husband is a few years older than me. What I studied in History at school had been Modern Studies for him. I kind of feel a bit like that with things like tonight's commemoration of an event which counts as History for my daughter. It surely can't possibly be two decades since we saw those huge, jubilant, crowds smash up the barrier that had brutally and ruthlessly divided a country, a city and many, many families and friends for 28 years.

We watched the events of 9th November 1989 unfold from our digs in a small Nottinghamshire village. We'd moved down only a few weeks before and it was a huge change for us. It was like moving to another planet for us. Everything was so different, the accents, the way of life, the roads were so much busier. For the first time in our lives, we were living away from the coast which was really hard for me at least, to get used to. It was quite a shock to our systems.

That modest change in our lives took quite a lot of adjustment, but it was nothing compared to the difference the tumultuous events in Berlin made both there and across Europe as the Iron Curtain was ripped down, melted and turned into coke cans. I know what we went through - what on earth it must have been like for the people in both East and West Germany I can barely imagine.

After the initial euphoria of the wall coming down came the sometimes painful and expensive process of reuniting Germany. There and across Eastern Europe, it came as a much bigger culture shock than we'd ever experienced for people who'd lived most or all of their lives under stifling Communist rule to become citizens in a democracy.

The officials of the state had to learn that they had to treat people with decency, fairness and respect and not just dictate to them as before.

In the aftermath of all of this, our own Shirley Williams set up something called Project Liberty, an organisation which helped train government officials in being accountable to parliament and the people instead of an all powerful Communist Party. She talks in her recently published autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves (a book well worth a read if ever there was one) about how Project Liberty helped with the process of privatisation. Under the Communists everything was state owned and Project Liberty advised on the transition to private ownership and the importance of setting up appropriate safety nets for people. Under Communist rule, everyone had jobs, but that would not continue under the new capitalist economies so they had to set up a structure that helped those people. It's typical of Shirley to want to use her expertise in Government to help in this way to try to help build fair and open systems of Government and her involvement in this is one of the reasons she's my all-time political hero.

Those amazing events of 20 years ago led to huge change across all of Europe and gave hope that even huge totalitarian monolithic repressive regimes could come to an end.

That change means that the maps of Europe my daughter grows up with are so very different from those when I was her age. Then a huge swathe of Eastern Europe was coloured in pink with just four letters, USSR, on it. Where I grew up with West and East Germany, she only knows Germany.

It really doesn't seem like 20 years ago, though........

When you really have to get the details and the spelling right

I'm well known in the blogosphere and beyond for being freakishly obsessive about spelling and punctuation. I have, to my eternal shame, even upset people by going on about it. I didn't mean to be evil,but the discovery that my comments were not just taken as playful banter was a bit of a wake up call to me.

There are some times, though, when it is absolutely essential to get every detail right. Another of my obsessions is that if you are writing a letter of condolence, it absolutely must be done by hand. There's something about that gesture of taking the time to produce something personally that shows respect.

Today we discover that Gordon Brown made some errors when writing such a letter to the family of Guardsman Jamie Janes, who was recently killed in Afghanistan. I have nothing but sympathy for everyone involved in this. I expect that the person who gave the information to the PM will be feeling horrendously bad about it. The PM will, I think, see this as a personal failure rather than a PR blunder. He knows what it's like to lose a child and he also knows how he and Sarah were sustained in their loss by the good wishes and sympathy and letters from people all over the country. I expect that he wanted to give the same sort of comfort to Guardsman Janes' mother and will feel awful that such an avoidable mistake was made.

I can't imagine anything worse than losing a child and Mrs Janes will be going through the most tumultuous set of emotions, from shock to anger to despair and everything in between, which will manifest themselves in all sorts of ways. To have seen her son's name written incorrectly will have been like the emotional equivalent of pouring pure lemon juice on a cut.

This, I think, is one of those occasions when you need to just empathise with everybody rather than try to use a mistake for political point scoring. I expect in future these details will be triple and quadruple checked. There can be no excuses, but at the same time, we're all human and we've all put our foot in it and hurt someone unintentionally at some point in our lives.

