Thursday, 26 July 2012

What would David Cairns make of Archbishop Tartaglia?

I'm sure I'm not the only person in Scotland today angry at comments made by archbishop-elect Philip Tartaglia.

Most of us wouldn't even have heard of this man until this week, but in a few short days he's managed to create quite a storm with his illiberal, irrational and highly judgmental pronouncements on equal marriage and homosexuality more generally.  The appointment of someone who frankly makes Cardinal Keith O'Brien look like a bit of a pussycat has to be bad news for Scotland and the Catholic Church - something picked up on by James Kirkup in the Daily Telegraph who speculates that Tartaglia is a "saboteur", bent on "a work of harm the institution he has pretended to love."  Of course, that can't be entirely true because it would require a level of sophistication unknown to Tartaglia, but the point is well made.  This reflects very badly on the Catholic Church and, it must be said, Christians of other denominations.

Those of us in the LGBT community, and many like-minded liberals, will know that Tartaglia has been given more media attention in the last few months than he merits and has generally used such opportunities to express his opposition to marriage equality in no uncertain terms, labeling it "cultural vandalism" and "unnecessary".  We simply saw him as yet another reactionary Catholic bishop, of which there seem to be quite a few. He didn't seem particularly exceptional.

What has come to light in the last few days, however, has been particularly poisonous - demonstrating ignorance, arrogance and blatant prejudice that is unbefitting of any leader - even one within an institution famed for its intolerance. By some quirk of fate, with delicious irony, his "message" coincided with the Scottish government finally announcing it would legislate for marriage equality and his misinformed intervention went some way to underlining the need for action.  

It's one thing for some church leaders to disagree and hold to a different view; something on which I've made my personal views clear elsewhere.  I might not share their perspectives, but I understand where they're coming from and why they think as they do.  When Philip Tartaglia makes unfounded claims linking homosexuality with physical and mental ill-health and compounds it with an erroneous interpretation of the medical reasons behind the death of an MP, I think an apology is in order.  Not simply to the MP's partner and family, but to the church and wider Scottish society - and the LGBT community particularly.  

The MP in question was David Cairns, the former MP for Inverclyde.  He was my MP.  I knew him.  He helped me on some local issues, worked with me to challenge then health minister Andy Kerr on a particular matter and was a thoroughly decent human being.  We had our differences - notably on electoral reform - but there was also a fair bit we had in common.  I knew he was gay and admired his intellectual honesty in developing a broadly liberal approach towards "moral issues" (as witnessed by his voting record) that many in his church struggled with.  As a former Catholic priest and chair of the Socialist Christian Movement, I found his Christian testimony to be a positive one of tolerance and acceptance.  In short, he was a decent local MP, an honest politician who was willing to (and did) resign his post as a minister, someone who was determined to serve his constituents effectively and a rare human face of Catholic faith in action. He was someone I wish I'd known so much better and on a more personal level; something that may have happened if he hadn't tragically been taken from us at the age of 44.

Little more than a year after David's passing, Philip Tartaglia (I won't call him Archbishop, as he plainly doesn't deserve that title) decided to make some unwise moral points about David's death, through which he makes wild and judgmental inferences about the lifestyle of someone he clearly didn't know as well as he claims.  What he actually said was this: "If what I have heard is true about the relationship between the physical and mental health of gay men, if it is true, then society is being very quiet about it. Recently in Scotland there was a gay Catholic MP who died at the age of 44 or so, and nobody said anything, and why his body should just shut down at that age? Obviously he could have had a disease that would have killed anybody. But you seem to hear so many stories about this kind of thing, but society won’t address it."

That is a very loaded statement and one which suggests something that is patently untrue.  David Cairns actually died of acute pancreatitis, something that is tragically often undetected and affects many young people.  To claim that his death is in some way connected to his sexual identity and lifestyle is a grotesque lie, and a deeply hurtful one at that.  It is little surprise that David's partner has been offended by this outburst, stating that "I can't believe that someone who claims to be a man of God and is seeking to give moral leadership should speak from such a position of ignorance.  I don't care what his views on gay marriage are, but to bring in my dead partner to justify those views is wrong."  Indeed.

