Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Ex-MP Jenny Tonge resigns from the Lib Dems

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
The former MP for Richmond Mark, Jenny Tonge, has this afternoon resigned from the Liberal Democrats. The official line appears to be that, having refused to apologise for an insensitive remark about Israel, Baroness Tonge decided to resign the party whip, claiming that her right to an independent view had been undermined.

The controversial comments were made in a speech at Middlesex University last Thursday, in which Tonge predicted that Israel “would not last forever” and that the USA would eventually withdraw political and financial support, leaving it to “reap what it had sown”.

Foolish? Yes. Insensitive? Yes. Racist? Probably. Whichever way you look at it, this reflects very badly on the party and on Tonge herself. Nick Clegg was quick to move in response, effectively issuing an ultimatum. According to The Guardian, Clegg responded rapidly to widespread criticism from many in both Jewish and political circles, insisting that Tonge either withdrew the remarks or resigned the whip. She chose the latter. Said Clegg: “these remarks were wrong and offensive and do not reflect the values of the Liberal Democrats. I asked Baroness Tonge to withdraw her remarks and apologise for the offence she has caused. She has refused to do so and will now be leaving the party.”

I shed no tears for Jenny Tonge, even though in the past I have praised her work as a constituency MP. This is simply the latest in a long line of irresponsible and embarrassing views she has expressed in respect to Israel. She was forced to resign as shadow children’s minister in 2004 after famously intimating that, if she lived in Palestine, she might easily consider becoming a suicide bomber. Two years later then leader Menzies Campbell criticised her “anti-semitic” argument that the Lib Dems had been in the “grip” of the “pro-Israeli lobby”. She has sailed close to the wind on other occasions in respect to her controversial views and Clegg came under serious pressure to remove the whip just two years ago after she made groundless claims that the Israeli military had been harvesting organs from earthquake victims.

I have respect for principled rebellion. I think parliament is all the better for having independently minded people within it. But on this score Nick Clegg is surely right and Jenny Tonge wrong. Presumably if Tonge had issued an apology Clegg wouldn’t have gone as far as to withdraw the whip but in the circumstances there was little alternative available to him. There can be no place in our party for such ill-conceived racism, especially when the individual concerned has a history of expressing the same views. The real question is this: why now? Why has stronger action not been taken previously?

At the very least Tonge’s comments have undermined the efforts of current and previous governments to find a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli question. At worst, this is racist intolerance and the kindest thing that can be said is that Tonge’s remarks were misguided and her obstinacy in refusing to withdraw them insulting.

The Guardian quoted the chair of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, who argued that “Baroness Tonge's latest outburst is wrong but [also] contrary to Lib Dem party policy. Jenny Tonge is an irrelevant, siren and marginal voice in the Liberal Democrat party and we call on her to resign the Lib Dem whip.” It’s sadly very true, and it gives me no pleasure to see someone of Tonge’s intelligence and capability becoming so marginalised, with her principal contributions being reduced to throwing short-fused time-bombs in from the sidelines.

I find that I agree with Nick. These remarks were wrong and offensive and they do not reflect the values of the Liberal Democrats. However, could that not also be said of the fundamentalist, right-wing, homophobic, and anti-abortion group CARE (Christian Action, Research and Education) which, in addition to promoting a cure for gay people, finds the staff and the finances to provide five Lib Dem parliamentarians (including the president and Scottish leader) with interns? I would argue that CARE’s stance is "wrong and offensive" and does not "reflect the views" of our party. I’d also add that it’s “wrong and offensive” for our MPs to be seen to accept what is essentially blood money from an organisation that took a lead role in the vicious “Keep the Clause” campaign in 1999-2000, or which believes gay people to be “lepers” who are “sexually broken”.

Surely Clegg should be consistent with his own logic and insist that MPs sever their ties with CARE or face expulsion? Or are some fatuous and idiotic comments on Israel more offensive than institutional homophobia?

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Our parliamentarians should have no truck with CARE

Tim Farron is one of a number of MPs
to have accepted interns from CARE
CARE (Christian Action, Research and Education) is a Christian "charity" that is opposed to marriage equality, LGBT rights and abortion. It essentially wishes to impose its rigid orthodoxy and narrow-minded attitudes onto mainstream society, perhaps not unusually for a fundamentalist religious organisation. What does, however, distinguish CARE from similar bodies such as the Christian Institute is that it runs a parliamentary leadership programme that provides, essentially as a gift, interns to a number of MPs.

MPs currently in receipt of such a benefit from CARE (or have certainly received such in the recent past) include Alan Beith, Andrew Selous, David Borrowes, Gary Streeter, Tim Farron, Steve Webb and Paul Burstow. That is not an exhaustive list - 17 MPs in all are presently accepting interns. It is of concern that among them are Liberal Democrats who, the matter of personal faith aside, might usually be expected to support a very different line than that taken by CARE.

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie also has interns supplied by CARE - something I have written about previously. Interestingly, when I asked Willie last week about his association with CARE he was fiercely defensive, insisting that the organisation was harmless, the interns highly capable and the scope for them influencing policy minimal. He justified his acceptance of support as an example of showing tolerance towards those in society who see the world differently.

