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Sunday, 30 December 2012

Merger and Resistance: History repeating itself in Andorra

I have something of an interest in European politics which may not be immediately obvious given most of my writing is quite Scotland-centric.

I have been sufficiently intrigued by the politics of the small principality of Andorra recently to read a little about its recent history.  It really is quite a fascinating study for various reasons, not least on account of the complex democratic system that such a small nation has in place.

I have to confess my principal purpose in researching Andorra's political system was to explore the relationship the country had with the EU. It is intriguing that a nation that is not a member of the EU should adopt the Euro as its currency, largely on account of relationships with its neighbours.  I was also interested in the constitutional anomaly that while the 1993 Constitution of Andorra provided for a democratic modern state respecting human rights and international law, it also allowed for the continuation of the strange practice by which the position of Head of State is jointly shared by the president of France and the Catalan Bishop of Urgell.

Quite uniquely Andorra can claim to be the only nation with two heads of state - one elected and the other appointed by the church of a foreign power.  In the the form of the French president, Andorra also can lay claim to being the only country whose elected head of state is chosen entirely by the popular vote of a neighbouring nation.  It is an odd arrangement, owing more to tradition that the near pure democracy inherent in the system of election for the General Council.

Politics in Andorra have in recent years been dominated by the Liberal Party, our partners in both the Liberal International and the ELDR.  In 2009, however, following 15 consecutive years of Liberal Party rule, the Liberals entered into an alliance known as the Reformist Coalition to see off the threat of the Social Democratic Party.  It was ultimately unsuccessful, with the SDP emerging as the largest party in the election but crucially one seat short of an overall majority.  This led to significant difficulties in approving the budget and an early election.

The alliance continued into the new parliament and ahead of new elections in 2011, with another stalemate beckoning, sought to extend its progressive collaboration by making overtures to the SDP.  What followed was essentially a merger between the Liberal Party and part of the SDP - plus United for Progress which had been a member of the Reformist Coalition.  The new name of the merged party?  The Democrats.

And just to reinforce the feelings of deja vu, many members of the SDP opted against merger and are continuing the fight, led by the Owenesque personality of Jaume Bartumeu.  In spite of his political experience he led his continuing SDP to crushing defeat in 2011.  Even more intriguingly, disgruntled members of the Liberal Party who did not agree to the merger to form the Democrats have decided to create a new continuing Liberal Party and contest the next election. Their new president, Jorge Gallado, was elected by a special conference at which 30 members were present.  He already seems something of a Michael Meadowcroft figure, intellectual yet charismatic - although his party seem more interested in debating a construction of a new mosque than they do the realignment of Andorran politics that Gallado seems to yearn for.  The new Liberal Party has not been accepted into the Liberal International.

It will be interesting to see which, if either, of the "continuing" traditions emerges as the principal challenger to the Democrats.

All this sounds incredibly familiar.  Why any political leaders would wish to relive the difficult experiences of 1987-1990 I cannot comprehend.  You might have thought the Andorrans would learn the lessons from British politics - or at least the histories of our Liberal and Social Democratic parties.  I wish the new Democrats well, although I would warn them to consider carefully the potential ramifications of entering into any future coalitions with the conservative UniĆ³ Laurediana...

Saturday, 29 December 2012

My top posts of 2012


I haven’t been quite as prolific in my blogging as I was last year and for a couple of months abandoned it completely.  However, this hasn’t deterred people from reading my ramblings – these are the most popular (or at least most read) posts of the last year.

1)  Better Together campaign launched.  I was less than impressed with the launch.  I'm still less than impressed with Better Together.

2)  Willie Rennie must provide evidence of SNP-English Democrats link.  The Scottish party leader used federal conference to allege that the two parties are "working together" and "sharing ideas".  I suggest, in the absence of firm evidence, that he's misleading conference.

3)  Illiberal Scottish council silences 9 year old girl.  I am angered by Argyll & Bute Council's unnecessarily authoritarian actions.

4)  So, Nick Clegg thinks I’m an extremist .  The deputy Prime Minister suggests that those who support independence are "extremists".

5)  Leadership defeats pro-change rebels at Scottish conference.  A call for an alternative alternative to the constitutional status quo was roundly defeated.

6)  Do we really want to be associated with this?  Why would any liberal want to associate themselves with the negative tribalism and ill-considered rhetoric of the unionist parties, I ask.  "Why can't Lib Dems stand aside from the hideous, shallow spectacle of political immaturity and articulate something more reasonable, more sensible, more liberal?"

7) Gay ex-footballer talks openly to A Scottish Liberal.  I interview a friend who is both gay and a one-time professional footballer.  

8)  David Steel's wife supports Scottish independence.  Judy Steel seems an unlikely rebel.

9)  First Minister booed at Olympic celebrations.  Alex Salmond was indeed booed in Glasgow's George Square but I refuse to draw much significance from it.  He is a Hearts fan after all...

10)  Lib Dem bloggers quiz Willie Rennie.  The Scottish leader agreed to be interviewed by a panel of bloggers.

And they are my top ten posts of 2012.  The top posts of 2011 can be viewed here.

My predictions for 2013

And so another year draws to an end.  It’s not been the best of years for the Liberal Democrats, with less than impressive performances in local elections and parliamentary by-elections and with our ambition of achieving long overdue reform of the House of Lords kicked into touch by a Prime Minister more concerned about his own backbenchers than he is the relationship with his coalition partners.  

But it’s also been a year in which Scottish leader Willie Rennie has shown a little more of what he’s capable of, in which Nick Clegg issued the famous (and, when put to music, hilarious) apology and in which Michael Moore has demonstrated what an asset he is to the Scottish Office and the party more generally.  It’s been another year in which conference again proves itself to be the flagbearer for liberal values, sending out clear messages to our parliamentarians on secret courts – and a year in which equal marriage came a step closer, in no small measure due to Liberal Democrat determination.  

Of course it will be one that most Liberal Democrats will be happy to put behind us.  From a purely political perspective, we’ve had better years.  However, this was also the year of the Olympics, Andy Murray winning a Grand Slam title, Bradley Wiggins’ astonishing successes, The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Manchester City winning the premiership and England losing to Italy on penalties in Euro 2012.  So, all in all, 2012 has been a memorable year for many of the right reasons – on a personal note the birth of baby Xanthe in July is the obvious highlight of a year that was something of an emotional rollercoaster.

In previous years I’ve made my own predictions for the coming year, which are generally more entertaining and slightly more accurate than those made by the Mayans.  This year, I’ve decided to do it again and share with you my own thoughts about what the new year will bring.

