Sunday, May 31, 2009

Primarily a Franco-American Affair?

I notice that the Government of the French Republic has described the commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Normandy landings as "primarily a Franco-American affair" .

Once again it shows President Sarkozy in a pretty bad light.

Of the 156,000 troops landed on Omaha, Utah, (American) Juno, Gold and Sword (British and Dominion, primarily Canadian) beaches 73,000 were American and 83,115 were under British command, including a contingent of 900 Free French under the command of General Leclerc.

D-day itself was not, noticeably, a primarily Franco-American affair. The largest military contingent was from Britain and the Commonwealth.

The Queen is not merely Head of State of the United Kingdom, but also of Queen of Canada, Australia and New Zealand amongst others- and Head of the Commonwealth. All of which nations participated in the Normandy landings and the liberation of France.

My Great-uncle Claude was a short man. It was just as well, because when he jumped out of the landing craft on D-day he went underwater and was not hit by the machine gun fire. Few of the others in his craft made it to shore. He did not talk about what happened until almost the last year of his life. I have little doubt that D-Day was one of the worst days of his life. When the trumpets blair on June 6th I wonder if M. Sarkozy or Mr. Brown will even understand the sacrifices those young men made 65 years ago.

How could the government of the French Republic failed to have given a personal invitation to the only serving Head of State to have put on a uniform in the Second World War, and who knew the commanders personally? How could the government of the United Kingdom not have insisted that The Queen be invited?

Of course The Queen could not now accept a late invitation, grudgingly given, and will now not attend the ceremony. It is hard not to be incensed by the incompetence of the British government and absolutely outraged at the contemptuous way President Sarkozy has handled this affair.

Of the 1.7 million war grave maintained by the Commonwealth war graves commission, the vast majority are in France. 350,000 of these relate to the Second World War.

Nicholas Sarkozy should be utterly ashamed.

Gordon Brown should be utterly embarrassed.

Friday, May 29, 2009

European Union: facing a choice

In the face of the ongoing attempt by the Daily Telegraph to portray MPs in the worst light possible no matter what their actual sins, it has been easy to forget that there is an important election campaign now taking place.

I have had the option of voting in the European elections here in Estonia or where I am still registered to vote, in the UK. I have had to think hard about where I should vote. I am friendly with several of the leading political figures in this country and know several of the candidates for the European Parliament personally. In many ways I am closer to the Estonian version of Liberalism than the version of the party of which I am a member- the British Liberal Democrats. By voting in the UK, I could also be undermining my claim of Estonian residence in the eyes of the British tax authorities- and in the face of the Blitzkrieg unleashed by Alastair Darling in the last budget, that is not an insignificant consideration.

Furthermore, the European elections usually get greeted with a yawn of indifference in the UK. The general strain of scepticism towards the EU institutions also ensures that anti-Europeans turn out in disproportionate numbers. Thus UKIP, which has very few local councillors and fails to get any members elected either in Cardiff, Holyrood or Westminster, is still able to use the more proportional electoral system for the European elections to get several MEPs elected. That these MEPS do not have a very good track record- with splits and expenses issues all clouding their activities- does not seem to dissuade those who oppose British membership of the European Union from voting for them.

Of course the UK is in many ways becoming the odd one out in European Union collaboration. the arguments about membership of the Euro are one thing, but of course Britain opts out of vast swathes of European Union collaboration, from labour laws to measurement. The most irritating opt out, for me, is the fact that we are not members of the Schengen area. Whenever I have to fly to London I have to go to the area of the airport terminal designated "Non Schengen", which is usually cramped and without the facilities available in the rest of the air terminal. If I take a connecting flight, I will need to allow at least an extra half hour connection time in order to show my passport to enter or leave the "Non Schengen" area of the terminal. The cost in time and money to complete these pointless formalities is extremely irritating. As an Estonian resident I can travel freely throughout the Schengen area using only my Estonian documents. To go to the UK- the country where I was born and of which I am a full citizen, I need my passport and to be prepared to run the gauntlet of long lines at immigration followed by an interrogation by an immigration officer- a farrago that does not seem to have reduced the supposed "immigration crisis" in the UK one wit.

