Sunday, 26 August 2012

RIP Donald Gorrie

Donald Gorrie, the former MP and MSP, has died at the age of 79.

Gorrie was the MP for Edinburgh West from 1997 to 2001, and MSP for the Central Scotland region from 1999 until 2007.  However, these raw facts do not tell the full story of his political life.  A long-standing member of the Liberal Party, Gorrie served as a councillor at either regional, district or city level from 1971 until his election as an MP twenty-six years later.  A tireless campaigner, especially in regards challenging sectarianism (he was fiercely opposed to faith schools) and the creation of a Scottish parliament, he was also persistent – standing unsuccessfully for the parliamentary seat four times before eventually winning it.

An inaugural member of the Scottish Parliament, Gorrie’s individuality and commitment to principle became quickly evident in his opposition to the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition at Holyrood.  While there were, at the time, strong working relationships between the two parties and the respective leaders (Donald Dewar and Jim Wallace) Gorrie was more suspicious of Labour authoritarianism and centralist tendencies.  He was also critical of Dewar himself and, in particular, the First Minister’s role in mismanaging the Parliament building project, claiming that Dewar has designed it as a personal memorial.  Gorrie remained irreversibly opposed to ongoing collaboration with Labour in spite of his strong left-leaning liberalism – opposition that would see him sometimes unfairly cast as rebellious and awkward.

He created some difficulties for his own party’s leadership.  In spite of his evident liberal instincts and commitment to party policy he would often find himself at odds with Jim Wallace and, later, Nicol Stephen.  He was particularly vocal in his support for environmental justice and the Third Party Right of Appeal, a Lib Dem policy that was not implemented by the party’s ministers.   Gorrie also supported (as, unsurprisingly, did I) the SNP’s policy of an independence referendum, arguing that the Lib Dems should “never say never” to either a referendum or coalition talks with the SNP – advice that was ignored in 2007.  This was partly motivated by a determination to avoid continued identification with a domineering Labour Party, but unquestionably he was also a pragmatist who recognised that Lib Dems should be willing to work with whichever party was more amenable to the prospect of implementing liberal policy in government.  He also foresaw that by ruling out a referendum the Lib Dems were weakening their political position and hoped that his party would support a two-question referendum.

Gorrie used his time in Holyrood to champion causes and issues in which he had a political interest, such as LGBT equality, tackling the problems associated with alcohol abuse and climate change.  He supported the controversial smoking ban and was implacably opposed to the introduction of HE tuition fees. 

Not always liked but respected by colleague and political opponent alike, Gorrie's greatest legacy appears to have been to inspire others.  Today, people such as Hugh O'Donnell and Alex Cole-Hamilton praised their former mentor.  Many more liberals owe a great deal to the man Cole-Hamilton described as "a liberal lion who liked to kick holes in the establishment".  Perhaps, in no small way due to Gorrie's influence, there are many such liberal lions roaming around Scotland today.

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie paid tribute to Gorrie:
“With a liberal backbone made of steel Donald Gorrie dedicated his life to challenging the establishment.  A highly effective councillor and parliamentarian he revelled in the battle for fairness, opportunity and justice.  Donald was never afraid to be a lone voice and his boundless energy was evident throughout his thirty six years of public service.  The Liberal Democrats will forever be grateful for the life of Donald Gorrie. We will miss him.” 
I did not know Gorrie personally, but I am more than aware of the huge contribution he made to Scottish liberalism and our country's politics more generally.  In tribute I will simply say this: he was my kind of liberal.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Why I won't be going to Lib Dem conference

I'm not going to Lib Dem conference this year in Brighton.

I love conference.  And I love Brighton.  But I'm going to give conference a miss this year and it seems many others are too.

Part of the attraction of conference, for me at least, is the opportunity that it presents for meeting and interacting with fellow liberals.  Connecting with others in a way that ordinarily I wouldn't be able to is something I value highly, and I've met many of my friends at conference while for some of my other friends conference provides a rare chance to get together.

Conference is also useful in that it allows someone like me from a small town that no-one outside of Inverclyde has ever heard of the opportunity to see something of the wider political picture, to contribute to discussion and perhaps even question ministers.

This time round, however, many of my friends are not going.  I've asked some of them why and they have wildly different reasons.  For some, the agenda is completely unexciting and lacking in ambition (sorry to be cavalier folks, but there's a pretty obvious solution to that one).  Others feel that while our conference is the most democratic of the three major parties', that is pretty irrelevant when ministers choose to ignore policy decisions made by the membership.  Some understandably aren't too impressed with the intense security checks.  Another feels Nick Clegg has lost credibility and that the leadership are becoming more and more detached from both the realities on the ground and the concerns of party activists. I've also been told that the leadership don't "get" either Scotland or the North of England, so having a conference in Brighton is bound to make the event more South-centric.  More concerning are the views of those who feel that conference is now just a pointless stage-managed political and media circus, as also are those of others who think that it is being hi-jacked by various "factions" within the party.  Certainly the emergence of different strands within the party should be a positive thing and something I would naturally welcome as a means of facilitating diversity, but the arrogance of some of these groups in combination with ill-disguised hostility towards the others does not make for pleasant viewing.  Lib Dems will know exactly what I mean.  It doesn't make for a positive, uplifting conference or do much to present a united front.