Tartaglia seems to have had a unifying effect on local people in Inverclyde - including may Roman Catholics who respected David as a member of their community and as their MP.  Politicians of various parties have expressed their disgust at Tartaglia's ignorance, none more eloquently than Labour's Tom Harris who mused that "the bishop is entirely ignorant of David's life and death.  It is a great pity that someone in such authority is coming out with such ill-informed tripe.  David's friends and family have been through an awful lot in the last year and it is a great pity that the bishop adds to their distress for no other reason than his own ignorance...I was privileged to be one of David's closest friends.  His friends and family have spent the last year trying to come to terms with the tragic loss from complications arising from acute pancreatitis.  [The] public assertion that David's illness might be in some way connected to his sexuality and lifestyle was not only unsupported by evidence, but was, I fear, unworthy of [Tartaglia's] position as a leader in the Church."

It's not too often that I find myself agreeing with Tom Harris but on this occasion I do.  Entirely.  Tartaglia should resign.  He has, to date, claimed that his comments were taken out of context and were made in relation to an unexpected question at a public meeting.  "In his reply he mentioned a situation he had been closely involved in, namely the funeral arrangements for the late David Cairns" said a spokesman.  Well, we've all seen the reply and that defense of it is wholly inadequate.  There is no mention of a funeral, only a darkening of a dead man's reputation.  He also claimed to be "sorry for any hurt that has resulted" but this falls far short of a full apology.  He doesn't recognise his own cruelty.

I am offended not only by the unwarranted attacks on David Cairns but also the broader assault, and the ignorance shown towards, the wider LGBT community. To suggest in a public forum that mental ill-health is directly attributable to homosexuality is as offensive as it is wrong.  Speaking as someone who has worked in adult mental health for many years, where there are parallels between mental ill-health and sexuality, these are usually in relation to complex identity issues and where individuals feel oppressed or stigmatised because of who they are.  If Tartaglia genuinely wishes to improve the mental well-being of LGBT people, he could perhaps start by changing his, and his church's, approach towards them?  I know of many more people experiencing mental ill-health whose problems are directly attributable to the Catholic Church; maybe Tartaglia would like to comment on that?

I can only wonder what an honest, hard-working, person-focused, empathetic, tolerant and accepting Roman Catholic like David Cairns would make of Tartaglia's misinformed bigotry? How could such a positive example of practical Christianity be actively blackened by the contempt and intolerance of a bishop too keen to express a view before actually acquainting himself with the facts? Tartaglia represents everything that David Cairns was not, and everything David openly challenged when he encountered it. I don't wish to put words into the mouth of someone who is no longer here and who I only knew on a professional level, but I'd guess he'd oppose such bigotry with a "not in my name" attitude.  I'd take a guess that if Tartaglia had made similar remarks about someone else while David was alive, David would have been the first to criticise his bigotry and challenge it head-on.  Certainly, Tartaglia should not speak for the Catholic Church and he definitely doesn't speak for David's former constituents - of all religious persuasions and of none.  

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

How to choose a baby name...democratically

This was written for my personal blog and is reproduced here as it is both promoting democracy and celebrating a new life.

As I've very recently become a new dad, in the next few months or so I might reflect on parenthood more than a little!

I would like to thank everyone on twitter, some who I know well and some less well, for all your kind congratulatory messages yesterday after I announced the arrival of baby Xanthe. 

Somebody noted that "Xanthe is such an ACE name" and inevitably conversation turned to how we picked it.  When I explained how we named her, someone else commented "if that's true, that's almost as cool as the name itself!"  Intrigued?

