Saturday, 29 September 2012

Some thoughts on Nick Clegg’s conference speech

I wasn’t at conference this year, for the first time since joining the Liberal Democrats.

Holding a conference in Brighton isn’t good for Scottish members, which is presumably why the party have decided to host the 2013 Spring Conference there too. 

Watching conference on television is actually quite a surreal experience.  It lacks the authenticity and the drama, even when the membership gives the leadership its customary defeat on a key issue.  I felt quite disconnected from events.  When it comes to the leader’s speech, this detachment can be useful.  Rather than being taken along with the mood in the hall, it was easier to consider what Clegg was actually saying and to consider the political implications.

My first impression of the speech was that it wasn’t one of Nick Clegg’s best.  In fact, I thought it quite poor.  That is not to say that it did not contain much of what was sensible, because it did.  But it was not inspiring and, more importantly, I fear it is almost certain to fail in its principal objectives.

He began by referring to the summer of sport Britain has enjoyed and in particular the achievements of British athletes in the Olympic Games.  He said that Britain “remembered how it feels to win again”.  I agree that the Games allowed the nation a chance to feel good about itself again, something that Clegg certainly wasn’t going to allow his speech to do.  I imagined that the purpose of this reference to sporting success was to introduce his audience to the theme of winning, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Clegg contrasted this summer with last; one of a country united in support of its sporting heroes with one of a nation divided, its cities ravaged by violent rioting.  Clegg made a great deal of the example of Maurice Reeves, the 81-year old whose furniture business was famously destroyed by rioters in Croydon.  That business is now reopened, something Clegg considered the product of “effort, perseverance [and] resilience”.  The political lesson was obvious, but I don’t accept the parallel.  Maurice Reeves commanded the goodwill and support of his community, without which he would in all likelihood have been unable to rebuild his business.  The same is true of the Liberal Democrats.  Effort and perseverance alone will simply make us look stubborn.  If we are to be revived, we must again command the respect and goodwill of the voters. 

After this, Clegg was keen to talk about “tough times”.  In fact it was all he wanted to talk about.  These tough times affect both the country and the party, whose respective journeys were inextricably linked.  He was keen to remind conference of the “gargantuan task of building a new economy from the rubble of the old” and the costs of not rising to this challenge.  “Our influence in the world, our standard of living, our ability to fund our public services and maintain our culture of openness and tolerance – all are in the balance. For power would move not only away from the liberal and democratic world, but within it too; from moderates to hard liners, from internationalists to isolationists, from those committed to the politics of cooperation to those hell-bent on confrontation. If history has taught us anything, it is that extremists thrive in tough times.”  He spoke of the human cost to society’s most vulnerable.

What was interesting is that Clegg places economic rescue as the means by which the poor can be helped.  Once the economy is saved, so the logic seems to suggest, then can we make a better and fairer society.   I for one do not buy into that logic.  Clearly living standards and the economy are undeniably interlinked, but there is so much more that can and should be done irrespective of slow economic growth.  Clegg did turn on critics of the government’s economic policy (and there were several of them in the hall), defending Osborne’s so-called Plan A: “Let’s not allow the caricature of what we are doing go unchallenged. If Plan A really was as rigid and dogmatic as our critics claim, I’d be demanding a Plan B, and getting Danny and Vince to design it. But it isn’t.”  Perhaps.  What Clegg perhaps doesn’t realise it’s not the rigidity and dogma of Osborne’s plans that its critics have trouble with.  It’s the fact that it was based on a flawed prediction of Eurozone growth and isn’t actually working.

Whether the economic plan actually works or not seemed irrelevant to Nick Clegg.  It doesn’t feature in his thinking at all.  “Arguments about economic theory are of no interest to the millions of people just struggling to get by right now” he insisted, which may be true.  But what those arguments mean in practice certainly are of interest. They affect virtually every facet of our lives. 

Clegg cannot be accused of lacking vision: “So let us take the lead in building a new economy for the new century. An open, outward looking economy in the world’s biggest single market. A strong, balanced economy built on productive investment, not debt-fuelled consumption. An innovative, inventive economy driven by advances in science and research. And yes, a clean, green economy too, powered by the new low-carbon technologies. Britain leading the world.”  He also spoke passionately about the emerging green economy and its possibilities.  How can all this be achieved, though?  I would argue it cannot be done by continuing with the current flawed economic plan.

He then got to his real message: that as a serious party of government we should resist the temptation of easy protest.  “If voters want a party of opposition – a ‘stop the world I want to get off’ party – they’ve got plenty of options, but we are not one of them” he declared, wisely avoiding the reference to Labour he had made to journalists in the morning.  He clearly has little time for what the party, in his ungenerous view, once was.  “The past is gone” he announced, before stating that he is bringing back Paddy Ashdown to spearhead the 2015 election campaign.  What I feel Clegg might not fully understand is that the Liberal Democrat vote, to a great extent even now, is dependent on the support of those simply dissatisfied with the two other principal parties.  Does he understand why people vote Liberal Democrat?  It seems not, and there was very little in this speech to appeal to voters. 

It is positive to think in terms of our being “not [a] third party, but as one of three parties of government”; however, it avoids a crucial and inconvenient truth.  Our being in government depends on the two larger parties not having a majority and for the electoral arithmetic to provide us with sufficient seats to make the difference.  That peculiar state of affairs cannot be designed.  Unless this outcome becomes a regular feature of British elections, the inescapable truth is that we will remain a third party for the foreseeable future (even if Nigel Farage has other ideas).

Clegg seems to think that the only option for the Liberal Democrats is to be either a party of government or a party of protest.  This is simplistic nonsense.  As Willie Rennie explained in his speech, it is perfectly feasible for minor parties to work constructively with those in government to achieve key objectives.  Clegg’s 2-dimensional logic is both unimaginative and somewhat disturbing. 

He also believes that staying the course as far as the economic policy is concerned is the only way for party recovery.  Over a year ago, I wrote a piece on the need for a liberal renaissance as a means of revitalising and rebuilding the party.  Central to that is a need to reconnect, to develop a philosophically liberal identity, to concentrate on grassroots and communities, to champion a liberalism that is attractive to the public.  What it does not necessarily involve is adherence to an economic strategy that is not only unpopular but not delivering.  In Clegg’s mind the success of the party is linked to the economy, just as the economy is linked to the success of the party.

The picture, as ever, is more complex than this.  The success of the party is actually linked to the public perception of us and our leaders.  It is dependent on public trust and respect.  While the leader may want to believe that ultimately we will be judged on whether we help forge an economic recovery, the voters in all likelihood have different criteria.  They will judge us on tuition fees, on the NHS, on public services.  They will judge us on whether they think we are honest.  While economic credibility is undoubtedly important, so is political credibility – and, in Clegg’s case, personal credibility. 

This strategy seems based on forecasts of modest and tentative growth in the coming two years. Clegg hopes to convince voters that, with slow but sure signs of improvement, it would be wrong to trust Labour with the economy in 2015.  This might actually work, but he needs to find more effective ways of putting across his message.  In his speech he asked “are you ready to trust Labour with your money again? And do you really think the Tories will make Britain fairer?”  which sounded like a suggestion that the Tories can be trusted on the economy and Labour with the delivery of a fair society.

No doubt Clegg wants to be judged on the economy, which is why he has now pinned everything on economic recovery.  He hopes that voters will reserve their collective judgment until 2015 and vote according to the state of the economy and the Liberal Democrat role in facilitating recovery.  It’s a flawed logic on so many levels, not least because it’s very unlikely that the electorate will be compliant with his request.  Why should it?  Judgments have already been made, judgments that will require more than an upturn in the economy to be overturned.

What is true is that our party’s fortunes are linked with the leader’s public standing.  Should the economy improve, it is not certain that Clegg himself, or the Liberal Democrats, would necessarily reap the political benefits.  I for one am very uncomfortable with our leader openly hedging all his bets with Chancellor Osborne’s economic plan. 

This was a policy-light speech, almost reminiscent of the speeches David Steel used to give: short on policy detail, strong on broad, sweeping descriptions of future possibilities. The main difference is that Steel could inject some positivity into his rhetoric.  Clegg’s gloomy economic message gave very little for either conference delegates or voters to be remotely positive about. 

There were only two policy details.  The first was a refusal to lower the top rate of income tax, which was not much of an announcement.  The second was the proposal for a “catch-up premium” which sounded interesting, although I have several questions about how it would work in practice and whether £500 is anything like sufficient to provide for the additional support necessary to make it a success. 

What Nick Clegg didn’t address directly is the important question: what are the Liberal Democrats for?  Even in coalition, our primary objective is not economic recovery but to provide good government.  It should be that by which we are judged.  If we are providing that good government then we should stay the course; if we find we are being undermined at every corner and being frustrated in the task to provide it then decisions previously made may be worth revisiting.  An improving economy is not our main aim, but a mere by-product of it.  It is that commitment to good government that Clegg should have tied the party’s fortunes to, not a hoped-for economic revival that may never arrive.

