Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The Kingdom of Heaven's Secretary of State for Justice

Today has seen the news that Alan Turing, the man who cracked the Enigma Code, has been given a royal pardon.

This is technically an exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, which the Queen exercises on the advice of the Lord Chancellor/Justice Secretary - in this case Chris Grayling.

Turing's pardon is exceptional, as the Queen has only pardoned people who have been found innocent after they have been sentenced - and in two cases, these have been posthumously after the death penalty. Turing was never found innocent - although what he was sentenced for is no longer on the statute books.

This is one aspect of the justice system - you can be found guilty, and your only hope is mercy. And it is a Royal Prerogative - up to the Queen ultimately to grant or not to grant. You can't make her, you can't force her hand.

The Bible tells us that we have all fallen short of God's standards:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His Grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins. It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:21-26)

The solution God has provided is a simple one - His exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy. It is up to Him to decide whom he shows mercy to. We can't demand it.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)

Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Rom. 8:34)

Now, you could argue that fair enough, Jesus is Heaven's Justice Secretary - albeit one who takes the punishment for us, which is not what Grayling ever does - but that God the Father could turn round and say "no". Or that we cannot be sure if Jesus will ask for the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to be exercised on our behalf.

Jesus Himself assures us:

The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son, just as they honour the Father. Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent Him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:22-24)

So, judgment is entrusted to Jesus, and this is His criterion for deciding whether we have eternal life or not - whether we believe Him or not.

We are assured that:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 8:1)

While tomorrow the focus will be on the baby Jesus, remember why He was born. Remember that a third of a century later He was crucified for our sins.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Sorry Lefties, But It Was The Tories Who Gave Me The Chance To Go To University

I remember it was either 1989 or early 1990. The Chair of our college student council wanted to inform the rest of us that the Conservatives were going to abolish the student grant and replace it with a loan. By the time we would start university, there would be no grant.

I wrote to the late Michael Colvin, at the time the Conservative MP for Romsey & Waterside, and he replied to outline the plans:

  • The grant would be frozen
  • A student loan would be introduced, and over time increase
  • A point will be reached where the loan equals the maximum student grant
  • In future years after that, they would go up in line with inflation

At the following student council meeting I read out Colvin's letter. The Chair explained to the council that actually the Conservatives planned to abolish the student grant, while Labour would increase it.

Yesterday I had a Twitter debate with a couple of Labour people, who were worked up that the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Government tripled tuition fees. Well, asked the question which party/parties tripled tuition fees. I gave the correct reply - Labour.

The Teaching & Higher Education Act 1998 was introduced by Labour and did two things related to student finance:

  1. Introduce upfront £1,000 pa tuition fees
  2. Abolish the student grant and replace it a loan, to be repaid when earnings were above £10,000pa, at 9% of the amount earned above this

Funny that they had forgotten that.

Next, it was Labour who introduced variable top-up fees under the Higher Education Act 2004, breaching a manifesto commitment not to. The defence from these Tweeters can be summed up as:

  • The universities forced this move onto a Government with a landslide majority of 167
  • It's the universities who decide how much to charge
  • "That's different" from the current Government

Well, how a Government with a triple-figure majority can be weak enough to be forced - by a group of academics - against its will to introduce something it has explicitly promised not to is beyond me.

As to it being the universities - rather than the Government - deciding how much to charge the BBC published a list of tuition fees for those starting last year, and, as you can see, there is a range in how much they charge. Indeed, my alma mater, the University of Oxford has decided to reduce its fees for people from low-income families.

Then, I am supposed to be grateful that Labour supports people from my sort of background going to university by having maintenance grants and scholarships. Well, firstly, Labour abolished the grants in the first place, so I can't get excited about them later bringing them back at a much lower level. Secondly, scholarships have been around for decades - so, sorry, not going to thank Labour for that.

What really pisses me off is this idea that I am supposed to be grateful as the Conservatives only support university education for the rich (hey, why not say "toffs" and "the 1%"?) while Labour supports education for all.

Under the Conservatives I was able to go to university with a student grant, no fees and leave without being in debt.

If I had been 10 years younger, I would have been put off by my family having to find £1,000pa upfront to pay for Labour's tuition fees and put off by Labour's abolition of the student grant.