We were told at our second ultrasound scan that our expected child was a girl.  I've been naturally suspicious of such predictions since my little "brother" turned out to be a little sister all the way back in 1991, so I didn't feel a sudden urgency to have the bedroom decorated pink - but obviously we needed to start thinking about potential names.

Actually, we'd given some thought to names in the recent past.  It would have been much easier for a boy in some respects.  Given my background, I like Gaelic names and eastern European names (my grandfather was Polish) but Anna is less keen on them, especially when she can't even spell Ciorstaidh or Agnieszka never mind pronounce them.  She prefers "pretty" names, although the name meanings are also quite important to her.  Needless to say we found it a bit difficult to agree, although with a little help from a book of names we managed to create a list of 19 names we both liked.

We decided that we would allow our family and some close friends to vote for our baby's name.  Democracy can sometimes produce undesirable outcomes but as we thought each of the names was perfectly good, it seemed an excellent way to have people involved in our child's life from even before she was born.  Additional benefits were also knowing what names people didn't like and being able to share with our child in the future the choices her whole family made for her.  Obvious secondary advantages include the knowledge that if - when she is older - she doesn't like her name, we have the evidence with which to blame Grandad and Auntie Suzie.

Most importantly, we wanted to involve people who are close to us - and not least to make them feel involved.   After all, they're going to play important roles in our child's life, so why shouldn't they have a say?

Of course, questions were raised between us about which electoral system should be used and what the terms of the franchise should be.  Debate raged about whether STV or AV was better (we eventually settled for the preferential system used in the Eurovision song contest, how very me!) and how old people should be before they should vote.  That was settled quite easily: anyone who can write the numbers 1 to 8 is perfectly equipped to vote.  And so everyone in our family aged from 5 upwards was sent a pink ballot form.

I must say that most people were more than happy to take part in democratically choosing the name!  The children seemed far more excited than expected, and indeed some were so thrilled by their first experiences of democracy that they can't wait to vote in a "proper" election.   Interestingly, the children seemed to get the idea of preferential voting much easier than some of their elders did.  They were also very excited about knowing the outcome and analysing the results in astonishing depth (I suspect we have some future psephologists and statisticians in the family). 

We also received some very nice messages from the voters, the highlight I think being this: "How wonderful to allow us to pick your daughter's name...this is a lovely idea and Keanu [6 year old boy] was excited picking names.  All the best." 

As is perhaps to be expected with preferential voting systems, strange and unexpected results can be thrown up.  Names we thought would do well did not, while others we considered to be a bit adventurous and less likely to do well proved very popular.  After everyone had made their choices the most popular six names were:

1) Xanthe   2) Emma   3=) Rebekah   3=) Heidi   5) Aaliyah   6) Charlotte

It wasn't necessarily the case that we would go with the most popular name, especially when there were very few points separating the top handful.  I have to admit preferring Heidi or Emma but eventually we agreed to abide by the express verdict of the voters!

My brother asked me "did you know you've named your daughter after a Greek football team?"  Well, there is a team (and a town) called Xanthi, but surely Xanthe is a much more unique name than Chelsea, Charlton, Everton or other clubs children sometimes share their names with.  Of course Xanthe is a Greek name, the meaning of which is "bright".  I'm pretty sure she'll live up to this in more ways than one.

So, that's the story of how we used democracy to select our girl's name.  The outcome was not what we expected, but it was terrific to have so many people involved and interested - and quite exciting tallying up the points as the forms gradually came in.  I suspect we're not going to carry the democratic principle into every aspect of our parenting though - I'm a liberal, but not that kind of liberal!

Monday, 2 July 2012

A liberal case for Scottish independence

This piece originally was written for Better Nation, and has also been published by the National Collective website. I reproduce it here for the benefit of those who have not yet seen it.
I’m a rather late convert to the cause of Scottish independence – a conversion that owes more to pragmatism than it does to political ideology. I’ve never been the kind of Liberal Democrat vociferously opposed to the notion of independence.

