Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Census protests

So, it's census day. Will you be filling yours in?

Maybe you'll be boycotting it because of the links with Lockheed.

Up to you I suppose, but the idea of a boycott is that it's supposed to be a sacrifice for you and not other people, and as the census is used to calculate funding for health, education and social services you may wish to consider how your non-appearance will affect your local hospital, school or child protection team.

However if you do decide to register a protest of some kind you'll be in good company.

A hundred years ago the Suffragette's decided that if they couldn't vote they may as well not officially exist. Boycotting took many forms, including staying out all night and partying at the local church hall, which is the sort of protest I like.

Not all followed this boycott, and when the 1911 census data was made public last year, researchers were surprised to find the names of prominent Suffragettes on it, which shows that even then those who talk the talk may not always walk the walk.

The most imaginative use of the census though was made by Emily Davison.

Davison was certainly at the spikier end of the Suffragette movement, attacking a man she mistook for the Chancellor of the Exchequer and planting a bomb at Lloyd George's house. She became a Suffragette martyr in 1913 when she died under the King's horse at the Derby, which is definitely not the sort of protest I like.

However she also protested in fluffier ways, and census night 1911 found her hiding in a broom cupboard in the Houses of Parliament. Next day she could tell the census officers, in all honesty, that one woman at least was now in Parliament.

The broom cupboard is still there, and thanks to Tony Benn a plaque with her picture on hangs in it, "one of very few monuments to democracy in the whole building".

This plaque, it seems, is what inspired Danny Boyle to include the Suffragettes in his Opening Ceremony for the 2012 Summer Olympics which included a moment, only briefly seen on TV, where the women carry a Christ like 'Emily Davidson' above their heads.

Friday, 25 March 2011

End of the Arab Spring

How easy it looked back in January. Wikileaks reveals Western doubts about President Ben Ali and a few weeks later he is almost bloodlessly removed from office. Shortly afterward the Egyptian army removes Mubarek from power.

The future looked rosy. Information was being set free, and the people were following.

Now things don't look so great. Civil war in Libya, probable civil war in Yemen, brutal state repression in Bahrain and Syria and so on.

True, the West stepped in and saved Benghazi at the eleventh hour, but even as I type Gaddafi is altering his tactics and his men are trading in their military vehicles for civilian 4x4s and swapping their armour for human shields. The Libyan rebels aren't saved yet.

There are significant differences between the current intervention in Libya and the 2003 invasion of Iraq; a UN mandate and regional support being one, that this is aerial interdiction and not invasion being another. But there could one similarity.

Under Saddam Iraq was unjust but at peace. Now it is in a state of turmoil and strife. Libya may well be going to follow suit. And this is the liberal dilemma: unleash civil war across the region or back the tyrants.

Do we do nothing and let the security forces brutally restore the status quo, as in Bahrain, or do we intervene and trigger a civil war, like in Libya? Keep Arabia happy under its dictators, the failed policy since World War II, or intervene and unleash forces you can't control, the failed policy of the last decade?

To do or not to do, that is the question?

Lets look at the facts. A quarter of the population of the region is under 29. Unemployment in Saudi Arabia is 40%, and they're doing better than most. Across Arabia 100 million young people will enter the jobs market over the next ten years.

Meanwhile economic and climate woes are pushing up world food prices, which are going to go up even further when the unrest triggers an oil spike and transport and fertiliser costs rocket.

This is a huge mass of disinherited humanity that cannot be ignored.

Even Jordan's Queen Rania, who may yet end up playing Marie Antoinette in this drama, has looked down from her ivory tower and seen the ticking time bomb.

At the same time the environmental stresses on the region are huge. To thousands of years of soil erosion is about to be added drought and climatic change.

This is what is driving the revolts, not a conspiracy by the West to grab the oil, or French Imperialism or other conspiracy theories (although the West does like grabbing oil and the French are empire building in North Africa, it's just that these aren't the main factors here).