In Estonia, and much of the rest of the European Union, taking up the full benefits of EU membership has not been incompatible with the retention of national identity. Estonians can still hunt for their- extremely numerous- bears, despite a ban elsewhere. One of my close friends is an MP here who was the leader of the "No" campaign in the referendum on whether or not Estonia should join the European Union. Five years later he says, wryly, that he was against a super-state but that he now sees that the European Union's problems are actually the result of a lack of coherence, rather than too much coherence. As a result, he is now standing for election to the European Parliament committed to clarifying and reforming the structures of the European Union, of which he is now a cautious supporter.

So why should I take the time and trouble to vote in the UK? After all here in Estonia I can vote electronically and it will take 30 seconds, whereas- since I could not get a postal vote- I will need to fly to London and physically go into the polling booth. When all is said and done, even the Conservatives do not advocate that the British actually leave the European Union. Despite all of the poses that David Cameron strikes- withdrawal from the EPP (the pan-European alliance of right-wing parties) and all the hostile rhetoric against the Lisbon treaty, the fact is that the Conservative Party manifesto will not advocate leaving the European Union. Cameron even hints that he could accept some renegotiated version of the Lisbon treaty.

And that of course is the point: only UKIP and the Libertarians actually do oppose British membership of the EU. Even though a substantial number of Conservative voters will vote UKIP in the European elections, surely our membership of the European Union is not at threat?

Well, the reason why I will fly a thousand miles next week in order to cast my ballot is that the European debate in the UK has entered an advance state of schizophrenia. The general attitude is that the EU is an over-mighty and rather corrupt institution that- if we are to maintain our membership at all- must be made weaker. Any reform that simplifies the EU is taken to be an attempt to increase its power, and must therefore be resisted. Yet, as my Estonian friend has noted, the failure to reform is what has created the lack of accountability where corruption can flourish. The Lisbon treaty, and the Constitutional treaty before it, were attempts to codify and simplify the vast number of treaties that underpin the European Union edifice. To an extent, both treaties were seeking to simplify the current state of affairs, and the proposals for giving the EU a separate legal personality, represented by an elected President of the Commission and a more powerful external affairs commissioner are relatively modest compared to that which already exists. Furthermore an elected "President" would go a little way to fixing the democratic deficit that clearly exists amongst the EU institutions.

Nevertheless the British attitude to the EU is now something analogous to the current attitude towards our MPs. Failing to note any difference between silly, greedy or downright fraudulent claims on expenses has meant that all MPs, irrespectively, have been tarred with the same brush. Most MPs have not even been named in the scandal, and even those that have, have been condemned with a visceral hatred without even acknowledging that MPs should surely not have to run their offices or own second homes, either in their constituency or at Westminster, entirely out of their own pocket. The attitude of the Daily Telegraph - the originator of this political lynch mob- is now totally irresponsible. A similar irresponsible attitude pervades when talking about Europe.

Instead of thinking rationally about the pros and cons of the European Union, the debate has been framed by those who fulminate over the failings of the EU and will not acknowledge any positive points about it whatsoever. It is these people that David Cameron makes his anti-European nods and winks to. The problem then comes when he tries the political contortion of following through on his promise to veto Lisbon in order to satisfy the UKIP fringe of the Conservatives and then faces the fact that the other 26 member states decide to call his bluff. Cameron then faces a choice: damage the standing of the UK and put our continued membership of the EU at risk in order to satisfy the Conservative right wing or damage his party in order to make a deal with the other member states.

I think that this is playing with fire.

The pro-European voice in Estonia is common currency, but in the UK it is a minority. Therefore As a pro-European, I will come to vote in the UK for the only political party that emphatically supports our membership of the European Union and is prepared to work constructively to improve it, rather than simply following the politically cowardly route of making repeated and idiotic opt-outs for Britain. I will come to vote for the one political party in the UK that supports our joining the Schengen area, and that supports genuine reform of the European Union, in order to give it greater coherence and simplicity.

I believe that the contribution that the UK can make to the European Union is a positive one, and I believe that membership of the European Union is also a necessary and a positive political and economic feature of the UK.

