Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Should the Lib Dems withdraw from Better Together?

Tony Greaves: "The more I listen to the Better Together
campaign, the less I like it."
I'm not a fan of Better Together - something that's unlikely to change, although I do have respect for some of the figures within it.

I'm also not really one to get out the "I told you so"s when circumstances prove me correct. However, having made the case in January 2012 for Liberal Democrat non-affiliation to a "no" campaign that would inevitably employ the tactics of cynical negativity, it has been encouraging in recent months to see overdue and welcome criticism from Lib Dems - including Scottish leader Willie Rennie, albeit implicitly, in his promotion of a "sunshine strategy" - in regards the relentlessly negative campaigning and how this is actively undermining the case for the union.

Liberals like Charles Kennedy have also brought a sober-minded, balanced, fair and reasonable perspective to the debate. It is not necessary to agree with Charles to appreciate his innate decency, his understanding of Scottish and constitutional issues and his love of Scotland - not to mention the kind of asset he could be if his positive message was not drowned out by the tribal bickering that has characterised much of what the media (and the respective campaigns) have passed off as democratic discussion.

I've made no secret of my desire for Better Together to lead the political conversation, and in doing so to be more intellectually honest about the shortcomings of the current constitutional arrangements. I've also argued that the most realistic chance of achieving anything like the federalist settlement we claim to believe in was lost when the Liberal Democrats refused to countenance the idea of a second question on the independence ballot.

I'm perfectly open to the reasonable suggestion that I could be wrong on these counts, although I've yet to be convinced - especially in relation to the damage Better Together is doing to the Lib Dems, the opportunity for a genuine federalism and even the union itself. While I understand why people may vote one way or the other, or as individuals opt to campaign one way or the other, I have never seen the wisdom in our party - which is neither nationalist nor unionist - falling down firmly in support of the Better Together camp.

The esteem in which the "no" campaign is held by the public is such that, in the not unrealistic scenario that Scotland does reject independence, it will be in spite of their campaigning tactics rather than because of them.

As mentioned previously, more Liberal Democrats have spoken out against the appalling Better Together campaign, including many "no" supporters frustrated at how their party has been sidelined and its key messages eclipsed by the petty, and sometimes bitter, anti-SNP talk.

Today, the latest installment of Liberal Democrat commonsense comes from Tony Greaves, one of the negotiators in the Liberal-SDP merger negotiations of 1987-8. It makes compelling reading. He makes many of the same points that I have in the last few years, from the unfortunate effects of association with Better Together to the lost opportunity regarding the second question, but his language is more direct. One might even suggest it is more angry; frustrated at a misguided and patronising "no" campaign that had the potential to be so much more.

Typical of his contribution is this excerpt on the currency question:

"The more I listen to the Better Together campaign, the less I like it. I was appalled by the threats by the Westminster parties, including ourselves in the person of Danny Alexander, over the pound. The view that a currency union would be out of the question, full stop, not to be discussed; and that it could not be negotiated in any circumstances; is or is not sensible policy. But as a blunt statement at this stage, it was stupid politics and anyone with an ounce of common sense could see that."

He also states that he is "astonished that the Scottish Liberal Democrats are now content to be labelled as Unionists", and remarks, in closing, that "it’s time for our friends north of the Border to crystallise their Liberal Democrat vision for Scotland, disengage from all-party establishment mush, and join the likes of Michael Moore on a distinctive Liberal campaign trail. Or we might all be saying bye-bye."

He isn't wrong. There is time for a "sunshine strategy" to be effective, but it will require - in the infamous words of a recently separated Hollywood star - a "conscious uncoupling" from Better Together. Our voice is more distinctive, more positive and more direct outwith a campaign that often treats us, and the electorate, with disrespect. If we are to make the case for federalism, we have to firstly understand what we mean by that and, secondly, be able to communicate it effectively to voters. Unfortunately, the straightjacket imposed by conformity to Better Together's strategy has prevented both the internal and external conversations from taking place, and resulted in the Lib Dems being publicly perceived as little more than an anti-SNP party, in the way that we were once seen as anti-Tory.

I agree with Tony Greaves, who appears (in spite of - or perhaps because of - his self-declared limited involvement in Scottish politics) to have a well-considered appreciation of the ramification of the independence referendum for both the Scottish and federal Liberal Democrat parties. Whatever the next few months have in store for the Lib Dems, there can be no escaping that our future in Scotland will be directly affected by the stifling relationship with Better Together.

Tony Greaves was writing in The Liberator

Friday, 4 April 2014

RIP Margo Macdonald

I fully intended to write my own, somewhat lengthy tribute to the great Margo Macdonald, considering her political life with particular reference to the independence cause, her passionate campaigning for rights for sex workers and her political courage and tirelessness in leading on the matter of assisted suicide.

However, I feel that not only are there already so many fitting tributes from people of all parties, but that my own words would be ill-qualified to do justice to her enormous achievements and immense humanity. 

I think it is sufficient to say that Margo taught us so much; particularly in showing us how to be fully human while simultaneously leading on so many key issues. She was not popular because of her political affiliation, her beliefs or - indeed - her outspokenness, but because she took an active interest in people. 