I understand all these concerns.  I even share some of them.  But being the kind of person I am I'd still go to conference if I could - I'd even go to other parties' conferences if they'd let me in!  I'm going to really hate watching proceedings on the TV but this year I'm going to have to.  For one very simple reason.

I can't afford it.

I really don't have the finances to take a week off work (being self-employed) and to spend money I don't have on travel and accommodation.  I've had to ask whether my political obsession and incurable love for conference is worth making the sacrifice.  I decided it was. My better half however took a different line and I have to concede that this was one argument I knew I wasn't going to win.  I simply can't justify it.

I don't think there could be much further away from Kilmacolm that the party could hold its conference.  The expense is significant but the time spent travelling is also a huge consideration especially when you have a new baby.  It's not simply a factor for those fortunate enough to be new parents though - from what I gather there are no other representatives from Inverclyde going down this year and I suspect that is also true of many other Scottish constituencies.

So - that's why you won't be seeing me at conference this year.  No doubt you were expecting a rant about why I've given up on the party or why I think conference has become irrelevant in respect to meeting the needs of party members.  The truth is that I'd love to be catching up with old acquaintances and making new ones, maybe again contributing to debates or perhaps even managing to ask Nick Clegg a hard question but it's not worth making an 800 mile round trip and incurring significant expense to do it.

I'd hope that Federal Conference Committee would have considered the difficulties many members have in attending and would have looked for means of remedying them - most obviously, from the point of view of democratic participation, electronic voting via the internet.  However, given that we don't seem to be seriously considering facilitating such a revolutionary move, I'll just have to look forward to Glasgow next year.  See you all then!

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

"Independent" panel publishes "referendum question"

So states the Scottish Lib Dems' website in a rather disingenuous headline, announcing that an "independent" panel of experts has presented its findings in respect to its views on the form the question in the forthcoming independence referendum should take.

It's disingenuous of course because no question has been published, merely advice as to how that question should be asked and what form the question should take.  I'm not going to question the expertise of the panel, which includes Prof Stewart Sutherland, Dr Matt Qvortrup and Ron Gould.  I'm even in agreement with some of the sentiments reportedly expressed by the panel, including that "every people has a right to self-determination but that right can only be exercised if they are asked a clear and unequivocal question".  

Whether a panel whose remit came directly from the Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem parties can be truly called "independent" is, however, questionable.  I am not suggesting that the academics themselves are politically biased, but they will surely have been aware that their work and findings will be used for political purposes and to justify a particular approach on behalf of the parties that commissioned them.  Already the three leaders are seeking to make capital from this, suggesting in the process that the First Minister would prefer confusion over clarity.

This is, of course, just one political battle in a wider war, with Salmond keen to remind Labour and the Lib Dems of the opportunities a second question may have afforded them and the unionist parties keen to play up the need for "clarity" (unhelpful talk of court decisions, etc.), attempting to take some high ground from drafting a question ahead of the SNP and then claiming credit when the SNP eventually get round to putting forward a question that is either similar or identical.  None of this political one-upmanship is attractive to Scottish voters.

While I respect the expertise on the panel, I'd be interested to know why it was seen as so necessary - and how it was funded.  Presumably expertise doesn't come cheap and if the panel was jointly commissioned by the three parties I'd take a stab at the cost being shared equally.  Quite how a party that couldn't stretch to an election leaflet for me in the Holyrood elections last year can be throwing cash at academics simply to make some political capital from the SNP's current alleged lack of progress on drafting a question I don't know.  As a party member I'd ask if it was money well spent.

In fairness, the findings of the panel were hardly unexpected.  Anyone with even a passing interest in constitutional matters will argue that referenda need to have clear questions and clear outcomes.  I could have given the same answer for nothing if I'd been asked.  In fact, no-one is disputing this.  There was little particularly complex about the matter brought before the panel - this really is all much ado about nothing.

More interestingly, I had a conversation with chief whip Alistair Carmichael on facebook recently (I am so glad we have a chief whip who talks to members on facebook) about this very issue and he stated that "the number of questions on the ballot form will never define or limit the terms of the debate but will most probably be the start of it."  Wise words indeed.  He also went on to state that we need a single question referendum for practical and "political" reasons (i.e. antipathy towards the SNP) and insisted that such a referendum was needed "sooner rather than later".  

It's a bit of a shame Mr Carmichael and other Lib Dems weren't saying the same kind of things before the SNP won its majority in Holyrood.  We may have then been able to not only influence the wording of the question but help frame the terms and direction of the debate.  As it stands, whether we like it or not, Alex Salmond has won a mandate to ask the question and therefore to decide what that question is.  Ultimately the Electoral Commission will determine whether that question is suitable and fair, not the unionist parties of Scotland or a panel appointed by those parties, however "independent" and "expert" they may be.

Besides, Alex Salmond and his party have already intimated that their preferred question is "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?"  I fail to see what is so confusing about that, why it lacks clarity or why it is at odds with the recommendations of the experts.

