Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Press puts the boot in to the Lib Dems... and we know why

The British press are having a field day with the Liberal Democrats. Day after day a little more juice is wrung out of the allegations that former chief executive Chris Rennard groped women in the Lib Dem office. 

I think we are entitled to ask "Why?"

It is not that such usually misogynist newspapers as the Daily Mail have discovered a new compassion for women abused in their workplaces. Similar allegations are made against journalists every few months, if one believes Private Eye.

It is not even about whether the allegations were properly handled. They probably weren't.

It is about politics pure and simple. The timing of the story- a few days before a critical by-election that the Liberal Democrats must win if they are to have any chance of an electoral come-back- is the real clue.

The fact is too that the scale of the coverage is a real giveaway- the Press has an agenda that is overtly and implacably hostile to the Liberal Democrats: their party, their leader and their policies. In particular their policies towards the Leveson inquiry. 

The attitude of 95% of journalists to the Liberal Democrats is "if you can't beat them, smear them". From the absurd allegations that "Nick Clegg helped a charity" (also helped by his wife), the coverage of the Lib Dems has been alternately contemptuous and ridiculous.

What seems to be interesting is that the voters of Eastleigh may not be playing ball. Poll after poll seems to show the Lib Dems squeaking through- which is most certainly not what the British press wants to have as the coda for the story.

If the Lib Dems do claim an improbable victory, then it really asks two questions of the media in the UK: firstly since they have continued to publish smear and innuendo- convicting a man before he can even make his case and damning all his associates- many would ask whether this shows that Leveson is even more necessary. 

Secondly, and far more worrying for the Fleet Street editors, will be whether Eastleigh is a demonstration of the limits of their power. Despite all guns blazing on the story, the intended target, the Eastleigh electorate, seems not to be responding.

I have long ago learned to dismiss headlines which use capital letters for emphasis, as in the typical Daily Mail headline; "a MILLION Bulgarians coming to YOUR town will give you cancer". Perhaps the voters are straining out the rest of the headlines now too. 

Such a failure of the Press in Eastleigh- I suspect- will simply accelerate the transformation of the Dailies Mail and Telegraph into becoming the political wing of "Hello" magazine.

I guess we will see on Friday morning.  

Monday, February 25, 2013

Groping in the dark

I don't know if Chris Rennard is a groper or not.

I don't know whether complaints against him were dealt with properly or not.

At this point it seems not, but no one is sure.

One thing I do know is that the barrage of negative press has been deliberately timed to try to change the result of the Eastleigh by-election which, according to the polls, looked like it was going to be won by the Liberal Democrats.

For me that is the real scandal, and the tragedy of British politics today. No one cares about the real issues, they just want to renact scenes from "The Thick of it". Dirty tricks are undermining the very basis of our democracy.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Hoia, Jumal, Eestit

This Sunday is the 95th Anniversary of the proclamation of the independence of the Estonian Republic.

22 years and five months after February 24th 1918, the first independence ended with the overthrow of the Estonian State by the Red Army. There then followed the wholesale slaughter of anyone- from Ministers to Postmen- who had served the free Republic in any capacity. Following the subsequent German occupation in June 1941 and the return of Soviet troops in Autumn 1944, tens of thousands of people were arrested, deported to Siberia or simply shot out of hand. There was a deliberate attempt to destroy any resistance- though despite this the country was not pacified for almost a decade. There then followed 47 years of the so-called Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. The economic, social and cultural repression of Estonia and the colonization of the country by Russian speakers (who comprised less than 5% of the population in 1940, 24% today) left a shocked and fractured society. Yet in the 22 years since the reborn Republic was restored, Estonia has made giant strides- not merely in economics, but also politically and socially. The country has not become the corrupt kleptocracy that for example disfigures Russia, in fact it has developed Nordic social attitudes, and as the Nordic states abandon their failed Social Democratic experiments, Estonia's politics have converged with their Western and Northern neighbours.

In the next five years, the country seems set to overcome the fear that Putinist Russia still tries to engender in its neighbours. Even in the past five years the country has visibly moved on from joining any and all of the international clubs simply as an expression of fear for their security. Now the country is more confident about asserting a dissenting point of view within the European Union for example. There is a growing sense of confidence and the country is beginning to learn to smile. The trauma is healing as time passes and a new generation has grown up with no experience of the humiliations of Soviet power.

