Wednesday, March 30, 2011


There are elections in the UK on May 5th. As usual, some (but not all) local councils in England will be contested but this year there are other far-reaching ballots: for the whole of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies, plus a referendum across the UK on the voting system for the Westminster parliament, to which members are elected from Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland as well as England.

The referendum issue concerns whether to change from the present First Past the Post system (FPTP) to an Alternative Vote system (AV). FPTP is beguilingly simple. The candidate with the largest total of votes in the constituency is declared the winner. It makes no never mind if that candidate’s majority over the runner-up is just one vote, or if the percentage of the total votes cast that is gained by the winner is lower than – even, considerably lower than – 50 percent.

There are several possible alternative ways of awarding and counting the votes on the ballot paper but the one the electorate is being offered as an alternative to FPTP works like this. If the voter wishes to do so – and it wouldn’t be compulsory as it is, for instance, in Australia – she may write a number 1 (instead of the traditional X) against the candidate she most favours to be the MP, a 2 against the candidate among the rest whom she least abominates and so on for as far down the ballot paper as she can stomach.

When the ballot papers are checked, all the number 1 scores (plus the Xs) are added up. If one candidate has scored more than 50 percent, that is the result. In the – more usual – event of no candidate reaching half of the vote, the candidate with the lowest first preference votes is eliminated but the second preference votes on the ballots that put him first are added to the other candidates’ totals as if they were also first preference votes. In other words, from the second count onwards, second, third and so on votes on the eliminated papers have the same weight as first preference. When the result of this topping-up of votes pushes one of the candidates over 50 percent, that candidate is declared the winner. As will be apparent, this might not be the candidate who led the field at the first count.

Movie director Agnès Varda

This referendum is the Liberal Democrats’ main – some would say only – fig leaf with which to cover their shame at propping up a coalition government implementing policies almost all of which the Lib Dems opposed at the general election last year. The party has been complaining for decades that FPTP is “unfair”, that it denies them representation in the Commons commensurate with the level of votes that they receive in the ballot boxes. What they have long proposed is a more elaborate version of AV – known as AV-plus – which weights the transferred votes rather than simply counting them as equal with first preference votes.

In the dying days of his government, Gordon Brown suddenly became a convert to electoral reform, seeing it as a carrot for the Lib Dems in the event of a hung parliament, whereby the two supposedly left-of-centre parties might find an accommodation. What he proposed was AV.

Television actor Anthony Valentine

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, who personally had a famously good election campaign (how long ago the mantra “I agree with Nick” now seems), was scathing. Just a fortnight before the general election, he told The Independent: “AV is a baby step in the right direction – only because nothing can be worse than the status quo. If we want to change British politics once and for all, we have got to have a quite simple system in which everyone's votes count. We think AV-plus is a feasible way to proceed. At least it is proportional – and it retains a constituency link. The Labour Party assumes that changes to the electoral system are like crumbs for the Liberal Democrats from the Labour table. I am not going to settle for a miserable little compromise thrashed out by the Labour Party”.

Instead, of course, he has settled for the same miserable little compromise but thrashed out by the Conservative Party. He has had to go with a referendum on AV, not AV-plus, and if he loses it his party will be on what might prove to be a terminal warpath.

Cosmonaut Aleksandr Volkov

Both the coalition and the opposition have agreed to allow the campaign to be a matter of conscience for individual MPs. David Cameron is opposed to AV as are William Hague, Ken Clarke, John Redwood, Margaret Beckett, Malcolm Rifkind, Keith Vaz, Caroline Flint, Michael Fallon, Dennis Skinner and the BNP among others. Ed Miliband is in favour, as are Douglas Alexander, Sadiq Khan, Hilary Benn, John Denham, Jon Cruddas, Alex Salmond and UKIP. It is pretty hard to find a high profile Tory in favour. That very fact might boost the vote for AV.

Ed Miliband’s support for AV is understandable. Last summer’s Labour leadership election was conducted under an AV-plus system. Second preference votes were successively transferred until one candidate topped 50 percent. That candidate was Miliband. His brother David led every round of voting until the last one that clinched it for Ed. What’s more, the votes were divided into three “colleges” – MPs, party members organised by constituency and unions. It was the vote of the unions that made the difference for Ed in his narrow victory. Many Labour members believe that a truer measure of party sentiment would have elected David rather than Ed. Happily for Ed – and indeed for Labour – those members have largely suppressed that belief though it will undoubtedly resurface if Ed’s leadership hits trouble. Still, it may not be entirely surprising that the largest concentration of pro-AV sentiment in the Commons resides in the shadow cabinet.

