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Monday, 28 February 2011

Lessons from the Irish General Election

I'm not an expert on Irish politics, but this week's election provides some useful lessons for Liberal Democrats.

Firstly, the obvious one: the need to retain a distinctive philosophy and not be perceived as easily surrendering on key policy issues. The Green Party, the minor party in the coalition with Fianna Fail, were completely routed, losing all their TDs and gaining a mere 1.8% of the vote. The problem for the Greens was that (unlike Nick Clegg) they initially appeared to rule out working with certain parties in a coalition and then did the opposite. More crucially perhaps is that they were seen, fairly or otherwise, as offering nothing distinctive to government and were simply propping up an unpopular government. Interestingly, it was the Greens' attempt to break free of Fianna Fail that led to the election being called prematurely and the meltdown that followed for both coalition partners.

There are obvious differences between the Irish Greens and the Liberal Democrats, not least in regards the respective parties' approaches to government. But it is an inescapable fact that the Greens' downfall was so complete as to be as stunning as Fianna Fail's punishment at the polls. It is clear that minor partners in coalition have to be seen as providing support to the senior partner while not being too close, to appear to be critical in relation to policy matters and retain a distinctive platform separate to that of the coalition position.

While I would not advocate public disagreements among coalition partners (even though I suspect some of my fellow Lib Dems may take a different view) it is vital to present ourselves at every opportunity as a distinct party with a separate agenda. We have to avoid the appearance of either having been "fused" with the Conservatives, of being used by them or of meekly surrendering to them. Put simply, the party's identity should be set by its membership rather than association with the coalition agreement. I strongly believe in coalition, but we should avoid being defined exclusively by it.

Secondly - electorates don't reward, they punish. The Irish voters proved this. Nick Clegg seems to feel that the Liberal Democrats will be rewarded for providing stable government. He was arguably right to suppose that the party would never have been taken seriously if it had exchanged participation in government for an easy life in opposition. But the voting public does not reward achievement - it punishes perceived failure. This is a vital lesson our leadership needs to learn: failure to strategically adjust to take into account the nature of electorates may result in future electoral disaster.

Nick Clegg's hopes that the British electorate will reward policy achievements seem naively optimistic. The Irish Greens were able to implement much of their own policy in government - notably an increase in renewable energy output, a carbon tax and significant progress on legislation for same-sex partnerships. Their considerable achievement in doing this paled into insignificance when contrasted with public anger over the government's austerity measures.

Thirdly - the economy is crucial. Fianna Fail's record in government was hardly perfect, but I'm not convinced that any other party would have been able to handle the economy any more effectively. It was the Irish economic disaster (like Gordon Brown, Brian Cowen seriously believed that the only way was up for Ireland's economy) that ultimately proved the undoing of Fianna Fail, in spite of the Taoiseach successfully negotiating a bail-out. It should be noted that there is little difference in policy between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael (neither are exponents of liberal economics); the key factor was Fine Gael's ability to play to voters' anger and isolate Cowen. Fine Gael already appear to have backpedalled on some of their more populist positions towards the banking industry and certainly are not prepared to reverse the austerity measures that made Fianna Fail so unpopular.

The coalition will be judged on many things, but ultimately it's the handling of the economy that will prove crucial. There will be a high electoral cost if the coalition's actions do not create the expected economic growth. This is why it was right for George Osborne and David Laws to prioritise tackling the deficit so early on, even if some of the proposed measures are unpalatable. But care should be taken to ensure that austerity measures do not bite too hard, especially if economic growth takes longer than expected to achieve.

Fourthly - the minor party in the coalition is not necessarily protected from the unpopularity of the senior party. Fianna Fail became spectacularly unpopular and ultimately the Greens also paid the price, becoming a target of public disillusion. The kind of annihilation suffered by the Greens is unlikely to apply to the Lib Dems, because the Greens were already starting from a very low electoral base. But it's true that the public standing of the senior partner inevitably affects the minor party - a reality that must be appreciated by those who would love to see our leadership actively undermining our Conservative partners. If they suffer, so do we.

Perhaps I should finally mention the demise of the Progressive Democrats. A key player in Irish politics for decades, the party shared power with Fianna Fail from 1997 until 2007. In the 2007 election, both coalition partners lost seats, but the PDs suffered disproportionately and were reduced to two TDs. The party was wound up in 2009.

I am not predicting disaster for the Liberal Democrats - far from it. Coalition government offers genuine opportunities for our party. But with it also comes significant risks, and the experience of the Irish Greens demonstrates the awkward position minor partners can find themselves in. The parallels with Ireland only run so far; Fianna Fail's most recent term of office began when the Irish economy was extremely strong with the party becoming the victim of mid-term dissatisfaction with its performance, whereas the Westminster coalition has inherited Labour's economic problems and is already acting on them. But there are clear lessons to be drawn from the outcome of the Irish general election and Nick Clegg would be wise to take heed.

Labour MP attacks No2AV tactics

Labour MP Ben Bradshaw has written to Labour supporters of electoral reform criticising the tactics of the No2AV campaign.

Like myself, Mr Bradshaw has branded No2AV campaign as "desperate", "based on fake figures" and guilty of "scaremongering". He also urges an open and informed debate while slamming what he considers the "bogus debate" currently being offered by No2AV.

Given that the votes of Labour supporters will be crucial, it is heartening that Mr Bradshaw has taken the trouble to openly challenge the negativity and lies of the official "no" campaign. Hopefully his actions will make a huge difference to attitudes within his own party towards the AV referendum.

It is even more welcome that Mr Bradshaw speaks of changing "old politics" and making politics "different". How refreshing from the cynical opportunism we've seen from some Labour figures on this issue in recent months - not least in the Lords.

Mr Bradshaw's e-mail in full:

Dear Supporter

If you saw yesterday’s Independent on Sunday, you will know that the NO2AV campaign has been plunged into chaos, as a leaked Treasury document demolished a central plank of their case. The report showed a senior government minister admitting that the outcome of the referendum would not have ANY impact in terms of public spending:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/voting-reform-will-not-cause-more-cuts-treasury-insists-2226784.html

This fully rebuts the claims of the No camp, who have desperately claimed that a Yes vote in the AV referendum would jeopardise the lives of premature babies, or members of our armed forces:

http://www.leftfootforward.org/2011/02/the-nasty-campaign-no-to-av-stoops-to-new-low/

As I told The Independent, this blows the No campaign's fake figures out of the water. I believe that the British people deserve an honest and open debate on the real issues of this referendum, not a bogus debate based on bogus figures. This kind of shameful scaremongering is exactly the type of old politics we need to change.

We’ve got just over 9 weeks to convince the public that politics can be different. To find out how you can help the campaign in your local area visit www.labouryes.org.uk or email Amy Dodd at Amy@labouryes.org.uk

Best wishes

Ben Bradshaw MP


* Many thanks to my friend Ian for forwarding the e-mail.

Friday, 25 February 2011

No2AV campaign becomes more and more desperate

Charles Kennedy sent an e-mail to party members today in which he complained that "[in] recent days No2AV have published a series of ads in local papers that can be described as distasteful at best, shocking and outrageous at worst."

He's right. No2AV are becoming more desperate and their tactics are reflecting this. Never having expected that a string of opinion polls would show support for the "no" camp steadily falling, No2AV has indulged in the kind of dishonesty more associated with Jeffrey Archer than a respectable campaign group.

It was excruciating enough that Margaret Beckett (surely a strange choice to front a supposedly forward-looking campaign) argued against electoral reform on the basis that "people aren't interested". To which it could be pointed out that it's patently absurd to be encouraging people who aren't interested in voting to go out and vote against something they care nothing about. Or, more pertinently, that perhaps the reason some people seem turned off by even the mention of the electoral system is because they've been so effectively disenfranchised by the status quo.

But No2AV have moved beyond that particular old chestnut. To quote from Mr Kennedy: "The premise behind the ads is that the country can't afford the alternative voting system. That by saying Yes to AV, voters will be taking £250 million away from sick babies in need of care, or soldiers in need of armour."

If that's the quality of the "no" campaign's arguments then I'm pretty confident of a majority "yes" vote come May. This kind of trick shows the complete lack of integrity of No2AV, which seems to feel that the scaremongering tactics and misinformation the electorate more usually associated with the BNP and UKIP are perfectly acceptable to use in order to destroy the opportunity for electoral reform. Using this kind of emotive picture is both irresponsible and fraudulent.

No2AV seems determined to claim that the cost of introducing AV would be significant. Even if it was, that in itself is hardly a reason to disregard the arguments for fairer votes and increased democratic accountability. But the No2AV campaign's claims are themselves based on false assumptions - such as the AV system requiring the purchase of expensive digital counting machines. It's absolute rubbish of course, as Channel 4's Fact Check Blog confirms.

Then No2AV want to unhelpfully suggest that electoral reform shouldn't be a political priority because there are more pressing concerns (such as dying babies and a lack of protective clothing for the military). This again is disingenuous. Why No2AV are so keen to move the debate away from the central issue about the future of politics I'm not so sure, but the country deserves better. The respective campaigns should be engaging in a constructive discussion about the merits (and otherwise) of changing the voting system.

Look guys, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Is there any chance of informed discussion on the...well, you know..the issue? Or is more cynical, dishonest, misleading and issue-evading advertising what we are to expect?

Charles Kennedy is calling for the Advertising Standards Agency to step in, "so that we can get on with the debate the country deserves". Caron is not so sure, because she has little faith in the ASA. Personally, I think involving the ASA might be counter-productive and the Yes to Fair Votes campaign is better taking out its positive message than indulging in an unpleasant scrap over this. Mark Pack's tactic of writing an informed letter to national newspapers might have more of an effect when it comes to educating the public. But Mr Kennedy wants sympathetic individuals to sign his open letter asking for action - if you agree, you can sign it by clicking here.

On a more constructive front, I was pleased to read today that Lib Dem president and Westmorland & Lonsdale MP Tim Farron and the Labour MP for the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness have both expressed support for voting reform and will hopefully be working jointly to ensure the maximum possible "Yes" vote across South Cumbria. Perhaps if more politicians can put aside party allegiances and tribal differences to campaign for a fairer democratic system we might actually get the overdue reform the country needs.

