Sunday, 27 January 2013

Dear Mr Ward...

Following David Ward MP's apology for insensitively implying that "the Jews" were responsible for acts of oppression against Palestinians, and the reaction of two "senior" Liberal Democrats in denouncing him, I have written him a short letter:
Dear Mr Ward,
As a member of the Liberal Democrats, I would like to congratulate you on your recent stance promoting the human rights of Palestinians.
Like many others, I was very concerned at the way you chose to make the point – the actions of the State of Israel must be distinguished from those of Jewish people; the Jews are not responsible for crimes committed against humanity by the Israeli state.  I am sorry that the language you used was, as you admit, inappropriate and insensitive because it undermined what you were attempting to do.
As you rightly point out, there are serious injustices continuing to take place in 21st century Israel/Palestine and these need to be both recognised and confronted.  I hope that you continue to draw attention to, and raise public awareness of, the oppressive nature of Israeli activity in Palestine.
I have read your apology tonight and am in complete agreement that we all need to learn more completely the lessons of the Holocaust.  It was not a crime against any individual group of people, but against all of humanity.  I say that as someone whose maternal grandfather was a Polish Jew and whose paternal grandfather assisted in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. Remembrance is often a deliberately selective activity and too often the real lessons, and their implications for the present, are regrettably overlooked.
I thank you for your continuing deserved criticisms of Israeli oppression: the cause of international justice demands that more like yourself speak out.  However, I trust that you continue to maintain such criticisms, you will be more careful in future with your choice of words and refrain from making any statements that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic and bring you or the party into disrepute..  

Yours Sincerely,

Andrew Page

Yes, his comments were unwise.  Yes, they were potentially offensive towards Jewish people.  They could be construed as being anti-Semitic. But it is possible that what David Ward was guilty of was a serious error of judgment in regards his use of language.

I for one am happy to accept his apology if it is followed with more culturally sensitive contributions in the future.

I wrote this in 2010: The Problem of Language and Distortion.  With its consideration of the Holocaust, it seems quite timely to reflect on my then observations once again.

David Steel's speech to the Blackpool Assembly, 1988

David Steel, addressing an SDP conference.
(Picture: Liberal History)
It would turn out to be the final leader's speech to Liberal Assembly (not counting those held by the continuing Liberal Party).

Twenty-five years ago last Friday, on a cold January day in Blackpool when every sensible person should have been either at home or a Burns Supper (or both), Liberals met at the Norbreck Castle Hotel - described as a giant Fawlty Towers - to decide whether to agree to the terms of the merger agreement with the Social Democratic Party.

Bob Maclennan's party had already agreed to these, but the media believed the Liberal Party would be more difficult to persuade.  There was, of course, the "dead parrot" fiasco, which had threatened to undermine David Steel's leadership entirely.  The Glasgow Herald predicted a close vote, observing that many Liberals  felt that the negotiations conceded too much to the SDP's way of thinking.  The proposed name was seen as a potential obstacle but clearly everyone's attentions were on the leader himself.

Steel had endured a torrid few days.  There was understandable blame attached to his inability to foresee the problems Voices and Choices would create among his own party.  He was perceived as being policy-light at the best of times and at a fatal moment he'd failed altogether.  Furthermore, he was viewed by party members as somewhat distant and someone who struggled with notions of solidarity. Steel, never well-liked by the party faithful, faced one of the biggest challenges of his political career- at least if the media were to be believed.  The apparently discredited leader now had the unenviable task, only days after the undignified events of 13th January, to appear before his party's delegates and convince them of the merger project.

The final vote proved to be more one-sided than anyone thought possible (91% in favour, requiring a two-thirds majority), although Steel cannot have known that in advance.  What he, and other senior Liberals. were aware of was that many Liberals such as Michael Meadowcroft were already expressing objections to the merger.  They were furious at "how badly the Liberal Party was treated... the tactical naïvete of David Steel, the eventual supineness of almost all the Liberal Party’s negotiating team, and on whether the final settlement really did represent a compromise too far." (M.Meadowcroft, “The Journal of Liberal History”, No 18, Spring 1998)  Some were particularly angry with the leadership as a whole which, it was deemed, had "treated colleagues with barely concealed contempt".  It is easy to judge history by outcomes; however, Steel's speech deserves to be viewed in the context of a leader enduring peculiar personal difficulties attempting to convince his party of the merits of his vision. It was a huge risk and he knew it. The stakes were unusually high, with rebellion in the air.

Indeed, Michael Meadowcroft remembers the special Assembly as "unpleasant". He explains: "It was as well 'fixed' as I used to do as Assembly Committee Chair. Those opposed to merger had few big guns and some of those colleagues who were called to speak were not unduly helpful - some were genuinely too upset to cope with the occasion. I suspect that I made my worst Assembly speech ever and the vote was in any event a foregone conclusion."  Allegations of fixing aside, it is clear from this testimony that the tension was real and that Steel spoke in the context of a battle he was determined to win.