I will be voting for the Liberal Democrats. Even if, as seems likely, the combination of low turnout and domestic political factors help the anti-Europeans, I at least will have done my duty.
By voting for a positive, constructive and intelligent attitude towards the European Union, I will have made my point against the increasingly vindictive, bad tempered, nasty and shrill nature of the political debate in the UK. I will have made my personal statement against what I consider to be the irrational Euro-hatred of UKIP and the rest.

After all, I still have the choice. If the anti- Europeans have their way, then the only way that I could vote at the next European elections would be as an Estonian citizen.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The shrill and the stupid

As the Daily Telegraph continues to take its expenses scoop into the territory of flogging a dead horse, I can hardly be alone in being very disturbed by the visceral and irrational nature of much of the commentary in the blogosphere on this issue.

Almost literally, many bloggers have become part of a hanging mob. The level of hatred and vituperation against politics and politicians has reached a level of shrillness that is frankly sickening.

The kind of angry, mostly male, blogger who can literally call for politicians to be strung up- and to mean it- is becoming part of a vile and anti democratic stench that this whole sorry affair has created.

This kind of irrational, emotive drivel is what feeds Fascism.

I am very glad indeed that I am not in the UK at the moment, the atmosphere must be thoroughly poisonous. Frankly I have been sad and disappointed by what has been going on in Parliament, but the point is now to think rationally about reform and reconstruction. Continuing to tear down the democratic institutions is a very dangerous road indeed.

The way that the Telegraph is handling this story- milking it out with innuendo and inaccuracy- is deeply irresponsible.

But then again responsibility is not a word I have associated with the sinister Barclay brothers who are the proprietors of that newspaper and who presumably authorised the purchase of the stolen files, even after other newspapers are said to have declined.

Enough is enough.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Scott Rennie: A kind of victory

Perhaps to my surprise the Church of Scotland has indeed upheld the appointment of Rev Scott Rennie as the Minister of Queen's Cross Aberdeen.

It is a vindication of Scott and the dignified way he has conducted himself.

The next steps, I suppose, are to allow the decision of the Kirk to sink in and to prove to those who think that the decision is wrong, that Rev. Rennie can work to heal the damage that this unfortunate affair has created.
I know that Scott will try hard to work to bridge the gap, in as far as he is able to do so.
I hope that those who have disagreed with his appointment can now accept that much goodwill will be needed to avoid further damage to the reputation of the Kirk.
However I do add my congratulations to Scott and his loyal congregation after what must have been a very trying time.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Nick Clegg's three victories

Joanna Lumley in tears, celebrating the humane decision to allow the Gurkas who fight for our country to stay here, if they wish to do so.

Mr. Speaker Martin resigning- the first Speaker in 300 years to be forced from office.

Lord Rennard, under fire for his Lord's finances, deciding to leave his job as chief executive of the Liberal Democrats.

What an amazing week for Nick Clegg!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

John Stuart Mill... of his own free will

May 20th is JS Mill's birthday. he was born in 1806, only seven month after Trafalgar and died in 1873. A brilliant child, he is said to have spoken ancient Greek at the age of three. Certainly he received an extremely intense education, piloted by his philosopher father James Mill, assisted by his friends, including the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham- whose embalmed body you may see if you visit University College, London.

Perhaps not surprisingly after such a hothouse education, JS Mill had a nervous breakdown in his early twenties, but he later went on to become one of the most complete Liberal philosophers of his day. His ideas on free will and liberty now form the backbone of modern day Liberal political philosophy- which is why, notably, a first edition of his book "On Liberty" is used as the badge of office of the Liberal Democrat Party President.

That charming stalwart of Liberalism, the late Professor Conrad, Earl Russell also had a direct connection with Mill, since his father, Bertrand Russell, was JS Mill's godson.

In his work, Mill focused on the problem of societal control, and unlike many other philosophers he chose an active road to express his ideas. He was for three years a Liberal MP, and in his work on women's rights, free speech and the problem of Liberty itself, he was as much a campaigner as an observer.

