Tuesday, 30 April 2013

In praise of Paddy Ashdown

Those who know me well won't need reminding of the regard in which I hold Paddy Ashdown.

Today he's shown why that esteem is well-merited.  

The front page of The Herald declares that Lord Ashdown has condemned the controversial £500,000 gift to Better Together from Ian Taylor, CEO of oil giant Vitol.  

Recently I asked whether accepting the donation was wise. I also questioned whether the actions of Ian Taylor and his company in apparently silencing a group of artists was in the interests of free speech and democratic debate. Finally, and most pertinently in my view, I queried why Liberal Democrats active within Better Together seemed so uncritically supportive of Ian Taylor.

I am absolutely delighted that Lord Ashdown has shown both courage and integrity in making this stand. That stems partly from a relief that at least one senior figure in the party does not adhere to the apparent prevailing orthodoxy that Better Together are beyond any kind of criticism (presumably the product of a misplaced belief that such criticism will inevitably destabilise "the greater good"?). It also reassures me that I am not in fact a sole voice crying in the wilderness, as someone recently described me. But, more reassuringly, it demonstrates that there is a section of the party that is deeply uncomfortable with being associated in any way with this donation and the donor himself.  

Ashdown understand the Balkans as well as any modern historian or political commentator and, referring to Vitol's protests that any dealings with Arkan had been honest and legal, commented that "anybody who did business in the Balkans who didn’t realise there were networks of corruption that extended into any and all governments was naive."

Indeed.  Ridiculously naive.  Criminally naive, even.

Which raises the questions: are Ian Taylor and his company simply stupidly naive? Or were they aware of the nature of "business" in Serbia?  Either way, Taylor doesn't emerge with much credit and I continue to maintain that the Liberal Democrats should wish to associate with neither incompetent fools who "innocently" supply money to murderous criminals nor corrupt chiefs of unethical multi-nationals.

There is no question that Ashdown supports the Union and therefore, by implication, the cause of Better Together. But clearly he believes that criticism of this donation must be voiced: "wherever you are coming from, it’s a perfectly legitimate line to pursue" he insisted. He's absolutely right. Why should such criticism be confined to the SNP and Yes Scotland?  Why should the kind of criticism Lib Dem activists would freely be expressing had Nick Clegg received a gift from Vitol not also be voiced when such a gift is made to Better Together? (Quite why the success of Better Together is of apparent greater concern to some Lib Dems than that of their own party is a difficult question to answer adequately and one reserved for a separate blogpost).

So thank you Paddy for showing that it is possible to be critical of the Taylor donation and have difficulties in accepting his money without supporting independence (or indeed holding any other particular views at all).  Now, how many more Lib Dems will join him?  

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Some respect...for Thatcher and society

On the day of Margaret Thatcher's funeral, I'm going to show a little respect.

I hope others do too.

Not just respect for a former Prime Minister. Nor just respect for an elderly woman who suffered from various debilitating illnesses. Neither am I merely showing respect for her family, friends and supporters although I do respect them, even if our political views are vastly different.

I respect our democracy. I respect society. I respect the values of tolerance and acceptance.

I also disrespect hate, and I have no time for those who wish ill on others or celebrate at others' deaths. I certainly have little respect for those who are, apparently, hoping to use Mrs Thatcher's funeral as a "protest". Protesting what? Let's call it what it is; it's not so much a protest that these people are planning, but an expression of disrespect and even hate. I fail to see what it will achieve, other than to send out messages about how divided a nation we are.

I'm going to show Mrs Thatcher some respect. That means, today, I'll take some time to peacefully and soberly reflect on her time on power and her political legacy.

But I'm also respecting her in how I respond to the challenge of that legacy.  I hope others do too.

So, rather than indulge in a show of hate I'm going to prove Thatcher, and Thatcherism, wrong.

There are those who don't believe in society. I want to show them how powerful and vital society is.

There are those who don't view unemployment as a human problem. I want to work to create a society that not only recognises the effects of unemployment on individuals and communities, but actively fights to tackle them.

There are those who are anti-trade union.  I am a proud trade union member, committed to both modernising the unions and ensuring that their voices are heard in the current political conversation.

There are those who still believe in the failed rhetoric of Thatcher's right-wing economics. This is why, more than ever, we must be seeking to create a new economic system that is fair and more capable of delivering stability.

There are others who, like the Tories who voted for Section 28 in 1988, are opposed to LGBT rights.  I will tell them they are wrong, and campaign for a society in which no-one is treated differently on account of their sexual orientation, gender, religion or race.

There are many of Thatcher's followers who share her views on Europe.  I believe in European co-operation and the importance of Britain's place in a reformed EU.  I will challenge the Euro-skeptic views of those whose romantic visions of British identity mean they want us to withdraw from the European Union.

It's not simply particular policies of Thatcher's that I was, and am, opposed to, but the unfeeling, uncaring nature of her Conservatism.  I'm going to challenge that, not by demonstrating how unfeeling, uncaring and disrespectful I can be - but through bringing some caring humanity into my politics.