But that is not the point. If Mr Rennie wishes to display the tolerance he speaks of, why not accept interns or any other form of assistance from a range of organisations whose views we find distasteful from the Scottish Defence League to the Pro-Life Alliance? In fact, why in the name of tolerance does Rennie not make such a public show of embracing the SNP? The essential truth is we have a Scottish party leader and a federal party president who have both, for whatever motivations, decided to ally themselves with a less than liberal organisation that is diametrically opposed to many of the values we're trying to communicate.

Rennie has a point when he states that interns can not overtly influence party policy. But the problem I have is not simply one of image, although there is little doubt that such associations do make the party look bad and can cause serious damage. What CARE can and does do is undermine a lot of the work our party is doing on equality issues: CARE's Scottish director, Gordon Macdonald (himself a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate), has taken every opportunity to criticise the Scottish government and the Lib Dem leadership over their respective stances on marriage equality.

It's also pretty hypocritical. Only last Wednesday, Rennie was telling a group of Scottish bloggers that the Lib Dem record on LGBT rights speaks for itself. It does - we have allowed homophobic religious extremists to work for the party. That is an inescapable and unenviable part of our record.

In the current political climate, with equal marriage high on the agenda, associations with CARE are at the very least embarrassing. Labour MP David Lammy recently ended his own associations with the "charity" after discovering the truth about CARE's record on LGBT rights - including sponsoring "Sex and the City" - promoting a "therapeutic" approach towards the "sexually broken". It seems that CARE were a little less than honest with him about what they actually stood for. Also another Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw was once refused help from CARE when it discovered his sexuality - ask yourself, how Christian an action is that? And do we really want to be associated with it?

What makes this undesirable situation worse are the actions of some CARE-sponsored MPs in recent days. Conservative Andrew Selous has not only spoken out in opposition to marriage equality, he has insisted that gay people can be "cured" - telling Bedfordshire on Sunday that "“I have met people who have been homosexual who are no longer" before adding, presumably without appreciating the irony, that he is "wholly against any form of discrimination.” David Burrowes has taken a leaf out of Bill Walker's book and is attempting to take on the mantle of a Christian martyr by claiming to be receiving "threats" from equality campaigners (interestingly he turned to You Tube to make these claims, not to the police). In the meantime, that friend of the unenlightened, Ann Widdecombe, used the Daily Express to suggest that "gay cure" treatments should be provided to clients who would want them. As someone who works in mental health, I would suggest if any LGBT person feels so insecure about who they are there is various therapy and psychological support available for them to access without resorting to the cruel aversion treatment championed by religious bigots. It's quite distasteful that the likes of Selous, Widdecombe and CARE seem to perceive homosexuality as an illness - more still that people of such views are staffing the offices of our leader and president.

Phillip Dawson has started a petition calling on MPs to sever their links with CARE. I have signed it - you can sign here. In addition I think it's time we challenged our own MPs on their relationships with CARE - please consider getting in touch with them and expressing your views.

A party with the Liberal Democrats historic commitment to LGBT equality can ill afford to allow its leading personnel to be closely associated with so repugnant a group. I don't use that word lightly, but then an organisation that would describe me as a "leper" is more than out of touch.

Further reading:
CARE website
"Christian fundamentalists fighting spiritual battle in parliament", The Telegraph, 17/5/08
"Two standards better than one?", ScottishPol, 16/10/11
CARE: "a moderate compassionate group trying to make the country better", People's Republic of South Devon , 17/10/11
"Christian Activists poised to win concession on abortion after 40 years" The Independent, 28/8/11
List of MPs who have received interns from CARE

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Lib Dem bloggers quiz Scottish leader Willie Rennie

The best of Scotland's Lib Dem bloggers were invited to put questions to Scottish leader Willie Rennie in Edinburgh on Wednesday evening. Unfortunately Caron Lindsay was unable to attend, but myself, Douglas McLellan, Gavin Hamilton and Nicola Prigg were present to ask Rennie some timely and sometimes challenging questions on a range of issues facing Scotland and the party.

"I'm a Home Ruler"

Given my often expressed support for constitutional change and Scottish independence in particular, I kicked things off with a question on the position the party will take during the coming referendum campaign. "Do you recognise the liberal case for independence?" I asked, pointing out that Liberal leader Jo Grimond had once observed that "not to go far enough may be worse than going too far". Many liberal objectives could be far more easily achieved in an independent Scotland than via the current political arrangements - would it not be advantageous having the opportunity to remove the ties that bind and start again? I also asked whether the party recognised that many members' convictions are at odds with the party leadership on this matter, and whether all members would therefore be free to campaign as their consciences and convictions dictated.

In regards the members' convictions, Rennie intimated that he recognised this and would naturally be happy to let people campaign as they saw fit, even candidates, but added "I'd prefer if you didn't".

Rennie was quite dismissive of the "liberal" case for independence, arguing that it would require withdrawal from the EU to achieve some of the liberal aims I referred to. I was not at all convinced by this, but didn't press it further. Rennie reiterated that he is an internationalist, stressed that Scotland is not "a nation by itself" and underlined his conviction that the best way forward was in "sharing common status in every part of government...sharing wherever possible". He went on to argue that the UK platform increases Scottish influence: "to opt out would be a mistake", he insisted, especially in relation to international development. Separating from that is not advancing liberal principles, he concluded.