In recent years the value of Mill as a philosopher of a kind of individualistic Liberalism that had been unfashionable has now once again been recognised. The Liberal Democrats have, in a sense, rediscovered their roots, and the utilitarian ideas of Mill have gained a wider following.

What, perhaps, is rather lowering is the fact that so much of Mill's practical political agenda remains unfulfilled. His ideas of women's rights now look at least a hundred and fifty years ahead of his time, as does his support for political reform in Ireland.

Meanwhile his ideas of a state under the control of its people now looks like a idea whose time has come. The rotten borough electoral system in the UK has persisted for far too long and has allowed the emergence of a detached, unaccountable set of MPs in safe seats who treat the electorate with contempt. A more open electoral system is long overdue, and the current constitutional crisis now makes this more glaringly obvious than ever.

Perhaps then the ideas that Mill put forward in the middle of the nineteenth century can finally be achieved in the early part of the twenty first century.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A British Constitutional Convention

By common consent there is now a great deal of unfinished business in the government arrangements of the United Kingdom. The reform of the House of Lords is but partial, and it remains as undemocratic as ever. The roles of the national parliament and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland remain undefined and nebulous; the constitutional position of England unclear. The powers and role of the executive are concentrated and unaccountable under the Royal prerogative. The established churches retain idiosyncratic rights that have more to do with the sixteenth century than the twenty-first, including the right to 26 bishops being members of parliament through the House of Lords.

Those of us who have become students of our arcane and unwritten constitution hold many obscure writers, from Bagehot to Erskine May to be the acme of constitutional interpretation. We have been told that the unwritten nature of of constitution is a strength. However the earthquakes that have struck our Parliament in the past month reveal that the constitution is -in places- totally rotten and badly in need of repair.

One of the core values of Liberalism and of the Liberal Democrats has been to support the long term modernisation of the British constitution. It is not just a question of allowing greater choice to the voters through a reform of the electoral system, it is also a question of significant changes to our system of government.

In our view the cosmetic changes of devolution are second best to the creation of a genuine federal system for the United Kingdom, where money, and therefore power flows from the bottom upwards, and not from the unaccountable Pooh-Bahs amongst the Whitehall civil servants who stand at the centre of an over-centralised and over-mighty executive.

The wreckage of the New Labour project tells us clearly that it is not enough to tinker with the system: a fundamental reappraisal of the way in which Britain is governed is now needed. David Cameron, as the leader of the party with some of the most extraordinary claims by its MPs understands that he must be contrite to the voters, but I do not think that he understands either the overwhelming need for change and also the increasing recognition in the country that change to the system is overdue. His call for a general election, rather than the resignation of the Speaker was a reflection of his view of party political advantage, not of a desire for the national good, and was the first serious mis-step that he has made since the crisis began.

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, by contrast- as can be seen by the polls- have come out of the crisis stronger, not least because the large majority of Liberal Democrat MPs have not made any of the claims that seem to be routine amongst Labour and the Conservatives. Even the most expensive Lib Dem claimant, which seems to be Sir Ming Campbell, has not approached anything like the sums involved elsewhere. The public recognise that it was the Lib Dems that wanted these claims to be published from the start and many Lib Dem MPs have indeed published their costs as a matter of routine for some time- whereas the Conservatives have only lately come to the opinion that this is a good idea. The fact that Conservatives were so prominent in the resistance to publication has, I think been duly noted. While there have clearly been heroes amongst both Labour and the Conservative MPs, there has not been anything like the recognition of the seriousness of the issue amongst their front benches until the Daily Telegraph forced the issue.

Nevertheless, we all now agree that "the system" that created these problems is not merely a function of the claims of MPs, but of the general accountability of Parliament, including the Speaker, to the voters who choose them.

It now seems clear that figures from all parties must recognise that there are some critical changes that must be made if the role of Parliament at the centre of national life can be restored. What these changes are can- indeed, should- be a matter of debate. The Liberal Democrats have a large body of ideas, but these, we recognise are not the only ideas. It is important that we build a recognition of the problems and an agreement of the solutions across the party lines.

