Tag Archive: politics

Jan 04 2012

Book Review: The First American by H.W. Brands

first_americanBenjamin Franklin (1706-1790) is someone who has crossed the paths of a number of protagonists in books I have read on the history of science, including Antoine  Lavoiser, Joseph Banks and the Lunar Society. I thought I should read something on the man himself: “The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin” by H.W. Brands.

Franklin trained as a printer, as an apprentice to his brother. This was a route into learning since he got to read a lot, interacted with learned men and also started writing, when his brother launched a newspaper in their hometown of Boston – one of the early campaigns of this newspaper was against vaccination for smallpox. In the later years of his life he set up a printing press at his residence at the edge of Paris. Franklin ran away to Philadelphia before his apprenticeship finished, making his first trip to England to learn more of his trade with the (moral if not financial) support of the governor of Pennsylvania. This is another example, like Edmond Halley, of rather precocious responsibility which was not so unusual at the time. It turns out the publication of almanacs was lucrative, as was his printing work for the Pennsylvania Assembly. By the 1750s, only in his forties, he was able to step back from his business and carry on earning a good income from it. His trade as a printer seems to me important in honing his writing skills and getting his opinions out in the public domain.

I picked upon Benjamin Franklin primarily for his work as a “scientist”. The first substantial mentions of science in this book come around 1743, it is at this point he founds the American Philosophical Society and does work on a more efficient stove (which he refuses to patent), although in 1726 he is found making observations of a lunar eclipse on his return trip from England. This suggests a scientific turn of mind from a relatively young age. A few years later he is doing original and well-regarded work on electricity, as well as recommending the use of pointy lightning conductors (of great practical importance). He did some work relating a little to my own field: the spreading of oil and water as well as evaporative cooling, the Gulf Stream and some earlier thoughts on meteorology (this seems to strike a cord with some later proposals by Erasmus Darwin).

When Franklin was born Pennsylvania was in the hands of the Penn family, known as the proprietors – other states were controlled directly by the Crown via Royal governors. For much of his life Franklin considered himself to be British but by the end, the United States of America had become a newly minted nation with Franklin a pivotal figure in its creation. I suspect the causes of the War of Independence are the subject of many books. The battle cry of “no taxation without representation” has taken popular hold as a motivation, although at the time the British living in Britain were taxed with not very much representation, this taxation cause is certainly the theme that Brands follows. Also relevant was colonial support for the British in battles against the French, for which they felt little gratitude and that the British gave up in diplomacy much of that which they had paid for in blood. Ineptness on the part of the British political establishment and George III also plays a large part. Franklin’s part in the War of Independence is played politically in London in the run-up to the war, in France during the war – to garner their support, and finally in Philadelphia where he is heavily involved in the creation of the United States of America.

Throughout his life Franklin was a civic activist, a community politician, setting up the Junto (something of the character of the Lunar Society) and the American Philosophical Society (more like the Royal Society). He also founded fire brigades, a Library Company, an academy and a militia. In a sense the United States of America were the culmination of this civic activity.

For much of the last 25 or so years of his life, from 1757,  Franklin was resident in either London or Paris. In London as a representative of the Pennsylvania assembly to the British state, and in Paris similar when their help was sought in the war against the British. He appears to have fitted well into high society, and been exceptionally highly regarded in both countries. No doubt this is in part due to the formal position he held but prior to his arrival he was known in both cities via his interactions with learned societies (the Royal Society and the Académie des Sciences). He strongly considered staying the rest of his life in London, which is odd since his wife was unwilling to join him there.

In the same way that Poirier’s biography of Lavoisier introduced me to the French Revolution, this book on Franklin has introduced me to the American War of Independence. It’s like sneaking vegetables into a child by hiding them in something they like!


My Evernotes on this book can be found here.

Jul 23 2011

Book review: “The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism”

Orange_BookI suspect most people will see me as an "Orange Book" Liberal Democrat, so I thought I should read the eponymous "The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism" edited by Paul Marshall and David Laws.

