Monday, 21 October 2013

David Cameron resigns

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

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

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

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Sir Menzies Campbell to step down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 7 October 2013

Michael Moore axed as Scottish Secretary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Cameron's socially destrucive policies must be resisted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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