Round up – 19 July 2015

Until the end of March I’d been writing an almost weekly post called ‘This Week’ which included a round up of some of the things I’d found interesting that week – blog posts, TED talks, photographs, paintings, YouTube videos, music, all sorts of things. I’d begun it as a way of trying to get in to a routine of blogging without needing to think too hard and be too creative and also as a way of sharing with others things that I think are really good. I say share with others, but I think there’s probably only about 2-3 people who regularly read this blog anyway.

I do still love in principle the idea of blogging and I have loads of ideas of things I want to write about that aren’t time limited, but unfortunately it always gets relegated to the pile of things I should do when work, commute, reading, visiting friends and relatives, household chores and anything else that’s urgent are completed, with the inevitable result that by the time I’ve done all of them it doesn’t happen as I’m not feeling in the mood.  My This Week post had kept going semi-regularly for a while, and I’m pleased that I now very occasionally do a full blog post, although it is usually when I feel I must respond to something political, when there’s actually many more apolitical things I want to be blogging.  However, my This Week post died a death at the end of March and I then got out of the habit and it wasn’t resurrected.

Partly as a consequence of that, I’ve started to tweet more about things I like or find interesting, although I don’t quite do it enough. I really am mystified by those people who clearly just tweet all day. How do they find time to do anything else?  And at least with a tweet the character limit means I don’t have to think of lots to write, I just do the tweet and that’s it.  But I still feel I need to somehow round up the best things I think I’ve seen or done or read or watched and put them on this blog, partly for the record, partly for the benefit of those who don’t read my tweets, and partly for the benefit of me being able to expand slightly on something if I wish to.  As a consequence, this (following this initial very lengthy introduction) will be my first round up of stuff I’ve liked over the last week or two (or more, I won’t set a specific timescale) which will be largely based on tweets but with a bit of extra introduction. I hope it works and my 2-3 readers find it interesting…

There’s been three tweets that have garnered quite a few retweets and responses over the last few weeks and they’ve all been very different:

Ghost signs has become a bit of a thing for amateur (and some professional) historians to tweet or write about, such as this extensive collection on Caroline’s Miscellany, so having walked past these particular ones every day and conscious of Hobson’s imminent demise (and since the tweet it has now been demolished) it felt worthy of a tweet for those ghost sign lovers.

Another popular tweet was a rare political tweet. Despite my fascination with politics, I’ve usually held back from political tweeting as I can’t be doing with the abuse you get. Instead this one got lots of praise and little criticism, and the hypocrisy of Labour over welfare cuts sums up why I’ve got fed up with much of the political argument over the last five years (as summed up by Labour’s response to this criticism which is summed up as “well yes we’re being horrible, but you were REALLY horrible”.

The other popular tweet was a random fact (and I do love my random facts and my political history):  

So what else took my interest…

I picked last Sunday’s Listening Club album for the first time in a while and went with my favourite band of all:

I went for my first walk up through Clay Wood Bank since the new footpath was opened – a lovely spot right in the middle of Sheffield:  

I’ve praised a little known Sheffield legend who I’ve blogged about before and really should be a famous Sheffield hero:

But I’ve been rude about one of this country’s greatest writers:

I’ve indulged in my love of new interesting architecture on Grand Designs:

I’ve watched a really good 30 minutes of BBC’s Artsnight (a programme I’ve never seen before) where Samira Ahmed indulges in her love of photography and in the process sums up why I love it so much (I’m a particular Martin Parr fan and also quite like Richard Billingham, but the other two were unknown to me):  

and finally, another excellent talk by Ash Beckham on TED:

The post where I try to explain Farron’s religious dilemma, by comparing it to how I became a Liberal Democrat

Some years ago I attended a memorial service for a friend of mine. At it, one of the people giving a eulogy said something along the lines of “As someone who goes through the same conflicting emotions, I know how hard it was for him trying to reconcile his sexuality with his Christianity.” It was a very emotional part of the event, and it stuck with me and I still remember it many years later. Not only because the person giving the eulogy had at that time spoken little about his own sexuality, but also because many of those who knew the person for whom the memorial service was being held probably didn’t know he was a Christian. But this must be something that affects thousands of people in this country. It is also a conflict that will affect many more people who whilst not gay, have a strong Christian identity and have strong liberal convictions.

