Friday, November 30, 2007

The 4 scandals progress

The Labour Funding scandals are getting so bad, with each day bringing a new development, it is hard to know where this will end. The suggestion that just one person knew what was going on, and he has resigned, is clearly nonsense. Internal enquiries by sympathetic retirees were never going to be enough: people can lie to these whereas to lie to a Police enquiry is a criminal offence. Although at the time I was concerned about whether Cameron was right to use PMQs to push Brown to call the police, the fact that the police have now been called in vindicates this tactic. Harriet Harman, Jack Dromey and Jon Mendleson are clearly going to have to go.

It may be a slight exaggeration to talk of "open warfare" between HH and GB but it is impossible to have an enquiry into the matter reporting back to her (so she cannot continue as Party Chairman) and she plainly cannot continue as Leader of the House: consider her ridiculous "Nursery Rhyme" performance yesterday, she is repeatedly rebuked by the Speaker and then refers to him as "Mr Deputy Speaker"! Ominously "her staff declined to comment on a report that she took out other bank loans [for her campaign] which have not been declared ...as the law requires."

The fundamental threads that run through all 4 major scandals (Rock, Data, Services and Donations) are arrogance and indecisiveness. It is however also remarkable that three of them all emanate from the Newcastle area. This is partly because the North East is a Labour Client State. Chris Leslie, Brown's campagn coordinator who tore up Janet Kidd's cheque but then "helpfully" suggested to Harriet Harman that she solicit a donation from her (after Harman's campaign had closed!!) also seems to have North-Eastern connections. The FT says that £33.6k of the £46.7k that Harman's campaign raised was raised after she was elected - this is quite worrying and raises the question of how the campaign was funded.

Meanwhile the you.gov poll in the Telegraph shows an 11 point C Lead. Although the Weighted Moving Average which I track "only" shows an 8.4 point C lead, but this is the highest since I started the calculations. Also you.gov retrospectively generally has the C Lead spot on. We shall see what happens, but I'll be surprised if Labour is above 30% in the polls come Jan.

PS: The Law on the question of donations is quite interesting. It's clear that making a donation on someone's behalf without declaring whose is a criminal offense. Also "A donation received by a registered party must not be accepted by the party if (b) the party is (whether because the donation is given anonymously or by reason of any deception or concealment or otherwise) unable to ascertain the identity of that person." In addition, either "the Treasurer of the Party" or "The Party and the Treasurer" could be guilty of an offence.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lucas, Rees Penrose and Arisophanes

Had lunch yesterday with John Lucas - as an FBA he has dining rights at the RS, and since Martin Rees was dining there I was able to introduce them: Roger Penrose was dining with Martin so John, he and I had an interesting conversation. There are some experimentalists at UC Santa Barbara have the idea for an experiment which would verify (or otherwise) Penrose's very interesting theories about quantum gravity.

John was giving a lecture at Kings College London about the nature of Time. Sadly pressure of work meant I couldn't go to the lecture, but John says it was similar to his paper here.

In the evening went to Younger Daughter's play at her school, where she is Euripides in The Frogs. It was performed un-cut and it is very difficult to make 2,400-year-old comedy funny (in the first half the only palpable hit was the corpse who refuses to take the luggage down to Hades). Second half was rather better, but still more educational than entertaining.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Passion in St Mark, need for retreat

Delightful and moving Life Group last night: we were studying the Passion in Mark and approached it by reading round, with the dialogue said by all of us and the narrative moving clockwise. However when we got to "My God my God, why have you forsaken me" we then read the whole of Psalm 22 (which by my count contains 12 references to Jesus's life, death and resurrection) before continuing with Mark's narrative, and then kept silence for 5-6 minutes while we moved into 3 smaller discussion/prayer groups.

This was inspired in part by the excellent sermon on Sunday evening which strongly suggested that everyone needed to book a retreat of some sort, and to help re-connect their inner life with their outer life. This re-discovery of much of the wisdom of "Catholic" spirituality within the Evangelical tradition is one of the most encouraging things happening in the Church.

