Tuesday, 31 December 2013

My top posts of 2013

Here are my top posts - at least in terms of pageviews. Oddly enough, they all seemed to make sense at the time...

1. Does Better Together care about free speech? I suggest the "no" campaign should distance itself from Ian Taylor.

2. Are we a party that supports Northern Isles separation? A pertinent question following a vote at Scottish spring conference.

3. 50 Lib Dems you must follow on twitter. A list of Lib Dem twitterati I find interesting, entertaining or otherwise compelling.

4. Is there a need for a UK Constitutional Convention? I suggest there is, but that what is needed is an extension of democracy, not technical chit-chat and political machinations

5. David Steel's speech to the Blackpool Assembly. The leader's speech to the final Liberal Assembly, revisited 25 years later.

6. The real significance of Glasgow University's mock referendum. I ponder the meaning of the students'  mock independence referendum, which the media at the time were claiming was of enormous importance but has now been entirely forgotten.

7. Review of Scottish SLF Conference 2013. Recalling the lively discussions at Social Liberal Conference.

8. SNP minister announces he is gay. Society is changing, but it still takes courage to come out.

9. We have to tackle these misconceptions - misconceptions about benefit dependency.

10. Why I'm disappointed in the new Lords appointments. We were a little unadventurous to say the least.

11. Tim Farron is either "wrong or compellingly correct". I ask whether our party president is able to separate his personal faith from his secular responsibilities.

12. How do you solve a problem like UKIP? The jury's still out on that one, I think.

Thanks for reading, and best wishes for 2014!

My predictions for 2014

Clyde - will the mascot be quickly
forgotten after the games?
As is customary at this time of year, I make public a number of my predictions for the coming year. Enjoy them - before they come true!


The Labour Party – Ed Miliband will struggle to convince the British public that he is a Prime Minister in the making. His party will continue to maintain a lead in the polls, but his personal credibility will take a battering when he concedes that a Labour government would effectively have its hands tied on the spending front. He will also lose popular support when he refuses to condemn a shadow minister embroiled in a financial scandal.

The Conservative Party – it won’t be such a bad year for the Tories. The economy will continue its steady improvement, but insufficiently for George Osborne to make the claims he wants to for the Tories’ role in reviving it. The party will remain openly divided on Europe, immigration and marriage equality, with a backbencher resigning the whip in anger at “creeping liberalisation”. Esther McVey and Theresa May will put on a united from in their quest to convince the public the Tories are nastier than ever. In spite of the obvious drift rightward, the Conservatives will do moderately well in the European elections, playing off the threat from UKIP with skill and a fair degree of success.

Boris Johnson will resign as London mayor to stand for a safe Tory seat in a by-election. He will win comfortably and dedicate himself to undermining ministers and openly declaring his ambitions to become Prime Minister “at some point in the future”.

The Liberal Democrats – the party will face a real test in the European elections, but will be buoyed when they retain all but two of their MEPs. It seems a corner has been turned. It also becomes apparent that many British people have used the elections to send a message of support for continued EU membership. A strong performance in a by-election appears to confirm that, electorally speaking, the worst is over. Voices within the party express further concern about the direction of the coalition and the Lib Dems’ role within it – and not merely Matthew Oakeshott. Tensions will be increased when the government approves new illiberal measures to curb immigration.

There will be an acceptance from the leadership for the need for more distinct messages to be communicated. This will have some effect, which will be inevitably aided by Conservative MPs complaining vocally about our ruinous effect on their key policies. Clegg’s standing will improve moderately however, with the Deputy prime Minister going to great lengths to avoid the language of business and politico-speak that has characterised him so far and instead adopt a more human, in-touch approach.

Here in Scotland, Willie Rennie will attempt to portray the Lib Dems as the only real alternative to an SNP government that he perhaps a little unfairly describes as incompetent and ideologically redundant. He doesn’t completely convince, and isn’t helped by one or two untimely interventions by Tavish Scott. Rennie will find it difficult to communicate the Lib Dems’ progressive views on Scotland’s constitutional future as his voice is drowned out by the unimaginative negativity of his Better Together partners. Fortunately Nick Clegg will decide not to visit Scotland, which helps both the Scottish Lib Dems and the “no” campaign.

The SNP - it will be a tough year for the Scottish National Party but they have reasons for optimism with the independence referendum looming and the public showing an increased appetite for change. Alex Salmond will remain the most popular leader at Holyrood and will continue to outsmart both Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson with ease. The SNP will, however, become unstuck over the question of an independent Scotland's prospective membership of the EU and also wider questions of an economic nature.

The SNP will take full advantage of the Commonwealth Games and the Bannockburn commemorations to talk up Scotland's potential, which will have some effect. The SNP will also look to take credit for falling unemployment, while Derek Mackay will look increasingly like a future leader as the year progresses.

UKIP – 2014 will see UKIP taking a move backwards for the first time ever, with them making losses in the European elections. Nigel Farage will place the blame firmly with the media, which he accuses of savaging them and making his party look like a club for homophobes, misogynists, racists and Tories who don’t like blue. In truth, UKIP will have been found out by a combination of their own unimaginative campaigning, a slick and canny Conservative election machine, the positive case for the EU made by other parties and their own shallowness on the policy front. They will also have massively overestimated their appeal to right-wing Tories. Nonetheless, they will remain a potent force and in addition to retaining a considerable number of MSPs will also continue to have a strong influence on political discourse (with Nigel Farage appearing on Question Time at least once a month).

The BNP – Nick Griffin will lose his seat in the European parliament and will exit as leader of a party drifting towards obscurity. He will make an appearance in “I’m A Celebrity – Get me on TV!” where he will prove himself to be even more insufferable than Nadine Dorries and will be voted off at the earliest opportunity – but not before being taught some valuable lessons in race relations from fellow Jungle-mate Linford Christie.

Independence Referendum – this will be much closer than many imagine, aided by a feel-good factor following a hugely successful Commonwealth Games and Better Together’s inability to articulate precisely what a “no” vote will mean. The result of the referendum will simply be the beginning of a new chapter in Scotland’s constitutional history, with many uncertainties still requiring to be addressed. What will not happen is for a new era of co-operative politics to be ushered in. The SNP will proclaim victory in either eventuality.

The Monster Raving Loony Party will finally win a council by-election, at which the only others standing are the Labour, UKIP and continuing SDP candidates – the latter claiming that the Socialist Workers’ Party aren’t sufficiently left-wing. In a close-run thing, Ed Miliband ruins the Labour campaign by confirming he doesn’t have an alternative proposal to the government’s spending plans while the Loonies successfully win over Tory voters with the slogan “U-kip if you want to, the loonies aren’t for kipping”.

Equal marriage will become law in the UK (except, wrongly, in Northern Ireland). Expect outrage from conservative religious types who fail to appreciate that the extension of marriage is not a redefinition. Included in the protesters will be Tory MP Peter Bone, who will complain that his own relationship with Mrs Bone has now been compromised by “the success of the militant gay lobby”. In spite of these objections, the sky will not fall down, the earth will continue on its orbit and no-one will be forced to marry anyone they don’t want to.


Romanians and Bulgarians appear not to have the appetite for emigrating to Britain assumed by UKIP and the Daily Mail. Fears of invasion are proved to be false and, as with marriage equality, are shown to be little more than the product of scaremongering tabloids.

Pressure will continue to grow on Russia on human rights issues. Putin will blame his country’s poor performance in the Winter Olympics on various demonstrations, which he will claim “distracted and disadvantaged” Russian athletes. He will also refuse to answer any questions on Pussy Riot, freedom of speech, LGBT rights and Dobby the House Elf.

Uganda’s government will also come under pressure after passing unashamedly homophobic legislation leading to riots and hate crimes.  The Commonwealth will act by holding immediate, and indecisive, discussions. The UN will be paralysed with indecision, as the situation worsens. Nigel Farage says that Ugandan LGBT people seeking refuge would be very welcome in Britain – so long as they convert to Christianity and don’t shop at Waitrose.