To those who want to "protest" - may I suggest some alternatives?

If you dislike what Thatcher stood for, and I understand that fully, why not find some more useful outlet for your political expression? Why not join a political party?  Why not get involved in a democratic movement? Why not work for one of the many voluntary organisations promoting social inclusion?  Essentially, there are very many ways you could serve society more effectively than via a short-sighted demonstration of hate. Hate is, after all, very easy; working to create a better society is a long, hard challenge.

But it's the latter option I've chosen and it's how I've always responded to the challenge laid down by Mrs Thatcher.  Yesterday, I joined the Social Liberal Forum.  Mrs Thatcher is partly responsible because, without having lived through the 1980s and witnessed the effects of her policies, I doubt if I'd be politically interested, never mind so determined to create a fairer society.

And so today, as always, I'll privately and personally remember Mrs Thatcher. The respect I have motivates me to do something positive in response, which is probably the more natural and common human reaction than resorting to the gesture politics of intolerance.

As I wrote last night, there should be no place in modern society for hate. However, there is definitely a place for those who are opposed to the heartlessness and inhumanity of a broken political philosophy to join the struggle against it.  Respect demands it. Please join us.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

There is no place for hate in politics

Last night, following their typically abysmal Party Political Broadcast, UKIP asked those watching to take to twitter to make statements about what "their" Britain should be, using the hashtag #MyBritain.

Firstly, it says a great deal about UKIP that it puts the emphasis on the individual rather than on society. Whatever happened to #OurBritain?

Not wanting to leave the descriptions of idealised Britain to UKIP supporters, I tweeted the following:

"#MyBritain is one in which everything does not revolve around Westminster."
"#MyBritain recognises the need for international co-operation and a place at the heart of Europe."
And, most importantly, "#MyBritain is tolerant, welcoming, broad-minded, internationalist, inclusive, socially just and forward-looking."

That final statement, neatly although extremely simplistically, sums up my personal political vision. It is a short statement of who I am, and what my politics are.

I have no time for the politics of hate.  It's why I was initially attracted to the Liberal Democrats.  It's why I am not, and never can be, a party political tribalist. It's why I try to see the best values in my political opponents, and why I try to refrain from point-scoring. Strong societies are built on tolerance, understanding, openness, acceptance and pluralism.  In fact, I'm a pluralist first - a Liberal Democrat second.

Someone like myself will inevitably struggle when the political conversation becomes dominated by, and characterised by, hate.  This is why in recent years we've seen the growth in the influence of organisations such as Hope Not Hate whose aspirations are self-evident.  Where hate manifests as racism or the politics of the far-right, there is sure to be widespread opposition. Few people like the BNP.

Also, nothing is bound to upset more people than images of Islamic fundamentalists preaching sermons of intolerance and making incitements to violence on our TV screens. That kind of hate inspires predictable and immediate reaction.  We recognise that such talk and sentiment has no place in a 21st century democracy.

Yesterday, when news of a bombing in Boston broke, the reaction on twitter was mainly of outrage (and also sympathy).  Why?  Because we recognise that hate is not a valid political weapon.  There is no room for hate in democratic political conversation.

Even former paramilitaries in Northern Ireland are now saying such things. Intolerance, based on race or religion at least, is not acceptable. The same is beginning to be true of homophobia although, as the Equality Network will point out and as the likes of right-wing Conservatives are determined to demonstrate, there is still some work to go to tackle some of the negative attitudes towards LGBT rights. Indeed, there still remains a great deal of hate directed towards LGBT people but at least today there is a general acceptance in society that it is not acceptable in a modern Britain that is fair and just.

And yet...

Being a blogger means I am sometimes exposed to a little more hate than I would like to be. Mostly this takes the form of comments on the blog (which I don't publish) or facebook messages.  On one occasion a homophobic message contained a rather frightening threat of violence.  Fortunately, most don't go that far but I've received some pretty nasty stuff, such as:

 *  countless examples of Nationalists expressing their disdain in no uncertain terms for my being inspired by the Declaration of Arbroath. I make no apology for it as the Declaration belongs to history and not to Nationalism. Criticism I accept, but insults dripping with hate I do not.

 *  those who disagree with the current direction of the Liberal Democrats feel they have a licence to abuse anyone who happens to express even critical support for their party. Again, I defend the right of anyone to criticise my arguments and enjoy engaging with those who do, but too often their contributions contain nothing other than bile and hate.

 *  I have angered some with my stance on LGBT rights including, rather strangely, a member of my local party (who has since resigned his membership) who liked to tell me how wrong I was and out of touch with public opinion whenever I spoke for equality.  I can live with people like that - it's those who descend to the level of hate I struggle with, such as the person who told me they hoped I would "die of AIDS".