I know which party helps people like me go to university.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

They Don't Know What I Did Last Summer - 10 Weeks Missing From My Life

Finally, I had struck success with jobhunting. On Friday 13th, I was offered a job to start on 6 January, subject to compliance checks. And then yesterday the email confirmation that all the compliance checks had been completed and we were ready to roll. I had already stopped jobhunting - after all, if you've got a job in the pipeline, why waste your time applying? Not everyone takes that approach - in one job, a couple of colleagues had already, even when they started, accepted other jobs. In one case it was someone who had taken a graduate job from that September, so was there for a few months waiting to start that. The other guy was only with us a fortnight - it was just a two-week filler role as far as he was concerned, until he could start the better paid job he had also accepted.

I was brought up with the old "jobs for life" approach - my dad had over 45 years with the same firm. That was the era of the generation above. So you stuck jobs out. I have noticed that even when in a temporary job, I didn't start looking until the job had finished. Find a job with another employer and hand in your notice - well, that's just disloyalty.

The other thing that I was brought up to believe is that study hard at school, work hard, and you'll succeed. That, sadly is simplistic. Sometimes life throws you a blind side, something comes out of leftfield at you. And 2013 was that year for me.

Yesterday afternoon, I popped down to the city centre, caught up with a friend, and then got home to another email.

Apparently, I had not passed the compliance checks - there is the issue that I don't have a continuous documentable 3-year record.

Now, I know that already in the USA, some firms have things along the lines of "Unemployed persons need not apply". In my case, I am not expected to produce a 3-year record of continuous employment. What I have to provide is documentary evidence of what I have been doing the past 3 years - so basically times when I have not been employed, I need to provide evidence.

Due to my health, I didn't start jobhunting until I knew what was wrong - and so this wasn't until mid-September. And herein lies the problem. One bit of useful advice I got was that there is often downtime between jobs, and just say that I had done travel. And indeed, I did some - day trips to local places, a few days catching up with family in Yorkshire, visiting family in Devon etc.

But that's travel. It's not travel-travel. With the compliance, if you have a period of being out-of-work and you are travelling, they expect travel-travel. Documentary evidence from your passport and flight tickets and boarding passes, and ferry tickets etc. that you were off in exotic locations doing things. Day trips here and there in the United Kingdom don't count.

One thing that can document what you were doing is a letter from the Department for Work & Pensions, stating when you started claiming benefits. As I have mentioned, I didn't start to claim Jobseekers Allowance as I wasn't looking for work. I suppose, given that I didn't renew my contract due to my health, the Monday after leaving work, I could have made a claim for Employment & Support Allowance and when/if that got turned down, try for JSA. But I didn't think of it.

If I had done this, I would have had a continuous documentary record. But I didn't, and I haven't.

This then is the problem. I have 10 undocumentable weeks. I have no salary from then as I was unemployed. I have nothing from the DWP as I didn't contact them till mid-September. I have no passport stamps or plane tickets as I was in the UK throughout.

Technically, I have not failed the compliance checks, and can still start on 6 January - subject to having passed the compliance checks. The problem is that to pass them I need to provide documentary evidence relating to 10 undocumentable weeks.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

A Christmas Mawkathon - It's On The Cards

I was staring at the collection of Christmas cards. With Our Love Across The Miles, You're Like A Mummy To Me, A Caring Message.

Feeling my breakfast making its way back up my throat, I dared not open the cards, lest I was confronted with the Helen Steiner-Rice-style purple prose, with the saccharine heaped on with a trowel.

All I bought was one Baby's 1st Christmas - it's OK, an 11-month-old is unlikely to be able to read. Although if I, when a baby, had seen some of the stuff that is in Christmas cards, I would have made the there-and-then decision not to learn to read, so I would never have to endure reading the things that goes inside modern Christmas cards.

Went to another card shop and was confronted with the same. I asked one of the staff whether they sold non-mawkish cards, and had to explain that I am from the pre-Diana era, where you simply send people cards saying "Merry Christmas", without loads of OTT prose, and commented that if you wouldn't say something to someone's face, don't have it in a Christmas card. She didn't understand what I meant. I did eventually find, hidden away, boxes of standard Christmas cards, and bought a couple of these.

Isn't this a danger in the churches, where we allow the real news of Christmas - God sending His Son, Jesus - to be overshadowed by the soppy sentiment? Reducing God's love, which is tough and strong, to a matter of feelings and mawkishness?

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Run, Gordon, Run

In November, there was the sad news that Labour's Helen Eadie, Member of the Scottish Parliament for Cowdenbeath, had passed away after a battle with cancer. She was one of the few Labour MSPs left from the original May 1999 intake, and the fact that she held onto her seat while safer ones were toppling to the Scottish National Party speaks volumes about her commitment to her constituents.

