Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Doctor Who: The Big Bang season finale review

For the avoidance of doubt - this contains mega spoilers, so go no further if you don't want to know.....

"Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue"

A simple saying, a wedding tradition, planted deep in the memory of a child, is the key to the saving of the Universe. I guess it saves on the special effects budget!

Seriously, though, I did wonder in my review of The Pandorica Opens how on earth Steven Moffatt was going to sort out the universe being destroyed thing that he'd created without disappointing us. Well he did. And he did it brilliantly. Enough to satisfy Russell T Davies' critics and fans alike. It hinged on clever time travel with Steven Moffatt saying later in Confidential that he wanted the audience to think they were working out what was going on. There were a whole load of seemingly paradoxical shifts in time that kind of made sense. My head hut even more than it did last week at the end of it.

Like The Pandorica Opens, The Big Bang opened with a story centred on a painting with big yellow stars, painted by a redhead. Except it wasn't the deeply disturbed Vincent Van Gogh who'd drawn it this time, but a wee girl, Amelia Pond, in 1996 who was clearly having some sort of therapy for believing in stars when all you could see in the sky was darkness and clouds. The dialogue throughout this series has been beautifully crafted and in some cases, like when the Vampish Vampire suggested a coalition with the Doctor just after our Coalition Government was formed, incredibly topical. In this case you had a young Amelia sitting on the stairs listening to her Aunt Sharon talking to someone on the phone, saying that she didn't want her niece joining a Star Cult because she "just didn't trust Richard Dawkins." It's funny to paint Dawkins both on the side of right (because there should have been stars) and on the hippy fringe he so despises.

As Amelia is sitting on the stairs a shape that looks strangely like the Doctor delivers a leaflet about an exhibition of the Pandorica at the National Museum. Written in red pen is "Come along, Pond." How did he know she would pick it up and not Aunt Sharon?

Anyway, it worked because Amelia and her Aunt were soon at the Museum with Amelia sprinting past Daleks (who looked remarkably old school in their stone form, and not the horrible rainbow ones we saw earlier in the season), Nile penguins and other odd exhibits, to the Pandorica. You also see her slurping on a drink that an unseen force grabs from her. On that was a post it saying "Stick Around, Pond". Why did Aunt Sharon, who wasn't far behind, not see that? Even after Amelia went to hide, we heard Aunt Sharon looking for her. Did the reality collapsing thing conveniently catch up with her at the same time so she disappeared?

Once everyone has disappeared, Amelia bravely went up to the Pandorica and touched it, causing it to open. The last time we'd seen it was when it shut with the Doctor inside it so you expected him to be revealed. No, it was Amy who took one look at her young self and says "Ok, kid, this is where it gets complicated."

All this and we've only just got to the titles. This could take a while.

We then find ourselves back in Roman times with a distraught plastic Rory talking to a dead Amy, begging the universe that's being destroyed for a "ridiculous miracle". The pathos of that moment is interrupted with the sudden appearance of a fez wearing Doctor brandishing a mop, giving Rory the sonic and telling him in 3 different appearances to get him out of the Pandorica and to put the sonic in Amy's top pocket when he's finished.

Rory releases the Doctor in that time, tells him what he's done to Amy and the Doctor tests him by saying that there's more going on than on dead girlfriend. Centurion Rory then thumps the Doctor, who then believes that he's properly on his and Amy's side. The Doctor and Rory then put Amy in the Pandorica which, the Doctor says, will restore her and a scan of her DNA in a couple of thousand years will sort that out as we've already seen. He then gets out River's vortex manipulator and says that the two of them can take a short cut to the future. Rory declines, deciding to atone for killing Amy by standing guard over her for 2000 years to keep her safe. The Doctor tells him to stay away from heat (cos he's plastic) and keep out of trouble.

We then cut to the Museum in 1996 where the now released Amy sees how well he stayed away from heat - watching a video of the legendary centurion who apparently guarded the Pandorica. We get the impression that he may have ended up as a river of runny goo after rescuing it during the Blitz. Just as the Doctor arrives from Roman times, a dalek comes to life and starts shooting at them. It's Rory who emerges, dressed in museum security guard garb and saves the day by shooting it with his special edition plastic auton handgun.

It's only when we go back to the National Museum in 1996 that we discover that it's the Pandorica light that has restored the Dalek. As they take temporary refuge from the Dalek the Doctor grabs a fez and a mop and you realise this is how he has already appeared to Rory to get them there - and this is then played out again from his perspective. Very clever. It's a bit like time travelling, cosmic join the dots.

The Doctor asks Amelia how she knew to come there and she shows him the leaflet - which he then goes back in time to deliver and, presumably, put the post-it on the Pandorica.

Amelia then complains about being thirsty so the Doctor nips back in time to grab her drink which we're supposed to think is why she's thirsty. Well, take it from one who knows, kids are always thirsty, particularly when several hours have elapsed since they last had a drink. In fact, the Doctor's chivalrous fetching of the drink was likely in vain because it sounded when he grabbed the drink that she was draining the cup anyway so when he gives it to her from the past, the cup should by rights be empty. We don't get to find out because she disappears as the universe collapses incrementally (an interesting concept) - a convenient plot device to get rid of the problem of having two alive Amelia Ponds from different times around.

The almost slapstick time travelling session is brought to an abrupt end by a figure falling down the stairs - it's the Doctor, apparently dead. But not dead, really, because when he dies we know what happens, don't we? We have some fancy pyrotechnics and he wakes up with a new face and goes slightly odd for a bit.

The Doctor realises he has a short time to get a definitive plan together - or at least, as we later find out, allow his future self to put his plan into action. The three head up to the roof and look at what they think is the sun but is in fact the TARDIS burning. There's quite a funny scene where he grabs one of the satellite dishes on top of the building and connects it to the sonic and we hear the familiar TARDIS sound. Rory also hears River Song's voice, leading the Doctor to realise she's been kept alive in a time loop. He breaks into that. Not quite sure why because if it's the time loop that's protecting River from the explosion, why aren't they both incinerated when he arrives, saying "Honey, I'm home."? It made very good television, though.

River spies Rory and is told that he's fine now - she shared the story of how she'd dated a nestene duplicate with a swappable head which "kept things fresh". Yes, it would, I guess. The Doctor is looking ridiculous in the fez, so there's an unspoken and rapid agreement between Amy and River to get rid of it - Amy grabs it and River shoots it to smithereens, seconds before a levitating dalek appears, cleary with malevolent intent. Even in this weird fragment of the universe, daleks don't come with anything less than malevolent intent.....

The Doctor then starts to realise that the explosion of the TARDIS is happening at every point in space and time and the Pandorica has the potential to restore the entire universe. The logical conclusion of that is unspoken as the Dalek, on cue, exterminates the Doctor. River, Rory and Amy rush back to the place where the Doctor fell to see that he's gone.

River realises that he's going to fly the Pandorica into the TARDIS explosion to "reboot" the Universe but that risks him being forgotten forever. He talks to Amy about how special she is. She's absorbed all that time energy from the universe via the crack in her bedroom wall and it's intimated that it's claimed those around her. She should if she remembers be able to restore everyone.

The Doctor sets off on his risky, sacrificial journey and the next thing we see is him waking up on the floor of the TARDIS and thinking he's survived. He realises his reprieve is only temporary as he sees a scene where Amy's wearing a garish outfit and supersize sunglasses - their trip to Space Florida a week ago.

He tries to attract her attention as she's walking down the street to post the ad in the shop in The Lodger and realises that she can't see him, but she can hear him.

This is where it gets really clever and Charlotte gets a very big gold star for sussing this out. Where did Amy have her eyes shut? In the forest with the weeping angels when if she opened her eyes she could die. The scene we saw months ago, where the Doctor told her to remember what he'd said to her when she was 7. Except this is our Doctor from now, not the jacketless Doctor who was with her then. We sussed there was something weird about his comments then, and we didn't quite know what he was getting at when he told her to remember what he'd said when she was 7. I think at the time I thought it was some secret thing to encourage her on her journey through the forest of weeping angels - but by the end of the season I'd forgotten about it. I guess there was an election as distraction but pretty poor on my part to have missed it.

We then see the Doctor talking to a sleeping, or at least dosing, Amelia on the night she waited for him to come back in the first episode of the series. He tells her the story of "a daft old man who stole a magic box - well, borrowed it really - both big and little at the same time, band new and ancient and the bluest blue. He also told her to love Rory before he disappeared into the crack in her wall which resolved itself. We've never really known how Amelia became Amy - but the Doctor called her Amy when he was speaking to her then.

Fast forward to 26th June 2010 and it's Amy's wedding day. A woman comes into her bedroom and she realises this is her mum. On her dressing table are models of her childhood imaginary friend, the Raggedy Doctor, and pictures of the TARDIS and stars.

She then finds her "tiny little dad" fretting over his speech.