Speaking as a Liberal about a liberal, I miss her already.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

It's Nick v Nigel Part 2

Is this advert unwise and insensitive?
In case anyone missed the first pitched battle between the leader of UKIP and the Deputy Prime Minister, BBC2 are screening a further installment tonight.

Calling it a debate is, to use mild terms, more than disingenuous because it will not be a debate but a media circus. No realistic observer expects anything other. This kind of "debate" is also an affront to real political conversation, not to mention an embarrassment for those of us who believe in facilitating the kind of dialogue that engages, empowers and informs - which has been exchanged for what is alleged to make good television: namely, two men (it would be men, wouldn't it?) with entrenched views trading put-downs and insisting they are right. Is this how we should be debating complex policy issues in the 21st century?

The real problem I have with this kind of televised debate is the media obsession with determining a "winner", as if political discussion is akin to a boxing match. Clegg has fallen into this way of thinking, naively believing that his logical and reasoned approach could land a knock-out punch to Farage. He was wrong on this score. For all his rational and utterly sensible rhetoric on the night, he failed to appreciate two key facts: firstly, political victories are not forged through logic but through trust and, secondly, that the appeal to the emotional is a powerful political weapon. It came as no surprise to me that many judged Farage as the "winner" in spite of having a poor grasp of basic facts (he surmised that 75% of UK laws originated in Brussels whereas the reality is about 7%, and made the elementary error of asserting the European Court of Human Rights was an EU organisation) because he understands this and recognises how to exploit it to his advantage.

The obsession with identifying a "winner" defeats what should be the prime purpose of political discourse - to empower the public to arrive at informed decisions. At times, the last televised debate bore more resemblance to a schoolyard spat or, I would suggest, two evangelical preachers arguing over which was the more ideologically correct. And while, as a strongly pro-European Liberal Democrat, I find it hard to disagree with any of Clegg's arguments, I was unsure how his approach would win any converts. It's is right to take the fight to UKIP and it is right to dismantle their arguments, but whether it should be done in this format, and whether Nick Clegg was the right person to do it, is highly questionable. Farage doesn't have to win the intellectual argument if he can successfully paint his opponent as a discredited, distrusted member of the self-interested political establishment. Neither does he have to support his facts if he can appeal instead to the emotional, the patriotic and the populist.

There is a need for a real debate on Britain's future within the EU, and for too long the initiative has been handed to UKIP who have been effectively been allowed to lead with their narrow-minded xenophobia and laughably romantic views of Britain's identity and role in the world. It is indeed a political conversation that the Liberal Democrats should take an active role in. However, a forum which reduced debate to a spat between rival personalities with what many would consider extreme views on Europe (most people are neither strongly in the "in" nor the "out" camp but, as in the case of the Scottish independence question, actually want something in the middle) is not how to best achieve it - and not only because Clegg will inevitably come off second best, but because these forthcoming European elections are about so much more than personality, UKIP and pleasing the media. Clegg's approach has essentially confirmed that the pending elections are about UKIP, which should delight Farage and his party immensely.

The Lib Dem PR machine has come in for a bit of criticism from me in the past, and it does again today. In advance of tonight's second round of the macho punch-up, the Press Office have put out a flyer praising Nick Clegg's courage. As well they might - while I doubt his strategic wisdom I do not doubt his bravery. However, unwisely and insensitively, it refers to Ed Miliband and David Cameron as being "missing in action". The use of such a military term is inappropriate for many reasons, and indeed is entirely wrong (the phrase refers to those who go missing, often presumed dead, while heroically involved in conflict - not those who refuse to carry out their duties, as seems to be the inference here). However, it's also in poor taste given what many families have had to ensure in recent years when their loved ones genuinely are "missing in action". There has been worse material put out by the party (and others) in recent years, but this says a great deal about the thinking of our party's PR machine and its need to more carefully consider potential ramifications.

It is also wrong to accuse the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties of desertion. Firstly, Nick Clegg did not necessarily want a debate with them, but with UKIP. Secondly, there are several perfectly valid and understandable reasons why they are well-advised to distance themselves from this kind of debate. They realise the risks and dangers. They appreciate that it will, in all likelihood, be of most benefit to Nigel Farage. They have not abandoned their responsibilities but have instead arrived at the conclusion that debating with Nigel Farage is about as sensible as sharing a platform with Alex Salmond.

And I won't go into any detail on the objectionable "British jobs" quote - but I have to ask if it was really necessary.

While I am naturally pleased that the Liberal Democrats have made clear their determination to be the party of "in", it is unfortunate that we are putting out material suggesting we are the only such party, as if we want to be the only show in town. In doing do, we overlook Ed Miliband's personal commitment to the EU and the opportunities that should give to the pro-European movement. There is scope for a cohesive, cross-party, diverse campaign for continued British involvement - that could tackle UKIP's untruths while simultaneously championing a more fit-for-purpose EU - but that won't be achieved by an emphasis on personalities and the party-political, which only plays into UKIP's hands.

No doubt, while watching tonight's debate, I will find little on which to disagree with Nick. Other, that is, than his misguided strategy and the hubris-fuelled delusion that he is the man to deliver a finishing blow to Farage. This won't be a debate, but a show and a point-scoring contest - a contest which will do little to inform public opinion, but whose winner will be determined by it. C'est la vie nouvelle de la politque.