Thursday, 28 June 2012

Salmond has a Moses moment

We all know that the First Minister has a high view of himself.  In fact, a lot of us seem to agree.  Love him or hate him, he's got to be one of the most successful political communicators in recent years.

His detractors see him as self-absorbed, arrogant and conceited.  So when, in a pitifully tribal First Minister's Questions today, Alex Salmond appeared to liken himself to Moses it can only have given such people a bit of extra ammunition.

Not the cleverest of moves, I suspect, and one which will lead to some predictable headlines in tomorrow's daily newspapers.

Salmond, responding to a question from Roderick Campbell about discussions at the British Irish Council, stated that he will be telling the council's next meeting to "let my people go!"  Not quite the comparison others have unwisely made it, but the reference and implications are self-evident.

I'm not really sure why the First Minister would want to make the comparison. Moses did not lead his people into the promised land.  Indeed, he only saw it from a distance.  His people frequently exasperated him and he spent forty years wandering around with them in the wilderness on a journey that could have taken a few days.  And he had conversations with burning vegetation - never a good sign.  No wonder he needed those tablets.

Also, Moses' mission was not, contrary to common misconception, to lead his people into "a land flowing with milk and honey".  Oh, no. It was simply this - to take them out of slavery in Egypt on God's instruction ("let my people go so that they may worship me in the desert.")  The Old Testament God is a bit of an egomaniac, but the point I want to make is, I think, a relevant one.  It's not so much where we've come from that matters but the destination.  In short, what concerns me is not separation from England as a desirable end in itself, but what the eventual "promised land" will look like.  What will be the defining characteristics of an independent Scotland?

Salmond understandably wants "his people" to be freed.  But for what purpose? For me and others like me who are not ideological nationalists, independence is a potentially attractive option because of the freedoms it offers Scottish people to take control of their own destinies; political freedoms, social freedoms and economic freedoms.  Detachment from the rest of the UK is for us neither an end in itself nor particularly desirable unless it is simply a first step in an innovative vision to transform Scottish society, our politics and our economic and industrial potential.

"Let my people go".  Yes, but go where?  This is a challenge for the SNP and Yes Scotland.  They need to communicate to a sometimes skeptical public what they want an independent Scotland to be - and also that the vision is an achievable one. Why will independence be better for Scots?  Why should the business community support independence? What would be the nature of an independent Scotland's political system?  In fairness, both are making constructive attempts to do this but so often the debate we're having descends into farcical claim and counter claim between nationalists and unionists that the more sane contributions are not heard.

For any aspiring Moses-type figure a focus on the end-goal is vitally important.  It didn't take the Israelites very long to become unhappy with freedom from Egypt. Far more thought must be given over to constructing a positive view of our country's future and selling it to the electorate, avoiding the temptations to engage negatively with Better Together or to focus principally on correcting the many myths - little would be gained from becoming embroiled in pitched battles with the opposition. Much will come down to how each side communicates its respective messages. Credibility will be key to determining the outcome and if the "Yes" camp can put together a proposition for Scotland's future that is not only positive but credible it has a greater chance of victory.

Ultimately the referendum will come down to whose message the voters are prepared to put their faith in - the Better Together campaign with its refusal to declare explicitly what a post-referendum Scotland will look like or Yes Scotland? It's early days, but if Salmond wants to ensure Scots are "let go", perhaps he needs to model himself a little less on Moses and instead look at more recent history for inspiration and guidance.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

My day work shadowing Mike Crockart MP

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I was very fortunate to have successfully applied, via the Liberal Democrats' Diversity Unit, for a day's experience work shadowing an MP.

The purpose of the initiative is to give candidates of under-represented groups (I'm bisexual and from a low socio-economic group, just in case you were wondering) the opportunity to gain valuable insights into the work of an MP, the parliamentary system and the democratic process in action.

Whether by accident or design I found myself paired with a Scottish MP - the member for Edinburgh West, Mike Crockart.  I must confess to not having known a great deal about Mike prior to yesterday, other than that he represented an Edinburgh seat and that he expressed opposition to tuition fees - going so far as to resign his post as aide to Michael Moore in order to vote against the government's proposals.  As he said at the time, "I believe that access to Higher Education is a key enabler to social mobility and the best way to narrow the gap between the richest and poorest in society."  I didn't disagree with him then and I don't now.

There are a number of benefits to work shadowing an MP and, in my view, getting to know a bit about the MP as both a politician and a human being is definitely the principal one.  Yesterday, I spent a bit of time with a down-to-earth former policeman with a practical knowledge of pertinent issues and a passion for social justice, who is driven by principles of fairness and a desire to eradicate social inequality; a solution-focused man determined to make a positive contribution in the often frustrating world of Westminster politics.  What is also apparent is that, similarly to other MPs, he is a deeply human person who has made a great deal of personal sacrifices to pursue a career in politics, which is a quite sobering but necessary consideration for someone with similar aspirations.  

The fact that Mike refuses to use unpaid interns impressed me (too obviously, I think).  That he also champions greater use of plain English further endeared him to me.

Other things that made a key impression were his workload  - it seems in the modern era MPs really do need limitless energy (something that, fortunately, Mike appeared to have) or to be better equipped to deal with the enormous amount of enquiries and casework that comes their way.  It was also quite striking how important communication is to politics; in fact, it seemed if there is a singular thing I should take on board from yesterday's experience it is that politics is all about communication rather than policy, debates or party philosophy. Communication is central to how we broadcast our message as a party and as individuals; how we keep in touch with, and represent the views of, constituents; how we are publicly perceived and how we facilitate the change we believe in. And, naturally, a great deal more besides.

What also heavily impressed was the strange, uncomfortable, suffocating culture of Westminster.  Unlike Holyrood, the Commons simply doesn't feel like a place of work.  It was also fascinating to observe the influence and presence of interest groups, all keen to persuade parliamentarians to commit to policies - some sensible, some not.  I have no doubt that these groups serve a useful purpose and that MPs are not easily-led by their arguments, but what was plainly obvious is that they have become powers in their own right and are acutely aware of it - further evidence of the emerging professional political class I am so opposed to.

I sat through a meeting of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which was not quite as interesting as it sounds.  Much of the discussion was of a technical nature and related to points of law that I, and no doubt some of the parliamentarians, were not too familiar with.  What was interesting to see was how well briefed MPs are for their committee work and the inter-personal dynamics between the committee members.

I feel a gained a fair amount from work-shadowing Mike, but I'd also like to thank his office staff for going the extra mile to accommodate me.  For someone living in the West of Scotland, who cannot simply spend long periods working in London for free, such opportunities are invaluable and quite rare.  It is a fantastic initiative that the party has launched and we have the amazing Roxana (from the Camapign for Gender Balance) to thank for it.  Hopefully, we could make it less London-centric in the future and create similar opportunities at Edinburgh and in Cardiff?

I have some criticisms, not least that the party's energies at facilitating diversity are largely focused on women, ethnic minorities and gay/bisexual people.  That's not to say the efforts being made are not appreciated, far from it.  Nick Clegg is right when he says the party is "too male and too pale".  But the party is also too "middle class", for want of better terminology and that represents an even bigger problem.  We need to do far more to engage with people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and bring them into active politics.  Also, party initiatives tend to be centred on London - not terribly great for some of us (I think I've been sat on a coach for so long in the last few days I'm developing a quite serious pressure sore) who, for reasons of cost and accessibility, would prefer more local opportunities.  While I am grateful for the support the diversity initiative is giving people like me in going through the approvals process and accessing training opportunities, I am also concerned that those of us who, for no fault of our own, happen to be either white or male have to essentially wear their "minority status" on their sleeve as some kind of badge or identifier.  I'm quite uncomfortable with this, and told Roxana - who, in fairness, understood this and is ahead of me in facilitating solutions.

