Monthly Archives: September 2011


microsoft donations

Rory, who is leading a national campaign for rural broadband, has applauded donations of software by industry giant Microsoft to charities in the region. The local MP said, “what matters is that in addition to installing broadband, we get the best possible use from it. Local charities can derive huge benefits from technology. Microsoft committed in a meeting I held with them in parliament two months ago to do more for Cumbria. I hope this is just the beginning.”

Rory said: “Charities – particularly smaller, local ones, for whom every single penny counts – need all the help they can get. This is a brilliant initiative that is simple, practical and effective. Particularly now, with the prospect of superfast broadband for all becoming a reality, we need to ensure that our strong voluntary sector is not left behind. However small your charity might be, do please take advantage of this great package of support.”

Working alongside the Charity Technology Trust (Registered Charity No.1073954) through their Charity Technology Exchange service, Microsoft is one of a growing number of technology companies who make donations of their products to the voluntary sector. It currently offers eligible organisations up to ten titles, including our most popular software packages such as Microsoft Windows 7 and Microsoft Office 2010 for example. Organisations can receive up to 50 licences of each title every two year period. Donations include free upgrades for two years and access to a range of e-learning resources.  Not all charities are eligible, but the majority are, and there are no limits on the number of organisations who can receive a donation.  Grantees pay a nominal administrative fee to the Charity Technology Exchange, which supports the running of the services.

Since the launch of this programme in 2006, Microsoft have supported over 6700 UK charities, donating software with a retail value of more than £50 million. In Penrith and the Border, beneficiaries have included Eden Mind Limited, Eden Carers, Eden Mencap Society, East Cumbria Family Support Association, Eden Youth Work Partnership, Eden Community Outdoors Ltd, Appleby Heritage Centre, Prism Arts, Chrysalis (Cumbria) Ltd and the South Tynedale Railway Preservation Society. In addition to software donations, Microsoft also supports initiatives to provide affordable computer hardware, free IT skills training resources, access to skilled IT volunteers and general advice and guidance on technology for charities.

If you would like more information about these programmes or have charities in your constituency you would like to recommend, please visit here.


Article first published in the London Review of Books on 22 September 2011.

Entering Libya four days after the fall of Tripoli did not seem, at first, very different from trips I had made to Kosovo, Baghdad and Kabul shortly after those interventions. There were as yet no formalities, still less visas, at the Libyan border. The dusty office chairs at the checkpoints in the Nafusa hills, crookedly propped on their remaining castors, were those favoured by militias in Afghanistan. The charred government office in Zawiyyah could have been in Sarajevo. Similar Japanese cars formed longer lines at the petrol stations in Baghdad. Here too, torn posters of the leader lay in the street; here too, angry crowds shouted outside a bank; and here too, a villa, ‘J-Dammed’ flat by Nato bombs, smelled of dead people.

The last two decades of intervention suggest one thing: that interventions are intrinsically unpredictable, chaotic and uncertain. They can work: the international community played a prudent and constructive role in Bosnia, and the Bosnia of 2005 was far better than that of 1995. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, disorder and chaos seemed predestined. Guilt at lost lives, embarrassment, pride, fear of Islamists and hubris all prevented the West from acknowledging failure: instead of pulling back, they dived ever deeper. And their occupation bloated, warped and corrupted the fundamental structures – social, political and economic – of the countries they were purporting to help.

The lesson for Libya was that the West should not be dragged too far in and that it should anticipate chaos. The language of the UN resolution emphasised restraint: there were to be no troops on the ground and the military operations were designed to protect civilians, primarily in Benghazi, not to topple Gaddafi. But Nato was soon flying 400 miles away from Benghazi, targeting Gaddafi’s headquarters in Tripoli. Lawyers assured me that no one was using the bombing raids to try to kill Gaddafi, generals whispered that Gaddafi could only last another two weeks, and diplomats denied that the rebel government was extremist or divided. But five months later, there had been numerous raids on Gaddafi’s compound; Gaddafi was still in power; and the rebel general, formally arrested on the orders of the rebel deputy leader, had been tortured and executed by an Islamist faction.

The more confident the Western generals became, the more likely disaster seemed. In Afghanistan, Nato leaders had continued to claim progress long after it was obvious that the Afghan government was not becoming more credible, effective and legitimate, and that the Taliban was not defeated. The situation was growing worse not better. The truth was missed in part because it was unbearable and in part because Nato’s leaders were entirely detached from the reality of Afghan rural life. It seemed likely that a similar optimism and isolation would distort their perception of Libya and encourage them to ignore the signs of impending chaos.