I was approached by presstv to appear on a programme discussing the spiritual impact of the Internet: I declined partly due to pressure of work (and a nasty cold) and partly because I didn't feel I knew enough about the organisation, which is the Iranian Government's answer to BBC World as far as I can see. Subsequently I asked an Iranian in our Life Group about it, who had never heard of it. But it is well worth trying to improve understanding between peoples and religions, and maybe given more time I would/should have accepted?

I've refrained from commenting here on the latest scandal to hit Labour. I posted elsewhere a couple of days ago: "If this were played upon a stage now. I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Leadership challenge next year??

Yesterday I wrote that: "I don’t think we can rule out a leadership challenge [to Brown] next year." And today Matthew Parris seriously floats the possibility (he "puts it no higher than that") that Brown will be removed. Parris is obviously far better informed than I am, and neither of us is saying it will happen (I clarified later that I though the probability was 0.5-2.5%) - we shall see. The Telegraph claims that senior officials decided to release the bank details (well the headline is "top" but they clearly aren't) and Charles Moore suggests that civil servants are increasingly willing to stand up against the government. And Martin Kettle in The Guardian takes a not dis-similar line to them.

The Independent reports that business leaders lose confidence in the Chancellor. And carries an interesting "day in the life of" Paul Smee the head of APACS. Which begins "The events of 20 November may yet be seen as the beginning of the end of Gordon Brown's government. The loss of confidential data on millions of child benefit claimants has dealt a hammer blow to the public's perception of its competence"

Friday, November 23, 2007

Great news! Two interesting appointments

Great news! Our son has passed his MRCP Part III, which means that he can take up his appointment as a Clinical Lecturer at Cambridge (which he had been offered subject to his passing) around the end of the year.

I'm also informed that "We are getting plenty of enquiries and applications" for the Research Assistant position to work with John Polkinghorne and me. Another RA post (lower salary and less intellectually challenging, though doing vitally important work in the development of materials for schools) got nearly 50 applications, many of which were of exceptionally high quality. I hope we don't have to review too many CVs but getting someone outstanding would be really helpful. We'll see.

Not single spies, but batallions

The wheels really do seem to be coming off the Brown government. Which, since Labour can, in theory, hang on until 2010 creates an interesting situation. Of course a week is a long time in politics, but...
  1. On Northern Rock, The Guardian is pointing out that £53bn of their £75bn mortage book is in fact owned by Granite, and thus only the first tranche of the Bank of England emergency funding is secured against "high quality mortgages with a significant protection margin built in and high quality securities with the highest quality of credit rating"
  2. On the HMRC Data Fiasco it is increasingly clear that this was a systemic failure. After all a properly designed IT Systems would make it impossible for anyone, whether a Junior Official or the Archbishop of Canterbury to download millions of records and burn them on a CD. And the email trail shows clearly that this was not a single person acting alone.
  3. Several former top brass in the Lords have now publicly lambasted Brown for his handling of defense. I always said appointing Des Browne to two jobs was an extraordinary decision.
The latest poll shows Labour support still at 32% (and of course the Weighted Moving Average has them higher 41:35:14) but as the enormity of the situation sinks in it is hard to imagine it staying about 30%. We shall see.

PS I've been invited to a discussion on Transforming Government with IT at the House of Commons next month. This should be very interesting in the present circumstances.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Harvard, Marriage the Data Fiasco - and Research Assistant!

Back yesterday from a fascinating 2 day visit to Harvard, working with Martin and his colleagues and a very bright young fellow of All Souls. Colin was also in town and we had an excellent meeting with a senior Editor at major publisher, who says he (too) very much hopes to publish our book, so we'll have some interesting decisions to make! Also had dinner with Pam Silver and met Sarah Coackley. Bought Beowulf on the way back which to my shame I had never met.

