Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Remembering Holocaust Memorial Day

Today various events across the UK mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

From Lewis to Cornwall, thousands of people will remember the estimated eleven million victims of the Nazis’ systematic and brutal killing machine – as well as those who have been killed in subsequent genocides.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will attend a Holocaust Memorial Day service this evening at Ayr Town Hall, just one of many gatherings which aims to honour those who died while reflecting on the effects of intolerance, discrimination and hatred.

Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on 27th January annually to recall the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi death camps. We recall the “Final Solution”, a chillingly well co-ordinated liquidation of a race of people in which an estimated six million Jewish men women and children lost their lives. We also remember the relentless persecution and anti-Semitic legislation which, from 1933, denied many of the most basic human rights to Jews and essentially sought to strip them of their humanity.

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2015 is “Keep the memory alive”. In remembering honestly, we must reflect on the suffering of Europe’s Jews at one of the darkest times in modern history. But we also should remember the five million other non-Jewish Holocaust victims who died at the hands of the Nazis, and the countless others who personally experienced oppression and exclusion simply because of who they were. These include political opponents (e.g. Communists and Social Democrats), disabled people, Romany gypsies, Poles, people with mental health problems, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian priests such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maximilian Kolbe, twins (Dr Josef Mengele required them for his “research”) and, inevitably, gay people.

Indeed, the Nazi quest to exterminate gay people was as organised and thorough as the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”. Peter Tatchell explains at length in a thoughtful, and sometime harrowing, contribution for the Huffington Post the consequences of being gay in Nazi Germany. Like the approach to Jews, the process of persecution began with homophobic legislation and a deliberate cultivating of intolerance towards a particular section of society. This in turn led to homosexual orientation becoming an arrestable offence in itself, the propagation of pseudo-scientific gay “cures”, gay people being classified as “inferiors” and – ultimately and horrifyingly – the mass murder of homosexual people in a warped quest to reserve the genetic purification of the German people.

The words of Heinrich Himmler leave little room for doubt as to the Nazi’s plans: "We must exterminate [homosexuals] root and branch... We can't permit such danger to the country; the homosexual must be entirely eliminated." The systematic elimination of gay people was so thorough that very few survived to tell of their ordeals.

The Holocaust casts a long shadow over Jewish history, but also over that of Europe’s LGBTI communities. Remembrance is not the preserve or responsibility of one group of people but of all society – when one of us is demeaned and dehumanised so too are all of us. The scale of the Holocaust must never be forgotten, but neither too should its origins. We must remember how certain groups were classified, symbolised as “different” – becoming objects of hatred – and systematically dehumanised, their fundamental rights as human beings being denied. The lessons of the Holocaust are as relevant today as ever: legitimisation of discrimination and the divisive language of “us” and “them” have been at the root of every genocide in history.

I have some personal interest in the Holocaust. My maternal grandfather was a Polish Jew who fought in the RAF during World War II. He left his family behind, and saw none of them again. We can only guess what possible fates befell them, although it seems more than probable they ended their lives in Auschwitz. My stepfather’s father was a member of the Allied force that liberated Bergen-Belsen. They had quite different experiences, but neither was able to talk about them openly. Each lived with their unspeakable memories of the horrors they had witnessed, or of loved ones they knew to be lost.

It is not only the Nazi atrocities that are remembered at this time, but also the many genocides that have taken place since – in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. As well as the victims, we remember those who were heroes for peace – the often unsung people who did so much to relieve human suffering during wither the Holocaust or more recent genocides: people such as Donald Caskie (a Church of Scotland minister who was “straight at home and gay abroad”), Raoul Wallenberg, Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou, Irena Sendler and David Ndaruhutse are just a few of those who denounced philosophies of discrimination and resisted oppression.

As a bisexual person of Jewish descent Holocaust Memorial Day has a specific and profound personal significance. But it also has importance to wider society, as we remember what has gone before and accept the challenge of confronting hate and creating a safer, more tolerant and inclusive future.

In remembering the Holocaust honestly, we should not be considering banning Mein Kampf (as one Labour MP is suggesting) but improving education. Mein Kampf and its philosophy should instead be confronted and exposed for what they are – the 90-year old ramblings of a self-deluded megalomaniac who delivered untold suffering to millions of people.  We need such examples from history to actively demonstrate where intolerance leads.

Fortunately, the Holocaust Memorial Trust is committed not to banning what helps us understand the past, but to using the experiences of the past to challenge how we live in the present and demonstrating how we can all contribute to a better tomorrow – one in which all differences are not only accepted but respected.

Further information on Holocaust Memorial Day events can be found on the Trust's website.

This piece was originally written for KaleidoScot.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

If this is Home Rule...it's rather underwhelming

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg today argued that the implementation of the Smith proposals represents "Home Rule" for Scotland.

Writing for Scotland on Sunday, Clegg insisted that "Thursday was a good day for Scotland and our United Kingdom...The Scottish Parliament has grown in authority and stature in its short life and these new and significant powers will enable it to grow even more.

"You will have the flexibility to do things differently in Scotland as Holyrood will now raise the majority of the money it spends. It means if you want to spend more on mental health care, like Liberal Democrats have advocated, then you can do that. Likewise if you want to cut taxes for those on low and middle incomes then that will be possible too. These are two priorities that Liberal Democrats will be making the case for." So far, so good.

Clegg also referred to the Scottish welfare budget of £2.5 billion, which can be used to provide "support for people with disabilities and carers", and to the advent of votes for 16 and 17 year olds.Again, all good liberal ideas, but am I missing something?

"Home rule is part of the Liberal Democrats’ DNA" he said. Indeed it is, which is why I'm wondering how anyone could possibly call the Smith proposals "Home Rule".

"It’s part of our history going back to William Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign in the late 1870s. We have always been 100 per cent behind the transfer of powers away from London and these new powers mark an exciting time in Scottish politics." I am not entirely sure on the 100 per cent claim, but he's correct that our Home Rule credentials go back almost 150 years. There can be no denying this, but the political realities today are very different than in the early days of the Liberal Party. Whether Gladstone would or would not have recognised the Smith recommendations as the embodiment and fulfilment of his aspirations is questionable, but what is more apparent is that as far as modern Liberal Democrats are concerned, these plans fall far short of our own plans for Scottish Home Rule within a federalist UK. So, why is the leader so keen to suggest that the Holy Grail of "Home Rule" has finally been realised?

Clegg makes some valid points about "the fog of negativity", the absurdity of Conservative proposals for English Votes for English Laws (which he calls an attempt to "correct an anomaly in the UK Parliament...by creating another anomaly") and the merits of the Smith proposals. But he is over-egging the pudding more than slightly. What is needed are not ridiculous claims and triumphalism from any party, but an acceptance that a compromise deal has been reached through which certain benefits have been obtained. These changes move us further down the road of devolution; they are welcome; they realise some historical Liberal objectives; they ensure that Scotland will become more autonomous than any other region of the UK.

But these changes do not realise "Home Rule". Neither do they really move us closer towards a federalist settlement - although the constitutional convention Clegg wants to see work on the English question very possibly could. What Smith did was to recommend a number of changes to how devolution works, and in the circumstances it delivered. It delivered a strengthened Scottish Parliament - it did what the rather ambiguous and non-specific "vow" demanded.  It might have delivered more, although I'd have been surprised if it had been bolder. I'm not going to join the cynics, but for this believer in "Home Rule" the proposals cannot be the end of the line but only the beginning, and do not represent the triumph of Gladstonian Liberalism over SNP Nationalism.

A great deal of what Nick Clegg had to say was positive. But, if this is Home Rule, then it feels rather underwhelming.

It is quite deflating to see not only Nick Clegg, but also various others including even Margaret Curran, attempting to sell the Smith Commission as the culmination of a century and a half of often fraught political campaigning. I'm sure I'm not the only person to take that view. In fact, to see Labour championing the supposedly newly-gained "Home Rule" as their own cause is quite nauseating.