There were many reasons to fear that the aftermath of the fall of Tripoli would resemble the first days after the fall of Baghdad. For decades, Libya had been controlled by Gaddafi and his secret police. His sons, allies and a few tribal chiefs had grown fat on largesse, oil, sanctions-busting and the remnants of a state-owned economy. When these men fell, others would scramble to seize what they could. Gaddafi’s civil servants would spend their last moments burning documents and trashing desks, and leave with televisions and armchairs. Their successors would steal the ministry cars. Gaddafi’s cronies would flee for the border with cousins and jewels; and militia groups would squat in their marble-floored villas (with squalid bathrooms because there was no water supply). Gangsters would seize petrol stations; and opportunists would strip the computers from schools and perhaps the beds from hospitals. Garbage and sewage would fill the once tidy streets.

Meanwhile, Islamist brigades might challenge the religious values of the new government. The militias might ask for money to protect businesses. Fights might break out between teenagers with mortars looted from the state arsenals and those with foreign-supplied, truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns. Minor fissures, in the past often irrelevant, between Benghazi and Tripoli, Berber and Arab, desert and coast, Salafi and Brotherhood, tribe and tribe, could suddenly become decisive splits. The villas and the farms, the banks and the hotels of Gaddafi’s children would be up for grabs; so too would be the land transferred illegally by Gaddafi to tribes now out of favour. Others might well fight to gain control of state monopolies; the commissions, agents’ fees and franchises from foreign companies; the contracts from international donors; and $120 billion of overseas Libyan assets. The new self-appointed transitional government, with its expatriate professors, mid-level businessmen and aged dissidents, would struggle. Gaddafi himself predicted much of this.

And it was easy in my first few hours in Libya to find evidence for this way of thinking. Within ten miles of the border, I was stopped at six different checkpoints, manned by teenagers with new-model Kalashnikovs and American rifles. In Bir-al-Ghanam, five pick-up trucks roared into the square and men in clean blue jeans and tight T-shirts leaped out, firing round after round into the air. Who was in control of them? Who could control them? Weapons were everywhere: on the outskirts of Tripoli, I saw, lying on the grass, a gleaming, finned, three-foot live rocket, and nearby, still in its packing case, a seven-foot-long surface-to-air missile.

The militias that clearly were under someone’s control were even more troubling. The man with the long grey beard, combat trousers, aviator shades and quiet voice who told me to get out of my car had the manner of an intelligence officer. The very tall young man in flowing robes with a soft curly beard – whose limousine was waved through the checkpoint with such deference – looked like a Saudi. Mahdi al-Harati, the commander of the Tripoli brigade, who wore his military beret for the Eid prayers, had been the only member of his family not to be imprisoned as an Islamist; he had lived in Dublin, run Islamic relief organisations, sailed on the Gaza flotilla and been shot by Israeli special forces. What were his views? And what of Abdul Hakim Belhadj, who was on the military council and was detained by the CIA in 2004 because of his links to al-Qaida?

The interior minister, in his grey suit and grey tie, held a press conference flanked by overweight mustachioed men in police uniform with colonels’ tabs. One of them told me he had worked in the ‘interrogation’ department under the old regime. ‘When I went to Martyrs’ Square and said I was the interior minister,’ the minister boasted, ‘there was far more shooting in the air than normal – it was to greet me. If you don’t believe me, come with me to the square, I will show you.’ I was not confident of his ability to keep order.

Yet so far Libya has proved, not unpredictably awful but unpredictably good. After 15 years working around interventions, I was watching for any hint of disaster. I noted, for example, that a Berber militia had occupied a prime hotel beside the arch of Marcus Aurelius on the grounds that the owner ‘was a Gaddafi sympathiser’. But even after 24 hours, I couldn’t escape the sense that things were not that bad: that Libyans were delighted and confident, and with justification.

The celebration in the central square that night was far happier, more joyful than any I’d seen in Bosnia, Iraq or Afghanistan. Hundreds of young men in jeans and T-shirts were hanging off cranes, 50 feet in the air. Five-year-olds in bright pink dresses were lining up at popcorn stands. A 50-year-old director of the audit department of the national airline had brought his mother and teenage daughters to see the crowds at midnight. ‘No one in the world has ever seen anything like Gaddafi,’ he said to me. ‘You cannot imagine what it was like. We are just so happy he is gone.’ Like everyone else, he joined in the revolutionary songs, and seemed to know the words. As a mullah tried to make a ponderous statement about God and the martyrs of the revolution, the crowd clapped and chanted: ‘Poor old Gaddafi – it’s time to move on.’

