Monday, 5 December 2016

Stick that in your pitch-fork and smoke it!

Last week saw a remarkable British by-election where the Liberal Democrats over turned a 23,000 majority and their previous near death experience to win a spectacular victory in Richmond Park.

The dominant issue was Brexit and the continuing fall out from Britain’s EU Referendum and a summer of political trauma.  The Liberal Democrats remain Britain’s most consistently pro EU political party and have campaigned passionately in support of the EU both before and after the referendum.  They are currently campaigning for parliament to scrutinise the Brexit proposition as it emerges and for there to be a second referendum to ratify any deal on the grounds that the terms of what Brexit meant were never specified in the original referendum.

This has been challenged as controversial and potentially undemocratic by leading political inquisitors such as Andrew Neil and the pitchfork wielding Julia Hartley-Brewer.
Are the peasants revolting? Is it the alt-right establishment twitching in defence of a tyranny of the majority?  Is it simply that parliament was silent on how Brexit would proceed should we vote to leave, either in terms of process or vision?

I think the issue about a second vote is therefore about having a vote on any future Brexit deal. There are so many moving parts to consider.  This is not just be about single market or not - or even whether we have access to the single market in some form.  How much do we pay in; what control can we exert over immigration; what level of political control do we exercise over our national destiny; what other areas of inter-European co-operation are we to participate in going forward and on what terms?  It is about all these things and more and we are only at the beginning.

My current preference would be to find, after exploring the Brexit options, that being part of the EU on the sort of terms we already had was the best deal and that we therefore exercise the option of staying.  Failing that, I’d like us to establish as close a cooperative and connected relationship with rest of Europe as possible. Whatever we do I’d like to do it with our eyes open.

Whatever we decide, it has to be done democratically since we have had a referendum.  We voted to leave and we are proceeding with that. For there to be any deviation from that or significant qualification after seeing the options, there needs to be a democratic process.

The problem the Leavers have, in my opinion, is that this was always a referendum to deal with an issue that has split the Conservative Party for a generation. It's not really been done with any vision about where we are trying to get to, let alone any detailed proposition behind it. And then the leaders of Leave seemed to step back and run away when they won. Now that’s a bit of a school-boy error from them.

In fact, we are seeing this right now in the Supreme Court.  The legislation around creating the referendum was poor and was silent on too much.

The referendum means we have decided to leave and that has to be delivered now. And this has to be delivered through parliamentary processes with proper scrutiny. Politics does not stop with a referendum and certainly not one where the population is so evenly split.

What Richmond Park does is to remind us is there are significant numbers of Remain minded people and some of their concerns need taken account of as we move forward to our new foreign policy. It is important to avoid a tyranny of the majority.

It also gives voice to a significant liberal - progressive section of our electorate - a section feeling under-represented with the void in the centre and centre-left of British politics.  This is a section of our people that look to politics that is open, tolerant and united.  A section that looks to a very long tradition of British liberalism that we need now more than ever.

Stick that in your pitch-fork and smoke it.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Let's bring down our whole rotten political system

While I'm interested in any Scottish solutions with regards to stopping an EU Brexit I think they are a distraction from the priority.  The Scottish dimension is not really about Europe it is about Independence.  For the Scottish Government see everything - absolutely everything - through the prism of Independence. For me the priority is for Britain to remain within or as close we can to the EU; and to be clear, for me, the EU has always been far more than just a free trade area.

There can't be a Second Referendum on the EU.  That would be undemocratic and we cannot call for one when we rightly call out Scot Nats for demanding Indyref2 barely two years after the first - and a clear decision to boot.

But referenda are not the only way. They are not even particularly good at deciding very technical issues like on the EU. And they are so final if the change option wins. This makes them inflexible and somewhat undemocratic in that sense. As a result of last week's EU referendum we have handed a blank cheque to I'm not entirely sure who, to do I'm not entirely sure what.