Arthur Vickers VC

The Electoral Reform Society has put out several leaflets and set out the case for AV on its website. Having read the material, I find that it has propelled me pretty firmly into the No camp, which is not at all what the ERS wanted. But so many of its arguments are bankrupt or plain stupid. “All too often” it says “the ‘winners’ in our FPTP elections are opposed by a majority of voters. AV addresses that fundamental problem ensuring that an election winner has genuine support”.

It’s absurd to suggest that FPTP winners don’t enjoy “genuine” support. How else would they manage to amass more votes than any other single candidate in the first place? And it’s no less ridiculous to propose that AV “addresses” the “problem” that such winners “are opposed by a majority of voters”. AV is only a different method of reading the result of the vote. It still produces a winner. If I want Labour to win the seat where I vote and Labour comes last (as it traditionally does in our constituency), how have I gained anything under AV? I still don’t get the MP I want. So the ERS is fantasising when it declares that “AV would remove the frustration many voters feel that they currently have no vote at all”.

Movie star Alida Valli

AV might provide more data from which its apologists could argue that the winner in some mysterious way enjoys “majority” support but as FPTP doesn’t furnish such data about voters it cannot be assumed that every vote not cast would have been a vote registering more or less support. (The ERS claims that FPTP is “taken as a statement of equal contempt for all the other [candidates]” to which I would reply “only by you is it taken that way”.)

What’s more, the proportion of the ballot papers still eligible to be counted might well be considerably below 50 percent by the time of the final run-off between the two surviving candidates so to characterise the eventual winner as recording more than 50 percent of the vote would be utterly misleading because the size of the vote still being counted will have shrunk. At the same time, the winner under AV will win on a figure consisting of many votes that have been counted several times. The voter who happens to have voted in an order of preference precisely the reverse of the majority will find each one of her votes being added to a candidate’s total.

The ERS claims that AV removes the need for “tactical voting” which traditionally means, for example (as I have done in the past) voting Lib Dem because, though I would most like Labour to win, I would least like the Tories to win. But bestowing second and third (and maybe more) preference votes is also tactical voting – indeed, it is more complex, ticklish and unpredictable tactical voting.

This Derbyshire constituency can sell the AV campaign: it's Amber Valley

The No campaign has used some water-muddying arguments of its own, claiming for instance that voting under AV requires “higher maths”. Mind you, this is less far-fetched than this ERS proposal, that “the logic’s familiar enough to anyone who’s ever asked a friend to pop down to the shops for a coke and said ‘if they’re out of that I’ll have a lemonade’.” In fact an AV ballot paper would, by that sort of analogy, require the instruction to continue “ … or a Tizer or an Irn-bru – though don’t get a lemonade if they’ve got an Irn-bru, but I’d rather have a lemonade than a Tizer, although thinking about I’d rather have an Irn-bru than a coke unless they’ve got Pepsi. But what I really want is a pork pie. Perhaps I’d better come with you”.

The one thing the ERS can hope that no one will dispute is its asseveration that “voters are tired of Punch and Judy politics”. Fair enough. But who imagines for a single second that AV will consign such ding-dongs to history? Get real.

I have studied the ERS FAQs leaflet but can find no answer to this question. Let’s say that there are five candidates in my constituency at the next general election. I’ll call them Bevan, Grimond, Pankhurst, Stalin and Thatcher. And let’s say that I number my votes in the same order in which they appear alphabetically on the ballot, so Bevan gets my ‘1’ and Thatcher gets my ‘5’. Now, suppose Bevan comes bottom of the poll and is eliminated. In the next count, my vote will be transferred to Grimond. But suppose Grimond goes out in the second count. Will my third vote he given to Pankhurst or is my ballot paper now exhausted? And say instead Grimond goes out in the first round and then Bevan in the second. Does my third place Pankhurst vote still count then too and is it the equal of someone else’s first vote for Pankhurst? If I award only two votes, first for Bevan and second for Thatcher and Bevan goes out on the first count and Thatcher survives to the run off with Stalin, will my Thatcher vote count in the second, the third and the final counts, so counting three times whereas my Bevan vote only counted once, even though he was my favourite? How is this a more just system?

In narrow party political terms, it looks as though the referendum result will be bad for the coalition whichever it is. A No win will cut off at the knees Lib Dem support for continuing the coalition. This was the prize for which they agreed to share power and they haven’t won it. A Yes win will hugely irritate the Tory backbenches, many of whom fear that they are in danger of losing their seats under AV – the Lib Dems still come second in far more Tory-held seats than in Labour-held ones. They will grumble that Cameron didn’t do enough to ensure a No victory and that the Yes win implies that Ed Miliband is making big inroads into Cameron’s wavering personal popularity. So either way, the referendum can be an own-goal for the government. Maybe on my referendum ballot paper I shall put a 1 by No and a 2 by Yes.