All in all though, the work shadowing was a positive and hopefully useful experience.  My thanks go to all involved.

(And, if you wish to know what I was doing at 7am yesterday, the clue is in the picture!)

Monday, 25 June 2012

"Better Together" campaign launched

And so, in a blaze of publicity and disappointing negativity, the “No” campaign is officially launched.

Much ado about nothing in my view.  Personally, these launches do little for me.  The strange launch of Yes Scotland, since ridiculed as the Declaration of Cineworld, and problems with its campaigning website on which twitter followers were presented as supporters were uncharacteristically dismal by comparison with the SNP’s usually slick presentation.  Given these difficulties, any intelligent person would have thought that the “No” campaign would have learned from these errors and would project a far more professional appearance.  You might have also assumed that it might have something positive to say – or, failing that, at least something new.  Maybe even something about the kind of future Scotland we can all look forward to?

I have to confess I find it moderately amusing that we now have “Yes” and “No” campaigns before we even know what the question is!

I have little interest in the theatrical, carefully stage-managed launch of Better Together.  However, I have a great deal more interest in what the campaign’s message is, how it hopes to campaign and in the inter-party dynamics that could well prove the campaign’s undoing (BBC Scotland have already reported this morning that Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat representatives don’t want to be filmed together). 

Yesterday I took a look at the Better Together website, which is very good.  Very good only in the sense that it reveals everything you might need to know about the campaign’s core message, its values, its campaigning style and the levels of professionalism we can expect from it. 

Let’s take a look at the website.  From a purely aesthetic point of view (I run a creative arts company and my partner is a graphic designer, so I know a little) it lacks impact.  It’s quite easy to navigate but suffers from an inescapably amateurish feel, as if it was designed by a 10-year old: you’re left asking the question “is this all there is?”  It lacks so much as an imprint, which is hardly reassuring in respect to the campaign’s levels of professionalism.

But a rather ordinary looking website and hints of unprofessionalism are relatively insignificant.  What I’m really interested in is the message.  It’s slogan is the simple “Join us for a stronger Scotland, a United Kingdom”.  That’s fair enough.  The site also proclaims that “people from all over Scotland agree: ‘we get the best of both worlds as part of the United Kingdom’”.  Well, clearly we don’t all agree, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this referendum.  As for what “the best of both worlds” actually is, I don’t know.  As a Liberal Democrat I think I can speak with most of my party when I say I’m not supportive of the status quo.  I don’t think we’ve got “the best of both worlds”, whatever that is supposed to mean.  We have a devolutionist arrangement that is far from ideal, in urgent need of reform and a Union that is somewhat dysfunctional.  By all means Better Together should present a case for continuation of the Union, but please do not present it as the most positive of political arrangements.  It is not.  It is frankly unfit for purpose in the 21st century.

Curiously, as if stung by nationalist accusations of negativity, Better Together is keen to put forward its “positive case”.   In fact, this is its central message.  So what does it have to say; what positive future does it have in mind for Scotland?  Not very much, it seems - just a few lines on prosperity, security and interdependence.  The first thing that struck me was how thin the argument was, and how there seemed little in it that was actually positive.  The points they make are insultingly patronising and simplistic (the NHS was created by a Welshman – a vast oversimplification if ever there was one – this is evidence of people from across the UK working collaboratively and, therefore, that the Union is best).  The so-called positivity is dependent upon negative assumptions about what Scottish independence would actually mean, such as “uncertainty, instability and barriers for our businesses” or that an independent Scotland would by nature be less multi-cultural or “culturally enriched”.  The arguments for Scotland’s continued presence in the Union fail to convince on any level, especially as the SNP’s commitment to the armed forces is vastly greater than the UK government’s (let’s not forget the devastating impact the coalition’s policies have had on Scotland’s military resources) and that the SNP is far more committed to retaining links with both the rest of the present UK and the EU than it’s being given credit for here.

So, not so much a positive case as more of the same tired arguments, only not as well developed.  This simplistic “case” might convince some people, but probably few over the age of 7 who have a modicum of political understanding.  I expected more, both in terms of an intellectual base and positive outlook.  All in all, a dismal contribution for what passes for debate and a missed opportunity to challenge the “Yes” campaign directly on some of its key claims.

The rest of the website is quite interesting too, and says a great deal about the nature of Better Together.  The film on their website, entitled “The Best of Both Worlds” speaks to a number of Scots who support the union.  Their reasoning is interesting.  “We’re guaranteed schools and hospital care” under the status quo, says one, as if such things would inevitably be a thing of the past post-independence.  “I don’t want to feel, like, in a few years that if I go down to England I feel like I shouldn’t really be there because I’m not part of the UK” says another.  Hmmm.  I go to France quite often and never feel that I shouldn’t be there.  I would suggest if she doesn’t feel she can belong anywhere other than where she lives she really needs to change her worldview and broaden her horizons.  “I’ve been British for 71 years” states another.  Erm, that’s not an argument.  Others are keen to show off just how patriotic they are – they love Scottish music and culture, read Burns’ poetry and like tartan (sigh!) -  so much more patriotic than those nationalists!  If this introductory video is anything to go by, we will be subjected to unionists and nationalists attempting to outdo each other in the patriotic stakes for the next two years.  So much for constructive debate and reasoned discussion.  There was not a single coherent argument put forward in the four minutes and ten seconds the video lasted – you would have thought Better Together could have found someone with a token argument rather than expressions of misplaced fear or a pride in British identity.

Elsewhere on the Better Together website is the amazing revelation that “the Union is a Scottish invention”.  Well, not all Scottish inventions are necessarily good so I don’t quite grasp the point; the fact that the Darien scheme was a product of Scottish minds doesn’t make it any more credible.  I did read the piece, by a supposedly respected Scottish historian I've not heard of named Colin Kidd, who insisted that “Unionism was invented in the the work of John Mair of Haddington" as an alternative to “the English Empire”.  That’s not quite true, as by the 1520s England had virtually no colonies abroad other than Calais.  Mair certainly put forward the idea of a union of Anglo-Scottish crowns as a remedy for political instability, but he was not the first to do so and would have almost certainly hated to be considered the inventor of unionism.  He was, after all, a humanist, a logician and a theologian.  Other, more likely suspects, for the origins of pro-Union thinking must by Kidd’s logic also include Edward I or the Scots king David II – who in 1363 had to be prevented by his own parliament from pursuing union with England. 

It is a fundamentally pointless article, but serves a useful purpose: it demonstrates Better Together’s willingness to re-write history in its own image.  And this is Better Together in a nutshell: negative, backward-looking, dependent on questionable interpretations of history and with a dated view of Scotland and Scottish identity reminiscent of the predominant attitudes of the 1970s. 

What I find most worrying is that Better Together attempts to steal the “positive” high ground from the nationalists, while actively utilising the same tactics they decry.  The nationalists are negative, they say, but negativity runs right through Better Together’s message like the words in a stick of Blackpool rock.  Better Together also claims that it wants to be “a home for the information [voters] need to make the biggest decision in Scotland’s history.”  A praiseworthy ideal indeed, were it true.  Oh, those nationalists don’t want the reasonable debate we’re offering, claims the “No” campaign.  What utter rubbish, and a completely disingenuous claim.