Cut to the reception. We see River Song walking past. Rory gives Amy the book River left - her journal, with blank pages. Amy gets really really sad, the same way she got really really happy when she remembered Rory. Suddenly the seed the Doctor planted bears fruit and she remembers him by thinking of something old, new, borrowed and blue. As she stands up and talks about the Raggedy Doctor, who was her imaginary friend, the wedding guests fidget with embarrassment as her mother talks about the psychiatrists they took her to.

The discomfiture turns to disbelief when the blue box materialises in the middle of the room and the Doctor emerges in white tie, tails and top hat. I wonder if this headgear thing is going to become a recurring theme.......

How did Amy manage to grow up without the Doctor there? Since 1996, there have been numerous threats to the Universe - not least the Battle of Canary Wharf in 2006, the Stolen Earth/Journey's End finale of 2008. We saw in Turn Left the disaster that ensues in a world without the Doctor in it. Why didn't it in that time when he apparently never existed. Was being alive in Amy's subconscious enough to maintain his previous savings of the earth even if there was no record of him? Chances are the events of the episode could have happened in a short time frame - with all the faffing about with time travel happening in the space of an hour or so on the 26th June in various times - although in Roman times, the calendar was a bit different, was it not? The Gregorian calendar was not adopted until the late 16th century. I'm over analysing this, aren't I?

I never thought there could be anyone more outrageous on the dance floor than my friend Pippa. The line in Four Weddings and a Funeral about fearing lives being lost could easily apply to her. Well, Matt Smith pulled off something even more outrageous at the wedding reception. Apparently the script called for dancing like a drunk giraffe. He definitely managed that. I wonder where he got his inspiration from.

As the reception draws to a close, the Doctor is surprised by River Song outside the TARDIS. Dressed in black, they have this comic moment where he asks her if she's married, she asks if he's asking and there's this goofy bit where he doesn't know whether she thinks he's asked her to marry him or whether she is married. It's a flirtatious, intimate scene. The Doctor asks her who she is and she replies that he'll find out soon - and "I'm sorry, but that's when everything changes."

The thing I like about this season is that there are loose ends - we don't, after all, know who was controlling the TARDIS when River went off in it. Who or what is the strange voice saying that silence will fall? Each other season has been a complete self contained little package. I can't wait to see how the River Song thing develops. She knows what's coming and he doesn't. He has allowed this trust and intimacy between them to develop on the grounds that she can fly the TARDIS and knows his real name. Amy's taken it further by referring to River as his wife. We are obviously meant to think that she kills him at some time in his future which is her past. I think he's heading for a fall in his relationship with her. I just don't trust her and I still think she's in this up to her neck somehow.

Somehow I don't expect Season 6 to be a series of cutesy double dates with Rory and Amy (who are the first married couple to join the TARDIS crew) and River and the Doctor. Is Amy's proximity to the crack in her wall and her drip drip absorption of the universe still going to be relevant? It strikes me that if this crack was everywhere in every time, then there are other people who will have been similarly affected.

Everyone involved in this series has played an absolute blinder. Some of the plots have been a bit weak - Amy's Choice, for example, and I wasn't wild about the Silurian stories or the Vampire one, but that didn't matter. The acting, dialogue, effects, costumes, music, more than made up for it. I also liked the finale having the Daleks and all the other enemies in almost a cameo role. There was not a single episode I could, hand on heart, say I didn't like and most of them had a huge wow factor.

I really don't want to have to wait until April next year to start to find out - I expect the Christmas special to be a one-off adventure rather than a continuation of this particular story line, but I might be wrong. We might get a few hints, but that'll be it - or will it?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Not Ever - a campaign to challenge assumptions about rape

“Rape seems to be the only crime where it's seen as ok to put the victim on trial.”

That quote is from Natasha on the front page of the Not Ever campaign website run by Rape Crisis Scotland.

I'm not sure that I entirely agree with her. It seems to me that our culture is very good at blaming women for virtually everything, not least when they are the victims of any sort of violence, but I wholeheartedly support this campaign. It seeks to get the message across that there is no justification for rape, and no women ever asks to be raped regardless of what she's wearing, or how much she's had to drink or where she happens to be at any time of day or night.

I find it quite depressing in some ways that things haven't changed in the quarter of a century since I became an adult. We were arguing about this sort of stuff then. This campaign is a direct response to research from which revealed that a significant minority of people - a fifth to a quarter - are willing to blame the woman for being complicit in her own rape.

If a man passes out because he's had too much to drink, and someone steals his wallet, nobody would ever think of blaming the man. He is seen as a victim of crime. Yet if a woman is raped while she's drunk, she's expected to share the blame somehow. That is absolutely crazy. The rapist who forces himself on a woman who is not capable of consenting is the criminal here.

Nobody would ever suggest that because certain sportsmen look rather good in shorts, or because male popstars were singing with their tops off that anyone has the right to violently sexually assault them.

The Not Ever site also outlines the changes in the law in Scotland coming into force later this year which broadens the scope of rape to include many forms of sexual violence. This also means that victims of same sex sexual violence will also have recourse to the rape law. Although the Not Ever campaign specifically highlights the prejudices surrounding women who are raped by men, we shouldn't forget the particular additional pressures people face in these circumstances.

The campaign has the now inevitable Facebook page and Twitter account. If you agree with me, please sign up to both. Rape is wrong in every single circumstance. End of story.

Ultimately if perceptions change, then we might get more people reporting rape and the conviction rate may rise from the currently shocking 3%. The research suggested that only 13% would maybe report a rape to the Police and two thirds of people would not even tell their partners. Until then, we will have the unacceptable situation where one in five adults report that they have been made to have sex against their will.

Some snippets from the Budget Debate

I don't want you to think that I've spent the last week glued to the Budget debate in the House of Commons, but I thought I'd share with you another couple of moments from the proceedings from the bits I have seen and some other speeches I've read about in Hansard.

Firstly, I have to say that it gave me the proper creeps when Iain Duncan Smith referred to Simon Hughes as "my honourable friend" yesterday afternoon. We may be in coalition with the Tories but that does not mean I have to like them. IDS is, I'm sure, a very nice man, but he has a very narrow view of life which I feel compromises his judgement on social justice issues. Mind you, even he was yesterday agreeing to requests for things like racial impact assessments from the opposition on the effects of the cuts in Housing Benefit. Look at this exchange between him and Simon Hughes:

Will he ensure that over the next few weeks, when we consult on the future of the welfare state, all the relevant charities, agencies and local councils, which are very knowledgeable about such things, are fully involved so that the outcome is informed by the facts and not by prejudice?

Mr Duncan Smith:
I give my hon. Friend absolute confirmation that we shall consult widely. As he knows, we are planning to reform the benefit system so that it no longer acts as a major disincentive for people to go back to work.

That sounds way more accommodating than the Labour Government with their "you'll take what you're given" approach we've become accustomed to after 13 years.

Some of IDS's ideas are awful and I've already written about my concerns about them. It's a subject I expect to have to return to many times in coming months.

I wasn't particularly impressed by Labour MP Mary Creagh's intervention on the limiting of the Sure Start Maternity grant even though I actually agree with her and think there needs to be greater flexibility. She said:

I can tell him that if someone has a child who is two, they cannot expect a baby to travel in the same pushchair. I can tell him that if someone has a child of six of seven, they have already given away the pushchair by the time the next baby comes along, because that is how families organise themselves

I bought very little new for Anna, who is my first and only born although to be fair we could have afforded it. I just didn't see the point of having new when there were perfectly usable things available to me. I saved my money for when she started to need things like shoes every 3 months. I borrowed my friend's pram and then used the pushchair that I had bought for my niece 7 years earlier. It was with us until the Winter of 2002 when some not very nice people decided to steal all the wine that was in our garage and took the pushchair presumably to wheel it away in. If circumstances had been different, I'd have happily used it for another baby. Her cot was second hand (which I'm glad about because she hardly ever went in it), although the mattress was new. As to the issue of a 2 year old not being able to travel in the same pushchair, that's very true, but I'd say in my experience most people don't buy double buggies because they are such a nightmare to manoeuvre - they get a little board which straps to the buggy for the toddler to stand on or the toddler walks, or the baby gets carried in a sling and the toddler goes in the pushchair. My way of doing things doesn't and won't suit everybody which is why I think there has to be more flexibility to suit people's circumstances rather than a straight abolition.

In terms of Liberal Democrat interventions in the debate, I have to turn to two of my favourite MPs - Malcolm Bruce and Vince Cable.

Malcolm was robust in his support of the Budget. He looked back to a time when he was our Treasury spokesman:

I had the honour of being my party's Treasury spokesman between 1995 and 2000. During the 1997 election, the Liberal Democrat manifesto included an aspiration to raise the threshold at which people started to pay income tax to £10,000. That was only an aspiration because, try as we might, we were unable to find the resources at that time to pay for it. However, when the Labour Government were elected in 1997, the first thing that they did was to introduce the most generous capital gains tax relief that the richest people in this country had ever enjoyed-Mrs Thatcher never contemplated it!