POLITICS

The Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems will continue to do poorly in by-elections, trailing behind UKIP and the Greens.  The media will present this as evidence of electoral meltdown, in spite of the fact that the party never had a political base in these constituencies nor any realistic hopes of winning.  Nick Clegg states that these embarrassing results will be a thing of the past once voters begin to grasp what an important job we’re doing in government.

Everyone will continue to look to Tim Farron as a potential new leader, especially The Guardian, The Independent and Liberal Left.   Farron will be at pains to stress his loyalty to the current leader, while pointing out that our current difficulties are temporary and that eventually we will be rewarded when the public begin to grasp what an important job we’re doing in government.

Late in the year we will come third in a by-election, with Nick Clegg pronouncing that a corner has been turned and that voters are now beginning to grasp what an important job we’re doing in government.

The free vote on the Equal Marriage proposals will see some Liberal Democrat MPs vote against the party line, causing internal conflict and with the MPs concerned vilified by many party members and activists.  The legislation will pass but the myth of Lib Dem unity on the matter will have been utterly compromised.

Liberal Left will drift into relative obscurity, save for the conference season when its shrill near deification of Beveridge and distorted historical views of Gladstone are allowed to form the basis of a misguided attack on the party’s current direction.  More influential will be the Social Liberal Forum, who will be increasingly perceived as the party’s conscience and more intelligent in respect to choosing their battles and in the way their criticisms are expressed.  

Relations with the Conservatives will become even more strained, most notably on Europe.  Clegg will, however, remain determined to see out the five-year term – arguing that voters would never take the party seriously if it withdrew from the coalition and that, in any case, voters will reward us when they begin to grasp what an important job we’re doing in government.

In Scotland, Willie Rennie will provide determined leadership in addition to a welcome relief from the usual entrenched tribalism on display at Holyrood.  Rennie’s problem will continue to be in communicating a positive, distinctive and forward-looking vision when his voice is either largely ignored by the media or drowned out by the negative rhetoric of our “partners” in Better Together.  

The differentiation strategy will be largely ineffective, not least because they way in which it is carried out suggests a government divided against itself and a rather desperate junior coalition partner.  It amounts to little more than a statement that “We’re not Tories y’know!”  and will simply play into the hands of Labour.  Well, it would if they had the sense to capitalise on it.

The Conservative Party

The Prime Minister will continue to pander to the whims of his party’s right wing.  The liberal values and co-operative approaches he once claimed to champion will be shown to be little more than a pitiful, if regrettably successful, attempt to persuade Liberal Democrats that partnership would be in their interests.

The Conservatives will indulge their obsession for the EU, demanding referenda on our future relationship or at the very least a renegotiation of our terms of membership.  Rather than challenge this idiocy, Cameron will agree to making a half-hearted attempt to secure renegotiation that will please no-one and alienate everyone including the usually loyal Nick Clegg who is spitting feathers.  

Nadine Dorries will continue making intemperate contributions from the backbenches, restricting such interventions to matters surrounding gay people, abortion, the EU, abortion, being on the TV and abortion.  Towards the end of the year she will form a new breakaway party...of one.

George Osborne will not be moved on his economic strategy even though it is evidently not working.  Objections from some Liberal Democrats to the effects of austerity will be used to further justify the government’s economic direction to Conservative MPs.  

Some Conservative MPs will form a group determined to wreck the planned bill for Equal Marriage.  They will be led by Bill Cash and Peter Bone and will claim to speak for a “moral majority” in spite of being little more than a public embarrassment for the Prime Minister.  Ultimately their efforts will be in vain.
  
Peter Bone will be revealed to be a closet homosexual and, to pre-empt the press, releases a statement in which he admits to his gay identity.  He also reveals that when the law is changed he will marry Brian Souter immediately.

The Labour Party

Ed Miliband will embark on a strategy to woo disaffected Liberal Democrats.  It will go something like this: “Your party has let you down so come to us so we can parade you at our conference as some kind of trophy.  You should consider yourself very lucky and privileged that we should reach out to you in this way.”

Miliband will struggle to present himself as Prime Minister in waiting.  On the other hand Chuka Umunna, quite unintentionally of course, looks more like a future leader with every passing TV interview.  

Ed Balls will appear less and less credible as shadow chancellor and will struggle to communicate a coherent alternative economic strategy – not least because he doesn’t have one.  Labour big beasts such as Alistair Darling and Ed Miliband’s older brother who everyone seems to have forgotten about, will put pressure on the leader to replace Balls with someone of calibre, economic experience and political competence.  Instead he appoints Caroline Flint.

Labour will do well in parliamentary by-elections – largely in safe seats where incumbent Labour MPs have stepped down after being disgraced for mishandling their parliamentary expenses.  

Unfortunately for Labour they will be increasingly seen as a reaction party, opposing virtually everything proposed by the government but not able to formulate any positive ideas of their own.

Johann Lamont will continue to prove that under her leadership Scottish Labour is little more than a party of tribal reactivists whose loathing of the Liberal Democrats is secondary to their pathological hatred of the SNP.  Lamont will herself extend her own differentiation strategy, intentionally reshaping or discarding good Labour policy to distinguish her party from Alex Salmond’s evil nationalists.  The fact that she’s defining her party by what the SNP says and does will be completely lost on her.

The Scottish National Party

It was a difficult year for Alex Salmond and his party.  Labour staged a fightback in the local elections.  Salmond’s popularity has dipped a little although his public approval rating remains higher than every other political leader.  Support for independence remains static.  Things won’t improve greatly in 2013, but the SNP will continue to dominate Scottish politics and – more importantly – the political conversation.

Nicola Sturgeon will prove to be the star of Scottish politics, not only on account of her more obvious political skills but also due to her success in handling her infrastructure, investment and cities portfolio.  Her comfortable debating style, evident understanding of how issues affect people and her personal warmth will have an obvious appeal to those who dislike the perceived arrogance of the First Minister.  Her destiny as the SNP’s leader-in-waiting will not be questioned.

The SNP will dominate Yes Scotland in the same way that Labour dominates Better Together.  Unlike Labour, the SNP aren’t comfortable with this (or at least the suggestion that Yes Scotland is merely an extension of the SNP’s campaigning machine) and Yes Scotland will make overtures to pro-independence groups within other parties and none.  Independence will remain high on the political agenda, and lack of clarity on detail will cause some significant headaches for Alex Salmond.  

The debate on Scotland’s role within the EU will not go away and what should be a complex question of Scotland’s future relationship with the rest of Europe will become reduced to a political football and a juvenile argument about who did or did not say something and what they meant or did not mean by it.  In all this it will be easy to lose sight of the fact that Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Moore, is in a position to obtain crucial answers in respect to Scotland’s position in the EU.  It will become even easier to forget that what really matters is that whatever the outcome of the referendum, Scotland is better off in the EU.

