Saturday, 31 December 2011

My predictions for 2012

So, that was the year that was. It started off moderately well for the Liberal Democrats with a reasonable outcome in the Oldham & Saddleworth by-election, with Tim Farron telling us all that the result showed how unwise it was to write off the Liberal Democrats as a spent electoral force. Unfortunately that was followed by some disastrous by-elections in Barnsley and Inverclyde and a collapse of stunning proportions in the Holyrood elections. And things haven't got a great deal better since, although there have been some indications of the party's willingness to assert itself in coalition on such issues as the NHS, green energy, the proposed tax break for married people and Europe.

It's tough in coalition, as Nick Clegg's grittily realistic New Year message attests. No-one ever suggested it would be anything other, but it's clearly a lot harder for the minor partner than it is for the larger. Here in Scotland, we've taken a particular battering on a greater scale than I imagined when I wrote (in May 2010) that: "from a purely Scottish perspective, identifying ourselves with a Conservative Party which has virtually no electoral base and remains widely mistrusted could prove to be an electoral liability. The old questions of the Tories’ electoral legitimacy in Scotland and the perceived 'democratic deficit' may re-emerge with potential to damage the Scottish Liberal Democrats." I think at the time there were many who disagreed with such an assessment of our electoral prospects; there aren't too many who'd take issue with it now.

I tried my hand at making a few other predictions last year, some of which were less accurate than that above. As it's that time of year again, I've dug out the crystal ball to have another go at foretelling how the year is going to pan out:


The Liberal Democrats

* The local elections will see significant Lib Dem losses, although it is the Tories and the SNP who are best placed to capitalise. Nick Clegg will remain defiant and insist that if only we keep on telling voters how much we're doing in government, they'll eventually reward us.

* Tim Farron's star will continue to rise and he will increasingly be seen as the voice of the grassroots and the party's conscience. Tim will always have a word for anyone, especially representatives of the media who won't believe any of his denials that he's grooming himself to be Nick Clegg's eventual successor.

* Ed Davey will become more visible and will develop his reputation as being a sensible although radical thinker in the heart of government.

* 2012 will see a growth in the influence of the Social Liberal Forum and Evan Harris in particular. Despite accusations of being "a party within a party", the SLF will continue to articulate the kind of centre-left policies many members continue to identify closely with, much to the private disgust of Nick Clegg.

* Here in Scotland, Willie Rennie will become more positive in his approach and less adversarial towards the SNP. Like most Scottish Lib Dems though, he will continue to suffer from Tourette's Syndrome whenever the word "independence" is whispered. The public - or at least the handful who religiously watch FMQs on the Parliament channel - will gradually begin to warm to his performances in Holyrood, which will provide relief from the tribal battle between the SNP and Labour front benches. He will gain credibility from focusing his energies on education, the youth contract and tackling unemployment - and from people finally realising that he has a sense of humour. This won't stop much of the media from continuing to perceive him as something of an irrelevance.

* Rennie will dismiss poor results in the local elections as merely the inevitable effect of the Westminster coalition. Nick Clegg will remain unrepentant, reminding us all that if only we keep on telling voters how much we're doing for Scotland in government, they'll eventually reward us.

The Conservative Party

* Right-wing Conservatives will sense they have their leader on the back foot after the recent European debacle. They will up the pressure on Cameron to continue to pander to their less than progressive whims and unreasonable designs, with limited success. Expect Cameron to reinforce his own party's identity in coalition and Tory MPs to berate the role of Liberal Democrats as a negative force.

* George Osborne will be forced on the defensive over the government's austerity programme but will refuse to consider alternative plans, even in the face of evidence to suggest they might actually work more effectively.

* The Tory vote will hold up well in local elections, which will mistakenly be interpreted as approval of the government's policy direction.

* Ruth Davidson will struggle to adapt to her new role as Scottish Tory leader, but will have an enormous impact on the continuing independence debate.

The Labour Party

* Labour will continue to struggle, with Ed Miliband in particular demonstrating an inability to come to terms with opposition.

* Ed Balls will prove effective at probing the limitations of George Osborne's fiscal plans, but will struggle to champion any cogent ideas of his own.

* Chuka Umunna will demonstrate his enormous value to the Labour Party in a string of skirmishes with Vince Cable in which his leadership potential will become obvious to everyone, including the fearful Ed Miliband. Cue plenty of unsettling talk about replacing the current leader.

* Johann Lamont will start slowly but will emerge as a capable debater (especially in FMQs) and will advocate a stronger emphasis on equality, both of which will set her apart from her predecessor.

The Scottish National Party

* Even Willie Rennie admits that Alex Salmond has had a fantastic year. So good in fact, that things can't really get any better. And they won't. But as the most respected politician in Scotland by some distance and arguably the most able communicator in Holyrood, Salmond will continue to enjoy high public approval ratings and his party will make gains in the local elections, at the expense of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

* Other SNP ministers, most notably Sturgeon, Russell and Ewing will have a successful year. Swinney will find the going tougher but his Budget, which will include welcome action to tackle unemployment and increase investment in green energy, will be supported by the Greens and Liberal Democrats. And cynically opposed by Labour, in spite of them being in agreement with 90% of it.

* Support will not necessarily rise for independence, but as support for the SNP itself shows no sign of waning, confidence in the party's ranks that it will win a referendum appear more than justified. Opposition parties sense the danger and intervene with misguided attacks on the SNP leadership, thus boosting the prospect of a "Yes" vote.

* The SNP will show leadership on equality and will decide in favour of introducing equal marriage. This move will be supported by all parties in Holyrood other than the Tories who, despite having an openly gay leader, still aren't overly comfortable with LGBT rights and retain a telling silence on the matter. Equal marriage will be generally welcomed, although a few senior Roman Catholic clergy, the Wee Frees, the Christian Institute, Willie Rennie's interns, MSPs John Mason and Bill Wilson - and, of course, Dame Brian Souter - will form an unlikely coalition and ensure that for several weeks after the announcement the Scottish press is pre-occupied with reporting the backward-looking attitudes of a self-appointed "moral majority", embarrassing Scotland in the process. The media will rub their hands with glee in anticipation of a breakaway Church of Scottish Homophobes, which never comes into being.

* As the SNP would like, the political debate in Scotland becomes increasingly constricted around the question of independence. Unfortunately for the SNP, this also coincides with a public appetite for a referendum to determine Scotland's future in the EU, which the party are less happy to offer.


* The "Arab Spring" proves to be optimistically named. Democracy in Egypt returns a government not overly friendly towards democratic principles and determined to impose its opposition to western "carnality". It will outlaw alcohol, bikinis and generally having fun, thus in an instant destroying the Egyptian tourist industry and ruining the economy. Economic pressures lead to expressions of discontent, which meet the predictably heavy-handed response. Meanwhile in Syria, President Assad finally succumbs to international and internal pressure and quits, only to be replaced by a "transitional government" made up of Ba'ath Party allies and the military.

* The Euro will survive - for the time being. Bulgaria will join the Euro later in the year and at a vastly inflated rate which will eventually prove to be its undoing. The technocratic governments of Greece and Italy do what they were designed to do in the short term but have no long-term answer to dealing with Europe's debt problem. Bizarrely, the East African nations of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi rate the Euro so highly want to replicate its "success" and will launch a new single currency for the East African Community mid-way through the year.

* France will elect Francois Hollande to replace Nicolas Sarkozy as President.

* North Korean premier Kim Jong-un will prove himself a worthy successor to his father and grandfather and will behave in an similarly erratic and irresponsible manner, only more so. Anxious to make a name for himself on the international stage, Kim is keen to play up his nuclear capability and makes thinly veiled threats towards his Southern neighbours.

* The US Presidential will be the closest run and the toughest to call since Truman defeated Dewey. The Republicans select Mitt Romney from an admittedly limited pool of talent, who proves himself to be a safer pair of hands than some feared. Whatever the outcome, the rest of the world breathes a collective sigh of relief that Sarah Palin didn't run.


* St Mirren will finish a barely believable and thoroughly creditable 7th in the SPL, with Morton putting together a good run at the end of the season to finish 4th in Division 1. Celtic will win the SPL, as well as the League Cup beating Kilmarnock in the final. My own Albion Rovers will miss out on the play-offs. In England, Manchester United will have the experience that matters at the business end of the season giving them a record-breaking 20th title; Alex Ferguson still won't retire.

* Euro 2012 proves a disappointment, although Scottish fans will enjoy watching England losing to Italy in the second round. Russia will lose to Germany in the final, after which they complain about the facilities, the refereeing and Ukrainian nationalism.


* The Olympics will be a huge success for the GB team. They will do well in athletics, rowing, sailing, swimming and diving. They will do less well in the beach volleyball, but it will be fun watching them try.

* Unfortunately, the games will bring a lesser economic benefit to the country than the public were led to believe. Lacking the kind of foresight possessed by that of the organisers of the games in Barcelona or Sydney, the GB Olympics' lasting legacy is a couple of London football clubs arguing about who uses the stadium.

* However, the most lasting memory will be mayor Boris Johnson fumbling through a typically disjointed speech at the closing ceremony during which he slips on the wet grass while demonstrating the British origins of synchronised swimming, suffering a fracture to his collarbone and having to be carried off to an ambulance, which doesn't arrive for 30 minutes as it's stuck in traffic around the Elephant & Castle.