When we think about "Home Rule", it does not mean a bit of tinkering with devolution. It is something bold and radical. It might even be called extreme, or ultra devolution. It is a worthy aspiration, but to use such loaded terminology to describe something that is (to misuse Nick Clegg's derisory description of an AV referendum) "a miserable little compromise" as the fulfilment of the Liberal dream is going too far and risks offending those of us for whom "Home Rule" is something far more ambitious. That's not to say that the compromise reached isn't progress, but let's not overreach ourselves.

A sense of proportion is necessary. Smith represents some welcome and overdue progress - nothing more, nothing less.

I hope we Lib Dems continue to talk about, and work towards, Home Rule. It is, as Clegg rightly states, in our DNA. But let's not have any of this nonsense that it's already a reality.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

A few thoughts on yesterday's Trident debate

Nick Harvey: "[Trident] is assumed to be beyond debate"
Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

A fair bit has been made of yesterday's Opposition Day debate on Trident - although arguably the media have not given it quite as much attention as it merits.

True, it's a debate on a motion that has zero chance of being passed. This, however, does not make it irrelevant - in fact, Trident renewal is of huge interest to voters, especially in Scotland where attitudes are more clearly defined.

The nuclear "deterrent" has long been an issue that has plagued, and to some degree defined, the Liberal Democrats and its predecessor parties (anyone remember Eastbourne in 1986?). There are a polarity of views within the party, but essentially there has always been a sizable section of the membership vehemently opposed. And so, in spite of an official line to abstain, it was going to be interesting how Lib Dem MPs would vote.

The first thing I should do is to thank the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party for securing the debate. Please understand me - I fully appreciate their politically-motivated reasons for doing this (especially the SNP, who are seeking to cement in the public imagination their determination to make Trident renewal  a "red-line issue" in any post-election negotiations) - but we should be grateful that Trident renewal has been placed on the Commons agenda. We should not be afraid to debate what is of interest to many British voters, and this is an issue that will not go away.Whether we should continue to commit to £100 billion renewal at a time of austerity is something that at least deserves to be discussed openly.

As Lib Dem MP Nick Harvey observed during the debate, "keeping a nuclear deterrent going at the level we thought necessary at the height of the cold war in 1980 gets an automatic bye and is assumed to be beyond debate. Nobody even wants to put it on the table and debate it alongside those other things that are there to mitigate the dangers that our own security assessment said in 2010 are first-league threats that we face here and now." And so the opposition parties deserve real credit for ensuring the debate took place at all. 

The second thing to note is how united the Conservative and Labour leaderships are on the issue. The Conservative position is for a like-for-like replacement; Labour want to create a similar, submarine-based system - but both are committed to the principle and scale of the project. What was more surprising is that there was not more opposition from Labour backbenchers. A party once almost synonymous with nuclear disarmament now has only a few voices of dissent. And those voices were the predictable ones: Dennis Skinner, Jeremy Corbyn, Paul Flynn, Diane Abbott and David Lammy. I was also pleased to see Ayrshire MP Katy Clark among the noes, but aside from that Scottish Labour were conspicuous by their absence.

I appreciate that this was a motion introduced by the SNP, but the scale of Labour opposition - and Scottish Labour's decision to ignore it - was unexpected. Yes, this is an Opposition Day motion. Yes, it was introduced because the parties behind it have political motivations for doing so. But here was an opportunity for Jim Murphy to demonstrate that he is aware of public concern, that he has a grasp of the vital issues, that he can take on the SNP. Which brings me to my third point - Scottish Labour are running scared on Trident. Why else squander the chance to make their case? Scottish Labour seems as paralysed on Trident as UKIP is on the NHS - afraid to go against public opinion while simultaneously refusing to support it.

The fourth observation I'd make is that it was very obvious this issue was being debated against the backdrop of a pending General Election. There was much evidence of tribal put-downs, especially from Conservative minister Michael Fallon, who referred to Labour as "the shower opposite" and accused the Lib Dems and SNP of pre-election scheming: "It is contemptible for the Scottish nationalists or the Liberal Democrats to suggest that they might use the ultimate guarantor of our freedom and independence as some kind of bargaining chip in some grubby coalition deal. To put it more simply, it is only the Conservative party that will not gamble with the security of the British people." This was naturally predictable, but perhaps it is right that Trident renewal should become an election issue. Why should something so important, as Nick Harvey asked, be "assumed to be beyond debate"? Make no mistake - Trident will play a significant role in the 2015 General Election, and not only in Scotland. Jim Murphy may not wish to discuss it, but in this case he's not set the political agenda.

My fifth point is in relation to the Liberal Democrats. Our MPs generally did as they were told, and abstained. But four MPs did vote for the motion - Julian Huppert, Mike Crockart, Mark Williams and Andrew George. Crockart tweeted prior to voting: "Trident is out-dated, unaffordable, cold-war relic. It can never be used. Doesn't relate to today's security threats. Voting against renewal." Other Lib Dem voices expressed similar concerns, on social media and in the chamber. Nick Harvey (who didn't vote, but ripped to shreds the government's position) made an impressive contribution to the debate: "The world has changed. The cold war is over. The iron curtain has come down. The Soviet Union, which was our known adversary, no longer exists. In 1994, Britain and Russia de-targeted each other and changed their policy to say that we were not nuclear adversaries of each other. Yet nothing changed: since that time, we have continued with 24/7 patrolling. I join the Secretary of State in saluting those who have been involved in sustaining that for all that time. The Royal Navy and all those at the Faslane base and in the supply and support chains have mounted a gargantuan effort to keep continuous at-sea deterrence going, and they deserve great praise for that. It has been at considerable human cost and very substantial financial cost, but it is very much harder to discern quite what practical utility it is fulfilling in 2015 when we do not have a known nuclear adversary."

This is the kind of thing that we need to say in the lead-up to the election. The Conservatives have set out their stall, as have the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens. Labour is also clearly committed to some kind of renewal, although Scottish Labour seems reluctant to sell its product. The Lib Dems need to find their teeth and be willing to talk about the nuclear deterrent. We need to say that it is unsustainably expensive and militarily unfit for purpose. It does nothing to deal with the current and very real threats of the 21st century. It belongs in a different era and should be consigned to the history books. We should not be afraid of saying this.

Of course, how we get there might be a matter for discussion, but our essential position needs to become clear.

Conservative MP Oliver Colvile observed yesterday that the Liberal Democrats website affirms that “Britain’s nuclear deterrent, which consists of four Trident submarines, is out-dated and expensive. It is a relic of the Cold War and not up-to-date in 21st century Britain. Nowadays, most of our threats come from individual terrorist groups, not communist countries with nuclear weapons.The Liberal Democrats are the only main party willing to face up to those facts."

All we have to do is say what we've always said, and communicate the same messages. It should not be hard. While  five years in a coalition with the Conservative inevitably makes these messages seem less credible, we cannot stand by while other parties champion the causes we've passionately campaigned on for decades. We must become more courageous in being ourselves - and we too must be willing to take our sensible position on Trident to the electorate. I certainly have no problem in taking my own views of Trident as outdated, expensive and unnecessary to the voters of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill.

Finally, any Lib Dem members interested in joining Lib Dems Against Trident may wish to take a look at their facebook page.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

So...what does UKIP think about the NHS?

There has been much made of UKIP's confused stance on the NHS in recent months, with UKIP invariably seeking to quash rumours that it is not particularly friendly towards the idea of a publicly-run NHS.

First, there was UKIP deputy leader Paul Nuttall's infamous claims that "the very existence of the NHS stifles competition" and that "the NHS is not fit for purpose". These were soon deleted and denied by some as evidence of an anti-UKIP conspiracy, but the undeniable truth is that these comments were made. Nigel Farage was also filmed telling supporters: “I think we are going to have to move to an insurance-based system of healthcare...I would feel more comfortable that my money would return value if I was able to do that through the marketplace of an insurance company.”  UKIP was so damaged by allegations of seeking to move towards an insurance-based system that the party was forced to declare its support for a state funded health service in November 2014.

