Tuesday, 27 November 2018

SDP gain from UKIP

Here's something I didn't see coming!

UKIP MEP for the East of England region, Patrick O'Flynn, has defected to the Social Democratic Party.

Or perhaps I should rephrase that. He's actually defected to the continuing continuing SDP, as the parties of that name formed by the Gang of Four (1981) and Dr David Owen (1988) have both ceased to exist.

Mr O'Flynn is an interesting figure. I've always thought him to be inherently capable, and for all my disagreements on policy I found him to be honest and very much his own person. He famously struggled with Nigel Farage, favoured a more centrist economic policy than most of his UKIP colleagues, and has clearly struggled with the direction UKIP has been moving in recent years. He's obviously not much of a fan of current leader Gerard Batten either, and the recent appointment of Tommy Robinson as a party advisor appears to have been the straw that finally broke the camel's back.

I wouldn't suggest O'Flynn is a moderate progressive - after all, he backed Lisa Duffy's bid to become UKIP leader - but it's not a great surprise that he's broken ranks with UKIP. What is surprising is that he's joined the SDP (sorry, continuing continuing SDP).

It seems rather odd that someone of O'Flynn's political views can describe themselves as a social democrat. I, too, consider myself a social democrat and yet we are poles apart in our political thinking. The SDP is a curious incarnation, and while I like the idea of the party continuing to exist in some guise it is a relic of a previous era, it is difficult to see the SDP making a resurgence. Although the defection will no doubt bring them once again into public awareness, can it reinvent itself? If the "old" SDP failed to break the mould of British politics, the current incarnation is struggling for relevance.

Can O'Flynn breathe new life into this party? Or will this defection simply become an obscure but fascinating historical footnote? Either way, he deserves some credit for the stance he has taken over the Tommy Robinson issue.

But perhaps today's SDP is symptomatic of modern Britain - the once-positive international outlook now replaced with by nativist tendencies and suspicion of "establishment". How did a party tracing its heritage back to Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers, David Owen and Shirley Williams find itself becoming the party of Patrick O'Flynn?

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Some (further) thoughts on Remembrance Sunday

Image result for remembrance poppies white red

This week Remembrance has been in the news - and quite rightly so. As we prepare to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, it is right and fitting that we hear stories of courage, comradeship, tragedy and sacrifice. 

But there have been other stories, too. Footballer James McClean has received all kinds of threats and unpleasant messages owing to his refusal to wear a poppy.  Former editor of The Times, Simon Jenkins, has provoked controversy by suggesting that perhaps it is time for Remembrance Sunday, as we understand it, to be discontinued. And RAF veteran Harry Smith has been targeted for tweeting: "I no longer wear the poppy because the most fortunate in our society have turned the solemnity of remembrance for fallen soldiers in ancient wars into a justification for our most recent armed conflicts".  

Six years ago - yes, six years ago - I wrote about what Remembrance means to me after James McClean (yes, the same one) received abuse for his decision not to wear a poppy. I have not changed my mind since and clearly neither has he, but I would like to revisit this for the Armistice centenary. As a graduate in 20th Century History, I naturally feel very strongly about Remembrance. I also feel very strongly that much that passes for Remembrance is, in fact, intellectually dishonest and at times disrespectful.

Let me firstly deal with the cases of the individuals mentioned above. James McClean has made it clear for the last six years that he doesn't wear a poppy and has repeatedly given his reasons. I understand why he feels the way he does. He does not ask to be agreed with, simply understood. The refusal of many to do this shows an unfortunate disrespect for those who opt out of the traditional symbol for Remembrance, even if their reasons for doing so are to remember in a more personal and intellectually honest way. To me that is unacceptable. "To wear or not to wear?" is a question that has nothing to with remembrance itself, and everything to do with culture, tradition and convention. McClean's gesture does not challenge the significant of remembrance; far from it. What it does is questions the need for particular symbols.

Simon Jenkins is a thoughtful person, albeit one I often disagree with. He doesn't need defending because he's perfectly capable of defending himself. Like McClean, Jenkins has been saying the same kinds of things for many years - last year, he argued in The Guardian that "we should not be remembering, but forgetting. Almost all the conflicts in the world are caused by too much remembering: refreshing religious divisions, tribal feuds, border conflicts, humiliations and expulsions...The task is not to ignore some past event but to view it in proportion, to find some compromise between present and past. Throughout history, societies that do this have tended to succeed and move forward. Those that cannot forget, that wander the stony paths of their past and drink at the rancid well of grievance, are those that decay from within. Britain should write the wars of the 20th century into history books...No more remembrance days." I do not have to agree with that to respect and understand the viewpoint. After all, what is Remembrance without exploring ways of pursuing peace?  Like McClean, he is remembering honestly and with an enquiring mind. He wants remembrance to be forward-looking and focused on preventing divisions and future misunderstandings. 

