Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Do the Liberal Democrats need to "grow up"?

An idealist (obviously wearing sandals) votes against
the government position. Isn't it by time he grew up?
Debate is currently raging about whether the Liberal Democrats are "ready" to be a "grown-up" political party. Our leader demands it and we're just not prepared for it, apparently. The Spectator has reported this so it must be true.

"Grown up" is a term Nick Clegg likes. He uses it a lot - in fact, he used it a lot even before we were in government (the epitome of grown-upness in Clegg's book).  Now, when I think of "grown up parties" I've clearly got different things in mind to Nick Clegg and unfortunately it's not quite as good as it sounds.

When Nick talks about "grown up politics" and "being a serious party of government" he means pretty much the same thing. This is his raison d'etre: to turn the Liberal Democrats from a party of nice inoffensive ladies called Geraldine and beard-sporting, sandal wearing eccentrics who were comfortable with the familiar politics of opposition into a formidable, credible and natural party of government in the public imagination.

How's that plan going, Nick?

Of course, I understand where Nick and "his colleagues at the top of the party" are coming from. They're frustrated that our internal democracy gives members a bit too much influence. Agreed, it can be chaotic at times. All these confusing arrangements, unnecessary conference motions that are passed and ultimately ignored, insufficient control from the top and unappreciative party members. Of course all this is a massive improvement on where we were only a few years ago before we were rescued from ourselves by Nick Clegg. I mean, we were so juvenile, so non-grown-up, so lacking in ambition or influence, so helplessly idealistic that we were an embarrassment. No wonder we made all those electoral losses between 1992 and 2005.

There appears to be a concern that divisions within the party are opening up - not between left and right (take that, SLF splitters!) but between "pragmatists and idealists". For pragmatists read those who continue to wear "I agree with Nick" t-shirts; for "idealists" read those who disagree with the leadership and raise awkward questions at conference about the NHS, secret courts, etc. (Not those who support Scottish independence, of course - they're "extremists"). It's these "idealists" who are the real problem and they need to "grow up" damned quickly!!!

Equating idealism with a lack of maturity may seem an unusual step for a party leader - after all, previous leaders have had their difficulties with party members without resorting to such rhetoric. A spokesperson for the Deputy Prime Minister advised me that "look here you Northern oik, surely you understand that we don't want a party that even Lembit Opik can be a member of?" I sympathised for a moment, before being told: "now don't go writing any more infantile gibberish on A Scottish Liberal!"

No doubt the "grown-up" approach to politics is actually yielding dividends. There should be no place for cynicism. Just imagine what the consequences might have been if we hadn't acted in such a mature, "grown-up" fashion when dealing with sensitive situations like the tuition fees matter...or the NHS...or secret courts...or the bedroom tax. We'd have looked like a bunch of complete amateurs, as if we didn't have a clue what we were doing. We might have lost a lot of public support without that "grown-up" touch. People might have thought we were led by a five year-old!

I've come to the conclusion that whatever truth may be in them, the "grown-up" remarks are unhelpful. Not only are they divisive, it doesn't actually mean anything. The real divisions within the party aren't between left and right, or even pragmatists and idealists (it is possible to adhere to pragmatic approaches while maintaining principles and ideals, or doesn't Nick understand that?) but between the party establishment and those who dare to challenge it.  No doubt there'll be a lot of people at conference this autumn with a little bit of "growing-up" to do but, like most rebellious adolescents, they might need the Head Teacher to convince them of it.

In the meantime, I think I might go to a real "grown up party".  Being one of those idealistic Liberal Democrats who enjoys the bad old days of electoral thrashings, I'm quite used to being whipped and dominated...

Monday, 29 July 2013

29th July 1988: Ashdown becomes leader

Paddy Ashdown: "The real difficulty is not in finding
the policies, it's in persuading the public of their
central importance."
25 years ago today, Paddy Ashdown assumed the leadership of the Social & Liberal Democrats, taking over from the interim leadership of David Steel and Bob Maclennan.

