Saturday, 24 November 2012

This week...I’m so proud to be a Lib Dem

It’s not every day I say this.

But, this week, I am very proud of my party.  Or – to be more precise – I am very proud of a large number of our peers, and our leader Nick Clegg.

It’s not every day that I wax lyrical about members of our unelected second chamber, and certainly not a frequent occurrence for me to shower our leader with praise (although there have been moments when I have, and when such praise has been fully merited).  But this week has demonstrated a number of things: what we can achieve in government, what we are achieving in government and the difference between the two.  More significantly, we’ve also seen why we need the Liberal Democrats – a party committed to a liberal society and social justice will always be needed at the heart of British democracy so long as the two principal political parties are Labour and the Conservatives.

The euphemistically named Justice and Security Bill was up for debate in the House of Lords this week.  Even more of a misnomer than the Access to Justice Act of 1999, the Bill is little more than a continuation and extension of the previous government’s commitment to eroding our civil liberties.  What is under threat this time, aside from the coalition government’s credibility given the supposed pledge “to restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power, in keeping with [the spirit of] freedom and fairness”, is the guarantee of open justice.  The Bill aims to legislate to replace such a guarantee, and the civil rights and freedoms inherent within it, with what are being termed “secret courts”.

Of course, the government doesn’t use that term – preferring instead another misnomer, “closed material procedure”.  It amounts to the same thing.  Under the proposals, civil matters in which national security is claimed to be at risk will take placed behind closed doors, out of view of the public and – more importantly, as Nick Thornsby explains in the Guardian – “the claimant, and his or her legal representatives, will also know nothing of what is presented.”

I’m not saying there isn’t a case for revisiting how the justice system considers evidence in instances where an obvious threat to national security exists.  What I am suggesting is that the one being made is ill-conceived.  Secrecy is never the answer when the question relates to matters of justice. 

Knowing that the Justice and Security Bill was to be debated in the Lords, last weekend I spoke to some Liberal Democrat peers about my concerns.  On Monday, I also signed an open letter to The Times that reads thus:

Your leading article (Nov 19) expressed your paper’s opposition to the Government’s plans for “secret courts”.  We, as members of the Liberal Democrats, agree.
On Monday Lord Pannick QC described the Justice and Security Bill as “”unfair, unnecessary and unbalanced”.  The issue at stake – open and equal justice – could hardly be more serious.  We believe the proposals are neither liberal nor democratic and, for us, go right to the heart of what it means to support liberal democracy.
We urge all peers to vote for the amendment supported by Lord Dubs, Lord Strasburger and Baroness Kennedy which deletes Clause 6 of the Bill.  If Clause 6 is deleted, secret courts will not blight our civil courts and our international standing for decades to come.  It will also mean that Liberal Democrats across the country can continue to assert, as our constitution states, that our party “exists to safeguard a fair, free and open society”.
Should the Bill pass with secret courts included, the damage to our justice system and our country will be incalculable.

The letter was published on Wednesday, although the newspaper only printed the names of five of the more senior signatories, thereby not demonstrating the strength of feeling in the party on this matter.  I was very proud to be a signatory to a letter making such a simple stance of defiance against the poorly conceived and potentially catastrophic ambitions of the government. 

(As previously advised, on this occasion I did write to the leader informing him I had signed a letter to a national newspaper which may be construed as a criticism of his leadership.)

On the vote itself, there were some defeats for the government in relation to safeguards.  These defeats were significant and undoubtedly mean that the Bill is fundamentally better.  On the specific issue of secret courts there was a significant Liberal Democrat rebellion against the government; a rebellion that was wrongly crushed but one that showed that there are Lib Dem parliamentarians who put the principles our party holds dear before slavish loyalty to government.  A list of the 25 peers standing against secret courts includes a mere three Labour peers and no Conservatives:

Bath and Wells, Bp. (Non-affiliated)
Brinton, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Clement-Jones, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Doocey, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Dubs, L. [Teller] (Labour)
Greaves, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Hamwee, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Hussain, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Judd, L. (Labour)
Kennedy of The Shaws, B. (Labour)
Kidron, B. (Crossbencher)
Linklater of Butterstone, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Macdonald of River Glaven, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Maclennan of Rogart, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Pannick, L. (Crossbencher)
Roberts of Llandudno, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Scott of Needham Market, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Shipley, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Stern, B. (Crossbencher)
Strasburger, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Thomas of Gresford, L. [Teller] (Liberal Democrat)
Tonge, B.* (Non-affiliated)
Tope, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Walmsley, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Wigley, L.(Plaid Cymru)
*until very recently a Liberal Democrat

That Liberal Democrat peers had the courage and conviction to make a stand against the government and the man charged with introducing the Bill in the Lords, Jim Wallace, made me enormously proud.  Some of these names are those of personal friends and I expected nothing other. What was surprising was the virtual unanimous support among the Conservative and Labour parties for secret courts, and this fact more than any other underlines the need for a party that is liberal and democratic – and, moreover, actually values civil liberty and an open and transparent justice system.

