Saturday, 29 June 2013

What Do We Do With The Liberal Democrats In 2015?

I have signed up for the Conservatives' Team 2015 initiative, which has a 40/40 strategy - namely, focus on 40 seats needed to get a majority of about 40. and try to hang on to the 40 most vulnerable seats. Naturally, next door's Southampton Itchen is one of those.

And this is the Conservative aim - to secure the first Conservative overall majority since April 1992 (and by the time of the May 2015 general election, that will be nearly a quarter of a century ago). Politics was different then. The UK Independence Party, Kidderminster Hospital & Health Concern and Respect - The Unity Coalition didn't even exist, there were no Green or Alliance Party of Northern Ireland MPs. There were even Ulster Unionist Party MPs! (No, I'm not kidding, there really were).

And this raises the question - what about the Liberal Democrats?

There is a narrative favoured by papers such as the Daily Mail in which Prime Minister David Cameron would really love to introduce things but is hampered at every turn by the Liberal Democrat tail wagging the dog. Sorry to disappoint them, but if Cameron is a hostage of the Liberal Democrats then he didn't wait to be politically kidnapped by them before showing the Stockholm Syndrome, he really is a willing hostage.

Cameron supports same-sex marriage because he is a Conservative, not because the Liberal Democrats demanded it. He was an avid husky-hugger before the coalition. The "Vote Blue, Go Green" slogan dates to an era before the Lord President of the Council, Nick Clegg, was elected Liberal Democrat leader.

As I noted some time ago, House of Lords reform was in the Conservative manifesto, not an idea foisted on the Conservatives by their coalition partners.

If the Liberal Democrats are always getting their way, then why do tuition fees still exist?

Both parties have had to make sacrifices.

There are basically 3 possible outcomes to the next election.

The first is a Conservative majority. Now, it might seem logical to ditch the Liberal Democrats. But then there is the concept of loyalty, which dictates that this isn't the way. Legislation still has to get through a hung House of Lords, so even if there is no formal coalition, its passage there could be eased if the Liberal Democrats are brought onboard beforehand - whether by something along the lines of the late 1970s "Lib-Lab pact" or the late 1990s Cabinet committees (both cases would involve Liberal Democrat ex-ministers providing input on policy areas which they were once the Cabinet minister for, and making use of their experience by advising their Conservative successors). After all, a Conservative victory will rest on the party's performance in a Government in which it shared power.

In addition, even with a Conservative majority - especially a small one - there will be backbench rebeliions. In those circumstances it would be prudent for Cameron to ensure that he always had a majority. Sometimes the Conservatives would more-or-less be united around something, other times they wouldn't and he would need to reach out to the Liberal Democrats (and maybe some of the more sensible Labour MPs) to ensure that the Government gets its business through. No point making political enemies for the sake of it.

The second outcome is one where the existing Government keeps its majority in a hung Parliament. Loyalty works both ways. In this case, the Conservatives have a right to expect the Liberal Democrats to keep the coalition going - even if Labour emerges as the largest party.

The third outcome is where the existing Government loses its majority - either in a hung Parliament or by Labour winning an overall majority. In that case, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are absolved from any obligations towards each other, and the Liberal Democrats are free to form a coalition with Labour (if the Parliament is hung).

With this, I want to turn to something else. Now, in May 2011, I voted for altering the electoral system to the Alternative Vote. And one reason was that this Government could be the first since November 1935 to face re-election and get over half the vote, but instead of a landslide majority, it could lose power.

And if AV was no longer an option, what about electoral pacts? But I have been thinking about this.

Every time there is a boundary review, some areas lose seats. And if that area is dominated by one party then there will be the battle between sitting MPs for that party's nomination. We saw this when Scotland was reduced from 72 seats at the June 2001 general election to 59 at the May 2005 general election, so there were seats where more than one Labour MP had a claim, and the party had to choose between them, with the other(s) having to retire.

One thing that was not tried was running both MPs as Labour candidates in safe Labour seats and letting the voters decide.

But that is what will happen in 2015! Across the south west of England, and locally in seats like Eastleigh and Romsey & Southampton North, there are what are effectively safe Coalition seats. Rather than a deal beforehand with parties deciding who a joint Coalition candidate would be (presumably the sitting MP), the voters would be effectively asked "Do you want to keep your Coalition MP or replace him/her with this Coalition candidate?".

There could still be a place for pacts where one Coalition party is in a battle with Labour along the lines of old anti-Labour pacts from the 1950s. Or we could just assume that in those sort of seats there would be tactical voting in an attempt to keep Labour out.

If The Democrats Choose This Man, Then Barack Obama Should Resign

One of this week's big news stories is in Australia, where Kevin Rudd ousted Julia Gillard as Labor leader and hence as Prime Minister, leaving Gillard with more time to knit kangaroos.

Some point this autumn, there will be an election to the House of Representatives and for a little over half the Senate. One common feature in politics is the "honeymoon period" - that time when a new leader sees their party's support rise. And indeed, Labor support has risen. And it must be fortunate for Rudd that the general election could fall in his honeymoon period.

When Anthony Eden became Prime Minister in April 1955, he called a general election for just 7 weeks later, which saw the Conservatives and their allies (National Liberals, Scottish Unionist, Ulster Unionist) increase their share of the vote (to 49.74% - the highest ever for a post-war election) and MPs (although in October 1959, under Eden's successor, Harold Macmillan, they won more seats, but on a slightly lower share of the vote (this wasn't due to a Labour resurgence - the Labour vote fell - but the more-than-doubling of the Liberal vote).

With a free-floating election day, then an incoming Head of Government has the opportunity to put the election in their honeymoon period. With fixed terms, the reverse has to be done - move the honeymoon period to match the general election.

There are all these rumours about Conservative MPs wanting to oust David Cameron, the Prime Minister, as Conservative leader, and replace him with someone else. Ignore all these stalking horse stories - that is not how the leadership election works, as a sitting leader can only be removed in a no-confidence vote once enough Conservative MPs have written to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee to ask for one.