This hasn't put the matter to bed, though. Today leader Nigel Farage is talking about the potential to replace the NHS with an insurance-based system. Didn't he hear his party back in November? Well, yes...but he already wants to put this back on the debating table, insisting UKIP will have to "return" to the issue after the election.

Nigel conceded that “there is no question that healthcare provision is going to have to be very much greater in 10 years than it is today, with an ageing population, and we’re going to have to find ways to do it.” That much is true, and if the NHS to survive it requires innovative thinking in combination with evidence-based approaches. But why should that mean going down the insurance route?

Louise Bours, UKIP's health spokesperson, has responded to her leader's intervention: "What people have to realise about UKIP is that we are much more democratic than other parties. Nigel is entitled to his opinion and others are entitled to theirs, we don’t whip people into all thinking the same thing, like the establishment parties. As he has said before, he raised the idea for discussion a while ago, the party discussed at and rejected it. I am certain that if the party discuss it again, we will reject it again. The vast majority of UKIP members, the British public and I will always favour a state funded NHS.”

I have some issues with the NHS being used as a political football. I also have issues with assumptions that an insurance-based system will necessarily provide the answers to the complex questions surrounding how we provide for healthcare needs in the future, as well as with assumptions that the problems experienced by the NHS are entirely due to the way in which it is funded.  But what really concerns me about this is that UKIP's leader is seeking to go into an election without being able to commit to anything on the NHS.

Farage is essentially declaring that "our temporary position, which I disagree with, is to support a publicly funded NHS, but we're going to revisit this after the election and hopefully revise our view". This does not inspire confidence in either the leader or the party. If UKIP's leader and deputy leader genuinely believe that the NHS should be replaced, they're entitled to their views - but hiding behind a populist position for electoral purposes, only to overturn it later, is flagrantly dishonest.

Louise Bours certainly doesn't understand the nature of "other parties" if she genuinely thinks their members are unthinking, uncritical and unquestioning. But she misses the point - the British voting public need to know exactly where UKIP stands prior to the election. They have a right to know what UKIP's vision is for the NHS, especially in the longer term. Pledging to revisit a decision after an election offers no reassurance. A tweet from the party confirming "UKIP is committed to an NHS free at the point of delivery" (note: not at the point of need) doesn't really answer the question either.

This is not a teasing question of what the party might have to compromise on in a prospective coalition, but a straightforward matter of principle. The British public value the NHS and it is not much to ask for a coherent policy statement that can be believed. What would UKIP's starting position be in any negotiations?

UKIP may indeed be a "democratic party" but when leaders undermine the party position so quickly and so publicly questions are inevitably raised. Perhaps Nigel Farage might now realise that, if he wants to be trusted on the NHS, sometimes omitting to offer his personal view would be a very sensible thing to do?

Monday, 19 January 2015

Votes at 16 - soon to be reality

I am very proud that the Scottish Lib Dems have committed themselves to reducing the voting age to 16 - it is one reason of many that I am a liberal.

There are a number of reasons why extending the franchise makes perfect sense. The most obvious of these is that it seems absurd to empower 16 and 17 year olds to exercise their democratic right in a referendum on Scotland's future, but not in a General Election.

The Lib Dems, the SNP and many Labour politicians have been advocating change. It's one small step in the right direction and one we should embrace.

Secretary of State for Scotland Alistair Carmichael has confirmed today that a Section 30 order has been agreed to be put before both the House of Commons and Holyrood tomorrow, which will empower the Scottish Parliament to make a decision on reducing the voting age prior to the Holyrood elections of 2016.

Mr Carmichael said: "I'm delighted to confirm a timetable has been agreed for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in future Scottish Parliament elections. I've always been a firm believer in votes at 16, with the sheer number of young people participating and voting in last year's referendum I believe the case has become undeniable. Today marks the next phase in our commitment to people in Scotland and the start of a landmark week for the future of our country. Later this week we will publish draft legislation ahead of Burns Night meeting our promise to bring new powers built to last for the Scottish Parliament."

This move is part of the implementation of the Smith Commission's proposals. While welcoming of the announcement, deputy first minister John Swinney said: "The publication of these proposals creates the opportunity for people and organisations across Scotland to have the opportunity to shine a light on what is being offered. Whilst Smith did not recommend all the powers I would want the parliament to have, we will use what powers are made available, as far as possible, to increase equality, to tackle poverty and to grow the economy. We will lead the debate to ensure the Scottish Parliament is equipped with the powers our people believe it should have to tackle the fundamental challenges in our country."

Scottish Lib Dem spokesperson Liam MacArthur added: “Young people carried themselves with dignity and dynamism during the referendum debate. Liberal Democrats are delighted that the UK Government is kick starting the delivery of the Smith Agreement in such a fitting way. The transfer of powers to enable 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the next Scottish Parliament elections is a positive move which delivers on the Vow and for the democratic rights of young people.

“This is the beginning of a historic week for Scotland. Some people doubted that all five parties could come together to deliver these bold new powers, or doubted that young people were ready for the responsibility of the right to vote. On both charges those doubters have been proved wrong. This is a good week for Scotland, for home rule and for the Liberal Democrats.”

The wider debate about the Smith proposals is pertinent, but it is also positive to focus on the achievements. A referendum we Liberal Democrats never wanted has helped to bring about one of our principal objectives. The lessons of that referendum, at least so far as democratic engagement are concerned, appear to have been heeded.  For all the cynicism surrounding the SNP's initial proposals to lower the voting age, it is welcome to see that such cynicism has not only largely subsided, but that the extension of democratic rights to 16 and 17 year olds is likely to become reality very soon - at least for elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Scotland can now be an example to the rest of the UK in how to "do" democracy, how to better engage electorates and how to involve more young people in political processes. This extension of democracy always was, and still is, worth fighting for. Alistair Carmichael is right: the case is "undeniable". But the strong case is as applicable to Westminster as it is to Holyrood. While on the one hand democracy has been enhanced, an anomaly has been created by which a 16 year old may not vote in a General Election but does have a say in a Scottish Parliamentary election.

When some victories are won, it doesn't matter who gets the credit. I mentioned previously that I was proud to belong to a party that has championed votes at 16. But I am equally proud to live in a Scotland that is soon to make it a reality, and therefore thanks to everyone involved are in order. So thanks to each and every person who has stood up for this.

The challenge now is to bring this overdue reform into elections for the so-called "mother of parliaments". I suspect the Tories and UKIP may prove resistant, however...and so the fight will go on. Where Scotland leads, I am sure the rest of the UK will follow...eventually.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Willie Rennie's lecture to David Hume Institute in full

In advance of the Scottish Lib Dem leader's lecture to the David Hume Institute in Edinburgh yesterday evening, The Scotsman reported on Willie Rennie's criticisms of the SNP's ongoing independence campaign and his concerns surrounding what he termed "ultra-extreme devolution".

Understandably, this met with predictable criticism from pro-independence blog Wings over Scotland - which claimed this intervention represented "the embrace of stupidity". I also expressed some much milder criticism of the position Willie Rennie appeared to be taking, but also insisted that a few excerpts taken from a national newspaper should not be the basis for making assumptions about a leader's policy or strategy direction.

Thanks to the Scottish Liberal Democrats, I am now able to read the full script of the lecture. Yes, Willie Rennie does go on the offensive, arguing that the SNP are seeking "indepedence by the back door". Yes, he does use the unhelpful term "ultra-extreme devolution" without explaining precisely what he means by it. And yes, he accuses the SNP of dishonesty on Home Rule: "that great advocate of Home Rule William Gladstone would be appalled at the sleekit redefinition of this liberal policy.  William Gladstone was no nationalist and Alex Salmond is no home ruler." But this constitutes a tiny proportion of the speech, and Rennie had a great deal more to say on his other political opponents, Lib Dem plans for mental health, the European Union and childcare.

With respect, while the SNP-related comments taken in isolation give cause for concern, they must be read in the wider context of the lecture, and the leader setting out his stall in advance of a General Election. I tire of the SNP baiting and negativity, which is almost always counter-productive and for which I retain my criticisms. But I also don't think Scotland is best served by a media that chooses to highlight this rather than focus on the more positive policy ideas being put forward. This was not a speech about the SNP, or even election strategy. It was a lecture on creating a stronger Scotland - and Willie Rennie said a great deal that is pertinent and timely.