I deliberated a while before writing this post, as adding yet another post to the discussion about what Tim Farron’s attitudes are or are not on both religion and the morality of homosexuality or abortion, didn’t necessarily feel helpful. But when the quote above came to mind again, it felt like something I wanted to get off my chest. As someone who doesn’t believe in any religion and was brought up in a resolutely atheist household, wading in to any discussion on religion is also perhaps not helpful.  However that’s what I am about to do.

I imagine being a Christian has many parallels with how people such as myself became Liberal Democrats. We hadn’t initially thought about why we were, we just sort of knew deep down that it felt right. Later on as you read more about it, you get to know more people involved and you start to deliberate either with others or internally some of the issues that arise, you realise that your gut instinct was right, and yes you are a Liberal Democrat. But like being a Liberal Democrat you also find some of the things that are said or that are written don’t tally with quite how you feel about the world. Largely they aren’t fundamental issues, but they are places where if pressed you find it hard to reconcile your gut instinct view with the accepted view of what being a Liberal Democrat is about. In the end you have to accept that no one will ever agree on what is ideologically pure and even if they could then everyone’s beliefs are always a bit of a compromise as you have also been heavily influenced by other life experiences, the opinions of others or you simply just take a different view from the accepted wisdom of other Lib Dems.

I once wrote a comment on a blog where I disagreed with the party’s views on how education was structured. One person came back and asked me “why on earth therefore was I a liberal” because of my views on that one specific subject. It was, and is, entirely unfair to question someone’s whole political outlook based on their views on one issue, or even one part of an issue. Just as I have tended towards a more traditional socialist structure on the organisation of education, I have also over the years not agreed with votes at 16 (these days I tend more towards ambivalence) and I have also not felt entirely comfortable with allowing gay couples to adopt (although I’ve accepted that it’s better than the alternatives). These are all issues about which many Liberal Democrats feel passionate and they see as something that makes them identify as a Liberal Democrat. For me, they aren’t but I am a Liberal Democrat in nearly every other respect so why should a tiny handful of specific issues make me fundamentally not a Lib Dem.

Which brings me back to Tim Farron. Tim Farron has clearly supported same-sex marriage in parliament, and whilst there were parts of the specific act of parliament that he quibbled with, he has still on the whole supported it. He has also argued against changing the law on abortion. But that doesn’t stop him having some internal conflict about these issues based on two instinctive but at times conflicting beliefs that he holds. The words “at times” are also important here, as much of the time there won’t be conflict with the two and will actually reinforce each other. But at the end of the day, there are a number of issues, on which there is a conflict between what Christianity says and what the instincts of a liberal are, which makes it tough for those who are both. I won’t go in to here what is the truly Christian view on these or what exactly the Bible says, as I’ve realised how few Christians agree on that anyway. In the end Tim Farron has voted with a strongly liberal stance throughout his time as an MP.  If we knew that Tim Farron was a massive homophobe – which he absolutely clearly is not to the point where even just writing that sentence dismissing the idea still feels ludicrously unfair – then as Liberal Democrats we would question his views. But in reality he has a conflict between two powerful and at times contradictory, yet instinctive beliefs. He won’t be the only person to have that, and the reasons for his conflict on these specific issues are probably far more convincing that the doubts I have about the issues I mentioned earlier which can be summed up as “well it’s just how I feel”. Tim perhaps needs a better way of expressing this conflict that doesn’t resort to religious terminology (which does put off a large proportion of the country who aren’t religious), but instead looking at any conflicting instincts that we all have, which for the majority of apolitical people don’t involve their political stance, and arguing why his political instincts win out.

We all get different aspects of what we believe in from different parts of what goes to make us who we are. For some people it’s religion, for others it is family or friends, for others it is reading literature, and so on. It’s not what gets us there, it’s what our general attitude is at the end of it. And on that, I have no doubt about Tim Farron’s liberalism and it’s that liberalism that matters.

Charles Kennedy

Given the number of tributes there have been to Charles it seems unnecessary to do one of my own, but as I woke up to hear about his sad death yesterday there were a few things I wanted to set down in writing.