Unemployment in Scotland will fall slightly, leading to the SNP making wildly overreaching claims about their responsibility for it. 

INTERNATIONAL

The civil war in Syria will come to an end, with President Assad fleeing into exile.  The new government will be made of opposition leaders, most of whom are former Ba’ath Party devotees who defected at an opportune time.  Like the new government in Egypt, the Syrian administration will have limited respect, or use, for democracy.  The inappropriately named Arab Spring will have finally burned itself out.

Concerns about the Pope’s health abound later in the year.  Even greater concerns abound at the fact that Cardinal Keith O’Brien has an eye on the papal mitre.

President Obama will struggle to keep the US economy under control, something that doesn’t stop Ed Balls from aspiring to create an American-style economy as a basis for British recovery.   On an international front, Obama will regrettably achieve very little this year although some progress will be made in Afghanistan.

The Eurozone will survive but huge difficulties remain.  Greece will increasingly resent the harsh realities of imposed austerity and will consider withdrawal from the Euro and potentially the EU.  Many Italians on the other hand feel that the solution to their nation’s economic woes is to re-elect Silvio Burlusconi as Prime Minister for the 56th time.  Some people never learn.

FOOTBALL

Celtic will win the SPL and Manchester United the Premiership. 

Morton will come agonisingly close to being promoted to the SPL, losing out to Partick Thistle by one point.  St Mirren will somehow avoid relegation yet again.

Albion Rovers will be relegated from Division 2, thus not having to “entertain” Rangers and their fans at Cliftonhill in the following season.  Every cloud has a silver lining.

Roberto Mancini will be dismissed at the end of the season in which Manchester City win nothing.  Rafa Benitez will be sacked next week after his team fail to beat QPR by the same margin with which they overcame Aston Villa.  “We scored only seven goals, it isn’t good enough” insists Abramovich.


My predictions for previous years can be found here:

Predictions for 2012 (stunningly accurate!) 
Predictions for 2011 (not so stunningly accurate)  

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Equal marriage: freedom of religion or politically motivated authoritarianism?


And so – first the good news.

The very good news.

As a photographer I will shortly no longer have to hear the discriminatory phrase “according to the law of this country, marriage is the union of one man with one woman” when working at weddings.  As a believer in, and advocate for, marriage equality this is indeed very welcome.  I am absolutely delighted that marriage is being redefined – as it has of course many times previously – to enable same-sex couples to have the same legal rights to marry as opposite-sex couples.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller’s announcement today was not entirely unexpected.  What was somewhat surprising is the degree to which she appears determined to appease Conservative backbenchers and religious traditionalists.  I am genuinely shocked and concerned at the weakness and insecurity Conservative ministers have demonstrated on this issue, which in turn highlights how grateful we should be to Lynne Featherstone and our Liberal Democrat parliamentarians for their dedication and energies, which have ensured that equal marriage legislation is all but set to become reality.

It is not, however, the legislation I would have either hoped for or envisaged.  On the first count, I accept that being in coalition with a party that boasts amongst its parliamentarians such luminaries as Peter Bone and Nadine Dorries, some form of compromise was inevitable.  But the compromise that I foresaw was not a legalised form of institutional homophobia or a licence to discriminate on the superficial basis of sexual orientation.  I suspect many other progressive Christians are equally disturbed by this unexpected development, not least those who are members of the Church of England.

Ms Miller intimated that the government will “explicitly state that it will be illegal for the Churches of England and Wales to marry same-sex couples”.  Read that again.  

It will be ILLEGAL 

ILLEGAL.  

I still can’t quite believe it.  Even her justification didn’t make any sense: the Church of England had “explicitly stated” its opposition, she claimed, so therefore it was only right for the government to “explicitly” reinforce the Church’s entitlement to legal exception. 

She wasn’t using that logic when pressing the Church of England to rethink its internal democracy after the furore over women bishops.

So, let’s get this right.  Ms Miller is only capable of seeing the Church of England, and therefore looking at the wider issue, through the prism of institutional authoritarianism.  She doesn’t view the church as a collection of individuals with widely differing views on this and many other matters.  She doesn’t see the gay Christians, the progressive movements within Anglicanism such as Inclusive Church or the many clergy who have taken a stand for marriage equality.  She has listened to a vocal minority, and assumed – wrongly – that they speak for the majority.  And so the Church of England, which contains so many more inclusivists than – for example – the Plymouth Brethren, will be legally barred from conducting same-sex marriage against the wishes of many of its members and clergy while hardline evangelical churches will be able to “opt” to marry those they actively discriminate against.  It’s an absurd situation whereby those most in favour of legislation are banned from participating while those most vehemently opposed have the option to perform same-sex marriages should they at some point before Hell freezes over decide they want to.

My friends, who are committed Christians and members of the Church of England, I’m sure would love to be married in their own church but will be legally prevented from doing so.  That is not in the spirit of religious freedom that supposedly underpins these proposals.  It also asks why, given the proposed legislation will not force any church to conduct same-sex marriages and that there is provision for an opt out, it was necessary to go as far as to make it illegal for one specific church to even consider allowing itself the opportunity to do as other denominations will be legally permitted. Make no mistake - this is quite different to the issue of women bishops.  The Church Synod won't be able to make another decision in a few years' time.  That right has been taken away from them by legislation supposedly promoting religious freedom.  

It seems that there are a number of political motivations behind this misguided proposal, not entirely disconnected with the Church of England’s identity as The Established Church.  Whatever her reasons, Miller has gone too far and risks creating potentially divisive tensions within the Church which will not now be permitted the luxury, as in the case of the Church of Scotland, to embark on a period of sober reflection on the way forward. 

I can only imagine this is Maria Miller’s revenge for the Church of England’s refusal to accept women into the bishopric.  Clearly she wasn’t too pleased with the outcome and is now determined to render the Church socially irrelevant.  Or perhaps she was simply highlighting the urgent need for the Church of England to be disestablished and for its historic unmerited privileges to be revoked.  If today has shown anything it’s that a liberal society is a secular society, and that such a society can only be achieved if the established church is afforded precisely the same freedoms as any other religious organisation.

We’ve heard throughout the debate so far that marriage equality is a “conscience issue”.  I don't actually agree – for me it’s a basic question of human rights.  But if we’re going to promote it as a conscience issue for parliamentarians, why can’t the same logic be used when applied to the Church of England and its clergy?  As the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan explained, “it should be left for us to opt in or opt out."  Another leading Anglican, the Bishop of Leicester, criticised politicians encroaching into the sphere of religious freedom and warned of widening divisions between “political classes” and the Christian faithful while former Bishop Richard Harries was eager to put on record the significant level of support equal marriage had within the Church. 