In lighter vein...

* A number of political scandals will rock Westminster, including a Tory MP having a string of affairs, a Labour frontbencher hailing the Thatcher legacy and a Lib Dem admitting that he's not gay.

* The Liberal Democrats' electoral fortunes will pick up slightly, with a creditable third place in a by-election in which they come ahead of the BNP, UKIP, the Monster Raving Loony Party and the National Liberal Party which, ironically enough, is campaigning against what it perceives as a merger of the Tories and Lib Dems. The Monster Raving Loony candidate will save his deposit, campaigning with the slogan "The only Tory of any use is a lava-tory".

* Theresa May will propose constructing an electric fence around Britain's coastline to keep out both immigrants and any pet cats they bring along with them.

* Jo Swinson's Real Women campaign will be so effective in championing body confidence and challenging stereotypical perceptions of beauty that the "in" thing for fashionable models to do will be to pile on the pounds. Katie Price gets in on the act, opting for a breast reduction to reveal the extent of her "new tummy". Such is the change of culture, a size-12 Glaswegian teenager will win X-factor and will court controversy posing nude for the cover of Playboy as she's considered "too thin" to be a model.

* I will get round to having the washing machine repaired. Eventually.

Friday, 30 December 2011

My top ten posts of 2011

My most popular (or at least most viewed) posts of the last year:

1. Is this the stupidest cartoon in Scottish political history? I question the wisdom of the Liberal Democrats publishing a cartoon playing up "similarities" between Qatar and Alex Salmond's vision for an independent Scotland.

2. The psychology of a deluded dictator. I ponder the Libyan leader's fragile psychology after his hour long murderous rant on international TV.

3. Theresa May sets the cat among the pigeons. The Home Secretary makes an unwise and misleading reference to an illegal immigrant being allowed to remian in Britain on the basis of pet ownership. Fortunately myself and several other bloggers are on hand to point out how infantile her comments are.

4. Scottish Lib Dem leaders "links" to fundamentalist Christian group. The Sunday Herald reveals Willie Rennie receives interns from CARE, a far-right "Christian" group that opposes equal marriage and campaigns against abortion. I am, naturally, more than a little irked.

5. Which way forward for the Scottish Lib Dems? I ask the question after a disastrous election for the party.

6. Rennie is new leader of Scottish Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems have a new leader. And he's a former coal-carrying champion, no less.

7. Disaster in Inverclyde: what next for the Scottish Lib Dems? We suffer a humiliating defeat in my home constituency. I am so angry that I resort to bold type to get my points across.

8. Brian Souter receives a knighthood - an insult too far. I, like many other Scots, couldn't quite understand why this peddler of homophobic prejudice was rewarded for his "charitable" work.

9. Dear Nick, The cause of Scottish Liberalism has been set back 50 years. I write to Nick Clegg about my fears for the party's future following the crushing electoral defeat in May. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't reply or even acknowledge my concerns.

10. Democracy v Populism. I look at the use of referenda, taking some lessons from the Icelandic experience.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

In which I am mentioned in First Minister's Questions...

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I've taken a bit of a break from blogging, largely due to increased workload and family commitments in the run-up to the festive period.

In fact, so detached have I been from political developments that I was was completely oblivious to the fact that I was mentioned by Alex Salmond during FMQs on 22nd December. That is simply typical - I watch FMQs all year religiously and then miss the only one in which I am personally mentioned.

Fortunately my MSP Derek Mackay alerted me to this rather unexpected reality and I have spent the last few minutes watching last week's FMQs. Unfortunately it is not terribly interesting or even particularly entertaining, but the official report quotes the engagement between Willie Rennie and Alex Salmond as this:

Willie Rennie: The First Minister must be judged by his actions. I accept that he says that he will support the youth contract, but will he actively promote it? The answer to my question is simple. The youth contract can benefit 160,000 young people. The suspicion is that the Scottish Government is soft pedalling the policy because it was not its idea. By engaging with and promoting the policy, the Scottish Government can do something positive for young people. It also still has in its pocket £67 million from the UK Government. The First Minister can use that to reverse the cuts to colleges. He should take the steps that he can, rather than whingeing about the ones that he cannot.

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): Can we have a question, Mr Rennie?

Willie Rennie: The First Minister has had a great year.

Members: Yes!

The Presiding Officer: Order. Settle down.

Willie Rennie: Will the First Minister finish off the year with some good news for other people? Will he embrace the youth contract and save colleges?

The First Minister: In terms of the youth contract, yes, yes and yes again. In terms of colleges, Willie Rennie will have seen the wide welcome for the initiative and transformation fund in the college sector two weeks ago.
I confess that I have been a follower of Liberal Democrat tweeting—not just of Willie Rennie but of Andrew Page, the former Liberal candidate for Renfrewshire North and West. In looking at Willie Rennie‟s attacks at First Minister‟s questions, Andrew Page said: “Rennie‟s attacks on the SNP leadership have been weak and played directly into Salmond‟s hands while making our party appear small-minded, tribal and idiotic ... it is no surprise the public aren‟t attracted to our broader message.” In the interests of the Christmas spirit, I will disassociate myself from that Liberal candidate‟s criticism.

Willie Rennie: In the interests of the Christmas spirit, I think the First Minister should focus on the needs of the unemployed, rather than making cheap remarks about other politicians.

The First Minister: They were not my remarks; they were the remarks of a Liberal candidate.

The quote came from my blog, not from my tweets, and were in particular reference to criticism I directed towards the publication of a cartoon, which I considered offensive and symptomatic of a misguided and negative approach to campaigning within our party. It is true that I have also been critical of what I consider an unnecessarily adversarial approach towards the SNP but the quote was certainly not an assessment of Willie Rennie's personal performances at FMQs, although I don't blame Alex Salmond for using the quote in that way - the article was in the public domain; I expect it to be used (and misused). But I think it's right to put the record straight - my desire is simply for the Scottish Lib Dem leadership to expend more energies on articulating a strong, liberal message that resonates with the public than in opposing independence and attempting to score points over the SNP's more than capable front bench team. The latter is not a good tactic in any case as more often than not such attempts fail spectacularly.

What did concern me however was the First Minister's determination to use this quote for party-political interests, even when it clearly had very little to do with the pertinent question Willie Rennie had asked in relation to the youth contract.

Still, it's nice to know that the First Minister reads my tweets.

Willie Rennie's response was absolutely correct; refusing to be drawn into any kind of action which could have been construed as, well, "small-minded and tribal" he instead focused on the needs of unemployed people and highlighted the First Minister's responsiblities to tackling joblessness while refusing to be distracted from making progress on the youth contract. In taking this approach he showed the kind of positivity I hope he can demonstrate more frequently in future.

You might wish to watch FMQs on iPlayer: Alex Salmond refers to me at around the 26:00 mark. Watch out for former leader Tavish Scott's excessively outrageous response to the mere mention of my name (before the quote from my blog was read out) - it is really rather disturbing that someone of my limited influence should have this kind of impact on such an experienced politician.

Monday, 21 November 2011

More equal marriage consultation responses are needed!

From Tim Hopkins, Equality Network


More equal marriage consultation responses are needed!

Your help is needed now more than ever…

We know that the majority of Scots support same sex marriage, but we are in danger of losing the Scottish Government’s consultation response count because of very well resourced campaigns by the Catholic Church and Christian Institute (see below).

It is vital that we encourage everyone we know who supports equality to submit a consultation response to the Government, using this form:

If you have not yet submitted your own response, please do that, and please forward this call for action to everyone you know who supports equality!


14,000 people in Scotland have filled out the Catholic Church’s postcards objecting to same sex marriage. The Church is now contacting those people to encourage each of them to submit a personal response against same sex marriage, to the Scottish Government’s consultation:

The Christian Institute runs big organised lobbying campaigns against every LGBT equality measure. They have just set up an online response system for the Scottish Government’s consultation. They are encouraging their members to use it to submit consultation responses opposing equality:


Please take action now to ensure that the Scottish Government continues with its proposals to introduce marriage equality, using this form:

Thank you!

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Basil D'Oliveira CBE dies aged 80

To those of you who have little appreciation of the sport of cricket, and I know there are many such people in Scotland, the name Basil D'Oliveira may not mean much to you.

But it should. Because not only was this enormously talented man a world-class cricketer who in all likelihood would have achieved even more if his skin had been white, in 1968 the "D'Oliveira Affair" not only highlighted the injustices of apartheid but it threatened to challenge them head on. D'Oliveira, a black South African who had just scored 158 against Australia at The Oval, was dropped by his adopted country - England - from the forthcoming tour of South Africa in order to appease the Vorster government. A truly international controversy ensued in which the English cricketing authorities emerged with little credit intact as they insisted that the decision was made for "purely cricketing reasons", while D'Oliveira himself always retained his dignity and sense of reasoned perspective.

What D'Oliveira had inadvertently done by single-handedly defeating the Australians was to set off a chain of events that would ultimately lead to South Africa being boycotted from international sporting competition until the early 1990s. The Olympic team had been barred from participating in Tokyo four years previously, but it was the overtly racist treatment of an international cricketer hoping to ply his trade in the country of his birth that resulted in the popular call for longer-term actions from the sporting world. No-one seriously believed the "Dolly simply isn't good enough" quote attributed to one English selector and an enormous public outcry resulted. Following the withdrawal of Tom Cartwright from the England squad, the selectors had little option but to include the hero of The Oval.

