Opinion: Could there be a National Government by the end of the year?

Many readers of Liberal Democrat Voice may have missed the Financial Times’ prediction that 2015 “will see the creation of a national government in the UK.” It sounds deeply implausible. But activists who remember the coalitions between Labour and Conservative that have operated in local government over the past 25 years will recognise that these two deeply self-interested parties have more in common than they admit – including a strong reluctance to share power with Liberal Democrats.  So here is a New Year fantasy on how the FT’s prediction might come true.

No-one was surprised that the General Election of May 2015 was inconclusive but the degree of uncertainty was even larger than expected. Labour won the most seats – some 279, on 30% of the vote.  33% voted for the Conservatives, but this gave them only 267 MPs.  UKIP came third in terms of votes, but won only 6 seats. The Liberal Democrats, with 38 MPs, were the third largest party in the Commons, but with 4% less votes than UKIP. The SNP won 36 MPs, claiming that with a loose alliance with the 3 Plaid MPs it now outweighed the Liberal Democrats.  3 Greens, and 18 Northern Ireland MPs (9 DUP, 3 SDLP, 5 Sinn Fein, 1 Alliance), completed the tally.

With three or four parties polling over 20% in many seats, nearly 50 MPs had been elected on less than a third of the vote; 15 were returned on less than 30%, including 2 Greens and several Liberal Democrats.  Newly elected MPs who had scraped small majorities in hard-fought contests had little enthusiasm for an early second election.

No two parties, except Labour and the Conservatives, could form a majority government.  Labour claimed the right to attempt a minority government, on the basis of its proportion of seats.  Gestures were made to Liberal Democrats and SNP for outside support, in return for limited concessions and consultations, but an active minority of MPs – with vigorous backing from the Guardian – resisted anything more.  The Telegraph, and the Conservative leadership, thought that a viable government might be created from a double coalition with Ulster Unionists and Liberal Democrats; but the 1922 Committee demanded a veto over any terms agreed, while insisting that an early EU referendum and a commitment to further major reductions in public spending were essential to any deal. So, after resisting Ulster demands to be exempted from spending cuts, and  a brief meeting with a Liberal Democrat team, Cameron resigned as Prime Minister, and Labour took office.

Minority government might have survived for some months in happier economic circumstances, in spite of SNP bargaining for an improvement on the Barnett spending formula, and a revolt from Northern English Labour MPs against its implications. However, the renewed crisis in the Eurozone, combined with the unexpected downturn in the Chinese economy, threatened British recovery. The trade deficit widened sharply in June and July, and political uncertainty had rattled the foreign exchange markets. Sterling fell sharply and rapidly; Middle East and Russian money, which had helped to stem the external deficit for several years, now moved out of Britain. Demands for emergency cuts in spending from economists inside and outside government provoked a revolt on Labour backbenches, leading in turn to a further fall in the value of sterling.

The new leader of the Conservative Party offered support to the government on an emergency programme for national recovery, in spite of resistance from the Conservative right. Prime Minister Miliband was unwilling to take up the offer, but those around him recognised the force of circumstances and the catastrophic (and unaffordable) alternative of a second election.  And so, under a new Labour leader, the national government of 2015 was formed.

* Sally Pearson is a pseudonym. The author is a member of the Liberal Democrats known to the LDV team.

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42 Comments

  • Leon Duveen 6th Jan '15 - 3:10pm

    My only quibble is that they will wait so long before “in the national Interest” in forming a Grand Coalition. I have said for some time that this is a likely outcome of the GE in May and both the Tories & Labour (as well as both Miliband & Cameron would see the advantage of blocking any leadership threat) will hold their noses and form a joint government.
    Bad for the country but would be good for us as the official opposition and, as it wouldn’t last more than 18 months before the defections to UKIP, us & to a new left grouping, pull it down we would be back in Government within 2 years with possibly over 100 MPs by 2017.

  • The odds are, I think, largely against it, but there is a possiblity that the election could produce a situation where no two parties other than Labour and Conservatives could form a majority government.

    Could the Party promise to abstain if any of the two larger parties attempted to form a minority government, but also say further support for bills would be according to their perceived merits?