Gaddafi has no future - but Libya does. Let freedom ring.

Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.

Nowhere has this been more true than in Mubarak’s Egypt, Ben Ali’s Tunisia or Gaddafi’s Libya. For too long, these respective dictatorships have been tolerated or even supported by Western democracies, anxious to preserve “stability” and fearing “Islamism”.

The threat of militant Islam was always an exaggerated one and was cynically manipulated by the likes of Mubarak especially to strengthen his position. The alternative to dictatorship is instability and Islamism, so the argument went. And as the United States and other powers bought into this argument, the North African dictators’ control over their people increased. Oppression ruled while democracy died.

The Bush administration claimed it sought to cultivate democracy in the Middle East, while pursuing a foreign policy that only increased the possibilities for radical Islam - making previously insignificant and unpopular groups such as al-Qaeda into vehicles through which frustrated people could express their grievances at American interventionism. Not only did Bush’s tactics make for a more serious “Islamic threat”, effectively becoming a recruitment sergeant for radical Islamic groups, they also failed to facilitate a move towards democracy.

For too long in its reporting on Middle Eastern matters, Western correspondents have focused their attention on the “war against terror”, the major personalities (such as Hussein, Mubarak, etc.) and their relationship with the US and UK governments, and the Arab-Israeli issue (falsely supposing that is what is foremost in most people’s minds in the region). Ordinary people and their plight have been completely forgotten. The mass unemployment, brutal oppression and growing discontent were all ignored.

The struggle for freedom has not suddenly been born in 2011; there have been people championing democracy in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Algeria for years – they were usually imprisoned for it. But in recent weeks, the popular uprisings have gathered such momentum that the spread of democracy now seems unstoppable.

It is right that it has not been the US, the UK or the EU which have brought down the corrupt and repressive regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak - and almost certainly Gaddafi. The only thing that could have ever brought true democracy to the Middle East and North Africa was the courage of brave people who dared to fight. And they have fought, although sadly freedom has come at a price of several hundred lives. The west did not expect this eventuality, simply because our media were never too interested in understanding the realities of the hardships people were suffering and failed to appreciate that pent-up frustrations would eventually find a way of expressing themselves. Their understandings of the Arab world centred around Western policy initiatives to such a degree that the growing frustration with the status quo was never perceived. The European and American press was as blind to the concerns of North Africa's people and their potential for protest as Mubarak and Ben Ali were to the dawning revolution.

All that has now changed. The people of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, for so long silenced, have now found a voice. The rest of the world looks on in stunned disbelief, hoping that those people so recently liberated from oppressive regimes will be able to shape a new, democratic future for the region.

The British news continues to report on the position of Muammar Gaddafi. While it is important for Libya that Gaddafi’s demise is complete and imminent, the emphasis is wrong. Gaddafi now has no future. But Libya does, and so does its courageous people.

I hope their freedom will soon be complete, and that Libyans – like Tunisans and Egyptians – can begin to build a new future for their country.

If I can close by paraphrasing the great Martin Luther King:

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of Yemen. Let freedom ring from the Atlas mountains of Morocco. Let freedom ring from the heightening Tebessas of Tunisia!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Aurès of Algeria!

Let freedom ring from the Asirs of Saudi Arabia!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Zagros Mountains of Iran!

Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of us, black men and white men, Arabs and Christians, will be able to join hands and sing "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The psychology of a deluded dictator

I was deeply disturbed, and at times horrified, by Muammar Gaddafi’s defiant speech yesterday. My ten years’ experience in working in mental health further reinforced my fears that this unstable despot is not bound by moral boundaries and may well do anything to cling on to power.

Stephen Fry tweeted that “Gaddafi appears to have separated himself from any semblance of reality, which would be funny if it didn't mean slaughter, pain and horror”. SNP Blogger Lallands Peat Worrier also reflected that “this is an object lesson in fucknuttery. A technical term...” Not a term I would generally have used in my professional life but I fully endorse the sentiment.

His speech was disturbing on many levels and was even more chilling than his son’s threat to “fight to the last bullet”. During a one hour rant, he claimed he will go down fighting and “die a martyr”. His martyr complex is concerning enough. But his speech was also littered with faintly veiled threats: the people of Benghazi were warned “just wait until the police return to restore order”, while he also promised that" any use of force against the authority of the state shall be punished by death". He denied that violence had broken out yet, which presumably means that, in his own mind, the bloodshed the world is witnessing on You Tube is simply the product of an Islamic conspiracy.

Gaddafi clearly believes his own rhetoric, and lacks any insight into either the new political reality or his own psychological instability. Presumably, Gaddafi’s speech was intended to signal defiance and aimed at intimidating his opponents, but it unlikely to have had that effect. Instead, he looks like a joke figure, convinced of his own worth to the very people who are calling for his deposition. He is erratic, bizarre, irrational and evidently unstable – and only slightly less paranoid than King Herod. All this would normally inspire sympathy were it not for the fact that his murderous intentions reflect those of the Biblical king.

He expressed paranoid delusions about his enemies who he described as "rats who have taken tablets" or "agents of Bin Laden". America, the UK and the BBC were enemies who were undermining Libya from outside. Foreign powers, he claimed, were attempting to poison him. There was little coherence to his disjointed ramblings – but his brutal motivations were clear. "Your children will die" he threatened chillingly. Enemies of the state deserve the death penalty, he claimed. Gaddafi also appears to have a god complex, thinking himself to be semi-divine. He indulged in religious imagery to make his threats, condemning his opponents to hell and damnation.

Gaddafi considers himself to be above the rest of humanity, being God's chosen leader for Libya. Referring to himself in the third person (a classic symptom of some psychotic disorders), he reinforced the concept of his being a semi-divine leader, stating that “Gaddafi is the glory” and that he could not resign but would continue to lead Libya "until the last drop of my blood with the Libyan people is behind me". Perhaps that isn’t too long in the offing. His delusions of personal significance were further evidenced in his apparent belief that he has a personal following across the Arab world and would be able to "call on millions from one desert to another to cleanse Libya" - whether he has even a modicum of respect outside Libya is an issue of some debate.

Gaddafi explained that Libya is a world leader. “No-one can stop this historic march” he roared. On that count at least I hope he is right. The Libyan people have started a brave march towards democracy and it is vital for his country that Gaddafi exits – soon.

It is difficult to know who Gaddafi thought he was communicating with during his hour-long shout at a TV camera. The outside world was not only unimpressed but horrified at the rhetoric of hate and violence. The protesters are unlikely to have been intimidated; in fact, the speech will likely have stiffened their resolve. His own “allies” in government are now alienating him, expressing fears of “genocide”. He now looks increasingly isolated and little more than an Erich Honecker-type figure, an out-of-touch old man desperately clinging on to power.

Gaddafi's speech offered the world a curious insight into the psychological make-up of this most eccentric of dictators. His mental health is becoming increasingly fragile and any semblance of statesmanship Gaddafi had gained in recent years has evaporated in the last few days. Here is a man whose self-delusion is fuelling a dangerous paranoia and whose actions are determined by irrational responses rather than reason. At times during his lengthy speech he appeared thought disordered, his speech pressured. But what is most concerning is that Gaddafi has limited or no insight into his psychological condition and - if allowed - would act on his delusions and paranoia with catastrophic effect.

In conclusion, Gaddafi is a megalomaniac who is essentially suffering from - amongst other things - an extreme narcissism. Some of his more grandiose delusions mean that he is living in isolation from reality, in a parallel universe in which the self takes precedence over his obligations to his people. There is no moral or ethical dimension to his thinking, just a belief in the grandiose self and his God-ordained purpose. He is completely incapable of expressing empathy or compassion for others, and probably equally unable to experience ordinary human feelings.

As such, his psychology is perhaps not too different from other historical dictators, such as Ferdinand Marcos or Nicolae Ceausescu. Where he differs is in his expressed wish to act on his delusions so brutally.

On 23rd January, I blogged on the issue of the Tunisian revolution’s potential to inspire democratic protest across North Africa: “I for one would not object too strongly with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi or Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika suffering the same fate as Ben Ali.” I am delighted that the popular move towards democracy appears now to have claimed two of these “strongmen”, but our immediate concern must be with the Libyan people, who are not safe from Gaddafi’s threats so long as he remains in power.

Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Libya is a tribal country and Gaddafi retains some support, which might convince him to fight on. Psychopathic leaders need their followers and as long as there remain some devotees, his delusions will be reinforced and he will not appreciate the weak position he is in. But any resistance will ultimately be futile and I can see no way back for Gaddafi. He’s lost control of his country as well as his grip on reality. However, he’s unlikely to go as peacefully as either Ali or Mubarak and the fear is that he may indulge in one final campaign of bloodshed.

Gaddafi may have indicated that he "will fight until the very end." Libyan people have responded: "so will we." While Gaddafi’s demise is to be welcomed, I hope it is not at the cost of more life.

Many questions about Libya's future remain unanswered, but it is certainly true that Gaddafi's demise has been in part due to his flawed psychology. Support for him is rapidly disappearing; I strongly believe that he will be gone before the end of the week and I hope that his murderous and threatening rant will prove to be just that and nothing more.

There must be a role for the international community in supporting Libyans to force Gaddafi from power in such a way as to avoid unnecessary violence. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where it was right to leave the future of those respective countries to their people to decide, there must be some level of intervention in Libya. A stand has to be taken against Gaddafi’s aggression; we can not abandon Libyans to the threats of this unstable dictator. We are not dealing with a rational human being, but an increasingly paranoid and deluded murderer whose scope for committing horrific acts of “retribution” are boundless. Outside help might also be useful in assisting the transfer to democracy in a country with little in the way of a democratic heritage or civil society, although the nature of any new democracy and the process itself must be left to the will of Libyans. There is a difference between assistance (which we should offer) and interference (which should be avoided).