When we voted we had no idea what Leave would look like. There was no white paper, no model, no roadmap - nothing. And this is without addressing the apparent fact that two of the central claims of the winning Leave campaign appear to be ones that there was no intention, or knowingly no possibility, of delivering. That is to say paying '£350m a week into NHS' and ending free movement of people. This is also without addressing that some (not all) Leave voters were voting on misconceptions as evidenced by attitude surveys during the campaign.

I want us to stay in the EU or salvage the best we can out of our broken relationship with Europe and vote on it in the traditional way via a general election. That's perfectly democratic. Now this requires real Labour to have the balls to stand up for that. It also requires pro EU Conservatives to stop trying to hold power for power's sake. The pro EU ones are meant to be in the majority in parliament. This may all require pro EU candidates and groups to cooperate in a one-off pro-EU coupon election.

But failing all this I want the Labour Party to be strong again - they need to jettison their foolish People's Popular Front sect of malevolents and romantics. In the Conservatives I want to see the Brexiters and thinly veiled anti-Europeans (such as May) defeated and something constructive regarding Europe emerge. Most of all I feel we need outward looking British liberalism to start doing well across all the parties again.

Crucially, I want to see the Liberal Democrats, who have taken a far heavier electoral toll than they ever deserved, returning to strength.  We desperately need them in our political mix with a loud and vibrant voice.

These are turbulent times in British politics and all this may not be possible.  The stable of contenders for the Conservative leadership does not fill me with hope. Our continuing creaking democracy based on an 18th century system never designed for party politics let alone the multiple and changing choices we have today continues to depress me.  Not least when it begins to threaten our stability with embedded tribal loyalties and exaggerated regional differences with their ludicrous over representations.  This is an unresponsive democracy whose senses to real opinion are dulled, especially when they deliver absolute majorities on not much more than a third of the vote and on tiny shifts in support.

But there is many a twist and turn in the road ahead before we are done with these turbulent times.  Whatever happens I do not want to see a return to our political system as we have known it.  The realignment of the 1980s did not quite come off.  This time the fault lines of opinion have truly shifted.

This time I want to see real realignment and with it an end to our whole rotten political system.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

We need Britiah liberalism now more than ever

On 8 May 2015 Nick Clegg made a powerful speech resigning his leadership of the Liberal Democrats.  He spoke of how we need British liberalism now more than ever.  I believe the events of the last days of this EU referendum campaign show that to be true.  I'm speaking of a liberalism that goes across several parties and across people of none, but the Liberal Democrats, of which I am a member, are a key part of bringing that to the fore.  A key passage of that speech was particularly relevant.  I thought I would paraphrase the argument in the context of today.

Liberalism is not faring well against the politics of fear.  Years of hardship after the recession and insecurities in the face of globalisation have led to people reaching out for new certainties.  The politics of identity, of nationalism, of us versus them are on the rise.  It is to be hoped that our leaders realise that this brings us to a point where grievance and fear threaten to combine to drive different communities apart. We must be aware of the potentially disastrous consequences to our way of life and the threat to the integrity of our United Kingdom, if we continue to appeal to grievance rather than generosity and fear rather than hope. It's no exaggeration to say that in the absence of strong and statesmanlike leadership, Britain's place in Europe and the world, and the continued existence of our United Kingdom itself is in jeopardy. And the cruelest irony is that it is exactly at this time that British liberalism, that noble tradition that believes we are stronger together and weaker apart, is more needed now than ever before. There is no path to a fairer, greener, freer Britain  without British liberalism showing the way.

You can view the full speech here:

EU - let's remember the good things too

Over the last few of days I have spoken to a couple of people who, while previously sitting on the fence, have decided to vote for Britain to remain in the EU.  In each case they have expressed a general cynicism about Europe but have decided on balance it is better for Britain to be In rather than Out, principally because of the economic case.

I think we can do better than that.  I think it's important to remember the good things about the EU too.

I think it's important to remember good things like: being a key part of the permanent structure of peace post WW2; cross border cooperation on crime and climate change; scientific and cultural exchange; and technological and business openess - in addition to the single market.

There is an important place for a close knit supra-national community of nations - particularly in Europe with our history.