But of course none of this is about me. I'm simply making a statement about how differences and disagreements are inevitable, but that hate should not be an inherent or accepted feature of political activity.

To all intents and purposes, society dislikes expressions of hate masquerading as political conversation.  At least that is the appearance it gives. However, there can be no escaping that our politics is becoming more and more dominated by hateful attitudes.  I'm not simply talking about the BNP, but mainstream politics.

Let's take the issue of the Chancellor's ill-advised comments after the Philpotts were found guilty of manslaughter.  The idea that the crime was somehow a product of welfare dependency is plainly both incorrect and an example of intellectual sloth. Furthermore, they were suggestions that had the potential for destructive effect, polarising society and reinforcing negative and prejudicial stereotypes. It is not, however, the factual accuracy or even the immediate ramifications of his intervention that concern me, but the fact that his words were coloured by his attitudes, which in turn were dictated by his pre-existing intolerance. Or, to call it what it is, ill-disguised hate towards a certain group in society. It was a loaded statement, evidencing his prejudices far more convincingly than any subsequent attempts to conceal them; as the gospel writer observed, "from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks".

This is merely the tip of the iceberg. Whenever there are controversies surrounding politicians, expect the hate machines to kick in. Yes, I did see some the material the Tories were putting out in Eastleigh, which demeaned not only Lord Rennard and the Lib Dem candidate but also their own campaign, the Conservative Party and UK politics more generally.  Lord MacAlpine was exposed to so much hate following a supposed "revelation" in the media that he sought legal advice.  And of course the language of hate, usually stemming from messages of fear, is used by politicians (and the media) so that, when it comes to issues surrounding Europe, immigration or welfare it becomes impossible to have a rational debate.

And let's take a look at the nature of politics here in Scotland. What exactly is the quality of our political dialogue? I may be a reasonably young 36 but I remember, not so long ago, a time when we believed "the new politics" was upon us.  (That same phrase was used in 2010 by Lib Dem president Ros Scott to describe a new era being ushered in by coalition collaboration, without apparent irony).  That new politics has turned into more of the same, as generations-old prejudices have become hardened and tribal positions more entrenched.  The supposed democratic discussion on Scotland's constitutional future has descended into a hate-fest, hallmarked by a cynical negativity and a lack of respect for both the political conversation and the electorate.  Neither side seems to appreciate that, whatever the outcome in 2014, we are going to have to live together and I for one don't want to live in a Scotland torn apart by mistrust and recrimination.

It's time that the main stage actors woke up to the reality that, the more they act like this, the less interested the audience becomes.  Certainly, this bile-filled excuse for a national debate has the potential to toxify our politics, and political relationships, for many years to come. Is that the legacy of the referendum we really want...the consequences of hate?

Of course all this pales into insignificance compared with what has been expressed, both inside and outwith political circles, in response to the death of Margaret Thatcher. It is true that I am not Mrs Thatcher's number one fan (do I look like Jacob Rees-Mogg?).  I understand why she is such a divisive figure, why her legacy is criticised and her achievements questioned.  I understand why people feel she was bad for Scotland - after all, to some extent I agree.  But celebrating someone's death and demonising them using language that wouldn't look out of place if uttered by a jihadist suicide bomber is pure hate and there should be no place for it.

Here is a former world leader who in no uncertain terms shaped the global politics of the 1980s, for better and worse.  She is a heroine in the Falkland Islands, well liked in the USA and indeed elsewhere - even by many in the UK.  I can only imagine what other European democracies think when they see us holding street parties and singing "Ding Dong the witch is dead!"  I cannot imagine it looks terribly dissimilar to fundamentalist muslims burning effigies of Salman Rushdie.

It's not a question of not speaking ill of the dead.  Nor is it even a matter of tastefulness. As a society and as political activists, we have to ask ourselves whether we are content to perpetuate hate in place of hope.  The level of hate inherent in political expression is frankly horrifying.  I fail to see how hate is ever the answer to anything - if it is then I worry what the question is.

Fellow Liberal Democrat activist Stewart Wilson today observed that "the dis-harmony we are witnessing is unhealthy, irrational and dangerous for each and every one of us, especially in light of the recession we currently endure." He added: "The prospects for Wednesday look abominable...the whole world will be watching...it is likely we will embarrass ourselves with an ugly disrespectful pantomime fed by hatred."  A legacy of hatred will achieve nothing, and should be confronted rather than maintained.

What does hate do?  It dehumanises both the object of hatred and those who hate.  It belittles our politics and disrespects our supposedly tolerant and inclusive "British" values. Hate demeans society and the ethical and democratic foundations on which it is based. Hate is a powerful force that perpetuates division; it does not build up but destroys.  The descent into hate is a thoroughly depressing feature of contemporary politics, but it is far from too late to reverse the trend.