There are no easy solutions here, and certainly bombs aren't going to solve the problem (on that I agree with the pacifists, where I part company is that I think if judiciously placed they may alleviate the symptoms slightly).

Economic and environmental justice is the answer, economic and environmental justice. Say it over and over again.

How we get that is another matter entirely. And I don't have the answers.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Gay Nazi Wizard in the Desert, or the Real English Patient

With all eyes on the Libyan desert again I can't resist telling the story of Count László Ede Almásy de Zsadány et Törökszentmiklós, the central character in the novel and film The English Patient.

Dashingly played by Ralph Fiennes he explores the desert, woos Kirsten Scott Thomas, reluctantly helps the Germans in the war and ends up hideously injured and in the care of Juliette Binoche. Lucy chap.

The real Almásy was indeed a Hungarian aristocrat, although not officially a Count. He really did explore the desert in search of the legendary oasis of Zerzura, a copy of Herodotus at his side, by car and aeroplane. He really did find a cave painted with stone age scenes of swimmers. He even claimed to have found Zerzura, but others disagreed.

However Almásy also had what, we might call a colourful, side. He always claimed he was a Hungarian Royalist and not a Nazi, but certainly his Dad felt no qualm about courting the Brownshirts. He was also into ritual magic in a big way and as well as his son he would invite along Unity, the Nazi one of the Mitford sisters.

It is also doubtful whether he would have cared much for the charms of either Ms Scott Thomas or Ms Binoche. Recently revealed letters confirm that he was gay with a boyfriend in the Wehrmacht. We don't know much about this fellow, but as he died after stepping on one of his own land mines it seems Almásy didn't fancy him for his brains.

Contemporary film footage of Almásy, and hints in the memoirs of his fellow explorers, also suggest that Almásy's tastes extended beyond men in uniform, and certainly he did seem to pay a lot of attention to African boys on his adventures.

But if Almásy wasn't exactly a classic romantic hero, he was genuinely a military one.

Just like in the film, he really did sneak German spies into Egypt across the desert. Unlike the Long Range Desert Group, who were doing the same thing in the opposite direction, Almásy was pretty much a one man band, and whilst the LRDG ran like a scheduled bus service, Almásy's one great mission was a wing-and-a-prayer adventure that only just succeeded.

Almásy's men were from the Brandenberg Division. This unit, which was made up of various non-Germans fluant in other languages, often operated behind enemy lines throwing confusion amongst the enemy ranks. Almásy though appears to have got the soldiers nobody else wanted and as well as leading the mission he had to teach them how to drive, repair their vehicles for them as they went and show them how to navigate by the stars when their compasses failed. They appear to have complained all the way there and back.

His route took him 2500 miles from German occupied Libya, across the Great Sand Sea and through the Gilf Kebir plateau, home of Zerzura and the cave of swimmers. Although he didn't know it when he set off, Bletchley Park's Enigma code breakers were onto him from the start. Fortunately though for the fake count, the messages they intercepted only told them where he'd been and not where he was going. As his convoy of four vehicles crossed the desert, patrols from the Sudan Defence Force fanned out to intercept. The were just too late, and Almásy was able to slip through and deliver his spies into Cairo.

He now had to get back.

The SDF was now moving into position to block as the passes through the Gilf Kebir. Unable to get ahead of them, Almásy's slotted his convoy between two SDF convoys and hoped their trail of dust would be taken for another SDF patrol. Once in the Gilf Kebir he then used his knowledge of the labyrinthine gullies to hide until nightfall, before slipping through in the dark and back to Libya.

Although Almásy made it back undiscovered, the two spies didn't fare so well.

Setting up camp in a boat on the river Nile, they proceeded to recruit a network of belly dancers and other exotic characters. Recruitment of these agents was a job the two took very seriously and a bevy of Jewish ladies-of-the-night were interviewed very thoroughly and regularly. As a token gesture towards being real spies they had a radio hidden in the cocktail bar of their yacht with which they tried rather half heartedly to send back messages to HQ, but it rarely worked properly.