Miller’s interference represents the very worst kind of politics.  Not only is it authoritarian and arrogant, but also totally unnecessary.  The legislation as proposed by Maria Miller should be resisted because it is by nature homophobic.  It allows – in fact, it compels – an organisation to discriminate against an already oppressed minority on the basis of something it cannot change.  It will be legislation that reinforces discrimination and that does so purely on the grounds of sexual orientation.  For all the positives contained within the proposals, Liberal Democrats must oppose this heavy handed and ham-fisted approach from the minister.  It runs contrary to everything any liberal thinker believes in. 

There is little question that momentum is with the progressives and that marriage equality is now a virtual certainty.  It is supported by the Liberal Democrats, almost all of the Labour Party and a fair proportion of the Conservatives.  I want to see marriage equality become reality – I’ve long campaigned for it.  But I don’t want to see it delivered with these shameful conditions attached.  I believe that sometimes political compromise is not only necessary but inevitable - even desirable - but in this case there really is no need for this divisive, discriminatory and frankly illogical proposal from Miller.  Rather than celebrating the pending advent of marriage equality, Liberal Democrats should be considering how to ensure the legislation is carried without unnecessary exceptions being applied for the Church of England.

I’m not convinced the Church of England actually wants this exception, other than perhaps as a means of avoiding a fraught internal wrangling on the issue against which the battle for gender equality would pale into insignificance.  I hope that, in addition to liberals across the political spectrum standing up for real religious freedom, many Anglicans also join the fight for freedom from government interference.  Already I have spoken to a number of Anglican Christians, none of which welcome today’s announcement at all and suggest Miller has made a catastrophic mistake.

Among them is the Very Rev Kelvin Holdsworth, the Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow, who urges his colleagues in the Church of England to “refuse to [conduct] any weddings until there is equality.”  In his blog he urges them to “put a ban on banns. The time is coming for you to stop doing weddings. Once the new legislation is passed, if your denomination cannot or will not opt in then the time has come for you to stand up for what’s right. If you support equality, do something about it and show us what you are made of.

I agree with Kelvin.  If the Church of England hopes to regain its relevance and role at the heart of British society it must heed his advice.  It must also take on those within its midst who, in their misguided evangelical piety, actually destroy the very thing they claim to be so determined to save.  But it must go further still – in the words of former Bishop John Spong, “reformers cannot just tilt against the windmills of antiquity.  They must develop new visions, propose new models, chart new solutions.”  Within those new visions must be a new inclusiveness, in which all people – gay and straight, religious and atheist, can feel welcome and accepted in a church that actively reaches into our communities and whose desire to help forge a new interconnected and all-embracing society resonates with the public.

That, of course, is a matter for the Church of England.  A matter in which I have interest, but a matter for the church and for the church alone nonetheless.  A matter in which government ministers would be wise not to meddle with simply to appease a few loose cannons on the Tory backbenches or to reinforce historic privilege on the part of the Church of England.

And so while there was much to be pleased about in today’s announcement, we cannot rest on our laurels and wallow in smug self-satisfaction in what we as Liberal Democrats have achieved.  Indeed, the fight is not over however substantial those achievements are.  We must continue to press for real, full and unconditional equality and (as my party membership card reminds me) the creation of a liberal society - something that doesn’t seem to feature in Maria Miller’s thinking.  

Monday, 3 December 2012

Do the Liberal Democrats have a political future?

This is a slightly extended version of an article I wrote for Better Nation, naturally focusing on the Scottish party.  It is shared here in the hope that many of my fellow Liberal Democrats will engage in the debate.  

This question has inevitably been asked following the party’s poor performance in last week’s by-elections – most notably in Rotherham where the Liberal Democrats finished in eighth place with two per cent of the vote.

What results from Middlesbrough, Croydon North and Rotherham actually tell us about the Liberal Democrats is minimal.  These are constituencies where Liberal Democrats never did well, even in the supposedly good times.  Middlesbrough (and its predecessor constituency Middlesbrough East) has not returned a non-Labour MP since 1931.  The same is true of Rotherham.   Croydon has been Labour held since 1992.  That Labour won comfortably should not be remotely surprising.

That hasn’t stopped many in the media predicting the imminent death of the Liberal Democrats.  The Daily Telegraph has claimed Rotherham to be the worst ever result for a major political party, clearly forgetting Inverclyde - a constituency in which we had controlled the council until 2007.  Nigel Farage has joined them, making the grandiose claim that UKIP are now the “third force” of British politics, himself conveniently forgetting the various nationalist parties or Respect, the one-man party that has been able to do on multiple occasions what UKIP never have: win a parliamentary seat.

It has been quite astonishing to see how the media have bought into UKIP’s spin.  What these by-elections have shown is that UKIP is never likely to become any kind of force in domestic politics, third or otherwise. They are not the SDP.  Rotherham was certainly a by-election they could and should have won.  The former MP stepped down in disgrace, his reputation and that of his local party in tatters.  This, combined with the child adoption scandal and virtually anonymous and poorly-resourced local Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, gave UKIP a real chance of making a breakthrough.   

The Independent claimed that UKIP was now “within touching distance of mainstream politics” on the basis of securing 22 per cent of the vote in a single constituency.  George Galloway must be positively an establishment figure by that logic.  If the result says much at all, it is that voters in Rotherham prefer authoritarian parties.  It suggests very little that should lead portions of the media to make claims for our impending political death.

Undeniably the result was spectacularly poor from a Liberal Democrat perspective.  But what it doesn’t actually do is tell us anything we didn’t know previously.  Clearly we are no longer the beneficiaries of public anger towards the establishment, as we are now very much part of it.  The identity as a “none of the above” party, which to an extent the Liberal Democrats have been responsible for cultivating, has been consigned to history – with protest votes now going to various parties perceived as best placed to overthrow the incumbent party.  Certainly that role we sought for ourselves has now been usurped.  But these by-election results do not reveal this to us, they merely underline an already obvious reality.

The media are right about one thing, and that is that the Liberal Democrats are in mortal danger. The Scottish parliamentary elections and the local elections across the UK have demonstrated a pattern, which shows little sign of being reversed.  Not only is the party suffering electorally, it has been struggling for cultural and political relevance particularly in Scotland.  A growing insecurity is becoming evident in the public words of some of our key parliamentarians.  But that danger is not that we will be wiped out electorally; it is, rather, the very real risk that the Liberal Democrats and the liberalism at our heart may be reduced to a marginalised irrelevance dwelling on the periphery of British, and Scottish, politics.