As I wrote in my reflections of Mrs Thatcher's premiership, hate achieves nothing. There is little point now in protesting the policies of someone who left office over 22 years ago.  However, for those who, like me, have for many years been opposed to the principles of Thatcherism there is a more worthwhile challenge: to prove her wrong, to create a strong society, to forge a politics that cares for the underprivileged and fights for fairness and to challenge, rather the perpetuate, the type of attitudes based on hate and ignorance which prospered during her eleven years in power.

We can all make a difference in making it clear that no kind of hate is acceptable in a modern society.  Hope Not Hate missed an opportunity this week, presumably because they haven't quite grasped that it's not only the far right who indulge the rhetoric of hatred. We have to move away from the position that finds intolerance towards certain individuals acceptable.  As a nationalist friend has just asked on twitter: "will the police allow me to do a jig at George Square when the queen dies?"

Certainly, tackling the legacy of unfeeling inhumanity with more unfeeling inhumanity is the wrong response.  Instead of hating, we must move forward in hope.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Without Thatcher, there'd be no independence referendum

I noticed yesterday the Daily Mail made the claim that Margaret Thatcher "saved Britain".  That really is a most absurd claim to make, not least because she oversaw - and was largely responsible for - the decline of her party in Scotland.

Having given it a bit of thought, I also arrived at the conclusion that Thatcher is also responsible for the independence referendum. How, you may ask.

Without Maggie Thatcher there would have been no "democratic deficit" for the Scottish Constitutional Convention to address in the late 1980s.

Without the convention, there would have been no Scottish parliament.

Without the Scottish parliament, there'd have been no SNP majority.

And without that SNP majority there'd be no independence referendum.

If Scotland does vote "yes" in 2014, I guess Mrs Thatcher will have had a hand in it. I wonder if she ever realised it?

Like much of Thatcher's legacy, it is an unintended consequence of ill-conceived actions. Politics really can be very strange at times.

Does Better Together care about free speech?

I have been alarmed to discover that today, a website to which I am an occasional contributor - National Collective - has been temporarily taken down after threatened legal action.

National Collective is run by a number of artists and creative types who favour an independent Scotland. It is generally far more considered and temperate than many of the other expressions of pro-independence support. 

What it seems to have done to become the recipient of threats of litigation is to take information freely available in the public domain - most obviously in The Guardian and The Herald but also other daily newspapers - and put together a financial history of Mr Ian Taylor, the CEO of oil giant Vitol and a man who only last weekend went public with the announcement that he was donating £500,000 to Better Together.

Taylor has retaliated, oddly enough not by threatening the news media but in choosing National Collective as his target.  It's difficult to comprehend what he feels can be gained by this, given that he doesn't seem to want to challenge their sources. That, however, is not my concern. Neither am I particularly worried about the damage he may do to Better Together and to his own reputation.

As James McKenzie points out on Better Nation, this bullying of a group of artists essentially constitutes an "attempted censorship" made worse by the fact that "there are rumours of equivalent legal action against both Wings over Scotland and Berthan Pete".  Now, silencing by intimidation is not the kind of tactic I think Better Together should be even perceived as supporting, not least because many Liberal Democrats are counted among its activists.  It is also a large campaign group committed to a responsible democratic discussion on Scotland's constitutional future and therefore a lack of respect for democratic values shouldn't sit comfortably with its many supporters.

Free speech is paramount to the debate currently ensuing on Scotland's democratic future.  Those in both camps must realise and respect this.  Mr Taylor certainly doesn't, but what about Better Together?

It's too simplistic to judge organisations on the basis of their donors.  In recent years the SNP has taken sizable donations from Brian Souter and the Liberal Democrats from Michael Brown. It would be facile to present the SNP as homophobic or the Liberal Democrats as friends of fraudsters.  

However, what has been Better Together's response so far?  An article on their website, entitled "Smear and Fear" takes an ultra-defensive view - insisting that they "are happy to say is that Ian Taylor is a respected figure internationally" and blaming "allegations made...in a nationalist blog a few days ago...[for] inaccurate reports".  

In coming down so firmly and completely on the side of their donor, Better Together is taking a huge gamble.  I'm happy to follow the lead of the evidence on this one, but am concerned about how closed minded Better Together seems to be.  There appears to be evidence from more than a mere Nationalist blog (which National Collective is not - there is a distinction between pro-independence and nationalism) that Ian Taylor's financial dealings are questionable to say the least. Now these may well be allegations, but isn't it best to make enquiries first? There are certainly some serious questions to be answered.

I'm actually quite concerned at the number of Liberal Democrats who appear to be happy to endorse the Better Together position unquestioningly.  I find it strange that when it comes to our own party, we'd go to some lengths to make our feelings known about unsavoury benefactors (i.e. we most definitely don't want them!). When it comes to Better Together, it seems anything goes. If Mr Taylor was to offer money to the Lib Dems I'd imagine there would be more of an outcry from within; I am genuinely surprised that more of my liberal friends in Better Together are not only refusing to speak out against the unsuitability of this donor, but are actively taking a defensive line. Certainly I've been astonished that there haven't been more of us defending National Collective's right to freedom of speech.