Had this been Monte Carlo in the twenties they might have got away with it, but such behaviour couldn't go unnoticed for long in wartime Cairo. British intelligence watched the men long enough to gather all the information they wanted on pro-German Egyptians and then they swooped, rounding up the future President Anwar Sadat in the process.

Almásy tried a few more times to help the Germans, but his plans all failed. Eventually he returned to Budapest where he finally did something really heroic by using his contacts in the Catholic Church to save several Jewish families from the gas chambers.

He died in 1951, with absolutely no idea of how famous he would become.

With the Libyan Rebels

What are we to make of the war in Libya? Republican hawks are sceptical, Liberal doves are enthusiastic. Some accuse the West of abandoning the Arab people, of trying to grab the oil. Noam Chomsky does both.

Seventy years ago a former pacifist was out in the Libyan desert being similarly bamboozled.

Vladamir Peniakoff was born in Belgium, of Russian intellectual emigre parents, and educated in Cambridge. He started off as a conscientious objector to the First World War before eventually signing up as a gunner in.....the French army.

An international sort of guy he toured Europe on the eve of the Second World War. Deciding that Hitler needed to be stopped but that the French had no intention of doing so, he joined the British Army.

Despite being overweight and middle aged, he threw himself into the war with gusto, divorcing his wife, sending his children to South Africa and giving his possessions away to charity. He clearly intended death or glory, but the Army was having none of it. Seeing an education and and the ability to speak Arabic they decided he was too bright to be a real soldier and posted him to the Intelligence Corps, where he was expected to find a comfortable desk for the duration.

Madman that he was he didn't stay in the office for long and, after volunteering for special duties, he found himself training Libyan rebels in the desert.

The desert tribesmen had been fighting a guerrilla war against the Italian colonisers. Having grown up on such tales as The Green Shadow Popski, as he was known, had images of tough, hard living marksmen who laughed at danger.

What he found instead was a charming group of devout and very sensitive men who couldn't hit a barn door at five paces. His rather fruity Egyptian Arabic so offended their sensitive natures that one man spent three days sulking in his tent after being called an 'ass'.

They were keen to learn though, and at the end of the day whilst they tried to sleep in their tents, the training team were often woken by the noise of tribesmen drilling themselves on the parade ground.

But if they enjoyed the square bashing, the actual fighting was less to their tastes, especially when they came up against Rommel's Africa Corps. So instead of fighters, the Libyans were used as intelligence gathers and Popski disappeared into the desert, occasionally meeting desert patrols to pass back more or less useless information on the Germans.

In the end Popski realised that if the war was to be won he'd have to do it himself, so he eventually raised an SAS-like team of marauders himself to take the fight to the enemy. Popski's Private Army, as it was called, spent as much time confusing their own high command about what they were up to as the Germans and fought a particularly idiosyncratic war through North Africa and into Italy.

Popski's Private Army, like Long Range Desert Group and the Special Air Service the other wild, irregular units that the war threw up, was disbanded when the war ended. Today's SAS is a much more professional outfit, as was recently illustrated by the way a team was captured by Libyan rebels whilst allegedly looking for hotel rooms.

If others are in the desert now training the anti-Gaddafi forces I hope they have more success than Popski had, and that they've finally found somewhere to stay.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

An Italian First

This is a rare story of Italy beating the world.

No, it's not to the title of Most Breast Obsessed Nation in Europe, which, to be honest, really belongs to us.

Nor is it for the Most Salacious Political Scandal of the Twenty First Century, a title which, despite strenuous efforts by Mr Berlusconi, still belongs to the bisexual ménage à trois/drink driving scandal that (literally) did for Austria's Neo-Nazi Jörg Haider.

No, it is that the Italian's can claim to have achieved one of the big three firsts in global exploration. It's a controversial claim, and the story ends in disaster and features monumental incompetence, so it's quite an appropriate achievement for the nation.