John Curtice has estimated that, in 2015, the Liberal Democrats will be reduced to 15 MPs.  Using data from all elections since 2010, I calculated a figure of 23 – i.e. 1992 levels.  In constituencies where we are the Conservatives’ closest rivals, or they are ours, we look set to do well.  That may not appear too disastrous until we consider the implications for the Liberal Democrats in Scotland: both Professor Curtice and myself have a single Scottish Lib Dem MP surviving the potential massacre – Alistair Carmichael.

The reasons we find ourselves in this position are numerous, and more complex than mere association with the Westminster coalition – although that certainly has contributed to the scale of the problem.  Inflexible and outdated campaigning methods, financial difficulties, a lack of distinctiveness on policy matters and leadership whose message struggled to resonate with the public all contributed to some degree to the disastrous Holyrood election results.  The SNP’s slick, professional and ruthlessly effective campaign further highlighted our deficiencies.  Since then, there has been little evidence– in spite of positive rhetoric and a few good performances from Willie Rennie in FMQs – that we are capable of turning this around.

Part of our problem in Scotland is inevitably the coalition and therefore in looking to the future we must look beyond 2015.  Whatever realpolitik demanded of Nick Clegg following the indecisive 2010 General Election, it was obvious that there would be significant ramifications for Liberal Democrats in Scotland – where any relationship with the Conservatives would inevitably be construed as treachery.  How long this perception will endure is uncertain, but it is not necessarily irreversible.  Accepting that a significant setback is likely in 2015 and building for the years beyond is far from the worst approach the party in Scotland could take.  It would certainly be preferable to the fierce defensiveness we’ve seen to date.

The best way for the Liberal Democrats to ensure they have a future is by demonstrating the need for a strong liberal party in the heart of politics.  In the last few weeks, issues such as secret courts and media freedom and shown how vital it is that liberal voices make themselves heard.  I, for one, have been impressed by Nick Clegg on these matters.  Of course, what impresses me as a party activist does not necessarily have similar effects on the public but championing an active, vibrant liberalism, especially in relation to issues of public liberty, is likely to be far more effective in recreating our social relevance than endless defence of participation in government.

Part of our problem is that only around eleven per cent of people identify themselves as liberal.  In a sense we have electorally overperformed for decades, persuading many to vote for us in spite of – rather than because of – our liberal credentials.  Populist positions on such things as the Iraq War and Higher Education funding have in the past helped to take our appeal beyond the philosophically liberal but we cannot rely on such issues in the future.  But the truth is that people identified less with our policies than they did with our character.  We were the nice guys of politics.  We cared.  We could be a bit of a gadfly party at times, but that was part of the appeal.  Moreover, we could be trusted. So, while proving ourselves to be the authentic voice of liberal democracy is necessary we also have to find new ways of reaching out to those who at one time would have willingly supported us.  We have to speak their language, invest in the issues that concern them and show we’re listening.  We have to find ways to show we can still be trusted.  As Boris Johnson has done so successfully, we must also learn how convince people that we actually like them.  It's quite simple, but if we don't like them why should they like us?

What we must avoid is becoming inward looking, focusing on our own pet projects such as PR, Lords Reform or federalism.  Naturally, I believe in all of those but recognise two things: they are all virtually unachievable and very few voters are enthused by them.  While Liberal Democrats are wildly excited by the federalist ambitions of the Home Rule Commission, neither the public nor the media are particularly interested and the former seem not to understand our position at all – something not made clearer by identification with Better Together.  And of course the “debate” on federalism and Home Rule was an internal one, relating to but never engaging with Scottish voters. We must reconnect with voters, and in doing so must utilise our best assets: parliamentarians such as Charles Kennedy and Jo Swinson who are more popular individually than the party as a whole.  Alistair Carmichael and Mike Crockart similarly are highly personable MPs whose profiles and inate humanity should be more effectively used for the party's betterment.

Neither can we afford to be backward looking.  The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet, and never more so than when the road ahead is both rocky and steep.  Instead of clinging onto what has worked for us before, we must open ourselves to new possibilities; new ways of thinking and doing.  We must change or die.  We have to relinquish the stifling attitudes that hold us back, based as they are on the politics of a different era.  Instead, as a party the Liberal Democrats should step boldly into a new era - an era in which many of the definitions of the past are up for discussion and reformulation.  That does not mean abandoning who we are as liberals; it means redefining and representing that liberalism to appeal to the needs of an ever-evolving world.  We have a choice between the stultification of the past (with its stale ideas and entrenched prejudices) and a fresh, invigorating air of the future.  

We have to create a new identity for ourselves.  That of "a party of government" is woefully inadequate given that continuing in government is not only not guaranteed but looking increasingly unlikely and that, here in Scotland, we've been relegated to the ranks of minor opposition.  But similarly we cannot return to our former identity as a repository for protest votes or as a home for those with a dislike of the political establishment.  Neither can we be the anti-Tory Labour-lite party of the 1980s and 1990s.  We must ditch that and change our language and campaigning strategy accordingly.  We must create a new identity while retaining our core purpose of facilitating a liberal society.

We also need to become the party of what we're right about.  That sounds easy doesn't it?  Too easy.  But it's true: where might the cause of federalism now be if we had championed it with more enthusiasm in the last two decades?  And on the issues on which we've been consistently right - the European Union, human rights, immigration, LGBT rights, civil liberties, and the environment - why don't we allow ourselves to be more closely associated with what are, after all, good liberal policies?  Admittedly there's political risk in championing a fit-for-purpose EU against the backdrop of anti-EU rhetoric, as there is also on several of these issues.  But it is a risk worth taking - I for one would rather us be the party of Europe with a distinctive and positive vision than a party afraid to admit to our pro-European credentials.  We have to be intellectually honest to ourselves and the voting public.

We also need to re-assert our identity as the party of localism.  Not the near nimbyist localism so often associated with the party, but a radical new liberal localism, an empowering and dynamic localism.  In rebuilding the party we must avoid unnecessary emphasis on the party institution, instead promoting a new politics of inclusivism and pluralism, harnessing the energies of those outside of party politics such as charities, independent organisations, trade unions and businesses.  A new realignment if you will, based not on tribal allegiances and prejudices but on a progressive, more collaborative basis for political conversation.

The Liberal Democrats’ problems are legion, but that does not mean the party has no future.  Much depends on Willie Rennie, and on the degree to which he can set his own agenda.  He will realise that if he can personally regain the trust of Scottish voters, so too will his party.  He will need no reminder of the importance of asserting our liberal credentials at every opportunity, but perhaps struggles to see new opportunities to reach out.  That sounds like a criticism, but isn’t – it’s the inevitable consequence of a tired campaigning mechanism and inheriting a party banished to the periphery of Scottish politics. 