  • David Faggiani 6th Jan '15 - 3:13pm

    I love the pseudonym! Intriguing…… 🙂

  • I don’t see it. The thing is there could have been a National Government in 2010 if Labour and the Conservatives were that reluctant to share power with the Lib Dems. The Guardian by the way is actually fairly pro-Lib Dem much to the consternation of it’s more vocal labourites! In the advent of a hung parliament the sitting P.M gets the first crack at forming a government. This means that Conservatives would try to cobble one together and the first party they would call on will be their current coalition partners. However if Labour has more seats or edges the popular vote it will look bad and be very difficult to manage.
    Anyway, a down turn in the economy cause by anything would be blamed on the sitting government just as it was in 2010 so Labour would simply ramp up the attacks and probably edge a win. Now if there was a threat of WWII there would be a National government, but how likely is that?

  • matt (Bristol) 6th Jan '15 - 4:14pm

    The trouble I have with this scenario is I don’t think the Labour leadership processes allow for that quick an election of a new natonal leader, unless the ‘new leader’ you mention is going to be Harriet Harman (for an interim period), and who on earth she is going to partner with on the Tory side of the new coalition is hard to imagine, and what would happen when Labour elect a new leader would be a path strewn with nasty thorns.

    I can’t see under such circs that a national government – and probably for a defined interim term only – would be led by anyone but a compromise PM from the largest party, acceptable to both parties but not in active leadership in either party; possibly someone in the Lords. Prime Minister Adonis, anyone?

  • stuart moran 6th Jan '15 - 4:15pm

    No chance unless the current Government have messed things up so badly that we are in a national crisis!

    Why the pseudonym. Is the author embarrassed about it?

  • In that scenario more likely a minority government and another election in October.
    HOWEVER I expect there to be a polarization of voting as the election closes and one of the two main parties will have more than 325 MPs,

  • Despite the striking similarity between this and my own predictions ( http://miss-s-b.dreamwidth.org/1594979.html ) I would like to deny all knowledge of this piece. In fact, GIVEN the striking similarity between it and my own predictions I have an odds on favourite as to Sally’s identity…

  • Peter Hayes 6th Jan '15 - 4:29pm

    History of the Liberal party suggests a Grand Coalition is unlikely because one or both parties will split. The right of the Conservatives over Europe and the left of Labour over austerity. If the results turn out as above I would suspect the Conservatives would try to force another election, assuming they keep back enough money for the campaign.

  • ” So here is a New Year fantasy on how the FT’s prediction might come true.”

    Fantasy is fine but this is just silly, we all know there is absolutely no chance the LibDems will get 38 seats.

  • The other thing is that the closeness of the election is exasperated by voter fatigue. The term should have been fixed at 4 years rather than dragged out to 4 and a bit plus 5 months of campaigning. But it could be one of those situations where it looks closer than it is and the actual result will mirror every local election of the last couple of years.

  • matt (Bristol) 6th Jan '15 - 5:09pm

    I can see why some people can’t see this happening; the underling assumptions about seats the scenario is based on, is more like the 1885 election than anything else I can call to mind (670 seats, Lib 319, Con 247) but with a much more fractured minor party set-up. What happened then was that the Liberal party being riven by internal divisions, had before the election conceded to the Tories the opportunity to form a minority government until a new electoral register and new boundaries could be drawn up due to reforms ealier in the 1880 parliament. After the election, the Liberals had the biggest number of seats, but no overall majority, tried to do a deal with the Irish Home Rule party, governed briefly and then split asunder over Home Rule, leading to the 1886 election and a nominal minority Conservative government, initially supported by Liberal Unionsts who then formally joined into a coalition later in the parliament.

    But the key thing that started all the swopping around of minority governments was the assumption that an election could not be called for constitutional reasons. I don’t know what 2015’s equivalent of that would be (please say, ‘a massive measure of electoral and constitutional reform’) and am not sure if the unwillingness of candidates to face the voters would be enough.

  • TechnicalEphemera 6th Jan '15 - 5:35pm

    Assuming at most 15-20 Lib Dem MPs, which is what I think you will get it rather hinges on how the SNP perform and whether the offer of Foreign Secretary is enough to keep Alex Salmond on-side.