The Orange Book was first published in 2004, when Charles Kennedy was leader of the Liberal Democrats. He contributes a foreword which is fully supportive of the Liberal inheritance but a little guarded on the policies proposed. The book was written at a time when Labour had been in government for 7 years, the start of the Iraq War was one year past and the economic outlook was fair.

The contributors include Nick Clegg (an MEP at the time), Vince Cable, David Laws, Ed Davey, Chris Huhne, Susan Kramer, Mark Oaten, Steve Webb, Jo Holland and Paul Marshall. The essays cover Liberalism, localism, Europe, global governance, economics and social justice, the environment, the health service, crime, family policy and pension reform.

The value of the essay over a news presentation of policy is that the proposals are preceded with some sort of background indicating how they were motivated; as a consequence I found The Orange Book rather more interesting reading than I was expecting.

The book starts with an essay by David Laws on the Liberal inheritance; decomposing it into the personal (to do with individual freedoms), political (devolution and Europe), economic (free trade and controlling state as well as private monopolies), social liberalism (welfare and health by consumer power). Along with Paul Marshall in the introduction he has some harsh words for socialism.

Ed Davey’s piece on localism and Nick Clegg’s on Europe fit well together: envisaging respectively dissociation of power from Westminster to local councils and Europe. I commented after the election that an accommodation with the Tories over Europe was not as surprising as many people had thought; the seeds of this can be seen in Nick Clegg’s chapter where he advocates abolition of the Common Agricultural Policy and repatriation of the powers that led to the social chapter and much of the regional support mechanism leaving behind only those components that provide inter-country benefits and support for regions whose governments could not provide support themselves. Somewhat less comfortable an idea for Tories will be more foreign and immigration and asylum policy being handled at the European level. Clegg also provides a catchy headline to keep the EU in proportion: it has a budget of 1% of European GDP and a civil service the size of Birmingham City Council.

Ed Davey’s piece on localism (devolving power to local councils) is well-established Liberal Democrat policy, and looks to more control by local democratic institutions rather than central government. A benefit of this approach is that services can be crafted to local needs rather than a central blueprint, furthermore it allows for more experimentation at smaller scale as to how to best deliver services. To enable this shift there needs to be improvement in the accountability of local councils, with the ending of local one-party states through fairer votes.

For reasons I can’t quite fathom the chapters on global governance, liberal economics and social justice, and the environment passed me by without making a great deal of impact.

Mark Oaten’s headline of Tough Liberalism regarding crime seems a little out of place since the emphasis of his piece is on education within the prison system and seeing the process of release of prisoners into the community at the end of their sentences as a “settlement” not “re-settlement” since many prisoners have never had settled lives to return to.

David Laws’ second chapter is on the health service: it outlines the flaws of the NHS, what the goals should be for the health service and proposes a solution. He sees a scheme of simply boosting funding through the current mechanism as being a short-term solution – easily susceptible to future unravelling. Perhaps it will be a surprise to many that he sees one of the problems with the NHS that its cost control is too effective, referencing the phenomenally high bed occupancy rate which leads to longer waiting times. His proposal is for a National Health Insurance Scheme with the NHS as one potential supplier of care with providers only able to offer non-clinical services as top-up to the national insurance specified clinical services. This scheme is based on those found in other European countries.

The chapter by Steve Webb and Jo Holland on family policy seems a little more interventionist than might be considered Liberal with an apparent enthusiasm for encouraging marriage rather than partnership. However, one welcome idea is to scrap a target for getting 70% of single parents into work. This attitude has always struck me as a bit jarring: that work is so important that the State will encourage you to work whilst paying someone else for the work of raising your children.