Better Together has not explicitly stated support for the line taken by Mr Taylor in silencing National Collective. What they do say, without apparent irony, is this: "this is too important an issue to have a campaign where people are afraid to have their say. We can’t go on like this. Scots deserve the debate to be better than this." Accepted.  So when will they give it to us?

Indeed, the debate surrounding the democratic future of our country is too important to be dominated by Ian Taylor, or to be characterised by either the kind of juvenile smearing contained within their own article or attempts to silence opponents.  That Taylor has seen fit to target National Collective rather than the more powerful national media, combined with the fact that to date Better Together has been uncritically supportive, suggests that the "No" campaign is quite happy to associate themselves with censorship and intimidation.

Of course, this may not in fact be the case.  Ian Taylor and Better Together are of course separate entities. Better Together may make a statement to the effect that it distances itself from Taylor's actions - something which is certainly likely if more of the campaign's supporters make a stand opposing Taylor's attempts at intimidation.  I hope so. If they fail to do so, the obvious conclusion to be drawn will be that Better Together cares less for free speech than it does Taylor's money (irrespective of from whence it came) -  with its democratic credentials being seriously and irreversibly compromised as a result.

Does Better Together care about free speech? I hope so. No doubt we'll soon find out. 

Monday, 8 April 2013

RIP Margaret Thatcher 1926- 2013

Photograph: Daily Telegraph

Around lunchtime, on 22nd November 1990, I was informed that the then Prime Minister had resigned.

It was a day that I had for some time looked forward to.  Many 13 year olds at the time would have been far more interested in Rangers’ chances of winning the Premier Division, Turtle Power, a crazy new TV cartoon series called “The Simpsons” (surely a fad?) or the all-important question of whether Pretty Woman was better than Ghost.  This apparent indifference to political matters was confirmed when, in a rare show of excitement, I decided to inform everyone I could find of the “good news”.  “What good news?” “Maggie Thatcher’s resigned!” To which one memorable response was “You call that good news?” (expletives removed).

Unusually, I imagine, I have had an interest in politics from at least 7 years of age. This may well have been largely the result of my grandad, who was exceptionally well informed politically with balanced and reasonable perspectives on contemporary events – and whose conversation generally focused on his analysis of the political questions of the day. But there were other reasons too; exposure does not in itself breed interest.  Throughout the 1980s, even to my young mind, on the big issues Thatcher was completely and consistently wrong: on the Miners’ Strike, on Westland, in her uncritical support of Ronald Reagan over Libya, the Poll Tax, public services privatisation and Europe. No doubt partly due to others’ prejudices I began to regard her as a hugely malign influence and yet retained an odd respect for a woman who was not only able to “cut the mustard” in a traditionally male role but who was able to impose herself on her male counterparts and bend them to her will so successfully.

Like many people in 1987 I was hugely disappointed that Thatcher won another term. Living in Argyll & Bute, and managing to tap into the mood in the constituency, I had convinced myself that the SDP-Liberal Alliance would win. Thereafter, I followed political developments with close interest and, after Anthony Meyer’s failed leadership bid in 1989, felt that Thatcher’s time would soon be up.This prediction proved slightly more accurate than the previous one, and during November 1990 I was gripped by events as they unfolded.

I still find it entertaining to watch the Prime Minister “savaged by a dead sheep” – the power of which is lost on many who weren’t witness to those dramatic events.

I have no doubt this sounds rather like “The Confessions of a Teenage Political Nerd” and there would be some truth in that. The point of this is to demonstrate that, as a child who grew up in the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher had a huge impact on the forging of my political views and – to some degree – my personal identity. I am who I am because I am a product of a unique time; a time that itself came to be defined as the era of that largely malign and unfeeling political philosophy which can only be described adequately in one word – Thatcherism. My personal political philosophy has evolved over time, but from the outset it was marked by a determination to oppose everything that I thought Margaret Thatcher stood for.

There are of course many things that Mrs Thatcher did well.  Whatever else can be said, she won the economic arguments of the day and emerged from the Falklands War with significant credit.  Former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown, explained today that while he “opposed almost everything she did [and] though there will be many who saw her as the author of much destruction that we still mourn, much that she pulled down needed to be pulled down. She was better as destroyer of old tired institutions and lazy ways of thinking than she was as the builder of new ones; better at defining divisions than building cohesion. But probably that’s what Britain needed then. Had we on the left not grown so lazy about our addictions to the easy ways of state corporatism, she would perhaps have been less successful at so cruelly exposing their hollowness. The pre-eminent attribute in politics is courage; the moral courage to hold to the things you believe in. And this, like her or loathe her, she had in abundance.”  It is undeniably true that she had the courage of convictions, which perhaps explains why I am so suspicious of conviction politicians. While Thatcher was a courageous leader who didn’t shirk from a fight, she was never one to consider the costs and ramifications.  A couple of years ago I interviewed David Owen who made the claim that, whatever one’s political views, Thatcher must be considered one of the greatest political leaders of the modern era. In some respects that says more about Owen’s views on leadership than anything else, but this was echoed by Ashdown when he suggested that “if politics is the ability to have views, hold to them and drive them through to success, [Thatcher] was undoubtedly the greatest prime minister of our age, and maybe even the greatest politician."