That leader's speech in full:
"Benjamin Disraeli was once asked to define the difference between a misfortune and a calamity. He said: ‘If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune, but if anybody pulled him out, that would be a calamity.’  I can well understand that there might have been Liberals last week who wished to update the political reference. All I want to say about that is that some political leaders - I mention no names - believe they are infallible. She of course never makes mistakes. I do not subscribe to the doctrine of the infallibility of party leaders, and perhaps that’s just as well in the circumstances.
"In 1906, our party leader Campbell-Bannerman offered the public a succinct and hugely successful manifesto, namely: ‘to undo the mischief wrought in recent years.’ I think we can agree on such a commonsense approach.   I want this Assembly to look forward not backward. Yes, the last six months have been arduous. But what did we expect? Yes, the birth-pangs of our new party have been painful. I frankly cannot imagine that anybody but Liberals would have had the generosity of spirit to undertake this difficult process. We have not sat at home jeering from the sidelines like some. It has been hard, but now we have come through. We should look forward to the new life we are about to create. 
"During the twelve years that I have been leader, I have been sustained by a vision of a centre-left party, free of the dogma, the class hatred, the arrogance, and the extremism which have haunted British political life since the War. We have never lost sight of the great principles on which this party was founded, which are no less needed in the Thatcher age than they were over a hundred years ago. I have had a vision of a Britain which is very different. Not the tawdry Britain of today, motivated by greed and stifled by autocracy. If a radical government had wasted public money on a case such as Spycatcher, manipulated the truth over an affair such as Westland, produced as cock-eyed, unpopular and indefensible a measure as the poll tax, and steadily accrued power to itself away from local government, imagine what the public outcry would have been.
"As it is, much of Fleet Street is servile, corrupted by the combination of honours and monopolistic ownership, reserving its scorn only for critics of the government, whether in the other political parties, the churches or the universities. The slide to autocracy over this last decade is alarming more and more sections of the population. It is our prime duty to organise effectively to prevent it. And during these twelve years, I have been sustained by the knowledge that many, possibly even the majority of our fellow citizens, were willing us to succeed. When the Alliance was formed I saw, and many of us saw, that this great longing for a new and fundamentally better society based on partnership, cooperation and consensus, was now a possibility. The Alliance was not formed simply as a marriage of convenience. I repudiate this view utterly.
"It was my belief, and that of Roy Jenkins, that the Alliance was the thin end of the wedge in achieving our shared aim of a fairer, and in a true sense a more successful, Britain. Today I must tell you that experience has reinforced that view.
"The Liberal Party founded in its present organisation 110 years ago has so much to its credit. It was we who laid the foundations of the welfare state introducing old-age pensions, sickness insurance and unemployment benefit. It was our Keynesian policies which first showed how to manage an economy so that we could maintain our basic freedoms while effectively tackling unemployment; between the wars we backed the doctrine of collective security and supported rearmament in the face of a supine government; yet we retained the valued Quaker tradition in our midst; we have advocated genuine industrial democracy as opposed to trade union oligarchy; and consistently through our history the need for constitutional reform and devolution within a federal framework.
"We are all proud to be Liberals. Duty to our neighbours and good citizenship are for us the mainsprings of social reform.
"No government of which we were a part would tolerate a Chancellor of the Exchequer grasping buoyant revenues and failing to provide increased resources for our hard-pressed National Health Services, especially for our underpaid and overworked nurses.  
"No one understands better than I the deep feelings throughout the party about the decision we have to take. I will be a Liberal to the day I die. I feel myself clothed in the aura of the word Liberal and all the associations which that has. Liberalism is not a creed, a dogma or a fixed ideology. It does not prescribe how people should live or limit what they can become. Liberalism is about developing people’s potential and enlarging their freedom. It is the spirit which sustains the adventure of progress. Last year I spoke to the students at Cape Town University, urging them, in the face of increasing intolerance of left and right, to hold fast to their liberal traditions. I did it because being a Liberal is not simply a title, it is a way of life. Liberalism is an attitude of mind. It has a noble past, and, I believe, a noble future.
"During that visit I met the writer Alan Paton, who was President of the Liberal Party of South Africa when it was closed down because it was multi-racial. He wrote this: 'If Liberalism died, if those sentiments that we call liberal were no longer cherished by men and women then the countries of the world would soon become tyrannies, whether of the left or right. The joy of being human would disappear from the earth.'
"For twenty-three years I have been in the House of Commons fighting for this great party of ours, not to further a career in politics, but because I believe in those Liberal principles. My fellow Liberals, the people of Britain need them now more than ever. Perhaps not the complacent rich, or the arrogant powerful, but the weak, the needy, the sick, the struggling minorities, the young, the unemployed. The Liberal Party more than any other party is like a great family. Sure, we have our occasional rows and our upsets, but we are held together by a great sense of belonging, of tolerance, and dare I say of warmth.  As a family in recent years we have enjoyed moments of great success, triumph and elation. As a family we have suffered times of setback, despair, and even, at Christmas a year ago, tragedy. We have laughed together at times and we have cried together at times.
"Many of the commentators find us difficult to understand, so easy to poke fun at. It’s a lot easier to base a political party simply on the haves, the get-rich-quicks, the self-appointed establishment on the one hand or the organised trade union votes and funds on the other. The great strength of our party is that it has never been exclusive, but always comprehensive. The Liberal Party has throughout its history included those who believe fervently in one or two particular aspects of Liberalism, and this party has never sought to crush colleagues who happen to think differently from ourselves. The new party of Social and Liberal Democrats must sustain that tradition.
"There is another tradition which it must sustain - our more recent but impressive dedication to practical Liberalism. So many have pounded the dark, wet streets. Others have been up to their elbows in printer’s ink - working week in week out to help people improve the communities where they live. The very fact that Liberals and Social Democrats are already united in groups in so many local authorities is itself a powerful argument against now attempting to put them asunder.
"But we must not wallow in our own longevity, history and traditions to the extent that we ignore the qualities of the SDP. The freshness of their approach and the strength of their ideals brought many into politics whom we had failed to attract and enabled a large slice of talent to abandon the fruitless struggle to reform the Labour Party. They have taught us the modern techniques of direct communication with their membership. They care about the same things we care about. They have become our brothers and sisters in an enlarged family. The assets of the two parties taken together will provide the basis for a formidable force. 
Our new party will have to be realistic. Of course it will. We shall need sound policies, based on sober deliberation. But we shall need something else even more important if we are to succeed. We shall need commitment. The soul of Liberalism must shine through.
"The commitment to restore Britain to self-government; to insist on freedom of information and a bill of rights; to let people make their own decisions locally. It is Liberalism which gives people a voice. The commitment to tackle poverty and squalid housing, not as an act of charity but as a recognition of the common humanity we all share. It is Liberalism which will unlock the trap of deprivation in which two million families are locked in this prosperous country. The commitment to usher in a society prudent in the use of its resources, not profligate; in harmony with the natural world, not at war with it; caring about what we hand on to future generations. The commitment to end discrimination between people based on the colour of their skin. It is Liberalism which stands against the street bullies mugging Asian Britons, it is Liberalism which reunites families divided by cruel immigration laws, and it is Liberalism which says there is no hope in South Africa until Nelson Mandela is free. The commitment to international interdependence, and the recognition that the nation-state is obsolescent. It is Liberalism which believes in one world. It is Liberalism which strives for international peace and security based on mutual respect and confidence and it is Liberalism here in Britain which helped get us into the European Community, helped keep us there, and which alone wants the Community to develop and integrate as far and as fast as possible.
"It is Liberalism which will awaken the conscience of the developed world to the famine, disease and hunger of the poorer countries. And it is Liberalism which knows we cannot enjoy our freedom while half the world is enslaved.
"I speak now, not as leader but as a member, an activist member, of the Liberal Party. And however great the majority in this hall today - and I believe it must be 2:1 or more - let us not forget that the final decision is up to each and every member of the Party throughout the country. 
"There is no shortage of tasks for brave Liberals. There are still giants to be slain, the ogres of war and fear, intolerance and prejudice. There are still mountains to be scaled, the grim peaks of poverty and privilege. There are great prizes to be won as well: peace and prosperity, freedom and justice, opportunities for each and dignity for all. At the end of my very first speech as your leader in Llandudno in 1976 I described the kind of country I wished to see. I have returned to many of these themes today. In some ways we are actually further removed from a Liberal society now than we were then. 
"I have spoken this morning as a Liberal about liberalism. That is as it should be. Opponents of merger sometimes talk as if the Liberal Party is going to be abolished, that the new party will not be Liberal. If that were so, I should be voting against merger. I don’t consider every aspect of the constitution to be perfect, but like everybody else I know we can amend it in the light of experience.
"But it is precisely because we shall carry our Liberalism proud and intact into the new party, because our chance to achieve Liberal aims will be increased and because the SDP are our natural partners that I do support merger now. The choice is a simple one. Yes, for the chance to put Liberalism into practice, or No, for decades of division and a diminution of Liberalism. I say YES, for the next step in the adventure of Liberalism and to provide a new hope for Britain. Our Assembly has been required over these years to make many vital decisions, but none so crucial as the one we are called upon to make today. Yes, it is going to affect us in our constituencies, in our councils, in parliament.
"But today’s decision affects more than us. It will affect the millions beyond this hall who have been yearning for us to get together and provide a truly effective party able to challenge the Tories at the next election. Let Labour remain the official opposition. Our people want us to become the electable opposition. The country demands it. We cannot fail them now."
There will have been those at the time, both in and outwith the Liberal Party, who believed that merger was the wrong choice.  Whether they felt that merger was a "betrayal" as did Michael Meadowcroft or, as other critics believed, that it was an unnecessary and impractical project doomed to failure by incompetence of its leaders, the evidence twenty-five years later shows that they were wrong.  That is not simply because the "continuing" Social Democratic and Liberal Parties failed, but because in the quarter of a century following the Special Assembly the Liberal Democrats have progressed into a significant third force of UK politics, have become a more effective and professional campaigning unit than either of its predecessors and have ensured a growing parliamentary presence election after election (at least until 2010 bucked the trend).  This is the legacy not only of merger itself but of the efforts of Maclellan and Steel to bring it into being.

