THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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April 2008

Journey's End

1,600 miles later, Vittoria and I are back in the North of England. Normal blogging service will return soon (after a long-anticipated family party, which I am hosting tonight). In the meantime, here are a few pictures of the trip (click to enlarge).

L-R: Vittoria in the Assynt, the Scottish Crannog Centre, my silhouette on the loading ramp of the Islay Ferry, the mash house at the Bruichladdich distillery on Islay, David our guide at the Laphroaig Distillery shows the size of the peat that got away, Laphroaig's wonderful seaside location, a short stout, flat-bottomed Laphroaig still with its upward-sloping lyne arm in the act of producing my favourite tipple, Jonathan Livingstone (showing my age again) over Bowmore Harbour (where the Harbour Inn produces a very decent lunch) and finally New Lanark, which I visited on the run South.















Yesterday, I spent hours navigating single track roads to get to the CalMac terminal at Kennacraig to catch the last ferry of the day to Islay. After some nervous moments watching lorries bounce up and down the boarding ramps I gingerly embarked Vittoria without grounding as I feared. One fellow passenger was a young man about the age I was when the sight of a Ferrari Dino made it essential for me to make a real effort in life. His enthusiasm reminded me of that day. I hope Vittoria inspires him to aspire as that Dino did me.

She has inspired words of admiration wherever we have been so far. Every male service station cashier, every male hotel employee has admonished me "enjoy your car" I am not one to respond well to the imperative voice, but I fully intend to comply.

The roads on Islay are built on the peat that flavours the local whiskies and in consequence rise and fall alarmingly. Given Vittoria's low ground clearance, and the locals' better knowledge of their terrain, I was cautious enough to have the humiliation of being overtaken by a landrover towing a trailer. I must finally be growing up, because I saw the joke. I hope the local farmer enjoyed telling the tale.

After a superb late dinner, I tore myself away from the live music in the Port Charlotte Hotel so as not to keep up mine host at the B&B where I was to lay my head. He was genial enough about my late arrival to offer a "dram" as a nightcap, over which we exchanged as much data as men will in such circumstances. Now, well rested and well breakfasted, I am off to tour the distilleries of Bruichladdich and Laphroaig, with lunch in the cafe at Ardbeg in between. This programme will not be much affected by the fine, soft rain that is making Scotland look like herself, rather than the strange sunny paradise of recent days. Slainte!

Another superb day

It is not normally my destiny, gentle reader, to comment on what a superb gift life is. I focus too much, perhaps, on the perfidies of our "leaders." To hell with them all, I say. Life is good. Scotland always makes me a better, kinder man (let us charitably turn away from the question of why She has no such effect on her natives).

Today we journeyed, nay glided, from Lochinver to Blairgowrie. I stopped at Kenmore to visit a reconstruction of a "Scottish Crannog". Of course it was no such thing. Crannogs were built by my ancestors, the Celts, before the Scots ever arrived. Like the Scots, I arrived late. Unlike them I made a financial contribution (to thank the team for their kindness in rearranging things so I could take the tour despite my tardiness). I loved it. I then headed to my somewhat snooty hotel (good, but not as good as it thinks) and had an unequivocally excellent meal accompanied by two superb wines.

Yes, dear dear reader, life is good. And tomorrow, Islay.

From Lochinver

Dscn0970At last, an hotel with internet access. Free wifi for guests in the lobby area, no less! Congratulations to the Inver Lodge Hotel for being the hippest hotel in the Highlands (although I am afraid it does give the impression - as do all Scottish interiors - that my granny was the designer). Perhaps the rugged beauty outside creates a need for contrasting banality indoors?

I won't bore my serious-minded readership with my adventures, save to say that Roger Thornhill's mention of Lochinver in comments to the previous thread inspired me to head over here today. The four-hour journey from the Trotternish Peninsula on Skye (where I read his comment last night via iPhone) was amazing. The coastal road through Wester Ross provided ample opportunity for Vittoria (pictured here on a Highland road) to show her awesome mettle as I sang along to "Little Deuce Coupe" on the on-board jukebox.