The best moment in the speech was Clegg's invoking the spirits of two former leaders: " I see generations of Liberals marching towards the sound of gunfire.  And yes, I see them going back to their constituencies to prepare for government."  As fellow Lib Dem Allan Heron observed, it's as well he didn't mix the two quotations.  "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for gunfire" may be more accurate, but doesn't quite have the same ring to it. 

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Willie Rennie must provide evidence of SNP-English Democrats link

In his speech to federal conference this week Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie made quite a startling claim.

He said:

“We’ve already heard from some English nationalists that they want Scotland out.  They don’t value our United Kingdom. These are the allies of Alex Salmond’s SNP in their fight to break up Britain. They are working together, attending each other’s conferences and sharing ideas.”

That is a huge accusation to make and naturally I began asking questions.

A member of staff soon alerted me to the “facts”.  A singular MP, namely Angus MacNeil, attended a conference of the English Democrats five years ago.  That MP is also alleged to have retweeted 11 tweets originating with the English Democrats between October 2011 and February 2012.

Firstly, let me deal with this ludicrous idea that you are what you retweet.  I personally retweet plenty I find of interest, even if I disagree with the point being made.  I retweet statements made by the Tories, the SNP, Labour, the Green Party, UKIP...even, on occasion, the BNP.  It doesn’t make me sympathetic.  It doesn’t even mean I am in any way “sharing ideas”, other than bringing what is already on the most public of public forums to the attention of my twitter followers. 

I have tried to locate these tweets to discover something of their nature and context.  Unfortunately I cannot either locate them or find anyone who can.  This last point is quite concerning.  I would have imagined that any party leader making a speech at a national conference would take efforts to ensure that claims he makes are backed up. 

There appears to be no blog or other online record in which these tweets are repeated verbatim.  Therefore, it is unreasonable to make suggestions about the significance of Angus’s retweets.  Until someone can reproduce for me these tweets and demonstrate categorically that they show the SNP MP to be endorsing the English Democrats’ less savoury policies, I refuse to accept that anything improper has occurred.

In fact, given that the English Democrats support both Scottish independence and the creation of an English parliament (both causes towards which I have sympathies) it is perfectly possible that I may have retweeted either those same tweets or others written by members of the English Democrats.  I for one do not check the profile of every writer of every comment I retweet.

It is true that Angus MacNeil attended an English Democrats conference.  That is not necessarily unusual, in that the party at the time (five years ago) was relatively unheard of and were most notable for being part of the CEP (Campaign for an English Parliament).  In fact, at that time I’m not even sure some of the policies for which they are now renowned had even been formulated.  What is odd is that Angus appears to have spoken at this event .

That is something that I would not personally do, but that is in 2012 when the realities of what the English Democrats stand for are more widely recognised.  I’d like to know why Mr MacNeil was willing to speak at this conference, but again I’m not willing to take this in itself as evidence of “sharing ideas” or of this party being an “ally of Alex Salmond”.

What has also transpired is that this claim seems to have its basis in something written on a blog maintained by an English Democrats activist, Robin Tilbrook.  I’m quite annoyed at Robin actually for reproducing a picture of Willie on his blog without having the courtesy to credit me as the photographer, but that’s a separate issue.  The post in question is basically an attack on Plaid Cymru, which he feels should have been more supportive in causes such as the English Constitutional Convention and CEP.  About the SNP, he says this:
“[we have] friendly relations with the Scottish National Party.”

That sounds interesting, so I read on:

“ We have been pleased to welcome the SNP’s Angus MacNeil MP to speak at a recent Annual Party Conference and our Vice Chairman was welcomed by leaders of the SNP in Edinburgh and her hand was shaken, during a BBC Newsnight programme, by Alex Salmond.”

And that, my friends is that.  That is the entire case on which Willie Rennie’s argument stands: some English Democrat propaganda, attempting to glean some undeserved respectability by associating itself with Alex Salmond and his party.  There is no evidence, as Willie Rennie suggests, that English Democrats are invited to SNP conferences and are sharing ideas at leadership – or indeed any other – level.  There is no alliance, no proof of “working together” collaboratively.  As for the English Democrats’ Vice-chair shaking hands with SNP leaders – this was in an entirely unofficial capacity and on Newsnight.  On the few occasions I’ve been interviewed or debated in a public forum I’ve always been courteous to others talking part.  Suggesting this was some kind of official welcome or extension of friendship on the part of Alex Salmond towards the English Democrats is stretching credibility to breaking point.

I've personally shaken Alex Salmond's hand.  What does that prove?  I'd be interested in seeing the relevant episode of Newsnight (again, if this evidenced any kind of relationship between the two parties I'd have imagined it would have been seized upon some time ago).  

This story – or, rather, this allegation – has in fact no credibility whatsoever.  If these tweets were so offensive, and Angus’s apparent support so controversial, why was nothing made of them at the time?  Also, why does attendance at a conference five years ago take so long to become news? 

What I am disappointed in is that this “news” was not broken by a Lib Dem blogger or even Better Together.  It emanates from the very top of our party, in a speech given by the leader and supported by his staff.  In a misguided quest to blacken the name of the SNP and portray them as extremists (a word Willie Rennie used elsewhere in his speech), Rennie also gives undue credibility to English Democrats and their rather ludicrous propaganda.  That the source for his information is a barely credible blog is simply mindblowing.  What leader of any political party makes this kind of accusation without having evidence to hand? 

Even Tony Blair had his dossiers, however dodgy.

Willie Rennie, after making this claim so publicly, now needs to produce the evidence to back it up.  On the evidence produced so far, the English Democrats are no more allies of the SNP than I am a supporter of the Labour Party, whose conference I am attending on Sunday.  I am offended, not merely because the party strategy appears unchanged since that ridiculous smear cartoon last November, but because it is the leader himself that saw fit to make the disgraceful link between the SNP and extreme English nationalism without ensuring that he had sufficient evidence on which to base it.

What this incident has done is to further undermine my faith in our party leadership.  In so many ways I like Willie Rennie, but I cannot and will not continue to support any leader who is willing to make extraordinary claims on the flimsiest of evidence.  His argument appears intellectually unsustainable and doesn't deserve my respect - or anyone else's for that matter.

So please, Mr Rennie, show us the hard, definitive, indelible evidence that the SNP are in cahoots with the English Democrats.   Let us see these offending tweets.  Tell us when English Democrat representatives have met with senior SNP members.  Explain exactly what you mean when you refer to “allies” and “working together”.  You have to provide this evidence because your personal credibility now depends on it.

And, if you can’t do that, please issue an apology to Mr MacNeil.  And then to your party for misleading its conference.  

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Rennie and Moore outline Scottish vision

Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore MP and Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats Willie Rennie moments ago gave their speeches at federal conference.

As speeches go, these seemed to be more about reiterating and emphasising the Liberal Democrat position rather than making new announcements.  That is to be expected.  They were confident performances, but the heavy emphasis on the independence referendum and nationalism suggests that to a significant degree we are being dictated, rather than leading, the political conversation.  Again, that is unsurprising, but as a Scottish Liberal Democrat I'd like to find more opportunities to facilitate debate on our terms and not appear as if everything we do is a reaction to what the SNP are doing.

Michael Moore was first to speak.  His speech can be separated into two distinct sections: the first a defence of Liberal Democrat action in government and the second a focus on the independence referendum.

He was keen to play up the Liberal Democrats role in creating a "fairer" Scotland.  "A belief in fairness – a society where those in need get help and everyone has the chance to get on – that is the core value of our party" he said.  This fairness agenda is "at the heart of what we do" and we are delivering positively, in spite of "not everyone north of the border want[ing] to acknowledge what we are achieving."  Fairness is clearly a key Liberal Democrat value, so I won't argue with him on that score.  What I might argue with are some of the examples he used to evidence how this quality so positively imbues government policy.

"Welfare reform is a good example" he started.  Erm, no it isn't.  That welfare needs reforming is unquestionable but the way this has been delivered, irrespective of good Liberal Democrat intentions, has been anything but "fair".  "We want a welfare system that protects the vulnerable, supports people into work and makes work pay" stated Moore.  As do I.  But that isn't, if we're being honest, what is being delivered by the Westminster coalition - as fellow blogger and activist George W Potter frequently observes.  

Moore also referred to Liberal Democrats resisting "the deep and arbitrary cuts that some would favour but we will never support".  Clearly this is an attempt to distance the party from the worst excesses of Conservatism but it avoids the inconvenient reality that, whatever our view of deep cuts, they are perceived to be happening and we are perceived to be complicit in their delivery.  Not a great example of how we are effectively standing up for fairness.

Of course, it did get better.  Moore also praised the Youth Contract, the fairer tax system with "160,000 Scots coming out of income tax altogether" and "two million paying less than when we came to office".  In regards that last claim, I'd be interested in seeing some statistical evidence not only to substantiate it but to consider the reasons behind it.  Two million Scots represent a huge proportion of the workforce.  Certainly I am paying less tax than I was in 2010 but this is due not only to government policy but also lower earnings.  