In 2007 I believed that, while a prospective coalition was a non-starter due to simple arithmetic, the party was misguided to rule out co-operation with the SNP on the basis that a referendum represented a “fundamental barrier”. Neither have I ever accepted the flawed logic of previous Scottish Lib Dem leaders in consistently denying Scottish voters the referendum – an ultimately futile tactic that has made it easy for political opponents to portray us as small-minded arch-unionists and contributed in no small way to our alienating of many traditional supporters. 

The leadership line for the previous few years has been more pro-unionist than the view of the party membership, and has been influenced more by antipathy towards the SNP than by either a coherent political strategy or a commitment to democratic principles. The referendum represents the fairest and most liberal option and is certainly preferable to elected politicians and Westminster policy makers deciding Scotland’s future on our behalf. I have struggled to reconcile our party’s democratic credentials with what I perceive as a poorly conceived and fundamentally illiberal approach in recent years and have become increasingly convinced that, far from being anathema to convinced liberals, independence offers significant opportunities. 

Not being a nationalist, the question of Scotland’s constitutional future has always been of secondary interest to the creation of a liberal society and a fairer political system. Features of the liberal Scottish society Liberal Democrats aspire to achieve include tolerance, an embracing of pluralism, the guarantee of free expression, the fostering of autonomous choices and greater democratic freedoms. A liberal society is one in which its citizens are empowered to take greater control of their own destinies. Liberals in the UK have a history of campaigning for a fairer and more democratic voting system, a green economy, decentralisation and localism, an end to the privileges afforded to the unelected House of Lords, reducing the voting age to 16 and the fairness agenda (so beloved of Nick Clegg). For those of us living in Scotland, liberals are far more likely to achieve such objectives in an independent Scotland than within a dysfunctional Union. A British system of PR is unlikely to be achieved in my lifetime, but may well be a feature of an independent Scottish democratic system in which concerns about the House of Lords would be both academic and redundant. Similarly, our objectives on fairness, the economy, green energy, lowering the voting age and empowering communities would have a greater chance of fulfilment after independence than they would have under the status quo, which has a proven track record of non-delivery.

The preamble to the Liberal Democrats’ constitution states that “the Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community”. The key question for Liberal Democrats therefore must be “which constitutional arrangement best allows for the creation of such a society?”

The preamble also makes the claim that “we believe that sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a democracy derives from the people. We therefore acknowledge their right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs and commit ourselves to the promotion of a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.” This is clearly inconsistent with the leadership’s stance in recent years but also, in theory at least, simultaneously commits liberals to the right of self-determination and “democratic federalism”.

If I genuinely felt that the Liberal Democrats were capable of achieving this “democratic federalism” I would be supporting all attempts to make it a reality, as my inclinations are liberal, not nationalist. What we have learned is that, in eight years of coalition in Holyrood and two years in Westminster very little progress has been made on the federalism front. To put it bluntly, if it was a crime to be a federalist there would be very little evidence with which to convict the Liberal Democrats. We are not the “guarantors of change” Willie Rennie disingenuously claims us to be. Even if the premise that the party is by nature a federalist one is accepted, it is naive to believe that the best channel by which to achieve the benefits of federalism is affiliation to the negative Better Together campaign, which lacks any kind of vision for a post-referendum Scotland. 