The tide of revolution spreading across North Africa and the Arab world is encouraging - and not only because it is toppling dictators at will. It is also disproving the common misconception upon which Western foreign policy has been based: that the options for government in the Arab world were either autocracy or Islamism. No-one has previously taken the concept of democracy in the Middle East seriously, including those who ostensibly championed it. Whatever happens now, one thing is for sure: the conventional wisdom that democracy and Arabs do not go together has been shattered forever. Middle Eastern governments and the relationships they have with their people and the rest of the world will never again be the same. The world has changed, thanks to the courage and audacity of the pro-democracy revolutionaries.

Friday, 18 February 2011

This is our government, too.

Last May I wasn't overly keen on the prospect of entering into a coalition government with the Conservative Party. However, like many Lib Dems, I could see that whichever road Nick Clegg took was fraught with danger: a "coalition of the losers" would have posed serious political risks and any "supply and confidence" deal with a minority Tory government would in all likelihood have led to another General Election within the year in which we would almost certainly do badly. There were many other reasons why entering into coalition with the largest party was the correct thing to do, and nothing that has happened since has convinced me otherwise.

That is itself a separate issue. My main concern is with some of my fellow Liberal Democrats who, after being so pleased at the prospect of power nine months ago, are now in utter despair. A few Lib Dems have left the party. Others are threatening to. Still others profess outrage at every coalition decision they are not 100% in agreement with. Some go as far as to accuse Nick Clegg and our other colleagues in government as having "sold out" or of being "unfit for government".

Some of this is understandable. I have not been thrilled by every decision the coalition has made but, realising that the Conservatives as the senior partner would wield the strongest influence, my expectations were more realistic. I was critical of the leadership's handling of the tuition fees issue, as well as Vince Cable's unnecessary decision to explain to two journalists his plans for the Murdoch empire. As someone who is deeply opposed to Conservative policy, especially in respect to social policy, a fair amount of what is coming out of the coalition is naturally not to my liking. So I can fully appreciate why fellow Lib Dems have concerns.

But let's get real. Withdrawing from the coalition is not an option, even if was a good idea (which it isn't). Let's get to grips with what coalition is actually about: it's about sharing responsibility for decisions, making those decisions jointly in the country's interest and working co-operatively to implement an agreed policy programme which will inevitably contain elements of both parties' manifestos. Basically, the kind of thing you'd think we Lib Dems would be good at especially given our record in Scotland.

The real problem is not with Nick Clegg, however much we might disagree with him at times. Neither is it really with the coalition. No, it lies with the fact that for many Lib Dems the transition from a party of opposition (or a party of protest, depending on your perspective) to a party of government is a difficult and painful one. It's not easy to adjust to the new realities.

I have no time for renegade Lib Dems like those in St Helens who cynically oppose the coalition for short term electoral gain. More concerned about their council seats than their party or the wider public interest, I don't salute their mock outrage. I have more time for my fellow Lib Dems who are simply uncomfortable with the policy direction of the government. But that, too, is an inevitable consequence of coalition and we have to learn to deal with it.

Shifting the focus onto the positives could help. Let's not get caught into reiterating the tired and false arguments Ed Miliband and his ilk would have the public believe. This is not a Conservative-led government, but a coalition in which 20 Lib Dem MPs are ministers. It's our government too - and don't forget it. In spite of sharing power with a party we would traditionally consider as a sworn enemy - and at a time of economic uncertainty - Lib Dems have made a significant contribution to government. As the inspiring Paul Waugh points out, Lib Dem involvement at the heart of government has resulted in some notable victories including on welfare reform, gay marriage, a British Bill of Rights, the u-turn on the sale of forests, environmental policy, economic growth and social mobility. And the AV referendum of course. He could also have mentioned progress on HE (yesterday even the NUS agreed that the proposals are better for the Lib Dems' moderating influence) and raising the income tax threshold. Or the positive work Michael Moore is currently doing at the Scottish Office.

As Waugh points out knowingly, the success of Clegg and Lib Dem ministers in stamping a liberal mark on government direction is evidenced "by the irritated reaction of the average Tory backbencher". Basically, we know we're doing well because we're getting up the Tories' noses.

Danny Alexander has looked surprisingly assured since taking over from David Laws at the Treasury, while Chris Huhne looks like a natural minister. Whatever his detractors say, Clegg has continued to show determined leadership - even if he's not really selling his achievements very effectively to the public.

We need to be positive about what we're achieving in government, while being realistic about the limitations of coalition. We're not going to implement every Lib Dem policy. Yes, the Tories can be infuriating at times. But we are making a difference and will continue to do so. The attitudes of some (including at times our effervescent party president, Tim Farron) seems to be one of taking credit for elements of coalition policy we like while blaming the Tories for decisions we struggle to agree with. Some members will like that approach, but that's not how a good coalition works. We can not pick and choose what policies to support - after all, we'd be outraged if Tories decided not to support obviously Lib Dem policies such as marriage equality. We have to appreciate that our ministers are in government making tough decisions and need to be supported to do so.

I have no doubt that many of the decisions facing Lib Dem ministers will be unpalatable and difficult. But that is what government is about. We can not, and should not, complain because our party is for the first time in almost 90 years making decisions on issues that matter. We should also be focused not on small policy details but on greater goals: in particular, the fact that government policy is imbued with liberal philosophy is reassuring for those of us who strongly believe in promoting a more liberal society.

I appreciate that rebellion comes naturally to we Lib Dems! I also realise how tempting it must be for individual Lib Dems to make a stand against an unpopular policy. But voters are not noted for taking seriously parties that are divided on almost every issue (remember the Tories in the 1990s?). Talking down the coalition or sticking the knife in (often via the national media) is not only a counter-productive strategy. It also discredits the significant contribution Lib Dems have made, and are continuing to make, in the national interest.

Like me, the great Paddy Ashdown naturally preferred working with Labour to co-operation with the Conservatives. But he famously said, after Clegg's announcement that we would be entering coalition with Cameron's party: "I may hate the Tories but **** it, I'm with you." If this giant of the Liberal left can be supportive of the coalition, why shouldn't we?

Let's be more positive about our government. Be proud to be a Lib Dem!

Thursday, 17 February 2011

What exactly is the "Big Society"?

I ask this question because I don't really know.

Previous Prime Ministers had their buzzwords too: Thatcher had her "property-owning democracy", Major his "classless society" and his desire to get "back to basics", Blair his "stakeholder economy", "Cool Britannia" or "the third way" and Brown his "British jobs for British people". What did all these mean? To the general public, very little indeed.

The "big society" is another of these political cliches that flatters to deceive. Intended as a bold statement of the government's will to empower individuals and communities, the "big society" has become something of a joke.

David Cameron this week talked about the "big society" being his "passion". Fair enough. "It's a different way of governing, and it's going to get every bit of my passion." OK, we get you. What we don't quite get is how he thinks it's going to work. Especially when he says unhelpful things, such as "we need social recovery to mend the broken society...and that's what the big society is all about." Perhaps. Then again, it seems more like it's not society that's broken as much as the Conservative Party record player. It's utter nonsense to pretend that everything is broken - it's also insulting and condescending.

The "big society" isn't the product of a coherent philosophy. It's such a vague concept. I would have been far more grateful if Cameron had spelled out a considered and evidence-based method to create a dynamic economy while devolving more power locally. Passion has its place, but sometimes what we want from leaders is...well, leadership. And on the "big society", Cameron simply isn't providing it. A lot of bluster doesn't constitute a vision.

It's little surprise that many people are seeing the "big society" as mere cover for spending cuts. And this is because Cameron just hasn't sold his idea effectively. As a Liberal Democrat, I am broadly sympathetic with the aim to devolve power, to empower neighbourhoods and to decentralise. I prefer bottom-up to top-down approaches. I prefer local to national. I also believe that rights come with responsibilities, and that it's good for communities to have a sense of togetherness and solidarity. Come to think of it, many of my Labour and SNP-supporting friends probably think the same way.

It is worth remembering that the Tories' manifesto was entitled "An invitation to join the government of Great Britain". What the Tories haven't done is to show how many of us can be actively become more engaged with "government". How can communities such as ours in Inverclyde be genuinely empowered? How can we be supported to take more control over our own destinies? Answers on a postcard please to 10 Downing Street, London...

No-one wants top-down, bureaucratic government - except perhaps Tommy Sheridan and George Galloway or the more extreme elements of the Labour Party. In this sense, the concept of the "big society" is a welcome one. My "big society" would be one in which communities are supported, central government looms small, individuals are supported to fulfil their potential and an innovative independent sector can thrive. It would also be genuinely multi-cultural. But the kind of socially responsible "big society" that Lib Dems can support fully is one which has to be adequately funded. It's patently inconsistent to promote the Cameron vision of the "big society" while charities and voluntary organisations are having their funding significantly slashed, thus essentially disempowering them.

There is a time to roll back the state, but it can't be done in such difficult times. No vision of a bigger society can compensate for the coming spending cuts. Cameron patently fails to understand this. Also, apparently, so does Jeremy Browne who, while having some worthwhile points to make, doesn't quite grasp that the "big society" requires more than mere liberalising principles. It needs to be properly funded and rooted in a strong, growing economy. As far as I can see, the "big society" being championed by the Prime Minister will not empower communities at all but will simply result in services previously run by local authorities being delegated to a tiny number of large voluntary organisations while smaller (and local) ones go to the wall. That's not a "big society": that's the destruction of the voluntary and charitable sectors.

Cameron's "big society" might not be a smokescreen for cuts. But for many it understandably feels that way. It doesn't help that Cameron looks so out of touch with the public. Neither is the emphasis on free schools and volunteering helpful. How many of us can really find either the time or the finances to open our own school, or even grab a spare few hours to offer our services as volunteers? While many of us do volunteer (myself included) it simply isn't possible for others with already full lives. Besides, dependancy on volunteers is no way to run a business, never mind an alternative to essential services.

And so Cameron's "big society" is a contradiction, its likely legacy the destruction of the voluntary sector it claims to empower. The broad principles of social empowerment and decentralising power are laudable, but the Cameron "passion" is too vague, too lacking in detail and too obviously uncosted to be effective. Insufficient thought has been given to how to make the theory work, especially in a time of austerity and funding cuts.