Personally, I’d prefer to judge politicians by their legacies and in Thatcher’s case that was probably New Labour.  That’s something rather hard to forgive. Was she truly a great leader? I’m not convinced; a great leader is able to take people with them – if they are unable to do that they are not leading but taking a walk. Great leaders also are able to appreciate the need to assemble, and delegate responsibly, to an effective team. Thatcher never saw the value in this, and instead used her abilities often to hinder and undermine rather than support her ministers.

On sober reflection I see that Thatcher was herself a product of a unique time and place, and of particular pressures and prejudices.  I do not hold that against her. But there are some things I do resent. Firstly, I still struggle to comprehend why the UK’s first female Prime Minister did not do so much more for women’s rights. Patricia Hewitt attested to this reality several years ago, arguing that “it is a tragedy that, having become the UK's first women prime minister, she did so much to undermine the position of women in society.” Secondly, and even more difficult for me to accept, was her role in affirming and reinforcing the institutional homophobia that found expression in Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act.

Section 28 legislated to prevent the promotion of homosexuality in schools or "the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship".  This was driven by fear-mongering in the national tabloid media about the supposed effects of some of the policies of Labour councils in London.  What were essentially little more than attempts to address discrimination and inequality were represented as the start of a moral meltdown. No doubt some Conservative MPs genuinely believed the lies and bought easily into the “moral” agenda of sections of the press.  Thatcher, however, had no such inclinations. She had concerns and misgivings about the legislation and opposed the demonization of gay and lesbian people.  She was hardly a friend of the LGBT rights movement, but all the same she was far from a rampant homophobe.  And yet, in spite of this, she stood idly by while her government introduced a nasty, shamefully homophobic Act and failed to take on the rhetoric of MPs such as Jill Knight. This passive acceptance is for me worse than the bigotry and the ill-informed knee jerk reaction of her fellow Tories: Thatcher, as a famously strong leader, failed to demonstrate her renowned strength when it mattered.

The Iron Lady?  When it came to Section 28, the Lady was not for resisting the destructively intolerant views of her party’s right wing.

For me, Margaret Thatcher’s worldview can be summed up by a cartoon I read in a newspaper (from around 1989, I’d guess). She’s talking to Nigel Lawson, who has dared to come into her office uninvited. Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe are peering in from behind a door. “But Prime Minister”, he protests, “everyone’s VERY worried about the unemployed”.  “I KNOW!” replies the Prime Minister, “that’s why I’m pressing ahead with tax cuts!” “TAX CUTS? What will tax cuts do for the unemployed?” asks the exasperated and confused chancellor.  The reply: “They will make them WISH they had a job!”

Thatcher was no intellect, no great thinker and no team player. She refused to do anything to promote women’s equality other than provide an example of feminine success. She counted being the first scientist to enter number 10 to be of greater significance than being the first woman, which speaks volumes.  That said, I imagine that anyone whose scientific achievements include the invention of whippy ice cream can’t entirely be accused of not doing something significant with their talents.

I have not looked forward to this day as I did that fateful day in November 1990. Someone’s death, even that of a political opponent, is not something in which to rejoice. I know of so many on the left, like former miner David Hopper, who feel so much hate towards her that today is a cause for celebration: I have experienced the effects of such today in the form of nasty and frankly offensive comments.  This is wrong simply because unfeeling inhumanity is not most effectively dealt with through more unfeeling inhumanity; rather it is challenged through renewed compassionate activism. It is also wrong because the Margaret Thatcher whose political views I found so distasteful died many years ago.  The Mrs Thatcher who died earlier today was an ill, confused and in all probability lonely old woman for whom I felt nothing but pity. When elderly people die, my thoughts are usually with their families.  This case is no exception.

I have no wish to write a glowing tribute to a former Prime Minister.  That is not who I am.  I will praise her for her courage and mental strength, while expressing criticism of her rather mixed political legacy as do many others.  In particular, it’s only fitting that credit should go where credit is due – without Margaret Thatcher I would in all probability have developed little interest in politics and I suspect my life would be the poorer for it.  Again, I suspect, that is something shared by many others from all parties and therefore – even if for that alone – thank you Mrs Thatcher.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Is there a need for a UK Constitutional Convention?