Fortunately, he talked far more about the Liberal Democrats than he did our opposition.

I'll let the lecture speak for itself. It is copied below in full for the benefit of readers. thge highlighting is my own, and represents simply what I feel to be the principal points. I'm not going to make any further criticisms or observations - I'll let you read it yourselves and arrive at your own conclusions.

Can I begin by thanking the David Hume Institute and ICAS, the Law Society of Scotland, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries for organising and supporting this series of lectures.

This is the second in which I have participated. I certainly hope that they can become an established part of the political debate in Scotland.

It gives a rare opportunity for the party leaders one by one to set out – under the same conditions – their offer to voters and their vision for the future.

It gives a platform to make important moves forward.

Last year I was able to announce in this room that I had asked Ming Campbell to reconvene his Commission, to have a Campbell 2 to set out an ambitious timetable for implementing more powers for the Scottish Parliament.

I will say more about that later. But you will recognise immediately that what I set out to this forum twelve months ago will help shape Scotland for generations to come.

Last year my title was “In Britain, In Europe, In Work”.

I will look back briefly at where we are with those. We – Scotland – are still in all three. But each remains at risk from the policy stances of each of my opponents. I will explain why.

I will take a further look at work and the economy and how we have progressed over the last five years since 2010.  It has been the most astonishing period in politics and economics that I can remember.

I will show how critical it was that politics and economics are linked.  That recovery and growth in the UK economy are linked to the decision of the Liberal Democrats to put the national interest first and to form a stable government capable of tackling the crisis they inherited.

Looking to the future I will make the case to anchor the next five years in the centre ground.  That we avoid a return to see-saw politics and see-saw economics.

By doing that I believe we can continue moving from rescue to recovery. That means we can look to the future, building the kind of country we want to see.

We need to avoid the mistakes of the past and accelerate our journey in a liberal direction. So I will expand on the hopes I set out last year for the future development of the Scottish economy, and for how future prosperity should be felt by every person, whatever their background.

Above all, I will show that the essential, liberal offer should be a strong economy and a fair society that gives opportunity for everyone to get on in life.

In Britain. In Europe. In Work.

So let me start by reminding you of where I left off last year.

I chose “In Britain, In Europe, In Work” as my theme.

I showed that many of the arguments for Britain leaving the European Union had echoes and parallels in the arguments made by those wanting to leave the UK – that “decisions should be made only by people who live here” and so on.

I showed how Britain remaining part of the EU was important for three million jobs across Britain and how Scotland remaining part of the UK was important for the ten per cent of jobs that rely on the single market.

In Britain. In Europe. In Work.

The good news is that we are still in all three.

And there are 168,000 more jobs in Scotland since 2010 – a record number.

But all three are still at risk.

Each from parties hoping to make gains at the UK General Election

Labour still show – and people know it – that they have not learned the lessons of their mistakes. They let the banks run wild, allowed consumer debt to spiral to one and a half trillion pounds and let national borrowing become so high it placed the economy at massive risk when the banking crisis hit. Their plans are still to borrow more than we can afford, putting us all at risk again. You cannot trust Labour with the economy.

The Conservatives risk jobs in two ways. They are set upon a lurch to the right that will give us permanent austerity – slashing jobs in the NHS, schools and essential public services. They want to shrink the state to reach an ideological destination shared with the Tea Party in the USA. They always have.

But it is the risk they will take on Europe that risks most jobs. The Conservatives are still in chaos on Europe. Their most senior people, from the Prime Minister down, can’t answer straight questions about how they will vote in their own proposed referendum on membership.

And there is still a risk to Scotland’s place in the UK, and to the jobs and prosperity that rely on us being part of the UK.

The SNP want independence by the back door. As a minimum they say they want a form of ultra-extreme devolution that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world and which would inevitably tip Scotland into independence.  They call it Home Rule but that great advocate of Home Rule William Gladstone would be appalled at the sleekit redefinition of this liberal policy.  William Gladstone was no nationalist and Alex Salmond is no home ruler.

But that’s not the only risk from them.

The SNP have a habit of redefining what an election was about after the votes have been counted. They change and change again their position on fundamental issues.

That is a strong charge for me to make.

But look at 2011 Scottish election.

The election was all about issues such as the council tax freeze. But after the votes were counted the SNP said it was an endorsement of the devolution of alcohol excise duties.

I can tell you not a single one of the thousands of voters I met during or after that campaign had said anything about that.

They say they don’t vote on English matters at Westminster. But now they say they might.

They told us the day before the referendum that it was a once in a generation thing. Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon stood beside a poster saying “One Opportunity”. The day after that referendum they started planning the next one.

I find it inconceivable that their target to win every Scottish constituency in May will not result in an attempt by them to get independence by the back door, regardless of what they say now.

The former First Minister told newspapers last week he now only wants ‘home rule’, not independence. But only 20 months ago he said that ‘home rule’ was independence.

Confused? Well you should be. And this would all be an intriguing word game if it wasn’t all just one ballot paper away from happening.

All the evidence is that if you vote for them today, you won’t find out until tomorrow what they are claiming it all means.

Those who thought that winning the referendum by almost half a million votes was enough to put the issue to bed for a generation or even a lifetime need to think again.  The nationalist campaign continues.  They will use your vote in May – for their cause, not for anything else.

We are through the referendum but the UK is still at risk.

We are through the European Elections but Europe is still at risk.

We are through the recession but the economy is still at risk.

Still in Britain. In Europe. In Work. But all three are still at risk.


I said at the start that I would look in some detail at the period 2010-2015. It is a story that begins in May 2010 with a coalition government formed against a backdrop of a sovereign debt crisis sweeping Europe – Athens literally ablaze, Italy and Portugal teetering on the brink and the United Kingdom, with its broken banking system and vast budget deficit, dangerously exposed.

It is a story that will record the shared sacrifices that were required to get the economy back on track and the public finances back in black.

And it is a story of those sacrifices beginning to pay off. Remember back to that week of the General Election in 2010. The world waited to find out if Britain would get a government at all, if that government was likely to last and if that government had the capacity to turn around the country’s financial situation.

Britain wasn’t alone. Italy, Portugal and Greece were in turmoil too.

But Britain’s deficit was the largest in the G20 and the largest structural deficit in the G7. The stock markets were nervous. The international money exchanges waiting. It was that moment that the Liberal Democrats put the national interest first.

So, today, employment is at the highest level in the whole of our history, unemployment is falling, wages are rising faster than inflation and we have joined the fastest growing economies in the G7. The national interest demanded a government that could tackle the crisis and we delivered.

Liberal Democrats saw the national interest and responded. Putting national interest before party interest and staying the course when others repeatedly predicted we did not have the staying power.
We took responsibility for Britain’s future at one of the most difficult times in our nation’s economic history.

In the best traditions of our philosophy and our party – not because it would be easy, but because we knew it was right.

That is why the international comparison today is so stark. Last week unemployment in Italy hit 13%. Greece is still in crisis. Yet in Scotland employment is up 168,000 since 2010.

In the last year alone unemployment has fallen by 44,000.

We have made this progress by creating the conditions for business.

We have implemented targeted tax cuts:

•    68,000 businesses in Scotland are getting up to £2000 off their National Insurance bill – a big boost to small business.

•    Corporation tax will fall to 20% in April, making it the joint lowest rate in the G7.

•    To make work pay we have cut tax for 2.2million people and taken 236,000 Scots out of tax altogether. You'll remember in 2010 the Tories were not interested in these tax cuts for workers.  They had a manifesto of tax cuts for the richest but said tax cuts for the rest of us were unaffordable. These are the very same tax cuts for workers that David Cameron now proclaims and these are the very same tax cuts for the rich that Nick Clegg stopped.  