Of course the previous 25 years have not been all glorious ones for the Liberal Democrats.  But the story of the party is not one of survival, as some predicted, but of steady growth and increasing social and political significance.  The way forward might not be altogether clear and obviously in the immediate future it's highly possible that a few setbacks may be experienced, but it an undeniable fact that the party in 2013 is healthier than that Paddy Ashdown inherited in 1988.

There is much in Steel's speech that remains true and relevant today. I have no desire to over-interpret other than to state that it reads well a quarter of a century later.  The historical context is of vital importance, but if any of today's Liberal Democrats are looking for some encouragement for the challenges ahead they could do worse than reflect on David Steel's timeless truisms.

We have to tackle these misconceptions...

...misconceptions about benefit dependency, that is.

I use social media quite a lot.  My partner thinks I'm addicted to it.  I'm not sure that's true, but it does allow for interesting conversations and some relief from baby responsibilities.

I'm not going to suggest that social media is a more accurate reflection of public opinion than the tried and tested methodology of opinion polling - after all, as in life more generally, there will always be minorities that make a disproportionate amount of noise.  (Yes, Scotland for Marriage, I mean you.)  But what is inescapable is that social media are not now the new media or "the future" but a very real part of our present.  They inform opinions, communicate them, reinforce them.  They even validate them.

What social media is very good at is to bring what would once have ended up in waste paper baskets onto thousands of people's computer screens.  And so someone can put together some misinformed, prejudicial and blatantly incorrect assertions about the world or those who live in it, click a  button and...well, sit back for the predictable response.