When my new friend the interior minister appeared on stage at two in the morning, in front of the crowd of ten thousand, he had lost his grey tie and his police escort and gained a smile. ‘Young people,’ he began, ‘please, one minute, please – do not fire your weapons in the air – it gives a bad image to the foreigners.’ The crowd continued to fire (one man was hit, it seemed fatally, by a falling bullet) and some teenagers continued to chant. But the minister slowly got the measure of his laughing audience: pausing for long stretches and luring the crowd into moments of silence. Eventually, they even cheered him. And everyone sang the national anthem.

Libya did not look as shabby or dangerous as Iraq. Despite six months of fighting and uncertainty, the lawns in Tripoli were mown, the bougainvillea bushes were bright, and the rubbish was still in garbage bags, not strewn, as in Basra, in suppurating ditches. The shops and petrol stations were reopening, the water supply was beginning to return. The armed 15-year-olds were polite. No one at any of the checkpoints asked for a bribe, or our satellite phones. The Misrata militia in their jeeps were as friendly as the Knights of Zintan in their pick-up trucks. There was little talk of revenge. No one was shooting anyone else.

And to my surprise, there was little looting. In the executive offices, it was not just the furniture and the televisions that were untouched: even the silver ashtrays and gold paperknives were still on the desks. It seemed that no one had slipped even a fountain-pen into their pocket when the government left and the rebels came in. At night, the streets of Tripoli were so jammed with honking cars, waving flags, boys wearing the national colours, that one might imagine Libya had just won the World Cup. The government and the police were not in any position to prevent disorder, but it seemed that the Libyans were not drawn to looting or violence. And no one I spoke to, from expatriate engineers to young gunmen, expected that.

Already people are claiming that the euphoria and calm after the fall of Tripoli could have been predicted and can be easily explained. But such civility was not inevitable; it could not have been assumed from Libyan history or culture. Libya shares many features of countries where anarchy has prevailed. Like Afghanistan or Iraq, it has a distinguished history and has experienced periods of stability but lacks the essential trinity of the international state-building apostles: ‘a vibrant civil society’, ‘rule of law’ and ‘good governance’. It has a rapidly growing young population, which is only partially educated, and few jobs. The traditional forces of tribe and Islam co-exist with more cosmopolitan aspirations, as they do in the rest of the Islamic world.

Many of the positive things that can be said about Libya can be said about other more troubled countries – right down to the small details. Libyans, like Iraqis and Afghans, remember a moderate, tolerant, Western-friendly country in the late 1960s and 1970s, which fell unexpectedly victim to leaders – and an ideology – alien to its indigenous culture. In the same way, the Lebanese writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb maintained that there was nothing preordained in Lebanon’s civil war, that Lebanon had been ‘at peace for centuries’. And in the Balkans in the 1990s, people insisted: ‘I did not even know people’s ethnic group – I have a Serb father, a Croat mother … We were Yugoslavs.’

All these countries can offer equally plausible explanations of why things go right and why things go wrong. One Libyan woman said, ‘it is orderly because there is not the corrupt, gangster class in Libya that there was in Iraq’; but Suleiman, a 20-year-old businessman from Benghazi, replied that under Gaddafi every businessman paid bribes of more than half the value of the contract. An older Libyan minister said there was no looting because the population was ‘educated’, but Suleiman complained of how bad his schooling had been, and how ignorant and isolated Libyans had become. Huda, a young woman working with the TNC, suggested that the paperknives had not been stolen because Libyans were wealthy; others emphasised rural squalor and 30 per cent unemployment. One of the most senior members of the new government said that the mid-level civil service worked well, regardless of the ministers. All other Libyans assured me that Gaddafi had ‘hollowed out the state’ and left nothing functioning behind.

There was some talk of a country impoverished and pulverised by Italian colonialism; and some of an ancient Mediterranean civilisation. For some, Libya was ‘a modern country’ where tribal influences have largely vanished. For others, it was ‘not really a country’ but a colonial creation cobbled together after the war from three states with quite different histories and identities: a place where Gaddafi had emphasised tribal and regional differences, and prevented the emergence of a settled modern identity – a nation ‘in trauma’.

Unlike Libyans, international diplomats and politicians tended not to emphasise Libyan history or Libyan character but the actions of individual leaders. They suggested that there had been no anarchy after the fall of Tripoli because Gaddafi was a hated tyrant; because the Nato military campaign and their post-conflict planning had been particularly strong; and because the Transitional National Council was well prepared. But insofar as the leaders mattered at all, it may be less for what they did than for what they didn’t do.