I’m not a nationalist.  Neither am I a unionist.  At the moment, I am inclined to support independence because I am a liberal and I think of the two options being offered that independence is the one that will most effectively facilitate the creation of a liberal society.  I want to see a real debate that engages with Scottish people, informs and educates, stimulates reasonable discussion and empowers people to make an informed choice.  That we’re not seeing this is partly down to the tactics of Better Together.  We don’t need tit-for-tat debates about which side is the most patriotic.  We also don’t need the descent into two distinct tribes – nationalist and unionist – that we’re currently witnessing.  What we need is an open and honest political conversation stripped of perjorative terminology and unnecessary scaremongering.

What Better Together have so far patently failed to do is put forward a picture of a Scotland’s future that might actually resonate with the public.  Big questions such as “what will the status quo mean for Scotland’s political future?” remain unanswered and is one key reason why I could not vote “No”.  What would help the “No” case is an ability to describe a future Scotland in which people might actually want to live.

There are fundamental problems for the Better Together campaign.  Their essential message is that Scotland needs more of the same, and the only thing that unites the three parties leading it is opposition to independence rather than a shared vision for the future.  Ultimately, therefore, it must be unsurprising that its message will be tinged with negativity.  Clearly Better Together poses key problems for the Liberal Democrats, which is why Willie Rennie yesterday wrote a piece in the Scotsman reasserting his opposition to a second question on the ballot paper and his fears that the referendum outcome could be decided by courts.  His arguments against a second question are to my mind short-sighted and unnecessary, his insistence that no respected expert supports it plainly wrong and the reference to the US Presidential election of 2000 misleading (this was, for those who forget, the case of the “hanging chads” that rendered a number of ballot forms unreadable by electronic machinery).  He's defending his position because he realises that not supporting an option that would actually provide the best opportunity for Liberal Democrats to achieve their objectives will open him up to a fair amount of criticism.  I think, having discussed the issue with him, that he genuinely believes his logic but the timing of the article, which contains nothing new, suggests he's aware of the risks he's taking and is getting in an early defence.  If he helps secure the union but finds himself unable to be the "guarantor of [constitutional] change" he professes to be, his leadership will ultimately be a failure: he will simply have reinforced the status quo the party is theoretically opposed to.

What Willie Rennie is perfectly aware of is that, in a coalition of the negative, the Liberal Democrats’ distinctive voice on further devolution and fiscal federalism will be drowned out by the louder, more cynical, voices of the Tories and Labour.  Quite why he wants to identify himself and the party so closely with Better Together I’m not sure, because there are huge political risks involved.  Rennie, for all his positive talk, surely recognises that a party of 5 MSPs cannot guarantee constitutional change: if we failed to achieve any progress in eight years in government in Holyrood or in coalition in Westminster we’re not likely to be in a strong position to deliver in the aftermath of 2014.  I feel he and the party are missing a trick here: we should be taking every opportunity to express our distinctive vision and distance ourselves from the Tories and Labour, rather than allowing ourselves to be publicly identified with unionist arguments we plainly don’t accept.

Former Lib Dem councillor Alex Dingwall posted on facebook this morning:
So today sees the launch of the NO Campaign, and I'm confused to see those who support a federal position backing BetterTogether rather than the DevoPlus group. Willie Rennie set up the Home Rule Commission to "map the next constitutional steps after the Scotland Bill and provide an inspiring and positive vision for the future of our country."
Our party's own press release said "the status quo is inadequate” but isn’t the status quo exactly what Scottish Liberal Democrats are being asked to back by the BetterTogether Campaign?

Indeed.  Supporting the status quo is not a position I, as a liberal, am prepared to take.  I also would have serious concerns about Better Together, which on the evidence so far simply appears a cynical and tribalistic campaign of negativity.  

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Prime Minister proposes plans to axe Housing benefit to under-25s.

For a few months in 2010, I was tempted to give David Cameron the benefit of the doubt.  My cynicism and suspicion that his credentials as a reformer, moderniser and de-toxifier of the Tory brand were simply a smokescreen for a more sinister brand of Conservativism were actively challenged by a reasonable performance during the first period of coalition government.  He appeared to have some genuinely liberal inclinations, looked willing to distance himself from the right-wing of his party (a bane of previous Conservative leaderships) and gave indications of a commitment to pluralism. 

However, in recent months Cameron appears to have parted company not only with these qualities but also his sense of reason and proportion.  As he becomes notably more intemperate, as evidenced in some of his parliamentary exchanges with Ed Miliband and Dennis Skinner, the transformation from the reasonable, amicable and tolerant champion of political diversity into sub-Thatcherite tribalist becomes more obvious.  If indeed transformation it is; perhaps my cynicism was not so misplaced after all.

While Cameron has made some foolish comments recently unfitting of his office, today’s revelations are more serious.  If it is true that the Prime Minister is set to announce that Housing Benefit would be scrapped for under-25s, the plans amount to the stupidest thing a British Prime Minister has done since Anthony Eden decided that a unilateral military adventure in Egypt would provide the most effective solution to securing Britain’s economic prosperity. 

Today’s newspapers are all in agreement of key facts: that David Cameron is to give a speech tomorrow in which he will set out proposals (presumably only to be implemented in the event of a Conservative majority administration) to scrap housing benefit to under-25s, that the principal objective of such a move is a financial one (to save at least £10billion) and that the plans are based on the idea that under-25s should simply “stay with Mum or Dad” rather than live independently.

This logic is so misplaced that it would be laughable if not so serious.  Firstly, what is being proposed is an institutional discrimination based on a person’s age.  The proposals would be objectionable for that reason alone.  But even the economic reasoning is far from sound, as the likely human costs include increased homelessness, a rise in crime, wider incidence of mental ill-health and suicide, the creation of a new underclass - one that is socially immobile and isolated, with zero prospects or life opportunities.   What the plans would do in practice is to create a maze of social problems and human misery coupled with a perpetuation of poverty and a reinforcement of inequality, all of which carries an additional financial as well as a societal cost.

It would represent a completely false economy to scrap housing benefit to under-25s as any savings would be marginal compared to the increased costs necessitated by addressing the problems associated with further social breakdown.  It is more than ironic that the architect of the phrase “Broken Britain” is advocating policies that will lead to devastating social fragmentation and thousands trapped in poverty with no means of escape.  I’ve become quite accustomed to the Tories’ relentless bashing of the poor and their insistence on making moral judgements between the deserving and undeserving.  But going as far as making such a distinction purely on the basis of age is both arbitrary and discriminatory, as well as utterly stupid.

Let’s take the premise that all under-25s should live with their parents at face value, shall we?  If we accept this, we must accept a view of the world that only exists in the imaginations of middle England arch-Tories, with the respectable nuclear family with 2.3 children as the norm.  A world in which young people (like myself, who left a remote island community to live independently in Glasgow) do not have to leave home to find (often low-paid) employment.  A world in which it is always practical for young people who have left home to return; a world in which relationships between parents and children are always harmonious; a world in which having large families living under one roof is both practical and welcome.

I was appalled in the late 1990s when Glasgow City Council adopted a policy of not housing males under the age of 25 in anything but hostel accommodation – a discrimination based on age and gender and one which led to such men being “dumped”, ignored and forgotten about, their lives criminally left to wind towards homelessness and its inevitable by-products of poverty and personal vulnerability.  I fail to see how Cameron’s idea is any more progressive, or any less likely to result in a core group of people being abandoned to poverty and hopelessness.

In 1996, I was 19 years old and working part-time in Glasgow.  I received some housing benefit due to my low income.  “Home” was over 100 miles away.  If these plans had been in place then, I would have been obligated to give up my employment and the future opportunities it provided.  I am sure there are several other young people today in similar circumstances, who simply cannot be expected to return home and whose life chances would be compromised if they did.