The situation in the Central African Republic will worsen and fears of a potential genocide spark the French into action – they send a peacekeeping force to the stricken African nation with some initial success.

In Egypt, new elections will take place following which ex-President Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party will again be the largest party. Democracy will thus have failed to resolve many of the significant political problems facing Egyptian society. Elsewhere, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe will stun the world when he calls a snap Presidential election but surprises no-one when he emerges victorious with 135% of the vote.

In North Korea, Kim Jong-Un will continue to govern in erratic style, with his personal insecurities dictating his relationships with those close to him. In a drunken rage he will purge his entire cabinet, replacing them with pet cats.


The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will prove to be an enormous success. All events will sell out – including the hockey matches at Ibrox – as the public fully embrace the games. Alex Salmond will be pictured everywhere, usually near an unfurled Saltire, by the press – who will appear to forget that the games are about athletes rather than politicians. Team Scotland will perform sensationally well, including some notable triumphs over their English counterparts in the cycling competitions. Fortunately everyone will forget the mascot, Clyde, immediately after the games finish.

Football – With the Scottish Premier League now about as competitive as the Ashes, the real question is which team will finish second.  Motherwell will emerge victorious in the tense struggle for the runner-up spot. Hamilton and Dundee will replace Ross County and Hearts. Morton will be relegated from the championship, thus avoiding the dubious privilege of hosting Rangers at Cappielow in 2014/15. Albion Rovers will miss out on promotion, losing to Clyde in the play-offs.

In England, the closest race for the Premiership title in decades will go to the wire. A recovery from Manchester United will bring them back into contention and with Chelsea and Arsenal dropping points in the unlikeliest of places the two Manchester clubs go into the final game level on points. United will win at St Mary’s with a late goal from Wayne Rooney while City slip up, losing 1-0 to West Ham thanks to a Joe Hart blunder, and finish third in the table...behind Everton.

Everton will win the FA Cup, making Martinez the first manager to win the trophy in successive seasons with different clubs.

England will do reasonably well in the World Cup and do what Scotland failed to do previously – they’ll beat Costa Rica. Having scraped through the group stage they’ll go all the way to the quarter-finals where they’ll lose to...Germany. Uruguay will play Brazil in the final, in which Luis Suarez will be sent off for violent conduct after headbutting the Brazilian goalkeeper following an argument about which came first – the chicken or the egg.


The Pope will make some further concessions to Catholic liberals but, on the big “moral questions” of LGBT rights and the woman’s right to choose, maintains the traditional line. Rumours that he is having a secret affair with Keith O’Brien will be publicly denied, thus giving them credibility.

There will be some localised bad weather in Southern England that will dominate the BBC’s news coverage for a week.

Justin Beiber will continue to appear on our TV screens far too often. As too will Peaches Geldof and Katie Price, who will be awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for her services to media.

Friday, 27 December 2013

A 350 year old Christmas conundrum

Is it possible to have lived so long as to positively state you have celebrated 180 Christmases?

This may seem something of a strange question to ask.

However, in Kilearnadil Cemetery on the Isle of Jura (the neighbouring island to Islay, where I used to live), there can be found a curious gravestone that continues to amaze and amuse in equal measure, and has been the source of a great deal of local legend surrounding one man and his reputed longevity.

It reads thus: “Gillour MAC CRAIN, who kept 180 Christmases in his own house, and who died in the reign of Charles I”.

How can anyone live to be 180 years old? Surely this cannot be correct? Most who take the time to read these lines do not believe them to be literally true, although they seem to appreciate the quirkiness of the epitaph.

I remember as a young boy trying to make sense of this. I also read local tales about Macraine, most of which had obviously been invented many years after his death. I concluded that the man is simply a myth and that there is no effective way of establishing any factual truth about this mysterious man at all. I have noticed that no-one to date, at least on the internet, has provided a satisfactory explanation as to why this headstone found its way into Kilearnadil Cemetery in the first instance and that is what intrigued me: could it have actually have been erected in this small, insular island community during the 17th century by people knowing it to be a lie?

One thing is for sure, the inscription was not written as an enigma for 21st century tourists to resolve. It is the product of a unique time and place, and written in such a way as its intended readers would fully understand its message.

And so, how could a man living in the 17th century have celebrated 180 Christmases?

The logical answer is that he was a secret Roman Catholic.

This, to my mind, is the only possible explanation if we are to believe the words to be true. The inscription does not state that Macraine lived to be 180, but that he celebrated 180 Christmases “in his own house”. These latter words are not mere appendage, but highly significant. At a time when Roman Catholicism was effectively prohibited to the point that the Mass was forbidden, Macraine clearly was determined to carry on regardless. If he could not celebrate the Christ Mass in church, he would do it in his own home. The plural “Christmases” does not refer to Christmas Days, but the number of illicit masses Macraine celebrated in secret. There is no reason to believe these were necessarily celebrated in 180 different years. 

What appears to be equally significant is the date of Macraine’s death. The man who went to obvious lengths to celebrate so many Christ Masses in his own home died in 1645 – only a year after parliament had gone further than simply marginalising Catholic celebration and had declared all Christmas celebrations illegal.  And so, the message of Macraine’s epitaph is effectively “A Good Catholic, who remained true to his faith in a time of adversity”, with the added purpose of reminding those who knew him that resistance was possible and that no Act of Parliament or wave of Puritan fervour would extinguish their faith. I imagine it served to point to Macraine’s piety, as well as to encourage others to follow in his steps.

It was only after the publication in 1818 of Ayton and Daniell's A Voyage Around Great Britain that the claim made for Macraine on his epitaph came to be interpreted as a sign of his having lived for nearly two centuries.

And so, what is often misconstrued as a barely believable local legend actually points towards a more pertinent historical truth. No doubt this Christmas conundrum will continue to fascinate and intrigue those who interpret it through the limitations of 21st century understandings of Christmas, but hopefully some will be able to appreciate it is a statement of a man’s personal courage and his refusal to comply with the enforced orthodoxy of his time.

That's my take on the "mystery". Of course,  I would be interesting in hearing from those of you with alternative explanations.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Alan Turing pardoned...but is it enough?

Good to see that Alan Turing has been pardoned by the Queen.

Better late than never, of course. But it also serves as a recognition of Alan's work, as well as a reminder that the homophobia that destroyed his life was inherently evil.

That is not a word I use lightly. But it must be said that homophobia on the level directed towards Turing, and currently being witnessed in Uganda, can be described in no other way. There are no words sufficiently adequate to define the appalling crime against humanity that rampant homophobia represents.

I have been sent this morning some graphic and utterly horrific images of  homophobic hate crimes recently committed in Uganda. Action must be taken by the international community.

From a British perspective, we must take a lead against the evil being perpetrated in a Commonwealth nation.

In the meantime, while it is right to celebrate Turing's overdue pardon, we must also ask that every other individual who suffered at the hands of British institutional homophobia is similarly pardoned. Many have spoken up for Turing...we must how speak up for all the others.

A pardon for a hero is of course welcome, and credit is due to the coalition government and the Lib Dems within it, but it isn't enough. The evils of homophobia are very much alive: in Uganda, in Nigeria, in Russia and (lest we forget) closer to home. Turing's pardon essentially constitutes an exceptional case based on "circumstances humbly represented unto us", and falls far short of the apology that many persecuted gay people and their families deserve. In fact, it's not an apology at all and does absolutely nothing to right the wrongs suffered by hundreds of thousands of people. Fellow Lib Dem Andy Myles wrote on facebook: "If the 'royal prerogative of mercy' is only being wheeled out because Turing was brilliant, something is deeply wrong. That way round it suggests that it's okay to be gay - just so long as you happen to be a genius at the same time." I agree, what needs to be made explicitly clear is that the sentence was wrong.Turing was a victim and not a criminal, as indeed were many others. The pardon represents one more step on the road to addressing the tragic human consequences of historic prejudices, but there are many more to be taken.