Camilla Cavendish spot-on in The Times about the importance of Marriage - and the way the government is trying to hide it: 'There is less up-to-date research in this area than there should be, because marriage no longer exists as a statistical category. The term “marital status” was abolished in government research in 2003.'

Anatole Kaletsky is also exactly right about the appalling Child Benefit data fiasco: The real outrage at HMRC was [the ability of a junior official] to access and copy these records without going through an elaborate security procedure. ...The design of the HMRC computer system should have made it physically impossible for him to do so. And see The Economist on the topic.

We need a Research Assistant at the Faraday Institute at Cambridge to work with me and John Polkinghorne. If anyone knows someone who might be interested, please draw the ad to their attention.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

ToE, Polkinghorne Book, China and the Ruling Clique

Fascinating paper on An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything. I by no means fully understand it, and it could very well be wrong, but it seems it has no free parameters and makes testable predictions looks like real science. Of course it would rather change the debate about Anthropic Fine Tuning, from "why these parameters?" to "why this mathematical structure?". On Fine Tuning I'm reading a nice book by Rodney Horder called God, The Multiverse, And Everything: Modern Cosmology And The Argument From Design.

Spoke to John Polkinghorne (back from the US) and I'm delighted to say that we're definitely doing our joint book, provisionally called Questions of Truth, based on some of our Q&A Pages, to be published by a major US publisher in Fall 08. The publisher has offered a useful advance, which will help fund a Research Associate to work with us on pulling the material together.

Conference on China yesterday at Chatham House, followed by a talk from the Chinese Ambassador at the RSA (Fu Ying). I'd love to write more about this, but "Chatham House Rules" prevent any details. However it is absolutely clear that they know they have serious problems on economic imbalances, human rights and democracy but they are determined to tackle them and are making real and steady progress. This chimes with what a trusted source told me of a 30-ish member of the Chinese elite he got to know well: they are all absolutely determined that there will be democracy in China - but they can't rush it. Fu Ying is a highly impressive individual: it turns out she was leader of the Chinese delegation that eventually sorted out the very dangerous stand-off with N Korea over Nuclear Weapons. Meeting her and listening to her you can well understand why.

I also learned a bit more about Christianity in China - there was an informative article by Rowan Williams in China Review on Christianity in China, and I'm told Rob Gifford, a respected China journalist and a Christian is very good on this.

PS The FT says: Top civil servants say the PM is hunkered down with a close team of advisers and the two-way flow of
information with ministers has slowed to a trickle. One told the FT recently that the big tent has been replaced by a "ruling clique"

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Faraday, Systems Biology and Goverment Bungles

Went to Cambridge on Tuesday to the Faraday Institute and heard a lecture by Prof Peter Harrison (the new Prof of Science and Religion at Oxford) on The Doctrine of the Fall and the Epistemological Foundations of Modern Science. Striking quote from Locke who "suspect[ed] that natural philosophy is not capable of being made a science" - a statement which would simply be incomprehensible to most modern readers. Also had interesting and productive meeting with Denis Alexander about which I should be able to say more later.

In the evening a fascinating lecture by Leroy Hood on Systems Biology, sponsored by the RAEng and at the Royal Society of Medicine. In addition to being a world-class academic (Member of NAS and NAEng, many prizes) he has an extraordinary track record of successful innovation, including helping to found 14 companies including Amgen and Applied Biosystems. He completely agrees with Denis Noble's anti-reductionist stance (I asked him in the Q&A) and we had an interesting chat after dinner about his latest collaborative initiative. A great guy. Also sat next to Pam Silver at the dinner which was a delight and very interesting. She knows Martin Nowak well and indeed is supervising one of his team, whom I know, at PED. Small world!