This notion is so ridiculous and out of touch with social reality that the Prime Minister looks quite idiotic.  For a host of reasons a policy that effectively forces people to give up an independent life and live with parents who may or may not be able to accommodate them is impractical and doomed to failure.  There will also be unintended secondary effects such as the social problems already mentioned, a likely loss of income for private landlords and a stagnant economy.

What is actually needed from the Prime Minister is not an outburst suggesting an intolerance towards the lower classes but a coherent strategy for job creation.  It is only through creating new employment opportunities that the government will be able to tackle the rising cost of welfare.  Depriving people of their independence for the arbitrary offences of being under 25 years old and in receipt of housing benefit is not going to help grow the economy.  The most effective method of simultaneously reducing welfare spending and investing in economic growth is through supporting people into jobs and ensuring that such jobs pay the kind of wages that aren’t so low as to trap individuals and their families into benefit dependency. 

If the Conservatives are serious about addressing the admittedly high levels of housing benefit being claimed, they would be well advised to consider also the extent to which artificially inflated house prices have had an effect on private rents – especially in areas such as London.  As they stand Cameron’s plans will take no account of an individual’s needs or circumstances, simply their age.  The insistence that there will be exemptions for “special cases” such as victims of domestic violence is hardly reassuring and is suggestive of an intellectual sloth on the part of the Conservatives’ policy makers. 

In fact, if domestic violence is of such concern to the Prime Minister, why does he insist on forcing families that may have lived apart for some time back under one roof?  Might that not lead to inflammatory situations or domestic violence?

For the leader of a government supposedly committed to social mobility to make this type of statement is quite hypocritical.  What it also does, other than allow us to see the reality of Cameron’s confused mindset, is to demonstrate the problems facing the Conservative party at present.  The party seems unable to formulate any creative ideas to reduce the structural deficit or government spending that do not involve welfare cuts.  Neither do the Conservatives possess the insights or the vision to stimulate Britain’s economy.  But most telling is the party’s struggle with itself.

Cameron’s announcement is part of a deliberate “differentiation strategy”.  He’s beginning to feel pressure from both the electorate and the right-wing of his own party and, like most Conservative Prime Ministers, prioritises the concerns of the latter.  So concerned is the party leadership that they’re losing their distinctiveness in coalition that they’re prepared to say almost anything, irrespective of how devoid of reason it might be, that sets them apart from their Liberal Democrat coalition partners.  There is an internal battle for the soul of the Conservative Party and the captain seems to have abandoned any hopes of steering the ship on a straight course.  He seems more concerned about keeping even the most unsavoury crew members on board, even if that means his passengers are deserting.

From the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.  But the beliefs and values of an individual or a party are inherent in their actions.  From the actions of the Conservative party in recent weeks, it’s safe to deduce that it stands for little other than social inequality and attacks on the underprivileged.  It’s not even a case of “same old Tories” but a newer, more ideologically confused party that lacks the pragmatic attitudes towards welfare that even Thatcher was prepared to tolerate.

I have been disappointed by the Liberal Democrat response so far.   Danny Alexander, according to the Guardian, has “distanced himself” but “stopped short of denouncing them”.  I’m sorry, but that simply isn’t good enough.  I understand the principle of collective responsibility, but that only applies to the actions of a government attempting to implement a coalition agreement.  It does not apply to a maverick Prime Minister making statements on behalf of his party with the express intention of distancing himself from his coalition partners.  The Independent quotes a “Lib Dem source”, indicating that the party is "incredibly relaxed" about Mr Cameron's intervention.  I can appreciate that having the Prime Minister “differentiate” himself in this way is to the Liberal Democrats’ advantage, but there needs to be a direct challenge from senior figures within the party. 

The Conservatives cannot escape their well-deserved reputation as the nasty party.  It seems they don’t want to.  Such nastiness however is becoming increasingly evident in policy pronouncements and Liberal Democrats cannot afford to stand idly by while a confused Prime Minister attacks the most vulnerable in society.  Either we exist to “safeguard a fair, free and open society in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community” – in which case we should publicly oppose this idiocy – or we don’t, in which case there is no need for the Liberal Democrats.

David Cameron’s misjudged proposals would undermine communities, entrench poverty and compromise life chances of already vulnerable people.  If Nick Clegg passionately believes in the need to facilitate social mobility, I suggest that he has a word with Mr Cameron to explain that policies designed to limit economic mobility are likely to have negative impact on the social mobility and personal aspiration the government is so keen to encourage.

I suspect there will be much written on this subject in the next few days, much of it by academics and people with a working knowledge of social deprivation and the realities facing those who claim benefits.  I look forward to reading their insights.  What is already obvious though is that the Prime Minister looks desperate and rather stupid, while Iain Duncan Smith’s aims to restore credibility in the Conservatives through a more compassionate approach towards society’s poorest now lie in tatters.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

"Illiberal council" reverses its decision

After my previous criticisms of Argyll and Bute Council's actions in banning a 9 year old taking photographs for a blog, Never Secondsin which she was fully supported by her school - I am very pleased to see that the council has reversed its original decision and will allow Martha (a.k.a. VEG) to continue taking pictures of her school meals and writing accompanying reviews as of Monday.

That this about-turn is the result of intense public pressure and significant media interest is undeniably true.  The bottom line, however, is that the right decision has been made.  I trust that the public support Martha has received and the hundreds of e-mails of encouragement that were sent to her provide a more positive view of humanity than that of the cold, authoritarian voice of knee-jerk bureaucracy she experienced on Thursday and has given her a renewed appetite to share her talents.

(An apology from me - I regret having labelled the council "illiberal".  It is not the council that is illiberal, but its actions in this case.  In retrospect, the term "stupid" would have been equally fitting.)

I was particularly impressed that the charitable causes the blog hoped to raise £2,000 for (Mary's Meals, which provides food to some of world's poorest children) will be receiving a lot more than Martha ever believed possible.  On Thursday, in saying "goodbye", she wrote that "I don't think I will be able to finish raising enough money for a kitchen..."  Today, thanks to the generosity of people who perhaps wouldn't even have heard of Never Seconds or Mary's Meals before yesterday, Martha is able to announce that she has raised almost £46,000 for the cause.  Quite astonishing, and clearly evidence that clouds can have golden linings as well as silver.

I received a number of e-mails and tweets about the piece I wrote yesterday, almost all of which agreed with my interpretations of the council's illiberal and unnecessarily authoritarian actions.  I would, as a photographer and a liberal, like to say a little more because this has raised a few issues that affect wider social freedoms.

I don't actually know what Argyll and Bute Council's motivations were in suppressing the photography. Given some of the council's recent history, in which rather interesting revelations came to light demonstrating the council's institutional paranoia and obsession with monitoring dissenting voices (see flow chart), it seems more than possible that this is a simple case of responding to embarrassment.  Certainly newspaper interest in Martha's blog led to some less than flattering headlines, but neither Martha nor her photography are directly responsible for that.

It might also be the case that Argyll and Bute Council is simply the latest body to become concerned about photography in an age of instant sharing, where anyone can become an online broadcaster.  I'm perfectly familiar with concerns many people justifiably have about photographing children and it is absolutely right that schools and other public places should have specific rules and boundaries in place.  Recently I was taking photographs in a school and all my activities were rightly monitored, so I'm not suggesting any local authority should have anything but well-developed guidelines in the interests of protection issues.  I'd certainly have issues with Never Seconds if it included photographs of other people being taken without their consent (or even with it, given the scale of the blog's reach) or if this was a completely independent activity the school knew nothing about.

And no, of course we don't want every school pupil bring cameras into school and there are some very difficult areas of ethics and personal responsibility involved here.  Neither am I suggesting anyone should be free to take photographs wherever they want when there are clearly safeguarding issues at stake.  What I would say is that where schools are happy to facilitate use of photography as an educational activity or to further the talents of its pupils and when all such photography is appropriate and taken with the knowledge (if not supervision) of school staff there should be little concern of security or safety being breached.  So why the ban?