But what about the localism that the Lib Dems preach with such gusto, I queried. Nicola Prigg was also keen to discuss the constitutional question and seemed concerned at the lack of a federalist vision being advocated by the party. Douglas McLellan (also independence-sympathetic) was interested in discussing economic factors and the nature of that mysterious and ill-defined beast, Home Rule.

There exists established expertise and reputation, argued Rennie. The established unit has integrity and, despite what some may think, culture is a major aspect that binds together. UK economic strength, international respect for the military, the long-term security provided by the welfare state are all positives that should be retained. He went on to dismiss what is popularly referred to as "Devo Max": what that amounts to, demonstrated Rennie, is a full fiscal autonomy which is merely one step away from independence. It would take just a short-term crisis to trigger a constitutional break-up and simply reverses the current position whereby Scotland is dependent on London. London would instead be dependent on Scotland. What's so liberal about that?

What Rennie supports is "Home Rule", which is entirely different from "Devo Max", although I'm not too sure the general public fully appreciate the distinction. Rennie is a passionate Home Ruler (Gladstone would be proud) and he's keen to further the cause of "Home Rule" which he described as "full fiscal federalism". Why the federal party has done precious little in recent years to facilitate this vision he didn't say, but he did explain some of the thinking behind his position. He believes his "federalist Home Rule" vision will offer security for the future not inherent in the loose proposals that form Salmond's "Devo Max" option. But he admits that there are reasonable "objections to Westminster" which need addressing urgently. Scots voters are frustrated that there is no mechanism and "no power through which to do things differently" and this must be changed. In regards the financial settlement, Rennie insisted that "we should raise what we spend" and dismissed the Barnett formula as unfit for purpose. "It doesn't meet Scotland's needs", he said.

So, I asked, what about a second question on the ballot paper? Surely there is an opportunity here for the Lib Dems to achieve the very objectives we claim to champion. If, as expected by many, Salmond loses the referendum, a second question relating to a devo-max/Home Rule option will give the Lib Dems 1) a reason to campaign positively in the campaign, 2) influence usually beyond our parliamentary representation, 3) the scope to influence the question and 4) the best opportunity in decades to actually have liberal principles and our vision for Scotland's constitutional future translated into reality.

Rennie answered in the negative. Not a single academic supports a two-question referendum, he stated as justification. (I told him I'm sure I can find at least one and will return to him on that point.) A second question would be "treated as second class" (by who I'm not sure). So what position will the Lib Dems take up in the referendum campaign? We will "work up the programme to be delivered" he suggested, "using the big debate to influence other parties." Elaborating on that last point, Rennie focused on Westminster as a sphere of influence to be exploited by the Lib Dems and where we can work constructively with other parties to achieve results. But surely that effectively rules out a positive working relationship with the SNP?

Personally, I am convinced that Willie Rennie is far more fearful of "Devo Max" than he is determined to make "Home Rule" a reality. It is a great pity because I believe the party's underestimating the unique opportunity that stands before us. I explained to him that if there was a well considered, practical, broadly liberal and visionary proposal for Scotland's future included on the ballot form even I may be tempted to vote "no" on the first question. Unfortunately, this had little effect.

"Hug a Tory"

In respect to David Cameron's recent intervention, Nicola Prigg asked if the Prime Minister could be trusted. We were all more than a little surprised when he insisted that not only was his contribution welcome but that we should take it at face value and embrace it. Cue lots of talk about hugging Tories in which I felt quite uncomfortable (visions of Theresa May don't help!). I asked if Rennie felt Cameron's words were substance or simply a symptom of political tactics - he seemed quite convinced that Cameron is genuine, something Nicola didn't seem entirely sure about.

Rennie was bound to get round to discussing Alex Salmond at some point and he didn't disappoint. According to Rennie, Salmond is "distorting his mandate" with an "obsession for independence", something that has only been evident since the election. Rennie bemoaned the fact that the SNP were keen to be addressing many issues before the 2011 election, but now only seem concerned by the constitutional question. I did point out that it was his predecessor Tavish Scott who had spent so much time talking about independence and telling anyone who would listen that "a vote for the SNP is a vote for independence" that we can hardly complain now.

Douglas McLellan asked if Rennie could be clear about what we will offer in the future and how it will be achieved. Rennie was keen to explain that this is a "big test" for the party: "can we get what we want delivered in this window of opportunity? As for the second question, no academic supports it. We have to have confidence in the mechanism. What Salmond is trying to do is drive a wedge between people who support Home Rule, trying to cause chaos in the likes of us." He did add that the right way of looking at the constitutional question is to start from the basic question of "what will a future Scotland look like...what do we want it to look like?"

What's the point of the Liberal Democrats?

Gavin Hamilton asked Rennie "what are the Liberal Democrats for?" Rennie pinpointed four key principles which he believes define the Scottish Lib Dems: opportunity, community, internationalism and sustainability. He went on to explain that we are a party of "enduring values" committed to "liberating people". He talked about the need for emphasis as well as principle and policy, describing how the emphasis the party has placed on equal marriage is now bearing fruit. He also explained how the party's identity and role can be determined in how it responds to events, such as when it stood up to Alex Salmond in respect to his remarks about the Supreme Court and the English riots.