Vorster responded with a string of barbed and racist comments, insisting that following D'Oliveira's selection the team now represented "the anti-apartheid movement" and that it would "not be welcome" in South Africa. The political controversy it sparked in South Africa was predictable, but it also inspired liberals in Britain to crank up calls for action to end apartheid.

Young liberals - including Peter Hain who initially believed D'Oliveira to have been misguided even to consider playing against a white South African team - were spurred into action by events and provided leadership in popular anti-apartheid campaigns. There is little doubt that the call for direct action against the Vorster government unsettled Jeremy Thorpe and the political establishment as a whole. Certainly the Liberal Party leadership was tolerant of the "Red Guards" - in all probability because it recognised that their call had incredible popular appeal and because, while suspicious about the remedy, the party recognised the need to advocate tackling the shameful shadow apartheid continued to cast on the world. Thorpe had, after all, been an active champion for human rights within the Anti-Apartheid Movement. The party's consistent line in condemning apartheid may have had some effect on the Liberal vote in the February 1974 election.

D'Oliveira, always opposed in principle to apartheid, was not particularly politically motivated - preferring to let his sporting talent talk for him. But liberalism and the anti-apartheid movement owes him a great deal: without his unwitting but telling contribution the South African team may well have continued to play an active role within the international sporting community and the events and political victories that led to the dismantling of apartheid might have taken longer to achieve.

It is easy to read Basil D'Oliveira's story as a tragic one; one of unfulfilled potential, a victim of prejudice and exclusion. It is certainly true that in a different time he would have won more than 44 England caps. But it is also true that his success in England created major headaches for the South African government and increased support for the anti-apartheid cause. His refusal to allow racist attitudes to hold him back and his determination to simply play at the highest levels caused the barriers and obstacles he had experienced to be broken down so completely that in today's South Africa the aspirations of young blacks to play professional sport in their own country are no longer unattainable.

D'Oliveira was, of course, the victim of injustice. But he was so much more than that: he was, in the bigger scheme of things, a victor - and the only person to emerge with credibility from the 1968 selection debacle. He continued playing professional cricket until he was 48 and since retiring has been an inspiration for many South Africans. The tolerance and belief in equality that embodied his outlook on both cricket and the world continues to provide an example to the rest of us - especially at a time when FIFA presidents are making ill-considered statements on the subject of racism in sport.

What happened in 1968 deprived D'Oliveira of achieving his dream of playing cricket in South Africa. But he lived to see another dream fulfilled; that of a South Africa liberated from the oppressive philosophy of apartheid. I'm sure he'd be the first to agree that if the former in any contributed to the achievement of the latter it was a price worth paying.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Government for the people - or the Euro?

The economic crisis affecting the Eurozone has now seen off the governments of Burlusconi and Papandreou - evidence, if any were necessary, that every cloud has a silver lining.

I shed no tears for either, but what does concern me is how the economic and political needs of the moment appear to have sidelined democratic values in favour of "stability". In both Greece and Italy incumbent leaders have been replaced with unelected economists as fears of pending financial collapse have led to faith being put in the apparent expertise of Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos, rather than in the electorate, in order to appease the markets - and to save the Euro.

So far, the move seems to have offered the markets some reassurance. It is, of course, vital that such reassurance is given if the Eurozone is to survive the current crisis. However, the notion that only political authoritarianism can provide economic stability is facile and the assertion that democracy somehow acts as an impediment to economic growth both insulting and seriously mistaken.

It could also be pointed out that, if the recession has proved anything, it is that the "wisdom" of the markets is questionable. They do not always know what is best and, although the influence of market confidence should not be underestimated, the democratic structures and practices of the EU and its member states should not be dictated in this way. International markets, after all, are by nature reactionary rather than progressive and have greater ability to undermine the Euro's future than any one of the governments of the 17 countries making up the Eurozone; the economic situation actually requires more democracy and greater imagination regarding potential solutions, not a stronger hand from proponents of the status quo.

Greece's new Prime Minister, Papademos, is seen as something of a potential saviour on account of his experience as Vice-President of the European Central Bank and as a former governor of the Bank of Greece who championed Greece's transition to the Euro. I am far from an economic expert but I would struggle to put my faith in a man who has consistently promoted the single currency in spite of the evidence that having 17 different economies being forced into mechanism with a single interest rate would prove hugely damaging in the long term for nations such as Greece. But then, his appointment owes very little to the particular concerns of Greeks and everything to the needs of his pet project - the ailing Euro.

Italy's new Prime Minister is Mario Monti, already being applauded as "Super Mario". Here is another Europhile economist whose love of the Euro defies economic logic. A former European Commissioner, he appears to have had a more interesting career than his Greek counterpart, having been involved in bringing anti-monopoly charges against Bill Gates' Microsoft and an influential voice calling for facilitating further European integration. Monti's experiences and achievements suggest he is more suited to politics than Papademos, but once the initial relief that has greeted their respective appointments eases off, there will inevitably be concerns about the lack of democratic legitimacy.

The fact that Monti was only appointed a lifetime senator on Wednesday with the express purpose of replacing Berlusconi speaks volumes about Italy's commitment to democratic values. However serious the economic situation becomes, I can not foresee any circumstances in which Mervyn King would be given a life peerage in advance of taking the reins from David Cameron. Democracy demands better than the appointment and promotion of technocrats simply to reassure the markets and aid the political ambitions of Angela Merkel.

The Italian and Greek electorates also deserve better. I am not calling for imminent elections, which would also be unsettling and destabilising to economic progress. But Papademos and Monti are where they are because Europe trusts them. While the appointments may see off the immediate crisis, there will almost certainly be difficulties further down the line when governments lacking a democratic mandate and listening only to the logic of the markets have to implement unpopular reforms.

Make no mistake - this is government for the Euro, not the people of Greece and Italy. A cynic might go as far as to suggest this is government by the EU, for the EU. Monti and Papademos should not be perceived as economic saviours ushering in a new era of consensual politics, but representatives of the elite European Order, an ancien regime striving to maintain its own significance and salvage something from its misguided vision for European economic and fiscal unity.

If Monti and Papdemos can bring some calm to European politics then to an extent the appointments will have been justified. However, the willingness to dispose of democratic principles is thoroughly disturbing and could yet come back to bite - especially if the necessary bailout and austerity programmes fail to have the desired effects.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

I'm standing for Scottish Executive Committee - please vote!

As Scottish Lib Dem members who have received their ballot papers will now realise, I am standing for election to the Executive Committee.

My friend Caron blogged yesterday that the way forward for the Scottish Liberal Democrats is to "be awkward, wearing our hearts on our sleeves and not letting anyone put us in the corner". I couldn't agree more and, if that's the kind of Liberal Democrat you want on your Executive Committee, then I'm pretty sure I meet the criteria!

I'm not into indulging in an internet campaign of self-promotion and you won't find any facebook groups called "Andrew Page for Executive Committee" or the like.

But these are challenging times for Scottish Liberal Democrats and it's absolutely vital that we elect the right people with the vision, the awkwardness and the unwillingness to be put in a corner that Caron rightly identifies as so important to our political future. We also need people with an understanding of our past as well as the nature of our current challenges; people with the courage of their convictions with a positive political outlook. But, most importantly, we need Liberal Democrats who are ready to stand up and be counted even when it's uncomfortable, who won't conform to a robotic orthodoxy, who aren't afraid to take on the attitudes that hold us back and who are unafraid of honesty.

There are some good candidates on the list. There are tough choices to be made in these important internal elections - and not only for Executive Committee. But this is a time like no other in the history of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, and we need the right people on board to take the party forward.

So I would encourage our members to vote, and to think carefully about the kind new direction for party that their votes could help to create. Of course, if I am elected to the Executive Committee I will do my very best to...well, be myself!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Don't like our strategy? Don't tell me, tell Willie Rennie!

There has been a considerable reaction to Tuesday's blog post - Is this the stupidest cartoon in Scottish political history? It seems I struck a chord with many and touched a nerve with others; while not anticipating the level of the response I am pleased I appear to have kick-started a rather interesting and overdue discussion about both the strategy of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and their attitude towards the SNP and Scottish independence.

I'm going to reproduce a lot of the comments that have been made in various forums, as well as some of the messages I have received in recent days. What has become astonishingly clear is the frustration of many Lib Dems towards the leadership's negativity, as well as the number of former liberals who have found a new home within the SNP. The "cartoon" was received extremely negatively, even by Lib Dem members who were questioning the judgement of its publication and (in some instances) their membership of the party.

Comments from Lib Dem members and supporters:

“Excellent post by Andrew. It's about time someone called out HQ on this relentless negative SNP bashing. Are we really so poor on reasons why people should vote SLD that we resort to tactics that we actually went to Court over in Oldham?”

“I'm not sure whether it is the stupidest cartoon. It is indicative of a party that has yet to produce much consistent confident leadership over same-sex issues. Policy generated by members has been fine. Gaffs and scandals by senior party members have been numerous.”

“For what it is worth, I've not renewed my party membership. It is as much these issues that I'm uneasy about as the coalition.”