I don't doubt that when the SNP actually confirms its final question it will be clear and direct.  Until that time I don't see how much can be gained from speculating the precise wording or by asserting a right to determine the question on the part of political parties who long ago surrendered any moral right to do so.  Perhaps, instead of insisting that the SNP sign up to the recommendations of the "independent" panel, the other parties should be happy to accept the SNP's stated preferred question as a starting point?

In any case a single-question referendum cannot be too complicated.  Voters already know what they're voting for - we even have "Yes" and "No" camps before the question has even been properly conceived!  Perhaps, if our leaders are serious about "moving on to a real debate about our country's future", isn't it time for our political parties to concentrate on the answers rather than the question? 

There are far more pertinent issues for our political leaders to get their collective teeth into without them adding to the apparent confusion by confusing people with talk of confusion.  

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The best and worst of London 2012

I absolutely love sport and in particular the festival of international sport that is the Olympic Games.  I’ve watched every Games since Los Angeles in 1984, admittedly with varying degrees of interest.  And while I’m naturally cynical at the way in which the Olympics are rapidly becoming the World Corporate Games – just another symbol of the strength of global capitalism – undoubtedly they continue to inspire, entertain, thrill, disappoint, create controversy, produce heroes and, most significantly, play host to the highest level of competitive sport. 

Unlike in previous years I have been able to remove myself from the TV screen and have been privileged to have been able to actually attend the Games.  This provides a new perspective and allows an insight into the organisation and delivery of the Games as well as offering a taste of the public appetite.  It was curious how quickly negativity subsided once the games began and was replaced by an overwhelming sense of national pride; also striking was the sense of expectation among visitors to London that these Games would be memorable for all the right reasons.  Travelling to the East End via the tube made it impossible not to encounter sporting pilgrims from various corners of the world, some more obviously patriotic than others but all carrying that infectious enthusiasm and sense of anticipation that something historic was in the making, as indeed it was.

I’m not going to attempt to meaningfully review the extraordinary last two weeks.  What I will do is to share with you the moments to me that defined the Olympics – for better and for worse.  These were truly fantastic Olympics but not everything I take away from them is positive and in the glow of national pride it is easy to overlook both these negativities and the supreme achievements of others.

Here are what I consider the best and worst of the London Olympics:


1.  The incredible performance of Manteo Mitchell, a US sprinter in the 4 x 400m relay.  It is not unusual in high-intensity games for athletes to pick up injuries and be forced to withdraw but what Mitchell managed is quite incredible.  Half way into his run, Mitchell heard a “pop” and feared the worst but knew that withdrawal would lose his team a place in the final so continued running with what was later discovered to be a broken leg.  A truly heroic performance and one which helped his team-mates secure a silver medal. 

2.  Another relay performance, this time by the American women’s team in the 4 x 100m final.  To beat arch-rivals Jamaica so convincingly and in 40.82 seconds was sensational.  To shatter the 27-year old record set by East Germany in utterly brilliant fashion was truly fantastic – and a historic step as it ensured the spectre of the former GDR, at least in sporting terms, is finally put to rest.

3.  Natalia Partyka.  I must confess to having known nothing about this Polish table-tennis player prior to having the privilege of actually watching the girl in action at the ExCeL Arena.   She has no right hand or forearm, but manages to serve effectively balancing the ball on her elbow.  She came though her second round match against the Dane Mie Skov in dramatic style, in less than an hour demonstrating the triumph of ability over disability.

4.  The crowd at the women’s football final.  The newspapers might have chosen to ignore it, but anyone actually watching the match will remember FIFA President Sepp Blatter being booed by the 80,000 people inside the ground.  For someone who represents so much of what is wrong with world sport, and who has been no friend of women’s football, it was perhaps unwise for him to have made an appearance at all, let alone presented the medals.  Fortunately the Wembley crowd was on hand to give him the treatment he fully merited.

5.  David Rudisha’s incredible run in the 800m final.  Personally, I admire 800m and 1500m runners far more than I do the 100m sprinters – it’s just a shame that the media disagree.  Whatever the amazing achievements of Usain Bolt, it takes a superior discipline and tactical awareness to run to 800m success – to do it, as Rudisha did, so comprehensively and in such time, breaking the world record in the process and in spite of his competitors posting impressive personal times, was simply amazing.  Seb Coe rated this as the stand-out performance of the London Olympics and for once I wouldn’t disagree.

6.  People feeling good about themselves.  In austerity Britain, the Olympics provided a rare opportunity to feel good about who we are and what we can offer the world.  Ok, for most of us it was just the chance for a bit of escapism, to have a bit of a party and enjoy a bit of sport.  But surely that’s the whole point of it?  If the games were a success, they should be measured as such not by the number of gold medals for Team GB, nor the commercial and economic benefits or the efficiency with which they were organised and delivered – but instead by how much the public enjoyed them.  We did, either at the games or glued to our TV sets, cheering on performances in sports such as dressage that no sane person would ordinarily even glance at.  Feeling good is priceless and it’s a long time since we have collectively been able to.