It was a difficult time to take over as leader. The previous year, the Alliance had failed to make the hoped for electoral impact and had descended into undignified infighting and, later, a farcical merger.  The new party was lacking credibility and the opinion polls pointed to public support around the 7-8 per cent mark. David Owen's "continuing" SDP was out to make its mark and compete for the status of being the UK's third political party - it's easy to overlook with hindsight but, at the time (especially before the 1989 Richmond by-election), no-one knew which of the parties would emerge the stronger. Owen was an accomplished and experienced leader; Ashdown was relatively unknown. For a while there didn't appear to be much cause for optimism for the new party, and the election of Ashdown over Alan Beith was perceived by some commentators to be something of a risk.

There was of course one man who was optimistic - and that man was Paddy Ashdown. 

On the day he assumed the leadership, he wrote a piece for The Guardian. I do not wish to enter into a full appraisal of Paddy Ashdown's leadership or analyse the party's development during his years at the helm, but I would like to take the opportunity to repeat some of his forward looking rhetoric printed in the pages of The Guardian exactly a quarter of a century ago. Some of it, being bluntly realistic and pragmatic in nature,  must be interpreted in the political context of the time; some of it is idealistic and far-sighted and other sections remain timeless in their championing of an honest liberalism. Reading it now, there are parts which appear near-prophetic. Much of it is as relevant today as it was in 1988; indeed, I would suggest that in some respect it is more relevant than ever. 

On cause for optimism: "Hope, said Francis Bacon, is a good breakfast, but a poor supper. On my first morning as the new leader of a new party, standing at seven per cent in the opinion polls, I know what he meant! But at the end of a bruising and often damaging period in the fortunes of the Social and Liberal Democrats , there is more than just hope to sustain us. We have now completed, with the leadership and residential elections, all the difficult processes in the creation of our new party and can look forward to getting back to politics with more confidence than has been possible on any morning in the past year.

"Indeed, there are a number of positive reasons for optimism.

"Firstly, though the message from the opinion polls is bleak, the ballot boxes seem to be telling a more hopeful tale. Local election results consistently show us at around 20 per cent. Since March we have actually gained more seats than either of the other two parties. Kensington was the exception, but even there, under a vicious squeeze and the spoiling attack of the Owenites, our bedrock vote still held up. 

"Secondly, the opportunities for the first opposition party to start making sense and getting its act together are immense. Travelling the country these last eight weeks has given me a very clear idea of just how much people are praying for an effective opposition to Mrs Thatcher now and a real alternative to her at the next election - and how certain they are that it is not going to be Mr Kinnock or the Labour Party.

And thirdly, having met thousands of them in the last weeks, I have good reason to be optimistic about the kind of people we have in our party. There is confusion there, of course - even a sense of disorientation. But there is no doubt about their calibre. The party I have seen is young, intelligent, committed and anxious to get back to politics."

On poverty: "Tackling this requires a genuinely radical party committed to re-distribution to combat the problems of poverty in our nation...There is the problem of the future - or rather the fact that this Government doesn't appear to think there is going to be one. Where they have mortgaged the future to feed selfishness today, we have to make it clear that we would invest for tomorrow."

On "green" politics: "Real and justifiable fear for our natural heritage has given a new potency to 'green' ideas, not as a 'bolt on' to other policies, but as a new way of looking at politics as a whole. What is more there are powerful forces to be assembled on these issues which extend far beyond the narrow exclusive 'green fringe' - they range from the WI at one end to the new technologists at the other."

On internationalism and the EU: "[this] will be another key strain in our party's appeal - and one which clearly separates us from both Labour and the Tories. With 1992 approaching our unashamed European commitment could be turned from a political drag factor to a positive asset. Meanwhile global problems, especially ecological ones, point up that we will either find the will to co-operate internationally, or pay a heavy price for our insularity."

On liberty: "Our traditional commitment to constitutional reform will continue to be a main pillar of our appeal. We must popularise a new notion of citizenship and bring the Tories' subversion of democracy centre stage. Here, the real difficulty is not finding the policies, it is persuading the public of their central importance. All this will require a lot of new thinking and imagination. If we are serious about liberty, we cannot ignore the issue of choice which, albeit in its corrupted form, has proved to have such powerful appeal in Mrs Thatcher's hands. Nor can we dodge the issues which need to be tackled in recognising the role of women in the new politics. Nor ignore the opportunities which the new technologies offer to give either more power to the citizen, or more central control to government."