    Post Autumn statement I think Labour may just do well enough that 10 Lib Dem MPs could form a stable government with them, probably led by Farron. But on the whole an SNP deal looks more likely.

    I can’t see a national government because the Tory Party is on the verge of civil war. Labour would not accept an EU referendum and the right wing would split when faced with a leadership going into government with Labour. Incidentally I have no idea why the author assumes Miliband would resign, in the scenario presented there is no reason for him to do so as I imagine he could happily work with the non-existent moderate wing of the Tory Party.

  • Little Jackie Paper 6th Jan '15 - 6:19pm

    I suspect that a CON-LAB coalition is not as fanciful as is often held. The reality is that the Austerity Party is going to win the next election, it’s just a matter of how it happens. What really would CON want? Probably an EU referendum, which I imagine many in the Labour Party would not argue too much with. LAB made a red line of an energy bill freeze and I remember a poll, which I can’t find now, suggesting this was quite popular with Conservative voters. Beyond that I would have thought that a cuts programme would not be too hard to develop between the two.

    Labour would probably want some protection for the NHS, but we had that in the last Parliament. There probably would be a few other flashpoints, but overall the idea of a Grand Coalition is not totally out of the question.

    It does raise the question of who gets what jobs though, that could be fun.

  • Little Jackie Paper 6th Jan '15 - 6:23pm

    TehcnicalEphemera – ‘But on the whole an SNP deal looks more likely.’

    I’m not convinced. If the idea comes about that the demand is an exemption from austerity for Scotland then there is no way that any government could work on the basis of England/Wales/NI-only austerity. There’s also the small matter of Trident.

  • Peter Chegwyn 6th Jan '15 - 6:24pm

    I wonder how many hours will be spent on this kind of speculating over the next four months… hours that would be better spent on campaigning to elect more Liberal Democrat MPs and Councillors.

  • TechnicalEphemera 6th Jan '15 - 6:34pm

    Little Jackie Paper

    Scotland already has the power to raise taxes if it wants, so it can avoid austerity. Salmond knows he cannot afford to turn down any sort of deal to keep the Tories out. He may insist on Trident going but word on the street is Labour have already decided to can it. On that basis the deal looks very on.

  • David Allen 6th Jan '15 - 6:37pm

    Go on, you’re all trying to provoke “Sally Pearson” into breaking cover, aren’t you? Just because Joe Bloggs thinks that some tiny detail in Pearson’s scenario might turn out false doesn’t mean that Joe is entitled to dismiss the whole premise.

    The reason why it’s different from 2010 is that there may well be no single third-party deal – like ConDem – that on its own will deliver stable government. Pearson is probably right to assume that ConLab will not be anybody’s first choice. However, when all else has failed, and commentators start to shriek that Con and Lab are both being irresponsible if they will not consider ConLab, then ConLab it might very well be. (As an insurance policy, they might co-opt a couple of tame Cleggies as well.)

    They won’t like doing it. They will both lose votes for doing it. Having demonized each other, they will be derided for working together. Having demonized both sides and claimed that only they could hold the ring, the Lib Dems will be equally derided as irrelevant. When ConLab government struggles, as governments do, the nation will seek a new alternative. That will be a time of great opportunity and great danger.

    The SNP will storm off to independence, probably by winning a landslide in an unauthorised IndyRef2. That’s the easy prediction to make. What of rump UK?

    A new party will probably emerge to challenge ConLab. It sure won’t be the Cleggies. It could be a broader, sharper, and perhaps uglier UKIP. Or it might be a radical liberal-left party if, like the Greek Syriza, they can show both ambition and pragmatism, and take on the “Prostitute State”. Interesting times!

  • Little Jackie Paper 6th Jan '15 - 6:39pm

    TechnicalEphemera – Well…Alex Salmond as far as I am aware is not the leader of the SNP. That not withstanding.

    ‘Scotland already has the power to raise taxes if it wants, so it can avoid austerity.’

    You don’t think that higher taxes are a feature of austerity?