Moore was nothing if not positive.  "So, when we go to the polls in 2015, we won’t head into battle armed only with words.  We have an armoury of evidence and a record of delivery...We have shaped a fairer country. A fairness dividend, delivered by Liberal Democrats, for all of Scotland and the UK."  That does sound good.  Whether in 2015 we will be perceived as the party of fairness is another question and while I don't doubt that fairness is at the heart of the Liberal Democrat vision we face a real challenge to communicate that credibly.
Moore argued that "we have shown that even in the toughest of times, and against all the odds, Liberal Democrats have done for Scotland what Labour did not and the Conservatives would not."  That went down well with members.  It's certainly true that Labour never had the vision or appetite to build on the devolution they helped achieve.  I would however question the reference to the Conservatives: whatever we have done in the previous two and a half years, we have done so in partnership with the Tories.  It is simply unfair to argue they "would not" support what we have championed, especially when they have.  Of course they would in all probability not do so independently of coalition government, but the Secretary of State must surely recognise that the Scotland Act is in place because the Conservatives were happy for it to become legislation - whether this says more about the Conservatives, coalition dynamics or the Scotland Act itself I'm unsure.
Moore then turned his attentions to the constitutional question.  "We will strengthen Scotland within the UK...[we] believe in the devolution settlement".  Like Nick Clegg, he seems to prefer being a devolutionist to a federalist and sees devolution as "the best of both worlds" for Scotland.  He praised the Scotland Act, as I would have expected him to do, referring to "the largest transfer of financial powers from London to Edinburgh since the creation of the UK" as something that allows increased autonomy for Scots.  He also welcomed Menzies Campbell's Home Rule Commission.  
He was keen to contrast devolution with independence.  "Devolution is about strengthening Scotland within the UK.  Independence is about taking Scotland out of it."  Clearly he was angling for the Most Patronising Statement of the Obvious Award.  What else is independence?  What Moore didn't turn his attentions to was the argument that independence might also significantly strengthen Scotland.  And so his contrast was nothing of the sort.  I was waiting for an intellectual rebuttal of independence and what it would mean for Scots, but it never came.
Moore was keen to play up the benefits of the Union, however.  He intimated that "we will make clear the benefits of the United Kingdom, not just for Scotland but for everyone in the UK family.  Whether we look at the size and scale of the UK economy or our place in the international community."  Fair enough.  
"Or our defence capacity and the jobs that come with it" he tagged on, without a hint of irony.  Unfortunately I wasn't able to see Menzies Campbell's face when Moore made that comment.  Given the effect of coalition policy on Scotland's military bases "and the jobs that go with them" I think that boast is more than a little misplaced.
Moore stressed that "poll after poll" showed that most Scots were not supporting independence.  He spoke of "valid emotional reasons" such as "the quality and value of UK institutions...[and] shared cultural experience".  He also suggested that the success of Team GB at the Olympics demonstrated "spontaneous and natural feelings ]that are] more than a match for nationalism".  Why did I know he couldn't resist the temptation to refer to the Olympics?
He talked about the detail of the referendum and his optimism that it will be "fair, legal and decisive" with agreement reached on devolving the power.  I was appreciative of his determination to ensure that the referendum is "made in Scotland for the people of Scotland".  When he talked of "goodwill on both sides" it was difficult to keep a straight face, but of course he is referring to negotiations with the SNP to thrash out the detail - not the respective campaigns.
"It's not in our nature to be nationalists" Moore insisted.  Indeed it is not. But why should independence necessarily be about nationalism?  The debate is much wider and perceiving independence supporters as motivated by nationalism alone (or even at all) is simplistic.  
Moore finished off with a rallying call: "Let’s get this referendum started."  Amen, brother.
"And let’s show the people of this country that Liberal Democrats, in government, stand for a fairer Scotland in a stronger United Kingdom."  Agreed, Mr Moore, although the latter objective may be more difficult than the former.
Next up was Willie Rennie.  Free from cabinet responsibility, Rennie's speech was bolder than Moore's.  He also appears more confident and purposeful on the platform which rather sounds like a dig at Michael Moore but certainly isn't intended to be.  Rennie is also becoming more positive and spoke more obviously as a passionate Scottish politician rather than a representative of the government.  Not for him the predictable defence of coalition policy.  Wise move, Mr Rennie.  
He began by stating that there are "people writing us off".  Last year, we were being written off by the media and political opponents alike.  Indeed, I remember it.  In fact they still are.  "Although our opponents will always deride us they are privately fizzing that the Liberal Democrats will just not disappear" he claimed.  "I am not at all sorry to disappoint them.  As history shows, we have a bit more staying power than that."  Perhaps, but it's not history I'm worried about.  And as a huge proportion of our Scottish councillors disappeared only a matter of months ago I would consider that claim to be a little insensitive to those who lost their seats.  As for "five MSPs...not disappearing" - well, they're not likely to.  At least not until 2016.
But Rennie improved after the ill-judged triumphalist introduction.  Like Michael Moore, he was quick to express his support for policies characterised by "fairness".  But he went further in his vision for Scotland than the Secretary of State: not simply a "fair" Scotland but "a tolerant and liberal, understanding and compassionate country."  He referred to "popular values" that the Liberal Democrats actively champion.  This is the liberal case he wants to argue and lead.  
Quickly Rennie contrasted himself with Alex Salmond who he summarised as liking to court "the rich and powerful".  He was critical of the First Minister's apparent support for Rupert Murdoch, likening him to a mother defending her errant son.  This "revealed a politician prepared to do anything to get the support of the media - even if it meant betraying the phone hacking victims.  Dozens of innocent lives made a living hell. It was wrong, wrong,wrong" roared Rennie.  It was effective stuff.  He then criticised the First Minister for refusing to meet the Dalai Lama; something which, in his view, amounted to submission to Chinese pressure.  "It seems that whether you’ve got a billion pounds or a billion people, the First Minister will do whatever you want."  That went down well with delegates.  

"This isn't liberal government" insisted Rennie. 

He then turned his attentions to the referendum.  He avoided the kind of detail provided by Moore but he was content to similarly paint opponents in unflattering ways.  "As we approach the referendum, the danger is that the voices on the extreme will dominate the debate.  We’ve already heard from some English nationalists that they want Scotland out. They don’t value our United Kingdom. These are the allies of Alex Salmond’s SNP in their fight to break up Britain. They are working together, attending each other’s conferences and sharing ideas."  Now, where do you begin with this?  Clearly the "extreme voices" he refers to are exclusively nationalist voices.  Depicting those who favour independence as extremists is something that Nick Clegg has already done, but I would have expected better from Willie Rennie.  Going a step further and marrying the largely benign nationalism of the SNP to the dangerous, intolerant, toxic nationalism of unspecified "English nationalist" groups is a huge claim to make.  I would like Rennie to explain exactly who are these "allies of the SNP" and provide some information about who exactly is attending which conferences and where.  Rennie will be perfectly aware of what the public perception of English nationalism is and is now doubt using such perceptions to his political advantage.  He knows full well what he is doing when he draws such parallels.  He owes it to the public to explain these comments and state explicitly which groups he is referring to.  And what precisely does he mean by "sharing ideas"?  
While I don't always agree with the First Minister (e.g. over his comments in respect to News International) I find it difficult to imagine him attending an English Defence League rally, or visiting the English Democrats' party conference.
More positively, Rennie was keen to give members a voice.  "If you live outside Scotland you may not have a vote in the referendum but you do have a voice.  So I want to hear your voice in the debate about the future of the UK. I want you to show that the rest of the UK values Scotland and our partnership together.  I want the moderate, reasonable, open and welcoming voices from outside Scotland to be heard.  You can speak up for what the UK means for you...speak up for what Scotland means to you."  It is no bad thing for Liberal Democrats outside Scotland to speak up in respect to Scotland's future, although it is unwise to assume what that voice might be.  Certainly the more moderate, open and welcoming contributions the better. They're preferable to the opinions of the MSP for Shetland on this matter.  
I certainly will speak up for what both Scotland and the UK mean to me, I promise you Mr Rennie!