We have a Deputy Prime Minister who asserts that “we are a devolutionist party”. That, of course, is not entirely true. Federalism is many things but it is not devolutionism. Jo Grimond recognised that a risk of devolution was “too much government” and that “it is no good transferring from Westminster to Edinburgh the diseases which...are bringing British democracy to its knees.” What is needed, insisted Grimond, was an arrangement that is open and accountable – “less government, better government and government nearer home”. He retained suspicions about romantic and inward-looking nationalism but also argued that, as far as Scotland’s future was concerned, “not to go far enough may be worse than going too far”. Devolution is not by nature a liberal arrangement and has a tendency to deliver over-government. Independence on the other hand, while clearly going further than federalism, does have the potential to provide both more effective local government and less government. From a liberal perspective, this has to be the best of both possible worlds.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats talk of federalism and Home Rule, which is welcome. Unfortunately, the actions of the leadership in identifying themselves with the Tories and Labour in a coalition of cynical negativity is likely to compromise both the party’s distinctive message and attempts to portray itself as anything other than committed to unionism. However, public perception is simply one challenge for the Liberal Democrats: another, more pertinent, difficulty being that the scope for achieving whatever the Home Rule Commission recommends is zero. Pragmatic liberals realise that without an additional option on the ballot form the choice is between the status quo, with no clear indication of what Scotland’s future will look like post-referendum, and an independence which offers opportunities for both Scottish liberalism and the Scottish Liberal Democrats. 

There would be electoral opportunities for the Liberal Democrats in a post-independence Scotland of which the party should be mindful. It is unclear what would happen to the SNP but, even if it continued as a political force, having achieved its primary goal the Scottish Liberal Democrats could be well-positioned to benefit from uncertainty within the SNP’s ranks. Independence could prove to be an antecedent for a liberal revival, especially if the party is able to use the referendum campaign to its advantage. Admittedly, the second possibility is looking more remote by the day but it remains an inescapable fact that independence could serve the Liberal Democrats well, in a similar way to how devolution has benefitted the Scottish Conservatives.

Of course, embracing independence will require surrendering the commitment to a federal Britain in which Scotland is part. I have no difficulty with this, especially as inaction on the part of the leadership is largely responsible for undermining my faith in the achievement of federalism. While I would have preferred the party leadership to have done everything in its power to ensure an option more closely relating to our position would be presented to voters, what is precious about federalism isn’t a doctrinal commitment to it but the kind of society it can help create. Federalism, like all constitutional arrangements, is simply a tool; a means to a desired end. The focus must be on end goals, not the journey. We must be mindful that the final destination – a fairer, better Scotland in which liberal values can thrive – is so much more significant than the route by which we arrive there.

In 2014, like millions of other Scots, I will be voting on the future of our nation. I will do so from a commitment to liberal values and a determination to progress the cause of liberalism. That is why I will vote “yes”.

Coincidentally, a fellow Liberal Democrat - Graeme Cowie - made his own liberal case for independence on Liberal Youth's Libertine blog. It is certainly worth reading.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Could Jo Swinson be set to replace Michael Moore?

Such a tantilising prospect has been suggested in today's Scotland on Sunday.

Of course, this is little more than press speculation.  But what David Maddox, in his article, does raise is some serious questions about government thinking and, in particular, what Clegg and Cameron see as evidence of ministerial capability.

Maddox makes the predictable observation that Swinson could be promoted in an attempt by the Liberal Democrats to "end the embarrassment of having no women from their party in the cabinet".  In response to this I'll make three comments of my own: a) there are other, more obvious female candidates to consider such as Sarah Teather and Lynne Featherstone; the latter having done outstanding work as minister for equalities, b) there are a number of other reasons Swinson should be considered for a ministerial position, such as her leadership on key campaigns, and that "embarrassment" over lack of women in the cabinet is unlikely to be the only reason for promoting her and c) in the aftermath of Chloe Smith's dreadful TV performances this week, inevitably questions are being asked about the wisdom of apparently promoting individuals on the basis of gender.  I actually consider Swinson to be more capable, and indeed a better TV performer, than Smith; what the events of the previous few days have shown, however, is that women appointees will always be seen as tokenistic attempt to meet diversity targets irrespective of other factors at play.

If Swinson is indeed appointed as a cabinet minister then these perceptions will need to be recognised by Clegg and Cameron, who will have inadvertently helped to undermine her credibility.