On the values of Liberal Democrats: "we have to create the 'feel' of our new party. It will, I hope, be different from both the old Liberals and the old SDP, whilst a clear inheritor of both traditions. A party committed to the human values and concerned with the human condition, of course. But forward looking, capable of taking the tough decision, technocratic and concerned with efficiency and enterprise as well. The kind of party you would entrust with your hope."

In the context of the current debate about what it means to be a "grown up" party, these wise words have particular resonance. Perhaps Liberal Democrats in 2013, in looking to the future, should also reflect on Paddy Ashdown's vision, philosophy, optimism and the lessons of his early challenges - and how he successfully overcame them. The call for thinking and imagination, and the recognition of the need to persuade the public, remain as pertinent as they were in 1988.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

My complaint to the BBC about Royal birth coverage

I have today written this complaint to the BBC in respect to its coverage of the birth of Prince George last week:

To whom it may concern,

I wish to make a formal complaint in relation to the BBC’s coverage of the birth of Prince George.

The obligation of BBC News is to broadcast news – not self-indulgent, patronising and trivial speculation. The unnecessary intrusiveness and blatant disregard for the parent’s privacy was particularly noticeable, especially when the baby’s quite evident distress (crying loudly and clenching his fists in anxiety in response to the assembled crowd’s applause) was insensitively interpreted as “his first Royal wave”.  

These events are indeed important, but coverage should be proportionate, balanced and focused on actual developments rather than a relentless display of unquestioning, almost nationalistic, celebration. The BBC does not exist to commemorate and celebrate, but to provide quality, thought-provoking and intelligent analysis of events. Countless interviews with sycophants and admittedly colourful Monarchists do not constitute insightful reporting.

The disproportionate news coverage this event received meant that other news stories, some of more obvious and immediate significance, were either ignored or not given the attention they merited. It is not simply the amount of coverage that is of concern to me, but the nature of it. At no point were such issues as the role of monarchy and the perpetuation of the hereditary principle in a democratic society given any attention – nor, indeed, were the potential consequences of the media pressures on, and social expectations of, the new-born baby explored. A royal baby for many might be a cause to celebrate; for others it represents an opportunity to reflect on a child being born into the world with very few choices in life, whose relationships, education, career, religion and role have largely been pre-determined. We should also ask why some parents are not expected to be afforded the same privacy as others, and the role of the media in dehumanising the Royal Family and reducing a birth of a baby to a celebrity-obsessed media frenzy. The media circus, which the BBC to a large extent facilitated, was far from dignified.

The UK as a whole, while interested, was clearly far less obsessed with developments than the BBC. The licence-payer is also sufficiently intelligent to be treated with more respect and is certainly capable of listening to a range of voices on the subject, including those, like – for example – Republic, who might wish to raise some questions as to the significance of both the Royal birth and the reaction to it. Your decision only to broadcast pro-monarchy voices was both misplaced and a disservice to your viewers.

Like most people in the country, I do not personally know the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Again, like most people, I wish them and their new son every happiness. However, as a republican, a liberal, a parent and someone who believes in the importance of responsible media reporting, I feel that the BBC has missed opportunities and, in succumbing to the easy option of frantic, sycophantic obsession (not being afraid to play the patriotic card in the process) has demonstrated a lack of respect for the couple and their child, while also confirming its own shallowness and a fear of addressing the range of questions raised by the Royal birth.

In addition to raising questions about the future of the monarchy, last week's events also raised serious concerns about the nature of the BBC's reporting. I trust in the future the BBC can move away from traditional biases and entrenched perspectives and facilitate the kind of debate necessary in democratic society.

Yours Sincerely,

Andrew Page

No doubt many of you take a different view as to the monarchy - personally I think kings, queens and princes should belong exclusively in history books and fairy tales.  However, that isn't the substantive issue at stake here and I'd be interested in hearing what others made of the BBC's coverage. Surely the BBC should uphold its own (stated) principles of fairness and balance?