I didn’t know him personally but he was leader for eight of the 19 years I’ve been a party member and so has in many ways been a leading figure in my life.  Back in the very late 1990s I was on the executive of the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students (LDYS) and my first job after being elected as its Youth Development Officer was collecting Charles Kennedy from the local railway station and walking him to Staffordshire University nearby where we were holding our conference.  He had yet to be elected leader but it was at a time when I’d still get quite starstruck about meeting well known political figures.  The only thing I remember of our conversation on that walk however was him telling me about the importance of the current Countryside Alliance march and how it wasn’t all about hunting but protecting the rural way of life.  Something that was undoubtedly important to him.

I was unusual amongst the group of friends I had in the party at the time that I voted for Charles to be leader.  I think most people felt he was too much the establishment choice, were slightly suspicious of his SDP roots, and didn’t seem enough as being either a grassroots campaigner or political thinker.  That may have been true, but then (as it has been at every leadership election) my choice was about who I thought would be the best figurehead that could get our message across to the public.  I do remember however chatting to a lobbyist at the subsequent federal conference who told me “He won’t be a great leader, but it’ll be fun as a member having him as your leader.”  In hindsight, although without really answering the question, I suppose it’s how you judge a great leader.  One thing I certainly loved was Charles’ conference speeches which always appeared fresh and passionate in a way that I think no leader before or since has quite managed, and made me leave conference enthused.

My only other personal connection with Charles was shortly after he became our leader.  One of his first acts – and one that we were impressed by as we weren’t aware that anyone else had done it – was to invite the LDYS executive round to his flat in Victoria to discuss LDYS issues.  We were all a bit nervous about impressing him but his quip when someone accidentally kicked his coffee table “don’t worry about it, it’s only a family heirloom” relaxed us all.  He certainly knew the way to student hearts and gave us all a beer and then asked us lots about what he could do to help us.  It certainly improved his reputation with those who didn’t vote for him.

Obviously what most people loved about Charles was his reputation as someone normal and unvarnished.  Whilst this can be over exaggerated and many leaders with that reputation have actively cultivated it, with Charles it never really seemed an act.  Everyone knew he didn’t live the healthiest of lifestyles (in a bizarre appointment he was for a time the party’s health spokesman during which he was once overheard outside a healthy eating event saying “well that’s enough health for one day, I need a fag”) although the issue of his drinking was downplayed by many until his notorious Paxman interview and his subsequent admission when his leadership was challenged.  Personally, I think it was right for Charles to retire when he did even if the way it was done seemed brutal.  Although he still seemed on top form to the public; party staff and MPs found him difficult to work with.  But despite this it felt a shame that he never had time as a minister in the last government to show what else he could do.

For me, Charles embodied something that I feel other people have struggled to convey.  The sense that you can be equally passionate about your local roots, your national pride and your Europeanism and internationalism.  In Charles’ case it was as a Highlander, a Scotsman, being British, European and wanting to be significant on the international stage.  Whilst it is true that Charles had to be persuaded in to opposing the war in Iraq, it fits absolutely with him wanting the party he led to be seen as positively internationalist rather than his country ignoring international law and reverting to the British warlike jingoism of the past.  His pro-Europeanism is something that people outside of politics don’t readily associate with Charles, but for me it was one of his greatest attributes.  To me, his greatest victory was not achieving the highest number of seats the party had won since merger (many at the time believed we should have done far better in 2005) but leading us to victory in the 2003 Brent East by-election.  It is a by-election in which I played a very active role and that I absolutely loved being a part of.  It was the perfect embodiment of Charles in his leading role in the anti-war movement and as a positive down to earth figure that people could relate to and whose cause they could rally to in a constituency that was not at all natural territory for us.

I believed that at the recent General Election, Charles was one of the few MPs in Scotland who could resist the SNP tide.  He couldn’t, and so who knows what role he would have continued to play in the future?  Instead he will now join the ranks of those popular charismatic political figures such as Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam and John Smith, who were taken too early and never quite fulfilled their potential.  I didn’t shed a tear yesterday, but I did have a wee dram to remember him by.

Preview of English Lib Dem Executive – 30th May 2015

This Saturday is the first English Lib Dems Executive meeting since the General and Local Elections.  For that reason the focus is partly about reviewing the election just gone but in particular looking at where we go from here (the Strategic Review), which is what will take up all of the second half of the meeting.