Friday, March 25, 2011


Here are two stories about Elizabeth Taylor. (How hard it is really to think of her as Dame Elizabeth; much harder than Dame Julie Andrews, Dame Shirley Bassey or Dame Dorothy Tutin, all honoured in the same millennial list). Both these anecdotes date from my own school days. Do bear with me; they are indeed eventually about Elizabeth Taylor.

They knew how to do posters in the '60s

At my (all-male) school, there was an annual tradition called The School Show, a raucous entertainment put together by the boys to celebrate the end of the year. By the time my chum Tony and I were in the VIth Form, we had become the leading lights of the school’s Dramatic Society as well as its chief exponents of the latest trends in the arts/entertainment nexus, in particular the anti-establishment climate of the early 1960s that expressed itself in satire. So it naturally fell to us to put together the School Show.

During our brainstorming sessions that purportedly led to the writing of the script, it occurred to us that we had an amusing combination available to us. One of the younger boys in the DramSoc was called Philip Harrison. He was a sweet-natured, charming and rather self-effacing boy, slight and pallid but determined. He needed some courage to go on the stage, which he did whenever he could, because he was afflicted with a lisp which inevitably drew some unsympathetically pointed responses from schoolboy audiences.

Burton & Taylor dominated the magazines of the day

Then there was a lovely guy from our own year, one of nature’s carpenters and tinkerers who therefore had, almost since his arrival at the school, been the DramSoc’s stage manager of choice. He was called Tony Burton. Short, chunky and rather attractively introspective, he couldn’t act to save his life, nor wished to do so.

Finally, there was Fryer’s House. All the school’s houses had their particular character and Fryer’s – certainly for the whole of my time at the school – was the home of psychopaths. When I had first arrived, puny and bespectacled, I had been singled out by Fryer’s gangs for menaces. Being heedless, mouthy and capable of being quite funny, I usually escaped these confrontations with my life (or at least all my teeth) but the fact that I amused them no doubt prolonged the life of these rather worrying features of each day.

One of the ringleaders of our year’s generation of Fryer’s psychos was a flabby, noisy, paradoxically rather likeable slob called Taylor. With some trepidation, my pal Tony and I approached Taylor and asked whether he wouldn’t mind making his stage debut prancing about in drag consisting of swimming trunks, an improvised bra and various bits of wispy tulle. Naturally, he agreed at once. Securing the other two was then the work of a moment and so, as the climax of the School Show, we were able to announce a mighty exclusive: Taylor, Burton and Harrison in scenes from Cleopatra.

Taylor with Rex Harrison as Caesar in Cleopatra

Our script, which owed a great deal to the style of the wireless comedies to which we were then devoted, particularly Round the Horne and Beyond Our Ken, was a killer combination of witty, silly, surreal and extremely vulgar. Though we didn’t consider it at the time (maybe Tony did but I certainly didn’t), we could well have been setting out to illustrate the prediction that Shakespeare has the serpent of Old Nile make in Antony and Cleopatra: “the quick comedians/Extemporally will stage us, and present/Our Alexandrian revels; Antony/Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see/Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness/I’ in the posture of a whore” [Act V scene ii). Our own Taylor was more roaring than squeaking but otherwise Cleopatra’s nightmare came true on our school stage. Needless to add, it brought the house down.

Rehearsing the closing number of the School Show: Taylor wears the horizontal stripes, Harrison is to his right

I hope that Harrison, Burton and especially Taylor have found in the memory of this nobly entertaining escapade an occasional anecdote to set their respective tables on a roar. For it to have been quite the hit it was, our model (the disastrous movie Cleopatra, of course) needed to be what it was – indeed quite as silly, surreal and vulgar, if nothing like as witty as our own version – and that it was so is in no small measure due to the barely disguised disdain that was clearly held back in Elizabeth Taylor’s performance only by her sulphurous passion for her leading man.

Which brings me to my second yarn. Chief among the thespian successes that Tony and I enjoyed on the school stage was the time when, celebrating our well-established double act as witty intellectuals, we gave respectively our Faustus and Mephistopheles in a production of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. When, shortly after, the Oxford University Drama Society announced the great coup of securing former member Richard Burton to play Faustus in their otherwise student production, we naturally booked our seats.

The pivotal moment in the play, when Helen of Troy walks across the stage, is always a directorial headache, as Kit Marlowe must have known and relished when creating it. The most recent Stratford revival before the OUDS version had opted for a totally naked Helen, still a sensational gambit in the early (pre-Hair) 1960s. Our own director cast the prettiest boy in the school. Neither of these solutions quite achieved Marlowe's required frisson.

The Burtons on the Oxford Playhouse stage in Dr Faustus

OUDS, with its star's help, was able to summon real magic in having Burton's wife appear as the legendary beauty. Imagine: the first stage appearance anywhere in the world of the most famous movie star in the world. Only Cassius Clay, Chairman Mao and the Beatles could then rival Elizabeth Taylor’s universal fame. And – surely unprecedented on any occasion – she never uttered a word.