•    In 2010, the UK was ranked fourteenth in the Global Innovation Index. Today we are ranked second.  To go further the UK Government is increasing the R&D tax credit rates – for SMEs to 230% and to 11% for large businesses.

We are helping the supply of finance:

•    We’ve the Green Investment Bank based here in Edinburgh.

•    The Government backed Business Bank.

•    Export finance, enterprise capital and many other funds.

On technology:

•    The UK Government is investing over £1 billion in improving broadband and mobile infrastructure with disproportionate sums invested in Scotland.

•    The Technology Strategy Board is investing over £200m to establish a network of elite Catapults, including here in Scotland with the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult in Glasgow.

These are the measures that turned things round. That was the national interest. The recovery wasn’t automatic. Look around Europe to see that.

We took the necessary steps to balance the books to give confidence to the markets that Britain was a good place to do business.  And we provided the conditions for business to generate the jobs and taxes to pay for the public services we all value.  We reshaped that economy to make it sustainable, environmental and innovative. Anchoring the economy in the centre ground is how we do it. This economic centre ground argument is not new for Liberals and Liberal Democrats.

Russell Johnston once said, “Liberal positioning in politics is like the nose in relation to the rest of the face: somewhere in the middle and out in front”

David Steel wrote in his book A House Divided on the 1978 Lib-Lab pact: “Each swing of the political pendulum threatens to take the country on yet more violently diverse directions to left and right…The political see-saw crashes up and down ever more violently to our discomfort.”

And as Russell Johnston’s metaphor implies, by building a strong economy anchored in the centre ground we can set out in front an inspiring future for a fairer society where there is opportunity for everyone.

The Liberal centre ground prevents the see saw crashing up and down.

The Liberal Democrat vision

So I want to talk a little bit about how I see the route to prosperity in Scotland in the future.

First let me speak about participation in the economy, as I did here last year.

If our country is going to be a success in the 21st century and beyond then it is going to need the talents and efforts of everyone.

If you want a fair society then no one should be left out of the economy or their community.
Too many are at the moment. Even with high employment rates, they can be higher still.
Fundamentally, the route to participation is education.

It has been the route out of poverty and to a life of achievement for a hundred years. The Scottish tradition of education was founded on that notion.

We still don’t do enough.

I have spent the last three years as my party’s leader determined to get a big shift in where we have been putting the emphasis as a country.

If we are going to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty and remove those stubborn barriers that condemn too many people to the margins, then we have to make a radical change.

That’s why I have been campaigning about childcare and badgering ministers for more provision for two-year-olds.

Investment in a child’s education before the age of three is the investment that gets the biggest return: in terms of that child’s achievement and in the benefits to wider society from them being an engaged and successful part of their community.

So I was delighted that from last August 8,400 two-year-olds got a free place in education and childcare. And it rises to 15,000 next August. We still lag England but we are making progress.
Later on in life we need places at colleges and apprenticeships for those who want them.
Colleges have been hit hard in their budgets in recent years.

We need to support colleges.

There have been more than a million extra apprentices across the UK since 2010.

The Scottish Government has maintained high levels in Scotland.

We can do more to foster a demand for apprentices from companies who don’t have them yet.
We should help everyone get on in life by supporting more women into science, maths and engineering.

And Liberals will always want to overcome the remaining barriers that prevent people from ethnic minorities or the LGBT communities from achieving their potential.

We have come a long way from the time when people from those groups were cut out of promotion and shut out of opportunities. More and more employers see the value in a diverse workforce that reflects those they serve and can draw on the biggest pool of talent available.

Steps such as equal marriage have started to entrench strong liberal values. There is still more to be done.

And a final issue of participation is one that I want to take right up the political agenda - mental health.

It is estimated that one in four of us will experience mental ill health in our lifetimes. 2.3 million people with a mental health condition are out of work and research has identified mental ill health as the primary reason for claiming health related benefits.

And we heard just last week how 11,000 local government workers have been absent from work because of a mental illness.

The human cost is immense. And the economic cost from lost participation is equally large. Despite this, mental health has for too long been the Cinderella service of our NHS. An increase in awareness of the costs associated with mental ill health has, by and large, not been matched by increased investment in Scottish mental health services.

Just last week I heard from a constituent who told me that her daughter was self-harming but had waited for one year just to see a consultant.  That’s twelve months from referral from the GP.  In those crucial early stages of a mental illness time is critical.

That is why I have joined Nick Clegg to put improving mental health services front and centre of my keynote speeches and priorities.  Today I can announce that, working with my party’s health spokesperson Jim Hume, we will set out on a listening exercise.

I want to hear about the problems faced by charities, by people with mental health problems, by councils and by providers.

I want to hear about those problems so that we can find solutions which help us prevent mental ill health, tackle stigma and support those with mental health problems.

Boosting mental health services will be one of our key future priorities.

All of these things will create in Scotland an expanded, talented, educated, motivated and healthy workforce.

Then, we need to make sure there are the exciting opportunities available to them.

We boost the economy by creating the conditions for business and creating opportunity for everyone using the potential of good education and good health.

Scotland has the comparative and technical advantage in big industries like renewable energy, food and drink and life sciences. We have a high quality tourism offer.

But there are still some big challenges.

One of the biggest is that facing the oil industry. Returning briefly to the theme of last year’s lecture I can say that with the broad shoulders of the United Kingdom government we can be flexible to provide a taxation regime that incentivises industry investment.  We can do that without a dramatic impact on the funding of our schools, hospitals, universities and other public services.

The UK introduced tax allowances in the autumn statement. In addition to the cut in the Supplementary Charge on Corporation Tax there are new allowances for cluster areas, basin wide investment and survey exploration. 

Having discussed the matter with Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and Alistair Carmichael I can report there is no lack of political will to take the necessary action to support the industry.  

The UK Government is active.  With its broad shoulders it is supporting this important sector.
And for the growth in the rest of the economy we have set out some of the steps we will take:

•   Expanding the British Business Bank so that it performs a more central role in the economy, focusing on long term capital for middle-sized business.

•   Developing the Business Growth Fund to make it work alongside the Business Bank to meet Britain’s shortage of equity capital for growing firms.

•   Supporting innovation through greater public funding on a longer timescale, with a ring-fenced science budget. More ‘Catapult’ innovation and technology centres and a green innovation arm within the Business Bank.

•   Continuing to reform business tax to ensure it stays competitive, making small and medium-sized enterprises the priority for any business tax cuts.

•   Completing the roll-out of high speed broadband, to reach over 99% of the UK.

As I started off by saying, we should lock in macroeconomic stability, including low inflation, and reduce the risks of a return to a volatile economic environment.

Britain needs a stable and competitive environment for growth; this is essential to attract and sustain new businesses and new jobs.

Now with the General Election only months away the choice in the election is clear. 

Examining the economic plans we can see that Labour will borrow too much, risking the economy again. The Conservatives will cut too much, threatening public services and sacrificing the least well off. The SNP want independence by the back door risking the economy and public services. The Liberal Democrats will borrow less than Labour and cut less that the Conservatives. We will balance the budget by 2018, cut taxes for low and middle earners and ensure decent public services, creating opportunity for everyone

And that is a very Liberal Democrat message. And it is only a Liberal Democrat message.


So the Liberal Democrat approach at every stage on an individual’s journey through life helps them participate in a strong economy and a fair society where they each have opportunity.

Childcare and early education, focused on the youngest children, is the best route out of poverty, to break the inter-generation poverty that for too long in Britain has meant that if you are born poor you are most likely to die poor as well.

Strong education that equips every individual to achieve their potential.

Skills that pave the way to good job, in dynamic industries of the future and in science, green technologies and manufacturing.

Mental health services that mean the 25% of people who have a mental health problem during their lifetime do not have to sit on the sidelines of society and the economy.

Lower taxes on income to make sure work always pays and that people on low and middle incomes keep more of what they earn.

And personal freedoms, that come from a liberal society, that means the whole of society can benefit from the talents and contributions of every individual.

And I should add, as I promised at the start, that nations, regions and communities will be empowered as never before. Power should be transferred to rebalance the economy away from London.