I used to work in a mental health in-patient unit.  Occasionally, I still do.  A few years ago, I asked about setting up a photography group on the unit for service users to learn new skills as part of the occupational therapy provision.  The OT and the ward manager were quite happy with the aim of my ideas, but had obvious concerns which were sounded out with other members of the multi-disciplinary team and management.  A decision was eventually made to purchase a camera and facilitate the group but there were fixed boundaries in place to ensure the maintenance of confidentiality and protect vulnerable adults.  I know that one of those service users went on to study photography at the local college; something we had clearly given him the confidence and interest to do.  And so, while it is important to consider ethical and legal implications (we certainly didn't want people using their phones or other photographic equipment to take pictures of fellow service users or staff) it's also imperative to consider the issue from the perspective of developing talent and creativity - something that should feature highly on a school's priorities.

This is highly relevant given that amateur photographers are finding more frequently their right to take photographs is being questioned, often on the spurious basis of security.  Let's take the case of the dad who took a photograph of his daughter at Braehead Shopping Centre: a legalistic over-reaction that brought nothing but ridicule for the centre and its security.  Should there be guidelines to protect the public?  Yes. - but we need to proceed with caution and in such a way as not to criminalise those who innocently take snaps without knowledge of "rules".  We could also consider the case of proposals to ban all photography on Glasgow underground, which include a £1,000 fine for a breach and are based on security issues and a "need to ensure that any such activity does not disrupt the operations of the network in any way."  As for the bogus security concerns; London underground has no such ban and quite simply the likes of al-Qaeda have won if we've all become so frightened of a terror threat that we can't take innocent photographs on the subway.  I'm all for evidence-based practice, so where is the evidence that people taking photographs on the subway have ever posed a security risk or prove an impediment to the smooth running of operations on the line?

I am more than aware of the complex ethical issues affecting photography and photographers in an ever-changing technological world. These ethical dilemmas should not, however, serve as a licence for an almost robotic authoritarianism. If Argyll and Bute Council has expressed its concerns to the Head Teacher of Martha's school who then arranged to speak to the girl and her family and made her own independent decision as to whether the content was appropriate (and, it should be noted, in respect to any precedents this may set) I would have had more respect for their position. As it was, the council behaved in an unnecessarily illiberal fashion.

I'd like to turn to the council's arguments for its defense, published yesterday. Firstly, the positives.  It was right that the council leader has issued a statement in which agreed to meet with Martha's family, has accepted there is "no place for censorship in this council" and admitted that any embarrassing or offensive contributions by journalists were not the fault of the girl.  Unfortunately, however, both this and the original statement fall short of an apology and reveals its true concerns: protecting the reputation of the caterers - nothing at all to do with the difficult ethical issues I referred to earlier.

Common sense should prevail as far as taking photographs is concerned.  On this occasion Argyll and Bute Council acted impulsively and in doing so created a PR disaster of epic proportions.  Hopefully the council will learn from its mistakes.  For now, I'd just like to extend my personal thanks to the council for not simply reversing its decision but for raising the public profile of Never Seconds - and when the by-products of stupidity include raising £46,000 to help starving children you have to think that all's well that ends well.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Illiberal Scottish council silences 9 year old girl

As a former resident of Argyll and Bute, I was shocked to discover today that its council has become embroiled in controversy for having suppressed the creative writings of a nine-year old girl.

A young girl writing under the pseudonym VEG has for the previous few months maintained a colourful and rather entertaining blog at Never Seconds, in which she describes and rates school meals, complete with photographs.  So successful has this blog been that it has received over 2 million hits (more than A Scottish Liberal has achieved in three years) and facilitated some rather interesting conversations on the merits of school food.

VEG has her own style of writing, an obvious sense of humour and an even more evident ability to write.  Speaking as a professional photographer I must admit that her compositional sense, as demonstrated in the pictures she uses in her blog, is pretty good too.  In short, this young lady is talented, funny, creative, passionate and uses her energies to create something as refreshing as Never Seconds - something for which, you would think, she would be praised and her talents encouraged.  The fact that the blog was also used to raise significant amounts of money for charities is another reason VEG's efforts should be recognised.

Today, unfortunately, her dad revealed in her blog that the council (tellingly not the school) has taken a decision to ban the girl's photography and effectively silence her opinions.  I can see no reason why they should want to do this.  As a professional photographer and a blogger I appreciate that there may be concerns in respect to confidentiality, but none of the photographs ever included anything other than the food itself and her writing, while amusing in its own way, was far from offensive.  So why the need for the mean-spirited, authoritarian and unnecessarily nasty clampdown on the innocent activities of a 9 year old?

If the council had concerns about the use of photography in a school, all it has to do is telephone the school and request that teaching staff supervise or oversee the photography to ensure all pictures taken are appropriate.  It seems the school was quite happy to support the girl, which makes the council's actions all the more surprising.

Instead of taking rational steps to satisfy itself that everything was above board, the council appears to have been quick to act in a heavy-handed way and will no doubt have caused unnecessary and avoidable upset on the part of the young girl and her family.  I don't take too well to authoritarian types trying to bar me from taking photographs in public places or when others try to silence my opinions or challenge my independent views.  How much more hurtful it would be for a nine year old to be taken out of her class during a maths lesson, to be brought before the Head Teacher and told categorically that her photography has been banned I can only imagine.

I'd take a guess that it's pretty dehumanising to be treated in that way.

Clearly it is impossible for her to continue blogging about food in the way she has without photographs and so the council have essentially suppressed this young girl's self-expression.  No doubt they've also contributed to a loss of innocence and dented her faith in the goodness of humanity.  Whichever way you look at this situation Argyll and Bute Council comes out of it with little credit intact.  The best thing that can be said is that their behaviour is ill-considered and ultra-cautious but to many it will undoubtedly look like bullying.  I have no doubt that it will feel like that to VEG and her family.

I hope that she does not allow this incident to undermine her self-confidence or to stem her creative talents.  She deserves better than the council's knee-jerk authoritarianism; in fact, she is better than it.  It would be a travesty if this was to negatively affect her desire or willingness to continue to write, to entertain or to further her photographic interests.

I also hope that the council reverses its opinion, offers an apology to the young girl and her family and allows her the freedom to continue blogging.  It gives both herself and many others so much pleasure.  I have written to the council expressing my outrage at their illiberalism and have urged them to make such an apology.  I would recommend others to do the same: please consider e-mailing the council your views at

I'd also hope that some of you would offer some support to VEG, by commenting on her blog.

It is right that this kind of authoritarianism should be challenged, especially when the victim of such nastiness is a 9 year-old girl writing about something as innocent as school meals.  I believe in the need to create a liberal society - a need that is plainly greater than even I imagined given the actions of this council.

Yesterday on twitter, Americans were having a bit of fun describing liberalism in four words (#Liberalismin4Words).  I'm not too strong with creating definitions, but I can think of four words to describe illiberalism: Argyll and Bute Council.

No doubt whoever manages the council's twitter account will have a few tweets to respond to in the morning.  I suspect they will be without exception unsupportive and rightly so.  There should be no place in modern Scottish society for this kind of conduct by councils and I will also be pressing Mike Russell MSP (Cabinet Secretary for Education) to have a few words with Argyll and Bute Council to ensure that such indefensible actions are never again taken against school pupils doing little other than making positive use of their talents.

I am, frankly, appalled by the council's conduct.  You don't even have to be a liberal to find this kind of thing offensive, just a human being of which this young girl is one.  It's a great shame that Argyll and Bute Council didn't consider the human costs of their unnecessarily legalistic actions before embarking on them.