If this is the future of political conversation, then I am utterly dismayed.  It's not that twitter, facebook and the like are not useful platforms for such.  Indeed they are.  Neither am I some kind of backward-looking nostalgic reflecting on the days when the public and politics were kept as far apart as possible.  No, what concerns me is that, for many, this is all that engagement on politics is about now.   It's not a conversation as such, rather than a broadcast of some simplistic and populist perspectives - usually aimed at immigrants, the underprivileged or gay people.

This flyer (see picture) has been doing the rounds.  It's not untypical of so much else in circulation on facebook (although not quite as objectionable as the "snow settling" pictures, drawing obvious conclusions about immigrants).  The comment accompanying such "pictures" are usually puerile and reflecting both prejudice and a lack of both knowledge and understanding of the wider complexities of the issues.  And what we are seeing on social media is, very evidently, a reinforcing of attitudes that make distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor, that demonise those on benefits and that yearns for a "return" to the type of Britishness that only exists in the minds of backbench Tories like Peter Bone...a Britishness that never existed other than in the prejudicial mindsets of those who consider themselves morally superior.

Now, the above was "shared" by someone today, in agreement with it I must add, who really should know better.  Not least because he volunteers for the CAB.  It more than troubles me when such manifestly incorrect information actually leads more informed people to accept at least some of its conclusions.  It demonstrates two things: a) that social media is powerful in shaping opinions and b) there is a need to tackle - urgently - both the misconceptions and the attitudes behind it, which are framing the political conversation in the UK and in no small measure are determining how certain groups of people are being perceived.

Whether it's a case of right-wing Tories heightening public prejudice or that of expressed attitudes of the public providing fuel to those in parliament keen to use populism to further their cause, it's a dangerous mix.  These attitudes are dangerous and socially divisive - something I witnessed first hand while living in Sighthill in the late 90s (then it was misinformation spread about Kosovan refugess that led to one of their number being killed).

And so, in my small way, I decided to challenge the misinformation and blatant lies.  I wrote, in response:

"This kind of thing does the rounds quite often, so here's a reply

1) People on benefits do not have all the advantages of a full-time job. Far from it, not least the social and well-documented positive mental health aspects of being in employment. They also do not have a decent income - I challenge anyone to live productively on the £118.50 per week my partner and I got (for a very short time) when on Income Support. Admittedly there's a problem that when much of the available work is part-time and for the minimum wage work very definitely doesn't pay but that's no reason to demonise those who receive benefits.

2) "Only working people don't qualify for benefits". Absolute tosh. In fact, out of the £188.4bn annual spending on welfare benefits, less than 25% is accounted for by out-of-work benefits. 

3) "Free housing". A great deal of housing benefit is paid to families working on low incomes.

4) "Free utilities, free food". Erm, sorry. That's not provided by the state. Maybe if you're needs are so dire you're living in the Salvation Army hostel you'll get such provision, but not otherwise.

5) "Free medical services". Only there for those not working? Really???? Don't recall paying when the NHS saved my life. Or when my expectant partner received free dental treatment.

6) "Free transportation". There is for those over a certain age, yes. Whether they're working or not is irrelevant. People on benefits below pensionable age do not receive such "advantages".

7) "Free Legal Services". Legal Aid is available to anyone - so long as the legal matter is in scope of a prescriptive and limited range of matters allowed - whose gross monthly income is less than £2,657 or their disposable monthly income less than £733. Most working people in the UK are eligible for Legal Aid.

8) "Some of our families have received benefits for 2 or 3 generations." The fact is that only 0.3% of families contain two generations of people who have never worked.  And if many have had to claim benefit for some part of their adult life, is it necessarily their fault?  Isn't the answer job creation?

9) And now onto the pedantry. There is no such organisation as the Benefits Agency and has not been for 12 years. The flag is not the flag of England, but of the UK. Also, the DWP has responsibility for the whole of the UK, not just a part of it. The point I'm making really being that this neatly encapsulates the ignorance of the writer(s)."

Such ignorance is, however, powerful - which is why it should be resisted and opposed.  We all have a responsibility for challenging prejudice and ignorance - something that is, after all, part of the drive to create a liberal society.  The preamble to our constitution makes it abundantly clear that we exist "to build and safeguard...a which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity."

It seems to me that each of these three ills continues to plague society and that the challenges to the society we aim to create are both legion and tremendously real.

We have to rise to these challenges.  We must find a rhetoric that empowers those in poverty and injustice, releases people from the chains of ignorance and prejudice the debate on welfare, challenges the voices of conformity and connects with the day-to-day concerns of the public.  Perhaps one of the first steps should be to reclaim the debate about the future of welfare from the poisonous discussion framed by the harsh, uncaring and deeply prejudiced attitudes of the least savoury elements of the Conservative Party?

That - and tackling insensitive, misguided and judgmental assumptions such as this wherever we see them.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

The “dead parrot” – 25 years on

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
"This parrot is definitely deceased.  It has passed away.  It has ceased to be.  It is no more.  It's a stiff. He's snuffed it, bereft of life, indubitably extinct.  This is an ex-parrot!"

One Wednesday, exactly quarter of a century ago today, was witness to a episode of such monumental failure, confusion and comic farce that it threatened to not only undermine the respective leaderships of the Liberal and Social Democratic parties but also to compromise the prospect of merger altogether. Indeed, it took some time for the new party to regain its reputation after this absurd event – or, more accurately, a poorly handled sequence of interconnected events – had done so much to negatively inform public perceptions of the merger negotiations and the platform on which the new party was based.