I believe in smaller government and "bigger society". But Cameron's vision is short-sighted and potentially counter-productive. His "big society" is a soundbyte, even a personal obsession. To some, even within the Conservative Party, it's a joke. It's obviously a terrific gift to the Labour Party. But whether it is anything more, I don't know. I suspect the "big society" will go the same way as Major's "back to basics" programme, becoming ridiculed and derided. Which is a shame, because if more thought had been given to practical considerations as well as marketing the idea, the "big society" could have presented a broadly liberal platform from which to build fairer and more empowered Britain.

Equality must extend to all parts of the UK

Earlier, while on the briefest of brief lunch breaks, I posted to welcome Lynne Featherstone's announcement which allows for same-sex ceremonies to be held in religious buildings. This is a positive step towards equality. Even more encouraging is her obvious determination to give gay people full legal rights, ending the distinction between civil partnerships and marriage which in my view is discriminatory and unnecessary.

As I mentioned in a previous post, unfortunately this change in the law only applies to England and Wales. Caron has argued that this means "Scotland lags behind on marriage equality", observing that "nobody seems to be showing enough will to advance the cause of equal marriage". Meanwhile, the Gyronny Herald (a Northern Irish blogger) asks the pertinent question: "Reforming the marriage law - why not on a UK basis?" Applying the law to only some parts of the UK will only create further inequality, he wryly notes.

Yes, of course these changes must take place across the UK. Lynne Featherstone is no doubt committed to ensuring genuine equality and her goal is presumably to ensure that gay people in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all given the same freedom to enter into marriage. The reason she is unable to guarantee the same rights across the UK is for the simple reason that such a change would be the responsibility for the Scottish Parliament and the Stormont Assembly.

In the case of Scotland, I am confident that people will, as Caron urges, "advance the cause of equal marriage". I will for one. I am sure the Liberal Democrats as a party will do likewise. Scotland has moved forward in its attitudes since the shameful episode eleven years ago in which Brian Souter and elements of the media were able to peddle their homophobic and hateful (and also rather spurious) arguments that the abolition of Section 2A of the Education Act would create some kind of morally decadent society in which children wouldn't be safe from predators, etc., etc. While there remain some with homophobic attitudes, I can't imagine such homophobia would be able to appeal to mainstream opinion in the same way.

Politically, with the possible exception of the Conservative Party, I can't envisage any of the Scottish political parties being opposed in principle to the kind of equality being proposed by Lynne Featherstone. I don't see the public having any real issue with it - most Scots are sensible people who fully appreciate the benefits of greater equality. The only question is whether the Scottish Government has the appetite and the willingness to make marriage equality a priority.

Caron hopes that this policy will feature in our manifesto for Holyrood. I'm sure it will. I also hope that Labour and the SNP will welcome the developments in England and seek to replicate them in Scotland. The Westminster coalition has taken a positive lead - Holyrood must now follow suit. I am confident that it will, especially if the public demand progress.

I have limited knowledge of Northern Ireland. It is difficult to imagine a broad political consensus on this issue though, as some of the principal political protagonists (e.g. the DUP and the UUP) are not known to be quite so progressive on issues such as gay rights. While I reject assumptions that Ulster is deeply sectarian (it isn't, whatever some would want us to think), I would guess that the influence of churches opposed to liberalising the law is much greater than here in Scotland. I'm not sure what the public's attitude is to gay equality in Northern Ireland - while I would suppose that social attitudes are changing across the UK irrespective of antiquated sectarianism, it is vital that all of us who strongly believe in the principle of gay marriage openly champion it. I suspect the NI Assembly isn't going to act unless pressed into doing so.

This is a real challenge for those of us who are Christians (and I know many gay Christians): we have to change the church from the inside. Just as I would encourage all Scots to appeal to our MSPs and our government to bring our legislation in line with England and Wales, so too I would appeal to liberally-minded Christians to keep up the pressure for reform within their churches.

What is so un-Christian about the principles of justice and freedom? Or people being treated equally? And what is really wrong with a "broad church"; why can't the church be accepting of differing views rather than imposing an orthodoxy and manipulating how people perceive Christian morality? The more Christians that speak out against institutional homophobia, the greater chance there is of achieving change which allows gay people to have the same basic rights to celebrate their love as the rest of us.

Of course today's announcement was merely the first step in a long process. It sends out a clear signal to MSPs and MLAs of the need to follow suit. But progress is not only political - it is also social and cultural. We all have a responsibilty to pressurise for change - and to kick homophobia into touch. I hope you'll help us.

Gay marriage equality - update

Equalities minister Lynne Featherstone has outlined new changes in the law which I referred to in my recent post, Gay marriage equality set to become reality.

In an e-mail to Lib Dem members, the minister wrote:

I’m so pleased to be announcing today the next step on the road to full marriage equality for same-sex and mixed-sex couples. As many of you will know, this is an issue close to my heart, and so I am delighted that this government is taking action.

Firstly, today we have announced that civil partnership registrations will be able to take place in religious buildings - if a religious organisation wishes to allow this. This will lift the explicit ban on holding civil partnership registrations in religious premises.

Furthermore, the government has recognised the desire to have full and equal civil marriage and partnerships, and will begin working with those who have an interest on how legislation might develop in this area to see how this can be taken forward.

As you’ll probably know, at our conference in Liverpool last year, it became Liberal Democrat policy to push to open both marriage and civil partnerships to both same-sex and mixed-sex couples. So I am thrilled to announce today that we are going to be the first government to look at how to implement this policy.

If you are interested in further updates from the Liberal Democrats on equal marriage, and other LGBT issues, please click here to visit DELGA’s website for more information.

Best wishes,

Lynne

Lynne Featherstone MP
Minister for Equalities


This has been welcomed by gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell who told politics.co.uk that "allowing civil partnership ceremonies to have a religious content and to be held in places of worship is a significant advance for gay and religious freedom. It was petty and authoritarian to ban faith organisations like the Quakers from holding civil partnership ceremonies, when they clearly expressed a wish to do so. The old restrictions forced religious bodies to discriminate against same-sex couples, even when they didn't want to."

Allowing religious organisations the freedom to conduct and bless same-sex ceremonies is hopefully the first step towards the legalisation of gay marriage, ending the unhelpful distinction between marriage and civil partnerships.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Gay marriage equality set to become reality

Equality minister Lynne Featherstone has indicated that the ban on same-sex marriage is to be lifted, as well as announcing that the law will change to allow civil partnerships to take place in religious buildings.

This is great news. When these changes become law, the two-tier system which effectively discriminates against homosexuality will become history. Civil partnerships were a significant step forward, but ultimately there is no reason why in a democratic society all people should not have the same legal rights to be married. It is also welcome that the the package includes plans for heterosexual couples to have the right to civil partnerships.

This follows on from the debate at Liberal Democrat Conference in September, when the party voted overwhelmingly to approve same-sex marriage. It is fitting that it is Lynne Featherstone who is introducing these overdue reforms as she has been a tireless campaigner on the issue for some time.

This is a real step forward for gay and lesbian freedom. Featherstone is to announce a "timetable" for these proposals on Thursday, which will also provide more detail about what is actually on the table. But it is absolutely certain that the plans will eradicate the discriminatory laws that currently don't afford gay people equal status under the law.

However, while the law will allow religious denominations to conduct same-sex partnerships they will not be forced to conduct them. The Church of England (that forward looking and progressive agent for the promotion of Christian tolerance) has already spoken out and declared that none of its buildings will be used for same-sex ceremonies. The Roman Catholic Church in Scotland has predictably opposed the plans, claiming that they "attempt to change our entire definition of family life". Yes...well, perhaps it's your narrow definition that needs changing? The Church of Scotland has retained a considered silence on the matter, other than to say that "if the law in Scotland were to change, the Church of Scotland would have to consider its response." Hmmmm...

I can only wonder what Brian Souter makes of all this.

While these attitudes are unhelpful, enforced adherence to new laws would be counter-productive. I strongly believe that, in this case at least, "the inevitability of gradualism" will see attitudes change over time as same-sex religious ceremonies become normalised. There's no point lecturing the likes of the Catholic Church on matters of equality. My hope is that eventually the practical and tolerant outlook of other denominations such as the Quakers - who have been calling for these changes - will become more representative of thought across the spectrum of Christian denominations.

It seams that so far the proposals only relate to England. However, as with the case of the repeal of Section 28 (2A in Scotland), changes in England will surely create a momentum for similar reform here.

I was proud to belong to a party that was willing to discuss this issue so openly (I just can't see the Conservatives having the courage to address it at their own conference). I am now equally proud that a Lib Dem minister is introducing liberal proposals to ensure legal equality for LGBT people - something I doubt a Tory majority government would have given much attention to.

Thank you Lynne!

Sunday, 13 February 2011

MacNeil condemns budget but opportunist Labour offer no solutions

Greenock MSP Duncan MacNeil has spoken out against Finance Secretary John Swinney's Budget, claiming that it will devastate Inverclyde.

The SNP government's Budget - passed after useful deals were made with the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives - actually proposed a reversal of cutbacks on funding for urban regeneration companies. This means that Riverside Inverclyde, which initially had its funding slashed by 70%, will now face a lesser budget reduction. Scotland's four urban regeneration companies were originally advised their funding would be cut by £12million - that figure is now only £6millon, although it's too early to say with certainty how much Riverclyde Inverclyde's individual budget will be affected. But it's still welcome news.

This isn't good enough for MacNeil, though. According to the Greenock Telegraph (aka The Inverclyde Comic) MacNeil is "very disappointed this budget will continue the disinvestment in Inverclyde. The Scottish Government has imposed an unfair financial settlement on Inverclyde Council...and put at risk our ambitious regeneration plan. It is not acceptable to cut our budget by 70 per cent, reinstate part of it and then pretend this is good for Inverclyde."