It's good that Gordon Brown tried to make amends by phoning Mrs Janes to apologise. I hope that that conversation helped her.

I do think it's important that the PM gets personally involved in contacting the bereaved families of soldiers who have died serving the country. As head of the Government, it's the absolute least he can do. I can imagine that phoning wouldn't really be appropriate because when you're dealing with loss, the intensity of the emotions tend to come in unpredictable and intense waves and it may well be too intrusive for the PM just to cold call grieving relatives. A hand-written letter is a good way for him to show his empathy and his respect for the fallen serviceman. He shouldn't be put off writing them because for many, in years to come, the fact that their child or spouse or sibling or parent was honoured in such a way by the PM will be a source of comfort and pride.

UPDATE: I was going to do a quick update to this to talk about my growing unease about the Sun's role in all of this given that they have now posted a recording of the conversation between Gordon Brown and Mrs Janes. I don't feel comfortable about listening to it because it is ultimately a private conversation during which some private and deeply personal sentiments were expressed. However, I doubt I could do better than this excellent piece from Sara which expresses my feelings pretty much exactly.

UPDATE 2: The extent of the Sun's muck up is shown nowhere more graphically than in in this post by Mr Eugenides. It is not like the Cute Greek Baby to stand up for Gordon Brown. I don't think there's a swear word that's ever been invented that he has not used to describe our PM as you'll see if you peruse the rest of his blog.

UPDATE 3: I was explaining all of this to my 10 year old tonight and her immediate reaction was that Gordon Brown was trying to help. "He's not evil. He never meant to upset the lady."

Sunday, November 08, 2009

A couple of minor irritations.....

Thought I'd share with you a couple of things that have, well, I won't say annoyed me, but made me bristle with irritation over the weekend.

The first was brought to my attention by Jennie on Twitter. I do wonder, sometimes, if the numpties at the Daily Fail have a weekly "how do we wind up liberals and feminists?" meeting. The poll they've been running recently is just ridiculously insulting. They are asking "Should female MPs be allowed to employ a cleaner on expenses?" It's even accompanied by a photo of a woman in alice band and marigolds scrubbing the carpet. The clear implication, of course, is that women should do the cleaning themselves, but men shouldn't be expected to get their hands dirty.

Then I watched Have I Got News for You last night. You would think that Kirsty Young would have more sense than to make a joke of this one, but, sadly, no. She read an excerpt from the memoirs of the canoeist who faked his own death, John Darwin. It was pretty cringeworthy stuff, to be honest, coming defiantly under the description of too much information as he recounted, shall we say, the physical aspects of how he took his leave from his wife.

So it may well be up for one of those badly written sex scene awards, but what happened next was interesting. Kirsty basically said "Now have a look at them." The implication of that was clearly that only beautiful people are allowed to seek and obtain sexual fulfilment. The rest of us, the ordinary looking and the ugly, presumably aren't worthy to indulge our libidos. How shallow can you get?

Thank you, dear readers, for letting me get that off my chest. Now I can go and spend the rest of the evening in a serene state of general relaxation - ie I'm going to go and lie on the couch and watch the X Factor.

Charles Kennedy hits the Campaign Trail in Glasgow North East

On Friday former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy joined Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate Eileen Baxendale to chat with local people on Alexandra Parade. Charles, of course, has long held connections with Glasgow. He went to University there and is now the University's Rector, the voice of the students on the governing body.

Charles has been an immensely popular figure inside and outside the Party for a very long time, and always will be.

His visit came the day after the SNP and Labour candidates had what seemed to be a really snarky, negative debate on STV. I'm very grateful to Andrew for his blow by blow account because I just can't stay up that late these days. Labour and the SNP have spent most of the campaign arguing about things which in the scheme of things nobody cares about. I'm certain that a family struggling to pay their bills after losing their jobs, or struggling in poor housing with a leaking roof or damp which sets off their children's Asthma really don't lie awake at night thinking about where David Kerr was born.