The final word unusually goes to Stuart from the Wings over Scotland blog: "isn't it nice that a wee girl has managed to unprecedentedly unite - so far as we've seen - the entire world of Scottish politics."  Indeed it is and quite a remarkable achievement, demonstrating the enormous impact she has had simply through being herself.  Don't give up on the blogging, VEG!  

Since writing this, I have discovered that Argyll and Bute Council has some quite serious "previous".  In February it was revealed that the council's media manager, Jo Smith, had been setting up online "spy" accounts with the sole purpose of monitoring those who were critical of the council.  (See The Herald for more).  Ms Smith announced the setting up of these accounts to a conference on the use of social media, apparently oblivious to the outrage she would cause by the admission of such unprofessional and unethical behaviour.  

Clearly this is a council either unwilling or unable to learn from previous mistakes.  The fact that there clearly exists an institutional paranoia towards dissenting voices is quite unnerving.  

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

New personal blog launched

After a few years of blogging at A Scottish Liberal, today I have launched a new, personal blog which I hope will be an outlet for my creativity - or, failing that, at least afford me the opportunity to reflect on what really matters to me.

Essentially Against the Grain is a self-portrait, and one which I hope will be an honest reflection of the multi-faceted and sometimes contradictory person I am.  When I write, I am inviting you to eat at my table, to share in my experiences, to understand something of my world.  I can't promise you that my world is any more exciting than anyone else's, but if I've learned anything in 35 years it is that life is an incredible experience - always interesting, often unpredictable and almost without exception worth sharing with as many people as possible. 

Creating this new blog means that A Scottish Liberal will focus solely on political issues.  My Liberal Democrat friends, and those of other political persuasions, will no longer be subjected to my views on Albion Rovers' promotion prospects, discussions about photography or reflections on my personal struggles.  All that of course I will bring to Against the Grain, in which I imagine I will discuss a range of interests from sport to the arts and from music to scientific developments.  Obviously a personal blog will also contain a great deal that is incredibly personal to me - including my sexuality and issues relating to it, family news (I will be a first-time dad in a few weeks - prepare for plenty of updates!), reminiscences and thoughts on the daily grind.  My liberal Christianity might occasionally be explored.

I will also frequently publish photographs, which may be either artistically inspired or simply a visualisation of recent events.  The blog is definitely something intended to be something of a picture book, and (hopefully) much easier reading than A Scottish Liberal.  Updates may be more frequent but inevitably shorter. 

What it will be is a politics-free zone.  It will be a place where I am simply myself.  Of course, my political beliefs are a part of my personal identity, but far from the only or indeed the principal influence on my life.  And so while occasionally my political sympathies and worldview will become apparent in Against the Grain, all overtly political contributions will continue to be made here. 

So, please feel free to take a look at the new blog.  Thoughts and comments will always be welcome.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Nick Clegg: Should he stay or should he go?

That is a question that the Liberal Democrats have to answer.

Lib Dem Voice reported yesterday that in response to former MP Lembit Opik’s call for Clegg to step down as leader before the end of the year – but, curiously, continuing to serve as Deputy Prime Minister until 2015 – LDV have surveyed party members’ views on the issue.  The outcome of the poll makes fascinating reading.

59% of Lib Dem members wish for Nick Clegg to lead the party into the 2015 General Election. 34 % however want him to be replaced, while 8% have no opinion.  (I know the arithmetic doesn’t add up – 59 + 34 + 8 = 101 – but I didn’t compile the statistics).   What is obvious is that at least 41`% of party members are sufficiently displeased or unconvinced by Clegg’s leadership that they are not supportive of him continuing as leader for much longer.  How many more members’ support is hanging by a thread or is lent only for the purposes of ensuring stability the poll doesn’t say.  What is quite clear though is that Clegg has something of a credibility problem among party members as well as the public.

In the past, I’ve been broadly supportive of the coalition while disagreeing with its policy direction.  I am a pluralist; I believe in collaborative approaches and coalition government.  After all, we experienced eight years of Labour – Lib Dem government in Scotland and, while that posed its own challenges, difficulties were managed far more effectively than they are currently at Westminster.  Lest we forget, there were those in 1999 keen to accuse Jim Wallace of “selling out” on principles but he proved a capable leader (and acting First Minister when required), delivering on policy while ensuring that the Lib Dem “brand” retained both its distinctiveness and its popularity.  It could be argued, with some justification, that it was easier working with Scottish Labour than it is with Cameron’s Conservatives.  I actually agree with that analysis, but also feel that there are lessons that Clegg could and should have learned from Scotland’s experience of coalition, especially in regards cultivating a personal credibility.

Jim Wallace made some key mistakes.  The Liberal Democrats also were unable to implement their entire policy programme, as would be expected of any minor partner in a coalition government.  Sometimes relations between the parties’ MSPs were strained.  But what Wallace was able to do was to ensure that the party gained far more from being in coalition than it would have done outside – especially as far as credibility was concerned.  So, while they were unable to deliver the full deal on tuition fees the Lib Dems did ensure that an independent commission was established, which made recommendations not too far short of the party’s policy position.  The handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis, Wallace’s effective deputising for Donald Dewar, the party’s consistent position on the Section 28 debate and the introduction of free care for the elderly all contributed to positive public perceptions of the party.

Admittedly, the Liberal Democrats in Scotland made few electoral gains in the period between 1999 and 2007. But they retained what they had, in spite of being in coalition and inevitably losing some of their identity in the process.  This is in stark contrast to the party’s performances under Nick Clegg, under whom we have experienced electoral massacres of virtually unprecedented scale in the Scottish parliamentary and successive local election campaigns.

It is not, therefore, the coalition itself that I blame for the party’s difficulties.  It is the actions of a leadership that has lacked either the insight or the knowledge to adapt itself to some of the realities of coalition government.  Collective responsibility is a vital component of coalition, but it is far from the only one.  Coalition is not alliance; there is no requirement for a shared identity.  And of course, it’s not simply the policy direction that voters or party members have issues with, but the credibility of the leadership and key ministers.  Clegg has mishandled most of the major issues he’s had to deal with; he seems to lack any idea of how to make coalition work for the party; his leadership style is one of obstinacy verging on arrogance; his personal image has contributed to the party’s annihilation in three elections and is unquestionably a serious liability.

After the disastrous Scottish parliamentary elections I wrote to Nick Clegg as a defeated candidate, suggesting that the cause of Scottish liberalism has been put back fifty years.  I received the standard reply: “working hard in government...cannot achieve everything we want to.”  I found it quite insulting given the broader points I was making in respect to the party’s identity and political credibility.  A year later and I’m not too sure I was right.  The party hasn’t simply been put back fifty years under Clegg’s leadership – we’ve been sent backwards without any hope of recovery.  While we have many talented people within the party, there is no Jo Grimond waiting in the wings to move us forward.  Neither are the grassroots movements sufficiently strong to provide the required liberal renaissance, while local parties are haemorrhaging support. 

The problem isn’t simply the coalition, it’s Nick Clegg.  Rightly or wrongly, he is perceived as “the party”.  In the public view, he encompasses everything that the Liberal Democrats are about.  When he is associated, admittedly sometimes unfairly, with dishonesty and exchanging principle for power, that does not bode well for our future success.  When he shows no sign of turning around negative perceptions but simply reinforces them it is only right that questions should be asked about his future as leader.