At lunchtime on the day of the performance for which we had booked, Tony and I sloped along to the Randolph for an appetiser. Just as we got to the entrance, a limo drew up and out stepped the Burtons, breezy, chatty and self-absorbed. We duly followed them into the hotel. While her moment as Helen was truly heart-stopping, it is the memory of Dame Elizabeth's derrière, encased in figure-hugging canary yellow slacks, that will stay with me most vividly for the rest of my life.

Taylor in her Helen costume for the later movie of Dr Faustus

I have sent this second tale to the obits page of The Guardian but I suspect that they are not going to use it. A pity. I think it evokes rather neatly the particular combination of appeals that made Taylor so celebrated. She was a stunning presence, game for any challenge and absolutely conscious of her own worth. But withal, she had the woozy, sloppy, blowsy heart of a barmaid. No wonder so many gay men were her friends.

Andrea Teuber as Mephistopheles with Helen and Faustus

That’s why George Stevens' A Place in the Sun is her abiding memorial and such a remarkable movie, so un-Hollywood, more like a great French or Italian masterpiece. Loosely based on Dreiser’s huge novel, An American Tragedy, it pits Taylor against Shelley Winters for the hand of Montgomery Clift. That both Taylor and Winters seemed, throughout their respective careers, forever poised on the lip of metamorphosing into a Mediterranean fishwife (Winters was about to acquire an Italian husband) explains something of the movie’s tensions. Taylor, as usual (though not in Virginia Woolf or The Taming of the Shrew) is poised between the important dignity of tragedy and the absurd bawdy of comedy. So is Winters. Squeezed between the two is Clift, ever the wracked, self-conscious (and gay) poet. It’s mesmerizing.

Winters, Clift in A Place in the Sun

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Yesterday, on the eighth anniversary of the Commons vote in favour of the illegal invasion of Iraq, David Cameron laid before parliament the rationale for the United Nations’ resolution to impose a so-called no-fly zone on Libya. From the moral high ground on which Cameron plants his feet, the issue is so very simple. Gaddafi is a bad man and he must be taught a lesson. Primary schoolchildren could articulate the position just as persuasively. It is what I call The Bogie Man Theory of History, or, as the Americans would call it, The Boogey Man Theory.

Not that there is any significant opposition to this in the House. It has been observed before (though I am unable to verify an attribution) that “when the House is united, it is invariably wrong”. Yesterday confirmed that sentiment. Nick Clegg, whose party opposed the Iraq invasion, sat doing the gravely nodding dog act beside his coalition leader. Ed Miliband rushed to sound as resolute and determinedly courageous as Cameron, as if anybody gives a tuppenny damn what the British Labour Party says about the issue. You cannot expect sense from Labour on matters of British imperialism. I can never forget that, just a fortnight after describing himself as “an inveterate peacemonger”, Michael Foot (of all people) was unconditionally supporting Margaret Thatcher’s adventure in the south Atlantic, an exercise that, by itself, almost certainly kept the Tories in power (and so Labour out of office) for the following fifteen years.

Cameron in the Gulf States last month

Britain cannot stand idly by, is Miliband’s argument, while Gaddafi massacres his own people. Well, I want to ask: why not? What do the ambassadors of, for the sake of argument, Hungary, Barbados, Venezuela, Laos and Gabon have to say about the implied criticism that they are indeed perfectly happy to stand idly by? Why does Britain have to be the one who takes it upon herself to punish the bogie man of the sands? Apart from being the most extensive supplier in history of armaments to the country, Britain has no particular historical links with Libya, certainly none comparable to those of Italy, of which Libya was a colony for most of the first half of last century. Yet Silvio Berlusconi’s input into the no-fly zone argument is not widely recorded. Perhaps he has been too busy entertaining under-age women this week (as every other week).

Gaddafi cultivates the Ruritanian look

Throughout the thrilling people’s revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak earlier this year, we heard daily about how wonderful is the Egyptian army. So why didn’t the UN put pressure on Egypt to send its fabled troops over the border to repel Gaddafi? Other member states of the Arab League – Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco, for instance – have disciplined military strength. It makes considerably more geopolitical sense for Arab nations physically to lead the campaign to bring Gaddafi to heel.

Cameron, basking in evidently widespread approval for having played a supposedly canny hand with both the UN and the US, assures that he is not “grandstanding” on this matter. Of course he is. Cameron veers between invoking the “moral” argument that Miliband articulated and reassuring his political base that it is “in Britain’s interests” to lead the world’s reaction to Gaddafi’s rush towards civil war. These interests begin and end with the international supply and cost of oil. At least when he concedes that much, Cameron is approaching a soupçon of candour.