Gaddafi’s state was not Saddam’s. He didn’t inherit, or rely on, a powerful pre-existing Baath Party apparatus. Or drag his people through an eight-year total war. He tortured and killed, but his trademark – unlike Saddam’s – was not totalitarian brutality. Perhaps because of this there was less rage, less bitterness, less desire to smash the symbols of the old regime than I saw in Iraq. The Nato campaign was deliberately minimal: in terms of both military and civilian support. The most dramatic difference between Tripoli and the other capitals of intervention was the absence of foreigners. Entering Kosovo, I was immediately stuck in a traffic jam of white land-cruisers painted with international acronyms – the one in front of me read ‘Clowns without Frontiers’. US military convoys roared down the highways of Iraq; heavy machine-guns pointed into market squares; razor-wire and cement barriers cut off urban streets. The executive offices in Kabul were filled with young laptop-wielding, jeans-wearing European and American advisers. I saw none of this in Tripoli.

And Libya’s rebel ‘government’ was relatively weak. In Afghanistan, those who pushed out the Taliban were long established warlords. Ismail Khan in Herat had led the first uprising against the Soviets in 1979; the governor of Helmand had been connected to the opium trade for decades and had many armed men. The SCIRI opposition in Iraq was established in the early 1980s; Dawa in the late 1950s. Chalabi was a well-known figure in Washington. Each had known foreign backers and links to foreign intelligence services. They all had their resources, their mutual resentments, their deep ideological differences and their long-established plans for domination. They had aides, and a plethora of satellite phones.

The executive offices of the Transitional National Council by contrast felt as placid as an old people’s home, or a cruise liner. One senior cabinet minister didn’t yet have a single secretary, and seemed to have only very vague ideas of what his department needed. One floor up, I found a deputy minister watching television three days after the fall of the city; there wasn’t a paper on his desk. During the 45 minutes I spent with him, only one person looked in; and when he picked up the phone, no one answered. Only Ali Tarhouni, the deputy prime minister, had aides and energy and he was an American academic who apparently hadn’t been back to Libya since 1978.

Such multiple sources of weakness may prove to be a strength. Since Gaddafi’s state was not powerful, its fall may have comparatively little effect. Security in the streets was provided almost from the start by neighbourhood committees, many organised from mosques; their effectiveness and legitimacy was taken almost for granted and they did not seem (yet) to be abusing their power. The lack of foreigners allowed Libyans to feel that the revolution was theirs, not an international production. It also meant that our curious priorities and processes were not imposed on Libyan politics. The Islamists and the Gaddafi loyalists couldn’t portray the new government as a puppet, or market themselves as fighting for Libya and Islam against a foreign military occupation.

Even the improvisatory, passive nature of the opposition may have been constructive. It included many members of Gaddafi’s government who were working from the very beginning to make links with their former colleagues. When the politician Abdul Hafiz Ghoga arrived in Benghazi and criticised the council, they invited him in. They seemed to be able to incorporate Islamists with equal ease. Every time they described their strategy, they talked about compromise and negotiation. Sometimes people spoke like this in Afghanistan and Iraq too – explaining how easy it would be to cut deals with the Taliban or the Sunni insurgency – but the US-led coalition rarely let them try.

And then there was their attitude to the West. I expected the minister of health – a British-Libyan doctor who knew I was an MP – to present a shopping list of demands. But when I asked him about foreign support, he said that Libya had been ‘well-supported by Qatar and the UAE, by Turkey and Tunisia’. And there he stopped. When I asked about the UN agencies and NGOs, he said he had seen a bit of them in ‘stake-holder meetings’ held on Tuesdays in Benghazi, but the meetings had petered out. He implied that the processes for getting support from Western aid agencies were far too bureaucratic, that he would stick with Middle Eastern cash, confident that Libya would get what it needed. The mixture of self-importance and desperation that created the destructive, co-dependent marriage between foreigners and locals in Afghanistan seems to be entirely absent in Libya.

But it would have been easy to take the same factors – a weak Gaddafi state, a light foreign footprint and a weak rebel government – and assume these were ingredients for disaster. This is why the major lesson of the post-1989 interventions should not be a renewed confidence in ‘the responsibility to protect’, or a belief that we have found a new secret recipe in targeted air-power. We shouldn’t think we know how to construct ‘a transitional administration’; even to attempt to pin down the common elements in the successful cases – population size, GDP per capita, ethnic composition – would be misguided.

These events are inherently unpredictable. There are no universal traits that condemn a society to anarchy when the leviathan falls. The violence I witnessed in Iraq, and felt was the inevitable result of a revolution, was in fact specific to that moment in that place and in particular to its Shia parties, their fraught and contradictory relationship to their neighbours and to their nation. But even apparently clear differences between countries aren’t as helpful as they seem. For example, Libya, unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, has no serious ethnic or sectarian divisions – no Arab-Kurd, no Pashtun-Tajik, no Sunni-Shia divides – but this on its own can’t explain the difference: Libya’s neighbour Algeria has no Shia population and has nevertheless experienced decades of civil war.