Caron Lindsay, another Lib Dem opponent of secret courts, was unusually critical of Jim Wallace who she described as having “a bad day at the office”.  “If he could only take 11 colleagues with him, that should send enough shock waves through him to make him realise the strength of feeling in the party.”  That neatly sums up the problem our leading parliamentarians are facing: like the NHS Bill, it’s taken a conference defeat for the leadership for them to realise quite what the mood is in the party on this matter.  Almost to a man, we don’t want the principal of open justice undermined.  And we don’t care if that offends our Conservative colleagues.

When the Bill returns to the Commons, I hope that Liberal Democrat MPs will make their objections a little more vigorously than they did last time around.  In the longer-term, I feel a certain inevitability about these proposals, unopposed as they are by a Labour Party unwilling to reverse its less than proud record in relation to civil liberties.  But that doesn’t mean that our party should not provide resistance.  There are two key reasons: firstly, our identity as a party in pursuit of a fair, free and open society demands it; secondly, a failure by the parliamentary party to follow the line set at conference risks widening divisions between the leadership and the grassroots. 

Inevitably there are feelings of frustration but the overriding sense of pride offsets that.  It was in the pursuit of such principles as justice and liberty that I became a Liberal Democrat, and it is in defence of them that I remain so.

Another thing that made me very proud this week was Nick Clegg.  As a new dad to be (Xanthe arrived in July this year), I encountered a potential new employer with unhelpful views in regards paternity entitlement.  Their evident inability to grasp why this was important to me – and a legal right – led to me seeking (and finding) employment elsewhere. But that’s not really the point – what I really want to highlight is how British paternity rights have lagged behind those of other European nations.  Frankly, it’s disgraceful and only entrenches gender inequality and “traditional” notions of parental roles.

Of course Nick announced the week previous that new flexible parental leave is soon to become a reality.  The detail of this may not be exactly what I would have wanted (Clegg himself admitted he would have wanted to go further with paternity leave, but had to consider the fragile state of the economy) but ultimately some well overdue progress has been made.  And it’s been made because the Liberal Democrats, and Nick Clegg personally, have been determined to move forward.  It’s part of that fairness agenda Clegg so often speaks of but too often doesn’t translate into legislation.

I’m not simply proud of Nick because he’s announced a useful initiative that will undoubtedly help new parents.  I’m actually proud of him because, since the announcement, he’s made the effort to remind us how his policy thrust, with the emphasis on fairness and family, is government by personal experience.  He’s a dad himself and one who knows he’s more than a bit luckier than many of us.  He’s showing a lot more humility and understanding in the last few weeks that we’re accustomed to and in addition to the renewed commitment to fairness, there’s also been new efforts to connect with the membership – this week discussing plans to tackle homelessness. 

What he now has to do is translate that obvious passion for childcare and early years onto issues his party feels so much stronger about...such as secret courts.  Wonderful new initiatives to help new parents pale into insignificance beside such an unnecessary erosion of civil liberty.  And so, while I’m proud and pleased at Clegg’s attempts to reconnect with the party and press on with delivering a fairer deal for many families, the real challenge he has is to persuade his MPs to follow the party when the Justice and Security Bill returns to the Commons.

And if he can do that, I will be really proud...

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Some thoughts on Remembrance Sunday

Today is the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the day on which – ninety-four years ago – the armistice came into effect, thus ending the complex web of bloody conflict usually referred to as the First World War.
Like many, I find the act of remembrance, observed each year, to be hugely significant.  This is not simply as a matter of respect to the fallen, although I suppose on one level it is.  More importantly, collective remembrance is vital if the legacy of the two World Wars and other conflicts that have followed is to be retained in the public consciousness.  We cannot afford to forget or to fail to learn the lessons of history.  And so inasmuch as the key theme of Remembrance Sunday is...well, remembrance, I feel it is the most appropriate focal point for reflecting on recent history, the nature of war, the human costs and even expressions of grief. 