The first half of the meeting consists of the usual reports back from the officers of the English Party and the representatives to other party committees.  There’s nothing worse at a committee meeting than people who read out the report that we’ve all already had in writing, and this bit of the agenda is increasingly being focused on questions or detailed discussion on one bit of someone’s report.

Strategic review

The English Lib Dems agreed at its March meeting that after the General Election there would be a review to make proposals for the “future role of the English party and the English regional parties in the rebuilding and future development of the party, including the structure.”  This plan was agreed before the result was known, but the rebuilding process is more significant than most of us anticipated.  The idea is to prepare some initial questions and thoughts for the English Council meeting on 13th June, and this will then be worked up to become final proposals for the November English Council and English regional conferences to consider.  In between times the English Party will be consulting with members to get their views and ideas.

Those members who have been around a while will remember the Party Reform Commission (or Bones Report from c. 2008) and there’s a risk that it repeats the same job.  However, the impression I get is that there is an increasing willingness to look afresh at a lot of things and with the devastating General Election result there will be a need for more dramatic change.  There is a danger that the review will become fixated with structure and the clear desire of many people to scrap the English Party altogether, however it is certainly my view that if the party is to be a success it needs to look at what it wants to be and then design the structures appropriately to support that objective.  That may or may not mean keeping a similar structure to the one we have at present, but that isn’t where we should start. (more…)

Eurovision myths

Every year I get frustrated by comments made about the Eurovision Song Contest and so I thought I’d collect a few together and dispel some myths:

They’re neighbouring countries so of course they vote for each other: Neighbouring countries are as likely to dislike each other as they are to vote for each other, after all, who are they most likely to have invaded over the years?  For many years Greece and Turkey would have never voted for each other (although that is less common now), Armenia and Turkey have hardly been best friends, and Georgia and Russia both being ex-Soviet countries doesn’t mean very much.  It’s more complicated than geography, which I’ll come on to.

Everyone hates the UK:  If they did, why does our music sell so well throughout Europe?  Also, we won in 1997 which is a hell of lot more recent than most countries.  There are 33 countries competing to be in the Eurovision final and we won 18 years ago, which if think that some have won more than once is actually not bad going.  Russia isn’t exactly flavour of the month but they also seem to do OK.

It’s our placing in the contest:  In 2012 we were placed first in the running order and we said it was too early and everyone had forgotten about us by the end.  Last year we were the last to perform and we said, well the problem was that we were too late and everyone had made up their minds and the Netherlands who came shortly before us were so good we looked rubbish in comparison.  You can’t blame the position.  Yes, later songs have generally done better, but an outstanding song trumpets all of that.

So here are some more plausible reasons:

It’s about airplay: Outside of the UK, many countries go round promoting their songs in the run-up to Eurovision, and so by the time they get to the contest itself they’ve heard other country’s songs over and over again.  It also perhaps helps that most countries have to go through the semi-finals as it means that much of Europe has already heard their song and seen it performed on the big stage.  The UK however just doesn’t seem to do its promotion, and the last time I specifically remember us talking about promoting our song it was Katrina and the Waves, and they won!

Many countries share language: This has a bit of a link to the last comment, but when a country shares a language they often listen to each other’s music.  The Scandinavian countries understand each other’s languages so they often hear music from each other’s countries on radio and they also share some TV programmes.  German speaking countries understand each other’s songs, as do French speaking countries and so on.  In fact, the UK can’t criticise this as they have a tendency to vote for Ireland and vice versa for the same reason.  Even these days when most countries sing in English, the tradition of listening to music from countries that share your language, or have a language you understand continues.

Look at minorities:  Neighbouring countries might not vote for each other, but residents of a country whose family hail from another country or who come from a minority group within another might.  After all, I still feel a loyalty to Sweden despite having grown up in the UK (although I’ve been pretty lucky in that Sweden does generally enter good songs) but a good example is how much Germany votes for Turkey, which presumably has a connection with the large Turkish minority in the country.  Whilst I’ve dismissed the “neighbouring countries vote for each other argument” this is actually partly true when it comes to national minorities but it’s far more significant than simple proximity.