Yet still, for as long as the corrupt and aggressive Putin regime holds power in the Kremlin, Estonia- like all the countries that endured Soviet occupation- takes precautions. This Autumn, for the first time, NATO will be conducting exercises in the Baltic region. Following the recent Russian manoeuvres, which pointedly simulated a nuclear attack on Warsaw, it is clear that Russia still regards NATO as an enemy. The fact that it regards an alliance of democratic states in that light- even when they might have joined the alliance in the early 1990s- tells you what kind of state Vladimir Putin has created.

So as Estonia settles down to celebrate the extraordinary advances of the past few years, as it recognises its own achievements- not least survival in the face of overwhelming odds-  the other members of NATO should recognise in their turn that the political health of the Baltic is a litmus test for Russia. Threats and pointedly hostile comments from Russia should be challenged not ignored. European states should not tolerate even veiled hints that the crimes visited upon the Estonian Republic could ever be repeated.

I will watch the raising of the Estonian flag at sunrise on Sunday with a sense of profound respect for the recovery that the Estonian state and nation has made, and a small sense of happiness that I have been privileged to be involved. 

Elagu Eesti!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Liberalism, Luck and Responsibility

There have been two stories in the British media this week that should strike terror into the hearts of every single British Citizen. The first is the news that The UK has the smallest amount of savings put by for retirement of any major economy. The second story was that one in ten adults does no exercise and the majority of people in Britain have ceased to take any exercise at all by the age of 56.

The first story is not entirely the result of personal fecklessness: there is no doubt that the actions of the Blair-Brown government destroyed billions of Pounds in savings and re-routed that money into current expenditure; and the finance scandals, such as Equitible Life and pensions mis-selling also played their part. Nevertheless the majority of people in Britain no longer expect to be able to look after themselves in retirement, at a time when public resources to protect the elderly are already stretched beyond the limit.

Equally there is little doubt that, as the second story shows, the majority of Brits are being totally irresponsible with their health as well as their wealth. The consequences are not merely obesity and all of its ills, but also depression. The fact is that the failure to take responsibility for ones own life diminishes that life into ill health-physical and mental- and unhappiness. This is not a matter of luck, it is a matter of choice. Too many people are choosing a life which makes them victims.

The convention has grown over the course of the past fifty years that those who, through bad luck or bad judgement, fall on hard times can be protected- to at least a degree- from the consequences of their actions.  What happens when the choices that people make in one generation throws up a burden that is beyond the capacity of the next generation to pay for? The result is clear: that generation is impoverished. By failing to save and by failing to take responsibility for their health, the baby-boomer generation is stealing from the future, that is from their children and grandchildren, and yet they still expect to be protected.

As a society, we are fostering- indeed rewarding- deeply anti-social attitudes and behaviour. The reality is that as President Kennedy once noted, we progress if we challenge ourselves, if we strive to do things that are hard, indeed we should do them because they are hard. If we always settle for the soft option: for the chocolate bar instead of the apple, for the sofa in front of the telly instead of an evening walk, for Simon Cowell's latest Frankenstein instead of Beethoven, we create a weak and unhappy society and one which is ultimately decadent.

In my view the root of the social -indeed physical- breakdown that I identify lies in a social alienation that has divorced actions from consequences.  Powerful figures, such as Rupert Murdoch, seemingly preside over criminal activity with impunity, journalists print lies with impunity, bankers grow rich despite heroic levels of corruption and incompetence, while local communities atomize under the relentless pressure of long hours and job insecurity. David Cameron's "Big Society" is a good idea in the sense that it suggests we all benefit from a public spirited commitment to our communities, but it fails to address the injustices- from a crooked voting system and moribund party politics to cliquishness and ignorance- that prevent the political arena- at local and national level- being the platform for genuine social debate. Liberals believe that politics must be revived and that public participation is the only real and legitimate way that we can renew the bonds of social obligation and reward.

Our view is that we must- above all else- give people the right to control their own affairs. If people feel empowered in one area they can and do feel empowered in other spheres. Yet also we must accept the quid-pro-quo of the most famous Liberal dictum of J.S. Mill: "That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant . . . Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign". 