And on 23 January 2014, there will be a by-election. Curiously, the last by-election was in October, in next door's Dunfermline, which saw Labour win the seat from the SNP.

At the May 2011 elections to the Scottish Parliament, Labour made a mistake. They had failed to win the May 2010 election to the House of Commons, and so should have accepted they would be out of power in Westminster until at least May 2015, and hence have made recapturing Holyrood a real priority. There were Scottish politicians who would not hold office in Westminster again - so why not put former Home Secretary John Reid and former Scottish Secretary Helen Liddell at the top of the Scotland Central list, while giving Liddell the task of recapturing Falkirk West from the SNP and aiming for Reid to replace the former First Minister, Jack McConnell, in Motherwell & Wishaw? And in the Lothian region, let Edinburgh Pentlands see a battle between sitting Conservative MSP David McLetchie and Labour's Alistair Darling, MP for Edinburgh South West and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, with both of them guaranteed to become MSPs via being top of their regional lists.

Either the SNP would have led the Scottish Government - and Alex Salmond, the First Minister and MSP for Aberdeenshire East, would be facing Reid and Liddell - or else Labour would have led the Scottish Government, with Iain Gray, the MSP for East Lothian, having the option of bringing people with years of Westminster ministerial experience into his Cabinet.

In the same vein, seeing that the sitting Liberal Democrat MSP for Ross, Skye & Inverness, John Farquhar-Munro, was retiring, why shouldn't that party have run Charles Kennedy, its former leader and sitting MP for Ross, Skye & Lochaber, as its candidate in Skye, Lochaber & Badenoch?

Picture Scottish politics like that - Gray as First Minister, Kennedy as Deputy First Minister, with Darling, Liddell and Reid sitting at the Cabinet table.

I see that Labour have chosen Alex Rowley, leader of Fife Council as its by-election candidate. Good luck to him - as someone who is Unionist first, Conservative second, I genuinely mean that. But I wonder if, instead, he could have been held back for the House of Commons' Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath by-election?

At this point, you will ask - what Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath by-election?

Its sitting Labour MP is the former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. If you look at the 2010 general election result in Scotland, you'll see he did well. He increased Labour's share of the vote, as well as increasing its number of MPs by 1 compared to the May 2005 general election (the BBC lists Labour as having 41 MPs at both, but in 2005, Glasgow North East was won by Mr Speaker seeking re-election.)

While in England and Wales, Labour lost seat after seat after seat, in Scotland Labour did not lose a single seat. Yes, Brown alientated Middle England - but Scotland isn't Middle England.

In Scotland, Brown is a winner.

Hence, Brown should contest the Cowdenbeath by-election. Now, to show he is serious about this, he should have to resign his Westminster seat and allow Rowley to stand as the Labour candidate in that by-election. Could it be possible to have both by-elections on 23 January?

The rules for the timing of by-elections to the House of Commons are based on a timetable in the Representation of the People Act 1983, which allows the Returning Officer some leeway. The by-election is the 8th, 9th or 10th "working day" after the deadline for the delivery of nomination papers. The gap between the moving of the writ in the House of Commons is from 3 to 7 "working days".

That Act had quite a broad definition of "working day" - it was tightened up by the Representation of the People Act 1985 by redefining a "working day" to be any day that wasn't one of these:

  • Saturday
  • Sunday
  • Christmas Eve
  • Christmas Day
  • Maundy Thursday
  • Good Friday
  • A day of public thanksgiving or mourning
  • A Bank Holiday in the part of the United Kingdom where the by-election takes place

There was a minor amendment due to the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which removed Maundy Thursday from this list.

So, for 23 January to be 8th, 9th or 10th working day after the deadline for the delivery of nomination papers, then this deadline has to be Thursday 9 January, Friday 10 January or Monday 13 January. If the deadline is as early as 9 January, and this is between 3 and 7 working days after the writ is moved in the House of Commons, then the writ could be moved as late as Monday 6 January or as early as Friday 27 December (remember that in Scotland, Thursday 2 January is a Bank Holiday). While for a 13 January deadline, the relevant dates are Wednesday 8 January and Tuesday 31 December.

This is where there is a slight snag. The House of Commons rises on Thursday 19 December and returns on Monday 6 January. There would be a tight - but do-able - timeline.

