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.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Saying No to Trident

I haven’t blogged about my activity with the Say No to Trident group on LibDem Act website and I don’t know why this should be the case.  It was set up in December 2009 following my first (and I have to admit, failed) project to generate discussion on the issue of nuclear weapons – Letters of Last Legacy.  The concept of this was very simple.  In each Trident-armed submarine there is a letter from the Prime Minister, in which are his or her personal views on whether Britain’s nuclear weapons should be used if Britain had already suffered a nuclear first strike, killing or disabling the mechanisms of statehood, command and control.   I invited people to imagine if it was their own letter that was to be read by the captain and crew.
After an initial surge, the contributions dried up.  But one of the correspondents, Rebekah Gronowski, urged me to set up a group on the newly-formed Liberal Democrat ACT site.  I decided against transferring the concept across but rather went for a more simple message: Say No to Trident.

It rapidly became apparent that most group members wanted more than merely to be rid of the Trident system, but rather to ditch Britain’s ownership of nuclear weapons completely.  Since this is also my own view it was an easy path to take.  But I know if we had stuck to the more conservative line of “no like-for-like replacement of Trident”, the group would have had much wider support that it’s current membership of fifty nine.  Both Nick Clegg and Tavish Scott (the Scottish leader of the Liberal Democrats for you folk residing south of the Wall)  have come out on that stance.  One member of ACT even wrote to me, explaining that he would not be joining Say No to Trident precisely because of our unilateralist views; he did however support the scrapping of the Cold War system.

I am indebted however to Dan Fawcett who has directed the group’s attention to a speech by Nick Clegg of the 10th of March, in which he states

I think there is no case for a nuclear deterrent. I certainly think there is no case for the like for like replacement for that system”  [Trident]

Need I ask how encouraging this that?  As a group, we wrote to Sir Menzies  Campbell who is currently drafting a defence review for the party.  It is not due out until after the general election but we are becoming more hopeful that our message is coming better supported among the leadership of the party.

Now I know that a lot of people in the Liberal Democrats have been campaigning for the party to go unilateral for a long time.  I remember all-to-well being appalled at the activities of the Greenham  Common Women as relayed to me by fellow party members who were also active Greenham protesters,  in a conversation during a party conference in the early 1990s.  Well, I glad to be able to tell you that people can change.  I took part in my first peace march last weekend.  The main point however is that ideas, if they have merit, are kept alive by such worthy and good people until their time comes.  Sometimes, that does indeed take generations.  The Say No to Trident group may be a newcomer to the fight but, if we are successful in our aim to change party policy, it will be mostly due to the long term supporters of unilateralism within the party.

Here is an invitation to you: come, join us and help Britain face the 21st. Century without being burdened with these unnecessary and dreadful weapons.  How can we claim to be a party with the green thread of environmental awareness running through every policy then turn around and support the ownership of the most poisonous, polluting and destructive weapons on the face of the planet? 

It cannot be so.

Do something about it, right now.  Join Say No to Trident and, if you are not a member already, join the Liberal Democrats.

Say No to Trident group
Join the Liberal Democrats
"What Next for Britain" Nick Clegg's speech to Chatham House, 10 March 2010

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Israel, Arms and the End of NATO?

As usual with the prospect of peace talks, the stress is ramped up just prior to the start. Israel’s decision to proceed with the building of 120 new homes “for safety reasons” on the West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit is a bricks-and-mortar reminder to the Palestinians that regardless of negotiations, peace or war, Israel has the power and cannot be stopped. So don’t expect too much from the coming negotiations.

When I was blogging about my time in Israel last year, I came out against the call of boycott against Israel, much to the disapproval of many of my facebook friends. Sanctions usually hit the average person and leave the elites richer. I am certainly against cultural sanctions as it is very easy to impose a siege mentality upon the Jewish residents of the region. Of course, it should also be pointed out that most Palestinians are under real siege conditions; a situation exacerbated by the cooperation of the Egyptian authorities when it comes to Gaza.