His final proposal might go too far for some of us but it does not merit the ridiculous overreactions from the likes of Piers Morgan and the Daily Mail, wilfully misrepresenting his words to mould themselves in the image of righteous protectors of Respect and Tradition. It's disingenuous - Morgan and the Daily Mail are odd kinds of moral guardians.

And then we come to Harry Leslie Smith - an RAF veteran who fought in World War II and continues to fight against fascism...on, erm, twitter. Again, he is more than capable of defending himself. But what is surprising is that the social media Outrage Machine doesn't for a minute stop to think that an octogenarian who actually fought the Nazis might have well-considered reasons for his stance. I would imagine Remembrance Sunday means a lot more to Harry, who has lost countless colleagues over the years and for whom the pain of war is not just a distant fact but a personal memory, than it does the average person who buys a poppy...or the latest 22-carot limited edition golden poppy brooch, wristband, watch, jumper, commemorative tie and so on.

What worries me about the reactions to each of these people's statements is the failure to realise that every one of them is taking Remembrance seriously - very seriously. These aren't people who are dismissing Remembrance as unnecessary, or who are disrespecting veterans. On the contrary - each is struggling with elements of how we, as a society, "do" Remembrance. 

Simon Jenkins is right in one key respect. Much of what we consider to be remembrance is "artificial". In this expression of Remembrance, the (red) Poppy is a central, super-significant focal point for our grief. All else pales into insignificance. The Outrage Machine, seemingly unable to look beyond a choice not to wear a poppy, goes into overdrive. The repeated defences are then wilfully misconstrued. This is not Remembrance. I do not need a poppy of any colour to remember. Neither do people in most other countries in the world. Remembrance is not the wearing of poppies, and neither is the wearing of a poppy in itself Remembrance.

The poppy is a symbol - nothing more, nothing less. A powerful one, I concede. But honest Remembrance accepts that people can and do think differently. It respects that difference. It does not tell other people how to remember. It is certainly artificial when the focus is on symbols rather than understanding the past.

The red poppy itself is a symbol of the Royal British Legion. That poppy represents fallen military personnel. It does not represent civilians, or animals, or soldiers who did not die in the field, or even servicemen from opposing armies. Just "our glorious dead". This year, the Legion's motto is "every one remembered". The intention is no doubt good, but how is that possible? Isn't that a bit hypocritical from an organisation that refuses to commemorate civilian efforts in war, and that considers the white poppy "offensive"? War, after all, is seldom about soldiers and is never caused by them. Don't we need an Act of Remembrance that goes beyond the narrow focus on fallen military personnel and remembers all victims? The Iraq veteran with PTSD? The old lady who never knew her dad, because he was killed at El-Alamein? The widows, the injured survivors, the likes of the merchant navy and people who worked on the railways in WWII, without whom the war could never have been won? The civilian ships torpedoed by German U-boats? And so on... 

Honest Remembrance will remember all people affected by war. It does not make judgements according to uniform or nationality. The Royal British Legion may well own the red poppy, but it does not own Remembrance.

Remembering all affected by war is what the Cambridge University Students' union recently voted to do - with a predictable reaction from those eager to misrepresent their position. Remembrance should be as inclusive as possible, recognising that people remember in deeply personal ways and allowing them the freedom to do so. Remembrance that demands conformity is not Remembrance. 

This Sunday I will be leading two Remembrance services - one for my church in the morning and one later for the LGBT community. Honest Remembrance is always challenging, which is why I've decided to place the emphasis on the personal. Members of the congregation have given me names and photographs of their loved ones to be featured in a short film. Others have brought items for a Remembrance table. Some have written poems. Two veterans (aged 40 and 89) will speak about their own experiences and what Remembrance means to them. Some will wear poppies, some will not. We will remember different people, who have touched our lives in various ways - both civilian and military. And, as we're a church that has people of Polish and German descent among its members, Remembrance will not stop at national boundaries. We will not exclude anyone, whether British, French, German, Polish, American, Russian, Italian - not only because we're an inclusive kind of church, but because Remembrance cannot be selective.

On December 25th 1914, German and British troops put aside their weapons for a day. People wearing uniforms of opposing "sides" played football and sang songs together. 104 years later, it's still virtually impossible for Allied and Axis veterans to "officially" remember together. While it is welcome that for the first time ever the German president (Frank-Walter Steinmeier) will lay a wreath at the cenotaph,
imagine the response if someone in German uniform turned up to pay his respects at many of our public remembrance commemorations tomorrow? What sort of Remembrance is that? Maybe Simon Jenkins has a point after all. 