"Innovation in public service"

Gavin asked a complex question about the future of Scotland's public services and how the Lib Dems can promote a credible package of positive reform. Rennie seemed at ease describing how liberals would remove targets, decentralise control, lighten the audit regime and empower staff. He cited recent reforms of the police service as an example of when government gets things badly wrong and control is taken back into the centre. He criticised the current "risk averse" culture of public services, condemning the "safety first, anti-innovation, controlling" attitudes that are almost synonymous with Scotland's public services and instead advocated control from the bottom. How should the state respond? With "innovation in public service...[and by] encouraging and embracing community capacity and voluntary action." He talked about the need to change attitudes councils and the independent/voluntary sectors, particularly the perception that if the council doesn't directly offer a service it isn't good enough. Rennie seemed particularly keen to paint a picture of a future Scotland in which standards were retained and built on by services becoming more responsive to the needs of individuals and communities.

Town Centre rejuvenation

Nicola asked Rennie how he proposed to tackle the problem of declining town centres. Describing the experience of her home town of Ayr, she wanted to know what ideas the Lib Dem leader had for town centre regeneration. Rennie was also keen to talk from experience, referring to recent developments in Dunfermline (clearly the centre of the political universe). He talked at some length about how responsible town planning and citing new developments responsibly and with consideration to the likely impact on town centre trade can yield positive results. For example, the new Debenhams in Dunfermline created a significant increase in footfall into the town centre. While the online trade and move towards more leisure experiences inevitable draw people away, there is a positive future for town centres if responsible planning can "create anchors" and marketing is improved. Rennie also discussed the need to stimulate enterprise, focusing on building the confidence of potential entrepreneurs and empowering them to take elements of risk. "Is reluctance to establish new business a question of attitude or finance?" he queried, suggesting that in his mind it was generally due to a mixture of the two.

"Change the language"

Douglas wanted to know Rennie's views on the impact and potential of modern campaigning and social media. What was the impact of social media at the last election, what is it likely to be in future elections and what impact does it have on activist engagement? Also, as a party, are we falling behind?

Rennie praised a few of his office staff for their contributions, especially on twitter. He then turned to the "Nationalist agenda" to change the language people are using. He described a "cybernat network" which has aspirations to "challenge the way debate is described". At times this is unhelpful, for example when the SNP's reaction to the English riots was to suggest "we're different" at a time of great travesty. That encouraged more people to say such things, said Rennie. "But the serious point is this: how do we convey our values online?" We also have to reconsider the language we are using to frame the arguments and more effectively communicate our principles.

"The brand"

I asked Rennie about the need to develop a Scottish Lib Dem "brand". Ideally one that was positive. "We need to move away from the 'managerial mode' of the Blair-Brown era" indicated Rennie. "We must move away from the prescriptive to the visionary. The SNP recognise this. While Iain Gray was talking about X number of police officers and Y number of knife crimes, Alex Salmond was painting an appealing vision that was actually attractive to people and we need to replicate that positively in a language people understand."

Rennie seemed suspicious of my suggestion, preferring to emphasise the need for substance over appearance. But there's no doubt that the party needs to be a professional campaigning outfit and he claimed that consideration had been given to "the brand" as I called it - and in particular areas of identity that the public recognise and can associate with. These are the overall vision (where do we go?; what would a liberal Scotland/world look like?), our behaviour now (how we say things; our tone of voice) and our history (record; where we've come from - in the case of Home Rule, it's "in the blood").

"It will be our time again!"

Gavin was interested in Rennie's views of the Lib Dems' prospects in the forthcoming local elections and beyond. "Local elections? That's what Lib Dems do best!" laughed Rennie, reminding me more than slightly of A. A. Milne's Tigger. "It will be our time again" he pronounced, especially if the party can "prioritise" what it communicates, pursuing issues that "advance the belief in liberalism, not just the party". But isn't that the kind of blind optimism so often projected by Nick Clegg, the "take it on the chin - we'll bounce back" assumptions which fail to appreciate the gravity of the situation we're in?

Optimistic? Yes, agreed Rennie. But not blind. I reminded him of my call for him to lead a liberal renaissance. "I can only control the controllables...and being in government for eight years did very little for the policy development process. But the Liberal Futures work is doing some useful work and we're leading local action in communities. There's reason to be positive."

I must confess to being less than convinced on that score.

Equality matters and CARE

I asked a question from the Very Rev Kelvin Holdsworth about Rennie's acceptance and continued use of an intern supplied by right-wing "Christian" organisation CARE. I also asked what, beyond equal marriage, can the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish government do to facilitate greater equality and respect for diversity of which the legal definition of marriage is simply one piece. I also pointed out that, while the Lib Dems have historically been good on LGBT rights, too often the needs of bisexual people are overlooked and trans people ignored. How can this be rectified?

This can only be achieved by cultural change, insisted Rennie, of which the government and the party are but individual drivers. He's obviously a believer in society driving social change, with politicians providing a great deal of the energy. He recognised that equal marriage is merely one step- but a highly significant and hugely symbolic one which will do a lot to "normalise" same-sex relationships and remove the stigma.