My advice would be to wait until autumn 2014. This would give the Liberal Democrats a reason for leaving and creating clear orange water between them and the Conservatives in the run-up to the May 2015 general election. It would give the incoming Prime Minister the chance to give the public a taster of what a single-party Conservative government under their leadership would do if they won an overall majority.

And it means the 2015 election could be in their honeymoon period, when the Conservatives are enjoying a bounce in the polls.

Another nation with fixed terms is the USA, with the elections for the President held on the Tuesday nearest to Guy Fawkes' Night in every year divisible by 4. No by-elections, no shifting the date. Regular as clockwork.

There are a couple of constitutional amendments which are significant. The first is the Twenty Second Amendment, which brings in term limits. Basically no-one can be elected more than twice to the Presidency, and in some circumstances (where they took over as President less than half-way through their predecessor's term) they are limited to being elected once.

The only Presidents it applied to - those who were elected twice since it was ratified - were Dwight Eisenhower (Republican, January 1953 to January 1961), Richard Nixon (Republican, January 1969 to resigning in August 1974), Ronald Reagan (Republican, January 1981 to January 1989), Bill Clinton (Democrat, January 1993 to January 2001), the younger George Bush (Republican, January 2001 to January 2009) and Barack Obama (Democrat, since January 2009).

In three of those cases, the sitting Vice-President won their party's nomination. Nixon was defeated by the Democrats' John Kennedy in November 1960. Reagan's Vice-President, the elder George Bush, was elected in November 1988, only to be defeated in November 1992 by Clinton. Clinton's Vice-President, Al Gore, was defeated by the younger Bush in November 2000.

As for November 2016, we have yet to see whether, at the nomination convention in August or September that year, the Democrats choose sitting Vice-President, Joe Biden, as their candidate.

If they do, then there is one way Obama can respond to the news - resign.

Not in disgust, or in anger, but due to the workings of another amendment - the Twenty Fifth Amendment. If Obama fails to complete his term of office, for whatever reason, then Biden replaces him. Not as Acting President, but as the constitutionally valid 45th President.

Hence, if that is the choice the Democrats make, then Obama's resignation in September 2016 would have Biden contesting the Presidential election in a unique position - an incumbent President still in his honeymoon period with the voters.

What I find interesting is that no second-term President has ever actually done that for their Vice-President.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Day I Should Have Listened To God, Thomas Hardy And Stevie Nicks

When we did GCSE English Literature, one of the authors we studied was Thomas Hardy, concentrating on Far From The Madding Crowd.

However, we also tackled - but in less depth - Tess Of The D'Urbervilles and Hardy's best book, The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Michael Henchard, to be blunt, has it all. He has his wife, Susan, his daughter (really, not his actual daughter, but Susan's daughter from a later marriage whom he believes is his - read the book as I don't want to give away spoilers - Elizabeth-Jane, and he is Mayor of, well, I'll leave you to work that one out for yourself.

Henchard is the most fascinating character, as he is so self-destructive. It alwsys seemed to me that he was not content with what he had, and when Donald Farfrae arrives on the scene, then his jealousy and hatred of Farfrae - which to be honest, confuses Farfrae who has no desire to be Henchard's enemy - brings about his downfall, a humiliating one.

In the Old Testament, the book of Proverbs hammers something home by mentioning it twice:

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (14:12)


There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (16:25)

Then there is that interesting end to the book of Judges:

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (21:25).

That, it seems, is society hitting rock-bottom, the moment when God intervenes and raises up Samuel and take the steps that lead to David becoming king.

What are laws for? They are not to prevent people from doing what they believe is wrong - rather they are there to prevent people from doing what they believe is right.

What we think might be right might actually be the wrong thing, and will lead to destruction. If you ask me who scares me the most, then my answer will be "me, without God".

Anyone who follows my blog knows I'm a big fan of Doctor Who and in my mind, one of the best is The Waters of Mars, one of the specials set between the 30th and 31st seasons. What moves it from beyond good to an instant classic is towards the end when the Doctor has completely lost his moral compass, acting in ways he believes is right. And he is really out of control, and has to be made aware by Adelaide Brooke (via her suicide), and a projection of Ood Sigma, that he has gone too far.

The Doctor as the bad guy, not by any convenient being-possessed-by-hostile-aliens cop-out, but by doing what he thinks is right. That, Torchwood, is what makes sci-fi grown up, not sex and swearing.

American Beauty is one of my favourite films, because it is one where you can see Lester Burnham's life spin, predictably, out of control by his own actions, leading inevitably to his murder.

As I noted a few months back, the decisions to obey or disobey God are in the little things, and in the Parable of the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1-13), Jesus has this to say:

One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. (v.10)

If we are not obedient in the little choices, then we are not going to be obedient in the big choices. There is no point saying that you do little sins, but that you get the big things correct - you don't steal, you don't sleep around etc..

There are decisions that seem right to us, little decisions, things which are "no big deal" and set us on the wrong path.

The Bible says a lot about contentment. Paul tells the Philippians that:

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. (4:11f.)

And towards the end of his life, Paul writes to Timothy and tells him:

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (6:6-10)

But does this mean we should not be seeking to move onwards and upwards? Probably not - the emphasis is on being godly and on not having a desire to rich, and thence rushing into ruin and destruction. It is all about motivstion.

On the other hand, we also need to accept we are where God placed us.

With the last job, the interview was odd, as the emphasis was on me starting on the calculations team. And I turned up for training, and thought after a few hours that it seemed odd that it was all about reviewing cases and coming to decisions on them. Ho hum, I assumed this was just preliminary stuff and then the calcs training would begin.

Checking I learned that no, I would be on a review team. And I kicked up a fuss and made clear I want to be moved to a calculations team.

Now, at the time I was feeling a bit distant from God, and my spiritual life wasn't what it should be. And that led me to bad decision - rather than accepting what I was given as being from God and choosing to be content with it, I took the other approach. And it wasn't forgotten.