What was done to Turing, and countless others, constitutes a state-sponsored crime that has not - even in 2013 - been adequately accepted or apologised for.  It's justice we need, not merely one highly significant and symbolic pardon: justice for the thousands of people whose lives were wrecked by the actions of the British judicial system and the attitudes underpinning it.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Farewell Madiba

It seems right to make my own tribute to Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday at the age of 95.

There has been so much said in the last 24 hours, underlining the huge impact Mandela had on both the world political stage and, indeed, on social consciousness. In some ways it seems academic to add to the already substantial material in the public domain, much of it insightful and inspirational.

However, I did personally know some of Mandela's relatives - a nephew of Mandela, who became an ANC freedom fighter before becoming an South African bishop, and a great-nephew who studied medicine at Glasgow University. In a very small way this has given me a glimpse into another dimension of the life of Nelson Mandela and served to create a powerful view of a complex individual.

I will not, as some others have done, resort to mourning. I do not mourn for Madiba - I celebrate his life, and the impact he had on those of others.

Similarly, I will not resort to the emotive language of sentimentality. Neither will I exaggerate his domestic political achievements as others have done; the legacy of Mandela-led ANC includes Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, an increasingly divided and corrupt ruling party and increasing public distrust of the political process - not to mention that the squalid townships and divisions that remain as a result of his government's reluctance to increase the pace of tackling social inequality. The abilities required to inspire a nation are not the same as those to run a government effectively. Often Mandela's successors took the blame for his own policy failures and poorly conceived initiatives.

The man Madiba has become virtually inseparable for the myth. It is understandable why many seek to wrap this great man in the language of mythology, because we lack the words to adequately describe him otherwise. Mandela became a canvas onto which our own hopes, aspirations and ideals were projected. He was a hero created in our own image. He became whatever we wanted him to be. Why was this? Partly because of genuine respect and admiration at home and abroad, partly because of politicians and the media seeking to define his legacy in their terms and claim it for themselves, and partly because the world needed a hero. We needed to believe. South Africa needed a new "father" after the leaderships of Vorster and Botha - and Mandela fit the role perfectly.

There can be no escaping his inspiration and charisma. But in my tribute, I will not turn a political leader, however great, into an untouchable icon. That would be to do him a gross injustice, to dehumanise the man. He does not need such praise, if indeed it is praise.

The act of celebrating Mandela's life involves reflecting and considering his action and decision; his failures as well as successes. It requires intellectual and political honesty - not platitudinous sentimentality. We dishonour him, his memory, his legacy and his life if we revere him as a saint, rather than see him as the exceptional human being he was - with all his weaknesses and flaws.

And so, here is my own tribute to Madiba:

"You were a man who lived fully, loved completely, gave abundantly. In forgiving the unforgivable, and in championing true equality, you served as a true example for those who also profess to follow your Lord. Your courage and hope prevailed, so that others would not need to live in fear and despair. Your light shone in the darkness, a light that - even in death - shall not be extinguished. But your greatest asset was your undeniable, deep and palpable humanity - it was through the fullness of your own humanity that others found freedom.

"Farewell Madiba - a complete human being. There can be no greater epitaph."

It is only via the humanity met in Nelson Mandela that his life can be fully understood - a humanity open to all, a humanity that breaks stereotypes, a humanity that transcends boundaries, a humanity that liberates and a humanity that not only dares to challenge injustice but demands that others do so in turn.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Today is not a good day to be a Lib Dem

Yesterday's news was dominated by talk of an independence White Paper, which I'm still attempting to make sense of before expressing my thoughts on its contents.

Today, talk is of immigration. More specifically, it is of the government's plans to remove basic support from some individuals on the basis of their country of origin.

It's not often I wish the media would spend more time exploring the merits of the Scottish independence debate, but today is one of those rare occasions. It's been a day when the Conservative and Labour parties have shown why no liberal could ever support them, but also one in which the Liberal Democrats have failed to stand up and be counted.

Those who know me well probably tire of me telling them about my grandfather, who was a Polish "immigrant". In a sense it's irrelevant, and of course the political and social context of the 1940s is quite different to that of the present day. But I am the grandson of an immigrant, and due to my family's Eastern European connections have always known several foreigners who have made the UK their home. My own family were Polish Jews, and my grandfather fought in the RAF. There were others like him in the years that followed - others who, without support to establish themselves here, would never have been able to go forward to find work, run businesses, integrate themselves into society and create successful new lives.

We now have a government that seeks to deny such opportunity. The Prime Minister has today announced plans to:

* prevent new migrants receiving out-of-work benefits for the first three months.
* stop benefit payments being made after six months unless the claimant has a "genuine" chance of a job.
* preventing new migrants being able to claim Housing Benefit immediately.
* deport those caught begging or sleeping rough, with no return within a year.
* quadruple fines for employers not paying the minimum wage.

Only the final proposal has any significant merit from the perspective of actually ensuring wider access to employment. What will the effect of other such plans other than to deny the poorest and most vulnerable of incomers a real opportunity to build a new life for themselves, or even to find work? How can someone find a job when they lack even the most basic "privileges"? Furthermore, how is it in any way just for the government to essentially be forcing people to sleep rough by denying them housing benefit, only then to deport them for it?

The definition of what might constitute a "genuine" chance of a job might, and how this is to be demonstrated or evidenced, is highly questionable - not to mention subjective.

This represents arguably the most xenophobic set of proposals put forward by a UK government since the Commonwealth Immigration Act 1968. David Cameron has claimed that these plans are justified, as "Britain expects fairness". You could argue that Britain is always expecting, which accounts for why so many see her as the Mother Country. But if Britain does indeed expect fairness, it isn't what's being promised today.

In what way is it fair that the only foreigners allowed entry into the UK will be those who have the means to maintain themselves for at least several months? Is it fair that we can effectively deny people essentials on the basis of nationality? Is it fair that we can discriminate against one section of society, deprive them of basic human rights but then claim it is acceptable as these people are "immigrants"?

It is not fairness in action that we're witnessing, but a shamefully dishonest and discriminatory scheme that will create unnecessary human misery without actually doing anything to significantly deal with legitimate problems.

Kelly-Marie Blundell, the impressive PPC for Guildford, used facebook to state that "if you take a human being, and you deny them food, that's unacceptable. And by proposing to remove fundamental benefits from someone, that's denying them food, and is therefore unacceptable. To then stamp this behaviour with 'immigrants' is abhorrent, xenophobic and tantamount to abuse on the basis of country of origin." Another Liberal Democrat, Stephen Tall, wrote in response to what he termed Immigration Hysteria Day: "most importantly of all, we [Liberal Democrats] stick up for liberal values, values that are under assault from the combined conservative forces of our governing partners, the official opposition and most of the press – because that’s when our campaigning, our determination to stick up for the underdog, matters most."

I joined the Lib Dems for many reasons, but among them was a belief in the freedom of people to live and work where they choose. It seems illogical to me when those, like the Prime Minister, who believe in the free movement of capital do not believe in the free movement of people.

It is sufficiently depressing that the government has made these proposals. Worse still is the response of the Labour which, rather than fight the plans, has merely suggested the Conservatives should have acted sooner - Yvette Cooper accused Cameron of stealing Labour ideas. And where were the Liberal Democrats to "stick up for the underdog"? Reportedly telling the BBC that "the proposed 'sensible' changes would 'restore confidence' in the immigration system and 'ensure that the right to work does not automatically mean the right to claim'." The Daily Telegraph has reported that Nick Clegg has asserted that "anyone who believes we are better off as an outward facing nation should support these changes. If we don't get to grips with these issues, pro-Europeans surrender the debate to the UKIPs of this world." When the illiberalism of the two main parties is met with such a response from the Liberal Democrats, our purpose in government must inevitably be questioned.

I certainly don't agree with Nick. He talks about "the right to work [being] not an automatic right to claim...we welcome people here who want to...play by the rules", while promoting a change in those rules that will have the effect of preventing the poorest immigrants from being able to find themselves in a position to actively seek work.