The lesson of all this shouldn’t be inaction. Intervention isn’t doomed to fail – countries can turn out unpredictably well, as well as unpredictably badly. If we cannot come to any satisfactory conclusions on the London riots – a limited event, exhaustively documented, in our own capital – what sense can we make of why they did not riot in Tripoli?

cumbrian charities

Rory convened and chaired a meeting on Friday 16th last week to champion the interests of smaller Cumbrian Charities. He brought together a cross-section of local charity representatives, third-sector umbrella organisations, and County Council representatives to discuss the challenges being faced by smaller charitable and voluntary organisations in tendering and bidding for council services. The objective was to make it easier for small charities to compete with large well-funded national charities, who often in the MP’s words “win by having too many professional grant and proposal writers in their head offices.” Local charities “may be less practiced at proposal writing but they have all the local knowledge and relationships and commitment, which are so essential.”

Attendees at the event, which was kindly hosted by Eden Mencap in Penrith’s Little Dockray, included County Councillor Oliver Pearson, Cabinet Member for Communities; Alan Ratcliffe, Assistant Director of Organisational Development at Cumbria County Council; Andy Beeforth of Cumbria Community Foundation; Jacqui Taylor of Eden Mencap; Mike Muir of Impact Housing; Pam Hutton of East Cumbria Family Support; Sheila Thompson of Hospice at Home; and Chris Mitchell of Eden Carers.

Rory, who wrote recently on the need for recognition of the incredible value that local organisations bring to their communities (read here), said that the meeting had been a success and a major step forward in thinking more flexibly around how small charities can be “engaged in the tendering process, rather than defeated by it”.

He said: “Giant ‘third-sector organisations’ are competing against our own home-grown organisations, such as Eden Mencap, East Cumbria Family Support and Chrysalis. These big national charities have strengths (professional management, economies of scale, skills and good track records) but this is not why they consistently win contracts: they generally win because they are richer and more powerful.  Instead, we need to be rewarding local knowledge and experience, rather than hyper-polished proposals. Following this extremely useful meeting we will form a small but – hopefully – effective informal steering group to take the needs of Cumbria’s network of small charities to Whitehall, and to urge Ministers to foster a sense of flexibility around procurement, look at practical measures that we can take to protect local charities, and the commitments we need that we will not lose our local providers.”

Rory will form an informal think-tank to lobby Ministers and encourage practical solutions from Whitehall.

olympic ‘school games’

Rory is calling on all schools in Penrith and the Border to sign up to the School Games programme, which aims to boost the existing network of school sports to create a year-round calendar of competition for pupils of all abilities in the lead up to next year’s Olympic Games. The inaugural national finals will take place in the Olympic Park in May 2012.

Many schools in the north-west have already signed up to the programme, meaning that talented athletes from Penrith and the Border’s schools can set their sights on being amongst the first to compete in the main 2012 venues next year. Schools that have already signed up to the programme include Thomlinson Junior School in Wigton, Warcop CoE Primary School, Lazonby CoE School, Samuel King’s in Alston, Castle Carrock School, Kirkby Stephen Grammar School and William Howard School in Brampton.

Rory said: “We want as many schools as possible to be taking part. The Olympics are a milestone for all of Britain, and not just for London: the Games are a symbol of competition, but also – as the Prime Minister said – provide an opportunity for Britain to show the world what we can offer in terms of sport, culture and tourism. It’s really important that we all feel involved in the run up to next year’s event, which promises to be an outstanding once-in-a-lifetime moment for the UK. Please do get involved in the School Games by visiting here and the very best of luck to you all!”

the boundary commission

The Boundary Commission has placed its chisel into the High Street ridge, where the Roman Road falls to Troutbeck, and struck it with a hammer, shattering the county like a piece of Skiddaw slate.  One long crack now runs towards the coast, another North to Carlisle, another South to Arnside – making a rent in our soil fifty miles long, that splits Cumbria, its constituencies and its communities.