The tantalising prospect of a new UK-wide constitutional convention has been advocated in recent weeks by the esteemed constitutional expert Professor Vernon Bogdanor.  Professor Bogdanor, recognising the lack of consideration given to the largest UK nation under the current devolution settlement and responding to the findings of the McKayCommission, argues that a “one-state solution toEngland’s role in a devolved UKis required: “the need, therefore, is for a UK-wide constitutional convention, with popular participation, to consider both how devolution can evolve in the non-English parts of the United Kingdom, but also how the English can be better governed even in the absence of an ‘answer’ to the English question.”  In truth, it is an answer disappointing in its non-specifics from someone who appears to have no adequate solution to the so-called “English question” – but that is not to dismiss the potential of such a convention.  In some respects it is overdue, being considered now largely in response to the Scottish independence referendum and the significant questions it raises.  However, so far there has been a lack of detail as to what the convention can be expected to achieve, other than what Bogdanor considers “strengthen[ing] the unity of the UK”, the creation of “a genuine home for all” and “re-affirm[ing] a sense of Britishness”.  While such hopes may be laudable, there is no certainty that a UK-wide constitutional convention would be able to bring it about.

Various politicians have also been keen to support this possibility, and understandably so.  Labour’s Douglas Alexander seems to share Bogdanor’s view that a convention is necessary to consider how “our identity is expressed”.  Liberal Democrats are also keen to support the proposal: former Scottish leader Malcolm Bruce told The Herald that "we have got to a point, assuming after the referendum Scotland stays in the UK, where we have different sets of powers in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England; in many cases, UK ministers are English ministers. We need a constitutional convention to work out how those powers are best distributed."  Meanwhile Alistair Carmichael, his thinking dominated by the SNP’s historic antipathy towards pluralistic conventions, observes that “one of the advantages of this approach is that the SNP – which has always refused to work with other parties, whether it was in the previous constitutional convention, on the campaign for a Scottish Assembly or on the Calman Commission – won't have an excuse for sitting it out.” That wouldn’t be a reason I would choose to support anything, but the point being made is that Liberal Democrats see possibilities in a potential UK constitutional convention. 

Not least is that the Labour and Conservative parties – suspicious as they are of the federalism championed by the Liberal Democrats – appear able and willing to lend support to a constitutional convention.  For the Lib Dems, it may well represent a key opportunity to have some of their long-held ambitions implemented, although the desired outcome of a full federalist settlement still seems somewhat remote.  Furthermore, having denied the Scottish electorate a second vote on the matter of additional devolution, furthering a UK constitutional convention gives the Better Together parties the chance to commit themselves to a guaranteed vehicle for constitutional change ahead of the 2014 vote.  Here lies an opportunity for those campaigning for a “no” vote to show they are dedicated to more than the constitutional status quo – and to promote something definite in order to gain the trust of many cynical voters.

The idea itself has significant merit.  A UK-wide constitutional convention would have logically followed on from the 1997 devolution settlement but has never been seriously considered; the nearest thing to an attempt to extend devolution to England was a half-hearted and ill-considered attempt to introduce regional assemblies.  Liberal Democrats, while ostensibly supportive of UK federalism, have never got to grips with what Bogdanor considers “the English question” and none of our proposals for increased devolution to date effectively deals with England.  In the absence of a coherent devolutionist arrangement for England being advocated by either of the major parties, it should come as no surprise that UKIP, the English Democrats and the United People’s Party are stepping up their demands for an English parliament.  A new constitutional convention has the potential for the British people to take ownership of the many issues, to facilitate a truly national conversation and to consider soberly the various options, reclaiming such vital discussion from the domain of political anoraks, constitutional experts and political parties that are frankly not to be taken too seriously.

But there is a danger.  Firstly, this is not 1989.  For all the successes of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, it was a product of a unique time and place.  It was created to tackle the “democratic deficit” of the time, in that Scotland had no democratic voice, rather than – as Alistair Carmichael, and no doubt others, hope this time around – to clip the wings of the SNP.  The SCC was not established to consider alternatives to independence but to speak up for Scotland’s needs at a time when there were few other democratic channels available.

And of course, this UK-wide convention will not only (hopefully) include SNP and Plaid Cymru but also other parties such as UKIP, the BNP, the Greens and the sectarian parties of Northern Ireland. Some of these will be more amenable to pluralistic approaches – and easier to work with – than others.  But it presents a challenge that may not have as yet been forseen: how can a genuine UK-wide convention incorporate all of the many parties whose elected representatives speak for large sections of the country?  There will be inevitable difficulties in regards the interrelationship between the key personnel and party politics will take front stage.  Nigel Farage has been looking forward to this opportunity every inch as much as has Willie Rennie, and no doubt already has ideas about he can best use it to advance the appeal of his party.

“Popular participation” is of course far different a concept to “popular leadership”.  This is not a conversation that either Professor Bogdanor or any of the politicians advocating the convention wants to be led by the public.  Instead, a convention would be led – and dominated - by politicians and, potentially, the political establishment. This is something that, as much as possible, should be recognised in advance and combated.  A few leading figures playing a similar role to that of Canyon Kenyon Wright in the SCC would be welcome, but party-independent figureheads should not be used to obscure – or excuse – a lack of real public involvement.  There is a very real risk that a UK constitutional convention could prove unpopular with an apathetic public, attracting merely the politically and constitutionally interested rather than wider society.