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Tim Farron is either "wrong or compellingly correct"

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
Tim Farron: "Christianity is not a bit true.
It's either wrong or utterly compellingly true."

I know what I believe.

I also know what I don't believe.

I don't think it's a terribly positive testimony for the President of the Liberal Democrats to chair a prayer breakfast in Westminster Hall at which Oxford University's Professor John Lennox described atheism as a "fairy tale for those afraid of the light". Worse still, when the President of the Liberal Democrats follows that up with the assertion that "Christianity is not a bit true. It's either wrong or utterly compellingly true", questions have to be asked about whether Tim Farron is able to separate his personal faith from the responsibilities of his secular position.

Farron has proved himself a very capable party president, as well as an excellent campaigner. No-one can deny his incredible work ethic and infectious enthusiasm. There is no question that the Liberal Democrats are stronger for having him as President. He has enormous political intelligence - and yet, when it comes to the matter of his personal faith, he seems not to grasp how unwise it is to make public proclamations in support of a particularly fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity.

It's not the first time he's done this, of course. Farron has upset a few people with his voting on sections of equal marriage legislation. He also made a few headlines when he co-signed a letter to the Advertising Standards Agency apparently arguing for the literal, physical healing power of God and demanding that the agency produce "indisputable scientific evidence" to the contrary after it banned a leaflet. He did later admit this was a mistake and that he should not have signed the letter "as it was written", but he clearly believes that God's in the healing business.  I thought his apology was well-considered, but highlighted the lack of thought given to signing the initial letter. Furthermore, he has intervened on the sensitive matter of terminating pregnancy by stating that "Abortion is wrong. Society has to climb down from the position that says there is nothing morally objectionable about abortion before a certain time. If abortion is wrong, it is wrong at any time." (The War Cry, 24.2.07).

It's not so much that he makes these statements and believes in them that concerns me, but the lack of consideration shown for those who think differently. No doubt he'll disagree, but in referring to "Bible-believing Christians" in a speech at a conference fringe meeting in 2011, he makes the distinctions between "real" Christians and those who presumably are less than real. This is particularly offensive from the perspective of the inclusive and tolerant liberalism that he has been elected to represent.

I was invited to the prayer breakfast (as a member of LDCF) but I'm pleased I wasn't present because the contribution of Professor Lennox would not have sat comfortably with my interpretation of Christian values. But I'm more disturbed by Tim Farron: what exactly does he mean when he says "'Christianity is not a bit true. It's either wrong or utterly compellingly true"?  Is he suggesting Christianity is merely an inflexibly prescriptive and fixed set of beliefs?  Is he asserting the moral and spiritual superiority of Christianity? Is he reducing the truth of all religion and spirituality to the simplistic test of scientific scrutiny - something that surely hands the argument to atheism? Furthermore, what precisely does Tim define as "Christianity"? More seriously, does he not realise that there is usually some truth in all faiths and ideologies...and that (in respect of the "absolutely true" assertion) any belief that believes it has an absolute majority on truth is fundamentally dangerous?

I have my own personal faith. I still call it Christianity, because that's what it is. I rejected fundamentalism years ago. I no longer believe in a theistic, all powerful God living somewhere beyond the visible sky intervening in response to appeals to direct the course of human history. That understanding of God is not credible. But I have an attraction to many of the reported teachings of Christ and I still believe in "God" - although my God is unlimited and boundless, the expression of life itself. As someone who has actually taken the time to study theology, while I may have rejected many of the claims made for Christianity I continue to have time for liberal, inclusive religion and indeed spirituality more generally.