There are many more natural ways of dividing the county. The ridge-lines, the rivers and the watersheds separate the fellside from the Lakes, the coast from the inland, the hills from the plain. The ancient boundaries of Cumberland and Westmorland follow those lines: and so too have our constituencies for nearly a thousand years. The boundaries between the constituencies of Westmorland and Lonsdale, Barrow, and Copeland, for example, reflect the ancient edge of Cumberland and Lancashire. Penrith and the Border’s Northern line is the exact frontier of the “Wardens of the Western March” in the early Middle Ages. Its East is formed by the Pennines, its West by Helvellyn and Blencathra, the South by the Shap fells and the Howgills, and through the centre of it – like a red sandstone lining trimmed with limestone – runs the Eden. The geography is so complete that from Wild Boar Fell at Mallerstang, or Hartside pass above Alston, you can see the whole 1,200 square miles of the constituency and nothing else. There are ways of creating natural communities within the Boundary Commission rules (they want equal populations and five constituencies): you could group Whitehaven, Workington and Maryport; keep districts for Carlisle and Barrow, while still retaining two rural constituencies.

But this is not what has happened. In the hallucinatory scratchings of the Boundary Commission, Morecambe Bay, on the edge of Lancashire, is now combined with Nenthead, on the high Northumbrian border; and Windermere with Whitehaven, over the Hardknott pass. The central rent runs downwards, like a virtual Wall, cutting the western edge of Carlisle, Penrith and Kendal, dividing Central Cumbria’s communities from their neighbours, and linking them with places with which they have little in common: Carlisle racecourse is torn from Carlisle and attached to Workington; Rheged is ripped from Penrith, tied to Maryport. The Kendal by-pass is transferred from Kendal to Whitehaven.

Does this matter? Does this matter in a global ‘interconnected’ world which makes geography and cultural identity seem somehow irrelevant? Yes, because underlying the boundaries of Cumbria are human constituencies with separate needs. Demands can be the same from Barrow to Dufton, or indeed from Woking to Inverness. But in the debate on upland farming policy, or unemployment, the perspectives of Cumbrians are not the same. The needs of our communities can be unique, even in Cumbria. Penrith and the Border reads like an entry from the Guinness Book of Records – containing the most sparsely populated district in the most sparsely populated constituency in England, with more self-employed people than any other constituency in Britain: by very definition these are features which other constituencies cannot share. Consider also the interests of Sellafield and nuclear industry.

Such issues need to be represented in London, but they are issues which people in London rarely understand. The vast majority of Britain’s MPs serve constituencies in the South. Even those with farms also tend to have large towns and suburbs, and little incentive or opportunity to focus on the countryside. Little wonder that I have ended up as chair or officer of four All Party Parliamentary Groups: on Mountain Rescue, rural parishes, upland farming, and rural services; and that there are usually only a couple of other MPs at the meetings; or that it is the same small group of rural MPs who back other work on sparsely populated areas – such as rural broadband, or mobile coverage. It is not always easy to get things done if most MPs are indifferent and if you need to fight against government policy with all its mass and momentum and party whipping.

If, therefore, Cumbria’s few MPs have succeeded in defending Cumbria’s corner, it is generally because they have specialised not just in Cumbria but in their specific part of Cumbria. The West Cumberland hospital was saved by West Cumbrian MPs; Lakes and Fellside Cumbrian MPs fought for the uplands, for the community hospitals of Penrith and Alston, and for farmers in the face of foot and mouth. It will dissipate that focus if a colleague – whose experience, vocation, voters and inclination has led him to fight against urban poverty in Whitehaven – now finds himself responsible also for the shops of Ambleside. And in the new proposed Workington constituency, the needs of the different communities, jammed into one, are so radically different that the life expectancy is twenty years longer in the East at Greystoke, than it is in the West in Maryport.

Politics derives its energy from the demands of very specific communities. It is not policy-papers but farm-visits which show MPs the problems of under-stocking on fells: it is a neighbour with Parkinsons, not a You-Tube presentation, which convinces an MP to fight for broadband video-links between rural hospitals. And the reason why we have a voting system which relies on constituencies defined by local areas (rather than proportional representation) is precisely to amplify the spirit of place and to allow local areas their own influence in parliament.

MPs work well when constituencies work; and constituencies work when communities act together. The Boundary Commission’s severed stumps, sown together with coarse thread, create doubly divided monsters: lumping separate communities, and separating unified communities.  We now have an opportunity to appeal.  Let us hope we can convince the Boundary Commission to reconsider because there will still be many occasions when, in our different ways, on different issues, Cumbrian valleys need to echo with a strong, clear voice.


Video-link between penrith and alston community hospitals

Rory will switch on the new video-link between Penrith and Alston community hospitals this Friday at Penrith Hospital. These state-of-the-art video-conferencing facilities will transform the way in which local patients obtain diagnoses and interact with their GP.