Like Moore, he was keen to praise UK institutions.  I didn't quite understand why he cited the NHS as a positive reason to stay in the union though.  Perhaps he is forgetting that since inception Scotland has had a separate National Health Service.
Rennie moved on to the Home Rule Commission and seemed genuinely excited about its potential.  He also provided into a glimpse into its likely recommendations: "it won’t be fiscal autonomy or devo-max. It will be Fiscal Federalism as set out in the Steel Commission." Well, that is welcome news. It's also positive to hear him using the "f word" because it has been sadly absent from so much of our thinking in recent years.  I've said it before, only partly in jest, that if it was illegal to be a federalist party there would be insufficient evidence with which to convict us.  Rennie continued: "we can expect it to recommend powerful tools for Scotland within the UK for fairness, for business and to tackle inequality." Again, excellent stuff although inevitably I'm interested in the detail.
"Ming’s report will open the dialogue on more powers with the voters and between the parties [and] I encourage Labour and the Conservatives to start their discussions to develop a new accord to put to the country in the 2015 general election."  That is the one problem with our thinking.  However positive our vision for Scotland's future, however detailed our proposals, there can be no escaping that they can only be implemented with the support of either the Conservatives or Labour.  Why should we expect such support to be forthcoming, especially in light of Michael Moore's depiction of these parties as the "do nots" and "will nots"?  The whole enterprise is doomed to failure unless at least a significant proportion of the recommendations can be put into action.  I'm not a natural pessimist, but I see little reason for believing that our Labour or Tory colleagues in the anti-independence coalition that is Better Together have any real interest in creating such a new accord for 2015.  They're more interested in picking up the pieces following the predicted Liberal Democrat electoral meltdown.  
Rennie was also keen to play up his credentials as a pluralist, citing examples of constructive collaborative work with the SNP government.  He referred to equal marriage - something he claimed was "a mark of a modern, tolerant nation...a nation that values all no matter what their sexual orientation." This is indeed something he should be rightly proud of. I was interested in his (correct) interpretation of the proposed legislation as bringing freedom to churches who wish to conduct same-sex marriages, something the Roman Catholic hierarchy overlooks with its arrogant assertions that it should determine what other denominations can do. Another example of co-operative pluralist politics was in the work done with the SNP to ensure legislation on minimum pricing for alcohol. I agreed with the Scottish Liberal Democrats' position on this, but Rennie's hope that the UK government "take[s] bold steps to deliver this change" wasn't supported by all Liberal Democrats in the hall.  There remains division within the party on whether this action is effective, and indeed whether it is actually liberal.
"Scotland can learn from the rest of the UK" said Rennie.  I won't disagree.  The reverse, however, is also true.  The rest of the UK, not least the federal party of the Liberal Democrats, can learn a great deal from Scottish politics - especially the consequences of not articulating a sufficiently distinctive message.
I wouldn't accuse Willie Rennie of doing that today.  He set out his stall and did it quite effectively.  His evident antipathy towards the SNP remains and affects his message, but there were many positives and it is obvious that here is a leader doing his utmost to provide his party not only with a distinctive voice but also a dynamic edge.  He spoke not simply of policy and values, but of purpose.  And that purpose is making Scotland "a more liberal place to live and work."
"That's what we should be about" he insisted.  Indeed, and that thinking must affect everything we do if our party is to become a significant force in Scottish politics.

*After writing this I had a brief twitter discussion with Graeme Littlejohn from the Scottish Lib Dems.  He explained that SNP MP Angus MacNeil attended an English Democrat conference and wrote tweets in which he appeared to endorse the party's view.  He also explained that while Plaid Cymru refused to meet with the English Democrats on the basis of them being an "extreme" group, the SNP had a "good relationship with them".  What exactly this means and which views Mr MacNeil allegedly endorses were not made clear, either by Graeme or The Scotsman, in which the allegations are repeated today:  I do not accept that this necessarily amounts to "aligning with extreme English nationalist voices” but I am interested in Mr MacNeil's version of events.  I am also more than interested in knowing whether Willie Rennie can produce some solid evidence confirming that English Democrats attend SNP conferences or  whether a "good relationship" between the parties amounts to anything more than a few retweets and a one-off attendance at a conference five years ago on the part of a single MP.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Body image: Gay and bi men paying the price for perfection

I originally wrote this piece for Gay Star News.

This week Gay Star News reported on the death of Augusto Murillo, a gay Colombian dancer, following a silicone injection.

It seems that the man’s low self-esteem, stemming from poor self-image, was responsible for him seeking out means by which to tackle his “inadequacies”.  While fortunately cases of death in such circumstances are rare, there can be no escaping the terrible reality that such a lack of body confidence affects an increasing number of young gay men and that the fashion and beauty industries’ power and commercial aggression has significantly contributed.

I speak from experience, both professional and personal.  In my late teens and early twenties, already insecure and uncertain about my sexuality, I was deeply aware of my own physical imperfections.  At that age I was very sensitive to others making me aware of my less than ideal body, something which was not helped by the apparent obsession in the media with the perfect physical form (both male and female) and the extent to which this became a consumer product in its own right.  Those of us who were less attractive, or at least felt that way, inevitably lost out in this marketplace and would have done anything – or almost anything – to rectify it.

It was not merely the mainstream media that was responsible for perpetuating this ideal and indirectly creating pressure to conform.  The gay publications I was able to get hold of were similarly full of images of attractive men and their near-perfect bodies - sadly, the LGBT "world" was buying into the myth of bodily perfection as much, if not more, than everyone else.  It was an ideal I eventually realised (after an obsession with visiting the gym) that I couldn’t aspire to.  Certainly if I’d had the means I may well have been sufficiently desperate or insecure to look out the kind of remedies that killed Mr Murillo.  I felt rejected by a society I feel now should have been more supportive towards vulnerable young adults.

It took me several years to understand and accept who I was, something that may have been significantly easier without the pressures to conform to either masculine stereotypes or the perfect physique.  My insecurities ran deeper that this of course, but they were ruthlessly exploited by those in the beauty industry happy to aid me in my quest for the elusive physical attractiveness I yearned for and the confidence I imagined it would bring.  Fifteen years later, those close to me might find it difficult to appreciate that I was once gripped by such low self-esteem and hopelessness that I felt suicidal.  My now self-evident confidence is testimony to some close friends who enabled me to accept myself and, eventually, to be myself.  But the memories of that time are very real.

More recently, I have worked in mental health nursing.  This regularly brought me into contact with young men and women who suffer similarly from having a poor body image, often as a result of societal, media and corporate pressures to confirm to its image of perfection.  This has serious consequences, and not merely in extreme cases such as that of Mr Murillo.  When people feel the need to undergo invasive treatments, there are inevitably risks – physical risks but also psychological ramifications.  While a medical student, I worked in plastics and emergency surgery and witnessed first hand the horrific consequences of silicone injections, botched breast enlargements and sunbed obsessions.  I also became suspicious of the arbitrary nature of rationing cosmetic treatment on the NHS, and the way it responds to matters of deep personal insecurity often by feeding them rather than challenging them, empowering the beauty industry in the process.

What I think is sometime overlooked is that an individual’s sense of worth and emotional well-being have an effect on their inter-personal relationships.  And so undermining body confidence can have enormous social and personal ramifications.  For some of the people I have worked with, an inability to accept themselves have led to feelings not only of inadequacy but also a refusal to believe they can be, or deserve to be, loved.  This in turn has led to the breakdown of relationships and self-destructive behaviour.  Very recently a young gay man I had worked with over a long period of time committed suicide.  The reasons for this are inevitably complex and deeply personal, but for many years he had struggled with body confidence issues in spite of others thinking he was actually very good looking.  I am not suggesting a direct link between exploitative fashion/beauty industry and suicide, but in this case it was possibly a contributory factor.  It certainly caused a great deal of his unhappiness and affected his judgments.

I cannot state categorically that this affects gay men any more than heterosexual men, but certainly I know of many young gay and bi people who struggle unnecessarily with their self-image.  Identity and self-confidence go hand in hand and young gay people, often struggling with the former, do not need their confidence being undermined as a result of the narcissistic marketing methods of an industry that reduces human beings of objects of desire.  Certainly, society as a whole needs to become more aware of how deeply this affects men.  Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson has done some positive work promoting “Real Women” via her “Campaign for Body Confidence” in the last three years and has turned her fire on fashion magazines that use photo-manipulation to create a near-unattainable female perfect body image.  She is right to do so, but the issue is so much wider than the techniques used to exaggerate perceived body perfection. It also affects more than just women.

At the heart of the matter is not some academic debate about what beauty actually is, but a rampant and aggressive industry that preys on insecurities and enslaves vulnerable adults, creating untold misery for purely commercial purposes.  In my view, this unnecessary human cost is not a price worth paying and something I hope that will become both recognised and challenged by our politicians.

Friday, 21 September 2012

I still don't know what to make of Nick Clegg's apology

And so, on Wednesday, Nick Clegg finally apologised for the tuition fees fiasco that so badly damaged our party in the eyes of the public.  

I've watched it several times.  And I still don't know what to make of it.

In fairness, it's probably done him, and the Liberal Democrats some good.  That probably has more to do with the hilarious spoof, and Nick's noble gesture to allow the song to be sold in aid of a local charity, than it does with his original apology.

For those of you who haven't yet seen Nick's original statement (and there can't be many of you) it's here:

Many Lib Dems have expressed their thoughts, and there has been a diverse range of opinion on the matter. Some feel Nick has nothing to apologise for. Others feel it's a sincere apology that demonstrates that Nick understands the damage done and is sufficiently human to demonstrate humility. Others ponder whether this is indicative of a change in strategy from the leadership.  