Remembrance is a deeply important act, and personally speaking I am very concerned with how we remember. I'm not Simon Jenkins - I'm not advocating axing Remembrance Sunday. What I am advocating is for Remembrance to be more open, less prescriptive and less judgemental. Let's not forget that Remembrance is usually, if not always, a very personal thing - after all, we can only remember what we know or have experienced. Let's strip away the jingoism, nationalism and triumphalism and find a way of including all of us...especially James McClean.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Let's not pretend anti-Semitism is Labour's problem

At one of my first Lib Dem conferences I signed up to the Liberal Democrat friends of Palestine. They seemed focused on peace in the Middle East, a two state solution and challenging the Israeli government on the issue of Palestinian human rights.

Since then of course, we've had the interventions from David Ward, the former MP for Bradford East, whose unhelpful comments focused on Jews rather than the State of Israel. I accepted that he was probably not the best representative of the LDfP.

There is much in the news about anti-Semitism at present - and rightly so. It is perfectly reasonable for people to criticise the often shameful actions of the Israeli government without making statements about Jewish people. Anti-Semitism is both a real problem and unacceptable in a modern society, and needs to be called out whenever we encounter it.

Of course, anti-Semitism is Labour's problem, right? No, it's everyone's problem.

Today the LDfP shared this on their facebook page.

It clearly has nothing to do with the Palestinian question. Nether does it say anything about the government of Israel and its actions. It does, however, suggest "Jews are bad" or at least are doing bad things to nice Christians. The article it links to is a "report" from the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation and relates to an incident involving one apparently Jewish man. This story is then followed up with various unconfirmed accounts, many lacking in specific detail, suggesting similar attacks on Christians are typical - along with some sensationalist claims: "I know Christians who lock themselves indoors during the Purim holiday." The impression being created are that Christians live in fear for their safety because of widespread Jewish attacks. No reference is made to the wider Jewish-Christian relationship and local inter-faith dynamics; the article therefore lacks any meaningful context.

Whether or not these incidents took place I don't know. But using them to generate headlines like this, focusing on "Jews" and Jewish intolerance should be unacceptable. People of all faiths deserve the right to live in peace, but framing the narrative in this way leads to obvious and incorrect conclusions being drawn.

LDfP know exactly what they're doing sharing this. It does not lend itself to constructive discussions on either the political situation or inter-faith relationships. It simply paints Jews as the problem - a challenge to peace and religious tolerance. The excuse offered by LDfP that "we do want to publicise and educate on not just the Israeli government's behaviour through racist policies, but also the behaviour of some, not all, Israeli Jews" is also deeply unsatisfactory. Why focus on Jews at all, irrespective of how many, rather than simply challenge all types of intolerance? When focusing on the behaviour of "some Israeli Jews", is it helpful to do so in a way that focuses on Jewish identity?

Is this post anti-Semitic? I'll leave you to answer the question. I would suggest the original article is, especially in the use of that particular unflattering picture of two completely Jewish men to make its point. The men depicted have nothing to do with any of the alleged incidents described. Using stock images of Jewish people in this way is dishonest, and the implication is obvious: it is Jews who are the problem, rather than specific individuals. Low-level, casual anti-Semitism is still anti-Semitism.

I'll no longer be following the Liberal Democrat friends of Palestine - there are alternative places where someone who is pro-Palestine but not anti-Israel (and certainly not anti-Jewish) can discuss politics and religion sensibly. Anti-Semitism is a growing problem and against that backdrop this kind of thing is unhelpful to say the least. LDfP regrettably seem to prefer to reinforce anti-Semitic feelings rather than challenge them. 

Let's not pretend this is Labour's problem, as if that party has a monopoly on anti-Jewish rhetoric. If we're serious about consigning anti-Semitism to history, we should do more than point fingers at our political opponents. At the very least, we need to steer our conversations away from the focus on "Jews" and "Jewish people", call out lazy stereotyping and be very careful which voices we lend credibility to.

Update: LDfP have now removed that post. I thank them for acting quickly and trust in future they steer clear of sharing articles that promote negative stereotypes of specific groups of people.  

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Where were Jo, Vince and Tim last night?

Leader Vince Cable was absent from last night's votes.

This is a question social media is asking, after three Lib Dem MPs were absent on the Customs Bill votes. The government narrowly escaped defeat by three votes on amendments relating to EU tariffs and withdrawal from the EU VAT regime. 