One of my greatest issues with the Budget is the introduction of a medical assessment for DLA. Malcolm, who knows more about it than I do as he has a daughter who gets it has a different perspective that's worth us listening to:

I declare an interest, as I have a grown-up deaf daughter who receives disability living allowance, so I certainly welcome the simplification of the process for applying for that abstruse allowance. It is not means-tested-people do not have to prove that they need the money; in fact, that is not a valid reason at all for qualifying for it-as individuals have just to prove how disabled they are to enable someone to make a judgment. That is difficult, and it goes against the grain for disabled people, who want to show how able they are, in spite of their disability. A simple medical test, if it is applied objectively and fairly, would work, and I hope that someone like my daughter, who can prove that she is profoundly deaf, would automatically qualify, as would others with a similar category of disability.

I think that the words which are critical to that are the ones I've put in bold. I do hope that the DWP will not use the flawed system of medical assessment that Labour introduced for Employment and Support Allowance as a model as it appears to be skewed towards marking people as fit for work and has deemed, for example, that Cancer sufferers undergoing treatment should also be working at the same time.

Malcolm also outlined how much better this budget is as a Coalition measure rather than one introduced by one party alone:

There is much in the Budget of which to be proud, and I make it clear to right hon. and hon. Friends in the Conservative party that it is not a Conservative Budget or a Liberal Democrat Budget, but a coalition Budget. I would argue that it draws on the best on both parties. Those parties command the support of the majority of the British people, and the Budget's approach will deliver benefits to the majority of the British people. I said in the election campaign, when I became aware of the seriousness of the financial situation facing the country, that the position would be much better after the election if cuts that had to be made were implemented by more than one party, as they would be forced to engage with each other and find a balance that would be more acceptable than measures adopted by one party running for a sectional interest that did not have the same strength of appeal. I honestly believe that the coalition has found a dynamic that has delivered something that is greater than the sum of its parts: a Budget that is genuinely progressive.

And finally, here is the Almighty Vince. I would be much happier if he were Chancellor than Osborne, but he's not so I have to live with it. Read his whole speech because it's worth it. He talked about the time 30 years ago when he was an adviser to the Government when the IMF came to call:

Since the questions are coming from Labour Members, let me now give the other reason why I feel strongly about the need to act decisively in the way in which the Chancellor acted yesterday. Thirty years ago, as an adviser, I occupied the office that I now occupy as a Minister. It was the end of a Labour Government who had chosen to ignore the build-up to a major financial crisis. As some people will remember, the painful measures-the taxes, welfare cuts and spending cuts-were not taken by choice. They were imposed from outside by the International Monetary Fund. Because I was there at the tail-end of that Government, I saw the consequences, not the least of which were the massive divisions that opened up. People in the Government such as Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and my boss, John Smith, believed that the Government had to be responsible, but there were a lot of others-I sense a growing echo of this feeling on the Opposition Back Benches today-who said, "We don't need to do anything, we can fight the gnomes of Zurich and drive them underground, we can ignore the rest of the world and we do not need to act." It was a disastrous alternative strategy, and the Labour party is in great danger of returning to that territory.

That is why I have come to the same position as the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We come from different political traditions; I do not try to hide that. As it happens, my role models as Chancellor of the Exchequer include Sir Stafford Cripps and Roy Jenkins, because they understood the need for sound public finance and they combined tough action on budgets with fairness.

And this is what he had to say on VAT - and the regressiveness of the Council Tax under Labour:

The Government did look at the possibility of raising capital gains tax further. They did serious analysis and the conclusion was that it would not raise any more revenue. That was the problem. It certainly would not have raised anything remotely like £10 billion. That is why we cannot evade this issue.

Let me turn to the central concern about value added tax, which is expressed on both sides of the House: the worry about regressiveness. I checked back on what independent analysts were saying about value added tax and its income distribution effects. It is worth looking at the work of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which has conducted a distributional analysis based on expenditure. It came to the conclusion-this is its word, not mine-that value added tax was fairly "progressive" because of the exemptions that are given for zero rating, as food, children's clothing and other essentials are key items in the expenditure patterns of poorer people. [Interruption.] The top 10% of the population pay three times as much in value added tax as the bottom 10%. [Interruption.]

Opposition Members are expressing righteous indignation about what they regard as regressive measures. Let me tell them which is the most regressive tax: it is council tax. Do they remember what happened to council tax under the Labour Government? On average, it went up 70%. Taking into account rebates, for the poorest 10% of the population it rose by 93%. It is the most regressive tax of all, yet they lecture us in this sanctimonious way about regressive taxation. They have no basis for doing that.

I can see the logic in what he's saying, but I still don't like it when so many of the uber-wealthy are being comparatively lightly taxed.

I think that in general the speeches I saw from the Government side were much more rational than the bile that came from the opposition benches. The Budget is now passed and there is more pain in the specifics of the spending cuts still to come, but I wanted to preserve what were for me the most important arguments made in the debate. I'm not convinced by all the answers given, but let's give it a chance. This Government also seems to be prepared to listen to rational, evidence based argument so we'll see if measures can be adjusted in the future.

Danny Alexander rocks the Commons over Labour's "inheritance tax"

As I've written before,I can see the fairness the Liberal Democrats have added to the Budget - a rise in the personal tax allowance and Capital Gains Tax, the restoration of the earnings link to the State Pension, the banking levy, the flat rate public sector pay rise for the lowest earners. There are also bits of it that make me shudder - the VAT rise for a start, although I suspect the Liberal Democrats were influential in ensuring that the tax did not extend its scope by including things like basic foodstuffs, books and children's clothing, and also the reform to housing benefit that I am concerned will cause real hardship for people struggling with housing costs.

That said, I was blown away by Danny Alexander's closing speech in the Budget debate in the Commons last night. He rocked, pure and simple. Read the whole thing here because in it he smashes to bits the arguments of all those naysayers in the press who said that he was not up to this difficult job. I said at the time that he was the natural choice for the job after David Laws (and don't think I've forgiven Labour for his loss either) and his performance in the first month backs that up.

Danny had real fire in his belly last night. Given that he's at the coal face in the Treasury and has seen at first hand the horror that was bequeathed to the Government, it was kind of insulting that Liam Byrne, the man who left the "there is no money left" note, was summing up for the Opposition. I tweeted at the time that I hoped Danny would remind us all of that note. He did:

And this from the man who wrote the note saying, "There's no money left", the most infamous letter in recent British political history. However, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) gave us not one single word of apology for his Government's actions.

On the decision to raise VAT, he had this to say:

We have taken the tough decision to increase VAT by 2.5%. With a structural deficit some £12 billion larger than the previous Government told us, we had a difficult choice to make: whether to fill that hole by making yet more spending cuts or to increase taxes. Further spending cuts would, I believe, have made it impossible to protect the most essential services in the spending review, so the VAT rise was unavoidable.

No party went into the election promising to increase VAT, but the hon. Gentleman should make no mistake: the rise in VAT is a result of the public finances that we inherited from his Front-Bench colleagues. One could say that it is a Labour inheritance tax.

Well and truly warmed up, he compared and contrasted this Government with Labour's record as self styled guardians of the poor - our restoring the pensions/earnings link contrasted with Labour's insulting 75p rise; our taking 880,000 (not far off a million) out of tax while Labour increased their burden by abolishing the 10p tax rate.

And then the killer punch:

"Compare their complacency with our responsibility. Compare their legacy of ruin in the public finances with our approach of fairness as we take steps to clean up the mess that they left. Compare their obstinate refusal to take unilateral action in introducing a banking levy with our resolute leadership, which not only delivered a levy but brought France and Germany along with us too. The Opposition would have us living in denial. Their approach to the deficit seems to be see no deficit, hear no deficit, speak no deficit. One Opposition Member even told us in today's debate that they believed the deficit was a fantasy. It is such self-indulgence and complacency that led us into the mess we are in. The way that they got us here is not the way out."

Listening to the preceding debate, I was surprised that Liam Byrne was able to speak in relative silence but Danny managed to deliver this excellent speech while getting dogs' abuse from the Labour benches. They just seemed like a bunch of unruly thugs. That's Labour for you - authoritarian in Government, unruly and contemptible in opposition.

If you were seriously concerned about the effect of the Budget on the poor, wouldn't you be diligently trying to suggest workable alternatives and offer other suggestions on how you would deal with the deficit? That's what we did when we were in opposition. Remember that Vince Cable and Nick Clegg were using the D word and making suggestions to tackle it long before anyone else.

Danny Alexander's able and passionate conclusion of last night's Budget debate showed that he can be trusted to argue for and implement the fairest possible measures when negotiating the pain that's still to come. I know he's in a political dangerous position, but to be honest I'd rather a Liberal Democrat was there than a Tory - and we have an extremely competent guy there whose heart is unquestionably in the right place.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Happy Birthday Bob!

Today is my lovely, longsuffering husband's birthday. It's also now exactly (at around 5 ish tonight) 23 years since we met.