    ‘Salmond knows he cannot afford to turn down any sort of deal to keep the Tories out. He may insist on Trident going but word on the street is Labour have already decided to can it. On that basis the deal looks very on.’

    I certainly can’t see a CON-SNP coalition (although stranger things have happened). LAB-SNP looks more likely, but I just can’t see it unless the SNP becomes something more, ‘UK,’ (for want of a better term) and I don’t think that’s how they see themselves. I may, of course be totally wrong.

  • TechnicalEphemera 6th Jan '15 - 6:51pm

    Little Jackie Paper.

    The Salmond – Sturgeon dynamic will be very interesting if Alex wins his seat (he will). I rather doubt Sturgeon will stand in his way if he is offered a top job.

    Incidentally in many scenarios an agreement by the SNP to simply abstain would be enough. I agree that the SNP don’t currently think in terms of the UK, but a hung parliament will probably give them the incentive to do so.

  • paul barker 6th Jan '15 - 6:52pm

    If it happened it would be great for us, we would be The Official Opposition in terms of Real Politics, even if The SNP had more seats. There would be defections to us, UKIP, The Greens &, at some point, a “New Workers Party” established by Unite. We would make massive gains in Local Government & win every Byelection in England.
    That is why it wont happen, it would be suicide for both Tories & Labour & a gift to us/The Greens/UKIP/The SNP etc.
    Comparisons with Germany ignore their very different history.

  • stuart moran 6th Jan '15 - 6:56pm

    paul barker

    what planet are you living on?

    Are you for real?

  • David Allen 6th Jan '15 - 6:59pm

    “it would be great for us, we would be The Official Opposition in terms of Real Politics… There would be defections to us”

    I think this is optimism from a professional optimist. However, ConLab would acknowledge a slight risk of it happening. That they would forestall by offering Clegg some sort of post that sounds sufficiently imposing (Home? Foreign?) even though it isn’t. Alexander could be offered the Ministry of Tourism if the Orange Book negotiators really played things tough.

  • Little Jackie Paper 6th Jan '15 - 7:17pm

    TechnicalEphemera – Difficult to see exactly what, ‘top job,’ Salmond could have though unless the SNP became a UK party. In some ways the more interesting one is actually UKIP. If they do indeed win a handful of seats and Farage isn’t one of them I’d struggle to see him lead the thing from the European Parliament. Indeed none of the party leaders look assured at the moment.

    An SNP agreement to abstain would be enough for a lot of business and perhaps not even that radical a departure in practice. But, as the LDP has found, that approach can very quickly become vulnerable to a charge of, ‘enabling,’ and I suspect that the smaller parties will have learnt lessons from that.

    There would also be a problem in that it is entirely plausible that parties wanting an EU referendum will have a majority of popular votes in 2015. That could put the SNP in a very awkward position constitutionally, although any agreement could simply make the matter of an EU referendum and stance in any campaign a free vote.

    My feeling is that Labour will be the biggest party after the election, but I’ve got no idea what that means.

  • Paul Barker’s current bout of pessimism crushes my morale. Based on his previous trenchant analyses, the most likely outcome had seemed to be a massive swing toward the Lib Dems in late April, as voters opened their eyes to the Great Good Things Nick Clegg had done for them, in spite of opposition from reluctant Conservatives on the one hand and country-destroying Radical Red Revolutionary Socialist Marxist Labour on the other. With Barkerian vision, I fully expected Prime Minister Clegg to lead a Lib Dem government with a comfortably majority of a few hundred.

    Imagine, then, how my dreams are shattered to discover that Paul seems to be envisaging a spell in Opposition for the Liberal Democrats! He seems to have forgotten the first maxim of New Libdemery: the goal is to be a permanent party of Government. The alternative is simply not to be thought of. Seated on the opposition benches, the Lib Dems would be reduced to simply formulating policies and offering proposals which the nation could believe in. But in Government, the Party can do Things: Things which are Big! Things which are Important! Things which require all the skill and talent a politician can muster to make them sound attractive, or even palatable, to the Average Voter! That’s where the Action is. There’s where the Challenge is. Nick Clegg is Up to the Challenge. Are you?