The missing three Lib Dem MPs were deputy leader Jo Swinson, leader Vince Cable and former leader Tim Farron. Many who are pro-EU have expressed disappointment that some Lib Dems were not present for the vote - after all, if we are not the party of the EU then who is? I have seen some Lib Dems suggesting their membership hangs in the balance, as they feel let down - especially by the leader.

So, where were Jo, Vince and Tim?

The answer to the first should be obvious: Jo is on parental leave following the birth of her baby. That's a pretty good reason not to have been present for the vote. I am also sure that if there was a system that allowed for proxy voting in such circumstances then she would have voted with the other nine Lib Dem MPs. The criticisms directed towards Jo on social media are grossly unfair, to put it very mildly. I wouldn't have expected her to be present; neither should anyone else realistically have expected it.

As for Vince, we don't know where he was. Until we do I think it's fair to ask the question, but hold back on outright criticism. I am sure all will soon become apparent - once we know his reasons for being absent for last night's key votes, we might be in a better position to determine whether or not he "let us down". I accept it looks bad for a leader absenting himself - very bad - but let's not jump to conclusions. There are multiple possible explanations: I have not yet been able to ascertain whether pairing arrangements were in place for last night's vote, for example.

Which brings us to Tim. Unfortunately we have a better idea of Tim's whereabouts last night. While I'm awaiting confirmation he did actually attend the event, Tim was due to speak at a Christian event entitled "Illiberal Truths", at which he was scheduled to speak on "faith and shared values" and "the death of liberalism".

Further detailed information on the event on Insight's website has mysteriously disappeared overnight, but having read it yesterday I was under the impression that Tim would be discussing "what happens when my truth is not yours". 

I am not surprised by Tim's attendance at this - not in the slightest. I note some fellow Lib Dems feel "angry" and "shocked" at Tim's sense of priorities. I am neither - I might be irritated by Tim but I have long since resigned myself to the kind of person Tim is. He no longer makes me angry, which is perhaps a regrettable reality. However, I was disappointed and surprised that he accepted this engagement during parliamentary time in the final week of a sitting anyone knew would witness crucial Brexit-related votes, rather than - for example - in the summer recess. 

Should Tim have been representing his constituents in an important vote rather than speaking at a Christian event in Dorset? I know it can be difficult to excuse oneself from pre-agreed engagements, but on something so important it does seem odd that he didn't - not least because he will be aware that his reasons for not being present will raise the usual questions about his priorities. His actions, however unintentionally, have once again damaged the party's image and have given the likes of the London Economic the opportunity to run with the headline "May bailed out by 'party of the Remainers'". Unfortunately, mud sticks.

It should be added that while I'm annoyed at Tim and Vince not being around last night, and while I'm irked that our credentials as the pro-EU party of UK politics have been undermined, the official opposition had an opportunity to defeat the government last night and failed. The usual suspects (Hoey, Field, and Stringer) voted to support the government, but more tellingly 14 other Labour MPs abstained. Arithmetically at least, that proved far more crucial than three of our own being absent.

Update (17.7.18): A Lib Dem spokesperson has told The Guardian that "Vince had an important meeting off the parliamentary estate that had been approved by the whips and nobody thought these amendments would ever be so close." That makes some sense, but the inescapable reality is that they were close and when leaders and former leaders absent themselves on votes like these it inevitably affects our credibility as a pro-EU party. When one of those MPs is missing to trot out his now well-known views on supposed illiberal attitudes to faith at a Christian event, the best thing that can be said as that it doesn't look good.

Chief whip Alistair Carmichael has also issued this statement, accepting responsibility for the situation: "
Brexit is the most important issue in a generation. And as Liberal Democrats we have taken on the responsibility of stopping it. We’re the only Party united in this aim.

"Last night I messed up. The government squeaked home by just 3 votes in a key amendment. It should have been 1.

"I was not expecting a close vote - up until 8pm, Labour were planning to abstain which would have meant the vote would be lost by hundreds. In fact several Labour MPs voted with the govenment- which is why they won. By the time it became apparent that the vote was going to be close - it was too late to get two of our MPs back in time to vote.

"I’m taking responsibility and redoubling my efforts to stop Brexit."

It seems therefore that the whip's office messed up. We can ill afford further such complacency or miscalculations, and hopefully lessons will have been learned.

Monday, 16 July 2018

A few thoughts on the World Cup

So, that's the World Cup over and France are champions.

In a surprisingly good final, my pre-tournament prediction to win actually did - what was even more impressive is that this year's winners were unquestionably the best team over the last few weeks. That doesn't always happen.