Rory will join Dr Chris Hallewell, Medical Director for Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust (responsible for all community hospitals in Cumbria) Dr Craig Melrose, Medical Director for Cumbria Health on Call (CHOC), and members of Alston’s Cybermoor, who have been instrumental delivering the project. Representatives from Cybermoor and CHOC will demonstrate how the video link works with a video diagnosis between CHOC and Alston Hospital.

Rory said: “This video-link is the beginning of a revolution. It’s a brilliant example of why superfast broadband is so important to our rural communities. The video link will drastically reduce the time that patients and doctors spend travelling, giving patients and their families a much better quality of life and helping doctors to cut costs and improve care at the same time. I’m really excited to be involved but this wouldn’t have happened without Daniel Herry of Alston Healthcare and I would like to pay a special tribute to him.”

Meanwhile, Virgin Media Business announced that fifteen stroke specialist doctors across the North West will begin using video conferencing technology to assess out-of-hours patients directly from their homes. In addition to huge patient benefits, the project is expected to save the NHS over £8 million a year.

Rory said: “Over 4,000 people suffer a stroke in Cumbria and Lancashire each year. The Virgin Media Business network will give stroke victims even quicker access to the very best specialists at all times of day and night. Superfast broadband is revolutionising the delivery of healthcare and I’m really keen to see Cumbria make the most of these technologies.”

rose castle

In just under 2 weeks the Church Commissioners’ Assets Committee who are responsible for the finances of the Church of England, are meeting to discuss the future of Rose Castle which they own. This very beautiful house set in the rolling English countryside south of Carlisle was decommissioned as a Bishops Palace, but it represents 800 years of Cumbrian heritage.

In order to help preserve this House and garden please sign the online petition here.

wigton youth

Rory has met with some of the organisers of Wigton’s ‘Something for the Summer’ event, a music and arts festival organised by and for local young people at the Wigton Market Hall.

‘Something for the Summer’, which takes place on September 17th, will be a day-long event including local bands, entertainment and a community-run barbecue. It has developed from the Your Square Mile event that was held in Wigton earlier this year, at which young people identified a need to be more involved in community events. A steering group of ten young people emerged to organise the event. They have since liaised with the local police regarding safety issues, obtained
sponsorship from local businesses, including Innovia, and national schemes such as O2 ‘Think Big’, presented to school assemblies, and arranged all the event’s logistics.

Rory, pictured with Harley Young and Sam Massey, both youth and community workers from the Wigton Youth Station, and Abbie Rear, a local young resident of Wigton who is involved in the steering group, said: “Young people should always have a say in the shaping of their communities. This year has seen some important milestones in youth work, including of course the launch of National Citizen Service, with its strong emphasis on community involvement and social action. It’s wonderful to know that the youth of Wigton have really taken the initiative to create this important event, which will draw together young people, their families, local businesses, and voluntary organisations. It’s a real pleasure to support Something for the Summer, and I’m enormously impressed at how brilliantly they have organised this. I hope it’s an event in Wigton that is here to stay.”



less is more: libya

Tripoli has fallen since the last issue of the Herald. And an ‘intervention’, which was never quite an intervention, is ending. It was never popular outside Libya: many felt it was a distraction and a waste of money. Few predicted that Tripoli would fall so easily. And the aftermath seemed doomed to chaos. But instead, it has worked.  Britain and its allies played a decisive role: their air-strikes made it possible to topple Gaddafi. But Britain was not sucked into putting troops on the ground, and no British lives were lost. Most Libyans seem, at the moment, delighted with the result. The supporters of the intervention feel justifiably vindicated.

Revolutions, however, are powerful and bewildering moments that call, violently, into question all that a people assume about their state, their culture and their national identity. Could anyone have predicted the course of the Libyan revolution? Would there not be anarchy after Gaddafi? Would commanders, who had fought alongside terrorist groups in Afghanistan, refuse orders from their secular superiors? Would militias appear outside hospitals, offering ‘security’, and then force out doctors, accusing them of being Gaddafi loyalists? Or would armed teenagers rob cars at road-blocks? Would tribes loyal to Gaddafi kill to save the land he had given them, or gangsters kill to take it from them? Could the newborn government of professors and exiles, lacking experience, ruthlessness or a popular mandate, cope? Would forty-two years of eccentric stability collapse into looting, enmity or civil war?  All this and worse happened in Iraq.

Instead, there are smiling faces among charred buildings. Families gather in the central square at one in the morning, to sing songs and eat popcorn. The shops and banks are opening. The teenagers at the road-blocks are scrupulously polite and are not robbing cars. There is very little looting. The Islamist commanders talk about tolerance and rejecting terrorism. There is surprisingly little bitterness so far about those who profited under Gaddafi, and little talk about revenge. People feel pleased at the moment to be Libyan and optimistic about their future.