  • TechnicalEphemera 6th Jan '15 - 9:16pm

    Little Jackie Paper

    Presumably the only job Salmond could have is Foreign Secretary. Let’s face it, after Hague and Hammond he would look pretty good in the job.

  • Bill le Breton 6th Jan '15 - 10:11pm

    It is worth asking what a confidence and supply agreement looks like. First it doesn’t have to be written and second it doesn’t have to be made public.

    In Feb 1974 the Tory party merely let Wilson (and the Queen) know that it would abstain on his Queens Speech.

    So I reckon in the circumstances above either the Tories or Labour would abstain on the Queens Speech and any subsequent early budget (though one would not strictly be needed for 11 months. How the Fixed Term Parliament Act would influence matters thereafter is anyone’s guess. It would mean that Tories and Labour would really have to agree on the timing of a subsequent election (again probably privately).

    What this opinion piece does do, neatly, is to distract attention from the likelihood that if it were Labour that chose to abstain, whatever remained of the LDs, would be invited to join the Conservative party in ‘completing the job’. This joint administration would negotiate its legislation piece by piece, almost night by night. With plenty of scope to feed the DUP and SNPs devolutionary requirements, and find some unity around EU negotiations.

  • Steve Comer 6th Jan '15 - 10:49pm

    Lowest form of wit it may be, but I loved the sarcasm in David-1’s contribution!

    My cynical head tells me that a ‘baby grand coalition’ of Tory and Labour would be able to:
    1) Kick the deficit into the long grass for the next generation to deal with
    2) Renew Trident to keep the military industrial complex happy
    3) Avoid any reform of the House of Lords
    4) Cobble together a Yes vote in an EU Referendum based on ‘renegotiated terms’ but maintain a Eurosceptic tone tio continue alienating our EU partners
    5) Prevent any pesky reform of the electoral system and keep FPTP for local and Westminster elections (posisbky even expanding it to Mayoral elections too)
    6) Keep the current honours system
    7) Maintain the centralised Westminster-dominated political system
    8) Continue to squeeze Local Government so all it can do is implement coalition cuts and administer Government schemes
    9) Keep praising the NHS while trying to run it all from Whitehall with a top-down target culture
    10) Expand ‘quangocracy’ to provide jobs for all those wonderful SPADs and party hacks

    I can see this would all be highly attractive to the Labservative front benches (and all done in “the National Interest” as well!)

  • The scenario presented by “Sally Pearson” is certainly plausible. Any scenario where neither Red + Yellow or Blue + Yellow equals an overall majority is at this stage more likely than not. Maybe instead of a Grand Coalition, an even Grander Coalition could be envisaged, including all parties that want to be a part of it.

    What annoyed me about the Rose Garden period in 2010 was not that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had formed a coalition, but the why both sides painted it as the parties working together in the national interest, making out that any Labour influence in government would be hazardous to the country’s health. If the UK needs serious reform post 2015 then the government will need the talents and support of all sides. An all-party 2010-15 would not have wasted money on a top down NHS reorganisation that hasn’t worked. An all-party 2010-15 could have made a success of Universal Credit without being so heartless to claimants in the process.

    How would it work? Well we have an example of cabinet spots being divided out on party strength in Northern Ireland, I suggest the same, but with a few tweaks.
    The Prime Minister/Deputy Prime Minister and Chancellor/Chief Secretary pairs cannot be picked by the same party.
    The National Secretary posts (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) should be reserved for the largest party in those nations even if their seat numbers would not qualify them for a cabinet post.