The traditional way to reform has been through a statutory body, such as an all party Royal Commission, but in my opinion this is too arcane a body for the British voters to engage with. There will be no sense of common ownership of the result of a Royal Commission.

Instead, I believe that the time has come for a Constitutional Convention to be convened, along the lines of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. In a sense the Scottish Convention has become part of a national conversation about the form of government in Scotland. Such a conversation should, I believe, now be expanded to include the whole of the United Kingdom.

After the constitutional weaknesses that this crisis has revealed, it is now clear that new ways should be found to replace the old ways. The strengths of what we have should be identified and preserved, but where it is clear that the constitution is in need of repair, we should now do this.

That this should be in the form of an explicit constitutional contract, written down for the benefit of all, I take for granted. Though there are those who still oppose a written condition, these, I suspect, are now a small minority.

It is time for The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to join the ranks of explicitly constitutional states (and possibly find a simpler name).

A New Speaker

After the fiasco of yesterday's scenes in the House of Commons, it now seems more likely than not that Mr. Speaker Martin will announce his departure from office this afternoon after he has met with the leaders of the political parties at Westminster.

Clearly there will need to be some scrutiny of the terms of his departure. It is imperative that Mr. Martin steps down without delay. Were he to attempt to continue in office until the general election, then this would now clearly be unacceptable. There is the possibility of his stepping down and remaining in the House, or the alternative, to step down and retire from the House of Commons at the same time. Although I imagine the SNP would prefer a by-election (notwithstanding the rather murky dealings of their own leader in the expenses scandal), in fact there is nothing to force Mr Martin to leave the House, and that is a question for him alone.

The next question is what to do next.

Clearly both Nick Clegg and David Cameron have had a good crisis. Clegg partly because the scale of the allegations against Lib Dem MPs were tiny fractions of the claims of other parties, but also because he had the political courage to led the move to eject the Speaker. Cameron has handled those in his own party who claimed with egregious greed deftly, and his interview on Radio5 with Nicky Campbell was clearly a success. Nevertheless, he too will have to make some house cleaning- and while the Lib Dems have seen their support stable or rising during the crisis, the Conservatives have taken a big hit.

The issue of who should be the next Speaker is a tricky one. Convention says that it clearly should be a Conservative who takes the chair, and yet Sir Alan Haselhurst, the Deputy Speaker is himself caught up in the crisis, and does not strike one has have the vision to lead. The next candidate, Sir Patrick Cormack, has clearly taken a lead in this matter, but his problems with his local party in Staffordshire and the fact that he is in person something of a pompous ass speaks rather against him. the new Speaker will need to be the public head of a new movement for Parliamentary change, and Sir Patrick does not look much like that.

In fact the public are looking for a figure who is better known than either of these two Conservative "knights of the shires". They are also looking for a man who is regarded with integrity, and that figure is clearly Frank Field. This would be particularly true if the next Speaker is to be given a mandate for reform of the House procedures from top to bottom.

As Mr. Speaker Martin contemplates the ruin of his career, a clearly independent figure like Mr. Field is now required in order to recover some semblance of respect for Parliament in the country at large. It would not be in accordance with the Parliamentary convention, but after such a tumultuous month, the sidelining of convention is the least of the problems of Parliament.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why Mr. Speaker Martin should resign, and what happens if he does not

Parliament is a shambles.

The release of the astonishing litany of expenses claims has hurt all parties. In the end though the people who it should hurt the most are those who have tried to stop the release of these expenses.

A core of politicians led by the Liberal Democrats have always believed in transparency and accountability for what is being spent. The Lib Dems have generally released their expenses as a matter of routine. Thus, although there are a few claims that are questionable, they are a dramatically smaller matter than the outrageous claims made by the moat cleaning Conservatives or the double counting Labourites.

Then there is David McLean MP. He, you may recall ,was the MP that led the amendment to the "Freedom of Information" Act that exempted MPs from several of its provisions. McLean was opposed by the Liberal Democrats, but supported by the majority on both the Conservative and Labour front benches.