7.  Saudi Arabia’s Sarah Attar, who became the first woman from that country to participate in the Olympic Games .  Admittedly she lives in the USA and has dual citizenship but by choosing to represent Saudi Arabia she has forced the Saudi authorities to reconsider the role of women on sport and wider society and hopes to inspire women.    Her time and performance were in a sense academic as what was of greater significance was the moment itself – a moment of inspiration, of defiance towards religious ultra-conservatism and of championing equality: one of those rare moments when politics and sport become intertwined in a positive way.  The crowd realised the significance of Sarah’s presence and awarded her with a standing ovation.
These were the first Olympic games ever when every participating team included female athletes, a statistic suggesting that a corner has definitely been turned.  That there continues to be a huge mountain to climb to achieve genuine equality is undeniable but the momentum now certainly lies with the progressives.  I suspect Saudi Arabia will never again field a male-only team, something for which we should be grateful to Sarah Attar.

8.  Andy Murray.  Enough said. 

9.  Jade Jones’ stunning victory in taekwondo.  Team GB produced some fine Olympian performances from Laura Trott, Mary King (at 51 years old and in her sixth Olympics), Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, Greg Rutherford, Mo Farah, Anna Watkins and Katherine Grainger (finally winning gold in the fourth Games).   But Jones was the pick of them all in my view, not least that her impressive feat was entirely unexpected.  The media and British taekwondo fans were confident that Britain would secure a medal but were looking to Sarah Stephenson, not the 19 year old from North Wales.  Jones explained afterwards that “I’m still making a lot of mistakes [and at 19] I’m not fully developed yet”.  You really have to feel that the future of British taekwondo has never been brighter.

10.  The Opening Ceremony.  As a whole I found it unsatisfactory in some respects.  I felt the notions of “Britishness” it tried to communicate were narrow, stereotypical and based on a more than inaccurate “feel good” interpretation of history.  The section on the NHS was not only overly sentimental but probably made very little sense to the millions around the world watching.  But there were brilliant moments, not least the Queen jumping out of a helicopter, Mr Bean’s appearance, the coming together of the Olympic rings; the arrival of the torch and the lighting of the cauldron were brilliantly staged.  There have been so many reviews of the ceremony that to add to them seems rather pointless; suffice to say, Danny Boyle is a creative genius.

11.  A personal one – Team Hungary finishing higher in the medal table than Australia.  Who would have imagined it?

And now, the WORST...

1.  Accusations that Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen had been taking performance enhancing substances  dominated headlines on day 3 of the Games.  Of course if any athlete had been actually found using such substances, or there was any evidence with which to back up the claim, it would certainly have been a news story.  But giving credence to claims of opponents whose only basis for their suggestion was the quality of her performances (she actually swam faster than Ryan Lochte and women just, you know, aren’t supposed to do that) is not in the Olympic spirit and represents poor journalism.  Why should a gold medallist have to defend themselves at a press conference, only for the members of the press present to naturally run with the “drugs controversy” headline?  The claim was petty and malicious, something even Seb Coe suggested when asserting there was “no factual basis to support...these insinuations”.  Ye herself handled the pressure well, stating that “in other countries people have won multiple medals and people have said nothing. Why are they just criticising me? I have absolutely not taken anything.”  Of course, she hadn’t – perhaps in future the British media will not be quite so keen to play up the accusations of a bad sport ?

2.  The Olympics really did seem to bring out the worst in some people.  These included sections of the media for whom anything less than gold for British participants represented failure.  After day two ended without that as yet elusive gold medal being gained, the BBC’s highlights programme suggested that if the following day yielded no such prizes then “serious questions would be asked”.  Really?  Why not actually wait until Britain are participating in events that, you know, they’re good at?  It was ridiculous, as was the media response to Mark Cavendish’s inability to win a medal of any colour in the road race which prompted Cavendish to remark “why the stupid questions?  Do you know anything about cycling?”

The worst treatment seemed to be reserved to the inspirational and altogether lovely Rebecca Adlington who was unable to repeat the double-gold winning feat of Beijing, in part due to the rising of a new star of the pool, Katie Ledecky.  The fact that Adlington had become the most decorated woman in GB swimming history was lost on many observers, who chose to focus on disappointment rather than record-breaking achievement.  It was pitiful and disrespectful to an outstanding performer who deserved so much better.

3.  Vindictive officials.  There were some of them, given one iota of power that they were determined to wield and who seemed bent on destroying the Games for reasons unknown.  Take the case of South Korea’s Shin A-Lam who was denied a place in the final on the basis of an honest counting mistake by a 15 year-old volunteer.  Having the right of appeal, she used it – however, in spite of her being technically correct, the referee refused to reverse the decision.  Cue boos and a sit-down protest.  Worse still could be found in the velodrome in the women’s sprint semi-final when British duo Victoria Pendleton and Jess Varnish were denied a place in the final due to a takeover error.  Replays showed an infringement had taken place but, as the rules allow for a little flexibility in application and the girls didn’t actually gain an advantage from it the disqualification was harsh.  Nothing can excuse the commissar’s verdict in the final however, disqualifying the Chinese team on the basis of an apparently identical breach of the rules that scores of TV replays failed to detect.  The dictatorial official’s word is final and doesn’t, it seems, require evidence.  Sadly for China, the right to appeal in Olympic sport does not yet extend to Cycling, something that should surely be reconsidered in the light of this and the incident involving Pendleton and Anna Meares in the individual sprint final. 