That means that if you make feckless decisions; if you choose poverty in old age and obesity and ill health now, then you can not ask those who chose more wisely to give up their own security in order to support your irresponsibility. Liberals make much of offering help to weaker members of Society, and it is morally right to help the unfortunate- it is also politically popular. However, what about those who make feckless choices? For example, one in five British adults still smoke, and just under 90% of lung cancer is diagnosed in smokers. The cost of treatment for all smoking related illness is estimated at up to £5.2 billion, but the total costs are much higher, and in any event far higher than the taxes collected through the sale of tobacco. So if we want to underline that actions have consequences we should impose far higher financial penalties on smokers, in order to eliminate the de facto subsidy of their health care that smokers currently receive. Likewise, if we believe in helping the poor, we should eliminate the current opaque tax code that pretends to be progressive but is in fact  highly regressive. The point is that we should be transparent about actions and consequences- and be determined to enforce them.

For too long we have spoken of protecting "hard working families". We do not talk enough of what happens when people insist on poor life choices. We can not ultimately protect people from the consequences of their own actions- it is neither financially nor morally viable to do so, and it is time to be open about that. If our society is to prosper further, then the time has come to remind our citizens that while they have the right to behave as they wish, they do not have the right to impose a massive burden on the rest of society as the result of their feckless or foolish behaviour. 

It is called taking responsibility for your life, and it is a necessary part of what it means to be human.   

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Liberal Democrats must rediscover why they even exist- or extinction is certain

The Eastleigh by-election is a must-win for the Liberal Democrats- that is a given.

The party has a lock on the council, and a loss here would be devastating for internal morale and for the public perception that the party can ride out its current unpopularity in the opinion polls and survive, and even thrive at the next general election.

Yet, from overseas, while I see the energy and commitment that the party is putting into the by-election, I am filled with foreboding, for this energy masks an a profound, even existential, crisis. The fact is that the burden of the by-election is falling on fewer and fewer members- I have received at least ten contacts over the past week urging me to donate, go and campaign, work on phone banks and all the other sundry by-election work. Even to a committed political, social and economic Liberal like myself it is intrusive. To the voters in the constituency it must be unbearable.

To be honest, for the first time, I am genuinely irritated with the party leadership- both the executive and the Parliamentary leaders seem to be competing with Labour and the Conservatives to be the most reductionist. The gall of Labour, having trashed our ideas and philosophy for years now seeking to adopt a policy platform comprising several key Lib Dem policies is political transvestism at its most cynical. Yet the Liberal Democrats, still, apparently the ideas power-house of British politics, seem ever less involved with philosophical debates and ever more with the mechanics of power and the tactics of politics. OK, I'll admit I expected that entering government would increase the significance of tactical position taking. What I was not prepared for was the wholesale abandonment of our Liberal culture of political debate. We are being reduced to foot soldiers in a party, whose leadership equates debate with dissent. In short, the party is in danger of losing its very ethos, indeed, its very soul.

I have watched over the past two years as first the Socialist-lite faction abandoned the party, and I was not so concerned about that- the keepers of the Liberal flame were always nervous of collective solutions, even as we embraced- indeed embodied- radicalism and anti-establishment ideas. Then I watched the self-declared Green Democrats gradually peel away. Then, and most grievously, I watched self-declared "Social Liberals", like James Graham, back away from the coalition. In the end much of the core membership has remained, but close to the Parliamentary party I see too many fresh-faced cynics in cheap suits. The synthetic cheap thrills of proximity to power seem to have trumped the intellectual tension that led so-called social Liberals and so-called economic Liberals to work together to craft intelligent and intellectually honest policy. Now, the membership is being used simply to support the mechanics of political tacticians- it is altogether cut out from policy. 

Some would say that this is a result of the inevitable new disciplines of being in a coalition government. I say it is selling out the proud radical dissenting Liberal tradition for a mess of pottage.

I am not interested in whether the personality of Nick Clegg- or any other politician, however Liberal- achieves his personal political ambitions. I'm interested in the promotion of a radical Liberal political agenda, built around an open appraisal of our country's needs and and honest presentation - including admitting drawbacks- to our country's voters.

Ed Miliband is a pusillanimous pustule of a professional politician. His whole career has been marked by the ceaseless striving for position on the greasy pole of left-wing cant. It would be a tragedy if the voters can not determine the difference between the cynical reductionism of the failed Socialist agenda- which even Labour has all but abandoned- and the intellectually robust radical agenda of modern Liberalism. Yet, to be honest, even I find it difficult to tell one set of populist sloganeering from another, and not just because Labour are seeking to steal the Liberal Democrats' political clothes. 