I should add that I'm opposed to quotas and appointments driven by arbitrary targets.  I want a more diverse parliament but feel there are more effective and responsible means of achieving it.  The problem with admitting that the government is "embarrassed" by a lack of women at the cabinet table is that any subsequent appointment of a female minister will inevitably be interpreted as an attempt to right that wrong - the end result being of hostility or suspicion whenever such an appointment is made or even touted.  In this respect, well-intended initiatives fail and only serve to reinforce barriers.  Swinson herself has opposed positive discrimination in the past, famously wearing a T-shirt at 2002 conference sporting the slogan "I am not a token woman".  I suspect she wouldn't want to be treated as such now.

In my view, if you're good enough you're good enough.  Jo Swinson is certainly that - at least on the most basic level.  I was quite impressed with Jo Swinson's performance as an MP in her first term, between 2005 and 2010.  She was a diligent constituency MP as well as a strong communicator of liberal values.  She was a confident performer on Question Time and generally came over as in touch and positive. There have been times when a lack of experience has shown through but as time has progressed she is becoming increasingly seen as potential leadership material.

Indeed, Maddox makes the point that "some see [Swinson] as a possible future party leader".  I must say I'm not one of them, and feel that during the last two years she has become too much of an apologist for the party leadership.  But it is true that there are many within the party who like her brand, her drive and her personal charisma.

So, if Michael Moore is moved from the Scottish Office as Maddox suggests, it would make sense for Cameron and Clegg to consider replacing him with someone who is, after all, the deputy leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Criticisms of Moore are partially justified, including leading a sometimes toothless attack on Scottish nationalists, but in some respect his position has been undermined by the Prime Minister's misguided interference in Scottish affairs and he's done a reasonable job in the circumstances.  It is by no means certain he will be moved.  And, of course, there would be other candidates to consider, perhaps including Alistair Carmichael or possibly Alan Reid.

What is curious is that Maddox reports that number 10 dislikes Moore's "over-cautious" approach towards the SNP, and is becoming "frustrated" with it. Presumably Cameron (and Clegg) would prefer someone more confrontational and adversarial.  I don't doubt that Swinson could be that person, but in my view that would simply be a huge gift to the Yes campaign.

The most concerning aspect of this potential appointment is the rationale provided in the article, which is naturally speculative but is certainly in keeping with the leadership's recent thinking. Maddox claims that Swinson "has impressed the party leadership since the Tory- Lib Dem coalition came together in 2010. In particular, her decision not to rebel over the coalition decision to increase university tuition fees, despite building a political career on trying to get them scrapped, marked her out for promotion with the leadership of both parties."

And so, there lines the bottom line.  Her appointment, should it arrive, would be the product of loyalty to the coalition, subservience to a party line and an abandonment of a previously held position. Admitttedly, the tuition fees vote was difficult for Liberal Democrat MPs and, while my personal view is that those who voted against were broadly right, retained their integrity and gained the most credibility, I wouldn't necessarily hold MPs who voted differently in low regard. However, that voting in such a way (and, in Swinson's case, doing so in spite of having led opposition against increased fees) should be rewarded by promotions to the cabinet table is simply unbelievable. What message does that send out?

I hope, if offered the opportunity to replace Moore, that Swinson refuses.  She certainly has a bright political future - if she can keep her seat at the next election. The chances of that would diminish significantly if, as fellow Lib Dem activist Norman Fraser suggests, she simply turns into a Lib Dem Michael Forsyth. I fear that her manner and approach, while suitable for other ministries, would be ill-suited to the Scottish Office at a time when the nation considers separating from the UK.  She would struggle to escape from perceptions of being the token woman and, more damagingly, Clegg's poodle.

The lack of women in cabinet is the least of either the coalition's - or the Liberal Democrats' - problems. Of much greater concern is the Prime Minister's apparent willingness to surround himself with only the most loyal and unquestioning, as well as the ruthless way the current Secretary of State for Scotland appears to be being treated when he has generally been consistent with the cabinet line. With unquestioning, near robotic, loyalty being now the quality most required for progression within our party, it makes you wonder - how did we end up like this?