“Andrew's a decent guy. I met him at Conference and he's one of a significant number (myself included) who really can't understand the leadership's obsession with the SNP at all.”

“An excellent post and one that certainly sums up my own feelings. If HQ have so much spare time on their hands maybe they could actually consider a new positive narrative for our party which addresses the key question - Why should people choose to vote SLD.”

“As a party member it worries me that someone at HQ thought this juvenilia was worth putting out. Beyond that, it worries me more that much of our campaigning has been relentlessly negative and personal without in any way offering an alternative vision for Scotland.”

“I've also considered my membership. There is nothing or little positive coming from the top. No inspiring message or vision. It's like Willie is under direct instructions by Clegg/Alexander/Moore to go hard against Salmond nonstop just to win brownie points from the press. There is a difference between holding government to account and tasteless propaganda. I hope people at SLD HQ have this read this eloquent blogpost.”

“As a longtime member of the party and former candidate for in Scotland and Westminster I was pretty appalled at the poster. It hints at some of the worst aspects of US political campaigning and is not in keeping with either the tradition or the spirit of the Lib Dems.”

“Last night's disaster proved to me the Liberal Dems in Scotland have lost the plot. Rennie is out of his depth as are Moore and Alexander - they care more for themselves and their own future than they do for the people of Scotland. Last night I joined the SNP because they are the only party with a realistic view of Scotland's potential and future”

“Well said. When I left the party I didn’t rule our rejoining at some point, but at the moment I can’t see myself even voting Lib Dem unless there is a change in tone of the message – which as you point out highly negative and overly critical of the SNP”.

“Your article reveals good liberal thinking...”

“A good blogpost, encapsulating what appears to be the general consensus on that dreadful cartoon”

“The SNP shouldn’t have a monopoly on independence!”

“I would suggest that Andrew is more instinctively a 'Liberal' than a Libdem robot climbing the slippery rope, than he understands. This piece reflects old fashioned Liberal views on society and its conduct - maybe he is channelling the ghost of Jo Grimmond ....”

and just in case you thought it was all positively supportive:

"I have to say that Andrew's blog comment is the very acme of over-reaction. Its one thing to be critical of a schoolyard-level snipe and quite another to indulge in a massively dramatic production of horror and disgust."

“While I can see the obvious errors involved in the publication of this cartoon, I'm not going to condemn colleagues for one mistake when I've seen them work hard and long hours, putting in excellent effort in the past. Nobody would ever have wanted to put the leader in this position and I'm absolutely certain that they will learn from this for the future.”

To which I will respond that my motivation wasn't simply expresing anger towards a distasteful and insensitive cartoon. The real issue I was attempting to address is the extreme negativity running through our message, of which the cartoon is merely a symptom. I'm not simply asking for Lib Dem HQ to be more careful in how they produce and release propaganda, but to completely rethink their message and the tone of what the party is saying. This is the latest in a long line of unnecessary assaults on the SNP, which only serve to strengthen Alex Salmond and make Scottish Lib Dems look petty and silly. As I've observed in the last week, many members seem to agree...

Also, a fair number of SNP members and supporters took the time to make their own views known (a surprising number of them being former Liberals):

“Let's not forget that people in the Lib Dems sat down and spent time working out this pathetic piece of garbage. They are perhaps even more infantile than the Labour Party.”

"I tend to agree with your assessment of Liberal "little Labourism" & its queer anti-Nat pathologies."

“I used to vote Lib Dem, but they stopped talking about home rule and became unionist”

“More positive discourse like this Is badly needed in politics. Time to put the horrendous media and Westminster style of Politics in the bin."

“I hope the fool who dreamt up the ridiculous "cartoon" reads your article and apologises for the damage it has done on so many levels.”

“I slag the Lib Dems a lot, and have done for years, I think its the sense of betrayal more than anything else, given that I agree with some of their principles. But when it comes down to it, their hypocrisy on independence frequently disgusts me, to the extent that I hope that party is obliterated. However, this is an excellent piece by a Lib Dem member.”

"I very much understand your frustration at that silly poster - if such an infantile act had been done by the SNP, heads would have rolled. It really shows a party who has lost its way and sense of reasoned political coherence."

“Whatever happened to your party? I would expect this sort of 'tripe' from Labour but not the Lib Dems.

“I would be happy to return to a Liberal Party who could define what they stand for and a series of clear policies which seek to achieve it. That is not the case with the Libdems either in Scotland or the UK overall so, for now, I have lent my support and vote to the SNP because they know what they stand for and have a clear plan on how to achieve it. If you really want to see a Liberal Party revival there needs to be a clear understanding of what we mean by 'Liberal' in the Scottish context and a clear idea of how we will achieve it.”

“Eloquent, moderate and well reasoned. Need one say more? I look forward to a multiparty movement for independence”

“Nice to see such positivity from a different shade of the spectrum. “

"The constant negative line taken against the SNP be it in this or saying no to SNP polices for the sake of saying no makes you look opportunistic, petty and frankly more interested in yourselves than Scotland. I find Willie Rennie, in combination with Michael Moore, to be an appalling advert for the Lib Dems in Scotland. Both come across as blinkered unionists devoid of ideas and integrity."

“I'm glad you saw fit to write this very eloquent, thoughtful and hard-hitting response to what was clearly a very irresponsible deed. Sadly, however, I'm uncertain as to whether the Liberal Democrats in Scotland will ever recover from dire consequences of their own actions over the last two years.”

Andrew, you are to be applauded for your honesty and your integrity in posting this critique of the situation. Serious debate in the run up the referendum is required from all corners of our political spectrum. There is no place for the yah-boo politics of this flyer and thanks for condemning it."

“I'm an SNP member but had always respected your Party and hoped for a day when PR would give you a fair place in politics. But your party's attitude to coalition with an SNP minority government and the subsequent behaviour like Wallace's over the North Sea territorial line andin coalition of people like Moore and Alexander have damaged you almost beyond redemption. I hope there are more like you and you can take your party back?”

“Andrew you have shown more political vision and leadership in this article than Willie Rennie has in 6 months.”

"As a natural Liberal but a supporter of the SNP I am heartened to hear that there is still a small candle of true liberalism at the heart of the party in Scotland as demostrated by Andrews article and many of the responses to it. That candle is in real danger of being extinguished by the boorishness or the current leadership (Moore and Rennie in particular). I truely hope that the party does survive the referendum and that it flourishes in a new and confident independent Scotland."

“Just think, after Independence, you could be the first Liberal Prime Minister of Scotland!”

“I came over from NNS to read your blog and I was pleasantly surprised. I did not expect honesty from what I consider your party to be a Unionist party. For the sake of independence I implore you to stop being honest and continue with the rabid lies that originate from the Unionist parties because your summing up of the situation is spot on. I look forward to the time when all politicians follow the will of the constituency rather than their party line.”

“A brave and honest post”

“I respect you for taking a principled stand on this though, Its not often one does stand up and be counted.”

“Andrew has hit several nails bang on the head.”

“It seems to me the leadership of the Libdems focussed entirely on hating the SNP and Alex Salmond in particular.Personally,I dont understand why the Libdem leadership is so anti-independence,to the point it would not allow a referendum in the past parliament”

Willie Rennie's challenge couldn't be more obvious. A softening of our approach towards the independence question in combination with a less adversarial form of politics would be a positive start on our road to recovery; it seems obvious to me that our recent attitudes (as much as the unpopularity of Nick Clegg) have alienated many who have traditionally voted Lib Dem.

A Labour supporter added "I couldn't agree more. I know SLDs having a rough time but this surprised even me." While a Morton fan, over on the supporters' forum, posted a link to "a forthright and honest article by Lib-dem activist Andrew Page".

Other commenters, of unknown political affiliation, weren't slow in expressing themselves either:

“Andrew - you deserve the appellations liberal and democratic. You have my respect for a courageous and principled stand.”

“Is this the stupidest cartoon in Scottish political history? Agreed in regards tone of LD media recently”

"I am less concerned about this cartoon slipping through the net than I am about the existence of the net, behind which presumably there must be a lot more of this kind of drivel. What a waste of energy! Given the Liberal Democrat's current standing in Scotland and the upcoming local elections, surely they should be expending every iota of available effort trying to communicate a positive message about what they stand for instead of this guff."

“Some great points there, and all well put. Andrew is exactly right to feel angry about this so-called 'cartoon'; it's so ill-considered in nature that it's almost inconceivable that someone in a position of authority at a political party looked at the completed image and thought, 'Aye, that'll get 'em riled.'"

"A rational and measured response. Well done Andrew, your party does not deserve you."

I think the Liberals' problems run exceptionally deeply. I have been interested in politics all my life and, quite frankly, I have no idea what the Lib/Dems really stand for and I certainly don't like the apparently childish way they have been acting in the Scottish Parliament either.

I have had a conversation with Willie Rennie about this and the various issues I perceive to be at the heart of it. Private conversations with the party leader should remain just that, but Willie did admit that "I set the strategy and agree the message content and tone. If you disagree with any of the party's message and strategy then that's my fault...If have any specific suggestions in the future don’t hesitate to [contact] me at any time."