Worst of all it was supported by the Speaker himself. As the authoritative voice of the administration of the House of Commons, the Speaker has both benefited from the "broken" system and sought to keep his own affairs under wraps. It may not be the "high crimes and misdemeanours" that forced the exit of the last Speaker to be impeached, Sir John Trevor, in 1695, but it is a misjudgement that has undermined the authority of Parliament and threatened the collapse of the Constitution itself. For that alone, Mr. Speaker Martin must leave office immediately.

The political system can not be cleaned while the Speaker remains in office- that is now absolutely clear.

If he does not go now, he must be removed.

If he is not removed, along with the most egregious of the false claiments, there is now such a rage in the country that it could, quite conceivably, threaten British Democracy. The British people are genuinely fair minded, but there is still a sense of shock and of rage at what has been going one over the past few years. Unless Parliament seriously addresses the issue of reform itself, then the British people will do it for themselves. A breakdown of the constitution is no light matter and the consequences could be dire- including a lurch towards fascism.

Those who say "it could never happen here" may overestimate the stability of the system.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A bevy of Blogs

I have always been fond of the collective nouns used in English:

A flock of sheep, a herd of cattle, a pack of hounds, a troop of monkeys, A flange of baboons, A pride of lions, a pod of dolphins, a shoal of fish, a school of porpoises. Then there are the rather lovely bird names: a congregation of plovers, a colony of penguins, an ostentation of peacocks, an exaltation of larks, a murder of crows, a parliament of owls...

Ah yes, Parliament. What -I wonder- would be the collective nouns for those involved in this current sorry saga?

A snoop of journalists? A hypocrite of columnists? A claimant of lords? A transit of MEPs? A drone of newsreaders? A take of MPs? A bastard of politicians?

A Blah of Bloggers?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Constitutional reform: we told you so

As the revelations of stupidity, cupidity and greed continue to drip out from the purloined records in the possession of the Daily Telegraph, the chorus for change has grown ever louder.

As political leaders denounce "the system", the response from the wider market may not be precisely what they anticipate. They are of course right, "the system" has created a class of MPs in safe seats who are ultimately unaccountable.

This may have created the culture that has allowed such absurd expenses claims, but in many ways the expenses scandal is just the tip of a wider and far more serious crisis; a crisis of our constitution.

The constitution of the UK rests upon an electoral system where one can either vote for a party label or make a judgement on the personal qualities of an individual, but very rarely both. If you live in Scunthorpe and are a Labour supporter, you may be deeply unhappy to find that voting Labour involves voting for Eliott Morley, who is one of those MPs most deeply involved in the expenses furore. Likewise, one could be a Conservative supporter in Stratford-on-Avon and find that your party allegiance means supporting John Maples, who is also one of those most prominent in the expenses affair.

In these safe seats, it is very difficult to replace the sitting MP, if he or she retains the support of their party. So unless the Labour or Conservative Parties themselves reselect their candidates, it would be very rare for a sitting MP in a safe seat to be replaced.

Of course I don't believe in safe seats for any party, and that is why Liberal Democrats argue that a single transferable vote with multi member constituencies is a better system. STV allows the electorate to choose between the candidates even amongst those of the party they support. Meanwhile in some places people would choose to split their votes between parties to support popular MPs of other parties. For example Frank Field is very popular amongst supporters of other political parties, as is Ken Clarke.

If the root of the problem of Parliament is the way that small party cabals can control selection and then election in safe seats, then conduct of Parliament and Parliamentary business is also clearly in need of substantial reform. The public are growing increasingly intolerant of the way MPs conduct themselves in the chamber of the House of Commons. The contrast between the screaming hubbub of the big occasions -which always comes as a shock to new visitors to the Palace of Westminster- and the languid hours of an empty chamber reflects a deep rooted and serious problem. Parliament can no longer control the legislative process and more and more laws are being passed without proper scrutiny. The result has been that some critical areas of legislation have been totally botched. The considerable incursion of the state into our privacy has been largely done with minimal debate in Parliament.

The time has come for the creation of a proper constitution. The vagaries of the current situation have already proven themselves unsustainable. The Liberal Democrats have been arguing the case for constitutional reform for decades and in the wake of the public disgust with our MPs, we must now address the absurdities that the current system creates across the board.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Oh really?