I have no intention of undertaking an analysis of the various games or the tournament as a whole, but I would like to make a few observations (inevitably, some of these are from a political perspective).

1. England are a good team. Not a great team by any means, but they exit a tournament for the first time in 22 years with genuine reasons to be optimistic. They are managed by an obviously nice guy who understands how to manage both expectations and the media. Sure, England got lucky with the draw, but ultimately they can only play what's in front of them and while they were unconvincing in spells against Tunisia, Colombia and Croatia they looked to play football in the right way and were for the most part entertaining. Jordan Pickford in particular had an impressive tournament and he answered his doubters effectively, and not only in that penalty shoot-out against Colombia. Harry Maguire is another who confounded expectations and showed he has a bright future at international level.

2. Portugal are not a good team. They have a largely undeserved reputation as being a cohesive, attack-minded unit who play aggressive but attractive football, but they won Euro 2016 playing turgid football. They were lucky against Spain that David de Gea was in a mood for gifting silly goals and that Cristiano Ronaldo is the set-piece king, but otherwise they didn't look like the reigning European champions. They're not a team in any case - Portugal is Ronaldo and a supporting cast.

3. VAR adds to the drama, but isn't (yet) fit for purpose. There is no doubt that the VAR system added some interest to this World Cup. There can similarly be little doubt that it didn't actually do what it was supposed to. The delays I expected - the blatantly wrong calls I did not. Clearly VAR is a work in progress and I'm yet to be convinced it is an answer to the often cited problems of consistency and accuracy in refereeing decisions.

4. England fans needed someone to believe in. And that someone turned out to be Gareth Southgate. Who'd have thought it? From having almost zero expectations before the competition kicked off, England fans were singing "it's coming home" as soon as the stunningly poor Panamanians were thrashed 6-1. Southgate has become the most unlikely of role models. I suspect it won't last but it's curious that a man in a waistcoat who doesn't take himself too seriously - and has dared to be both realistic and deeply human in his approach - has for a time become England's national icon.

5. England might have performed well, but the BBC commentary team didn't. I liked watching England, I often hated listening to the commentators (and not just the BBC either, although they were the worst). It's not so much the bias that I object to but the dreadful delivery, banal comments, mispronunciation of names and (one at least one occasion) a lack of respect for England's opponents. It's a shame, because the BBC should have the personnel and the resources to do it so much better.

6. The "big names" failed, and deserved to. For all the Messi v Ronaldo hype, I hoped the World Cup would be won by the best team and not the team with the biggest "personality" (i.e. focus of obsessive media exposure). Messi missed a penalty against Iceland and never seemed to recover; his team, however, were far more disappointing and fully merited being routed by Croatia. Ronaldo looked like a talented player in a mediocre team, and there was always a sense that he felt himself to be above the team game. As for Neymar - why such a talented player needs to spend most of his time rolling around on the floor I have no idea.

When Argentina and Portugal exited at the same stage, an ITV reporter announced that "the two best players are leaving the World Cup". Best players? Isn't that rather subjective to be given as a statement of fact? And doesn't it betray the media approach to international football - an obsession with "big names" and individuals rather than collective effort? Do they even understand football?

7. Roberto Martinez is a genius! Put an ex-Motherwell player in charge of Belgium and great things happen! And he beat England twice in the space of 17 days. Seriously, while he wasn't able (in spite of making various changes) to get the better of France in the semi-final, he deserves praise for the way he changed things against Japan and the approach used in the Brazil game. To think that he was considered too tactically naïve to succeed at this level...

8. As a PR exercise for Putin's Russia, it failed. The Russian government hoped that the World Cup would help change the image and perception of their country internationally. However, Mo Salah's awkward photos with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the Pussy Riot pitch invasion in the final ensured that Russia's questionable human rights record came under even more scrutiny.

9. Maradona is a completely inappropriate "goodwill ambassador". There are no words to describe the embarrassment many of us feel at seeing this once great player reduced to abusing fans and making intemperate outbursts. That he's not only tolerated but given an official role by FIFA says a great deal about that organisation's difficulties in moving forwards. On which note...

10. FIFA continues to have all the wrong priorities. FIFA was happy to hand out fines for various things, and did so in a way that underlines its priorities. "Wearing the wrong socks, England? Right, that's a £60,000 fine. And you, Croatia! Yes, we saw you consuming non-sponsor drinks...we have these cameras, see? That's £60,000 from you as well. Now, see that neo-Nazi banner? That's not very nice is it really? We're going to have to fine you £8.500,, please don't do it again. We know you meant no harm but some people don't really like that kind of thing. Homophobic chanting from Mexico fans? Not good is it, but it's not as if it's know, wearing the wrong socks or drinking the wrong drinks. Here, a slap on the wrist for you..."