Italians haven't fared too well as explorers. Even many of their famous Alps were first climbed by plucky Brits. The expedition that should have been the pinnacle of Italian mountaineering, the 1865 ascent of the Matterhorn, was greeted just short the summit by a gaggle of English ex-Public School boys throwing snowballs and abuse. (Although the Italians, unlike the Alpine Club rowdies, made it down again in one piece).

However despite a slow start, it may actually have been the Italians who were first to the second of the earth's three poles. These being the North Pole, South Pole and the top of Everest.

It's a controversial claim because when I was a lad all the school textbooks had an Yank Admiral called Peary down as the chap who discovered the North Pole. Peary was an all-American type of bloke who led an all-American type of party. So typically all-American was it that they even had a black sailor called Henson go in front on foot to check for polar bears and crevasses whilst Peary rode on a sled.

Had the expedition actually been where it claimed to be a black American would have been the first person to set foot on the top of the world. Unfortunately it probably wasn't.

The case against is that neither Henson nor the Inuits that accompanied the party to the pole were navigators, so nobody was checking Peary's figures. Secondly Peary's average speed mysteriously doubles after he sent back the last fellow who could actually read a map. Finally there was the small point that rather than send his expedition report off to a panel of international experts for verification, such as the panel that had thrown out a claim by fellow American Frederick Cook the previous year, Peary had his claim upheld by the all-American National Geographic Society.

So although they didn't know it when they started out, the Italian expedition of 1928 under the leadership of Umberto Nobile was heading into terra incognita.

Now these Italians weren't planning on walking to the pole, that would not be very Italian and would be far too much like hard work. Instead, they had a machine; the 105 metre long, 2250bhp airship Italia.

Flying north one of the Swedish crew was able to drop off a letter to his mum as they flew over her house. They stopped off at Spitsbergen and then on 28th May 1928 headed for the pole. With a tail wind and the three German engines purring like finely tuned tigers, the Italia reached the pole in only 19 hours.

Then it all started to go wrong.

Had they gone with the wind they could have been safely in North America and drinking Canada dry the next day. However they didn't want to risk an icy touch down in the frozen tundra, and so instead turned round and headed back to Norway.

They found themselves flying into the teeth of a gale. In order to find better weather Nobile let the craft rise too far, and the Italia vented valuable hydrogen. Now too heavy to fly she dived into the pack ice. One man was killed in the crash, nine dumped onto the ice and six more were still trapped in the airship when she rose back into the air and were never seen again.

The survivors searched around to see what else had fallen out of the Italia. They had some food, a tent, a gun, some charts and a radio. An aerial was improvised from the wreckage and an SOS message sent.

Now come the cock ups.

A ship, the Citta di Milano, was waiting for the Italia but when she didn't show up the Captain did nothing apart from send a telegram to Rome. They didn't even keep a thorough radio watch and missed the SOS messages. The Fascist government in Rome meanwhile weren't too keen on Nobile and didn't issue any orders to look for him.

Realising that they were probably on their own, three of the survivors then set of on foot to try to get help. One died (and was allegedly eaten, although there is a more heroic version of the story) whilst the other two walked on until they ran out of ice.

Fortunately, although their own government didn't seem to care about them, other people did, and soon aviators from all the nations bordering the arctic were milling about in an uncoordinated way trying to find them. One of the planes, carrying the Antarctic explorer Roald Amundsen, was lost, giving the first man to reach the South Pole a grave at the opposite end of the world.

After a month of searching the Swedish pilot Einar Lundborg sighted the survivors camp. He was only able to rescue one man, and he insisted it was Nobile. He went back to get another but crashed and found himself trapped on the ice as well.

Eventually it was a Russians who saved the day. The Icebreaker Krasin rescued all the surviving survivors, who were busy holding the polar bears at bay with their one gun, and five downed rescuers as well for good measure.

Nobile returned to Italy where he was ostracised by Mussolini's government.