OK, now the dead tree press, aka "The Daily Telegraph" has published the expenses of all the parties.

Labour- Yueeeeech, Tories.. clean moat, Sir? Lib Dem- nice to see you look after your daughter, Mr. George.

Now, will the Journalists on the Telegraph please publish their expenses.

Oooooh Noooo- we work for a private company...

"Power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot through the ages".

Monday, May 11, 2009

So what CAN we be proud of now?

I don't like the evisceration of Parliament by cynical and irresponsible journalists like Ben Brogan. I am sceptical of and afraid of the desperation of those who stole information to fuel a Parliamentary story that is surely a bonfire of the vanities, but may also be, conceivably, the bonfire of our democracy.

In the face of the "shaming of our Parliament" I am struggling to feel positive about my country. As I leave the UK once more, and as the plane taxies out to the runway, I am trying to think of the ten things that I love about Britain.

Funnily enough the first thing I think of is that our airlines are very good. It doesn't matter whether it is British Airways, Virgin or BMI, you know when you get on a British plane you are most likely going to have a good flight. Even our low cost airline, Easyjet, is massively better than its Irish competition.

Then there is the beautiful landscape: the soft rolling hills of the south, the bleak Pennines of the North in England, the Mountains of Wales, the sea lochs of west of Scotland or the majestic Grampians of the east, all are amongst the most beautiful places we could find.

Then there is the humour of the Brits- the wise cracks of the Scousers, the dry humour of Glasgow that Chic Murray captured so well. the surrealism of Python or the League of Gentlemen, all part of the root of our culture.

Then there are the great cities- the pride of the Pier Head in Liverpool, the glory of Edinburgh, the quiet elegance of Bath or Cheltenham or Buxton. Above all the greatest city in Europe, which is surely London.

Within those cities there are the peerless cathedrals: of perfect Salisbury, or St. Paul's in London. of Elgin and St. Machers in Aberdeen, St Giles in Edinburgh, Wells, or Llandaff, Norwich, York and Lincoln, the fortress of Durham, the college chapel of Oxford.

The Royal Family, so familiar they are almost our own family. The decent and dignified Queen Elizabeth II, the sincere and honourable Prince of Wales.

Our tradition of tolerance, and decency, our fair mindedness.

Our innovation and our resistance to conformity- the belief that we can go to the devil our own way- and that this should be allowed.

The music scene- always new and interesting, from the Levellers in folk, to the Symphony Orchestras, to the latest teen sensation.

Though I leave Britain feeling sad about what is happening in politics, I hope that the richness of the British identity can transcend this vicious and trivial attack on the very basis of our democracy- and the cupidity of those who made themselves vulnerable.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Scott Rennie: A Minister at bay

I have known the Rev. Scott Rennie for several years. In addition to being an active Minister of the Church of Scotland he has also been an active member of the Liberal Democrats.

Over that time he has had to face up to the fact that he is homosexual. I put it in those terms, because Scott comes from a very conservative religious background that refused to countenance that there was any validity in gay relationships. As Stephen Fry rather eloquently put it, the crisis of being gay is the exclusion because of love, and Scott felt very thoroughly excluded.

Scott Rennie now faces further exclusion. A large number of C of S Ministers have raised a petition protesting his appointment as a Minister in Aberdeen. This appointment was made by the Presbytery of Queens Cross (yes, I know...) in the full knowledge that Scott is in a gay relationship. In that sense it is not a matter for the rest of the church.

However I can not be alone in finding the Rev. Rennie's stance rather admirable and certainly brave, and his critics rather diminished. The story of Scott's painful journey to self acceptance is both moving and even somewhat noble. Those who are trying to remove a sincere and kindly Christian Minister for the sake of personal bigotry do seem to be betraying the founding principles of Christianity.

I don't think I remember the Nazarene who said "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" and "turn the other cheek" also declare himself in favour of ugly witch hunts, exclusion and intolerance.