The only silver lining on this cloud is that Teresa May was forced to admit, with apparent regret, that "she would not go outside EU law" in extending controls. It turns my stomach to think what she may be capable of without such legal restraints.

Like Stephen Tall and Kelly-Marie Blundell, I want a Liberal Democrat party to make a stand for liberalism, to make the case for immigration and the free movement of people and to uphold basic human rights. Today has been a bad day for a party that has failed to protect both "underdogs" and its fundamental philosophy.

It is too bad that the only positive noises come from the SNP. The white paper, published yesterday, which has been so derided by the parties of Better Together, promotes a more liberal immigration system to the "aggressive approach" of Westminster, with certain restrictions being relaxed and the introduction of "a point-based system for immigration based on skills would be introduced alongside a reduction in the income threshold and minimum salary levels required for immigrants." The SNP is clearly committed to easing immigration, while Westminster steadily moves in the opposite direction - no doubt motivated, in part at least, by the threat of Nigel Farage's UKIP.

Sometimes some things are more important than politics. When liberals at Westminster fail to oppose illiberal proposals - and go as far as to label them "sensible" - it's enough to make you vote "yes" for Scottish independence.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

SNP minister announces he is gay

It is with some surprise that I have discovered in the pages of today’s Herald that SNP MSP Derek Mackay has announced he is gay and has separated from his wife.

Mr Mackay was my SNP opponent in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections, taking the seat of Renfrewshire North and West from Labour with a 1,564 majority. He is currently serving as local government and planning minister and prior to his election to Holyrood was a capable leader of Renfrewshire Council, where he worked in coalition with the local Liberal Democrat group.

Mr Mackay has only now spoken publicly about the split from his wife and his sexuality. He deserves tremendous credit for the way in which he has sensitively dealt with this with his family and friends, and for striving to ensure his family is protected from unwanted media intrusion. He explained that “having been aware myself for some time and having informed family and friends it is important for me to be clear publicly that I am gay. While my wife and I remain on very good terms we have separated. While I feel it is important to be open about this change in my personal circumstances I would ask that our privacy is respected while we support our family through this period."

I have enormous respect for Mr Mackay as both a politician and a thoroughly decent human being. Privately, I was delighted that he successfully broke Labour’s near iron grip on this constituency in 2011 and he is undoubtedly one of the more capable SNP ministers. We cannot know how hard it has been for Mr Mackay to come to terms with his sexual identity and take the difficult decisions he has, including making announcements to his colleagues and the press but we can be sure that he has been courageous in being honest to himself and being open about his private life.

As a bisexual man, incidentally of the same age as Mr Mackay, I appreciate how emotionally difficult it can be to accept who you are – especially where issues of sexual orientation are involved. Today I find distinctions of orientation largely irrelevant, but that has not always been the case and I suspect that is also true for Mr Mackay. We were both raised in times when it was less acceptable to be gay, both in our early 20s at the time of the homophobic “Keep the Clause” campaign and both old enough to remember when society was, as a whole, less friendly than it is today towards LGBT equality. Against this backdrop, it was hard for me to “come out” to myself, never mind to friends and family – or wider society. It took several years for me to truly embrace who and what I was. Fortunately I now have an incredible wife that not only accepts but understands by bisexuality, which has in itself been amazingly liberating.

It is true, as fellow SNP MSP Joe FitzPatrick argues, that “being gay in politics isn't the news story it used to be and it's a welcome sign in Scottish public life that whatever your sexuality, it's your work that matters.” However, it’s still a news story as evidenced by the newspapers’ interest in it and – lest we forget – there are still many around, including colleagues of Mr Mackay such as John Mason, who remain opposed to LGBT equality. That attitudes are changing is undeniable, but this does not detract from the courage of Mr Mackay to go public or the creditable way he has gone about it.

His announcement will almost certainly help to further erode less progressive attitudes towards LGBT rights, given his high profile role in Scottish politics.

The Herald reports that Mr Mackay has entered into a new relationship. If that is indeed the case, I wish him and his new partner best wishes for the future.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Some further thoughts on Remembrance Sunday

Last year, I made some observations about Remembrance Sunday - taking into consideration the experiences of several generations of my family who have served in the armed forces.

I have in recent years been particularly affected by my brother's descriptions of his time in the Balkans, and his attitudes and outlooks that stem from them. It is telling that he rejects the easy accolade of "hero" in spite of having been decorated for his services, and with it the cloying sentimentality that generally accompanies it. Soldiers are no more heroic than any other professionals providing a vital service, he believes. In fact, the highest compliment a soldier can be paid is to be considered a true professional; anything other effectively has a dehumanising effect.

I explained last year also why my mother has never bought a poppy. I have re-read the piece a year on and there is nothing I would change. But there are some additional sentiments I would like to add, because I fear Remembrance is becoming more of an obligatory public show of commitment to the military (and to the attitudes so disliked by my brother) rather than a genuine desire to reflect on the human consequences of yesterday's conflicts.

I've had some conversations recently with work colleagues, family members and on social media about the purpose and meaning of Remembrance. It is striking how, while inevitably people opt to pay their respects in whatever way suits them, the same key themes inevitably reoccur in their thinking. People who know nothing about Passchendaele, the Somme or Ypres are quite happy to say how proud they are to wear the poppy for reasons of either patriotism or a misplaced belief in the heroism of the military. There is also general reference to the need to show "respect", although that clearly does not extend to those who, for whatever reason, refuse to wear a poppy: while I will give to the Earl Haig Fund, I will not display upon my person what inevitably will be interpreted by others as evidence of my buying into the sentimental orgy of neo-imperial patriotic self-indulgence that currently passes for Remembrance.

For this, it has been suggested that I am unpatriotic (guilty as charged, patriotism being the last refuge of scoundrels as Dr Samuel Johnson recognised) or that, in voicing concerns about recent military activity and sharing my brother's perspectives, I am somehow being ungracious. An enquiring mind is not a sign of discourtesy, although I suspect that a demand for everyone to unquestioningly conform to societal expectations almost certainly is. 

I've even witnessed the frankly degrading spectacle of some individuals essentially arguing about which of them has the largest poppy, seeking to demonstrate how they have outdone each other in the charitable stakes like a group of insecure teenagers pre-occupied with size. Neither this, the misplaced hero-worship, the unquestioning support for the military or raw patriotism is a befitting way to remember those who paid the ultimate price in the World Wars and more recent conflicts.

I would firstly like to address the issue of patriotism. I consider the appeal to such to be grossly disrespectful - even Edith Cavell famously admitted that "patriotism is not enough". The fact that patriotism and a sense of national (or British) identity has become so interwoven with the act of Remembrance underlines the degree to which the rhetoric and attitudes of the Daily Mail and social conservatives have been accepted by wider society. I fail to see why remembering fallen friends and ancestors, or reflecting on the horror and brutality of war, is in any sense an act of patriotism. Rather, it is a moral responsibility to remember and learn the lessons of the past.

I have also been concerned with the recent political conversation in respect to commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of World War I in 2014. This discussion has been characterised by a determination to re-write history; a drive to recreate the 1914-18 war as a necessary fight for freedom. This is more than disingenuous - it is an outright lie. Remembrance requires some intellectual honesty rather than an attempt to distort history to conform to the demands of modern-day culture and a political elite who are cynically using it for their own purposes.

We all remember the lessons at school on the causes of World War I. We were told about ententes and alliances, of assassinated archdukes, of an egomaniacal Kaiser, of Schlieffen plans and innocent Belgians. None of this is inconsequential. But neither of these were reasons for the war. The simple, stark reality is that the European nations went to war because it was the easiest thing to do. Conflict was neither inevitable nor necessary. No-one thought in 1914, as they may well have done 25 years later, that they were fighting for democracy. They were swept up with the enthusiasm for a swift and glorious war which, they were told, would be over by Christmas. Most soldiers had no concept of freedom or democracy, but no doubt this is forgotten, alongside many other inconvenient historical truths.