I would invite all those within and outwith the party who have concerns about the direction, purpose, vision and strategy of the Scottish Liberal Democrats to get in touch with Willie and make your feelings known. It seems that there is a groundswell of support for a positive, less adversarial and more collaborative political direction being championed by our leadership, as well as a desire for a more professional campaigning unit. It also seems there is significant apprehension about the stance adopted on the independence question, while some have expressed understandable fears about the actions of the coalition in Westminster and the Scottish party leadership's apparent willingness to be its mouthpiece. So, while I appreciate the many messages I've received both supportive and otherwise, I would ask you to take Willie up on his challenge and forward him your own constructive ideas and suggestions for rising to the various challenges ahead.

Friends, it's over to you...

Saturday, 5 November 2011

A lesbian is elected leader of Scottish Tories - is it really a big deal?

Ruth Davidson is the new leader of the Scottish Conservatives. The first openly gay Tory leader, 32, emerged victorious over Murdo Fraser - whose grand vision to reinvigorate his party's fortunes was to disband it.

I have noticed that there has been much made of Ruth's sexuality in the media, not all of it accurate - such as the announcement that she is the "first gay leader of a UK political party". I can only imagine what Patrick Harvie makes of that. The Daily Mail is also keen to highlight her sexuality as super-significant, leading with the headline "Tories elect lesbian kick-boxer as new Scottish leader". As a passionate advocate for both LGBT rights and a more inclusive political system, I welcome the fact that the Tories have had the courage to elect Ms Davidson; only ten years ago this would be unthinkable. It demonstrates that the Conservative Party's attitudes towards LGBT issues have progressed a little since 1999. Whether this will coincide with a more proactive approach towards LGBT equality remains to be seen, but I am cautiously optimistic her election could coincide with a shift in outlook among the Scottish Tories. It will be rather hard for Tories to express the kinds of anti-LGBT prejudice they've historically been associated with when their future is dependent on the leadership of an openly gay young woman.

I am, however, disappointed that many have found nothing more interesting to say about Ruth Davidson than the fact she is a lesbian. Why the fixation with this aspect of her life? While the Tories' refusal to pay much attention this this fact perhaps says a great deal about that party's changing perspectives (although I suspect it might have more to do with a rejection of Fraser by the more conservative elements of the party), the media obsession with this small detail is suggestive of an inability to share such an inclusive attitude. Why do people have to be definied by their sexuality? And surely in a genuinely tolerant, open society such things become irrelevant? No-one really should care that Ruth Davidson is a lesbian - shame on sections of the media that think it's the only interesting thing about her.

What really matters? Ruth Davidson's sexual preferences or her ideas for Scotland's future? Hmmmmm..

Actually, I'm more surprised that the Tories elected as their leader a proud Glaswegian!

Scotsman journalist David Maddox announced on twitter that Ruth's election made the Tories "the progressive party of history" - also pointing to the election of Disraeli as the UK's first ethnic minority leader in 1868 and that of Thatcher as first woman leader in 1975. That really is an absurd thing to suggest. True, in Scotland they've elected two women is succession, one of them openly gay. But does that in itself make a party progressive? What I can say is that Mr Maddox's emphasis on labelling people according to their sexual preferences hardly stands up to my definition of "progressive". His historical argument is also flawed; Disraeli and Thatcher were hardly great champions for ethnic minority or women's rights.

What can be deduced from this result is that the Scottish Conservatives seem more adept at electing women and minority leaders than other parties. I can only surmise why this might be the case. Perhaps the fact that they don't use patronising all-women shortlists or promote "positive" discrimination allows more women of real leadership calibre to emerge? Ruth succeeded without any such "help", and despite only having been an MSP since May.

Ruth Davidson is an interesting individual - for many reasons aside from her sexuality. She's the first leader of any Scottish party to be a product of the media era, and has previously worked for the BBC. Will this mean the Conservatives become more media-savvy; can her evident presentation skills compensate for her relative political inexperience? She's also, in seven very brief months, been embroiled in a number of controversies - even before being elected. Her determination to ride out the storm and her stiff resolve in difficult situations bodes well for her futrure - and is far more worthy of media attention than interest in her sexual orientation.

There are tough challenges ahead for Ruth Davidson. Her campaign centred on revitalising the party (in stark contrast to Fraser's determination to wind the Scottish Conservatives up and found a new centre-right party) but, now elected leader, she has to both communicate a radical vision for how to actually do this, while taking on those within her party who genuinely felt that Murdo Fraser had the right ideas for the party's future when he argued that "we don't need a new captain, but a new ship". She will also have to detoxify the Tory brand in Scotland - the fact that she is a young, gay woman brings a sense of the party having woken up to the modern era, but it will take more than that to remove the memory of Thatcher's legacy from the minds of Scottish voters. Plus there's the challenge of the SNP's rise and current standing with the public and the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, during which she will (predictably) be going head-to-head with Alex Salmond, arguing for the status quo.

The real challenge, however, is how to build on Annabel Goldie's considerable achievements as Conservative leader. For all the Scottish Tories' lack of appeal, Goldie successfully presented herself as a skilful and forthright debater as well as an amiable, likeable and down-to-earth person. Goldie was the acceptable face of a party that is still judged for its negative legacy of the 1980s and 90s. Whether Ruth Davidson can foster a similarly positive public image remains to be seen.

Friday, 4 November 2011

By-election victory in Inverness South

I have received some unexpected but welcome news from John Thurso and Martin Hayman. Carolyn Caddick of the Scottish Liberal Democrats emerged victorious in a close-run contest with the SNP in Inverness South, a huge boost to the party in advance of the local elections next May.

The full result and breakdown can be found here, on Highland Council's website.

There are some interesting observations to make. Firstly and most obviously, that the Liberal Democrats are still very much alive in their traditional heartlands and that we can win by-elections. It also demonstrates the importance of campaigning for every vote and fighting local elections on local issues. But there are some other interesting observations to be made, especially if we compare the result with that of 2007.

The first preference votes cast in 2007 were as follows:

Crawford (Independent) 524
Haycock (Independent) 353
Holden (Labour) 671
MacDonald (Conservative) 413
Pedersen (SNP) 1058
Prag (Scottish Liberal Democrats) 902

What we have seen here is the almost complete disintegration of the independent vote. Independents traditionally do very well in the Highlands and form the largest group on the council. I am not in a position to determine why this particular candidate fared so poorly and can only speculate that this was either because of their stance on key local issues or, more likely, the product of a "squeeze" in a contest between the Lib Dems and SNP. But finishing behind the homophobic Scottish "Christian" Party is a failure in anyone's book and what seems fairly certain is that the collapse in the independent vote worked to our advantage rather than that of the Nationalists.

It is also startling to see how poorly Labour performed. Labour have yet to master the art of opposition, either at Westminster or in Holyrood and as a result have struggled to re-assert themselves - it is worth pointing out that this by-election was held as a result of the resignation of Labour councillor John Holden, who was recently convicted of fraud. While the STV system we have in place in Scotland means that this "Lib Dem gain from Labour" can not be interpreted as the dramatic fall from grace that such a result in England could be, it is certain that the party finishing only 230 votes behind us last time weren't even at the races. There was evidence of tactical voting against Labour, with many former Labour supporters choosing to vote either Lib Dem or SNP. And this in spite of concerns about the Lib Dems' role in the Westminster coalition and the very recent reverses suffered by Lib Dems in Highland seats at the Scottish Parliamentary elections earlier this year. A strong second place was the very least Labour should have expected given the Lib Dems' current perceived weaknesses. Serious questions must be asked of the local Labour campaign.

It may be, of course, that confidence in the local Labour Party has dipped following Holden's conviction, but evidence elsewhere (not least Barnsley and Oldham & Saddleworth) is that Labour voters are apparently forgiving of the indiscretions of former elected members. Or at least they don't hold such misdemeanours against new Labour candidates wishing to succeed them. Perhaps Highland electorates are made of different stuff.

Whether this is symptomatic of a wider shift in the Highlands away from Labour and towards the Lib Dems is uncertain. In these kinds of contests, there are usually very strong local factors in play which determine the final outcome. It would be very unwise to read too much into it, other than that the SNP will be hugely disappointed - on the basis of the 2007 result alone they could realistically have expected to have won this contest quite comfortably.

Scottish Liberal Democrats are justified in taking encouragement from this result. Of course, this one result does not in itself constitute a fightback or a turning point. But we should be uplifted by the outcome, while being realistic about the need to redefine our message and building strong local campaigns.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

How many Lib Dems does it take to change a light bulb?

Inspired by Caron Lindsay on facebook, and being the kind of person who can laugh at themselves, I suggested these:

a) None. Lib Dems don't change anything.
b) None. The blub has to be given the liberty to change itself. We'd deny it the referendum to give it the freedom it needed though.
c) 1000 - one to do it, the other 999 to point out that Alex Salmond didn't do it first.
d) None. Lightbulbs, like communties, can't be changed - simply regenerated.
e) It's funny, but since the Holyrood elections it's been very difficult to find any Lib Dems around...
f) None. The Big Society will do it.
g) Remember Iraq! We're against lightbulb regime change!
h) Is it the blub that needs changing, or is it us?
i) It doesn't matter...the lights went out on us last May!

Please add any amusing (and hopefully original) ideas below!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Is this the stupidest cartoon in Scottish political history?

It’s certainly one of the most ill-considered, misguided, offensive, juvenile and plainly idiotic political stunts ever attempted by a mainstream political party.