4.  French accusations of cheating on the part of the Team GB cycling team.  The French questioned every GB victory, eventually expressing their collective frustration in the rather imaginative complaint that Chris Hoy et al were using “magic wheels”.  It was typically mean-spirited and shows how competitive sport can sometimes cause logic to give way to paranoia and nastiness. 

5.  Attempts by SouthKorean, Chinese and Indonesian badminton players to fix matches by deliberately losingAdmittedly, the system devised for London – replacing the previously straight-forward knock-out system at previous Games – made this kind of action more likely and perhaps the consequences should have been foreseen.  But the actions of these athletes was inexcusable, not least by the Chinese duo who had such disdain for the referee that, when threatened with disqualification, they reportedly told him that he had no authority to remove them from the next round of the competition as they had already qualified and that they would be (obviously) happy to forfeit the match in which they were playing.  The attitudes were as disappointing as the dreadful displays for which spectators had paid to watch and the four duos were all excluded from later rounds of the competition.

6.  Lazy commentators.  The football was particularly bad in this respect, with viewers sometimes left wondering if those giving the verdicts actually knew anything about one team or the other.  There were some priceless moments, but what was frustrating was the constant inability to separate Team GB from the entity that is the England National Football Team.  This was most infuriating when, after Stuart Pearce’s team was defeated on spot-kicks by South Korea, the commentators declared “and so we go out on penalties again”.  AGAIN?  When did Team GB last lose on penalties?  This kind of remark – and there were more like it – shows that the cynicism many felt towards a collective Team GB was well placed.

7.  Attempts to use the achievements of GB athletes for political purposes.  I have been absolutely appalled by the way in which senior politicians, and indeed political activists, have sought to make capital from the achievements of Team GB athletes.  The SNP’s attempt to pick out “Scolympians” was short-sighted and unnecessary, as were unionist attempts to claim that Team GB demonstrates how much “better together” we are.  The latter argument was particularly stupid as, if sporting success is to be a key factor in determining a nation’s constitutional future, it’s a great shame that China and North Korea had a particularly good Olympics.  The worst of this politicisation of the Games was in the aftermath of Andy’s Murray victory when, instead of concentrating on the impressive defeat of some Swiss guy many were instead more interested in the fact that Murray appeared to mumble a few words of the National Anthem and was draped in a Union Flag.  Unionists grasped their opportunity to spin this in the most crudely obvious of ways, while nationalists responded equally predictably.  If the Olympics proved anything, it’s how tribal Scottish politics have become.  Even the BBC’s Nick Robinson began speculating that Murray’s professional behaviour as a member of Team GB might be “noteworthy” as far as Scotland’s political future is concerned.  How responsible was that?

Politicians like to play the patriotism card and they’ve been doing that shamelessly for the last few weeks.  That’s to be expected.  Seeing unionists and nationalists exchanging tit-for-tat insults is undignified and, to my mind, disrespectful to the athletes themselves.  What was notable in that when Chris Hoy explained to the Channel 4 news that “I’m Scottish and British. I think you can be both – they are not mutually exclusive” this was seized upon by politicians and political commentators including former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.  Unfortunately they failed to notice that, during the same interview, Hoy explained that it is “frustrating because as an athlete all you want to do is race and be best you can and not get dragged into politics."  Perhaps those professing respect for the man should actually have listened to him and not “dragged him into politics”?

Fortunately by the end of the Games the SNP had abandoned their emphasis on “Scolympians” and Pete Wishart MP was saying some very positive things about Mo Farah.  However, the inescapable truth is that shallow politically-minded people have seen fit to make mileage from others’ sacrifices and achievements.  As former councillor Alex Dingwall noted on facebook,I really wish all sides would stop seeking to grab the success of athletes and spin it for their cause - it's shameful for any politician to try to hijack the hard work and dedication of our athletes in this way.”  Indeed – can’t we just celebrate sport for sport’s sake?

8.  Aidan Burley.  There would have been no reason why anyone outside the Westminster bubble would have heard of this pathetic man if it were not for his outbursts on twitter in regards the Opening Ceremony, which he seemed to think was the product of some far-left conspiracy.  In particular he raged against “left-wing multi-cultural crap” forgetting that the Olympics is actually a celebration of internationalism and diversity.  Given his views on immigration, I’d like to know what he thinks of Mo Farah.  (It should be noted that the fiercely Little Englander Tory MP was born in New Zealand). 

9.  While it was great to see Sarah Attar competing and the large number of British women medallists at these games, another spectre of inequality cast its shadow over the London Games.  Research by the Sutton Trust and statistics appearing in The Guardian show that privately-educated individuals make up a disproportionate number of our athletes and that in some sports, especially equestrianism, this is at particularly high levels.  Questions must be asked about London 2012’s “inspire a generation” motto.  Inspire it to do what?  Gain a public-school education because that is the surest way to sporting success?  Will action be taken to ensure greater access to, and involvement in, competitive sport for all?  Or will elite competition continue to be dominated by those sufficiently privileged to have had an elite schooling?  

My personal view is that we cannot allow our success in London to obscure the urgent need for action.  Regrettably, the likelihood is that Team GB's considerable success will mask the reality that progress needs to be made, and it will be business as usual for the foreseeable future.