After this fascinating stuff, I descend, reluctantly, to politics. At least we now know why Jacqui Smith has been standing up for Sir Ian Blair so stoutly: he must have known about the bungling over illegal immigrants working as security guards and the cover up at the Home Office. Unlike, apparently, Gordon Brown who declined 3 times to state when he was told when asked in PMQs. There was much incredulity at the RSM on why Ari Darsi had agreed to join the government, and how long he would last. General consensus that "his" interim report was a disaster for his reputation. And that the waste in the NHS is astronomical. What is needed is for a big trust to declare itself a Health Enterprise Zone where they have their budget frozen for 5 years in exchange for freedom from all NHS Regulations. Output would increase enormously.

It slipped out last Fri that Debby Reynolds the Government Chief Vet has taken early retirement. You can tell that the Government thinks this is bad news! It seems that the Perm Sec at Defra is one Helen Ghosh - one of only 3 female Perm Secs down from 7. Ah well, age of change.

PS Analtole Kaletsky is absolutely right about Northern Rock. And Browns answer's to Vince Cable at PMQs was alarmingly evasive.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Mr Haddock, Polkinghorne question on Ageing

Lovely autumnal day yesterday - after church went for a 10-mile run along the river and later in the afternoon was on Safety Boat duty at the sailing club. There is a delicious Misleading Cases story by AP Herbert where his fictional litigant Mr Haddock is rowing down a flooded road and has an argument with a motor car that turns on whether the road at the time was a road or a river. The tide was so high that we were able to emulate part of this in the Safety Boat (after the racing was safely concluded) - except that the stretch of road was completely flooded to a depth of several feet and no cars were in sight!

Revised the answers to 2 of the Polkinghorne Q&A and sent them as samples to the putative publisher - the Project Approval Group meets today (in the US) so we should know what's happening soon. One (un-revised version here) was about the alleged possibility of huge extensions to human lifespan: and for some reason this has become hot on BBC News website with an old article about Roger de Grey being most emailed. It claims that SENS is a project at Cambridge University but this is not so - it's a de Grey private enterprise. I rather like the counterblast here.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Elizabeth, Ministerial troubles, public service and sacrifice

Saw Elizabeth the Golden Age last night. Fine performances, esp from Blanchette and Rush, but a terrible script. And one of the writers was William Nicholson, of Shadowlands fame. What on earth went on? The most moving parts were the dedication to public service of Elizabeth and Walsingham and the sacrifices they made

Peter Oborne in the Mail on Sat claims that one Cabinet Minister says there is already a "bunker mentality" at No 10, and that one of the reason Drayson departed was that the Defence Export Sales Organisation was shut down, at the behest of Shriti "the shriek" Vadera without his being consulted. The closure of DESO was announced in July so this cannot have been the final straw - it looks as though he held on until the Pre-Budget Report. Meanwhile The Sunday Times reports that FO officials have turned on Lord Malloch-Brown, describing him as a “liability” for the government.

David Cameron very good in the Telegraph on the bravery of our soldiers and the need to keep the military covenant. Meanwhile it turns out that filling in forms is counted as "frontline policing" in the statistics that government puts out about police effectiveness.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Two giants and a pigmy: Denning, Sen and Ian Blair

Pretty well all the papers including the Guardian and the Mirror take the view that Ian Blair must go. Sad and damning indictment from a former fan here. I remember the great Lord Denning coming to speak at the Cambridge Union when I was an undergraduate: he was Master of the Rolls and under great pressure to resign. He spoke with an impish wit: "Before I spoke I had dinner with your commitee. There is nothing I like better than eating with nice people, drinking with nice people, and sleeping with ... a quiet mind" "you know what they say about me - he shows every Christian virtue except resignation" And, referring to a decision of the Court of Appeal where he was over-ruled 2:1 "I thought he was bowled and stumped - but he said 'no the other two stumps are still standing'" I met his grand(?)-daughter some years later, and she said he was very fond of those lines. Of course it is absurd to compare Denning with Ian Blair - no-one ever accused Denning of a lack of integrity or of currying favour politically.