Last year I said that every part of the UK should have nimble governments able to build on the strengths of their economy and develop the skills and investment needed.

I announced Campbell 2, tasked to propose a timetable for the transfer of more powers to the Scottish Parliament. Despite initial opposition to a joint approach from Labour and the Conservatives there was astonishing and rapid progress.The Liberal Democrats had already set out our plans in Campbell 1.Last spring Labour and the Conservatives set out their ideas.

The Secretary of State for Scotland agreed to host the different parties once the referendum was completed.

Holyrood leaders signed up in August. Westminster leaders in September.

All that meant that on the 19th September, Lord Smith could start his work.

It was the Liberal Democrats who set the pace in the negotiations too with our idea to create a Scottish welfare system for the first time.  The Smith Commission published on schedule. All five parties signed up. All five in the one room for the first time to agree our constitutional future.

I spoke to the Deputy Prime Minister this morning in London and can report that the clauses are now due in a fortnight.

You heard it here first.

From Campbell 1 to the Burns Night clauses I am proud of the pace for reform that Liberal Democrats have set.

We have shown the way.We have persuaded others to join us. And we have delivered.


And I think that perhaps sums up what I have been speaking about this evening.

In government we’ve proved our commitment to building a stronger economy by tackling the budget deficit, helping business create two million jobs, including 168,000 in Scotland, helping create record numbers of new apprenticeships and freezing fuel duty.

In government we’ve proved our commitment to make Britain fairer by cutting income tax by £800 for 24 million low and middle earners; ensuring the biggest ever rise in the state pensions; and giving thousands of 2 year olds free childcare every week.

We have proved in government we stand for fairness by blocking Conservative plans to run schools for profit, allow employees to be fired without cause, and to pay public servants less if they work outside London.

That record of action allows us to set out with confidence our campaign for the future.

Over the next five years the Liberal Democrats in government will balance Britain’s books while raising the income tax threshold, giving workers and pensioners a further £400 tax cut; increase spending on the NHS across the UK which will add to the money available for health in Scotland, with mental health and local services being the top priority; and devolve more power from London to Scotland to rebalance the economy and create a fairer country.

The Liberal Democrats have both the commitment to devolution and the influence at Westminster to ensure Scotland gets the powers we have been promised.

And that is why I have been able to say that only the Liberal Democrats can be trusted with both a strong economy and a fair society giving opportunity for everyone.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

What is "ultra-extreme devolution"?

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie will tonight attack the SNP campaign in a lecture to the David Hume Institute.

The Scotsman, having obviously had sight of Mr Rennie's script, reports that the Lib Dem leader will warn of the SNP "gaining independence by the back door" via "ultra-extreme devolution".

“As a minimum [the SNP] say they want a form of ultra-extreme devolution that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world and which would inevitably tip Scotland into independence." Mr Rennie will say. He is also expected to accuse the SNP of redefining the purpose of the referendum, criticising them for promising a referendum as a "once in a lifetime opportunity" while "planning the next one". “I find it inconceivable that their target to win every Scottish constituency in May will not result in an attempt by them to get independence by the back door”, he will add. "Those who thought that winning the referendum by almost half a million votes was enough to put the issue to bed or even a lifetime need to think again. The Nationalist campaign continues"

The SNP campaign for independence is bound to continue. Anyone who thought that the referendum would settle the matter for ever, and that the SNP would simply abandon its raison d'etre, is being unrealistic. The referendum was a setback for the cause, that much is true - although how serious a setback depends on how the pro-Union parties respond in the coming months and years. I appreciate how frustrating it must be to hear those denying the result, behaving as if the Scottish people haven't voted, or who are now suggesting that independence just requires "one more push" - but to criticise the SNP for continuing their campaign is ridiculous. We Lib Dems haven't abandoned our campaign for electoral reform because of the AV referendum reversal. Neither were anti-Europeans silenced by the 1975 referendum.

I understand Willie Rennie's tactics, and there are reasons why he's turning his fire on the SNP. With Labour's current predicament and the predictions of significant SNP gains at the General Election, it should surprise no-one that he is seeking to warn Scottish voters of the potential consequences of returning an unprecedented number of SNP MPs. But the idea that a post-election deal, presumably with either Labour or the Conservatives, would yield "ultra-extreme devolution" (and this is necessarily something we should all fear) is difficult to accept. Neither of those parties is likely to offer the SNP anything along the lines of fiscal autonomy exceeding what exists "anywhere else in the world", whether the SNP are seeking it or not.

In any case, what exactly is this "ultra-extreme devolution"?

Liberal Democrats have previously used the term "extreme" to describe supporters of independence, and Mr Rennie also made an attempt to associate the SNP with an "extreme" English nationalist party. I hope this is not a further unwise attempt to smear political opponents. Certainly using terms such as "extreme" in the absence of context, as the Scotsman has done in this case, is unhelpful. What is Mr Rennie actually referring to?

I for one would support what others may consider an extreme form of devolution - and that's a full fiscal federalism, which is the kind of thing Liberal Democrats should be promoting. So I'd be interested in knowing something more about what these super-devolution plans are, what evidence there is that such plans have been advanced by the SNP and whether there is any intelligence to suggest that either the Tories or Labour would entertain them.

Make no mistake - the SNP aren't going to give up on independence. That's an inescapable fact of political life. They'll keep on using whatever weapons are in their armoury to make it happen, and they'll go through any door to achieve it. It's who they are.

True, the SNP have in recent weeks suggested that the general election could be used to secure "home rule" for Scotland. What they mean by "home rule" may be quite different to what Liberal Democrats aspire to, but there is nothing controversial in seeking to use a UK election to secure a better constitutional future for Scotland. Indeed, it is something I hope we will be doing.

I don't know what else Mr Rennie will say in his lecture, but I hope he deals with the substance of what "ultra-extreme devolution" - or "Devo Max Mega Plus" - is, because the term itself is loaded while providing little real information. However, I also hope he takes the opportunity to reiterate the Liberal Democrats' support for "home rule" and the case for wider UK constitutional reform, because it is in making the case for a workable federalism and real democratic change that the arguments can be won and independence defeated. Mr Rennie needs to keep talking less about the independence referendum and saying far more about the Scottish Liberal Democrats, while communicating our own distinctive agenda for Scotland's future.

Having not had sight of the lecture script, I will reserve judgement and suggest The Scotsman has predictably focused on one element of the speech. However, if we've learned anything in the last four years it's that adopting an overtly adversarial approach towards the SNP is seldom productive, and Mr Rennie must take care how his messages can be interpreted.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo...and why the terrorists are winning

I'm sure I speak for all of us when I say that we were stunned by the events in Paris yesterday.

I have no wish to recall those events, which have been described in shocking detail elsewhere. Suffice to say that this was a co-ordinated attack on a journal that has, for the last decade, unapologetically persisted in publishing satirical cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed.

Charlie Hebdo is more than a French equivalent of Private Eye, although the comparison may be a good one. Both publications ridicule, mock, criticise and generally make fun of politicians, public figures, mainstream media and religion. But where Private Eye, in its quintessentially English way, rather uncontroversially pokes fun at the staid, sedate Church of England, Charlie dared to go much further.

While other publications have opted not to publish material that may be perceived as "provocative", Charlie has chosen to treat radical Islam in the same way it treats Catholicism and Judaism. Its targetting of the intolerance and hypocrisy of fundamentalist religion has, at times, manifested itself in depictions of Mohammed  - sometimes in pornographic or otherwise compromising poses. In 2011, Charlie "invited" the prophet Mohammed to be guest editor, which outraged radical Muslims and resulted in the publication's offices being firebombed.

Inevitably, there have been those who suggest that Charlie Hebdo's stance has been unnecessarily combative and has fuelled tensions. Such an analysis is questionable, but understandable: I will not deny that some of the cartoons have been in poor taste. Others would suggest that Charlie is simply highlighting, in its creative and no-holds-barred way, the nature of uncompromising radical fundamentalism. My own view is that Charlie Hebdo has sought to make radical followers of religion look rather silly - lampooning them all indiscriminately. The paper also featured a cartoon showing former Pope Benedict XVI in amorous embrace with a Vatican guard and an Orthodox Jew enjoying a kiss with a Nazi soldier. While deeply shocking, these cartoons have invariably pointed towards pertinent truths rather than simply mocking religion.

