Monday, June 29, 2015

The Liberal Democrats can now have only one single purpose



As time has gone by, the message of the 2015 general election becomes even more bleak for the Liberal Democrats. Amid much talk of #LibDemfightback I see a party struggling to cope with the magnitude of the catastrophe that has befallen it. Frankly the policy discussions that are being put together as part of the leadership election campaign are a exercise in self delusion and denial. 

There is only one discussion and only one policy that can offer the Liberal Democrats any relevance or viability at all: It is the constitutional crisis that threatens to destroy the very fabric of the country. 

2015 was one of the most blatantly unfair elections in British history - certainly since the passage of the Great Reform bill in 1832. Less than 25% of the electorate have supported the Conservatives, and yet they have 100% of the power. That is an absolute scandal. In Scotland a party that gained the support of 36% of the electorate has all but three of the Parliamentary seats. This is terrifying, especially since this party is a populist ragtag that holds the British constitution in utter contempt. As well they might, even though they have benefited so strongly from it.

The Conservatives are triumphant, because they have played a ruthless game against the Liberal Democrats, and we have been comprehensively defeated. Although Tim Farron thinks that "campaigning" can eventually bring us back into contention, I am not convinced. Party politics as a participation sport is dying on its arse. The idea that we can continue to play the game of political snakes and ladders and make some kind of come back by doing what we did before is not viable. The ladders are very short, and the snake we have just fallen down has actually taken us back to the point where we need a double six to even start the game. We do not have the money or the members to simply repeat the thirty-forty year battle that brought us back from the previous rout. The generations are passing and ageing, and the party may like to think that it can appeal to "youth" with some cheesy and rather insincere positioning, but since no other party- with the exception of the SNP- has, I find it hard to believe. We need to play a different game entirely.

The Liberal Democrats core policy, core belief, is the urgent need to change the way we are governed.  Radical constitutional reform is now critical for the survival of the country, and without it the UK probably does not have a future, so all the detailed policy wonkery in the world is just so much intellectual masturbation unless the roots of power are changed dramatically and irrevocably. I will address my Scottish colleagues in a separate blog, but for the UK Liberal Democrats focusing on campaigning will not get us back.

So I will be voting for Norman Lamb, mostly because I agree with him on core issues. Sure Tim represents "change" in that he did not take responsibility for either the mistakes or indeed the achievements of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition. Norman Lamb did take responsibility- indeed served as a minister- and was far more respected in the Parliamentary party and the country as a result. What I have heard from Tim Farron is that campaigning can recover our losses. I think that is intellectually empty. What I have heard from Norman Lamb is that Liberal principles can help us create an unconventional recovery- focused on the gathering constitutional crisis that lies ahead of us.

The only thing that Liberal Democrats should be talking about now is the the crooked, dishonest and outrageous political system. We should shame the Tories over the House of Lords, We should demand a Federal system and we must insist on fair votes. We have no means of changing educations, health, welfare or any other part of state policy- we can start a campaign to change the state. In fact it is the only way we can ever restore a Liberal voice in government.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

To speak of a friend

A man who smoked, who famously refused to exercise, who even more famously drank way too much, who was middle aged, male and Scottish has died only 55. In a way, therefore, Charles Kennedy was a young death foretold. Yet, still it has been a heartbreaking day for those who admired him, or liked him or who knew him.

I know that there have been a hundred "the Charles Kennedy I knew" pieces in every media outlet today. It is hard to offer anything more than cliche or stereotype.

I have known Charles since I was 19, and he was 25. I -like so many others- was caught in his charm: his all too human charm. His death was not necessarily a surprise, but my God it has been a shock. A bitter reminder of how near mortality really is. 

What has made this day so painful has been to understand that Charles, as brilliant, warm, clever and charming as he was, never did escape the doom that was pronounced upon him when he was elected aged only 23 as the MP for the West Highlands. It was the best thing and the worst thing that ever happened to him. It made him as a public figure, but perhaps it was the undoing of him as a man. 

For when I first met him he had much of the same awareness of himself as a public figure as Lembit Opik had when he too was first elected to the House of Commons -far too young. In the face of such expectations and adulation, it was hard to retain a sense of self, but whereas Lembit was a secure extrovert, Charles was not. As Alastair Campbell noted in his touching eulogy today, there was a corner of Charles that very few, if any, ever really knew. Outwardly controlled and confident, inwardly Charles was shy, and intense and eternally questioning: he was a sceptic, but most of all he questioned his own motives and his own agenda. This made him a unique political figure but it made him also a man who would never give himself the benefit of the doubt.

He was a man of passion: David Bowie, good debate, the Highlands, alcohol, politics, people, music, all found their place in the heart of this big hearted man. He was a later convert to Liberalism, having made a political migration to become a convinced Liberal, but in truth there was no other cause that a man of such integrity could have truly followed.

To see today the genuine pain and loss that his many friends feel at his death is to understand that this flawed, occasionally difficult, even impossible, man was so beloved. People liked Charles: he was all too human.

Yet though I have known him superficially for decades, I never truly knew him, for in the end he was a withheld and private man. Perhaps he believed in a purity of spirit which invites disappointment; perhaps he never found a place of comfortable observation. He was a remarkable intelligence, a gifted speaker- as all good University debaters should be- and a shrewd judge of character, yet he judged himself harshly, and his conscience would not admit of the slightest moral compromise. Kind to others and too harsh to himself.

Charles Kennedy had an acute and ready understanding of politics. His idea of a new party for Scotland may yet prove to be the future, but it will only work if it has Charles' own warmth, tolerance and humanity. Internationalist, Liberal, European, Highlander, British. open and decent: this was the man. 

May his legacy and Liberal vision live on.