In reflecting on the events of 13th January 1988 political historians tend to focus their attentions on the policy document – Voices and Choices for All – generally referred to as the “dead parrot document” courtesy of an unfortunate quip from David Steel.  Inevitably this statement of policy intention did much to influence proceedings and it is, even twenty-five years later, virtually impossible to assess accurately both its actual and potential impact on personal relationships, the appeal of the new merged party in the minds of voters and the proposed merger itself.  What is clear is that it was a deeply damaging and embarrassing episode in our party’s history that was both unnecessary and avoidable, and one that speaks more about the personalities involved than it does about the policy detail of Voices and Choices.

Merger negotiations had been ongoing for several weeks and had actually overrun.  It was envisaged that talks would have been concluded before Christmas with the two leaders, Steel and Bob Maclennan, triumphantly proclaiming the success of their endeavours to a press conference in mid-January, allowing time for a little reflection prior to the Liberals’ special assembly in Blackpool scheduled for 23rd January.  Unfortunately, due to some key unresolved issues such as the approach towards NATO and the name of the prospective new party (Steel himself expressed criticism of those who “care more about party names than broader purpose”), combined with Maclennan’s lateness in delivering the policy statement the SDP had insisted on, the final meeting of the negotiators would have to take place late on Tuesday 12th January.  This proved to be unwise on many levels and gave little time for proper consideration of the merger proposals in advance of the planned press conference – or, indeed, reaction to the detail of the policy document.

In this sense, the entire project could have foundered on adherence to an impractically rigid timescale.

The final meeting of negotiators had been difficult and fraught.   Michael Meadowcroft had walked out over the reference to NATO, later followed by Tony Greaves, Rachael Pitchford and Peter Knowlson who collectively objected to the use of “Social and Liberal Democrats” as the new party’s name.  Whether the new party should start out life as LSD, as opposed to SLD, was of importance to the Liberals who had wanted more time to consider and who were less than impressed by a Maclennan ultimatum to come to a decision “within five minutes” or risk the SDP calling off the merger altogether.  It was an expression of frustration and negotiation fatigue more than a serious threat, but it did little to improve the general mood in the immediate lead-up to the much hailed press conference.

One by-product of the dead parrot saga is that the merger negotiations themselves have since come to be characterised as bizarre and haphazard – even unprofessional.  Such an interpretation is unfair.  Certainly in the political context of the time – with heightened tensions both within and between the parties exacerbated by the spectre of David Owen who, even in his absence, had a disproportionate effect on proceedings – it is difficult to be overly critical.  The Liberals chose not to make matters easier by electing fourteen negotiators and necessitating the SDP to reciprocate, but the inescapable fact is that the negotiations were successful.   Anticipated hurdles had been tackled with minimal difficulty.  The merger was agreed in principle.  An agreement had been drawn up, a constitution drafted which founded the new party on a federal model and a name had been agreed upon.  In no small measure this had been due to Maclennan’s interest in technical detail and a surprising willingness on both sides to ensure that the venture was successful.

In spite of media speculation, there was widespread commitment to the project.  Both teams realised that failure to deliver an agreement to put to their respective parties would have potentially devastating effects.  And so, after fifteen weeks of frantic negotiations, agreement had been reached.  At least it must have seemed that way.

Maclennan had invested a great deal into providing the new party with a new policy prospectus.  There was, it must be noted, no pressing need for this as the party could simply have adopted the Alliance’s 1987 manifesto and its starting point for policy formulation.  But there was more to Maclennan’s thinking than merely stating a policy stance: his actions were governed by a determination to incorporate a strong Social Democratic character on the new party and reach out to the Owenites who, it seemed, may form a rival party imminently.  It was not his aim to merely reinforce existing policy and he had no intention of Voices and Choices being a tame repetition – rather, this was to be a bold, daring and radical attempt to articulate a new policy platform that, while remaining true to both Liberal and Social Democratic values, was prepared to espouse a new and forward-looking policy direction that would serve to underline SDP input and appeal to disaffected Owenites.  Maclennan wanted to demonstrate that he was willing to be tough and that with its new identity established upon a distinctive policy map, the new party would also be tough and radical rather than a soft, woolly liberal party about which Owen and many SDP members retained suspicions.

This was unwise.  In allowing the figure of David Owen to loom so large in his thinking Maclennan had taken his eye off the principal end goal: the successful merger of the SDP with the Liberal Party.  His determination to ensure that the new party began its life with an initial policy prospectus was understandable but there was little need to do much more on this front than re-hash the Alliance manifesto with some renewed commitment to NATO and a broad, non-specific commitment to tackling poverty.  He should have realised that the policy document should not be allowed to become the story.   Essentially, if a policy statement was necessary to Maclennan’s objectives then additional care should have been taken to ensure it was non-contentious or at the very least acceptable to a majority.  Little was to be gained by an adventurous and radical policy document that would provide all the talking points while appealing to virtually no-one.

Voices and Choices was not a bad document, for all its weaknesses.  It was simply the wrong idea for the wrong time.  The situation simply did not require a bold and radical statement of intention.  It simply required agreement.  Much of Maclennan’s thought in accepting the challenges of leadership at this time was focused on unifying his own party while facilitating the fusion of the Liberals and SDP in such a way as to bring the best of both parties’ characters and traditions into the new party.  It was not an easy task, especially with the media obsession with David Owen and the potential for a breakaway SDP.  In many ways Maclennan proved to be more capable than many had expected and ultimately his legacy was the formation of the new, federalist party.  But in making so much of the policy stance – which was not designed to be a commitment – he had overreached himself near-fatally.  One of the critics of Voices and Choices, Hugo Young, declared that it did not contain “a word that David Owen could disagree with” which neatly encapsulates the folly of Maclennan’s overtures towards Owen’s followers.

