Saturday, 11 December 2010

"Well, what would you do?" Vince Cable's question on Tuition Fees

There has indeed been much heart-wrung anguish among us Liberal Democrats on the issue of student tuition fees and plenty of opportunity for opponents to join in giving us a kicking. Hard for us, fun for them but I don’t hear many alternatives being put forward by either friend or foe.
Instead of flailing out in anger against party colleagues who support the rise in fees, truly I understand and salute the bravery of those being seen to be able to take a hard decision in the face of terrible abuse and opposition. I could not share that decision though.
It is still the policy of the Liberal Democrat party to abolish student tuition fees, not that many will believe that now. Now is it not my intention to keep this particular wound open but we need a mechanism to bring this about and what follows is my outline suggestion.


The current argument is that students should pay because they are the ones that benefit from the education. My point is that they are not the only ones. The businesses that hire graduates also benefit from their abilities and (tend to) pay graduates extra in recognition of this.
What if instead of taxing the graduates, the employers are taxed, say, one percent of the gross amount paid to their graduate employees?

This levy would be payable against all graduate employees and not just new graduates, therefore taking away the argument that those before are taking up the ladder behind them.

Because it is levied on all graduate employees, it doesn't matter where the person graduated from. So foreign graduates working in the UK would be contributing to our university system.

The levy would have to be a percentile of earnings because if it was a fixed amount, a librarian would end up paying the same as a hedge-fund manager.

Some would say that this is a hidden graduate tax and in a way it is as over time business would doubtless reduce graduate pay to cover the charge of the levy. But it is very rare that people emigrate for the sake of one percent and owing to the fact that the levy would not appear on pay slips, most people would know that it is there but it would not be strongly emotive about it.

Arguments against would be increased costs on business but over time pay would be adjusted to reflect this cost - as discussed above.

Another case would be those students who already are repaying their student tuition fees. Obviously upon introduction the repayments on student tuition would be frozen and probably the outstanding debt cancelled.

Because it is a percentile levy, some will undoubtedly end up paying more for their tuition than others owing to the predicted depression in wages. These will be the highest paid though so there is an element of wealth redistribution in the policy.

Some jobs would have to be exempt and these would be jobs which are not usually performed by graduates but in which individuals are employed. For instance, factory workers in non-graduate posts, catering and some agricultural work. This is perhaps the trickiest element as it provides loopholes for employers but it is necessary because not all graduates do end up in high-flying careers and they should be able to compete on an equal basis for non-graduate jobs.

The self-employed would have to pay the levy as there would be otherwise a loophole which would allow employers to contract work to the self-employed who are in reality employees in all but name.

So, to my mind a fair system that delivers on our promise of no student tuition fees and guarantees finance for a top-draw tertiary education and research system.

I would welcome discussion on this issue and have published the kernel of this argument on the relevent page of Lib Dem Act - just press on the title for the link.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

UNA NATO's New Strategic Concept and Global Zero.

The United Nations Association – Edinburgh , One Day Conference on NATO’s New Strategic Concept and Global Zero was held on 1st of November 2010 at the Scottish Parliament. It was a very enlightening day in many regards, sometimes not in the way that the speakers meant however.

After the introduction by Dr. Gari Donn, first speaker of the day was Lord David Hannay; chair of the United Nations Association and former ambassador to the UN. His broad scope were the challenges, past and present facing NATO. In terms of current nuclear threats, Hannay focused upon North Korea and Iran. It was clear from a paper provided with the conference papers that Iran has been doing their best to derail the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty review conference held this year so there is something in what he says. In response to my later suggestion, that when it comes to nuclear-armed countries that are not signatories: India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, should not the regional aspects be considered and their own and their rivals security concerns be taken into account? Lord Hannay decided to talk exclusively about Iran and North Korea in this context. He would not even mention the state of Israel by name and assured the meeting that the only nuclear security concern that Iran had was the USA. A quite remarkable statement.

Lord Hannay did offer a nine step programme to forward multi-lateral disarmament however. In brief they were:

1. Ratification of the test-ban treaty by the US Senate
2. Negotiation of further reductions of strategic nuclear capacity between the USA and Russia, with the involvement of France, Britain and China (the P5 nations)
3. Start of talks over Russian sub-strategic nuclear missile capacity in Europe
4. Progression of de-alert doctrines. This refers to the state of readiness that nuclear weapons are held in.
5. Fissile cut-off treaty. This would the cutting back on nations’ capability to enrich uranium in exchange for non-enriched uranium to be readily available for the promotion of national civilian nuclear power projects. Hannay indicates that in recent years Pakistan has been the major stumbling block on this project.
6. The Fissile cut-off treaty is a necessary precursor to a global test ban treaty
7. Middle East nuclear-free zone, with the first conference taking place in 2012
8. Strengthening the monitoring of global production by the IAEA
9. Acceleration of Norway’s VERTIC verification project.

One would expect many of these points to be raised at NATO’s 10 year review conference of nuclear strategy to be held in Lisbon later this month.

Going back to Iran for a moment, it is my view that when it comes to the Middle East, Israel’s nuclear capacity is the elephant in the room. Naturally I do not in any way support the proliferation of nuclear weapons or Iranian attempts to further their capacity in this area. If one applies the logic of the Cold War though, it could be said that Israel and Iran are regional superpowers and rivals. If one side has nuclear weapons, it would be reasonable for the other to attempt to gain a similar capacity in order to bring about a status of MAD – mutually assured destruction. The fact that one side has nuclear weapons will only drive other nations to attempt to develop their own.

Now I am not going to provide a prĂ©cis of every speaker as that really is the role of the UNA reportage. Another highlight for me though was the Russian delegation led by Vadim Mitrofanov, head of Foreign Policy at the Embassy of the Russian Federation. He expressed Russian disappointment that NATO was not disbanded at the same time as the Warsaw Pact but, perhaps more pertinently, Russia’s commitment to further disarmament talks with the USA and working in partnership with NATO. On the matter of the sub-strategic nuclear capacity, Mr Mitrofanov said that talks had not started yet but they simply could not decide this matter bilaterally with the USA. The reason for this is clear. In Europe the US has stationed 200 B-61 free-fall nuclear bombs, deployed by US and other NATO (German, Dutch, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Turkish) air forces under burden-sharing agreements. (In military terms nuclear gravity weapons are obsolete although fair to say the use of a single bomb would spoil a lot of peoples’ day.) There were various numbers given for Russian capability but the minimum cited was 2000 short and medium-range nuclear weapons. I took the liberty of following up this Russian position in a round-table session and the Russian Consul General Sergey Krutikov was pleased to clarify the position. Russia desires to see a nuclear-free Europe. Therefore in order to achieve that, not only would the Russian and American weapons would have to go but also those of Britain and France.

On Russia in broader terms, it certainly felt like it is NATO 28 + 1. It is clear that a lot of effort is being put into bringing Russia into the fold, if not as full members but certainly as “super-partners” as the new American terminology has it. This concept was unfurled to us by Dana (pronounced “Daina”) M. Linnet of the US Consulate. She did have a lot of good things to say; on how the USA is working to increase transparency in nuclear issues, are working hard to broaden the concepts of deterrents away from being just nuclear-based and enlarging shared risks and commitments. Along with former defence secretary Lord Des Browne, other nations were berated for not working harder with President Obama in order to further these and other worthy ends. One has to say the effect was rather spoiled by one impertinent fellow sticking up his hand at question time and asking of Dana “What would President Palin do?” It led to some back-tracking and statements such as (from Browne) “even those Republicans who think would back this issue” but the point was well made. After Bush’s dismantling of international agreements in 2005 and the Senate’s unwillingness to ratify the test-ban treaty in front of them, the general intransigent nature of US politics is an international problem. In that respect both Linnet and Browne are correct: Obama does offer a window of opportunity.