His answer in respect to his CARE interns was what I expected rather than hoped for. Rennie said it was vital not to "disrespect those who think differently" and talked up the value of his CARE interns: "they are quality people making a positive difference to the party". Indeed they might be, I interjected, but that isn't Kelvin's concern. The issue is with the organisation and [Rennie's] willingness to receive gifts from and be associated with this right-wing group. This didn't appear to concern him much, and he was dismissive of the criticism. "The idea that these people can influence policy is ill-founded. In accepting them we are saying that we are a tolerant and open party willing to engage with others." Hmmm. We could still do that without our leader taking CARE's interns - we are, after all, a party that had Gordon MacDonald as a parliamentary candidate - and it seems a fundamentally flawed logic to me. I wonder if Rennie would be so keen to accept interns from a myriad of other less than savoury organisations in a quest to show "tolerance"?

Welfare reform

Gavin was keen to ask Rennie about the Westminster government's welfare reforms. Rennie was equally keen to explain that this is simply another example of how, as a minor partner in a coalition government, we are unable to get everything our own way. he stressed the positives: notably the universal credit which he claimed was overdue and the work programme. He described how current arrangements have become more of a trap than a safety net and while housing benefit changes are "tough" it is vital to take a look at incapacity benefits. The fitness to work test must be "robust" and take into account "the variability of [certain] conditions". The proposals might not be perfect, but Liberal Democrats "are pushing internally for the changes we want [and] Steve Webb is very active in this even if he doesn't shout about it."

Unfortunately our time with Willie Rennie concluded here and we were unable to ask further questions on new groupings within the party, Lords reform, Gaelic education and Rangers FC.

Many thanks to Willie Rennie for his time and to Caron Lindsay for setting up the event. I believe this was a valuable and useful event, allowing us not only the opportunity to touch base with the party leader but also to gain insights into some of his thinking. While I didn't agree with all of it, I was impressed by his thoughtfulness and his unquestionable honesty.

I must also thank all of those who sent me questions to put to Willie (mainly on constitutional issues) which I tried to incorporate into my own line of questioning.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Why not take the political test?

Apparently, I'm a cosmopoltian social democrat (you see there was me thinking I was a Scottish liberal - I was wrong all the time).

This is based on the following analysis of my political understandings:

I would have thought I was a little more ecological than that - perhaps it's how the questions were worded.

Have a go yourself at Now, I'm off to join the continuing SDP (or should that be the continuing continuing SDP?).

Is there anything you'd like to ask Willie Rennie?

Myself and some other leading Scottish Lib Dem bloggers are heading over to Edinburgh on Wednesday to interview party leader Willie Rennie.

The other bloggers are the effervescent Caron Lindsay, the intelligent and deep Nicola Prigg, the sagacious Gavin Hamilton and the perceptive Douglas McLellan (sounds like an edition of QI, doesn't it?).

I must admit to not being Jeremy Paxman, but then again Willie isn't Winston Churchill so hopefully I'll get a word in and perhaps even ask the odd tough question.

We've been having some interesting discussions between us about what we should ask him and there appears to be broad consensus on certain issues, even if we take different views. But we've got a bit of time and I'd like to use this opportunity to ask Willie the questions you want asking. Whether you're a party member or not even Lib Dem sympathetic - if you've got any interesting questions you'd like me to put to Willie then please leave them below.

I don't make any promises that I'll be able to ask or that Willie will answer! But it would be useful to carry in my armoury some ammunition supplied by "real people" with an interest in Scotland's future.

Now, you're going to have to some back again on Friday (when I've had time to write up a report of events) and see how well Willie performed!

Carey: equal marriage is a "power grab".

In the news today is former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey (I won’t refer to him as Lord Carey, as he doesn’t merit that particular title). Like most retired clergy, he appears to have little to concern himself with other than an obsession with same-sex marriage – which probably tells you all you need to know about the motivations of his ilk.

Speaking to the Daily Mail (obviously the ideal forum for the supposedly politically neutral crossbencher), Carey addresses the issue of same-sex marriage; in particular he refers to proposals to change the status of marriage to make it inclusive and apply to same-sex couples as “one of the greatest political power grabs in history”. Clearly Carey knows little about either power-grabs, history or both.

Carey targets Prime Minister David Cameron rather than Liberal Democrats equalities minister Lynne Featherstone who is actually spearheading the government’s proposals. He is dismissive of Cameron’s contribution to the debate at his party’s conference in which he described support for “gay marriage” as “Conservative”: Carey claims to have been “baffled by this statement…Not because I begrudge rights and benefits to homosexual couples. I was baffled because this Government’s proposal constitutes one of the greatest political power grabs in history…The state does not own marriage... The honourable estate of matrimony precedes both the state and the church, and neither of these institutions have the right to redefine it in such a fundamental way.”