One of my favourite bands are Fleetwood Mac, and Stevie Nicks does a lot of good solo stuff as well, such as Somtimes It's A Bitch - a song which only hit number 40 in the hit parade, in August 1991, in the week that Bryan Adams' (Everything I Do) I Do It For You was only on its 8th week at number 1 (a song which, by that stage, I was sick of hearing on the wireless).

There is one thing that Nicks sings towards the end:

Sometimes the picture just ain't what it seems. You get what you want...but it's not what you need

And that sums it up. I hadn't chosen to be content. And I got what I wanted - and it damaged.

When a new calculations team was chosen, I was remembered. And I exchanged a job I was good at for the one I thought I wanted.

It was during that time that my health got worse.

If only I had learned to be content, if only.....

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Leaving My Job

Today, I took a step I was thinking of for a few days - I quit my job.

Now, there is a background. I have written of times I have been taken ill back in late January and late February.

Since then, to be honest, my health has been bad, almost as if my immune system is weakened, as I have been laid low often. I'm not into "manflu", and in the job I had for over 7 years in Basingstoke, I was hardly off ill, normally coming in even if unwell. I am not a person who has "sickies" or "duvet days". Indeed, often when I've had a day ill, I have set out and turned round.

The problem with contracting is that it is a different sort of pressure - you stay and get x cases done. And to be honest, to do that you have to be well. If unwell, then you are slower, you stay later and get home later, have less sleep, which doesn't do getting better any good.

And this has been Andover. If you look at the rail map, then it is a fiddly journey, either via Basingstoke or Salisbury from Southampton Central. And it seems to be tight connections, with a journey being around an hour. I can remember days of when I could walk to a workplace.

So, really I am looking for something local - or at least with a quick connection to Southampton Central with no fiddly connections.

I want to go back to a 9ish to 5ish job. I see friends put on Facebook things they have done, and I recall things called evenings - or as I ended up calling them later travelling periods.

Connected to this, eating tended to be a quick microwave meal at work. Yes, I did ensure I bought healthy stuff from Waitrose or Marks & Spencer, and made sure I kept my fruit and vegetable intake up with those snacks they do at Asda as well. But this isn't the healthy eating of getting a meal and putting it in an oven.

So, a bit of time out, hopefully get my health sorted out, before looking again.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Can John The Baptist Tell Us When To Celebrate Christmas?

Sounds like an odd question. Surely we are at the half-way point between Christmas 2012 and Christmas 2013.

Today is St John the Baptist's day in the calendar of several denominations. And one thing I want to focus on is his dad, Zechariah. We don't know much about him, but he was of the priestly order of Abijah (Luke 1:5). Moreover, as vv.8-17 tell us, it was his turn to be on duty when an angel appeared to him.

I remember once hearing that we can then calculate approximate dates - at best months - from this encounter. His wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant (v.24), and 5 to 6 months later, the angel Gabriel appeared to her kinswoman Mary to tell her that she too was going to have a Son (vv.26-33).

So, what have we actually got here? 5 to 7 months (after all, give Elizabeth time to become pregnant) after Zechariah has his encounter with the angel, Mary meets Gabriel. Assuming she becomes pregnant within a month, then she becomes pregnant between 5 and 8 months after Zechariah meets the angel.

Hence, Jesus is born between 1 year 2 months and 1 year 5 months after Zechariah was on duty.

King David organised the priests into the sort of rota so beloved by churches (I Chron. 24) and we see that the division of Abijah was 8th on a rota of 24 (v.10).

So, does that narrow it down? 24 divisions, 12 months, so the priestly divisions each serving a half-month?

Well, it sounds logical. But firstly, the Bible doesn't tell us how long they serve for. Could be a week, could be a month.

And secondly, you can't say "priestly division X served in the first/second half of month Y", as the calendar shifts. The synodic month - which, despite its name, is not set by the Church of England's General Synod - is 29.530589 days, while the tropical year is 365.2421897 days.

19 tropical years is 6,939.6016043 days.

235 synodic months is 6,939.688415 days.

Hence, there is a difference of 2 hours 5 minutes.

235 months works out as 12 years of 12 months and 7 years of 13 months in a 19-year cycle.

And this is what the Jewish calendar uses, so even if the priestly divisions used a 12-month cycle, this would shift through the year.

And to add to this, the Jews were sent into exile, and when they returned only the divisions of Jediah, Immer, Pashhur and Harim returned (Ezra 2:36-39). Logically, if the division of Abijah didn't return with the exiles, then some of them must have returned later. It does sound reasonable then that the system David drew up collapsed (as only a handful of priestly divisions returned) and presumably, when Ezra restored the Temple worship, he drew up a new system which doesn't appear in the Bible.

It's a nice idea that we can date the time of the year Jesus was born from Luke 1, but it doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Emma Makes Her Mark

One thing that interests me is geneaology, and I recently got hold of the birth certificate of my great-grandmother, Jemima Pointer (nee Baker), who was born in July 1877.

What struck me as sad is the section Signature, description and residence of the informant for the answer begins:

X. The mark of Emma Baker, mother

Not a signature, a mark.

Emma was married in 1860 - so unless she had problems conceiving or her husband George had difficulty fathering children, Jemima would have elder siblings. Of course, they might not have lived - one great-grandmother of mine had 5 children, of which only 3 survived to adulthood (the other 2 died from meningitis, which is why my gran got very worried when I was at university and she would hear news stories about outbreaks of meningitis among students, anywhere in the country).

Emma would have been in her forties when Jemima was born - so Emma was born in the reign of William IV, when the only records were parish ones.

And she was so illiterate she couldn't sign her name.

Considering the opportunities I had - free compulsory schooling till I was 15, free sixth-form college for 2 years after that, undergraduate education for 3 years with tuition fees paid by Hampshire taxpayers, and then two post-grad degrees - I find it sad that my great-great-grandmother was from an era when going to school was just a pipe dream.

The House of Lords Will Grow Too Much

I have had a look at the "alternative Queen's speech" and there is one Bill that I haven't touched on yet - the House of Lords (Maximum Membership) Bill.