Nicola Prigg feels that Nick's apology is far from believable, and constitutes "everything the public hates about politics".  She thinks the apology actually entrenches public distrust in the leader, and suspects Nick's apology is too scripted to be either sincere or effective. She goes as far as to say it's "dishonest".  I won't speculate as to Nick's motivation because it's more than conceivable that his apology is more honest than it might at first appear.  But Nicola touches on the reality that it doesn't really matter how Liberal Democrat members respond - it's what the public thinks that ultimately matters.  

There have been some, in the aftermath of the hilarious apology song, that have suggested this represents a revival of Cleggmania.  That really is ridiculously optimistic.  Everyone having a laugh as Nick Clegg is not "mania".  It's great that everyone's talking about our party leader, and that we have a leader who apparently can laugh at himself a bit, but there's nothing to suggest that any of this will transform into electoral support for the Liberal Democrats.  No doubt Nicola is correct when she argues that all those sincerely disappointed in Nick's handling of the tuition fees debacle two years ago will not be appeased with an apology now.

Liberal Youth's Kavya Kaushik was not impressed, for different reasons.  "I wish Nick Clegg had an extra brain cell.  [Why] say this around Freshers? Completely screwed up a chance for decent recruitment as now everyone will only talk about fees. He better get his shirt off at conference to apologise for apologising."  And it's a reasonable question to ask: why now?  The timing could have been better (ideally two years ago).  Nick might want to "clear the decks" so that tuition fees won't "cast a shadow over everything else the Liberal Democrats [do] in government" but it's too late for that.  The damage is done, and no apology, however sincere, can put the genie back in the bottle.  The extremely poor way Nick personally handled matters at the time has contributed in no small way to his personal lack of credibility.  So, why make the apology now, ensuring that conference and students are talking about the very thing Nick claims he wants to move on from?

A former Lib Dem, Kelvin Holdsworth, said this: "I'm pleased to hear the Nick Clegg apology video, but the last bit seems to be missing - the bit where he says, 'It is clear that this mistake lost the trust not only of the British people but most particularly those who worked hardest to get me here. For that reason, I've decided that the only way to rebuild a powerful Liberal force in the UK is for someone else to lead the party into the next election. I'm proud of what we have achieved.'"  It's this kind of person that Nick Clegg really needs to communicate to, and it's certainly true that the key issue here is trust.  And so, while I'm pleased that Nick made the apology (albeit somewhat late in the day) there remain questions in the public mind about whether he can be trusted.  In my mind, the tuition fees issue has so successfully undermined Nick Clegg's standing with the public that it is virtually impossible for him to regain that trust, however much he wants to move on from a disaster which was in no small way of his own making.

I don't accept that we, as a party, should not have "committed to a policy that was so expensive when there was no money around".  Firstly, I don't think it's true, especially as the full reality of Labour's black hole was not known until the coalition inherited the reigns of government.  But there is a difference between committing to a policy (i.e. the party's ultimate objective) and making pledges on what we would do in the next parliament when coalition always seemed a potential outcome.  It was unwise to have made the pledge in the aftermath of the 2009 conference in which divisions within the party on the matter became painfully apparent.  It was also foolish to make a pledge when many of the MPs signing it didn't agree with it, when a place in government was a possibility and when the Browne Review was soon to report its findings.

We should have remained true to our party policy, but not through making pledges that would be virtually impossible to keep.  By doing that, we were storing up potential trouble for ourselves.  We could have maintained that while our ultimate objective is free tuition, we will support steps that improve upon Labour's discredited policy.  We could have worked towards a more progressive arrangement for HE tuition that we could openly acknowledge as far from perfect, and that inevitably would contain some Conservative proposals we could continue to be critical of.  We could have retained some credibility with such a strategy and could certainly have pointed to what we might like to do in future if the voters were kind enough to return a few more Lib Dem MPs.

Nick has apologised for making a pledge and not sticking to it.  He also stated that it's important to learn from mistakes and it's heartening that he stated that "I will never again make a pledge unless as a party we are absolutely clear about how we can keep it."  I like that.

Unfortunately, what Nick should also apologise for is not sacking the idiots that pass for PR consultants who thought that signing the pledge was a good idea.  He should also apologise for how insignificant the pledge was in the minds of the coalition negotiating team.  David Laws, in his book 22 Days in May, hardly mentions it other than to state his satisfaction that the new government should be able to implement something better than Labour's policy and the option for Lib Dem MPs to abstain in a vote on the matter.  He misses the point and spirit of the pledge entirely.  A pledge is a pledge is a pledge.  It's not like a party policy, which can be negotiated in certain circumstances.  It was a black and white promise to the electorate.  And that promise wasn't to abstain or to improve on Labour's policy.  It was to vote against any increase in tuition fees.  Perhaps if the negotiators had been aware of the degree to which we'd be held to our pledge, the outcome might have been very different.

So, while it was good to hear Nick apologise for not delivering on the pledge and even suggesting it was a mistake, I'd prefer an apology on the part of senior Lib Dems for treating the pledge with such contempt.  

I can't profess to understand Nick's reasons for making the apology, or how successful it will be in helping to turn around Nicks's (and our party's) fortunes. But I'm grateful he made the apology.  If only because that song is so hilarious.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Cairo and Benghazi violence a symptom of cultural intransigence

Like most people watching recent events on television from the comfort of home, or reading about developments in the newspapers, I’ve been distressed to see easily-offended hatemongers turning to large-scale violence and, in the case of the Libyan rioting, its tragic consequences.

What has further disappointed me is the tendency of many to dismiss this as yet another example of the inevitable product of religion in politically unstable environments.  While I do not fully dismiss the role that religious struggles and pressures have played in these events, it is simplistic and naive to suggest that religion itself is to blame.  That acts are committed in the name of religion is undeniable; that religion alone – rather than more complex matters of cultural identity, power, tribalism and reaction to change – is sufficient a motivation for such an outpouring of violence is questionable, and such a view ignores both the changing political realities in the Arab world and the curious but inescapable truth that these riots are both a product of, and a reaction to, the spread of globalisation.

I’ll start by considering the low-budget amateur film at the heart of this matter.  Innocence of Muslims is being held as the reason, or more accurately the excuse, for the angry demonstrations in Benghazi and Cairo.  I have not seen this film, nor do I wish to.  It appears to be an attempted biopic of the life of the Prophet Mohammad and lasts a mere fourteen minutes.  As anyone with a modicum of knowledge of Islam will understand, what is particularly offensive to Muslims are attempts to make depictions of the prophet and thus it is this, rather than any of the (admittedly provocative but already well known) claims the film makes, that has offended Islamic sensitivities.  The film was directed by someone calling themselves Sam Bacile, of whom absolutely nothing is known and who may (or may not) have told the press that Islam is “a cancer”.  Reported quotes from the filmmaker, or those claiming to be him, can hardly be taken seriously given that not only is he unknown but that the name is in all likelihood a pseudonym. 

The film was apparently screened earlier this year and no-one seemed particularly interested in it.  “Bacile” posted sections of it on YouTube, again without creating much of a splash.  Unfortunately though, it came to the attention of anti-Islamic fundamentalist Pastor Terry Jones (he of the Koran-burning controversy) who decided he would promote the film online and created his own video on YouTube in which he provided his normal divisive mixture of ignorance and insensitivity.

So far, we have an astonishingly unsuccessful amateur video whose only supporter is a discredited fundamentalist preacher.  The odds on this having any kind of impact, let alone a global one, should have been remote. 

Enter the fray Egyptian TV.  Alerted to the film by an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian, the Islamist station al-Nas decided to run with this non-story.  It had political motivations for doing so: it has previously depicted the Arab Spring as un-Islamic and its revolutionaries as “worthless kids”.  Al-Nas is an expression of an ultra-conservatism that finds an outlet in a fundamentalist Islamic political party.  It knew perfectly well the inevitable consequences of its broadcast.  The effect was dynamite, as it was fully intended to be.  No doubt it was the association with Terry Jones, rather than the content of the film itself, that raised hackles.  What al-Nas was able to do was to provide power, and credibility, to the Salafist al-Nour Party, a conservative Islamic party that makes the Muslim Brotherhood by comparison look like an Arabic version of the Liberal Democrats.  

On September 11th, a date neither insignificant nor coincidental, the al-Nour Party’s Nader Bakar and Mohammad al-Zawahiri (brother of the al-Qaeda leader) joined a protest calling for the release of a cleric currently being held in North Carolina.  It is difficult to put together the pieces of what happened next.  What is certain is that the US embassy was attacked and the flag removed.  Egyptian authorities were hugely outnumbered and powerless to respond.  It seems very likely that Bakar and al-Zawahiri were able to bring various strands of discontent together (the US response to 9/11, the incarceration of an Islamic cleric and this offensive film) and use them to further their own political and anti-American objectives. 