Remembrance observations also bring society and communities together in a unique and valuable way.  Also, through them we see humanity at its best and most respectful. 

That said, I have some reservations as to what remembrance Sunday has become.  Yesterday, Sunderland player James McClean refused to wear a shirt embroidered with a poppy.  The outrage machine has already gone into overdrive, with his stance receiving almost universal criticism.  This surely is not in the understanding spirit that supposedly characterises Remembrance Day.  As a liberal, I am naturally inclined to respect an individual’s personal choice in such matters, whatever my own.  More important, however, is the need for some appreciation of why McClean chose to make such a personal statement.

McClean was born and raised in Northern Ireland, in the city of Derry (or Londonderry, depending on one’s political/religious persuasions).  He will have grown up in a divided Ulster, immersed in a culture that is understandably suspicious and even resentful of the British Army’s involvement in Northern Ireland.  I would argue, without looking to create political controversy, that such resentments were not only reasonable in the highly-charged political context of the 1980s and 1990s, but were in fact also well-placed.  I say that without pride, and as someone whose father actively served in Northern Ireland at the time of Bloody Sunday.

The point of course being that what Remembrance Sunday means to James McClean is perhaps not what it means to others.  In fact, what it means to me is probably far removed from what it represents to many of my friends.  McClean clearly associates the poppy with one of the least glorious chapters in our military history, and deserves better than the populist derision currently being directed towards him.

Another of my friends today used facebook to rail against “war...fuelled by greed, arrogance and hatred, and by a lack of justice and freedom.”  He also criticised “poppy mania” and what he described as the descent into “hero worship”.  He will not, he declared, wear a poppy.  The responses were as you might have expected.  But he’s remembering in his own way, perhaps a little more honestly than the rest of us.  Surely this is a part of the role Remembrance Sunday should play: facilitating a debate about the nature of war, the role of our armed forces and their duties in a changing world. 

My family tree, as you may have guessed, bears the names of several war veterans.  Interestingly, I never grew up to view any of these people as heroes.  Not only did I not see them as such; they would have hated the very idea.  Some of them did not ask to serve in the first instance. Like me, I suspect they’d take issue with what Remembrance Sunday seems to have become: a near glorification of the military, a mawkish and sentimental expression of hero-worship, an airbrushed interpretation of history intertwined with arrogant patriotism.   And that’s before mentioning that the Haig Fund (to give the Poppy Appeal its correct title) was established in memory of a man responsible for a waste of human life on an almost unimaginable scale. 

I have no time for the adulation, the patriotism, the offensive glorification of the military and sickly-sweet hero worship.  In regards the latter, I have always found this presentation of our troops as heroes to be not only inaccurate but patronising – insulting even.  My brother, decorated for his services, agrees.  Those serving in the forces are professionals doing a valuable job, no more heroic than the psychiatric nurse, the police officer, the fire fighter, the care assistant or the elderly man who single-handedly provides for his Alzheimers-suffering wife. 

Perhaps we could show some real respect to our armed forces by recognising this fact and referring to them as the professionals they are, rather than resorting to mawkish hero-worship.  That is more befitting of their role and the nature of their work.  Certainly, my brother would have much preferred to have been called a professional by those who understood the nature of his duties than receive the lazy epithet “hero” from Daily Mail readers.

Finally, when Remembrance Sunday is routinely hijacked by politicians, who cynically use public support for the military for their own ends, it is plainly disrespectful.  I am always appalled when politicians play these types of games, but to do so on Remembrance Sunday is in particularly poor taste.  I’m sure you know who I’m referring to.

As I’ve said, however, Remembrance Day means different things to different people.  For some, it is clearly little more than a tool via which to sustain public support for the military, and therefore British involvement in current and future conflicts.  For me it provides an opportunity to reflect - not only on the fallen and their families, but the futility of war, the malign influences of greed, self-interest and tribalism that invariably cause it, the huge human costs (especially in Iraq and Afghanistan), the wasted lives, the lessons of history and even the various (often unsung) achievements of those in uniform.  More personally, I consider how the actions of others serving have shaped the person I am today as well as the society in which I live.

Real remembrance allows for tolerance and diversity in the way people choose to remember.  Remembrance is an action, not an event, and should not be reduced to an exercise in social conformity in the form of an on-demand public outpouring of grief and adulation.  And so when those like James McClean, whose memories are perhaps more real and whose scars run deeper, choose to remember in a different way we should not only be accepting of it, but actively welcome it. Certainly, no-one should have a moral monopoly on the meaning of Remembrance Sunday.  