Which begs the question – if the state, which legislates for and legitimises marriages and partnerships, does not “own marriage” who does? Society, which is broadly supportive of equality? I can’t see Carey promoting that one. The idea that God (as indicated by Carey as preceding both the state and the church) has a monopoly or ownership on the legal recognition of committed sexual partnerships can not be sensibly considered; it is both absurd and theologically flawed. As for the church, it’s certainly positive that Carey is happy to resign the “ownership” many of his fellow Christians believe the church should exercise, but perhaps he’d be better telling that to his friends in the Coalition for Marriage (C4M – sounds a bit like an American TV channel) who seem to share different views.

Carey tries his utmost to come across as tolerant and an advocate for LGBT rights but he fails miserably. His pseudo-intellectual critique fails to disguise his ill-veiled prejudices. He would like us to believe that he is not in principle opposed to equality legislation but simply the political process (the “power-grab” behind it). In that case, why side with the Coalition for Marriage; why oppose the legislation and take the opportunity to take cynical asides which have the potential to poison an already tense political atmosphere?

In regards “power-grabs”, Carey’s accusation demonstrates a curious lack of insight. Here is an unelected former bishop using our parliamentary system and his privileged position at the heart of it to champion views that are representative of a minority – both within society and the church he represents. When such unrepresentative individuals complain about their small-minded opposition not being imposed and legally enforced on the rest of us, it does make you ask who really is making an attempt to grab power. Not Cameron and Featherstone for sure. Nor the LGBT community.

Perhaps Carey is simply keen to demonstrate the irrelevance of his position and the urgent needs for House of Lords reform – quite timely given the announcement that a number of Conservative peers are threatening to rebel against the government’s entire legislative programme if such reform is given the green light. I have little difficulty in accepting that Carey has the right and freedom to express whichever views he wishes; however, he should not do so from the privileged and comfortable position of a seat in the House of Lords. And whether it's tactically wise for him to show how out of touch he is with mainstream opinion (both Christian and otherwise) is another matter entirely.

A spokesperson for C4M insisted that the proposed equality legislation was being “driven by the forces of political correctness and a handful of single-issue pressure groups.” Clearly he sees the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, the Labour Party, large parts of the Conservative Party, the Green Party and the predominant view of society as a whole as marginal voices of political correctness. Presumably Carey, while not expressing such views outright, shares them given his support for C4M. When will these people realise that this is not a minor concern of a few “single issue pressure groups”, but a vital question of equality, respect for diversity and the promotion of a fair society?

This isn't a "power grab" at all and it's a dishonest - not to mention socially divisive - tactic for George Carey to use. He udnerstands full well what he is doing and should, as a Peer of the realm, behave more appropriately. Many of us see no good reason to continue to perpetuate the inequality entrenched within current marriage law - we simply want the same rights for LGBT people as those who are heterosexual. There's no need to wrap in in dogmatic theology or intellectualise about it - it's simply a matter of fairness.

Fortunately George Carey and the various single-issue pressure groups campaigning against equality are becoming increasingly desperate as their social irrelevance becomes more obvious. Their campaign is doomed to failure because it deserves to be; not simply because society has moved on from their narrow-minded prejudices, but because their objections are based largely on a fatuous and ridiculous logic.

Such opposition is likely to be counter-productive; if Carey’s comments prove anything it’s that neither Salmond’s government in Holyrood nor the coalition in Westminster can allow these fundamentalists to frame the debate or dictate the political outcome. I have every faith (no pun intended) that both governments have the necessary backbone to stand up and deliver for equality, and kick religious homophobia into the place it belongs (and I’m not talking about the benches of our second chamber either).

I eagerly await positive developments on the equal marriage front. I also trust that overdue Lords reform will finally rid parliament of these turbulent priests - if only turkeys could be persuaded to vote for Christmas!

Monday, 6 February 2012

Harry Potter star withdraws support for Lib Dems.

I've watched all the Harry Potter movies. You know, they're not bad. That said, I've always been amazed how this regurgitation of public school ritual and traditional folklore (interspersed with spells in elementary Latin) has struck such a chord with the public. It's so dated on so many levels that it makes C.S. Lewis's Narnia allegories look positively modern. Perhaps it's the safe, comfortable tone or the moral message that good always triumphs over evil that are key to understanding where Harry Potter's appeal lies - either that, or it's simply down to effective marketing. All the same, I've never truly understood it.

Similarly, I found it strange that the press should have made so much of Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe's support for the Lib Dems in the past, or that so many column inches should be dedicated today to his indicating that he has now withdrawn that support. Why is this remotely newsworthy? I don't think the majority of voters are very influenced by support from "celebrity" backers, and quite why Radcliffe's opinions are so important remain as great a mystery as why Dobby the House Elf never considered approaching a psychological therapist to help rid him of his various demons and personal insecurities.

The article in The Guardian is interesting though. Radcliffe's grasp of political reality is exposed in the opening paragraph, when he claims that Ed Miliband is "genuinely left-wing". Really? Does he understand what left-wing means? For all the talk in his acceptance address to his party's conference in 2010, Ed is anything but a left-winger. His philosophy is so devoid of ideology to be vacuous. There are plenty within the Labour Party who aren't sure what Ed Miliband stands for. And we won't talk about the unions' views...