The great Amartya Sen and a group of distingushed colleagues have produced what seems to be a superb report "Civil Paths to Peace". It develops a recent theme of Sen's that "identity politics" makes strife worse, because we all have many "identities". The concluding phrases of the Executive Summary ring true: "Accepting diversity, respecting all human beings, and understanding the richness of perspectives that people have are of great relevance for all the Commonwealth countries, and for our 1.8 billion people. They are also important for the rest of the world. The civil paths to peace are presented here for use both inside the Commonwealth and beyond its boundaries. The Commonwealth has survived and flourished, despite the hostilities associated with past colonial history, through the use of a number of far-sighted guiding principles. The Commission argues that those principles have continuing relevance today for the future of the Commonwealth – and also for the world at large."

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Accountability - Ian Blair and Lord Drayson

Labour politicians and "political" policemen seem to be the only people who can't see that Sir Ian Blair's position is untenable and that he must go. His police force has been convicted of a criminal offence, and the IPCC report, which he tried to obstruct, is damning. The Economist sums it up succinctly: "The biggest argument against giving the police more powers, however, is provided by the de Menezes shooting itself: they have misused the ones they have. Sir Ian should go; the 28-day limit should stay." However whether the MPA members, who overwhelmingly have Public Sector backgrounds with many of the "independents" having strong past links with Labour, will see it that way remains to be seen.

PS it seems the splendid Kate Hoey, whose constituency includes Stockwell, at least gets it: £I do not think he should be clinging on. I am surprised the Home Secretary has supported him so publicly and so strongly. No one can understand why no one has taken responsibility."

and Shami Chakrabarti is also quite right "The finding that Sir Ian Blair hindered the IPCC investigation should provide the last word on his ability to retain the confidence of Londoners and the officers bound to protect them. It's time he understood what so many politicians forget. There is never dishonour in taking responsibility for your colleagues. If such humility is beyond him, regrettably, the Home Secretary must intervene."

I was wondering how long the Brown Government would last before a resignation. Lord Drayson is, I think, the Minster who has served longest in his present job in the entire government (he and Lord Adonis were appointed in May 2005, everyone else has had their jobs changed) and whatever the controversy of his links with Labour, at least he has built up and run a company and has been seen as a highly effective Minister. Officially he has not resigned but is on "leave of absence" but according to the FT his "friends" have indicated that he was unhappy with the content and tone of the Pre-Budget Report.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Cameron, Cable and The Times on Gordon Brown

Cameron: Let me take just one example: the Prime Minister’s pledge to “deep clean” our hospitals. Here is the headline from one newspaper—it is just what he wanted: “I’ll wipe the wards clean—PM’s amazing pledge on MRSA”.

When we look at it more closely, it certainly is amazing. The Prime Minister said that “deep cleaning” would happen in “every hospital”, but listen to what the Department of Health said: “There are no plans to centrally monitor the deep cleaning of hospitals. Arrangements for the programme are entirely a matter for local determination”.[Interruption.] Wait. The Department of Health went on:“Undertaking deep-clean is just one of a number of approaches trusts may take in tackling healthcare infections.” It gets worse. The Prime Minister said that deep cleaning would happen “over the next year”, but the Department of Health said that “no specific date has been set for either the commencement or completion of the deep-clean programme.” The Prime Minister said deep cleaning would be repeated “every 18 months”, but the Department of Health said:“The success of the first programme of deep cleaning will be fully evaluated before a decision is made about whether to repeat.” Then it said:“There are also no plans to assess the effectiveness of deep-cleaning.” Therefore, all the things that the Prime Minister told us—that it would happen in every hospital, start immediately and be repeated every 18 months—turned out not to be true.

Cable: "I fear that the Prime Minister now cuts a rather sad figure. He was introduced to us a few months ago by his predecessor as the great clunking fist, but the boxing story has gone completely awry. Like a great boxing champion, as he once was, he has somehow made himself unconscious falling over his own bootlaces and is now staggering around the ring, semi-conscious and lost, and hanging on to the ropes."