Not a mention of the economic realities dictating these measures. Not a word about Labour's sorry economic legacy. No praise for those MSPs from all parties (other than Labour, of course) who were determined to put together as positive a budget as could realistically be achieved and who ensured the u-turn. No, that's just not MacNeil's style. Notably, he also didn't state what Labour's position was on the additional £6million for the regeneration companies - just for the record, Labour did not support it.

Perhaps in his direct appeal to populism, MacNeil has failed to notice that neither the SNP nor the Liberal Democrats are relishing making cuts. Other local MSPs like the Lib Dems' Ross Finnie and the SNP's Stuart McMillan were particularly keen to see that regeneration in Inverclyde continues which is why the improved budget ensured that the funding reduction was kept as low as possible. Unfortunately MacNeil, with his unrealistic and dishonest "no cuts to jobs and services" mantra not only fails to recognise the significant efforts of others but also Labour's own contribution to the Inverclyde's problems as a result of mishandling the UK economy.

MacNeil wants to paint himself in the mould of an anti-cuts MP, but he should be honest about his party's legacy while in government. Remember the threats to Inverclyde Royal Hospital? Whose watch did they happen on, Mr MacNeil?

Unfortunately, as the various parties were locked in intense negotiations to ensure that the Budget represented the best possible deal for Scottish people, Labour preferred to reject the Budget proposals - not on principle but out of opportunism. Unlike the other parties, who disliked large parts of the Budget but went through the difficult process of improving it, Labour found it easier to stand on the sidelines, doing nothing, arrogantly waiting for the return to power to which it feels a sense of entitlement. In rejecting the Budget, Labour sent out a signal that it has nothing to contribute to the debate.

MacNeil and his party are eager to blame others for regrettable but necessary cuts that no-one wants to make. Labour could take the responsible option and put forward a workable alternative proposal. But that would require some political courage, as well as imagination. Whatever John Swinney's many faults, he could never be accused of cowardice. MacNeil, on the other hand, doesn't even have the courage to admit that cuts are a painful necessity because Labour made "a few mistakes" (as Ed Balls did to his credit on today's Politics Show).

Scottish Labour's electoral campaign will presumably be based on blaming each of the other parties for budget cuts, while ignoring their own role in creating the problem in the first place. Interestingly, the Daily Telegraph reported that Labour's finance spokesman, Andy Kerr, had wanted to do a deal with Swinney but was prevented from doing so by Iain Gray. This says everything we need to know about Labour's leadership, which has no interest in building consensus. Who would want to vote for this group of cynical opportunists who - in rejecting the Budget last Wednesday - were so pleased to wash their hands of any responsibility for taking Scotland forward?

Poll shows increased support for fairer votes

Today's Independent contained a surprising article, which referred to a survey giving the "Yes" campaign a ten point lead over the "No" camp.

This is very positive, and shows how successfully the "Yes" team has been able to distance the arguments for voting reform from too close an identity with those political parties that support it.

As the campaign gathers momentum, it is likely that the issue will feature far more in people's minds and that the arguments for change will become more positively received. But it's already evident, in spite of the economy and cuts to public services featuring larger in people's minds, that there is an appetite for change. Electoral reform might not be the kind of thing that excites a nation, but the current system is obviously flawed and according to The Independent only 30% of those surveyed want to retain it. I'm sure that figure is even lower in Scotland where voters already use STV for local elections and the AMS system for Holyrood.

It would appear that support for reform has increased as a result of the actions of Labour peers in the Lords, whose filibustering appeared petty and motivated by small-minded party-political prejudices. I suspect that next Friday, when Cameron and Clegg will give statements regarding their opposing positions, we will see pro-change support increase even further. After all, seeing the Lib Dem leader stand up to the Prime Minister and destroying his arguments is something everyone wants isn't it?

Interestingly, the paper also reported that 40% of Labour members - and an impressive 28% of Conservative Party members - want change. Hopefully, activists from these parties who want voting reform will ignore the signals coming from their respective leaderships and put their energies into helping to secure a "Yes" outcome. If the "Yes" campaign can put together a real coalition of reformists from across the political agenda and appear genuinely non-partisan I have no doubt that those who have already written off the chances of a "Yes" verdict will be proved very wrong.

Even more encouraging is the news that, fearful of the "No" campaign being dominated by Labour former ministers such as John Prescott and Margaret Beckett (not exactly the most appealing of ambassadors) No to AV is set to unveil some high-profile supporters including some with very obvious links to the Conservative Party. What could be more certain to tempt Scottish voters to say "Yes" than the "No" camp identifying itself so closely to the Tory Party?

Massey returns to Premier League

I was pleased that Sian Massey was running the line at Bloomfield Road yesterday.

You may recollect that Massey was the official at the centre of Andy Gray's and Richard Key's sexist "jokes" the other week. As I stated at the time (Sexism is society's problem, not football's), I didn't really find the commentators' humour very funny. I was also dismayed that a perfectly good assistant referee was relieved of her duties for the next few games as a result of the controversy.

She was back last week though, officiating in a League Two match at Chesterfield. Yesterday she was again in Premier League action, which is clearly where she belongs: she put in another excellent performance in the match between Blackpool and Aston Villa.

Unfortunately, it seems that not everyone was so thrilled to see her there. Sections of the home support apparently aimed chants at her, with some singing "There's only one Andy Gray". That there are such small-minded people watching football matches should not come as a surprise. It's the response of the managers I want to turn to.

In the recent past, we've had managers like Mike Newell (ex-Luton) speaking out against a more inclusive agenda. He wasn't alone. I'm an Albion Rovers fan but I was ashamed when our ex-manager Peter Hetherston had a go at Morag Pirie for no other reason than the obvious fact that she wasn't male. The unfortunate truth was that some people within football, while promoting inclusivism ("football for all" being the SFA's favourite slogan), were struggling to keep up with changing attitudes - and the changing roles of women in society.

A lot has obviously moved on in the four years since Newell's outburst, as evidenced by the reaction of the respective managers. Villa boss Gerard Houllier praised Massey's performance: "She took the right decisions. I was confident in her. She is good at what she is doing." Nice of him to say so, and he's right of course - even if it feels like he's only making this kind of statement because of Sian's gender. More telling was straight-talking Blackpool manager Ian Holloway's comments. Turning on his own fans, he condemned the chanting: "I didn't like some of the shouts. Is that funny? 'There is only one Andy Gray'. That's rude." Too right, it is.

This is evidence of the changing mood in football. As I've been at pains to explain previously, football itself isn't sexist even if some of its professed followers are. I am extremely pleased that Ian Holloway was man enough (can I use that term?) to make a stand. He's right - this wasn't "banter", it was a mild expression of bigotry. There should be no place for this in football.

The most pleasing thing about the Sian Massey story is that since news of Keys' and Gray's ill-advised comments, there has been a surge in the number of women looking to take up refereeing. This is very encouraging. So, it seems, Keys and Gray have helped strike a blow for a more tolerant society and greater inclusion within football. Well done boys!

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Carman selected as Barnsley by-election candidate

I see that Dominic Carman has been selected as the Liberal Democrat candidate for the forthcoming Barnsley Central by-election.

I don't know a great deal about either Carman or Barnsley, other than the the BNP did exceptionally well there in the European elections and that Carman has been an outspoken critic of both the BNP and Nick Griffin.

Obviously, the media will interpret the final Barnsley Central result in respect of the performance and standing of the coalition government. However, it seems the Lib Dems have identified early the potential for the BNP to do well here (there is certainly scope for a significant anti-politics vote) and were determined to adopt a candidate with a real track record of taking on the BNP. As well as being a renowned campaigner, Carman has written a critical biography of Griffin and stood against him at the General Election. He also wrote an informative piece for the Daily Mail on Griffin's personality and psychological profile: A deeply disturbing encounter with Nick Griffin.

Carman is a candidate with genuine intellectual gravitas as well as someone with a deep understanding of the BNP, its machinery and its tactics. Hopefully he will not only keep the BNP vote low, but eat into the huge majority enjoyed by the former MP, Eric Illsley, who is now serving a 12-month sentence for fraudulently claiming expenses.

Good luck, Dominic!

Mubarak departs – what next?

I’m sure that many like me had been longing for that moment for the last few weeks. It finally came last night, when Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s defiance collapsed in the face of the determined and unceasing protests of the courageous Egyptian people. There is no doubt that history has been made; the scenes of jubilation following the announcement were more than reminiscent of the scenes across eastern Europe in 1989 when one after another, despotic governments fell to popular expressions of the desire for freedom and democracy.

The word “revolution” is overused by journalists and historians. Whether this peaceful movement for democracy has achieved anything truly revolutionary remains to be seen. But it has been amazing – even miraculous – that ordinary people have had such an extraordinary impact in this most unlikely of places. It was almost inconceivable that Mubarak, the US-backed dictator whose position appeared unassailable just weeks ago, would be brought down by his own people. Even as late as Thursday, Mubarak’s hold on power seemed as firm as ever as he defiantly refused to resign, instead promising to “hand over power after upcoming elections...I will deliver Egypt and its people to safety.” When the end did come, it came quickly. And completely.

There were understandable scenes of euphoric joy in Cairo and beyond. The Egyptian people deserve their moment. They have brought down the regime. The stood up for freedom and democracy when Western democracies were, at best, ambivalent towards the plight of Egypt’s people. They have dreamed for so long of real democracy - democracy that George W Bush ironically felt he could bring to the Middle East via the promotion of US political and economic interests. How fitting that rebellion came from within: Mubarak had never calculated for such an outcome, believing that friendly relations with the West alone would secure his position. If this marks merely the beginning of a wider movement towards greater democracy in the area, it will precipitate a new reality in international politics: Egyptians will have shown that democracy does not need to be facilitated by paternalistic, neo-colonial Western powers and that the moral authority of the West has evaporated. Accepted political certainties will have to be reconsidered.

Egyptians are understandably delighted by the turn of events. They are talking in terms of freedom and liberation. There is a sense of hope and expectation. As celebrations erupted across Cairo, the jubilation was almost tangible. Not for the relieved protesters the difficult and complex questions that remain unanswered about Egypt’s future. They were simply happy to enjoy the moment, as well they might.