Certainly someone was responsible for whipping up a frenzy of hate.  It is true, especially in places where the political future is less than certain, that people – especially religious people – can be quick to take offense.  This allows ample opportunity for those who wish to opportunistically ignite outrage in order to benefit from the inevitable mayhem and unrest that follows.  And so, while the world looks on and sees the futility of the struggle in purely religious terms, with fundamentalist Muslims and rabid anti-Islamists determined to vindicate the most unsavoury beliefs of the other, it misses that this is not actually the product of a religious struggle at all.  Religious sensitivities and intolerances are simply something that the al-Nour Party and others like it can tap into, and thus something they seek to perpetuate and further. 

These reactionary parties have in some respects been the beneficiary of the Arab Spring whose spirit they now seek to crush.  In Egypt a strong despotic leadership has been replaced with weak government, poorly equipped security forces lacking any loyalty and a sense of disappointment that democracy has not delivered for Egyptian people.  Add into this melting pot the increased insecurity, both political and economic, and it is evident that fundamentalist theocratic political groups intent on creating violent upheaval will sense their opportunity.

And while the violence will appear a spontaneous expression of outrage, the reality is anything but.  It has been intentionally conceived, orchestrated and furthered by those who are best placed to benefit from undermining what little authority is in place.  It also seems that al-Qaeda may be playing a role, especially as on the day prior to the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had called for Libyans to avenge the death of Abu Yahya, a Libyan leader of the terrorist organisation.  It is certainly not outwith the realms of possibility that the Libyan protest, like that in Egypt, was a diversion; a smokescreen for planned and complex manoeuvrings on the part of Islamic militants. 

It is worth noting that these “protests” took place in Cairo and Benghazi, where recent mass political outrage at incumbent dictators played a role in the collapse of the Mubarak and Gaddafi regimes.   This too is not coincidental.  Curiously until the Arab Spring, it would have been virtually inconceivable that this kind of violence could take place: there would simply have been a huge crackdown.  The new democratic governments are unable to respond in that way, even if they wished to.  This inability to react decisively and quickly gives succour to the cause of the Salafists and others determined to topple the fledgling democracies.  It also accounts in part for the reaction of Egyptian President Morsy to the violence; while his Libyan counterpart apologised for the loss of life and pledged to bring to justice those responsible, Morsy felt the need to add his condemnation of the film, Innocence of Muslims.  He knows the potential political costs of not acknowledging the discontent created by his opponents.

What is also noteworthy is the role the internet is beginning to play in Middle Eastern politics.  Just as the democratic ideals of the Arab Spring revolutionaries werespread online so now is the anger, offense and intolerance of would-be ultra-conservative elites, be they far right evangelicals in the US or TV stations and political parties in Arab states.   The advent of the internet as a political tool cannot be underestimated and gives, for the first time, subversive elements the chance to both communicate their message unhindered and create an inward-looking political culture that cannot easily be resisted by incumbent governments. 

It is therefore short-sighted to view the recent violence in Egypt and Libya purely in terms of religious conflict or even a cultural battle between East and West.  Contrary to popular view, Muslims do not protest every time their faith challenged.  It is instead a manifestation of efforts from culturally intransigent organisations, fearful of the challenge to their authoritarianism and conservatism from democracy and globalisation, to fight back.  They do not fear violence or upheaval, which is in fact the very reason for their subversion.  These would-be counter-revolutionaries will happily and shamelessly use social, political and religious discontent to their advantage. 

There is a very real danger that Egypt could follow in the footsteps of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The problem is not with religion per se, but with those view peddling hate as politically expedient.  There is a realistic possibility that unless this counter-revolution can be challenged effectively in the near future, Egypt (and perhaps other neighbouring states) will be at the mercy of a Talibanesque group cultivating hate against the West but also many of their own people. 

That cannot be allowed to happen.  What the West’s role can be in preventing this nightmare from becoming reality must be decided by those with far more experience and expertise than myself.  However, I’d suggest that tackling the culture of outrage would be a positive start – giving Islamic fundamentalists an excuse to protest in the first instance only serves to play into the hands of those most opposed to Western values.

Friday, 14 September 2012

First Minister booed at Olympic celebrations

The breaking news is that Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, received a rather hostile reception at George Square this evening.  I say "breaking news"; what I actually refer to is facebook and twitter references, as the mainstream media have had very little to say on the issue.

Facebook and twitter not being the most reliable or temperate sources of information, much debate has raged about the nature of the booing and its political and social significance.  Some dismiss this as general anti-political expression.  Others see it as evidence that the SNP's popularity and the standing of Salmond has taken a battering due to the political gameplaying that surrounded the Olympic games.  Yet others interpret this as an orchestrated act on the part of those who support the union.

Personally, I am surprised that Salmond has managed to serve over five years as First Minister without being booed by the public.  It's part and parcel of political life, as George Osborne and Nick Clegg know too well.  I also think it's unwise to attempt to draw too many conclusions from it, especially when it appears that Salmond was also cheered by many.  Surely, the nearer we come to the referendum and passions become hightened, the more we can expect of this type of thing.  It's actually a healthy thing in a functioning democracy.

But if reports are correct then it does leave the SNP with some serious thinking to do in respect to their party's public relations.  The SNP did not get it right with the Olympics.  No doubt this will come as something of a surprise to a man who is unaccustomed to such receptions and the party will realise there is work to do to reassure the public that Alex Salmond has the right vision for Scotland's future.

I've just phoned one of my friends who was actually at George Square.  He tells me that there definitely was booing during an interview with the First Minister.  Being a humourous sort, he also added that this is the kind of treatment Glaswegians generally reserve for those from Edinburgh and the crowd were not actually booing the fact he was the First Minister but the more objectionable fact he was a Hearts fan. "We just can't stand that team or their supporters", he said.  He also suggested that Catholics opposed to equal marriage might have been planted within the crowd, determined to give the First Minister a hard time.  "Yes, it was that bloody Archbishop Tartaglia and his homophobic Bible-bashers" he laughed.  The fundamental point, I imagine, being that it is impossible to gauge motivation or assign specific significance.

Actually, if it shows anything it's that the public don't take too well to politicians taking the limelight away from national sporting heroes.  They come out to celebrate the achievements of our athletes, and what do they get?  An interview with the First Minister.  Not everyone's idea of entertainment.  In that context, it's a perfectly normal reaction from a Team-GB supporting crowd that was never likely to be particularly nationalist-friendly.  The perverse thing is, the booing by sections of the crowd mean that the First Minister will be precisely what the media are discussing tomorrow, not the wider celebrations.

"Has the SNP's bubble burst?" some are asking.  No, although I suspect Salmond won't have either liked or expected the level of hostility he experienced this evening.  I find it hard to believe that Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson or Willie Rennie would have met with rapturous applause had they similarly found themselves on centre stage at this Olympic party.  If there's any truth that this relatively insignificant event touches on it is this: Scottish politics is becoming increasingly polarised and tribal, and this extends beyond the professional politicians of Holyrood and Westminster and into wider society.  The reflections and responses on twitter alone speak volumes about this regrettable new reality.

Other than that, there's little to say other than I hope the many people on the streets of Glasgow this evening enjoyed the triumphal parade!  As far as a few boos go, they're slightly more interesting as news than Kate Middleton's topless photographs but only marginally.

What this has also shown is that Alex Salmond is not Boris Johnson.  The First Minister has neither the sense of humour nor the inimitable style of the mayor of London.  Well, we can be thankful for small mercies...

Friday, 7 September 2012

A Tale of two reshuffles: Part 2 – Much ado about nothing

It might have escaped the notice of some of my English friends, but after the screening of Cameron’s 18-rated horror on Tuesday fellow film director Alex Salmond decided to make some adjustments to his cast too.

“Nightmare on Downing Street” followed by “Independence Day” might sound like an entertaining evening’s viewing but in reality both reshuffles tell us very significant things about the Prime Minister and First Minister respectively.  The first instalment of drama made it quite clear that David Cameron is insecure, fearful of his own party’s right wing but lacking the courage to take it on.  It also provided evidence that he has all but given up on the positive rhetoric of coalition and that he’s parted company with his senses of reason and proportion, promoting the most undeserving to the top positions and abandoning the centre-ground of UK politics in advance of the 2015 General Election.

So what, if anything, did the Scottish reshuffle (or should that be scuffle?) tell us about Alex Salmond? 

There can be no doubt that the key announcement is that Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will be moved from health to infrastructure and capital spending, with specific responsibility for directing the SNP government’s referendum strategy.  On some levels, this makes perfect sense: who can be trusted to spearhead this than the Deputy First Minister herself?  However, this also raises questions about Sturgeon’s political future as well as the wisdom of a straight swap which sees Alex Neil take on the health portfolio.

