Saturday, 7 January 2017

UK Politics, 2016.

A lot of people will be glad to see the end of 2016 and in the political sphere, it was indeed a bad year to be a liberal.  I am going to take this opportunity to get a lot off my chest so buckle up dear reader.

Where to start?  Brexit seems a “good” place.  There is a lot of lessons for the political establishment here.  For many, dislike of immigration was the main factor.  Listening to those who voted to leave however, I do not think that the central message was one of hatred.  It was a cry of desperation: the feeling that politicians do not listen to them and that the issues that matter most are not being addressed.  Instead of addressing these issues though, the blame was shifted on to the EU - the “unelected bureaucrats” who allegedly dictate our lives.  The lie was cynically sold to those people who are least informed of the issues.  The state of UK democracy is not the fault of the EU but rather of ourselves.  Westminster has a rotten voting system and local democracy in the form of town and county councils have been hollowed out systematically since the 1970s.  Leaving the European Union will not address any of this.  It comes down to decision-making on the local level and having the resources necessary so that local needs can be answered.  Leaving the EU will only worsen our economy for the foreseeable future.  One possible explanation put forward is based upon economic psychology.  It is claimed that is better for some to see everybody poorer rather than to see some better off.  Personally, I hope this is not the case as for my own personal politics is to encourage people to positive action, while understanding we all have negative passions too.  

What is the game plan of those who led the Brexit campaign?  It varies, depending upon which end of the political extreme one is on.  We currently have a very right wing government in office, led by Theresa May.  Make no mistake: these people are both social and economic extremists.  Even Farage himself mused upon the possibility of rejoining the Conservative Party, as they now occupy UKIP ground.  In order to appear more central, there has been an accommodation in the press of the Far Right.  This is evidenced not only by the continued presence of Farage, but Marine Le Pen of the Front National has been making several appearances on the BBC.  My antenna first twitched when on the World at One (BBC Radio 4) Le Pen was introduced as a “right wing” politician.  Note, not extreme right as in previous years.  Later on she and her nationalist right party featured on Newsnight (BBC 2) and The Marr Show (BBC1).  We have to import fascists for it is impossible to go further right than UKIP and the current government without stepping into Britain First, one of whose members murdered Labour’s Jo Cox MP on June 16th, 2016.

The far economic right agenda is starting to surface.  It had to start with the repeal of a lot of the previous legislation laid down by Liberal Democrats while part of the Coalition.  During the summer recess of 2015, the Cameron government cut the majority of support to the renewable industries and weakened the framework set up to strictly regulate fracking in (onshore) England.  Previously no exploitation would have been allowed under national parks and similarly protected areas - such as Sherwood Forest.  Now it is just about the location of well sites.  Deviated and horizontal well technology is now allowed to drill under areas previously off limits.  Since the Brexit vote, a lot of effort is going into deregulation.  Large corporations are looking at London in the hope of benefitting from an extreme low-tax regime, without having to go to all the fuss of setting up shell companies in far-flung tax havens.  Working rights, already weakened in negotiations with UK governments, will be further attacked.  Farmers who supported Brexit will be looking to grow GM crops and import US-style animal husbandry practices in order to boost profits.  Basically, the whole of the UK is to become a giant deregulated Free-Trade Zone, even more extreme than what exists currently in the USA.  The Right will be looking keenly at the moves taken by President Elect (at the time of writing) Trump, along with the Republican Congress and Senate. 

Enough of the Right, what of the Left?  Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (remember him?) has been mute on holding this government to account on Brexit.  In fact, a lot of Labour spokespeople have been making very supportive noises on limiting future immigration.  Some say that this is Labour running scared of their own electorate and pandering to the prejudice on display.  I cannot help but wonder if there is a deeper motive in play.  It is pretty clear that Corbyn is no fan of the EU and in this he follows in the Bennite tradition.  The idea being is that the EU is primarily a regulated trading zone with large corporations being the major beneficiaries.  Since a sincere and dedicated socialist is against capitalism, one must also be against the EU.  There is more.  Corbyn and his Momentum acolytes must know the Conservative plans for the economy.  Why are they not vocally opposing them now?  One wonders if the reason is because they have read their Marx, and that in order for true socialism to come about, capitalism must be allowed to go to the worst possible extremes.  Only then will us proletariat rise up and overthrow our masters.  Overall, the EU has been quite successful in curbing the worst excesses and allowing many citizens to have reasonable lives.  It is a stumbling block on the way to the Marxist paradise.  The Conservatives on the other hand are offering the path to corporate excess and thus to the inevitable people’s revolution. Only speculation one understands, but otherwise there is no accounting for the silence of Labour leadership.

What of UKIP?  The whole point of the referendum was for the Conservative party to address the schism within their own ranks: UKIP is a renegade party created by former Conservatives after all.  This they have done, even at the cost of pulling the UK out of Europe (Brexit means Brexit) and dividing the nation pretty well down the middle. Seldom British history has a prime minister laid down the future of an entire nation for the sake of his own party, but this is what the Conservatives under David Cameron has done. Since the vote went the way of Leave, there is little point in UKIP existing any more. Sure, they might have a revival if the Conservatives do not deliver but at the time of writing, UKIP has won and the membership might as well return to the mothership that is the Conservative Party. 
As UKIP is reabsorbed however, one may find that some choose to go their own way.  Look out for “independent” candidates, using the language of the US ALT Right; offering to “Drain the Swamp” near you.  In previous years they would have wondered off and joined the National Front or the BNP.  They are still the same old fascists and racists, just using a new label.