We enter rubbish songs: Generally, our entries have been pretty rubbish.  If you enter crap songs, what do you expect to happen?  We’ve assumed that mediocrity with a good singer will do, but actually one big shift in recent years is that most entrants can sing well (it’s very rare you hear a poor singer these days) and so you need more than that to win.  There is definitely a Eurovision type song, but all sorts of things do win, and so whilst some songs that do well commercially may not stand a chance at Eurovision, many songs would.  Perhaps we need a Swedish-style five-week long televised competition as they seem to do pretty well out of it and we like shows like X Factor or The Voice.

Our best writers are going abroad:  Have you noticed how many Eurovision entries are clearly written by British composers? Just look at the captions that appear.  So we can write Eurovision entries that are credible, but we just give them to other countries, perhaps because they take it more seriously and so care more about having someone good to write entries.  In some cases there is a long tradition of British pop or dance writers working abroad, but it’s not as many as there are entries.  Why do we not entice some back home?

We’re all so liberal here in Western Europe:  We like to think we’re all liberal in the UK and some other countries aren’t.  But whilst the UK voted for Conchita Wurst last year, the phone vote went for the writhing sexually provocative female Polish entry, and with Austria third.  It was the jury that tipped the UK in to voting for Austria.  Russia however, that was supposed to be all buttoned up and anti LGBT rights had a public vote that also placed Austria third, it was their jury that stopped them voting for Austria in the end.

But to be honest, whatever happens, do we really enter this to win?  No, we enter because it’s fun, it feels neighbourly and the Eurovision Song Contest is one of the most popular TV programmes in the UK, in Europe and the world as a result. Yes, I’d love us to win some time soon but more than anything (and certainly more than the Olympics) it is the taking part not the winning that counts.

Eurovision Song Contest 2015 – preview

I go slightly Twitter mad when the Eurovision Song Contest is on.  I always liked it, even as a child, I think at that time it was the faint air of European exoticism and it was about the only thing in a year that would make me feel Swedish (there’s many more things now, but that’s another post) but after hiding it for a bit, it’s now becoming sufficiently popular albeit in a camp kitsch type of way, for me to embrace my inner Eurovision geek again.

What this year’s Eurovision entries has made me realise is how spoilt we were last year.  All the talk was of Conchita Wurst, but there were so many potential winners – Netherlands with their country duet, Russia with a catchy song with strangely follicly-conjoined twins that would have done better if they hadn’t just invaded Ukraine (that’s the country not the twins), Sweden with an outstanding ballad performed very well, Iceland with a bit of quirky colourful punky pop, and Spain with Ruth Lorenzo’s dramatic vocals.  In another year any of those could have won.

This year the choice is so much poorer. I’ve come to the conclusion that generally (although they all have off years) that the countries that really get what works at Eurovision are Sweden, Ukraine, Greece, Armenia and Iceland.  Sadly this year, none of them have put in a particularly good entry, and Ukraine have stopped participating. So here’s my top picks (and yes, I have listened to all of the entries at least once):

United Kingdom: OK, here’s my confession.  Yes, I do like the UK entry and it’s a long time since I said that. It’s fun but it’s also performed well and it’s catchy. My main concern is that it might need a lot of people on stage to create the spectacle that the video does and you can only have six on at a time.  Watch it here.

Slovenia: Imaginary instruments, wearing large headphones, quirky voice, catchy song… it might have just enough to do well. If you only hear the song it’s perhaps catchy enough to grab the attention although it takes a while to build, although I also wonder if the oddities actually add something and so a quirky stage set might also help it win.  It’s got a bit of the dance music side of Loreen although not quite at those heights. Air violinist (is there such a thing?)  Watch it here.

Estonia: This was the first song that stood out for me.  It’s a pleasant song that’s got a real story and although pretty dark in its lyrics and even more so in its video, it may be the sort of well written lyrics that the juries will rate. I’d be very happy if this won as it feels like the best song in the contest, but I just don’t think it’ll stand out enough to get even in to the top few as is often the way with songs that are more singer-songwriter duet types.  Watch it here.