10.  The media derision of beach volleyball.  Love it or hate it, it’s now impossible to ignore it.  You might not have known that these games featured water polo, handball or Greco-Roman wrestling because practically no attention was paid to these sports by the BBC - but beach volleyball was on our screens quite frequently.  The thing is, the media love the spectacle and the culture surrounding it while simultaneously demeaning the game itself, considering it a non-sport and trivialising the achievements of its stars.  This is thoroughly depressing and must stop, as I discussed here

11.  The hijacking of the games by corporate entities.  I note that the main sponsors (Cadbury’s and McDonald’s) are not likely to produce many products enjoyed by super-fit athletes on a regular basis.  The worst example was the “deal” with Visa, that only allowed for payments via Visa cards in the main venues.  “We are proud to only take VISA” proclaimed the signs.  Proud?  Proud to deny alternative forms of payment?  What kind of pride is that?  There were of course so many other examples of rampant sports capitalism it seems wrong to single any particular example out but (while I’m not opposed to sponsorship) when it comes to limiting the choices of consumers in this way a stand needs to be made. 

12.  Finally, on a personal note, I’d like to openly criticise the extremely poor baby changing facilities at the ExCeL arena – where the only facilities in a male area were being used as a store/cleaning cupboard and where I was forced to use a women’s toilet.  As well as making assumptions on the basis of gender this is unfortunate as the level of organisation at the London Games was extraordinary and I am happy to praise the Games Makers and the organisers for creating a public event that seemed to have been considered to (almost) the smallest detail.  I hope that in Glasgow in two years’ time there is a little more recognition that there might be one or two men that have babies who need changing...

Anyway, that was the Games that was.  They were gripping, exhilarating, always interesting, often entertaining and for the most part a positive showcase for international sport.  Long live what Aidan Burley calls “multi-cultural crap”. 

All that and no mention of the incredible Michael Phelps.  Amazing!

Monday, 6 August 2012

Abandonment of Lords Reform is collective failure

A little over two years ago, the Liberal Democrats entered into a coalition with the Conservative Party.  There were a number of reasons even cynical liberals like myself, who had expressed a preference for a “progressive alliance” following the election, felt we could and should support it. Firstly, as a pluralist, I hoped we could demonstrate that coalition government can be effective and that the adversarial politics of the past might be replaced with a less combative, collaborative approach.  Idealism aside, there seemed strong practical reasons to provide stable government in the interests of the nation and to tackle the inherited economic difficulties.  And – far more appealing to liberals – the coalition agreement promised an opportunity to implement key liberal objectives such as electoral reform or the creation of a democratic House of Lords.

If a week in politics is a long time then two years is an eternity.  Embarrassing failure on both counts is all that we have to show for that initial optimism.  As if that was not sufficiently bad, we have accepted huge electoral reverses as a price for remaining in coalition – an arrangement which, a few significant measures aside, has done less than most of envisaged to see our key aims translated into action or to take our party forward.

I continue to believe that the Liberal Democrats should remain in government even if, with retrospective hindsight, I feel the basis on which we were sold it was flawed and the naïveté of the negotiators breathtaking.  Today, as it emerged that Lords reform is to be abandoned (or, to use the rhetoric of January 1988, has become as dead as the Pythonesque parrot) blame has been laid squarely at the feet of the Conservative and Labour parties.  That they deserve to be derided for their respective roles is not in question.  However, there remain deeper questions closer to home in regards our own leadership and our party’s failure to seize the opportunity we were given.  The failure to deliver is partially our own and while Nick Clegg’s justifiable anger towards our Conservative partners was expressed eloquently in an admittedly bold and fascinating speech earlier today, it is perhaps time for some quiet introspection rather than grand, retaliatory gestures.

Coalition has set the cause of electoral and House of Lords reform back at least a generation.  That is Nick Clegg’s legacy.  It is not one he wanted and it will undoubtedly pain him to realise it, but that opportunity is lost for the foreseeable future and possibly a lifetime.  It hurts Nick, and no doubt it hurts all progressives who care about democracy.  The reality that Liberal Democrats find themselves in is accepting that even being a minority party in coalition government affords little influence to accomplish key policy objectives or even imbue government policy with a liberal tinge; as Kevin McNamara writes today on Lib Dem Voice, we have merely provided a few Liberal Democrat cherries in what is a distinctively Conservative cake.  This in turn begs several questions about our role in government and the direction the party should take next.

That, however, is not the subject of my attentions.  I am more directly concerned with the matter of what amounts to the defeat of Lords reform and Nick Clegg’s response to it.  There was more than a hint of despair in Clegg’s statement: “despite these painstaking efforts the Labour party and Conservative backbenchers united to block any further progress, preventing government from securing a timetable motion without which the Bill effectively becomes impossible to deliver.”  Referring particularly to Labour, he said: “In my discussions with [them], they have made it clear that while they continue to back Lords reform in principle they are set on blocking it in practice. Supporting the ends, but – when push comes to shove – obstructing the means. Regrettably Labour is allowing short-term political opportunism to thwart long-term democratic change.”  Clegg’s frustration was almost tangible.