    Using the Sally seat numbers, I came up with this, overall numbers Lab 9+Wales, Con 9, LD 1, SNP Scot, DUP NI
    Prime Minister: David Cameron (Conservative)
    Deputy Prime Minister: Harriet Harman (Labour)
    Chancellor of the Exchequer: Ed Miliband (Labour)
    Chief Secretary to the Treasury: George Osborne (Conservative)
    Leader of the House: Rachel Reeves (Labour)
    Home Secretary: Theresa May (Conservative)
    Foreign Secretary: Yvette Cooper (Labour)
    Justice: Sadiq Khan (Labour)
    Defence: Philip Hammond (Conservative)
    Business: Chuka Umunna (Labour)
    Work and Pensions: Ed Balls (Labour)
    Health: Andy Burnham (Labour)
    Communities: Eric Pickles (Conservative)
    Education: David Laws (Liberal Democrat)
    International Development: Justine Greening (Conservative)
    Energy: Caroline Flint (Labour)
    Transport: Nicky Morgan (Conservative)
    Scotland: Alex Salmond (SNP)
    Northern Ireland: Nigel Dodds (DUP)
    Wales: Owen Smith (Labour)
    Culture: Sajid Javid (Conservative)
    Environment: Liz Truss (Conservative)

    If Lib Dems could have only one post in Cabinet in a scenario like this (Lib Dems got the 15th pick and it was surprising that Education was still open when I did my fantasy draft) who would Lib Dems like to put into Cabinet?

  • jedibeeftrix 6th Jan '15 - 11:05pm

    @ TechnicalEphemera “Presumably the only job Salmond could have is Foreign Secretary. Let’s face it, after Hague and Hammond he would look pretty good in the job.”

    What particular objections do you have?

  • David Allen 6th Jan '15 - 11:55pm

    Salmond as Foreign Secretary? Waving the saltire at Putin and Modi, reviving the special relationship with France, uniting with New Caledonia? This is an idea which seriously needs to be scotched!

  • I thought the recovery was fairly solid. If so why would there be a national crisis caused by economic problems. Or is this thought experiment more of an acknowledgement that the bubble might be about to burst as the election looms?

  • Tense negotiations with Canada, as the Foreign Secretary demands the return of Nova Scotia to the homeland. . .

  • So the Apocalypse then happy 2015

  • If the Tories and Labour go into coalition together, which I think is highly likely, I will look forward to the mass metaphorical Hari-Kiri of all those “sell-out Lib Dems! / Tories over my dead body” types that frequent this site.

  • SIMON BANKS 7th Jan '15 - 2:41pm

    I agree this is very unlikely, first because there’s quite a narrow range of results which will produce this situation and in particular 36 SNP sounds high; and secondly because of the deep, bitter memories in Labour of Macdonald and the National Government. The most likely outcome of the result above is a Labour minority government with some kind of agreement with either the SNP/Plaid or the Liberal Democrats, followed by a second election within the year – and that isn’t too difficult to achieve despite recent legislation as a two-thirds majority for an election would be achieved easily by Labour and Tory MPs combining – and I can’t see the Tories daring to vote against a second election and being forever taunted that they didn’t have the guts to overthrow a Labour minority government. Labour would probably win or at least end up in a stronger position from which they could lead a stronger government.

    As for Malc’s comment, no, looking at Ashcroft’s detailed polls in key seats and at local election results in those seats, 38 Liberal Democrat MPs is a perfectly possible result. I suspect it’ll be a bit lower, in the low 30s, but in addition to current polls, no-one can predict shifts during the campaign.

  • @DM Andy – You selected the worst possible LD minister in David Laws! Some of your other choices seem implausible – George Osbourne as Chief Secretary of the Treasury – under Ed Miliband??

    As for the overall article, it sounds terrifyingly plausible. Yet, this would be better than catastrophic disorder under the scenario implied.

    Not having read all the comments, it has a faint fragrance of Stephen Tall about it.

  • ” I can’t see the Tories daring to vote against a second election and being forever taunted that they didn’t have the guts to overthrow a Labour minority government”

    I can see that quite easily, on the basis that anything that Labour want, the Tories would suspect of being a political trap. (And the reverse is true as well, of course.)

  • nvelope2003 7th Jan '15 - 8:59pm

    In 2011 the Labour Party in Scotland got 15 MSPs out of 73 through the FPTP election but gained about 20 more through the proportional top up lists. According to recent opinion polls Labour support has declined further from 31% to about 27% but SNP support has risen to 47% so it is possible that the Scottish Labour Party might get only 10 seats and the SNP about 46 in May 2015. Jim Murphy does not seem to have made a very convincing start as Scottish labour leader.

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