I'm not advocating resuscitating a dead party.  For a start, we are far from dead.  What I am suggesting is that we embrace the radical reformation that will be required if we are to become anything more than an irrelevant relic of a once vibrant liberal movement.  We must, in the first instance, move beyond the narrow base of what has become established thinking - particularly in regards policy and campaigning.  The party has to be released from the straightjacket of conformity - something both The Orange Book and Nick Clegg have attempted to do, with varying degrees of success.

That of course is only a first step.  But without that first step we cannot embark on the exhilarating journey into the future.

The Liberal Democrats have to demonstrate that the party is relevant.  A few poor by-election results will then be insignificant.  We need those distinctive, honest and trusted voices to again make themselves heard.  We must re-engage and revitalise our party if we are to have any future at all. We have to dare to be different.  We must again be that gadfly party.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

This week...I’m so proud to be a Lib Dem

It’s not every day I say this.

But, this week, I am very proud of my party.  Or – to be more precise – I am very proud of a large number of our peers, and our leader Nick Clegg.

It’s not every day that I wax lyrical about members of our unelected second chamber, and certainly not a frequent occurrence for me to shower our leader with praise (although there have been moments when I have, and when such praise has been fully merited).  But this week has demonstrated a number of things: what we can achieve in government, what we are achieving in government and the difference between the two.  More significantly, we’ve also seen why we need the Liberal Democrats – a party committed to a liberal society and social justice will always be needed at the heart of British democracy so long as the two principal political parties are Labour and the Conservatives.

The euphemistically named Justice and Security Bill was up for debate in the House of Lords this week.  Even more of a misnomer than the Access to Justice Act of 1999, the Bill is little more than a continuation and extension of the previous government’s commitment to eroding our civil liberties.  What is under threat this time, aside from the coalition government’s credibility given the supposed pledge “to restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power, in keeping with [the spirit of] freedom and fairness”, is the guarantee of open justice.  The Bill aims to legislate to replace such a guarantee, and the civil rights and freedoms inherent within it, with what are being termed “secret courts”.

Of course, the government doesn’t use that term – preferring instead another misnomer, “closed material procedure”.  It amounts to the same thing.  Under the proposals, civil matters in which national security is claimed to be at risk will take placed behind closed doors, out of view of the public and – more importantly, as Nick Thornsby explains in the Guardian – “the claimant, and his or her legal representatives, will also know nothing of what is presented.”

I’m not saying there isn’t a case for revisiting how the justice system considers evidence in instances where an obvious threat to national security exists.  What I am suggesting is that the one being made is ill-conceived.  Secrecy is never the answer when the question relates to matters of justice. 

Knowing that the Justice and Security Bill was to be debated in the Lords, last weekend I spoke to some Liberal Democrat peers about my concerns.  On Monday, I also signed an open letter to The Times that reads thus:

Your leading article (Nov 19) expressed your paper’s opposition to the Government’s plans for “secret courts”.  We, as members of the Liberal Democrats, agree.
On Monday Lord Pannick QC described the Justice and Security Bill as “”unfair, unnecessary and unbalanced”.  The issue at stake – open and equal justice – could hardly be more serious.  We believe the proposals are neither liberal nor democratic and, for us, go right to the heart of what it means to support liberal democracy.
We urge all peers to vote for the amendment supported by Lord Dubs, Lord Strasburger and Baroness Kennedy which deletes Clause 6 of the Bill.  If Clause 6 is deleted, secret courts will not blight our civil courts and our international standing for decades to come.  It will also mean that Liberal Democrats across the country can continue to assert, as our constitution states, that our party “exists to safeguard a fair, free and open society”.
Should the Bill pass with secret courts included, the damage to our justice system and our country will be incalculable.

The letter was published on Wednesday, although the newspaper only printed the names of five of the more senior signatories, thereby not demonstrating the strength of feeling in the party on this matter.  I was very proud to be a signatory to a letter making such a simple stance of defiance against the poorly conceived and potentially catastrophic ambitions of the government. 

(As previously advised, on this occasion I did write to the leader informing him I had signed a letter to a national newspaper which may be construed as a criticism of his leadership.)

On the vote itself, there were some defeats for the government in relation to safeguards.  These defeats were significant and undoubtedly mean that the Bill is fundamentally better.  On the specific issue of secret courts there was a significant Liberal Democrat rebellion against the government; a rebellion that was wrongly crushed but one that showed that there are Lib Dem parliamentarians who put the principles our party holds dear before slavish loyalty to government.  A list of the 25 peers standing against secret courts includes a mere three Labour peers and no Conservatives:

Bath and Wells, Bp. (Non-affiliated)
Brinton, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Clement-Jones, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Doocey, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Dubs, L. [Teller] (Labour)
Greaves, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Hamwee, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Hussain, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Judd, L. (Labour)
Kennedy of The Shaws, B. (Labour)
Kidron, B. (Crossbencher)
Linklater of Butterstone, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Macdonald of River Glaven, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Maclennan of Rogart, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Pannick, L. (Crossbencher)
Roberts of Llandudno, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Scott of Needham Market, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Shipley, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Stern, B. (Crossbencher)
Strasburger, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Thomas of Gresford, L. [Teller] (Liberal Democrat)
Tonge, B.* (Non-affiliated)
Tope, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Walmsley, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Wigley, L.(Plaid Cymru)
*until very recently a Liberal Democrat

That Liberal Democrat peers had the courage and conviction to make a stand against the government and the man charged with introducing the Bill in the Lords, Jim Wallace, made me enormously proud.  Some of these names are those of personal friends and I expected nothing other. What was surprising was the virtual unanimous support among the Conservative and Labour parties for secret courts, and this fact more than any other underlines the need for a party that is liberal and democratic – and, moreover, actually values civil liberty and an open and transparent justice system.

Caron Lindsay, another Lib Dem opponent of secret courts, was unusually critical of Jim Wallace who she described as having “a bad day at the office”.  “If he could only take 11 colleagues with him, that should send enough shock waves through him to make him realise the strength of feeling in the party.”  That neatly sums up the problem our leading parliamentarians are facing: like the NHS Bill, it’s taken a conference defeat for the leadership for them to realise quite what the mood is in the party on this matter.  Almost to a man, we don’t want the principal of open justice undermined.  And we don’t care if that offends our Conservative colleagues.

When the Bill returns to the Commons, I hope that Liberal Democrat MPs will make their objections a little more vigorously than they did last time around.  In the longer-term, I feel a certain inevitability about these proposals, unopposed as they are by a Labour Party unwilling to reverse its less than proud record in relation to civil liberties.  But that doesn’t mean that our party should not provide resistance.  There are two key reasons: firstly, our identity as a party in pursuit of a fair, free and open society demands it; secondly, a failure by the parliamentary party to follow the line set at conference risks widening divisions between the leadership and the grassroots. 