The day was very useful in terms of answering the question raised on these pages as who actually controls Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Rebekah Grenowski reported she was summarily put down by Rebecca Johnson of ACRONYM when the former raised this issue. Johnson assured Rebekah that the ownership of Trident was the subject of a bilateral UK-US agreement. This statement is backed up by the response to our letter to Nick Harvey. However, the issue of NATO strategic control was not contradicted by others in round-table meetings. It seems to me therefore that it is not a question of which is right or wrong, rather there is a double-lock on nuclear deployment. Bilateral agreements with the USA backed up with NATO unanimity – which also involves the USA. I feel this matter requires further clarification. It is probably the case though that in reality UK defence spending is bound totally to NATO commitments, thus casting light upon Hillary Clinton's recent intervention on the UK's Strategic Defence and Security review.

I only touched upon some of the matters raised on the day. When the UNA put up their full report I will post the link. It was a very worthwhile day and I am grateful for the chance to attend but sometimes the truth of any matter is deliberately obscure and the more I learn about nuclear weapons, the greater I have that feeling.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Murder

It was such a sad little affair that I couldn’t even find it on Google this morning.

I got to know Bob Day at Aberystwyth University.  In fact it was at the Cwrt Mawr bar we first met.  Bob was in his forties, an ex-butcher who was studying International Affairs.  Both being mature students and somewhat outsiders, we became friends.  It wasn’t until a couple of years later, when Bob graduated that I got to meet his family.  It is so long ago now that I can’t even remember everybody’s name but there was Jenny his wife, and their teenage children Jasclene (pronounced Jacqueline) and her slightly older brother, whose face I can still see.  I spent weekends down in Cardigan with them and it was a great time.  Jenny helped improved my cooking techniques; we all played badminton and board games together and shot pool when down the pub.   As I recall, Jasclene was a little sweet on me but all was innocent. 

As is usual with any Arcadia though, there was darkness beneath.  I had noticed that over the past year Bob was becoming increasingly pedantic.  He would take the time to explain in detail the most prosaic functions of daily life.  Once Jenny got to know me, she started to express worries about him.   Bob had a large vertical indent right in the middle of his forehead which Jenny told me had been put there in a car accident six years previously.   Since that time, Jenny said, she had been married to a different man.

It was the autumn of 1995 when the cracks started to open.  I usually called the family once a week but this time Bob called me.  Jenny had started to have an affair with a neighbour.  Although I was in my late twenties in many ways I was still pretty immature.  Relationship management was certainly outside my remit at that point.  I didn’t know what to say.
Two weeks went by.  I called but no answer on their telephone.  I tried again and again with the same result.   It was my final year, I had no clue what was happening so it was with some surprise and upset that in December I received a letter from Jasclene that told of a road accident involving both Bob and Jenny.  He was still in hospital but Jenny had died after six days in a coma.  Naturally I wrote back; which hospital?  Where can I visit Bob?  How is everybody else?  No reply.

It wasn’t until April 1996, just before my finals, that Bob himself got in contact.  He was still in hospital in Haverfordwest.  I added the cost of a hire car to my overdraft and hit the road south.  Incidentally I think that was the drive I also started my hate-affair with GM cars.  It was a green 1.7 diesel Astra with all the reactions of a startled sloth.

Bob was in hospital, either in bed or a wheelchair for in the accident his back had been broken, losing the ability to use his legs.  He was also in police custody, charged with the murder of Jenny.  To my face Bob said he simply could not believe it; it was such a vast misunderstanding.  He had taken Jenny out for a drive and on a dangerous mountain bend above Cardigan had lost control, plunging them both over.  A tragic accident.  He asked me to help and the following week I gave a statement to his solicitor.  That was the last time I saw him.

After graduation, I passed through Cardigan en route to Aberystwyth in order to say farewell to friends.  I was starting my current career in Aberdeen that October.  Between buses, I went into a pub in Cardigan.  Naturally Bob and his family were high in my thoughts.

“Tragic about that accident last year.”
“What accident?” asked the young barman.
“The one where Jenny Day was killed.”
“That was no accident,” he stated with some anger.
“What?”
“If it was an accident, why did the bastard leave a note for her boss telling him what he meant to do?”

Bob, what have you done?

I was in training in Texas when the trial came up.  The defence wanted me to testify.  I agreed to have my statement read out in court.  Robert Day was found guilty of murder and sentenced to three years on the grounds of diminished responsibility.   Naturally the wheel-chair is a life sentence.

                                                            *            *        *

The murder of Jenny Day was the closest I have been involved in the killing of another person but I have known other victims.  A colleague and friend lost his entire family at about the same time.  A guest at my wedding subsequently lost his life and my mother-in-law lost other friends to violence.  So it was with some interest I pricked up my ears this morning when changes where suggested to murder sentencing.    In the brief debate I tended to support Lord Faulkner’s view that there should be one charge of murder and then it is up to the judge to decide the sentence.  However, I would support a greater degree of flexibility on how the judge lays out the sentence.  Perhaps there should be a grading at this point; from whole life term, down to first and second degree through to man-slaughter, each with its own minimum term before parole can be applied for.   The jury could perhaps issue a private recommendation to the judge but the judge would have the final decision.   Naturally the licence system, the power of the courts to recall any murderer to prison, would stay in place.

This structure would help those involved to understand that the current “life” sentence doesn’t mean life but the crime of murder always is held in the highest seriousness.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Liberal Democrats and the Browne Report

We knew that things would not be easy being in coalition with the Conservatives but I really do not recall supporting American-style funding for universities.  In fact, as I remember things the Liberal Democrats plan is as follows:

Year Action
1      Scrap fees for final year full-time students
2      Begin regulating part-time fees
3      Part time fees become regulated and fee loans become available to part time students
4      Expand free tuition to all full-time students apart from first year undergraduates
5      Expand free tuition to all part-time students apart from first year undergraduates
6      Scrap tuition fees for all first degree students
http://www.nickclegg.org.uk/education.aspx

Now I know what you are going to say.  We don’t have a Liberal Democrat government, the financial crisis is a lot worse than we realised etc; all good and valid points.  But where does it say that we have to support a policy that is diametrically opposite in philosophy and aim to our own?  Dear Vince Cable has already softened the effect of the Browne Report on university funding and doubtless behind the scenes more work will continue to make university access as broad and as affordable as possible.  On this point I expect such fudging to be ineffective.  While speaking on PM (Radio 4, 12th of October), Higher Education Funding Council for England representative Mark Calder noted that since the introduction of tuition fees in England, university attendance for those coming from the poorest twenty percent of society has increased by thirty percent.  So far so good but when asked whether this trend was reflected in the best universities in the country the answer is an emphatic “no”.   There has been absolutely no change in the social profile of those going to the top one-third universities.  The increase in the poor getting a degree has been restricted to those attending average and below average institutions. 

My interpretation of this is that since market forces have been introduced into tertiary education more customers have been drawn in but standards have failed to improve.  They may have even declined in order to attract new students who are being drawn in to generate cash for the institutions and for few other reasons.  If we continue down this path we will indeed recreate the American system where a core of excellent and well-financed colleges are surround by a hinterland of the mediocre or frankly rubbish offering near worthless degrees.  I thought we Liberal Democrats were good Europeans.

Does this mean that the state has to fund university study?  No, it does not.  When I lived in Norway during the late 1990s for example, in was usual for students to leave college with debts in the order of £30,000.  But part of the Browne report expressly does away with subsidies on interest payments on student loans.  Meanwhile in Norway it wasn’t just interest payments on student loans that was subsidised but all interest payments on personal debt.  In fact if one was debt-free, a person was expected to pay a higher income tax rate because they obviously had more disposable income.   The central point being is that debt, including student debt, is fully integrated into the social structure.   In the current economic climate, I cannot see England making such provision.   The belt is being tightened across all areas. 

There is only one logical conclusion; we must accept that for the next decade ahead at least, fewer people can attend university.  Other provisions, such as a return to apprenticeships, have to be given consideration.  This is very painful as since the 1990s the one way that a young person really can get ahead in life is by getting that degree.  If we were to cut back the number of places in order to maintain excellence, this does not necessarily mean we are depriving the current generation forever.  I myself was a mature student.