Sturgeon has been a pretty decent deputy for Salmond for the previous five years.  In my view, she’s also been an effective health minister for that time – taking well to her responsibilities and forging positive relationships with professionals and interest groups.  Unlike many health ministers, both in Holyrood and Westminster, she seems to know what she’s talking about and has been successful in projecting herself as someone who cares.  Moving her away from a sensitive role she has managed with care and no small degree of skill is therefore potentially risky.  Alex Neil is certainly capable, but I’m not necessarily convinced he is a “natural” health minister in the way that Nicola was.  It’s understandable that opposition parties have complained that this reshuffle has been too centred on the referendum rather than the needs of Scotland, especially when the health ministry sacrifices such an able incumbent.  It’s certainly an experiment that may or may not work for the SNP: will Neil be able to command the same respect as his predecessor, or have the same positive working relationships with key personnel? 

I’d have preferred for Sturgeon to have stayed where she was, simply on the basis that what she’s doing is working reasonably well.  This is in no small part down to her personal qualities: what impressed me most about her was the attention to detail she showed towards the kind of issues that people working in the health service actually care about.  I’m also of the view, as is Orkney MSP Liam McArthur, that having handled the equal marriage matter so well to date it is regrettable that Sturgeon is now to be denied the opportunity to “pilot the bill through Parliament”.  While I’m not suggesting the SNP is anything but committed to marriage equality, as a passionate advocate of equality I would have been far more confident of the right outcome if the matter was still being managed directly by the Deputy First Minister.

Clearly being handed responsibility for the referendum campaign speaks volumes about how Alex Salmond views his deputy.  There can be no doubting that she is his preferred successor.  However, the move also increases the pressure on Sturgeon to deliver the right result for the SNP.  Should the “Yes” campaign (and therefore, by implication, also the SNP) fail in its quest to secure Scottish independence it is certainly possible that Sturgeon’s responsibility for the result will come under close scrutiny.  That is not to suggest for a minute that I believe either Salmond or Sturgeon’s political careers will be necessarily ruined should the electorate reject independence, but there are certainly risks.  That said, should the voters back independence it would be in all likelihood, and possibly rightly, be attributed in no small part to Sturgeon’s oversight – and will carry obvious long-term political implications. 

Looking at other personnel changes, I was pleased to see that Humza Yousaf now finds a place in government.  I have been enormously impressed with his style and political maturity to date, as have many other Liberal Democrats.  He has such enormous potential that it was for me something of a surprise that he was only given the opportunity to prove himself at external affairs and international development.  While it is never good to see someone like Bruce Crawford leaving government (resigning after the loss of both parents), I cautiously welcome the appointment of Joe Fitzpatrick as Minister for Parliamentary business and not merely because he’s openly gay (although that does say a great deal about the nature of the SNP government).  He’s highly confident and by Holyrood standards quite experienced, so it was right of Salmond to take a chance on him and see if he can fulfil his obvious potential in a ministerial role. 

Elsewhere Stewart Stevenson leaves to be replaced by Paul Wheelhouse as minister for environment and climate change.  This seems a sound move. I’ve never been convinced by Stevenson, although I wasn’t one of those who felt he should have resigned as transport minister.  I’ve never thought that he’s particularly got to grips with his brief, or that he even enjoys it.  Given the SNP government’s proclaimed green agenda and focus on renewables, Stevenson has lacked the insight to outline a cogent and coherent strategy to facilitate the government’s ambitions to tackle climate change.  Paul Wheelhouse is someone I know little about in honesty but I commend the First Minister giving him the opportunity to prove himself and hopefully work a little differently to his predecessor.

Keith Brown was moved to transport and veterans, with Margaret Burgess taking over at housing.  And that, in a nutshell, is that.  For all the hype surrounding the reshuffle, very few post changed hands.  The main personnel are still in place – Swinney, Russell, McAskill, Hyslop, Ewing, Mackay, Cunningham.  I might have considered moving Fiona Hyslop, who always seems to me like a weak link in an otherwise strong ministerial chain, but Salmond clearly realises the need not to overly unsettle his team.

The main difference between Cameron’s reshuffle and that of Salmond is that the Prime Minister’s has been more concerned with appeasing his party’s right-wing while the First Minister has recognised the importance of ensuring that the right people are in the right jobs.  He understands that no business undergoes significant overhauls of its leading personnel simply to please the media or the public and therefore neither should a party of government.  He’s opted for continuity where possible.  He’s also been able to create a more diverse cabinet, including the likes of Yousaf and Fitzpatrick, and a good number of women – in stark contrast to Cameron.

All in all, this reshuffle was much ado about nothing – or at least much ado about very little.  I’m not overly impressed with Nicola Sturgeon leaving health and have concerns with Alex Neil’s ability to perform to the level she did.  I’m not entirely convinced that it should be the Deputy First Minister overseeing the referendum campaign but it does make sense to a point.  Other than Sturgeon, I could have seen Derek Mackay or perhaps Mike Russell taking on that responsibility, but whether they would be able to balance this with other ministerial duties is another question. 

Finally, I’ll address the criticism from opposition parties that the reshuffle was about independence.  Well, of course it was – to a point (Bruce Crawford’s departure also necessitated changes).  The referendum is going to happen, and it would be ridiculous for the party of government proposing it not to assign responsibility to someone to oversee its progression and the party campaign championing the SNP’s preferred option.  That’s not an unreasonable thing to do.  Whether this new appointment merited removing a highly capable health minister from a department that will surely be the poorer for her absence is something I would question, but I wouldn’t be quick to condemn a “reshuffle” that saw the vast majority of cabinet faces staying put.  As for the accusation that the SNP government is obsessed with independence, I would suggest that Johann Lamont not only suffers from the same affliction but has no insight into her own condition. It seems to be all she wishes to talk about.  

All in all, I didn’t see too much to get excited about.  In a sense, it was an example in how to undertake a reshuffle responsibly.  In spite of all the media hype, very little of substance has changed.  It might have lacked the drama of “Nightmare on Downing Street”, but Scotland is all the better for it.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

A tale of two reshuffles: Part 1 - Weak Cameron lurches to the right

It’s difficult to know where to start in appraising David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle.

It was like one of those cheaply made horror films that are so bad it’s hard not to laugh them.  Not only was it full of rather nasty surprises, its essential pattern of promoting the most unsuitable and incapable personnel to the most important jobs suggested an experiment far more daring, but with equally far-reaching ramifications, as that tried by Dr Frankenstein.

There were so many dreadful appointments that it is impossible to choose one that stands out as the most inept.  Certainly sending the discredited Jeremy Hunt, under relentless attack from opponents due to his disgraceful handling of News Corporations hoped-for takeover of BSkyB, to health already looks like a key mistake.  Lansley had to go, but what worked for Lansley in the past is that he did actually know a fair bit about his brief; in fairness, he was also the fall guy for government policies that Hunt is unlikely to veer away from.  Replacing him with someone who is anti-abortion and supportive of homoeopathy defies belief; to do so with a minister who really should have been given his P45 months ago is politically risky to say the least.  What the Department of Health needs is someone with an understanding of the pertinent issues but also someone with the appropriate personal skills to take on the most sensitive role in government.  What is also required is someone capable of listening to expert scientific opinion and acting on it, something Hunt’s record of voting for abortion time to be reduced to twelve weeks doesn’t provide much confidence for.  The public needs a health secretary is can have confidence in, not one already viewed with suspicion and distrust.t

Instead, Cameron has appointed probably the most unsuitable candidate for the role.  When asked by the BBC for his response to his promotion Hunt blurbed “biggest privilege of my life” – the kind of thing that only someone who really understands what it means to be privileged would say in those circumstances.  In his mind it was all about Jeremy Hunt, rather than making the NHS function more effectively or creating a healthier nation.

That appointment was quite a shock, but at least a change at health always looked likely.  More concerning in some respects was the demotion of Ken Clarke, one of the few ministers who has actually taken well to his brief and facilitated some promising reform.  That he is now minister without portfolio is bad enough news for Liberal Democrats, the Howard League for Penal Reform and indeed anyone else with progressive views on criminal justice policy.  That he was replaced by Chris Grayling, a right-winger who appears to believe that B&Bs should be able to discriminate against same-sex couples, is truly frightening.  Grayling has little time for the concept of rehabilitation, preferring a harsher, more punitive approach including automatic prison terms for anyone carrying a knife.  This is a man who, before the General Election, was proposing the ludicrous and economically inefficient notion of “prison ships” as a means of significantly expanding prisons without having to be overly concerned about planning permission.  He also has a personal, almost obsessive, mission to challenge the “aggressive encroachment” of the European Human Rights Act and the conventions that underpin it.   All Clarke’s sterling efforts to make overdue progress could well prove to be in vain.