The list (this gets updated regularly, so these figures are just for the moment) gives:

  • Labour - 217
  • Conservative - 210
  • Crossbench - 180
  • Liberal Democrat - 89
  • Archbishops & Bishops - 25
  • Non-affiliated - 21
  • Other parties - 13

The "other parties" covers 2 Democratic Unionists (Wallace Browne, and the former Northern Ireland Minister for Social Development Maurice Morrow - note that the former Northern Ireland First Minister, Ian Paisley, and his wife Eileen, are both on a Leave of Absence); 2 Ulster Unionists (the former party leader, Northern Ireland Minister for Employment and Northern Ireland Minister for Enterprise & Trade Reg Empey, and Dennis Rogan - although I am suprised to see Empey listed here, as his peerage was announced as a Conservative working peer); 2 UK Independence Party (former party leader Malcolm Pearson and Leopold Verney); 2 Plaid Cymru (both former party leader - the Assembly Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Dafydd Elis-Thomas and Dafydd Wigley); 2 Independent Labour (Jeff Rooker and David Stoddart, both former MPs); 2 Independent Liberal Democrats (Chris Rennard and former MP Jenny Tonge); and finally 1 Independent Conservative, David Stevens.

The non-affiliated are a mixed bag, ranging from people who have to be neutral, such as the Speaker of the House of Lords Frances D'Souza and the Chairman of the Enviroment Agency Chris Smith, through to people who have lost their party's whip due to misuse (often financial) of their position.

What I first want to look at is the "big party" peers - the 217 Labour, 210 Conservative, 89 Liberal Democrat and 2 UK Independence Party ones, making up 518 of the 755 eligible members.

One principle is that the number of the "big party" peers, by party, should depend on the relative share of the vote at the last general election. The latest poll by YouGov gives, out of 1,387 voters, 572 choosing Labour, 456 the Conservatives, 201 the UK Independence Party and 158 the Liberal Democrats.

Hence, the Liberal Democrats have 158/1387 = 11.4% of the "big party" vote. And this should be reflected in the number of peers they have after the next election.

Assuming - and this is a big if - there are no furher peerage creations this side of the general election, then the 89 Liberal Democrat peers will have to comprise 11.4% of the "big party" peerages.

Hence, the number of "big party" peerages would have to be:

89 x 1387/158 = 781

This would give the number of peerages as:

  • Labour - 322 (up 105)
  • Conservative - 257 (up 47)
  • UK Independence Party - 113 (up 111)
  • Liberal Democrat - 89 (unchanged)

To put it another way, to ensure the number of party peers reflects the share of the vote, 263 new peers need to be created.

Well, actually it's more than that. If you take the 730 non-ecclesiastical peers (i.e. the "lords temporal") then 180 of them are Crossbenchers, comprising 24.7% of them. If 263 new party peers are created, then this brings the number of lords temporal to 973 - and the Crossbenchers would be reduced to just 18.5% of this total. So, to keep the current ratio, we need to create an extra 80 peers.

This gives us:

  • Labour - 322 (up 105)
  • Crossbench - 260 (up 80)
  • Conservative - 257 (up 47)
  • UK Independence Party - 113 (up 111)
  • Liberal Democrat - 89 (unchanged)
  • Archbishops & Bishops - 25 (unchanged)
  • Non-affiliated - 21 (unchanged)
  • Other parties - 11 (down 2 as we are counting UK Independence Party separately)

With 343 new peers created, then this brings the House of Lords up to 1,098 - around the size when the hereditary peers were expelled.

It is likely that Labour will form the next Government - but would only have 29.3% of the House of Lords membership, which will be quite low for a Government wanting to get its business through.

That Alternative Queen's Speech

There has been a bit of interest today about a group of Conservative MPs - Philip Hollobone (Kettering); Peter Bone (next door Wellingborough): and Christopher Chope (Christchurch) - managed to get a set of Bills onto the list of Bills, although they do not (yet) appear on the list on the Parliament website.

And a curious mixed bag of Bills they are.

The first thing to note is that both main parties have their awkward squad. Labour had to deal with the Militant Tendency in the early 1980s - who were unrepresentative of that party. Conservative leaders have had to deal with an element on the right of the party.

The problem is that these are the sort of groups who convince themselves they speak for the "silent majority", for "true Socialism/Conservatism" and that they have found Policy X which will bring landslide victory.

They do not speak for the Conservative party or for Conservatism.

The second thing to note is that this is not a Daily Mail fantasy. It is silent on that paper's hobbyhorses. There is nothing about banning GM crops (that paper thinks that "Frankenstein food" is an acceptable response to the scientific evidence) or making climate-change denial official policy.

There is nothing requiring female celebrities to parade through London weekly in their bikinis so that people can go "OMG. She has really let herself go. Plump or what?"

And there is no Carole Middleton (Lifetime Incarceration In The Tower Of London Dungeon & Permanent Disposal Of Its Key) Bill.

The third thing to note (a bit less flippantly) is that there is not much of an attempt to reverse the constitutional work of the 1997-2010 Labour Government. Sure, there are attempts to merge the Departments covering the non-English parts of the United Kingdom, but despite the dire warnings of the mid-late 1990s about devolution, nothing in there to undo devolution. The removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords was once The End Of Civilisation As We Know It and the overturning of A Thousand Years Of History, but what planned House of Lords reform there is does not intend to bring back the hereditaries.

This week, the Political & Constitutional Reform Committee has been looking at the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, with Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North, noting that allowing the Prime Minister to set the election date was "quaint and quite dangerous".

Now, hang on a second. Practically every election has been at the Prime Minister's discretion. The 2011 Act has not been used yet. But just 2 years after it hit the Statute Book, it is now seen as part of our tradition. And that is how British parliamentary traditions work - they are created overnight and stay.

Just as the devolution and the removal of the hereditary peers are part of our constitutional and parliamentary tradition.

The fourth thing I want to note is that awful term "Tory Taliban". I think Godwin's Law needs to be updated to include Taliban references alongside the Nazi ones.