Then I drove many slower miles on single track roads with occasional passing places. At some points I had to slow to a crawl as I passed  between carrosserie-threatening stone walls on one side and rough rocks on the other. Glorious variety.  I stopped for a rest and a drink of diet Irn-Bru (an innovation since my last trip?); gazed out over magnificent landscape and pondered why the Scots are such a plague in Westminster when they could stay home and enjoy all this. I had a wonderful day.

Scotland is as beautiful as I remember from my last trip five years ago, but looks rather more prosperous. Everywhere that should be is neatly clipped; the inhabitants -even in supposedly poor highland areas- look rather better dressed than I remember. It's nice to know that the proceeds of Gordon Brown's rieving of the English Treasury have at least been put to good use.

Still the abiding impressions are of the gentle courtesy of the Highlanders (not one of whom has failed to compliment Vittoria) and the glorious natural beauty of their home. Even Gordon Brown (God rot him) can't taint my pleasure in that. Here are some more photos for anyone who is still interested (L-R: The Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge, Dunvegan Castle on Skye, a view of Skye over Vittoria's dashboard and Flodigarry Island from my hotel window last night).

I don't think I have ever been in Scotland so long without visiting a distillery. Perhaps tomorrow...


Light blogging alert

I am currently en route to England to pick up Vittoria from the dealer in Manchester. I shall be driving her to Scotland tomorrow for a "get to know you" tour of Highland roads. I have no hotels booked (except for the first night in Fort William - email [email protected] if you are in those parts and fancy a whisky tomorrow night). Otherwise, in an escape from a life regimented by Microsoft Outlook, I shall just make things up as I go along. Sadly, there is no guarantee of internet access (other than, perhaps, via my iPhone) in Highland & Island accommodation.

If I can keep you informed of our progress, I shall. But propose to forget our tyrannous government for a week and focus on life's pleasures. I hope to rediscover the nice (if rather naive) young chap I was before Labour's assault on our liberties made me so embittered. If a mere car can achieve that (with the assistance of Scotland's natural beauty) then she will be well worthy of her portentous name.

+rant mode OFF+

Memories are made of this

I was reminiscing with work colleagues today about how my parents banned me from watching The Avengers for a month because, as a fan of Diana Rigg, I complained when an episode was cancelled because of coverage of the assassination of JFK. They say everyone remembers where they were. I was in my bedroom, grounded because of my disrespect for the late President. In fairness, I was only six.

MarilynmonroeHistory subsequently showed my parents' reverence for President Kennedy to have been somewhat misplaced. We can forgive him many things, but surely never for inspiring  such unworthy emulators.

Lotus_elanOne of my colleagues went to YouTube to find out what had so appealed to me about the show. I am not sure it's to be found in this clip. Much as I was impressed by Ms Rigg's undoubted charms, as a confirmed young petrolhead (no-one believes me, but my first words really were "Mercedes Benz") I think it was the Lotus Elan I was actually in love with.

Same-sex couples could create children; but should they?

Link: Same-sex couples could create children - Telegraph.

Test_tubeInstinctively, I feel this technology is wrong. I would not use it and would disapprove of anyone who did. However my personal revulsion is no reason to want a law against it (as we have at present). There are many things I find revolting which are (or should be) legal.

After many years of infertility treatments, research is now beginning to show (as I would have predicted) that the children of infertile couples are more likely to have health problems than those of parents who conceive without scientific intervention. Sometimes there is a good natural reason why a couple can't conceive, which it is morally wrong, or at least highly irresponsible, to ignore. Sometimes one or both parents could conceive easily with someone else, but together they simply represent a poor genetic combination. My children have been the greatest joy in my life and I feel very sorry for any couple that can't conceive, but in their place I think I would accept Nature's harsh verdict. I would think it better to give a loving home to a child in need of adoption, than to risk producing one of my own to suffer.