I think the best present he could get today would be some relief from the Hay Fever which is at its peak at the moment. On Saturday morning while Anna was at Drama, he went on his usual Saturday morning walk. It's the same walk that he does every week and he takes photos and posts them on Facebook. It's lovely because you can see the scenery through the seasons. He knows that there are trees and grasses on this walk, but he did it anyway and has suffered really badly ever since. His eyes are so red he could be mistaken for a vampire.

Because he leaves for work very early, he's not going to get his presents from us until later, so I can't tell you what they are, but he took great pleasure in spending his present from my sister on what he said was some very very weird music. In the scheme of things it wasn't that bad - and I listened to it without the "benefit" of alcohol.

Here's hoping for a sneeze free, streaming eyes free, happy birthday for Bob.

F1: Mark Webber tweets he's "feeling good" after horrific accident

You know how much of a stickler for spelling and punctuation I am. I can't help it. I can't afford the therapy so you have to live with it. Anyway, I must be cured a little bit because when I saw Mark Webber's tweet this morning with "role on Silverstone" in it, not one hair on the back of my neck stood on end. All I felt was relief - and a wee bit of grateful incredulity that someone can have a huge crash one day and say they're feeling good the next.

I actually screamed yesterday afternoon as his Red Bull hit Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus, catapulted into the air, turned over, slammed into the ground and then crashed into the wall. Even now, I feel sick when I watch it on tv. Almost immediately, the steering wheel came flying out, so thankfully we knew that Mark wasn't badly hurt but it was one of these moments you never ever forget. It was so good that he was able to walk away from it and barely an hour and a half later he was chatting to Jake, Eddie and DC on the BBC. He looked a bit shaken and was quieter than normal - although he managed to fit in a typically Webber profanity when the conversation turned to the football.

It just goes to show how much safety has improved in Formula 1 that a driver can walk away from an incident like that.

I don't think there is any blame to be apportioned really for yesterday's accident. Ultimately it was a racing incident. There were some who were calling for the slower cars to have to yield track position to the faster ones but I think that would be ridiculous.

Heikki Kovalainen had every right to defend his position. He was ahead in the race and I think it goes against any principle of competitive sport that he should have been forced to yield to Mark Webber just because he's driving a car that is a bit slower. It's not that much slower - only a couple of seconds a lap at the time of the accident and well within the dreaded 107% rule (which means that cars outside 107% of the pole sitter's qualifying lap don't get to participate in the race)that's coming back in next year.

If a driver is skillful enough to defend his line, then he should keep his place. End of.

How else are newer drivers to F1 to develop their racecraft skills and keep them fresh if they constantly have to yield to the bigger teams?

I think what's been helpful about this incident is that both drivers have been helpful and respectful in their comments about it. Mark said:

"Well, it always takes two to tango, doesn't it? There's two of us in this incident,"

He went on to say that he'd been surprised by how early Heikki had braked for the next corner and that's what caught him out, but there were no insults flying around.

For his part, Heikki's view was pretty similar:

"I'm fine and I'm very happy that Mark is fine as well. It shouldn't have happened, but it did.

"I think Mark was surprised how early I had to brake for that corner.

"He was behind me, I was defending because I was racing him and I always want to defend, but then I think he was not sure which way to go and at that moment I hit the brakes and he had no chance to react. I think that's what happened."

Such a horrific accident needs to be investigated, but let's hope that there are no knee jerk changes of policy or rules. Lotus Principal Mike Gascoyne was robust in his view on Twitter yesterday afternoon:

"For all those sayiny (another typo, but he was on the pit wall at the time) we should not have defended from webber when it is for position on track we race. Always......."

He clearly got it in the neck from Red Bull fans because he later tweeted:

"To all those who sent rude messages about me tweeting during the race then just stop following."

I'll write a bit more about the race separately because there were plenty of controversies. I'm just glad that Sebastian Vettel was able to prevent yet another McLaren 1-2.

I am not a fan of the Red Bull Racing team by any stretch of the imagination, but I have a very big soft spot for both of their drivers. Webber is a gobby Australian who's had to fight to break into F1. He's had struggles in his time and has almost had to give up on several occasions but he's shown real determination and Aussie Grit is a highly appropriate Twitter name. Sebastian Vettel is an exuberant young German who maybe sometimes pushes too hard and a little unwisely, but he is an incredibly brave and talented driver. It's impossible not to like him because he's always polite and appreciative of the team.

One of the reasons I don't like the team is the fact that I do think they favour Seb. I was really furious when the Red Bull spinners were quick to blame Mark for the coming together with Vettel in Turkey, although they later backed off from that. I still think that was Vettel's fault. I'm also not keen on the fact that Webber gets given one year deals while Vettel gets long contract extensions when they have both delivered the best results in the team's history.

If Mercedes can't win at Silverstone in 2 weeks' time, and, let's face it, Schumi hasn't always done well at this track, I'm hoping both can keep the McLarens at bay and Mark can keep up with or overtake Seb in the Drivers' Championship.

A Steamie Roundup with Haggis, Neeps and Liberalism on the side

Sorry for neglecting you over the past few days - and blogging will be a bit light today as it's Bob's birthday and he has half the day off.

Anyway, I haven't been completely lazy - I've been writing in other places.

Here's my Steamie post on how the Liberal Democrats added fairness to the Budget. Two parts of that were quoted slightly out of context in yesterday's Scotland on Sunday so if you read the whole thing, hopefully it'll make sense.

I did the Scottish Roundup this week.

And a Haggis, Neeps and Liberalism slot for Liberal Democrat Voice yesterday. That's all about how the current deficit crisis is no the first time we Scots have suffered at the hands of Labour's finanaical irresponsibility, given the mess that Council's were left with in 2007. If the Lib Dem/SNP coalition administrations hadn't sorted things out in Edinburgh and Fife, the problems these areas would face would be even worse now.

Other than that, I've been watching F1, Glastonbury, Doctor Who and spending time up ladders splatting rats - but more of that later.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Caron's Corkers - 24th June

What a week it's been! This Summer is a frenzy of competitive and political activity.

Here's my pick of the blogosphere in the last few days.

Meemalee describes her participation in a Masterchef competition at the BBC Good Food Show in hilariously irreverent style.

Kavey goes foraging.

Stephen might just be a tiny little bit happy that France are out of the World Cup.

Bellgrove Belle reports an amusing David Miliband campaign blunder.

Paul Edie highlights a new mental health service opening in Edinburgh

For Doctor Who fans who don't mind the saltiest possible language, the Eleventh Hour podcast which I've recently discovered, is unmissable. Utterly childish in places, but hilarious, this one on the fabulous episode Vincent and the Doctor is two and a half hours long. Phew. It liberally features the awesome Jennie and the wonderful elephant. But if you are easily offended, I would strongly advise you steer clear. It has the feel of being slightly less sedate than an audio version of Mr Eugenides' blog, if that's any help.

Pension age rise brings gloom to this house

My poor husband has gone to work with a very long face today.

Not only is he miserable with Hay Fever, but he was born in 1951. That means he was looking forward to picking up his State Pension in 2016.

Not any more.

It looks very much like he's going to have to wait an extra year as the Coalition Government add to a painful week by raising the Pension age.

There is some good, though, as this comes in tandem with a fantastic plan to abolish the default retirement age so that people can choose for themselves when they want to stop working. Some will want to retire at 65 or even 60, but others are keen to continue working and why should they be forced to retire? This potentially is a good move for women whose careers are often broken up by caring responsbilities. I'm in my 40s and I still haven't sorted myself out with a proper career so it potentially presents an opportunity for me to develop one (assuming I can decide what I want to do when I grow up) and not be shown the door in just over 20 years' time. Also it will give women the chance to build up more retirement income.

We'll have to see the details, but I think that this was inevitable. Whenever you make the change, the people who reach the former threshold that year are going to feel pretty fed up. A year from 65-66 is not going to be too difficult, but I don't like the idea of forcing people to wait beyond 70 for their State Pension as is also mooted.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Value Added Fairness from Lib Dems to counter VAT rise

Before I even say anything about the Budget, I have to say a huge thank you to the lovely elephant, whose well-timed publication of his review of last Saturday's Doctor Who, during the Budget speech, calmed me down a lot after Osborne had sat down. Clever elephant, and thoughtful Daddy Richard!

I've had a few hours to look a bit more at the details, and on balance, it's better than I initially thought. There's a lot of Lib Dem wins in there, so, thank you Almighty Vince for coming up with them in the first place:

- raising Capital Gains Tax (although not by as much as we would have liked, but this Coalition is a work in progress)

- the flat rate public sector pay rise of £250 for those earning less than £21000

- taking 880,000 people out of tax by raising the personal allowance by £1000 with a commitment to working towards £10,000 over the Parliament. That will start the process of freeing people from the awful poverty trap.

- restricting tax credits for higher earnings and giving more to those who need it with an extra £150 to those on low incomes.

- restoring the pensions/earnings link

- keeping the structure of Child Benefit intact, albeit frozen for 3 years

- a bank levy

- no tax break for married couples - it was only £150, but the principle was so, so wrong. It's in the long grass for the moment which has to be a good thing.

I don't think these things would have been included if the Tories had been in power on their own - and they do make things fairer.