Turning on the Conservatives, Clegg was at his most effective and brutal.  “Coalition works on mutual respect; it is a reciprocal arrangement, a two-way street” he explained.  “When part of a contract is broken, it is normal to amend that contract in order then to move on.”  He stated that he would be instructing Liberal Democrat MPs to vote against boundary changes because delivering them without Lords reform would create an “ our political system: cut[ting] the number of MPs without enhancing the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Lords...weaken[s] parliament as a whole.”   Intriguingly he revealed he had offered opportunities for the Conservatives to “progress with both reforms” by offering a Referendum on Lords Reform to coincide with the 2015 General Election.  But that was rejected, so there is now a requirement to “restore balance to the Coalition Agreement”.

It was a pretty effective speech, stemming from both conviction and frustration, which he finished by hitting the right notes on other key policy areas and a promise to “anchor this government firmly in the centre ground”.  In a sense, he was startlingly optimistic given this recent setback.  His firmness and tone are to be welcomed.  But in some key respects Clegg was plainly wrong and his anger towards Conservatives dishonouring the coalition agreement a little misplaced.

Fellow Lib Dems will tire of me saying this, but what is actually in the coalition agreement is this:

“We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation.  The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010.  It is likely that this will advocate single long terms of office.  It is also likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers.  In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.”

Now, of course I understand that what the 91 Conservative rebels have done flies in the face of the spirit of the coalition agreement.  But it’s not the spirit that matters: it’s the black and white, what is spelled out on paper.  And there’s absolutely nothing in that coalition agreement that binds any Conservative MP to support Lords Reform: in fact, the little that has been promised has already been achieved.

Clearly it’s a little more complex than that and there were assumptions of good faith on the part of the respective leaderships.  But assumptions are not contractual.  Having read David Laws’ 22 Days in May, it is quite remarkable how little attention was actually given over to Lords Reform.  There certainly seems a startling amount of naïveté on the part of our negotiators that the Conservatives would hold up their end of the deal; so sure were we that Cameron would bring his party with him on the matter that we failed to so much as ensure a promise of Lords reform in the coalition agreement.  How could we sign up to such a thing when no plain text reading of it could be interpreted as such?

And so, when Clegg argues passionately that “Lords reform was...written into the coalition agreement – without argument or controversy” he’s overlooking an astonishing lack of detail and clarity.  With hindsight, senior Liberal Democrats must realise they should have pressed harder for watertight promises.   It is simply unbelievable that some of the sharpest political minds could have put together a coalition agreement that would allow disgruntled Tory backbenchers the opportunity to derail a key Liberal Democrat policy and for that we should accept some responsibility.

Clegg went on to state that he “had hoped that, with enough compromise and cross-party involvement we could build a consensus delivering it once and for all.”  That is fine sentiment indeed.  However, it was never matched by any real effort to build a parliamentary consensus.  This may of course be because so much Lib Dem faith had been invested in the Prime Minister’s ability to deliver in spite of the wishes of his party, even after the AV fiasco.  However, to any canny political observer, for Lords reform to be achieved would require significant Labour support.  Charles Kennedy’s appeal for “a progressive alliance” came too late to be effective but such a call should have been made earlier, before Labour saw their opportunity to cynically destabilise the coalition.  Another notable failure was to give Labour nothing really worth voting for: either a more democratic package of reform or reason to believe that their cynical objectives could actually be met by siding against Tory rebels.  What is clear is that Clegg’s hoped-for consensus failed to materialise and that the miserable compromise of 15 year terms, huge constituencies with list PR and the retention of 12 Lords Spiritual was partly responsible.  Nick Clegg’s ambition to achieve reform, almost irrespective of what that reform actually was on the basis that it must naturally be better than the status quo, was ultimately self-defeating.

Liberal Democrats will have expected Labour to have supported Lords Reform but the nature of tribal politics means that such assumptions should not be easily made and certainly not taken for granted.   The political reality was that Labour perceived they had more to gain from obstruction that co-operation, something that should have been adequately addressed and remedied.  Clegg insisted today that “it is obvious that the Bill’s opponents would now seek to inflict on it a slow death.”  That is true, but it need not necessarily have been.  In any case, few coherent attempts at constructive dialogue appear to have been made. It is difficult to know whether it was a naive faith in the Prime Minister or a refusal to co-operate with Labour that was more costly, but the failure to achieve “consensus” has proved a bar to delivery and Clegg’s words speak of his own inability to achieve it.

Whether it was wise to threaten blocking boundary changes in retaliation for the loss of Lords Reform in advance of the vote is questionable. It is unlikely to have much of an effect on Tory rebels, many of whom have little love for the coalition, while at the same time ensuring that opponents of boundary changes within Labour were further incentivised to vote with them.  This represents another tactical failure, although probably too late to make much difference to the outcome.  Now it is clear that Lords Reform is a non-starter in this parliament, it may be no bad thing to withdraw support for boundary alterations that will only damage the Liberal Democrats - although this is sure to delight many right-wing Tories and is neither the best weapon in our armoury nor the most pertinent issue we could choose to influence.  Whether this “rebalances” the coalition is uncertain.  Personally, I feel that recent events may have long and lasting ramifications for coalition dynamics and, potentially, government stability. 