The thing is, if Labour and the SNP can focus their campaigns on issues like that, they don't have to account for the ways in which they have failed to deliver in Government at Westminster and Holyrood.

Where Labour have mucked up with the abolition of the 10p tax rate penalising the poorest, Eileen Baxendale has been campaigning on the Liberal Democrat pledge to ensure that you don't start paying income tax until you earn £10,000. That will save the average household around £700 a year with the poorest benefitting most. That's a reasonable sum of money - a couple of months' rent on a private flat in Springburn, for example. When you consider that the Council Tax on a Band C property in Glasgow is £1428.06, then that £700 is a big help.

Labour have also decided to make it much more difficult for rail passengers to get to the North East of England by scrapping direct trains from Glasgow to the East Coast Main Line. Also on trains, the SNP have decided to scrap the Glasgow Airport Rail Link which was part of the successful Commonwealth Games bid.

If Glasgow North East chooses Eileen Baxendale next Thursday, they'll get a hard working MP with the experience to help with the area's problems. As a social worker, councillor and community regeneration expertise, she's well placed to make a real difference to the area.

Remembering the agony of the families

As I sit in my cosy house, surrounded by my small but happy family, I feel so much for those families of members of the Armed Forces who have lost their lives in the course of their duties.

There are partners and children living every day with the reality of the sacrifice that their loved ones have made. Some children will have no memory of their fallen parent. Others will have had to deal with the shock waves of losing one of the most important people to them and its effect on their family.

I know I simply would not be able to cope with the life that service families have to lead. I couldn't handle the separations and constant anxiety if a member of my family were in a war zone. I would fall to bits if ever the phone or doorbell rang.

I'm thinking today of all of those families, particularly those who are still coming to terms with losing a child, or a partner, a sibling or a parent. Remembrance Sunday will be a poignant landmark in their grieving and they deserve the empathy an support of the entire country. They will never forget, and nor should we.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Jenny Willott lives on State Pension for a week

Liberal Democrat MP Jenny Willott has been living on the basic State Pension of £95.25 this week, a huge change from her normal salary of her current gross weekly income as an MP of £1245.50.

She's doing it to highlight how difficult it is to manage to live on such a low income. She's recounting her experiences here on Twitter. It's well worth having a look at some of the basic choices she's having to make. She talked about buying a cheap tin of soup for lunch but then realising there was no tin opener in the office and having to nip out and get one. Most poignantly, she realises how hard it is to buy something as simple as a Remembrance poppy:

"My Remembrance poppy is looking tatty and I need a new one. I appreciate now it's a much bigger sacrifice to buy one as a pensioner."

I guess the other thing to think about is that Jenny is getting the full State Pension whereas many women don't qualify for even that paltry amount because they either worked part time, took time out to have children or look after elderly relatives. Some may have been badly advised decades ago and made decisions that it is now impossible to rectify because nobody will take responsiblity for the mistake.

This week Liberal Democrat Pensions Spokesman Steve Webb wrote in Liberal Democrat News about his fight to obtain justice for women who have been let down by the Pensions system.

He told how he had brought individual cases to the Government's attention and identified that 150,000 wome had missed out on help of around £2000 each because they had not received the Home Responsibilities Protection to which they were entitled from 1978 onwards.

He also identified that some women had not been notified of a special scheme to help those born between 1938 and 1944 boost their pensions in certain circumstances. The government agreed to contact the women concerned and they are likely to receive, between them, millions in a Pensions boost that they were rightfully entitled to.

It's appalling that women have borne the brunt of caring duties, saving the Government a fortune in many cases and then been kicked in the teeth when it comes to receiving even the most basic of State help in their old age. And before anyone reminds me about the Pension Credit, it's not that great and many people who are entitled to it don't claim often because they don't know about it. It's good that we have Steve to fight so tenaciously on their behalf.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

What I'd like Nick Clegg to say on Afghanistan

Nick Clegg called today for a Government of National Unity in Afghanistan. He said:

"Afghanistan will never see the dramatic change it needs unless Karzai works with his opponents to reach across ethnic and tribal divisions, stamp out corruption, and start to build the legitimate institutions of central government that the country so desperately needs."