What of we Liberal Democrats?   Dear M.P.s, you signed a pledge, all of you.  In public.  There are photographs.  Doesn’t that mean anything to you?  I assure you it does to the British people.  If you go ahead and support the Browne Report we will not be forgiven.  Nothing that we will say subsequently will be believed.  Support this report and wave goodbye not just to your own but to our entire party’s credibility.

It’s not all bad; there is a solution.  We are part of a coalition government so one cannot expect ministers and PPCs to go into open rebellion.  So my advice would be to abstain.  This is allowed for under the coalition agreement.  Back-benchers, you are free to oppose this or at the very least also choose to abstain.

Last night I discussed this issue with Mrs Veart.  Having lived for a time in the USA, she was frankly appalled with the Browne Report.  This isn’t the way forward for Britain but nor is the way that she suggested for me.  This is very painful but she suggested... I can barely take myself to write this... she suggested that I join Labour.  Harsh words ensued.  I’ll say no more but I still feel sullied.
The Liberal Democrat party is my party.  I’m here to stay.  Being in this party is like being in a marriage; I love you but don’t expect me to like you all the time.   Frankly at the moment I’m pretty pissed off with you.

Nick Clegg MP with Julian Huppert MP signing the pledge not to raise tuition fees.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Say No to Trident, Lib Dem Conference Report 2010

Say No to Trident’s foray into the real world met with mixed success it would be fair to say.  The greatest event was our fringe meeting held in coalition (a popular concept nowadays) with Liberal Democrats for Peace and Security.  Julian Huppert MP, just arrived back from China where he had been asked by one of his hosts whether Britain would join in if the USA decided to attack China?  A scary prospect indeed and while it seems absurd for us to contemplate currently, it gives an interesting insight into the mindset of Chinese strategic thinking.  They obviously see the USA as a threat in military terms and are seeking insight into just how must they would be up against if the worst happened. It has to be said that Britain, with one honourable except of Vietnam, acts as very reliable auxiliaries to the American legions.  Julian went on, expressing the view that Trident had already had been included in the Strategic Defence and Security Review by default.  Since I too have been saying this for some time, I confess to a small internal cheer on this one.  Tessa Munt MP is wonderful; although describing herself as a “baby” whip, if she had to choose between that office and her convictions on Trident, the whips’ office would have to be looking for a replacement.   David Grace of Liberal Democrats for Peace and Security spoke on the current political situation and what was hoped to be achieved by his motion which had been put together with Louise Edge of Greenpeace.  And of course, Kate Hudson of CND told us of their latest report which outlines the economic damage that would occur if the Trident replacement is pushed through on a like-for-like basis.  The event was packed out, with standing room only and, as Kate also expressed in her blog, was both good natured yet determined

Another highlight of the Conference for SNTT was the speech by Janet King during the emergency Trident motion.  She spoke simply yet with conviction about the broken promises and poor example of Britain and the other nuclear-armed states of failing to live up to the promises made under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed forty two years ago.    Janet’s speech was in contrast to my own.  I am afraid that I got too bogged down in the internal politics of the issue and simply did not send a clear message to a wider audience.  It went down well in the hall but I promise I’ll be better next time.  Nader Fekri, a SNTT member on the facebook site spoke passionately on the immorality of nuclear weapons.  Shirley Williams was brilliant as ever in reminding Liam Fox that Bush is no longer in the Whitehouse.  Jacque Bell was also ready to speak but sadly was not called.

I have to say though I am still not satisfied with the terms of the debate.  Any motion on nuclear weapons which myself and Nick Harvey, Armed Forces minister, can agree on has to be a fudge.  In fact, this debate did not advance the cause of unilateralism (or bi-lateralism which is even more to be preferred if practical), it merely is a restatement of current Lib Dem policy.  The speech that made this totally clear was from Steve Coltman of Loughborough.  He was the one advocating the deployment of Astute-class submarines armed with nuclear warheads.  This is not what Say No to Trident wants to see.  We have to stay firm; both in aim and principle.  I am almost certain that if our original motion had been allowed to pass through by the Federal Conference Committee that today the Liberal Democrats who be a party that supported unilateral nuclear disarmament. The amount of support we encountered as our tiny four-person demonstration (myself and Janet, joined by Margaret Rowley and Geoff Reed) stood outside the conference centre on Monday was staggering.  In fact, we were campaigning to the converted, with only one young man taking the time to argue with Janet who is in her natural element approaching complete strangers with a happy smile, placard in hand. It was mischievously suggested by one lady that we got the wrong conference and that we should be standing outside the Conservative’s Birmingham event instead!

So where does this leave us?  At Conference, at least some are now aware that there is a grass-roots movement and a few of them know it is called Say No to Trident.  The organisation has made good contacts with organisations like CND, Greenpeace and Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy.  What we haven’t achieved yet is the change to the policy which we so dearly desire.  The next motion that we put in cannot be about Trident.  As far as we Liberal Democrats are concerned, that system would be out on its ear if we ever get power.  The next fight will be whether we replace it with the systems that Ming Campbell and Nick Harvey favour or rather sanity will prevail and our party policy will be a Britain without nuclear weapons.

Friday, 27 August 2010

What the Two Davids have in Common

On the face of it, perhaps it would be easier to list what David Milliband and David Cameron don’t have in common.  Both are of a similar age, both Oxford-educated and they both followed the now well-worn path of the political professional after leaving university.  So is it any wonder that the two Davids have similar ideas about the path to power?

During the battle for the Labour leadership, it has become clear that D. Milliband favours the New Labour approach: appealing to all sectors of society while his brother Ed wants a return to core Labour supporter of old.  I remember when Tony Blair came to power.  It was while I was a mature student at the University of Wales Aberystwyth.  I used to have socialist friends (I still have a few but nowadays it is hard to find a real socialist) and I actually felt sorry for them.  Even before 1997, socialists have been effectively disenfranchised in this country.  In the 1970s, the voter had a real choice between the right and the left of politics.  Nowadays that is no longer the case and I think that is to the detriment of this country.

It was actually for my degree essay on evolutionary theory that I found myself reading one of Professor Ian Stewart’s popular books on mathematics.  I can’t remember which one but it contains the scenario of the two ice-cream sellers on a crowded beach.   The sellers sets up at opposite ends but this means that the people occupying the middle can go to either of them, while the individual trader has no chance of attracting customers from the other end of the strand.  In order to maximise their share of the market, both sellers start moving towards the middle with the eventual result that they are side-by-side.

So it is now with politics.  New Labour was effectively a post-modern response to politics, agreeing with the likes of Francis Fukuyama who had proclaimed the End of History, the victory of capitalism and the never-ending reign of globalisation.  Blair and Brown modelled themselves rulers of this Brave New World, post-modernisers to the core.  History was reduced to a series of rival dialogues, each of equal or no value and therefore tradition meant nothing.  The unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom, built up for 300 years after the Glorious Revolution, based upon earlier civil wars and the Magna Carta, were worthless in the 21st. Century.  Civil rights were meaningless and the power of the Courts eroded.  Hence New Labour’s love of identity cards and the super-databases behind them; they agreed with Sir Humphrey that in order to decide what the government needed to know, they needed to know everything.   The process of government suffered likewise, with Cabinet meetings reduced to listening to the Word of the Dear Leader and real policy being decided on the sofa with an inner cabal.  Senior civil servants were replaced with political appointments, advisors ensuring that the civil service remained “on message”.  While Paris glittered after its spring clean, London got the Millennium Dome.  Gold, that old-fashioned economic mainstay was sold off at under $400 an ounce.  Social mobility actually decreased during the thirteen years of Labour.  But worst of all was the Labour leadership’s willingness to follow the USA into bloody and illegal wars.  Labour became like Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, who after drinking the troll’s brew grew to be like an onion: all layers and no heart; a being so empty of morality that not even the Devil wanted his worthless soul.