Belgium: A bit of catchy dance music with a cute singer who won Belgium’s version of X Factor. This would perform well in the charts if it hadn’t been connected to Eurovision (despite the – to British ears – odd pronounciation of ‘rap’), but older viewers may not be so keen on voting for it but then do they ever anyway?  However, it’s a lot catchier than most of the other songs I’ve picked out and so it should do well and it’s definitely one of my favourites, but how will it come across on a big stage? Watch it here.

Malta:  I’ve picked this despite me not being convinced it’ll get through the semi-finals as I think it’s performed well with incredible vocals and if it wasn’t a Eurovision song it would probably be commercially successful.  It takes a while to build but it’s performed well and by the end it’s a fairly catchy power ballad and it feels as though she’s channeling Ruth Lorenzo which is perhaps no bad thing.  Watch it here.

Russia: Very catchy and a fluffy heartwarming theme about peace and freedom.  It’s also very powerful and dramatic vocals. However, it won’t win as it’s Russia and the theme of the song is exactly what people feel Russia is not at the moment, but on the quality of the song it really should be a challenger.  I always feel a bit sorry for the Russian entry as again they’re good but just won’t win. Watch it here.

Italy: This has amazingly strong vocals and it’s exactly what you expect Italy to enter.  I’ve never liked those popular opera type acts like G4 (it’s amazing how they went from opera to poor security at the Olympics) and Il Divo.  It has the dramatic vocal abilities of Conchita Wurst, which may be what they’re relying on, but it just doesn’t have the backstory that works.  But the video is funnier than you’d expect for this sort of thing, with a singer who seems to think he’s Gok Wan, and if they can pull off the performance on the night, then maybe it’ll be a contender.   Watch it here.

There’s a few tracks that have been highly rated that I really don’t so here’s my thoughts:

Finland:  Why? Why? Why?  Actually, I know why, it’s because it reminds everyone of Lordi.  But Lordi was both heavy metal and with a catchy lyric so could appeal to two different Eurovision demographics.  This is just bad.  It’ll probably win now I’ve said that but it really shouldn’t despite the interesting back story. I can find nothing that redeems it at all.

Norway:  I can sort of see it’s clever, a well sung duet and would perhaps be popular in other circumstances (I’m struggling to think of which) but I just can’t see it.

Iceland:  Quite a nice song and again it’s well sung.  She is a cross between Björk and Lena (German winner from 2010) but it just isn’t catchy enough.

I’ll probably get this all woefully wrong, but this is my take.

Where we go from here: some thoughts for the Liberal Democrats

When I joined the Liberal Democrats towards the end of 1995 it had 24 MPs. I’ve often said that fortunately I wouldn’t see that few Lib Dem MPs again. Even reading the worst opinion polls for the party over the last parliament I didn’t believe I would see that few. Yet here we are, on just eight MPs.

One of the things that’s been hard over this parliament has been to see all the electoral progress that has been made by the party over the 19 years I’ve been a member fall apart. For some people, the successes of the opposition parties has galvanised their resolve and made them want to fight harder. For me, it’s taken some of the fight out of me and made me thoroughly depressed, although there is more to that than just the party’s electoral performance, but that’s another post. I sort of assumed that if the results were absolutely awful it would be time for me to gradually walk away and do something else with the next 19 years even though I’d continue to stay on as a member as it is too engrained in my DNA now.

What I’ve found remarkable however is how that’s not been my reaction. Perhaps it’s been the realisation that all Lib Dems have been hit by the result, not just a handful. Perhaps it’s been the reminder of how awful majority Conservative government is going to be, just as it was when I first joined the party, and that there’s a real need now to stick up for the things that I think are important and that they don’t. I think the surge in party membership has also helped give me some real optimism about the party’s future. Plus the discussion from many people in the party on Twitter, Facebook and on blogs about where we go next has made me find that my thoughts are not heading towards giving up but towards where we go next. So in that spirit, here are a few random collected thoughts from me on that subject.

This was intended to be a brief summary, but on each point it became quite lengthy, so apologies for that. The list is not comprehensive, and I expect I’ll come back to some ideas that are missing or not properly explained. It’s certainly not fully thought through, nor is it all original, but it’s my bit of putting on record what I have going round and round in my mind at the moment and what I’d like to see from the party and whoever we elect as our new leader. (more…)