There is some stuff which I don't like. The VAT rise, for a start. It would be much clearer and fairer to have taxes on what people earn rather than what they buy. In fact it was this significant increase in VAT coupled with a significant cut in Corporation Tax, by 4% in 4 years which turned the air blue here for a while. It seemed to me that huge giant corporations like Tesco, who earn squillions in profits, were getting a tax cut. I still don't like it, but I've made my peace with it. Ish. Let's look at what Osborne actually said:

But if we are to have a sustained, job-creating recovery, we need more than that. We need to see growth not just in one corner of our country, nor in just one sector, for we live in a world where the competition for business is growing ever more intense. I want a sign to go up over the British economy that says “Open for business”, and this is how I propose to do it. Corporation tax rates are compared around the world, and low rates act as adverts for the countries that introduce them. Our current rate of 28p is looking less and less competitive, so we will do something about it. Next year we will cut corporation tax by 1%, to 27p in the pound, the year after we will cut it again by 1%, and again the year after, and again the year after that—four annual reductions in the rate of corporation tax that will take it down to just 24%. That will give us the lowest rate of any major Western economy, one of the lowest rates in the G20 and the lowest rate that this country has ever known.

If you are going to make every single department of Government cut its budget by a quarter over 4 years, then people are going to lose their jobs. Making it easier and cheaper for private companies to invest in this country, and using the regional growth fund to make sure that the whole country benefits, not just the south east, will surely mean that these people will find it easier to find new jobs. I suppose that's why we have to swallow that silly Tory plan to get rid of the employers' contribution to the NI rise.

A word about the Health in Pregnancy grant. I looked this up - I had no idea that every woman, regardless of income got £190 after 25 weeks of pregnancy. I won't shed too many tears for the passing of this one - it does seem like a luxury we can't afford.

However, I am more concerned about the restriction of the Sure Start Maternity Grant to the first child. This £500 is to help those on income based benefits buy all the bits and pieces you need for a baby. And if you ever have, you'll know that £500 doesn't really go very far. Things get trashed, or break, so it's quite possible that a subsequent child, born several years down the track, could not use the cot or pram brought for the eldest sibling. Add to that the fact that you really need to replace the cot mattress for every child for safety reasons. It's only around £40, but that's a lot to find out of a tight household budget.

It's two other benefit changes that really make my eyes water and we're going to have to keep a really careful eye on how they affect people. Firstly, the reforms planned for Housing Benefit, which are:

" * re-setting and restricting Local Housing Allowances
* increasing deductions
* reducing certain awards
* time-limiting the receipt of full Housing Benefit for claimants who can be expected to look for work
* restricting Housing Benefit for working-age claimants in the social rented sector who are living in a larger property than their household size warrants
* new maximum limits on housing benefit: from £280 a week for a one-bedroom property to £400 a week for a property of four or more bedrooms
* re-adjusting Support for Mortgage Interest (SMI) payments - currently 1.58 percentage points above the Bank of England Base rate; from October 2010 SMI will be paid at the Bank of England’s published Average Mortgage Rate"

The two in bold are for me the scariest. Imagine you live in a 3 bedroomed Council House. You and your partner have lived there for 20 years, since you got together and have 2 children, a boy of 18 and a girl of 13. So, each bedroom is occupied. Your son leaves home to go to uni, or maybe to join the Army and fight in Afghanistan. As soon as he moves out, you technically only need 2 bedrooms, and if for some reason you would need to be rehoused by the Council, would only be given a 2 bedroomed house. Imagine that the main/sole bread winner loses their job (maybe as a public sector worker) 6 months after the son moves out. The family would only get a proportion of their rent paid, whereas at the moment they would get it all. What are they supposed to do? Move? Out of the house that they have lived in all the children's lives? I can see a situation where they could have real trouble paying all of their rent. What happens if neither adult can get a job? How soon will they lose their entitlement to Housing Benefit if it's to be time restricted? I worry that poor families could be vulnerable to homelessness through no fault of their own.

You would also think that a £400 per week cap on Housing Benefit would be sufficient for a 4 bedroomed house. Maybe not in London, though. Look at this showing rental property in London. A few fairly ordinary looking houses charging that much for rent. There is a chronic shortage of social housing, forcing many poor families into the private sector to rent houses they can't really afford. Most of them aren't paying £400 per week or anything like it, but I'd like to know who is being paid that and why before I can honestly say I support that restriction.

And finally, the changes to Disability Living Allowance. A medical assessment. Heavens, you have to be pretty disabled to get it. Many who claim it are never going to recover sufficiently to work. Also, we've seen how Labour made a pig's ear out of the employment and support allowance medicals, where the initial test has marked people like Cancer sufferers as fit to work. You then have to go through a complicated and stressful appeals process and suffer financial hardship in the meantime. 40% of those appeals are successful. Already people are being turned down for DLA too often and too arbitrarily. I am fairly convinced that this move is going to cost more than it saves, in terms of human hardship as well as money.

This Budget could certainly have been worse. It is definitely a lot fairer than it would have been without the Liberal Democrats there and has started to move towards our goal of hardwiring fairness into the tax system.

And do remind the Labour Party that one of their first acts in Government was to restrict benefits for lone parents. That should wipe the smug smile off their faces.

I still (mostly) agree with Nick on the Budget

I still haven't had time to go through everything three times like Conrad Russell always advised, but I thought I would let you have a look at Nick's e-mail to Party members sent after the Budget was delivered. He is right that this Budget is a darned sight better than it would have been if Osborne hadn't had his conscience forcibly pricked by the presence of Lib Dem eyeballs across the Cabinet Table.

As the afternoon has gone on, I think I'm most mad with the Labour Party for getting us into this mess in the first place and then shouting and screaming hysterically when others have to clean it up for them. Do not forget that they wasted tens of billions on creating a surveillance state which was entirely unnecessary. Do not forget that the gap between rich and poor actually rose under Labour the next time they tell you that they're progressive and we're not. Do not forget that the poorest children came from families with working parents under Labour - an absolute scandal. Do not forget that the poverty trap made it impossible for people on benefits to work under Labour as much as the Tories before them.

Dear Caron,

Yesterday I wrote to you about why we have to take difficult decisions to tackle the deficit and lay the foundations of a fairer society. These are not decisions that any government wants to take but we have no choice except to clear up the financial mess that Labour left us. Today’s Budget takes these difficult decisions in an honest and fair way and with the clear stamp of Liberal Democrat values running through it.

In the past, efforts to tackle a big deficit have always hit the poorest the most. The coalition has ensured that – for the first time – this will not happen. The richest will pay the most, while pensioners and children will be protected.

Look through the Budget and you will see key policies we campaigned for being put into effect.

The £1,000 increase in the Income Tax allowance will mean that 880,000 low paid workers will be freed from Income Tax altogether. This is the first step towards delivering our manifesto commitment to ensure no-one pays tax on the first £10,000 they earn.

The Budget puts in place our promise of a new tax on banks, ensuring that they help to pay to clear up the mess left by the financial crisis.

Top earners will pay a full 10% more in Capital Gains Tax than under Labour, with no loopholes or tapers or get-out clauses. That change helps ensure those with the broadest shoulders take the greatest strain.

We will guarantee that pensioners get a fair deal, putting into effect the Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment for a “triple lock”, so state pensions rise every year in line with earnings, inflation, or by 2.5%, whichever is the highest. Never again will pensioners be allowed to fall behind.

The Coalition Government will not let regions, towns or cities that depend heavily on the public sector be forgotten. That’s why this Budget establishes a regional growth fund to ensure those parts of the country get meaningful support to help create jobs and opportunities for all.

Tackling Child Poverty remains at the heart of the government’s approach. So while we have decided to cut child tax credits for those who can most afford it, we have increased tax credits for the poorest families and put up to £ 2 billion into child tax credits to help ensure children of all backgrounds get a fair start in life.

These measures will ensure that the burden of deficit reduction is shared fairly across society.

This Government is being honest with people about the road ahead. Together, we can make it through these difficult times and restore health to our economy and to the public finances. These difficult choices are the foundation stones for the fairer Britain we will build over the next five years.

Best wishes,
Nick Clegg MP
Leader of the Liberal Democrats & Deputy Prime Minister

The Budget at a glance

The unavoidable budget, says Osborne

"I am not going to hide hard truths from the British people."

"Everyone will share in rewards when we succeed - we really are all in this together."

Structural deficit should be in balance by 2015/16.

There will be a fixed target for debt to fall as proportion of GDP by 2015-16.

Not sure I understand why it has to go down quite so quickly.

"False choice between going for growth and dealing with debt. What's happening in Eurozone shows growth won't happen without dealing with debt."

"We have overspent. We are not undertaxed."

Net borrowing to fall to £20 billion in 2015-16 compared to £149 billion today.

Debt interest payment £3bn a year lower by end of this Parliament than it would have been under Labour.

"We won't be joining Euro in this Parliament." There's a surprise.

Euro preparation unit in Treasury has been abolished.