The book finishes with a chapter on pensions, a subject close to my heart at the moment. Liberals have been at the heart of pensions from their inception in the UK with Lloyd George and later in the Beveridge Report implemented by Labour in the post-war government. The problem with pensions is that since Beveridge, in the 1940s, things have changed a lot. The original pension scheme is pay-as-you-go: current payers of National Insurance pay for current claimants. No-one is contributing to their own state pension. At the time of its foundation in 1948 this scheme was relatively inexpensive (only £4billion per year in current terms), currently the state pension costs £40billion per year – due to a larger retired population relative to those working. For this reason the value of the state pension has fallen over the years since there is not the political will to lift current contributions to match the original commitment. Marshall proposes a compulsory funded pension to supplement the current system. The funding system at least forces the government to be explicit about their liabilities in pensions. Over the next 20 years or so the pensions problem will become more acute: currently the dependency ratio (the ratio of those in retirement to those in work) is 0.3 by 2030 it will be 0.4.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the policies presented this is the type of policy discussion I expect to see taking place in my party. The "Orange Book" label feels more like an attempt to personalise a division between old-style Liberals and social democrats, and to cut off the Liberals from a Liberal past rather than any useful description of political thought. It also has the air of being more about Coalition with the Tories rather than any differences in policy.

May 29 2011

House of Lords Reform

At the 2010 General Election nearly 90% of us voted for parties enthusiastic for an elected House of Lords. The Conservatives said in their manifesto:

“We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords”

The Liberal Democrats said in their manifesto:

“Replace the House of Lords with a fully-elected second chamber with considerably fewer members than the current House.”

And Labour said in their manifesto:

“We will ensure that the hereditary principle is removed from the House of Lords. Further democratic reform to create a fully elected Second Chamber will then be achieved in stages.”

This is also reflected in the Coalition Agreement:

“We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation.”

The reasons for this unanimity is several-fold:

  1. There is a current pressing problem of overcrowding of the House of Lords. This arises because although there is a mechanism for appointing Lords there is no mechanism for retiring them, as a consequence Britain has one of the largest legislaturesin the world relative to the population. The convention in recent years has been to add members such that the composition of the house reflects the proportion of votes for each party at the most recent general election – with no exit route this is unsustainable.
  2. The British scheme of appointing a second chamber is almost unique in western nations, with only Canada following suit, it’s wholly appointed nature raises serious questions of democratic legitimacy. Attempts to make the composition match recent elections are a recognition of this lack of legitimacy but are an inadequate solution to the problem.
  3. The appointed nature of the House of Lords leads to transparency issues. It serves in part as an honours system for services rendered to political parties as well as a working revision chamber. Although the current composition contains 23% crossbenchers it is still very substantially a political chamber.
  4. The current average attendance in the House of Lords is around 388, nearly 20% of members only attend once or twice a year.

The Labour government made a start on House of Lords reform by removing the voting rights of all but 92 of the hereditary peers with an intention of moving to a House of Lords with a larger elected component. These subsequent changes ran into the sands of complex parliamentary procedures and an obstinate upper House.

The proposals put forward by Nick Clegg, backed by David Cameron, are for a second chamber containing 300 members elected using a proportional system based on large constituencies. The proposal is to elect one third of the house at each general election with members elected for 15 years but no possibility of re-election. The draft bill includes provision for 20% of the house to be appointed but there is a consultation with the option that the house be 100% elected.

These proposals are evolutionary: the legislative powers of the House of Lords remaining as now; an elected house is only attained after 15 years and the membership will only be 25% smaller than the current active membership.

I look forward to the parties at Westminster fulfilling their commitments to an elected second house!

May 22 2011

The House of Lords by numbers

Reform is in the air for the House of Lords, to be fair reform has been in the air for large parts of the last hundred years. Currently reform comes in the form of a proposal put forward by Nick Clegg and backed by David Cameron – you can see the details here. It comes in the context of all three main Westminster parties supporting a largely elected House of Lords in their 2010 General Election manifestos.

The purpose of this post is not to go through the proposals in detail but simply to provide some charts on appointments to the House of Lords over the years. The current composition of the House is shown in the pie-chart below:


The membership of the House of Lords currently numbers 789, I have excluded the handful of members from UKIP, DUP, UUP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru since they are too few to show up in such a chart.