Nick Clegg had a word for “modernisers and campaigners” who desire a more democratic second chamber: “I am as disappointed as you that we have not delivered an elected Lords this time around. But Lords Reform has always been a case of two steps forward, one step back.  And my hope is that we will return to it, in the next Parliament emboldened by the overwhelming vote in favour of our Bill at second reading.”  This is not a case of gradual progress but one of climbing what once seemed an insurmountable ladder to place the issue firmly on the political agenda, only to slither down the snake’s back all the way to square one. 

Nick Clegg is right to bemoan failure.  But, for all the finger pointing, it is a collective failure.  Instead of the promised “new politics” of compromise and consensus we’ve witnessed entrenched tribalism, easy point scoring and refusal to engage on the basis of small-minded self-interest.  It is a failure of the political system to reform itself in the public interest, and one in which the Liberal Democrats must take some share of the responsibility.

The cause has been set back significantly but not entirely defeated, even if the immediate future looks grim.  Whether the issue can be revisted in the next parliament, as Clegg plainly hopes, is uncertain and seems highly unlikely.  But when Lords Reform does again make it onto the parliamentary agenda, I hope that debate will stem from a collaborative determination to redesign democracy so absent on this occasion.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

David Steel's wife supports Scottish independence

Judy Steel, wife of former Liberal leader David Steel, and announced her support for Scottish independence, according to today's Daily Record

She is reported as saying: "“I have always believed in Scotland as an independent country. It’s an emotional thing.  I suppose it’s tied up with my admiration for the Scandinavian countries and the influence of my parents, who were very disillusioned by the trappings of post-imperial Britain.  It may be good for Britain as a whole and give it the chance to find a level where it can shake off that very grandiose and rather pompous history.”  That’s a very timely intervention given the interpretation and presentation of British history at the Olympics opening ceremony but what is more telling is her use of the word “always”. 

The implication is obvious – she has held this belief for as long as she remembers but until now it has never been possible to be public about it.  Perhaps it is because her husband is no longer the high profile figure he once was, or maybe it’s because she feels that the momentum is firmly behind the “Yes” campaign, but she evidently feels she now has the freedom to be intellectually honest to her beliefs. 

That she should support independence is not particularly surprising to me.  Judy Steel has been around politics for many years.  She’s experienced the highs and lows of the 70s and 80s and seen how the federalism espoused by the Liberals and later the Liberal Democrats has been replaced by a turgid devolutionism.  She’s seen the more ambitious aims of her husband’s Commission of 2006 fall by the wayside.  Moreover she’s been married to a Scottish MP who, whatever one thinks of him, has a history of advocating greater freedom for Scotland and Scots.  Such ambitions have been consistently frustrated by the failure of Westminster and the Liberal Democrats to deliver anything resembling a real federalism, let alone the kind of increased freedoms most Scots seem to want.

Given this, I don’t find it at all unusual for someone like Judy Steel to be independence-inclined.  However, it appears that her convictions go back several decades and pre-date her marriage to David.  What is surprising, therefore, is that she’s been able to successfully keep her views to herself for so long.

Lady Steel believes that being pro-Scotland and advocating independence as a means to achieving a brighter future is not synonymous with being pro-SNP.   In this I am in agreement with her.  The intellectual arguments for independence – in fact the fundamentally liberal reasons to support independence – are by no means the sole property of Mr Salmond’s party.

Where I disagree with Lady Steel is her description of her support for independence as “an emotional thing”.  For me, it is not, and never can be, an emotional thing.  It instead stems from an intellectual reasoning and a pragmatic desire to achieve the kind of liberal Scottish society I desire so strongly

What we are seeing is that a number of Liberal Democrats, whose adherence to liberal principles cannot be questioned, are beginning to either express support for Scottish independence or at least indicate that they will vote “Yes” in 2014 in preference to the status quo.  These include Lady Steel, the Earl of Mar and Kellie and several other party activists.

There must be recognition within the party that, as a broad church, we should accept that there is a range of opinion within the party on the question of Scotland’s constitutional future.  We are after all, Liberals.  (Not to mention that we’re Democrats.)  We should respect the views of all party members and allow them to freely campaign as they feel fit.  I certainly don’t want any other Judy Steels within the party to feel silenced by an imposed conformity and be pressured to keep their opinions to themselves.  Neither do I want to see others defecting to the SNP simply to obtain the freedom to campaign in favour of a “Yes” vote.

Having been in conversation with a number of other independence-minded Liberal Democrats (many of whom have approached me after reading my blog), we feel the time has arrived to establish an internal grouping within the party to campaign for independence.  What we will not be is anti-liberal or even intrinsically anti-leadership: we merely wish to positively campaign for what we believe will facilitate a better Scotland, a more liberal Scotland, a freer Scotland. 

Lady Steel is of course welcome to join us.  It is early days yet and the proposed grouping is as yet unestablished; news of future developments will appear on this blog as well as via other channels as determined by the group.  What is clear is that liberalism is not defined by attitudes towards Scottish independence and that the same should apply to the Liberal Democrats. 

Anyone interested in being involved with a potential Lib Dems for Independence group can contact me, in the first instance, via twitter (@scottishliberal)