He and his crew outlived the Deuce though, and in 1945 he was forgiven and finally paid. He and what was left of his crew lived out long lives, unlike most of their rescuers who died of various causes. The officers of the Krasin perishing in Stalin's purges.

Like Apollo 13, the rescue had rather overshadowed the voyage. At the time people still thought Peary had reached the pole and so it was not until 1989 that people started to consider the Italia's crew the first to reach the pole. That they didn't set foot on the top of the world doesn't really matter, as the polar ice moves anyway. If you wish to be pedantic about it the first people to set foot on the pole would be a group of Stalin's Russians who arrived by plane and about whom we know very little, which is a bit anti-climatic.

Instead I prefer the story of Nobile's disastrous expedition. So much more daring, so much more incompetent, so much more Italian.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Happy 150th Birthday Italy

I know it's Saint Patrick's Day today, but it is also the birthday of another famously Catholic country - Italy.

Given the country's torturous route to it's current status as a united Republic, the exact date is a moot point, but on 17th March 1861 the first Italian parliament, which had met for the first time the previous month, declared Victor Emmanuel II King of Italy. The boundaries of the state still hadn't been finalised, and in 1861 Rome wasn't even part of the country, although that didn't stop it becoming the capital.

Unification was a triumph for Giueppe Garibaldi, namesake of the famous biscuit. Clad in his Nottingham Forest football kit, the former resident of South Shields had defeated the Neapolitans (despite the names it was a real battle and not an episode of Ready, Steady, Cook) and then triumphantly marched the length of Italy. 'Marched' here is actually a bit of a euphemism as he did the last bit by train, but he was a first rate chap Garibaldi so lets not take too much away from him.

It had been a long time coming, but Italy had finally become a second rate, first rate power. It then went on to be a second rate colonial power (loosing heavily to the Ethiopians), a second rate combatant in the First World War, (loosing a lot to the Austrians), a second rate fascist state (loosing to us and the Greeks) - one German captured in 1943 was supposed to have said "next time it's your turn to have the Italians" - and finally a second rate member of the EU, joining us in being not quite as important as the French and Germans.

Not that it matters much. The food, opera, women, football, style, cars, weather, architecture and certainly the political scandals are definitely first rate, so I guess they can't really grumble, and if Italy is really just a rich industrial country welded onto a poor rural one, at least it is holding together better than Belgium. Or the UK.

Happy birthday Italy.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

How to cook a data set

Take a look at this chart, which has been doing the rounds of Climate Change denier blogs and other discussion forums under the title of 'NASA satellites reveal no Global Warming for 30 years'. The original source appears to be here, a blog called C3 Headlines.

Pretty conclusive heh? Four out of six data points showing cooling easily balancing out the two that show warming. The source of the data, the very respectable National Space Science and Technology Centre, adds a touch of respectability too.

So what's the trick?

Well, the data isn't made up. The original numbers are all here and, although it takes a bit of time to wade through them, the figures used on the chart are correct.

What's been done is a bit of good old fashioned cherry picking. That's easy enough to do, but what some eagle eyed denier has spotted is that the cherries that are worth picking lie at 5 year intervals. Neat.

The result is a bit like the Bible Code. If you have a big enough set of numbers then, rather like the million monkies with their typewriters coming up with Hamlet, there's always going to be a pattern that shows what you want to find. If you searched hard enough you'd probably find the results of the Six Nations rugby tournament hidden somewhere.

This trick wouldn't have worked last month, where the figures would have been 0.19, -0.04, -0.18, 0.03, -0.13 and 0.02 - a clear warming trend, even though this has been a cold winter.

The trick certainly didn't work last February either, when the data set would have shown an even stronger warming trend: 0.18, -0.09, -0.01, -0.24, -0.32, -0.07.

Games like this can be played all day, but they don't really prove anything. The only way to tell if we're warming or cooling is to do a proper statistical analysis, and that's shown on the bottom line of the data - a warming trend of 0.14 degrees per decade. At 15 years this trend becomes statistically significant with a confidence level of 95%. So, we are warming.