Charlie Hebdo has been making sardonic, and sometimes acerbic, examination of domestic and world events since being re-founded in 1992. It has depicted former President Sarkozy as a sick vampire, and has launched several attacks on the French far-right. The publication has been nothing other than consistent. In order to understand why the vicious attacks occurred, we need to ask the question: why is it acceptable for political ideology be challenged in this way, when different rules seem to apply to religion?

Why do the rights of religious people not to "be offended" trump the right of free speech? Free speech, if it is free at all, means the freedom to criticise all views - be they political, social, economic...or, yes, religious. That is not suggesting that it is always wise to ridicule and mock, especially if it demeans others or is tantamount to bullying, but the free press should be free to make such observations, criticisms and denouncements.

Today millions of us all over the world say that we stand in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. But do we? Where have we been for the last ten years? Have we been championing the right to freely ridicule radical Islam, including daring to depict Mohammed in cartoon form? Or have we instead been timidly urging caution, seeking to placate the demands of fundamentalists not to be offended?

Douglas Murray makes this point in The Spectator, pointing out that - in the aftermath of the 2005 protests against Danish newspaper Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten for publishing cartoons featuring Mohammed - "Charlie Hebdo stood alone.  In the wake of the 2005 Danish cartoons affair no other major newspaper or magazine in Europe was willing to keep running depictions of Islam’s founder.  Of course they said they didn’t publish, or republish, because they didn’t want to cause offence, or because they thought the (wholly innocuous) depictions were wilfully ‘provocative’ and the like...People will come up with various excuses, but in truth they won’t publish because they are afraid."

And that is the reality. Fear has paralysed the media, and this paralysis shows that - in spite of bold assertions that terrorism will never win, or that our liberty will never be stolen - that the terrorists are in fact winning. In the recent past the fear induced by the creation of the al-Qaeda bogeyman allowed Western governments to do illiberal things in the name of counter-terrorism, thus underlying the degree to which terrorism was winning the war, framing anew our political discourses and social attitudes. Now, no-one dares to publish satire that does not subject itself to conforming to the demands of those whose attitudes it mocks - because of the potential reprisals. If that doesn't show the power of terrorism, I don't know what does.

By a frightening coincidence, as these attacks were being carried out I was having a telephone conversation to a moderate British muslim living in Lancashire. He told me that he is terrified by the number of young British muslims being attracted to Wahhabbism and similar intolerant expressions of Islam. He explained how the muslim community is becoming increasingly divided and fractured along the lines of those who accept radicalist perspectives and those who don't. And he feels it's the radicals who are winning - and not only in terms of winning over individuals and families, but in rapidly becoming the new "mainstream". Rigid, intolerant and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam barely a century old are (in his view) not only challenging the mainstream establishment but looking to leave it behind.

Oddly, during the discussion neither of us had any notion of what was happening across the Channel. But if radicalism is thriving, it must be challenged. As Murray makes clear, Charlie Hebdo essentially stood alone. If we are to truly "stand in solidarity" with those courageous journalists, then we will continue to stand up against institutional, political and religious intolerance wherever it manifests itself, whatever the tactics of intimidation used against us.

Two weeks ago, Newsweek published an article in which it argued that the Bible is so misunderstood it's a sin. It's a brilliant read if you're theologically-inclined, but for those who are not it is probably sufficient to explain that, in carefully considering the Bible through the lenses of historical purpose and theological scholarship, it boldly presented the case for debunking much of what is held to be "Christian" by Biblical literalists. The backlash from American Evangelicals has been both predictable in its inevitability and stunning in its viciousness.

True, the author did make some unfortunate generalisations - but to see Christian denominations using their power not so much to defend their position but to deny Newsweek's right to publish such articles makes me rather uncomfortable. It is intimidation...and it claims a protection for religion that is neither merited nor helpful. Right to religious belief is granted and accepted, but that does not mean that such belief cannot be challenged.

Following the 2011 attacks in Norway, Norwegian president Jens Stoltenberg said solutions lay in "more democracy, more openness, but not naivety". If we are to genuinely counter the threat of terrorism, we can no longer to pander to it and live in fear of it, but rather must use what opportunities we have to challenge the thinking behind it.

Do we really stand with the fallen Charlie Hebdo journalists? Will we take it upon ourselves to take forward their mission of exposing hypocrisy and challenging all kinds of authoritarianism and intolerance? Or are we instead appalled by the brutality while feeling that the publication brought its troubles upon itself by being unnecessarily provocative? Or perhaps we are simply awe-struck by their courage but unable to find the same within ourselves?

To say "Je suis Charlie" is indeed a very hard thing to do honestly. That's not intended as a criticism, but rather to underline quite how courageous Charlie Hebdo has been for the last decade, and how much we owe it.

To paraphrase Mr Stoltenberg we need more freedom, more openness, but not naivety.

We naturally need this from politicians and the media. But it should also come from religious leaders. Rather than simply reacting with outrage to the atrocities, how much more positive would it be if religious leaders of all faiths came together to make a statement along the lines of "we have our beliefs which we sincerely hold, but we would defend anyone's right to criticise or question those beliefs. Such criticism is a fundamental right in a democratic society. Any philosophy that suggests it is above criticism is essentially a danger to a free society."

Of course, it's unlikely to happen...because many of us are still not quite ready to stand with Charlie Hebdo.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Jim Murphy and the politics of juvenile posturing

The formula for a better NHS? Whatever the SNP promises plus 1,000 more nurses, says Jim Murphy.

Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy has issued a statement in which he promised an "additional 1,000 nurses in Scotland over and above the SNP plans that we inherit."

This may sounds like a positive move, but in fact it merely highlights Labour's desperation and Murphy's unimaginative approach to political leadership.

Murphy is trying to reach out to the 190,000 Labour supporters who voted Yes in the independence referendum. I wasn't one of them, but if I was I'd be hoping for something more convincing than this.

Murphy has accused the SNP of "starving" Scotland's NHS. Whatever the truth behind such accusations,  pledging arbitrary increases on as yet unveiled SNP plans is downright irresponsible.

Let's get this right. Whatever the SNP promise, Labour will pledge a further 1,000 nurses. Even if the SNP was to pledge a further 5,000 nurses, Labour would promise 6,000. Murphy's motivation is obvious - it isn't to responsibly create a more efficient and fit-for-purpose health service, but simply to outdo the SNP.

He has succeeded in his mission - he's outdone the SNP on the stupidity front. "Think of a number, any number, and add 1,000...and abra cadabra - the NHS problems will be resolved" is something a five year old would come up with.

Murphy isn't interested in engaging in a serious, evidence-based dialogue about how to improve Scotland's NHS. He doesn't even seem particularly keen on getting to grips with the financial issues he is so keen to highlight. He has no interest in understanding where change is needed and where the right investments can be made to address those needs. Not for Murphy the inconvenience of detailed assessments of need and cost - it's much easier to make lame, glib and frankly juvenile pronouncements of extra nurses, whether they will be needed or not.

It's not just that this is a rather pitiful attempt at one-upmanship from someone who is supposed to be a political leader - it also underlines how Murphy, and probably Labour more generally, thinks about the NHS. For them, quality of care provision is a simple matter of "more nurses" without any further considerations as to how care is delivered and the NHS works. The notion that they can simply out-promise and out-spend the SNP to create a better NHS is stunning in both its simplicity and its naivety.

It's little more than political posturing of the worst kind. For those of us who have spent much of our professional lives working in the NHS, such overtly politically-motivated policy statements demonstrate both a lack of understanding and a lack of willingness to engage with the real issues. Scotland's NHS is facing particular difficulties and challenges, but these will not be rectified by foolish and grandiose promises or of parties attempting to outdo each other. The NHS does not need to be treated like a political football; neither does it need to be subjected to uncosted political shopping lists.