War is not glorious, as our ancestors found out on the fields of Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and the Somme. While it must be remembered, and indeed commemorated, it should not be glorified. Neither should it be hijacked by politicians keen to either exploit or instill a sense of national identity or, worse still, to foster a willingness to support our continuing military involvement in various parts of the world. As 91-year old Harry Smith writes in today's Guardian, "From now on, I will lament their passing in private because my despair is for those who live in this present world. I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one's right to privacy."

Smith will not be wearing a poppy in the future. I cannot say I never will, but I am concerned that a self-appointed "moral majority" - in conjunction with conservative elements of the press and the cynical opportunism of politicians - can dictate to society what the poppy signifies.

As I wrote last year, I hope we can all choose to remember in whatever way we see fit. Personally, I'm taking half an hour out of my working day on Monday at 11am to reflect on the effect various wars have had on my family and indirectly on my own life - and also to respect the countless millions on all sides who either actively served or were involved in some other way in the often tragic dramas history describes simply as wars.

But, just as patriotism is not enough, neither is Remembrance. The purpose of Remembrance is of greater significance than the act itself. Of what use can it be if it doesn't cause us to strive for a better future? With that in mind, I leave the last words to Harry Smith: 

"I will until my last breath remember the past and the struggles my generation made to build this country into a civilised state for the working and middle classes. If we are to survive as a progressive nation we have to start tending to our living because the wounded: our poor, our underemployed youth, our hard-pressed middle class and our struggling seniors shouldn't be left to die on the battleground of modern life."

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

50 Lib Dems you must follow on twitter

1. Tim Farron (@timfarron). MP for Westmorland & Lonsdale. President of the Liberal Democrats. Blackburn Rovers supporter. One of the few MPs that recognises that twitter is for interacting with people, rather than making self-righteous pronouncements. All round nice guy.
2. ‏Jim Hume (@jimhumeLibDem). MSP for South Scotland. Health and Housing Spokesman and Deputy Whip in Scottish parliament.
3. Caron Lindsay (@caronmlindsay). Co-editor of Lib Dem Voice. Also blogs at Caron’s Musings. Queen of the Scottish blogosphere. Tweets about politics, Scotland, Dr Who, Formula 1 racing.
4. Stephen Glenn (@stephenpglenn). Northern Ireland born, lives in Scotland. Former parliamentary candidate. Blogs at Stephen’s Liberal Journal. Christian advocate for LGBT equality. 
5. Stephen Tall (@stephentall). Co-editor of Lib Dem Voice. Tweets often thought-provoking. Views always his own “unless stolen from others”.
6. Jonathan Calder (@lordbonkers). The bonkers blogger from Market Harborough. Can be found at Liberal England.
7. Daisy Cooper (@libdemdaisy). Feminist Lib Dem. Lovely person.
8. Lynne Featherstone (@lfeatherstone). Tireless Lib Dem MP for Hornsey & Wood Green. 
9. George W. Potter (@georgewpotter). Like his namesake Harry, the Potter Blogger is male and bespectacled. Unlike the young magician, George is an outspoken champion of social liberalism and feminism. 
10. Alex White (@TheWeeYin96). The epitome of optimistic, forward-looking, passionate and practical liberalism. And she’s only 17.
11. Alisdair Calder McGregor (@A_C_McGregor). Intelligent tweeter on all things political. Blogs at Leading Lines. 
12. Alex Dingwall (@AlexDingwall). Former councillor, now working for race equality charity. Supports Scottish independence. Member of Social Liberal Forum.
13. Lib Dems for a Republic (@Libs4ARepublic). It’s all in the title – they’re liberals and they want a republic. A group that more Lib Dems should consider joining.
14. Jennie Rigg (@miss_s_b). By far the most entertaining Lib Dem on twitter. 
15. Julian Huppert (@julianhuppert). Like Oliver Cromwell, MP for Cambridge. Unlike the former Lord Protector, Julian is interested in equality and human rights. Another MP who knows how to use social media effectively.
16. Sarah Brown (@auntysarah). Lib Dem Cambridge City Councillor who was 27th on Pink List in 2013.
17. Nicola Prigg (@nicola_prigg). Tennis mad Ayrshire Lib Dem. One of the awkward squad. 
18. Julia Cambridge (@juliacambridge1). The next MP for Chesterfield.
19. James King (@jamesinoxford). Co-Treasurer of Liberal Youth. Christian humanist and social liberal. History buff. Interesting guy.
20. Dr Mark Pack (@markpack). Author of 101 Ways to Win An Election and insightful Lib Dem blogger. 
21. Willie Rennie (@willie_rennie). Leader of the Scottish Lib Dems. 
22. Allan Heron (@AllanHeron). Partick Thistle supporter. Likes beer. Proud owner of a “Still Hate Thatcher” t-shirt. Critical of Better Together.
23. Dave Page (@davepage_mcr). LGBT equality campaigner, based in Manchester. 
24. Eilidh Macfarlane (@petiteliberal). “Friend to gnomes and wearer of ridiculous earrings”. Typical Lib Dem then.
25. Kerry-Marie Blundell (@KellyMarieLD). The next MP for Guildford.
26. Mark Thomson (@MarkReckons). Writes for the imaginatively names Mark Thomson’s Blog, and also for the New Statesman.
27. Jonathan Fryer (@jonathanfryer). Writer and Lib Dem Euro candidate for London.
28. Jo Swinson (@joswinson). The MP for East Dumbartonshire should need no introduction. Tweets regularly on women’s issues.
29. Sarah Brown (@SarahBrown1984). Describes herself as “not the wife of Gordon”. Phew!
30. Greg Judge (@gregjudge). Campaigns officer for Dignity in Dying and Leadership Programme candidate. 
31. Tavish Scott (@tavishscott). Former leader of the Scottish Lib Dems. MSP for Shetland. Tweets about Liverpool FC. Doesn’t like the SNP.
32. Don Harrison (@DonHarrisonLD). Gay Christian. Voice of reason. 
33. Gavin Hamilton (@GHmltn). Edinburgh Lib Dem, blogs at View From The Hills. Interested in Scottish history.
34. Mathew Hulbert (@HulbertMathew). Shortlisted for Lib Dem Councillor of the Year. Energetic campaigner; active within the Social Liberal Forum and Republic. He also happens to be gay.
35. Sophie Bridger (@SophieBridger). “Big on mental health, equalities and baking.” That just about sums her up!
36. Charlotte Henry (@charlotteahenry). Writes about politics and media. www.charlottehenry.com 
37. Daisy Benson (@CllrDaisyBenson). Lib Dem councillor and prolific tweeter.
38. Kevin Peters (@Big__Kev). Another entertaining tweeter. Calls a spade a spade.
39. Zoe O’Connell (@zoeimogen). LGBT rights campaigner and all-round adventurous person whose interests include motorcycling and canyoneering. 
40. Stephen Williams (@swilliamsmp). MP for Bristol West. A bit like Tim Farron (but better looking!).
41. Kav Kaushik (@kavya_kaushik). Likes “curry, cats and Eurovision”. Don’t we all?
42. Michael Mullaney (@miketmullaney). Councillor and surely future MP.
43. Andrew Tennant (@10anta). “Off message. In volume. Over time.” And under-rated. 
44. Maelo Manning (@libdemchild). It’s all in the name – Maelo is a child who blogs about liberalism and current affairs.
45. A.Jones (@abjtal). Cat-loving Welsh Lib Dem. 
46. Lisa Rajan (@lisarajan). Lib Dem councillor in Southwark.
47. Cllr John Potter (@johnpotterLD). Preston councillor who works in film production.
48. Brian Lawton (@MrBLawton). An extremely liberal Christian who tweets about politics and football (mainly Reading Ladies). 
49. Graeme Cowie (@woodstockjag). Law graduate and Partick Thistle fan with a meticulous way of thinking. 
50. Andrew Page (@scottishliberal). I have to include myself. If you don’t follow me, you should! What’s not to like? (Don’t answer that one).