That’s my verdict on New Labour and anybody who still wishes to continue that project but how does David Cameron fit into this?  Well, it seems to me that he has attempted a similar trick with the Conservative party and has marched his ice-cream stall to the centre of the beach.   After the defeat of the Major government in 1997, the Conservatives veered to the Right under the successive leaderships of Hague, Duncan-Smith and then Howard.   With New Labour straddling the Centre-Centre Right, it may have been principled but it simply didn’t work in electoral terms.  In order to gain power, the Tories had to march back to the Left, or at least the leadership had too.  I’m not so sure that the bulk of the Conservatives have decamped from their grounds on the Right.   If the Coalition has shown anything about stresses within the parties of the partnership, it is that the Conservatives that are more ill-at-ease than the Liberal Democrats.  Cameron came very close to failure in the last election, an unforgivable sin considering the open goal that Labour had left them.

This situation of both the largest parties fighting over the same electorate means that the democratic process is Britain is in real danger.  After all, if the arguments are reduced to a narrow part of the field, in reality what is point of the political process?  No matter which party is in power, the country is left under a dictatorship of the Centre.   Views outside a narrow strip of opinion have no chance of real political power.

So like any good Liberal Democrat, I come to electoral reform.  It is necessary in order to avoid the dictatorship of the Centre.  Both the left of the Labour party and those on the right of the Conservatives would benefit from a change because under coalitions, the views towards the ends of the political spectrum have some chance of representation.  People usually use this as an argument against electoral reform but in reality it is far more democratic than the system we currently have.    The Centre will be dominant as this is where the opinion of most people lie but at least those on the edges can have some say as coalitions wax and wane.   Given my opinion of New Labour, I am not surprised that they have failed to even support the modest Alternative Vote system that they advocated during the general election.  The Tories are being, well, typically conservative in their unthinking opposition.  But it is vital that all those actually believe in representative democracy campaign our hearts out come the referendum next May.  Britain needs this reform in order to have any chance of principled government in the future.
Otherwise, we will be left with the two largest parties in their role as amoral ice-cream sellers competing on a beach.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Complaint - Any Questions 20th of August, 2010

Dear Any Answers,
I decided to sleep on it before writing but come the morning I still find myself angry at remarks made by two of the panellists on Any Questions last night.
In turning a question about the Megrahi release into an anti-Scottish rant, Ruth Deech and Douglas Murray showed their true ignorance about the United Kingdom, their base assumption being that Scots are over-subsidised and holier-than-thou.  Well thanks a bundle for assuming that we all support Alex Salmond and the dreadful SNP.  As for the money, aren’t they forgetting the oil and gas industry that has been keeping the whole of the UK afloat for the past thirty years?  The reason why there is an apparent subsidy per head of population is that outside the Central Belt, Scotland is a sparsely-populated country so we cannot have the economies of scale available to the South East of England.  Or are we to assume that Deech and Murray begrudge the Highlands luxuries such as roads, hospitals and electricity?  And as for the Scottish parliament, I think the panel demonstrated very well this evening why Scotland cannot solely rely upon London to represent our best interests.
Honestly, when picking a panel in future the producers should broaden their reach beyond the Home Counties chatterarti and invite members more representative of the United Kingdom as a whole.
Yours sincerely




Martin Veart
Edinburgh.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Distraction

It is easy to be blinded by suffering. In the latest misadventure off the coast of Israel / Gaza, the latest reports available list sixteen dead at the hands of the Israeli commandos. Why did they people have to die?

Of course, the easy answer is that they didn’t have too. This morning on the Today Programme the beautifully-voiced Mark Regev defend the Israeli actions that led to the deaths of these unfortunates, along with injuries to many more; both flotilla crew and Israeli personnel. Naturally he claimed the Israelis were attacked first. I must of missed the event that led to members of the flotilla trying to board the Israeli warships. He also reminded the world that the Israelis had offered to take all allowed goods through the Israel-Gaza border. Since the central purpose of the flotilla was protest against the joint blockade by Israel and Egypt and to remind the world of the very real suffering of the Palestinian people, that is hardly the point.

It is easy to become hardened by suffering. Fear does that and fear is the state that the Israeli people are encouraged to live in. The world is against them, misunderstands their plight and that is why their forces, of which they all must play their part, must be aggressive because that is the only language that their barbarous and less sophisticated neighbours understand.

The rest of us, onlookers of various degrees, are asked to take sides by the competing and extremely sophisticated propaganda machines of all sides. For instance, this morning the BBC website initially reported the source of this morning’s tragedy as a Hamas report, despite the live streams coming from various Arabic news organisations onboard. Hamas = terrorists therefore their word is not to be trusted. As a quoted source, the link to Hamas has now been dropped and for the moment it is still reporting only ten deaths, as reported by the IDF.


Why does this matter and why should we onlookers care? I’ve been to Israel several times over the years and it is my opinion that all populations are being misled. Despite being a democracy, Israel in my opinion is also a police state. The population are under the heaviest possible surveillance from the internal security forces. One waitress I met in Haifa was an Arab Christian and formally worked as a receptionist at the hotel where I was staying. Her story was that she made a bad joke concerning the conflict to a guest. Next day, she gets a phone call.

"Hey Girlfriend, how are you?"
"Who is this?"
"You can call me David and I work for the Misrad Habitahon [internal security].  I hear that you have been saying things that you shouldn't have."
"What is it to you?"
"Next time that I hear such things, it won't be a friendly chat over the phone.  We will want to know more about you.  A visit to our offices.  Am I clear?"
The girl laughed at David.  "You are afraid of little me?  Some silly girl?  This country is weaker than I thought."

She kept her dignity but not the job.

The hotel where she used to work was often full.  On the last occasion the visitors were athletes and sports people from all over the world for the the Jewish games held last year.  Before that, I overheard many snatches of conversations.  The arms dealers were the ones that frequently drew my attention though.  On one flight across I was lucky enough to be upgraded.  My companion was a banker and the file he was perusing was for pilotless light aircraft, used for reconnaissance and attack roles.  It was his business to provide the money.  I remember reading Robert Fisk's accounts in his book The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East ; of how he traced the history of one missile used by the Israelis in Lebanon back to the US Marine Corps and thus how the US tax pater is secretly being used to subsidise Israel's conflict with their neighbours.

So to my mind, this is why there is never peace in the Middle East: too many people are making too much money out of war.  It is not just the arms dealers, it is their financiers also.

The deaths this morning were totally unnecessary unless their purpose is to keep the fires of hatred burning brightly.  The secret fuel for this hatred is money and until the profit is cut, the war will continue.  I say this to both sides and of none.  Look up and see who among you are getting richer from this conflict.  To protestors for peace: research the companies who are making the profit.  Now most people don't tend to pop down to our local friendly arms manufacturer for a couple of SAM missiles, so look into the companies that they are dowing business with and the banks that are providing them with the finance and expertise.  Target these companies and people for protest, boycott and blockade, not normal people who are just as much victims as anybody else.  Governments who want peace, cut the flow of weapons to all sides and refuse entry to the warmongers.  If you won't then it up to your populations to hold you to account.

Protests like the flotilla are just a distraction from what is really happening.  In fact, by providing opportunities for needless death, they help to prolong the war.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Just received my pay slip and seen my tax go out....you’re welcome Britian

The title of this blog is actually a tweet by chrisjw133 and I am grateful for the inspiration because he just reminded me why we pay our taxes.

As some of you may know already, I work in the oil industry.  Okay, I can hear to booing from here but somebody has to do it as it: at least for the time being it is the basis of our global trade and economy. I look forward to the day when this is no longer the case but I digress.  One of the benefits of working in this industry is the travel.  It is a fact that people like me see places that only come into wider focus in times of disaster or political unrest.  For that reason, I am glad that places like Angola has fallen out of the headlines and when I mention Mauritania, most people have to ask where it is.  What such places have in common however, is either low taxation or a tax system that is easy to evade.