The argument about morality is bankrupt. When, on the BBC News last night, Nick Robinson asked the PM about his position on Bahrain, Cameron waved it away: different problem, different dynamic, different order of morality. Here’s a significant difference: picking a fight with the Saudi forces now called into the Bahraini kingdom to put down the rebellion is much more challenging than picking a fight with Gaddafi’s raggle-taggle air force of conscripted peasants and Saharan mercenaries. Clearly, the military might of a consortium consisting of Britain, France and – in the second wave perhaps – the USA is not going to have much trouble wiping out Libya’s military might.

Gaddafi visiting Berlusconi in Rome, 2009

Or is it? The invaders of Iraq and Afghanistan figured it would be the work of a few weeks at most. Libya might be as straightforward to quell as Serbia or it might not. Gaddafi has not lasted this long in power without being a wily and tough operator. The ceasefire announced yesterday by his foreign minister, the wonderfully named Mussa Kussa, is certainly a sham. But it has already had the desired effect. It has wrong-footed the west and sent governments into a further huddle. There will be more of this.

So Britain has embarked on another military interference in the internal affairs of another sovereign nation with consequences just as unknowable as they always are. The hubris – of the very interference, of the self-aggrandisement, of the cloak of proclaimed morality, of the certainty of military superiority – is breathtaking.

And then, seeing as no one seems yet to have asked, I ask it: who pays? Simple. We do. Today’s Daily Telegraph, while busy lining up Cameron for canonisation as a war leader, gaily trumpets on its front page that “some families will have £3,500 wiped off their annual incomes next month because of tax increases and cuts to benefits”. Oh good. How much less pain they will feel to know that this loss of income will now be largely spent on an utterly unpredictable big-willy experiment in the North African desert. How can a government that is in the throes of undermining – in some cases fundamentally undermining – every public enterprise in Britain gaily decide to throw money at a totally unnecessary interference in a foreign civil war?

Intimates no more – Sarkozy and Gaddafi in 2007

Well, you may say, what would you do? Just sit back and let Gaddafi massacre his brave populace? I am not a politician, nor about to be one. I don’t have to have a foolproof bill of fare ready to execute tomorrow. Nor do I have to accept the convention of starting from here. I do have a long-term proposal that, had it been put into effect when I first proposed it five years ago, might have avoided the situation that we now face. Here it is.

We must give the United Nations actual power and that of course means power greater than that of any one member. The UN charter, still almost exactly as written in 1945, needs substantial revision. The permanent members of the Security Council must agree to surrender their veto, the prerogative of the bully over the powerless. No member can be allowed exemption.

The veto means that the UN has no muscle to flex against the US or China or the other elite nations. Which of them will volunteer to forego a veto? It would need a visionary party leader or presidential candidate to carry the case with his own electorate, so as to take a mandate to the other Security Council members; a diplomat of rare persuasive power, who implicitly understands the global gain of a truly powerful UN, to convert even one of the holders of the veto. But someone needs to attempt it. What is political power for if not to change the world?

Tony Blair enjoys a quick two-step with his good pal

The point of this exercise is to create a UN capable of credibly policing the behaviour of all member states. UN peacekeeping forces, made up of recruits from any and every member state, handsomely rewarded by all the members in proportion to their GDP, must be the only troops permitted to move freely across the territories of the disputing nations. And this should apply to internal, tribal and internecine strife as well as that between separate nations. Meanwhile, the remit of the UN’s International Court of Justice needs to be widened so as not to depend on the consent of those states that are party to a dispute, another tough sell.

The UN should assume the power to order the immediate cessation of hostilities between member states. Waging war must be against the UN’s bedrock principles. Any member visiting warfare on another should be suspended forthwith from UN membership. In practice this must mean that all other member states, including those sympathetic to the miscreant’s cause, suspend all trade and other dealings with the suspended member. A blanket economic freeze would soon encourage a government to halt hostilities. The UN must then have the resources to assume control of negotiation of a settlement between the disputatious nations. Warfare must be a gambit that is made impracticable because it makes each of the warring nations an international pariah. If both sides are taken out of benefit of UN membership, the issue of ‘blame’ is largely futile. The UN negotiators can then begin with a level playing field.

Libyan rebels on the Benghazi road

The UN’s power to intervene in a sovereign nation’s internal affairs would be a more complex matter than preventing state-to-state confrontation. The UN’s remit should be truly global and therefore probably cannot be automatically parochial. Matters such as the suppression of a particular tribal or religious grouping within a nation state would have to be confronted on a case-by-case basis. But a case like that of Libya or indeed Bahrain is not so complex as to be beyond a newly-constituted UN to resolve. Moreover, the UN could hold sway over issues other than warfare. It could wield its power, no longer fettered by national vetoes, to impose restrictions on the activities that contribute so catastrophically to the destruction of the environment. But that is a road down which to travel on another occasion.