£30 billion per year to be cut from UK expenditure. Same size as Scottish Budget!

Civil List to be frozen and subject to auditing.

25% over 4 years but more looked for from social security and welfare.

Spending review to be presented on 20th October.

Public sector pay: public sector workers "must share the burden", although they didn't cause the recession. 2 year pay freeze for those earning more than £21,000. Those under will receive flat pay rise of £250. Lib Dem idea.

Welfare measures: germany announced 30 bilion euro cut to welfare bill. Increasing number of citizens trapped on out of work benefits for all of their lives. We are wasting talents of millions.

We will increase incentives to work and reduce incentives to stay out of work.

Consumer prices rather than retail prices will be used as measure to uprate all benefits other than state pension and pension credit.

Tax credits: 150,000 families with incomes over £50,000 are getting tax credits and we need to target them on families who need them most.

Abolish for famiies earning over £40,000 - better than expected.

Abolish baby element

Child Benefit: Freeze child benefit for next 3 years to keep intact popular universal benefit while ensuring that everyone (parents?) makes contribution to reducing deficit.

Lone parents expected to look for work when first child goes to school - dreadful. This is going to be really tough for women, who make up the vast majority of lone parents. I'm not sure there's enough benefit gained by rising of tax threshold to make sure that they will be better off by working. Also, are they really going to tell a woman with a 5 year old and a 6 week old baby whose husband has just left her to go and get a job? UPDATE: this, thankfully, is complete nonsense. I misheard Osborne - it's when the youngest child starts school which is much more livable with. However, there has to be enough flexibility in the benefits system so that lone parents are not forced to take jobs which would require them to work outside the availability of child care. Not everyone has family who can help.

DLA: costs have quadrupled to 11 billion a year. Medical assessment for DLA from 2013. Shudder.

Housing benefit to be reformed. Equally scary. Maximum limits to be imposed on Housing Benefit. My eyes are watering.

Corporation Tax for huge companies raking in billions of profits cut by 4% over next 4 years.

Damn! VAT up to 20% from January 2011.

Capital Gains: low and middle income savers who pay income tax at basic rate will continue to pay 18%

higher rate taxpayers will pay 28%

Threshold will stay the same at £10,000 and rise with inflation.

Income Tax: responsible society rewards efforts of those who choose to work. Important to lift low earners out of the tax system. Increase tax allowance to £7475 in April. £170 gain for basic rate tax payers with nearly 900,000 taken out of tax altogether. Commitment to continue to raise towards £10,000.

Child element of CTC up £150 above indexation next year. Budget will not increase measured child poverty.

"we pay the debts of a failed past and lay foundations for a prosperous future"

Bank levy from 2011.

Council Tax freeze in England. I expect we will soon see the end of the freeze period in Scotland. That's going to make the impact of all the other measures so much worse up here.

Ok, that's the main points as I wrote them down. I may have missed some stuff out while being shellshocked. There is some of this that I really feel concerned about but I'm going to take Conrad Russell's advice and read it all through 3 times before I make any more detailed comments.

There are some good Lib Dem wins in there - the raising of the tax threshold taking as near as dammit a million lowest earners out of tax, restoring the earnings link with pensions, a raise in Capital Gains Tax, although not yet by enough. The air in this room is rather full of the word that rhymes with duck, though.

My World Cup Domestic Violence Post in French on Wikio E-Blogs

Those nice people at Wikio have a new project to translate selected blog postings from bloggers all over Europe into other European languages.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how some women have real reason to fear the World Cup because domestic violence rises during this tournament.

This now appears here in French.

And here in Italian.

I think this is a great initiative, introducing us to a whole new range of blogs and ideas.

If you want your blog to join this venture, or if you want to get involved in doing the translating to French, German, Spanish or Italian, here's some more information. Laurent Delpit, the guy who's in charge of this is very nice, and extremely patient with idiots like me who are a bit stupid with technology.

Could new jab end Hay Fever Hell?

Every year around this time there seems to be some story about a potential cure for the misery of Hay Fever. And every year there seems to be no actual cure arriving. It's just like when I used to go hillwallking with my husband and he always used to say to me that the top was "just over this hump" - except there was always another hump to get over.

This year's ray of hope comes, as reported in the Torygraph, in the form of a jab which could deal with all sorts of allergies and related conditios in one go - Hay Fever, Asthma, Eczema and even peanut allergy.

Poor Bob is absolutely miserable with Hay Fever at the moment. It's seemed to take longer to arrive this year, but it's now here with an absolute vengeance. His, since childhood, has not only involved sore, itchy eyes, but also just wipes him out. He came home from work yesterday and slept for 12 hours straight and still feels no better this morning.

I never used to have a problem with it, but I've been sneezing my head off for the past couple of days. Inconvenient, but trivial in comparison.

And to those of you mean, unsympathetic so and sos who just say take an antihistamine and stop whinging (and people like that do exist, believe me) - well, he has been, and it doesn't work.

A wonder jab to get rid of this, if it actually happens, will be welcomed in this house. In the meantime, Bob and the millions like him can take comfort from the fact that the worst of it should be over in another 3 weeks or so.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Nick Clegg and the Budget of Doom

I really wasn't looking forward to tomorrow's budget anyway. If you can find one person in the country who is, I'd be very surprised.

Actually, though, I expect Labour are rubbing their hands with glee. They see this budget and the cuts that have to be made to clear up their mess as the key to their revival.

They are gambling on the fact that people will just remember the pain as they go to vote in the Holyrood and Welsh elections next year and not Labour's culpability for it. Nor their promises made with money that just wasn't there, like the Forgemasters loan in Sheffield.

Since the forming of the Coalition Government, I've been very impressed at the way in which Nick Clegg and other Cabinet Ministers have kept Liberal Democrat members informed about what's going on. In fact, Tavish Scott and MSPs, you could learn something here.

A few minutes ago, I received this e-mail from Nick Clegg, obviously trying to soften me up for what's to come tomorrow. It's worth reading to find out where we're coming from. Nobody wants to have to make cuts, but if we don't, our economic future will be pretty much stuffed. Well that's what the man says - and, frankly, I believe him.

I don't expect to be 100% happy about this Budget and I am concerned that not enough Liberal Democrat policy will have found its way into it - especially on the tax allowances vs capital gains issue. I'm concerned that tax credits will be cut by more than people will gain and that this will badly affect people who are currently struggling to get by. I'll be really pissed off if, as expected, VAT goes up, too.

Having said that, I guess we have to take the long view about this government - this is its first Budget and we have four more to go.

I expect what will make me angrier than anything is the sight of Labour having a go with such sanctimony and cynical opportunism that I'll want to lock them up in the Pandorica with the England team.

Anyway, here's Nick's e-mail.

Dear Caron,

Tomorrow, the coalition government will deliver an emergency budget to bring order back to the public finances. It will be a difficult budget - but remember, as you hear it, why we have to do this.

Labour left our country with a mountain of debt. Every minute that goes by the government spends a staggering £80,000 on interest, that's over £800 million a week. If we don't take action now, the markets will force us into even more drastic measures as they have in Greece and Spain.

Without action on the deficit, we will carry on racking up unaffordable debts our children will have to pay off. We will carry on spending more money on debt interest than we do on our schools. And we will undermine the economic growth needed to create jobs and opportunities for all of us. There is nothing fair, liberal or progressive about any of that.

Of course, the Labour party will say that these decisions are not justified. They will say the budget creates risks for our economy and that Liberal Democrats have sold out to go along with Conservative cuts. They are wrong.

Every time you hear Labour say that, ask them why they covered up the details of the £44bn of cuts they themselves had planned. Ask them why they racked up so much debt that we could end up spending £70bn a year just on debt interest. And ask them why they created this fiscal bombshell in the first place by refusing to take action against the reckless banks even when Vince Cable warned of the risks they were taking.

Until Labour accepts the blame for the mess we are in and comes up with a plan for getting us out, they cannot be taken seriously.

We have always argued that cuts would be necessary, but the timing should be based on economic circumstances, not political dogma. The economic situation today means that time has come.

A lot has changed even in the last few months. The crisis in the Eurozone and the problems in Greece and Spain have put huge pressure on us. The new Office of Budget Responsibility has shown that the structural deficit is bigger than we thought. And in government, we have discovered billions of pounds of unfunded spending promises Labour had made, cynically raising people's hopes when they knew the coffers were bare.

So cuts must come. We have taken the difficult decisions with care, and with fairness at their heart. You will see the stamp of our Liberal Democrat values in tomorrow's Budget. But nonetheless, it will be controversial. This is one of the hardest things we will ever have to do, but I assure you, the alternative is worse: rising debts, higher interest rates, less growth and fewer opportunities.

Sorting out Labour's mess will be difficult but it is the right thing to do.

Best wishes,

Nick Clegg MP
Leader of the Liberal Democrats & Deputy Prime Minister

Federer survives Centre Court Thriller

Wimbledon 2010 is barely 4 hours old and already my nerves are worn to a frazzle. It's not so long since Alejandro Falla was serving for the match at 5-4 in the 4th set against Roger Federer, having lost a couple of good chances to finish him off in the 3rd.