The simplest way for Brown to cease to be an MP, and to set the whole timetable in motion, would be for Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, to appoint him Steward & Bailiff of the Three Hundreds of Chiltern - a post currently held by former Energy & Climate Change Secretary, the Liberal Democrats' Chris Huhne. There is no point in Huhne remaining in that role any longer.

With it being possible to do this, the question is why should Brown seek to become an MSP?

For the first reason, we need to look at the elections to the European Parliament next May. If we look at the current crop of Belgian Members of the European Parliament, we have Jean-Luc Dehaene of the Flemish Christian Democrats (who was Prime Minister from March 1992 to July 1999) and Guy Verhofstadt of the Flemish Liberal Democrats (who was Prime Minister from July 1999 to March 2008). Indeed, Verhofstadt is leader of the Alliance of Liberals & Democrats for Europe MEPs, and wants to be its candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission - the post for which Dehaene was vetoed by former Conservative Prime Minister John Major in 1994.

From July 2009 to January 2012, the President of the European Parliament was Jerzy Buzek, of Poland's Civic Platform. But go back to the period from October 1997 to October 2001, and Buzek was the Polish Prime Minister.

Now consider it's 2018, and the Conservative party is choosing its candidates for the following year's European elections. You are a Conservative member in South East England and through your letterbox drops a booklet with details of those Conservatives who want to be on the list for the region's MEPs. You flick through it, and one bio starts:

I was elected MP for Witney in June 2001. In December 2005 I was elected leader of the Conservative party, and following the May 2010 general election I was appointed Prime Minister.....

You couldn't imagine it, could you? In the United Kingdom, the European elections are treated as a bit of light-hearted fun, while in other countries they are so important that ex-Prime Ministers are happy to stand.

To run a big beast in an election is to say that this is important, that you are taking it seriously. In the political jungle, there is no beast bigger than a Prime Minister.

We go back to the European Union for the second reason. The letters page of the local paper often publishes letters from UK Independence Party activists, and then I have to write in to correct their facts and they respond with a pile of twaddle. But there is one thing I notice - the ad hominem comments. In their world, no-one can seriously think that the EU is in the United Kingdom's best interests, so anyone who supports membership must have some naked self-interest at play. Politicians who support membership - well, it is clear that they are only supporting membership because they are looking for a cushy Eurojob.

Prime Minister David Cameron has made clear he will not have a debate with Salmond, arguing that instead Salmond should debate with Darling, as chairman of Better Together. Of course, it would be in Salmond's interests to have the case for the Union made in the debate by an "English toff".

Now, Darling is an MP (although if Labour had had the foresight to take the strategy I outlined earlier on, he would be an MSP), and so he takes his pay from Westminster. He has much to lose, financially, if Scotland becomes independent. Let's face it, if Better Together puts forward any MP or peer, then the critics can say, "well, they would support the Union, wouldn't they? Just think what happens to their bank account if we break away."

Consider instead Brown - having resigned from the House of Commons and having won the Cowdenbeath by-election - facing Salmond in the debate. He - unlike Darling, or indeed anyone that Better Together could produce - has experience of these sort of debates (remember the leaders' debates in the run-up to the last general election). He could point to the letters MSP after his name and state that he is a Scottish politician, that he has no "selfish, strategic or economic interests" in remaining in the UK, but that he passionately believes that this is in Scotland's best interests.

And there is no way that Brown could be described as English, Tory or toff.

The third reason is to do with Cameron. A major case made by Labour for devolution was that the Conservatives were running Scotland from May 1979 to May 1997 with not much support in Scotland. Parts of the SNP argument for independence rests on a democratic deficit, namely that decisions are made in some areas by a Conservative/Liberal Democrat Government with only 12 of Scotland's 59 MPs, with independence being a long-term solution to a short-term issue.

Brown's presence would remind Scottish voters that there have been, in recent memory, Labour Governments, and - as much as it pains me to say this - there could be Labour Governments again. As Shadow Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary, Douglas Alexander, recently wrote:

This coalition government will have less than eight months of its mandate left to run on referendum day. The polls indicate that the prospect of a change of UK government is real. And on that referendum day a 16-year-old voting for the first time will have had a UK Labour government for three-quarters of their life. As Scots, we understand the difference between anger with a transient Tory government and supporting the permanent break-up of Britain. The Nationalists say "walk away and all will be well". Yet while the clear majority of Scots, myself included, want change, we do not judge independence as the route to achieve those changes

Running Brown would be a bold move, and a real game-changer in the run-up to the referendum.