Of course, in these uncomfortably mystical terms, Nature has given no verdict on the capacity of same sex couples to reproduce. They may both be perfectly capable of conceiving with a wide range of partners. Perhaps there is less reason to object to their conceiving by artificial means than there is for infertile heterosexuals? However, any combination of genes untested by Nature represents an increased risk which I would not personally take.

In the end, it's impossible to legislate sensibly for these matters. The drive to reproduce is so powerful that many couples will take the risks of genetic defects. If their country bans a technology, they will travel to another to use it (or they will simply do it illegally). Scientists are far more driven by curiosity than ethics, so there is no effective way to legislate against such research. The idea of legislating against knowledge disgusts me anyway! Some same sex couples will be eager to use this technology in order to make a political point. I fear for a child conceived for such a reason, but many are conceived for much worse (or none).

My ethical problem as a libertarian is this; while I am all for being able to take risks for myself, I struggle with the notion of taking them for an unborn child. In such cases it is the child who will live with the consequences of the parent's choices. What do you think?

Security theatre

Link: Security theatre |

Johnathan Pearce over at ever-good-value Samizdata has posted an interesting account (linked above) of being caught up in a Terrorism Act 2000, section 44 search in London. The comments are entertaining (if rather "salty" at times) but I particularly want to draw your attention to Guy Herbert's excellent account of "mission creep" since the original Act was passed. The assurances given to Parliament about the Act's "stop and search powers" (i.e. they would be used on the authorisation of a senior officer if there was specific intelligence of a terrorist attack) have been set at naught. Poor initial drafting, coupled with subsequent changes, mean it can now be used randomly. Do read the whole thing but the following extracts should be enough to make your blood boil:

The power is authorised by a chief police officer for a specific area for a specific time. It was sold to parliament on the grounds that it might be needed on specific information of an impending terrorist attack or in the aftermath of an actual one. That is not how it has in fact been used ... It emerged sometime in 2004 that the whole of London had been made in secret subject to such an authorisation indefinitely. This was a bit embarrassing so was cancelled, but seems to have been replaced by a rolling succession of such orders.

The original theory was:

    (1) The power conferred by an authorisation under section 44(1) or (2)—

(a) may be exercised only for the purpose of searching for articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism, and

(b) may be exercised whether or not the constable has grounds for suspecting the presence of articles of that kind.

So it could be random, but only if the purpose of the search is terrorism related...

There's a useful discussion of the power itself with judicial authority here ...

... if you are searched ... the revised PACE code of practice B will apply ... So regardless of the grounds (or lack of grounds) ... they can take (and prosecute you for) anything they find on you regardless that this power is a 'special' terrorism power. The Act therefore enables random searches or targeted searches against individuals or descriptions of individuals that are indeed for all practical purposes fishing expeditions.

Where are the MP's of all parties who were misled by the government about this? Why are they not doing the job we pay them for? Are they all incompetent or uncaring? When you hear ministers justifying "special" powers to deal with terrorist threats, please bear in mind that this is what happens in practice. You cannot safely believe a single word they utter.

I suspect Johnathan's experience has some connection to the government's current plans further to extend the period for detention of suspects without trial. Some "security theatre" (rather like Blair's infamous deployment of tanks to Heathrow) is just what our Jacqui needs to get her measures through.

The Line, the Bitch and the Wardrobe

Osborne Adam Boulton's interview with George Osborne today came at a significant moment. For the first time, with the Labour government visibly crumbling, Osborne's credibility matters. Boulton gave him a harder time than he would any interviewee from further left, but Osborne held up well. He avoided cheap attacks and refused to provide more policy ideas for his intellectually-bankrupt opponents. In the course of this fencing, he managed to land a few blows. Boulton persisted with the Labour Party line about the Tories just "knocking the government" while providing no policy alternatives. For a second I thought he had landed a killer blow when he said that, well before Blair's first election victory the Labour Party had given "clear pledges on tax". Osborne's response was masterful, apart from the strange hesitation which gave me my bad moment. Saying;

I don't want to pick you up on your history again, Adam...

he pointed out that those pledges were given just five months before an election, not two years. Perhaps his hesitation was about the word "again?" Perhaps he was concerned to avoid even such a subtle dig at an important commentator far too close to the establishment? Conservatives remain strangely keen to "play nice" in the face of Labour's consistently amoral tactics. David Cameron's prissy early comment about "Punch and  Judy politics" was a big mistake. It gives mealy-mouthed Labourites the opportunity to criticise any Tory attacks, while gleefully urging on their own pack of political hounds.