The executive and the leadership of the Liberal Democrats - even if Eastleigh is held- need to be called to account. The fact is that the tactics for this by-election have brought out my deepest fears for the future. In seeking victory, the leadership has continued to choke-off the very core what our party stands for- the right to publicly dissent. Rightly, the British electorate can smell a rat- and that is- in my view- a significant contributor to our current dire position in the polls. If Eastleigh is lost, then the party leadership- indeed the party itself- will be in the last chance saloon. Even if it is held, there is no doubt that the ties of friendship and loyalty that have kept so many of us on the Liberal road have been tested to the limit. If the next conference is another stage-managed love-fest of the Parliamentary party, as it is in the other two parties, then do not be surprised if the Radical Liberals are the next, and final, group to grow disenchanted, even with the Liberal Democrats- the party that was supposed to challenge and renew the moribund, broken British political system.

After 35 years of campaigning. 

After thousands of Pounds donated. 

After hopes raised by great victories and defeats mourned.

After decades of friendship 

I can not watch the great Liberal ideology, which I have been proud to support all my adult life, reduced to a hobby-horse for the politically ambitious but personally inadequate. I will be going to conference in the Autumn with fire in my heart. The political bromides offered up by Labour and Conservative must be challenged and defeated and the political life of our country remade- and if Liberal Democrats lose sight of this great task- what hope is there for the economic, social or political future of our country?  

Eastleigh- win our lose- must be where the party rediscovers its political soul.      

Monday, February 04, 2013

Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain

"Jockey of Norfolk, be not too bold, for Dickon, thy master, is bought and sold". 

When I was a small boy, I went to Arundel castle, the home of the Premier Dukes of England, the Howard Dukes of Norfolk. It left me with a life-long interest in Heraldry and Flags, but as fascinating as the castle is there is one thing- a simple piece of paper- that left a stronger impression upon me. On that paper were the words above, and the letter was delivered into the hands of the then Duke of Norfolk on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field: the 21st August 1485.

The words were ominous, and as it turned out, true. Richard III was betrayed. The defection of the Stanley family, who were lured into backing Henry Tudor by a mixture of bribery and blackmail was the primary cause for the defeat of King Richard III and the accession of Henry VII. Richard was killed in battle and, famously, the crown of England was found on a hawthorn bush, before becoming the property of the second king to claim the throne of England by right of conquest-  the first, of course was the Conqueror in 1066. 

In many ways the changes that followed the fall of the House of Plantagenet and the accession of the House of Tudor were just as radical as the Norman conquest itself. Certainly, for all his bluster of legitimacy, the new Henry VII and his even more blood-thirsty son, Henry VIII, had anyone with the merest hint of Plantagenet blood put to death. Always after then, the constant fear of the House of Tudor was the threat to their dynasty- and sure enough after 118 years it did fail, and all of Henry VIII's dynastic hopes passed away with his daughter. By that time England had undergone a religious as well as a political revolution. In retrospect Henry VII seems to be the first post medieval King.

Yet what of Richard III?

He is -of course- Shakespeare's pantomime villain: "I can smile and murder while I smile".  Yet evidence is growing that many of the crimes laid at Richard's door- including the alleged murder of the infant sons of his brother, Edward IV, the "Princes in the Tower" - may not have been carried out by Richard at all, but by Henry.  Far from being the proto-Fascist of contemporary history, Richard III left a legacy of reform, fair dealing and military bravery that seems at odds with the crimes alleged against him. Indeed the Richard III society, whose patron is a member of the modern Royal family, Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester, suggest that far from being a villain, Richard was the first modern monarch: recognizing rule of law and accepting that Royal power could not be untrammeled- a position that would not be accepted by his successors until the Glorious revolution over 200 years after Bosworth Field.

It is now easier to admire the achievements of a man who ruled for only two years and was still only 32 when he was killed. Even more so, since we now understand his severe physical ailments- scoliosis- as it is revealed that his body has been rediscovered.

Richard III, whether guilty of some or all of the crimes laid against him, did not lose his throne through his own weakness, but because he was utterly betrayed- and the scale of the conspiracy is shown by a simple piece of paper in Arundel castle. 

For many, he was the last King of the true line, and the fact that the Tudors were so determined to wipe out the rest of the Plantagenet family, suggests that the little matter of the Princes in the Tower might more easily put down to Henry VII than Richard III. In which case, although history is written by the victors, it might be time to set the record straight, exonerate Richard Plantagenet and indict Henry Tudor.

Richard of York may have given battle in vain, but his reign is one of the great might-have-beens of history, it deserves more attention, if only so we understand that the so-called glory of the Tudors was built on very shaky foundations.