These Conservative MPs are not trying to make women wear the burqa, they are not banning women from driving, they are not shooting girls who go to school, they are not calling for hands to be amputated.

With that out of the way, onto the Bills themselves. And there are often variations on a theme:

  • European Communities Act 1972 (Repeal) Bill
  • Fishing Grounds & Territorial Waters (Repatriation) Bill
  • Romanian & Bulgarian Accession (Labour Restrictions) Bill
  • United Kingdom (Withdrawal From The European Union) Bill
  • EU Membership (Audit Of Costs & Benefits) Bill

So, what do they want? Just a review of EU membership (the fifth Bill)? Unilateral withdrawal from some parts of European law (the second and third Bills), while remaining part of the EU?

Or is it total withdrawal (the first and fourth Bills) - and if so, is it by the idea that Parliament can unilaterally withdraw at any time with no-one else's permission (the first Bill), or via the procedure in the Treaty of Lisbon?

Unconnected with the European Union, this brings me to the Alleged Terrorists Bill, whose emotive title doesn't make it immediately obvious that its purpose is to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights, ostensibly so that suspected terrorists whom British courts have ruled cannot be deported can then be deported.

Hmm, so why not call it European Convention of Human Rights (Withdrawal) Bill?

And what's all this about "alleged terrorist"? Either someone has been found guilty, in which case they are a terrorist. Or they haven't been, in which case they are innocent until proven guilty. Since when has the principle that alleged criminals should have their human rights withdrawn been part of the legal system?

Next up is a trio of Bills:

  • Benefit Entitlement (Restriction) Bill
  • Collection of Nationality Data Bill
  • Foreign Nationals (Access to Public Services) Bill

Hmm, so the first will restrict the entitlement of non-British citizens from the European Economic Area to state benefits. Now, this would breach European law unless we withdrew from the EU (see above) - and it is unclear whether they wish us to withdraw from the EEA as well.

As a matter of curiosity, how this will affect people from Northern Ireland who chose to identify as Irish rather than British when it comes to which passport they carry? Or the Irish ex-pat community here?

We have never made any real distinction between British and Irish citizens, but will this mean we will do so?

Collect and publish data about the nationality of people in receipt of benefits? Er, but if you're going to withdraw benefits from people who are not British citizens, then by definition those people in receipt of benefits are British nationals - unless you are going to redefine nationality (e.g. based on ancestry).

Abd if you are going to restrict access to free public services (e.g. health services) for people who are "foreign nationals", then how are you going to do it? The various times this year I have been taken to A&E, I have not had to prove nationality - and in an emergency, this would slow the paramedics down. Would this become one of the things they have to check? The logical step for this would be to them introduce ID cards - sorry, entitlement cards - by the back door, those cards which have been a constant solution in search of a problem.

  • BBC Licence Fee (Civil Debt) Bill
  • BBC Privatisation Bill

Well, what do they want? To privatise the BBC - and therefore get rid of the licence fee - or to make it easier for people to avoid paying the licence fee?

This seems to be turning into a knee-jerk group of contradictory Bills.

  • National Service Bill

By the right, quick march! Right, right, right, right, right, right,.....

OK, where do I even begin with this?

I remember when we did GCSE History, there was the discussion of conscription in the First World War. What is interesting is when it came to the dads of people in our class - and this shows how old we are. For some people had dads who were old enough to have been called up for National Service in the post-Second World War era, and indeed, some of them had dads who were conscripts fighting in Korea.

And that is conscription - people fight wars.

There used to the sort of letter in the Daily Mail of the "There are these 13, 14-year-olds hanging around. A bit of National Service will be good for them. I had to do National Service and it never did me any harm" variety. Hmm, so the way to deal with children who hang around is to send them into the Army later on in life?

And surely this misses the point of the military? It's not there to be the social workers who intervene at age 18 to ensure children are better behaved at 13. It's not there to pick up what parents failed to do.

Over the past few years, there have been military interventions. Just consider what happens when conscripts' coffins are brought back from Syria, and the public response. Is that really what these MPs want?

  • Young Offenders (Parental Responsibility) Bill
  • Prisoners (Completion of Custodial Sentence) Bill
  • Sentencing Escalator Bill

Bit of a curate's egg here. Of course, with sentencing, judges are allowed to take into account someone's previous conduct - if they want a US-style "Three strikes and you're out" then they should say so - but I am concerned when Parliament tries to remove judicial discretion.

And there is a tradition of prisoners who have shown good behaviour being released on parole, perhaps by being tagged. One part of the prison system is rehabilitation, and early release gives convicts something to work towards to encourage them to progress in this. Without the possibility of early release, this motivation is not there. It sounds tough, but is counter-productive.

  • Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill

When I lived in Leicester, there were times when the sports centre I used was women-only. I recall a group of men, called The Equality Squad objecting, on the grounds that equality means men should be allowed to use it during these times.

I personally had no objection - some Leicester ladies are from cultures where it would be seen as wrong for her to use a swimming pool or a gym when men were there. I don't mind giving up some of my freedom to allow these ladies to exercise (pun intended) their freedom for a short period each week.

Ban the burqa, and you won't have some ladies going out bare-faced. You'll have them not going out at all.

Think burqa-clad women going out and about aren't integrating? Well, how will making them stay inside help them integrate?

  • School Governing Bodies (Adverse Weather Conditions) Bill

Now, I remember the cold winter of 1986/87, and how our secondary school was closed at times. However, they didn't tell us - you turned up, the registers were taken, and then we were sent home. Radio Solent would have the daily announcements of closed schools.

Now, closing schools creates consequences - parents find themselves having to take time off work, parents' colleagues find themselves having to do more work to cover (unless their workplace is closed).

But isn't this a bit prescriptive? Do we really want to see headteachers ending up in court because they took a decision they thought was in the best interests of their staff and pupils? All that in loco parentis, duty of care stuff....