The Times: " This is the real danger for Mr Brown. He loves the State and the State loves him"

"There is a God!" and "God's Undertaker"

I've been so busy with other things I have failed to notice Antony Flew's There is a God! - subtitled "How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind" (interesting interview in tothesource here) I also find there is God's Undertaker - Has Science buried God? I must get both of them. Of course Deism, like Patriotism, is not enough. But it's fascinating how the tide seems to be turning. The next 2-3 years will be especially fascinating I think.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Humility, Progress on Books, Polls and Carmen

Excellent policy essay in Nature by Sheila Jasanoff called Technologies of Humility, calling for "humility, about both the limits of scientific knowledge and about when to stop turning to science to solve problems...a plea for policy-makers to cultivate, and for universities to teach, modes of knowing that are often pushed to the side in expanding scientific understanding and technological capacity".

Joint book with Polkinghorne has moved several steps closer: we've worked out the contents, format, and method; the head of Europe for a major US publisher is keen on acquiring world rights and I managed to pull together a book proposal in their format just in time for it to be considered at their Projects Approval Group the week after next. Meanwhile another major University press has expressed strong (provisional) interest in Sense & Nonsense. And the topicality of our forthcoming article is somewhat enhanced by the 18-page special report in The Economist.

Another Poll showing a 5% lead for the Conservatives, and from Ipsos/Mori that tends to understate conservative leads. Ed Balls admits that the government has made some mistakes but claims that "it is still our party that has been setting the policy agenda"(!) Well on tax, immigration (where it emerges that 80% of the new jobs "created" since 1997 have gone to immigrants), welfare reform and Europe they are hopelessly on the back foot and these are all Tory issues. They are also encouraging Sir Ian Blair to cling on to office when it is blindingly obvious to all independent commentators (including the FT and the Observer, Pauline Neville-Jones is also very good on this although as a shadow minister she's not exactly independent) that he has to go. NuLab, naturally, hates the idea of people taking responsibility for their actions and having to resign if they are found to be incompetent and out of touch with reality. Of course one of the fundamental problems with NuLab is hubris - believing that the State can intervene to make things better in every area. The Economist rather perceptive on this serious gap in Brown's thinking.

Had my sister and some other dear friends round for dinner last night. Before they arrived tuned in to the ENO's Carmen being broadcast on Radio 3 - I had forgotten just how lovely the music was. Alice Coote is a wonderful singer, but just sounds wrong as Carmen. However Katie van Kooten was ravishing as Micaela - clearly someone to watch. Sally Burgess was a wonderful Carmen: the sultry energy, jazzy voice - I'd be delighted if we ever saw someone as good as her.

Carmen is a great reminder that things just don't work out as planned: contemplating great art and the mysteries of human behaviour should engender a bit of humility in everyone.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Iraq, Polling and NuLab PC

Even the BBC has noticed the substantial drop in Iraq casualties! Sadly the month ended with 3 more deaths but it is still the lowest since March 2006 and the 6th lowest ever. The BBC reporters also say that civillian deaths are substantially down. Of course it would be much better if they fell further, and it's very disappointing that progress has been so slow. But progress there clearly is. Maintaining it will be hard, further drops amazing. Let us hope and pray.

Some speculation on UK Polling Report on whether Brown would have won a November election. Impossible to know, I think not. But what I don’t think will ever happen is that the Coneservatives will get substantially more votes than Labour (say a 4%+ lead) but not a majority. I know that’s what the electoral arithmetic suggests, but in practice the British people have a keen sense of fair play and if the electorate decides that it’s time for a change I think in practice voting patterns would be such as to achieve it.

The dismal IPPR calls for Christmas to be de-emphasised at the expense of other religions' festivals. I hope this is the dying throes of the Nu-Lab PC mentality - but if Brown thinks he'll loose he'll probably cling on till 2010!