Honourable mentions should also go to Christine Jardine (@CAJardine), a political commentator and our candidate in the recent Donside by-election, and Callum Morton (@callum_morton) for his energies in promoting the #FEparty. 

Of course, there may well be other Lib Dems that should be followed by a wider audience that I have omitted to mention. If that's the case, please feel free to add your own top liberal tweeters in the comments below.

Apologies to any I missed - it doesn't mean I have forgotten you! My unscientific methodology for ordering my top 50 was essentially based on my personal experience of how informative, relevant, intelligent, engaging and entertaining individuals' tweets were. I intend to do this again sometime next year when I hope to extend it to my top 100 Lib Dem tweeters. 

I may also do a similar list for my favourite Conservative tweeters, but getting to 10 I'd honestly recommend might be a tough assignment.

Of the fifty mentions above, 29 are male and 20 are female (the other being an internal grouping). At least 12 are also LGBT people. So you can't say I'm not doing my bit for equality.

A festive event for awful people?

Helensburgh is to host Scotland’s first ever festive event exclusively for obnoxious people.

The Helensburgh & Lomond Scottish Conservative & Unionist Association Christmas Dinner at the Commodore Hotel on 7th December has, as its principal attraction, the oratorical skills and the unreconstituted Thatcherism of Michael Forsyth. Fans of the unreasonable voice of Toryism – who famously argued that introducing the Poll Tax early to Scotland would demonstrate its benefits for the rest of the UK, and sensibly urged Mrs Thatcher not to resign – are being advised to book early for the dubious privilege of listening to his words of wisdom, “in view of the anticipated high level of demand for tickets”.

Forsyth, a hate figure during his time as Secretary of State for Scotland in the 1990s, has partially managed to rehabilitate himself on the back of the Better Together campaign. However, the organisers of the dinner are very proud to have created Scotland’s very first social event exclusively for hideously pretentious individuals. “There can’t be a lot of admirers of Michael around these days” said a spokesperson for the local Tories, “but we’re going to get them all under one roof for this fabulous Christmas knees-up. Or at least on the same sofa. Ian Lang’s definitely going to be there and if George Osborne isn’t then it will only be because he’s putting together yet another policy to demonise benefit-dependent scum.”

The spokesperson was keen to play up the uniqueness of the event: “This isn’t yet another tedious Conservative dinner. We wanted to do something very different, which is why we have invited Michael here. Hopefully having him as a guest speaker will prove very attractive to wealthy types with an over-developed belief in their own importance and a pitiful sense of entitlement. But no gay people, obviously.”

“I mean, we’re talking about the kind of Tories who would in all likelihood be sneered at as hopelessly pathetic at a UKIP conference. You know, what I call real Tories – not the soft woolly liberals like Cameron and Goldie.”

Asked whether there would be a dress code for the dinner, the spokesperson confirmed that informal dress was an option, but ideally gentlemen should aspire to follow the guidance in the latest edition of The Chap magazine, which would “reinforce our reputation as out-of-touch, antiquated and plain irritating.” However, “I love Thatcher” t-shirts were also confirmed to be acceptable. One thing that is insisted on is hat-wearing, which will make guests “immediately distinguishable from the other riff-raff in the hotel and also quite cool”. The hat of choice is the deerstalker, although some exceptions are allowed. William Hague is permitted to wear a baseball cap while David Cameron, if present, will sit in the corner sporting a large pointy hat featuring a big D.

It has also been announced that there will be additional entertainment provided. Norman Tebbitt will star as Father Christmas and, after distributing signed editions of his biography Upwardly Mobile to paying guests, will invite young Hooray Henries to have their photographs taken with him for posterity before he makes an early exit to distribute bicycles at the local Jobcentre. Also for the children will be an inflatable mini-theme park in which they can learn to kick poor people and asylum seekers while laughing hysterically.

Asked whether Michael Forsyth’s new “friends” from Better Together would be welcome, the spokesperson retorted sharply, “God no! It’s a Christmas dinner, not a hug a Lib Dem festival!” He also revealed that there will be stalls selling Conservative Party memorabilia (“we don’t know what yet, but we’ll definitely be charging at least ten grand per item”) and a film sponsored by an unnamed oil company proving that global warming is simply a moralistic fable fabricated by the Lib Dems, Labour and the Green Party.

Monday, 21 October 2013

David Cameron resigns

Either Wales Online has incredibly managed to scoop the BBC, the Daily Mail, Daily Record, The Guardian et al with news of this stunning development...

...or somebody doesn't realise April Fools' Day isn't in October.

Ever the optimist, I hope it's the former.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Sir Menzies Campbell to step down

Only weeks after Sir Malcolm Bruce announced his decision to stand down as an MP at the next election, former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell has followed suit.

While the two have been long-serving MPs and their retirements were far from surprising, I personally feel a sense of an era coming to an inevitable end. Having developed an interest in politics at a time when the Scottish Liberal Democrat MPs included in their number Russell Johnston, Jim Wallace, Bob Maclennan, Ray Michie, Charles Kennedy and David Steel – in addition to Ming and Malcolm – of those great Scottish giants of liberalism only Charles will remain after 2015 (assuming he keeps his seat). It is with some sadness that I read of Ming’s decision and, while I wish him the best for his retirement, cannot help but feel a sense of nostalgia for that wonderful Lib Dem parliamentary team of the 1990s.

Inevitably time moves on. Time, as Sir Menzies Campbell is more than aware, is often unkind to politicians, and especially so in the case party leaders.

Nick Clegg today spoke of him as having "served this country and our party with unparalleled distinction". he is absolutely correct on both counts. Clegg was not quite so accurate when he described Ming as "an outstanding leader", but it is not for his leadership of the Liberal Democrats that he should be most remembered. He was impressive on international issues, never more so in his opposition to the Iraq war and his denunciation of the Blair-Bush relationship. He was (and is) also a strong liberal voice on defence, is a supporter of multilateral nuclear disarmament and has been outspoken in his criticisms of Israeli human rights abuses.

Menzies Campbell, like all of us, is the product of a unique time and place. What is particularly obvious about him is his Scottishness, and how this affects his outlook and personal politics.   His social conscience and internationalist perspective can be traced back to his young life and his time at Glasgow University, where he debated with such other aspiring political talents as John Smith and Donald Dewar.

His impressive record as an Olympic sprinter should also not be overlooked, and underlines the determined nature of the man.  This characteristic was also evident in his drive to ensure that "the Liberal Democrats are the party of ideas and innovation in Britain."

He was also the man who famously compared a Labour reshuffle to "shuffling a pretty battered deck of cards", and who observed that "in the early days, Tony Blair walked on water. He looks a bit waterlogged at the moment."

I cannot possibly speculate how Menzies Campbell would want us to remember him, but I suspect his title is important to him. He would have been immensely proud to be cited in the Queen's Birthday Honours List as "one of the most respected politicians of his generation". So, thank you Sir Menzies Campbell for the memories and the legacy. Parliament, and politics generally, won't be quite the same without you.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Michael Moore axed as Scottish Secretary

In a quite stunning and surprising development the Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Moore, has been cast aside in favour of Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland.

Magnanimous as ever, Moore stated that it had been a privilege to serve as Scottish Secretary “at a hugely important time” for Scottish politics and expressed gratitude for being able to articulate the case for Scotland remaining part of the Union.

Moore has had his critics, but many misunderstand the significant contribution he has made to the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future. Always a rational, reasoned voice, Moore’s balanced and measured approach has been precisely what has been needed. He has not been someone to resort to the politics of simplicity or petty tribalism; moreover, he has shown his political opponents respect and courtesy and has in the eyes of many (especially in Scotland) represented the more acceptable face of the coalition. Even an SNP member remarked to me quite recently how “fair minded” Moore was in his workings with the SNP.

I generally favour the political approach of the Michael Moores and the Nicola Sturgeons of the world rather than the Alex Salmonds and the David Camerons. I accept that’s a matter of personal taste. However, Moore’s record is largely positive. The Scotland Act was, in some key respects, deficient; nonetheless Moore deserves enormous credit for ensuring is passed as it did and on implementing some overdue reform. He also deserves recognition for the way in which he ensured that next year’s independence referendum would become a reality. Without him the Edinburgh Agreement would not have been achieved so amicably.