Could it get any worse?  Well, yes.  Not only was Ken Clarke removed from the cabinet but the other voice of sanity, Sir George Young, now finds a new place on the backbenches.  In keeping with the Prime Minister's determination to promote the most undeserving and unsuitable, Maria Miller becomes Culture Secretary with responsibility for women and equalities.  Miller previously supported Nadine Dorries’ ill-fated amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill seeking to prevent abortion providers from providing counselling services.  Like Hunt, she has voted against scientific consensus and for a lowering of the abortion time limit.  She also reportedly views hate crime as "freedom of speech".  Do we really need an anti-abortionist with less than progressive views on LGBT equality taking over where Lynne Featherstone left off (shamefully shunted to international development)?  Cameron might as well have appointed Cardinal Keith O’Brien.

Not content to simply promote the undeserving, the Prime Minister also demoted the more capable ministers.  Aside from Clarke, Justine Greening was moved from transport to international development apparently for daring to have a mind of her own and a determination to actually get things done.  This was clearly an insult too far for Mayor of London Boris Johnson who claimed that “there can be only one reason to move her – and that is to expand Heathrow airport.”  It’s difficult to disagree with such straight-talking analysis, or his view that the government’s apparent desire to extend Heathrow (after 2015) is “mad”.  Greening’s removal from the transport portfolio brings the Prime Minister’s judgement into serious question, given that she was only appointed ten months ago.  It also makes the government’s policymaking look ill-considered and desperate.

Other undeserving beneficiaries include Grant Shapps who, in spite of being linked to a company profiting from breaching advertising rules and living a dual life as “Michael Green”, is now Tory Party Chairman.  I don’t see the appointment itself as particularly contentious, even though there must have been better candidates, but what I do object to is that the chairmanship brings with it a seat in cabinet.  Since when has party chairman been a valid ministerial position?

Theresa Villiers, another opponent of the Heathrow development, is sent to pastures new where she cannot interfere with the projected U-turn –Northern Ireland.  Owen Paterson, another plucked from obscurity to responsibility, believes that wind farms represent “a massive waste of consumers’ money”, opposes subsidies for renewables and supports shale gas.  Clearly then a sensible choice as environment minister.  So much for Cameron’s promise of being the “greenest government ever”. 

Cameron had stated that the purpose of the reshuffle was to bring some “freshness” to government.  He hasn’t done that.  If this was an exercise in reassuring the public it has failed spectacularly.  But this was not a reshuffle designed to create more effective government; it was not made in the interests of the country but in the interests of the Tory Right.  Little wonder that Peter Bone and Nadine Dorries were so delighted.

It seems a strange strategy from Cameron who, until a year ago, I actually believed had genuine reformist and modernising credentials.  Firstly, he risks taking his party back to the times when they were almost universally recognised as the “nasty party”.  Secondly, he provides a stronger voice to the party’s right wing, with the likes of Grayling and Hunt well positioned to cement their reputations as leading heavyweights important to both government and the Conservatives’ future – as well as potentially challenging the leadership.  This could well prove a fatal error on the Prime Minister’s part, not least because he fails to recognise, unlike Neil Kinnock in the 1980s, that the most effective means of marginalising unsavoury elements of the party is to challenge them rather than promote their figureheads. 

In attempting to win over his party’s right-wingers, Cameron has actually weakened his own position.  He does not look like a man in control – either of his government or his party.  Furthermore, he’s made some odd strategic errors for short-term gain – not least allowing Ken Clarke a “roving brief” to undermine and openly question the government’s economic direction. 

The real question from a Liberal Democrat perspective is this: what does the reshuffle mean for us?  In purely personnel terms, very little.  Our cabinet ministers remain in place, in spite of speculation that Michael Moore would be moved from the Scottish Office.  David Laws returns as an education minister, a prize that Nick Clegg clearly was eager to claim, at the expense of Sarah Teather.  Lynne Featherstone was denied the opportunity to carry  forward the marriage equality legislation she has championed so effectively, something that concerns myself and other LGBT equality activists.  Norman Lamb makes a welcome return to health and David Heath becomes farming minister.  Tom Brake becomes deputy leader of the Commons, a post refused by Simon Hughes.  Jo Swinson is minister for business, innovation and skills. 

However, there can be no denying that this reshuffle has huge ramifications for inter-party coalition relations.  It has raised some serious party management issues that it would be unwise to ignore.  Clearly, the idea that Liberal Democrats act as a restraining force on the Tories, curbing their excesses, can finally be put to rest.  Not only is the Conservative Party lurching firmly to the right - so is the government in which we are part, and we are helpless to do anything about it.

This reshuffle has not only made the Prime Minister appear weak, but has also weakened his deputy.  His influence in government has been shown up for what it is: negligible.  That, of course, is not Clegg’s fault but it is time for the Liberal Democrats to take stock and rethink our approach to the coalition.  We have been undermined and outflanked by Cameron on so many occasions that there seems very little reason to continue with the false sham marriage that is the Westminster coalition.  As a unit, the coalition is unfit for purpose; it no longer can claim to be designed to work for the public good.  The Liberal Democrats have been less effective in the first two years than we would have liked and now face more hostile faces in cabinet as, tellingly, the Prime Minister put appeasement of his party’s right-wing before coalition unity. 

Coalition requires mutual respect if not mutual understanding.  David Cameron used his reshuffle to send a very clear signal to his Liberal Democrat partners, aptly summarised by fellow blogger Jennie Rigg as “taking everything we hold dear, stamping on it and laughing in our faces”.  

I have defended the coalition in the past, even though I have expressed disagreement with much of its policy direction.  This is because I am a pluralist, and a believe in collaborative, cross-party approaches to politics.  I also believe that, in the context of May 2010, it was right for us to try to work out a positive arrangement with the largest party, even if I was unconvinced about the way the negotiations were handled and some of the justifications for the agreement being drawn up rather hastily.  I believed that we could not only show that coalition politics work, but that we could imbue government policy with a strong liberal streak. 

Two years later, and we have done some things in government of which we should rightly be proud.  Tactically and strategically, however, we’ve been outmanoeuvred by our partners time after time, while the leadership has been weak at key moments.  On the not insignificant issues of electoral and constitutional reform, even the most positive Lib Dem would have to concede that we’ve been far less effective than we’d have envisioned.  And now, after this dreadful reshuffle, our scope for being effective in government is reduced further.  I cannot now continue to believe in this coalition.  It does not work in the interests of either the country or our party.  With this reshuffle Cameron has effectively abandoned the positive, co-operative politics he claimed to embrace two years ago.  Not only is the Prime Minister not on our side, neither is the electoral arithmetic – hence why over 50% of Lib Dem MPs not voting in support of tuition fees made zero impact while a minority Tory rebellion crushed any aspiration of House of Lords reform. 

Where do we go now?  There are many fellow Lib Dems who believe that this reshuffle represents something of an opportunity for us.  Their logic suggests that the Tories have now turned so far to the right that it is so much easier for us to differentiate ourselves from them and for Nick Clegg to increase his popularity and personal credibility by speaking out against the more unpalatable Tory thinking.  I understand this – certainly, if we are to remain in government we alone will have to provide the progressive voice on such issues as justice (promoting restorative justice and rehabilitation), equality (where does the cause of equal marriage go now?) and health (the likely drive towards increased commercialisation of the NHS must be resisted).  But we’re not in government to embark on a differentiation strategy – in any case, we could far more easily do that outside of government!  Neither are we there simply to tame the Conservatives or to find opportunities for Nick Clegg to score political points. 

We’re in coalition to provide good government.  And, if we’re not able to do that, we shouldn’t be there.  Responding to news of the reshuffle detail on twitter I remarked “We have to be effective in government. When the coalition veers towards the right, it's hard to see how.”  Curiously Tim Farron tweeted back: “I totally agree with you Andrew”.  However, a “senior” official advised The Guardian that he took “solace [that] the coalition agreement and decision-making processes were still intact.” Really?  Could that be the same senior Lib Dem who told The Guardian only weeks ago that the Tories had reneged on the coalition agreement and that there would be “consequences”? 

For the next three years we can struggle with the Tories, have our public (and private) spats with them, frustrate one or two of their policy ideas and infuriate their right-wingers with our liberal sensibilities.  While it’s always amusing to rile the likes of Peter Bone and Nadine Dorries, that is not why we exist as a party.  None of this would be good coalition politics, nor would it help our party particularly.

We are parties very definitely moving in different, if not entirely opposite, directions.  I have lost faith in David Cameron’s ability to lead a coalition government, and even in his appetite to do so.  I don’t yearn for a return to opposition and I would like to see the Liberal Democrats in a position to deliver good, strong, decisive government, but it’s uncertain how we can do that when the Prime Minister creates a cabinet good only for the purposes of silencing discontent from his own right-wingers, strong only in its destructive potential and decided only to be undecided.  

If we are to stay in coalition, we have to find ways of providing that good government even as the Tories are actively attempting to undermine us.  We must provide that strength and decisiveness while also showing respect and looking to cultivate positive working relationships with our coalition partners.  Quite how we can do this is something of a mystery to me given what the reshuffle reveals about the attitudes of the Prime Minister - answers on a postcard please to Mr N. Clegg, House of Commons, London SW1A 1AA.