Inevitably there are feelings of frustration but the overriding sense of pride offsets that.  It was in the pursuit of such principles as justice and liberty that I became a Liberal Democrat, and it is in defence of them that I remain so.

Another thing that made me very proud this week was Nick Clegg.  As a new dad to be (Xanthe arrived in July this year), I encountered a potential new employer with unhelpful views in regards paternity entitlement.  Their evident inability to grasp why this was important to me – and a legal right – led to me seeking (and finding) employment elsewhere. But that’s not really the point – what I really want to highlight is how British paternity rights have lagged behind those of other European nations.  Frankly, it’s disgraceful and only entrenches gender inequality and “traditional” notions of parental roles.

Of course Nick announced the week previous that new flexible parental leave is soon to become a reality.  The detail of this may not be exactly what I would have wanted (Clegg himself admitted he would have wanted to go further with paternity leave, but had to consider the fragile state of the economy) but ultimately some well overdue progress has been made.  And it’s been made because the Liberal Democrats, and Nick Clegg personally, have been determined to move forward.  It’s part of that fairness agenda Clegg so often speaks of but too often doesn’t translate into legislation.

I’m not simply proud of Nick because he’s announced a useful initiative that will undoubtedly help new parents.  I’m actually proud of him because, since the announcement, he’s made the effort to remind us how his policy thrust, with the emphasis on fairness and family, is government by personal experience.  He’s a dad himself and one who knows he’s more than a bit luckier than many of us.  He’s showing a lot more humility and understanding in the last few weeks that we’re accustomed to and in addition to the renewed commitment to fairness, there’s also been new efforts to connect with the membership – this week discussing plans to tackle homelessness. 

What he now has to do is translate that obvious passion for childcare and early years onto issues his party feels so much stronger about...such as secret courts.  Wonderful new initiatives to help new parents pale into insignificance beside such an unnecessary erosion of civil liberty.  And so, while I’m proud and pleased at Clegg’s attempts to reconnect with the party and press on with delivering a fairer deal for many families, the real challenge he has is to persuade his MPs to follow the party when the Justice and Security Bill returns to the Commons.

And if he can do that, I will be really proud...

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Some thoughts on Remembrance Sunday

Today is the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the day on which – ninety-four years ago – the armistice came into effect, thus ending the complex web of bloody conflict usually referred to as the First World War.
 
Like many, I find the act of remembrance, observed each year, to be hugely significant.  This is not simply as a matter of respect to the fallen, although I suppose on one level it is.  More importantly, collective remembrance is vital if the legacy of the two World Wars and other conflicts that have followed is to be retained in the public consciousness.  We cannot afford to forget or to fail to learn the lessons of history.  And so inasmuch as the key theme of Remembrance Sunday is...well, remembrance, I feel it is the most appropriate focal point for reflecting on recent history, the nature of war, the human costs and even expressions of grief. 

Remembrance observations also bring society and communities together in a unique and valuable way.  Also, through them we see humanity at its best and most respectful. 

That said, I have some reservations as to what remembrance Sunday has become.  Yesterday, Sunderland player James McClean refused to wear a shirt embroidered with a poppy.  The outrage machine has already gone into overdrive, with his stance receiving almost universal criticism.  This surely is not in the understanding spirit that supposedly characterises Remembrance Day.  As a liberal, I am naturally inclined to respect an individual’s personal choice in such matters, whatever my own.  More important, however, is the need for some appreciation of why McClean chose to make such a personal statement.

McClean was born and raised in Northern Ireland, in the city of Derry (or Londonderry, depending on one’s political/religious persuasions).  He will have grown up in a divided Ulster, immersed in a culture that is understandably suspicious and even resentful of the British Army’s involvement in Northern Ireland.  I would argue, without looking to create political controversy, that such resentments were not only reasonable in the highly-charged political context of the 1980s and 1990s, but were in fact also well-placed.  I say that without pride, and as someone whose father actively served in Northern Ireland at the time of Bloody Sunday.

The point of course being that what Remembrance Sunday means to James McClean is perhaps not what it means to others.  In fact, what it means to me is probably far removed from what it represents to many of my friends.  McClean clearly associates the poppy with one of the least glorious chapters in our military history, and deserves better than the populist derision currently being directed towards him.

Another of my friends today used facebook to rail against “war...fuelled by greed, arrogance and hatred, and by a lack of justice and freedom.”  He also criticised “poppy mania” and what he described as the descent into “hero worship”.  He will not, he declared, wear a poppy.  The responses were as you might have expected.  But he’s remembering in his own way, perhaps a little more honestly than the rest of us.  Surely this is a part of the role Remembrance Sunday should play: facilitating a debate about the nature of war, the role of our armed forces and their duties in a changing world. 

My mum has never worn a poppy.  I’ll tell you why.  Her dad was a Polish Jew and had fought in the RAF during World War II.  He must have been either good or lucky because he survived 1940.  After the war, not only were he and his compatriots denied the recognition they fully merited (such recognition, it was said, would have offended dear Uncle Joe Stalin) but quickly found they had no place in this “land fit for heroes”.  Someone who had played as full a role in the defeat of Nazism as was arguably possible found himself an outcast in the society in which he now lived.   He made efforts to integrate, changing his name to Smith and effectively denying his identity.  To no avail though; Nottingham in the late 1940s and 1950s was not a good place for a foreigner to be. 

How can the mantra “we will not forget them” have any credibility, my mum would argue, when such a person is cast aside on the superficial matter of his origins?  Of course she will choose to remember in whatever way she sees fit, remembering the injustices, the sacrifices and the trauma experienced by him and various other serving family members down the generations.  But she has persistently refused to buy into the “poppy mania” my friend describes, or the culture underpinning it.

My family tree, as you may have guessed, bears the names of several war veterans.  My maternal grandfather served in the RAF for virtually the duration of World War 2.  My paternal grandfather was involved in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.  My father served in Northern Ireland, while my brother was a member of the UN peace-keeping forces in the Balkans during the 1990s. There are others too.  

Interestingly, I never grew up to view any of these people as heroes.  Not only did I not see them as such; they would have hated the very idea.  Some of them did not ask to serve in the first instance.  My maternal grandfather most certainly did make such a choice, but in doing so he left behind his family to probable fates at the hands of the Nazis.