As a Scottish Liberal Democrat member and activist I am frankly appalled that we have resorted to such shameful gutter politics that reflect badly on our leader, Willie Rennie, and the party as a whole – as well as Scottish politics more generally. This attempt at satirical humour at the expense of First Minister Alex Salmond is misjudged to say the very least. But it is also deeply offensive, irresponsibly indulging in scaremongering of the worst type and in shockingly poor taste.

The “cartoon” suggests that Alex Salmond, for whom I have enormous respect, has sinister designs for an independent Scotland which include virtual dictatorship, the death penalty and the suppression of LGBT rights. This is not funny – not even remotely. Neither does it say much for our supposed pluralism. It’s also seriously flawed – not only has Salmond been supportive of LGBT rights and is opposed to the death penalty, an independent Scotland (which I am currently minded to vote for in a referendum on the basis of increased freedoms for Scots) would not belong to the First Minister at all but the people of Scotland.

It’s useful to put this excuse for a political message into some kind of context. Alex Salmond is currently touring the Middle East, promoting business links and exploring possibilities for the future of low-carbon energy. Following a meeting with Qatari business leaders, he is reported as stating that there are “remarkable similarities” between Qatar and Scotland, which is what the cartoon seized on. However, what he actually said is far more interesting:

"As nations, we both have considerable expertise in oil and gas production, but as we look to the future and a low-carbon economy, we must increasingly develop new technologies. We discussed the remarkable similarities between our respective nations. Although both Scotland and Qatar have common strengths in the oil and gas sector, we are both seeking to develop our low carbon energy industries. This is where Qatar's focus on becoming a global knowledge hub links well with Scotland's considerable reputation as a world-leading education nation."

I see nothing in that worthy of ridicule. In fact, it is a positive vision for Scotland as a centre of a global move towards low-carbon economics and sounds more than a little similar to a statement issued by the Cabinet Office following a visit Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made recently to Qatar:

“The Deputy Prime Minister and his counterpart discussed the deep cultural and economic partnership between the UK and Qatar, including our strategic relationship in the energy sector. This meeting signifies the importance the Government places on building close ties with Gulf partners."
And so what Salmond has been doing is playing up Scotland’s role in forging a global green energy economy. That sounds to be like something he should be praised, rather than derided, for. It certainly should not be an opportunity for any party to disingenuously misrepresent what he said in pursuit of political advantage.

I spoke about this with both SNP and Liberal Democrat friends on twitter last night. Most agreed that while it was Halloween this release was uncharacteristically horrific. However, I was surprised to find that one or two defended the cartoon, arguing that is was simply “humourous” and that “we might laugh at it if it was on the cover of Private Eye”. Well, I for one wouldn’t, because it isn’t funny. And I’m not going to defend something which is stupid and petty, not to mention embarrassing.

It’s concerning on other levels too. I’ve always been critical of Willie Rennie’s apparent obsession with the SNP and Alex Salmond in particular. That’s not to say that attacks can’t work, and good political satire (you know, the kind that actually makes you laugh) can be devastatingly effective. If you’re going to throw a few punches you really have to make sure they hit the target. To date, Rennie’s attacks on the SNP leadership have been weak and play directly into Salmond’s hands while making our party appear small-minded, tribal and idiotic. It’s not just this one misguided poster, it’s the whole tone of what the party leadership is saying: we’re so anti-SNP, so cynically negative and so focussed on targeting the First Minister personally that it’s no surprise the public aren’t attracted to our broader message. Where is the pluralism we supposedly embrace? The rational discussion? The positive vision? All this is lost in Rennie’s view that opposition leadership requires adopting an aggressive negativity towards the SNP government.

I refuse to defend the indefensible, especially when it demeans Scotland, her people and her politics. Liberal Democrats should be better than that. And the public need to see us being better than that.

What is also worrying is that the party thought it would be acceptable to release the cartoon. Willie Rennie, speaking today on Good Morning Scotland, explained that it had been published on one of his days off; however, he admitted that “"Although I did not approve its publication I accept responsibility for it. It has been interpreted in ways that were not intended. It has now been withdrawn. I apologise."

Which begs the question: how was it intended to be interpreted? The implications were more than obvious, as should have been the ramifications to any PR or advertising executive worth their salt. It should have been plain to see that this would lead to exactly the kind of reaction we have seen, with further self-inflicted damage caused to the party’s image in Scotland. I am genuinely concerned that what passes for a PR/Communications department at Clifton Terrace seems to find this insulting propaganda both funny and acceptable, while not foreseeing the potential damage it would cause.

I hope some serious questions will now be asked. Who thought this was a good idea? Why can’t the party consider the ramifications of an action before embarking on it? And why is it so determined to indulge in a campaign of negativity towards the SNP?

Mr Rennie admitted to being rightly “embarrassed” by the cartoon which had not been approved by him. “It wasn't right and it shouldn't have gone out", he explained. "It is actually not right to compare countries like that in the way that we did”. Quite. In a separate message to myself, he apologised and assured me that he is working on ensuring future approval of communications is more tightly controlled. This is welcome, but it amounts to putting the genie back into the bottle. The damage has been done, the party looks like an amateur campaigning outfit (to put it rather politely) and it is plain to see that the quality of some of our staff is not perhaps what it should be.

I was horrified when I saw the cartoon. It is unwise on so many levels. However, on reflection, I am more concerned with what this says about our party in Scotland – our strategy, attitudes, professionalism, public perception and direction – than I am about a misjudged joke. The party is surely in crisis when our media staff are resorting to this kind of tactic. It's not quite the "responsible" or "grown-up" politics we've been championing in the recent past.

Of course, this overshadows the Liberal Democrats’ far more newsworthy announcement of a "home rule" commission, as Rennie admitted this morning. He is right of course. But it also highlights the deficiencies at the heart of the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ campaigning mechanism. Lessons must be learned.

I will be utterly honest and confess that this, in combination with Willie Rennie’s acceptance of support from CARE, has caused me to reconsider my membership of the party. I am pleased that Mr Rennie took the time to respond to my concerns which has gone some way to reassuring me, although his explanation offers further reasons for concern. The only thing that has prevented me from returning my membership card is that none of the other parties are sufficiently attractive to me as a new political home.

On a positive note, the only way has to be upwards. Perhaps we could employ someone with a better grasp of campaigning strategy rather than the clown with a questionable sense of humour. In the meantime, can we cut out the unnecessary anti-SNP rhetoric, adopt more constructive and pluralistic relationships with other parties and forge a new positive, liberal message?

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Scottish Lib Dem leader's “links” to fundamentalist Christian group

Tom Gordon, in the Sunday Herald, reported that Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie “is receiving personal support from an evangelical Christian group which is opposed marriage”.

The first thing to point out is that the Sunday Herald does not seem to appreciate that using terms such as “gay marriage” is itself unhelpful and contributing to the polarisation of the debate on marriage equality. Like the many bishops who are keen to express their intolerance towards “gay marriage”, I too am happy to put on record my opposition to the term, although not for the same short-sighted reasons. I’m not asking for something different for gay people, but the basic equality for people of all orientations to be allowed to marry. Marriage is marriage is marriage – gay, bisexual, heterosexual – it’s all the same to me and the vast majority Scots seem to agree. What we want is marriage equality. Got it, Mr Gordon?

Mr Gordon’s piece revealed that Willie Rennie receives “help” from an organisation known as CARE (Christian Action,Research & Education). This “help” takes the form of Mr Rennie being provided with one of CARE’s interns who works in his office on a full-time basis. CARE effectively sponsor Mr Rennie, who has to declare his “benefit” in the Register of Interests.

What do we know about CARE? Unfortunately, quite a lot. CARE has a colourful if somewhat unenviable history. It was actively supportive of Brian Souter’s “Keep the Clause” campaign, when it targeted many pro-change campaigners. It remains, predictably, completely unrepentant of its role in the Section 28 debate and continues not only to oppose marriage equality but homosexuality itself. CARE is also opposed to the woman’s right to choose and, I’m led to believe, has been associated with groups who aim to “cure” gay people of their homosexuality. Particularly unhelpfully during the current debate and consultation on equal marriage, CARE have already made statements that government proposals are “deeply flawed and socially corrosive”.

CARE has a history of sponsoring MPs by providing them with interns and researchers. The Independent, in 2008, noted that 12 MPs received “help” from CARE – most of these MPs were known to have strong religious views. As another Independent article explains, CARE aren’t offering “help” to parliamentarians out of the goodness of their heart. “The intern programme isn't only about rewarding friendly Christian parliamentarians, it's part of a plan to build a new generation of committed Christian politicians. The idea is that the interns will go on to become MPs furthering the Christian agenda ."

Curiously, CARE withdrew support for gay Christian Labour MP Ben Bradshaw when they discovered his sexuality. So, all in all, quite an unusual group for the Liberal Democrats to be associated with. Which makes me all the more concerned with Willie Rennie’s apparent willingness to be associated with them.