The website www.theyworkforyou.com provides a handy list of peers in an easily readable format, this list includes data such as when they were appointed, what party they belong to, what name they have chosen and when they left and whether they used to be an MP. We can plot the number of appointments each year:HoLTotalByYear

I’ve highlighted election years in red, as you can see election years are popular for the appointment of new members, and it would seem many of those appointed in such years are former MPs, as shown in the graph below:


But to which parties do these appointees belong? This question is answered below:


I hope this provides a useful backdrop to subsequent discussions on reform.

May 19 2011

More news from the shed…


In the month of May I seem to find myself playing with maps and numbers.

To the uninvolved this may appear to be rather similar to my earlier “That’s nice dear”, however the technology involved here is quite different.

This post is about extracting the results from the local elections held on 5th May from the Cheshire West and Chester website and displaying them as a map. I could have manually transcribed the results from the website, this would probably be quicker, but where’s the fun in that?

The starting point for this exercise was noticing that the results pages have a little icon at the bottom saying “OpenElectionData”. This was part of an exercise to make local election results more easily machine-readable in order to build a database of results from across the country, somewhat surprisingly there is no public central record of local council election results. The technology used to provide machine access to the results is known as RDF (standing for Resource Description Framework), this is a way of providing “meaning” to web pages for machines to understand – this is related to the talk of the semantic web. The good folks at Southampton University have provided a browser which allows you to inspect the RDF contents of a webpage. I used this to get a human sight of the data I was trying to read.

RDF content ultimately amounts to triplets of information: “subject”,”predicate”,”object”. In the case of an election then one triplet has a subject of “specific ward identifier” the predicate is “a list of candidates” and the object is “candidate 1;candidate 2; candidate 3…”. Further triplets specify the whether a candidate was elected, how many votes they received and the party to which they belong.

I’ve taken to programming in Python recently, in particular using the Python(x,y) distribution which packages together an IDE with some libraries useful to scientists. This is the sort of thing I’d usually do with Matlab, but that costs (a lot) and I no longer have access to it at home.

There is a Python library for reading RDF data, called RDFlib, unfortunately most of the documentation is for version 2.4 and the working version which I downloaded is 3.0. Searching for documentation for the newer version normally leads to other sites where people are asking where the documentation is for version 3.0!

The base maps come from the Ordnance Survey, specifically the Boundary Line dataset which contains administrative boundary data for the UK in ESRI Shapefile format. This format is widely used for geographical information work, I found the PyShp library from GeospatialPython.com to be well-documented and straightforward way to read the format. The site also has some nice usage examples. I did look for a library to display the resulting maps but after a brief search I adapted the simple methods here for drawing maps using matlibplot.

The Ordnance Survey Open Data site is a treasure trove for programming cartophiles, along with maps of the UK of various types there’s a gazetteer of interesting places, topographic information and location data for UK postcode.

The map at the top of the page uses the traditional colour-coding of red for Labour and blue for Conservative, some wards elect multiple candidates and in those where the elected councillors are not all from the same party purple is used to show a Labour/Conservative combination and orange a Labour/Liberal Democrat combination.

In contrast to my earlier post on programming, the key elements here are the use of pre-existing libraries and data formats to achieve an end result. The RDF component of the exercise took quite a while, whilst the mapping part was the work of a couple of hours. This largely comes down to the quality of the documentation available. Python turns out to be a compact language to do this sort of work, it’s all done in 150 or so lines of code.

It would have been nice to have pointed my program to a single webpage and for it to find all the ward data from there, including the ward names, but I couldn’t work out how to do this – the program visits each ward in turn and I had to type in the ward names. The OpenElectionData site seemed to be a bit wobbly too, so I encoded party information into my program rather the pulling it from their site. Better fitting of the ward labels into the wards would have been nice too (although this is a hard problem). Obviously there’s a wide range of analysis that can be carried out on the underlying electoral data.


The python code to do this analysis is here. You will need to install the rdflib and PyShp libraries and download the OS Boundary Line data. I used the Python(x,y) distribution but I think it’s just the matlibplot library which is required. The CWac.py program extracts the results from the website and writes them to a CSV file, the Mapping.py program makes a map from them. You will need to adjust file paths to suit your installation.

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