To put the potential damage into some kind of context, I looked at the General Election results of 2010 and, using the data from local, Scottish parliamentary and London Assembly elections held since (while also taking into account prospective boundary changes) have made some predictions for 2015.  I understand that if a week in politics is a long time then three years is an eternity.  I know that General Elections are a series of local constituency elections and that unpredictable things can happen.  However, by transferring the swings and voting percentages from these elections onto the projected political map a picture emerges.  Only sixteen (Nick Clegg, Andrew Stunnell, Tom Brake, Alistair Carmichael, Chris Huhne, Norman Baker, Vince Cable, Jeremy Browne, Tim Farron, Ed Davey, Bob Russell, Don Foster, David Laws, John Pugh,  Norman Lamb and Mark Williams) would be returned if voters continue to cast ballots as they have in 2011 and 2012.  A further six (Paul Burstow, Julian Huppert, Adrian Sanders, Nick Harvey, Dan Rogerson and Alan Beith) I would say have more than reasonable chances of retaining their seats.  There aren’t any women in that list, and the erosion of confidence in the party could potentially lose people such as Jo Swinson, Simon Hughes, Malcolm Bruce, Michael Moore, John Thurso and Lorely Burt their seats.  We would be reduced to one MP in Scotland – perhaps two if Charles Kennedy rather than Danny Alexander is put forward for the redesigned seat taking in much of the two existing constituencies.

That is not a thoroughly scientific analysis and there will undoubtedly be those who think differently.  However, the message is obvious.  If we want our parliamentary representation to be reduced by more than half, keep on as we are.  If not, change is required.

Lib Dems have been unusually patient with Nick Clegg.   Former party leaders haven’t fared so well.  David Steel was never popular with the membership, being perceived as light on policy, and was famously defeated during the defence debate at the Liberal conference in 1986.  Ashdown’s closeness with Labour was looked on with suspicion, with members ensuring that the “triple lock” of the Southport Resolution would prevent the leader from agreeing entry into a coalition without the support of the parliamentary party and the Federal Party Executive.  Kennedy was more popular with members, but had his own battles with parliamentarians and the Orange Book, intentionally or otherwise, provided a challenge to his policy direction.  Menzies Campell was never given the time to make an impact – while the media were undeniably unfair many within the party felt that he could not lead them to electoral success.  Only now is that same logic being applied to Nick Clegg by a large proportion of the party.

Perhaps it is not a change of leadership that is required.  Maybe Clegg needs his “Eastbourne moment”; for the party to defeat him on a key issue as it did to Steel.  However, if recent electoral reversals have not shocked the leadership into action I am not entirely sure a defeat, even a significant one, will achieve a great deal in the long term. 

I have a great deal of sympathy for the views of those who wish to see Clegg depart as leader.  I don’t think Clegg is capable of leading the party, in the sense that he can no longer take it with him.  I’m not sure where he is going, but I suspect I don’t want to go on the journey. 

The issue of tuition fees was appallingly handled from start to finish.  Nick Clegg should never have signed a pledge he clearly didn’t agree with (his views on FE funding being made obvious at the 2009 conference).  Then , during the negotiations with the Conservatives, the issue should not have been allowed to loom so small in the minds of negotiators: David Laws, in his book, gives very little attention to the matter other than stating that “it shouldn’t have been too difficult to put something together that was better than Labour’s policy” and indicating that Lib Dem MPs not supportive of government policy on fees could abstain under the terms of the coalition agreement.  Laws and Alexander failed to appreciate the inevitable storm that would embroil the party, something in itself that defies belief.  Of course the pledge didn’t mention abstention, or a commitment to simply providing something better than that of the previous government.

As the findings of the Browne Review were revealed and the details incorporated into a Bill, the Liberal Democrats achieved certain concessions and helped design a Bill that was infinitely better to anything a Conservative government would have offered.  However, for the Lib Dem leadership to hail this as some kind of victory was unwise and in the lead-up to the vote the best thing that can be said about the actions of the leadership is that they lacked conviction.  It was a deeply damaging episode, one from which Nick Clegg’s personal credibility has never recovered.

Then of course was the poor management of the proposed NHS reforms.  Expected vigourous opposition was met with docility and compliance until conference ensured a U-turn.  Again, Lib Dem action ensured positive changes being made to the proposed legislation, but the damage had in part already been done. 

And there’s the implied support for the Conservatives’ economic policies.  Let’s be fair – back in 2010, having inherited a situation worse than imagined, Osborne’s strategy made a certain amount of sense.  I was never comfortable with it and neither were many Lib Dems, but there was a recognition that action must be taken to reduce the structural deficit.  Having made that call, in the interests of stability it would be unwise to unveil a plan B, simply on the basis of a lack of public appetite.  However, Osborne’s plans were fundamentally flawed, as they were dependent on forecast growth in the Eurozone area.  Two years later and the reality is quite different.  The government can be forgiven for miscalculating, but not for obstinately clinging to policies based on a bankrupt logic.  Nick Clegg should be asking to rethink the detail of the policy; certainly the plan to boost Britain’s economy is not working and the human cost of austerity is too much to pay when nothing is being delivered.  But where is he?  Other than Vince Cable, who has again begun delivering his mixture of economic wisdom and compassionate social democracy, senior Liberal Democrats seem married to the government’s flawed economics.

On welfare reform, Clegg has both called it wrong and failed to project himself as someone who cares – which is sad, because he clearly does.  He talks passionately about social mobility while simultaneously supporting policies that reinforce social and economic immobility.  On Scottish issues his sometimes unwise interventions have certainly not helped our cause, not least his assertion that we are a devolutionist as opposed to a federalist party.  And when it comes to Lords reform he displays an arrogance that is unbefitting of a liberal, never mind a party leader.  So insistent is he that his reforms are right, so intent is he that he must achieve reform irrespective of what it actually is, that he was given to an intemperate outburst in the Commons a few weeks ago in which he stated, in regards Lib Dem peers not supporting his proposals, that "the power of a whiff of ermine on people's opinions on the reform of the House of Lords has never failed to amaze me.”  It was quite an outburst, something he qualified by suggesting Paddy Ashdown is a “lone voice” in support of progressive reform.

Being quite concerned for Lords reform and feeling for Mr Clegg I made enquiries to peers I knew had been at a meeting with Nick Clegg to discuss the matter that week.  What had riled Clegg, apparently, was opposition to the detail of the planned reforms, which were felt not to go far enough.  One pro-reform peer objected to the proposed lengthy 15-year terms, the stipulation that members may only serve one term and that the chamber will only be partially elected.  Also, Paul Tyler is leading on this and working hard to gain support for the proposals and while he might be recommending some changes, he’s certainly onside.  For Nick to be so dismissive of these people’s efforts, to go so far as to question their principles and suggest publicly that their motivations are influenced by “a whiff of ermine” is plainly insulting.  For a leader to openly attack his colleagues in this way constitutes, in my mind, unfitting behaviour.  For me, it was evidence of Clegg's true character.  He was intentionally misrepresenting their views; while there may be some peers whose attitudes are unhelpful very many want to achieve reform of the second chamber and Ashdown is by no means “a lone voice”. Even if colleagues infuriate, there are ways of dealing with it professionally without resorting to negative briefing.

Clegg has done much of which he should be rightly proud.  What concerns me most is the string of tactical errors and the inability to turn around destructive, negative public perceptions.  On the key issues, he’s made the wrong call every time.  While I support the principle of coalition and don’t think we should withdraw from it, I no longer have faith in Nick Clegg as leader.  He cannot take us forward.  He cannot regain his personal credibility. 

The question, of course, is who would replace Nick Clegg should he leave?  Tim Farron would be a popular choice but not necessarily the best one.  Vince Cable has experience and speaks with authority, but is perhaps too tainted by coalition and in all likelihood has little appetite for the role.  He could, however, see us into the next election.  Ed Davey and Norman Lamb have potential but are relatively unknown outside the party; Danny Alexander and Michael Moore are too closely associated with Nick Clegg.  Simon Hughes would have an outside chance but would hardly be a forward-looking appointment. 