Voices and Choices may not seem particularly radical today.  In truth, it was not proposing anything that was overtly radical in 1988.  At its heart was a desire to tackle the problems of poverty via tax reform, including the extension of VAT.  It thus proposed such things as adding VAT to clothing,  domestic fuel and financial services, to abolish universal child benefit (of course, no liberally-minded MP in 2013 would consider doing such a thing), to bring the UK’s tax system more closely into line with our European neighbours and to complete the European Single Market.  It promoted “market democracy” as a means by which poverty and deprivation could be rendered obsolete.  More controversially for the Liberals, it proposed extending the use of nuclear energy.

This was never likely to go down easily with Liberal MPs.  And so, on Wednesday 13th January, when Steel announced that he was unable to “deliver his party” there should have been no surprises. The fact that neither the Liberal leader nor his SDP counterpart had foreseen this suggests that Steel, who on initially reviewing the document had called it “bold and imaginative”, had underestimated his own party on a number of levels.  He failed to appreciate that Voices and Choices was a political liability, that his MPs may strongly object and that the media might regard it as sub-Thatcherite dogma.  This cannot simply be explained by way of Steel’s well-known dislike of policy detail as on 10th January he and Maclennan, with Alan Beith, had spent significant time discussing it.  He was aware of, and had agreed with, the extension to VAT.  Perhaps Steel’s real problem was a lack of engagement with his parliamentary party.  Simply leaving copies of the policy document in “an anteroom beside his be consulted by any Liberal MP who wished to do so”, as Ivor Crewe and Tony King reliably state occurred, is no replacement for constructive dialogue and suggests a misguided complacency in Voices and Choices being inherently acceptable to his party.  Certainly Steel had never given any indication to Maclennan that Voices and Choices contained anything remotely problematic and thus it is Steel, rather than the SDP leader, who is more culpable for the near disaster that followed.  He regarded the document as insignificant; perhaps as a mere SDP indulgence.  But, crucially, he had reckoned without consulting his MPs.  It was not the finest example of Steel's leadership skills.

On Wednesday 13th January, only half an hour prior to the much anticipated press conference,  Steel decided that he could not take his party with him.  It appeared that the lengthy merger negotiations might prove to be in vain.  Would this be the price paid for Maclennan’s commitment to a policy declaration and Steel’s inability to foresee its potential effects?  Liberal MPs, including Alan Beith and Chief Whip Jim Wallace had expressed strong objections with Wallace suggesting that not a single Liberal MP could support Voices and Choices.  This was a huge surprise to Maclennan who had not envisaged any such difficulties.  After a meeting of the two leaders it was decided to call off the press conference until later in the afternoon “pending further consultations”.

What happened in the interim is described as “shocking and harrowing” by Crewe and King.  Meeting in Committee Room 6, the Liberal MPs, Maclennan and Charles Kennedy  met to thrash out a deal that, even now, would keep merger alive.  Emotions ran high and Maclennan at one point had to be retrained from leaving.  Steel, also overcome with emotion, appeared to apologise, his voice cracking: “I think I’ve let you all...” Simon Hughes believed the situation could be rescued and set about redrafting it.  It was eventually agreed to continue negotiations in respect to the policy document while the two leaders faced the waiting journalists.

Unfortunately at this point Paddy Ashdown decided it would be a good idea for the Liberal MPs and Charles Kennedy to line up behind the leaders at the press conference.  Even more unfortunately, no-one seemed to disagree.  As if things could not get worse, what was intended as a show of solidarity instead projected a view of Maclennan and Steel as hostages of a gang of rather menacing-looking men in suits.  It was not the glorious, exultant press conference originally envisaged.  Defeat seemed to have been snatched from the jaws of victory.

Ultimately difficulties with the policy document were ironed out relatively easily which demonstrates that either agreement is easier under pressure or that, with more effective leadership, the entire “dead parrot” debacle could have been avoided.  Actually, I am of the view that both assertions are correct.  Steel took his eye off the ball, and should have either ensured he would “deliver his party” or informed the SDP of the unacceptability of Voices and Choices sooner.  Maclennan was guilty of misplaced optimism for his own personal ambitions to bring all of his party, including David Owen, with him.  That said, both men were to some degree the victims of an impractical timescale, the political circumstances of the time and the inevitable media pressure, intrusion and speculation.  They were also, as leaders, bound to reap the products of others’ sowing.

Alan Beith’s role is a curious one and I find it impossible to absolve him of some responsibility for the saga.  In some respects his responsibility is greater, for surely – unlike Steel and Maclennan – he was aware of the potential concerns of Liberal MPs.  He was also party to discussions in respect to the policy document on 10th January and was fully aware of its contents and, as the Liberals’ policy director, he was well placed to make objections in advance.  In Steel’s absences, he was able to solicit updates on the progress of the policy document.  He would have been aware of Steel’s weakness on relation to policy, while also being in tune with prevailing views within the parliamentary party.  He did not, other than some general points in respect to defence, make clear his objections until it was too late, when he vociferously expressed them publicly.  Unlike Steel, Beith was not noted for dislike of policy or a lack of engagement and it is hard to comprehend why someone is his position would not have taken some responsible actions prior to the mass rebellion by his fellow Liberal MPs.  It is impossible to know Beith’s motivations although many have speculated; what is certain is that consciously or otherwise he contributed to the potential catastrophe.  Questions should also be asked about the Liberal MPs themselves, who had every right to be disturbed by this odd turn of events and their own leader’s role within it, but who had contributed to the mounting ridicule and the potential derailing of the merger with their dismissing Voices and Choices out of hand.  Given the limited time they had to make their objections known their reaction is understandable, but it served in no insignificant fashion to undermine the merger in which they all passionately believed.  It also, in the immediate aftermath, played into the hands of Dr Owen who happily admitted in his memoirs that he "could not resist the temptation to stir the pot a little...this grand new party [was] revealed to everyone as the 'shower'".