 With all this madness going on, the SNP up here in Scotland must think that things are going rather well.  In May they won their third term in government, albeit as an minority this time around.  The problem is with the SNP is that they are a pressure group for independence rather than a political party with thought-through and costed policies.  Yet again in 2016, we had the farce of the delayed publication of the party manifestos.  In 2011, the other parties realised that for their own manifesto, the SNP shamelessly cut-and-paste policies into their own manifesto and simply increases the pledges.  For example, after an in-depth report from a party committee, in their manifesto the Liberal Democrats might pledge to build 40,000 houses in Scotland over the five years of a parliamentary term.  The SNP leadership think “Oh, that’s shiny, we’ll have that” and ups their pledge to 50,000 for good measure.  It is not just the Liberal Democrat manifesto that is pillaged in this way: the SNP does it to all the other parties.  This time around Labour held out and were last to publish with only days left before the vote.  This could not have helped with postal voting and may have contributed towards their third place.  By representing themselves as Unionists rather than Tories, the Conservatives came second.  On the street and doorstep, one could not even make out any sign of Conservative logos or name tags: the print used was so small.  During the election Ruth Davidson successfully de-branded themselves as Conservatives and even now distances herself from her Westminster colleagues by this week restating her EU-Remainer sympathies.

None of this really matters to the SNP.  The only policy they have is independence and the only method of government they do is the centralisation of power to Holyrood.  This year’s bill on forestry will not devolve power to local communities but instead takes power from the Forestry Commission and gives it to government ministers.  The SNP will continue to concentrate all policing in the hands of government by absorbing Scottish-based British Transport Police into the already discredited Police Scotland.  They shamelessly use the language of the progressive left while practicing economic right-wing policies.  Look out for the predicted cut in air transport duty, due to be delivered in 2018.  This isn’t based upon any progressive or green policies but rather at the demand of Gordon Dewar, the chief executive of Edinburgh Airport.  The SNP has not altered the burden of income tax so it weighs heavier on the better off.  All they have done in not pass on the Conservative tax cut to higher earners made by the Westminster government.  When it comes to renewable energy, the Scottish government has passed on the Westminster cuts to small-scale generators and now their emphasis is on large-scale projects, just as it in the south.  Our hospitals and care services continues to be cut, as does our education services.  Right now that they are claiming in an online meme that the NHS is thriving outside England, at a time when both hospital and care services continue to be cut here in Edinburgh and Dundee has problem filling vacant positions.  This is a new definition of thriving.  What really gets me is not just that the problems exist, it is the constant denial that there are any problems at all.  Things will inevitably worsen while the Executive continues to deny that there is problems in public and the main thing they demand of their membership (and even MPs and MSPs) is unquestioning faith rather than intelligent criticism.  As a society we cannot continue to hang time while the party in charge waits for its opportunity to hold a second referendum.  Problems we all face need addressing now, otherwise the nation’s future prospects will worsen, whatever capital city is ultimately in charge.

What of my own beloved party, the Liberal Democrats?  As Paddy Ashdown graphically put it (after dining upon his own hat following the 2015 election), politically we were “roadkill”.  Slowly though we are less roadkill and more on the road to recovery.  Safe to say the party did not enjoy power.  Better being in power though - after all we were able to deliver seventy percent of our manifesto commitments and beat down the excesses we warned you all about with the Conservatives and are now all-too-evident.  Freed from the shackles of Westminster coalition (which incidentally I did highlight in a pre-election blog post in 2010), a weight has been lifted off our shoulders and the old campaigning mojo is back.  This is evident by performances in the 2016 Scottish elections, winning two seats (thanks to teams led by Willie Rennie and Alex Cole-Halmilton) directly from the SNP and avoiding the predicted wipeout.  Further evidence is the net gain of 28 council seats in by-elections across the UK.  The cherry on the (still admittedly small but growing) pie is the victory at Richmond Park, with Sarah Olney overthrowing a massive Conservative majority.  Yes, Goldsmith was standing as an independent and yes, the Greens showed true generosity in standing aside in the fight.  Goldsmith was supported by the Conservatives and UKIP also stood aside to give him a better chance.  A win is a win and it shows that liberalism is not forgotten.  Indeed, liberalism is proving to be the only effective antidote against extremism and popularism.  I have faith in people, but only when they also have the facts.  That is one reason why power is best delivered locally and not centralised in either Edinburgh or London.  Democracy is also too valuable to be bought by corporations following what is effectively a constitutional coup by the economic far right.

I remain both a liberal and a Remainer.  Brexit has given us Liberal Democrats not only a further reason to exist but have provided us with a mission that the public can easily understand.  I don’t respect the outcome of the referendum.  When we had our debate over Scottish independence, the time taken allowed everybody a rounded view before the vote.  Two years felt long: it was long but it proved necessary.  Three months is nothing.  In fact it was just six weeks up here in Scotland, owing to the Scottish Parliament elections being held in May.  When I wrote my blog giving the reasons I was voting No, I made the commitment that whatever the outcome, I would honour it.  We never had that kind of debate over Brexit, it was rushed and frankly was only ever held to settle the schism in the Conservative Party.  Internal party reasons to hold the referendum of such huge consequence are is the worst possible motive and we need a second referendum.  Not so the correct result can be achieved - although obviously I do hope for a different outcome - it is so that a public decision can be reached with all the options and facts being explored.  A rushed, railroaded decision is worse than no decision at all.  The alternative to another referendum would be a general election.  On that, I would be very happy to see the Liberal Democrats stand as the party dedicated to remain within the European Union.  As part of a genuinely progressive coalition, it might even be possible to overturn Brexit and thwart the extreme right.