Luckily Federer broke serve, took the set to a tie break which he won 7-1 and then won all 6 games of the final set.

Falla played well and it was only in the last set and a bit that we saw Federer in the form we've become accustomed to. It was some feat to pull that recovery out of the bag.

As always be was gracious to his opponent, making no excuses for his own performance, but praising Falla's play.

Maybe he thinks that he has to live up to the epic Final against Andy Roddick which was his last appearance on Centre Court. You know what? I'd be quite happy for him to coast through the next few rounds. I'm not sure I can cope with the emotional trauma of cliffhangers from him as well as the inevitable Andy Murray thrillers.

I love everything about Wimbledon, from calls of "new balls please", to strawberries to the funny and frank commentary we get from the inimitable John McEnroe.

Let's hope we have a brilliant tournament.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

World Cup: Spoilt England players need to get a grip

I know I'm stepping into dangerous territory trying to write about football, but my excuse is that this is more about people than the actual game. I'm watching in horror as I see John Terry, a man sacked as England captain several months ago, talk to the press about how the England players are having a clear the air meeting with manager Fabio Capello.

His assertion that the squad was behind the manager was qualified by a comment that:

"Everyone needs to get off their chest exactly how they're feeling. If it upsets him [Capello], or it upsets any player, then so be it,"

That's all a bit "I'm not sexist/racist/unkind but...." to me.

What right does Terry have to suddenly become the spokesperson of the squad anyway?

When I see England players like Wayne Rooney and John Terry either criticising the fans or whinging about how bored they are, it makes me think that they deserve their backsides to be skelped from here to kingdom come. I'm not usually an advocate of violence of any sort, but this might be the exception that proves my rule.

I mean, come on, do they really expect us to have sympathy with this?

"I'm not going to lie. We are in the hotel, we finish training, we have lunch at one o'clock and then we have got a few hours to spare.

"There are things like mini darts tournaments, snooker and pool. There is a bit of boredom that kicks in. There are six or seven hours until we meet up for dinner and there are times as a group of players we need to get together – and none more so than now."

I can suggest a few things that these over-pampered, over-privileged self important multi millionaires could do to pass the time of day.

* They could get out and volunteer for the day in one of the programmes to help the people in South Africa who live in terrible poverty. Maybe seeing that people don't have the basics we take for granted might give them a sense of perspective.

* They could do old fashioned stuff like mug up on their opponents and work out how best to beat them.

* They could get off their arses and go and meet some of the fans that have spent thousands to travel to South Africa to support them, and who have had a pretty dismal return for their money so far.

* They could find something or someone from the reams of footballing history to inspire them.

When I've seen the England team play on the field, they just look like they can't be bothered. There is no hunger and no passion. For heavens' sake, this is the World Cup, the pinnacle of the sport. They should feel honoured to be there, representing their country. Is that not enough of a buzz for them?

If this lot get knocked out on Wednesday, as, on current form, they frankly deserve, David Cameron shouldn't be welcoming them into Number 10. There should be no open top bus tours. They do not deserve to be feted in any way. In fact, David Cameron should actually say that. People like John Terry and Wayne Rooney should not be called up to play for England again until they can learn a bit of humility.

The middle of the tournament is not a good time or place for the players to be having a complete meltdown. If they have a problem with what's going on behind closed doors, they should keep their heads in the game, do the job they're being paid to do and stop whinging.

I have to say that if Fabio Capello is throwing things round the dressing room in despair at his players' nonchalance, I can sympathise with how he's feeling. I think I might do the same.

And the French are just as bad. Imagine refusing to train during the biggest tournament cos your mate has been sent home in disgrace for cheeking the manager in public.

Some people just don't know they're born.

These pampered players are a shocking role model for the young players of tomorrow and they should just get a grip and get on with playing the World class football they are more than capable of.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

What would you do with hallucinogenic lipstick?

River Song used hallucinogenic lipstick twice in last night's Doctor Who episode - once to get out of Space Nick and the other to convince the Romans who weren't really Romans that she was Cleopatra.

In the interests of frivolity, what would you do if you had some?

And if that isn't enough fun for one day, my friend Naome gave out the impossible dilemma on Twitter the other day.

Shag, marry, chuck off a cliff: David Tennant, Matt Smith, Chris Eccleston??

I mean, that's really not fair. For me it was Dave over the cliff, despite the fact that I thought he was the best Doctor since Tom Baker, and I suspect it'll be the same for Jennie but for different reasons. Naome wouldn't have been too happy at the thought of anyone else marrying him, and I reckoned she'd be at the bottom of the cliff to catch him:-). I chose Matt instead to marry..........for which I'd probably need some of that lipstick....

Doctor Who -The Pandorica Opens episode review

I had always thought that the word Review implied that there would be spoilers, which there are here in multitudinous number. I don't think there is an unspilt bean in sight. I am not technically clever enough to work out how to do what Charlotte has done, but do go and read her review later too.

Oh blimey. That was one hell of a Doctor Who episode last night. My head hurts after watching it and I need Millennium's Daddy Richard to explain it all to me. I just hope he's been sitting up all night writing his review because I don't really think that I can wait for too long for his view.

I think my general feeling is that it was bloody brilliant and I can't wait to see how they're going to sort this one out. Talk about taking you through every emotion in 45 minutes. It was pacy, it had comedy, tension, excitement, awe, drama, fear and incredible sadness. Well done that man Moffatt.

The episode starts with a difficult to watch scenes in which Vincent Van Gogh was in his bed screaming with agony as his mental torture seemed to accelerate and intensify. Attention was drawn to a new painting he'd drawn.

Then in 1941, you see that painting being given to Churchill in the War Rooms, who immediately phones the Doctor to warn him of something - but the call is diverted to River Song in prison in the 52nd century. She escapes, very easily, and heads to the Royal Galleries to find the painting where she's confronted by Liz "I'm the Bloody Queen" 10. That painting showed the TARDIS at the centre of a huge explosion.

Cut to Amy and the Doctor in the TARDIS. He's about to show her the writing on this amazing diamond cliff face which is supposed to be from the dawn of time and which nobody has been able to translate. The message in fact said "Hello Sweetie" and gave them some co-ordinates to follow.

We then end up in Roman times, where they find River Song pretending to be Cleopatra visiting the Romans. Well she died in 30BC and this was 102AD or something, so there's one howler that the Doctor should have worked out for a start. When the Doctor explains that they need the Romans help, the soldier he's talking consults with an unseen centurion.

From there it's a short journey to Stonehenge, the actual Stonehenge, filmed in daylight where the Doctor locates something buried underneath and accesses it just by lifting one of the ancient stones. All too easy.

They find a big box which River Song says is being opened from the inside. This is apparently the Pandorica which the Doctor had dismissed as a fairy tale. It was built to lock up the most evil being in the Universe, more vile than anyone we've met so far in 47 years of Who.

Amy's comment that Pandora's Box, which contained the worst things in the world, was one of her favourite stories as a child and the Romans were her favourite period in history alerted the Doctor to the fact that something weird was going on. I thought the scene where they found the Pandorica was beautifully put together. Watching Confidential later, they showed how the scene was actually shot with music playing so the actors' movements were in time with it. It was meant to portray the awe they felt when the found the Pandorica.

In the midst of all this, you get moments of pure comedy. River Song, for example, responding to a comment about wizards by saying she hated hearing about wizards cos it always turned out to be the Doctor.

River identifies that there are tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of spaceships in orbit, Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Judoon, Sycorax, Slitheen, Nestene Consciousness, Uncle Tom Nasty and all.

There's an amazing scene which brought to mind images of an American politician accepting the nomination at a convention. A moment of irrational triumphalism as the Doctor addresses all the assorted megalomaniacs, telling them that, actually, for the moment, he has the Pandorica and incites them to remember every day when he's defeated them so they should decide who's going to have a go first.

River Song has been dispatched to fetch the TARDIS. She finds that it's being controlled from outside and takes her to the date that was revealed as the "base code of the universe" when they met the weeping angels.

Amy decides to use her absence to question the Doctor on the engagement ring she found in his pocket last week, clearly thinking he's going to propose to River.

Unbeknownst to the characters, but revealed to us was the disembodied head of a cyberman. Its arm started shooting at the Doctor and Amy. Later Amy was ensnared by cables coming from the head. She escaped, but the scene where the remainder of the cyber torso clunked in and reunited himself with his head was very well done. With the Doctor knocked out by an electric shock of sorts, Amy had to fight the metal man off with a flaming torch and ended up in a cupboard. She puts her ear to the door to find a sword being stabbed through it, missing her by inches.

The door opens, and in walks the centurion from earlier - who reveals himself to be Rory. As he says "Hello, Amy", she faints.

While Amy's unconscious from the dart the cyberman shot at her, the Doctor confronts Rory about how he's there. Rory knows he died but can't properly explain how he came to be a Roman but he just knows that he is.