In this most unfortunate situation, Scott Rennie is conducting himself with no little dignity and his critics look mean spirited, bigoted and, in short, Unchristian.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The fall of Labour: Breaking the Mould 30 years on

In November 1979, Roy Jenkins, then still a Labour grandee, was scheduled to give the Dimbleby Lecture. He called it "Home Thoughts from Abroad", since he was still serving as the President of the European Commission at the time. Yet his message had an immediate impact at home. Thirty years later his words are still relevant:

"...You also make sure that the state knows its place, not only in relation to the economy, but in relation to the citizen. You are in favour of the right of dissent and the liberty of private conduct. You are against unnecessary centralisation and bureaucracy. You want to devolve decision-making wherever you sensibly can. You want parents in the school system, patients in the health service, residents in the neighbourhood, customers in both nationalised and private industry, to have as much say as possible. You want the nation to be self-confident and outward-looking, rather than insular, xenophobic and suspicious. You want the class system to fade without being replaced either by an aggressive and intolerant proletarianism or by the dominance of the brash and selfish values of a "get rich quick" society. You want the nation, without eschewing necessary controversy, to achieve a renewed sense of cohesion and common purpose..."

Jenkins argued that the rigidity of British politics had become a major brake on British success, and his solution was to attempt to "break the mould" of British Politics. By the time he returned to Britain a year later, the call for change had become a chorus. In the wake of the electoral defeat of Labour in 1979, the party split and the new Social Democrats, the SDP, were born.

Yet in the end the promise of the SDP and the Alliance they formed with my own Liberal Party was not fulfilled. Partly it was the result of the Falklands War. Before the invasion of the Islands, the Alliance was leading in the opinion polls and winning by-election after by-election. After the conflict, the Conservatives recovered their popularity. Although the 1983 election saw the Alliance come very close to overtaking Labour, the combination of the electoral system and the shock of the result injected new life into Labour who recovered and it was the Alliance that eventually imploded.

Yet time after time, the message that Jenkins was giving has proved attractive. In 1997, it seemed that Tony Blair was preparing to create a coalition with the reviving Liberal Democrats, yet in the end his nerve failed him and the promises given to Paddy Ashdown were left unmet. The UK was side tracked into the partial reforms of New Labour, and the promise of a realignment did not emerge. Instead of breaking the mould, Labour broke their promises and retreated into an ever more narrow, sectional politics, culminating in the disgraceful budget that has just been presented to the House of Commons. Instead of fundamental reform, Labour has simply enjoyed the power that their turn on the see-saw gave them for party political advantage.

Now it appears that a new split is emerging in the Labour Party. The recovery of the Socialist Left has undermined those political pragmatists most closely associated with the New Labour "project". There are ever louder murmurs from within the fragmenting Labour Movement. This morning Paddy Ashdown himself has confirmed that a substantial number of Labour MPs are discussing crossing the floor to the Liberal Democrats.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this.

I see an opportunity to take Liberalism way beyond the role of minor opposition party and into government. However I am sceptical of how much those MPS who have been amongst the most loyal to the increasing authoritarianism of New Labour can be integrated into the Liberal Democrats who are Liberal, and therefore by definition opposed to the centralising, authoritarian measures that Blair and especially Brown have imposed .

On the other hand, if there is an opportunity to remove Labour and their outdated Socialist nostrums from power for ever, then the temptation to seize the day is very strong. Yet it is not enough to replace the party of government, we must, as Jenkins pointed out, change the system of government.

The goal of the Liberal Democrats is not to be the Capitalist antidote to Socialism in the endless see-saw of two party politics, but rather to create a more flexible and diverse political system where the narrow careerists in the current closed shop are replaced by a wider circle of political involvement. The whole point of the Liberal agenda is to give people the power to control their own lives in their own way and reject the one-size-fits all, producer dominated, and state sponsored solutions. Diversity of approach can create a far healthier economic, social and political ecology in our society.

That Labour might undergo some cataclysm is to be welcomed, and if some refugees chose to swim to the Liberal Democrats- as doubtless others will go to the Conservatives- then that is to be welcomed too. However the Liberal Democrats should use the moment to restate the values that we stand for and to underline that we still subscribe to the values of openness, diversity, and personal responsibility that Roy Jenkins articulated so powerfully nearly thirty years ago.