Euphoria has naturally spread beyond Egypt’s borders. German chancellor Angela Merkel said: “Today is a day of great joy.” Indeed. Political bloggers celebrated with the Egyptian people: John Mark Cole hailed “freedom for Egypt”, Jonathan Fryer drew inspiration from the protesters’ courage and Andy Crick revelled in “the immense victory”. Meanwhile, President Obama informed the world that “the people of Egypt have spoken. Their voices have been heard. And Egypt will never be the same again.” Let’s hope so.

I don’t want to detract from the ecstasy and elation. This is an incredible result for democracy. But the jubilation must be tempered by realism. Mubarak’s resignation, welcome as it is, removes one individual agent of Egypt’s despotic regime. What it does not do is destroy the foundations on which the dictatorship was established. For real change to happen, rather than just an exchange of personalities at the top, revolutionary changes to Egypt’s political framework are required. That there is an appetite for change is unquestionable. The momentum is currently with the protesters. Whether these changes will be allowed to happen is, however, another issue; there are so many interests that could be described as “vested”.

There are some key potential obstructions to reform. Firstly, is the rather obvious one: Egypt is now under martial law. The Higher Military Council does not exactly inspire much confidence as an agent for political reform. Secondly, Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who leads the new government, is hardly renowned for his progressive reform agenda. The septuagenarian leader of Egypt’s armed forces is an unlikely choice to facilitate the kind of changes pro-democracy protesters have been demanding. A deeply conservative figure, it is doubtful if he has much in the way of a well-considered direction towards greater political reform. Thirdly, and most seriously, is the position of the army itself. Historically dependent upon the Mubarak regime for its status and privileges, questions have to be asked about the army’s willingness to forego its power and privilege in exchange for democratic progress. Will it be happy to surrender control? What if another strongman emerges from within and is better positioned than Mubarak to survive protests? Does the army actually have either the capability or the readiness to implement the kinds of changes Egyptian people want?

So far, the army has made the welcome intimation that it is only governing in transition. It has also promised a free and fair presidential election in September. So far, so good. Egyptians will accept this development so long as it is a temporary measure and a precursor of further change. Mubarak’s departure was simply one of the protesters’ demands – the others being an end to the emergency laws and the dissolution of what is considered a corrupt and illegitimate parliament. At the moment it is simply too early to know if these demands will be acted on and, if so, to what degree.

A fourth problem is the inescapable truth that the foundations of tyranny run deep – not only in Egypt but in neighbouring states. Whether a “new wineskin” can be prepared into which the demands and fervent desires of Egypt’s politicised masses can be poured is uncertain. What is sure is that current political structures, based as they are on elitism and privilege, can not withstand the strain and pressure of the appetite for reform. Much of the ancien regime remains in place and has an obvious interest in its own preservation. If wise, it will embrace the momentum towards the new political reality, but that is by no means certain.

It will be truly incredible if Egypt’s “revolutionaries” accomplish a lasting shake-up of their country’s political and economic system. It is not entirely outwith the realms of possibility that they could do so. But a movement that is virtually leaderless and lacking in organisation is not necessarily in a strong position to direct either the pace or direction of reform.

A fifth issue of pertinence will be the role of the West. There can be no escaping the fact that Mubarak was, in many respects, a product of US foreign policy. It therefore follows that Western democracies, with their own political interests in preserving the status quo, are indirectly responsible for the plight of Egypt’s people. The past can not, however, be unravelled and undone. In the present circumstances Obama and Cameron seem to have got the balance right, encouraging protests without pressing their own agendas (at least not openly). What they are anxious to avoid, of course, is taking on the kind of role George W Bush naively imagined for himself – that of bringing “democracy” to the Middle East. No longer is it possible for Western leaders to express support for democracy while supporting individuals who suppress it. Neither is it possible to take on an overbearing or aggressive approach to issues of Middle Eastern politics.

The potential for democratising the Middle East is greater than ever before. Western nations must play an active role in encouraging this. We have seen unleashed the power of aspirational politics and it will be a betrayal of the Egyptian people if they are abandoned, as before. This of course does not mean that the West should openly interfere with the political process or manipulate it for its own ends. For too long “democracy” has meant little more than carrying out the wishes of Western powers. Such notions of democracy will not wash with the newly-politicised Egyptians, who understandably want the real thing this time. Britain, Germany, the EU and the US have a moral obligation to empower Egyptians to take control over their own destiny.

It’s a difficult thing to get right. Standing on the outside opens the West up to charges of negligence; too direct involvement leads to the perception of political manipulation. What must happen if for Egyptians to be given the chance to shape their own future. Not only do Western democracies have to accept this in both principle and practice – so does Israel and the far more conservative Arab League.

A final point I will make – a criticism in fact. While optimism and realism are required in equal doses for Egypt to move towards greater freedom, what is not needed are the innately conservative influences negatively predicting chaos, unrest and the ascendancy of militant Islam. Such people are not democrats, promoting what they consider “stability” instead of real change. They distrust Egypt’s people and are suspicious of the Egyptians’ ability to make decisions in their own interests. Such cynics point to the Muslim Brotherhood and predict, rather naively and with obvious prejudice, the emergence of an Islamic state.

Regrettably, some such cynics and purveyors of prejudice and fear appear to work for sections of the UK media, most notably the tabloid press. It is vital, therefore, to crush the myth that Egypt will fall to Islamic fundamentalists and the supposed radicalism of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Let’s get things straight: the Muslim Brotherhood is not in the same mould as al-Qaeda. It has a broad respect in Egypt, largely because it has been consistently and systematically repressed by the Mubarak regime. The MB does not advocate the use of violence as a tactic. Politically, the MB would be irrelevant if its mere existence had not presented Mubarak with a convenient bogeyman with which to frighten the US. Without him and the stability he provided, Mubarak maintained, Egypt would succumb to Islamic radicalism. Mubarak successfully used the MB, exaggerating its threat and significance to silence Western criticism of his regime and its shameful human rights record. And all the time the “Muslim threat” allowed Mubarak to clamp down even harder on Egyptian society in the interests of “security”.

Western commentators who have bought into Mubarak’s rhetoric – and broadcast it to a largely uninformed public – are doing democracy a disservice. Take a closer look at the protesters: where were the sectarian flags and banners? Where was the rhetoric of fundamentalist Islam? No-one was calling for an Islamic state, but for democratic values and personal freedoms. Even the MB’s demands were no more radical than a call for political inclusion – given that they were unfairly reduced to zero representation in the rigged 2010 elections, an understandable and perfectly democratic objective. The Egyptian people clearly believe that democracy is a preferable system of government, so why would they be supportive of a theocracy? It is actually rather surprising how small Islam loomed in the minds of the protesters, both in Egypt and Tunisia.

There are some who have drawn parallels between Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2010, but that too is short-sighted: why would the model of Shi’ite Iran appeal to the moderate Sunni majority in Egypt? It should also be noted that the military, who are now in control, are unlikely to support any efforts to create a new religious political order.

The MB retains some popular support, but this is based more on the fact that they are themselves a victim of anti-democratic oppression rather than any public sympathy with fundamentalist Islam. There also exists a loose unity between opposition parties who, in spite of differing political views, have a shared desire for removing the old regime. The MB went along with the secularist parties; in Tahrir Square Muslims and Christians held hands and expressed solidarity. Even if it had wanted to, the MB would have been incapable of hijacking the uprising, so how is it conceivable that it could create an Islamic state? The truth is that this “revolution” has turned a lot of conventional wisdom on its head, and has completely destroyed the Arab stereotype. Get that, Daily Mail.

The only way I can see the potential for a pro-Islamic movement is in the event of the Egyptians’ desire for democracy to be completely frustrated. If the hoped-for changes are not delivered, sections of the restive population may well be tempted by the messages of groups with less moderate objectives than the MB. But, as things stand, extreme Muslim organisations simply aren’t even attempting to compete in the marketplace of ideas, such is the strong appeal of democracy.

While we in the West might be obsessed by the MB, Egyptians are looking beyond it – to an Egypt with new political and economic opportunities. We should be similarly optimistic about Egypt’s potential. The established order has been unsettled, stirred up and, frankly, terrified. The incredible opportunities now possible are a testament to both grassroots activism and the power of the internet (which I addressed previously: Democratic ideals of internet-inspired revolution should be applauded) Obviously the result is uncertainty (not necessarily a bad thing) as well as new demands and expectations.

Egyptian democrats and liberals are finally finding their voices and are determined to seize the opportunity to shape their own destiny. Egyptian people need to be allowed to become the masters of their own fate, irrespective of Western concerns. Compromising democracy for “stability” would be duplicitous and dishonest – and potentially devastating. Egyptians have not only expressed a wish to be free of Mubarak’s oppression, they also want liberation from the West.

If the Egyptian revolution is allowed to run its course, with the West acting merely as a supportive and empowering friend, the consequences for democratic movements in the Arab world could be huge. If the appetite for democracy takes hold across the Middle East, where then does militant Islam go? Not only have the Egyptian people been enabled to demand democracy without Western involvement, it is also possible that democracy itself will trump Islamic militancy.

So what happens now? Let’s leave it to the Egyptians to decide, will we?

Friday, 11 February 2011

How effective are our leaders?

A couple of weeks ago Caron selected her ten favourite MSPs. It seemed like an interesting way to stimulate a discussion, but oddly her typically excellent post received no replies. Perhaps, like me, other readers found it difficult to argue with Caron's choices (the only difference I would make is to replace Patrick Harvie with my own MSP Trish Godman). Or maybe they just couldn't name ten MSPs...

John Swinney's Budget has quite rightly stimulated a fair amount of conversation (at least here in Scotland) about the merits of the various party leaders. Understandably, the focus in generally on Iain Gray and Alex Salmond but if the budget has proved anything it's that Tavish Scott can not be underestimated. He played his cards particularly effectively - which brings me to my question: which of the Scottish Party leaders is the most effective?