11. As England fans surely realise now, it's not all about the winning. For Panama it was scoring their first goal at the World Cup. For Senegal fans, it was having a party and cleaning up the mess afterwards. For Saudi Arabia, it was an opportunity for Prince Mohammed bin Salman to meet with Vladimir Putin.

12. The new fair play rules don't work. When teams are tied on points and goals, the number of yellow/red cards is now taken into consideration. In group H, with Senegal and Japan both level on points and goals and both losing in their 1-0 in their respective games, Japan deliberately played out a tedious final 20 minutes with Poland (who seemed equally uninterested in scoring again). Japan's anti-football tactics were widely booed, but the fact they'd received two fewer yellow cards than Senegal sent them through. My issue isn't that Japan played to the rules - I wouldn't expect them to have done anything else - but that the rules themselves encourage the very antithesis of pair play.

13. What a World Cup Final! It wasn't quite in the same league as the 1970 final, but it was refreshing to have a truly entertaining and at times surprisingly open match - especially after some recent finals (I'm thinking of the last two particularly). It was to my mind the best final since 1986, and both teams deserve huge credit for their approach to the game (even if the refereeing was somewhat suspect).

14. And finally, the surprise highlight of the world cup...Tim Farron's tweets! A mixture of patriotic support, personal hopes and disappointments, humorous interactions with fans, football history, geeky explanations of obscure World Cup facts...Tim's commentary had everything. Well done, Tim - you made the World Cup that bit more entertaining!

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Ministerial career ends before it begins over "offensive" blogpost

Image result for gillian martin
Gillian Martin's appointment as junior education minister
was opposed by opposition parties (Photo: BBC)

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced that she will not be putting forward Gillian Martin for a ministerial role today, after it became apparent that the Scottish Government would lose the vote to confirm her in office.

Scottish Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the Conservatives were set to oppose her confirmation as the new junior minister for education on the basis that a 2007 blogpost - in which Ms Martin made offensive remarks about transgender people, disabled people and Africans - showed that she was unfit for ministerial office.

Ms Martin's blog has been deleted for some time but two years ago, when Ms Martin stood for election, the Scottish Daily Mail unearthed the contents. 

Within the blogpost, Ms Martin - then a lecturer at North East Scotland College - attacked "political correctness" and "social inclusion", and mocked transgender students: "are we going to see lovely photos in the foyer of hairy knuckled lipstick- wearing transitional transgender Laydees being embraced by the principal of undisclosed college or visiting politicians for the press? See, I told you I was going to get the sack. (Or is that what the gender reassignment surgeon gets when they do the operation?)" Ms Martin also criticised her college for using disabled people in photo opportunities, saying: "(They) froth at the mouth with excitement if anyone in a wheelchair does anything that can be remotely described as an achievement." It was the kind of piece you'd imagine Toby Young would write, only less articulate.

The Aberdeenshire East MSP yesterday apologised for the blogpost. She issued a statement in which she said: "In 2007 I wrote a blog that I deeply regret. It used language that was inappropriate and offensive. I expressed myself in a way that did not reflect my view then and certain does not reflect my view now. That is entirely my fault and I am sorry for it. That’s why, when this blog was last raised publicly two years ago, I apologised and I am more than happy to unreservedly apologise again today.”

Is she sorry? I hope so. And I'm inclined to think that, in 11 years, people can change their minds. There are people in the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Green Party who over a decade ago might have held less progressive views than they do now. Certainly, on the specific issue of transgender inclusion, much progress has been made in that time in changing attitudes. We need to be fair-minded if we're going to criticise people for what they may or may not have believed 11 years ago.

However, I think the opposition parties have been absolutely correct to take the action they did. In years gone by it would have been left to LGBT organisations and charities to challenge this kind of transphobia - now it is political parties who immediately take up the issue. That in itself is a positive development. 

I personally find the apology unconvincing. I believe that people can and do change their minds, but if you're going to apologise for something you wrote several years ago then at least explain why you actually wrote it in the first instance. This perhaps concerns me most - a standard "I'm sorry" doesn't right the wrong in this case. What is a lecturer doing publicly mocking students?  How is it acceptable that she ridiculed her employers and their efforts on diversity and inclusion? I accept that this happened before Ms Martin entered politics, but she still held a position of responsibility. That no reason, or even excuse, has been provided for her rantings makes it difficult for me to feel that Ms Martin is able to take responsibility for her actions.