For instance, when I worked in Egypt, it reminded me of nothing more than a giant building site.  Why were the houses unfinished?  At the top of many residences the steel that reinforces the concrete is clearly visible but the buildings are obviously occupied.  The answer lay in tax avoidance.  Apparently property tax is not payable until the building is deemed complete.  The tax is not based upon occupancy.  The outcome is that roofs remain unfinished.  Don’t tell me that the Egyptians are stupid; of course they are not.  It is just that the government has colluded with the population to reduce taxation.  It is their decision whether they want their country to look like a tip or not.  Or is it?
 In many such places the general population are not encouraged to engage in politics beyond attending the often mandatory rallies.  One such instance I personally witnessed was Equatorial Guinea.  EG, as it is usually abbreviated to, is a popular destination within west Africa for immigrants and this is despite being a dictatorship and having higher tax levels than its neighbours.   I asked some people why they had settled in EG and they told me that compared to the countries they had come from, EG was better run and that ordinary people had some chance of seeing the benefits from the nation’s wealth.  Certainly while I was in Port Harcourt there was a lot of infrastructure building going on.

It is easy to forget the benefits of taxation.  In Uganda for example, education has to be paid for; denying vast numbers of the population anything beyond the most basic levels of literacy.  There is an alternative for them however.  If the poor were to join one of the many different religious groups that are flourishing in the nation, they have  chance of getting their children educated for free.  It doesn’t matter whether it is the one of the Christian or Muslim traditions: most have representation in the country.  I was very impressed by both the grand (and recently built) Sunni and Shi’ah  mosques that are to be found in the capital Kampala.  Liberals like us are then up in arms when the Ugandan parliament, with popular support, propose to introduce the death sentence for homosexuality or when in Malawi sentences the unfortunate men Steven Monjeza  and Tiwonge Chimbalanga to fourteen years hard labour for wishing to marry each other.  After all, who do you think are teaching the bulk of these populations?  It is for such reasons that I welcome the Liberal Democrat and Conservative policy of raising international aid to 0.75% of GPD, despite the straitened circumstances we all find ourselves in and would encourage other rich nations to uphold promises that they have already made. 

Of course it is not just places like Africa I see these things.  The problems are the same across the developing world whether in Central America or parts of Asia.  Colleagues of mine live in low-tax regimes, residing in beautiful houses behind their walled compounds and armed security.  I’m not casting blame; they are merely taking advantage of the opportunities that life has presented them with.  For me though, I prefer to pay my taxes and live in north-west Europe.  Here we have the schools, the hospitals, clean water and food, the houses, roads fit to drive modern cars upon, train and air travel, relatively low levels of crime, and cheap communications.  Not all of these are paid for out of taxation but far greater numbers of people can enjoy the benefits of such things because most people do pay their taxes and that the Inland Revenue is free from corruption.  That is why fair taxation is vital to a nation’s wellbeing and the fairer the taxation, the greater the general benefit.  I welcome the Liberal Democrat input on capital gains tax for example.  Buying a flat to rent is a form of speculation and thus it is only fair that a person who starts a business up from scratch and sells it upon retirement, who has risked much and employed others, has a better deal than somebody who just hopes to benefit from the next property boom.

There is a flip side to high taxation though.  The government is responsible to me and you, dear reader, for spending our money.  Hopefully this new parliament is acutely aware of this on an individual level but, more importantly, on the grand scale too.  The past ten years has seen billions of pounds wasted on invading other countries.  Trident should be included in the latest Strategic Defence Review and, in my opinion, scrapped altogether.  Hospitals have thankfully seen cases of superbug infections fall but this was only after misplaced privatisation of cleaning services in the NHS was re-examined.  Thousands of deaths should have been prevented by ensuring basic standards of cleanliness that were laid down over one hundred years ago.   Many PFI schemes are not getting the scrutiny that they deserve.  Despite all the subsidies being paid out, how many of us are really satisfied with the state of our railways?  I could go on and on.   

The point is though I just got my tax bill and you really are welcome to part of my earnings Britain.  Spend our money wisely though, because the British people are looking to see where the money, our money, is going.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

How did we get here again?

Recovered from election night yet?  I don’t think I have.  Sitting through that evening as the results were coming in returned me to every other disappointing election night.  The grim analysis is that the people of Britain were faced with the possibility of real change, retreated to the safety of the familiar.  Overall it was a good night to be an incumbent.  What was also clear is that the Conservatives failed to engage the voters with either their vision or policies.  Cameron’s strategy of being elected through the simple expedient of not being Labour nearly led to his undoing.  Labour on the other hand must have been much satisfied with the result.  The normal sequences of affairs would have surely led them to be slaughtered on election night. 

As we all know however, these are not normal times.

Much has been made of the Liberal Democrat failure to break through.  I reckon such an event was not likely to happen, although in the heady days after the first leaders’ debate it felt like anything was possible.  The reality is that the Liberal Democrats did well not to be squeezed further.  Overall our proportion of the vote was slightly up, even if that was translated into five less seats under the current disreputable voting system.  This success, such as it was, is due in large part to Nick Clegg.    As libdems, we all love Sir Menzies Campbell but I shudder to think of the result  if Ming the Merciless had been still our leader and front-man on the debates.

Once the counting was over and the shock had settled on the country that there really was no clear winner, things started to get interesting.  In my last blog I warned of the dangers of coalition should these circumstances arise.  As Nick had said himself, he was honour-bound to talk first to the largest party if they were interested in coalition.  In terms of both popular UK vote and number of Commons seats, that is the Conservative Party.  I never believed that a coalition with Labour would have been a safe course for the Liberal Democrats to follow so it was with some relief that the quickest of glances at the parliamentary numbers showed that it was a near-impossibility.   It was my greatest fear for the Liberal Democrats that we would be swallowed and slowly digested into the Labour party.

It is a failure of character I know but when it comes to politics I am in my heart very tribal.  I despise Labour’s cynical abandonment of socialist principles in pursuit of power just as much as Conservatives’ pessimistic outlook on human nature which gives rise to their relentless championing of profit over people.  Both are negative reinforcements to my choosing to be a Liberal Democrat. It is therefore no great delight to me that the Tories are now our coalition partners.  Currently I am in a state of sadness that feels like it may have an enduring quality to it.  That is my heart speaking but what of my head?

Much surprise has been made on just how generous the terms of the coalition have been to the Liberal Democrats.  Really?  I don’t think they are that great.  The position of deputy Prime Minister is to my mind an unenviable one.  Apart from a great-sounding title and standing in at Prime Minister’s Question Time, what else does the post actually offer?  Nick Clegg is not leading any ministry nor are our other Libdem ministers in charge of any of the great offices of State: the Exchequer, the Home or the Foreign Offices.  I am glad that both Vince Cable and Chris Huhne are in good offices but of course I would have wished to have seen at least one of them in the position they were actually shadowing while in opposition.  Of course though, congratulations to all our people who have positions in the new government.

What is perhaps more important though is that many Liberal Democrat policies are now in prominent positions.  What is the use of impotent politics?  The best reason for entering politics is seeing that something is wrong with society and wanting to change it for the better.  And here we are, doing it for real.  Besides, it would have been hypocritical of the party to talk about doing things differently, to say that it doesn’t have to be this way with the two old parties and then, faced with the opportunity of making a real difference, slink back fearfully to our old corner of protest.

What is another interesting question is why so many of our policies made it through?  Certainly the right-wing of the Conservatives are furious with the level of concessions made to the Liberal Democrats.  If that is indeed the case it gives me a degree of grim satisfaction: certainly it is due payback for the vicious mauling we suffered at the hands of the right-wing press.  That aside, I think the reason why Cameron was so generous was because he had to be for his own survival.  He came very, very close to snatching defeat from the jaws of certain victory in the last election.  No political party, no matter what colour, tolerates abject failure from their leader.  In a minority Conservative government, Cameron would have been at the mercy of his party’s right wing who would have pointed out the failure of a central message and is only too ready to steer the party back into deep blue waters.  Instead, Cameron’s Conservative ship is now being trimmed with Libdems sails, allowing the government to keep close to the popular havens of the centre.  Cameron must hope that this will push the Labour Party out to towards the reefs on the Left come their leadership elections later this summer.