The controversy was ultimately not about the content of the document itself, but the various players in the drama – their characters, prejudices, actions and fears.  In Maclennan’s case it had been his eagerness to show toughness and bring the Owenites with him that had contributed to his short-sighted mission – and in no uncertain terms had actually (unfairly) reinforced their view of him as ineffectual and of the Liberals as unreliable and indisciplined.  Steel, true to character, was guilty of overlooking policy detail, of a lack of engagement with his MPs and of failing to anticipate potential concern and communicate it to the SDP.  Beith, either by commission or omission, had similarly failed to voice concerns in time to prevent the situation gaining a momentum of its own and becoming out of control.  Ashdown’s suggestion of lining up the MPs behind the leaders simply made a bad situation worse.  In combination the failures of each seriously threatened the future of the merger project and the new party, should it come into existence.  It all did little for the public image of the party, which struggled in the polls for a couple of years before Tory unpopularity, Paddy Ashdown’s gradually more assured leadership and a couple of by-elections gave the (by now aptly named) Liberal Democrats reason for quiet confidence going into the 1992 General Election.

Voices and Choices was consigned to the history books and indeed the waste paper basket, although I can confirm that, in spite of copies being collected in, at least two survive.  It deserved a better fate and indeed much of it has since become government, and Liberal Democrat, policy. But it was the wrong idea for the wrong time.  Its good intentions, of engaging positively with the problem of poverty, were always a secondary aim to appealing to Dr Owen’s followers and in this it was misguided.  Such a hope was futile, as proved by later events.  What was needed was something that would create agreement, however dull or uninspiring.

But the parrot was not in fact dead.  Life was breathed into it, both as a policy document (albeit as a heavily revised and renamed statement, which proved acceptable to all apart from Dr Owen) and as the spirit of the new party.  Its unifying ethos became present in the inclusive, federalist and pluralistic political ethic of the Liberal Democrats.  The professional approach, so important to the SDP, in combination with with Liberal approaches to community politics made the Lib Dems, at least for a period in the 1990s and early 2000s, a highly effective campaigning force.  And while inevitably blame has been apportioned for this embarrassing situation, after twenty-five years it is also useful to reflect on what grew out of that painful day in January 1988.  We have much for which to be grateful to Maclennan and Steel, who led their respective parties into successful and productive merger while Owen led his rump SDP into the political wilderness.  That there is today a party at all is, in part, a tribute to them as indeed are some its considerable achievements.  As the new party eventually found its feet, Steel worked constructively on the Scottish Constitutional Convention, facilitating the advent of a Scottish Parliament and becoming its inaugural Presiding Officer.  Maclennan for four years served as President of the party, coming “to represent so completely the ethos and values of the Liberal Democrats” according to Helen Bailey and Robert Ingham of the Liberal Democrat History Group, and providing a pivotal role in negotiations with Labour that produced a proportional voting system for European elections, delivered devolution and made progress in regards the Human Rights Act and Freedom of Information.

Today’s Liberal Democrats are a product of twenty-five years of political history.  We are also the product of those negotiations, debates, disputes and compromises – and the personalities of the characters who shaped them – to a much greater degree than we perhaps believe.  For a period the “dead parrot” debacle came to define us.  Now it represents a memorial stone in our political heritage that should be remembered, if for nothing else, for the way in which the apparently insurmountable obstacles were effectively negotiated.  In spite of the obvious setback, there remained a determination to ensure that the merger would not be a casualty.  Said Steel:
“I decided that [the “dead parrot" fiasco] should be treated as a minor setback which could be turned to advantage rather than some sort of final defeat.  I did my best to rally the spirits of Bob Maclennan, who was deeply downcast by what he felt [was] an exaggeration and unreasonable reaction to the paper.  In a strange way, the joint calamity brought us closer together.”
And, for all the significance historians ascribe to the events of 12th-13th January 1988, the "dead parrot" proved to be just that – while in the short term it was undoubtedly damaging, from a longer-term perspective it can justifiably be seen as nothing more than a minor setback. It did not, as many suggested in 1988, finish off Steel and Maclennan as credible politicians.  Neither did it spell the end of either merger or third-party politics.  It simply amounted to labour pains surrounding the birth of a new, and eventually dynamic, political force that would prove to be more effective than the sum of its component parts.  Some births are inevitably more painful than others and the Social and Liberal Democrats entered the scene in a particularly difficult, and some would argue undignified, way.  How that process has had a bearing on our unique character, identity, nature and outlook is something on which it is more than appropriate to reflect twenty-five years later.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Can the Church of England be any more out of touch?

A couple of days ago I encountered some rather misleading news reports on the internet, largely the product of some of our more excitable journalists.

At first glance it appeared that the Church of England was willing to make overdue progress on at least one element of equality.  Gay bishops are to be allowed, they declared.  Finally, the church was seeing sense...or was it?

The short answer - no. In fact, what has actually happened is that the church has reinforced its identity as institutionally discriminatory and made clear its determination to continue to discriminate against a minority group on the basis of something it cannot change.

In the aftermath of the women bishops vote, perhaps one of the of church's advisors - or what passes for a PR expert in the CofE - decided that the best thing to do was to make a statement to the effect that gay people aren't really that bad and yes, they could be bishops so long as they're gay men and not those lesser beings known as lesbians and also so long know...they don't do what gay men do.  Shhhh. Don't you know sex is a four letter word?