Why? Many reasons are given for the difference from Iraq: that Libyans are simply more peaceful and laid-back; that it is a wealthier, more settled country; that Gaddafi’s regime was less bad than Saddam’s and did not inspire the same bitterness. Some credit the new government, or the mid-level bureaucracy. But if there had been looting and fighting, we would have heard the opposite. People would say that the Libyans were long considered the wildest tribe in the Roman Empire; that Gaddafi had not invested in education or most of the areas outside Tripoli; that he was a tyrant who had traumatised a nation; that the new government was completely out of touch; and that Gaddafi had deliberately destroyed the Libyan ‘state’.  In Britain too, we can easily find explanations in our national character, or our policies, or our living conditions, or our history – when people behave well (as after the July 7th bombings) or when (as more recently) people behave badly. Almost any human behavior can be explained away, but rarely in a satisfying way. I suspect even Libyans don’t fully understand why they reacted in the way that they did.

What matters now is that, for whatever reason, Libyans feel proud and elated: far more so than people seemed at a similar moment in the Balkans, or Iraq, or Afghanistan. They see the revolution as their achievement – not that of foreigners. They are conscious of the NATO support but they are not asking for teams of foreign advisers or assistance. The support they are most grateful for at the moment – particularly financial support – comes from other Middle Eastern countries, not from the West. Britain and its allies would now do well to keep their distance. This may be difficult.

Libya is still very fragile. If there is peace, it is not because of the new government, it is because the criminals and spoilers are staying at home. Policing is largely coming from ‘local committees’: groups of armed men from neighbourhoods, from very young to very old, some connected to mosques, many not. Committees may not disarm, there may be fights between tribes. Islamists may become more powerful. There will be incompetence and corruption and human rights abuses. And a powerful international lobby will urge the West to ‘solve these problems’: to send thousands of consultants under the slogans of ‘state-building’ and ‘capacity-building’, or even to send our troops for ‘stabilisation’.  That we must resist. There is a real limit to how much the West knows about Libya, still less to how much we can do to fix fundamental structural problems if they emerge. Meanwhile, Libya is not a threat to its people or its neighbours. Too many Western ‘advisers’ risk making things worse: making the government appear like a foreign puppet; stirring Islamist resentment; raising expectations we cannot meet. We would soon be trapped by our guilt at lost lives, and deter Libyans from taking responsibility for their own future – to their detriment and ours. In Libya, as in much of the world, when it comes to foreign involvement: less is more.

kirkby stephen flower festival

Rory spent Saturday morning of the August bank Holiday in Kirkby Stephen, visiting the Flower Festival at Kirkby Stephen parish church, the Upper Eden Arts and Crafts Exhibition showcasing local talent at 18/20 Market Street, and the Stainmore 150 event, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Stainmore railway line. Guided by Ann Sandell, publicity officer of Kirkby Stephen town forum and active local member of the community, and Joan Johnstone, Chairman of Kirkby Stephen Town Council, Rory met and chatted with locals as he visited the town’s various events. At Kirkby Stephen East Heritage Centre Rory chatted with local residents and met the Chairman of Stainmore Railway Company Ltd, Mike Thompson, and took photographs of the steam trains departing from the newly refurbished station before circulating them on Twitter with a plea to ‘Visit Kirkby Stephen‘.

Rory said: “As ever, Kirkby Stephen’s residents have come together to organise the most wonderful weekend of events, bringing together the community in the best possible way. I’ve been incredibly impressed by the variety of displays in the church, and the wonderful lunch marquee organised by parishioners, friends and family. The Stainmore 150 celebrations have showcased the most extraordinary project; a community group that took over the derelict shell of Kirkby Stephen East’s station almost fifteen years ago, and who have since worked incredibly hard to develop this amazing heritage railway project that will be another major tourist draw for Kirkby Stephen. Many congratulations to all who have been involved and have worked so hard to make this weekend such a resounding success.”

Ann Sandell commented: “Kirkby Stephen were delighted to welcome Rory to the town as they took pride in celebrating 150 years since the South Durham and Lancashire Union Railway was built and Kirkby Stephen East Heritage Centre returned to running steam trains for the first time in fifty years. The Parish Church celebrated the occasion with flowers, highlighting all the activities past and present that have so greatly influenced the lives and sustainability of Kirkby Stephen residents and visitors. Rory also experienced the wealth of local artistic talent on display at the Upper Eden Arts and Crafts Exhibition. This has been a whole weekend of events at various locations around the town organised and executed by an almost inexhaustible mass of volunteers.”