  • Government Departments (Amalgamation of Scotland Office, Wales Office & Northern Ireland Office) Bill
  • Department of Energy & Climate Change (Abolition) Bill
  • Foreign Aid Ring-fencing (Abolition) Bill
  • Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Abolition) Bill
  • Prime Minister (Replacement) Bill

I have included the fifth one here, as it ties in with the fourth.

But first we need to take a step back. Under the Ministers of the Crown Act 1975, ministerial functions are transferred via Orders-in-Council. To do this by primary legislation is a regressive step.

It is true that since devolution, the Cabinet ministers for the non-English parts of the United Kingdom have had fewer responsibilities, and indeed, there were times of combinations (e.g. Alistair Darling combined being Scottish Secretary with being Transport Secretary; Peter Hain combined being Welsh Secretary with being Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons).

In addition, there have been light-duty posts, such as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Lord President of the Council, Lord Privy Seal, whose holders have been given something else to do (such as leading the House of Lords or the House of Commons). There is something to be said for a Scottish Secretary etc. having lighter duties to enable him or her to sit on more Cabinet Committees than colleagues do, or having more time to provide political advice to the Prime Minister.

This combination has been suggested before - I recall rumours that the last Labour Government would appoint a "Secretary of State for the Union" or a "Secretary of State for the Nations & Regions".

Aboloshing the Department of Energy & Climate Change - I assume that these are from the wing which thinks global warming is a myth (no doubt drawn up in Brussels), and things such as the Wind Farm Subsidies (Abolition) Bill and the Control of Offshore Wind Turbines Bill.

If you are a Conservative hardliner, then this is the stance you should be taking on the environment.

The tricky one is abolishing the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Does such an Office exist? And actually, does a Deputy Prime Minister exist?

To be blunt, the United Kingdom doesn't have - and never has had - a Deputy Prime Minister. Sure, there have been individuals allowed to use it as a meaningless honorific, but at no point was Nick Clegg, the Lord President of the Council, given any Seals of Office for "Deputy Prime Minister". In May 1997, John Prescott was given the Seals of Office for "Secretary of State for Environment, Transport & Regional Affairs", swapping them in June 2001 for those of "First Secretary of State".

The Parliament website list puts Clegg under the Cabinet Office with no mention of an Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

However, the Government website does have a Deputy Prime Minister's Office, while stating that Clegg is based at the Cabinet Office and the Deputy Prime Minister's Office. To make things more confusing, the official list of ministerial responsibilities only puts Clegg in the Cabinet Office.

The Cabinet Office is a strange beast. Seems not so much concerned with what Government does, more with how Government does what it does.

So, is there an "Office of the Deputy Prime Minister" to be abolished? Are they talking about abolishing the Cabinet Office if that is where Clegg is based? Sure, things like voter registration and electoral policy could go to the Home Office or Ministry of Justice (both of which have covered these before); industrial relations and trade union reform could go to the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills; but nothing else seems to have a logical place elsewhere.

This brings me on to the idea of legislation to establish what happens when a Prime Minister is unavailable. Why so urgent now? In June 1953 Winston Churchill suffered a stroke while Prime Minister - being out of action for 4 months - and the sky refrained from falling in.

I remember being a member of a Anglican church while we had a lengthy interregnum, and near the end one of the wardens mentioned that the church had been well-run during that time, so we'd probably wonder why we actually needed a vicar! To be honest, if the Cabinet is run well as a collective body, then we could manage without a Prime Minister for a few weeks.

I lived in Scotland in October 2000, when Donald Dewar, the First Minister who headed a Labour/Liberal Democrat administration, died. Now, the Scotlsnd Act 1998 outlines the procedure when the post of First Minister falls vacant - the Presiding Officer appoints a de facto Acting First Minister, with the Scottish Parliament having 28 days to elect a new First Minister or else an extraordinary general election is held (unless it is less than 6 months from the day the next general election was due, in which case that election is brought forward).

When the administration was formed, Dewar appointed Jim Wallace - at the time the leader of the Liberal Democrat group in the Scottish Parliament and now in the British Government as Advocate-General - as Deputy First Minister (as well as Minister for Justice). There was some press stuff that David Steel, the Liberal Democrat Presiding Officer, was concerned this would tie his hands if the post of First Minister fell vacant, as Dewar had effectively indicated that if he died then he wished Steel to appoint Wallace to take over temporarily.

But the benefit of Wallace being in charge was that he could not be a candidate for leading the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament, and by agreement whoever led Labour would be First Minister. Therefore, no-one could be Acting First Minister and use it to push their claims to be First Minister.

Interesting to note that the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act does not list a lengthy vacancy in the post of Prime Minister as a dissolution-causing event.

If David Cameron does have to give up being Prime Minister at such short notice that there isn't time for the Conservatives to have completed a leadership election (or even begin one) then it is logical for the Queen to ask Clegg to lead the Government (and hence be the first Liberal Prime Minister since David Lloyd-George), with the Cabinet understanding that he would resign once a Conservative leader is chosen.

But I guess the purpose of the Bill is to ensure that Clegg never becomes Prime Minister, even on a short-term basis.

As an aside, currently in Scotland, the First Minister (Alex Salmond) and Deputy First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon) are both from the Scottish National Party. I was recently in Edinburgh and chatting to someone who is just as interested in Scottish politics, and we wondered whether the big headline for later editions of the papers on Friday 19 September 2014 would be "Salmond resigns". In which case, Sturgeon would logically become both Acting First Minister and a candidate with a realistic chance of being elected SNP leader and hence First Minister in her own right.

And then there is the little kneejerk plea to end our commitment to international aid being a certain percentage of GDP.

Appeals to the Daily Mail and Daily Express lobby, but the problem here is that the Budget is decided by discussion with the Treasury and other departments. Why should a Chief Secretary to the Treasury have their hands tied by Parliament setting the amount to be spent by one department, but not any other?

  • Margaret Thatcher Day Bill

No! No! No!

We do not name bank holidays after people in this country. And it reduces the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, down to a political football.

Do we really honour a famous workaholic by giving everyone an annual day off in her memory?