But I'm not going to leave it there.

If any climate scientist had tried to use a trick liked this to 'prove' Climate Change, then it would have been all over for the discipline. C3 Headlines can get away with this stuff because it serves a particularly gullible and self interested client group.

Scientists by contrast have to be open, honest and upfront. When Professor Phil Jones and the UAE were accused of fraud after Climategate their entire body of work was on trial.

The likes of C3 Headlines though are expendable. They put out their bogus data, which can ultimately be denied itself by those who fund it and quote from it.

As Jay Inslee, a Washington Democrat, lamented on Tuesday, if only the media would stop reporting the debate about Climate Change as if it was a divorce trial and start showing how barren the cupboard was on the denier side.


Note: C3 Headlines appears to have responded to this post. I'd like to reply to their reply - but as they haven't actually answered any of my points I can't. Sorry guys, you got caught. Live with it.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Edward II and the Red Hot Slanders.

There are two things everyone knows about Edward II; that he was an effeminate wuss and that he met his end after they 'got medieval on his ass'. Students of history may also remember something about the Battle of Bannockburn and a bit of tabloid banter about his French wife, but mainly its the cross dressing and the poker that sticks in the memory.

Mostly we have Mel Gibson to thank for this.

Mel Gibson's contribution to historical accuracy in movies is only exceeded by his contributions to temperance and Christian-Jewish harmony (Gallipoli being the exception that proves the rule). Going over the errors in Braveheart would take rather a long time, but lets just say the absence of a bridge in the Battle of Stirling Bridge is one of the minor ones.

Lets leave most of that aside and just concentrate on poor old Edward II, who couldn't have been more camp in the film if he'd been played by John Inman. However despite some evidence to the contrary, being gay doesn't make you a limp wristed sissy any more than being an Australian makes you an alcoholic racist.

By the same token though having one of the most ruthless and effective military leaders of the Middle Ages for a Dad doesn't make you a great general any more than appearing in a few good films makes you a great director.

And that was really Edward's problem. He was lousy military leader, a lousy peacetime leader, and a lousy absolute monarch. In English history he's the embarrassing one between Edward I "Hammer of the Scots" and Edward III "Hammer of the French". Fair enough, that's the problem with hereditary monarchies, sometimes the guy you get just isn't up to the job.

But let's be clear about what talents you needed to be the top dog at the time of the knights. You needed to be single minded, ruthless, to be prepared to use extreme violence, to double cross your opponents, and to trust nobody. Today if you were recruiting for someone with that skill mix your best bet would be to try the local maximum security prison.

Edward, by contrast, appears to have been a pretty cool guy, and quite butch with it.

He enjoyed swimming, boating , music, dancing and romances. He enjoyed practical jobs like digging ditches and shoeing horses and liked the company of ordinary people. Quite a regular guy really, but someone who would stand out as a bit odd in the Royal Family today, let alone seven centuries ago.

Edward may not even have been gay. Being accused of sodomy by a medieval chroniclers is a bit like being played by an English actor in a Hollywood movie, it's just a quick way of telling the audience you're a baddie.

However we don't know that he wasn't gay. Given that there were 21 male monarchs between Harold II and Henry Tudor, then if 5% are gay we can make an educated guess that it was either him or Richard the Lionheart. However as Richard 'outed' himself on at least two occasions, once on the eve of his marriage whilst standing in church wearing only his pants, and spent a night in bed with the King of France, the smart money would probably go on it being him.

The main evidence for his sexuality is his preference for the company of his mate Piers Gaviscon over his, supposedly very beautiful, French wife. Beautiful she may have been by the standards of the time, but I doubt she was in the Sophie Marceau category of seductiveness, not least because she was twelve when she married him.

So Edward may or may not have been gay, but at least he doesn't appear to have been a paedophile.

And the red hot poker?

Well that isn't mentioned until a decade or so after he was deposed, and contemporary accounts say he was suffocated. The truth is we don't know as the people who got rid of him weren't too keen on the story getting out. One historian even has him being banished to Italy and living out his days peacefully in the sun.