Like me, I suspect they’d take issue with what Remembrance Sunday seems to have become: a near glorification of the military, a mawkish and sentimental expression of hero-worship, an airbrushed interpretation of history intertwined with arrogant patriotism.   And that’s before mentioning that the Haig Fund (to give the Poppy Appeal its correct title) was established in memory of a man responsible for a waste of human life on an almost unimaginable scale. 

I have no time for the adulation, the patriotism, the offensive glorification of the military and sickly-sweet hero worship.  In regards the latter, I have always found this presentation of our troops as heroes to be not only inaccurate but patronising – insulting even.  My brother, decorated for his services, agrees.  Those serving in the forces are professionals doing a valuable job, no more heroic than the psychiatric nurse, the police officer, the fire fighter, the care assistant or the elderly man who single-handedly provides for his Alzheimers-suffering wife. 

Perhaps we could show some real respect to our armed forces by recognising this fact and referring to them as the professionals they are, rather than resorting to mawkish hero-worship.  That is more befitting of their role and the nature of their work.  Certainly, my brother would have much preferred to have been called a professional by those who understood the nature of his duties than receive the lazy epithet “hero” from Daily Mail readers.

Finally, when Remembrance Sunday is routinely hijacked by politicians, who cynically use public support for the military for their own ends, it is plainly disrespectful.  I am always appalled when politicians play these types of games, but to do so on Remembrance Sunday is in particularly poor taste.  I’m sure you know who I’m referring to.

As I’ve said, however, Remembrance Day means different things to different people.  For some, it is clearly little more than a tool via which to sustain public support for the military, and therefore British involvement in current and future conflicts.  For me it provides an opportunity to reflect - not only on the fallen and their families, but the futility of war, the malign influences of greed, self-interest and tribalism that invariably cause it, the huge human costs (especially in Iraq and Afghanistan), the wasted lives, the lessons of history and even the various (often unsung) achievements of those in uniform.  More personally, I consider how the actions of others serving have shaped the person I am today as well as the society in which I live.

Real remembrance allows for tolerance and diversity in the way people choose to remember.  Remembrance is an action, not an event, and should not be reduced to an exercise in social conformity in the form of an on-demand public outpouring of grief and adulation.  And so when those like James McClean, whose memories are perhaps more real and whose scars run deeper, choose to remember in a different way we should not only be accepting of it, but actively welcome it. Certainly, no-one should have a moral monopoly on the meaning of Remembrance Sunday.  

In World War II the spectre of Nazism with its dogma of exclusivism and intolerance was defeated.  Surely a fitting way to remember this is by ensuring that our Remembrance observations are as inclusive, tolerant and embracing as possible?

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Nadine Dorries suspended from the Tories

It’s amazing what a Conservative MP has to do in order to have the whip withdrawn these days.

They can try to undermine the government at every turn.

They can peddle homophobic lies.

They can preach a “hang ‘em and flog ‘em” dogma from the backbenches.

But what they must not do, on pain of the highest sanction possible, is appear on a “reality” TV show so trashy even my brother doesn’t watch it.

Today, probably my least favourite Conservative MP – Nadine Dorries – has been suspended from the Conservative Party for absenting herself from the Commons for up to a month in order to appear on “I’m A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here”.

(I honestly think that name is something of a misnomer – perhaps it’s time to change it to “I have an over-inflated sense of my own importance...Get Me On TV!”)

To be honest, I feel a little sorry for Nadine.   I mean, withdrawing the whip because she’ll be absent for a month?  She’s not likely to last more than I week I would have thought.

The Telegraph reported that, on returning from her adventures in Australia, she will “face the wrath of Sir George Young”.  That’s a most incongruous image – I can just imagine the kindly Old Etonian looking skywards and tutting.  “Dear, dear Nadine...”

The newspaper also reported that the Conservative leadership were concerned that, by appearing on the show, she was making “herself ridiculous for public entertainment”.  It does make you wonder they were never too concerned about how ridiculous she’s looked when discussing LGBT issues, abortion or the coalition. 

Still, I think they were right to act.  The Tories have said she must “justify herself” to her constituents.  Easy to say when you have a thumping majority to defend.  It would be more interesting if we were able to dismiss MPs, as the Liberal Democrats have championed for some time.  Ms Dorries may well have returned to find she no longer had a constituency to represent.

I do believe that it is right that an MP should explain this kind of decision to their constituents.  Furthermore, they should also discuss it with their local party officers, members and activists.  They are elected, after all, to serve the constituency and the needs of its electorate rather than their own self-aggrandising interests.  

Theresa May is absolutely right when she asserts that MPs have an obligation to “be in their constituency and the House”; MPs may be “celebrities” but they are, above all else, public servants.

Perhaps Nadine Dorries has forgotten this – or perhaps never fully grasped what the essence of public service is.  While I don’t begrudge anyone seizing the opportunity to demean themselves on national television, I firmly believe her constituents, her party and British democracy deserve better.

The oddest thing is that she has apparently spoken to Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home, but did not see fit to mention her lengthy absence from her duties to her local party.  That says everything anyone should need to know about her commitment to accountability.  The best that can be said is that her actions are disrespectful.

I can only wonder what future historians will make of this.  There have been so many interesting reasons for withdrawal of the whip – but surely disappearing to Australia to participate in acts of questionable taste on a TV show of questionable entertainment value has to be a first.

More seriously, I will not rejoice over Ms Dorries’ suspension from the Conservative Party.  That’s not because I disagree that her actions merit the sanction, because I do – and I think action should have been taken to rid the party of this turbulent spirit some time ago. However, I have my suspicions that Dorries will not regard her suspension with undue concern. Her recent actions suggest an indifference to party discipline and I imagine she will in some respects be relieved to have cast off the stifling straitjacket of loyalty.  She now has a new freedom via which she can promote, without restraint, her own politics of intolerance, bigotry and exclusivism. It will also bring her into the wider public consciousness and maybe (just maybe) a new-found, if undeserved, respect. She's plainly tired of the subservient role she has had to play to her party, and in turn that her party has played to the coalition.  She is likely to welcome the publicity and liberation from the  restraints of party allegiance, if not necessarily the increased media scrutiny. She also knows only too well that the public like, and often respond positively to, off-key messages and political mavericks.  

Am I being cynical in suggesting that this may be more considered than it at first seems?  If, as I speculate, Nadine Dorries has decided to make a clean break from the Conservative Party and – as the likes of Ann Widdecombe have done before – successfully uses TV as a means by which to recreate themselves, there is more reason to be concerned at her influence and toxic political ideas than were she simply yet another discontented Tory rebel.

Eating food only marginally worse than that offered to me as a patient while in Inverclyde Royal Hospital would be for Dorries only a small price to pay if “I’m A Celebrity” proves to be the defibrillator by which she can resuscitate her stuttering political career.  I also think she knows it.