Keep the August bank holiday as it is. There is no alternative.

And now the worst of the Bills:

  • Sexual Improprietry in Employment Bill

Ah, the Groper's Charter.

Over the past few months, we hsve seen celebrities being arrested for alleged sexual offences from decades ago (and in some cases leading to convictions), and you get the predictable response - "in my day, it was just called giving someone a cuddle".

Thankfully the law is tightened up now. Even a few years ago there was one guy I knew who was consistently inappropriately acting towards female colleagues - the dirty, sexually suggestive language he used was ugly to listen to, and I should have had a bit more courage and intervened.

Whenever the Daily Mail has a story about a woman objecting to being wolf-whistled at, then you get the usual responses (which get heavily green-arrowed). What is her problem? Surely she should be glad that she is pretty enough to get wolf-whistled at?

The problem was this guy's boss was keen to be "one of the lads", and for him, what was happening was that there was simply a "bloke" who was "having a bit of a larf". Sexually suggestive comments to women was just "office banter".

That sort of environment is ugly. And why these MPs want to make it acceptable again is beyond me.

People go to work to work. Not to get touched up or to be on the receiving end of sexually suggestive language.

So, that is an overview of the proposed Bills. There is a bit of good stuff in there, but it is all eclipsed by the kneejerk bad stuff.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Should Heterosexual Christians Choose Civil Partnership Over Marriage?

Next week, the House of Lords debates the controversial Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill, which plans to do what it says on the tin - extend the institution of marriage to couples of the same sex.

One change to note is that the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 will be amended to remove any concept of conjugal rights between a same-sex couple (i.e. an opposite-sex marriage is voidable if a one spouse is unable to, or refuses to - in the delicate language of the law - consummate the marriage, whereas an same-sex one won't be) and also amended - with this affecting all married couples, regardless of gender - so that a divorce on the grounds of adultery is only possible if a spouse has sexual activity with someone of the opposite sex.

This ties in with the Civil Partnership Act 2004 which states that a civil partnership cannot be dissolved on the grounds of adultery or non-consummation.

Although same-sex marriage, just like civil partnerships, gets referred to as "gay marriage", this is technically incorrect, as it makes no presumption on sexual activity between the spouses/partners. Indeed, there is nothing to stop two heterosexual people of the same gender entering into a civil partnership, or a same-sex marriage when the Bill becomes law.

A couple of years ago I was sitting an insurance exam, and one question was an older man wanting to leave most of his estate to a younger male friend and looking at how to reduce the income tax liability. I suppose I should have written something about putting it in trust, but my memory went blank, and with time running out I suggested they enter a civil partnership as the younger man gets the estate free of Inheritance Tax and gets a spouse's/civil partner's pension on top.

That was probably not what the examiner was looking for.

Memo to self - must resit that exam when I have time.

Let's face facts here. Same-sex marriage will happen. How should the churches respond?

The Submission of the Clergy Act 1533 forbids the Church of England from passing any canon law (in this case the relevant canon is Canon B30) that is incompatible with the state law, hence there needed to be provisions in the Bill to ensure that Church of England clergy were not required to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies - indeed the Bill prevents same-sex marriages from being solemnised "according to the rites of the Church of England" (by the way, could Government ministers stop being disingenious by talking about "civil marriages" and "religious marriages"? Even the Home Office consultation paper was titled Equal Civil Marriage. The law recognises marriage which can be solemnised by either a civil ceremony or a religious ceremony - marriage is marriage is marriage regardless of where the ceremony took place).

Though, actually, when people make this non-existent distinction between "civil marriages" and "religious marriages", they could be, unwittingly, coming across the solution for the churches.

One friend of mine was the pastor of an evangelical free church in the USA, and when it looked like his state could introduce same-sex marriages, was of the opinion that if the state redefined marriage from its historic definition of one-man-and-one-woman, then he would have to "get out of the marriage business".

I wonder, instead of getting out of the marriage business, the churches could develop a rival to the state-run marriage business.

As the Bill went through the House of Commons, there was an attempt to amend it so that civil partnerships were extended to opposite-sex couples. The current version of the Bill requires the "Secretary of State" (currently referring to Maria Miller, the Culture, Media & Sport Secretary and Minister for Women & Equalities) to hold - and have published - a review into civil partnerships, which has to include a public consultation.

And this could be a way forward for churches which no longer feel they could conduct marriages if the term has been redefined, or individual Christians who feel that they could not enter into a marriage under the new legal definition.

Why not have a marriage ceremony, but without the signing of the register? It is the signing of the register that makes a marriage valid in the eyes of the state. But in the eyes of the congregation, and the couple's family, friends and acquaintances? The couple have made a public commitment to each other, before people they know, and have uttered vows to each other before God. In everything apart from the law, they are a married couple.

But what about the legal aspect? The Home Office consultation document noted:

Married couples and civil partners are entitled to similar rights and responsibilities but there are some differences around eligibility for some pension rights and laws around adultery and non-consummation and courtesy titles.

Such a couple could get the legal benefits of marriage, and the state's recognition of their relationship, by entering into a civil partnership. The circle will have been truly squared.

The Church of England would need to get the approval of the General Synod for this, but, as far as I can tell, would not be acting illegally by holding marriage ceremonies without the marriage.

To avoid people getting "married" to one person in one church and then to another person later elsewhere, then something along the lines of the approach used for the Order for Prayer & Dedication after a Civil Marriage would be needed (churches outside the Church of England would need to use their own formula) - just as you cannot have this ceremony without having had your marriage solemnised in a civil ceremony, then the church "marriage service" would only be open to opposite-sex couples who had entered a civil partnership beforehand. In addition, to prevent a future church questioning whether a couple had got "married", there would need to be a central register of such marriage ceremonies - perhaps held by an ecumenical body such as Churches Together in Britain & Ireland.

When marriage is redefined, the churches will need to start thinking outside the box on this.