In World War II the spectre of Nazism with its dogma of exclusivism and intolerance was defeated.  Surely a fitting way to remember this is by ensuring that our Remembrance observations are as inclusive, tolerant and embracing as possible?

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Nadine Dorries suspended from the Tories

It’s amazing what a Conservative MP has to do in order to have the whip withdrawn these days.

They can try to undermine the government at every turn.

They can peddle homophobic lies.

They can preach a “hang ‘em and flog ‘em” dogma from the backbenches.

But what they must not do, on pain of the highest sanction possible, is appear on a “reality” TV show so trashy even my brother doesn’t watch it.

Today, probably my least favourite Conservative MP – Nadine Dorries – has been suspended from the Conservative Party for absenting herself from the Commons for up to a month in order to appear on “I’m A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here”.

(I honestly think that name is something of a misnomer – perhaps it’s time to change it to “I have an over-inflated sense of my own importance...Get Me On TV!”)

To be honest, I feel a little sorry for Nadine.   I mean, withdrawing the whip because she’ll be absent for a month?  She’s not likely to last more than I week I would have thought.

The Telegraph reported that, on returning from her adventures in Australia, she will “face the wrath of Sir George Young”.  That’s a most incongruous image – I can just imagine the kindly Old Etonian looking skywards and tutting.  “Dear, dear Nadine...”

The newspaper also reported that the Conservative leadership were concerned that, by appearing on the show, she was making “herself ridiculous for public entertainment”.  It does make you wonder they were never too concerned about how ridiculous she’s looked when discussing LGBT issues, abortion or the coalition. 

Still, I think they were right to act.  The Tories have said she must “justify herself” to her constituents.  Easy to say when you have a thumping majority to defend.  It would be more interesting if we were able to dismiss MPs, as the Liberal Democrats have championed for some time.  Ms Dorries may well have returned to find she no longer had a constituency to represent.

I do believe that it is right that an MP should explain this kind of decision to their constituents.  Furthermore, they should also discuss it with their local party officers, members and activists.  They are elected, after all, to serve the constituency and the needs of its electorate rather than their own self-aggrandising interests.  

Theresa May is absolutely right when she asserts that MPs have an obligation to “be in their constituency and the House”; MPs may be “celebrities” but they are, above all else, public servants.

Perhaps Nadine Dorries has forgotten this – or perhaps never fully grasped what the essence of public service is.  While I don’t begrudge anyone seizing the opportunity to demean themselves on national television, I firmly believe her constituents, her party and British democracy deserve better.

The oddest thing is that she has apparently spoken to Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home, but did not see fit to mention her lengthy absence from her duties to her local party.  That says everything anyone should need to know about her commitment to accountability.  The best that can be said is that her actions are disrespectful.

I can only wonder what future historians will make of this.  There have been so many interesting reasons for withdrawal of the whip – but surely disappearing to Australia to participate in acts of questionable taste on a TV show of questionable entertainment value has to be a first.

More seriously, I will not rejoice over Ms Dorries’ suspension from the Conservative Party.  That’s not because I disagree that her actions merit the sanction, because I do – and I think action should have been taken to rid the party of this turbulent spirit some time ago. However, I have my suspicions that Dorries will not regard her suspension with undue concern. Her recent actions suggest an indifference to party discipline and I imagine she will in some respects be relieved to have cast off the stifling straitjacket of loyalty.  She now has a new freedom via which she can promote, without restraint, her own politics of intolerance, bigotry and exclusivism. It will also bring her into the wider public consciousness and maybe (just maybe) a new-found, if undeserved, respect. She's plainly tired of the subservient role she has had to play to her party, and in turn that her party has played to the coalition.  She is likely to welcome the publicity and liberation from the  restraints of party allegiance, if not necessarily the increased media scrutiny. She also knows only too well that the public like, and often respond positively to, off-key messages and political mavericks.  

Am I being cynical in suggesting that this may be more considered than it at first seems?  If, as I speculate, Nadine Dorries has decided to make a clean break from the Conservative Party and – as the likes of Ann Widdecombe have done before – successfully uses TV as a means by which to recreate themselves, there is more reason to be concerned at her influence and toxic political ideas than were she simply yet another discontented Tory rebel.

Eating food only marginally worse than that offered to me as a patient while in Inverclyde Royal Hospital would be for Dorries only a small price to pay if “I’m A Celebrity” proves to be the defibrillator by which she can resuscitate her stuttering political career.  I also think she knows it.