I'd have liked him to say, also, that he expected any Afghan Government to pay more than lip service to the plight of women in Afghanistan. It's appalling that 80% of women are subject to domestic violence, that they are forbidden from even leaving the house without their husbands' permission, that they are held back from having careers and those who attempt it are subject to threats, intimidation and violence.

I found this excellent article written by a woman who has worked in Afghanistan. If you read nothing else today, have a look at it. I was particularly taken by her last statement:

What happens to women is not merely a "women's issue"; it is the central issue of stability, development and durable peace. No nation can advance without women, and no enterprise that takes women off the table can come to much good..

The US and British Governments haven't allowed the issue of women to get even into the same room at the table. It's time for that to change and Nick Clegg, who has stood up for fairness on so many issues, the Gurkhas, MP's expenses and all sorts, is best placed to call, emphatically, for that change.

What it's really like for woman in politics

There's a fantastic article in the Guardian today by Tanya gold which looks at the disgraceful way Liz Truss, the Tory candidate facing deselection after her local constituency association found out she had an affair with a Tory MP, has been treated.

She goes on to highlight the numerous ways in which women in politics are demeaned in the media. She didn't, but she could have mentioned the horrendous treatment meted out to Jo Swinson by the Telegraph.

If you think that women have got everything they ever wanted, this article will prove you wrong. And if you still doubt, have a read of some of the comments and see some of the misogynistic attitudes that are out there.

Sick Girls and Racing Champions

I've been nursing a sick little girl today, who woke up with a raging temperature in the night and a sore throat and a cough. Apparently 7 children in the other Primary 6 class are off with the same sort of thing, including the one she spent most of the weekend with.

She eventually managed to come downstairs this morning and was ensconced on the sofa in her My Little Pony sleeping bag drinking hot chocolate. She may have outgrown My Little Pony, but the sleeping bag is so lovely and comfy. Bless her, though - she did try to mount a weak protest at me putting the heating on - which I only very rarely do during the day - because it was bad for the environment.

You can tell she's ill because she's not uttered a word of dissent about me watching the Race of Champions. I might be the thickest person in the entire world, but I hadn't heard of it before - and I could kick myself because apparently Michael Schumacher competes in it every year.

This year he is there alongside, among others, new F1 champion Jenson Button,Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel, former Scottish F1 driver and BBC commentator David Coulthard. Today is the Nations Cup event and to be honest, it was clear from the start that Germany had the advantage, whitewashing their way through the opposition in the early stages of the competition.

Their only defeat before the final came when, surprisingly, Michael Schumacher lost narrowly to his American opponent, Tanner Foust.

It's probably just as well this event doesn't get huge tabloid attention because it was obvious from the start that the final would be contested between Britain and Germany - and we all know how they go into jingoistic overdrive when that happens.

The confrontation we wanted to see was the race between Jenson and Schumi. Would the newly crowned F1 champion get the better of this legendary opponent. Well, he almost did. He didn't disgrace himself and it was very close.

After that race it was down to Sebastian Vettel and Andy Priaulx to decide the winner and, somewhat predictably, the German team emerged victorious for the third year in succession.

What I found most amazing was the venue - the Birds' Nest Stadium in Beijing where the Olympics were held last year. If you don't remember there being a racing track for cars in there when you watched the marvellous exploits of Team GB, you'd be right - they've brought in 8000 tons of bamboo (laid over to protect the athletics track and field) and then laid gravel and asphalt over the top to create this parallel circuit for the event.

It must have been quite a shock for Vettel, Coulthard and Button to jet in to the freezing, snowy Beijing from the scorching heat of Abu Dhabi. Jenson certainly seemed a bit disorientated when he was interviewed - very tired after a long flight.

It will be interesting to see how the individual event tomorrow pans out.


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