Moore was also a cleverer operator than he was often perceived. He was one of the rare people in recent years who grasped that attempting to target the First Minister personally or launch into misguided attacks on him were likely to prove counter-productive.

It is being widely speculated that the reason for ousting Moore is to have a more combative person in the role in the run-up to the 2014 referendum. If this is correct, then it is an immense misjudgement by a government that continues to present a lack of understanding on Scottish issues. There has been talk of this before (and speculation that Jo Swinson would be offered the role), for precisely the same reasons, and it is unfortunate that not only do Nick Clegg and David Cameron not see the value in a “safe pair of hands” but that they’re willing to take risks on a more confrontational approach.

It's hard to disagree with the New Statesman in its assessment of the situation: "Moore was a formidable opponent because his measured, moderate unionism was difficult for the nationalists to deal with. For no good reason at all, the no campaign has just dumped one of its strongest cards." Unfortunately, it seems that many Liberal Democrats are oblivious to this.

Axing Moore in order to adopt a more adversarial attitude towards the SNP and Yes Scotland could quite easily play into their hands. The only people who should be happy at this news will be the SNP. A more combative Secretary of State for Scotland will have the unintended effect of giving the “Yes” camp exactly what it wants – and I have no doubt they will use this to their advantage. It may also have the effect of further polarisation at a time when the “debate” needs to be more sober-minded and sensible, focused on engaging with and empowering the Scottish public.

It’s also very surprising that Alistair Carmichael has been moved from his position as chief whip. He’s had a tougher time than previous Lib Dem and Liberal whips, but must be admired for his openness with party members. He has been replaced in his former role by Don Foster, which is another unforeseen (but entirely merited) promotion.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Cameron's socially destrucive policies must be resisted

I’m still in shock after that Tory Party conference.

It was bad enough we had a Home Secretary proudly announcing she’d love to tear up the Human Rights Act.

To follow that up with Osborne’s ignorant railing against “the long term unemployed” suggests that the Conservatives are no longer simply “the nasty party” but incredibly comfortable with their reputation, built as it is upon false assumptions and social prejudice.

The party of the hard working? No, more like the party of the hard of thinking.

But it fell to the Prime Minister himself to deliver the most stunning blow to reason and commonsense. The Prime Minister. Not Peter Bone or Nadine Dorries, but David Cameron himself. The same David Cameron who looked so at ease in the garden with Nick Clegg three years ago. The same David Cameron who apparently enthusiastically backed such Lib Dem policies as equal marriage (much to his backbenchers’ dismay) and once seemed to eager to present himself as a champion of the “new politics” has now given up on his grand projects of pluralism and the “big society”. His speech hinted not only at an obsession with Labour and the politics of the past, but that he has no interest in the coalition other than to look beyond it to the “promised land” of Conservative majority rule and what it will deliver. Make no mistake, Cameron is a “true blue”. He’s determined to lead a party that even Dorries is proud to be part of.

His announcement that the Conservatives will pledge in their 2015 manifesto to withdraw benefits for under 25s who are not “earning or learning” is stunning in its naïveté. It also shows the extent to which he is driven by the less sober voices within his own party and wider society, his fear of UKIP, his limited grasp of key social realities and the prejudice that continues to frame his politics.

On the positive side, it’s good that the Prime Minister is looking to deal with the problem of young people not in employment or education. However, his proposed solutions threaten to wreak social havoc and appear to have been roundly condemned by any individual or organisation with a modicum of knowledge in relation to housing, welfare, the employment market or indeed the diverse needs of the under-25 age group.

“There are still over a million young people not in education, employment, or training. Today it is still possible to leave school, sign on, find a flat, start claiming housing benefit and opt for a life on benefits. It’s time for bold action here. We should ask, as we write our next manifesto, if that option should really exist at all” raod Cameron, to incredible applause from the Tory faithful. That would be much better if it had been abridged to read: “there are still over a million young people not in education, employment, or training. It’s time for bold action here. We should ask, as we write our next manifesto, whether this problem should really exist at all.” The problem with Cameron is that he isn’t focused on the problem; rather, he appears to be looking for a problem onto which to tag his “solutions”. Mass unemployment isn’t the problem to be tacked – but those on benefits. It’s a curious logic, and one that omits to recognise that the most obvious means of reducing the latter is to deal with the former.

He certainly reinforces the case that the spending cuts were ideologically driven – on the part of the Conservatives at least.

For somebody who has previously referred to be welfare system as “a saftey net”, why is the Prime Minister so keen to take this away from so many young people? Why, when he has previously committed himself to “rebuilding broken Britain”, is he advocating policies that will increase poverty? How, when he has persistently promoted the “big society”, can he alienate and demonise large sections of it?

In combination with George Osborne’s speech earlier in the week, it would appear that the Conservative Party’s vision for a new Britain is as a centre of low-paid work and unambitious or inadequate training programmes.

It wasn’t so long ago that I was aged under 25. In 1994, I left home (on the Hebridean island of Islay) and went to Glasgow where I had a social work placement with Community Service Volunteers (CSV). It was a valuable time in which I learned a great deal, not least what pints of lager and girls were. But inevitably, when my placement finished, I was alone in a strange city, with no financial means and few connections. I did find work, but much of it was short-term; I also shared accommodation with a student called Ian who introduced me to most of Glasgow’s esteemed (and not quite so esteemed) drinking establishments. But when Ian finished his studies I had nowhere to live. In 1997 I ended up in a rehabilitation centre for people with addiction problems. And from there I went to a council flat in Sighthill, which was OK if you wanted easy access to the best range of drugs available outside Barlinnie prison.

Why is this important? Because at my lowest point possible I was able to receive some financial support. It was, in a very real sense, a safety net. Without it, people finding themselves in similar situations to where I found myself in 1997 will become increasingly dependent on independent charities, such as the Salvation Army or Shelter. Who, in the Big Society, will pay for that? Furthermore, I had no other network of support such as family to depend on. Many of the people I knew were single people, mostly under 25, many of them parents with a range of individual and social needs.

I suspect you don’t want to hear my sermons, but there were two things that became apparent to me as an impressionable 20 year old. Firstly, very few people (if any) opted for this supposed “lifestyle”. Of course, many were trapped and dependent on a demeaning system for their continued survival, but to equate this with “opt[ing] for a life on benefits” is not merely wrong. It shows a misunderstanding of how difficult it is to climb the economic ladder and to better yourself when your life chances have essentially been determined by accident of a combination of birth, location, relationships, connections and education. It is not easy finding employment when you are a service user in a rehabilitation centre, or a single parent, or have long-standing mental health issues, or live in areas where the prospects of working in any legal form of employment are minimal.

Secondly, I found the way out of poverty was through being supported and empowered rather than demonised and humiliated. I am eternally grateful to the many people who, for whatever reasons, encouraged me to look beyond my circumstances and to believe in myself. Moreover, many of them gave me the practical help I needed to make sure I didn’t end back up in the rehabilitation centre – or worse. True, education also helped, but to get to the place where I was able to seriously consider it as a viable option took some time. It is too glib to punish those “not earning or learning”; instead, we need to increase opportunity.

Will David Cameron’s and George Osborne’s proposed policies do anything to actually deal with the illness of unemployment that is the underlying problem – or will it simply make lie harder for those suffering from its symptoms? I think we know the answer to that particular conundrum.

We need Lib Dem MPs and ministers to take a stand against this destructive Tory rhetoric and the demonization of the poor. Nick Clegg today made a welcome intervention, referring to the Daily Mail as “overflowing with bile”. Some similar words directed towards our Conservative partners and their poisonous sound bites would be even more purposeful.