Where does that leave us Liberal Democrats?  First of all, on the receiving end of some understandable but unjustified accusations.  The policies that we campaigned upon are still our parties’ policies.  It is just that instead of being in opposition and not being able to implement any of them, we are now junior partners in a coalition with the ability to implement some of them.  It doesn’t mean that we are reneging on things like the abolition of tuition fees in higher education.  It does mean that we have agreed not to bring down the government about this issue by voting against them in the Commons.  I still want to see Britain give up it’s nuclear deterrent and will be actively campaigning for the party to get rid of Trident.  Coalitions do not last forever: it is important that good, sound policies are still in place once the parties do go their separate ways as they surely will in the end.

Labour backed out of serious coalition talks with us, calculating that come the next elections, the Liberal Democrats with be severely punished by the electorate, especially those who voted tactically for the Liberal Democrats.  What Labour never really understood is that in advocating the changes to the voting systems that we do, it was never really about given an advantage to just the Libdems.  If this country had a practical form of proportional  representation, then the people of Britain would be free to vote for the views that they really support and not just be shoe-horned into giving their mandate to either Labour, Conservatives or even ourselves.  It is about fairness, real democracy; not cynical control of the levers of power.  Tactical voting should not be necessary in a functioning democracy and it is a sad indictment of the current system that so many people had to resort to it in the last election and that Labour are relying on people to use it again come the next one.  In fact, a proportion voting system will probably lead to the wholesale reformation of all three major Westminster parties.  This may not be a bad thing either.

At the moment though, proportional representation is not on the agenda but rather the Alternative Vote system.  As Simon Hughes commented, it is a start; a move away from First Past the Post and should be welcomed as such.  It will be interesting to see though whether Labour will keep to their pledges on AV or whether their old regressive instincts will win out in the end.  

So here we all are.  Good luck to all the delegates at tomorrow’s special conference in Birmingham .  Tell the country that we are still who we said we are.  As for me, I feel like Coleridge’s wedding guest “a sadder and a wiser man, he woke the morrow morn.”

Monday, 26 April 2010

Coalition? Er, no thanks.


According to Conservative blogger Iain Dale, Nick Clegg is getting a bit uppity about his coalition demands.  After all,  Westminister is not Eton and as for the membership, well!  Libdems are certainly no more than a bunch of monochromed middle-class oiks.

All good-natured joshing aside, just why are us Liberal Democrats demanding equal billing (and that means equal numbers of cabinet ministers) in any coalition?  Aren't we just fresh off the political boat; rubes ripe to be turned over.

Not quite.  Although the Liberal Democrats have the potential to break through on May 6th (and that dear Reader, is still very much up to the people of Britain), as a party we have experience of coalitions around the country.  Many councils are coalitions and -  note Mr Cameron, still function well.  The Welsh party were in coalition with Labour from 2000 to 2003.  Likewise the Scottish Libdems were part of the Scottish Executive with Labour as the senior partner from 2000 to 2008.

When Labour lost to the Scottish Nationalist Party, it was widely expected that the Liberal Democrats would retain our coalition position.  Certainly this was what the SNP wanted, expecting the then Libdem leader in Scotland, Nicol Stephen, to retain a fond attachment for the ministerial limo.  To the shock of all, that did not happen.  Scottish Liberal Democrats preferred to oppose and to this day the SNP is a minority government, supported by a deal cut with the Scottish Conservatives.

Why did the Libdems not enter into another coalition?  After all, we achieved many things while in power: free eye tests and care for the elderly are excellent examples.  We were in position to do real good and did so.  The rub though was that come polling day; the Liberal Democrats got all the blame and none of the credit.  Labour were only too happy to lay claim to popular policies.  The SNP were successful in pouring scorn onto what they called “the Lib-Lab government”.  The electoral results were not good for us. 

There is more though.  Let me make it clear that I am just a foot-slogger and not privy to talk above the salt.  A few titbits did make it down to bottom-feeders such as myself though.  I had heard that a senior member of the SNP later regretted that the coalition did not take place.  Apparently it threw all their plans into disarray.  During the campaign the SNP were making ludicrous claims about how they would put more police on the beat, cut class sizes, build more schools etc. while everybody knew there was absolutely no money available for these pipe dreams.  For all their shortcomings, the people who make up the SNP are not stupid.  They too knew that such promises could not be met.  The plan was however was to put the blame on their would-be coalition partners for blocking all these wonderful aspirations when budget time arrived.  Instead, they had to squeeze through a shambolic excuse of a plan with the help from the Tories.

“There comes a time to talk of many things.”  If not cabbages then at least king-making has returned to the Westminster agenda.   Two problems with that as far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned: the first being Labour.  As I have blogged several times in the past week, the attempts at heavy-petting from Brown’s party has been rejected with scorn as there is baggage in the relationship.  Labour has never forgiven the Gang of Four (Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers, and Williams) for splitting the party in the 1980s.  In their eyes, the Liberal Democrats remains an aberration; a coalition would the end-game towards final re-absorption of the Social Democrat Party.  In other words, Labour would attempt to swallow us whole.   Is this not merely paranoia on my part?  Not at all: on BBC’s Today Programme, Nick Robinson confirmed as much when reporting an unattributed  comment from a senior member of government “the unification of the centre-left would be the realisation of the New Labour dream.” [Quotation from memory].

On Sunday, Nick Clegg slammed the kissing gate on Labour fingers and coyly turned towards the Conservatives.  He had to: both to distance us from Brown and to keep all options open come 7th of May.  While preferring an outright win for ourselves, we Liberal Democrats certainly do not want to see a Cameron majority on the ruling benches and thus there is all to play for.  Certainly there will be no danger of the Tories claiming the Libdems as their prodigal son so in that regard a Conservative-LibDem coalition will be less of a danger.  Though now we return to the perils of being the junior partner as illustrated above with our experience of the SNP.   Just how are the Conservatives going to pay for their civil-national service and tax-breaks for the rich?   As part of power, the Liberal Democrats would do some good only to be stiffed by both parties at the next election and a return to third-party obscurity.  That is why if any coalition is going to be entered into; the price is going to be very high indeed.

Otherwise, the opposition benches might start to look very comfortable, at least for another few years.  Liberal Democrats are a patient bunch.  We can wait.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

A reply to Polly Toynbee's appeal to vote Labour

Polly, you never change.  People want more than realpolitik; the only thing left in the Labour larder.  What you in Labour have never recognised is that there are real and deep differences between the you and the Liberal Democrats.  Labour thinking still sees us as the errant children of the SDP and since the Red Menace has now been seen off, you cannot understand why Labour and the Liberal Democrats cannot be one again.

We cannot.  Labour is delving into areas of private life that is no business of any state.  It was Brown's love affair with unregulated markets and lending that help get Britain into this mess to begin with.  Labour still loves the boys' toys of strategic nuclear weapons and, worst of all, are only too willing to follow the USA into whatever madcap death-spree they want to pursue.

The British people want more that being sold to the highest bidder that is the Conservative vision but they also deserve more than the desperate clinging to power that Labour is asking for.  We deserve vision, ideas, involvement and real democracy.  We deserve to be treated like adults.   Britain needs new hope, backed up with new policies. 

That is why I am backing the Liberal Democrats.


(One can read Ms. Toybee's original article by clicking on the title)

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Those Press Attacks on Nick Clegg

There is an old saying "When one sees the enemy making mistakes, don't correct him!" so really I, as a Lib Dem activist, shouldn't be writing this at all! But these press attacks were entirely predictable following Nick's performance last week (see past blogs).

Usually when the press praise, one knows that it would normally happen over a period of weeks. Then the revelations would start, slowly at first, the cracks appearing and then the whole built-up image is brought down.

The problem with these attacks, as far as their intentions are concerned, is timing. There hasn't been time to build up any image of Nick Clegg in the press. So suddenly it is Demon Clegg - the baby-eating European. And people know that the whole thing is just panic from the right-wing.

The press is now reaping the cost of their policy of ignoring the Liberal Democrats. It is a good job for the country that we, on the whole, are fairly normal people and not some bunch of swivel-eyed  loonies.