Obviously those of us affiliated to a particular party will inevitably lean towards our own leader. Of course I would rather have Tavish Scott as first Minister than any of the available alternatives. But if you were to ask me who I honestly felt was the most effective leader, rather than merely my favourite, I would find it a bit more difficult to give a definitive answer.

I'm asking the question because I'm genuinely interested in what fellow Scots think. Irrespective of party allegiances and loyalties, how do we view the efficacy of the respective leaders? I've started an online poll (which has attracted a few votes, thank you!), so please vote for your choice. Also, please feel free to comment - it would be good to get a discussion going on this one.

(Very) brief descriptions of the leaders:
Alex Salmond, SNP. - has had a difficult 12 months but Salmond is an immensely clever politician and, like Tony Blair, at his most impressive when speaking off the cuff. Has a gift for emerging strongly from difficult situations. has undoubted gravitas and experience. Capable strategist, but has seen his party fall behind Iain Gray's Labour Party in the polls.
Iain Gray, Labour. Re-elected to Holyrood in 2007 after a four-year absence, Gray has led Scottish Labour for the last two years. Has gradually evolved into a stronger performer at FMQs and has overseen a revival in Labour's fortunes, although this may not be directly attributable to his leadership. Lacks the colour and charisma of Salmond, but knows how to tap into the public mood for politial benefit (e.g. Megrahi) and is becoming more adept at disarming SNP attacks.
Tavish Scott, Lib Dems. Often overlooked as the "big two" battle it out at FMQs, Scott provides much is the way of sober-minded pragmatism. Sensible and thorough in his approach to Holyrood politics, he has so far done well at ensuring the Scottish party retains a distinct policy direction from the federal Lib Dems. Deserves real credit for creating opportunities from Swinney's seemingly unambitious Budget.
Annabel Goldie, Conservative. She is far more popular in the country than is her own party, which just about says everything. Competent performer, but like David McLetchie before her has not yet managed to oversee a significant upturn in the Tories' fortunes.
Patrick Harvie, Green. Outspoken and enigmatic, Harvie is one of those MSPs with undoubted conviction and is one of Holyrood's "characters". His force of personality and terrific debating ability provide a presence completely disproportionate to the Greens' numbers in parliament.
Colin Fox, SSP - sorry, felt obliged to include him just for the sake of balance.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Ultra-conservative BBC doesn't like "reform"

It seems the BBC is bowing to Ed Miliband-type demands.

You may remember that a couple of weeks ago Miliband got a bit angry about the BBC describing the coalition government as...well, a "coalition government".

Now the BBC is getting its knickers in a twist about electoral reform. Apparently, reforming an electoral system shouldn't be described as "electoral reform" because - you wouldn't believe it - the word reform is seen as "too positive"!

How ridiculous. Frankly, I can't believe my TV licence money goes to an organisation that gets so hot under the collar about the use of words - especially when this is the word that most adequately describes what is on the table. Surely the BBC doesn't understand the meaning of the word "reform" so I'm taking the liberty to educate them.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines reform as "to make an improvement". Which is what the "Yes" camp believe they are promoting. Where's the controversy? Surely a belief in changing for the better is integral to the "Yes" campaign's arguments, and therefore something the BBC should be projecting in its supposedly unbiased reporting?

Suggesting that the AV referendum isn't about electoral reform would come as a bit of a surprise to the Electoral Reform Society which is fronting the "Yes" campaign!

Jonathan Bartley, from the Yes to Fairer Votes Council, said: "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck - it's a duck. The BBC was bullied into this position by the old guard rallying behind the old politics - a deliberate attempt by a cynical elite to confuse the voters with misleading and inappropriate language. All we're asking for is a fair debate - the status quo vs reform. That doesn't seem like too much to ask does it?

"But we're not surprised - this is exactly the sort of thing we expected from the No Campaign. They know they don't have a serious argument for opposing change - so all they're left with is the same old dirty tricks and the Westminster games that got us into this mess."

Yes, we need a fair debate. So let's keep to calling things what they actually are, shall we? We don't need or want the BBC behaving like this. An organisation with the BBC's reputation should be responsible for using appropriate and informative language, not pandering to those who are opposed to change. We need a BBC whose reporting is balanced and fair - it can't be allowed to be cynically maipulated by the "No" campaign.

Whatever you're political persuasion, I know fellow Scots always like to call a spade a spade. Please add your name to this letter to the BBC, asking them to reverse the guidance that discourgaes the use of the word "reform" and urging them not to "hamper free and fair debate": BBC Letter

Lib Dem support secures improved Budget

John Swinney's controversial pre-election Budget has today been approved following lengthy negotiations with opposition parties. Following several days of bargaining, Swinney has felt compelled to offer significant concessions to ensure the Budget will go forward.

The Liberal Democrats have been opposed to Swinney's Budget, largely because it failed to do enough to aid economic growth. The party was particularly critical that there was insufficient within the Budget for either students or for enterprise. However, very late in the day, the Lib Dems have moved away from this position after Swinney pledged to increase college bursaries and offer further concessions on places and modern apprenticeships. Swinney has also accepted the case for increased support for Post Offices.

This is a tremendously welcome development, and is evidence of the hard work undertaken by the Liberal Democrats to ensure the best possible outcome. It is also testament to the negotiating skill of the Lib Dem team in their dealings with John Swinney, who is a canny and capable political operator. Perhaps most significantly, this is proof of the benefits of collaborative approaches to politics; the Lib Dems could easily have maintained "principled" outright opposition but instead preferred - correctly - to influence the outcome of the Budget for the better.

Lib Dem Finance spokesperson Jeremy Purvis MSP explained that the budget must be stronger for students in order to regrow the economy. He said "It looks as if the Government has accepted our case...this is a better budget. It’s better for young people wanting the skills they and we need for the economy. It’s better for colleges that will able to provide more opportunities. And it’s better for businesses that will have more opportunities to take on apprentices. Students now have additional places at college and bursary support. So students gain, the economy gains, employers gain and the country gains. We have also secured funding for additional modern apprentices and funding for a second year of our Post Office Diversification Fund....This is a better budget because of Liberal Democrat involvement."

Indeed it is. Credit should go where it is due. Scott, Purvis and the Lib Dem team have ensured a more responsible Budget. I should also in fairness highlight the Conservative influence - while their aggressive demands for private sector job creation and public sector reform were unlikely to be satisfied in full, they helped ensure an emphasis on economic recovery rather than short-term protection of services. John Swinney, for all the SNP's irresponsible threats of using a nuclear option and resigning from government, also emerges from this with a great deal of credit: without his determination to see his budget through and to resolve conflict rather than create further turmoil little would have been achieved. His consistently pragmatic approach is at odds with Alex Salmond's expressed wish for the SNP front bench to resign en masse if the Budget was rejected - a tactic which would have aimed merely at blaming opposition parties for the Budget's failure rather than putting together the best package for Scottish people. Swinney has proved that reason outflanks petulance and tribal politicking when it comes to delivering positive outcomes.

Liam Burns, President of NUS Scotland (not an organisation that has been too positive about the Lib Dems in recent months) said: "This is great news and testament to the hard work of thousands of college students across Scotland and the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Students across colleges and universities have mobilised fantastically well, with over 32,000 letters and emails sent to MSPs on this issue. To win £15 million college bursaries, and £8 million for college places, in a budget which is being cut is a fantastic result. We hope this will now end the yearly ritual of college bursaries running out and end the threat of cuts to 40,000 of our poorest students."

Tavish Scott has done exceptionally well here. He has helped secure a better Budget for Scotland. However, he has also used the issue of student support to set an agenda for the Scottish Lib Dems that is distinct from that of the Westminster coalition. He's shown he's determined to be his own man and work to increase student participation - and he's gained a key concession from Swinney and made student welfare a priority at a time when the party at Westminster is being criticised for supporting the government's rise in tuition fees.

Hopefully Scott can take his distinctive message to the electorate in advance of the Holyrood elections. Certainly, the Lib Dems' principled and pragmatic actions in securing a more positive and responsible Budget should send out a clear message about the party's fitness for government. However, this isn't a victory for Liberal Democrats. It's a victory for what Nick Clegg terms grown-up politics; the politics of negotiation and co-operation.

Scottish government responds to petition

The Scottish government has responded to my petition, which called for appropriate legislation to tackle the problem of ticket-touting in Scotland.

I have previously discussed the problem on here: Help make ticket-touting history
The government's reply is this:

What are your views on the issue raised in the petition?

The Scottish Government firmly opposes ticket touting as it exposes consumers to unscrupulous practices which can involve a heavy financial cost with little guarantee. We encourage all consumers to ensure that, when they are buying tickets, be that for football matches or any other event, that they do so from officially recognised sources and current schemes such as consumer direct offer invaluable advice on this.

On the re-sale of football tickets for Scottish domestic and international fixtures, we would expect football clubs and organisations such as the recognised governing body for football, the Scottish Football Association (SFA), to have robust procedures and mechanisms in place to ensure that tickets for football matches under their jurisdiction are being distributed appropriately. The Scottish Government notes that further questions are directed towards the SFA and the Scottish Premier League and they should be able to outline the procedures they have in place.

Is there any reason why you have not taken these steps previously?

The Scottish Government do not believe that legislation is necessary in Scotland to prohibit the resale of football tickets as we are not aware of this being a significant issue at this time. We recognise that there are a small number of matches where demand may exceed supply but we do not believe at this stage that legislation is required as the majority of international and domestic matches take place without all the tickets being sold.

Would you be willing to take the action requested by the petitioner?

In considering introducing any legislation, the Scottish Government would have to be satisfied that legislation was necessary and that there was no satisfactory alternative. At this moment in time we do not believe that legislation is a proportionate response given only a small number of football matches in Scotland are sold out.


Where do you start with this? While accepting the premise that legislation is only necessary when there is no satisfactory alternative, I simply can not accept that this is "not a significant issue at this time". The "evidence" that "only a small number of football matches in Scotland are sold out" is irrelevant, and proves nothing. That is also true in England and Wales (in fact, in the case of Wales I can't imagine there ever being a sold-out league game!) - and also in Holland - where legislation has already been implemented.