Whether Ms Martin is fit to be a minister depends on what her reasons were for writing that post. So far, she has decided to keep those reasons to herself. Personally, I have more time for people like Nicky Morgan, who have publicly changed their views on e.g. same-sex marriage and who honestly acknowledge why they once thought the way they did and what caused them to see things differently.

Ms Martin's blogpost is not an example of an individual simply having an online rant of a political nature, as many bloggers do from time to time. No. It was the work of someone who had a position of trust, and for whatever reason decided to publicly ridicule her place of work and many of the students who studied there. It's the equivalent of a staff nurse writing a blogpost about why their job would be much easier if it wasn't for all these patients with their pathetic health problems, the Asian doctors and the politically correct management with their diversity agenda.

I don't know what Gillian Martin's views on transgender people are. However, I do know that someone in their previous employment as a lecturer saw fit to abuse their position and publicly demean students in terms that could easily be construed as transphobic, racist and ableist. This wasn't a few silly comments but a lengthy tirade of offensiveness. For me there are many questions that need to be answered about the blogpost - none of which are really dealt with by the apology. 

So I do feel the opposition parties were right to oppose the appointment. I agree with them that it would have been a highly inappropriate appointment, especially as the ministerial office in question was in the field of education.

Only yesterday, a Scottish government spokesperson defended the appointment, saying: 
“These posts, which have already aired publicly, stem from more than a decade ago, at which point Gillian wasn’t even an SNP member, and long before she was elected. Gillian is totally committed to helping drive forward opportunity for all across our further and higher education sector. That is what she will be focusing on, not some out-of-context entries from a ten-year-old blog.”

Such a dismissive statement fails to appreciate that conduct outside of political activity can have a bearing on suitability for public life; it also, when referring to "out of context [blog] entries", fails to explain that context - one of a college lecturer belittling students on the basis of disability, race and gender identity. That the government saw fit to make that statement leads me to question its judgement.

Given that Ms Sturgeon would have been aware of the contents of the blogpost, I can only wonder why she thought the appointment would be acceptable to parliament. Christine Jardine, now the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West, certainly raised concerns about Ms Martin's suitability for political office during the 2016 election. I can only surmise that the Scottish government underestimated the degree to which such unprofessional behaviour - and especially the apparently transphobic comments - would be condemned by opposition parties.

It is a welcome thing that transphobia is being openly challenged, and even more so that support for trans inclusion is now seen as a litmus test for suitability to ministerial office. Normally I'd be inclined to accept people's views had changed, but nothing in that apology or the Scottish government's defensive statement confirms that Ms Martin supports trans rights. Those who tell us not to judge decade-old comments on the basis that views do change should at least provide evidence that those views have indeed changed.

One final point - while the media have focused on Ms Martin's comments on transgender people, why have they not given the same significance to comments within the same blog on race and disability? The truly shocking thing about Ms Martin's blogpost was the way in which it insulted so many minority groups...

Thursday, 10 May 2018

I wish we could stop talking about Tim Farron...

...but we can't

Oh, no.

Because Tim Farron just can't stop talking.

He can't help himself. Remember the party leader who told us he "doesn't pontificate on religious matters"? It was never true; as I pointed out many times, he actually has quite a record on making religious statements. But many did believe him, and told people like me we were illiberal and anti-Christian (yes, apparently even as a United Reformed Church elder you can be anti-Christian) for judging him according to his private views.

You see, that's the real problem - Tim isn't, and never has been, private. And that's why we have to talk.

Tim's latest intervention involves him addressing a Christian Men's Convention. That there is a need for a "men's convention" is questionable enough, but there are a number of Evangelical-Pentecostal churches who do this kind of thing. They're usually the kind of churches who see God's ordained role for men under threat from secular liberals, and feel the need to equip males to be "kings and princes" as the Divine Himself intended. I know, I've been to enough of them in the deep and darkest past.

Let's be honest - the kinds of churches who run events named Men Standing Alone are hardly likely to be particularly inclusive.

It's not the convention I object to as such. But, if you dig a little deeper - or simply turn over the flyer - you'll see what its expressed purpose is and that is more concerning.

Men Standing Alone is necessary (it argues) because of "assaults on orthodox Christian teaching, and morality, especially in the area of sexuality". Hmmm.

Then comes a more astonishing claim: "Those who have stood firm in the Anglican tradition at General Synod have been ridiculed and vilified. The leadership of those in authority in denominations who should be the guardians of Biblical truth have been muted to say the least." Where do you begin with this attack on fellow Christian believers? There is not a singular "tradition" in any denomination, let alone Anglican. Equating "Biblical truth" with an anti-LGBT stance is also both theologically illiterate and insulting towards progressive Christians. Make no mistake, these are simply fundamentalists for whom the promotion of heterosexuality as the God-created "norm" takes on super-significance.