But then, I would say that, wouldn't I.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Having Fun with the Daily Mail

Following today's hatchet job from the Mail, I just couldn't resist.


"Sir,

"I am enjoying the coverage of the Liberal Democrats you have this morning but probably not the reasons you would hope for.

"I've been a Liberal Democrat from about 1990 and have been pressing for changing the system for years because although Britain is in many ways a great country, we could be greater still. Successive Conservative and Labour governments have failed, yes, failed, to bring this about. And all your paper seeks to do is keep the status-quo.

"I'm sorry if it makes you and some of your readership uncomfortable, but clearly a growing number of your fellow citizens feel that enough is enough. The old parties have had more than a fair chance to fix things and the results are all around us.

It is time for new leadership, new ideas. It is time for the Liberal Democrats."

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Nick Clegg Nearly as Popular as Churchill?


Bit of an extreme reaction, isn’t it?  After all Nick Clegg, great guy that he is, hasn’t led the country victorious through a world war.  So why, at 73% popularity, has Nick Clegg this apparently over-the-top poll rating?

I’ve been mulling this over.   According to the pundits, the first week of this election campaign has been rather lack lustre.  Everybody knew the date and therefore knew what was to come.  David Cameron certainly did: it was decided that although the Liberal Democrats would benefit from the exposure; Cameron would come onto the leadership debates, turn up the charisma, dance rings around Brown and emerge the victor.  Because although the Lib Dems might be in the room, the received wisdom from all is that when it comes to the crunch, the British people know that really that the third party are an irrelevance.  It will always be between the Conservatives and Labour.

This view has been valid for many decades but failed to take into account a few factors, firstly being those on the weeks leading up to the debate.  It is very clear that in the build-up to the election, the Conservatives have been wooing all the minor parties willing to listen about their support.  I have blogged a couple of times about the Conservative / SNP union and noted with regret Tory tampering with the delicate situation in Northern Ireland.   So what is a desperate Labour party to do?  Sidle up to the Liberal Democrats of course, or at least attempt to poach their voters.  The Conservatives too realised that the election is so tight that they cannot afford to alienate the Liberal Democrats.  The result of this was the Nick had a relatively easy time of it on the night from the other two leaders.

This is not to discredit Mr. Clegg.  He played a blinder of a debate, presenting a positive picture of the Liberal Democrats, answering the questions(!) and interacting well with all audiences.  Despite what the others say, Nick won not only on style (as they concede) but also on policy.  The people of Britain are not fools and therefore cast a dim view upon the evasions of the other two.  But what Nick also did was to steal the charisma of David Cameron.  Conservative H.Q. had their man in the role of leader; guiding Britain out of thirteen years of failed Labour control.  Sadly for the Tories, Nick Clegg was able to cast Cameron as part of the problem, not the solution.

Why should this be?  The main reason is, of course, the M.P.s’ expenses scandal.  No Westminster party is totally clean on this affair but people remember one thing: compared to the other parties, the Liberal Democrats came out of the scandal with far less mud clinging to us then either Labour or Conservatives.  We all remember the deep, deep anger at the time.   Labour and Conservatives both thought though that come the election it would be business as usual.  That the British public would fall in line, join them in this silent conspiracy: one kept mainly in the quiet with the help of Britain’s media.   Come this election however, the British public have other ideas.   The best result for the old two parties would have been a low turnout as people either abstained in protest or grudgingly cast their votes as usual.  At least the first leadership debate has blown away a lot of that apathy.  The people are eager for giving the establishment a damn good hiding and behold; they now have a weapon:  Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.

What now?  Now the real fun begins.  Already this weekend have seen attacks from the Conservative friends in the press corps: The Sun, News of the World, Daily / Sunday Mail et. al. Everything from being shaky on defence, economy, character and even Britishness.   The opposition parties claim our figures don’t add up.  They do, and at least our figures are out there to be scrutinised.  Where are the Conservative figures?  Who can trust Labour after years of being addicted to spin and the dark arts?  Below you will find a link to the Liberal Democrat manifesto.  And just to make it real easy for you dear reader, I will supply links to the Conservative and Labour manifestos as well so you are in a position to compare like-with-like.  That is how confident I am that the more you see of the Liberal Democrats, the more you will like what you see.

As I wrote in my last blog and as Nick Clegg is saying, all this is just a start.  The brick-bats flying in the direction of the Liberal Democrats will not decrease.   We activists will have to stick to our principles and keep on delivering those leaflets; knocking on those doors.   Do all we can and I for one am content to leave final judgement to the people of this nation.


Links to Manifestos


Liberal Democrats: http://www.libdems.org.uk/our_manifesto.aspx
Conservative:  http://www.conservatives.com/Policy/Manifesto.aspx
Labour:  http://www2.labour.org.uk/

Friday, 16 April 2010

Leaders' Debate at the Vearts'

Being a political junkie, sometimes to the annoyance of the rest of the family, there was some tussling over the television remote last night.  Kitchen duties meant that I kicked off listening to the leaders’ debate on Radio Four.  As soon as that dishwasher was loaded though, I wrestled control of the zapper from my daughter’s clutches and the image of Simon Cowell was replaced by the contest from Manchester.  Within a few minutes however, the usual chatter had died down, my daughter had curled up next to me on the sofa and was gazing intently at the screen.

I looked down at her. “You ought to go to bed.”
“I want to watch this.”
“Oh come on, you are just saying that.”
“No, I’m not!” she objected.  “It’s interesting.  It’s not like parliament when they are all shouting.  It’s just the three of them; I can hear what they are saying and I can understand what they are telling me.”

To be fair to her, she did quite well before sleepiness overcame her attention.  It was only with the entry of her mother that she was finally chased up stairs to bed.  Sadly because of that I missed the part where Trident was being discussed but Mrs Veart was able to fill me in on what was said.

Mrs Veart is nobody's fool, least of all mine.  Therefore as a floating voter I asked her after the end what her opinion was.  Gordon Brown she described as “solid”.  He knew his facts and was able to deliver them.  But then again, she mused, he ought to.  If a Prime Minister doesn’t know his stuff with the entire apparatus of government at his disposal, he wouldn’t be doing his job.  David Cameron was dismissed immediately as a “lightweight”.  What really provoked that damning comment was his approach on the NHS.  One does not answer the question by eulogising nurses and doctors continuously.  Also Dave’s threatening China with nuclear weapons did not go down well.

Nick Clegg however did impress.  He did answer the questions and engage the audience, both at home and in the studio.  He was relaxed and confident.  It was not perfect though.   The repetition of points did not go down too well as it looked like he didn’t want to (or couldn’t) enlarge on the subjects.  Although in Mrs Veart’s verdict, Nick was the clear overall winner on the evening, I had to ask the killer questions:

“Who will you vote for in the election?”

“Liberal Democrats, probably.”

“Why only probably?”

“I don’t feel that Clegg is ready for being Prime Minister yet.  Brown obviously is more experienced.  But then, he is the one who is responsible for a large part of the mess.  And Labour is squeezing us so hard in the NHS.  There is hardly any time to draw breath before it is on to the next task.  Cameron is just scary.  No way will I ever be voting Conservative. 

“With Clegg, nobody comes out of the blue like he has done tonight and becomes Prime Minister.  It just doesn’t happen, unless one is really exceptional and nobody on that stage was tonight.  Not even Barack Obama did that.  But give him another four or five years and I am sure that Nick will make a good Prime Minister.”

I think what happened in my own living room last night was potentially a microcosm for the entire country.  On the narrower political point, Nick Clegg surprised both the public and commentators.  His openness and honesty impressed people.  The people of Britain have finally been able to see him and like what they saw.  That is not the same as wanting him transported straight to No.10.  It is an excellent start but, nonetheless, still only a start.  To my fellow activists, enjoy the glow and make the most of it.  Warm feelings sadly do not last for long.