That is not, however, a sufficiently valid reason for dismissing what is probably the most sensible and workable proposition put forward by any constitutional expert or politician in regards a post-referendum settlement.  Furthermore, finally – unlike much of what has passed for talk of federalism in recent years – here is an attempt to grapple with the complex matter of English devolution, so often unhelpfully sidelined and left to the “patriotic” parties of the populist right.

There are inherent problems in what Bogdanor is proposing.  Firstly, for him the convention represents a fifth option.  He dismisses an English parliament, devolved regional assemblies, “English votes for English laws” and the proposal from the McKay Commission “to adapt Commons procedure to make the English voice more effectively heard”.  His proposal of a convention is, in some respects, a means of avoiding the question he claims to be answering and doesn’t explain what should happen in the event that a UK constitutional convention would decide on an option Bogdanor has already dismissed. 

A further problem is Bogdanor’s reasoning for promoting a convention in the first instance.  He appears to have bought into the McKay Commission’s “identity” rhetoric – i.e. a constitution is necessary to consider how “English identity is to be expressed” and to “reaffirm the unity [of the UK]”.  I disagree that identity issues should be the predominant driver behind our thinking; as Dr Elliot Bulmer explains in The Guardianconstitutional discussion should focus on democracy rather than notions of national and cultural identity:

If a democratic constitution embracing popular sovereignty were realistically on offer in the UK, Bogdanor's call for the left to "take the lead" in calling for it would be welcome. Such a constitution would not only repudiate the unprincipled "muddling through" that has traditionally characterised the British government, but also overturn the two pillars on which its opaque and oligarchical powers rest: the crown prerogatives and the sovereignty of parliament.
However, no such constitution is on offer, nor is it likely to emerge from a UK constitutional convention. Westminster and Whitehall won't suddenly embrace a constitution on democratic grounds. Rather, they are motivated by a desperate desire to hold the UK together.
It is difficult to argue with this assertion.  I cautiously welcome the idea of a UK constitutional convention, but questions must first be asked about its purpose and its nature.  If it focuses on the narrow concerns and technicalities of extending devolution rather than explore the opportunities to further democracy and empower the electorate then it will represent a missed opportunity. 

A convention is not needed to undermine the SNP’s case for independence, or to explore the meaning of national or regional identity.  Any convention that sets out to do such things will inevitably fail in its aims; any cynical political motivations will be obvious and quasi-intellectual navel-gazing is rarely something that inspires mass participation.  A UK constitutional convention that is determined to again address “democratic deficits” and create both understanding between the UK’s component parts while seeking a new way forward on constitutional issues – supported by the public – would be a very fine thing indeed.

I’m not actually sure that this is what Bogdanor is proposing: with his emphasis on English identity and “strengthening” what is effectively a dysfunctional union I am unconvinced that he actually fully appreciates either what the stakes are or the powerful potential of a constitutional convention to forge a more effective democracy.  He seems more concerned with preserving the essential features of the status quo while introducing the prospect of some moderate improvement. Certainly Bogdanor's sated reasons for proposing it - "consideration of how devolution can evolve in the non-English parts of the United Kingdom and [better government for England]" is at best only a starting point. 

I for one feel that a UK constitutional convention, if properly considered and appropriately focused, would be a significant and useful way forward.  Certainly, for the Liberal Democrats, it provides considerable opportunities to champion a workable UK federalist arrangement.  Furthermore, if forthcoming, it would provide a guarantee that a “No” vote in the referendum can be guaranteed not to mean an end to the conversation and would represent a promise of something more...even if that "something" is uncertain and undefined.

There are, however real dangers that the initiative will be dominated by the political class and become yet another Establishment project.  This needs to be avoided.  A UK constitutional convention cannot afford to be a branch of the UK Preservation Society.  Furthermore, while any convention must seek to be genuinely pluralist in nature, consideration must be given to the effect some of the UK’s smaller parties may have on discussions, most notably UKIP.

As in any political conversation, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. It must be focused on need rather than political considerations and priorities. There is most definitely a need for a UK constitutional convention, but it is not the convention of Bogdanor's thinking.  Dr Bulmer’s prescription is correct – what is needed is an extension of democracy, not technical chit-chat and political machinations.  It needs to be people-centred and must begin its life with an open mind, rather than start out with the kind of thinking that seeks only to strengthen and reinforce the union. It must be designed to listen - responding to needs, concerns and criticisms - as much as it thinks and talks.

I am pleased that Liberal Democrats have so far welcomed this potential development and I hope that, in our calls for a UK constitutional convention we go further than Professor Bogdanor and seek ways to reach out, engage with society and inspire both conversation and active involvement in determining the UK’s constitutional, political and democratic future.