It is not Christianity that is either utterly wrong or completely correct. It is Tim Farron. There is no scope in his thinking for any "middle ground"; his views are either entirely true or completely mistaken. Very few theologians of standing, let alone the vast majority of moderate church leaders, would make this kind of claim. There is truth in Christianity, as indeed there tends to be in most religious, social and political philosophies. There is also a fair amount of error - at least in regards the claims often made for Christianity by its more fundamentalist advocates who have subjected Biblical interpretation to the straitjacket of literalism. It is thoroughly depressing that Farron is unable to grasp that truth goes beyond the mere literal and indeed is far more subjective that he cares to believe. In any case, Christianity is more than a list of alleged "absolutes" and the Bible itself a collection of historically confusing and theologically contradictory texts, some more reliable than others and each written for various religious or political purposes. This does not negate that there is indeed some truth within its pages, but the idea of accepting it as a single globule of divinely-inspired Truth is frankly absurd in the light of 21st century theological understanding.

However, I accept that Christianity as Tim understands it must be right or wrong - the notion that the meaning of Biblical texts must be either accepted in full or wholly rejected (irrespective of the varying interpretations that may be made of such) is not an academically sustainable position to take. What stems from Farron's assertions is an intolerance towards other expressions of Christianity (and indeed atheism and other religions), an assumption that issues of faith are black-and-white (and "his" Christianity is presumably always right) and a disregard for the values of secularism. Fortunately, however, Farron's brand of Christianity is not the only one out there.

There are many Christians within the Liberal Democrats who do not see their faith as having a monopoly on truth and who value - indeed, even promote - secular society.  It is disappointing that Tim Farron's increasing ventures into religious controversy have the effect of making him, and therefore the party, appear more than faintly ridiculous. It is not a mainstream Christian view to characterise atheists as "afraid of the light"; nor is assertion of absolute correctness of Christianity (as inevitably interpreted by the individual) something most Christians cling to.

Tim Farron is the obvious favourite to succeed Nick Clegg when he eventually steps down as party leader. He has evident attributes, but while I would happily have Tim as an MP and campaigner within the party I'm becoming gradually more uncomfortable with the idea that someone who so frequently courts controversy on the basis on his religious beliefs (or, more accurately, his inability to express them in sensible, moderate ways) leading our party.

Of course, this issue not merely about one man - it's about how these values are being communicated and promoted within the Liberal Democrats. We had a number of Lib Dem MPs either vote against or abstain on the issue of marriage equality; more worryingly we have the likes of anti-abortion and Gay-cure promoting Christian "charity" CARE providing interns to parliamentarians including Scottish leader Willie Rennie and, in the recent past, Mr Farron.

Perhaps a step forward would be for someone to run for party president next year on a secularist platform?

Update: There has been some interest in this page recently, especially in relation to the quote from the Salvation Army's newspaper (The War Cry). Some question the authenticity of the quote and it seems the War Cry cannot be found online. Therefore I am posting a scan of a section of the original article (left, please click on it to open at larger size), which hopefully will allow people to see what Tim actually said and read his comments in the relevant context.

I would add, however, that as the quote is ten years old people should accept that Tim's views on the issue may have changed.  I also hope they will listen to what he is currently saying about women's rights. AP, 20.4.17

Further update: I see The Guardian has now taken an interest in this post, claiming that this interview with The War Cry has just "emerged". This is clearly nonsense, as I quoted from it in 2013 so it's hardly new.

While I don't apologise for writing what I did 4 years ago and for drawing attention to some unfortunate ways in which Tim expressed his religious views, I am unhappy with the way others have seized on it. Labour's Alison McGovern, who I usually have a lot of time for, has reacted by saying: "That a woman’s right to choose is being questioned by the leader of the Liberal Democrats in this day and age is frankly astonishing. He must urgently clarify his position on this important issue." This is deliberately disingenuous. The quote is ten years old, Tim did not make it while he was party leader and has most definitely clarified his position as "I am pro-choice. I believe that abortion should be safe and legal and that the limit should be set by science". I agree with him.

I'm not going to withdraw the post, but I ask that people read it in its correct context. I criticised certain things Tim said at a certain time - but he's clearly learned from the past and as leader he's been very careful not to make statements on the issue of religion. I'm happy that, whatever he thinks privately, Tim isn't going to be pressing for a change in the law any time soon.

I would also hope that The Guardian, and others, understand that this General Election is about many things of greater significance than an interview Tim gave to The War Cry a decade ago. AP, 18.5.17