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No time for comedy...

The economic crisis, the relentless attacks on Gaza and a very real threat to trainspotting. Jonatha

My first piece of the year. I have taken legal advice and understand what is required under the Columnists’ Act. So here they are, my humorous predictions for 2009...


Michael Martin agrees to resign as Speaker, but only if he is replaced by George Galloway!


Gordon Brown announces...
That will keep the Statesman’s lawyers happy for a while.

But really this is no time for comedy. The economy is collapsing, the Gaza Strip is being blitzed and there are unconfirmed reports of wolves being sighted at Cleobury Mortimer.

So let’s talk about something serious instead.


And I don’t mean the adventures of Begbie, Spud and Sickboy either.

As I said in my review for Steam Railway Quarterly, anyone who opens Irvine Welsh’s book in the hope of gaining an insight into the operation of Gresley’s A4 Pacifics on the LNER is likely to be sadly disappointed.


If I were not too worldly to have heroes, Norman Baker would be one of them. The Lib Dem MP once brought down Peter Mandelson with a single question. He has published a book investigating the death of Dr David Kelly. He champions Tibetan freedom and the reopening of the line between Uckfield to Lewes.

But this week Baker disappointed me. Revealing that the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2000 has been used to stop 62,584 people at railway stations and that another 87,000 travellers have been questioned under ‘stop and search’ legislation, he thought it necessary to say:

“The anti-terror laws allow officers to stop people for taking photographs and I know this has led to innocent trainspotters being stopped. This is an abuse of anti-terrorism powers and a worrying sign that we are sliding towards a police state.

"Trainspotting may be an activity of limited, and indeed questionable, appeal, but it is not a criminal offence and it is not a terrorist threat.”

When did this innocent activity become such anathema? Baker would not have felt a need to be condemnatory if he had been, say, defending sadomasochists against Jacqui Smith’s goons.

Trainspotting is now treated only half-jokingly as a symptom of a rather major social disorder, but it is not so long since boys were meant to be interested in railways.

For three decades after the Second World War working-class affluence gave them the money and the leisure to pursue the hobby. The Ian Allan Locospotters Club provided the ruthless organisation.

Nicholas Whittaker tells the story in his Platform Souls – a book that in a just world would have done for trainspotting what Fever Pitch did for football.

As he emphasises, trainspotting was not without controversy. Popular stations could be overrun with children in the holidays and questions were once asked in the House about a particularly notorious episode at Tamworth. When overzealous spotters were picked up wandering around locomotive depots, magistrates would call for the hobby to be banned.

But if nothing else, it taught them about geography. If modern youths want to get home they phone their parents and grunt.

So why all this “Place your notebook on the ground and walk away from it slowly” stuff from the authorities?

It’s nothing to do with terrorism: it is about enforcing conformity. If our young people were again to smell diesel fumes and taste chocolate from machines – for any former trainspotter these are the unforgettable flavours of first freedom – there would be no holding them.

But talking of conformity, we had better keep the lawyers sweet.

...announces David Cameron.
George Galloway agrees to resign as Speaker, but only if he is replaced by Cheryl Cole!!

Jonathan Calder has been a district councillor and contributed to speeches by Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. These days he prefers to poke gentle fun from the sidelines. He blogs at Liberal England
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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.