My friend, Caron, has blogged about this herself – in which she takes a different view, interpreting the Herald article as an attempt to suggest we should discriminate against people on the basis of their religion. Rennie’s willingness to accept support from CARE is, in her view, evidence of “the sort of openness and tolerance he talks about”. You can't have proper tolerance if you don't properly engage with people you disagree with”, she rightly adds

But it’s not engagement I have a problem with. I have no issue with Willie Rennie opening up dialogue with those who are diametrically opposed to our values and politics. As a pluralist, I welcome open debate and discussion. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t talk to CARE – just that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be associated with them. Why any MSP – let alone the leader of a liberal party – would wish to be perceived as being supported by a fundamentalist religious group I honestly have no idea. Given Rennie’s conference speech in which he turned on the spiritual forces of reaction and intolerance, declaring the Catholic Church’s “threaten[ing] to invoke some sort of block vote” as “an affront to liberal democracy and one that we must challenge”, the revelation that he is being sponsored by CARE makes him look inconsistent, even hypocritical.

It’s hard enough to accept that CARE’s Scottish spokesman, Gordon MacDonald (a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate, no less) believes that “marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman, not two people of the same sex” and that “the Scottish Government is making a grave mistake by seeking to redefine marriage”. That this kind of organisation is providing staff to our party’s leader undermines our firm commitment to marriage equality and is even tougher to accept.

As for the argument that this association is evidence of Rennie’s openness and tolerance, this doesn’t really ring true. I don’t doubt that Willie Rennie is indeed and incredibly tolerant person. But would we be making the same argument if, for example, overtly pro-life groups were providing interns to politicians? Or groups opposed to racial equality or women’s rights? I mean, would anyone seriously argue that an MP was simply embracing diversity by allowing the English Defence League to provide them with an intern? The association would be at the very least embarrassing, which is precisely how I view our leader's links with CARE.

My problem isn’t with who Willie Rennie’s intern is. He’s entitled to employ who he likes, even if their views might not be those of the party as a whole. My issue is with CARE as an organisation, our leader’s political naivety and poor judgement in associating himself with them and the damage this could cause during the current political discussion on marriage equality - which is already being dominated by a fundamentalist lobby that compensates for its lack of arguments with its disproportionately loud voice. Accepting an intern is hardly a tacit acknowledgement of support for CARE, but it could be interpreted as such. The benefits Mr Rennie receives are far outweighed by the political risks of association with religious fundamentalism.

I have written to Mr Rennie on account of my concerns. I know he is a passionate advocate of LGBT rights and equal marriage. He could never be described as homophobic. But by accepting the intern he has opened himself up to the charge that he is either naive, hypocritical or both – a misunderstanding that could have been so easily avoided. The unfortunate truth is that this one decision could undermine a lot of the good work that he and the party have done on this issue

What I can’t quite understand is why Mr Rennie felt the need to accept an intern from any kind of organisation – religious or otherwise. I would imagine there would be a string of talented, suitably experienced people more than happy to work for the leader of the Liberal Democrats?

Friday, 14 October 2011

Liam Fox finally resigns

The seemingly inevitable resignation has finally been announced. Dr Liam Fox has resigned as defence secretary in the wake of a series of allegations and an investigation into his working relationship with former housemate Adam Werrity.

In one of the least unexpected resignation statements in political history, Dr Fox admitted he had “mistakenly allowed the distinction between personal interest and government activities to become blurred”. That certainly is one diplomatic way of admitting his guilt in allowing a friend and self-styled “advisor” to accompany him on at least 18 foreign trips. What it is not is an apology; nor does it answer crucial and necessary questions about Fox’s foreign policy towards Sri Lanka.

In recent days accusations of impropriety and inappropriate activity on the part of Mr Werrity have increased. Not only has this man clearly and dishonestly masqueraded as an official advisor to a cabinet minister, serious questions have been raised about those funding him and his links to party donors. Whatever Dr Fox’s role in this shambolic deception, there can be no denying that Werrity was never anything more than a friend of the defence secretary, and that his egomaniacal and vanity-feulled conduct essentially constitutes fraud. As The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh observes, Werrity “had a role in the life of Dr Fox which was not appropriate for a serving secretary of state". It is hard to disagree.

At best, Dr Fox has been unwise in his choice of friends. In all likelihood, he is also guilty of breaking the ministerial code and being less than honest about his relationship with Mr Werrity and how it impacted on his decision-making. He may also be guilty of perjury. I am in agreement with Labour’s Jim Murphy MP who asserts that “this issue has centred solely on [Fox’s] judgment and his conduct in one of the most serious jobs in the country. With so much at stake for our forces the defence secretary must be focused solely on his public duties.”

Murphy is also within his rights to point out that the Prime Minster has visibly been attempting to keep Dr Fox in his job. There are a number of reasons why David Cameron has been keen to do this. Firstly, he had little wish to be forced into a cabinet reshuffle so soon; secondly, dismissing Fox could alienate the Tories’ right wingers who saw Fox as a champion of their rather narrow political perspectives; thirdly, and most crucially, Cameron had wanted to establish key facts via Gus O’Donnell’s investigation before making a judgment on Fox’s fitness for office. But his political judgement was appalling simply because he failed to appreciate that, with so many serious misjudgements and breaches of ministerial standards on Fox’s part, the end was never in doubt. The Prime Minister seemed to think that keeping Fox in office would alleviate the pressure on the defence secretary, when in actual fact more and more damaging allegations were appearing on a daily basis.

As the saga continued to dominate headlines and undermine both Dr Fox’s position and the government’s credibility, the resignation became not only inevitable but necessary. Strangely, aside from the Prime Minister many other Tories didn’t recognise this and have expressed disappointment at his departure. Louise Mensch, for example, used twitter to broadcast her view that “[Fox] was an outstanding Secretary of State for Defence and a completely dedicated minister” while Peter Bone argued that "it's typical of Liam to put the country first" by resigning. "I think it was largely a media-driven [story]. I didn't see the hanging offence, I'm afraid." I can only suppose that Peter Bone is either politically naive, wilfully blind or both.

If it was right for David Laws to have resigned in May 2010, then it was unquestionably right for Liam Fox to have resigned today. He had nowhere else to turn. Jim Murphy made a point of emphasising that he did not call for Fox’s resignation - but that must in part be due to the fact that he didn’t have to given the pressure from the media. Murphy also stated that he “feels sorry for Liam as a person”, which is more than I do. I feel little other than a sense that Fox has reaped what he has sown, as well as some relief that the most objectionable member of the cabinet apart from Teresa May will be finding a new home on the backbenches.

Jim Murphy is, however, absolutely right when he calls for answers. The resignation itself does not close the door on the affair. Questions must be asked about why and for how long the minister was able to behave like this. Fox’s activities in Sri Lanka and allegations of “maverick” foreign policy must also be made clear, as well as detailed information about who knew what – including the civil service. The establishment of truth is far more important that a high profile resignation.

What I would also say in response to Peter Bone is this: there is nothing typical about Fox putting the country first. It seems, if the allegations made contain even the smallest grain of truth, that he has put his own interests and those of his friend above those not only of the country but also those of parliament, his party and the cabinet. As for Louise Mensch’s assessment of his performance as “outstanding”, I beg to differ. This was a man who presided over a rushed and ill-conceived defence review, marked by short-termist decision making – somehow, I can’t see the personnel of RAF Leuchars and Lossiemouth or the people of Fife being quite so impressed by his uncompromising stance and poor strategy, which Menzies Campbell described as “wrong and inept”.

Can I allow Sir Ming to write Fox’s epitaph: “Liam Fox, wrong and inept”. It seems quite fitting in the circumstances...

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

A tribute to a great friend

My friend Bill Beaton would have been 100 years old today.

I call him my friend, and I count it a privilege to have known him as one. But the truth is that Bill was far more to me than that.

I was 16 years old when I first met Bill who, at the time, was a young 82. I was away from home for months at a time - such was the reality of living in the Hebrides and attending school in Oban. Spending so long away from family can be a difficult experience for many, but Bill was a valuable source of support for me and - at a time when family life at home was quite fraught and emotionally challenging - provided some much needed stability.

I came to regard Bill as my adoptive father, but he was, like all fathers, a counsellor, a guide, and an encourager. In fact, Bill's greatest contribution was to empower me to have some faith in my own abilities; a belief in myself was not something my volatile family life had done much to foster. He was also a sounding board for my anger, my many frustrations and sometimes quite frankly ridiculous worldviews.

I got to know Bill through the church. He had been a minister in the Church of the Nazarene and his brother was minister of Oban's liberal-leaning Congregational Church which did a significant amount of work with local youth. For cultural reasons Bill liked to attend the Wee Free as well, I think largely because of associations with his time in the Outer Hebrides. But he would have no truck with the puritanism of the Frees, their intolerance or their rigid interpretations of morality.

I found out that Bill had been a member of the Gay Christian Movement and had also been a passionate advocate of an inclusive church. His house was full of visitors from his previous church, many of whom were of LGBT orientations. His relaxed attitude and championing of LGBT rights, accompanied by his serious and scholarly take on "practical theology", enabled me to come to terms with my own developing sexuality while also allowing me the opportunity to see Christianity at its best - a million miles away from the inflexible and judgmental religion I had grown up with.

He also had an outrageous sense of humour, although as I found out that didn't extend to teenage jokes about women or semi-biographical "life stories" in which I ridiculed teachers and members of my family.

Bill had been a chef by profession and, prior to entering the ministry somewhat later in life, and worked in some of the most prestigious hotels in Europe and America. Before retiring he was chef to the British Embassy in Washington, and spoke with fond memories of serving various dignitaries and politicians. Politics was in fact an equally important part of Bill's personal identity: he was an affirmed liberal, a supporter of the Liberal Party and (later) the Liberal Democrats and a friend of the great Ray Michie, MP for Argyll & Bute, for whom he had nothing but praise.