The First Secretary's Red Card And A European Senate

William Hague, the First Secretary of State and Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary, has made the suggestion that there needs to be a "red card" system so that national parliaments can block proposed European Union law.

Hmm, so how are you going to get all those national parliaments together?

If we go back to the early days of the European Parliament, it was the Parliamentary Assembly of the European Coal & Steel Community. Until the first direct elections of June 1979, Members of the European Parliament were members of national parliaments (MNPs) who were chosen to represent their nations.

One way forward could be to create a European Senate, with Senators chosen from among MNPs. These Senators would then be able to bring proposed European legislation to their legislatures for discussion, take soundings and report back, being accountable to the people via their national legislatures.

It would enable some MNPs to develop expertise in European matters, just as others develop expertise in other areas.

There should also be some form of flexibility about who Senators should be. For example, there would naturally be permanent-ish Senators, serving until their nation's next election, while there could be other ad hoc Senators, if, say, the Senate was going to discuss the Common Agricultural Policy, then some members of the House of Commons' Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Select Committee and the House of Lords' European Union Sub-Committee D could find themselves co-opted to go to Strasbourg to be Senators for those sessions.

Note that I said going to Strasbourg. One thing that annoys MEPs is the travelling circus, holding some sessions in Brussels and others in Strasbourg, with there being a Single Seat campaign. If a Senate were set up, then perhaps the French Government would agree to the Parliament always meeting in Brussels in return for the Senate being on French soil.

As for the size of the Senate, one choice is for each nation's Senate delegation to equal the number of votes a nation has in the Council of Ministers - ranging from 29 for Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy down to 3 for Malta. That makes 345 at the moment, although I expect Croatia, given its population, to have 7.

That gives us 352 Senators. If it is to take over some of the Council of Ministers' work, then it is sensible that something like Qualified Majority Voting is used. Either each national delegation decides among itself how it will cast the nation's vote(s) on a matter, or each Senator has one vote. Either way, a super-majority would be needed (maybe two-thirds, or 235 Senators) to pass anything coming to it from the Parliament.

This would bring national parliaments into the European legislative process at an earlier stage, and promote links between national parliaments and the European Parliament. In addition, it would make the Parliament think twice before legislating, as there would be the Senate hurdle to get over.

The Last Doctor

According to some sources there will be a big Doctor Who reveal in the next hours.

It will be a shame if Matt Smith does leave - I had thought no-one could replace David Tennant (although, to be honest, I found his characterisation getting annoying during the specials between Seasons 30 and 31 - but maybe that was intentional), but Smith has managed to do that.

Doctors come and go.

A Doctor needs to go at the right moment. With hindsight, Tom Baker's tenure went downhill after The Armageddon Factor, and I wonder if that would have been the right moment for him to leave. Fans often question why Romans regenerated between that and Destiny of the Daleks, but I had assumed that it made sense on-screen (off-screen, of course, Mary Tamm had left and Lalla Ward was replacing her) as the Doctor and Romana had defeated the Black Guardian, they were aware he was looking for revenge (hence fitting a randomiser to the TARDIS) and his servants would be looking out for them - with descriptions of their appearance. Hence changing appearance could make that vital difference between being detected or not. I feel the Key To Time season should have ended with both the Doctor and Romana regenerating to make it slightly harder for the Black Guardian to track them down.

If the new Doctor appears in August next year, does that mean there is a regeneration at the end of the Christmas special?

In the final episode of season 33, The Name of the Doctor we were introduced to another Doctor, played by John Hurt. But where does he fit in? There are two regenerations we never saw on-screen, namely from Patrick Troughton to Jon Pertwee and from Paul McGann to Christopher Eccleston.

Hurt being the third Doctor is hard to fit into what we have seen on screen - at the end of The War Games it was clear that the Doctor was about to start his sentence of a regeneration and exile to Earth. Some fans have come up with the "Season 6B" theory to explain continuity problems in The Two Doctors. After all, if Gallifrey had an advanced judicial system, then there must somewhere be a Court of Appeal which perhaps overturned the punishment on Jamie McCrimmon (and so got his memory back) and put the Doctor on a sort-of bail (movement restricted by perhaps the Time Lords remotely controlling the TARDIS, just as they did for some of the Pertwee adventures like Colony in Space and The Curse of Peladon until the Court of Appeal decided that the sentence of regeneration-and-exile was fair and was to be carried out - at the same time ruling that Jamie's memory was to be wiped and him sent back to Scotland).

However, it is possible that somewhere there was a "Season 6C" with Troughton regenerating (by choice) into Hurt, stealing a different TARDIS and then being brought back and forced to regenerate into Pertwee.

If that's not the case then this leaves the gap between McGann and Eccleston, and the logical assumption that the action that Hurt took without choice in the name of sanity and peace was the ending of the Time War by destroying Gallifrey. Nah, too logical and obvious.

A third possibility is that Hurt is playing the original Doctor, before William Hartnell, and that he did something so bad that he regenerated and fled Gallifrey. So bad that even in The Three Doctors the Time Lords dare not bring that Doctor back? So bad that the first Doctor's "There are five of me now" in The Five Doctors is to reinforce what he has been trying to tell himself - that he is the first - and making sure that the fifth Doctor sticks to that?

However we look at it, Smith is the twelfth Doctor. And it has been established that the Doctor can only regenerate twelve times. When Smith regenerates, the next Doctor is the last one?

We have already seen that rule overcome, in Utopia when the Master regenerates from Derek Jacobi to John Simm. For long-term fans there is a slight problem here, as one factor behind the Master's appearances from The Deadly Assassin onwards is his quest to get a new body as he has used up all his regenerations, ultimately stealing Tremas' body in The Keeper of Traken.

But if he has used up all his regenerations, how can he regenerate again?

I think the answer lies in the Chamaeleon Arch, which he must have used to change his DNA from Time Lord to human. When he reverted to Time Lord, then perhaps that reset his regenerations.

The Doctor used a Chamaeleon Arch to do the same in Human Nature/The Family of Blood - so maybe that reset him so that Tennant is the first Doctor and Smith the second.