What is perhaps more important however is the wider political impact.  The leaders’ debate was a lot more interesting and engaging to the broader public than anybody had hoped for.  Viewing figures were almost 10 million.  Expect this number to rise for the next debate as the word spreads that this is the chance to really hear the issues being discussed.  The Times carried an article where the reporter went into a bar and tried to persuade the people to turn over to watch the debate.  He could only do this by promising the bar free drinks for the duration.  The bar’s attention slowly became focused on the screens: booing, cheering and by the end, clapping.   

If through these debates the people of Britain start to reengage with the political process, then all of us will be the real winners.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Resisting the Charms of Adonis

In today’s Independent, Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis appeals directly for would-be Liberal Democrat voters to switch to Labour in Labour-Tory marginal seats.  Adonis bases his arguments upon history, as well he has to.  It smacks of desperation that he boasts of Labour removing “most of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords – a reform the Liberals failed to implement when they had the chance in 1911.”  Please!  That begs the question why did it take Labour nearly eighty years to catch up?

Cheap shots aside, Adonis claims that Labour and the Lib Dems have much more in common with each other than we have with the Conservative party.  As part of the proofs on offer, he admits that Labour has often stolen Liberal Democrat policy and put it into law.  All very gratifying but Labour has not been shy of doing this with Tory ideas either.  Blair and Gordon Brown have rightly been called Neo-Thatcherites, for they have continued with light-touch financial regulation and the privatisation of public assets that would have made even ex-chancellor Ken Clarke blush with shame for the modesty of his own ambition.  From health, defence and prisons, if it isn’t screwed down by union interest, Labour has sold it; usually through the mechanisms of PFI initiatives.   Shall we then talk about the levels of debt incurred as a result of these policies?  Something that the Conservatives were supremely unconcerned with but an issue the Liberal Democrats have been raising since the early part of the decade.  Now are we all Keynesians again in the face of the economic storm but in order to be true Keynesians, the government ought to have been saving during the good times.  Instead they were like the pools winners whose motto was “Spend spend spend!”  Whoever is in power next will have to cut cut cut, for as a country we are totally spent.  It is still not clear that we will avoid the fate of Greece and become another IMF basket case.  But we have been there before; last time under the leadership of James Callaghan and Denis Healey in the 1970s.
On the matter of defence, although Andrew Adonis would like to place Iraq firmly in the history books, I don’t think the British people would agree with him.  Blood, both of the British service personnel who were killed and injured, the Iraqis who died in their hundreds of thousands, and all those who are still suffering today, is not so easily washed away.   On the political front, the whole business shows a massive failure of judgment, with an all-powerful executive able to hoodwink and railroad most of parliament and a large part of the country into an illegal and aggressive war.   With honourable exceptions on both sides, spineless Labour MPs were followed by gung-ho Tories through the lobbies in support of Blair and Bush’s crusade.   It was the proudest moment of my political life so far when we Liberal Democrats stood up and with one voice said “No!” to war.  And in other areas, Labour and Tories stay united, wedded to the military demands of a Cold War mentality, refusing even to consider the prospect of a Britain without Trident.
Lord Adonis writes “The Lib Dems and us are united by a common antipathy to the values of Tories.”   As illustrated above, is there such a large difference between Labour and Conservatives?  Twitter is awash with the (rather clunky) term “Labservative” but there is a point.  Since Labour renounced socialism, the democratic debate has been considerably narrowed in this country.  He accuses the Lib Dems of self-interest with our demands to change the voting system.  Not of course there is any self-interest in Labservatives wishing to keep the first-past-the-post system(!).  But the main point in changing the voting system to proportional representation is to strengthen democracy in Britain.   For instance, in their domestic policies, Labour has very little environment ambition in evidence, nor do the Tories.  There should be room for smaller but entirely representative parties in Westminster.  But under the current system there isn’t.  So proportional representation is not the pure self-interest that is claimed.  Nor do the Liberal Democrats support Labour’s Big Brother vision for Britain, nor their repression of social mobility through the vastly inefficient families’ tax credit scheme.
The problem with Labour is that they are addicted to power and are cynical in their pursuit of it.  Perhaps Andrew Adonis feels well placed to appeal to Liberal Democrats since he was a Lib Dem counsellor himself once.  I have to ask though whether he really understood the party of once he was a member.  Sure, it is possible to become a high profile politician by being a Lib Dem but we have to fight tooth-and-nail for any real power that the public might entrust to us.  Not so with the other two parties.  Since World War Two, all they have really needed to do was to wait a generation for their turn in the ministerial limousine.  This is not a political system worthy of the people of Britain.  One has to wonder however, if it wasn’t such a temptation that motivated Adonis’ switch to Labour in the first place and whether it still is behind his desperate appeal to us today.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Gay Rights – Malawi vs. Scotland

It was reported this morning on the Today Programme that in Malawi, two gay men, Steven Monjeza  and Tiwonge Chimbalanga  who were arrested in December 2009 for undertaking an engagement ceremony, will now face a full trial in April.  Maximum sentence for those facing the charge of gross indecency is fourteen years.

“So what?” one may ask.  Not a lot we can do about it.  Form a facebook protest perhaps?  It is terrible, but what can be done?

Actually, quite a lot can be done.  Approximately one third of Scotland’s foreign aid budget goes to Malawi.  That is £70 million every year.  I also notice that there is a cross-party group in the Scottish Parliament on Malawi, whose purpose is:

To develop and enhance links between Scotland and Malawi and to provide a forum for discussion on these matters. In particular, the group will focus on links between the two parliaments and between civil society in each country.  In order to achieve this, the group will work with parliamentarians from each legislature, with Malawians living in Scotland and with other organisations working in Malawi.

It has to be said, that the last entry of this group was for the AGM in October 2009.  During this meeting, several issues were raise on civil society within Malawi, including the rights of women and children.  The case of Mr Monjeza and Mr Chimbalanga should therefore be well within the remit of the cross-party grouping.  It is a straightforward issue of human rights.

Now I am aware of cultural differences that are between many African countries and Western nations, especially on this issue.  But gay rights are not just human rights.  It is, just as importantly, a health issue that has particular urgency for the continent of Africa.  If homosexuality is driven underground, the risk of spreading HIV is greatly increased.  I don’t expect many of the citizens of Malawi to approve of the relationship between the couple on trial, but it is very much in their own interests to tolerate gay relationships within their own society, thereby allowing for the education of best health practice for all citizens. Gay relationships will persist, regardless of any law cited by either state or society.

At our last Spring conference in Perth, the Scottish Liberal Democrats passed a motion on the right to gay marriage.  Meanwhile, two people in a country that has close links with Scotland, are facing prison for wanting exactly the same thing.  It would be bizarre if our MSPs, indeed our party, remained silent on this case.


Sunday, 21 March 2010

Giving the Beeb the Bird

The BBC is very proud and defensive of their role as agenda-setter to the nation.  Their take on the upcoming election:

Labour - can they hang on despite the odds?
Conservative - will Cameron bottle it?

Liberal Democrat - which side will we favour once the bottle stops turning.

Of course, in taking these viewpoints, they influence actual events.  For instance, the odious Stephen Nolan the other week laid into Danny Alexander for a solid 20 minutes on which side we would take on a hung parliament.  In trying to force the issue, he and therefore the BBC was effectively attempting to influence the result by being able to say "a vote for the Liberal Democrats is really a vote for..." Conservative / Labour (delete one, depending upon answer).  What is more, when Danny rightly refused to commit, the Liberal Democrats were then described as indecisive and wishy-washy.  It was a no-win situation.

Should this really be the role of a public broadcaster?  It is, if they are only interested in political balance between the two largest parties in Westminster.

The BBC might retort that only the largest two parties can win under the first-past-the-post system.  This means that fretting about a hung parliament is the only consideration that the Liberal Democrats are due.  But who are the BBC to decide this: surely it is only in the remit of the people of the United Kingdom

In deciding the questions to be asked, the stories to be covered, the BBC is effectively influencing the outcome of the election.  Of course, all press should be rigorous in challenging the policies of parties and the actions of politicians.  But hypothesising upon election outcomes in order to influence the vote?  That is simply undemocratic and the next time it happens, as it undoubtedly will, our representatives should call them out on it.