Bill was a native Gaelic speaker and while I was unable to inherit his fluency in the language, his love for it transferred not only to myself but the many other people he came in contact with.

I have very many memories of Bill, most of them positive. Like all of us, he could at times be infuriating. His obsessions with snooker and tea-pot collecting I could never entirely comprehend. But the most striking thing about Bill was the ease with which he was able to mix and socialise with all types of people, to bridge generational and cultural gaps, to enthuse people with his infectious humanity.

Simply knowing Bill in the way I did made a huge impact on my life. He was the kind of person who once met was never forgotten. It was almost impossible to spend any time with him and not be changed by the experience. Certainly his influence, friendship and belief in me have helped create the person I am today.

Bill died in his 94th year, shortly after his brother Donald who lived to 98. I would have loved Bill to have survived until his hundredth birthday and received his telegram from the Queen - unlike myself Bill had great respect for Her Majesty. Unfortunately he left us over five years ago and will not be with his friends as we celebrate his remarkable life. What is inescapably true however, is that his memory will continue to inspire, encourage and entertain us.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Do something positive for World Mental Health Day...

...tell the Scottish government how to improve mental health services!

You might not know, but currently the Scottish government is involved a consultation exercise to establish the views Scottish people have on an issue vital to facilitating tolerance, understanding, diversity and societal well-being.

And I'm not talking about the not-very controversial consultation on marriage equality that most Scots are not only aware of but feel positively towards. Instead I'm referring to an equally, possibly more, important consultation being conducted on the future of mental health provision in Scotland.

The SNP government are quite rightly looking to promote "a new national mental health strategy bringing together work to improve mental health services and mental health improvement". This is the kind of thing that I imagine should receive cross-party support and, while I have some very minor concerns about the operational detail, it should be welcomed as a very positive step forward with the potential to facilitate a huge cultural shift not only in the way people with mental health problems are treated but also how mental ill-health itself is perceived.

Particularly welcome is the overdue priority given to widening access to talking therapies and implementing a National Dementia Strategy with additional support for carers. I am also pleased that the government is actively reviewing the relationship between community services and inpatient provision because, as someone who works within adult mental health, I appreciate that so often the interface between services is not what it perhaps should be and community services are often not sufficiently responsive to local need. There is a great deal more that can and should be done to improve community mental health services (especially crisis intervention) in a way that reflects local health priorities rather than centrally-driven targets. One of the highlights of my parliamentary election campaign was meeting a group of local mental health service users and finding how much agreement there was between their own concerns for the future of mental health provision and mine; I am immensely pleased that many of the recommendations of this group and others are now being advocated by the government.

But the most positive aspect of the government's stated new strategy is its admission that it does "not yet know what changes would deliver better outcomes" and therefore is seeking "to develop a better understanding of what changes would deliver better outcomes". This suggests a willingness to listen to those directly affected by mental ill-health or who have experience of using existing services. Inevitably this is how governments often talk during consultation but I sense there is a genuine desire by the SNP government to work with people rather than for them - and to deliver a strategy for mental health that not only effectively tackles discrimination and stigma but can significantly improve upon current mental health outcomes.

Today is Mental Health Day. Improving mental health is something I passionately believe in - not only do I currently work in mental health services but have in the past used them. I could have written about the requirement to champion preventative approaches rather than reactive ones; about progress being made in delivering psychological therapies; about how to more effectively tackle stigma or the need to adopt with urgency the recovery-focused model for mental health improvement. All these are important. But, in the end, I decided to leave the talking to you. If you're a Scot - and you care about mental health - tell the government what you think they should be doing to improve mental health services. You have a rare opportunity to shape the future of the nation's mental well-being - please make your voice count! You can have a look at the various consultation documents and respond here.

However, if you're not sufficiently fortunate to be a Scot, why not contact your MP and make your own suggestions for delivering modern, fit-for-purpose and effective local mental health services?

Taking a photo of your wee girl? That's terrorism, sir!

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

In the news today is the scarcely believable but sadly very true story of the father prevented from taking photographs of his daughter eating an ice cream in Braehead Shopping Centre.

The basic fact is that a 45 year old man was innocently taking pictures of his young girl on his mobile before being approached by security personnel and police officers who advised him that his activities were illegal and that his mobile phone could be confiscated under the terms of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Braehead has issued a rather patronising and contradictory statement in which it argued that "Retail staff at an ice cream stall in Braehead became suspicious after they saw a male shopper taking photographs of a child sitting at their counter. The staff thought the man had also been taking photographs of them and they alerted one of the centre’s security staff...Like most shopping centres, we have a ‘no photography’ policy in the mall for two reasons: to protect the privacy of staff and shoppers and [because] we live in a world of potential threats from terrorists and everyone is being urged by the police to be vigilant at all times. However, it is not our intention to - and we do not - stop innocent family members taking pictures."

I am a professional photographer. I often take photographs in public places. Last year I snapped some rather inventive images of Glasgow's Sauchiehall Street, capturing the vibrancy and energy of the place throughout the course of a day. Obviously it would have been very difficult to request permissions from each of the persons who happened to appear in the pictures, and taking this kind of photograph without the public being featured within them would have been both impossible and defeating the purpose of my project. Similarly I took several pictures at the recent Lib Dem conference in which many ordinary delegates may have been inadvertently snapped. I've heard this argument time and again; that it should be illegal to take photographs in a public place. But the truth is that it isn't - and so long as no improper pictures are being taken there really shouldn't be an issue. If taking photographs in public places was a crime the fascinating art of lomography, not to mention the city scenes and event photography so vital to maintaining a photographic history of our proud nation, would be lost to future generations.

As the law stands, "there are no legal restrictions on photography in a public place and no presumption of privacy for individuals in a public place" (House of Lords, 16th July 2008). The Bureau of Freelance Photographers also confirms that "individuals do not have a legal right to stop a photographer from [taking] photographs in a public place."

Braehead may claim that initially they thought that the man at the centre of this - Chris White - was acting "suspiciously" and may have been taking pictures of staff. In fact, the pictures he took of his daughter (which can be seen here) did not feature anyone else - either staff or customers of the shopping centre. A polite request to have a look at the pictures would have surely been enough to dispel any such suspicion.

Of course, Braehead point to the fact that there are signs up prohibiting photography within the shopping centre. Legally speaking, as the centre is private property they can request this although I suspect it would be rather difficult enforcing a conviction and it seemed unnecessary to involve the police. What they can not do is threaten to confiscate photographic equipment. Braehead also admits in its statement that "it is not our intention to - and we do not - stop innocent family members taking pictures." But they did. And they have since been utterly unapologetic.

After unnecessary and apparently intense interrogation Mr White was ordered by security staff to leave Braehead and is now barred from the premises. Braehead should admit that they were wrong to have taken the actions they did against Mr White. His treatment was deplorable and the claim that he was dealt with in this way due to a suspected terrorist risk is so facile as to be laughable. If it's got to the stage that a father can't take a photograph of his daughter eating an ice cream without anti-terrorist measures being employed then the terrorists really have won.

I have been in conversation on twitter with some people who felt that the staff reporting Mr White to security services were only doing their job. Perhaps; I certainly have some sympathy for them. But they might have been doing a more effective job in serving the public if they had politely asked to see Mr White's photographs to ensure their suspicions were groundless while reminding him of the no photography policy. I suspect there was nothing in their job descriptions requiring them to turn a trivial event into a national incident. The fact that the staff initially made a poor judgement is understandable and forgivable. The authoritarian response that followed in combination with what passes for public relations from Braehead are definitely not.

Mr White has written a letter to the Evening Times describing what was obviously a personal ordeal for both himself and his daughter. As Scott Douglas, writing for CIPR, observes: "First he was detained by security staff and made to feel like a pervert. Next he was questioned by police and made to feel like a terrorist. Thirdly he was interviewed by traditional media and portrayed as a victim. Now he is being championed by social media and becoming a cause celebre."

All this could have been preventable. Braehead must offer a sincere apology to Mr White and review the ban on photography which, according to their own statement, is clearly unworkable and not enforced in most cases. Braehead also must recognise the reality that for many people, especially families, visiting shopping centres can be in itself a social activity which they may want to capture with images to upload to facebook, twitter and so on. In fact it must embrace new consumer habits rather than show utter contempt for those who are enjoying the freedoms modern technologies bring. People want to use their mobile phones and other basic equipment to take quick snaps. The plain truth is that this situation was a product of Braehead's mistaken and dangerous assumption that photography is by nature intrusive and objectionable (except where staff choose to use "discretion"). This is the wrong way to look at the situation: Braehead should adopt a new policy whereby people are not deterred from taking photographs while allowing staff to use their discretion to deal with genuinely suspicious behaviour in an appropriate way.

There was no need for Braehead to act in such an overbearing and authoritarian way - either towards Mr White or the facebook users whose furious comments were apparently deleted in an act of almost Stalinesque censorship. Braehead should firstly apologise. Secondly, it should reconsider its photographic ban in light of changing consumer habits (and the law) and, thirdly, bring its PR department kicking and screaming into the 21st century.