And what would the consequences be of unseating a leader?  It has the potential to divide the party, just as Thatcher’s eviction created turmoil within the Conservative Party from which it is only now recovering.  Opik’s strange view that Clegg should continue as Deputy Prime Minister after handing over the reins of leadership is an absurd notion that would risk intensifying divisions with destructive effect, with members supporting either the leader or the DPM, the likes of which have not seen since the days of Lloyd George and Asquith.  Continuance as DPM would undermine the new leader and would risk leaving Clegg, in a similar way to Ramsay Macdonald, as a Deputy Prime Minister without support of a party.  All in all, such a plan raises more questions than it answers – not least how such an arrangement would be seen by the electorate.  And of course it is entirely up to David Cameron who he appoints as his deputy, which may or may not be a Liberal Democrat.  It certainly isn’t a decision the party can take.

I don’t think Clegg will step down, however much pressure is applied.  He is by nature resolute and is committed to seeing out his term, whatever the consequences.  As far as the future of the party is concerned, this may be reckless.  The party needs a future far more than it needs Nick Clegg. 

There are arguments for him to remain in place.  There are those who think he’s doing a reasonable job in difficult circumstances.  I don’t doubt that his task is tough, but he isn’t to my mind doing a good job.  Clegg made a lot of mileage in the past about being serious for government, being fit for government and acting in the national interest – I would argue that if we want to provide serious government and demonstrate our fitness to serve in the national interest we need the leader most capable of providing both strong leadership at the cabinet table and the vision to move the party forward.  That person is no longer Nick Clegg.

Axing a leader is not simply a matter of how good a job they’re doing.  Stephen Tall from Lib Dem Voice argues that removing Clegg would actually dent our credibility as a party.  I understand his concern, but I suspect he need have no fears in that department.  Tall also considers the possibility than any incoming leader would not necessarily prove more popular, but that effectively constitutes the entirety of his argument for Clegg to stay in place. 

Tall is right on one count: we have to proceed in a way that increases our party’s credibility among voters, does the least damage to party unity, raises the popularity and standing of the party and ensures that any new leader is the right one.  We don’t need internecine warfare and protracted power struggles, which could be the outcome of Opik’s ill-conceived plan.  But similarly we have no need to defend an ineffective leader who is overseeing a decline in our party’s fortunes I fear may never be reversed unless action is taken imminently.

Nick Clegg has often spoken of the need to make tough decisions.  He is right, it’s vitally important that leaders make those decisions.  But they also must make the right decisions.  Clegg has made too many of the wrong choices and now the party has a tough decision to make: should he stay or should he go?  

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The best thing about the Diamond Jubilee celebrations

I am not a monarchist.

I fail to see how a monarchy, even a constitutional one, should have a role to play in a democratic society.  I find the hereditary principle to be insulting to all those who believe either in democracy or meritocracy.  I struggle to identify with a sense of Britishness in which the monarchy and the Royal family are central to our identity as a nation.  I also don't grasp why having the same head of state for a continuous sixty years is something to be proud of.

I dislike privilege in all its forms, and you don't get much more privileged than the Royal family.  That said, I far from dislike them as people and actually feel a great sense of empathy for them.  As a liberal I am loathe to make value judgments about people on the basis of background or status, or to discriminate against them on the basis of something they cannot change.  None of the royals asked to be born into a life of privilege and responsibility and if some of them seem less than suited to it they should not be judged.  I personally knew a member of the Royal family once; a nephew of Prince Philip who hated the trappings of royalty to the point that he trained as a teacher and lived incognito in the Hebrides under a pseudonym. He was an inspiring physics teacher, but also a friend to my brother who he encouraged to take up a career in the army.  Tragically he was killed in a car accident in 1994 after which his secrets were revealed (he was heir but one to the throne of newly-created Serbia, which was considering a return to the monarchy).  I'm not sure why this came as such a surprise - he was the spitting image of his uncle, but with a more refined sense of humour.

This is my real objection to the monarchy - as an institution it stifles the personal and social development of its members, subjecting them unfairly to pressures and denying them basic rights.  I suspect Prince Charles has suffered psychologically due to such expectations and pressures, as did his great uncles George VI and the Duke of Kent.  Even the queen, after sixty years of faithful service, isn't afforded the same right to a retirement as any other woman of her age.  She really should join the union. 

Arguments against the monarchy aside, the Diamond Jubilee has not been a bad thing.  I was born on the day of the Silver Jubilee in 1977 and still have the various souvenirs to prove it (stranger gifts no baby has received since three wise men visited a Bethlehem stable).  I am told that the celebrations then were quite spectacular; there is no shortage of nostalgic people eager to play up the way in which the celebrations unified the country and acted as a focal point for community activity.  There is an equally large number of people who would claim that such community togetherness is a thing of the past; that neighbourhoods simply don't function in the same way, that we are all more individualistic now then ever and that community celebrations on the scale of 1977 are confined firmly to the history books.

While I did not got out of my way to participate in any celebrations I can understand why others did and there was much in last few days' festivities we should be positive about.  On the Royals themselves, the personal and sometimes intimate moments shared on screen suggest a closeness that was absent during the turbulent years of the early-mid 1990s as well as a more modern, media savvy and image-conscious Royal family, more in touch with modern realities and public opinion than some had given them credit for.  That is no bad thing.

Of course, there were the principal events: the Thames pageant and the Jubilee concert outside Buckingham Palace were spectacular and incredibly well stage-managed.  I must confess to only watching the latter, which confirmed the legendary status of Madness and Sir Tom Jones while suggesting that the Archbishop of Canterbury has rather more interesting tastes in music than I'd imagined.  But, for me, they were not what the Jubilee was about.  They were spectacles, sensational in their scale, but a sideshow to the real event.  And no, I'm not talking about the 22 Orange marches that took place in Glasgow.  

Neither am I talking about the seriously misguided attempt from Republic (of which I am a member) to protest the Jubilee celebrations.  The nation wants to have a party and we send out a few killjoys with placards  - you don't have to be a genius to see what the public and media reaction to that might be.  Republic should rethink its strategy, recognising that until a consensus is formed there is no hope of achieving constitutional change.  And such a consensus will not be won using these kinds of foolish tactics.  

The Jubilee was not the London-centric celebration the media claimed.  Rather, people up and down the country - in street parties, village halls, churches - decided that they were going to celebrate in their own ways.  (I went to church on Sunday and received a special edition Diamond Jubilee New Testament - now, what to do with it?)   The national event was, in reality, a culmination of thousands of local and community events.  And while not everyone will have been necessarily celebrating the monarchy as an institution, they were looking back over 60 years of history, commemorating advances and achievements, celebrating the life of the queen and her commitment to the nation or simply enjoying being part of something historic.  Perhaps they were simply embracing a community, family-friendly social occasion.  Some perhaps just like wearing items of clothing in the likeness of the Union flag (a most unfortunate affliction), or maybe they just wanted an excuse to drink champagne (as one facebook friend commented).  

And this was the best thing about the Jubilee.  It gave the nation and its people the opportunity to feel good about themselves again and that is priceless.  But it did this through enabling and empowering communities to come together to commemorate the occasion and for that we should be grateful, if only because such events are increasingly rare.  

So, while I'll never be waving a Union flag or singing God Save the Queen, I think that anything that causes neighbourhoods and communities to come together is a broadly positive thing.  That for me was the real spirit of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee - and something even a republican can celebrate.