I think that's stretching credibility a bit, but if there was ever an English monarch who would have gladly swapped being King for punting around Venice it was Edward. A useless king, but a better person than many of his critics.

For more on Edward try this excellent blog.

The SDP: Thirty Years On

"We tried out drugs and LSD, now we're trying the SDP. Talking about p-p-p-p-p-proportional representation" is what Spitting Image had The Who singing in 1981.

Not a strictly accurate account of Pete Townshend or Roger Dalrey's politics (Townshend is still Labour man whilst Dalrey campaigns for the Countryside Alliance) but it does say something about the left wing circles who the Gang of Four attracted round them in the early 1980s.

Hindsight has made the SDP a bit of a joke, with quips about David Owen crossing the road to get to the middle and urging tactical voting for the Tories because it was their turn next.

However they did briefly come very close to becoming the second party in British politics. The first-past-the-post electoral system, lack of union support and the 'Falklands factor' dropped them from a high of 50% in the polls at the nadir of Mrs Thatcher's first government, to 25% in the popular vote in 1983 but only 23 MPs - a poor showing considering 30 sitting MPs had defected from other parties prior to the election.

That was really that for them and the years of the Alliance with the Liberals was just a prelude to merger into the Democrats which has then been followed by electoral suicide in the form of coalition with Cameron's Neoliberal Tory Party.

So was the SDP just a flash in the pan, a transient political party cashing in on a few protest votes from disaffected liberals who hated equally the Thatcher cuts and Labour civil war?

To a large extent it was, and the derision with which the party is now held is in no small part because, The Guardian's Polly Toynbee aside, there is nobody who is still prepared to admit to voting for them. Not only did the unions turn their back on the party, but the sensible wing of the Labour Party, who saw off the Militants, regard them as both turncoats who jumped ship in the middle of the battle and closet Tories who should never have been in the party at all.

Glossop Labour Club for instance have a special place in their hearts for Shirley Williams. Allegedly, on the eve of her defection, she visited the club and gave a speech on loyalty to the party. The next day she was on the news as one of the Gang of Four and a few days after that they received a bill from her for the dry cleaning of her fur coat, which she's got oil on after trapping it in the door of the Lada belonging to the local volunteer who'd kindly picked her up from the station.

However if we look beyond the personalities to the politics, the picture becomes less clear. Michael Foot's 1983 Labour manifesto, which included such ideas as nationalising the banks, doesn't seem half so daft now as it did then, but three years after the Winter of Discontent and in the midst of Labour infighting with the Militant tendency, it was never going to be an election winner.

Ignore David Owen's gradual drift to right as the 1980s wore on, the SDP's 1983 manifesto, with voting reform, mild trade union reform and support for the public sector would be popular today if Ed Milliband was to propose it. You can argue that New Labour had become the SDP, but I think they were more right wing than that and resembled, if I'm charitable, Gladstone's Liberal Party.

However politics is about more than just policies, and looking back the SDP appears to be made up of an odd bunch of uncharismatic politicians, most of whom were damaged goods in one way or another. Even the least odious of them, Roy Jenkins, was persona non grata after working for the EU, inspiring the Yes Minister quip that the only way back into British policits after Brussels was to form your own party.

Could these misfits have ever made up a government? Without the Falklands War the 1983 election would have been very different, and if the SDP had become the main opposition party could they, perhaps under Paddy Ashdown's leadership, have beaten John Major's Tories in 1992?

Maybe, but probably not. The Labour Party wasn't about to disappear overnight and would surely have siphoned at least as many votes off the SDP as the Democrats did from them in reality.

And there lies the problem. Three party politics has done the left no favours at all. If you read the figures one way you can see that Blair's big achievement was not to steal voters from the Conservatives, but from the Democrats. As long as there's a strong third party Labour can't form a majority.

Which makes the next election look quite promising for Ed then.