Furthermore, a sensible and socially responsible discussion on the future of the welfare state and the British benefits system needs to be facilitated. While the Conservative Party resorts to the politics of the lowest common denominator, to uninformed populism and to class war, the Liberal Democrats need to make their voices heard. It is not sufficient to know that the Conservatives are unable to press ahead with their ill-conceived social engineering plans until 2015; that merely provides yet another reason for Scots to vote “Yes” in 2014. These policies and the thinking behind them must be robustly challenged now.

We need more than timid objections from our party leadership. We need to attack the heartlessness of Tory social policy while simultaneously promoting a new programme for economic growth built on job creation and empowering young people. The fact that we are in coalition is no excuse for docility; the very real risk of a Tory majority in 2015 demands it.

Monday, 30 September 2013

What should we make of Osborne's "work for benefits" plan?

George Osborne, a man whose clarity of purpose should never be questioned – even if his grasp of economic reality should – has today given a speech at his party’s conference in Manchester unveiling his plans to extend his “work for benefit” scheme.

Referring to “the long-term unemployed” – yes, he does talk about such people is if they are a single, homogenous group of undeserving parasites – he argued that “no-one will be able to get something for nothing”. It’s such a shame he doesn’t apply the same logic and obvious energy to those avoiding tax using various loopholes, who collectively cost the taxpayer so much more than benefit fraud. Then again, consistency has never been Osborne’s forte, but if he’s genuinely motivated by a desire to ensure that Britain is a meritocracy where the deserving prosper and where the avarice of the “something for nothing” culture is actively and effectively combated by government there might be some more obvious targets than long-term jobseekers.

Attempting to borrow from Nick Clegg’s fairness agenda, the chancellor indicated that his policy would be "fair for those who need it and fair for those who pay for it". Nothing could be further from the truth. There is, of course, a need to positively and responsibly reform the benefits system for exactly the reasons that Osborne states. The welfare system must work more in the interests not only of those who depend on it, but also wider society. However, Osborne’s narrow minded, doctrinaire and simplistic outlook threatens to undermine any fairness that might once have characterised government welfare policy, while simultaneously creating damaging and far-reaching by-products that should concern us all.

The detail of what Osborne is proposing suggests both a crippling intolerance and a politico-intellectual naiveté. His bold determination to shrink the state is unfortunately matched by an equally aggressive resolve to achieve it in the most ham-fisted of ways, widening social divisions and demonising sections of society in the process. What goodwill – and credibility – Iain Duncan Smith once earned the Tories with his apparent willingness to understand and deal with the problems facing inner city communities is rapidly being frittered away in Osborne’s relentless and reckless assault on the welfare system.

What Osborne is proposing is to extend the Mandatory Work Activity to all those who, after two years on the optimistically named “Work Progamme” (in which private contractors are paid to find people a job) will be put onto a new scheme labelled, equally euphemistically, Help to Work. Under this new operation, JSA claimants will have to attend work placements, undertake daily visits to the Jobcentre or attend compulsory training.

The detail about work placements is somewhat lacking in specifics but Osborne did give some examples: “making meals for the elderly, clearing up litter, working for a local charity.” It would seem either he has either limited ambition for those who aspire to find work, is short on imagination or can’t imagine that people who have been unemployed for more than two years may be able to make any other kind of contribution to society. What out of work people need is the opportunity to gain vital skills in order to be able to successfully prepare for the type of work that suits them. They need to be treated as individuals, and invested in accordingly. Furthermore, we should all have concerns about essential services being given to people who will be paid less than the minimum wage – it seems the Tories’ bold vision of a “Big Society” has been reduced to one of slave labour. It also seems self-defeating to combat unemployment by effectively taking away jobs to create these placements: why would, for example, any local authority employ individuals to collect litter when benefit claimants can do it at no cost? Why would a care home employ a kitchen assistant when, similarly, local benefit claimants are standing by to provide their services for nothing?

And who will determine the work placements? Will, as is currently the case, claimants be required to give up potential development opportunities in volunteer work in order to attend placements less geared towards helping them achieve their personal goals? Or will there be a degree of flexibility? Has George Osborne thought this out at all?

The requirement to visit the Jobcentre daily is the obvious sign of how out of touch with reality the chancellor is. Not only does he fail to appreciate that the Jobcentre is somewhat limited in its success at finding people employment (something the government should be aware of, given its belief that private contractors are better placed to find work for unemployed people) it overlooks that for many the cost of doing this would be prohibitive. It also overlooks another painfully obvious fact – that the jobs simply do not exist. At a time of high unemployment, it is unfair on several levels to suggest that those out of work are failing society. As those on the Help to Work scheme must stay on it until they find work, they may (in theory at least) be obligated to attend the Jobcentre every weekday for several months or even years. That’s a lot of bus fare, which isn’t easily affordable on £71.00 a week.

Finally, Osborne refers to compulsory training for those who need help – for example, those who are illiterate. Why such people should have to wait two years before receiving such help is another question. “For those with underlying problems, like drug addiction and illiteracy, there will be an intensive regime of support. No-one will be ignored or left without help” insisted the chancellor. It might not feel that way, however, if such an “intensive regime of support” actively works against the needs of those with, for example, long-standing mental health problems. Osborne also doesn’t make it clear why people with such “underlying problems”, most of who will already be receiving extensive support, require it to be either supplemented or replaced – or precisely what form the promised “support” would take. It is also worrying that, in the case of some of the most vulnerable people in society, he seems to suggest that their mental well-being – and their value to society – is determined by employment status. 

He seems to have as much understanding of complex mental health issues as he does of the damage his short-sighted ideas will ultimately cause.

But this is Osborne’s vision of Britain; one in which the distinction is made between the deserving and the undeserving, and in which those not adhering to the rules face harsh penalties. The first breach results in a loss of four weeks of benefit money; the second three months. Osborne hasn’t intimated what a third breach would lead to, although rumours of an attempted purchase of Devil’s Island have proved to be unfounded.

And so, to address the question posed at the beginning of this piece, what should we make of Chancellor Osborne’s “work for benefits” plan and, in particular, his quest to abandon the Holy Grail of British politics that is the “centre ground” in order to resurrect the Tories’ merited epithet, “the nasty party”? Other than the self-evident power of Tory backbenches and the Conservatives’ fear of UKIP’s electoral prospects, it would appear that Osbornomics represents very little other than an ill-conceived appeal to populism. His shrill speech also gives credibility to the arguments that the government’s previous welfare initiatives to date have been abject failures.

Osborne should instead turn his attention to declaring war on unemployment – not the unemployed. There should be no place in the “Big Society” for requiring people to work for less than the minimum wage. No society, big or small, is successful when it ostracises or demonises its most vulnerable citizens. There should be no place in responsible government for ill-conceived programmes of social engineering, or of ill-conceived schemes that (according to the DWP) have absolutely “no impact on the likelihood of being employed” and actually could increase unemployment.

The chancellor would also be well advised to turn his attentions to job creation. By job creation I do not mean part-time minimum wage jobs for which the only potential applicants would be those who are able to top up their incomes with benefits. If Osborne and the government are serious about breaking the cycle of benefit dependency, they need to be more imaginative and focused on facilitating new jobs that pay well, rather than making life hard for those on benefits. 

If Osborne understood economics as he claims, he would also appreciate that during downturns the best way to stimulate the economy is to encourage spending. Which section of society spends the highest proportion of its income? (Clue: it’s not the middle classes, putting their money in the ISAs for their grandchildren’s university fees).

Osborne’s speech today was as disappointing as it is incoherent. Most obviously, he seems to be labouring under the misapprehension that the economic situation and unemployment is somebody else’s problem. In savagely attacking those who are out of work long-term the chancellor at best avoided the real questions and at worst championed “solutions” that will do little to improve the economy or reduce unemployment while contributing to the social misery that so characterises the “Broken Britain” he claims to aspire to fix.

It would, perhaps, be wrong and overly charitable to consider Osborne as a mass of contradictions. He is simply dangerous; a man whose social reforms even Thatcher would have balked at and a reminder of why the Liberal Democrats are so necessary in government.