Osborne sounded the right note of confidence when he closed Boulton down with the comment;

People will know exactly what we are doing about tax, when we have an opportunity to do something about tax, that is when there is a General Election

He went on to list specific commitments the Tories have already made and promised more over the next two years as the election approaches. His response to Boulton's partisan sneering at the International Monetary Fund "seeming to have persuaded themselves" that we face the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression was good. He skilfully avoided any charges of schadenfreude or of "talking down" the markets without actually contradicting the IMF's (sadly plausible) view. He confined himself to pointing out that;

Britain is ill-prepared for this as we have the biggest budget deficit in the world

(is that really true?) and by mildly observing that

As far as I know, we are the only country in the world which is responding to the current crisis with tax increases

This was the issue on which, predictably, Osborne pleased me least. The dangerous suggestion that in Alistair Darling's unenviable place he might have stimulated the housing market with lower stamp duty made me shudder, as did his comment that he would have retained the 10p rate of income tax. The housing market is already light years beyond cloud cuckoo land and stimulus is the last thing it needs. As for income tax, in his place I would have proposed to take those on or around the minimum wage out of tax altogether. He could and should have attacked the cynical process whereby Labour takes poor peoples' money in order to buy their votes and control their lives by giving it back as benefits. This is something that Britain's working poor understand very well and Osborne missed a trick.

Nor was I particularly impressed by his suggestion that we might be able so to regulate the credit system as to prevent future debt bubbles. The only way to avoid problem debt is to let people suffer the consequences of their imprudence. They they will regulate their conduct more subtly than any government could hope to do. Osborne will live to regret those words, when future debtors blame him for failing to protect them from their own stupidity.

Boulton asked about the Prime Minister's political difficulties and raised the possibility of his stepping down. Osborne's response was so good that even Tony Benn could not accuse him of putting personality above policy. Saying he thought it was "unlikely" that Brown would step down [too right; Labour lacks anyone with the courage to be Tsvangirai to their very own Mugabe] he added that people in the Labour Party were not just unhappy with Brown's "manner" but with his policies. Then he commented that people must  doubt if a Government "fighting with itself" can lead the country well. This was deliciously snide, yet delivered with an air of cherubic innocence.

On the whole though his performance was more workmanlike than inspiring. On the BAe corruption scandal, he avoided being skewered with the "destruction of thousands of British jobs" nonsense by saying the Attorney General should have the right to stop a prosecution on grounds of "national security" (not "national interest" please note). However any such decision should be subject to judicial scrutiny. Personally, I agree with Iain Dale's principled stand for the rule of law in this matter,  but - politically - this was a good line. Osborne noted that arms represent only 2-3% of our exports and even made my point that other exporters will have their position damaged by the government's shocking (and illegal) action.

Wardrobe More impressive, in its way, was Nicholas Soames's handling of a dangerous question about the Shannon Matthews case. He responded by saying we should be concerned as to why there were so many dysfunctional families like Shannon's. He hinted at the problem of welfare dependency undermining the family without being all "Daily Mail" about it. He spoke up for the good people of Dewsbury and the community spirit they had wasted on such undeserving people. Well done Big Nick. Now please never appear on TV again for the good of your party.  I know it's wrong that all the viewing public see is a fat toff but please have the sophistication to realise that's the only reason you are the media's favourite Tory. Well, that and the folk memory of your ex-wife's alleged comments about you.