In terms of clinical provision, there are opportunities for a Labour leader with an active and genuine interest in making improvements to listen to service users, charities, lobby groups and current research and put forward a costed and considered plan for reform. But the notion that "need" equates to 1,000 more nurses than the SNP can promise is intellectually offensive. Patients deserve better.  Voters deserve better. Come to think about it, Scottish Labour deserves better.

So far, Jim Murphy's leadership style seems to be one of juvenile posturing. "1,000 more nurses than x" is not an election pledge, it's a foolish statement of immense proportions underpinned by petty tribalism. It is pitiful, lazy, and plainly irresponsible. I'd like to see a Labour leader actually seeking to better understand the complex difficulties within the NHS, and make some attempt to deal with them. Murphy has shown that he is unable to do either.

This kind of desperate appeal to populism is unlikely to work in the interests of either Murphy or his party.  No doubt some will be reassured by his "concern" for the NHS and his simplistic "solutions". But those he really needs to convince will see this stunt for what it is. This is not a policy statement, but a misguided attempt to outshine the SNP. It seems Murphy has yet to learn that leadership is about more than taking on ill-thought positions in order to score some easy points.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat MSP Jim Hume has obtained statistics showing an increase in Scottish NHS staff being absent from work due to mental health related issues. He is urging the SNP government to take overdue action to recognise the problems being experienced by many NHS staff (and the human costs of strain and stress) and improve access to mental health services. It's good to know that someone is providing some responsible leadership in creating an NHS more responsive to clinical need.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Why no-one should vote Lib Dem to get a coalition

Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has urged voters to back his party as a means of securing a coalition government.

The Sunday Telegraph has reported that Clegg said that has made the case for coalition government and wants the electorate to embrace it: “A strong coalition government, with Liberal Democrats anchoring it in the centre ground and not lurching to the extremes of left or right, remains the best way to make sure we finish the job and finish it fairly" said the Deputy Prime Minister.
Clegg is also warning that the Conservatives and Labour alone cannot be trusted to govern on their own. He states that “the biggest threat to our economy comes from Labour and the Conservatives...Labour and Tory majorities would be a massive risk to our economy and our public services.The Liberal Democrats will borrow less than Labour and cut less than the Conservatives.” Which rather sounds like he's trying to sell us as the party that will cut more than Labour and borrow more than the Tories, but I'll let him off with that one. I understand what he means.

Clegg has admirably turned fire on his coalition partners, accusing the Conservatives of  harbouring “an ideological approach to cuts to public services packaged up as continuity [which is] a con. It’s like a mobile phone salesman offering to renew your existing contract and then cutting the amount of calls you can make.” He also warns of Labour economic policy being  based on "huge borrowing and total denial".

All this I understand and to an extent agree with. It's vital that we differentiate ourselves from both Labour and the Conservatives, and it is positive to see Clegg doing it. However. I fail to see why he is appealing to vote Lib Dem in order to effectively ensure a coalition government. Such a strategy is flawed on a number of levels:

1. People do not vote for coalitions. Few people going to cast their votes vote tactically to attempt to achieve a coalition. That would require signficant ability to predict what is happening in all 650 seats. They naturally vote with the overall picture in mind, but the best you could hope to engineer by such tactics is a hung parliament.

2. Guaranteeing a hung parliament will not guarantee coalition. We can no more guarantee that than we can guarantee the abolition of tuition fees. Even in the event of no party securing an absolute majority, there are such things as negotiations, agreements and, dare I say it, other parties to consider. Clegg seems to assume that the Liberal Democrats would be the natural partner of government for both Labour and the Tories if they fall short. This is a serious miscalculation, and the disregard for the inevitable processes to create a workable coalition is surprising.

3. Coalitions are not necessarily good, or desirable. Clegg is making the case that this coalition has been good. Future coalitions may not be. Presumably, he believes this because the Lib Dems have been a partner in the current coalition - which is reasonable enough. But if the Lib Dems have shown that coalition can work, then that is because of the party and not coalition itself. The coalition has not been some kind of constitutional experiment, but an often uneasy partnership through which the minor party has achieved some victories and acted as a brake on Conservative excesses.

After the General Election, the Lib Dems are likely to have fewer seats than presently. The SNP are likely to have more than in 2010, with some polls suggesting they'll end up with the same number of MPs as we will. UKIP are expected to get something in the region of 6 seats, which seems reasonable but is not inconsequential, as the DUP are likely to secure around 8.Those 14 seats together might well make the difference, and it isn't beyond the realms of possibility that UKIP could do better than conservative expectations suggest.

Therefore, it seems possible that multiple options for coalition may be on the cards. There may be a Labour-SNP coalition, a Tory-DUP-UKIP alliance or even a Labour-Tory National Government. I could not with any confidence recommend either of those or imagine that they would necessarily be workable, never mind desirable (a Conservative majority government, for all its dangers, would be preferable to any kind of deal with UKIP and the DUP). Denying the larger parties a majority is one thing; creating a workable, strong coalition government quite another - and it is plainly foolish to assume that Lib Dems would necessarily be involved in any talks, let alone coalition. No-one will have to talk to us (just as we didn't talk to the SNP in 2007).

Furthermore the "vote Lib Dem to ensure coalition" idea doesn't quite grasp the reality that their are alternative ways to facilitate hung parliaments, such as voting UKIP. Indeed, the more seats the SNP take from Labour in Scotland, and the more seats UKIP take from the tories in England, the better the chance of creating the conditions in which coalition is possible. I'm not quite sure that's what Clegg's advocating, though...

4. Coalition might not be good for the Lib Dems. Even if a deal was possible, would it necessarily be in the party interest? Committing ourselves to coalition before we know who our partners might be or what sacrifices might need to be made is absurd. This coalition has provided us with some opportunities, but they have come at a price. Would we necessarily want to do this all again, especially so soon after paying likely electoral consequences for the previous coalition? How can Clegg be confident that any agreements would work in our interests? Might it be the case that the party decides a period in opposition might be preferable for several reasons, and not exclusively from the perspective of avoiding electoral punishment.

I appreciate Clegg's perspective, but a coalition government is not good by definition simply because of the presence of Liberal Democrats. It all depends on the detail.

5. It rather sounds like a pledge. And we know how well they go down. "Vote for us and we'll give you a coalition" is hardly the best of messages in any case, but we are in no position to deliver on such a pledge. As explained above, there are so many potential options and Lib Dem involvement in government is only one of many.

Effectively committing ourselves publicly to a coalition without knowing who our partners or what the terms might be is potentially problematic, to say the least.

6. It fails to recognise that the Liberal Democrats don't exist to provide "government at all costs". Clegg seems to believe that the Liberal Democrats naturally belong in government - his personal philosophy has become more than obvious in recent years. Being in government is useful so long as you are providing good government and have a respectful relationship with your coalition partner. But the desirability of being in government is not something that should be held to doctrinally, and there are a number of potential scenarios in which I would argue the best thing for the Lib Dems would be to opt for opposition. It all depends on the deal, of course - which is probably why it might not be a good idea to send out signals to potential coalition partners that we're desperate to get back into government.

7. Any Lib Dem leader would have to sell coalition to members. We will certainly need more than an AV referendum to convince us this time. Not only does Nick Clegg seem to pre-empt the result, the desirability of coalition, the attitudes of other parties and a workable and beneficial deal, but he also overlooks the small inconvenience of having to consult the membership. Why promise something to the electorate that he might not be able to persuade the party to accept?

Simon Hughes told Sky News today that “we have done it well, we have proved we can do it, we have proved coalition can work, it was the best solution for the last five years. We have shown an alternative, we have shown that we can pay off the deficit by 2018, we have shown that we can continue to protect public services.”

That may be so, but that's a reason to vote Lib Dems - to return liberal MPs who will be a genuine "alternative" to the politics of Labour and the Tories. Indeed, there are many good reasons to vote Lib Dem in constituencies across the UK. But as for coalition...be careful what you wish for!