In the absence of a UN rebuilt along the lines that I propose, we have another potential disaster taking shape in a country that can ill afford to be ravaged by years of war. Today‘s self-satisfied certainties in London and in Paris and, more cautiously, in Washington, may well look rather less confident tomorrow or a week or a month hence. We shall see. But at this particular moment, I feel like invoking an angry cry of just eight years ago: Not In My Name.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Like most everybody, I could write what I know about nuclear power and nuclear fuel on the back of a postage stamp. What I do know – or think I know – is that last Friday’s earthquake off the coast of northern Japan and the tsunami that followed, catastrophic as both were, are in danger of being dwarfed by the incident developing at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Nobody seems to know whether this incident is containable. Worse still, nobody seems to have much faith in the candour of either the nuclear authorities or the government in Japan. We are told not to panic but the incident worsens by the hour.

Another explosion at the Fukushima plant

Contemplating this unfolding disaster, a whole string of questions suggest themselves to me, questions that I see no prospect of being answered. Perhaps if enough of us ask such questions in enough forums around the world, some answers might emerge.

To begin, I ask: why are the Japanese guardians of nuclear power evidently improvising their responses to the incident? Were there no well-worked and well-rehearsed drills in place to deal with every conceivable eventuality? If so, why are these responses failing to produce the desired results? If no repair and containment routines were in fact ready, why not?

Where tectonic plates meet are earthquake fault lines; this map also sites significant volcanoes

It is certainly the case that the incidence of earthquakes is almost impossible to predict, as such events do not signal their imminence. But the locations of potential earthquakes is well known and well charted. For instance, everyone knows that one day “the big one” will befall San Francisco, and people live and work in that city knowing that this is the context of their choice. But knowing where earthquakes are liable to strike ought to determine precisely where not to build nuclear plants – oughtn’t it? So, given that almost the entire landmass of Japan is on an earthquake line, why were any nuclear plants ever built there?

Sites of the world's present nuclear plants

An evacuation zone has been established for some days around the Fukushima site, with a further caution zone beyond that. The people have been evacuated but what about the animals, particularly those kept in various capacities for food? What about the land on which food is – and presumably will in future be – grown? When wind conditions are such that it seems likely that radioactive dust will be blown out to sea, the consensus seems to be that this is a relief. How come? Do waves not bring such contamination back to shore? Will not radioactive particles enter the food chain that derives from the sea? Are the Japanese, of all people, going to give up seafood for some determined or indeterminate period?

If natural upheavals can breach the defences of nuclear plants, what about unnatural attacks upon them? How safe are nuclear plants anywhere from damage or even destruction by suicide bomber or some other kind of terrorist assault?

Sites of 33 "serious" nuclear incidents over the last 60 years

If significant numbers of Japanese citizens are contaminated by radiation, what recompense will they receive? The victims of vast and horrific disasters at Bhopal and Chernobyl were largely left to bear the brunt of the damage without any degree of appropriate compensation. The Japanese are, I imagine, better able than were the poor peasants of Madya Pradesh and what is now Ukraine (but, at the time of Chernobyl was part of the USSR) to ensure that an injury attributable to preventable catastrophe will be paid for, and paid for handsomely. Lloyds of London, already braced for the claims that will follow the earthquake and tsunami, may have a lot more paying out to face yet.

Finally, is nuclear worth the risk? That is perhaps the biggest question of all. I am not holding my breath.

The big one

PS: Tonight, BBC4 was scheduled to show a new programme called The End of the World: A Horizon Guide to Armageddon. The word Horizon in the title refers to the science-based strand that used to appear on BBC2 but, in this dumbed-down culture, is only entrusted these days with occasional specials on a channel that nobody watches. The programme has been pulled, however. I have no doubt that the reason for its postponement is the nuclear problem at Fukushima. Surely, now is precisely the moment to broadcast it.

Monday, March 07, 2011


At the weekend, The Sunday Times carried a report that the House of Lords Appointments Commission, the functions of which include vetting nominations for the peerage, rejected David Cameron’s submission of his old cabinet colleague Douglas Hogg. Intriguingly – though the paper did not mention this – the commission numbers among its members Cameron’s former mentor and his predecessor as Tory leader, Michael Howard, now Lord Howard of Lympne.

The ostensible explanation for the commission’s decision thus to embarrass the PM was the role that Hogg played in the great scandal over the expenses of MPs in 2009, uncovered and published as a long-running saga by The Daily Telegraph. The particular item among Hogg’s expenses that caught the imagination of the media was his claim for the cost of cleaning the moat that encircles his 50-acre country estate of Kettlethorpe Hall in unfashionable Lincolnshire, the county that also gave birth to Margaret Thatcher.