Well, I'm a bisexual person who once considered entering the ministry (not of the Church of England, admittedly) but felt that my sexuality would be too much of an issue and that expectations would be made of me that simply wouldn't apply to heterosexual ministers.  There are other reasons why I think I made the right choice, but I remain concerned that openly gay people who are active in ministry have to answer questions about not only their sexual preferences but their sexual activities.  What kind of equality is that?

What kind of equality is it that has separate rules for how opposite-sex and same-sex priests conduct their lives?  What kind of equality is it that removes distinctions based purely on orientation to replace them with those based on declared sexual activity?

I agree with the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, of which I am a supporter, that the original ban was "farcical" and that it was illogical to allow gay men to enter one type of ministry but not another. I do not agree, however, that this announcement in any way represents "good news". It simply reiterates the already well-known fact that the Church of England doesn't treat gay people very well.

There has been much talk about prospective divisions, as if the risk of schism is somehow more newsworthy and meriting of deeper consideration than the essential human rights issues at the heart of the matter. Of course there will always be those who interpret scripture in very narrow ways, often in ways that were not intended by their writers, and make unfounded claims for both Biblical authority and Biblical inerrancy - usually those for whom the issue of homosexuality is so super-significant that rational compromise is impossible.  Attempting to keep these people onside is both futile and undesirable. The traditional minority may indeed opt to form their own church and that would be regrettable - but strenuous efforts to keep them on board will not help heal the church's many wounds but only exacerbate them and prolong the pain.  Those energies would be better expended elsewhere: ideally in forging a new, genuinely inclusive church.  (And, actually, I'd certainly prefer to be able to bowl bouncers at them from the other end than maintain the pretence that we're somehow better off all sharing the same dressing room.)

The announcement that gay priests will finally be allowed to be bishops simply confirms that the church's previous line was discriminatory without actually removing such discrimination altogether.  The Church of England will continue to discriminate against gay people, only not in the same way.  Perhaps the church needs to realise that discrimination is discrimination.  It is always evil, but when it seems aimed merely at appeasing a reactionary but vocal minority it is particularly objectionable.  What was particularly offensive as the church's reference to celibacy as "a calling"- a calling that gay clergy must enter irrespective of whether they feel personally called to it or otherwise; a calling determined by the prejudicial attitudes and closed minds of others. Why sexual wholeness cannot be considered a calling within the civil partnerships that the church otherwise accepts as good the statement refused to explain.

And so the Church of England has vowed merely not to "exclude from consideration for the episcopate anyone seeking to live fully in conformity to the Church's teaching on sexual ethics or other areas of personal life".  The key word there is conformity. What has effectively happened is that the church has declared adherence to its rigid and plainly contradictory orthodoxy to be the ultimate determinant of suitablity for episcopal duties.  That, for me, is a huge step backwards. It suggests the need to control and ensure unquestioning obedience.

One has to wonder whether the Church of England has learned anything from the experiences of the Canadian Episcopalian Church that has so often led bravely from the front on equality issues. The fears of schism and division have been overplayed, usually as a convenient excuse for inactivity. The reality, as we learned from the Canadian Anglicans, is that hostility often fades away when faced with loving tolerance - just as discrimination would disappear if confronted with a true inclusivity.

What the Church of England continues to do is redefine same-sex clergy as second-rate. In doing so, it diminishes the humanity of men of faith and that of gay people more generally. It excludes such people from fulfilling their potential; something which, in my view, is far more sinful than attraction to members of the same sex. The church must realise that it is called to enhance life in all it fullness - not to reduce it; that it is called to love fully and wastefully - not conditionally; that it is called to be a witness to all - not merely some.

The idea that gay men can serve as bishops so long as they remain celibate is, in any case, an objectionable and intellectually unsustainable argument. The same criteria that the church uses to determine whether opposite-sex relationships are whole should also apply to same-sex ones. And so, if the sexual act makes marriage whole for one so also it does for another. The notion that celibate relationships are somehow holier or purer in the case of gay people than are loving, caring sexual relationships is absurd and devoid of any Biblical defence whatsoever.

No doubt the Church of Scotland will be anxiously watching this from a distance. While the Kirk has admittedly been more careful in its pronouncements it is recognising that it too will shortly have to make a firm decision that will inevitably inflame existing passions, heighten tensions and perhaps lead to painful division.  No-one relishes such an outcome (apart from, perhaps, one or two traditionalists) but it might be the necessary price for creating a new, inclusive, welcoming, compassionate, socially relevant, diverse and tolerant Kirk. Perhaps also one in which sexuality will no longer be an issue and in which the private lives of its clergy are just that.  Perhaps one in which Rev Scott Rennie could be welcomed as the moderator...or perhaps in which I could feel sufficiently welcomed to again entertain notions of entering ministry. Actually, I'd just settle for a church in which no-one's gender, sexual identity or orientation would ever be an issue.

To paraphrase Stonewall: some Christians are gay...get over it.  Some of them might aspire to church leadership...let's welcome it.

Certainly, the Church of England shows no aspiration to be that kind of church, with its intolerance towards gay people and its poor treatment of women. It has instead surrendered leadership on equality issues and I now only hope that the Kirk, and other denominations, move forward willingly to seize the opportunities that the Church of England has surrendered or abandoned.  Wishing the "issue" to resolve itself will not work.  Taking a lead to defeat intolerance and discrimination may - perhaps - be what rescues the church more widely from cultural and social irrelevance.