Meanwhile River finds herself at Amy's house. She tells the doctor on the phone that someone been there before her. In Amy's bedroom, she finds a book about the Romans and realises that the commander who was talking to Rory is identical to the person on the cover. She tells him that he's walked into a trap. He tells her to get away from there to any time, anywhere.

Back in Roman times, the Pandorica is finally opening and preparing to reveal its secrets. Amy regains consciousness and doesn't remember Rory. She heads out for some fresh air and he follows her. They talk and she starts to remember him.

The scene is now set for the climactic final scenes.

The Doctor realises as the Pandorica opens that it's not to let something out, but to imprison something in. The assorted aliens start to appear and talk about how they have formed an alliance to deal with him as he's responsible for all the cracks in time. It dawns on the Doctor that he's about to be locked away as he's dragged into it.

Outside, just as Amy's memory of Rory returns, the Romans are revealed to be Autons, including Rory. He struggles to keep at bay the impulses that are telling him to kill Amy. She tells him that he ain't going anywhere. Just as you think he's won that personal struggle, as she leans to kiss him, his hand turns robotic, reveals a pistol and seemingly shoots Amy dead. That description doesn't do justice to the way in which the scene was acted by both Amy and Rory. It's not quite the Romeo and Juliet which the director aimed at, but the events and emotions, from confusion to delight to tragedy to pathos as Amy's body falls to the ground are powerfully enacted.

At the same time, River is trapped in the TARDIS which explodes. The last scene of the episode shows all the spaceships in orbit above the earth disappearing gradually and then all falls black as the earth itself disappears..............

Stephen and I spent literally hours trying to figure this whole thing out. He suggested that this was all the work of the Dream Lord from earlier in the series. I think that has a fatal flaw because River Song mentioned the Pandorica opening when she last saw the Doctor earlier in the season. Anyway, if the Grand Moff made half the series a dream, then he'd have to be put on free transfer to daytime soap writers land. Stephen thought that it was completely unbelievable for such a motley crew of aliens to work together. I say that each of them is megalomaniac enough to think they can double cross and overpower the others and they all have a common interest in getting the Doctor. Anyway, they are all bad buggers. In that respect, their alliance is more credible than our current coalition Government.

I think that River Song is in this up to her neck. I'm not sure that her motivations are malevolent. We are clearly meant to think that she killed the Doctor, possibly a future regeneration of himself, the first time she met him and she's been in Space Nick ever since (apart from the times she escapes, obviously). Did she rig the TARDIS the last time she was onboard to make sure Churchill's call went to her? Is she trying to alter time to atone for her actions and ensure that the Doctor does not die at her hand? Getting in league with his sworn enemies would be a funny way of doing this, but we can't ignore the fact that she's the one who got the Doctor to that point in time and who left him there alone. I don't trust River, and I am certain she knows more than she's letting on. We only have her word about his future and her past close ties with him. He trusts her to drive the TARDIS on the basis that she knows his real name..... Mind you, she certainly knew what she was doing and completely kicked his backside in the first Weeping Angels episode.

Daddy Richard argued that the cracks in time could be the Doctor's fault:

It's possible that he's even caused the cracks in time by making Amy's wedding day not only the most crucial day of her life but also one that isn't supposed to happen at all: the kind of universe-shattering paradox that might happen if she only ran away with the Doctor because it was the eve of her wedding, that the things that the Doctor has put right because she was with him, only happened at all because of something he's now prevented from happening – explaining how the crack appear to be following them: it's trying to swallow up the paradoxical events of Amy's post Wedding-that-never-was timeline.

It's the height of impertinence on my part to dare to argue with him on anything Doctor Who related - or in fact anything at all - but I just don't buy the Doctor, who is more acutely aware of time than any of us could ever be - would allow this to happen. Even if he did, it's profoundly unjust that he should be locked up to save a universe which would then be destroyed by the Assorted Nasties anyway.

Could it be that the cracks were caused by the Doctor showing up so many years late for his rendezvous with Amelia - but then that doesn't seem to be his fault - there was some sort of external control on that. It could be that all is resolved by either the Doctor or River being able to go back and pick her up on time so that she wouldn't have been able to produce all the drawings and develop the interests that allowed the trap to be set. But then what does he do with a 7 year old on board? My suspicion is that whoever was responsible saw his first encounter with Amelia and then did something to prevent the Doctor from coming back.

I hope that the Grand Moff can keep up the standard for next week. It's much easier to set up the scenarios for a fantastic cliffhanger than it is to bring it all to a credible conclusion. I really, really, really don't want Amy to be dead. Or to go off into the sunset with an un-nestened Rory. She's better than that and we deserve to see more of her. She may be turn out to be the axis on which this series have spun, but she's proved her worth as a character and the in-TARDIS chemistry is wonderful. River has to stay too - she is way too interesting a character to lose, but if she is culpable for the current scenario in some way, that needs to be revealed without diminishing the Doctor's faith in her.

We also have the loose ends of Rory's badge in the first episode being issued in 1990 and we need to find out why Amy doesn't remember the Daleks.

Whichever way I look at this I come up with some reason why that conclusion wouldn't work. Maybe I should just leave it to clever Daddy Richard.

A final thought - the episode is interspersed with the Doctor, River and Amy galloping on horseback across the countryside, we are supposed to think near Stonehenge. That doesn't seem to fit into the story somehow. We all laughed when we saw them. We decided that the far away shots were clearly stunt doubles riding, but the close up ones were hilarious. We decided that Matt, Karen and Alex must have been filmed on some bouncy thing in front of a green screen. We weren't exactly right. Confidential showed them on a bouncy seat thing in a truck on location. Utterly ridiculous. I just wonder if these three horse riders are going to prevent the Apocalypse.

I don't want to wish a whole week away, particularly when the weather's so lovely, but I can't wait for the Big Bang on Saturday.

Jo Swinson and Duncan Hames in Twitter proposal?

It is a perfect Summer morning and what better to add to the general feeling of wellbeing than some really good news? After all, all the world loves a love story and all of that.

I'm hoping that these tweets I've seen mean what I think.........

From Chippenam Liberal Democrat MP Duncan Hames:

"Asking the question."

From Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire:

"Answering yes."

From their friend James Graham in inimitably curmudgeonly style:

"Waking up to read the good news about @joswinson and @duncanhames - it's about bloody time!"

And much more politely and excitedly from his fiancee Alex Runswick

Many many congratulations @joswinson & @duncanhames Looking forward to hearing about all the plans!

I'm going to be brave and stick my neck out with a deduction that Duncan was not asking Jo to deliver an extra 500 leaflets today in the blistering hot sun. So, congratulations to them both, two people who are absolutely perfect for each other, and all my love and best wishes for many years of happiness together.

No doubt those people who occasionally find my blog by searching for "Jo Swinson husband" will be heartbroken........

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Why don't men just stay at home?

Thanks to Evan Harris on Twitter for pointing me in the direction of this speech to the UN by Magali Prince of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

She got a laugh when she suggested that it might be more appropriate to ensure men learned self control rather than force women to completely cover themselves when out in public in case they provoked men's lust.

A simple point, well made! And it also goes to show that an effective speech doesn't have to be very long. Here it is in full:

Mr President,

Women’s enjoyment of their human rights, including the right to education, is denied in much of the developing world. And nowhere is this more apparent than in societies where women are obliged to cover themselves from head to foot when they venture outside the home.

Women are trained to believe that this type of dress code is necessary for "modesty". Apparently, the sight of any part of a woman’s body, including her face or hair, is considered sexually provocative in some cultures, and likely to inflame men’s lust.

But surely a more appropriate solution to this problem would be to educate men to stay indoors until they learn some self-control.

The holy books teach both men and women to dress modestly, so why do we not see men covered from head to foot? The answer of course is that this is not about modesty; it is about men controlling women, and denying their right to education is part of this.

We hear much talk of the dignity of women, yet very little of women’s right to autonomy. But, Mr President, women can have no dignity without autonomy. Men do not own women.

We have heard much talk in this Council of Islamophobia, Judeophobia, Christianophobia and homophobia, but what of gynophobia, which is enslaving women in much of the developing world, and sees women merely as a source of temptation and evil?

We urge the international community to recognize its responsibility to women as autonomous members of the human race, and to wean the most patriarchal and authoritarian societies away from their deeply rooted misogyny.

Until this happens, Mr President, there can be no progress towards the full enjoyment of our human rights.

Thank you sir.

Although it was a good speech, your typical woman in Afghanistan, denied education and with an 80% chance of being on the receiving end of physical, emotional and sexual abuse from her husband will not hear it.

I've written before that I'd like to see more pressure put on the Afghan Government to do more for women's rights in that country, but this very rarely gets mentioned by politicians. I wonder if that's partly because there aren't enough women at the highest levels in Western politics.

It's not just Afghanistan, either. Magali said:

We urge the international community to recognize its responsibility to women as autonomous members of the human race, and to wean the most patriarchal and authoritarian societies away from their deeply rooted misogyny.

What's it going to take for the international community to pay more than lip service to this?


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