Douglas Hogg, evidently a flat-cap commoner

Hogg hotly disputed that he had been assisted from the public purse for this item though he found himself unable to confirm that it had been “positively excluded” from his paperwork. Like many of his fellow accused, he reckoned that all his claims had been fully cleared by the parliamentary fees office. On the other hand, by any non-partisan measure, Hogg would be thought rather unfortunate to have been made out as something of a poster boy for the expenses scandal. The site TheyWorkForYou, which monitors all kinds of parliamentary activity, ranked Hogg 617th of 647 members in the cost to the public of his time in parliament.

It was the very grandeur of a home with a moat that caused the trouble, reviving the image of Tory privilege and disconnection from the public that Cameron had sought to play down, especially since finding that he had thoughtlessly appointed fourteen Old Etonians to his front bench while in opposition – both Cameron and Hogg were themselves schooled at Eton College, as indeed were all the Hoggs from way back.

Kettlethorpe Hall, where the snouts go in the trough

Douglas Hogg is the present head of a true political dynasty. The Hoggs have been active in Tory politics, particularly where it intersects with the administration of justice, for the better part of two centuries. But unless one or other of his children, now both around 30, goes into public life, that long connection will be severed. I cannot trace what the junior generation does for a living, if anything,

Douglas Hogg’s great-grandfather was the first of the line to join the titled classes. He was James Hogg (1790-1876), characteristically a Tory lawyer, and he was awarded a baronetcy in 1848. Baronetcies are a curious form of aristocratic life. The only hereditary title that did not entitle the holder to sit in the House of Lords, a baronetcy does confer on its holder the courtesy title of Sir and that honorific ranks above a commoner’s knighthood. Sir George Young, the present Leader of the House, is a baronet – his proper title is Sir George Young, Bart. ‘Bart’ is considered old-fashioned in some quarters and ‘Bt’ preferred. Young is always named with his ‘sir’ but some baronets discard its use.

Among well-known baronets past and present, some of whom went or go by ‘sir’ and some not, were and are: Thomas Beecham, Ranulph Fiennes, Tam Dalyell, Jonathan Porritt, Adam Nicholson, Oswald Mosley, Ferdinand Mount, Keith Joseph and the actor John Standing. Standing’s mother, the actress Kay Hammond, was the daughter of the British-born Hollywood actor Guy Standing. The latter was knighted for his service to Anglo-American relations at the end of World War I and was always billed as Sir Guy but his title was not a baronetcy. John Standing, using his maternal grandfather’s surname for professional purposes, inherited the baronetcy of Lyon (formally he is Sir John Lyon) from his father, but not the old family seat of Bletchley Park, which was sold after his grandmother’s death and soon after became the now legendary home of the Government Code and Cypher School that cracked the German Enigma code.

Quintin Hogg o'the Poly

But back to Hogg heaven. Sir James, the 1st Baronet, though evidently much occupied with legal affairs in one of Britain’s largest and most important colonies, India, as well as twice sitting as an MP, managed to sire fourteen children on his wife. His eldest son, the 2nd Baronet (also James), was born in Calcutta and he too sat as an MP before being sent to the Lords as the 1st Baron Magheramorne.

But Sir James’ seventh son is both of more interest and, happily, sits in the line that leads to Douglas. Quintin Hogg (1845-1903) was a leading educational reformer who founded the Regent Street Polytechnic in London, one of the earliest such institutions. I used to visit it often in the 1960s and ’70s because it housed one of the small independent cinemas then devoted to subtitled movies, the Cameo Poly. The Poly itself still exists (though not the cinema), but for two decades it has been more grandly known as the University of Westminster, of which the Regent Street complex is the hub.

Hogg’s work on the Poly and his continuing financial support of it won him a fine reputation. An improving statue of him, seated over a book with two boys, still stands on a traffic island in Portland Place, just up from both the Poly site and the entrance to BBC Broadcasting House. Surprisingly, though, Hogg received no recognition for his philanthropy from either the monarch or Downing Street.

Douglas, 1st Viscount Hailsham

His son Douglas, however, added a further title to the extended family’s coats of arms. After a successful career as a silk, he served as Attorney General and twice as Lord Chancellor and was raised to the peerage as 1st Viscount Hailsham. Hailsham was the grandfather of the present Hogg. In between comes a fascinating character and one who twice bore the title Lord Hailsham but in differing ways.

Named after his distinguished grandfather, Quintin Hogg (1907-2001) was in style very much the Boris Johnson (another old Etonian) of his day – happy to appear a bit of an ebullient, unguarded buffoon but withal a pretty shrewd operator, which ability allowed him to enjoy a long and colourful career in Tory politics. Having followed the traditional route of attending Eton College and being called to the bar – though, more unusually, Quintin went up to Oxford and was quite a scholar – he fought a famous be-election at Oxford City.