Radcliffe claims that Clegg is the Tories' "whipping boy". Again, I would have expected someone of Radcliffe's profile and intelligence to be able to have a better constructed view of political reality than that of the average Daily Mirror reader. I understand the point he's making (I've also been critical of Clegg at times and feel there have been instances when he has been used by the Conservatives) and obviously he's entitled to his view, but surely as a Liberal Democrat supporter he recognises the several occasions when the party and Clegg himself have successfully curbed the Tories' ambitions, the way we have frustrated them on key issues (e.g. the NHS) and openly confronted them on others (e.g. Europe). Clegg is many things and in some respects has been a disappointment, making serious mistakes - but he's no-one "whipping boy". That really is a simplicity that needs challenging.

Interestingly, what really seems to motivate Radcliffe is his passion for LGBT rights and ending faith schools. Ah, a man after my own heart. He doesn't seem to have much in the way of a personal political philosophy, although he does suggest that he would like a more redistributive economy based on fairness: "if you make a lot more money than most people - like I do - you should pay more tax and subsidise people who work just as hard as you, but don't earn as much." So you'd think Cable's proposals for a mansion tax would appeal to him, as well as the historic Lib Dem commitment to marriage equality.

But no, he thinks that Ed Miliband "speaks for what he believes in". Hmm. I don't know, but if your beliefs amount to abolishing faith schools (Radcliffe calls himself a "militant atheist") and increasing taxes for the highest earners I'm not sure you should put too much faith in Ed, who won't commit to extending the 50p tax rate and has only made vague noises about a "wealth tax" (essentially the same principle as Cable's mansion tax). And as for Ed's views on faith schools...maybe Radcliffe should read The Guardian a bit more often.

I have to admit to being amused that Nick Clegg had "asked to meet [Radcliffe] and talked [with him] about gay rights and faith schools." Perhaps sometime Nick wouldn't mind talking to me about how we can reverse the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats here in Scotland. (I'm still waiting for a reply to that letter!)

Of course it could be that Radcliffe's understanding of politics, or even interest in it, is nothing more than superficial. He once gave an interview in which he said he'd vote for us, now he thinks he'll vote for someone else. That's not unusual, but it's also not exactly newsworthy and I can only speculate at the motivations of the media when they are so keen to give such a "revelation" significance it doesn't exactly merit.

While I'd much prefer it if Daniel Radcliffe continued to support the Lib Dems (and it sounds like he has some definite liberal principles) I'm not sure why his change of voting intention is given more media attention than defecting councillors or, perhaps more crucially, grassroots activists either changing their allegiance or leaving political activity altogether. That is a greater problem for our party: they are, after all, the people who make our party what it is - not the celebrities who temporarily endorse it.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Chris Huhne resigns

Energy secretary Chris Huhne has today resigned from the cabinet following the announcement that he has been charged with perverting the course of justice.

Huhne, who was once considered the natural leader of the Liberal Democrats and at one time favourite to succeed Nick Clegg, decided that in the circumstances it was best to stand down to "avoid distraction".

Huhne continues to maintain his innocence in the matter concerning his wife's alleged acceptance of his penalty points for speeding. That in itself, however, has become almost irrelevant. The allegation that a cabinet minister would willingly stoop to such deceptive practices has hung over him for several months and has predictably been repeated regularly in the media. Given the deep suspicions surrounding him, it's been a remarkable achievement on Huhne's part to have performed so well in difficult circumstances.

The announcement that the police were actually to press charges arguably made Huhne's resignation inevitable. He will now appear in court in two weeks' time. Nick Clegg praised his dedication, stating that he had done "an outstanding job". On this point, I don't disagree with Nick. As energy secretary Huhne's had a tough time trying to push a liberal agenda in direct opposition to the Conservatives who seem less interested in creating a sustainable future. In pursuing policies to achieve significant climate change targets he's ruffled a few Tory feathers and he's never been one to shirk a fight with his Conservative counterparts - something not lost on the Lib Dem grassroots.

Personally, I don't really regard the resignation as inevitable. The argument that he simply couldn't continue given the charges against him doesn't really stand up to scrutiny when considered in the context of several months' public suspicion of his actions. At least he'll now have the opportunity to clear his name. If he's innocent then, like former Glasgow provost Pat Lally, he should not resign on principle - especially given that he's been one of our most effective ministers in coalition. If, of course, he's guilty as charged then there really should be no way back for him - not because of the original offence but because of his attempts to conceal the truth.

It's a sad day for the party in so many ways. We've lost a capable, popular and effective minister over what is, when it's boiled down, a rather trivial matter. The promotion of Ed Davey (who I like and whose influence I predicted would become more visible this year) is, in the circumstances sensible. But not only are we replacing a thorn in the Tories' side with someone more likely to be amenable, the appointment sends a signal that the party is ruled by the "Orange Book" economic liberals, something picked up on by various fellow members on twitter. Personally, I have little time for those who use the phrase "orange booker" as a term of abuse or for the supposed divisions that some would like to reinforce - but I would like to see another socially liberal voice at the cabinet table. We can't be reliant on Ken Clarke.

Vince Cable is reported to have said: "I'm very sad...I'm sure he will clear his name and we would certainly like to see him back." I hope he's right. I have a great deal of respect for what Huhne has tried to achieve in a little over a year and a half. I hope he's innocent and, if that's the case, that at some point in the future he can return to government. What seems pretty certain is that any vague hopes he ever had of becoming party leader have all but evaporated.