Please note - this isn't the fine print. This is the real deal. This is what this convention is about - its main purpose. This is the opening paragraph on the back page of a "welcoming" flyer.

The persecution complex is clear for all to see, so perhaps it is little wonder that Tim Farron feels at home with them. But let's read on...

"Even in Bible teaching churches many appear to be wavering under the onslaught of the gay lobby." This assertion is so facile that further explanation hardly seems necessary. But it clears the picture up. What is this convention about? Empowering men to stand firm against the gay lobby, not to mention all those nasty churches who don't believe the Bible.  You couldn't make this stuff up.

So the main emphasis is on anti-equality. That's clear. But, sadly, there is more. Here are some Christians who aren't afraid to get political: "Add this scenario [i.e. "true believers" being persecuted by the gay lobby] to the increasing problems associated with immigration and Islam in particular...there is for many a feeling of despair." I jest you not. The leaflet could easily have been written by Nigel Farage. Christians are feeling marginalised...and why? It's all the fault of those nasty immigrants, especially the evil Muslims. There are no words to express the disgust I feel, as a Christian, for this horrifying and deeply illiberal perspective on immigration.

That some Christians hold such views is hardly surprising. What should I do as a liberal, and especially as a liberal Christian? Argue against it, surely. But I'd also be careful not to affirm such regressive, intolerant and to my mind deeply un-Christian views by doing something like, say, going to speak at their conferences.

Which brings me to this man - there are only two speakers and he is one of them:

(That's one heck of a long session, too...)

So, why on earth would Tim Farron want to be associated with this?

The only answer I can think of is that these are the people he feels comfortable around. He's not naïve. He knows perfectly well what they stand for. Having been to Tim's church in Kendal, I would suggest this isn't a million miles away from where they are theologically. I imagine he now doesn't care what his fellow Liberal Democrats think; in his mind anyone who criticises how he expresses his faith are taking aim at "Bible-believing" Christianity generally. His resignation speech confirmed this sense of persecution, and also a belief that his version of Christianity was somehow more true, more authentic and more radical than everyone else's. Yes, this is who Tim is.

Part of me doesn't want to talk about it, and would like to leave Tim to do as he feels God has called him. The problem, of course, is that he remains not only a Liberal Democrat MP but a frontbench spokesperson on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is clearly inappropriate (to put it mildly) for a frontbench representative of any progressive party to attend this kind of event.

My concerns surrounding Tim have always related to how he expresses his faith, rather than the substance of that faith. Whatever he says on Saturday at Men Standing Alone, the fact that he is there at all affirms the kind of rhetoric on this flyer and that in itself is a problem.

So yes, we need to talk. The Conservatives have a problem with feminism, Labour has a problem with anti-Semitism, and we have a problem with Tim Farron. It is within our power to remedy the latter.

Thanks to Mark Hewardine for bringing this to people's attention on twitter!

Update, 10.5.18

This afternoon, Tim Farron tweeted this:

Which confirms that either Tim is very, very, naïve - ridiculously naïve to the point that a former party leader doesn't actually check out the nature of an organisation and who is behind it before agreeing to speak at their conventions - or else he is lying.

In regards the organisation in question, it is obvious from the Northern Men's Conventions website that this is a group of fundamentalist conservative evangelicals. I imagine Tim would have been very much aware of this.
Given Tim actually attends a conservative evangelical church, I do not think this would have been of huge concern to him.  I also believe he would have been aware of the content of previous conventions, in which star speakers included Rev David Robertson (of that famous bastion of Liberalism, the Free Church of Scotland).

If he has just been made aware today, then he is also naïve. The organisation's facebook page issued a statement about the convention, of which the flyer is almost a word-for-word copy with a few additional elements, in September 2017. It most definitely makes clear the convention aims to challenge the supposed assaults on "orthodox" teaching surrounding sexuality (a clear reference to LGBT issues):

Is Tim really so naïve and inept that he can't to the most rudimentary of background checks?

I note the other speaker at the event is Rupert Bentley-Taylor. I know who he is - he's the nearest thing Evangelicals have to royalty - so I'd be surprised if Tim didn't. But we'll give Tim the benefit of the doubt. That said, why wouldn't Tim do basic checks and discover that Mr Bentley-Taylor is a director of the right-wing and deeply homophobic Christian Institute?

Is this really who he wants to be associated with? I know Tim to be a thorough and highly organised person. I for one cannot believe he is quite so careless. He should know better.

If an MP from any other party had behaved like this, we would rightly be pillorying them.