What really struck me what I was there were the numbers of arms traders and their financiers that were in Israel. I was sitting next to them on aircraft, over-hearing the chit-chat of gun-dealers in bars and restaurants. These experiences have led me to the conclusion that peace is not a viable outcome in Israel / Palestine for the simple reason that too many people are making large fortunes out of the current state of low-level warfare that is encouraged to exist. In my opinion this is the core reason why peace is impossible. It does not matter how many marches are made, petitions signed or Jaffa oranges left unsold. The arms business dwarfs every other consideration.

There are no easy or quick solutions to address this state of affairs, especially in this time of recession. But to remain silent is to acquiesce to the continued injustice, humiliation and brutality that Israel inflicts upon their nearest neighbours.

These is one path that I would advocate however: an arms embargo. I know it wouldn’t make much difference. The USA would be more than happy to take up any slack and it is that one nation that has the power to make any difference. Robert Fisk has already established how the US military directly transfers weapons to Israel (the bill being picked up by the American taxpayer) so any effect of a military embargo by the European Union would be very small. At least at first.

Where it may really bite would be, after giving due notice, would be if the European Union would boycott those arms-dealers who continued to trade with Israel. This might not be as radical as it first appears. NATO, in recent years especially, has just become a giant arms fair owing to the necessity for new member nations to “standardise” equipment. In other words, buy new kit for Western Europe and North America. It is this continued trade that is keeping NATO in existence when in terms of the 21st. century, the organisation is an anachronism.

What would make more sense is for the EU to become more self-sufficient in terms of military defence with the establishment of a European-wide Defence Force. Naturally this would also require expansion of domestic production and supply.

With the failed adventures in the Middle East and Afganistan, the future of NATO is in doubt already. The continued state of the Near East might just be excuse that Europe needs to go it alone.

Monday, 1 March 2010

The Return of the Tartan Tories – Why a vote for the SNP is a vote for Cameron.

Let’s face it: in some ways the UK is a divided country.  Even if the Conservatives get a majority at Westminster in the upcoming elections, they are not going to get many seats in Scotland .  We Celts are cursed with what the English find unforgivable: a good memory.  The Poll Tax will continue to cast it’s shadow through many a generation here.

What is a Tory leader to do with us?  General Wade will not avail him nowadays; it is to the more subtle, nay to darker arts Cameron feels that he must turn.

The big man has been busy.  Those few (I bear no illusions) those very few who read my blog of 7th of October, 2009 would have already been alerted to Conservative efforts to get nationalists (of all colours) onside.  It was very sad to me personally that this policy was confirmed with the wooing of the DUP during January this year.  Being half-Irish, I am appalled at the folly and shallowness of Cameron meddling in sectarian politics which has cost thousands of lives in the past generation. While the situation in North Ireland is improving, it is still fragile as events of the past week has all too readily shown.

Why all this is important is as follows: not only is Cameron gathering support in case of a hung parliament, the Conservatives have already pledged to restrict voting in the Commons on what is defined as English matters to English MPs.  Not that it will really matter to the SNP because they already have a self-imposed ban on voting on matters that they define none of Scotland ’s business.  Hence the Conservatives will maintain a majority on many of the votes through the Commons and it is all the better for them if most of the Scottish MPs are from the SNP.  However, this is a two-way street that also favours Alex Salmond.

Don’t take my word for it.  The Scotsman newspaper has come to the same conclusion.  In it’s front page story today, it states that the SNP’s best hope was a Conservative victory at the polls, because it plays into the (well deserved) antipathy for the Tories north of the border.  In a survey of 1,000 individuals, about two-fifths of both Labour and Liberal Democrat voters said that they would more likely to favour independence if there was a Conservative government at Westminster .

To summarise: in Scotland the SNP wants you to vote SNP for obvious reasons.  But so do the Conservatives because they don’t stand a chance here and the SNP will not vote on English matters.  More votes for Cameron in parliament.  And more chance of a Yes, Yes vote for Salmond’s independence poll, should it finally occur.

So if you don’t want a Conservative government, you had better not vote SNP either.