It's sobering to think that a few penalty points for speeding could potentially finish a parliamentary career. All in all, a sad day for the Liberal Democrats.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Are you a pro-change Liberal Democrat?

Are you a member of the Liberal Democtrats who either supports independence or passionately believes in "Devo Max"?

I know there are many members of the party who are frustrated at the Scottish party's unwillingness to support a devo-max option on the referendum ballot form. Many of us can not support the status quo and feel that the union is not something that as liberals we can defend. We want change - either for an independent Scotland or one in which there is significantly further devolution.

I have been talking to a few fellow activists and we feel it might be worth considering establishing a pro-change grouping within the party.

Initially, I have set up a facebook group: Liberal Democrats for Change which will hopefully be a useful place to guage support as well as discuss the constitutional question in more depth. Please sign up if you are change-sympathetic!

Ex-RBS boss stripped of knighthood: what next for honours system?

And so the inevitable has happened.

The ex-RBS chief executive, formerly known as Sir Fred Goodwin, is now plain Mr Goodwin.

His honour was withdrawn yesterday following a dramatic turn of events that have seen him almost singularly blamed for creating the worst economic crisis for decades.

Goodwin's being stripped of his knighthood was not entirely unexpected. It's been in the offing for some time. It was discussed on Question Time a couple of weeks ago, with majority support for the annulment. And, while I don't wish to comment at any length about it, I was broadly supportive. Anyone who has received a knighthood for "services to banking" in spite of having brought his bank to the brink of collapse can only call himself "Sir" fraudulently. Fred Goodwin will be remembered for doing banking, and the country, a great dis-service.

Interestingly, he is only one of a handful who have been so dishonoured since Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. That itself is a statistic worth taking a moment to consider. I wonder who has been the source of the most human misery and unnecessary suffering: the Romanian dictator or the RBS chief?

No doubt this is a move that will prove popular with the public. I cannot argue that it isn't welcome. But what it will not do is anything to restore the damaged economy, to ensure that RBS works in the interests of its current shareholders (the public) or to change the banking culture which allows excessive bonuses and rewards reckless risk-taking. It can not in itself restore confidence in the British banking system, which is so desperately in need of overdue reform. A lot of questions remain to be asked about the UK's financial industry - and necessary actions taken to ensure it behaves in a more responsible way.

As I write, there are surely hundreds of bloggers making the same points, only more eloquently. I will leave it to them to explore the scope for a new model for our financial services.

What I'm actually interested in discussing is the UK honours system. It was curious to observe that the justification for stripping Goodwin of his title was that he had "brought the honours system into disrepute". Now, Mr Goodwin is guilty of many things but that surely isn't one of them. The honours system is already completely disreputable - any "system" that would give a knighthood to Fred Goodwin in the first instance is highly questionable.

What exactly does our honours system do if not reinforce celebrity culture or reward the "good and the great"? Fred Goodwin is simply the tip of the iceberg. In the last few years we've had the likes of Jeffrey Archer, Brian Souter, Mark Thatcher and Victor Blank being honoured for their dubious "services". Not to forget "Sir" Mervyn King, who is arguably far more responsible than Fred Goodwin for the current recession. And then we have the likes of Carol Vorderman being given an MBE for "services to television" (i.e. doing her job of putting some vowels and consonants on a board and doing some - sometimes tricky - arithmetical calculations), the England cricket team picking up gongs for beating Australia (including Paul Collingwood who played one match and scored 10 runs), soap "stars" being recognised and TV presenters such as Lorraine Kelly also receiving awards for "services". I've nothing against these people, but they are basically being rewarded for doing what they already get paid a fair amount to do.

In a culture obsessed with celebrity, the honours system reinforces it. People who are famous for being famous (no matter how briefly) are preferred over lifelong excellence. I suspect any GB athlete who wins a gold medal in this year's Olympics will be up for at least an OBE come next January.

So what future can our honours system possibly have? Do we simply want one that reflects celebrity culture and reinforces the status of the self-righteous "great", or do we want one that recognises long-term achievement, people who go the extra mile rather than those who appear most often on our TV screens, those who contribute to society's well-being rather than those who engineer short-term financial booms? If Fred Goodwin's knighthood told us anything it's that the "system", or society, values those who can make the most money. And if Dame Brian Souter's honour said anything, it's that any type of transgression need not serve as an impediment if you're a millionaire who can afford to give a bit to charity for tax purposes.

And let's briefly consider what honours actually are - they bestow upon the "honoured" the rather dubious privilege of being an Officer or a Member of a historic society responsible for so much human suffering - the British Empire. Why anyone would wish to accept entry into an "Empire" that not only has ceased to exist in all but name but has such an unenviable history I don't know. Personally, I'd find the mere overtones of colonialism offputting.

The honours system is at best a relic of a bygone era that reinforces dated perceptions of achievement and Victorian attitudes towards philanthropy. The list of recently honoured in itself demonstrates that the system is unfit for purpose and a poor reflection of British society. What is needed is a new, forward thinking and modern awards system, created in 21st century Britain for 21st century Britain - the kind of thing you'd think the Liberal Democrats would be championing with gusto.