Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Today is not a good day to be a Lib Dem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

SNP minister announces he is gay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Some further thoughts on Remembrance Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

50 Lib Dems you must follow on twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

A festive event for awful people?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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