Young Quintin Hogg

It was September 1938 and the great issue of the day was the so-called appeasement of Hitler’s policies of German aggrandizement. Hogg supported the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain who, a fortnight after the by-election, signed the Munich Agreement with Hitler, the famous “piece of paper”. Both the Labour and Liberal candidates stood down at Oxford in favour of an Independent Progressive opposed to appeasement. His slogan was “a vote for Hogg is a vote for Hitler”. Hogg won but he broke with Chamberlain the following year and joined the Churchill faction. He saw action in the war and managed to save his seat in the 1945 Labour landslide. But when his father died in 1950, Hogg succeeded to the Hailsham viscountcy and was obliged to stand down from the Commons.

Through the 1950s, Hailsham tended to his law practice, only returning to the public eye when Harold Macmillan appointed him chairman of the Tory party. This role suited his theatrical antics – he once memorably clanged a large handbell from the platform at the party conference – and gave him a stage that he exploited to the full. He was also good value on television, an increasingly influential showcase for political characters.

Hailsham in his famous appearance in Dr No, recreated by society photographer Denis Healey

Macmillan abruptly stood down as party leader and Prime Minister just before the Conservative party conference of 1963. There was no clear successor – RA Butler, who had already twice missed the boat by a whisker, was once again thought too liberal. In a widely discussed address to the conference, Hailsham threw his hat into the ring, declaring that “I will renounce my peerage”. I can still picture the emotion on his face, a mix of determination, sorrow and, I rather think, acted humility. There had of course been many Tory PMs in the distant past who had blithely governed from a seat in the Lords but in 20th century Britain this was no longer an option. But to give up a title was an unprecedented move for a Tory. Tony Benn had paved the way, renouncing the title of Viscount Stansgate that had come to him on the death of his father, so that he could stand for a Commons seat as, in those days, Anthony Wedgwood Benn.

Quintin Hogg duly became a commoner again. The title of Viscount Hailsham did not die in his renunciation. Upon his death, it sprang to life again on the shoulders of the present Douglas. But in the meantime, the Blair government had removed from hereditary peers their entitlement to sit in the Lords and so Quintin’s son continued to style himself Mr Hogg and stayed in the Commons until the 2010 general election.

Quintin’s grand gesture proved futile. Macmillan’s successor, the last Tory leader to “emerge” from a stitch-up among party grandees at the Carlton Club, was, in a bitter irony, another member of the peerage. The Earl of Home, an archetypal old school Tory aristocrat and denizen of the huntin‘, shootin‘ and fishin‘ set, had been Chamberlain’s aide at Munich. Several leading Tories were appalled at the continuance of a profoundly undemocratic method of leader-appointing and both Iain Macleod and Enoch Powell refused to serve under Home.

Obliged to renounce his own title, the new PM, to be known as Sir Alec Douglas Home, found himself in the unique position of having to begin his premiership by fighting a by-election in order to enter the House of Commons. Hogg too had to face the electors and re-entered the Commons at the end of 1963 as MP for St Marylebone.

The Tories lost office the following year and Home stood down. His successor as party leader, Edward Heath, was the first Tory leader to be elected by the party to that office. When Heath eventually became PM in 1970, he sent Hogg back to the Lords to replicate his father’s role of Lord Chancellor, in which task he served again in Margaret Thatcher’s first two administrations. Hogg was now called Baron Hailsham of St Marylebone and his title was a life peerage merely.

Quintin Hailsham as Lord Chancellor

Hailsham died three days after his 94th birthday. Twice widowed, once divorced, three times Lord Chancellor, twice a peer and ever an unpredictable, irascible and rather lovable character, he clearly overshadowed his son, as charismatic fathers are apt to do.

Douglas Hogg’s only cabinet post was as Agriculture, Fisheries and Food minister in John Major’s second government. He was widely thought to have made a poor job of handling the crisis over BSE, popularly known as Mad Cow Disease. In one of the last public gestures against the Tories before Labour’s 1997 landslide, a farmer drove from Anglesey to Lincolnshire to dump three tonnes of pigshit at the door of Kettlethorpe Hall.

Baroness Hogg

Indeed, Douglas’s wife Sarah may well be thought the more distinguished of the couple. Another scion of a line of Tory politicians. Sarah’s father was John Boyd-Carpenter who served in the Churchill, Eden and Macmillan cabinets. Journalist (she and I were simultaneously on The Independent), broadcaster, company director, committee woman and sometime Fellow of Eton College, she ran the number 10 policy unit when John Major was PM and is now a member of the house of peers in her own right as Baroness Hogg of Kettlethorpe. On this last score, I wonder if her husband is jealous.