So, Albion Rovers and Morton and their fellow lower-division teams don't suffer from the problem of touting. True, I've never seen a tout outside either Cliftonhill or Cappielow. But the fact is that, in Scotland, the majority of games do not attract the majority of fans and the truth is that there is a problem in relation to fixtures involving the Old Firm, the Scottish national team (at least when they're playing decent opposition) and some games in the Scottish Cup. And as even the Daily Record appreciates, the Scotland v Spain fixture was an extreme example of the damage ticket touting can do to the game when unchecked.

As for the patronising "people should only buy their tickets from properly recognised sources" - how realistic is that? There are many reasons why for certain games, especially where demand is particularly high, that individuals will go through whatever channels they can to obtain a ticket. The fact that demand isn't so high for most games in Scotland is hardly justification to allow unsafe and unethical practices to continue. People are buying tickets at vastly inflated prices (last week on eBay there were several tickets for the Old firm game selling at well over £100 each) and will continue to do so. Clearly, the SFA's "robust procedures and mechanisms" are not working and should at the very least be re-examined.

I will be making these points in a response for consideration by the Public Petitions Committee. I will, of course, post news of any further developments.

Friday, 4 February 2011

The myth of social mobility

BBC 2 screened a documentary on Wednesday, asking "Who gets the best jobs?"

It scarcely revealed anything new or unknown, but that in itself doesn't mean the exercise was not a worthwhile one. Far from it; it showed how much more there is still to do to ensure genuine equality of opportunity. It also highlighted growing social inequalities and the unfortunate truth that social mobility is largely a myth.

So what were the essential findings? In a nutshell, an individual's ability is less of a qualification than money or contacts; that the top professions are disproportionately occupied by those who have been privately educated; in particular, medicine and law are dominated by those from affluent backgrounds - basically, the more money you have and the more privileged you are, the better your life chances. Hardly rocket science, is it? You know, I think I'm getting the hang of this documentary production business.

As some of you may know, I come from a distinctly less than privileged background to put it mildly. In my late teens, I thought I was going up in the world when I moved out of a homeless hostel and into a council flat in Sighthill (I did go up in the world, all the way to the ninth floor!). I'd always been a bright kid and achieved Bs in my Highers (pretty good going for my school, where turning up was something of an achievement), but the culture of hopelessness I was surrounded by meant that I never considered university as an option. My family was not supportive in any case.

However, I did manage to develop aspirations beyond those that most people I know were comfortable with. I studied for a BA in History and then, after some years working in the health sector, successfully applied to study Medicine (as part of a scheme supposedly aimed at "widening access" but did nothing of the sort). My mum and brother didn't care for my new ambitions; my mum felt that I should "just accept my place in life - trying to get above yourself will just get you frustrated"; an understandable attitude based on the gritty realism of persistent rejection. My brother was initially openly hostile, interpreting a desire for self-improvement as a rejection of my "roots" and family - although his attitudes have changed since as he's appreciated what stripping away someoone's aspirations can do to them.

There remains a poverty of ambition - a culture of accepting failure as the norm - that severely limits the opportunities of many young people and which I was desperate to overcome. But of course this is only part of the wider problem. As I found out, aspiration and ability were never going to be enough. The "system" was so biased towards those with means and contacts that there could be said to be an institutional prejudice against those who are less well off. It may not be intentional, but it's certainly there.

Firstly, it was difficult on a social level. Not only was my life experience so different from the average public school educated medical student, I was also a fair bit older. I soon discovered that even being considered for an interview required good personal contacts: relevant work experience within medicine was a pre-requisite. I was lucky in that I'd worked in the NHS and my consultant was happy to recommend me. But how many other disadvantaged would-be medical students can easily find work with a doctor? How many even know a doctor? As a result, the whole process is biased in favour of those with contacts (often whose parents are also members of the medical profession) who are generally drawn from a very narrow section of society. Medicine is a privileged profession and unless action is taken to eradicate inequalities in education will remain so.

Even "widening access" schemes don't always do what they say on the tin. In my case, a degree in a different discipline was a necessary qualification. So, essentially, this ruled out many bright young people who hadn't had the opportunity to study at University in the first instance. An unintended effect of this was that, for me, the very thing that allowed me access to this most privileged of professions, was also the very thing that disqualified me from funding. Because I'd had previous financial help I had to fund my medical degree myself. To the tune of over £3,000 per year in fees, paid in advance - and that doesn't include living costs, etc. It wouldn't have seemed so unfair if fellow students, whose parents had paid £16,000 per year to send them to public school, didn't receive support and help I wasn't eligible for.

"Widening access" schemes can actually be by nature highly discriminatory. For example, Manchester University offered an Access to Medicine course which required its applicants to live in designated areas. So here we had entry by postcode - hardly an inclusive approach. And so far I've also omitted to mention the GAMSAT entry exam, which costs around £350 just to sit. How many underprivileged young people can actually afford that?

So can a boy from Sighthill become a doctor? Maybe, but as far as I know it hasn't happened yet. I had to quit before even being halfway through my studies - the worst part was, when formally leaving the course, the Head of the School told me that "it's a shame you're leaving, as we've seen nothing in your performance that would suggest you wouldn't be a good doctor." And that is supposed to make me feel better? However, I got further than most people expected, which should be a small consolation but actually demonstrates how strongly most of society feel they (and others like them) are excluded from the top professions. As Alan Milburn commented during the documentary, the "not for the likes of me" syndrome is a problem which has never adequately been tackled. Nor is it likely to be in the near future. As a result we can clearly see the existence of two separate worlds with segregated labour markets, and "social distance" becoming ever wider. It is this reality that I can't quite escape from, however much I try, and which BBC2 depicted with surprising accuracy.

I do want to make something of my life, and in recent years have been very tempted by the prospect of internships. For example, I have been advised that to really get ahead in photography, I should apply for intern roles with some London-based companies and prestigious magazines. That would be great, but - sorry, Mr Milburn - this really isn't for the likes of me. I know it now. My mum was right. I just can't take time out of my life to spend a few months in London, working for free. Similarly, to get ahead in politics now it's expected that you take an internship or work for an MP for a while. Again, it's something I simply can't do - for reasons of finance and basic geography.

BBC2 deserve some credit for exploring in some detail the nature of internships and how a system ostensibly allowing those with aspiration the opportunity to gain valuable experience and a "foot in the door" is, in fact, merely allowing big earners to pull away from the rest of us. It allows the buying of advantage. Internships are now becoming a pre-requisite for many jobs, but are in reality only open to those who can afford to spend months working for nothing, and generally only those who live in London or can afford to relocate there. It's pretty near impossible for those of us who live in a council house in Inverclyde!

So, privilege and access to wealth not only buy places at public schools and therefore also the best universities, it also determines who is able to benefit from internships. It's the London-centric nature of the "opportunities" that particularly grinds with me. It seems that a combination of access to wealth and proximity to London is the new currency by which people enter prestigious employment. So much for the notion of meritocracy.

On a slightly different note, the Guardian yesterday reported that the government is cutting all its funding to the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC). This group's aim is, unsurprisingly, increasing female representation in the scientific professions. And that's vital work, because only 12.5% of that workforce is currently female. This follows the decision in November to axe the Women's National Commission, which helped ensure the government took seriously women's interests into account in its decision making. It would appear that, as the government tightens its belt, groups working to advance equality and inclusion will be among the worst hit. The attitude, it seems, is that equality is an admirable objective in times of boom, but can be sidelined when funding is reduced.

This is short-sighted and counter-productive. Alan Milburn argued effectively that it is the fairer societies that prosper economically as well as socially. Fairness and aspiration go together and, when actively encouraged, can yield dividends. We all lose out when so much talent is prevented from fulfilling its potential. The economic growth our country needs is dependent on a new and inclusive approach towards education, research and innovation.

I don't know what all the solutions are. But here's a start. There are significant social and psychological barriers that remain for the less well-off in our society. There have in recent years been some positive steps forward for women and ethnic minorities - this kind of improvement means that Medicine is no longer the preserve of white, middle-class, privately educated men but instead that of just the middle-class and privately educated of all races and genders. The emphasis has to be changed. We have to promote inclusion and tackle inequality in all its forms - not merely where it applies to specified groups. Effort has to be given over to actively supporting disadvantaged people into professions; by this I don't mean ill-conceived "access" courses but a practical agenda to level the playing field from an early an age as possible. Attacking the aspirational deficit and poverty of hope in many of our underprivileged communities would be a real start.

Of course there has to be a lot more done for women and those from ethnic minorities, which remain under-represented in certain professions. But that can not be the whole of any responsible campaign to eradicate social inequalities and facilitate the social mobility Nick Clegg clearly cares to much about. I know of Jo Swinson's praiseworthy "Real Women" campaign, but where is the "Real Unemployed Men from Glasgow Council Estates" campaign helping those with little or no aspiration to develop the self-belief and hope to lead more fulfilling lives? I am also aware of the equally vital Lib Dem Campaign for Gender Balance, but where the necessary project assisting the underprivileged into political careers? No, I didn't mean internships.

The government has to look at innovative means of empowering talented young people to fulfil their potential and enter the top careers. Whatever my mixed experience of being enabled to study Medicine, it never felt empowering and I was never supported. We don't need patronising, targeted positive discrimination projects which amount to little more than box-ticking exercises - but a means of helping people to help themselves, to open doors that are currently closed to the majority. Of course, changing the profile of a profession takes time and in the case of Medicine any change is welcome; however, it is vital to put forward a coherent, realistic long-term plan at improving social mobility rather than merely advocating a number of short-term measures whose success is often compromised by economic pressures.

Businesses also have a role to play, albeit with support from government. A fairer alternative to internships has to be developed. Admittedly funding is understandably limited, but again it's the long-term approach that will see results. Businesses want to attract the best talent and it is in their interests to move towards a more inclusive approach that rewards talent rather than wealth; they too should be empowered to provide vital and valuable work experience irrespective of an individual's means.

Nick Clegg is right when he talks up the importance of social mobility. But such talk must be matched with a willingness to take action. The cost of not doing so is economic and social stagnation.